“The Cardinal Club” — a short story by Carole Ackelson

April 30th, 2019

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“The Cardinal Club,” a short story by Carole Ackelson, was a finalist in our recently concluded 50th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author. 

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Ma Rainey

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The Cardinal Club

by

Carole Ackelson

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…..Glo squares her shoulders, pushing through the dented metal door. The doorman barely glances over, waving her past, more intent on the front page of the newspaper emblazoned with the words WAR OVER! She holds the fur coat closer, a present from a Canadian soldier on his way overseas less than a year ago, hoping she doesn’t seem shabby. It seems long ago, what with the war practically over. Mend and make do nearly ruined her closet. She pushes all thoughts but music from her mind. All they do is distract, and Glo must be at the top of her game. Glo’s obsidian eyes take in the fierce competition. A line of young ladies snakes around tables all the way to the bar.

…..She orders whiskey from a balding bartender, since it’ll be awhile until it’s her turn. Each little bird sings a three minute song. Most are sappy, lovesick melodies from one of many musicals released during the war. Glo, personally, was sick of it. For the past decade everything was about constant glorification of violence and bloodshed. She wanted, no needed, something different. A breath of fresh air, a new life full of sumptuous clothes and delectable feasts in her enormous mansion, of no longer living on rations and counting every penny. She didn’t want to go back to the one room apartment she shared with three women to eat beans out of a can. Put simply, Glo wants to be famous and this would be her ticket to fortune.

…..All she needs is a chance. She’d beg, borrow, and steal to get an opportunity to prove she’s worthy. She watches the line shorten, sipping her drink, until there are few left. Glo saunters to the stage as the lady last comes down, smiling giddly. Glo grins back, remembering her first auditions. Apprehension flowing through your veins while a deafening heartbeat resounds through your ears as you’re up in the spotlight. After, coming down filled with sweet relief, knowing you did your absolute best as you step into the dark again.

…..“Next?” The piano man calls, his thick, square glasses catching the light. He flicks through sheets of music, as if she’s already decided.

…..“My name’s Gloria Walker.” She fixes the gardenia in her curly, black hair. “Do you know Ma Rainey?”

…..“‘Course I do,” he scolds, raising an eyebrow. “Who do you think I am?”

…..“Not many people have refined taste.” Glo wipes sweaty palms on her skirt. “Anything by her and I’ll sing.”

…..“Anything?” he asks skeptically, lighting a cigarette as if to create a smoke screen.

….. “My mother played her records endlessly. I know Ma Rainey’s music by heart, she got me through the past years. Go ahead,” she says, familiar warmth of the lights comforting her remaining unease. It’s been months since Glo was last onstage, yet it’s as if she’s returned home. She could kick off her shoes and start dancing.

…..“Yes, ma’am.” He scoffs, faintly amused as though betting on her failure. She smiles, the strains of ‘Put It on Me’ filling the air. Glo hums along, warming up her voice as she sways. The dance floor and tables disappear. The Cardinal Club, with scarred wooden floors and brick walls covered in faded posters, disappears. Glo pretends she’s the only one left in the world. The song’s slow, tempo staggered, nothing like jazz in clubs lately. She needs to make it new, switching it up during the refrain. The same old music continues as she swaggers about with a low, breathy voice. Glo’s inviting, enticing, provocative. Everyone knew what the song was about, the chorus hardly hid the meaning.

…..“‘It must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men!’” Glo throws up her arms, kicks out a leg and holds the microphone close as she purrs, “‘Wear my clothes just like a fan, talk to the gals just like any…old…man.’”

…..A slow clap fills the room from the piano man. He stands, stubbing the cigarette out an ashtray on a table. She beams, curtsying twice, thinking she’s done something right. No one else received a standing ovation. All of them were nervous, clutching the microphone, refusing to move, to give passion to their songs. At least she’d preformed.

…..“You’ve evidently done this before. Where?”

…..“I used to be in a vaudeville act with my mother. During the last five years I toured these United States doing USO shows. We were an independent number, there’s four of us, and we were terrific. Known as the Sweethearts-” Glo stops, smile fading as she realizes she’s rambling. “You don’t want to hear, obviously. Yes, I have previous experience.”

…..“A showgirl, too?”

…..“It’s New York.” She shrugs with a laugh. “You’re either a waitress or a showgirl waiting for a break. I wanna be the next Ella Fitzgerald.”

…..“We’ll see about that. You’ve got nice gams, pretty face, and a killer voice.” He studies her underneath the glaring lights. “You mind coming tomorrow so my boss can make the final call? There’s three of you, so hope you enjoy competition.”

…..“I enjoyed it today, didn’t I?” Her carmine lips turn up in a smirk. “I can take pressure.”

…..“Let’s hope you can impress her as much as you did with me.”

…..“Should I change my tune?”

…..“For your luck, stick to your script.” He offers a hand to help her down. “She might make you the first act, something to get everyone interested.”

…..“I’ve got to warn you, I’m no cheap date.”

…..“You can discuss contracts tomorrow, I’m the messenger,” he says, finally offering an amiable smile. “Keep safe, kid. I got places to be, see you tomorrow.”

….. Glo grins, hurrying past the doorman and out into the cold winter afternoon. Once she’s outside, immersed by strangers, Glo lets out a whoop of laughter as she jumps for joy. Nothing and no one could take this away from her. Not hunger gnawing at her stomach or doubt tapping her on the shoulder. She pushes the negative away allowing pride and satisfaction to gild her spine and shoulders. Glo stands straighter, with purpose as she walks home. She’s no optimist, but in this moment the whole world is bright and serendipitous, offering her exactly what she wants.

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Carole Ackelson was born and raised in Pennsylvania. She currently lives in Erie, finding inspiration from her cats, the world, and her amazingly supportive cast of family and friends. An aspiring writer since she was a child, this is her first publication. 

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Details about our 51st Short Fiction Contest

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