The rain stopped. Even so, the last of it ran in streams off the broad awning that spanned the three jalousie doors across the front of Sloppy Joe’s Bar. Couples entering and exiting put on sudden bursts of speed, dashing through the small waterfalls to limit their soaking. Fleetwood Macaroni had long since finished its set and The Dolly Llamas were rocking the place as only they could.
More than fifty birthday revelers had now amassed around Carter’s table to share a drink with him. Unable to resist his gravity, they pulled their tables to the center of the bar in a tight cluster around his. The servers had given up trying to make sense of it. Carter was tipping with twenties so they brought more beer. At the center of it all he held court like a jester king.
From the edge of it, Rudy watched, his chin in his hand. He’d seen Carter captivate rooms since his freshman year at the University of Georgia. Carter, a sophomore, was already a veteran of campus life. But it was more than that. He had a smoothness beyond his years. A confidence. A brilliance. Carter Bliss had a gift. The kind shared by television evangelists and dictators. He knew what you needed to hear and he delivered it.
The room had worn on Rudy. The edge from the tequila had dulled. With it, his mind sharpened in a way he didn’t appreciate. He checked the time. It was six hours since Kak walked out of the Hog’s Breath. She’d doubtless returned there to find him gone. Maybe she was at the hotel. He stood to make his way to the door when he saw her, framed in the nearest exit, backlit by the late day sun emerging from the storm clouds. Soaked head to toe, she walked straight toward him.
Carter didn’t miss this. “The wet t-shirt contest doesn’t start for an hour,” he said. “But I dig your enthusiasm.”
Kak dropped three wet shopping bags on Rudy’s table. “I’ve lived too long to get modesty now.”
“We should put that on a t-shirt,” Carter said. “Wet or otherwise.”
Kak pushed away the hair matted to her forehead and Rudy saw the awful bruise. It was over her left eyebrow, just below her hairline, about the size of a quarter, fresh and purple. An indentation in the shape of a crescent moon stood out in the center of the bruise.
“Holy shit,” he said, pulling out a chair and sitting her down in it. “You get in a fight?”
“Bike wreck,” she said.
“Where’d you get a bike?”
“What in hell did you hit?”
“Do you remember those little merry-go-rounds on the school playground? You’d hang on to the bars and kids would push it around and jump on to ride until it slowed down?”
Rudy exchanged a look with Carter. This wasn’t good.
“Then some older kids would show up,” Kak continued. “And before you could get off they’d grab it and start running real fast. The centrifugal force was prying you loose. You couldn’t hold on but you couldn’t let go. And the whole time you’re losing your grip the older kids are laughing.”
“Let’s get you some ice,” Rudy said.
“And a towel,” Carter said, heading for the bar.
“That’s what it’s like when you piss off the gods,” Kak said. “They spin you to amuse themselves because they have nothing better to do. They’re bored. And you’re clinging for your life.”
“You’ll be fine,” Rudy said, trying not to sound patronizing. “It was just a bunch of bullies.”
“Yes!” She gaped at him as if he’d revealed some long-forgotten truth. “The gods are just a bunch of bullies.”
Carter came back with a bar towel full of ice. He twisted it shut to keep the cubes from spilling out. A couple of dry towels hung from his shoulder.
She took the ice-filled towel and touched it gently to her forehead, wincing as it made contact. “Ahhh.”
“We should get you checked out,” Rudy said. “By a doctor.”
“You should get me a drink,” she said. “By a bartender.”
Ten minutes later she’d nearly drained the second Sloppy Rita he’d brought her to replace the first. Most of the water in her hair and clothes had been transferred to the bar towels.
“They serve a good margarita here,” Rudy said, just to say something.
She scrutinized her nearly empty cup. “How can you tell?”
The knock on her head was obviously still affecting her. “Um,” he said, “The taste?”
“You don’t think it’s good?”
“As long as it has alcohol,” she said.
The crescent moon indentation on her forehead was hard to avoid. “You actually crashed into playground equipment,” he said.
This didn’t register with her.
“Your forehead,” he said, to prompt her.
“I don’t know what I hit. A parking meter. A trash can. Something.”
“What about the merry-go-round?”
It made him nervous. “I wish you’d let me take you to a doctor,” he said.
This was amusing to her for no good reason. “Believe me,” she said. “The last person I need to see right now, is a doctor.”
A few tables away, Carter stood to address the small civilization he’d created in the middle of the bar.
“This,” Carter cried out, extending his arms in a broad sweep, “is our fortress. But not just any fortress. This is a special fortress. A Fortress of Screwitude. Where we can escape the world outside. Where nothing that happens outside the fortress matters.” He walked through the group, touching tops of heads, patting shoulders.
“These are my people,” he proclaimed. “And what do my people say to those outside the Fortress of Screwitude? What do my people say to those who want to bring us back to reason? To those who wish to drag us down from the heights? We say, screw it!”
Rudy watched the transformation begin. Sixty sets of eyes followed Carter as he strode among them. A hundred twenty corners of lips began to curl. It was inevitable that the small city of revelers surrounding Carter would take up his cause as their own.
“What do we say to our daily drudgery and taking out the garbage?” Carter continued. “Screw it!” He raised his hands to cue them, a conductor to a swaying, drunken orchestra that had lost its instruments.
“Screw it!” the mob echoed.
“What do we say to the morning commute and traffic?”
“SCREW it!” his subjects repeated.
“What do we say,” Carter continued, sighting down his arm at Rudy. “To our bosses?”
Carter’s flock of minions responded with a thunderous, “SCREW IT!”
He was in a lather now. “And what do we say to the weak and the meek? For they shall inherit the earth.”
“SCREW IT!” the crowd howled.
“For they shall inherit the earth. That’s the grave, people.” He winked at Rudy. “If that’s what they want, let them have it.”
Rudy didn’t want to think about Max. He took advantage of Carter’s sermon to the birthday mob and leaned closer to Kak.
“You were riding the bike with your eyes closed,” he said. “Weren’t you?”
She licked her drink from her upper lip. “Well.”
“You think I know?”
He inspected her bruise and the curious crescent moon in the center.
“Maybe you should figure it out before you kill yourself.”
“What do you think I’ve been trying to do?”
“If you explained it, it might help.”
“If I explained it, it would do the opposite.”
He’d already learned when it was useless to push. Change the subject.
“So you’re a writer,” he said.
At least this made her think. “I wanted to be one,” she said.
“Then that’s what you should be.”
“It isn’t that simple.”
“Of course it is.”
“So it was your dream to be an accountant?”
“Actually, I wanted to be a magician.”
“I didn’t have my front teeth.”
“You lost me.”
“I told my mother I wanted to be a magician but I couldn’t pronounce it. She thought I said musician and signed me up for piano lessons.”
“Aren’t you making my point?”
“The point is, I did the next best thing. I went into finance.”
But she’d stopped listening to his anecdote. She was locked on something behind him.
“Hide me,” she said, scrunching down.
“From what?” He twisted around to look.
“From Mama Zamira,” Kak said.
And there she was. Standing halfway between the Duval Street entrances and their table in her white Santeria robe and skull cap. Just a few dark drops of water stained her otherwise dry robe. She hadn’t seen him yet. She was watching Carter, with the same smitten expression he’d seen on her 365 days earlier when Carter pulled her into him on the corner of Duval and Greene and kissed her.
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