So, I told her, I says right there, with my shorts in one hand, my pants in the other, standing right on her front porch, bare ass as the day I was born for all the world to see, I says, if you think you’re getting a dime of child support from me, then you’re barking up the wrong tree, lady. What do you think of that?”
Shelia tugged at her bottled-blond ponytail, tied up high with a leopard print scrunchie, and popped her eyes wide. Her mascara kept getting gunky on her and making her eyes water. She picked up the empty plastic cup on the edge of the high top table and rattled what was left of the ice.
“That’s something, Harry. You want another sea breeze?”
Harry peered into the empty cup Shelia was still holding and stuck the gummy end of a cigar into the corner of his mouth.
“You sure there’s actually vodka in these things?”
Shelia shrugged and snapped her gum.
“They’re only a dollar fifty on happy hour. You want a double?”
Harry scratched his bristly mustache and frowned.
“What’s that gonna cost me, three dollars?”
“Well now, I never was very good at math.”
Shelia winked and headed back to the bar, taking the plastic cup with her. She slung it in the trashcan behind the bar and rang in a double. Mike, the bartender who was busy flexing for a pug-faced blonde across the bar who looked like she had just left cheerleader practice, rolled his eyes and shot Shelia a dirty look when he heard the ticket print. Shelia blew him a kiss and then made sure to give the perky co-ed a pointed onceover. The girl looked away in discomfort and Shelia smiled to herself. She turned to her reflection in the bar mirror and adjusted her see-through tank top, screen printed with three purple palm trees that drew the eyes just where they needed to be. She straightened her denim mini-skirt, but tried not to look down at her scuffed Keds. They only reminded her of the endless hours she was clocking as a cocktail waitress at The Salty Dog.
Shelia picked up the sea breeze, now in a slightly larger plastic cup, and sauntered back to the row of high tops cutting through the smoky haze in the center of bar. She slid the drink over to Harry, the only customer she had at four o’clock in the afternoon, but turned away before he could start telling yet another story about one of his ex-wives. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a slice of blasting sunlight as Frank came stomping through the door. Shelia wandered over to the end of the bar where she usually hung out and waited for her uncle to come over and bitch at her about something.
Shelia didn’t think she had spoken more than four words to Frank since she had been old enough to wear a training bra. She had always remembered him as a slick jerk, the kind of asshole who got off on telling perverted jokes around kids and flashing a wad of cash in a gold money clip whenever he got the chance. Now that Shelia thought about it, he hadn’t changed much over the past thirty years, only grown a paunch and acquired a pair of gold-rimmed aviator glasses that made his already creepy, heavy-lidded eyes even creepier. He had lost half his hair, but wore what was left in a straggling, greasy ponytail. Sometimes Shelia couldn’t believe that she was actually in Daytona Beach, in Frank’s shithole of a bar, trying to make a buck.
And lay low. After the shootout and fire at that crazy preacher lady’s church, she and Slim Jim didn’t have too many options. It had been Tiny, Legs and Ratface who’d been caught, tearing down the highway away from the scene, Tiny and Legs both spattered with blood and Ratface still reeking of gasoline from the Molotov cocktail he’d launched through the church’s window. Of all things, they’d been pulled over by a state trooper for speeding, though it didn’t take long for them to be arrested for everything that had gone down at the church. In his panic to get away, Slim Jim had managed to flood his engine, putting him about a mile behind the others. He had told Shelia that he was sure his bike acting up would be the thing that did him in, but it turned out to have been his saving grace. He’d seen the flashing lights up ahead, pulling the others over, and been able to turn around in time.
When Slim Jim showed up at her trailer, sweating, out of breath, gunpowder still on his hands, Tiny’s blood on his leather vest and neck, she hadn’t even asked for the whole story. She had opened the rattling screen door, tossed him a roll of paper towels and begun to pack a bag. He’d been too out of sorts to make a decision, too busy standing around in shock, so she’d taken matters into her own hands. She was getting the hell out of Bradford County and Slim Jim was welcome to come along. When he started blubbering about Jack and Toadie, about the club, she’d given him a quick choice: stay and wait for the cops to show up or get his skinny ass in her car. They had managed to skip town before the sun set.
Ending up at her uncle’s bar three counties away wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind, but Shelia had learned long ago that beggars had no place being choosers. Not if they wanted to stay alive or out of jail. After some convincing, Frank had agreed to let her and Slim Jim stay at the Sundaze, one of the two rat trap motels he owned along with The Salty Dog. After even more convincing, Frank had hired Shelia at his bar and taken Slim Jim on as a maintenance worker for the motels, paying them both under the table, of course. Shelia knew Slim Jim was less than thrilled about the arrangement, but it gave them a place to hide out and jobs without paperwork. As far as Shelia was concerned, if Slim Jim didn’t like it, he didn’t have to stay. Shelia was a cat; she knew she’d land on her feet anywhere and it was Slim Jim’s skin she was saving, not her own, after all.
Frank swaggered over and rested his hairy knuckles on the edge of the bar. As always, he was standing too close and reeked of Brut cologne.
“Not exactly banging in here, huh?”
Shelia inched away from him.
“It’s Sunday afternoon. What kinda high rollers were you expecting?”
Frank turned around so that he could survey the bar with her. Harry was busy chewing on his cigar and checking his phone. The blonde had been joined by a brunette who couldn’t bother to put a shirt on over her bikini top, but they were the only ones sitting at the bar. The girls were snickering over their Smirnoff Ices and the sportscasters on the fuzzy TV were droning on about the race, but otherwise The Salty Dog was as silent as a tomb. Frank scratched at a large mole on the back of his sunburned neck.
“Well, you could at least have some music playing. Turn the lights down some. It’s as bright as a damn grocery store in here. You think this type of atmosphere makes people want to come in and drink?”
“I think if people want a drink, they’re gonna come in regardless of the lighting.”
Frank gave her a disgusted look. He turned down the lights and the room became bathed in the neon glare from the beer signs hanging behind the bar and along the back wall. The two girls looked uneasily around them, as if just now realizing what a dive they’d wandered into. Frank shoved a CD into the sound system and turned the volume up. He grinned at Shelia.
“See, ain’t that better? Atmosphere. It feels like a bar now, not a damn hospital.”
Shelia was concentrating on blowing a bubble as Cindy Lauper came screeching through the speakers. When the front door banged open, Shelia let the gum pop and whirled around. Frank whistled.
“Well, lookie, it’s your boyfriend Slimmy Jimmy. I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to be over at the Tropix. You know, working. Like I pay him to do.”
Shelia rolled her eyes at Frank as she watched Slim Jim stomp the plaster dust off of his boots in the doorway.
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“What, did you marry him or something?”
Shelia pursed her lips but ignored Frank as he walked away down the bar, chuckling to himself. Slim Jim stormed up to her and Shelia sighed. What would it be this time?
“Have you seen the motel room lately?”
Shelia narrowed her eyes.
“You mean the one we live in? Yeah, I think I know what it looks like.”
Slim Jim shook his head and rested his grimy elbows against the edge of the bar.
“It looks like a bomb exploded in there.”
“So clean it up.”
Slim Jim grabbed her wrist and looked as if he was going to say something, but Frank came around the bar and crossed his arms over his chest. Slim Jim let go of Shelia and turned to Frank.
“Since it’s still daylight out there, but you’re in here, I’m going to assume that you finished patching up the walls in 101 and 102.”
Shelia watched Slim Jim’s jaw tighten. One of these days it was going to come to blows between the two of them. She’d love to see Slim Jim take a swing at Frank, belt him one right in the kisser. Over Frank’s shoulder, Shelia could see Harry holding up his empty cup and waving it at her. Shelia rang in another drink and then dropped it off. By the time she made it back to Frank and Slim Jim, both of their voices were raised. Frank slapped his hand down on the soggy bar mat.
“So, what? You’re just not going to do the pool at Tropix?”
“There’s a pool?”
Slim Jim’s mouth was twisted in ugly sarcasm.
“Oh, you mean that hole in the ground out back of the motel? The one that all the kids pee in?”
Frank stepped in closer to Slim Jim.
“You need to watch your mouth, sonny boy. Or you and your old lady here are gonna find yourselves out on your asses. I’m doing you a favor and you’d best not forget it.”
Slim Jim balled up his fists, but just shook his head in disgust.
“Whatever. I don’t have time for this shit.”
He backed away from the bar and cut his eyes at Shelia. She tried to give him a sympathetic look, but Slim Jim only smirked at her and then bolted out of the bar without saying goodbye. He nearly crashed into several guys coming through the door and they all looked each other up and down for a tense moment. Shelia shook her head and jammed the ice scoop further down into the bin. It amazed her sometimes that men could even manage to take their own pants off without a woman doing it for them. Jesus, how did they survive?
Frank nudged her hard and she looked up from the ice.
“Girl, you’d better get a smile on that mug.”
Frank’s voice had taken on a strained tone that Shelia hadn’t heard before. He quickly popped out the ’80s mix and put in a Dwight Yoakam CD. He carefully adjusted the volume and then grabbed her shoulder, shaking her roughly.
“What the hell, Frank?”
Frank nodded toward the corner booth. One of the men who had just come in was sitting there alone. The other two were standing around one of the high tops, but it didn’t look like they wanted a drink. They were shifting their eyes around as if surveying the bar from all angles. Frank leaned in close and whispered.
“You see the guy sitting alone in the booth?”
Shelia snapped her gum loudly.
The man was haloed in red light from the Budweiser sign above his head. He had a beaked nose and straight black hair that fell along the sides of his face like curtains. Despite the heat, he was wearing a bomber jacket, the brown leather scuffed and mottled. He was sitting up perfectly straight with his fingers steepled on the table in front of him. Shelia had never seen him before. Frank nodded solemnly.
“Take special care of him, okay? I mean it.”
Shelia tried to wriggle out from underneath Frank’s hand.
“Why? Who is he?”
Frank shoved her shoulder.
“Just do it. And spit that wad out or he’s likely to smack it out of your mouth for you. He doesn’t like gum chewing. I’ll be in the office for a minute. Just make sure he has everything he needs and don’t be a smart-ass about it.”
Shelia waved him off and spit her gum out in the trash before crossing the bar to the man sitting at the booth. She was aware that the other two guys were eyeballing her, but she didn’t look their way. She tugged on her tank top so that her cleavage was more prominent and then flashed the man in the corner a flirtatious smile. He didn’t smile back.
“Can I get you something, sugar?”
His voice was like gravel and this close up Shelia could see that his eyes were an unexpected, startling light blue. She rested two fingers on the edge of the table and arched an eyebrow. The man’s stagnant expression didn’t change.
“Mai Tai. No fruit.”
Shelia waited a second to see if the man wanted to make small talk, but it was obvious he wanted nothing to do with her. She cocked her hip out and winked anyway.
“I’m Shelia, by the way.”
His eyes narrowed slightly and though Shelia knew she could hold her own with any man, she felt the chill of someone walking over her grave.
“Weaver. Now get me my goddamn drink.”