July 20, 2004

A Quarter's Quarter

By Otis B. Dart © 2004

It was the beret that killed me. Had she not been wearing the little black hat, I might’ve been able to pay attention to something else. Like the time. Or my sobriety. Or my wallet.

She wasn’t even French.

There’s a bar on Toulouse Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. It’s sandwiched in between a place called The Dungeon and a building that careful people avoid. On the walls you’ll find pictures of celebrities. Hanging from the ceiling you’ll find a frightening assortment of sea shell wind chimes. Against the bar that night you would’ve found me, mouth agape, eyes fixed on a short little thing wearing a black beret.

See, if the band hadn’t been playing, and if I hadn’t been drinking a grain alcohol concoction, and if my buddies hadn’t been in search of variety, I might not have been so taken with her little chapeau. If she hadn’t smiled, and posed for pictures, and let me spin her to the rhythm of the trop rock, and rested on her elbows on the bar in a little girl pose, maybe I would’ve noticed the sun was about to come up.

A true scientist would label the variables from alpha to omega, I suppose. Looking back, though, there’s no doubt her beret was the x-factor.

I had bankrolled her binge, so when she stood from her barstool, her feet were mushy. I thought her step toward the door indicated confusion, perhaps inebriation. Instead, I realized it was determination. She was leaving with my booze, my love. My little black beret.

“Time to go,” she said. And I knew she meant I wasn’t going with her.

I sighed, grabbed a smoke from my wrinkled pack, and gave a weary smile to the old bartender lady. She returned the smile in such a way that I knew, if she talked much she would be saying, “So it goes, son. Now get the hell out. We’re closing.”

I was hundreds of miles from home in a year before cell phones had found their way to commercial success. My buddies had long since disappeared, promising as they left to return in time to see me give the final woo to the non-French girl. And as I reached in my pocket, I realized I was not only alone, but I was broke. I had spent every last dime on the girl. I couldn’t get a cab back to the hotel. I couldn’t buy another drink. And I couldn’t use the pay phone to call anyone I knew and ask for help.

The old lady behind the bar offered me a ride. Caution nudged me in the kidneys and said, “Nuh-uh.”

I slumped out to the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse and smoked another cigarette. It should’ve felt rock and roll. It should’ve felt wanton and poetic. It should’ve felt like I was out there, on the road, living the life of a barfly with no cash, no woman, and a single crumpled cigarette.

Instead, I felt like a fuckchop.

Usually, in such cases I just start walking. Something, I usually reckon, will happen if I’m moving.

As I started to move, a homeless man sidled up to me. I expected one of the routines. Like, “I betcha I know where ya got those shoes.” (When you bet them, they tell you you’ve got them on your feet, on Bourbon Street and that’ll be ten dollars). Instead, he asked for a smoke.

I knew I only had one left. It was all I had left in my pockets.

I thought for a second and looked at the old dude. I didn’t expect to say anything. I certainly didn’t expect to say, “You got a quarter?”

Before my addled mind could process the deal, the man’s crusty, old hand was palming twenty-five cents into my fingers and taking my last cigarette.

Somehow, it seemed like victory. It was validation that the world was not a sick place where non-French girls in berets would drink away your bankroll. It was humanity at its finest. I knew help was now only a payphone’s call away.

Life, friends, was not that awful.

Reality walked up the sidewalk with my buddies. They had all only been a few doors down looking at cheap strippers and drinking expensive beer. They must’ve seen the look on my face.

“What happened to you?” they asked.

I thought for a moment, pawing my pants for the cigarette pack. It occurred to me that I had just witnessed one of the lowest moments of my own life. Rarely does one recognize it so soon.

What happened to me?

“I just sold my last cigarette to a bum for a quarter.”

Otis B. Dart is a writer from Greenville, SC.

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