Cry Uncle(3)

By: Judith Arnold

Sabrina had been damned good in bed, though—even if she had lousy taste in music, a fact he was reminded of when she shoved her quarters into the juke box and the room filled with the nasal whine of one of those one-named girl singers. Someday when Joe had a free minute, he was going to yank all the whiny-one-named-girl discs out of the juke box so he’d never have to listen to them again.

Scanning the crowd once more, he noticed a woman entering the bar. She was on the heavy side, maybe a few years his senior, her hair a dark halo of frizz in the humid heat. Okay, he thought magnanimously. Assuming she wasn’t too much older than him, she’d do. If Joe were to marry someone past, say, forty, a judge might not view it as a stable family situation. But mid-thirties probably wasn’t too old. And so what if his wife wasn’t exactly heart-stopping gorgeous? This was strictly business. Joe didn’t have to love the woman. He just had to marry her.

He watched her weave among the tables, heading toward him. Turning away, he checked his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. What with the atmospheric lighting and rows of liquor bottles lining the shelves in front of the mirror, he couldn’t see much, and what he did see registered pretty low on the first-impression scale. He ran his fingers through his long, shaggy hair, scowled at the bristle of beard shading his jaw, and straightened out his shirt. Spinning back, he presented the woman with what he hoped was a congenial smile.

Except that she wasn’t there to receive it. She had joined a group of guys at a table near the back. In fact, she was perched on one man’s lap.

Suffering a twinge of regret tempered with relief, he nodded to Lois, his other primo waitress, as she hollered at him for a couple of Buds. He snapped off the tops of two bottles, set them and a pair of iced mugs on her tray, and sent her off to serve her customers.

No sooner had she departed than Kitty was back, requesting two pina coladas. Joe busied himself with the blender. He didn’t say a word, but Kitty apparently read volumes in his silence, because she said, “Stop worrying. She’ll be here.”

“What does she look like?” he asked, recalling with some shame his immediate response to the frizzy-haired woman who’d come in.

“What do you mean, what does she look like?” Kitty arranged the frosty drinks on her tray and grinned slyly. “She’s nowhere near as pretty as me, of course. But you could do worse. As a matter of fact—” she lifted the tray into its one-handed perch “—you have done worse.”

“Thanks.” He watched Kitty saunter back into the crowd, then rinsed out the blender. His gaze strayed to the clock on the back wall. It resembled a ship’s wheel, with thick wooden bars radiating out from a hub. It was actually quite tacky, which was why he’d bought it for the Shipwreck. Tacky was the ambiance he was aiming for.

Right now the clock wasn’t just tacky; it was annoying. It read nine-fifty-three. If this lady friend of Kitty’s couldn’t get her butt down to the bar at a reasonable hour, when the subject was as momentous as her potential marriage to Joe, she wasn’t going to work out. Joe was used to night owls, but he doubted a night-owl woman would make a wife decent and demure and proper enough to persuade a judge to let Joe keep Lizard.

Brick arrived through the back door. Joe called a greeting to his second-in-command, and Brick grunted in response. Grunting was about the limit of Brick’s communication skills, but he made the best tequila sunrises on the island, and at the Shipwreck such a talent was considered far more important than eloquence.

A trio of women entered the bar. Joe knew them all. He’d dated them all. One of them waved to him as the threesome worked their way through the room, looking for a table.

“Two shots of Cutty, neat!”

“I need a Stinger, a Boxcar and a Gimlet!”

“Three rum-and-Cokes, hold the Coke!”

“A glass of chardonnay.”

The noise level had increased as the ship’s-wheel clock rounded ten p.m., and Joe’s skull was starting to echo. All the stools along the bar were occupied; dozens of customers loomed behind those seated, waiting for someone to stand and free up a stool. On the juke box the whining woman was replaced by real music—Van Morrison—and the temperature in the crowded room ratcheted up a few degrees.

Kitty stood at the pick-up station, smiling mysteriously. “I said, a glass of chardonnay.”

“Who in this joint would order white wine?” Joe grumbled, rummaging through one of the refrigerators below the bar for a bottle of the stuff.

“Your fiancée,” Kitty answered.

Joe bolted upright, the chilled bottle clutched in his hand. His heart did a tap dance against his ribs and his throat momentarily squeezed shut. He hated to admit how anxious he was. If this neighbor of Kitty’s didn’t work out, he was going to have to go shopping for a wife on the mainland. Things were getting tight.

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