Cocktail hour at an art déco boutique hotel. Charleston. December. It does not snow in Charleston; it pours on the tall French windowpanes.
Photo by Caglar Araz on Unsplash
Inside, a log fire roars, orange glowing onto the turquoise blue walls and the art; the paintings flicker to life. So do the crystal chandeliers. Scattered rainbows.
The clientèle is elegant, shimmering as well; diamonds and gold. Martini glasses. Effervescent champagne. The bartender, in a black bowtie, smoothly, efficiently flirts, offers compliments and complimentary nuts, fills and refills glasses seamlessly, focusing on every guest.
But the room’s attention, really, is on the jazz musicians. He is on the guitar, she on the violin. The tunes are soft and familiar. No words, no need; the crowd sways along in rhythm to their sultry variations of Summertime, Formidable, and La vie en rose. A couple dance in a corner.
To the left of the performing duo, by the tall shimmering tree, a buffet on which is laid an array of canapés, nuts, cheeses, strawberries. Des amuses-bouche that pair well with cocktails, jazz, and rainy December evenings. Even a steaming pot of hot coffee, and for the younger guests, milk and cookies.
The music plays against the polished backdrop of velvet, oak, refined chatter. No one seems to notice the side door quietly being pushed open. In with the rain enters a man who is certainly not a patron. His coat is muddy and soaked. His eyes, and probably belly, are hungry.
He drinks in the chandeliers, the warmth. And the cookies on the buffet. One, two, in a patchy right pocket. One to his mouth. One, two, three, in the other pocket. All the while, he looks around furtively.
The effort to blend into the lavish interior is capitalized by an excessively straight back, stiff with the fear of – probable - apprehension. But hunger, primal, overrides the more secondary emotion: pride. Barely swallowed, the chocolate chip cookie is followed by another.
A glass of milk hastily chugged while his blue eyes – turquoise in fact - dart left and right. The jazz duo still plays, bartender pouring on. The man wipes his chin on the cuff of his sleeve, the driest part. Turns, hesitates; he knows he should disappear while he still can, not push his luck further.
the cookies are so warm and moist, and he has not tried the plain ones. Are those grains of nutmeg nestled in the batter? Or cinnamon? He cannot stop the four-year-old in him from reaching for one. Nutmeg, he smiles. And vanilla. And not too sweet. A hand falls on his shoulder. Jump.
Crumbs of cookie fall onto his beard. His heart falls to his gut like he just missed a step in a staircase. He does not dare turn around.
The last bite of the telltale cookie is in his hand. He remembers his mother catching him stealing dried figs and prunes from the pantry on a Sunday.
I am so sorry. Please do not call the police. I will leave!
I was just hungry!
He rehearses in his head, but before he can speak,
Would you like some lemon cookies?
I beg your pardon?
Lemon cookies, Sir? Nice and hot, freshly baked.
He turns, incredulous, and is met with a firmly impassive face. The maître d’hôtel towers over him. A security guard stands near. Between them is a platter of intoxicatingly fragrant cookies.
Please, help yourself.
He hesitates. A trick? Even so, he actually does.
Yeah it is.
It may yet snow this Christmas, who knows. How is the cookie?
His mouth is full, but the sentiment expressed is clear. He swallows the last bite of sweet lemony shortbread. Worth whatever is coming.
Nothing does come. The maître d’hôtel places the tray by the others, tips his head slightly toward the homeless man and says:
He and the bulky guard walk away, leaving the man flabbergasted.
The jazz is still playing, bartender still pouring. It is still a lovely night in an art déco boutique hotel in Charleston. December. It is still raining. The fire roars, the chandeliers reflect light onto the street. He takes one more look around, turns to leave. Just as he does,
Oh and Sir!
Do stop by tomorrow at cocktail hour. We will have gingerbread.