Day One. Word count: 2761.
Clive glanced out into the courtyard just as the first breath of wind sliced through the muggy stagnant air, stirring the leaves on the sweet bay and dogwood trees in its center. Bright sunlight, streaming from almost directly overhead, cut luminous diagonal swaths across the pale pink stucco and mauve shutters and steely blue decorative balconies (and wasn’t hoisting the new flowers up the ladder to those false balconies every morning a bitch, Clive thought). But now the light seemed to wash out slightly, and lose some intensity, as though the sun momentarily lost some of it’s sway it held over the sweltering August afternoon. And then, as quickly as it appeared, the wind died. The air quickly resumed its oppressive humidity, but in the distance, somehow muffled and amplified at the same time through some quirk of the dense, muggy, New Orleans air, Clive could hear a rumble of thunder. The breeze stirred restlessly again, and Clive looked around at the tables in the courtyard: all were empty save one, and the sixty-something couple sitting there peered nervously at the square of sky above and signaled for their check.
Clive nodded at them and headed to the server station with a sigh. The couple had split a Monte Cristo, five buck plate sharing charge be damned, and ordered two iced teas. Sweet. Sweeter than sweet, actually, to judge from the half dozen or so Splenda packets they had scattered over the table top. And no upselling for these folks, no matter how charmingly Clive had offered. No to the Sazeracs, no to the gazpacho to beat the heat, and oh, the Bananas Foster sounded tempting, but a flaming dessert when the air already seemed to be liquefying and crawling down their collars was a hard sell to anyone that wanted a courtyard seat. Oh, sure, they all wanted to sit outside when then walked into the air-conditioned restaurant, but once the novelty wore off and they realized there was actually weather out there, well, they were usually too ashamed to want to come back inside. And who suffered? Their server, with the meager bill and the equally meager tip, usually under fifteen percent, but enough to make their total payment a nice, round number. Clive had been working in restaurants to know the type of patron on sight. He dropped the bill in its padded pleather holder on their table and hovered out of sight for just the right amount of time. Returned. Asked if they needed change, was assured they didn’t. Exchanged mutual pleasantries, watched them shuffle back out onto the street. Checked the holder. Twelve percent. Bastards. The thunder tympani-d again, closer now.
Clive headed back to the server station, grumbling to himself, stopping on the way to ask the host to let him know if he got any more guests. He knew the odds were against it; most visitors didn’t head for the French Quarter during the afternoon if they were smart, but rather waited for sundown. It would still be humid, but the blast-furnace sensation of the merciless afternoon sun would be removed from the equation, and they’d stop drinking sweet tea and start drinking whatever signature blender drink the bar they were visiting offered. Or beer. Something with a decent profit margin, and enough alcohol to lower the incredulous response to the prices. Iced tea consumption was inversely proportional to the daily temperature, he thought ruefully. Amazing what you can recall from high school math when your mind wanders.
After all, Clive thought, as he sat down and started to roll silverware for the dinner servers, tourists usually didn’t view money spent in NoLa as real, at least not after a few days. Hell, for the unacclimated, after a few days, the city started to take on a vague fever dream quality. Too many people came down here with visions of Anne Rice or Tennessee Williams dancing in their heads, and that started to color their experience pretty quickly. Of course, the nighttime party atmosphere and marathon drinking helped with that, especially in the run-up to Mardi Gras. Once summer turned its full attention on Louisiana, though, the crowds tended to make themselves scarce during the day. Those who did venture out tended to practically sprint from building to building in short bursts, gulping down the cool ambiance of the shops and bars and restaurants like pockets of air in a flooded cave.
Clive rolled a bus-tub worth of silverware. Then another. Partway into his third tub, he sighed, and threw down the fork he was holding. He stood, wandered up past the host stand, and opened the door, flooding the foyer with silvery light. The humidity covered him like a warm, wet sheet as he stepped out and looked down the street
It was like looking at a photograph. If not for the leaves fluttering in the freshening breeze, it could have been. No one walked down the sidewalk, no cars moved down the street, no brass band tuned up several streets over, nothing. The sky was quickly filling with clouds now, the breeze wicking away sweat that he hadn’t even noticed. If this was a portent, Clive decided, it was not a good one.
He headed back inside, the air conditioning raising goosebumps under the thin sheen of perspiration on his arms and neck. He moved to the bar, a huge squared off U of dark wood and lacquer, dating back over a century and backed with carved wood, huge mirrors and countless bottles. The one concession to the current era were two large flat panel televisions on either side, mounted to the wall. One was almost perpetually tuned to ESPN, and Clive could see the other flicking through channels as Drew, the bar manager, worked the remote. Drew nodded a greeting, and as though reading Clive’s mind, stopped on the Weather Channel and set the remote down.
The screen showed a satellite image, overlaid with radar, proclaiming the imminent arrival of a fairly sized mass of moist, unstable tropical air. The perky blonde on the television was anxious to emphasize that it was most definitely not a tropical storm, as there was no rotation, but that it carried with it the likelihood of strong rain, thunderstorms, and heavy waves. They always were careful to say that, trying to soothe jangled nerves in southern Louisiana, even close to a half-decade later. Clive couldn’t blame them for trying, but it did get kind of obvious after a while. Annoying, too, like a mother trying to shush a baby that just wouldn’t stop fussing; eventually the mom’s calming noises became more irritating that the kid’s grumping.
“That would explain the clouds and the wind, then,” Clive muttered, “Everyone’s watching this in their hotel rooms. They’re gonna wait and see if it’s worth coming down here to the Quarter, or it they’ll just get wet and miserable.”
Drew nodded, “The hotel bars’ll be busy, but I’m guessing we won’t.” He sighed and wiped down the already immaculate bar top. “Looks like I prepped for nothing.”
“Yeah, same here. You’ve got more than two bus tubs full of roll-ups ready to go for tonight, but I’ll be surprised if you make it through more than a half, if it doesn’t pick up at all.”
Drew looked at his watch, then at Clive, “You’re off shift in twenty minutes anyway,” he said. “Anyone out there on the street when you looked?”
Clive shook his head, “Not a soul. Looked like ‘The Stand’ out there. Only without the whole deadly flu thing. And no old ladies in cornfields.”
Drew laughed, then picked up the bar phone, and called back to the office. He spoke a few words to Mike, the manager, then hung up. “Mike said you’re technically cut, but if someone comes in before Ashley gets here for her shift, you’ve gotta take them. To me, that means you’re not cut, but what do I know? I’m just the booze man.” He reached for two Old-Fashioned glasses and set them on the bar. “I’d be willing to bet, though, that you’re done for the day. How’d you do on lunch?”
“Lousy,” Clive replied. “If I made more than thirty bucks, I’d be astonished. Which reminds me, I’ve gotta bank out.”
“Go do it quick, then. I’ll throw something together when you’re done to help take some of the sting out of things”
“Thanks, Drew, but there’s no way I can afford a drink, not with the kind of lunches we’ve been having lately.”
Drew nodded again, then smiled, “So it’ll be on me.” Clive opened his mouth to protest. “Calm down, I’ll use rail booze if it’ll make you feel better.”
Clive paused for a second, the smiled in acquiescence. “Thanks, man. I’ll be back in five. There’s so little money from today, we’ll be able to count it in no time at all.”
Clive walked back to the office, taking off his apron, pulling out his bank, stopping by the server station to print out the totals from his lunch. He ran his fingers through his hair as he walked, and blew out a breath before stepping into the office to cash out. As Mike went over the figures from his comfortably padded office chair, Clive wondered how much longer he’d be able to put up with slow lunches and meager dinner crowds. He knew summer was hit or miss, but it was starting to seem like Katrina had broken the city’s spirit more than residents wanted to admit. Everyone was cheered to see familiar and famous places open back up, but still, no matter how much reconstruction took place, it was becoming apparent that the city was not getting back on its feet as quickly as anticipated.
Drew was pulling out a bottle of gin when Clive sat back down at the bar. As he did, the front door opened, and Ashley walked in. She surveyed the empty restaurant grimly. “Where is everyone?”
“No idea. It would seem we’ve got the plague, or something,” Drew said glibly. “Either that or we’ve been teleported to the Bermuda Triangle. Either way, y'a personne ici, ma chere.”
As she skulked off the office to clock in, Clive said, “I was wrong by the way.” Drew raised an eyebrow. “It took three minutes, and I made thirty-six bucks at lunch. Still lousy, but not as lousy as I thought. Especially considering I kept getting twelve percent tips.”
“Well, then to celebrate, we’ll use the good stuff instead of the rail. Still my treat,” he added, noticing Clive opening his mouth to protest. “Besides, I’m mixing myself one too, to get me through what promises to be a god-awful night, and I’d rather drink the good stuff, myself.”
Clive watched as Drew filled a pint glass with ice, poured in a healthy amount of London gin and orange curaçao, squeezed in the juice of a lime, splashed in some bitters, and then pulled a small brown bottle out of his apron and shook some in. “Orange bitters,” he said. “I tried for a while to find a reliable distributor, but it got to be hit or miss, so I just started making my own.”
“You make your own cocktail ingredients?” Clive asked. “Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
Drew shrugged. “I used to play around with stuff all the time when I was a kid. My mom told me I used to say I was making ‘formulas.’ So I guess I started early. Anyway, it’s not complicated, once you find the ingredients for the stuff. You just need some neutral grain spirits, some cheesecloth, a cool dark place, and some time for it all to come together.”
“So, what’s in the orange bitters?”
“Dried orange peel, some cardamom, some coriander, a little gentian, some cinchona bark...”
“Wait, cinchona bark? Where the hell do you find something like that?” Clive interjected. “I mean, the orange peel and spices I can see, but if you can’t find a distributor that carries pre-made orange bitters, how can you find all that other stuff?”
“Clive, this is New Orleans,” laughed Drew, sliding a shaker on top of the pint glass and starting to mix. “The heart of voodoo country! If you know who to ask, you can find all of this stuff in a twenty-minute walk of this place! Besides,” he added, “Most of the ingredients aren’t that obscure. I make our grenadine in the kitchen every few months out of pomegranate juice and sugar, and then just stash the bottles in the freezer until I need them. Tastes better than the pre-mixed stuff, that’s for sure.”
Drew poured the drink into the two Old Fashioned glasses on the bar. “Technically, this is supposed to be served up, in a cocktail glass, but I’d rather not sit here at the bar with you sipping frothy mixed drinks out of a martini glass like we just stepped off the set of the all male production of ‘Sex and the City.’ No offense, of course, it just could send the wrong message.”
Clive looked around the deserted bar, “Send the wrong message to who, exactly?” he grinned.
“Better safe than sorry,” said Drew, sagely. “Anyway, bottoms up, tip tip hurrah.”
“Wait, I can’t drink it until I know what it’s called. I’ve got to make sure I’m not knocking back a ‘Maiden’s Prayer,’ or something. It could send the wrong message, you know.”
“Fair enough,” Drew smirked, “It’s called the ‘Pegu Club,’ after the bar in Rangoon it was created in.”
“Rangoon? The only thing I about Rangoon is the little crab and cream cheese things named after them in Chinese restaurants.”
“It’s in Burma, drink up.”
“Yes, Burma,” Drew said, feigning exasperation, “Now sometimes called Myanmar, Bay of Bengal, exotic ports of call, bartending mystique, will you drink already?”
Clive took a sip. He’d never really been a gin drinker, but he decided he could get used to it in drinks like this; the botanicals of the gin, the tartness of the lime, the sweetness of the orange curaçao, plus the spiciness of the bitters, they all worked together to make some wholly new flavor. it was refreshing, exotic, familiar yet somehow alien. Yes, he decided, he liked this. What’s more, he liked the alchemy that created it.
“Where’d you learn about this drink?” he asked Drew.
“Well, when I started bartending, everybody always ordered the same things; vodka martinis, Cosmopolitans, gin and tonics, screwdrivers. And I thought ‘There’s gotta be more to bartending than these tired old things.’ So I tracked down some old cocktail guides, and I’ve been trying to get people to try the old classics that everyone’s forgotten about.”
“And do they?”
“Some do. Not many, though. Most want their old standbys,” he conceded. “And in the middle of a dinner rush at a restaurant in the French Quarter is not the ideal time or place to try to get people to sample something new. Nor is it the time or place to make them if you care about quality. And I do. I’d rather take two or three minutes to get everything mixed and poured right than to crank out a half dozen Cosmos as fast as I can. Sadly, though,” he gestured around at the bar, “While the ambiance is right for the old classics, the whole restaurant and bar biz in this area isn’t conducive to resurrecting the golden cocktails of yesteryear.” He quirked his mouth in a sad smile and sighed, “The reality of the hospitality industry seems to be add odds with the whole notion of hospitality sometimes, don’t you think?”
Clive nodded, “Sometimes, yeah. But what can you do? Especially in the French Quarter? I mean, we can dream all we want, but come Fat Tuesday, if we’re not pumping out synthetically-flavored Hurricanes in souvenir glasses, we’re gonna go broke.”
“I’d say we’re in danger of going broke right now, Hurricanes or no Hurricanes.” Drew looked back up at the television. The storms were about fifty miles off the coast, and the little vector diagrams overlaying the radar image showed that they’d drift onshore in the next hour. “Hell, if a little rain is enough to keep people away, how can we even hope to make it to Mardi Gras?”
Clive just sipped his drink, watching the storms get closer. He didn’t say anything to say to that.