The blues legend, born Jamesetta Hawkins, had passed away yesterday at the age of 73. You may remember her cover of At Last, which was originally written in 1941.
A lot of Etta’s music speaks to the heart. Hers is a voice that you can sink into and let it soothe away whatever’s on your mind. It’s not a voice we hear often nowadays.
I wrote a short story as a tribute. I am posting it for free here. Eventually, if I write enough of them, I will compile an anthology.
Requiescat in pace, Ms. James. Say hi to the Rat Pack for us at the grand jam session in the sky.
Karen swung herself into the booth and promptly slumped against the wall. The events of the day had wrung her out as though she were part of the weekend washing. The rain outside the diner made this scenario all the more appropriate; sheets of rain plastered the diner window, and the neon lights outside the window and on the awning looked distorted, almost melting in the downpour. Weary, Karen looked up and smiled at the dissolving splotches of green, hot pink, and purple, glad to be inside on the first genuinely cold day of the season.
She didn’t take an umbrella to work today, and she was now paying for it. The otherwise charming nurse’s cap that would keep her hair out of her face at work did nothing for the storm outside, and was torn off her head by the wind in moments. Even the across-the-parking-lot dash to the diner, which always took five minutes, had left Karen soaked to the bone. Even now, in the warmth of the diner, she was still shivering, and as she tried to take deep breaths and eventually ask a waitress to bring her over something hot to drink, or a bowl of soup, she felt something in her throat and chest grow a little dry.
She had been a nurse for five years now, and the only thing that she could think about was that she would have to miss work tomorrow; she had no idea when she would be home, or what shape she would be in when her alarm would ring the next day. Her Chevrolet Corvair was in dire need of new tires, and she couldn’t take the chance of driving in this downpour just yet. She could feel the seasonal flu make itself nice and comfortable in her body already, on top of that. There was a good chance that she would be disoriented with fever well before the rain would let up.
How am I going to drive home? Karen thought.
A waitress came over to Karen’s booth. “Oh, you don’t look so good, honey,” the middle-aged woman almost clucked over her, concerned. “I’ll bring you a cup of tea. On the house.”
Karen nodded, grateful.
The crackling jukebox in the corner was playing something, but she couldn’t make out the words of the songs. It was an Elvis song, that much she knew for a fact. What it was, exactly, she couldn’t tell. The rain almost drowned out the lyrics.
A clang! of the door drew her attention, and she couldn’t help but look up for a minute. She saw three people walk in and go to the bar, chatting softly amongst themselves, and promptly disregarded them. The waitress had already brought her a cup of steaming hot tea, and she took a cautious sip, wincing a little at the hot fluid. The Elvis song on the jukebox was followed by some cuts from the Four Tops and the Beatles.
She loved the Beatles. Heck, John Lennon was definitely cute, but he had nothing on her husband, Charlie.
The waitress came back over. “You wanna order, honey? Are you okay?”
“I just…need a few…” Karen began, but an unexpected coughing fit interrupted her sentence.
“You just relax and drink that tea,” the waitress said, patting her on the arm. “You’ll feel better soon.”
The tea was definitely helping, but the seasonal flu had already settled in. Karen felt herself sweat as she shivered. Not good, not good at all. She eyed the lobby telephone, wondering if now was a good time to ring her supervisor, but she suspected that Mrs. Walsh was looking outside at the rain now and wondering if Karen had made it home at all in that melee. It was raining so hard that there’s no way that Mrs. Walsh could see that Karen’s Corvair was still parked right outside, right between the hospital entrance and the diner.
Karen sipped the tea again. Had it not been for the fact that she was in a public place, she would’ve fallen asleep. It was ten at night, and she just had a thirteen-hour shift. She needed the rest, and the developing fever wasn’t helping. The Four Tops and the Beatles were replaced by a crackly recording of Carole King. Was the jukebox that random, or was the waitress just choosing random favorites?
“Thought I’d find you here,” a familiar voice said, and Karen wondered if it was Charlie; she was already drowsy. “Your coat’s all wet…”
She lifted the cup of half-finished tea to her lips, and his familiar features came into clearer focus. He was as soaked as she was; even his eyelashes were wet, but there he was nonetheless. She couldn’t be bothered to figure out how he figured that she was at the diner, but she was glad to see him all the same.
“It’s rainin’ cats and dogs out there, Charlie,” Karen replied. “I’m so tired.”
“Yeah, and you can’t well drive home, the Corvair being what it is,” Charlie said as he shrugged out of his leather jacket and helped her out of her coat. She shivered, and although her nurse’s uniform was slightly damp, Charlie pulled her into a close hug. “Good thing I wore the leather today… You stay close to me and get warm, now.”
The waitress watched them from the counter. “Anything I can get for you?” she called out.
“We’re okay, thanks,” Charlie called back to her. “What’s on the jukebox?”
The waitress shrugged. “If you got a nickel, whatever you like.”
Charlie stayed close to Karen instead. While he wanted to put on something nice for her, and if the Beatles’ latest was on the jukebox, it would at least perk up her spirits, he wanted to keep her warm, first and foremost. Her forehead was parked against his neck, and it felt hotter than usual, but she was still shivering. And she was at that diner for a while now. Charlie was no doctor, but he knew the onset of a bad flu when he saw it. She needed to stay warm.
my love has come along…
“Who’s on the juke?” Karen asked drowsily from his shoulder.
“You’ve not heard this?” Charlie was incredulous.
“I work all the time, Charlie,” she laughed. “All I hear is what you bring home, or what’s over here…”
He smiled and kissed her forehead. “That’s true. But hey, we can listen now, can’t we? Let’s. While we’re still here, anyway.”
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you…
The waitress brought over two fresh cups of tea. “Don’t worry about it,” she told Charlie. “On the house, you two.”
“What time do you close tonight?” Charlie asked. “Don’t want to keep you.”
The matronly woman smiled. “Now you two just get warm and don’t worry about it. You got time, long as I’m running the place.”
“Thank you,” Karen said, looking up briefly from her husband’s embrace. “Thank you so much.”
“You feel better, now.”
Karen smiled and nestled herself in Charlie’s shoulder. The song on the jukebox was nice indeed, and she recognized Etta James’s voice. She wished that she knew about the song when she had first married Charlie. She could see why he liked it so much. Something about it reminded her of how she felt when they had first met.
Excepting the music, the diner was silent. Karen and Charlie were still wrapped up in a tight embrace in the diner booth as the rain continued to pelt down. The neon lights mixed and dissolved, the colorful patterns rippling and changing in the rain. Neither of them cared what time it was. She was coming down with a bad flu, he had to work early tomorrow, but right now, in that little diner booth, they were together. And their together was a good place to be, even better than the steaming cups of tea in front of them.
oh, and then the spell was cast.
And here we are, in Heaven…
For you are mine
In Memoriam: Etta James, January 25th, 1937 – January 20th, 2012
At Last was written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren in 1941. Etta James had recorded her world-famous cover in 1960. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_Last