The End of the World Bar
by Toby LeBlanc
He hates the sound of his truck. Ford used to idle different, rev different. Don’t get him started on the way whiskey tastes now. At least beer is the same. The drone whirs, unloading the last of the cases from the bed of his pickup. Several minutes pass as he stares at his phone before he realizes the drone has settled back on its charger and the truck is still humming. He taps an icon and his truck rolls away into its normal spot behind the bar.
Why would someone open a bar at 8AM? Boredom is a good answer. Retreating to his empty houseboat in the early morning hours after closing is like lights out on a prison block. The only sign of life is a silent wave from his best friend, the sheriff, as he starts his patrol at Chuck’s bar. Chuck can never sleep until the sun rises. All of the silence between the constant symphony of frogs and cicadas keeps him up. Another good answer is he lives in Louisiana. Tante Sue used to open her bar even earlier than this, he justifies, and she was drunk already. The justification erodes when he considers that Tante Sue was known worldwide and always had a full bar. What he wouldn’t give to step back in time when she was alive, and he was eighteen, drinking under her neon lights, and dancing a Hot-Damn fueled two-step with her at Fred’s in Mamou. It would also mean Fred’s was not at the bottom of the Gulf and The End of the World Bar was still on a little strip of land jutting into the sea, at end of the world.
A chime from the front door severs the memory. Chuck can tell his first customer is a Yankee: his backpack, his hiking shoes (at least he was smart enough to get waterproof ones), and his goofy ball cap. But the dead giveaway is his young face, lineless and optimistic.
“Great! Can I get a coffee to go?”
“Coffee? Son, this is a bar.”
The visitor balks, more from being called son than being informed there are places which don’t serve coffee.
“Oh. K. Thank you.” The customer backs away, wondering if the café he was planning to eat at has food.
“Hang on.” Chuck disappears into his stock room and fills one of his extra mugs with the motor oil he’s had stewing since he arrived at seven. He presents it to the interloper with a practiced smile. The visitor eyes it questioningly.
“No charge unless you want Bailey’s in it.”
“You all do drink a lot down here.”
Chuck is pleased to hear a drawl. It’s faint. He used to be able to tell where people were from by the accents, when those existed.
“Where you from?”
“What made you come here?”
“My mom was from around here. She passed recently. Wanted to see where she was from.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Chuck means it. He used to mourn when the local-borns would leave Louisiana for a better life. The Louisiana in them would be bred out, thinned, just like this fellow’s accent. But now he’d be fine with everyone moving away from this soggy, forgotten place as long as they stayed alive. “Whereabouts was she born?”
“Lafayette. She was Cajun.”
“No shit. I’m half Cajun, too. Lived in Lafayette for a long time. Right up ‘til the end.”
“When was that?”
“Damn. Wish I could have seen it.”
“If you got a few grand you can go down for a dive tour. I hear the spear fishing is good where the old bank building was downtown.”
“Oh I don’t fish. This is as close as I get to the water.”
“Don’t trust it.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean.”
This kid should’ve seen what life looked like back in Venice, before Katrina. Sure Chuck was only three, but he can remember watching the boats come in. Shrimp, crab, snapper, redfish, specs … they flowed from the water, through the town, and into his father’s bar. When Katrina took out the town, his Cajun momma moved them back home where she knew hurricanes could be managed. His father’s broken heart almost changed the name of his new bar. But the ever-fishing Cajuns recognized the brand too easily. Economics win over broken hearts. It didn’t use to be like that either.
The front door chimes again. Rosco arrives before his appointed time. He knows how lonely Chuck must be to open this early. Mostly because he’s the same amount of lonely.
“Rosco! You trying to face the day? Or be done with it?”
“Gimme something that’ll fix both,” Rosco declares shaking off his coat.
“Whiskey it is.”
Rosco eyes the stranger suspiciously before looking at his full coffee mug with even more distrust.
“Stick to the whiskey, kid. I’ll buy.”
“Oh. Thank you. But …” The visitor is stopped by Rosco’s look. The guest responds with a nod, feeling both welcome and threatened. They toast and shoot before Rosco orders beers for the house.
“Man, I’m ready for this rain to stop,” Rosco commences.
“I hear you,” Chuck replies.
The visitor, fuzzy with early booze, half scoffs. “But doesn’t it rain non-stop here?”
Both natives look at him incredulously, but Chuck’s face softens. This guy doesn’t know how it works. He deserves a pass. His momma was Cajun after all. Before Rosco can dress down the poor boy any further, Chuck interjects: “Yeah. But if you act like it’ll never stop, it never will.”
Rosco de-bristles. “My tomatoes are saturated. I’m going to lose them all if it doesn’t let up at least a little.”
“You all have enough sun for those?” the kid chimes in again. Rosco is losing his patience.
“Where you from? Shreveport? Dallas?”
“Louisville,” Chuck responds, turning up the bar lights from his phone.
“You’re a tourist in Alexandria?”
“His momma was from Lafayette.”
“What kind of industry do you have here?”
Rosco blinks at the question and turns to Chuck to see if the nomad is serious. His response is a smile and a shrug.
“Why? Are you looking to invest? ‘Cause I got some projects I need to get off of the ground.”
“Yeah? What kind of work do you do?”
Rosco smiles again at Chuck. “Why, I’m an engineer.”
“Really? What kind?”
“He’s messing with you. He’s a levee technician.”
“Oh.” The meddler’s tone is one of polite, impressed confusion.
“His job is to walk levees. Look for breaches. Fix breaches.”
“All levees. River, farming, Gulf … ”
“Gulf? You all built levees for the Gulf?”
Both septuagenarians stare back. Tasting the tension amidst the wet air, Chuck doesn’t want to lose half of his morning business.
“What kind of work do you do, friend?”
“Me?” the trespasser says sheepishly. “I do some coding. Mostly logistics programs. I do some art, too.”
“He’s an artist, Chuck.”
“Calm down, Rosco. You’re just mad he can pull more ass than you. Tell him about how the girls line up, friend.”
The last line causes the visitor to meet their eyes, one by one. He pockets his glowing phone and gets up, putting the half-drunk beer down. He eyes them both again, giving them a second chance.
“Thank you for the drinks. It’s time for me to go.”
“Whoa. What got said?” Rosco attempts.
“It’s just time for me to go.”
“The artist thing?”
“Shit. No,” Chuck interjects with recognition. “He’s not interested in girls lining up. Man, I’m sorry. I’m … shit.”
“Have a good day.”
“Let us make it up to you.”
The new guy smiles and exits. The chime rings pleasantly. The two men watch the door in silence.
“Don’t worry about it, Chuck.”
“I’m worried about it and everything that could happen because of it.” He hunches his shoulders while he cleans the visitor’s coffee mug.
“Like a bad review.”
“People don’t read those. The worse that’ll happen is old Adeleide from across the street spied our friend walking out of here and puts it on Skitter.”
Chuck brings his eyes up to Rosco while the old artifact drains the last of his beer. “Twitter,” he corrects. Somehow, despite almost all news and sports information being spread through over two hundred different social media platforms, Rosco still doesn’t know about the big three. It doesn’t matter. It’s not worth arguing with him. The mud and concrete under a levee tech’s rubber boots won’t choke off more of his business if he’s a homophobe. Rosco and the levees are made for each other. Constructed of men and the earth, they each try to keep back the inevitable. Their strength lies only in their simplicity. Simplicity demands they never change. Even when everything on the planet, including the planet itself, has changed, the people and the levees here never will. The mud walker slides the empty mug to Chuck, beer foam still stuck to the stubble on his lip.
“One more before I have to go to work. Please.”
Chuck pours and walks back to his stock room to replace his freshly washed coffee mug. The slump in his shoulders deepens as he passes the digital projection of the previous bar, the second incarnation of The End of the World in Lafayette. His body feels the image without having to glance it on his desk. The picture, taken from the outside of the bar’s whitewashed walls, witnesses the Gulf of Mexico touching the southwest corner of the building. As Chuck slowly makes his way back to his solitary customer, the view of the bar pulls at him, the same as it did that day. He is always walking away from that bar. It is always asking him to stay a little longer. He’ll always regret leaving when he did. Never mind the lack of customers or the empty bank account. He finds Rosco knocking out a beat alongside Elvis.
“You finally figured out the jukebox app!” Chuck applauds daintily.
“Daughter was in town this past weekend. Just remembered she showed me.”
The graininess of the recording sounds so artificial on digital music. Chuck had listened to his father’s antique record player once, noting how it was the music which sounded artificial.
“They don’t make music like this anymore!” Rosco says, beginning to bop his head like a hip hop artist.
“It’s from a better time.”
“Can you imagine what it must have been like?”
“I mean back then. Things were all beginning. The economy. You know.”
“I think a lot about what was like during my grandpa’s time. When oil was king.”
Chuck clears his throat. He clears it again, trying to get the argument to dislodge and slither down his gullet. It’s pointless. But if he acts like it will never stop, it never will. He’s full; like everything else in this place, he’s saturated.
“You and I both know what happened there.”
“Yeah!” Rosco says in time with music. “The liberals starting making electric cars and using biodegradable shit.”
“It started before that Rosco. Venice and Buras got wiped out when I was just four. It was the MRGO that brought it there. And New Orleans.”
“New Orleans was dead weight. Full of liberals.”
Chuck goes to his phone and hits “STOP” on his jukebox app. “Last call, Rosco.”
“Not you, too. You as sensitive as that Yank?” The s’s in “sensitive” drag.
“You’re rattling on about people who leveled two of my homes!”
“Look, you old buzzard. I obviously don’t want any water in anybody’s house. I’m a levee tech for crissakes. My whole life is dedicated to keep us dry. Don’t act like you wouldn’t mind some of that cash our parents and grandparents made.” Rosco slams back his beer and pulls his hood over his balding head. “It’s time for me to take my watch.” The door politely chimes as he exits into the drizzle and grey.
Chuck cleans Rosco’s glass in jagged silence. He stares out into the hardening rain. How he hopes Rosco comes back tomorrow, punctuated by how he hates his guts, creates suction in his brain. Memories are sediment lying at the bottom of his murky mind. Disturb them and they will only make what’s already murky blinding. The once-living rot releases its guts and sucks anything with the possibility of creating life and liveliness into a dead zone. He has to get out of this bar, this place. The rest of the world can’t be drowning like this. He thinks of visiting his sister in the mountains. She was able to say goodbye years ago. Memories don’t rot for her. They run downriver, or in her case, upriver. She’s so happy where she is. He’s sure all of the weed she smokes must help.
That could be all he needs: a little change. He could start selling pot. There’s only one dispensary in town. And it only does pot. What if he did coffee, too? People wouldn’t need to go anywhere else. What is he talking about? He’d have to learn all kinds of new laws and policies. Weed has more variety than alcohol. And forget working those space age coffee machines. But if he had a full bar, from morning to night, he’d hire someone. Maybe even a few people.
This is where the dream stops. There aren’t enough people here to even do the jobs available. The odds of him getting another grizzled old holdout like him, probably giving up higher pay, are low. The odds of him finding some kid looking for a buck are lower. The youngest person in this town is leaving at this very moment, chased away by two stale farts in a bar.
“Enough,” he says aloud. “Juke … play Pop Classics.”
There’s really only one thing left for him, for this place—when life doesn’t make sense one must throw a party. For a third of a millennia this part of the world had learned to make a dead end the party everyone wanted to come to. If the dead end moves not once, but twice, shouldn’t that make it twice the party? Lately there are just too many bad memories and not enough of the good ones getting made, he thinks. He’s here because he has purpose. Being a bartender in this outpost is sacred. The cayenne in veins, left there by his mother, burns. He can’t waste any more time acting like it will dry out, nor will he wait for the next hurricane.
Returning to the back room, he forces his backside to bounce in time with the music. He finds his holiday decorations and rips them from their mold resistant plastic coating. He whistles along with Ms. Taylor Swift as he decks the halls. He runs out lights and artificial garland around his sign outside just like he does every September. He finishes with a Santa Claus hat atop his head. He puts several Mardi Gras masks on table tops but saves one for his face. He makes sure to separate the biodegradable Jack-o’-Lanterns from the old plastic ones. Only the plastic ones will hold up outside. He slips his arms into the Monk robe he wore while tending bar last Halloween. He pulls every last vegan sausage he’d bought for the week’s happy hour and lights his electric pit. Somehow he’d managed to keep the leftover fireworks dry. Opening a window, he tosses little bottle rockets out into the street.
“Juke … shuffle Holiday Mix.”
Monster Mash, Professor Longhair, and Childish Gambino’s remake of that Faith Hill Christmas song scream alongside the bottle rockets into the street. And Chuck screams alongside both. Each shriek and howl Chuck releases dries the dampness from around him. His body now moves effortlessly with the rhythm of the music, as if it is seeing an old friend after too long a parting. The gyrating and twerking knock dusty memories from shelves in his head. A full bar, full of life, full of forgetting, populates his clearing mind. Another bar being born—this bar—complete with ribbon cutting by the mayor, bubbles up. The memory has all of the past, complete with an indomitable will to surge forward inherited from his parents, and also all of the future, a new frontier for The End of the World.
In just a few more seconds Adelaide will be poking her head out. But he doesn’t have to see her to know she’s been watching the bar since a stranger entered and was subsequently chased away. It’s likely she’s already tweeting, maybe even re-running the entry on “Respect in a Community,” he thinks. Chuck estimates exactly how long he’ll have to shake her walls with the torrent of bass flooding from his speakers before she’d actually criticize him in person. He directs the next two bottle rockets at her recycled clothing center to try and unlock the cage she, and everyone else here, has been shut into. Chuck decides today should be the day Adelaide participates in this community, instead of just writing to it.
The sheriff is the first to arrive on the scene. He was off an hour ago. Responding to a call when he is off the clock is proof of how bored the poor guy feels. He’s got his hand over his gun. Chuck knows the exact date he last used his sidepiece: July 12th, 2054. That date booms like a thunderclap in this bar nearly weekly. Fear of the last mass shooting still rumbles through the town. It makes Chuck think about what the lawman sees. Looking down at the rope of firecrackers he holds, poised to light, he hesitates.
Chuck normally greets the peace officer at the door. The empty doorway leaves a precarious look on the sheriff’s face. Chuck knows what’s behind the sheriff’s expression: I’m not really sure I know how to use a gun anymore, and I don’t want to use it, but this is my job, my sacred duty. Through the haze of blue gunpowder smoke Chuck sees more faces belonging to a crowd forming behind the sheriff. They’re confused. He lowers the fireworks. But there’s something else in their eyes. Chuck can see sparks of curiosity, wonderment, excitement, and, in a few, relief. It makes them look younger. The flecks of what was make Chuck believe it can all come back. It steels his nerve and reminds of him of his own sacred duty to peddle and regulate the town’s dose of crazy with this bar. This only looks wild, Chuck considers, because it’s not the normal we’ve been stuck in. This stymied life would have been unthinkable to their younger selves, deranged to their parents and grandparents. They need this, he thinks, just as much as I do. Partying in the face of unforgiving certainty has always been the only way to handle hurricanes and floods … and the world. Crazy together, we could face anything, no matter how unending. They need to remember how to forget their cares. They need to lose normal for a little while, long enough to dance in the rain, fais do do, and love again.
As the sheriff leads the soggy mob inside, Chuck drops a handful of lit firecrackers and dives behind the bar. As they pop, Chuck’s bestie draws on smoke, his finger quivering in dread over the trigger. Adelaide screams. From behind the bar Chuck coughs, “Welcome to the End of the World Bar! Everyone drinks free today!”
Toby LeBlanc lives in Austin, Texas, and works as a mental health professional. While he and his family sleep under the Texas stars, his roots go to ground in the bayous and prairies of south Louisiana. His recently completed novel, Dark Roux, was a 2017 Novel-in-Progress semifinalist in the Faulkner Wisdom-Words competition.
Elaine Robertson / September 1, 2018
Wow, Toby, your stories are getting better & better! Very proud of you.💜
H. Kaiser / August 17, 2020
A good story with excellent finishing.