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The Quarter in Moonlight
I felt one of the clacks of my heels get stuck between the cobblestones, and with all the sheet music piled between my skinny fingers, I whispered a tiny prayer that gravity wouldn’t get the best of me. Dusk was kissing daylight goodnight as the moon took down her hair in preparation for this sultry summer evening. I wish my hair could have looked as nice. My right-sweeping peekaboo bangs were already coiling, thanks to the oppressive Louisiana air that could soak a man’s open mouth before even a single drop of ale slid down his dusty throat.
Only three more blocks to the club. Ladies’ jazz night happened just once every other month, and I was not about to miss the signup hour. Dixieland was back in our ears, and with a popularity now among Creoles, blacks, and white folk alike, and I wanted a piece of it myself. I’d been practicing “I’ve Found a New Baby” on Paw Paw’s piano for nearly three weeks, and had the red dress that made my waist look tiny as Ginger Rogers on a good day tailored for just the occasion.
Two more blocks. I could smell the cloud of sweet perfume coming from the club, which, in contrast to the usual odors of tobacco and gin, caused my cheeks to dimple, since even from three-hundred feet away on Dauphine Street, a person could tell tonight was ladies’ night at Maison Bourbon.
One block away, and I couldn’t be sure whether the loud thumping in the air was coming from a drummer warming up at the club or my very own heart. I was almost there, and the cobblestones had thus far spared me; but the horse and buggies had not, because suddenly out of the green New Orleans night, the last horse drawn pile of wheels in the French Quarter came hurling right in front of me, and I fell. Notes and staffs on tattered paper surrounded me in a hurricane before drifting down to the cobblestones next to my clumsy bones. The tumble thankfully didn’t injure anything except for my chances of getting to Maison Bourbon on time. From my pathetic position on the ground, I looked up at the moon and was sure by how high it was in the summer sky that it had turned ten o’clock already, and the order of performers would be announced soon.
Lucky for me, it was just the hour when most dinner dates were either long since over or just beginning, so the only people on the street to see my embarrassing descent were tarot card peddling gypsies. There is simply no graceful way to recover from a fall like that. I swept up my papers as fast as my nervous hands could scurry, and picked myself up off the cobblestones. First time I’d ever worn my red dress, and it already looked as though I’d been crawling up and down a chimney. I dragged my feet over to a bench next to a streetlight, took off my heels, and placed them beside me, as if I were in my very own bedroom.
If only I hadn’t been such a stupid girl and kept better track of the time, I wouldn’t be in such a mess. I’d be in the club all signed up to perform and sucking on the olive of a dry martini, waiting for my turn, winking at some girl’s boyfriend who’d be trying not to flirt with me. I could always seem to keep the time smooth and steady throughout each measure of my music, but never in the business of showing up for engagements.
Under the pale glow of the streetlight on Dauphine, I put my sheet music back in order and leafed through it carefully to make sure the fall hadn’t caused any of it to tear. Then, in an attempt not to make the night a total pity, I laid each sheet right out on the bench in a row and started playing, in thin air, humming the tune along to my invisible piano and counting the beat in my head.
Everybody look at me, ?
Happy girlie you will see, 4,
I've got someone nice, oh, gee! 4,
Oh, joy, what bliss! 2-3-4
I heard the first flare of the trumpets at Maison Bourbon, which somehow fell right in with my imaginary piano playing. I stomped my bare calloused feet to the beat I was drumming under my peekaboo doo, and threw my head back like there were performers before me, other than a couple of Dauphine street rats, to behold the performance.
Sweetest kiss, what a kiss, full of bliss, can't resist, somehow! 1-2-3-4!
Just as I felt my lips twist open, about to turn my hums into lyrical belts, I felt a hand on my bobbing left shoulder; and let me tell you this stopped my performance right away. I thought I’d avoided my public embarrassment of the day, but no such luck.
My eyes shot open to reveal a rather old but elegant, colored man in what I could tell from the glow of the streetlight overhead was a handsome blue suit and bow tie.
“Miss,” he said to me, exasperated. I noticed his mahogany skin was glistening with perspiration. “I was in the horse and buggie that came by. I saw your fall. Terribly sorry. Are you alright?” I could feel the blood bubbling from my heart straight into my cheeks. To mask my mortification, I folded my arms into a spoiled little pose, and focused on wrinkling my brow, hoping the forced vexation would unflush my cheeks.
“I thought the horse and buggies were supposed to finish their tours around the Quarter at eight o’clock sharp,” I replied, tartly.
“Yes, that’s certainly true,” the man answered, having caught his breath. His voice felt oddly familiar in my ears. It was raspy, like his throat was filled with too many Louisiana clouds; but it was also dynamic, waxing and waning from word to word, like a fine trumpet solo or the moon. “I’m not a tourist,” he continued to tell me, apology gleaming in his eyes. “I lived in New Orleans for a very long time. I’m only back on a brief visit. The late-night horse and buggie ride was just a special treat.” He smiled widely, bearing kindness and a set of glistening white teeth. He glanced down at the sheet music spread across my lap. “You must be a musician,” he crooned, his intonation metrically rising and falling. “I saw you playing.”
“Oh, not me,” I exhaled bashfully, half hoping this raspy-voiced man would spare me my embarrassment and leave, but half hoping he’d continue talking, even if not to me, just so I could bathe in the sounds of his speaking voice.
“Well you surely looked like one to me,” he waxed. I felt my lips upturn. “My name is Louis,” he waned, and bowed his head, respectfully.
“Virginia,” I heard myself whisper, still mesmerized and perplexed by how peculiarly familiar he seemed. “Are you a musician?” He grinned shyly, this time without teeth, and I thought maybe I’d embarrassed him too.
“I play a little music.” I felt myself almost beginning to count the beat of his rhythmic timbres.
A little music 2-3-4,
“Mostly jazz,” his voice sizzled. I peeked up at the moon, and saw that it was in the very middle of the sky. He, too, realized it was getting late indeed.
“Well, nice to meet you, Ms. Virginia,” he scatted. “Sorry again.”
The man bowed his head to me again and spun on his heel in the direction of Burgundy Street, where I saw he’d reunite with his private horse and buggie. Seemed awfully ritzy for a colored man to have such particular arrangements with the French Quarter. Coming to my more logical senses, I realized I’d been so distracted by the colored man’s voice, I didn’t even register his name. As I continued to watch him glide off to Burgundy Street, I felt a surprising breeze accompanied by what sounded like a raspy swell of “As Time Goes By.”
Gentlemen and their dates tumbled out of saloons, and I took this as a cue to re-adorn my heels, and make my way towards the streetcar. I collected the leaves of music, and wistfully swayed my red satin-clad hips in the opposite direction of Bourbon Street. With distant wines of trumpets from the club still in my ear, I hummed the final verse of “I’ve Found a New Baby.” And the moon, as if winding down along with my melody, began pinning up her hair.