Chuck sits motionlessly at the back of a crowded French Quarter bar, near the bathrooms. It’s ten p.m.; two hours remain in which to let the good times roll. But Chuck hasn’t been able to catch a break or a stranger’s eye or a fistful of beads thrown from the floats. He plucked the strands around his neck from the gutter. He looks at his hands miserably and thinks about his son, back in the hotel room. Women would talk to them if Ross were here, being all cute and teenager-y and corruptible. I came here to do something, Chuck thinks. But his only achievements are eating and drinking to excess. Like a parade, the good times have rolled right past him.
He’d wanted to wake up in the morning not just hung-over, but carnally ashamed. Like a wink or a secret handshake, he’d hoped to share that manful, dirty pride with his son. He’d considered getting them some hookers, or going to a live sex show. Chuck would’ve spared no expense. Instead, he’s paying for on-demand video games at the hotel room his son won’t leave. And though many women have joined Chuck in his barroom banquette, they were only waiting for the bathroom. The last girl couldn’t wait and did a line of coke off the table like he wasn’t there.
Another girl sits down beside Chuck and he figures she too is waiting for the bathroom. She’s drunken, doe-eyed, wearing a blue wig that matches her brightly patterned shirt.
“Like my shirt?” she screams. “It’s airbrushed!” And then he sees that she’s not wearing a shirt after all. Some of the paint has come off her nipples and Chuck can see tender ridges of pink beneath blue and flaking green. To his surprise, she lifts his hand and places within it the small, warm fact of her breast. Oh please God, Chuck thinks.
“Your face!” She laughs. Chuck removes his hand. She’s wearing a tiny pair of actual shorts, painted like the rest of her in swirls of blue and green.“Why aren’t you having a good time? It’s motherfucking Mardi Gras!” She stands and shakes her boobs against his cheeks; a joke, presumably. He’s probably not supposed to get a hard-on.
But this is the only opening he’s had all day, and he must pounce. “How much money would I have to give you for you to leave with me right now?” he shouts.
She stops shaking her boobs. He watches her step back and take in his side-part, his gentle belly fold, his pleated chinos. He knows what he looks like, but cash is cash.
She screams, “Are you out of your fucking mind? What do you think I am?”
“Beautiful,” Chuck screams back.
They leave through the fire exit and nobody stops them.
On the sidewalk, Chuck seizes her elbow but the girl slips from his grasp and says, “Hold up, I didn’t say I’d go someplace with you. I just came out so we could talk.”
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars.”
“To fuck you?” Her mouth is a shocking pink hole in her blue-and-green face.
“If—if you want to,” he stammers, unsure what he actually has in mind.
“Why would I want to?” Her arms are crossed over her painted breasts.
Chuck backtracks. “It’s really for my—”
“Look,” she says, cutting him off. “I got bills. You a serial killer?”
“No. Are you underage?” he asks, proud for remembering.
She shakes her head. “So, here are the rules. We can make out, and you can come if you want to but I’m not going to touch your dick.”
They shake hands, but in the back of Chuck’s mind he’s thinking about Ross, how to tell her. It’s too late though; she says she knows a back way to his hotel and then she’s pulling him by the hand through the pulsing mob in the streets. Together they scurry through the French Quarter alleys like lovers or rats.
Suddenly, Chuck is sick. He is not a runner, and the cure for too many drinks is not an oyster po’ boy. He tries to hold it in but vomit splatters the bricks between his loafers. He relinquishes the girl’s hand, certain she’ll disappear back into the herd of revelers, but miraculously, she waits. Though she is clearly disgusted. Thank God, he thinks, for girls with cash flow problems.
In the lobby of the hotel he figures he’d better tell her about Ross. “Listen,” he says. “My teenage son is in the room.” The girl looks at him like she knew it, she knew there was a catch.
“You creep,” she says. “Bet you don’t have no thousand dollars, neither.” She turns to go; the concierge people are staring but it’s nothing they haven’t seen before.
“I do!” he says. “I’ll go up and get it. Then we can have a drink at the bar and you can decide. Either way, you can keep the money.” He feels better after puking, clearer and more surefooted. He won’t let her get away.
“You’d pay me a thousand dollars just to have a drink with you? You must be desperate,” she says.
“Don’t leave,” he says, seating her at the bar. “I’ll be back in five.”
He watches from inside the glass elevator as it ascends and she doesn’t leave. It is eleven-thirty, the eleventh hour. Soon, the good times will be officially shut down for the season, but for Chuck and/or Ross, they’ll just be starting. Chuck hasn’t solved the problem of how they’ll share her, or if they will. He’s a hunter who has procured enough for one, and a father must feed his son. Chuck resolves to be satisfied with gristle and bones. But maybe the girl will dance for them. A thousand dollars is a lot of money.
Of course she might take the money and leave. Or Ross might refuse, and call his old man a perv.
Arriving in New Orleans, Ross had eyed the festivities from their balcony, pronounced Mardi Gras “an overgrown pep rally” and turned on the T.V.Ross might then tell his mother, Chuck’s ex-wife, whose permission for this trip was granted reluctantly with the caveat that Chuck take Ross to church for Ash Wednesday.All Chuck wanted was to whisk Ross away for a few days of mind-erasing fun. “There was an incident at school,” Caroline had explained. “In the locker room.” Someone had seen and reported it. When Chuck pressed for details she stuttered and said their son had been “violated.” He knew there was another word she couldn’t make herself say. Ross called it a lie and wouldn’t press charges. He said those football guys are always making things up, trying to say people are gay. Caroline had then found what she called a “hate manifesto” in the pocket of his jeans. “He’s going to become one of those shooter kids,” she’d said.
Caroline would use a paid, painted, topless girl against him for eternity. There would be no more chances for good times with Ross. If they don’t have some red-blooded, manly fun together now, they might never; they might forget how.
The hotel room is rank and goaty with the smell of boy. Ross is asleep, his face concealed behind a hank of hay-colored hair. There’s porn on TV; mini bar bottles and candy wrappers litter the rug. Chuck, overcome with tenderness and relief, thinks Bless you; you’re normal. He kisses his son’s forehead and Ross doesn’t move. Within Chuck rises a savage, giddy greed: the girl is his now, his alone. He takes his wallet from the safe and goes back downstairs.
She’s still waiting, stabbing her ice with a straw. No one else is in the bar except the bartender, who’s at the other end, messing with his phone. Chuck sits down beside her. “Our coast is clear,” he says. There’s a narrow band of unpainted pink flesh on her hip where her shorts have ridden down, promising a sweet swath of more beneath them. If only. He licks his lips and tastes his son’s sweat on them. He signals the bartender for a drink.
“Where’s my money?” the girl asks. Chuck hands it to her and she counts it, ten one hundred dollar bills.
Chuck sips his drink. “My kid,” he says, struck by sudden insight, “has no instinct for self-preservation. His mother fills his head with Jesus stuff, turn the other cheek, all that. What he needs is jiu-jitsu. I betyou know some jiu-jitsu.” Chuck pokes her in the thigh. The girl looks at him wearily. Her blue-and-green makeup is cracked. In the bad light she looks monstrous, ancient. Her eyes look a thousand years old.
The bartender says, “It’s midnight, assholes. Adios.”
The girl says, “I need to lie down.”
He tries to kiss her in the elevator, but her response is halfhearted. He thinks he’ll turn the porn channel back on once they’re in the room, to inspire her. But when they get there, she says she’s tired and stretches out beside his sleeping son.
“How about over here?” Chuck says, patting his own bed. The girl feigns deep sleep; Chuck knows she’s pretending, but what can he do? He said he’d pay her for nothing and now nothing is what he’s got. He considers going over and putting his hands on her breasts again. She’d given him permission to come if he wanted to, and he wants to. But with Ross right there and her faking sleep, it’s too weird, too depressing. He rolls over. Outside, the police are marching through the street on horseback, sending everybody home. It’s Ash Wednesday. In seven hours he and Ross will go to church seeking absolution they haven’t earned, and fly home.
Later—he can’t tell how much later—he wakes up and hears Ross being sick in the bathroom. Chuck turns on the lamp and the girl is not on the bed.That figures, he thinks. The little crook. She’s left a blue-green smear on the sheets. Chuck gets up to check on Ross but stops when he hears her voice in the bathroom. Peeking through the door, Chuck sees her holding Ross’s hair as he pukes, cooing nonsense. Telling Ross it’s alright, calling him “honey.” The knobs of Ross’s spine gleam in the fluorescent light like pearls on a string. Unbidden, an image flares in Chuck’s mind: Ross, in the locker room. His back curved, displaying the pearls of his spine before some—some swine. Chuck’s stifled cry nearly chokes him.
He tiptoes back to bed and turns out the lamp as the toilet flushes. The sink runs, then the shower. Later he hears Ross and the girl whispering in the darkness but can’t understand what they’re saying. He thinks, Ross probably knows her name and he wishes he’d remembered to ask. At one point it sounds like the girl is singing. Please God, Chuck thinks. He’s emptied his savings for this trip; let it be worth it. But he’s already had several miracles tonight. How many does a person get?
When he wakes again, nacreous light is seeping around the edges of the heavy curtains, and the girl is really gone this time. Chuck’s beads sway from the doorknob, and something’s written on the mirror. There’s a breakfast tray he doesn’t remember and the room smells like syrup. In his sleeping son’s profile, Chuck sees Ross as a baby; he also sees himself as a young man. But mostly he sees someone else, a stranger. Ross opens his eyes when the church bells start to ring. Father and son lie without speaking, adjusting to the light and looking at one another across the space between their beds. Caroline had made Chuck swear they’d go to church, but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. They can go eat beignets instead.