Babe came out of Fitzwilliam’s kitchen to find a surprise waiting for him at the end of the bar. He couldn’t stop the quirk of a smile spreading across his face and waved Jordan off as she approached the young man sitting under the neon green glow of a shamrock Budweiser sign.
“Eugene Sledge,” Babe said, holding out his hand, “what the hell are you doing down here?”
Sledge grasped his hand and shook it like a perfect Southern gentleman. Out of every person Babe had ever met in his life, Sledge was the only one who consistently held to the good manners and breeding of his childhood.
“Hi Heffron,” he said with a shy smile. “Sid’s thinking of coming here for good and working at the clinic. I figured I’d come down here first and try to sell him to Gene.”
Babe laughed. “As long as he's competent, Gene will take him on. Probably won’t trust him, but that clinic is his baby.”
Sledge ducked his head and nodded. It was almost a relief to see him like that. When he first met Sledge, there was something wounded in every part of his being. That was still there in Sledge’s downcast eyes and quiet manner, but the hesitant smile was still there and he seemed comfortable among the stale air and the people of the bar. It wasn’t Sledge’s first time in Fitzwilliam’s, or even his fifth, but he didn’t flinch anymore when the door creaked open.
“Is Snaf around?” he asked. “I didn’t want to stop at the house if he was sleeping.”
“He’s actually in Baton Rouge today, but he’ll be home tonight. You can head on over to the house if you want, someone’s bound to be home.”
“I actually think I might drop by the high school and see Haldane.”
“Hell, Sledge, if he knows you’re in town you’ll be substituting for him at least one day while you’re here.”
“It’s no problem, I like teaching,” Sledge said, “and his kids actually pay attention.”
“The Cult of Haldane, you mean?” Babe asked. “The school’s never going to let him go, since his class graduation rate is higher than the whole of the state.”
“Well, let’s be honest, that’s not exactly saying much,” Sledge said. “Still, there’s hope for an overhaul of the system.”
Babe kept his mouth shut. Education would always be one of Louisiana’s many problems, but with no money and a seriously depleted population, it’s not like they were going to get any additional federal funding soon.
Sledge placed his sketchbook on the bar and stretched out his hands. His wrists peeked out from his long-sleeved shirt and Babe tried not to laugh. Granted it was still March, but it was warm enough outside that Babe could walk around in a t-shirt and inside Fitzwilliam’s he was hard pressed not to sweat.
“You really cold?” he asked.
Sledge rolled his eyes. “Have you been outside? It’s March.” He rubbed his forearms. “I hate being cold.”
“You’re like Shelton that way.”
“It’s not like Snaf has any body fat to keep him warm.” Sledge looked up at Babe with concern. “Has he been eating right?”
Babe shrugged. “I don’t know if you’d call it right but he did down two whole meat lover's pizzas yesterday and then ate half a cake and half a bottle of TUMS.”
Sledge laughed. “Snaf never knows when to stop.”
“Coming from a large family with little money to go around I get it. You want to eat all the nice and tasty food while it’s still warm and fresh. God knows when you’re going to have a chance to eat it again. I guess habits like that die hard.” Babe wiped down part of the bar. “From what Gene’s told me, they never starved but they didn’t exactly have it easy.”
Sledge nodded but stayed silent. Babe could only imagine how awkward and out of place he had to feel, being around Snaf and coming to St. Boniface. Not many people around here were the cherished baby boy of a successful family practice doctor and a debutant mother. Not that Babe was the type of person to begrudge Sledge his childhood. The privileged boy had more than paid his dues by now.
“So,” Babe said, changing the subject in the face of Sledge’s silence, “if Sid does come down here for good, does that mean you’ll be moving too?”
Sledge sighed and stared at his hands. “I don’t know,” he murmured. “It’s not like I have any job opportunities here.”
“And you do in Mobile?”
“My brother said he can get me a job as an accountant.”
Babe shook his head. “I can’t see you crunching numbers all day.”
“That makes two of us,” he agreed. “I was thinking about going back to school. Louisiana State University’s full of a whole bunch of programs I’m interested in.”
“And Baton Rouge isn’t that far away,” Babe said. “You should tour the campus while you’re down here. Get an appointment or two with the department heads. I know Haldane’s got an in with some of those people.”
“I really made this trip for Sid,” Sledge said.
Babe tapped Sledge on the top of his head. “You’re allowed to be a little selfish every now and then. Hell, Eugene, it’s not like you can’t do both at once. Make Shelton take you around Baton Rouge. That will get him out of Gene’s hair for at least another two days. He’ll probably hire Sid for the distraction factor alone.”
Sledge openly laughed at that. “I guess as much as Gene loves Snaf, even he needs time away?”
“That’s the problem with siblings, you can only take them for so long. After that, everything turns into epic bitching where the fights get far too personal and someone’s going to throw a punch.”
Sledge scoffed. “I cannot imagine Eugene Roe, Doctor Eugene Roe, punching anyone.”
Babe smirked. “Never forget, that under all that calm talking and education his got burning Cajun blood just like Merriell. And Merl-Francis is well aware of just what he needs to say to get a good fight out of Gene-Baptiste,” Babe explained, trying to mimic their accents.
“Jesus, Heffron, don’t ever try to do that again.”
“I’m getting better,” he argued.
“No matter how hard you try and how long you live here, everyone is going to know you’re an outsider,” Sledge said. “It’s not just your accent, though Lord knows that gets everyone’s attention from a mile off. It’s all in your body language and your manner.”
“What’re you trying to say?”
“That most Southern people can take the time to have a nice long conversation with each other, just sitting still, watching the paint dry. You, on the other hand, have managed to wipe down half the bar, at least fifteen glasses, and re-stacked the coasters all in the time we were conversing. If I didn’t know you so well, I’d be offended, thinking you didn’t want to talk to me.”
“But I started the conversation.”
Sledge patted his hand. “It’s okay, Babe. You’re everyone’s favorite pet Yankee.”
Babe made a show out of checking his watch. “Don’t you have a Social Studies teacher to go annoy?”
Sledge nodded and stood up. “It was good talking to you, Heffron. And you’re much cheaper than my current therapist.”
“Oh no,” Babe said, shaking his head. “I already have to counsel Shelton at 4 AM and Eddie and Gene whenever they can’t sleep. I can’t take on a fourth client.”
“But you’re a bartender,” Sledge said.
Babe threw his bar towel at him. “Get the hell out of here, Sledge.”
Sledge waved him goodbye. “See you tonight,” he called.
“Not if you manage to drive yourself into the swamp,” Babe yelled after him.
Jordan came out of the back office, carrying a stack of Styrofoam cups and a basket of deep fried pickles.
“Who was that?” she asked. “He’s cute. Is he a cousin? He kind of looks like you.”
Babe swiped one of her pickles, trying not to squint at the salt overload.
Jordan laughed at him. “Lightweight,” she said.
“He’s a friend and he’s taken,” Babe answered instead of arguing her valid point.
“I didn’t see a ring,” Jordan said.
Babe tried not to sigh. St. Boniface, small town it was, meant that any hint of a new person moving in sent all the singles out on the prowl.
“What?” Jordan asked.
“If you want to get into a cage match with Merriell Shelton for the rights to date Gene Sledge, go right ahead.”
Jordan pointed at the door. “That guy, the one that just left, that’s the one Merriell’s been hung up on all these years.”
“Yup,” Babe said.
“Well damn,” Jordan muttered, “I’m actually going to have to give Merl-Francis some credit. Seem like that boy done got some taste. Good to see both him and Gene grew out of that frat boy phase.”
“What phase?” Babe asked.
“Nothing,” Jordan said, hurriedly back-tracking to the storage room. “No phase, none at all.”
“Jordan,” he called after her.
Babe only got a swinging door in response.
He looked at his watch, at the mostly empty bar, and finally flipped out his cell phone.
Somebody had some explaining to do.