“What do you mean gone!” the heavy set man groaned, breath escaping in heavy beats from his throat. “I want you to get to the bottom of this! I will not tolerate someone thinking they can come in and challenge la famiglia. We have been controlling this territory since il mio padre caro first set foot in this country and no one will steal from me and get away with it” he slurred caustically, saliva misting out with each harsh Italian consonant. The dark booth was heavy with cigar smoke and the tense silence was punctuated only by the Bourbon Street sounds eminating from the jukebox. The three men sat hunched against what little light existed in this dank little haunt; known to most wiseguys as l’ufficio-“the office”. The silence was broken as the heavy set man, clearly the elder and superior, leaned forward-a small crease flattening from the puckered back of his expensive, well-tailored suit. “Get to the bottom of it and do it quickly and quietly” and with that he rose slowly easing his mammoth frame out of the cracked bench seat, laid a thick nondescript white envelope on the table, and with surprising grace exited the bar.
“Another round Pete!” a husky voice called out from the end of the bar; “and surprise me this time”. Frank always wanted to be surprised-I needed an Encyclopedia of cocktails just to entertain him and the sad truth was that he’d had plenty and probably wouldn’t notice if I slide him a glass of tap water with a garnish. Sadder still was the fact that I always try to appease his desires for a new taste sensation despite his less than charming habit of leaving me a fifty cent tip at the end of the night. “Sure thing Frank-anything for my best customer” I cooed back, smirking to myself as I began mixing a “Peyton’s Place”, a personal favourite (10 fl oz Gin, 20fl oz grapefruit juice, ice, soda water and garnished with wedge of lime). My name is Peyton “Pete” Hughes and I am a 29 yr old bartender at the “Cajun Dixie”, a colourful and by most design standards- tacky, New Orleans homage owned by an equally off-beat Louisiana native named Beuford Urquhart Bacas or “Bub”. The place was poorly lit; its only saving grace given the decor which consisted of a combination of stuffed swamp creatures, 70s inspired disco glitz and a mismatch of flea market furniture; but it did hold a certain charm. It was the local haunt for students, neighbourhood drunks, cheating husbands and a hodgepodge of crooked officials and “made” men. It was Denver’s answer to the Sorpranos and Cheers all rolled into one, the only catch being that this entertaining lot didn’t know enough to leave after an hour. So here I was, a good Irish Catholic girl, surrounding by a voodoo-obsessed boss, a mittful of dirty cops and Mobsters and a surly drunk expecting creativity in mixology for a 50 cent a night tip! Who would have thunk it?
Not that I had any delusions of grandeur growing up, but I had somehow pictured my life unfolding a little differently. “Hey Pete! I didn’t ask you to ferment the alcohol! I’m sobering up down here!” Frank bellowed me back into reality as I let an audible sigh escape my lips. “Just wanted to make it a good one Frank and it wouldn’t hurt ya to sober up a touch-too many more surprises and I’m going to have to see your ass out onto the sidewalk” a weak threat given that Frank had at least a 100lbs on me but I had to maintain at least the semblance of authority. I envy my colleagues in booze-wrangling who are blessed with doormen and bouncers to enforce order. I had to rely on my often-absent charm and I have, more than once, found myself looking up at a belligerent drunk from the floor. Not to come off as a delicate flower, I can hold my own; I have been slinging booze at the Dixie for 6 yrs and I have three strapping younger brothers and what I lack in braun I more than make up for in mouth! I slid the cocktail to Frank and received a cursory nod of approval-not a standing ovation but he was content enough to leave me alone; perhaps he could sense that I was inkling for a fight tonight. “Good choice, Frank” I mumbled under my breath, “Tread lightly”.
I flipped on the jukebox from behind the bar and David Egan sang out, smoothly punctuating my pensive thoughts as he cooed “You don’t know your mind”. Six years-some temporary stint this turned out to be. It’s difficult to imagine that 6 years ago I was in school, training to be a cop with aspirations of becoming an FBI agent. Not an easy choice when you come from “the combat zone” of Denver neighbourhoods where most ties ran to La Familia, an old and well revered Irish/Italian mob that was as much a traditional institution as the church. Even now, in an era where most people’s ideas of the mob veer to the fictional landscapes of 1970s gangster films I live in a world of shadow; of gray hues of morality and not the black and white that most are accustomed to. In this neighbourhood, the good guys are sometimes the bad ones, the cops that shake down prostitutes and cover up violence to line their own pockets and who turn the other cheek to get themselves more power, more money and more respect. Their counterparts are some mafia-type thugs who live by a strict, traditional moral code. They may run gambling halls, prostitution rings, fix horses and deal in shake downs and violent retribution but they respect their mothers and wives, they live by a code of honour, duty and loyalty and free exchange….everything in the combat zone comes down to a favour.
I did a cursory check of the room-I am nothing if not a dutiful employee and topped up some pints, emptied ash trays and tried to avoid paying too much attention to envelope’s being passed back and forth or hushed voices discussing “business”. Ironic that I should find myself soul-searching in the “Cajun Dixie”, the family friendly “office” for most of the questionable going’s on in the neighbourhood, and the city for that matter. I suppose there is no better place for me to contemplate my life and what I would like to do with it than in a place where the lines are always a little blurred and both sides show their hands.
“Ma Cher, Where yat?” Bub asked, laying a softy meaty hand on my shoulder. Although a Lousiana native, Bub had been in Colorado long enough that his speech had the warm comfort of a Cajun drawl but with only a trace of an accent and accentuated, only occasionally, with the slang of his youth. “I’m doing just fine Bub, just a little tired, it’s been a long night and the last hour’s always the longest” I said in defense of my less than cheery disposition-truth was I was feeling a little complacent, jaded with my self-inflicted lot in life. Slow nights always offer too much time for self-reflection-a dangerous hobby. “Not to worry Puppet, I come bearing good cheer to my very favourite barkeep”. “Oh please, Bub” I retorted with enough of an eye roll that it actually caused discomfort-mental note-stretch before sarcastic eye response. “Don’t you dare get me all excited-last time you laid that line on me was after another waitress quit and my hours doubled-you sort of have a unique sense of the positive” Truthfully, I envied his half full attitude, he really was the only person I knew who could honestly be described as sunshine and rainbows. “Soc o’ lait! You have so little faith-I think only of your happiness” although said with sincerity I was growing tired of the build up and had my doubts about the news already. “Hey Cher what’s with your face, looks like you’re in pain”. “Nothing Bub, it’s fine” except for the fact that if this conversation continues along this avenue I may give myself a subdermal hemotoma. “So let’s have it then, what’s the good news” and at this I planted myself on the nearest stood and readied myself for the announcement. “We have a new employee! I have hired you some muscle Puppet, I can’t stand to see any more beaux beaux on your wee frame so the Cajun Dixie has got itself a doorman 5 nights a week!” Bub announced full hand gestures and excitement enough that I expected fireworks to punctuate the final syllable! I was literally speechless-not an easy feat, even for Bub. “Really Bub? That’s….well, that’s fantastic actually! I’m sorry I doubted you. This is going to be a big help…I mean not that I can’t handle myself but my aching body will appreciate the break from man-handling the clientele and vice versa”.”Ya’ see, you really should try to have a more positive outlook” he said without any hint of a scolding but with genuine concern. He really was a lovely man and his kind demeanor never seemed to be tainted by the anger and violence that often haunted his halls. It was a lot like finding a carebear in a graveyard. Now there’s an image, cheerbear in a mausoleum. Truth was that the new employee was a long time coming and probably had to be ok’d through the “proper” channels. It was no hidden fact that the Cajun Dixie was infused in La Familia business and although I had never been told so much, or cared to asked, I think that Bub had at one point or another had the financial backing of questionable investors. I wondered if this new muscle was on loan and being set in place more for family protection than mine. This I hypothesized was more likely the truth behind the extra help but I would happily accept it without discretion.
Where the investment dollars went was an interesting riddle I thought as I wiped down the back booth which boasted a lopsided table and torn red pleather seats. Really high end stuff. Then again it suited me just fine. I was not a “high-end” sort of woman, not that I didn’t love a new pair of shoes and a dolled up evening out but I was a consummate tom-boy. Having three brothers will do that I suppose but I always felt more at home in this dank place surrounded by these roughneck men than I ever would have at some charity luncheon with my well manicured, highlighted female counterparts. That was my mother’s domain, light and beautiful she always seemed to glide gracefully in and out of rooms and always looked neatly pressed. My auburn hair was always mussed or thrown back into a ponytail for ease and I generally thundered into a room in whatever I could grab from my bedroom floor. I wasn’t without my charms though, I was blessed with my father’s green eyes and just a whisp of freckles here and there and an enviable metabolism that allowed me to live on nachos, wings and pizza and stay slim. To be fair, the environment and lighting didn’t really warrant too much glitz so that, and not my chronic tardiness, was to blame for my general work wardrobe. At least that’s what I told my mother.
I returned to the bar and set the dirty cups and plates into the industrial dishwasher and hit the button to start the cycle. “All right Frank” I slide down to retrieve his empty glass, “Time to go home to your lovely wife”. “Ah come on Pete, wouldn’t you rather lock that front door and have a little party just the two of us” he slurred, barely maintaining his balance on his perch. “Tempting” I lied, “but how could I live with myself, your wife and my mother are old friends, besides you wouldn’t want Bub to fire me would you, he has a strict rule about customers here after hours-so out you go” This was the same old debate; Frank and I went through this little scene about 3 or 4 times a week. As he belched a form of response and staggered out the front door I thought about how much the new door person would be able to help me out. Tonight’s quick exchange with Frank was a lot milder than the norm and it would be nice to be able to clear the place out without ending up either on my ass or having Frank or one of the other charmers in the joint grabbing it. I gave this some more thought as I walked back to the bar to shut off the lights, cash out and retrieve my well earned fifty cent tip Frank had left. The rest of the place had already cleared out-it was, all in all, a very quiet night at the Dixie and I was glad I wouldn’t have lasted if it had been any busier. I was not in the mood to babysit drunks, listen to the latest family dramas or put up with the verbal (or physical) abuse some of the good ole boys liked to dish out. Ironically the made-guys were less trouble than the cops and low-level gang-bangers who had a misguided sense of power and importance.
Actually, the news of some added muscle at the Dixie came at an opportune time. Things in the neighbourhood seemed a little more on the cusp these days; imperceptible to the general public I expect but here in the heart of it I could sense a change. Like the cool wind and silvered leaves just before a summer storm, something big was going down and that meant I was back on the front line. Great instincts Hughes, I thought, this is where you could make a difference. If I got out and went back to the academy I could come back and really make a difference in this neighbourhood. But as Shakespeare so duly noted, there’s the rub. It is difficult to pick a side on the front line, I grew up here I went to school with and even dated some of the men involved in La Familia. I had dinners at their houses, celebrated weddings and birthdays and watched the benefit to the neighbourhood that they brought-protection, assistance to the widowed and the ill, retribution for the wronged, a step up for a small business. I was not naive about how any of these things were accomplished but it was difficult to condemn them when the local police force and city officials were the ones we witnessed dragging husbands and sons off and getting payoffs from the gangs to look the other way on drug and gun deals. It was this contradiction that I struggled with, how to make things better and do some good but in doing so I would be doing some harm too. Not to mention the conflict of interest if I had to investigate an ex or a schoolyard chum; I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was in every sense split right down the middle, duplicitous and confused and for some reason I thought this was the best place for me, I came home to re-evaluate what I wanted to do but if I was truly honest with myself a big part of me came home for Noah.
I pulled the lock on the front door and exited through the back, dropping the garbage in the dumpster in the alley behind the bar en route. My mother would flip out if she saw me standing in this dark, filthy alley at 2am-thank God for my ability to sugar coat my life for my mother. It is the saving grace of our relationship. What proper church-going pillar of the community wants her daughter dealing with mobsters and being groped by drunks. I preferred to think of it as a combination of training and a sociological experiment in the human condition. Of course, my mother was never too thrilled about my choice of career in law enforcement so I suppose she calmed herself by viewing my current situation as the lesser of two evils. At least here I could be close to home and find a nice neighbourhood man to marry and procreate with.
It was July and the air outside was still warm as I headed for home. My thoughts drifting in and out of the past, present and future-causing my stomach to doing a little flip. All this uncertainly I thought is riddling me with anxiety, if it continued I would turn into one of those single, middle-aged women who needed cats, cheesecake and pretty pink pills to face the world. “Sheesh” I blew out, such the drama queen, Noah’s right (Oh God tell me no one heard that!). Noah was always telling me had an uncanny ability to search out and embrace the most dramatic conclusion to any situation. Although I didn’t agree with the frequency he preached, I was starting to realize I did have the occasional tendancy to edge towards the dramatic. However, I preferred to look at it as being realistic, I blame my addiction to crime tv and mystery novels. I think over the years they’ve rubbed off to the point where I’m always looking for the mystery, the unsaid truth and the dramatic conclusion to an ordinary event.
I ‘ve read all these books about exciting, sexy strong women solving crimes , kicking butt and wanted to be in on the action, to help bring justice to the victims and feel empowered in my hot 2 pc skirt suit and 6 inch monolo’s (ok so maybe they weren’t all true crime or mystery books). I envied the excitement of solving a mystery and how fabulous these women were but when it came to the practical nature-the reality of the lifestyle I envied-it fell a little short. Perhaps, I thought, my dramatic speculations and reactions are a response to this dichotomy of fiction and reality. Who knows? Self-evaluation is a dangerous hobby and I try to glide over it as best I can. It is the draw of the fictional world that I dabble in that keeps me interested in my future in law enforcement (if I have one) and allows me to find some measure of interest or excitement in my work at the Dixie.
What I need is a distraction, if I was a runner this would be the sort of time I would go for a run or if I was any sort of writer perhaps a journal entry but as it stood I was lacking any decent ideas to distract me. So scuffling myself down the sidewalk towards my condo I found myself falling into the old habit of thinking about Noah.
Noah Scott was the 31 years old Italian/Irish equivalent of emotional heroin in my world. We met when I was in the second grade, although I don’t recall the moment, and we were in the same school, same neighbourhood and same church our whole lives. I primary school I remember him being a bit of a bully, the kid that tried to lure girls behind the monkey bars to kiss them and bringing ruination to pond frogs and snakes. He was and is my first love but in so much as I adore him and he me, he has never been good for me. His teasing blue eyes, olive complexion and cropped brown hair make for a striking man, at any age. Trouble was it didn’t go unnoticed by the women he crosses paths with and he seemed to genuinely lack the ability to be faithful.
Our story is as long as it is confusing; friends, lovers, partners and all combinations of the three. At 16 I realized that I loved him and waited until I left for college to tell him, typical cowardess-drop the L-word and then run as far and as fast as possible. When I returned to Denver for the summer during my second year we had a torrid summer affair and I fell even harder and begun a terrible trend of striking the Noah/Peyton match anytime I came back for a visit. When I finally returned home at 23 it was to re-evaluate my life but it was also in some youthful hope that Noah and I would live happily ever after. The happily part lasted a good 8 months of co-habitation before I realized that his idea of what we were involved the freedom to fuck anything with tits and a heartbeat. A difference of opinion to put it mildly-one that ended in a shouting match and me crying-this is more shocking put into the context that I have cried only 8 times in my entire life (at least to my recollection).
Our estrangement lasted 16hrs. In the pouring rain Noah showed up at my parent’s house and stood outside waiting, for me I suppose or the courage or inspiration to mount a defense. I didn’t give him the chance, I saw him from my window and ran outside. All I could manage to whimper out was “Will we be alright” before he gathered me into his arms and we embraced. At that moment we mutually decided that we were stuck with each other for life-at least as friends because neither of us wanted to be officially “done” with the other-He was 26 and I was 24. We were no longer a couple but we would forever be in each others lives. Only occasionally slipping into old habits and finding ourselves sweaty and entangled and wondering how we could be so good at some things and so very bad at others. At 28 he started his own contracting company and over the last 3 years it had become quite a success, at least locally. At 30 he married a local girl five years his junior, who he’d been shtooping on and off for three years. Admittedly we had given into temptation once or twice or three times during those years but once the vows were exchanged I ended that portion of our relationship. I may have ignored virtue and slept with a man who was involved with another woman but at the time I felt a certain sense of ownership over Noah-once the vows were exchanged I considered my get out of hell free card revoked. I may be a lot of things but I’m no man’s mistress…not even Noah’s.
“Shit”, I looked up to notice I’d walked a block and a half too far! “Focus Peyton, focus!” Stop wandering around aimlessly, figuratively and literally. Noah, Noah, Noah, always a distraction and the source of a fair share of my confusion. I mean really, a lifetime with a man only to watch him make something of himself and marry a practical child. What was this, jealousy, envy-screw that! He’s my friend, I love him and if this is what makes him happy than I should be happy for him, right? I mean I’m only as tortured by this as I let myself become…..I just need to stop playing the damn greek tragedy in my head.