The 4th Pip: The Bulldog — Part V
This was no longer mimicry. When she sang, she was Gladys Knight.
A Red-Hot Christmas Eve Spat
She was thirteen, it was Christmas Eve, and the evening was unfolding like clockwork.
The tradition coming down from her mother’s side was to open a single present on Christmas Eve “but it better not be the big one.” So she retrieved the largest medium-sized one from under the tree that she could find.
It turned out to be “The Premium Soul Triple Set” from K-Tel records of “100 Top Soul and Rhythm & Blues Hits (1970-1975) Performed by the Original Artists” The box set included every WBLS 107.5 FM hit from fourth to eighth grade.
“It will be like owning a radio station,” her father said.
“It was certainly like buying one,” said her mother.
Her father, not to be outdone by his wife’s family tradition, pointed to another present under the tree the second his wife headed into the kitchen to refill the eggnog pitcher.
“This is the ‘dad gets the last word tradition,’” her father chuckled, and accidentally spilled eggnog onto his hand. “Open the big one.”
Clearly the first pitcher was kicking in.
The girl was caught between competing traditions.
“Open it,” her dad said again. He was rushing her with his hand. “Open it. Open it.” He grinned from ear to ear and leaned over to spy into his wife’s kitchen. She couldn’t tell if her father was giving her permission or outright daring her.
And so, moments before the red-hot annual Christmas Eve spat erupted in the living room, she unwrapped a pink record player from Sears & Roebuck and carried it up to her bedroom.
“One song and straight to bed, Ronnie,” said her mother.
“Not zero and not two. One!” said her father. He howled like he’d said the funniest thing in the world.
He needed another napkin to wipe his hand.
She set the record needle down on the shiny new vinyl of Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).
That’s when it happened.
It was only for a flash during that first track, during a “that’s what I’m gonna do” part. She was holding an old hairbrush and singing into a chipped dresser mirror with its broken, built-in lightbulbs. The girl had been through some terrible, terrible times with this mirror. The mirror wasn’t exactly a friend, but you could say they played together frequently.
When it happened that first time, she assumed it was one of those bizarre moments when you accidentally sound like someone else, and you almost “are” them for a second. You are certain that you feel like they must feel. But then this strange feeling — let’s call it mimicry — wasn’t lasting just a second anymore. It was going on longer and longer with each passing K-Tel Soul & R&B verse, chorus, and coda.
She covered Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (This Time), Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I Got), Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand), and Don’t Rock the Boat (Don’t Tip the Boat Over).
By the end of Record I Side B, this mimicry — which is truly the wrong word — had grown from lasting a second or two to lasting for four or five seconds at a clip.
It was magical.
$100 bills might as well have been peeling off the bedroom wallpaper.
At the four hours and thirty-seven minute mark, she’d sung through all but the very last song. And it was there, at the end of Record III on Side B of her Premium Soul Triple Set, that she sang her first song all of the way, front-to-back, top-to-bottom, perfectly, exactly, and as precisely as the K-Tel Original Artist herself.
The song was Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye).
The singer was someone named Gladys Knight and somebody or other after that. There were 99 other artists to list out, so that was the sum of information available on the record liner, but listening to the woman’s voice coming through and over and into her own voice was all the information she’d ever need to know.
She’d never heard anything so beautiful in her entire life.
This was no longer mimicry.
When she sang, she was Gladys Knight.
The Glass Doorknob with Paint Spray Spots
It wasn’t like nothing was happening on the other side of her locked bedroom door.
By song number two on Record I Side A, it was a ruckus out there.
Her parents helplessly twirled the cut glass handle with her dad’s accidental paint spray spots, and they yelled their keep-it-down-in-theres, and you’re-coming-out-or-we’re-coming-ins and by the third song, there was a serious discussion as to whether they should break-the-damn-door-down, but then, suddenly, after the flip to Record I Side B, her family must have started to truly listen, because the glass doorknob with the paint spray spots stopped rotating.
Then there was complete silence until her mother said, “Oh my God, child.”
For the next half hour her parents and her younger sister sat with their ears to the door until deep into the B side of Record II. Then her father said through the door, “Girl, whatever you do, don’t stop until your grandmother gets here. I’m calling her now.”
And at 1:30 in the morning on what was now technically Christmas Day, her grandmother and grandfather came all of the way down from 163rd Street. Her parents crammed the two best upholstered chairs they owned into the apartment hallway, and the five of them listened outside the bedroom door in pin-drop silence.
By 3:30 in the morning, their neighbors were in the building hallway dividing up the floor for the few remaining spots, sharing couch cushions, and scrunching up piles of winter coats. The new arrivals, shaken abruptly from their sleep, would bicker and complain about the volume and the hardwood and their legs falling asleep, but by and by, they’d fall silent, too. The music was too beautiful to even go back down the hallway for something softer to sit on.
When the thirteen-year-old finally came out of her room at dawn, her grandfather insisted her face was glowing, and the neighbors agreed that it was.
“Her face is glowing isn’t it?”
“It’s definitely glowing.”
The 14th and Final Time
There was a specific thing she did to make it happen.
She wasn’t just standing there and singing any old way. She tested it during many of the up-tempo recordings on Record II Side B. She wanted to figure out if maybe she was singing like she was because she opened her mouth wide like she’d seen real singers do, or if it was because she waved her arms in the air like the women filled with spirit at church, but it wasn’t any of that.
She knew what it was.
At least a little bit in her heart, she knew why it worked. And the whole time she was singing that night with everyone outside the door, she knew what would happen when she showed them how she did it.
The apartment building hallway would empty out. The neighbors would leave. Her sister would go back to bed. Her parents would shake their heads in disappointment.
She dreaded it. But sooner or later it had to be. It was impossible to hide.
As day was breaking, at last it was time to stop. Now, well and truly, it was Christmas morning.
The girl sang Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye) for the fourteenth and final time. She flipped her dresser mirror around on its axis and stood in front of her door preparing herself to twirl the cut glass door knob with her dad’s paint spray spots.
Becoming a Comic Book Villain
It was not a guarded secret that she was not at all attractive, not at school, not in the locker room, not on the walk home, and not at the dinner table.
The girls called her “The Bully” which was short for “The Bulldog” which is what the boys called her straight out. The girls said it was because she would fight you over anything, and, yes, she would — she could be mean, very mean, like have no friends mean. “Fat girl mean,” her sister said once in a fight that ended up in tears and hair-pulling that dragged the two of them up and over and finally behind the couch.
But everyone knew she was called The Bully because of her nose. It was flattened back into her face almost vertically — like a bulldog’s nose. Her sister described it unhelpfully: “It’s not my fault your nostrils look like black beans growing fur on their backs.”
So The Bulldog knew what it was to be unfixably, irredeemably unattractive.
Because of it, she spent long hours of her childhood looking in the mirror with the broken lightbulbs, not because she was searching for beauty that she knew wasn’t there. She spent hours looking in the mirror so that at some point, eventually, she wouldn’t care anymore.
She told her mirror she was “tearing off the band-aids,” and she tore them off one afternoon at a time. She would grimace and distort her face and hoist her shoulders up and down like she was silently having a tantrum. She made herself as ugly as she could, and then she stared into these horrible faces until she got used to them.
The two of them were “unwrapping the mummy” together she explained to her mirror. And, little by little, her plan worked. She could say “The Bully” and then “The Bulldog” out loud to the mirror and, eventually, she could say the worst word of all — the one under both of those words — with her mean laugh. It was like becoming a comic book villain.
It had never occurred to her until the Christmas Eve of the K-Tel records that the mirror might have something to say, too. And that evening she heard the mirror for the first time.
The mirror’s beautiful, but terrible secret for her was this: when she pumped her entire body up and down like she was having a tantrum, and she scrunched her face into the spitting image of ugliness, and she shook her body like something spastic was going terribly wrong during her transformation into a comic book villain — only then would her beautiful voice appear.
The trick was to sing at exactly the same time she was making herself ugly.
For whatever reason, she had to be ugly to be beautiful.
The mirror didn’t have a lot else to say. It was not a talkative mirror, and mirrors don’t have a lot to say in the first place. Friend or foe, mirrors really say one of two things, and we’ve all heard both of them.
Just not at the same time like The Bulldog did.
Every Mean Bone in Her Body
When she stepped out into the hallway, and they asked her to sing for them, she knew it was over before it began.
She tried to stand there and sing without making herself ugly first, but her voice was less than nothing, hardly a croak. “Why is she barking?” her grandfather asked. Although he loved the girl, he was insensitive and clueless.
So, staring at the floor, she showed them how it was done. She shook and grimaced and her shoulders and arms pumped up and down, she knew they couldn’t hear her anymore, they just saw The Bulldog — or the horrible word inside that word.
And the shock in their voices ripped through her like she was being wounded. For four hours and thirty-seven minutes she’d taken her armor off and finally flown for once in her life and then this.
Please imagine how hard all of this would be for someone determined to become a comic book villain who then learned she could sing like Gladys Knight. It took every mean bone in her body not to cry in front of them.
Her father didn’t help.
Because he was a car mechanic and engineering-minded, her father told her with mounting frustration that she just needed to stop “pistoning up and down.” Everyone in the hallway chimed in helpfully, and said that was the right word exactly, and then “pistoning” was even how her mom described her singing movement to her brother in Chicago later that morning.
Her sister knocked on her locked bedroom door, to let her know, “Mom is stretching the phone cord around the kitchen table so she can whisper to Uncle Earl about you from the pantry.”
“Ronnie’s going up and down like a jackhammer, but that’s the only way she can do it,” her sister reported.
All the Bits in Parentheses
Exactly a year passed.
It was the anniversary evening of the Gladys Knight Miracle, the Christmas Eve of The Bulldog’s fourteenth year.
That entire year the church leadership had voted repeatedly and found one reason or another not to let her join the choir. She could not make it, of course, with her regular croaking voice, and the pastor was quite clear on the high standards of vocal worship in the Lord’s house.
“When you stop the pistoning, the microphone is yours, B. We can’t fill with the spirit with you making faces and bouncing up and down like that. We all need to sway together as one.”
But Christmas Eve afternoon, The Bulldog took it into her own hands. She hid in the pastor’s office underneath the fax machine table, and in the middle of Do You Hear (What I Hear), she nudged the office door open with her big toe. The door slowly opened out from the back wall behind the altar.
And when the choir lumbered and stumbled its way finally to “do you hear what I hear?” The Bulldog let Gladys loose through the half-open office door by the fax machine.
"(A star, a star shining in the night),” she sang through the half-opened door, while pumping and shaking and stamping and grimacing.
In the history of song, the word “star” has never shone more brightly.
Her voice carried outside The Storefront Pentecostal Church of the Holy Spirit on 125th Street and well down the block in the general direction of the Apollo Theater.
She’d barely finished the first line, when the pastor took his seat, and then the choir sat down, and then the choir director indicated for the choir to file off the stage and get back into the pews, and there was only The Bulldog’s voice coming through the half-open door of the pastor’s office.
Her voice rose up to the — admittedly low — first floor storefront church ceiling. It fluttered the open pages of a hymnal on the pulpit. It flickered the Christmas Eve personal candle flames now melting dangerously close to their paper holders.
All that was left on the empty stage was the microphone stand for whatever forgettable voice had been nominated for Christmas Eve Soloist and The Bulldog’s voice coming through the half-open door of the church office.
“God is in the house,” the pastor practically trembled. This was especially notable because he was not a fan of Soul or R&B or K-Tel Records or 1970-1975.
“Yes, God is in the house,” he repeated with — let’s be honest — total disbelief.
“Amen,” whispered the house, fixing their full attention on the microphone stand.
And when speaking in Pentecostal tongues began to feel inappropriate for the sacredness of the moment, and the last of the candle wax melted onto the congregation’s hot thumbs, the church settled into peaceful heating pipe noises.
At that precise moment, The Bulldog emerged through the half-opened door of the office and stepped into the darkness of the church.
She stood center stage in the — mostly — pitch black room. There was still a faint glow of colored streetlight from the stained glass windows.
And when she was good and ready, The Bulldog sang the very last song from Record III Side B.
And without any direction, the choir in the pews sang all the backup bits in parentheses.
And my God, child, it was beautiful.
There can be no way, there can be no way (be no way) This can have a happy ending (happy ending) No, no, so I just go on (I go on) Hurting and pretending And, and convincing myself To give it just one more try (one more try) — Gladys Knight & Someone or Other, "Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First to Say Goodbye)
A Dusting of Snow
The Sandman heard her from outside Storefront Pentecostal Church of the Holy Spirit on 125th Street.
He had been waiting so long for a green light that he was starting to take it personally. He was up to banging the back of his fist on the leather-laced steering wheel cover, when a voice drifted in through the passenger window where his broom was sticking out.
The voice stopped him cold.
He left the car running and got out. He crossed the street and stood on the single sidewalk step leading into the Storefront Pentecostal Church of 125th Street.
The faintest snow swirled in the street light and down through the torn convertible top of his rusting car with the jammed-open passenger window.
The Sandman did not go into the church. He felt exactly zero need to.
He simply listened by the door for an hour and a half. He had always heard music best when he closed his eyes and clasped his hands over the top of his broom and rubbed his thumbs over its jagged old label, and so that’s what he did.
Eventually, he settled his chin down onto his folded hands like a sleepy cat.
He called leaning on the broom like that “listening from the wings.” His life had always been — at least since the time he was in high school — listening to music and watching dancing from the wings.
And almost two hours later, when The Sandman finally opened his eyes, he laughed as gently as a man can laugh. His laugh was no louder than a purr.
He laughed because out in the street his car had run out of gas, and his hazard lights had burned the battery down, and his stoplight was still red.
And he laughed because not a bristle of his broom had shifted the entire time, and his footsteps were covered in a dusting of Christmas snow.
Feel something. Twice a week.