43. Amateur Night

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Sarah had been anxiously counting down the days to Amateur Night.

A week back, Sarah couldn't even decide which poem she wanted to read. So she poured through every piece of poetry she had ever written since the age of eight. Those early poems, they brought back old memories of her parents' tragic deaths. Of her time at the orphanage. Guarded memories she still wasn't ready to fully release from the prison of her heart. After she'd settled on a poem about the racial tensions in Hester, there was that awful attack by the Vigilantes of the White on the black homeless, and Sarah decided to pick another poem, one that wouldn't invite so much judgment.

Then there had been the problem of what to wear. One day, after mass at First Baptist, Sarah mentioned her predicament to her girlfriend, Nella, who proudly carried her full-figured body around like she was on a mission of God.

"Don't you fret," Nella said. "I got the perfect dress for you."

So Sarah followed Nella to her apartment which could only be described as modest, a total opposite to her friend's big personality. With an even bigger heart, Nella offered Sarah the best dress she had, a soft yellow satin piece given to her by her mama. And for that reason, it was special.

While the dress was nothing close to the silk gowns of the women at the Diamond Club tonight, Sarah wasn't going to complain. It was a finer dress than any she owned. It fell to the floor, ending in a hem of faded white lace. Sarah told herself no one would be able to see the way the lace had muted to gray in several spots, not under the low lighting above the stage. She also told herself the audience would be much too giddy with drink to notice the outdated Edwardian style of her gown. Sarah told herself these things, but she hardly believed them. She felt an uncomfortable sweat, breaking out along her forehead and on her back as the satin stuck with cold dampness against her spine.

Sarah smoothed the front of her dress one more time before nervously fussing with the square of paper in her hand. Tapping a scuffed black shoe against the floor, she stood waiting at the edge of the stage. Under the onstage lights, a local musician – skin as dark as burnt molasses and beard as white as snow – was playing an odd jingle on his homemade banjo.

Sarah let out a sigh. It was her turn next. She looked around at the splendor of the club and its patrons. The whole place was bedecked in sparkling extravagance – sparkling lights, sparkling dresses, and sparkling wine. Against the back wall, red velour curtains hung from the ceiling. The floor was made of white marble so sleek and shiny, Sarah thought she might be able to see her reflection in its surface.

Edward arrived at her side, sending her a sly smile and an exaggerated wink.

"You're gonna do just fine, kid," he told her. "Everybody here is gonna love you."

Sarah took a deep breath and attempted to steady the trembling of her hands.

"I don't know how you can say that," she mumbled. "You've only heard one of my poems."

"Well, I'm about to hear my second," Edward replied. "And let me tell you, I couldn't be more excited. Don't worry a scrap about any of these other people. You just read that poem to me. Pretend like I'm the only person in the audience."

Sarah looked up into his eyes and nodded grimly. She felt slightly nauseous. Why had she ever agreed to do this? She just knew that she was going to make an absolute fool of herself.

The banjo player concluded his song to a smattering of polite applause. He gave a deep bow before making his way off the stage.

Sarah's throat tightened.

"It's your turn now," Edward said to her. "Good luck! You'll be fine!"

Onstage, a slim black announcer in a black tuxedo stepped up to the microphone, flashing an enthusiastic smile as silky-smooth as his voice. "Our next performer, you may know her as the girl mechanic at Albert's Automobile Repair Shop. By day, she transforms broken cars into golden chariots. By night, she weaves poetry with magical delights. Please give a warm welcome to the lovely Sarah Stewart!"

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