I cracked the first of a pair of Pacificos and guzzled half the icy brew in one pull. The last edge of a red dime dipped into the horizon. I pressed the tea towel bag against the back of my head – trying to cool it down, ease the swelling, extinguish the pain like the sun sinking into the cold Pacific. Damn, I missed my calling as a poet. Or a beer salesman.
My perch was a faded red naugahyde bar stool, one of a long row in the El Rayo Verde, named after that flash of green that people swear they see on the horizon right before the sun makes its final dip. I’d never seen it. Jimmy, an ex-cowboy and sometime Chippendale dancer from Bismark, knew what I needed when I came in with something that hurt. He called it the triple play. Two cold ones crammed in a bucket of ice and a tea towel. The beers exited the bucket, and the ice went in the cloth, which then got applied to the swollen part. Then the beer went in me – and exited a bit later in the bano. Beer, ice, bano – it was a helluva good system.
Jimmy was the perfect bartender for someone that wanted to sit on a stool and not have to say a damn word. The El Rayo had a decent stereo that hung above a row of tequila bottles that went from icy white to dark amber, all of them catching the fading light of a Mexican sunset. The Sandals twanged their way through Endless Summer, and I let that deep wet reverb wash over me like a breaking wave at sunset. Beer, ice, and damn fine tunes in a palapa, made everything seem about fifty percent better.
I popped the second Pacifico with the opener Jimmy left me when he gave me the bucket and its requisite companion, peanuts saltier than the dead sea with a bite of heat. Jimmy always doused them in Cholula before he served them.
The light had shifted to that gorgeous PV-purple, and cast the beachside bar in a warm Mexican glow. Jimmy strolled around like he always did at this time of night, lighting his green candles. He’d put the Sandals on repeat. Man, if I had any money I’d tip him.
Counting up the situation, it wasn’t so bad. Sure, I let Charmer and his bulked up playmates split first my head and then the scene. And yeah, I had to phone Mrs. Charmer, or I guess ex-Charmer, and tell her I might need a bit more time and cash, if she could spare it, to find the deadbeat. Beatrice was a beautiful woman that deserved a lot better. I wanted to do well by her. And if that meant caving in a certain lizard tatted head, well, I’d be happy to oblige. But that was for another day. I lifted two fingers and waved them at Jimmy.
“Add a J and C to that Mr. James.”
I’ll give him this, the guy knew how to enter a room, sharply pressed pink shirt and cream pants, a crease you could cut your hand on, topped off with a short brimmed white fedora with a band the exact shade of his shirt.
“I don’t want hear about anything that sounds like work, Benno.”
“Luke, my banged up friend. Jimmy’s gonna need to buy a whole new ice machine you keep coming in like that.”
I lifted the bag off, and set it next to the bucket, a trail of water dripped onto the clay tiles. The drinks came, Jimmy swapped my old bucket for a new one. He held the towel out for me, and I draped it over my neck. I pulled a Pacifico from its icy depths and popped it open. Benno’s squeezed the lime wedge into a J and C, his own slang for Jamaican Rum and Coke, and sipped at the edge.
“Did she have nice legs at least?”
“What do you want, Benno?”
“Just to see my good friend, and yes, offer a bit of work. How are things in your bank account? You too high on it to take some good honest work?”
Jimmy’s stereo came off repeat and went into a slow Hawaiian number.
“Is anything you do honest?”
“Ouch. No need to get nasty.” Benno gave that finger flip off the nose that he always did. “Small party, exclusive even, I need a bit of security at the door. Easy as that Mexican brew slips through you.”
It was true that Benno kept me in tacos and Pacificos. Lately, besides Mrs. Charmer back in Wisconsin, things had been pencil-thin. Last month, I had taken the long ride back up north, and thought I’d just keep driving, right to the arctic circle if it seemed right. But after talking with Beatrice at a local cheese and draft joint, damned if I didn’t find myself doing a u-turn on the I-90. It was cosmic luck, or the joke of the universe, when she told me that she thought her husband had headed to the place I’d left only a week before.
“Who’s the party for?” I asked.
“That’s not a word that works for your parties. When is it?”
“Tomorrow night. Come around 9:00. People will start showing before ten.”
Benno sipped his J and C, and I finished my bucket, and considered going for the triple-triple. The ice on my head, and the lake of hops in my belly created a smooth wave of happiness.
“So you’ll be there, right?”
Benno slipped me a folded paper with the address and instructions. I’d been there before, but he gave me the info out of habit.
“Shhh,” I said, and pocketed the paper without looking at it.
The purple had dipped into a enveloping indigo, Jimmy’s beacons of green light reflected off the rough and yellowed walls. An ocean breeze came up and swept through the place – it was like everyone sighed at once. I don’t know what Jimmy had on the stereo, I didn’t recognize it, or maybe the beer softened my memory, but it was the most perfect song for that time of night.
Benno touched my shoulder in that way he did with people.
Across the bar, a woman undid the elastic from her ponytail, and shook down a yard of brunette tresses. In the dim light, I couldn’t quite tell, but she had to be around my age, beautifully matured, just the right amount of lines around her stunning eyes. How did I not see her before? I tilted my Pacifico in her direction and was gifted with a slight nod. Even that was perfect. All I needed was a nod. I had no intention of introducing myself. Besides the fact that I looked like something dragged behind a segunda bus, I didn’t want to ruin the moment of hearing the ocean wind mixed with a beautiful woman’s smile. I let it hang there, lit by Jimmy’s verde candles, and played against a soundtrack of Hawaiian steel guitar. Maybe Mexican folk songs would have fit better, but I’d always loved the sound of vibrating steel guitar.
“I’ll be there.” I said to Benno, but he’d already left, his drink barely touched. Damn, the guy was silent and smooth that way.
“Where else have I got to go?” I asked one of the candles.
Next time in Surf City Acid Drop...
Barely twelve hours ago I thought I had everything sewn up. I found the guy. I just needed to bring him to justice - isn’t that what Perry Mason said, or maybe it was Jack Lord. As happened a bit too often, I had just regained consciousness.