It was half past three in the afternoon and the rain was still coming down like buckets of gravel. The noise was so loud, Romeo hadn't heard the lobby door open. The Bella Vista Motel didn't have a bell on the door, usually the dogs acted as alarm or welcome committee, but they'd been out running around when the rain started in and were probably huddled under a car or something.
The woman must have stood at the empty front desk for a few moments, looking around and sensing the emptiness of the place before she hit the bell on the countertop. Back in his room behind the lobby, Romeo had stood up from his arm chair and set aside his book hesitantly when he heard the bell, not sure if he'd imagined it.
She was standing in a small puddle of water when he stepped out of the hallway and stopped to stare at her in surprise. He hadn't been expecting anyone, least of all an elegant young woman. Elegant, even though she was soaked straight through her clothes, rainwater running all over her. She was a very light skinned negro with regal features, luminous amber colored eyes. The sharp edges of her bones stretched the fabric of her dress and the taut skin of her cheek. Her body shivered in waves.
"Can I get a room?" She asked. "My car broke down up the road..."
Romeo blew out a breath and hesitated before he said, "I'm sorry, I can't let you stay here."
Her eyes bored into his and he knew exactly what she was thinking. He thought back to the times he'd been turned away from motels in the south on his way out from New York for being too dark a shade of brown, the signs in the windows that read "No coloreds, no Mexicans."
Some old guy in Ardmore who didn't even have any functional front teeth had stepped up and motioned for Romeo to keep going before he could finish turning into a gas station's driveway. Romeo had sat staring at the old guy through his open window trying to figure out what the problem was.
The old guy had glared at him and shouted, "Get on with you, there's a colored station up the road."
"Colored station? What are you talking about? I'm not colored," Romeo had said, laughing.
"We don't serve your kind neither." The old guy had spat on the ground in the general direction of Romeo's car and continued to glare.
Romeo had been stunned. His dark olive complexion had never garnered him anything but tall, dark and handsome compliments from the ladies. "What kind do you think I am?" He'd asked, half serious.
"The god damned kind we don't serve, now get on!" The old guy had stomped his foot in the dust and Romeo saw that he was barefoot. He also saw that a large, scowling young man probably of a similar mind was making his way up off the porch of the gas station's office and coming toward them. He stepped on the gas and peeled out on the dirt road, enjoying the thought of leaving them coughing up his dust, but disturbed and angry nonetheless.
“Listen," he said. "Here’s the thing, this isn’t a general public establishment. I’m not turning you away especially, it’s just our usual policy.” He spread his hands in a helpless gesture that betrayed ambivalence.
He tried to look away from her and stand firm, but her unwavering eyes held him, and he suddenly realized he’d seen her somewhere.
“You been out this way before? Where’re you from?” He asked, peering at her face and trying to place her. She almost smiled.
“You’re from New York, aren’t you?” She said, nodding slowly.
Romeo’s face lit up and he snapped his fingers. “Café Society? You’re a singer?”
She looked down at the puddle of water spreading around her feet and softly tapped her toe in it.
“I remember you now,” he continued enthusiastically, “I saw you a couple of years ago with… ah, I don’t remember… you just sing with a piano and a horn, right? Man, you’re good.”
She continued patting the surface of her puddle, unmoved by his admiration, still shivering. He looked down at the puddle and lost patience with his resolve to enforce the rules.
“This is stupid. What you need is a good, hot bath.”
Her body reacted involuntarily to the suggestion and she leaned in toward him slightly, but only looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He walked behind the desk and pulled a set of keys off their hook. He gestured at the door. She didn’t hesitate.
“I think it’s gonna be pretty quiet around here till tomorrow. It'll be fine for you to stay the night.”
As he held the door open for her, he couldn’t help asking, “You think maybe later, after you’ve had a chance to dry out, I could get a song or two? We got a nice lounge with a piano and a top of the line record player back there…”
She gave him a cold stare. “Wouldn’t be the first time I had to sing for my bed.”
“Aww, come on, I didn’t mean it like that… look at me out here. You think I get any good music like you can do? I’m wearing out my records as fast as I can buy them,” he said, as he led her down the walkway to room number eleven.
“Baby,” she said wearily while he unlocked the door, “I don’t know how much sympathy I got left in me right now.”
She looked into his hopeful face as he held the motel room door open for her. She still couldn’t come up with much of a smile. But she touched his shoulder briefly with a feather light hand on her way into the room. “Maybe later,” she said, as she softly closed the door.
The only music Honey James could think about right then was the siren call of the glass vials of heroin in her purse. She was going to play it loud.
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