Fiction

Star Turn

If you want to be great, you have to take a chance.

“Fine. I’ll show you.” Sighing, she pushed away the small area rug covering the ground where she stood and hiked up the skirt of her evening gown, tucking it firmly under each garter so her legs showed. “So the way you have it, it starts out instrumental,” she said. “The easy opener. Very Tommy Dorsey. Nothing wrong with that. Go on,” she commanded the musicians, who had begun to gather curiously around. “Play.”

Dexter was the first at the piano. He was joined by an intrepid clarinetist and a bald guy with a trombone; the rest of them simply stood and stared. And no wonder, Gabby thought. I probably look like I’m wearing a big pink diaper. “OK, good,” she said. “So you keep up that vamp, maybe there’s a little bit of a trumpet solo, if we’re really going for the Dorsey.” She gestured encouragingly to a cornet player, who, with a glance at Eddie, hesitantly joined in. “Then it’s quiet, and then I come up front and sing. First you put your two knees close up tight . . . then you swing ’em to the left and you swing ’em to the right . . . ” It wasn’t really such a bad song, she thought as she sang. The melody wasn’t anything to write home about, but her voice felt clear and powerful and so supple that when the second chorus came, she ignored the insipid lyrics entirely and let go with a torrent of hot scat that seemed to take on a life of its own, ending on a big belted high note. Not bad.

“Then the trumpet takes over again,” Gabby continued hastily, gesturing again to the cornet player, “and picks up where he left off. The piano comes in, maybe the trombone—that’s up to you guys. You get faster, but how much of this can you listen to, I mean, really? And you know it too, because then you put in this piano vamp”—she pointed at Dexter —“which is the natural place for me to come in with the time step.”

On the downbeat, Gabby started to tap. Nice and slow at first—what Jimmy liked to call leisurely—throwing in a couple of extra little changes and syncopation to keep it interesting to herself, then faster, then double time. The musicians followed the rhythm of her feet, racing to keep up. The sound was filling out; more musicians were joining in. They reached the last instrumental crescendo. I need a big finish, Gabby thought. Wildly, she flung herself into four devilishly difficult butterfly turns, the acrobatic backward rotating leaps so beloved by Tully Toynbee (and the reason Gabby no longer had any cartilage in her left ankle), took a last deep breath, and belted out the last line of the song, her voice ringing from the rafters: “And that’s what I call Ballin’ the Jack!” The horn section blared as she held the last note, arms outstretched, falling to her knees like Al Jolson, waiting for an ovation.

No applause came. Eddie stared at her, his mouth half open. The rubber ball of nasal spray fell to the ground with a forlorn little bounce or two before it came to rest by the leg of the piano.

“Well? ” Gabby panted. “Say something.”

“That . . . that was incredible,” he stammered finally. “Why can’t you just do that?”

Crabbily, Gabby tugged her unruly skirts back down over her newly sweat-dampened thighs. “One, because solo tap numbers look ridiculous from anyone who isn’t Fred Astaire. Two, I don’t have any tap shoes or a short dress. Three, even if I was willing to go out there with my skirt bunched up and dance around looking like some kind of swami who just dropped a load in his pants, the stage is about eight inches too high for anyone to see what I’m doing. Four—and finally—that song won’t do anything for either one of us.”

“What do you mean? ” Eddie asked.

“I mean, I can sell a cutesy dance number, sure. You can take some tired novelty number, jazz it up, and make it hip. And Leo Karp knows it.”

“Of course he does,” Eddie said smugly. “That’s probably why he signed me to a seven-year contract.”

“With a six-month option, right? ” Gabby was getting irritated. “Olympus has five thousand people on the payroll. It’s no skin off Karp’s nose to pick a few extra horn players for what . . . 150 a week? ” Looking around the room, Gabby saw from the men’s faces that it was probably a whole lot less than that. “For all you know, he signed you just to make sure nobody else did. And then in six months, maybe a year, he’ll drop you again, and there won’t be any more contracts, or any more magazine covers, or any more checks waiting at the studio post office. Unless you show him you can do whatever Artie Shaw or Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey can do—or do it better.”

Eddie snorted. “I was asked to give a performance, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m all through auditioning.”

“Oh, give me a break.” Gabby was getting mad. “Of course you’re auditioning. You’re never done auditioning. Never. I’m auditioning. You’re auditioning. Everybody upstairs who just lost one of those little gold men is auditioning to get one next time, and everyone who won one is auditioning for the part that will get them another. For God’s sake, even the studio bosses—even Leo Karp is auditioning.”

“Oh yeah? For who? ”

“For the money guys in New York who could pull the plug on the whole operation at any minute!” Gabby was shouting now. “For the new talent they need to attract, and the old talent they need to stay. You want to be in the picture business, you better get used to auditioning every day. Every single day. Until you die, or you’re the last man on earth, whichever comes first. Otherwise, you can pack up your horns and go back to the Savoy to back whatever girl singer is coming up next.”

The room was silent. The only sound Gabby could hear was her own short breath. Eddie Sharp stared at her, his face hard, his lips white. Defiantly, she brushed a sweaty chestnut curl off her forehead and stared right back. Go ahead, she thought furiously. Walk out. You know I’m right.

It was Dexter who spoke first. “What do you think we should do? ” he asked quietly.

It’s now or never. “Do you know ‘I Cried for You’? ”

“The Billie Holiday song? ” Dexter said, stealing a glance at a stony-faced Eddie. “Sure.”

“Well,” Gabby said quickly, “it’s actually the Arthur Freed song. He wrote it. Arthur Freed, who is sitting out in the audience tonight. Arthur Freed, who has just been tapped to head up a new musical unit at MGM.”

Eddie frowned. “But we’re at Olympus.”

“Do I have to explain everything? These guys are only interested in having what they think somebody else wants. It’s the first rule of Hollywood! Why the hell do you think people get divorced so much out here? ”

A couple of the musicians looked like they were about to laugh, which somehow just made Gabby madder.

“I’m serious!” she shouted. “If Karp thinks Mayer might have a use for us, he’ll do anything to keep us. The sky’s the limit!”

Eddie Sharp wasn’t laughing. “How would you arrange it, Dex? ”

“You open it slow,” Gabby blurted out before Dexter could answer. “Show them we can do a good old-fashioned torch song.” She sang a couple of bars a cappella to demonstrate. “Then, just when everybody’s so heartbroken they’re practically kill- ing themselves, we suddenly bring it up tempo. Just like that. Remind them there’s something worth living for. They’re going to go crazy.”

“Torch, then swing,” Eddie gave her a wry smile. “Like Judy Garland’s doing with ‘Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart’? ”

“No,” said Gabby, lifting her chin. “Like Gabby Preston doing ‘I Cried for You.’ ”

Eddie looked thoughtful for a moment.

“OK,” he said finally, with a decisive nod. “Let’s do it.”

“Really?” Gabby squealed.

“We’ll run through it a couple of times first. A-flat, right? ” She nodded, speechless. “Thought so. It needs an instrumental solo in the intro. Trombone.”

“I was thinking clarinet, actually.”

“Clarinet.” Eddie snapped his fingers. “Better.” He turned to the waiting crowd. “All right, fellas, you heard the lady. ‘I Cried for You’ in A-flat. Make me cry.”

It’s all happening, Gabby thought jubilantly, watching as the musicians scrambled to their places around her. I won. Somebody actually listened to her for a change. It was a thrilling sensation.

Also new, and even more thrilling, was the way Eddie Sharp was looking at her. Not just with desire, the way she’d seen men look at other girls and longed for them to look at her that way. There was something else in his admiring expression, something even better. He’s looking at me with respect.

Excerpted from Rachel Shukert’s novel Love Me, which comes out on February 11. Copyright © 2014 by the author, reprinted courtesy of Random House Children’s Books.


Rachel Shukert is the author of the Starstruck series, of which Love Me is the second installment. (We excerpted the first book, Starstruck, last May.) Follow her on Twitter @RachelShukert.

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