She's heard it all before. Great voice, hon. You're gonna be a star. You'll go places. But, as of yet, she is still exactly where she's always been, in the dim, dingy, and unsettlingly sticky backroom of Moonlight Sonada's. Vanessa Keyes smiles, or at least manages a facsimile of the expression, shakes hands with... slash dodges kisses from tonight's sad assortment of club-goers. To understand the term club-goer in this context, one must first understand what is meant by club here.
Moonlight Sonada's is run down. Not dive-bar-isn't-it-atmospheric-and-so-authentic run down, but recently-condemned-until-the-landlord-paid-off-the-appropriate-official run down. None the less, it's been a neighborhood staple for something like a billion years, judging by the build-up of indeterminate grime on every available surface. According to local legend, the place saw its heyday back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to hear old Sonada himself tell it, any name in the annals of musical history has passed through, done a set, or done coke off of somebody else – equally famous – in the back room. The same back room, which, presently, is hosting one Vanessa Frances Keyes.
This is not Van's first rodeo, and despite her best – okay, half-hearted – efforts to the contrary, her weariness shows. She's been at Sonada's every night for the last six months, and tonight marks six months and one day. One day too long. This is a girl with dreams, people. With a voice that could rend the heavens and move angels to tears. The homeboys from her block half-joke that she's the Serpentor of Song: created from the DNA of the most soulful singers history has known. But she's still here, in a raggedy-ass back room, in a decrepit bar, in the middle of nowhere: Detroit, 2009.
"Not a bad haul," Banner says to her. Banner is named such, because of his hulking physique. The purple denim cutoffs came as an obvious nod to his pseudonym. When you've got this much mass, you can get away with shit like that. At the moment, Banner is also getting away with making a push broom flex almost to its breaking point as he leans on the thing.
"You're kidding, right?" Van doesn't stand on ceremony. "This was light for a Thursday... and Thursdays are..." she struggles, but dammit if the only word she can come with is, "light... as is. Really light."
"It'll pick up, Van. You'll go p..."
"Go places, I know, I'm sorry. It's just, this place is dead, you know?" She counts her take again, then carefully folds it, and puts it in a well-worn envelope she tucks into her purse.
"Lot of history here."
"Rome too. Or ancient Egypt. Some places time just leaves behind, and I'm pretty sure we're there." In point of fact, Van's estimation isn't too far from the ostensible truth.
"Motown ain't dead yet. Maybe things'll pick up when..."
"That song's a decade old, Banners," Van says, though not without some compassion.
Detroit has seen a lot in the last half century, and anyone still trying to eek out a living amongst the burned out tenements, shuttered and shattered factories, and crumbling facades has practiced the familiar refrain of "things'll up pick up when..." more than once. For a fleeting moment, almost ten years ago, spirits rose in Detroit, along with the promise of some good old fashioned manufacturing work and all the attendant boosts in economy. Not too long after the world greeted its first extraterrestrial visitor – a mile long spacecraft which plunged into a small island in the south Pacific – the UN announced plans to rebuild the thing. Hopeful assembly lines all over the globe began spinning their conveyors at the news. Even as Motown was passed by, outbid, and undercut by bigger and better players in the game, hope remained. On account of the war. After all, war has always been good for the American economy, why should this time be any different? The whys are too numerous and too mundane to list, but the whats were simple: Detroit didn't experience a resurgence. The renaissance never happened. And Detroit continued to, and continues to erode under the weight of nostalgia, unemployment, and unrealized dreams.
That's the context to Van's malaise, although her particular problem is far less geopolitical. "I'm tired of playing these things, is all," she sighs.
"Van," Banner says, letting off the broom for just long enough to let into Vanessa, "a guy came through here once, told me this: two or two hundred, I rock the same show."
Vanessa waits. Expects the but or the and or the turn of a phrase, the play of a word, something. But that's it. Banner has, improbably, returned to driving his broom across a floor which may be incapable of cleanliness.
Vanessa Keyes pulls her collar tight around her bare neck. She really ought to get a scarf, she muses as that notoriously cold night wind moves straight through her coat, her hoodie, her little black dress, her epidermis, her fascia, and into her bones. It's the kind of cold that defies description beyond the pure facts: Detroit. In February. Mostly it's a meteorological phenomenon, but it's entirely possible that at some level it's psychological. As grits her teeth against Jack Frost's icey assault, Van is dividing her attention between two or three lines of thought.
In no particular order, they are:
Get home in one piece.
Get the hell out of Detroit.
In service to the first line of thought, Van is walking an accelerated pace. The "neighborhood" consists of, on the east side of the street, several blocks of vacant lots/demolished buildings which developers have abandoned for greener pastures, and on the west side of the street mostly gated warehouses with a few shuttered up bodegas and more than a few bars, some of which are depressingly still open even at this hour. The light is decidedly sodium vapor in color temperature, giving everything an ironically gilded look.
The second line of thought is the default internal monologue for Van. The thought pattern is as familiar to her as water is to a fish, or bullshit is to a politician. In other words, she swims in it. Even before Van could speak, she could sing. The words and meanings of those songs, unfortunately, are lost, known only to the pre-verbal mind of Vanessa herself. To their credit, her parents recognized their daughter's preternatural abilities and did all the right things to foster and develop her talent. After school vocal lessons, piano lessons, violin, guitar, dance, acting, more vocal lessons, choir, orchestra, if there had BEEN a band camp in downtown Detroit, then Van would certainly have had more than one "one time, at band camp..." stories. But what Van enjoyed the most, was tagging along behind her father to old – ancient, really – jazz clubs. Clarence Keyes played a mean stand-up bass, in his day, and despite the obvious quasi-criminal negligence of bringing a child into a place like Moonlight Sonada's, he was a pretty cool dad. At his funeral, Vanessa sang Amazing Grace. There wasn't a dry eye in an eight block radius. It was, aptly, amazing. Amidst the condolences, those paying their respects all found the time to tell Van that she was going places. That her voice could bring a giant to its knees. She was twelve at the time. Now she's nineteen. Got her own place now (though she spends at least a few days a week at her Grandma's to help out). She used to imagine she'd be touring all the glamorous spots in the world – New York, Paris, Madrid, Rio, Tokyo – now she still has those dreams, but they come later in the dream-narrative than get the hell out of Detroit, do something of note.
Just to be clear, though, Van doesn't only sing to go somewhere. Remember, she grew up around all those jazz geniuses, pretentious bastards the lot of them. If she couldn't back it up with that voice of hers, she'd be an intolerable music snob. But she's not. She just understands music. She speaks it. She can weave tapestries with it, paint pictures with it, build monuments. It touches her, and really, at the core, she wants other people to feel that connection, to touch them, too. She wants to bypass the frontal lobes and connect right at your brain stem, your spinal column, your subconscious. This is the natural segue between her second and third lines of thought. Simply, Banner's proverb "two or two hundred, play the same show," is what separates mere entertainers from true artists. Or at least from starving artists. That's the rub. She does love music and singing for people. She had been giving every show, every crowd, everything she had. But somewhere in there, she started phoning it in. Make no mistake, Vanessa Keyes giving ten percent will still cause any man with even a shred of heart to fall madly, deeply in love, either with Van or with life itself. At least for the duration of a song. Still, there's something to it, something simple and ineffable. Something just... true? She wonders. And with that, she has come to the conclusion of her first line of thought. She begins the ritual of disengaging the armada of deadbolts at her apartment. Home.