He entered the bar, the neon beer signs dripping fake rainbows over his granite face, turning the gray in his short, curly hair into dimly lit strands of rose, turquoise, and lemon. He settled his large dusty frame onto a barstool covered with cracked and leaking vinyl. He nodded to the bartender, and she poured his Wild Turkey, leaving the bottle on the bar. Her mixed blood shone through her high black eyebrows, supple dark skin, and high flat cheekbones. As always he wanted to ask her who broke her nose so long ago, who couldn't leave that beautiful exotic face in perfection. But he didn't ask. He didn't really want to know. Somehow her ruined nose suited her to this place, its marred shape matching the warped pool table at the back of the room, the chipped pool balls, the cigarette-burned bar.

He slid his glass and bottle down to the end of the bar closest to the pool table. He picked out a pool cue, the only one that still held on to its chalky blue cap. He spilled the balls out onto the worn mustard-yellow felt and knocked them around aimlessly, usually missing the pocket by a good two inches.

"How you going to hustle anybody shooting like that?" The bartender poured him another drink and leaned over the bar to hand it to him, awarding him a flash of brown breast over her white tank top.

"I ain't a hustler, Georgia." He gave her half a smile in thanks for the drink and the flash. He squinted one ice chip eye at her and missed another pocket. "They ain't enough people come in here for me to make any money off o'." The only other person in the bar was an old man named Eddie, who rarely spoke. He just sat at a corner table playing solitaire and drinking white russians, his long shabby white hair shadowing his toothless face.

"Well, now, Luke, not every hole in the wall bar can be part of the side show on Bourbon Street. You wouldn't come here if we did. 'Sides, you got old Eddie over there." Eddie didn't even blink at the sound of his name. "I bet you could take him for twenty bucks."

Luke glanced at her before dropping the eight-ball in a side pocket. "Eddie don't play no games he can't play alone." He slowly walked around the table so that Georgia faced the back of his blue workshirt. She turned back to the liquor bottles and poured Eddie another caucasian.

The screen door banged open, its wooden frame creaking and crashing into the wall. Three men in their early twenties roared into the bar. Two wore unbuttoned wifebeaters jacketed over T-shirts bearing college logos, and the third wore a black Hard Rock Cafe-Cancun T-shirt. This last slapped his palm on the countertop as he delivered the punchline of some joke. "And the kid says, ‘Sure, you can have it, but I already ate the cream filling.’" His buddies spewed over-loud laughter as Georgia slid three Crimson Voodoo Ales in front of them.

"You boys sure a long way from the Quarter," she breathed. "You ain't lost, are you?"

One of them turned his navy cap backwards and leaned toward her, undeterred by the crooked bend of her nose. "If I was lost, would you take me home?"

At his corner table, Eddie flipped a card and warned idly, “Watch it, boy. That girl’s daddy may been poor white trash, but her mama was a voodoo priestess could make Marie Laveau shake.”

Georgia grinned with the side of her mouth and arched a black eyebrow. "No, I ain't gonna take you home, but if you want I'll call your mama and she come pick you up."

“Aw, now, miss, hasn't anyone ever told you there's beauty in youth?” He grinned and turned an eye around the bar. "I'm prettier than the rest of the selection in here."

The comedian in the Hard Rock shirt wiped a dribble of beer with the back of his hand and crouched over the bar like a wolf on a rock. "Don't pay my friend here no mind, miss. He's just a poor virgin. That's right, no worldly experience whatsoever." He shook his head mockingly and clapped a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Nothing of my manliness seems to have rubbed off on him." The wolf winked. "Maybe I could rub some of it off on you."

His friend pushed away from the bar with a muttered "bullshit" and shuffled back to the pool table. He stood in silence, periodically throwing a slug of beer past his Adam's apple. He snorted as Luke missed the five, sunk the eight, chipped over the four, and finally banked the nine into a side pocket.

Luke heard the snort and slowly directed his gaze upward. He twisted a blue chalk cube over the tip of his cue and said, "You play pool, boy, or you just stand around and make believe you can shoot better?"

"I play, old man." He set his beer down next to Luke's whiskey. Luke racked the balls, stripes next to solids, eight in the middle, then propped his hip against the table. He watched, expressionless, as his challenger perused the pool cues, weighing each one in his palm, eyeballing each worn blue tip. When he finally found a somewhat satisfactory stick, Luke poured another whiskey and told him, "Five dollars a game, straight eight-ball pool. Call your shots; crap don't count. You break."

The younger man turned his cap forward, bent over, and scattered the balls with a sharp crack. The three fell neatly into a corner pocket, and the cue ball settled itself in a direct line for the five, which was poised to leap into the side. He chalked his cue, eyed his line, then sent the cue ball rolling with enough English for it to bounce smartly off its target, then slide back to the middle of the playing field. But it never reached its goal; it swerved gently toward the far corner and stuttered to a twisting stop two inches away from the corner pocket. The cue slid through his fingers and thudded on the wooden floor next to his Nike shoe. He looked at the five, glanced at Luke, then back to the five. "What the fuck was that?"

The older man set down his empty glass and gauged his shot. "House table, son. Prob'ly been here since before your daddy was born." Luke's mouth lifted on one side as he paused, peering at his opponent. "Come to think of it , so've I. This table just hadn't weathered as good as me."

The kid muttered sullenly and waved at Georgia for another beer. He whispered "shit" twice as Luke coaxed two balls in. He paused his whispering when Luke's third shot missed, but his expletives increased in volume and frequency when his own shots continued to twist and twirl around the tabletop, avoiding the pockets as though they were protected by magnetic force fields. He lost the first two games without ever sinking a ball. As he slammed down a five dollar bill to begin the third game his buddy walked over and softly said, "C'mon, Jake. The old bastard's probably in here every damn night, screwing around on this fucked up table. Let's go back to the Quarter before we get in a fight. He doesn't look like he loses too many."

"Fuck him," was the reply. He nodded at Luke. "Break, old man."

Luke shrugged. If the kid wanted to lose all night long, five dollars at a time, that was fine with him. He upped the bet to ten dollars to ease the boredom, and when all the money was laid out he rammed the cue ball. He won that game, and the next, but the kid began to get a feel for the table and came close to winning the following match. Only the eight-ball remained to challenge him, but it was afraid of the pocket, clinging to the felt as though it feared the deep black holes would swallow it and never spit it out again. Each time it seemed to be marching straight into a pocket it would shy away and roll crazily across the table. As the ball repeatedly missed its target the kid drank longer, smashed his bottle down harder, glaring at the old man's cold eyes and blank stony face. Luke just knocked back a whiskey and took another shot, slowly eating away at the lead. Finally the little round black demon seemed to conquer its fear. It balanced perilously on the edge of a corner pocket. The kid sailed the cue ball squarely at it, but the cue ball was more afraid of the eight than the pocket. It sidestepped the hulking black ball and dropped neatly into the void behind it.

He snatched up the trembling eight-ball and pitched it hard at the pin-ball machine slumbering at the front of the establishment. It whipped by Eddie's whiskery ear and ricocheted off the next table, bouncing up to shatter a flashing neon Miller Lite bottle. His pool cue flew in the other direction to the back of the bar, knocking its fellow cues over the floor. Then he swung around the table, knocking his hip on the corner, turning his hat around as he rushed at Luke.

"Son of a bitch with your sorry ass fucking game!" He crashed into Luke's chest, shoving him into the edge of the bar. Luke tossed him back far enough to jam a fist into his nose, feeling it crunch slightly to the left as capillaries burst like dams, sending bloody rivers flooding over the younger man's face and across his shirt. The kid’s buddy grabbed hold of him as he staggered and stumbled over a cracking stool. He looked up at Luke through red sticky fingers, and suddenly Luke saw another man’s wide blue eyes, a man who’d lost a similar fight forty years ago. The image cracked and faded as the guy in the Hard Rock shirt stepped forward, a new contender. He wavered a bit, then backed off completely as Luke's eyes lit, no longer ice, but hot gas flames. He slung an arm around his fallen friend's waist, eyeing Luke carefully over his shoulder as the three of them shuffled toward the door. He tossed a twenty at Georgia and then they were gone.

She tucked the bill into the register and blew a breath toward the ceiling. "Thank you, Luke, for giving me and Eddie a show." She came around the bar and ground the blood drops into the floor with the toe of her shoe. "D'ja have to bloody him so bad? Go for the eye or jaw next time, so's I don't got to clean nothing up."

She glanced up at him. His eyes were still torch-bright, his muscles still thick with tension. He slowly raised his glass to his lips, and she heard his jaw pop as he pulled it open just enough to pour the tobacco-brown liquid past his tongue. His adam's apple shifted up, down, up, down, coaxing the drink into the acid depths. She'd never seen him with so much electricity running through his stony body. Whether he won or lost his fights, he always sat back down in front of her, his face a statue, his eyes bored and cold. Except for the black blood and brown glass that sometimes speckled his shirt, he would show no sign that he'd recently broken noses, smashed heads, busted guts. Now she stepped away from him as he set the glass on the counter behind him. He pushed away, stepped over an injured stool, and walked along the length of the room. He stopped just past Eddie, next to the broken Miller Lite sign, crouched, knees crackling, and picked up the eight ball that lay meekly on the floor. Then he walked on, straight out into the dimly lit street.

Eddie lifted his dirty white head. "I'll be damned," he croaked. "That's the first time in thirty years that boy’s left before me."


Luke stepped into the crumbling flat, his feet heavy, his hand shaky, his knuckles throbbing from their encounter with the kid's nose. The only light in the abandoned two-room apartment came from neon and streetlamps, painting the pus-yellow walls an infected riot of rainbows. This was definitely the place, not really so different than it had been when he’d left it behind four decades ago. The shutters had lost a few more of their broken slats, the sheer billowing drapes had long since been used for rags, and the wooden floors lay dismembered and broken. The icebox still squatted in the kitchen next to the chipped sink. The fan that Abby's ribbons had clung to, twisting and fluttering, still hung from the cracked and dripping ceiling. The ribbons were gone. Somehow he had thought they would still be hanging there, limp and damp with the wet heat.

He drifted toward the bedroom, his workboots clomping and crunching through the debris blanketing the floor. As he passed what remained of the plaster mantle he ran the callused pad of his middle finger over the ledge. Dust and chunks tumbled to join the crumbled pieces below. He crossed through the bedroom doorway and stopped. Their bed, a lumpy mattress with the floor for a frame and the wall for a headboard, no longer filled the room. He stood in the corner the bed had occupied, crouched, put his palm on the floor, then brushed a large hard hand over a face that was falling apart nearly as quickly as the ancient apartment.

He'd brought her here that first night. They'd had a small wedding, a courthouse wedding with hired witnesses and no parents, and afterward he'd brought her here. He heard her laughter again over the street's rumble and the neighbor's yells as he lifted her, swung her up and banged into the apartment. She'd clung to his neck, her pudgy little fingers grasping his shoulders, her mouth suckling his throat between giggles and shrieks. He'd tromped through the apartment, swinging her around and around, ending the whirling tour by flinging her onto the mattress. She laughed and called him a bull and threw her dingy white shoes at him, one after the other. He caught them both and fired them around the room, shattering the dangling light bulb with the left and punching a pockmark in the wall with the right. He popped the buttons of his starched white wedding shirt and shrugged out of it, then grabbed the back of his cotton undershirt and dragged it over his head. His hair wild, his eyes flaming, his face and chest sticky with sweat, he launched himself at her with a war roar that made the upstairs neighbors pause in their argument. Abby rolled away from him with a scream and thumped off the mattress, intending to scramble across the room. But Luke was quicker and he grabbed the back of her dress, hearing its ripping protest as he hauled her back across him. He trapped her underneath his torso, sucking in the smell of her, the faint perfume of her shampoo, the sweet wine that lingered in her breath. He felt her breathing under him, her lungs pushing her breasts against him, up and down. And then her dress was gone, and his pants were gone and all he could hear was the hot, rushing thumping of blood in his ears. He made love to her, then slept with his arm across her, pinning her down, and when he woke he did it all again.

He sat in the corner of the bedroom now, his head back against the wall, his eyes squeezed shut. He could almost feel Abby's body wrapped around him, her arms hugging his neck. When he came home she would run at him and he would catch her, ask her what was for dinner, then take her to bed. Some evenings he would go out with the boys from work and he'd come home drunk, smashing lights and furniture as he went. She'd scream at him and he'd holler back and overturn the table and toss dishes at the walls. Then he'd hoist her up and crunch through the broken glass and scattered chairs and make love to her until she was drunk and he was sober.

He lifted his head and rolled his eyes to the dim corner where Colleen's bassinet had rocked. When she was born he'd hated her for causing her mother's screams of pain that stabbed at him even in the waiting room. He'd thrown the little doctor against the nurse's station and explained to him very carefully where and how all his bones would be broken if he didn't do something to stop the pain, to get that baby out now. The doctor had stuttered a little, "It's always d-d-difficult the first t-time, M-Mr. C-C-Connelly," but he quickly ran back to the delivery room to make sure every bit of the birthing was textbook-perfect. A new passion lit in Luke as the nurse led him to his wife, and he first saw their tiny, ugly, pink baby wrapped in a scratchy hospital blanket, tucked against Abby's chest. Some nights he would sit next to her crib while Abby slipped into exhausted dreams. He would watch his Colleen breathe, and she would blink up at him with his own blue eyes.

The crib was gone, had been gone for so long, but he could hear its creak as he rocked it back and forth. He could hear Colleen's gurgles, Abby's sleepy murmurs. He wondered what his daughter looked like now, if she had her mother's ashen hair or her father's black curls. She must have her own children now, children whose names and birthdays he'd never know. He never even heard her first word, saw her first step. The only evidence he had of her existence was the tiny pink hospital bracelet he'd cut off her wrist with his pocketknife the day he brought her home from the hospital.

He lost them both on a damp, moonless August night. He'd been playing pool, losing money on the games, losing money on little side bets like which ant would reach the pretzel first. He'd gotten in at least one fight, and he was pretty sure the raised white scars on his left wrist were memories of that evening's broken beer bottles. The boys had been rowdy, whooping and drinking and busting each other up, but it wasn't so different from any other night of the week. Before dawn he'd stumbled home, falling and pushing a hand through the wire mesh on the outer door.

"Abby!" he belted. Somewhere at the back of the apartment the baby woke up and screamed for company. Abby was sitting cross-legged on the kitchen table, a crinkled and folded sheet of ivory stationery stuck to her right hand.

"Don't wake her up, Luke. Don't." She stared at him, at his bloody arm, his bruised eyes, his sweaty clothes.

He cocked his head at Colleen's throaty yells. "'S a little late, don't you think?" He grinned and climbed onto the table with her, kneeling and poking his nose into her face. He kissed her, running the tip of his tongue around her unsmiling teeth. He backed off an inch and opened his eyes into hers. She had no response, and he realized for the first time that she hadn't rushed him at the door, she hadn't tackled him, she hadn't even said hello. "What the hell'sa matter with you? Ain't you glad to see me?"

Soft brown eyes blinked warily at him. "I got a letter today, Luke."

Tumbling off the table, he replied, "What's that go to do with not being glad to see your husband when he come home?" He snatched the heavy paper from her hand.

She slid off the table, her skirt riding high on the edge before falling back around her knees. "I've been thinking about it all day." She rubbed an eyebrow. "More than that. Months. Since she was born."

Luke flipped the letter over. "This is from your mama. What business she got writing you letters when she couldn't even come to your wedding, or see your daughter born?"

"She wants Colleen now, Luke. She wants Colleen to come live with her."

"The hell she does." Luke pounded the letter into the table. "Far as I'm concerned the old bitch ain't got a granddaughter. She can sit on her goddamn plantation and suck iced tea and never even get a fucking picture of my daughter."

Abby stared at him, at his tight mouth, his narrow flame eyes, his red forehead. She sucked a lungful of hot, rain-wet air and quietly stated, "I think she's right. She can take Colleen and it can be like it was with us."

The table flew, slamming into the back wall, crunching a dented arc in the plaster through the thin wallpaper. Colleen paused, then once more took up her wails. "Goddamn it, Abby." Luke stuck a thick finger at her top dress button. "You make one move to let the old broad at Colleen and I'm gonna strap you to the stove."

Abby didn't look at his finger, took no note of the other hand clenched at his hip. "Money, Luke, she's got money. Money for schools and doctors and clothes."

"We got plenty enough for the girl!"

"Not like Mama's got!" Abby's little voice finally rose to match her husband's loud tone. "She can have everything if we let Mama take her."

"The old bitch don't want her, and you goddamn well know it." When Abby made no sign of agreement he hauled up one of the wooden chairs and launched it past her head. "Was you happy in that house, Abby? Huh? Yeah, you was so happy you come down here and married me just to get away from her. And you love it. You love every little bit of this place, and me, and us." He swung his arms around the room, accidentally slapping the back of his left hand against the wall, scraping his knuckles. "All this is good enough for you, baby. Ain't it good enough for Colleen like it is for you?"

"No!" A sob tore her voice in two. "Do you know what happened to the baby next door? Dead. Dead because no doctor would treat her here. Sarah's boy's leg is mangled and twisted because they couldn't pay to fix it when he fell out of that tree. I’m afraid to even let her near that tumble-down school, even if they could teach her anything there. None of these children can even read their own names!" She swiped at her face, dampening her hand with sweat and tears. "I can't let her be that way, I can't!"

Colleen's cries in the bedroom rent through the silence that fell around them. Luke hammered a frustrated fist into the wall next to the dent the table had made. "Well, I ain't about to let her grow up like you did. I ain't gonna let your mama win. I'll see my girl in a box in a pauper's grave 'fore I let her dress in lace and curtsy to your mama's friends on the front porch of that old mansion."

"Well, I won't. I won't see her dead,” Abby screamed. “I won't see her poor and stupid and disfigured."

Luke stepped at her, lowering his voice until Abby could barely hear it over the baby's waning sobs. "Like me, Abby? Stupid and poor like me? Me and my brothers and sisters? We didn't have no mansion. We didn't have no servants. Am I too poor and dumb to raise my daughter?"

"Please, Luke." Abby ignored the black thread in his voice, the darkness that lit his eyes and weighed on his breath. "Please just let Mama take her. Please."

She never expected it, she was bouncing off the wall and sprawling over the chairs before even he knew that he'd smashed her. Suddenly he felt the pain across the back of his hand where it had burst across her cheekbone. He stared at his hand, at the old scrapes and the crusty bar-fight cuts. Then his gaze turned slightly, focused on his wife, his Abby, not moving in the midst of the wooden chairs. Purple blood oozed sluggishly beneath the surface of skin below her closed eye.

In the bedroom Colleen sobbed again, softly wept and then trailed off into sleep. Luke fell over to Abby, murmuring her name again and again, a pleading chant that he didn't even hear. The pulsing adrenalin ebbed out of his brain, and the alcohol that it had temporarily replaced rushed back into his head, helping the salt tears to blind him, blur his view of the room. He crumpled beside his wife, pulling her head against him. She fluttered awake and lay on his chest as he traded consciousness with her, slipped into a hazy alcoholic dream.

The sun had shot through the windows, laser beams cutting through his thin eyelids. He'd blinked awake, chair legs cushioning his spine. Abby hadn't been in the flat. She'd left, she'd taken Colleen, his baby, and she'd left. The only things she hadn't taken were the purple and blue ribbons floating around the fan, and her mother's ivory letter. Sitting in the dark now he could feel the textured paper between his fingers as he'd ripped it into a thousand snowflakes and flung them about the apartment. The agony of her absence sliced at his gut again for the first time in forty years, as though he were once again awakening to the hot, empty, sun-bitten apartment. He braced his hand on the wooden floor next to his hip and pulled his eyes open to the current darkness, grinding his teeth, biting into the pain, trying to crush it into bite-sized pieces he could spit on the floor and leave there. He rolled to his feet and rushed out of the room, out through the front door into the shabby courtyard. Each shuffling, blind step marched him farther from that haunted flat, but the haunting followed him, refusing to let him sink into the passionless hole he'd hidden in for so long.

His feet carried him back to his comfort, back to his familiar, bland world. Eddie had gone, and Georgia was flicking off the lights when he crashed through the screen door and placed an unsteady hand on the bar. He reached behind the bar, fished out a brand new bottle, and poured it down as though trying to unclog a drain. His throat worked and convulsed until he tried to draw a breath and then he choked and coughed, dropping the bottle. Georgia slid next to him, rubbing her scarlet fingertips around his hot eyes. She let him lift her onto the bar, and she lay back when he lightly shoved one palm at her chest. He tugged her jeans off, and she closed her eyes as his zipper dropped and he crawled over her, crushed her to him, climbed inside her. He bit into her neck, he dug his fingers into her shoulders, and when he called out a name, it didn't belong to her.



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