The rain began quickly and unexpectedly, coming in a heavy mist that drifted northward from the river and moved up toward The French Market. Amalie glanced through the foggy window of Café Fleur de Lis at the tables with umbrellas outside on the sidewalk. The ribbed silk canopies danced in the wind, sending rivulets of rainwater cascading into the laps of the customers who had been sitting under them enjoying the café au lait and the view of the Mississippi River. The patrons, many of them visitors to the city of New Orleans, hurriedly picked up their coffee mugs, dusted powdered sugar from their laps, and scurried inside the small coffee shop looking for more substantial cover. A young woman in an expensive designer blouse and a $200 haircut almost ran directly into Amalie, but the slightly built waitress managed to avoid her as she barreled through the door.
“Excuse me,” Amalie said, half expecting the woman to move further along, or at least acknowledge her, but the woman simply stopped and stared as the waitress sidestepped her. She quickly looked the other way and moved forward again, close enough for Amalie to smell the strong scent of her overpriced Ralph Lauren perfume. She sat down at the booth in the back-left corner of the room.
“Don’t mind me,” Amalie muttered under her breath. “I’m just the waitress, the nobody who gets the fifty cents tip and the hoity toity Garden District attitude.” Amalie hid her distain, wishing she could be anywhere but Café Fleur de Lis. She hated this place, hated her job. “Anywhere but here.” She thought, longing to escape.
“What can I get for you this morning?”
The woman pushed her blonde hair from her eyes and looked around. She pointed to a plate piled high with cream stuffed beignets sitting on the next table, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Amalie broke into a pleasant smile that transfixed her face. Visions of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal danced before her eyes. Meg had always been one of Amalie’s favorite actresses, and the thought of Sally, sitting in another diner somewhere far away, transported Amalie from the dismal, dreariness of the Fleur de Lis. Suddenly, she was at Katz’ Delicatessen on Houston Street in New York City. Her mood lifted immediately.
“Yes, Ma’am.” The waitress refilled the customer’s half-empty coffee mug. “A plate of our special cream stuffed beignets, coming right up. Will there by anything else this morning?”
“A side order of sexual ecstasy, perhaps? Sure couldn’t hurt her disposition,” Amalie thought, hoping the sarcasm didn’t show on her face.
Amalie served the order as soon as the beignets were ready, bringing them to the table steaming hot, fresh, and delicious. The heavily perfumed woman seemed to relish the sweet French donuts, but left a miserably stingy tip. “If only she knew what I was really thinking,” Amalie mused, laughing to herself, as she tucked the coins into her pocket.
“Hey, Miss.” A gentleman with a deep southern drawl sat alone in a booth near the wall. He crooked his bony fingers as he beckoned to Amalie. “Just so you know, Miss, this coffee is cold and I’m not paying for cold coffee.” His face wrinkled, his lips pursed sourly, and his brows created a deep furrow between his eyes. Amalie returned his grimace with a wide, bogus smile.
“Oh, sir,” she unsuccessfully tried not to mimic his inflection, “I’m so sorry about that. Let me warm that up for you.” She poured a helping of steaming java into his coffee mug while visions of Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable danced before her eyes. “Vivian ah…. What a spitfire!” The green-eyed vixen had always been one of Amalie’s favorite actresses, but today, she was channeling Rhett Butler. “Frankly, my dear. I don’t give a damn.” She thought, glancing once again at the gentleman in the booth near the wall. “You are probably a lousy tipper anyway.”
She was right. He only left a lousy quarter on the table when he got up and hurriedly left the Fleur de Lis. Amalie wiped down the table with Clorox. The pungent smell filled the air, but the waitress hardly noticed. She never wavered from her daydream. “Well, he was no southern gentleman. No Rhett Butler, that’s for sure.”
“Am, hey Amalie,” Charlie, the cook called out her name loudly. She turned toward the counter to see his disgruntled expression. “The guy at table seven says you got his wrong order. He got lemon scones instead of raspberry.”
Amalie wiped her hands on her apron and approached the man at table seven. He reeked of stale whiskey and the sweat of a long night on Bourbon Street. “Is there a problem, sir?” she asked, smiling.
“You’re damn right there’s a problem,” he scowled. “I’ve never seen such incompetence. You ask for raspberry and you get lemon. What’s wrong with you people? Can’t you get anything right?”
Amalie picked up the half-eaten plate of lemon scones, “Sorry ‘bout that," she exclaimed feeling sincerely apologetic until she remembered that he had indeed ordered lemon. “Oh, what the hell….” she pondered, too tired to argue with him. “I’m terribly sorry for the mistake. Let me get those raspberry scones for you now.” The man at table seven slowly sipped his coffee and smirked as if he was smarter than anyone else and knew a secret that no one else shared.
“Sorry about that, Charlie. Can I have a plate of raspberry scones asap. That guy at seven ain’t none too happy.”
“Outta raspberry. Got strawberry, will that do?” Charlie held up two steaming scones.
“Don’t think he’ll know the difference. He’s still too drunk to know a raspberry from a boysenberry.” Visions of Tom Hanks filled her head. “Too bad more people aren’t like old Forrest,” Amalie thought to herself,” Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”
“I guess that holds true for people as well as for scones,” she contemplated as she served the drunk his second order. He never realized that they weren’t raspberry, eating them with self-satisfied abandon.
The rainy afternoon brought a few more customers into the Fleur de Lis, and Amalie thought the day would never end. She had spent 10 hours serving sugar-coated donuts and hot steamy coffee to the tourists and Big Easy locals alike, and despite her aching feet and agitation with the spoiled and demanding customers, Amalie felt an intense loathing to leave the café and head out into the dismal weather. “No, it really isn’t the rain I’m dreading,” she mused to herself, “I just don’t want to go home alone. Anywhere but home. Anywhere but home, " she hesitated, "and here.” She hated going home. She hated the café. She hated people. She hated the rain. Mostly, she hated her lonely, colorless, lack-luster existence.
Amalie untied her apron, folded it and stored it under the counter, ready to be retrieved when 6 AM and another humdrum workday rolled around. She picked up her jar of tips, shaking the coins into her pocket and tucked a wrinkled wad of single bills inside the collar of her uniform blouse. It had been a slow day, Mondays in the city usually were. “Just over $60 for 10 hours of this misery,” she moaned to herself as she slammed her punch card into the time clock.
Amalie threw her raincoat over her shoulders, pulling the hood loosely over her head, and quickly made her way up Chartres Street toward the streetcar stop at the corner. The misty drizzle that had been floating in the air intensified and began to come down in fat, stinging drops. The noises of the city; horns blowing and streetcar brakes squealing on the wet rails echoed in rhythm with the reverberating sounds of her own footsteps pounding against the pavement.
An older man in a black raincoat and very wet topsiders walked hurriedly down the sidewalk. His attention was captured by a random message on his iPhone, and he rudely brushed against Amalie as he juggled his umbrella, his briefcase, and his cell phone. As the frazzled waitress looked up, ready to curse at his impertinence, the marquis lights of the Paramount theater reflected onto the wet sidewalk.
In blaring red neon letters, the marquis almost screamed at Amalie, “Classical Monday: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.”
Amalie approached the theater window, looked down at her watch, and hesitated for just a moment. She pulled the wad of single bills from her cleavage and paid for her three-dollar ticket. Anything was better than going home to that dank, dark apartment.
“Thank you, Ma’am. Enjoy your movie,” the box office attendant stated, mostly by rote.
“Yeah. Here’s looking at you, kid.” The waitress smiled back at the ticket-taker. He paid no attention.
She entered the dark movie theater and sat down, slouching in the threadbare upholstered seat. ‘Yeah,” she lamented, “Casablanca today, Fleur de Lis tomorrow….Anything is better than going home alone.” Amalie began to relax. Reality and fantasy merged into one as the opening credits began to roll. The magic had begun.