I'd driven past that certain Interstate off-ramp more times than I cared to count. This day was different. Something took control, guiding me down a winding southern byway to a place I'd buried beneath the shifting sands of time. I soon realized it was a journey I'd long anticipated.
Pitted country blacktop soon became a tree-lined boulevard leading to a college rectangle. I stopped, got out, and stared. Little had changed in twenty years. Visions of the old college, devoid of even a single student, assaulted my brain, and I couldn't turn away.
Waning summer had left a pall in the air, the place deserted except for a pigeon pecking at a cigarette butt, and a lone jogger bent over in a huff. A lazy water sprinkler did little more than cast slow motion rainbows against the sidewalk. If the campus had been a corpse, then I was a curious child peeking through the mortuary window. A horn honking behind me broke my trance.
Just off campus, I found what had drawn me—a barroom catering to college students. It caused my broken crux of faded memory to flash like southern lightning. After a gasp of humid breath, I wheeled into the parking lot.
Except for a coat of garish paint, the building was little changed. The same railing of rusted steel surrounded the parking lot with pea gravel and broken oyster shells. Faded warehouses framed either side. Mike's Place flashed in purple and gold lettering from a neon sign. For a moment, I thought I was at the wrong place. But only for a moment.
A weather-beaten sign on the roof proclaimed the name I remembered. Trianon. It beckoned me from the car and I hurried to accept its invitation.
Hot Louisiana sun sucked oxygen from my lungs as I strolled across the parking lot. An explosion of trashcans erupted on the side of the building, followed by a brindle cat, screeching as he bounded from the heap. The big tom skipped past me in a frightened sideways motion, then disappeared in a rush behind the building. The trash lid revolved like a percussive top before falling silent on broken concrete.
Silence returned me to reality when I reached the black-painted door. Light-headed from the heat, or maybe suffocating demons from my past, I grabbed the handle and pulled. Icy refrigerated air blasted my face. Engulfing me in a dry wave, it sent a chill down my neck, reviving memories of many sweltering southern summers.
"Come in heah," the little man behind the bar drawled.
I took a quick glance around the room. Things had changed. Once dark, walls were now vivid white, decorated with black stripes. Fluorescent brightness, reminiscent of a New York bistro, replaced the dim coolness of my memory. I sat on a tall stool and waited for the smiling bartender.
He had a crooked grin and mortician's complexion, his shirt the color of a typewriter ribbon. White double-pleated linen pants matched the barroom's theme and connected diamonds decorated his tie. When he smiled, his eyes focused on a spot between my eyes.
"What can I get you, big guy?" he said.
Continuing to polish a glass with his white cloth, he waited for my answer. I looked at pictures of colorful specialty drinks taped to the smoked-glass mirror behind him. It only took me a moment to point to a picture.
"Hurricane. House specialty. Three-fifty with the souvenir glass. Two-fifty without." he said.
“You bet,” he said with a wink. “Everybody needs a memory. Where you from?"
"Oklahoma," I answered, more interested in the bar than conversation.
"Oweeee, boomer sooner! What'cha do up there?"
"Work in the oil patch."
"Got a cousin in Enid in oil," he said above the whining blender. "Jake Perkins. Know him?"
My shake of the head didn't surprise him. He continued pouring the icy pink concoction into a large glass decorated in reds and greens. Adding a straw, cherry and slice of orange, he slid it across the polished counter.
"Not too fast," he said. “Name's Mike. What’s yours?"
"What brings you to town, Mr. John?"
"I went to school here, years ago."
With a knowing grin, he returned to his aimless glass polishing. "Summer vacation," he said. "Ain't many people around right about now."
"When I lived here, an old black man waited bar."
"Henry," he said. "Died a few years back."
Before I could reply a couple entered, sitting on the opposite end of the long counter. The man made a production of lighting his companion's cigarette as Mike popped the cotton cloth across his arm.
"Yell if you can handle another," he said.
Hot and thirsty, I sipped the syrupy drink and pivoted on the stool to have a look around. Then, either the rum or the moment nailed me. Maybe both. Like a motion picture fading into another scene, my imagination began recreating the room as I'd remembered it. Somewhere in my brain's recesses, fluorescent lighting dimmed and the walls began to darken. Jarring ring of pinball machines in back and labored strains of Mick Jagger began emanating from a jukebox.
Scratched marble and corroded chrome replaced Mike's white plastic tables. His black and white tile had become dark, oiled wood. Blinking twice, I turned around.
Gone were the bartender and his two customers, replaced in my mind by an old black man with short, snowy white hair and a tiny mustache. A bow tie girded the collar of his starched white shirt as he polished a glass with a soft cloth clutched in his gnarled hands. When he spotted me, he pushed his wire-framed glasses up on his forehead, leaving two burnished dents in the sides of his nose. He grinned, revealing a full set of shining teeth still firmly set in his sunken cheeks. I stared in disbelief.
"Henry? That you?"
"Sure is. Where you been?"
"Away. I wasn't sure you'd be here."
Henry's chuckle dissolved into a rheumatic cough. He stopped polishing the glass, leaning for a moment against the bar.
"Where else would I be? Ol' Henry's always here."
It was no lie. Henry had seemed a permanent fixture of the place. As much as its worn stools and dark wood. I couldn't recall visiting the Trianon without seeing his ageless face behind the bar.
"What'cha gonna have?"
"Draw one," I said.
Winking, Henry took a frosted mug from the freezer, filling it from the tap behind the bar until a foamy head poured over the lip.
"You remembered," he said.
I did remember. During my seventeenth year and first visit to the Trianon, I'd found myself anxious about what to order.
"Beer," I'd said.
"What kind of beer?" Henry asked, staring over his wire-rims.
"Tap," I'd said, spying the spigot.
"You mean a draw. Next time you want a beer, just say Henry, draw one. That's all you gotta do."
I smiled as the recollection evoked a much deeper memory that sent a melancholy wave cresting across my bow.
"Your lady friend never came," he said, handing me the draw.
The loose layer of ebony skin on his neck wriggled. I nodded when he said, “You made it anyway, didn't you?"
Once, long ago, I'd tutored a girl in math. Not just any girl. The homecoming queen. A gorgeous young woman that wouldn't have otherwise noticed a certain shy sophomore. She was flunking math and resorted to asking for my help. When she aced the course, her warm kiss thrilled me. Enough so that I managed a stammered invitation to her for a beer at the Trianon. I waited alone until the place closed, hoping for an explanation that, like my date, never arrived. I remembered Henry’s commiseration as I sipped the draw.
"She musta got sick or something."
We both knew she hadn’t. Didn't matter because the old man had helped ease me through the crisis. It was a moment I'd never forgotten.
My eyes popped open. I leaned against the counter for support, trying to focus on the smiling man bedecked in black and white. Henry was gone, as was the dark interior of the bar. I gasped for a reply to his question.
“No," I finally said, seeing the empty Hurricane glass. “How much do I owe you?"
“Three-fifty," he said.
Handing him a five I started for the door, advising him to keep the change.
“Wait up," he said. "You forgot your glass."
“Keep it,” I said. "I don't need it now."
He scratched his head and returned to wiping the bar as I walked out the door.
Glaring sunlight, along with a blast of humid air, struck me square in the face when I stepped outside. Still light-headed from three ounces of rum, I wobbled back to the car, my dilated eyes burning from barroom smoke. I found the brindle tomcat perched on the hood.
He bounded off in a single fluid motion, finally stopping at a safe distance to yawn and lick his paws. After stretching, the feral prince strolled away to view the garbage cans awaiting his afternoon inspection.
As I drove away, I watched him in the rear-view mirror until his graceful image melted into a warm, summer daydream.