A while ago I received an e-mail from the bank that controls all of the money I have in this world. They were enhancing their security system with a series of personal questions. The idea being that only they and I would know the answers which would be used to thwart any attempt by cyber thieves to break into my checking or savings account.
One of the proposed questions was “What was the name of the first girl you loved?” I searched back through near but never totally forgotten memory and found Joanne Donovan, the girl I’d dated three of my four years at Annapolis. She was the girl I’d escorted to my Ring Dance, two Farewell Balls, and two Army-Navy games. Joanne Donovan, a petite Audrey Hepburn look-alike, had owned my heart for the better part of three years. She was, I thought, the first girl I loved.
And that was that until a snatch of Saturday late night jazz collided with a snatch of Saturday late night memory and I remembered Billie Holiday. I’d loved Billie Holiday, Lady Day, since I first heard her sing the Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” And although I’d never seen her, I loved her music and I loved her passion and I loved her warmth.
When I finally did see Billie Holiday it was at the lounge bar at one of the Las Vegas strip hotels. She sang to only piano accompaniment sitting on a high stool in a single soft spotlight. She sang Gershwin and Harold Arlen. She sang “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and “God Bless The Child.” She sang through the smoke and dust in her voice. She didn’t sing “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
“I have to talk to her,” I said to my date. I didn’t say “I’m going to talk to her.” I said, “I have to talk to her.” I knew the difference. I’d waited so long. I knew about her drugs. I knew about her sickness. “I’m going to ask her to sing ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It.’”
I shoved away from our table and made my way across the floor.
“Miss Day,” I started.
She didn’t speak. She simply nodded and smiled. It was a small smile but for me it filled the room.
“I was wondering if you could sing ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’?”
She looked away somewhere and hummed into herself a little before she answered.. “Sure thing, white boy,” she said.
I didn’t return to my table. I stood off in an empty space at the back of the room and listened. I didn’t want to share her or her music.
“Holding hands at midnight ’neath a starry sky,” she started and I could feel my chest expand an then collapse under the words. “Nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try.”