RULE #20: Never bring a book to work. It makes the customers think you’re better than them. It doesn’t matter what you’re reading. It doesn’t matter if you’ve finished cleaning all the glasses and it’s a quiet Monday afternoon — leave the book at home. You’ll know this when your father comes behind the bar looking pissed and tells you to come into his office.
When you go into his office, not sure what your offense is yet but ready for a shit storm, remember not to talk back. When he points accusingly at the book under your arm and asks if you think that because you were educated up North, you’re better than Smitty and Captain John, who are sitting at the bar waiting for some decent service, show no reaction. Don’t even shrug. Because if you point out that you probably wouldn’t be working in this bar had you actually attended college, that vein in his neck will start quivering, and he’ll call you a “self-righteous bitch — just like your mother.” Don’t think about how he left you and your mother when you were only one, and don’t bother crying either, because you both know that he doesn’t fall for that little-girl crap. Just go back out there and finish your shift.
From then on, leave the books at home.
RULE #19: If the customer wants to buy you a shot — do it. This puts money in the register, and then maybe your dad won’t be so pissed at you. Make sure you pick a medium-price liquor for your shot. Don’t choose something cheap from the well, but don’t pick something too fancy either, like Grand Marnier, or you might make the customer think you’re taking advantage. If you like whiskey, choose Jameson or Bushmills. If you like tequila, pick Hornitos. Don’t drink vodka ever, because that’s for girly girls, and even though you are wearing a shirt cut so low you risk a nipple popping out, you still need the customers to know you’re a tough chick who, as your dad puts it, “can roll with the big dogs.”
RULE #18: Don’t play “Hotel California” on the jukebox. Any decent French Quarter bartender learns this quick. It’s OK to let the old-timers play crappy music in the afternoon, but don’t allow it at night. If someone starts playing “Comfortably Numb” before 3 AM, hit the SKIP button behind the bar. If he puts up a stink, toss him a quarter. If you choose to liven up the joint by playing the jukebox with your own money, consider who is sitting on those stools:
If he’s a white guy with gray hair and tattoos of eagles or naked ladies, play Merle or Hank Jr. If he’s got long hair and tattoos of guitars or naked ladies, play Iggy Pop or Hank III. Don’t mix up your Hanks. If you’re unsure, just play Hank Sr., which will make either of them tap his boot.
If he’s a black guy with a clean fade and shiny shoes, play Sade, Luther, or Curtis. If he’s wearing a Stetson, cuff links, or two tones, play Fats. Don’t bother trying to play anything in the jukebox for guys wearing high-tops or baseball caps. Your dad makes sure there’s nothing on there they want to hear.
Everybody likes Al Green.
RULE #17: Act a little stupid. Laugh loudly at jokes that aren’t funny. When the guys from the Chartres Street brickyard belly up to the bar to tell you stories about their day, lean over and show lots of cleavage. Nod intently and pretend to be interested. When Painter Mike complains about how his boss is ripping him off, shake your head in disgust and buy him a beer. When the payphone at the end of the bar rings, and it’s A.J.’s wife calling for the third time to ask if you’ve seen him, tell her no — even though you can see him sitting two barstools down from you. When you hang up, try not to think about the baby you heard crying in the background.
RULE #16: Sweep your tips regularly. Never leave too much cash sitting on the bar. People will start thinking you’re rich — or some junkie will swipe it when you turn your back.
RULE #15: Know who’s important. Placate the wrinkled, tanned men with big guts and Hawaiian shirts who drink rum and Cokes on weekday afternoons. They have plenty of retirement money, and they travel back and forth between bars in Key West and bars in the French Quarter. Even though they insist on loading the jukebox with Jimmy Buffett songs, they’ll put a slow day into the green.
Divers from the rigs and offshore fishermen get paid a lot, and if you play it right, they’ll spend it all on you. They come off that water lonely and thirsty, pockets lined with cash. Pay special attention to the one who seems smitten with your smile.
Kick out the gutter punks, the street kids. They bring in lice and scabies, pay for their beer in nickels, and never tip.
Even though old-timers don’t always tip at first, eventually they’ll be your bread and butter. They come in every day without fail. At first, when you set down their iced pony of Miller, they’ll stiff you. After a month or so they’ll leave you the loose change. But if you just keep laughing and leaning, leaning and laughing, pretty soon those dimes will turn into paper in your tip jar.
You’ll figure out quickly whose checks you can cash. Your dad has a list in his office.
RULE #14: Friday happy hour is the best shift of the week, because it’s payday. Don’t bother vying for that shift though, because everyone knows it’s belonged to Mama Ruthie for more than a decade. Your dad tells you to watch Ruthie if you want to learn how to keep your shift rolling. You want to do anything that will make him like you. Take mental note of how she reaches for bottles, lets a Camel dangle from her lips, or casually tucks a pack of matches into her bra. Remember the way she pops a beer, lines up shots, and arches her lower back while reaching into the ice bin. Watch what jiggles when she shakes a whisky sour. She’s twice your age, twice your weight, and usually drunk by 4 PM, but remember what else your dad told you: a pretty face isn’t everything.
RULE #13: Since you’ll never get Friday happy hour, get to know your own audience. Early mornings are the leftovers and the hardcores. Leftovers are the people still messed up from the night before. They are usually your friends: other bartenders or strippers who work late and like to party after their shifts. They tip well and are generous with their coke. The hardcores are usually old-timers — but not always. They stumble in at 6 or 7 AM, hands trembling so bad they can barely rub the sleep from their eyes. They’ll ask you to put some cheap vodka in their coffee, and they’ll watch really hard as you pour it. One day they’ll just stop coming in.
RULE #12: Stop jogging in the morning and start hanging out at the bar even on your off days. Your dad says it will help build your customer base. Also pick up smoking.
RULE #11: If you’re working the graveyard shift, and the other bartender asks if you want to go to the bathroom and do some coke, say yes. If Ricky from upstairs comes in chewing on the side of his mouth and asks if you want to go to the bathroom and do some coke, say yes. If two tourists wearing heaps of Mardi Gras beads sit at the bar sipping Hurricanes for three hours before they finally get up the nerve to ask if you know where they can get some coke, say no. After you’ve begun to chew on the side of your mouth like Ricky, start drinking whiskey, at least until you find some valium. You won’t get any of that till the end of your shift, when Mr. Thomas, who works at the nursing home, comes in for his Miller Lite at 6 AM. Make a mental note to put aside ten bucks to give him later.
You walk home under a wet yellow sun, pavement steaming, blood racing in your ears, and the heat is already stifling. You check your pockets for more blow, but they are empty. You’re sweaty, and you smell like beer, and your shirt is stained. Your fingernails are dirty. People are watering their lawns and walking their dogs, and you put up your hood and light another cigarette.
RULE #10: “Big dogs don’t cry with the puppies on the porch.” This is what he says as you stand in his office before your shift, trying to convince him that your hangover is really the flu. He sees your red eyes and your wrinkled skirt and tells you that you’re nothing but a Bourbon Street slut. He shuts the door in your face, and you want to smash it with your fist. You want to scream that, aside from a couple of checks in the mail and a surprise visit on your tenth birthday, he hid from you for the first eighteen years of your life. You want to scream that you moved here only to get to know him. But you know if you do this, he’ll turn his back on you just as easily as he did before.
RULE #9: Avoid calling your mom. Besides the fact that your phone has been shut off for weeks, when she finally does reach you at the bar, the warm waves of her faraway voice make your head hurt. She tells you that she sold the house. There’s static on the line, but she doesn’t seem to hear it. While she talks about her travels, describing a sunset in the Painted Desert, you’re staring through a cloud of cigarette smoke at your reflection in the mirror behind the bar. You’re glad she can’t see you.
When you get back to your apartment after your shift, go into the closet and pull out a cardboard box filled with old photos. Take one out and stare at it for a long time. It’s a photograph you’ve kept in every bedroom you’ve ever had. In it a fat baby in a pinned diaper is lying next to a man on a bed. The man is propped on a pillow, reading a magazine. He has a panther tattoo on his left arm. You remember all the times you stared at that photo when you were a kid, wondering what this man was up to right then, and if he missed or even thought about the baby in the bed.
RULE #8: Don’t use water to rinse the scabs inside your nose. It feels good at first, but it will just dry them out and make them worse. Saline drops from the drugstore work best. If you stop snorting the coke Ricky keeps giving you, which is obviously cut with bleach, your nose might have a chance to heal up. Think about this, but don’t stop.
RULE #7: When your father tells you he’s going to die, don’t believe him. He starts to cough more than usual, and his skin begins to look gray. He calls and tells you that he needs you to stay at his place and take care of him. You don’t want to — and you feel angry that he is asking, because he never took care of you — but you do it anyway.
At first, you have to walk with him slowly, holding his arm as you go down Dumaine Street. Instead of the shiny penny loafers he’s worn forever, he’s suddenly wearing orthopedic white sneakers, the kind that old people wear. At night, when you help him take off his shirt before bed, all those tattoos that once made him look strong and invincible now make him look tired and small. The two blue swallows on his chest sag. The angry panther on his arm seems juvenile. He no longer looks like the man who went to prison for ten years for killing someone with a baseball bat.
His phone doesn’t ring. No one comes by to say hello or help him go to the bathroom. No one fixes his breakfast or doles out his medications. You find the remote control and give it to him. You fluff his pillows just right for the day.
RULE #6: You do it all wrong. And he lets you know. You fold the blanket wrong, you don’t put enough mustard on the sandwich, you knock his knee with the oxygen tank, you put the socks in the wrong drawer. When you walk in the door with an armful of bags from the pharmacy, he asks to see the receipt: he is making sure you didn’t buy anything extra for yourself.
RULE #5: Start doing more blow. Tell yourself it’s because you’re so busy that you need it. It seems ironic because your dad is on drugs, too. One day, while you’re feeding him cereal, you recognize the glassy look in his eye — the one you’ve seen in customers nodding over a bottle of Dixie in a back booth of the bar. You realize that the reason your dad can’t get the spoon in his mouth is not because he is dying of cancer but because he’s high. When you check one of the orange bottles, you see that he’s been sneaking pills.
In the middle of the night, when you are helping him to the bathroom, he calls you Mama Ruthie. When you say, “No, I’m not Ruthie,” he looks at you like a lost child. “You know,” he says in a more gentle voice than you’ve ever heard from him before, “she used to be the most beautiful woman in town.” For a second you hate Mama Ruthie.
After you get him settled, you think about that photo of you and him. Then you lie down in the bed next to your dad. You turn your head to look at him, and his face is just inches from your face.
RULE #4: When he tells you he wants to die, remove the orange bottles from the counter. Hide them on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. But not so high that he can’t reach.
RULE #3: Sleep when you’re dead. It’s Carnival week when it happens. You are both tired. The sounds of music and laughter drift in through the open window, but you are trapped inside with the murmur of the TV and the hiss of the oxygen tank. The coughing is relentless.
On the day he finally stops coughing, marching bands flash in the sun. Outside, the God of Wine leans over seas of outstretched arms and drinks from his giant chalice. Bones rattle as the Zulu King throws coconuts to the kids on Canal Street. Inside, the man in bed takes a last breath, and his mouth remains open. It’s almost like he’s trying to sing along with the music.
RULE #2: Don’t tell people he’s dead. Because when you do, the refrigerator, the stove, and the TV all go missing. You confront Mama Ruthie, who’s had a key to his place since the 1970s, and she shrugs, saying, “Well, he told me I could take the fridge.” She won’t look you in the eye after that, and she leaves the apartment. You silently shove papers into garbage bags and dishes into cardboard boxes. Glaring at the dusty space where the fridge used to be, you get so mad you throw a coffee cup across the room, and when it smashes on the wall, a shard of porcelain skitters by your foot. Pick it up. Then, like a swan parting water, drag it smooth and silent along the outside of your bare thigh. Something about seeing your leg and your fingers and that piece of coffee cup all slippery and red makes you feel calm.
Later you sit on a bench in Jackson Square drinking Irish whiskey with your shoulders washed in the four o’clock sun. To your left a man with a white hat tilted low across his face will be performing a card trick on a folding table while a small crowd claps. You remember the time your dad taught you to run a Three-Card Monte. He’d suddenly appeared — a stranger in your house — and your mother’s lips were tight. You stared down at his penny loafers on the cracked linoleum as he gave you a stiff hug. He had come with roast-beef sandwiches, and you were eating one when he cracked open a fresh deck of cards. Your ten-year-old eyes marveled at his expert shuffle. His hands floated over the kitchen table as he demonstrated the subtle twist of the wrist and flick of the thumb needed to silently land three cards face down. His breath smelled like peppermints and Pall Malls. He asked you to find the Queen of Hearts. He asked if anyone, ladies and gentlemen, could tell him where the Queen of Hearts was hiding.
RULE #1: The box of ashes is made of wood and smaller than a shoe box. You’re surprised by how much it weighs. You pick it up at the funeral home, and it rides next to you in the front passenger seat as you drive to the bar. Every time you look at it, you start picking at the scab on your thigh through the fabric of your black skirt.
At the memorial everybody is sitting in the bar’s courtyard around the picnic table, drinking beer out of plastic cups and eating baked beans. T-Fly, who works in the kitchen of Matassa’s Market, has brought a special plate of ham-and-cheese hors d’oeuvres, but those get eaten quickly. Mama Ruthie and other people stand up and talk about your dad, and most of the stories are funny. They talk about how he bailed Crazy Charmaine out of jail. And what he did to Painter Mike when he caught him pissing in the ice machine.
Rufus, the cleanup guy who usually gets done mopping by 10 AM, is drunk. He has a bony face and red hair, and he wobbles as he tries to stand. He raises one arm and points right at you. “Your daddy was fucking asshole,” he shouts, slurring his words. Somebody yells, “Shut the fuck up, Rufus!” and yanks him down by his T-shirt.
After the free drinks are gone, people leave, and you take the wooden box inside and set it on a shelf between the potato chips and the bottle of Seagram’s 7. Then, without saying goodbye to anyone, you walk out of the bar. For a while you think about going back for the ashes. But you never do.