Outside, a layer of heavy humidity blanketed the city. And although I wore a cool, sleeveless white blouse, cotton skirt and open sandals, I felt drenched. My cheeks were hot and my hair clung to my neck. I trudged up Canal Street, tucking the newspaper under my arm. The day loomed before me, long and arduous. I wished I were in Montgomery. At least I'd have Bobby's company. Memories,like approaching storms, smoldered, and from deep within the dark corners of my mind, an unknown void in my life seemed to take possession of me.
Suddenly, lightning scorched the sky through layers of low hanging purplish-gray clouds. Sheets of rain cataracted to the pavement. Thankful for my newspaper, I used it as a shield over my head to ward off the assaulting raindrops. Hurrying now, I turned into the French Quarter. Pedestrians speedily vacated the streets, which were dismal and depressing. Finally, shaking with dampness, I rushed through an open doorway. Smells of food and strains of classical music greeted me. Tossing the paper on a table, I dropped into a chair and looked around while lighting up a smoke. It was an ancient looking place with peeling walls and splintery, dark wood. I smiled at the dark-haired waiter, who stood over me with a menu in hand.
"Oh, I'm not hungry," I said. "Just wet."
"Yes, but are you dry inside? How about a drink to lift your spirits?" He winked.
"Well, I could use it, I suppose. What is this place?"
"This is Napoleon House." He smiled, showing bright, gleaming teeth. His black hair was slicked back, looking wet, as if he'd just been caught in the downpour too. "May I suggest Pimm's Cup?" I looked at him blankly. "Your drink," he said.
"Oh, yes. Okay." He took the menu and moved away. I looked around the room again. The bar was full, and a blond lady near the end laughed and chatted with a black-haired man, who sported a heavy moustache. His bushy eyebrows danced as he told her a story.
Next to them, two long-haired men looked dazed as they raised tall glasses in unison. My waiter returned with a cool looking drink, topped with a cucumber slice. "Enjoy." He smiled. "Just snap at me if there's anything else."
"Snap at you?"
He grinned and walked away snapping his fingers. I sighed. Sometimes I felt so stupid. I was okay when out with Joe, but on my own I was lost. I sipped the refreshing drink and was soon joined by one of the long-haired men from the bar. "You alone?" He placed his glass on the table and sat across from me looking dismal.
I shuddered, then decided I was safe enough in the company of so many people. "Yes, I'm alone. I just ducked in from the rain. This seems like a nice place."
"Yes. I come here a lot," he replied.
"I like the ambiance."
"Oh? Well it is rather mellow and relaxing. The drinks are good too." I snapped my fingers and my waiter came quickly. "How about another one?" I asked, smiling at him.
"What do you do?" the long-haired man asked.
I laughed. "That's a very good question. I'm presently looking for work."
He smiled, then I noticed when he wasn't looking glum he looked quite nice. His eyes were a warm, gray shade, and his mouth had a sensuous bow shape.
"I'm a writer," he volunteered. I get my inspirations from the music and the ambiance."
His eyes took on a sparkle, and he pulled a small notebook from his shirt pocket. Flipping the pages, he settled on one and placed the book in front of me. "It's blank," I announced, looking into his gray eyes.
"Of course. Then write."
"Oh, I can't. You write." I shoved the book towards him.
He shoved it back. "Think. Listen to the music, and feel thee...
"The Ambiance?" I grinned and we both laughed.
I stared at the blue-lined page then looked up. He was staring at me, holding out a pen. Gingerly, I accepted it and looked around the room once more. No inspiration. What did he expect? But he continued to sit quietly, staring now into his drink. I sipped my own and gazed through the open doorway. My eyes grew heavy as the splatters of rain, beating rhythmically on the pavement, created a hypnotic trance. Dream Killer. The words screamed in my head.
"Dream Killer," I announced.
My friend flashed his eyes at me, as I hurriedly wrote the title on the blue-lined page. Words tumbled over one another like they couldn't get out of my head fast enough and onto the blank page. When I finished, I sat back and sighed. Then reaching for my half-empty glass, I looked at him.
"Well?" he asked, seemingly holding his breath. I pushed the notebook across the table, and he snatched it up and scanned the page while I sipped my drink. A broad grin formed across his face. "You must read," he said. "Justin," he called to his friend at the bar. "There's going to be a reading."
"No," I protested. "I can't do that." Justin joined us and read my poem.
"Yes, you must read," he insisted.
"No, I won't," I said. "I can't do it."
Justin turned to my friend. "Then you read, Lee."
Lee looked at me dumbfounded. "Should I?"
I shrugged. "Do you want to?"
"I will," he declared eagerly, picking up the notebook.
Justin walked towards the bar and moved along the line of seated patrons, speaking with each one as he passed. Then at the corner of the bar, he took a stool and reached behind the counter for a mike. Holding it close to his mouth he boomed, "My fellow comrades, your attention, please."
Everyone turned to face him, and the room was so quiet only the rhythmic rain and accompanying background music could be heard.
"Today my comrade, Lee, will read from the pen of..." He looked anxiously around the room, his eyes finally settling on mine. Suddenly all eyes were turned my way. Each pair questioning my response.
Lee, who was still standing beside me clutching the notebook, nudged me. "Your name, he doesn't know your name," he whispered fervently.
I jumped up, the noise from the chair legs squeaked under me. "Marlee Sweet," I proclaimed, in a voice louder than I knew I owned. All eyes scanned me momentarily, and I shrank back on my chair. When I got the courage to look up again, Lee was replacing Justin on the stool. With mike in hand and a rain-soaked musical backdrop, he cleared his throat and began:
Dismal deadwood in my head, crawling cockroaches in my bed.
Moments of splendor between the sheets, foolish hopes and dreams.
Run away, you runaway. Hide your face in shame. All fall down and
Then repeat – over again.
Dismal deadwood, all chopped up, cockroach crushed by heavy cup.
Dazzling sheets fly on clothesline, put the dreams away.
Locked in boxes out of sight, open them and dreams take flight.
Run about collecting them to store away again.
Sun is shining, let it in. Open windows, doors and heart.
All fall down and then repeat - over again.
Dreams collected, gathered up, mixed with cockroach in a cup.
Never again to be the same- bittersweet, all dreams that wear your name.
He bowed his head, and a thunderous applause blocked out the music and the rain from the street. I couldn't believe they were applauding my poem, or was it the reader?
Lee returned to my table, and the crowd returned to their drinks and chatter. The rain and music resumed, and I ordered another Pimm's Cup, accompanied by a muffuletta sandwich.
Lee, sitting across from me, ripped the page from his notebook, folded it and handed it to me. "It's good, Marlee. I'm honored to have read it."
"You actually mean that?" I said. "It's just a bunch of words. I don't even know where it came from."
"From the music and the ambiance," he said, grinning.
My drink and food arrived, and Lee said he had to leave. At the door both Lee and Justin waved goodbye. After I finished, I ventured outside. The rain was a steady drizzle. I clutched the sodden newspaper in my hand and let the raindrops settle on my head and descend over my body, drenching my clothes until they stuck to me. I walked home surrounded by the hazy afternoon, and the memories of the free spirits I had met in Napoleon House. My poem, folded and dry, was tucked securely inside my purse.
By the time I reached my street, the sky had lightened and a thread of sunlight spun through an opening in the overcast, settling like a warm, friendly arm across my shoulder.