Rhapsody in midnight MacLeod

I sometimes pen pages while my baby sleeps, but during my entire pregnancy I did not write at all, save for one short poem.

It was October, and I was working as a hostess at The Market Place almost every night. It was grueling in the belly of the kitchen. The pace was hectic; we were all hot. It’s fruitless to mention heat to the chefs—cruel, even. I could slip back into the cool dining room, but they had to remain in the inferno.

“Well,” said Joseph, a food runner, as he picked up a dessert plate, “This is the last sweat of the season.”

Last sweat of the season. Autumn’s chilly hand would soon have us all in her grip, and then would come the paucity of Asheville winter, which would give way to unsure spring before opening up to unapologetic summer.

Last sweat of the season. Maybe it was the alliteration. Maybe it was the air of impermanence the short phrase conveyed. Or maybe it was the fact that the next time I would sweat it would be spring, and I would have a child. Whatever it was, I wrote a poem about the last sweat of the season.

After a full year off, I’m now back in my old job at The Market Place one night a week. It’s the same, but it isn’t: new chairs, new concepts, new servers, but the same place, same old couple that sits at table three sipping Finlandia.

I love my new home in bucolic East Asheville, where the neighborhood children climb cherry trees and I wake every morning to a crowing cock. At night I draw the curtains, tuck my daughter under her soft, green blanket and click the lamp dark. Retiring early, I snuggle under my patchwork quilt and read and read till my eyes hurt.

I’m a day person now, but I still miss the twilit world of downtown Asheville sometimes, those late-evening hours when the sidewalks soften, the candles flicker and the world turns upside down in the face of a spoon.

At night, the bars and restaurants are all that’s really open besides the fluorescently lit convenience stores teeming with the toothless and tawdry nighthawks. Dinner isn’t like lunch, when the hurried day people scarf down sandwiches and smile politely with their bright mouths and creased clothing. Night comes and people relax and linger. They make eyes over ruby-colored glasses of wine. They’ll go home to their beds and dream sweet, unremembered dreams.

Meanwhile, the servers buzz about behind the scenes, entrained in the rhythm of the restaurant. The kitchen is strong, effortlessly turning a pan of sautéed vegetables with the flick of a veiny wrist. These folks can take the heat and the pressure.

At night, anything is possible; it’s easier to hide in the darkness. It can be a lonely time: all those solitary faces at the bar searching for something in their golden pint glasses, or the strangers exchanging liquor-fueled intimacies. When dawn breaks, they creep apart. And then there are the city’s star-eyed ghouls who roam the streets and alleys, hungry for something, anything, just one penny.

On a quiet Wednesday evening in late spring, I leave The Market Place and take a walk around the city, to see what’s old and new. A dishwasher, quietly smoking a cigarette, emerges from Rat Alley, the dark catacombs beneath Wall Street. A young girl pressed up against a car on Patton Avenue is being furiously, urgently kissed. No one kisses like that during the day. A faceless figure crosses in front of the Vance Monument—just a dark pair of legs and shoes whose reflectors glow silver.

The roses that line the Basilica display all the varying stages of life: bud, bloom, withered flower, petals that fall to the ground at the slightest touch. Not quite gay like a daisy or zinnia, roses are more melancholic, perhaps. But at night when their deep, luscious colors are muted, their scent is intoxicating—heady and very strong.

Working in a restaurant can teach you something about transience and impermanence. Another season, another dinner. People come, people go (and, sometimes, they reappear like Indian summer). I find myself searching—in the open air of the Frog Bar, the grotto of Zambra, maybe behind the blue notes of Tressa’s jazz—for the ones who’ve left, disappeared into the night. The petite olive-skinned dancer, the lithe boy who knew faces and bodies through soft pencil, the bald, green-eyed manager…

Spotting someone, I do a double take: Could it be? But it’s just a vague resemblance, and life is all about the details. The people I’m seeking are gone, whether home or far, far away. That’s the way it is around here…

Recalling the whispers concerning recent sexual assaults downtown, I stride quickly past the balconies and balustrades, the old marble, all those lurking shadows. I nearly stumble; my shoes are too pointed, too narrow. It’s getting late, and I am alone. The smog-tinged stars wink high above the Flat Iron Building and the Sky Bar, telling me it’s time to go home.

[Kristin MacLeod lives in east Asheville.]

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