After Uncle Paul’s fifth gin and tonic of the night, he began to sense a buzzing around him, like an old neon light. He looked up to see that Winnie’s Grill had got crowded with men, a knot of whom stood behind Paul, swaying in unison and singing along with the hopeful piano of Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” which played on the house stereo. Paul pressed forward in his cushion-backed stool so that his head hung over the bar. That’s when he saw the red velvet cake, white frosting glowing like a winter moon in its glass-topped dish, tucked onto the shelf under the register since it was after 1 AM and the kitchen had been closed for over three hours.

Winnie herself, pretty and ageless but with a face hard enough to break cinder blocks, saw Paul staring at the cake. She strutted towards him, fingers pinched into three dirty highball glasses.

“Finally see something you like, honey?”

Paul jerked his head up and scanned the room behind him by looking in the swatch of bar mirror that wasn’t covered with brittle dollar bills and Polaroids of posing regulars, himself included. He cocked an eyebrow at Winnie. She pointed at the cake. Paul smiled and played along.

“Yeah baby, I’m ready to take that home with me.”

He licked his top lip and began working his head side to side, locking into the quarter cake with his wide-set eyes.

“You know what? Josephine gonna fix a fresh one tomorrow. Why don’t you take that red velvet with you?”

While Paul was picturing a milk chocolate man with wiry muscles unbuttoning a red velvet shirt, Winnie stooped, lifted the dish to the counter behind the bar, and used a square bar napkin to slide the cake onto a plate, which she deposited in front of Paul.

“Here you go.”

“Thank you,” Paul murmured, and fingered the wad of cash in his pants pocket, wondering if he should tip. I’ll get her extra on my next drink, he decided and sat back in his chair, smelling the citrus of CK-One cologne on one of the divas standing behind him. “Real Love” had ended and one of them said, “Bitch, it’s ‘I’m searchin’ for a real love,’ not ‘RE-searchin’ for a real love.’ You ain’t in school!”

Paul sat with the cake in front of him, nursing a final gin until last call caused a crush of bodies at the bar, ordering final beers and colorful liquor drinks. Three fingers swatted his chest, in the taut spot between armpit and nipple, and a playful voice said, “You didn’t tell me it was your birthday, Paul.”

He looked up from his drink to see Xavier, a cutie with chubby cheeks and bleached orange hair, smiling down at him with his lips pursed. Xavier was in his early 20s. Paul had just a couple years on him.

“You 21 yet?” Xavier asked, then leaned back and giggled. Paul cracked a sheepish smile. He was barely old enough to rent a car, and already felt like the old man at the party.

Winnie walked past, deposited a sweating glass of blue booze on the bar in front of Xavier and said, “It’s five for the Alize, honey,” before turning away to point at a man who was breathing fast through his mouth and waving a limp 20-dollar bill with a look of panic in his eyes.

Xavier fumbled for the back pocket of his jeans and Paul asked, “Just one drink?”

“I had a couple earlier, too.” Xavier pulled out a shiny red leather wallet.

“You ain’t buying no one else drinks?”

“Mmm-mmm,” Xavier replied and lowered his head, casting his eyes up to meet Paul’s in a flirtatious manner.

“Put that wallet up, I got you,” Paul said, and leaned back to reach into his pocket and fish out his roll, which had become damp from being stuck to his thigh all night.

Xavier turned his head, still looking at Paul, then said, “Thanks for the drink.”

He reached his hand up and flicked two fingernails along the hairline on Paul’s neck. The tickle of Xavier’s touch wiggled through Paul.

“Looking a little woolly there. Why don’t you come see me at the shop sometime soon?”

“That’d be nice.”

Paul wondered what his ordinary barber would think if he showed up two weeks late with a new cut, then was glad that was all he had to worry about.

“Yes it would. Enjoy your cake,” Xavier turned to step away from the bar just as the desperate man with the 20-dollar bill lunged back, holding four red-labeled bottles of beer, and accidentally shoulder-checked Xavier, who jerked forward, face flared with surprise.

A wave of blue liquor crested the lip of Xavier’s glass and splashed onto the front of Paul’s leather jacket. Xavier’s mouth formed a perfect letter O, dangling under his fussy little mustache. The man with the beers stopped, rocked back and forth on his feet, and frowned down the necks of his bottles. Paul grabbed the bottom hem of his own jacket and pulled it out to pool the spilled liquor and prevent it from staining his jeans. Xavier set the rest of his drink on the bar, turned to the drunk man with his pointer finger up and said, “Excuse you.”

“Oh, arright. Thanks,” the drunk man slurred, then lifted his four drinks in cheers and staggered to his left as if pulled offstage by a hooked vaudeville cane.

Paul chuckled. He didn’t give a damn. The liquor would wipe right off his leather, and Xavier was cute when he got huffy. Paul liked a little salt in ’em. Xavier glared daggers at the drunk man’s back, then the malice on his face melted into concern as he plucked a handful of napkins off the bar and turned to Paul, dabbing at his coat like a mother might clean her child’s skinned knee.

“Look what he did to your jacket,” Xavier tutted.

Paul started to brush Xavier’s hand away, “No big deal,” then realized that he wanted those hands on him, and said, “Thank you. I’ll clean it more when I get home. Your drink all right?” He pointed at the bar.

Xavier dismissed his drink with a wave, tossed the crumpled napkins onto the bar and said, “The drink’s fine. I’m driving anyway.”

Both men laughed.

“I see you already got something sweet for tonight.”

Xavier pointed to the cake, still on the bar in front of Paul.

“Yeah. Winnie gave me that. Caught me staring at it.”

“If only it was always that easy.”

Paul and Xavier laughed again, watching each other against the backdrop of men hoisting green bottles or taking first sips through thin black straws. Then Xavier reached for the bar. Paul figured he was grabbing his drink, but Xavier only had one finger out, which he sent over the cake, then drew towards himself, collecting a mound of white frosting. Looking into Paul’s eyes, he puckered his lips and the frosting disappeared into his mouth. Then, he picked up his drink and walked off, saying, “See you soon,” and leaving behind the smell of tropical hair product. Paul had wanted Xavier since he’d started coming around Winnie’s two, three years ago, underage and in thrall to Panky, a corny middle-aged saxophonist whose patient, “Let me tell it to you like it is” rap comforted lost young gay boys all the way back to his apartment over a food and liquor out Roosevelt.

Minutes later, driving one mile under the speed limit on Lakeshore, with a J&J’s takeout bag heating his lap, Paul moved his eyes from the rearview to the plate of red velvet cake in the passenger seat. The drive’s sodium lights blued the cake frosting and he thought about how he should feel bad that the cake was the only thing he’d brought home from the bar in the last two months. But this didn’t feel like a consolation prize. It felt like a start. A step in the right direction.

Next: “Sky Boys”