2. Tracee's Surprise
July 1976: A Spacious, high-ceilinged living room of a two-story suite at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. There are tall French windows opening on small concrete balconies. The windows are open, admitting a hazy, fragmented view of the East Side of Manhattan; the draperies are motionless and indifferent in the still summer heat.
"I recorded this last night after the show," Diana says.
"I've been recording every night this week, after I leave the theater. I've been trying . . . "
She takes a reel of tape out of the cardboard box.
" . . . you know, to get some material together, work out some things that are ideas of mine."
She stops, puzzled.
"What's this?" she says.
Diana turns the cardboard box over and studies it carefully.
"This isn't it," she says. "This is something else." She tosses the reel of tape on the couch.
"Where did I put that? They sent it over this morning. I remember the envelope, and I had it right here, holding it in my hand."
She brings her hands together, holding an invisible object.
"And now where did I put it?" she says.
She rests a closed fist against her mouth in a pantomime of thought. She is standing in the middle of the room, her bare feet sunk in thick blue carpeting. She is wearing an Indian cotton skirt and blouse; no makeup, no jewelry.
"Maybe I took it with me into the kitchen," she says at length. "Did I do that?"
She leaves to investigate. From another room voices and a little girl's high-pitched laugh; somebody turns on a television set and flips to a cartoon show.
"I found it," Diana says, returning with another reel of tape. She threads it into an elaborate machine which sits on a table in front of a large fireplace with a delicately carved mantel; huge speakers stand at either side.
"Have you ever been to Electric Lady?" Diana says.
"Yes," I say.
"That's where we did this," she says, playing with the tuning controls. "I don't have the best of what we did last night on tape. I found out afterward that for some reason they weren't recording for the half of the session when we did the best of what we did. This is the first half."
She starts the machine; the tape rolls but there is no sound from the speakers.
"Damnit," she says.
She stops the tape and examines the speaker wires.
"They were supposed to be recording," she says, rewinding. "For sure that's what I was there for, but after we'd finished they said – oh this and that and one of their channels wasn't working, and I said, do you mean we did all this for nothing?"
She starts the tape again and this time the speakers function.
"I just couldn't even begin to believe it," she says. "Here I'd left the theater at 11, I'd just done a show. I'm tired. I get all the musicians down there, have to take care of all that. The studio is costing me money; more importantly, the whole thing is costing time – which is what's really upsetting, is that my time's being wasted. I'm telling you, if I'm at a recording studio at three o'clock in the morning I want to have something for it. I told them there, I said, listen, I don't have time to screw around. I said it like that so they'd understand what I was saying."
She turns up the volume until the music is very loud.
"They're probably going to send somebody up here, throw me out," she says.
"I don't think so," I say.
"No," Diana says, "neither do I."
She moves to a cart, covered with a light pink tablecloth, that holds the remains of a room-service meal. She picks up a roll and breaks it in two; a shower of crumbs falls on the carpet.
"Here, we did a disco version of this same tune," Diana says, walking back to the fireplace. She advances the tape to another track. As it plays, she begins to dance around the room. She throws her arms out like a scarecrow; her head moves to the music like a spring-action toy.
"I love this," she says. "I have to play this for Shelly. Shelly!"
A moment passes; nobody answers.
"Shelly!" she shouts. "Come in here and listen to something!"
Shelly, a Motown management aide, materializes: a husky man with a full, tangled head of gray hair and a bushy beard. He is wearing a blue and white knit tennis sweater, jeans and patent-leather loafers.
"I can't hear you," Shelly says in a loud voice. "What'd you say?"
"I want you to listen to something," Diana says. She plays the song for him.
Shelly listens, keeping his eyes on the tape machine as if watching his only child give a piano recital. He taps a rolled-up copy of the Hollywood Reporter against his leg.
"I like it," he says at last.
"You do?" Diana says.
"I do," he says.
"You really like it?" she says.
"Yeah, I really like it," he says, nodding thoughtfully.
"It's got rhythm. And I like the bass."
"You like that?" Diana says.
"Yeah," Shelly says.
"Did I tell you they didn't get some of my stuff last night?" she asks him.
"They didn't?" he says.
"No. They messed it up."
"Messed it up? How did they mess it up?"
"They just did," Diana says, "I don't know. I don't think I'm going back there again."
"Don't, "Shelly says. "The hell with them."
He leaves. Diana turns the volume control down slightly.
"Did you write this?" I say.
"Yes," Diana says. "Do you like it?"
"Tell me," she says, "how do you think it sounds? I mean, what do you think it sounds like?"
"It sounds like one of your albums," I say.
"Yeah," she says. "I guess so."
"But I like your albums."
"Yeah, so do I," she says. She settles into a large side chair and brings her feet up to the seat. "But I'm trying to develop something of my own. That's why I want to do some more producing and arranging, because I want to be able to recognize something as coming from inside me without any outside influences. That's what I'm trying to do."
"Have you done that?"
"I think it takes a while before you know," she says, "I get ideas all the time, though. All the time I get ideas for things I want to do. You know, like a song, or an idea for a movie, something like that. And you know what I do?"
"I write it all down in a notebook," she says. "I have this notebook, and every day I put in it all the things that I've thought of to do that day, because if I don't – if I don't write it down that day – then I'll never think of it again. Yesterday I was in a store doing some shopping and I heard this one lady telling another lady this story and I said to myself, for sure there's a movie, and when I came home I wrote it down. Do you do that, write ideas in a notebook?"
"And do you use them? Do you follow up on them?"
"Sometimes. There's always another idea, though."
"Isn't that just right?" Diana says. "Whatever comes to you, if you wait a little bit, there's always something else that comes along that takes that first thing right out of your mind. That's just right."
She stands up, moves to one of the windows and stares out in the direction of Park Avenue. The tape continues to play but there is no longer any music on it.
"Do you know I was almost killed twice in one taxicab this morning?" she says. "Twice in one cab, is that something? I know what they say about cabs in New York, but I couldn't believe this driver. We're flying up this street, zooming down another street. I could not believe what the man was doing. I knocked on his shield, you know, whatever that thing is between him and me; I knocked on it and said, are you in some hurry I don't know about, mister? And he turned around . . . turned around – this is where he almost killed me the second time – and he says, 'Hey! Ain't you Diana Ross?' "
She mimics the rough voice of the cabbie.
"I said, 'No, I ain't Diana Ross, I'm a whole lot tougher than Diana Ross, and if you don't slow this thing down you're going to see what I'm talking about!' "
She steps back from the window.
"There surely are a lot of stories in New York," she says. "I was at Cartier this morning – before I was almost being killed – and I swear! Everything that was going on in that whole store was a movie. It really was! Wait, I have to tell Shelly what I bought. Shelly!"
"Yes?" Shelly says, coming to the door.
"I went shopping this morning," Diana says. "I didn't tell you what I bought."
"What'd you buy?" he asks.
"I went to Cartier," she says.
"And you bought watches," he says.
"Yes!" Diana says. "How did you know?"
"I guessed," he says. "How many did you buy?"
"Only two," Diana says. "That's all. I got one that's red around the rim – you know the outside of the face of the watch – and it has like a blue-jeans color inside. With a red band."
"Ah," Shelly says.
"It's beautiful," Diana says. "And the other one – the other one is green with a black face and a green band."
"Great," Shelly says. "Was it crowded?"
"Was what crowded?" she asks.
"The stores," Shelly says. "The outside."
"Oh, it was crazy," Diana says. "Everybody's in New York."
"That's for the Fourth of July," Shelly says. "Listen, I'm going to be going over to the theater in a little while, check on a few things. Anything you need while I'm out?"
"No," Diana says. She walks back to the window and looks out at the city.
"Okay, I'll be back later," he says. "You should try and take a nap."
Diana nods without answering. She watches the outside for several moments.
"I haven't seen any birds around," she says finally. "Are they all dead?"
"I don't know," I say.
"Probably," she says. "Probably they're all dead."
A little girl, Tracee, comes skipping into the room. Her hair is in pigtails, and she is wearing a green dress with red flowers on it and a yellow band around the middle. Behind her back she carries a small box wrapped with stationery paper and Scotch tape.
"Here, mommy," the little girl says.
"What's this, honey?" Diana says, taking the box in her hand. "Is this for me?"
The little girl nods.
"I wonder what it is," Diana says. She bends down so that she is at eye level with her daughter.
"A present," the little girl says.
"A present?" Diana says. She looks at the package, which appears to be a ring box. "Where did you get it?"
"I don't know," the little girl says, tugging at the hem of her skirt.
"You don't know where you got it?" Diana asks as she unwraps the present.
"A place," the little girl says. She giggles and covers her mouth.
"You didn't get this off my dressing table, did you?" Diana says.
The little girl shakes her head solemnly from side to side.
"It's a surprise," she tells her mother in a whisper.
"Oh, it's a surprise," Diana whispers back. "I see."
Diana takes the box out of the paper; the little girl watches her with an intent and serious expression. Diana opens the box and looks inside. It is empty.
"Surprise!" the little girl shouts.
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