Marie thought the object belonged to an assassin, some charming broad from the 1940s who liked her men like her cigars, lit and hot. She had picked up the fan from a dusty copper bin in the Mission Street market. But it really should’ve been found in some red nightclub somewhere full of tripping, sliding, hiccupping piano riffs and bass lines that faded in and out with the rotating customers and doors. The fan, Marie decided, belonged to the woman who always wore velvet gloves and a black lace hanging low above her eyes. From the back of the club, you could see that she wore pressed poppies in her hair, and a corsage of blooming gardenias tied to her wrist, but you couldn’t tell from the dark seats if that was a smile slinking up her lips or something more sinister.
If there was ever an old-timey nightclub that deserved to be called the Smoke and Mirrors, it was the one that belonged to the lady and the fan.
It might have been there, Marie thought, passing an old rundown red door on the corner of Valencia and Hill. The door had a single yellow trumpet bulb streaming light down towards a rusted black doorknob and the ground littered with crumpled paper cups and old torn flyers. This corner of Valencia seemed gray and abandoned but in the middle of all this nothingness, Marie could imagine that door, in another time, opening up into a dimly lit cigar-centered room, covered by umbrella lamps and French boudoir wallpaper. The windows next to the entrance would be opaque and flickering with streetlights and the shadows of humans or serpents sliding by. Did the shadows dance? Did they mate? Or did they just go on having a good laugh and sharing a good time? Marie didn’t know but she wanted. The red door seemed to invite. There was gunpowder and the unknown behind it, and in her hand, she held the black-lacquered fan and its secrets.
Across the threshold, the lady who owned the fan would sing, trying to bring each shadow and beast into the red-heart of the nightclub. Her song would echo in its breathing cavity. Each pause of breath or snare drum would be punctuated by the flicks and beats of a black lacquered fan and the tap of her dark dance shoes under a skirt of carnelian lace.
She would sing old Spanish lullabies, tell old Inca myths, and stories of old Catholic missionaries who wandered to where they did not belong. Her songs were melancholy but not morose. She would always manage to make her frog-legged customers laugh and then order another martini or two. Between sets, she’d chew on her favorite cigar and sit down on the high back chair at the corner of the bar. Stirring her drink, she’d crack jokes about the weather in China and in Argentina, even though she had never wandered far beyond her corner of the city. She had been born and raised in Baghdad by the Bay, and by all likelihood, she’d grow old and die there. She had, however, memorized all the timetables for the trains and Greyhounds out of San Francisco and could recite to you any time for any destination if you cared to ask. She knew all about all those queer city names, too. She could conjure up past lives in each and every place, and tell you all about her youth as a showgirl on the Mississippi, a love affair gone wrong in Albuquerque, or the time she had to flee horseback from bandits in Santa Fe. Slouched like a water crane above her gin and tonic, she’d tell you about Big Sam, the sharp-shooter, who lit up all the gaming halls in New Orleans, Ricky Brockaway who was a great con and even better at swindling money from old widows from the Upper East Side, and Charlie the Gunner, who thought he could just walk into a Gentleman’s Club in Beacon Hill without a shirt or tie or hat on. Her eyes would glow brighter than her cigar as she’d tell stories of creatures and characters. It was hard to tell what she really knew, what was true, and what veered towards the side of myth. But the patrons came back every night to hear her sing and hear her talk. They wanted her stories and what she could imagine.
Marie, did, too. Leaning against the threshold of the club, her eyes were drawn to the singer’s black Kohl lashes and dusky glitter. The lady on stage would sometimes pretend to be Matahari, or a darkly dressed Madame X or perhaps even Madame Butterfly abandoned by her officer and lost on her way in the middle of Nagasaki. Sometimes, like tonight, the lady would say that she arrived a fortnight ago on a luxury liner from some unpronounceable port in a lovely, dark, and devastating Argentina. She was fleeing her husband, her second one, and she’d come to the city by the bay to find summer. That’s why she had dressed in red and wore pressed poppies in her hair. She would never have imagined that the coldest winter she ever saw would be a summer in San Francisco.
Her lips would form into a half smile and her eyes would twinkle as she would say this. But it was hard to tell if the smoky room filled with laughter. There would be the sound of silver or glass and murmurs of conversation as the band would begin its interlude and a piano melody trickled through the air. The lady on stage would pause at the mic, holding its frame lightly as she waited for her cue. The instruments would play around her as her gaze clung to each and every patron in the jewel-box room. She did this every night as if inviting recognition. But in their faces she saw none. Until.
She shielded her eyes with a glove of black lace for a moment until the glare of the spotlight diffused. There, far back, farther than she had ever seen, she saw a dark figure of medium height wavering by the door. It was a young woman with unusual colored hair—that seemed to glow pink and purple in the jewel-box club. She wore oddities. A black hide jacket with gemstone ridges. A purple jumper that was frayed and looked hand-knit. A blue-denim skirt that was frilled and too short over her torn stockings and dirty tennis shoes. The girl slouched, badly dressed, with a dark object in her hand. The lady on stage was shocked but not surprised. She was used to tall tales and meeting strange characters. And so she’d begin a new song on stage, singing about a girl named Marie, who was as much a ghost as she was a thief. She’d tell a story of a black lacquered fan given to her by her husband, an odd military man. She’d say how she had thought she had lost it back home in Japan. And then she’d sing on about Marie, an odd colored girl and thief. Who stole hearts and men and would take anything she could keep. She’d sing, “Marie, Marie, won’t you come and return what’s mine to me?” And the shadow at the door would listen, and the girl in the frame would creep one step, and then another, closer and closer to the singer. With each footfall, the litter and the gray alley on Valencia and Hill would disappear as would Marie as she stepped into the red-heart nightclub and its keep.
Rita Banerjee received her doctorate in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Riot Grrrl Magazine, Poets for Living Waters, The Fiction Project, Objet d’Art, and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass. Her novella, A Night with Kali, is forthcoming in 2016, and her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night, received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book at the 2011-2012 Los Angeles Book Festival. Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, she is currently working on a novel and a book of lyric essays.