My Funny Valentine
Excerpt from The Emerald Ballroom
by Andrew Fort
The air was dense with smoke. A mask of moisture appeared on her face almost immediately. Anna clutched her bowling ball bag and pushed through the crowd. She considered finding a table and going through the articles in the bag, but the music was too numbing. Instead she wandered through the crowd. She lost track of time. She had a dozen or more listless, bored conversations with listless, bored people who swayed rhythmlessly to the music and whose eyes wandered around the room as if they’d rather be talking to anyone else. The band played one miasma of a song after another. Anna’s senses were dulled. Occasionally the colored lights shifted; red became blue or blue became dirty yellow. At some point in the evening, while talking to a man in a leather jacket who claimed to be an “Assassin of the Establishment,” she momentarily forgot where she was and what she was doing there. She slipped through the crowd into the bathroom and looked at her face in the mirror. It was a face she had long since studied into meaninglessness. She squeezed an emergent pimple.
The woman in the stall directly behind her began to cough violently and Anna caught sight of something red. There was a sound of water splashing. Eventually the woman emerged from the bathroom stall and stuffed something that looked like a length of surgical tubing into the garbage can. She had the face of a junkie. Anna watched her go. The bass from the band made the latch on the bathroom stall buzz like a dying beetle. She suddenly despaired for everything she had left behind. Numb and unsure of where else to go, she left the bathroom.
She wove her way through the complicated screen of clubbers to the other end of the room. When she reached the door, she stood for a moment with her hand on the handle. The lights went from blue to yellow and the pianist pounded a sickening, unresolved chord and let it resound. It sounded premonitory. Anna saw her own shadow change color on the door. She turned on instinct to see the stage illuminated by a single spotlight, under which Ferrian was standing.
“O,” Anna said. She did an unintentional double-take, looking back at her colored shadow on the exit door and then at Ferrian as the piano introduction continued, pulsing and dissonant. Ferrian swayed along. She was dressed in a kinky ensemble of black fishnet stockings and a white poet’s shirt which stopped in a ruffle high on the thigh. Anna felt as if she had been tricked; she had come to the club looking for M. and meaning had stepped in sideways.
The piano introduction continued, jazzy and a little perverse, with a bass line that descended stubbornly until it had reached the bottom keys. There was an effect of deepening, of widening. When the bass ran out of places to go, it began descent on a new note. Ferrian’s face was transported. Her eyes were closed. There was a flush of fever on her cheeks. She began to sing, her voice surprisingly deep and resonant and drawn out of her slowly, so that every note verged on expiring before it became the next.
My funny valentine…
Sweet comic valentine…
You make me smile with my heart.
Her eyes were closed, her voice deep and regretful, and so deadly serious it could only have been ironic, or so ironic it could only have been deadly serious. The little parenthesis appeared at the side of her mouth. The bass line continued to descend, hinting at richness, at profundity.
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work
Anna felt betrayed by coincidence. Were she following a different trail, Ferrian’s performance might have meant something. As it was, she couldn’t connect it to anything she was looking for. But there was still a sense in which the performance conjured some of the richness which had been missing from the club itself.
She moved back through the crowd towards the stage. At that moment Ferrian opened her eyes in a sideways glance to the pianist and caught sight of something which shook her. It might have been Anna. She gave a self-conscious wink, but something had shaken her. She cocked her head slightly as if trying to forget—she sang “weak” for “Greek.” The pianist continued but Ferrian had fallen behind and couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up. Anna stopped where she was. Suddenly it seemed an impossible weight, the complex construction of self and a world where self could function. Meaning kept creeping in the side door, revising itself.
There was something fake about the club. The yellow light became red. Anna watched as Ferrian attempted to laugh her mistake off but the laughter shattered the spell of the music and it was impossible to find the thread of melody amidst the pianist’s cacophonous playing. Ferrian glanced behind her, panicked. She clutched the microphone stand. Anna could feel her face growing hot. People pushed up against her. Everything in the club felt fake and it seemed impossible that Ferrian would be able to recapture the richness of before. Her face convulsed, tightened. It looked drawn, like the face of the junkie in the bathroom. The bass began to descend again. Miraculously, Ferrian found her footing, almost stumbling on the correct phrase. The solemnity was even deeper for having survived that near-death. Anna watched, drawn in as Ferrian regained confidence and began to eerily sway, to cock her wrists and, Kewpie-like, swing in tiny arcs first the left then the right, even as the music reached a fearful clamorous pitch, the pianist pounding with both hands.
Halfway through the next phrase Ferrian looked behind her and an expression of paranoia, panic, came to her face. The song became unbearably tense. Anna saw a desperation in Ferrian’s face that mirrored her own. How could she construct a self when coincidence kept creeping in, skewing things? She felt herself going hot and shaky. She felt as if everyone were watching her. She self-consciously scanned the room. Ferrian sang the final phrase, her eyes wide in terror, as the pianist brought the song to a shockingly tonal close. Her expression faded from terror to acceptance. The pianist played a few final strains and the blood which had seemed to make Ferrian’s complexion so ruddy suddenly drained, leaking in a blackish trickle out one side of her mouth. It was an over-the-top touch, but utterly convincing and in keeping with the inherent camp value of the song.
There was a smattering of applause. Anna didn’t want to look at the Inferno; she knew that Ferrian’s performance had communicated the essence of the place more eloquently than the colored lights or the velvet curtain. It had communicated a complete world, a world somehow richer than her own. Perhaps it was only a world of the junkie on taking her first hit. She bumped into a listlessly swaying man in her haste to get out. Already the world was fading. She tried to hold a picture in her mind of Ferrian singing. She zigzagged through the meandering black shapes of the clubbers, trying to hold on to at least a scrap of melody. By the time she made it to the door and out into the cold, salt air, the only thing she heard with any certainty was the persistent clanking of the buoys.