Neon by W. T. Paterson

New Orleans, Garden District. Magazine Street sits quiet on a lonely Tuesday night, the humid air thick enough to chew. A neon sign flickers green above the entrance to a two-story dive, Tommy Rouge’s, where inside, two patrons sit against the bar tipsy off spirits and stories. The high ceilings and low fans do little to mask the lingering high watermarks from Katrina that run the walls, black and fluid, like old whiskey in a dirty rocks glass.

The owner, Bobby Rouge,doesn’t tell his only two patrons about the financial troubles. He wipes the sticky counters in obsessive circles staring into the string lights that line the jukebox and thinks about whether or not to unplug the second floor’s unused pinball machines to save money, to sell the scuffed up pool tables with dents from too-rough shots and circular, flammable stains thanks to sweating beer glasses. The disaster insurance for fire would payout enough to live comfortably in retirement. He wonders if his father, Tommy, would be disappointed that his son couldn’t keep a bar afloat in a city known for boozing. The air inside is dense with the savory smell of dried liquor and sweet with old, spilled beer.

Outside, young people pause and look at the empty second floor balcony with iron tables and chairs, with flickering electric candles inside of purple glass holders, with sun-faded cardboard signs for domestic beer near the door, and decide to keep walking. Bobby has noticed a significant shift in patrons with the uptick in microbrewers and craft beer connoisseurs, even though he believes beer is beer and gets a person drunk just the same. A bar is a social experience, he tells himself, not an art adventure.

The wood paneling along the inside walls is bowing, it has been for years. Bobby’s only two patrons laugh on their cushioned stools, a man and a woman, probably thirty years between them. The woman wears a flowing sundress and blue jean jacket, her smooth legs crossed at the hips, frizzy blonde hair wild and unkempt. She raises her arms, glass in hand, and sways to the slow jazz rendition of Satchmo’s St. James Infirmary as though she isn’t mid conversation with a man twice her age. Her eyelids droop heavy with liquor and Bobby gets the sense that something else is going on with the woman, something deep and pained.

The man smiles and sways with the woman dropping the conversation mid-sentence to mimic her movements. He laughs with a smoker’s gruff. Sun damaged skin wraps his body, baggy Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to the sternum, loose cargo pants running into worn out boat shoes. All evening he has sat facing her, knees apart, leaning forward and back to the beat of Allen Toissaint and Johnny Dodd’s Black Bottom Stompers. He has purchased all of the woman’s drinks and Bobby has obliged, happy to have the business.

“All I’m saying,” the woman says, her words slurred and rounded, “is that there are things you can say, and things you cannot say anymore.”

“What can I not say?” the man asks, smiling so large that his teeth reflect the neon sign for drink specials glowing pink behind the bar.

“Things,” she says, and bites her lip. She leans forward. “Certain things.”

“Things are things,” the man says, and takes a sip of his brown drink, still dancing. “I can still say things, don’t mean you have to like the things I say.”

“I’m just saying,” the woman says, leaning forward and touching the man’s lips with her pointer finger, long nails painted green. “There are things you can’t say.”

They both laugh. Bobby pours them another round and says it’s on him. He knows better than to cut them off this early, even though something feels unusual about the pairing. All those years growing up and learning the trade behind the bar with Dad, the solo years after Katrina when his father’s mental and physical health slipped away, he knows when something is awry and these two, he thinks, ain’t exactly trouble, but ain’t exactly saints either. The dark wooden stairs to the second story flash orange with lights from the pinball machines upstairs and Bobby checks his watch. Ten PM. Too early. The smokes in his shirt pocket poke against his chest. He knows he should quit, but damn if they don’t soothe his nerves.

The man reaches forward and pinches the bottom of the woman’s wild, frizzy hair.

“I love blondes, he says, swaying, smiling.

“I’m a blonde, my mother is blonde,” the woman says. She lets him touch, indulges him, part of her starved for attention.

“Blondes are my weakness,” the man says. He laughs at his own honesty, then coughs thick and gurgled from deep inside his chest.

“Put your hand on my leg,” the woman says, and grabs the man by the wrist. She plops his callused palm on her exposed thigh. The slap of skin on skin snaps through the space. It fills the empty bar with promises, a taste of things to come. 

Bobby tosses a damp, worn-down washcloth over his shoulder and leans against the top shelf liquor along the back mirror. He thinks about sharing a bed, what his ex-wife might be doing with her new husband out in the Midwest, what his son is up to in New York City. They’ve made it clear that they want nothing to do with Tommy Rouge’s, and left New Orleans years ago.

Bobby’s son Terry might have had a kid out of wedlock. He’s seen pictures online, the baby sharing the family’s long crooked nose, but it could belong to someone else. He’s never reached out to ask even though he feels compelled to send his son money. Money he doesn’t have. Money like his father did for him. He figures the time will come, because all things come back around, even if they don’t feel possible. It’s why he hasn’t sold the bar. Katrina killed the city once, but then it came back twice as strong. This lull, it’s nothing more than an intermission between sets for musicians bar hopping Frenchman street. Soon, the horns will fire up, the stand-up bass will walk, and the drums will swing.

The man coughs into his balled fist, then wipes it on the counter. Bobby leans forward and wipes with his rag. The woman giggles a type of desperate, flirtatious giggle. The ice clinks the edge of her glass where red lipstick marks smear the rim like a shriveled slice of watermelon. She looks at the man’s balding head, at the oily thin hair brushed across the open top.

“Say something you’re not supposed to say,” she says.

“What am I not supposed to say?” the man asks.

“If you think you’re allowed to say it, don’t say that,” the woman says, and arches her back. Her chest pushes against the thin fabric of her sundress and jean jacket.

“I think all sorts of things,” the man says, bending forward. His hand squeezes her thigh. “I say things, too.”

The woman lifts her arms and sways to the New Orleans Jazz Viper’s rendition Brother, Can you Spare A Dime? She moves like the melody is a hot shower, the water cleansing and smoothing her skin after a long day. The man leans back and lazily claps to the rhythm. Bobby wonders if he should cut them off, but if they leave, he knows he’ll be alone.

At one time, the crack of the pool table sliced through the shouted conversations of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. The glowing neon signs had to be replaced every few months after the spontaneous zydeco outbursts that twirled bodies into walls where lovers whispered beat poems against the wooden panels dodging the occasional rough’em ups that loomed with alcohol and crowds. At one time, Bobby bought a state-of-the-art sound system and had it installed. Small speakers no bigger than the box Terry’s baby shoes came in hung in corners pumping local music into the room.

Now, whenever he walks by other bars on the nights that he closes early, Bobby hears the deep electronic bass of bounce, of radio pop music, of songs written by a computer. He’ll put a cigarette between his lips and stare into the purple glow of sky wondering what he’d ever do if he left the city he loves. A city, his family tells him, that he loves more than them.

“Ever been with an older man?” the guy asks. He flashes a crooked smile. His teeth glow pink and green.

“I love an older man,” the woman says.

“As an older man, that’s something I know I shouldn’t say,” the man says, and sways with his shoulders. The brown drink spills onto the bar, but not much. Bobby wipes it with the damp rag from his shoulder, then grabs well whiskey. He pours a splash and winks at the guy. The guy laughs a deep, gurgled laugh and turns back to the woman. The dark wood stairs leading to the second level flash orange from the pinball machines again.

Originally purchased as an investment, a source of passive income to sustain an already thriving bar, Bobby took his father’s advice and called a wholesale warehouse specializing in “retired” carnival fixtures. He financed six machines using the mortgage on his home–not bar–as collateral.

“With enough quarters,” the salesman told him over the phone, “you can pay’em off in three months. Everything after is bank, padre.”

When the units came, Bobby didn’t realize that they were so bulky, that they ate up space where paying patrons might otherwise stand. They jutted into walkways, crowded high top tables, and, on busy nights, served as a table of their own. Their flashing lights and primitive blips seemed alien in the two-story bar, a crude orange and black screen flashing the three letter names of record holders.

For a while they worked, the quarters stacking nicely into ten-dollar rolls, but three months turned into three years of payments with interest. Bobby couldn’t keep up, and his wife told him to get rid of the damn things. She didn’t care how. If he didn’t figure it out, she told him, in another few months, she’d be gone, too.

Even young Terry lost interest, though most of the units held his high scores from playing over long, lazy afternoons waiting for his father to open. This was before the move to New York, before he may or may not have had a kid of his own.

The carnival company eventually bought back two machines for the amount of the remaining payments. A third went to a private buyer. The remaining three sit along the wall near the bathrooms and by the stairs. Bobby would be surprised if he opened up the front to find any quarters in the slot. The closest they ever got to use was during the middle of the day when tourists brought their young kids inside to look around and soak up the classic NOLA architecture. These same families snapped pictures of the high ceilings and low fans, the second story’s iron grate with fleur-de-lis tips, the jukebox containing only local jazz and blues. Even the speakers in the corners crackled and fizzed like a record player, a far cry from the crisp electronic thrum pumping through the clubs up on Bourbon. They always left without purchasing drinks, naturally, but if Bobby was lucky, one of the parents might ask to buy a Tommy Rouge’s tee shirt with his father’s mantra Unlike lovers, a place cain’t never leave ya to commemorate the trip.

“I love blondes,” the guy says again. His words have become oil slicks inside his mouth getting worse with every sip.

“I’m a blonde, my mother is blonde,” the woman says. She uncrosses her legs, and re-crosses to the other side. She pushes the man’s chest when he temporarily looks away.

“Sounds like I’d like your mother, too,” the man says.

“Now that’s something you shouldn’t say,” the woman says, and pouts. She quickly laughs to prove she’s not actually upset. The man puts his hand back on the woman’s exposed thigh and leans forward like he has a secret.

“I’m old enough to be your father,” he says, and they both howl with delight.

Bobby’s insides clench. This same man has spent too many nights hunched over the bar weeping over an estranged daughter he never sees. This conquest toward a younger woman feels compensatory, feels like some Freudian mishap waiting to happen. But he also knows they’re both adults, and pain is pain, and comfort is comfort.

The jukebox kicks on the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In and the woman stands up. She swings her hips and shoulders back and forth in opposite directions. The man stands and does a stumbling two-step. Bobby taps his foot remembering every reason he hasn’t left, how the city lives in his DNA, why he’s a lifer. In that moment, all three are connected to each other under the neon glow of pink and purple and green in the sweat-filled momentum of a shared experienced.

The man turns in a circle wagging his finger in the air. The woman turns around and shakes her rear pulling the dress taught against her backside. Bobby slaps the countertop with finger-drums. He thinks about stepping out for a smoke, but then thinks no, not with customers inside.

The woman sits down still bopping with her shoulders. She sips from her glass and winces at the burn. The man sits down on his stool and rubs his eyes cracking a joke about the spins.

“What’s the difference between an alcoholic, and someone from New Orleans?” he asks.

“Tell me, what is the difference between an alcoholic and someone from New Orleans,” the woman says, flipping frizzy, untamed hair out of her face.

“An alcoholic needs a drink,” the man says, and claps his callused hands to the rhythm of the song. “Someone from New Orleans already has one.”

Bobby laughs. It’s one of his favorites, no matter how many times he’s heard it. They wouldn’t get it in the Midwest, he thinks, or in New York City. He hears his father’s voice barking deep in a memory, something about booze revealing the face of God, of the women who come and go, come when they want something, and go when they get it. Bobby wonders about his own mother, who she is, if she’s still alive, why she never went looking for him.

“This is my first time in this city,” the woman says, leaning forward over the bar.

“Won’t be the last,” the man says.

“There’s a first and last time for everything,” the woman says. Bobby thinks she’s still trying to flirt, but something about her words ring truer than true.

“What brings you to the city?” Bobby asks, inserting himself into the conversation. He knows this is a bartending faux pas, a gamble, an invasion of privacy, but he’s been at this long enough to know when to listen to his gut. He’s used the same distributors for thirty years—the same trusted people his father had contracts with, though most have since retired and sold off their shares—even when the young guns sidled in with promises of better variety for a fraction of the cost. He sunk money into a sound system, which more-or-less paid off, chose the bar over family to remain in the only city he ever loved, has chosen to let his son live his own life, make his own decisions like a real adult living in the real world. He tells himself he’s made the right choice, that he’s surrounded by people who love him, that he’s never really alone. Looking at this man and woman, something isn’t adding up.

“Came here to find my biological father,” the woman says. “Hired a P.I., got as far as the city, couldn’t bring myself to look at the name or actual address.” She goes stiff after an evening of expressive motion. Bobby looks at the man’s shining head, the small strands crossing the scalp, into his swimming, hungry eyes.

The jukebox clicks off and it’s silent, save for the omniscient buzz of the neon lights and the whoosh of the lazy, low-hanging ceiling fans.

“Daddy issues,” the man says. He smiles and licks his lips. His eyes are almost fully closed. “Baby, I ain’t ever been a man to back down from a challenge.”

“Let’s call separate cabs,” Bobby says, and picks up the cordless phone charging next to the framed liquor license at the end of the bar. The woman waves him away, drops three crumpled twenties onto the counter, and pulls the man from the stool onto clumsy feet. She ducks under his arm and holds him steady, both of them laughing as they tromp toward the door. They push open and step onto the dark of Magazine Street, turn left, and are gone.

Alone in his bar, Bobby checks his watch and considers calling it an early night. He clicks off the neon lights and feels the room say goodbye. 

Bobby locks the doors and pours himself a whiskey neat. He lights a smoke, flips off the rest of the downstairs lights and walks to the second story, sits on the corner of the used-up pool table, and watches the pinball machines flash the high scores with the initials of his son.

“Could be worse,” he says, and takes a long, slow sip until it is gone. He balances the half-smoked cigarette on the edge of pool table as the embers creeps toward the sticky wood, then walks downstairs and out the delivery door. He wonders if his son will answer this hour, and what the cost of a small place might run in the big city.

W. T. Paterson is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, MFA candidate for Fiction at the University of New Hampshire, and graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 70 publications worldwide including Fiction Magazine, The Delhousie Review, and Fresh Ink. A number of stories have been anthologized by Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Thuggish Itch. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”

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