Elena noticed a ‘For Rent’ sign above our heads just before we found Bourbon Street, with an extra plack that hung below reading ‘Not Haunted’ and pointed it out to me. At the corner of Bourbon we stumbled upon our destination, Tropical Isle, where we made friends with the bartender, Angela.
We each ordered a hand grenade- it was a ‘when in New Orleans’ drink- and sat down at the end of an L shaped bar across from Angela. Her fine sandy blonde hair fell down past her shoulders, her pencil thin eyebrows were darkened, and her smile was a little crooked. Her smile was nice though, charismatic and welcoming. She wasn’t young anymore, but we’d soon find out that her spirit was youthful.
At first, she didn’t speak. I took a few sips of my frozen drink. It was refreshing against the hot, humid New Orleans weather, and took a moment to survey my surroundings. Across the bar from us an empty nook full of classic video games, on its perimeter, a breathalyzer test. I pointed it out to my companions and we made a few halfhearted jokes.
Behind Angela, two tall large cardboard boxes were tucked underneath the drink counter, full to the top of plastic hand grenade cups. They were translucent, flourescent green with shape similar to that of a tall vase, but the base the impression of a miliary hand grenade. We each held one ourselves, and they were ours to keep, if we wanted them.
I looked up at her, “So how many of those boxes do you go through typically?” I wanted to talk.
I don’t think she expected my question, responding, “Well, that depends on the day.”
“How bout tonight?” It was a Saturday. “I bet you go through a lot.”
“Yeah, well…” she started, thinking about it, “On a busy day we’ll go through almost ten boxes.”
“Wow,” that was a hell of a lot more than I expected.
“Yeah, it’ll get crazy in here later.” It was only early afternoon now, and the bar was busy. Not packed, but busy. I imagined it later on, shoulder to shoulder with tourists just trying to get close enough to the bar to talk to her. I heard the loud hum of a busy bar.
Her manager came from out of the kitchen, opening the guide on the television. He changed it to Half Baked, at her request. I stared at it for a minute. It was the date montage, the scene with the money counter in the corner.
“I love this movie,” I said, turning back towards her. She nodded. She hadn’t opened up to conversation just yet.
Elena broke the silence, “So… what’s in a hand grenade?”
She smiled at us, “I can’t tell you.”
We both gawked at her, our jaws fell and our eyebrows lowered. Ellie had gone outside to talk on the phone.
“No really,” she started again, “I had to sign a release when I started working here. It’s patented. I’m not allowed to tell.”
“That’s so crazy!” I exclaimed.
“Yup,” she replied, “but it’s true.”
“Will you tell us if we guess?” Elena had the right idea.
She grinned at us, “Go ahead.”
“151?,” my first guess. She shook her head.
“Absolut?” I guessed again. I knew it had to be a clear liquor.
She shook her head again, “Think higher alcohol content.” We both paused.
Elena guessed, “Tequila?” Wrong again.
“Oh, oh…” she paused, the thought on the tip of both our tongues, “Everclear?”
“Bingo! And triple sec, pineapple juice, and the special mixer.”
We both cocked our heads at that one, wondering.
“Yeah, see this,” she picked up automated drink dispenser, “It’s premixed. There’s a button for the regular hand grenades here and sugar free here too.”
“Mmhmm,” she was proud of it. It was very cool.
We went on, talking about nonsense, learning about her background. We shared with her about the road trip, how much I already was in love with New Orleans, about camping on the other side of the lake.
She was originally from Missouri, had moved to NOLA with her first husband and then back home briefly. She couldn’t stand being home.
Then, we found out her age. She was 37, but I swore to her she didn’t look a day older than 32. She accepted the compliment graciously. I told her I’d been to Mexico, Missouri for a wedding a few years back, and she commented on her hometown.
“There’s just nothing to do there. I knew I had to come back here,” she went on, “And the people… The people here are so much nicer, they’re friendly.”
“Yes!” I agreed with her. “I love the South for that. Nobody has a problem talking to you, even if it’s about nothing. The people here that we’ve met, just in the last few hours, are great.”
We chatted a bit more, as the hand grenades started to set in. It was only two o’clock, but I was three drinks in and I was feeling heavy.
We left, but not before exchanging affections for the friendly conversation with Angela, and headed east on Bourbon St, towards a whole lot of commotion.
People were starting to flood the streets. All of the sidewalks and the bars alike were packed full of tourists. We heard about as many foreign languages there as we heard in the National Parks, but it was crowded and we were drunk, not quite ready for more drinking.
A humid, laborious walk, with a couple pit stops, landed us at the St Louis Cemetery, the most famous of the New Orleans burial grounds. I tried at first to disregard the signs stating that you must be accompanied by a certified tour guide, but I was stopped by a large, tall black man.
I joked with him, “I was gonna make a run for it,” smiling goofily up at him.
He laughed, “Go across the street there,” he pointed to the grass median, “the woman in the red skirt is Jennifer. She’s the best tour guide around.”