The Love Triangle at Cleo’s



Electra, a friend, and favorite bartender of mine made her dreams come true, and moved to New Orleans. This meant my dreams of having a reason to visit one of my favorite cities regularly also came true.

Electra’s dreams didn’t stop there. From her place in midtown Manhattan, she quickly found new digs off Bourbon and St. Peter’s streets in the French Quarter, a cute mint green bike with a basket, a musician boyfriend named Deke, and a job slinging drinks at a new spot across from ACME’s Oysters within a month of arriving. Three months later with all the “extra” time on her hands, she studied photography at Tulane U, submitting pics to a local small print news.

I took advantage of visiting her as often as possible, especially after a few years when she decided to really dig in and go in on a one bedroom apartment in Marigny, with the help of her parents. I knew sleeping on her sofa would come to an end, but being basically next door to all that music with essentially free accommodations made choices clear and obvious. It got me closer to the little jewel known as Cleo’s, which I would call a second home.

Cleo’s survived the well-beaten path, a bit off Frenchmen St. towards South 7th Ward. It was close enough to the music, yet far enough to avoid the stumbling tourists. For me, Cleo’s was like Jimmy’s Corner on 44th street in Manhattan, but featuring that special, smooth Louisiana sauce instead of that New York bitter bite. Cleo’s came complete with a juke box in the corner and a slender, long room where, at most, you could fit twenty people packed at the front. The only difference at Jimmy’s was he didn’t have a pool table in the back past the bathrooms.

Clem is the go-to guy there for me, and there’s a sweet dark-haired beauty, Kathy, who’s the afternoon shift and bar-back on crazy weekends. I prefer my hangs amidst that peaceful late afternoon slot, rolling into the insane night-time crowd, wherefore I take my leave and make the rounds on Frenchmen or head out to some epic gastro experience. I could go on about the meals I’ve had in NOLA that will make your head spin, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

This last trip revealed a Marigny saga that had been brewing for a while, according to Clem. He flipped a towel over his shoulder as he leaned against the back counter, bracing a foot on the edge of the speed rack. That afternoon was a particularly steamy and swampy May day, heightening the stillness inside the bar. The whir of the overhead fan blades dutifully attempted to cut through all the thickness. Minimizing sweat while maximizing the coldness of drink became somewhat of a moral imperative.

“It started in January when Chewy comes in and gets sauced,” Clem began, “with Candy showin’ sometime around 2am, lookin’ to take her old man home. I had to walk them out, personally,” he emphasized.

Clem never came out from behind the bar. He hated drama, and I couldn’t imagine a time I’d ever seen him approach the front door except to lock it at 4am. I sat entranced, slurping up my beer, occasionally placing a cold, ice-chilled hand at the back of my neck. I remembered the couple from when they invited me to check out the Satchmo Festival in the National Historical Park.

“So, I sees Chewy comin’ in and he’s cool, getting’ happy but chill. I don’t sees Candy for like, some time.” Time is always loose with bartenders and, well, in New Orleans. “One day, Candy comes in and Kathy’s behind the bar so, I just walk to the back and start the night prep and things, ya know, and I’m sortin’ the ice. I’m haulin’ beer, and there she is all boo-hoo-hooing in the corner, Kathy you know, pouring her water and stuff, sayin’ the things.” Clem starts wiping at the sweat pool my pint glass accumulated.

“Anyyyywho, Kathy eventually gives her the heave-ho, and I sees she’s cool, so it’s cool, and you know shit happens. ‘Next’.” The bar door creaks open, the sun streaming in so harshly the dust mites drum a storm in the beam.

“Clem,” nods a lanky man, who likely lives in plaid all year round, shimmies up to the bar. “Fred,” Clem claps his hands, and bump fists.

Clem reaches deep into the beer cooler and clinks off a Miller bottle cap, ice slithering down the sides. Fred grabs it, taking deep inhales, while Clem reaches down, pops off a second bottle cap, places it in front of Fred, then wanders back over. “So ya’know. ‘Next’. And ‘next’s’ name is Collette.” The bar door squawks at the arrival of a group of people. I wave Clem on, knowing we’d catch up later.

It took over two weeks to piece together all the layers. The Cleo’s saga was deep, and as an outsider I was there for it. Sometimes Chewy and Collette showed up together, sometimes apart, and I wasn’t always close to overhear snips of woe. Things were ramping up-I could feel it. Electra would try and stop by and be my wingman as we both wondered what would happen. I would get an earful of it one day, when Candy plopped down next to me on a rather busy Saturday afternoon, the only stool open being next to me. She didn’t recognize me, but I knew immediately it was her because what other pregnant lady would show up for some “me time” at a bar other than Candy, looking for her man Chewy?

Part Two: Next Week!

©Isabel Alvear, August 2020

#Saga #lovetriangle #NewOrleans #bartending #ShortStory #travel #bars #newyork

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