Hal swings his truck into the parking lot of Nicky’s Bar and Grill. It’s fair crowded, but then again, it’s a Saturday night. A week’s worth of construction pay is burning a hole in the pocket of his jeans. Auntie won’t be overly pleased about him blowing pay, but she won’t boude about it. Just as long as he’s not too hung over to go to church on Sunday. She knows that he works his ass off, even though it doesn’t often pay paper money. But tonight, he has cash in his pocket. Laissez bon temps rouler!
He parks the truck next to a battered Chevy, waves to the man sneaking a smoke in the parking lot. He won’t be the one to tell P-boy’s wife that he’s started with the cigarettes again. Nobody’s business but his own. The battered screen door bangs shut behind him as he enters the familiar bar. Hell, it’s the only bar, for miles and miles.
Hank Williams Sr. is blaring full blast on the jukebox. There’s usually live music on Friday, but their fiddler Rene is home sick with the flu, so the boys have given it a rest. People are dancing anyway, wherever there’s free space. Nicky’s is pretty small, a neighborhood bar really. Nobody here but us freaks.
Lucida Ramirezi is tending bar. Red and white flashes from the black plumage on her arms as she pours drinks. She pours a tall glass of Budweiser without being asked, sets it on the bar for him. If he had half the memory she has, he’d be dangerous; she probably knows what everybody in the damn bar drank, how much is riding on his or her tab, who last got into a bar brawl, and how much property damage it had caused.
“Got paid this week, cher?” she asks with a grin.
“Yup.” He grins back, slaps a ten on the bar.
“Alleluia! Praise Jesus!” Lucida shouts.
That brings a young man with sharp hazel eyes to the bar. “Well, Lucida, does that mean we’ll be seeing you in church this Sunday?”
“Ah, Father, that seems unlikely. Let’s save church for the true believers, non?”
He shakes his head sadly, runs a hand through his short sandy hair. “Ah, cherie, you’re breakin’ my heart, you.”
She throws her head back and laughs, and it sounds like the trilling of songbirds. “Ah, Father, you’ll live.” She serves him another beer to soften the blow.
Hal hitches himself onto a barstool, looks around the crowded room. There are lots of couples here, dancing close on the dance floor, playing pool. There are a few single girls clustered in a group over by the jukebox, giggling. Safety in numbers, maybe? They’re from the Back Forty, he sort of recognizes them — they look barely legal. Now that’s just trouble on the hoof. And they are posturing like a wary herd of antelope. That’s the problem being a zoomorph, everything takes on an animalistic tone, like one of the especially bizarre shows on Animal Planet.
Even with all the strangeness around him, sometimes he feels like a freak. It’s not always very comfortable in his skin. About a quarter of the people here have some sort of deformity or disability, and maybe a quarter have at least a few animal features. Some of them have two forms, humanoid and animal. But nobody else has more than one, much less five. Only him. And only a few, male or female, are as attractive as his human form is. He’s learned how to use this to his advantage, but it’s hard to be vain in the swamp. There’s no money for that kind of foolishness, and he’s not sure he’d have the patience anyhow.
He smiles at the girls by the jukebox, tucks his long black hair behind his ears, and they giggle and wink at him. Hmmm, not worth the trouble. He’s got a seat at the bar, a bowl of peanuts, and a cold beer. He’s tired of trying to pick up girls. Sometimes they get tired of the jokes and the magic tricks, want him to settle down and be serious all the time. The ones that don’t get tired of his sense of humor get scared shitless by Goblin Boy. The sharp tusks, knobbly toes, and scaly clawed hands were… intimidating. Shit, he wasn’t that bad, once you got past the foul breath, but he sure knew how to scare girls off. Well, except for Aunt Frog, and she raised him. Nothing scared her.
“So, mon frere, why you makin’ a bahdin? Why frown when when you got money in your pocket and a Bud in your hand, eh?” Father Ollie looks concerned, like the priest he is.
“Ah, ain’t nothin’. Been awhile since I’ve had a beer. Guess it’s makin’ me melancholy.”
They both turn toward a squabble near the pool table. The Chu Sisters have been sharkin’ some poor fool, and now he’s getting all up in their faces with the testosterone. Now, how could anybody be that stupid? Hal pops up off his barstool, a drink in either hand. As he ambles up, Kelli and Kerri leave off the belligerent man and come to Hal, taking the drinks from his hands. He wasn’t sure what they were drinkin’, but Lucida knew. He owes that girl a kiss and a hug.
“Now, ladies, why you messin’ with some poor drunken man who is obviously no match for you both? That is just purely unfair.” Hal gives them a very broad smile and tries to look innocent.
Kelli glances at Kerri before giving Hal a sweet, coy look. “Now, Hal, you know that we’re just playing. A little fun on a Saturday night.”
He pulls out a Rakish Smile from his bag of tricks, gazes into her slitted yellow eyes. “Ah, but Kelli, you like to play rough sometimes. He wasn’t doin’ anything but bein’ drunk and pissed by being rolled by a coupla girls who probably said they didn’t know nothin’ ’bout playin’ pool…” He bats his eyelashes and puts on an exaggerated naive expression. He’s seen them hustle before. They were good, looked like nothin’ more dangerous than a pair of housekittens until the fool put his money up, and then it was all sharp smiles and slitted eyes. Poof, the money was gone, just like that.
Not one of Nicky’s regulars would even dream of playing pool with either of them, but there were always new people coming in, wolf mongrels off the Underground Railroad, new circus people, a trucker or two from Fozzie’s crews who thought that two girls were no match for him.
Hal edges closer to them, fixes a serious look on Kerri. She was the leader of the two, the one more likely to give him information. “Did you two hear ’bout that girl, the one who got smacked around in Ellison’s for buying formula for her baby instead of cigs for her boyfriend? Heard that Miz Ellison almost called help to the store before that boy laid off her.” Hal knew it wasn’t the first time he’d lit into his girlfriend — that boy had an evil temper. Hal had been keeping an eye on him. So had the border guards, when they were around.
Kerri blinked wide eyes at Hal, batting her eyelashes. “Why Hal, we don’t know nothin’ ’bout no abusive asshole…”
Kelli nods. “And absolutely nothing about how he disappeared into the swamp, like he was walking off the edge of the world.” She smiles sweetly at Hal. “Want to play some pool?”
Well, now at least he knew that the poor little girl with the baby wouldn’t have to worry ’bout buyin’ cigarettes anymore.
“Sure, darlin’, but only if it’s not for money. I need to bring some of this cash home to Frog or she’ll skin me alive. I’ll buy you another drink, though.”
So they drift over to the pool table for a game or two. The girls sip their drinks and flirt prettily with him, purring. They prefer prey animals, but he knows that he’ll do in a pinch. He knows these girls. They’re still flirting with him as they walk through the parking lot a half an hour later, patting his ass and wrapping themselves around his hands like housecats. It’s time to go home, and not alone.
And if he has to disinfect a few cat scratches in the morning, that’s just the price he’ll have to pay.