My life as a pop princess began at the Dairy Queen.
I could tell you that at the time, I was your average fifteen-year-old girl with slacker grades, dysfunctional family, bad hair days, and a love for singing out loud to every pop song on the radio. But that was the Wonder Blake who appeared doomed to live out her junior year as a social oddity at her new high school on Cape Cod.
The other Wonder Blake, the one who slaved away at the DQ every afternoon, she sang aloud to every song on the radio in order to drown out customers’ voices so her mind could focus on her real ambition: escape. Sing-aloud Wonder dreamed of escape from Cape Cod, escape from high school, escape to Somewhere, Anywhere (okay, preferably New York or L.A., though London or Paris would probably do, as would any dark steamy Latin American beach metropolis like in the telenovelas on the Spanish language channel). She also longed for escape from parents whose marriage was on nuclear meltdown, escape from the sorrow that had overwhelmed our household since my sister’s death. In whatever glam city happened to be Somewhere, Anywhere, the other Wonder Blake would go and reinvent herself, become a sophisticated emancipated teen with a hot bod and ridiculous confidence. She could be like some Presidential Fitness teen ambassador; she’d have a kick-ass designer wardrobe and a smile that could light the world on fire. That chick would know how to make new friends like that and she would have guys lining up to date her, instead of the regular ole Wonder Blake, who you could tell guys thought was kinda not bad-looking but why’s she always by herself staring out into space, and anyway isn’t she the girl who used to be on TV, what’s her deal, how’d she get stranded here?
The regular ole Wonder Blake had two years of high school left to go, two more years trapped in sleepy Devonport, Massachusetts. Escape for now would have to come from singing aloud at her job at the Dairy Queen, passing the time in her own reverie.
And so it happened that I was discovered by Gerald Tiggs, the powerful talent manager, at a chance meeting at said DQ. Tig (as he was known) walked into the DQ at the end of my shift late one Saturday evening. I was mopping the floor, using the mop as a pretend microphone as I strutted across the wet floor, a Discman on my ears as I sang “Smells Like Teen Spirit” out loud—very loudly. My rendition of Kurt Cobain was closer to down-home gospel than to grunge wail. I had no idea a customer was lurking until Katie, my one friend in my family’s new hometown and also my DQ coworker, practically knocked me over, sprung the headphones from my ears, and shouted, “Wonder! The guy’s trying to talk to you!”
I looked up. Labor Day had passed, taking the Dairy Queen’s late night customers with it. Yet here was one standing before me at 10 P.M., clutching a chocolate-dipped soft-serve cone, his teeth flashing so bright in the flickering strobe lighting I thought I saw my reflection in them. He said, “Don’t I know you? You look familiar.”
Of course I recognized him. Who could forget those killer-shark eyes and the fine Italian tailored suits he wore even during 99 percent humidity? I told him, “Think a little harder.”
He did, and then he knew. The killer eyes turned sad when he made the connection. “You’re Lucky’s kid sister.”
“That’s me.” My big sister had been dead almost two years, yet it seemed I would always be known as “Lucky’s kid sister.” I wouldn’t have minded having my name legally changed to “Lucky’s Kid Sister” if it had meant I could have even one more day with her.
“I didn’t know you sang too.” He paused, as if he was seeing me for the first time, even though I must have met him several times before, with Lucky. His eyes looked me up and down, slowly, as if he was appraising me, not in a scamming way, but more like I was a piece of fruit. “You were a B-Kid also, right?”
I nodded, embarrassed. That was my old life, when we still lived in Cambridge, when my parents still liked each other. Back then, my sister and I trekked every Saturday to a television studio in Boston to tape Beantown Kidz, or B-Kidz as it became known, a kids’ variety show that developed a cult following throughout New England. In the time since the show’s cancellation, several B-Kidz had emerged to become major film, television, and music stars. My sister Lucky had been slated to become one of those B-Kidz alums.
“Do you have a demo tape?” Musicians and singers struggle for years to hear a major talent scout ask them that question. I got it over a mop and pail with no desire for it whatsoever.
“Oh sure,” I said. “I made one while I was singing in the shower this morning. Let me just have my people FedEx it over to you.” Katie, who had been watching the whole scene, busted out laughing. Everyone in the small town on Cape Cod where my family had recently moved knew that our house was one in chaos—and on a downward monetary slide.
Tig raised his eyebrow at me, then he laughed too. “Wanna make one?” he said.
“What, do you have a karaoke machine handy?” I asked. Ours was a small town made up of rich people’s summer homes and working-class people’s regular homes. Lights, camera, action was not what you would expect to find in Devonport, Mass.
Tig said, “No, but I’ve got a little recording studio setup in my summer house on the beach, and I’ve got a soon-to-be ex-wife back in Manhattan that my lawyer has advised me to avoid for the next couple weeks by just laying low, so what better way to hide out than by discovering a new pop sensation during the off-season? C’mon, it’d be fun; help an old guy have some fun in this beautiful boring town.”
The conversation would have ended there, with the “You must be crazy” I was about to offer Tig, had my mother not arrived at exactly that moment to pick me up at the end of my shift. “Tig!” she cried out, which was funny—my mom, the ex-law librarian, frumpy dresser with the bad perm, getting down with the hep nicknames. “How long has it been? What are you doing in this godforsaken town? Do you summer here?”
When my mom is nervous, she babbles. When she is intimidated and nervous, she babbles moronically.
“Ah, Marie,” Tig said. His shoulders appeared to slump and the sheen cast off his glossy teeth smile dimmed, like maybe now he was remembering the other side of dealing with Lucky’s family. “Long time.” He gestured toward me. “I was just thinking your other daughter here should make a demo tape. Looks to me like she’s got the same qualities Luck—” He stopped himself from saying her name. I was used to that by now. People around me acted like they couldn’t use the words “lucky,” “death,” “die,” or “accident” in a sentence for fear I would fall apart in hysterics on the spot.
“Wonder would love to!” my mom blurted out.
“Anna!” I corrected her. “My name now is Anna!”
“It so is not,” murmured Katie, who thought her name was boring but that “Wonder” was exotic and interesting. Since we’d moved to the Cape, I had been waging an unsuccessful campaign to be called by my middle name, Anna, a perfect name in my opinion: “a” followed by “n,” then the “n” and “a” in reverse. Nice. Normal. Girl next door.
My parents had been told they would not be able to conceive children. They had been married seven years when my sister Lucky arrived to prove that medical wisdom wrong. Two years later, their second unexpected wonder arrived, Wonder Anna Blake, me. By the time my little brother arrived less than eighteen months later, my parents no longer believed in miracles. They named him Charles.
Tig asked, “Which is it? Wonder or Anna?” He answered his own question before I could respond. “It’s Wonder—of course it’s Wonder. That’s the name to sell records.”
My mother nodded knowingly at Tig. I could see her large chest rising and falling rapidly. She hadn’t been this excited since Lucky was on the brink of signing a major record deal.
“Our Wonder has a lovely voice,” Mom said. “She used to be an incredible dancer.” Mom stopped herself, and I knew what she might have liked to add: Wonder had been an incredible dancer back when we lived in Cambridge, until . . . you know . . . and since then Wonder has let her body go to hell and she’s stopped caring about her God-given talents. Wonder was a B-Kid too, you know! Tig, can you save her?
Tig looked at me like I was a puppet whose strings my mother would pull and I would dance on command. Not. I couldn’t imagine how Mom could possibly embarrass me more. I did not want to find out. I whined, “Ma, I thought you were going to wait outside for me after my shift.” Please, I thought, please don’t let anyone from Devonport High walk in right now and witness this scene. It was bad enough that Katie was seeing it.
Tig scribbled a phone number on a napkin. He started to hand it to me, then appeared to think better of it and handed the napkin to Mom instead. “Let’s talk,” he said. “I’ll be in town through the end of September.” He walked outside, and we heard the beep of his Mercedes’ car alarm turning off.
My mother’s eyes were bright and her cheeks flushed. Since Lucky’s death, the day didn’t pass that Mom’s complexion didn’t appear gray and her eyes dead. Seeing Mom liven up, I knew it would be hard not to let her persuade me to take Tig up on his offer. On the plus side, perhaps I could score a few days out of school over it.
Mom patted the top of my head, then reached behind me to loosen my hair from the DQ hair net. My light brown hair fell around my shoulders. Mom touched the bottom of my chin gently. As she gazed into my eyes I knew she was looking through me, trying to see Lucky.
She said, “I knew you could be a star, too. Like, you know . . .”
“I’m not Lucky,” I whispered to her.
“Tig thinks you could be,” she whispered back. “He would know.”