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The Fifth Fedora: An Excerpt of "The Lakeshore Lounge" by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

The Fifth Fedora: Weird Noir and Stranger Tales in Honor of Stephen T. Vessels is now published by Borda Books and Wilder Utopia, and is available on Amazon or in our bookstore. "The Lakeshore Lounge" is a wonderful part this collection of tales told in Stephen's honor. The following, for your enjoyment, is an excerpt of Cheryl Owen-Wilson's story.

My 86-year-old grandmama, Bertha Jean, calls to me sayin’, “Hey L’il Bit. I’m at the Lakeshore Lounge. I need ya to come on over here.” L’il Bit be her name for me even though I’m a grown woman thirty years a’ walkin’.

The Lakeshore’s a run-down honky-tonk where she goes to, as she says, “visit her memories.” What she’s doin’ there in the middle a’ the night I can’t guess, but when Bertha Jean calls, ya go.

The headlights on my van cut through the pitch-black of the starless night, but I spot the place easy, it bein’ the only building still standin’ on the bayou side of the one-lane levee road.

Back in the day, the Lakeshore had rows of shotgun houses on either side of it. When the water was so high you couldn’t see the pilins they was set upon, the houses and the Lakeshore looked like they was floatin’ on the bayou. The town people called folks what lived in them houses levee rats. My grandmama was one of ‘em.

Her daddy fed his family and made a livin’ from what he caught in the swampy marshes right outside his back door. She told me many a story ‘bout her growin’ up days as a levee rat, livin’ on the wrong side a’ this here pile a dirt I been drivin’ on.

I pull over to the side a’ the road as best I can, walk down to the Lakeshore, and open the only door in or out of the building. I breathe in the musty smells comin’ from the swamp churnin’ under it.

She’s sittin’ alone at a table. The only light is the glow comin’ from the jukebox behind her. It makes her look like she’s a young woman again workin’ at the Lakeshore tryin’ to keep the men’s hands off her, while dreamin’ ‘bout a life she knew she’d never have.

“Well it done took ya long enough.” She motions for me to sit in the chair across from her.

“What the hell ya doin’ out here in the middle a’ the night?” I surprise myself. No one talks to Bertha Jean that way, least of all me. Soon as I sit down my anger dries up. In its place is all my worrin’ ‘bout the disease I can see is eatin’ at her, killin’ her.

The paper-thin skin on her hands brushes mine when she reaches ‘cross the table to touch my own hands before pullin’ hers back. “Watch your words, Maggie Jean.”

I lower my head a’fore I say, “Yes, ma’am.”

Grandmama reaches once again for my hands. This time she squeezes them, not lettin’ go, a’fore she continues. “I been sittin’ here thinkin’ on your life, L’il Bit, and I figured I got one more story to tell ya. Been keepin’ it to myself, all these years. But now with the veil betwixt this life and the next gettin’ so thin, well, I seen how ya needin’ this here story more than I be needin’ to hold onto it.”

Another story? She’s woken me from a much-needed sleep for another story? Couldn’t it have waited? I look down at my grandmama’s frail hands. Veins pulsin’ with life show through the skin coverin’ them. How many more times will she have to tell stories?

Shame washes over me when she releases my hands. “I’m sorry grandmama, for before, I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

She pats my hands sayin’, “It’s okay baby girl, it’s okay. You thirsty? I’ve worked up a mighty thirst.”

Without waitin’ for me to answer, she pours amber liquor, Balvenie scotch whiskey, her favorite, into two plastic, red, to-go cups. While I watch her, I ponder on how much liquor she’s poured in her fifty plus years a’ workin’ in one honky-tonk after the other. I look at my own hands. I been doin’ the same. Bartendin’ durin’ the weekdays keeps my rent paid and leaves the weekends for every art fair my old van can take me to.

I take a drink. The scotch burns goin’ down my throat.

She takes a drink too, puts the cup down, and smiles at me.

I can see in her hazel eyes she’s not with me anymore. She’s visitin’ her memories. She looks toward the door like she’s waitin’ for someone to come in a‘fore she starts to tell me what she drug me out here to say. It ain’t too long a’fore my waitin’ on her pays off.

When she turns back to me I can see in her eyes she’s sortin’ her memories. Her soft voice sounds as far away as her memory is takin’ her. “I was workin’ my usual afternoon shift standin’ over a table in this very spot cleanin’ off a beer someone had spilt when he walked through that there door.” She stops talkin’ and points to it like there’s more than one door a’fore she continues. “I could tell right off he was a city man, but I’d never seen one dressed like him, ‘cept Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. He stood still in the doorway lookin’ ‘round like he was decidin’ on if he’d stay or leave. He was a big man, wearin’ a trench coat same as Mr. Bogart wore, but he was three times the size or more of the actor. On his head was a brown hat cocked to the side, low on his forehead. A fedora. He took it off and wiped the sweat off his face with a snow-white handkerchief.”

***To read the rest of "The Lakeshore Lounge," consult The Fifth Fedora on Amazon or in our bookstore.***

Cheryl Owen-Wilson conjures tales of voodoo and other ghostly dimensions through her childhood spent in the bayous of Southern Louisiana. Bayou’s Lament, her debut novel, was published in 2021 and you can find her short story, “Swamp Symphony,” in Shadowspinners: A Collection of Dark Tales. Her paintings can be found in Stephen Vessels’ The Mountain and the Vortex.

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