Jo nursed a shot of golden rum and stared at the untouched pineapple juice sitting on the bar in front of her. The rum tasted too good to throw down her throat recklessly, so she took her time. Even still, this was her third, and she had no intention of stopping anytime soon.
On the bar TV, Connie had set the station to a nonstop weather report. No hurricane, but this freaky late-summer storm still intended to dump several inches on Pensacola Beach, and it would churn the water up something awful. Who knew what the tourists would find on the beaches tomorrow?
Maybe some of Jo’s kin.
She cursed the idea of having to give back any of the money the men had paid her for their charter weekend. She’d already spent a small fortune on the gas for their failed trip today.
“It’ll be gone by tomorrow,” Connie opined right before hitting the button on the blender to make a bushwhacker.
“Nuh true?” Jo replied and took another sip of her rum for emphasis. “I’ve got a charter to take out. Supposed to be overnight today.”
“Those the Yankees from up north you checked in?”
Jo chuckled. Only on the Redneck Riviera would someone from Memphis be considered a Yankee.
“We’ll take good care of them,” Connie promised. Her family owned the auto court and this bar conveniently located on the property. Off the back, into the bay, they also had a dock for a few boats. The locals liked to motor over from Gulf Breeze or Pensacola proper for drinks and music. The laid-back ambiance and the lack of pretension around the place was part of the reason Jo always recommended it to her guests and drank here herself. Connie made her feel almost at home, like she belonged.
“Extra order,” Bobby said as he put a basket of fried shrimp down in front of Jo. Another reason she liked the place. Bobby, Connie’s son who worked in the kitchen, always seemed to mess up someone else’s order while Jo was around, and she got the benefit of a free meal. Bobby liked her, and if he were a few years older, she might consider it, but the kid was only back from college for the summer.
Outside the thin plastic walls of the bar, thunder boomed.
For a Friday night, the bar was pretty empty, but the weather explained that easily enough. The band playing earlier had called it quits when the musicians realized they wouldn’t make any tip money, and now Connie had traditional New Orleans jazz playing softly over the speakers, a break from the standard Jimmy Buffett for the benefit of the tourists. Jo had grown quite mellow as she bit into her first shrimp. Not bad for a night she’d expected to be piloting.
“Hello, Captain,” someone said next to her.
She glanced up from her shrimp basket to see one of the Memphis men standing there. Cliff, she remembered. The one who had sea legs but couldn’t bait his own hook. The paradox.
“What’s happening?” she replied.
He sat down on the empty bar stool next to her without asking if it was taken. Fine by her. She rated Is anyone sitting here?
right up there with I’m checking your tag to see if you’re made in heaven
or If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?
Not that many men had the opportunity to use those lines on her—most of the time they didn’t need to—but there was the occasional drunk tourist, down with his buddies, who tried. A few too many bushwhackers usually had them attempting the line on any girl who looked unattached.
Cliff ordered a beer from Connie, and she gave him one of the Mexican imports, with a lime wedge perched on top, standard fare for the beach bar. Jo glanced at him again. He managed to get soaked in the walk over from his room, but he’d pushed his blond hair away from his face in an easy sweep that almost looked planned. When it had fallen across his face earlier in the day, he sort of looked like Laird Hamilton, a big-wave surfer Jo’d seen in magazines and surf documentaries. She thought Laird was hot, and so, by extension, was Cliff, especially when he was smiling. Like right now. His blue eyes crinkled up at the sides, and his whole face showed his joy.
“Best beer I’ve had all day,” he announced, lifting it in salute to Connie. She waved him off and turned to wipe down the bar again.
Jo and Cliff sat in silence for a bit. She realized she should probably say something, but she busied herself with her shrimp and fries. She’d be rude if she talked with her mouth full, so she gave herself the excuse not to talk.
“So, big fish tomorrow?” Cliff asked.
Jo nodded and swallowed. She could talk business, no problem. “Storm might affect things a tad, but I make it work. Where’re your friends?”
“Hit the sack early. They aren’t as used to early days and late nights as I am.”
“What do you do again?” Finally she got out a personal question. Good for me.
“Pilot,” he said.
“Airplane?” That sounded exciting, getting to visit anyplace in the world in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks.
“Right.” She remembered now he’d mentioned something about the river.
No wonder he had sea legs but no live bait experience. Jo thought about what it would be like to tread the exact same water every day and night. She’d never been more than four or five miles from the ocean—heading any farther away could drive her crazy, give her the “dry sicks” maybe—and she didn’t think the Mississippi would make a good substitute. “I don’t think I’d like that,” she admitted.
“It’s different from what you do, sure, but exciting. Just like sandbars in the ocean shift, so do ones in the river. We could lose millions of dollars in time, merchandise, lives, with one little miscalculation.”
She examined the warm bronze of his skin as he spoke, no doubt gained from standing on the bows of barges, watching the river diligently.
Jo knew plenty of charter boat captains and professional fishermen, but very few of them spoke with the same reverence for their job that Cliff did. She had to admire that.
Outside, lightning flashed, dousing the bar in bright light, and then the thunder cracked.
“This storm is something, huh?” Cliff said. “They lose most of their fervor before they make it up Memphis.”
Jo’s heart sank a little. Resorting to talk about the weather was never good a sign. But why do I care?
She and Cliff couldn’t possibly…
She glanced over again at him, the rest of her shrimp and fries forgotten. Could she?
Because of Jo’s mixed heritage, her inability to fit in anywhere, she never stayed in a relationship very long. She tended to like the cute tourists, ones from the navy base who were fit and would ship out any day, the ones looking for a good time and no commitment. A few days or weeks worked fine for her. Any longer than that, and men started to ask questions, wanted to know about her family. That’s when things got awkward. Excuses like I didn’t know my mom very well growing up
or We’re just too different
didn’t hold up under further scrutiny.
But one of her own customers? Well, why not? She’d give him nothing to complain about. If anything, she might even assure herself a bigger tip at the end of the weekend.
As soon as she thought that, she crinkled her nose. It sounded…tasteless, but the idea of sleeping with Cliff did not.
The longer he sat there, sipping his beer, the more she couldn’t take her mind off him. His strong calves below the hem of his shorts, the well-shaped feet with neatly clipped toenails, black straps of his flip-flops setting off the tan of his feet.
She dragged her gaze back up his body and wondered what lay beneath the T-shirt and shorts.
She swallowed. “You have a shorty? A girl?” Where did that come from? She hoped he’d answer yes so she could put this crazy idea behind her and go back to the boat alone.
Only, she didn’t want alone tonight.
She wanted Cliff.
“Ah, naa. No man either.”
That made him smile.
The beating rain on the roof and Visqueen walls seemed to dissipate, quiet to a soft tapping rather than a hard drum.
“I should get going,” Cliff said. He threw a few bills on the bar. “Early morning, right? I hope my roommates aren’t snoring.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Jo found herself saying. She paid for her own drink, and the two pushed out the Visqueen wall into the damp night.
They walked across the flooded parking lot in silence. Jo took her time. Cliff seemed to repress the urge to move faster, to get out of the wet sooner.
They got to the breezeway that divided two chunks of rooms. Cliff’s suite lay through there and across an annexed parking lot in a cottage added after the construction of the original auto court. He stopped. Jo stopped and tried to say what she wanted to say.
“I’ve got two guys back at my room.” He shrugged. So he was thinking along the same lines she was.
The new knowledge brought her bravery. “I don’t,” she said. “Come back with me. To the boat.”
She didn’t wait for him to respond, just turned and headed toward her van. She could hear his footsteps in the puddles, following.
* * * *
The worst of the storm had passed by the time Jo and Cliff arrived back at the boat. The wind still blew, but it chased the clouds across the sky and occasionally a patch of stars or moon was visible. Everything smelled fresh and clean and wet. The tinkle of flag hooks and sail hardware on aluminum masts was sweeter to Jo’s ears than church bells.
She realized, somewhat sheepishly, that she hadn’t even kissed Cliff yet. Hell, she hadn’t even touched him since she’d helped him aboard her boat that afternoon. What if they proved completely incompatible? What if, despite his easy looks and charm, he kissed like a dead fish? Jo had kissed a dead fish once, on a dare, and she didn’t like it.
“Watch your step,” she said, glancing behind as Cliff crossed from dock to boat. She felt foolish. He had as much experience on the waters as she did, just probably not as much in
the water. They crossed the deck, and Jo pushed open the door to the cabin.
She led him through the main salon and the galley, past the helm, the other two berths and the head, and down the steps to her own bunk. She paused at the door. Had she ever had anyone in there before? She couldn’t remember. Her father used to claim it as his own, and when they had full-up bunks in the cabin, she’d string some mosquito netting up topside by the second helm and sleep there. She didn’t mind. Once her father had retired and she’d taken over, it took her a while to become accustomed to sleeping. Some nights, she still slept on deck. One benefit to the interior bunk, though, was she never woke up with bird shit on her or soaked through by a freak, middle-of-the-night rainstorm.
No point in spending too much time pondering it now, she decided.
She opened the door and stepped in.
She laughed at people all crazy about their tiny houses. They should try living on a boat! Jo had perfected efficiency, and she’d never had to downsize. Downsizing to her would mean giving up a forty-six-foot boat for, maybe, forty-two feet. Half her father’s mobile home still lacked furniture because he had no idea what to buy or how to fill the space. She’d seen trawlers with more efficient use of space than Kaya’s Lament
, but nothing as comfortable.
“Be it ever so humble,” she said aloud as she stepped aside and let Cliff into her quarters.