He opened his eyes, looked at the ceiling and waited for the room to stop spinning. A few minutes later he took a chance and rolled over, fully intending to sit up, but decided he wasn’t quite ready. Rather, his gut told him it would revolt if he even tried.
Well, I guess a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt if it keeps peace in the family, he thought. His gut thanked him.
He used the time to consider his situation. He believed he was in a motel room just east of East Saint Louis. He distinctly remembered descending the train steps, crossing the tracks and checking into this room. He also believed it was a Sunday. He was unsure of the date, but it was probably sometime in the spring, maybe late April or early May.
He finally decided to sit up, damn the stomach. He closed his eyes and swung his legs off the bed and rolled up. With self-satisfied forethought he placed a wastebasket between the twin beds when he finally gave up last night. Napoleon wondered, was it really last night or was it the night before? Who knows? Who cares?
The wind rattled against the sliding window, sounding like a politician on a stump speech, while the occasional rain provided applause at requisite breaks.
Funny how things change so fast. I vaguely remember the moon lighting a gang of youths prowling out in the street before I passed out, whenever that was.
Napoleon finally stood up and slowly staggered across the rain dampened floor to slide the window shut.
I had it all, he thought, and then I left Harlem on the platform then nothing until I passed out on a motel room twin bed east of East Saint Louis.
Napoleon was standing in the dining car as the Amtrak raced across Ohio. Like a carnival barker the bartender shouted “Step right up! Step right up!” to the business men in the lounge car but he just couldn’t handle their camaraderie.
With teary eyes he looked at his reflection in the mirror. Lightning flashes illuminated the incessant rain he heard pounding against the train window.
“Another Jack’s, Arthur, if you please,” he called to the waiter.
“Haven’t you had enough already, Leon?”
“I have nothing but time, Arthur. Just time, time, time,” as he reached for the full glass.
Napoleon looked back at his reflection in the mirror and imagined Harlem, standing behind him, with her arms around his shoulder and cheek resting on his head, as the tears flowed steadily now.
She stood on the platform and watched the train diminish as it pulled away. She waited until it was just a light in the distance and finally disappeared, then turned and walked through the turnstile, back to her car parked in the station garage.
Well, that’s it, she thought sadly. I am really alone now, a true orphan.
Harlem, how did you ever get into this mess? No, not a mess, it’s just heartache and, as you mom used to say, “the pain will fade, in time.” Just like Napoleon’s train diminished into the distance.
How did we let this happen? Was it Annie? I can’t even remember what she said, but I can’t forget, or forgive, what she did.
“That’ll be five dollars, miss.”
“Five dollars? Ok, just a second. Here you are, thank you and have a nice day,” she automatically smiled at the ticket taker.
Harlem left the parking garage, entered the highway and drove toward work down by the harbor.
“Everything ok? asked Buddy as she entered the employees’ entrance. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine, Buddy. I just put Leon on a train to St. Louis. I think it was a mistake, Buddy. I think he was the real deal. I asked him not to go, at least not until he stopped hurting, but you know him. Headstrong, unbending, black and white. He just doesn’t know when to let up, to let go. My set starts in a few, I gotta get going. Thanks for asking, and listening, Buddy.”
Harlem changed quickly and right on cue strutted onto the stage, her high heeled boots pounding out the beat.
A half hour later, glistening with sweat, she stepped down from the stage into the bar. Several of the patrons, mostly sailors, called her over for a drink. Only her mouth smiled as she joined them, ordering her “private” champagne.
“So, tell me boys,” Harlem asked. “When a big storm hits, and your ship is in danger of going down, do you pray, or do you dream of some girl back home?”
Several of them shouted out, “We dream of you, Harlem!” The rest of them laughed.
She closed her eyes for a moment and thought of Napoleon, thinking of her words, Close your eyes, darling, just snap the bandage off quickly and it won’t hurt a bit.
Harlem hated her job. She hated the other dancers, especially Annie, she hated herself, and she hated the sailors, maybe most of all.
When they start getting out of hand, late at night, when the herd mindset tells them the fences are down, Harlem will pull the straight razor from her boot and instantly, even if there were a thousand of them, they backed down to fall around her feet. She only used the razor once, but word spread fast that she knew how to use it and was willing to. No one dared touch if she had fire in her eyes and blade in her hand.
Napoleon turned on the light next to the motel room window and blew a kiss to the east, thinking of Harlem, wondering what went wrong. He touched his lips, remembering Harlem’s last kiss.
The dish, the motel manager put out for the feral cats, was filling with rain. Again.
It wasn’t like him to admit it, but Harlem was right. A quick snap of the bandage hurt like hell, but for only a moment.
He closed his eyes and felt the weeds that penetrated his heart wither and die.
He stared out the window and saw his invisible fiancé’s image again, with her arms around his shoulders and cheek on his hair.
He poured the last of his Jack’s into the dirty glass tumbler and placed it back down in the same wet circle on the train ticket folder, tossing the empty bottle into the overflowing waste bin.
Tom Waits is more a poet than a singer. It’s easy to love his poetic songs instantly. His voice takes some getting used to. Once you embrace the man, there is no one better. This story is my fantasy about the story behind the song, Time.