The building was a large whitewashed cinderblock edifice, slung low, crouched like a predator in the desert heat. There were no visible windows, only two doors set about four feet apart near the south end of the front wall; the two doors were shut, heavy, dark, industrial, and an open sign hung on one. Chuck paused before pushing the door and glanced over his shoulder, three or four pickups dotted the gravel lot. His blue ’64 Impala looked out of place parked close to the highway, about a hundred yards from where he stood now. On the other side of the highway was nothing but sagebrush, cholla, creosote bushes, and sand, as far as he could see. Even this early in the day, the heat shimmering off the desert floor obscured the mountains that he knew to be resting along the horizon.
Chuck pushed his Stetson back as he pushed the heavy black door forward and stepped into the gloom. The room was dark and cool. The distinct smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke hovered cloyingly, permeating the atmosphere. A long wooden bar ran along one wall and an empty circular stage stood in the center of the room. There were stout wooden tables and chairs crowding every inch of floor space up to the edge of the stage.
It was quiet in the room and he could hear the hum of the air conditioning. A couple of drinkers sat at the bar and a couple more had claimed tables for themselves. No one looked up when he came in and made his way to the bar to claim a stool.
A girl was working the bar, drawing a beer for a guy sitting at the other end. Chuck watched her work while he waited to be noticed. She was tall and thin with thick red hair piled high on her head. She wore nothing but riding boots and dark jeans; a short apron was tied around her waist. A new tattoo covered her left arm from elbow to shoulder where it wrapped around above her breast and across her back; it was an intricate design depicting a fireworks display. Setting the beer in front of the unaware drunk she plucked a ten dollar bill from the stack of cash he had in front of him. At the register she dropped the ten into her tip jar and removed a couple of singles. She pushed “no sale” on the machine and when the drawer popped open she put the singles in and elbowed it back shut. That’s when she saw Chuck waiting. She smiled and moved down the bar.
“Hey, Chuck how ya doin’? You wanna beer?”
“Morning, Rocket. A beer sounds good, but I don’t want one of those ten dollar drafts. I’d prefer something in a bottle.” As she leaned down to open a cooler under the bar he studied the unfinished tattoo on her back.
“This one’s on the house, Chuck.”She popped the cap and set it on a paper napkin in front of him.
He put a ten spot on the bar and leaned forward to whisper, “Put this in the register, Rocket. I’d hate for Jimmy to think you’re stealing from him.”
She leaned forward as well and in a low voice said, “I’m not stealing from Jimmy. I’m skimming. There’s a huge difference.” Nevertheless, she picked up the bank note and crumpled it in her hand as she moved down to the old National machine.
Ding – No Sale –
The drawer slides open and Rocket flattens the bill against the side of the drawer before putting it in and, once again, elbowing it shut.
She grabs a cigarette and lights it as she comes back down to lean on the bar.
“I’m not sure Jimmy would appreciate the semantics like you and I do. When are you going to come back in and let me finish your sleeve?” Chuck asks.
“I dunno,” she said, “maybe next week. “It’ been pretty busy here, Jimmy’s shorthanded and I pulled a couple o’ doubles last week. To top that off, Mama’s been sick and I hadda spend two days take to get her medicines. Not only is time in short supply, cash is too.”
“You make the time and I’ll worry about the rest.” Chuck told her. Her attention had wandered and she was staring at the stage.
“Look,” she said, “it’s that new girl, Jimmy hired.”
Chuck followed her gaze and saw a pretty young olive skinned girl moving listlessly on the stage, unbuttoning her blouse. “How come she doesn’t have any music?” he asked.
“She didn’t know she was supposed to bring her own so Jimmy told Devon not to play anything. He’s teaching her a lesson.” They watched her struggle with her emotions on stage for awhile, “What a prick,” Rocket said.