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I've never been certain I'm human. Oh, the X-rays and blood tests are normal, and no doctor, not even my gynecologist, has ever suggested otherwise, but it's see, at least. Most people have no reason to suspect I'm moreor lessthan I appear to be. But none of them really know me. Sometimes I get tired of being cautious. But not so tired I let my guard down. Ever.
That's probably why I go to Jimbo's. Balboa's most notorious dive is not the kind of place that invites curiosity.
In the summertime, the population of Southern California's Balboa Peninsula swells as the beachfront condos fill with vacationing families. The trio of tiny three-car ferries circle continuously, and those who choose the longer overland route discover that the two four-lane roads leading onto the peninsula rapidly merge into one congested street and that all parking spaces are full by ten in the morning.
Evenings, when the beaches have emptied and the tourist traps have closed their doors, the heartier visitors migrate to pubs specializing in tropical drinks and steel bands. They drink Red Stripe beer and dance to reggae in their bikinis and sarongs, glowing from sunburn and tequila shots.
In the midst of this festival atmosphere, Jimbo's staunchly refuses to be festive. Its windowless single room, decorated with faded photos of men holding prize-winning fish caught half a century earlier, has little appeal to any lost tourist who stumbles into its dimly lit interior. Occasionally, some brave souls might try to blend in with the locals and sit at the bar for a draft beer and a pickled egg, but they seldom ask for a refill. If they stay long enough to need them, the bathrooms will probably scare them off. The graffiti, never painted over, is legendary.
I was sitting at the bar sipping a BudweiserJimbo's sells no other beerand listening to Sukey prattle on about her latest flame, Rocko. Sukey is crazy for big, beefy guys who are long on muscles and short on brains. We definitely do not compete for the same men.
"He's gorgeous," she gushed. "I can't wait until you meet him!"
I smiled and nodded. We'd had this conversation many times before. Sukey is the most wonderful person in the world, but she's a bit high-maintenance for most men. She'll call them twelve or fourteen times a day at work and give them adorable nicknames, often involving food. In my experience, most men don't want to be called "cupcake" in front of their drinking buddies.
"Are you supposed to meet him here?" I asked, already knowing the answer. For Sukey, a date meant he had said he might stop in. If he showed up, it would count as the first step toward commitment. If he didn't have a girl on his arm, that is. I really hoped that wouldn't happen tonight. Sukey is usually a happy drunk, but a crying binge was not out of the question.
"He had some other things he had to do first," she said. "But he should be here soon. I'll just call him." She fished around in her massive purse for her cell phone. Wondering how many times she had already called him today, I put a hand on her arm and looked around for a means of distracting her. "Cupcake" would find out about Sukey's telephone habits soon enough. Maybe I could buy her a little time.
"Who's that guy over there?" I asked, pointing to the back of a head I didn't recognize. Sukey knew everyone in town and was an excellent source on anything male.
"Oooh, I'm glad you reminded me," she said, forgetting the cell phone. "That's Sam. He's the guy who bought Butchie's business. He doesn't come in here very much. And he's exactly your type."
I didn't consider Sukey an expert on my type, but the change of subject was welcome. "I missed Butchie's retirement party. Isn't this guy from Florida or something?"
"Key West." Sukey sipped her margarita. "His father's got Alzheimer's, and Sam came out here to take care of him. Sam's dad and Butchie were best friends in the Korean War or something. Sam's really nice but kind of boring." This meant that when Sukey had flirted with him, he hadn't flirted back. "He's always at the coffee shop in the morning, reading some enormous book," she went on. Because I was on a first-name basis with everyone who worked at the local library and the secondhand bookstore, she assumed any man who had read a book was my dream boy. Reading probably meant he wasn't a complete moron, but it hardly qualified him as relationship material.
I was about to point this out when the man in question turned and I got a good look at him. I think I actually managed not to gasp, but this was my idea of gorgeous. Sort of Sam Shepard meets Matthew McConaughey. Tall, lean and wearing a chambray shirt washed until it looked as soft as a feather. Laugh lines had weathered in exactly the right way, and his light blue eyes almost matched the faded shirt. He smiled at something one of the local commercial fishermen said, and I saw the glint of white teeth against a tanned face.
Sukey laughed. I realized I had frozen when about to take a sip of my beer, and I was still holding it in front of my parted lips. I'd been staring like an idiot, and Sukey had enjoyed the whole scene.
"I told you!" she said, whacking me on the shoulder. "Do I know what you like or what?"
"This time, I have to admit you do." I raised my beer and clinked her margarita glass, causing salt to fall into my beer and raise a head of foam that dripped over my hand and onto my jeans. We laughed together, and I thought about how much I liked this silly, shallow girl. The one who was always so genuinely happy to see me and thought I had no faults. The one who was as excited as I was when I opened my own business.
No, I don't let anyone get too close, but I almost made an exception for Sukey. She didn't have a sus that of a childeasily distracted by the next pretty, shiny thing. In a million years, she would never guess my secret. And she was unlikely to make me angry.
I have to be very, very careful about getting angry. I went to the bar to get some napkins to sop up my spilled beer and turned to find the object of my recent attention standing right in front of me. "Excuse me," he said, and we did that awkward dance where two people each try to let the other pass and keep choosing the same path.
I heard a voice behind me shout, "Sam! Meet the Newport Bitch!" Jimbo himself was tending bar tonight. He had coined the nickname on one of my earliest visits, and never tired of the joke. Resigned, I moved so Sam could put down the empty bottles he was carrying and put out a hand to shake mine.
"Sam Falls," he said.
"Mercy Hollings." He had a good handshake, and his eyes were even more arresting up close. I probably stared just a moment too long, because Jimbo started shouting again. Years of running a boisterous bar had left Jimbo with only one volumefull.
"Whoooeee, she must like you, Sammy boy. Usually she shoots 'em down like skeet." Jimbo mimed sighting down the barrel of a rifle. "Pull BLAM!
Another poor bastard, shot right out of the air." Thankfully, the other customers kept Jimbo from warming to his theme, and he walked away, leaving me with Mr. Blue Eyes. I shook my head.
"If I didn't know he only insults the people he likes, I'd be hurt," I said and smiled tentatively, wondering what Sam thought of Jimbo's performance.
"He must hate me, then, because so far he's been friendly." The white smile crinkled those laugh lines again, and I felt my stomach do a tiny flip-flop.
"Give him time. He's probably still trying to think up something really offensive."
"I'll look forward to it." Again the smile. God help me. The tingle in my stomach moved lower. I was trying to think of something clever of my own to say when I saw the smile fade as his gaze moved to look at something behind me.
I turned to see what he was looking at and saw three men coming through the back door. I should say I was aware that there were three men, but one of them drew the eye so completely, the other two were mere outlines.
My first instinct was laughter. Luckily, years of caution had taught me to think before I acted, and I managed to look away before I lost control. "Holy shit," I breathed. "What is that?"
"I don't think I want to know," said Sam, turning toward the bar and picking up the beer Jimbo had placed before him. I tried to keep my eyes on the bar, but it was like trying not to look at a train wreck. With what I hoped was subtlety, I glanced out of the corner of my eye at the apparition at the door.
He was muscle-bound and wearing a white T-shirt with the sleeves cut offand about two sizes too small. His black hair was slicked back and shimmered with oil, and matched his moustache and goatee. From his mirrored aviator sunglasses to his oversized diamond stud, he was a walking mass of clichés. To my dismay, his scan of the room caught my glance, and he flashed me a "you know you want me, baby" smile. I shuddered and turned away.
"Looks to me," said Sam dryly as he sipped his beer, "like a bad case of testosterone poisoning."
I did laugh this time but hoped having my back to the man would disguise the object of my amusement, who was, at this very moment, relating a story to his cronies in a voice designed to ensure everyone could hear him. "So I told him 'Go ahead and hit me, asshole. Fighting gives me a hard-on." His sidekicks laughed dutifully, and the walking anachronism stepped up to the bar and pounded on it with the flat of his hand, making everyone jump.
"Hey, Jimbo, you old pervert, get us some tequila shots, wouldja? And not that cheap shit, either. The PatrÃ³n Silver, okay?" To my horror, he turned to me.
"You ever try the Silver, sweetheart? It's smoother than a baby's ass. Hey, Jimbo, get a shot for hot stuff here, too." Jimbo grabbed a fourth shot glass and, just as I was about to protest, a squeal interrupted.
"Hey, baby, get me a shot, too!" Sukey squeezed in between me and the man's oily bicepswere they shaved?and beamed. Please, God, say it ain't so. It can't be. But I knew better. With a sinking feeling, I saw Sukey throw her arms around his thick neck.
"Rocko, you're finally here. Oh, good, you already got a shot for Mercy. She's the one I've been telling you about." She turned to me and stage-whispered,
"What did I tell you? Isn't he just beef?"
"Grade A," I muttered back, thinking he really would look better hanging on a hook.
"Oh, and Sam. You haven't met Rocko, have you? Rocko, get Sam a shot, and we'll all do one together."
"Rocko Peretti." Freeing himself from Sukey, Rocko reached around me and took Sam's hand in a vise grip. Sam didn't wince, but he didn't smile, either. I was impressed. Before the handshake could turn into an endurance test, Sukey pouted and grabbed his neck again.
"Honeybun, you said you'd be here at nine-thirty. I've been holding off drinking so I could keep up with you. Aren't we going to do the shots?" Rather than being annoyed, Rocko seemed pleased by the attention. He released Sam's hand and sat on the bar stool, pulling Sukey onto his lap.
"Me and the boys had some business, sweet cheeks, but Rocko's all yours now." He kissed her sloppily, and she giggled in delight.
"I really don't want a shot," protested Sam as Jimbo placed one of the tequilas in front of each of us, then set a plate of salt and limes on the bar.
"If Rocko's baby says you get a shot, you get a shot. Ain't that right, baby?" Rocko nuzzled Sukey's neck as he reached for his own shot. She wriggled like a happy pup, and I grudgingly scored a couple of points for Rocko. Any man who called me baby in public would be risking the loss of a limb, but Sukey loved the attention. At least this guy was behaving as if he really considered her his girlfriend.
"Please, Sam?" said Sukey sweetly. "Just one to celebrate" she looked from Sam to me with arched brows and no subtlety whatsoever "making new friends."
"New friends!" thundered Rocko, upending his shot, then slamming the empty glass on the bar. I glanced at Sam and shrugged, then tossed down my own shot. He did the same.
Smooth as a baby's ass was not the exact phrase that came to mind, but I had to admit the smoky tequila was better than I expected. I felt warmth spread from my stomach to my limbs. The sensation was pleasant, and I tried to look at Rocko with a less jaundiced eye.
Okay, so he was too loud and too macho. But he had let Sukey call him "honeybun" in public, and that earned him at least the benefit of the doubt. He and Sukey were cooing and kissing like teenagers, and I turned away to give them some privacy, such as it was.
"It was nice meeting you." Sam's half-full beer sat next to his empty shot glass, but his posture left no doubt he was about to walk out the door.
"Yes, nice to meet you, too," I said, disappointed he was leaving already. The tequila had given me a nice warm glow, and I was prepared to entertain a little harmless flirting. Also, if he left, I would have no choice but to talk to Sukey and Rocko, or leave and risk hurting Sukey's feelings. She would forgive me for ignoring her in favor of a man, but not for leaving for no particular reason.
"Well, it's a small town. I'm sure I'll see you again," he said. I nodded, and he slipped out the front door.
I turned to face the lovebirds, trying to imagine just what I could say to them. "I have to go to the bathroom." Brilliant.
I took my time in the women's room, scanning the walls for anything I hadn't read before. I finally spotted something over the mirror as I was washing my hands. No matter how good he looks, some other woman is tired of putting up with his shit. I chuckled as I dried my hands and headed back out to the barroom.
"Hey, Mercy, I need a partner." Lifeguard Skip was chalking a cue next to Jimbo's single pool table. The place might be a dive, but table etiquette is taken very seriously. Challengers' names are on the chalkboard, and winners call the game. A "slop shot"accidentally knocking your own ball into an unintended pocketresults in the loss of a turn, no exceptions.
Technically, a challenger can choose any partner for a doubles game, but if the winning team is mixed, it's considered bad form for two men to challenge. Some silly notion that men are better players.
"Sure, Skip." Grateful I would not have to make nice with Rocko for at least one game, I chose a light cue and examined it carefully. Jimbo is pretty good about replacing the warped, cracked or tipless cues, but they accumulate nevertheless.