Chapter One Friday, December 21, 2012
Bertie Bigelow had not had a decent night’s sleep in over a week. Since the incident last Saturday, she’d tossed and turned until the wee hours every night, her mind a tumult of doubt and recrimination. As the founder and director of the Metro Community College Choir, Bertie was an old hand at coping with dramatic situations. Tantrums, turmoil, and tears were par for the course in the hours before an important performance. But this year’s Christmas concert had been different. Never before had a student taken such flagrant advantage of her trust.
For days after the concert, Bertie refused to set foot on campus. She’d graded her exams at home, steadfastly ignoring the messages piling up in her email inbox. But finally, on the last day of the semester, she had agreed to meet her best friend, Ellen Simpson, in the Starbucks across the street from school.
“In ten years of teaching, I thought I’d seen it all,” Bertie said. “I’ve had gangbangers, thugs, and hustlers in my choir. But none of them has ever pulled a stunt like this—ever.” She stirred her latte and stared glumly out the window at the students picking their way through the snow and slush on Halsted Street. “I’m lucky I didn’t get fired.”
Short and soft-spoken, with a full bosom and generous hips, Bertie Bigelow was just shy of forty. With her thin lips and aquiline nose, she liked to think she looked a lot like Lena Horne, if perhaps a bit heavier. As usual, she was impeccably turned out in an elegant, black power suit, her reddish-brown hair straightened to within an inch of its life and cut so that it framed her tan face in perfect symmetry.
“Have you even looked at the video?” Ellen said, reaching across the table to pat her best friend on the arm. “You know how critical you are. I’ll bet it wasn’t nearly as bad as you think.”
Referred to as the Dynamic Duo by their students at Metro Community College, Bertie and Ellen had been friends for nearly ten years. While Bertie was short and round, Ellen Simpson was tall and slender with ebony skin, a raspy voice, and a no-nonsense Afro. As chairman of the English department, Ellen was as well known for her sharp tongue as for the colorful African dresses she wore.
“You’re only saying that because you weren’t there,” Bertie replied, shaking her head mournfully.
“Fat chance,” Ellen said tartly. “But until this college recognizes Kwanzaa as an official school holiday, I am boycotting all college- sponsored Christmas celebrations. Whatever this horrible incident was, Professor Bigelow, you’re going to have to tell me about it yourself.”
“I’m sure it’s all over YouTube by now anyway,” Bertie said with a sigh. Located in a squat, concrete fortress at the epicenter of Chicago’s impoverished South Side, Metro Community College was the last remaining cultural outlet in this once vibrant area. More than two thousand people had turned out to hear Bertie’s choir perform, and the Metro Performance Center had buzzed with anticipation as the evening began.
“Every seat in the house was taken,” Bertie continued. “And just in case I wasn’t feeling enough pressure, Alderman Clark and Mayor Davis were sitting in the first row next to our beloved Chancellor Grant.”
Ellen, an outspoken left-wing activist, pulled a sour face at the mention of Grant’s name. “I can see that pathetic old toady kissing up to those politicians now,” she said. Bobbing her head submissively, she continued in an exaggerated Southern dialect. “Metro College is sho ’nuff workin’ wonders with dese here underprivileged masses, Mistuh Boss Man. Just lissen to muh little darkies sing.”
Bertie giggled. “Don’t start with this mess, Ellen. Let me finish telling you what happened.” After a week of self-imposed isolation, Bertie was suddenly eager to tell Ellen her version of the story.
“By all means, my dear,” Ellen laughed. “Out with it.”
As she relived the events leading up to the incident, Bertie felt her stomach tighten. How could she have failed to anticipate such a terrible disaster? As usual, she’d rehearsed the choir right up until the last moment, making sure the performance was as polished as possible. When she’d walked out on to the stage in her favorite evening gown and a pair of four-inch, Italian heels, Bertie had been absolutely certain the evening would be a success.
“Everything was going along perfectly,” she said. “The altos were in tune for once. The tenors even remembered their lyrics. Tamara Dupree sang ‘O Holy Night’ so beautifully that even Old Man Grant was wiping away the tears. And then it happened.”
“What happened? Come on, Bertie. The suspense is killing me.”
“LaShawn Thomas happened,” Bertie said. Tall and spindly, LaShawn had cornrowed hair, big ears, chocolate colored skin, and an infectious smile. The boy had been Bertie’s special project for over a year. For his first six months at Metro, LaShawn barely said a word. But after Bertie had encouraged him to join the choir, he’d blossomed into a star performer. This semester, LaShawn had even made the Dean’s List. Just before LaShawn’s number, Bertie introduced the two politicians sitting in the front row to the audience. As the crowd applauded dutifully, Mayor Davis, a stocky white man with a bulbous red nose, grinned genially and waved. Not to be outdone, Alderman Fred Clark, known to his constituents as “Steady Freddy,” stood up and blew kisses. Elegantly turned out in a silk shirt and designer suit, Alderman Clark was the epitome of the successful South Side politician—smooth and genial, as long as you stayed on his good side.
Now it was time for the grand finale, the showstopper Bertie and her choir had been rehearsing for months. Hip-hop music began to throb from the sixteen speakers lining the walls of the auditorium. On a screen at the back of the stage, the image of a black Santa waved from the driver’s seat of a Hummer H2 convertible. Illuminated in the glare of a single spotlight, LaShawn Thomas danced his way to the microphone at the center of the stage.
“Yo, Englewood, whazzup!” LaShawn shouted, pumping his fists in the air. “Before we go ahead with our final number, I wanna give a shout-out to my man, Alderman Fred Clark. Can I get a spotlight here? That’s right. Shine the light on our one and only Steady Freddy Clark—the Voice of Englewood. Did you know he’s running for reelection this spring?”
As the white circle of light focused on the Alderman, LaShawn pulled the microphone close to his lips. But instead of singing “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” he began to rap:
Here in the hood, we think Clark’s a saint
But I wanna tell y’all A saint he ain’t
Clark talks all fine Like his shit don’t stink
But the man be lyin’ Lemme tell you what I think
Steady Freddy Clark is a butt-kissing flunkie
A liar, a crook, and a pill-poppin’ junkie
A liar, a crook, and a pill-poppin’ junkie.
“I’m standing in the wings watching this and thinking to myself, this can’t be happening,’” Bertie said. “It’s like I was stuck in the middle of one of those 3-D horror movies.”
“Bertie, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Ellen said, shaking her head in disbelief. “What happened next?”
“By this point, the entire Performance Center is in an uproar,” Bertie continued grimly. “LaShawn is standing in the center of the stage, spewing profanity with a spotlight on his face and a death grip on the microphone. Every other word out of his mouth is the n-word, the f-word, or worse. The students are stamping their feet and hollering. Steady Freddy is shaking his fist and shouting. Mayor Davis looks like he’s having a heart attack, and Chancellor Grant is trying to pull himself up over the footlights and onto the stage.”
“It’s a good thing I wasn’t there, Bert. I’d have slapped that boy upside his nappy little head. What on earth was his problem? Do you think he was high or something?”
“Didn’t seem like it. When the lights finally came on, LaShawn was standing there with tears running down his face. He ran out the stage door before I could say a word. I haven’t heard from him since.”
“Bet you’ve heard from our Fearless Leader, though.”
Bertie sighed. “He left a pretty intense message on my cell phone the next day. Lucky for me, he was on his way out of town for the holidays. Otherwise, I’d be sitting in his office getting chewed out this very minute.”
“Good thing you’ve got tenure,” Ellen said. “Otherwise, he’d have fired your behind on the spot.”
The two women contemplated the gravity of the situation in silence.
“When I got my tenure, Delroy went over my contract with a fine- toothed comb.”
Nine months ago, Bertie’s husband, Delroy, a brilliant lawyer and the love of her life, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. She knew she needed to get on with her life, but at times like these, ‘getting on’ barely seemed worth the effort.
“In that case, I wouldn’t give Grant and his minions another thought,” Ellen said. “Delroy Bigelow was the finest lawyer on the South Side of Chicago. If your husband gave it his seal of approval, I’m sure your contract is unbreakable.”
Bertie sniffed and wiped away a tear with the back of her hand. “Honestly, girl. You’re the best friend anyone could ever have.”
“So they tell me,” Ellen said with a wink. “At the risk of opening up the waterworks again, may I ask what you’re doing over the holidays?”
Bertie shrugged and stared down at the unfinished blueberry muffin on her plate.
“What about going out to a party or something? You can’t spend the rest of your life in mothballs. If Delroy were here, he’d be the first to tell you not to sit home alone brooding.”
“I know,” Bertie said with a sigh. “I’m going to my sister Della’s in Boston for Christmas, and I’ve been invited to the Octagon Gala for New Year’s Eve, but I don’t know if I’ll go.”
“The Octagon Society? Well, la-di-da.” Extending her right pinky, Ellen took a delicate, aristocratic sip from her coffee cup. “They’re way too rich for my blood. Even if I could afford to join, I’d be way too dark for those damn-near-white Negroes.”
Bertie blushed. “Girl, please. They’re not nearly as color struck as they used to be. But it really doesn’t matter. I’m probably not going anyway.”
“You need to get out and circulate,” Ellen said. “Even if it’s with those snobby-assed Octagons. Who invited you?”
“Judge Green. He left a message on my voice mail about it last night, but I haven’t gotten back to him.”
Ellen’s eyes widened in surprise. “Theophilous Green? The man’s got to be at least a hundred years old. Wears the worst toupee I’ve ever seen, and I’m not so sure his teeth are real, either.”
“He’s more like seventy, but you see my problem,” Bertie said. “The gala is strictly a couples affair—no unescorted women allowed. If I want to go to this thing, it’s probably Judge Green or no one. But like I told you, I doubt if I’m going to go.”
“Nobody is saying you shouldn’t go, Bert. The Octagons throw the most extravagant dress ball in all of black Chicago. If I’m not mistaken, the Temptations played there last year.”
“It’s going to be the Count Basie Orchestra this time,” Bertie said. “I haven’t seen them since the Count died. Everyone says they’re swinging just as hard as ever.”
“Promise me you’ll think about going,” Ellen said. Wiping her mouth with a napkin, she stood up and planted a kiss on Bertie’s cheek. “I know Judge Green is a pompous, old fuddy-duddy. And yes, he’s almost twice your age. But on the bright side, you’ll be catching up with old friends and dancing to the Count Basie Orchestra. What could possibly go wrong?”