This is the latest installment of the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler was drowned at birth and where the Holocaust and World War II never took place. Since joining the League of Nations in 1959, the United States has come under steady pressure from the League's Minorities Commission to end discrimination against its racial minorities . . .
Memphis, Tennessee, USA
14 September 1974
For Aretha Franklin, being back in Memphis was like visiting a peculiar alternate version of the past. Much of the city was just as she remembered it: the buildings, the parks, even the fire hydrants, were just as she had left them fifteen years before. But the people walking past those buildings, playing in those parks, parking illegally in front of those hydrants, were not quite the people she remembered from her childhood.
Take the man driving her limousine from the airport to her hotel. He was a good-looking white man several years her senior whose accent betrayed him as a Mississippian. Quite apart from the peculiar name displayed on his chauffeur's license, he behaved differently from any of the white men she'd known growing up. And if there was one word that summed up the difference between her driver and the white men she had known, that word was respect. After a lifetime's experience, Aretha knew perfectly well when a white man was only feigning courtesy, so when the driver tipped his hat and called her ma'am, she knew that he really meant it. Curious, she asked, "How long have you lived in Memphis?"
The driver's eyebrows drew together a bit in the rear-view mirror as he considered her question. "I'd say it's about twenty years now all told, ma'am," he finally answered. "I moved here from Mississippi back in '54."
"What made you decide to come to Memphis?"
"Well, ma'am, you might laugh to think of it, but I came here looking to be a musician." She could see a blush rising up the back of his neck. "Of course, nothing ever came of it. I wound up driving trucks for a living, and I've been driving ever since."
It was certainly an unexpected answer, and Aretha couldn't help reflecting on the irony. She herself had been born in Memphis, and she had moved away seeking a career in music. And her own success owed as much to God's grace as to her own talents. She could just as easily have wound up living the rest of her life as a waitress or chambermaid in New York . . .
"Do you play an instrument?" she asked the driver.
"Guitar," he answered, and there was definitely embarrassment in his voice. "At least, I used to. Been a while since I played it. I used to sing some, too."
She could understand his embarrassment. The accordion was the prestige instrument of pop music, and had been ever since the Vontzim had led the Yiddish Invasion back when she was just a little girl. The guitar, on the other hand, was the sort of instrument that your parents made you play. The parodist Buddy Holly had built a career out of using the guitar's schlemeil aura to comic effect, strumming away at classic klezmerol hits like Piast Aeroplane's "White Rabbi".
"It's all a matter of luck, you know," she assured the driver. "If Mr. Stokowski hadn't heard me singing in Central Park ten years ago, I'd still be waiting tables. All you can do is carry on playing, trust in the Lord, and keep an eye out for a break."
"Thank you, ma'am," said the driver. "Thank you very much. I'll keep that in mind."
Despite his words, Aretha could tell that the driver had already given up on music and resigned himself to life as a chauffeur. The music business could be cruel that way, even if your heart was true. For every star like Arlen Specter, there were a thousand people just as talented who went through their lives suffering heartache and disappointment. It left her feeling sad.
Her melancholy thoughts were brought to an abrupt halt when they came within sight of the hotel. Standing out front was a group of maybe twenty men dressed in white hooded robes and carrying signs. WHITE POWER was the least objectionable of the messages they conveyed.
Some distance away was another, considerably larger group. They also carried signs, but these said KKK GO AWAY and WE LOVE YOU ARETHA. Between the two groups was a double line of uniformed police, who were accompanied by a black man in a dark suit. At the moment, the two groups were preoccupied with each other, hurling insults back and forth across the blue-uniformed gap. Aretha knew, though, that it was only a matter of time before they spotted the limo, and then both groups would turn their contrasting attentions on her.
The driver, though, knew his business. "Now, don't you worry about a thing, ma'am. There's more than one way into that hotel." So saying, the driver deftly detoured around the driveway leading to the hotel and took the limo into the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly further down the street. Steering around behind the supermarket, the driver took them past a series of tractor-trailers before turning onto a dirt road. "Used to use this road back when I drove a rig," he explained to her. The dirt road looped around before opening out into the rear parking lot of the hotel.
Pulling up to a side door hidden from the view of both sign-carrying groups, the driver got out, walked over, and gave two sets of knocks to the door. It opened, and Aretha saw Mr. Stokowski's business manager, Howard, lean out.
In a flash, the driver had Aretha's door open and was helping her out of the limo. Howard ushered her through the side door as the driver got back into the limo and drove off.
"What about my bags?" Aretha demanded as Howard led her inside.
"My dear lady," said Howard in his usual measured, sardonic tones, "you certainly don't believe that I would forget a matter of such monumental importance. Your bags are being conveyed to the front entry of this fine establishment, where the porters will perform the necessary maneuvers with the customary expertise for which they are so munificently compensated. The general populace gathered outside will have to content themselves with the resulting display of finely crafted travel accessories. I, meanwhile, will have the pleasure of escorting you to the accommodations which Mr. Stokowski has seen fit to procure."
As always, Howard's elaborately phrased reassurances left Aretha laughing out loud. As they were riding up the elevator she asked him, "Who was that man in the suit standing by the police?"
"I've been given to understand," Howard intoned, "that the distinguished Chairman of the Minorities Commission himself has chosen to honor us with his august presence."
"That was Dr. King?" Aretha was astonished.
"In the proverbial flesh," said Howard.
Aretha knew that beneath his ironic facade, Howard was just as impressed as she was that Dr. King was in Memphis on their behalf. He never let on that he felt anything but aloof amusement about anything, but even from Howard she felt an unmistakable aura of respect, and it was plain to her that his words disguised his admiration for Dr. King.
"Do you think we might get to meet him?" she asked.
"My dear," said Howard, his dark eyes glinting with affection, "I think you can count on it."
Mr. Stokowski was waiting for them when they reached their suite of rooms. Although he was in his nineties, Mr. Stokowski seemed endlessly energetic to Aretha. It seemed impossible to believe that he was nearly three times her age. He didn't smile when he saw her because he never smiled, but his accented voice lacked its usual acerbic edge when he said, "I see you've finally chosen to make an appearance, Miss Franklin."
"Which is more than her multitudinous admirers outside can say," Howard said.
Mr. Stokowski favored Howard with a withering glare. "Refresh my memory, please. Do I pay you to stand around and make fatuous observations?"
"In all honesty, Mr. Stokowski," Howard responded, "I've never been entirely clear about what it is you pay me to do."
It took an effort for Aretha not to laugh, as it always did when Howard traded barbs with Mr. Stokowski. "For now," the conductor answered, "it will be sufficient for you to show Miss Franklin to her room."
Howard did so, and after he was gone Aretha was able to lie back on the bed, kick off her shoes, and let out a sigh of relief. Another journey finished, and all too soon it would be time to start preparing for tomorrow's performance, but for now she could let herself relax.
She was starting to drift off to sleep when a knock on her door brought her back to full consciousness. "Miss Franklin?" came Howard's voice. "There's a gentleman out here who wishes to make your acquaintance. I can show him to the door if you'd like."
"Oh, Howard, don't you dare!" Shoes back on and a quick check in the mirror before she opened the door. Standing outside next to Howard was the Chairman of the League of Nations Minorities Commission, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Miss Franklin," he said in that deep, familiar voice, "I hope you haven't been inconvenienced by the demonstrators outside."
"Not at all, Dr. King," she assured him. "That was nothing compared to the crowds we get in New York."
"Though our New York fans aren't known for their propensity for wearing bed linen," Howard observed.
"Oh, Howard, shush," said Aretha.
Dr. King was smiling. "The bed linen we can deal with. You're sure you're all right, Miss Franklin?"
Aretha knew what he meant. "I'm fine, Dr. King. Actually, I'm surprised there weren't more of them."
"They're not as popular as they used to be," Dr. King said with some satisfaction. "And when they do turn up, the Commission is always on hand to keep an eye on them."
Aretha found herself returning the smile. "Will you be staying to attend the performance tomorrow?"
"Well," said Dr. King, "I'm usually more partial to Mahalia Jackson than to Wagner, but I do plan to attend, yes."
The porters arrived then with Aretha's baggage, and Dr. King bid her and the others goodbye. Aretha watched him go as the porters entered her room and began to unpack her bags.
She was already thinking about tomorrow's performance.