To the Top

After her audition, Shania Johnson left the conference room on the twenty-seventh floor. She stepped into the hallway. The metal door shut behind her. She had auditioned enough to know what “we’ll call you” really meant. She would go back home and tell her mother, and her mother would say something promising about next time. Shania promised not to let it bother her.
Then behind her, she heard the clap of the door’s push handle. The door swooshed open.
It was a voice she recognized from his albums. It was Elmwood, the artist himself.
She plunged her high heels into the carpet and pivoted, turning to him.
“I heard you sing. I saw you. I don’t know why they let you leave. Sometimes those white fools don’t recognize gold from bronze.”
She’d heard that Elmwood sometimes listened in on auditions, but if she had known that he was listening to her, it would have ruined everything. He was her idol.
“I want you,” he said. “Your voice. It’s perfect for ‘Silver.’ Just the sound I imagined.”
Shania wanted to disappear, to melt into a puddle on the floor. She also wanted to be grateful. But she couldn’t do either. She was still too stunned to speak. She clasped her hands before her. Her manicured nails clicked.
He waved her over with his fingers. “Come back inside. We’ll discuss a contract.”
This was it. Her break.
Elmwood put his arm around her shoulder and walked back into the studio with her.
The next day, Shania arrived at Sixteenth Street Studio early. She found a café next door and ordered a green tea with honey and lemon and sipped it by the window. For the first time, she didn’t feel like nobody among the crowd. She was a real singer.
As she rode the elevator up to the studio, she felt constricted, out of breath. She closed her eyes and forced herself to breathe slowly. This was it. She couldn’t blow it. She might never get a chance like this again.
When the chrome doors split, the music greeted her. It came from the end of the hall, a door was cracked open. The beat was raw. Elemental. And Elmwood rapped over it, freestyling, throwing it out into the universe. She stepped onto the linoleum floor to listen.
“My life laying down bricks, building walls only I climb. Getting higher, higher than Gestapo on homicide.”
The beat stopped. She heard loud, debating voices. She walked in and felt electricity charge through her. The studio space was decorated with black furniture with metallic undertones. The engineer tweaked knobs on the enormous console and peered into the Apple screen. A large black man in a striped polo shirt sat on a leather couch with a blunt in his hand. Blue smoke swirled above him like a nest of snakes.
“She’s here,” the engineer said into the microphone. Elmwood placed his headphones on a music stand and came out of the booth.
“My girl,” Elmwood said. He put his arm on her shoulder and led her to the couch. Although she wore leggings under her skirt, she felt the cool touch of leather. Elmwood sat on the glass table in front of her. Then he instructed the engineer to pull up a track.
“Came up with this yesterday,” he said. “I need you to sing the hook.”
He motioned to the other guy on the couch, who handed Shania a sheet of lyrics. Pencil marks littered the page. Elmwood closed his eyes and hummed to teach her the part.
Shania joined in during the second chorus.
“She’s got it!” he said.
The man on the couch nodded with his whole body, his bald head wobbling back and forth like a teetering bowling pin. He took a deep drag on the blunt.
Shania entered the booth and sat on the stool next to a dangling microphone. Elmwood grabbed another set of headphones off a hook and lowered them onto Shania’s head. He gently brushed her hair out of her eyes. His fingers grazed her neck below her ear. Shania ignored it.
Elmwood took a seat next to the engineer and twirled his finger. A red light flipped on in the booth.
The chorus played. Shania belted the words, hitting the right notes.
Within seconds, Elmwood gestured across his throat. The engineer cut the music.
“Now, Sha-nae-nae,” Elmwood said, leaning toward the microphone. “This isn’t your hall church choir. This isn’t praise service. This is sensual. I need your worship voice. Give me smooth for this track.”
He hummed the melody gentler than he had before.
“Imagine you’re making slow love.” He closed his eyes and snaked his body, grinding on the chair. “Love on that good D.”
This time she sang the whole track without Elmwood cutting it. He took the blunt from the man on the couch and smoked.
From there, Shania picked up the groove quickly. For the rest of the session, each take was better than the last. When they were done, the big guy on the couch and the engineer left.
Shania grabbed her bag to leave as Elmwood lit up a blunt.
“You smoke?”
“Come.” He waved her toward a door that had been closed. He opened it. A cool breeze and city noise floated inside. He stepped onto the private balcony and sank onto a weathered couch. The moon was bright as a spotlight.
Shania followed him onto the balcony and sat. Their knees almost touched.
“Today was amazing,” she said. “Thank you for everything.”
Elmwood nodded and took a long drag on the blunt. The smoke left his mouth in a blue spiral. He passed it to her.
“It’s been my dream to work with you. To make music like you do.” She put the blunt to her lips and sucked. The fire kindled and hot smoke shot into her lungs. She coughed.
Elmwood leaned in and put his hand on her knee. He rubbed her back. His hand was warm. As her coughing stopped, he slid his hand up to the back of her neck. Something darker than a smile danced across his face.
Shania shuttered. She felt woozy and clumsily knocked Elmwood’s hand away from her neck.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said.
“Come on, Sha-nae-nae,” he said, smooth and thick as oil. His hand still gripped her knee. “You worked hard in the studio today, didn’t you?”
“Then what’s the problem? Don’t like massages?”
He took a deep drag from the blunt. He held his breath, absorbing everything from the smoke. He exhaled, wide-mouthed, like a dragon. The hot smoke floated out into the city beyond.
Elmwood pinched the blunt between his fingers and offered it like a lollipop.
Shania shook her head. “Thanks, Elmwood, but I have to go. My mother’s waiting.”
“No,” he said. “Don’t go.” He grabbed her and leaned in to kiss her neck.
She tried to resist, but he was strong. She wanted to curse him out. She wanted to tell him how she had looked up to him for years and how he was ruining all of that. She wanted to hit him even.
But she didn’t say anything. She took a breath and pulled off his fingers and pushed him away. She felt disappointed. But she couldn’t jeopardize this opportunity. Singing on Elmwood’s album was a sure way to go solo. She quickly stood up.
“I need to go. I’m here to sing. It’s not what you think it is.”
“Don’t be ungrateful. There’re plenty of girls who’d do anything to sing with me.”
She turned to him and crossed her arms. “I’ll be back tomorrow. To sing. Unless you want to break my contract? Find another singer?” she said. “That’s fine. But I’ll see you in court.”
Elmwood put the blunt between his teeth, forcing his mouth to form the shape of a smile. Then he put his lips around it and took a drag. He released it, and the smoke swirled into the night. He nodded. “All right then.” Then he turned to the city.
Shania closed the balcony door and hurried into the hallway. She pressed the button on the elevator several times, wishing it would come faster. The doors opened. She went inside. She took a deep breath and let it out like a wind gust. Then she took another. Her eyes wanted to cry, but, for the sake of the music, she held that inside. The door opened into the lobby. She left the building and found comfort blending into the city.