Charlie knew fun and had tried to remain familiar with it over the years, but somehow it always seemed to elude him now, seeming to just slip around the corners of his awareness, growing more intangible as the days and months passed him by. Often, he went to places where others seemed to enjoy themselves in one way or another, but he usually came away with little more than an empty feeling and a smile that sat like a prosthesis, disgustingly plastic, on his face.
Winter was coming.
He let the thought hover in his mind as he lay listening to the muffled news broadcast that was seeping through the wall and had awakened him. Eyes still closed, he tried to understand the flow of the reporter's words, but he could only catch a few here and there. He got out of bed and, sniffling and snorting, he fished a set of clothes from the hamper and set out for the neighborhood bar.
The neighborhood was an old one and as such, had seen both good times and bad. Lately it seemed that the pendulum was on an upswing. People were opening coffee houses and news stands, corner groceries were chasing the bad elements from their storefronts, the old cathedral was playing Amazing Grace on its bells. Still, people crossed the streets from each other and only the very old gave greetings if they happened to pass close enough to do so. But still in all, it was a pretty nice neighborhood. It was almost three hundred years old and had been built when New Orleans was nothing more than a little place where European sailors could get whores, whiskey and slaves.
Jonny's bar was a dark little place. The door, like many in the area, had steel grating over the window and required a buzz from the bartender to open. Charlie pressed the buzzer and waited. A camera scrutinized him from above and he looked up at it blandly. The door clicked and buzzed and he pushed it.
"Hey, what's up, Chuck?"
"Chuuuuuuck. . ."
A nod from someone playing pool alone that implied an invitation.
A tilt of the head, a slight spreading of the hands and a crooked tsk-tsk smile, two slow shakes of the head and Charlie graciously refused the invitation.
Pool balls resumed their clicking, the pool table resumed it's clunking and Charlie sat on a stool at the long, antique cypress bar.
He paid quietly and looked up at the tv mounted in the corner, sipping the foam that slowly rose from the neck of the bottle. Music videos filled with unnaturally perfect, bikini-clad women and shirtless, muscular men with chiseled features paraded across the screen between important messages from the sponsors--mostly beer, trendy garment manufacturers and automobiles. Charlie looked around with a sigh and noticed that everyone else seemed to constantly be in the process of either turning toward or away from the television or trying in some way to consciously to ignore it.
Charlie pulled out a dollar and studiously folded it back and forth on the bar in front of him, stealing glances at the bartender. Soon enough, he had four quarters and was standing before the jukebox. He played two blues songs by a long-dead black man. The tv volume was turned down and the music loped along, smoothing everyone's mood. He ambled back to his stool.
The pool player caught Charlie's eye and nodded approvingly as he shot and missed a maroon seven ball in the corner pocket.
Charlie raised an eyebrow, squinted, nodded, took a sip of his beer and returned to his spot near the taps.
At the bar again, making a concerted effort to avoid the television, his gaze moved from liquor bottle to liquor bottle, examining, appraising, remembering. . . listening to the man on the jukebox holler his woes over driving rhythms and a railroad train harmonica player that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
The reverie was broken by the buzz at the door.
The bartender looked at a screen under the bar that Charlie could see in the mirror through all the bottles. He could also see what looked like a sawed-off shotgun lying on the shelf, next to the little screen. When it came to security, they didn't play around at Jonny's. Not since the murder of a nineteen yr. old kid right outside the front door the year before.
The door buzzed and opened.
Charlie and the others at the bar all looked mutely at the mirror behind the bar and watched her come in.
She wore a long coat with jeans and tennis shoes showing out of the bottom. Her black hair framed a face with a slight south-of-the-border cast to it. Bustling her coat off, she sat down on the last stool at the bar, next to Charlie.
Charlie, careful not to look at her, lit a cigarette and pushed the ashtray to his right, her being on his left. Before he had taken the first drag, she was lighting one too, so he moved the ashtray back to his left into the neutral space on the bar between the invisible lines of their staked out spots on the bar.
"Thank you" she said, looking not at his face, but at his shoulder, or hand, or somewhere. Charlie couldn't tell, watching her in the bar mirror, her appraising him unabashedly. She followed his gaze and turned to stare right at his reflection and their eyes met for a second, Charlie turning away first, then furtively looking back, her looking away, then back, both of them looking down, blushing.
"Charlie. . ." he said, sticking his cigarette into the slotted ashtray and extending a warm hand.
"Rosa," she said, "but my full name is Rosalita" she continued, letting a slight, probably second or third generation, accent peek through.
"It's a beautiful name" he said, feeling her soft, tan hand in his. She had given it to him palm down, like a princess, as if she were expecting him to genuflect and kiss her knuckles. He just squeezed it ever-so-lightly and nodded sheepishly at her.
He could feel the stares coming from the other men in the bar and he couldn't blame them. He had become the only entertainment in the bar, other than the music videos, which remained soundless even though the juke-box had long since quieted.
"Like a beer?" he asked.
"Fine, fine. . ." he trailed off as he tried to imagine her midriff through the multiple shirts that girded her against the cold. The bartender was standing in front of him before he had his wallet out. "Michelob and a McLite" Charlie said, dropping a five on the bar.
The beers came and they sat and sipped them in silence. The tv volume returned and they smoked slowly as the beers disappeared.
He was down to one last frothy sip when she produced a pocket book from within the folds of her voluminous coat and ordered up two shots of whiskey and more beer.
They sat drinking like that for the space of an hour or more. Neither of them saying more than two or three words at a time, occasionally nodding at each other in response to something on the tv. The pool player turned in the balls and chalk, the tv switched to baseball, no one in the bar spoke, blue cigarette smoke hung in the air and rose lethargically to be gently sliced by the two slow moving ceiling fans that were suspended from the high ceilings.
"You smoke?" Charlie mumbled the question in the quiet bar.
Rosa looked at him, time seemed to slow and Charlie fidgeted in his chair, puffing at his cigarette. "Yes, but first let me go to the bathroom." She got up a little wobbly and put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. He put out a hand to steady her and he let it rest on the small of her back. He could feel the taut, parallel muscles and the pert curve that led downward. She regained her balance and turned, her hair flying past his face. The smell of strawberries and something else and his hand was left holding only empty air.
Charlie looked around at the other patrons. They looked like wax statues and he found himself imagining them with dust and spider webs like he imagined an old abandoned wax museum might look. He slouched back to staring straight ahead at his beer, sitting on the bar. He tracked the statues in his peripheral vision for a while and could feel his eyes glazing after a minute. The bathroom door squealed and slammed loudly and Rosa was soon behind him.
"Hey Chuck, you all right?" she ran a cool hand over his back.
"Yeah," he said blinking away the trance. "Let's go burn."
"Let's go" she said shrugging on her coat and buttoning it up.
The door buzzed as they approached and Charlie pushed it open for Rosa with one hand and waved to the bartender behind him with the other.
Outside it was cold. As they walked, they both stuck their hands into their pockets, foregoing cigarettes until they reached warmth.
"So you got it with you?" she asked, looking up at Charlie.
"No, it's at my house." he said, noticing for the first time that she couldn't be over 5'1.
"Three-and-a-half more blocks."
They walked along in silence, her heels sometimes giving her problems on the irregular brick sidewalks. After the third stumble, Charlie offered a piggy-back ride. She politely declined, watching the changing sidewalk pass more and more quickly beneath her feet like a treadmill gone wild.