Our bar is a corner bar with a haphazard, patchwork aesthetic. Its best feature is a massive Victorian back bar, dragon heads and angel faces emerging from the oak an extravagant work of wood in these shitty plastic days. The remainder of the bar is, in fact, shitty, a showcase of the shabbiest design offerings of every decade: an Eisenhowerera linoleum floor, the edges turned up like burnt toast; dubious wood-paneled walls straight from a '70s home-porn video; halogen floor lamps, an accidental tribute to my 1990s dorm room. The ultimate effect is strangely homey it looks less like a bar than someone's benignly neglected fixer-upper. And jovial: We share a parking lot with the local bowling alley, and when our door swings wide, the clatter of strikes applauds the customer's entrance.
We named the bar The Bar. "People will think we're ironic instead of creatively bankrupt," my sister reasoned.
Yes, we thought we were being clever New Yorkers that the name was a joke no one else would really get, not get like we did. Not meta-get. We pictured the locals scrunching their noses: Why'd you name it The Bar? But our first customer, a gray- haired woman in bifocals and a pink jogging suit, said, "I like the name. Like in Breakfastat Tiffany's and Audrey Hepburn's cat was named Cat."
We felt much less superior after that, which was a good thing. I pulled into the parking lot. I waited until a strike erupted from the bowling alley thank you, thank you, friends then stepped out of the car. I admired the surroundings, still not bored with the broken- in view: the squatty blond-brick post office across the street (now closed on Saturdays), the unassuming beige office building just down the way (now closed, period). The town wasn't prosperous, not anymore, not by a long shot. Hell, it wasn't even original, being one of two Carthage, Missouris ours is technically North Carthage, which makes it sound like a twin city, although it's hundreds of miles from the other and the lesser of the two: a quaint little 1950s town that bloated itself into a basic midsize suburb and dubbed it progress. Still, it was where my mom grew up and where she raised me and Go, so it had some history. Mine, at least.
As I walked toward the bar across the concrete-and-weed parking lot, I looked straight down the road and saw the river. That's what I've always loved about our town: We aren't built on some safe bluff overlooking the Mississippi we are on the Mississippi. I could walk down the road and step right into the sucker, an easy three-foot drop, and be on my way to Tennessee. Every building downtown bears hand-drawn lines from where the river hit during the Flood of '61,'75, '84, '93, '07, '08, '11. And so on.
The river wasn't swollen now, but it was running urgently, in strong ropy currents. Moving apace with the river was a long single-file line of men, eyes aimed at their feet, shoulders tense, walking steadfastly nowhere. As I watched them, one suddenly looked up at me, his face in shadow, an oval blackness. I turned away.
I felt an immediate, intense need to get inside. By the time I'd gone twenty feet, my neck bubbled with sweat. The sun was still an angry eye in the sky. You have been seen. My gut twisted, and I moved quicker. I needed a drink.
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