I did it. I finally made my decision. When I was helping Gary set up his exhibition at 18th Street Arts earlier this afternoon, it hit me right in the center of my chest: I’m singing tonight.
I’ve been fretting over this decision for the last week. Ever since he asked me. I’ve been going back and forth in my head. Not sure what to do. Distracted while taking coffee orders at work. Imagining an audience in front of me when I sang to the waves with Gary on the beach.
The more I thought about the idea, the more I started to like it. But I also couldn’t shake how scared I am of singing in front of strangers. So far in my life, I’ve only sang in front of my close family.
I guess all the fretting and practicing helped me to face my fears, and I told Gary the news once we finished setting up. We usually use dollies and a U-Haul truck to move his pieces from the studio behind our house. This time, one of Gary’s friends, Danny, had to help us because his piece, “Colossus,” is too heavy for me to move.
Danny and Gary have been friends for as long as I can remember and he’s an extension of our family. He skateboards almost everywhere he goes and wears a uniform of baggy, long shorts and old metal head t-shirts.
“I’m gonna do it, Gary,” I nervously told him as he and Danny finished setting “Colossus” in place and screwing in the miniature light bulbs around its giant metal base.
“What you gonna do, little girl?” Gary asked with a smile as he and Danny turned towards me.
“I’m gonna sing, just like you asked me to,” I told him, surprised he didn’t automatically know what I was talking about.
“Oh!” Gary said excitedly.
“You can sing?” Danny asked as he tucked his shaggy blonde hair behind his ear and wiped sweat from his forehead. “No way!”
“Sure she can, fool,” Gary said with a laugh.
“Oh, cool,” Danny enthused. “What you gonna sing, brah?”
Even though Gary’s the surfer, Danny talks more like a typical California surfer.
“’Crossroads’ by Robert Johnson,” I told them.
“Who’s that?” Danny asked.
“That’s so perfect, little girl,” Gary said. “And Danny, you gotta put down the Sepultura for five seconds and get some culture.”
“Hey man,” Danny said. “I can’t help it that I love to thrash.”
We all laughed while Gary and Danny both gave me high fives. Their enthusiasm made me happy and I felt at peace in that moment; full of hope and positive energy.
But now I’m here. Back at 18th Street Arts. It’s 7:00 at night, the exhibition has been going for about an hour, and it’s approaching time for me to sing. I think I’m experiencing stage fright.
Gary borrowed a little amp and microphone from one of his friends for me to use, and he set it up in a corner before the exhibition began. People keep wandering around it and then looking back and forth around the room to see who’s attached to it. No one except for Gary and Danny know that I’m the one attached to it.
“Josie!” A voice whisper-screams behind me in my right ear.
I jump and turn to see my best friend, Johanna, from the coffee shop.
“Johanna!” I yell. “You scared the crap out of me.”
She laughs, “I didn’t mean to.”
“That’s a lie,” I say with a laugh.
“I know,” she says as she stifles laughter by covering her mouth.
Johanna looks particularly amazing tonight. She’s wearing a black slip dress that’s straight out of 1995 with black, lace-up Doc Martens. She did wings on her eyes with black eyeliner and put her hair up in the back, with a big rolled curl in the front. She looks like the perfect modern pin-up.
She starts scanning the room and I say, “Who you lookin’ for? You look beautiful by the way.”
“No one in particular,” she says but I can tell she’s keeping a secret. “Oh and thanks. No big deal, just my usual level of effort.”
“Seems like more effort than usual, but OK,” I tease her. “I mean, I feel underdressed now.”
I opted for black distressed skinny jeans, a black crop top and checkerboard black and white Vans. She ignores my comment and continues to look around.
“You looking for someone?” I ask again.
“I’m just checkin’ the place out,” she says, a bit annoyed. “I’ve never been here before.”
I scan the room with her. Gary’s exhibitions in Santa Monica and Venice always bring in a more “eclectic mix of people,” as my mom used to call it. Fancy, plastic surgery victims with $10,000 purses, celebrities, surfer-bum types, and millennial hipsters with carefully curated vintage-chic clothes mix easily. Mom used to say it’s one of the things she loved best about California beach towns; odd mixes of people who seemingly float along together because of their shared love of the ocean.
I notice that about half the crowd consists of the older, plastic surgery victims. Gary really has a knack for attracting that crowd.
“Jesus, there’s a lot of ‘dahlings’ in here,” Johanna says with a sneer and a nod towards the group of older women I noticed.
“‘Dahlings?’” I ask.
“You know, the older stuck-up ladies who say ‘dahling’ all the time?” She draws out the world “dahling” as pretentious as she can and we both start laughing.
“Well, that’s Gary’s bread and butter,” I say through laughter. “They’ve got money and think he’s hot. It’s the perfect combination.”
“They’re not wrong,” Johanna says.
I’m stunned she’s admitting Gary’s hot. This is new territory. Before I can respond, she changes the subject.
“Is somebody singing?” She asks as she walks towards the corner with the PA and mic stand.
She stops and points at the set up.
I hesitate at first and then fess up.
“Yeah,” I say with a big exhale. “Me.”
A look of surprise spreads across her pale face. Her big blue eyes are as wide as they’ll go and her red-painted mouth drops open.
“You?” She asks with a combination of excitement and uncertainty.
“You’re going to sing in front of people?” She asks. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I … I don’t know,” I stumble on my words. “I didn’t tell anyone. I don’t really sing in front of anyone. Sometimes you but I’ve only sang in front of Gary for years.”
I see a tiny sparkle in her eyes at the mention of my uncle. Oh brother, I think to myself.
“Wow, I’m actually glad I came now,” she says sarcastically.
“Oh, like the draw of Gary isn’t enough?” I tease.
I can’t resist it. Her crush on Gary is written all over her face.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She asks.
“Nothing, never mind,” I say. “I was just kidding.”
She squints her heavily made-up eyes at me for a moment and then shifts back to the subject of my singing.
“Well, what are you going to sing?” She asks. “When are you going to sing?”
“I’m just singing one song,” I tell her. “The owner said I should do it between seven and eight because the crowd will be perfect. He said I don’t want it to be too crowded or I’ll be drowned out.”
At this point being drowned out doesn’t sound so bad.
“And you’re singing what?” She asks.
I can feel her anticipation at my answer.
“’Crossroads’ by Robert Johnson,” I tell her. “I learned it from one of Gary’s old records.”
“Woah, that’s cool,” she says.
Score, I think to myself. Impressing Johanna isn’t easy and I can tell I just did.
“You know Robert Johnson’s story, right?” She asks me.
“No, I guess not,” I tell her. “Gary says he’s the godfather of blues.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Johanna says. “But do you know people say he sold his soul to the devil?”
“What?” I say with a half a laugh. “How do you always know all this morbid stuff?”
“I don’t know,” she says absently. “I read a lot.”
“Anyway,” she continues. “The story goes that he was an average harmonica player and guitarist until he disappeared for a few weeks back in the 1930s. When he reappeared he was considered one of the best blues guitarists and blues singers ever. The song ‘Crossroads’ is supposed to be about the devil tuning his guitar in exchange for his soul.”
A cool breeze floats over the back of my neck and goose bumps raise on my arms.
“What?” I ask a little breathy.
Johanna smiles and shakes her head “yes” enthusiastically.
“It’s true,” she says. “At least, according to legend.”
What a creepy story. I wonder if Gary’s heard it.
“It’s a great song choice,” Johanna says.
She’s all lit up now. Even more excited than she was earlier when I mentioned Gary’s name.
“You’re gonna kill it,” she says.
She looks down at her black Apple watch.
“It’s 7:15 Josie,” she says tapping her finger on the face of the watch. “Tick-tock, tick-tock.”
I can feel the heat on my cheeks. I must be turning pink.
“Aaaahhhhh,” I breathe out hard. “I know. I’m not ready yet,” I tell her.
“There aren’t that many people yet, Josie,” Johanna says, interrupting my anxiety. “The longer you wait, the more people will come. Now is the best time to do it.”
“Don’t pressure me,” I whisper at her a bit desperately.
Then I feel Gary approaching and turn to greet him.
“You ready, Josie?” He asks. “Oh hey Johanna of the Mountains,” he says as he briefly turns his attention to her.
“Oh hey,” she says with a bit too much enthusiasm for her.
On a normal-person enthusiasm scale, it would barely register.
Gary notices and looks at her with his brow furrowed for just a beat, and then turns back to me.
“Claus says now is probably the best time for you to sing,” he says.
He’s holding back his excitement and I can tell it’s because he doesn’t want to make me nervous.
“So, are you ready?” He asks.
I look from him to Johanna and back to him again. Their anticipation and excitement gives me a boost and I decide I’m ready. What choice do I have anyway? I’m not backing out. Forget the fear, I’m doing this.
“Yeah,” I say, with a resolution that surprises me. “I’m ready.”
“Awesome!” Gary exclaims. “I’ll turn on the PA.”
Gary walks over to the corner with the mic stand and starts fiddling with the knobs on the small black box. The mic immediately feeds back with a loud shriek. The entire place goes silent as everyone looks at Gary. He turns a knob, fixes the feedback and grabs the mic.
“Hey everybody,” Gary says with a wave, his signature white smile at an all-time dazzle. “Thanks so much for coming to my exhibition tonight. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Gary Kinimaka and I’m the artist.”
To my surprise, the audience breaks out in applause. Gary does a little half bow to the cheers.
“Thank you, thank you,” he says. “I take both cash and credit card.”
More laughs from the audience and even a whistle from one of the “dahlings” in the back. I admit that Gary looks especially handsome tonight. He’s wearing a gauzy, button-down, cream shirt, untucked with several buttons open at the top. The shirt compliments his fitted gray dress pants, black flip-flops, and his hair in a messy bun at the back of his head.
How am I going to follow this? I wonder to myself. These people love Gary.
“I’d like to introduce you to someone very special,” Gary says, instantly calming the crowd. “It’s my niece, Josie Kinimaka,” he says as he points in my direction.
All of a sudden all eyes are on me.
My cheeks are hotter than ever. I give a little wave as I look around the room. Butterflies are dancing in my stomach.
“You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this little girl, ahem, young lady,” he says to laughs. “Is also an artist. And tonight, she’s going to gift us all with a song. Josie?”
I’m on. Oh my gosh, I’m on.
Lono, don’t fail me now, I think to myself as I walk up and accept the mic Gary’s holding out to me.
“You’re going to be amazing,” Gary whispers in my ear as he hands me the mic. “Good luck.”
Gary walks a couple people deep into the crowd and stands with Johanna and Danny. Their smiling faces give me a boost again. All eyes in the crowd are on me as they wait for me to start.
“Hi … Hi everyone,” I stammer.
Get it together, girl, I tell myself. I close my eyes for a second and take a deep breath in through my nose and out through my mouth.
“Thanks for coming tonight,” I say, opening my eyes. “This is ‘Crossroads.’”
The crowd silently waits and I begin to sing softly a Capella.
“I went to the crossroad, fell down on myyy knees.
I went to the croooossroadddd, fell down on my kneeeeees.
Asked the Lord above, have mercyyyyy, now save poor Bob, if you pleeeeease.”
I sing slowly – I’m staying faithful to Robert Johnson’s original version. I realize my eyes are closed and I force them open.
The way people are looking at me is surprising, and the way the room feels is like nothing I’ve experienced. It’s hard to explain how different the atmosphere is now – it’s buzzing. It’s like… all the energy has been focused in a tight ball, instead of dispersed through the space. I don’t know if that even makes sense. Any fears I have are slipping away.
“Ooh, standin’ at the croooossroad,” I sing a bit louder. “I tried to flag a riiiiide.”
Everyone’s eyes are glued to me and no one is talking. People from the other showrooms are slowly moving closer to where I stand. I see Gary, Johanna and Danny in the crowd and the look on their faces is something I’ve never seen before. It looks like awe or admiration, I guess. I’ve never felt that from anyone before. I close my eyes and continue to sing.
“Ooh-eeeeeee, I tried to flag a riiiiidddeeeee.
Didn’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me byyyyyyy.”
I’m losing myself, like I do on the beach with Gary sometimes. I’m swaying back and forth, and my hands are gripping the mic. The people and the room disappear behind my eyelids. I’m holding onto the mic so I don’t float away.
“Standin’ at the crossroad, baby, risin’ sun goin’ dooooooooown.
Standin’ at the crossroooooooad, baby, eee-eee risin’ sun goin’ dooooooooown.”
I open my eyes and the room has more people than it did when I started. Adam and Scott are here now, standing towards the back of the room. You know how people usually talk or look around, at least some people do, at live performances? No one is doing that. They’re all still. That look of awe or admiration, I don’t know what else to call it, is on each of their faces. I keep singing. I’m somehow brave enough to look people in the eye as I sing Robert’s words.
“I believe to my soul, now, poor Bob is sinkin’ doooooooown.”
All of the sudden, the stage fright comes back in a wave. That cool breeze from earlier floats across the back of my neck and a shiver goes down the length of my body. I’m still singing but I’m focusing on the back corner of the room instead of the crowd in front of me. Fear is starting to grip my entire body.
“That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkinnnn’ doooown.”
Something like a mix of confusion and horror are filling my mind, and I feel paralyzed from the neck down. I blink once. I blink twice. I see something in that back corner that can’t be there. But it won’t go away. He won’t go away.
“You can runnnnnnnnnnnn, you can runnnnnnnnnn, tell my friend Willie Brown.
I keep singing. I feel that momentum like I am going downhill on a bike. I just want to finish. I just want to close my eyes again. But I can’t look away from that corner.
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Broooooown.”
That man in the corner. Is it a man? I’m trying to make sense of what I’m seeing, but its got a translucent quality that’s making it hard to recognize. This can’t be real, but it looks like he’s swinging by the neck from a rope that’s attached to the ceiling in 18th Street Arts. He’s swinging back and forth with the rhythm of my voice and I’m transfixed by his motion. That swinging is somehow becoming a part of my performance.
“That I got the crossroad blues this mornin’, Lord, babe, I’m sinkinnnn’ doooown.”
“And I went to the crossroad, maaaamaaaaaaaa, I looked east and weeeeeeest.”
“I went to the crossrooooooad, babyyyyyyyy, I looked east and weeeeeeeest.”
He’s moving his arms now but I’m still paralyzed. He’s reaching up and loosening the slack from the rope on his neck. It’s illogical but somehow he’s pushing the rope up and over his head and freeing his body from its tether. He drops to his feet, bending his knees a little when he lands, and rubs the front of his neck where the rope held him taut.
“Lord I didn’t have no sweet womaaaaaaan, ooh well, babe, in my distressssssssss.”
I am horrified. I can’t move. I’m nearing the bottom of the hill on the bicycle and my voice is stronger than ever. My need to keep singing will not be overcome by my horror.
“I said Lord I didn’t have no sweet womaaaaaaan, ooh well, babe, in my distressssssssss.”
The translucent man is wearing an old-fashioned brown suit and bow tie. He’s swaying to the music as he walks towards me. My instinct is to run. To scream for Gary. But I have no choice in what’s happening right now. Fate has cloaked me in her scheme and I am an unwilling, chained participant.
I can see the man’s face clearer as he closes in on me. It’s marked with deep black pits that look like decay. He’s smiling and his teeth are broken and black. That crooked smile exudes a horrific joy.
“I went to the crossroad, fell down on myyy knees.”
Sway. Sway. Smile. Rotten teeth. Swollen neck.He’s getting closer and I’m filling up with something. Not in my stomach like I ate too much pizza. In my lungs. Like I can’t breathe. I draw in a ragged breath so I can finish the song.
“I went to the croooossroadddd, fell down on my kneeeeees.”
He’s nose to nose with me and I think I can smell his rot. I can hear his bones creaking. My chest and stomach are completely full of something now.
Is he passing through me?
I can’t breathe anymore. There’s no room to draw in air. There’s no room in my body anymore.
I’m fading and the lights are dimming. Now it’s black.