Feathers and braids in her blond hair, gray tank top clinging to her wiry frame, flared jeans slung low, Grace was throwing ’em back at Louie’s and the jukebox was blaring “Born to Be Wild.” It was past closing time and the windows were dark, except for the occasional flash of lightning. She couldn’t hear the thunder, only the song, which, she supposed, made a great sound track for a girl like her. The pulsing beat egged her on. She bobbed her head and mouthed the words, letting the deep bass course through the soles of her cowboy boots as she pushed them against the rung of her bar stool.
The place smelled like stale beer, cigarettes, and a whiff of cooking oil. Louie kept it as nice as he could but a bar was a bar. Be it ever so humble, there was no place like Louie’s when it came to getting shit- faced.
Thunder roared and the mirrors caught the lightning, reflecting light around the room. From somewhere in the ceiling, raindrops splashed on the bar— plink, plink, plink— like the echo of shell casings during a shoot- out. Grace dipped her forefinger in the water and pressed it against the varnished surface. Grace was here. The next raindrop washed her print away.
“Maybe it’s time to build an ark,” she said to Earl as she hoisted a shot of fine tequila to her lips. Saltshaker and lime wedge stood at the ready on a soggy paper napkin to her right.
Her burly cowpoke last- chance angel was hunkered on the stool beside her; he smiled a tad and said, “You’d need a little help with that.”
“Naw.” She threw back the tequila and it went down sweet. She shook salt straight onto her tongue and squeezed lime juice down her throat. She slammed the empty shot glass on the bar a little too hard. She loved getting wasted. She loved a lot of things Earl didn’t approve of. “I don’t need help with anything.”
He cocked his head. Tousled salt- and- pepper hair framed his grave weathered face. His teeth weren’t the best, which made him seem more real; nothing of God’s was perfect, not even His angels. If you rolled that way. Thinking about God and so forth.
“That so?” he asked. “No help?”
“Not much,” she said.
Instantly the jukebox song changed: I get by with a little help . . .
“Don’t start with me,” she said as she pulled a cigarette out of her pack.
“I started with you awhile ago,” he drawled. “I just haven’t gotten much of anywhere.”
She grinned and pulled in smoke, let it linger, blew it out. A roll of thunder rattled the bar. She looked for Louie or someone like him to pour her another; then Earl was behind the bar, fulfilling her wish like a genie.
“Noah had help.” He handed her the shot glass.
“Building the ark.”
“Yeah, and then God drowned their helpful asses.” He knit his brows; he knew she was getting the story wrong on purpose. Noah’s sons had helped with the ark and they were saved. Grace was not above redecorating the truth to make a point.
“And everybody ditched Jesus,” she went on. “His disciples couldn’t even stay awake on that stakeout the night before his execution.”
“Man, I know how that feels,” said a familiar voice. She turned her head. Leon Cooley sat hunched on the stool at the end of the bar, nursing a longneck. Not badlooking, for a murdering piece of convict shit. Rosy brown, bald, long eyelashes, with a gap between his two front teeth. He looked almost sweet; that threw you off if you didn’t know his history. Or if you weren’t a cop. Cooley was on death row for two counts of murder.
He might have beat the first count eventually. He killed someone while driving drunk— arguably an accident. But there was the matter of the second count: He murdered a prison guard. Killed him with those gappy teeth. No way an incompetent public defender could claim that was a tragic error in judgment.
Now Cooley had a date with the needle in two years and change; and he and Grace shared Earl in a sort of spiritual ménage à trois—so Earl could teach them how to stay out of hell.
“You know how what feels?” Grace asked him coldly.
“Facing an execution? Have you got disciples, Leon? Or have you already been put to death?”
Cooley was drinking a beer. Sweaty rings of condensation gleamed on the varnished wood— maybe like planets, God’s vast universe. Earl wanted everything to be so cosmic, but when you were slogging around in the humanity, it really wasn’t.
“I started dying the day I was born,” Cooley replied, grinning at her.
“Spare me,” she snapped.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, Grace,” Earl said, back on the stool beside her. He put in a fresh piece of chaw between his lip and his gum. There was a plastic soda bottle in his lap for the spit. “Also, Jesus was not executed the morning they took him into custody at Gethsemane. He went to trial.”
“Yeah, those Romans, they got ’er done,” Grace said. She winced; that was pretty blasphemous, even for her. She wrinkled her nose at Earl to show that she was just being . . . herself.
“You’re upset because all those criminals you’ve been catching are going free,” Earl said.
“Damn straight.” She made a “gimme- gimme” motion at the sparkling bottles of hooch arrayed behind the bar, and her angel frowned.
“I think I’d better cut you off,” Earl said. “Have you ever given any thought to the condition of your liver?”
“I don’t need an ark. I know exactly when I’m dying,” Cooley bragged.
“You’re such a dumb shit,” Grace said, taking another drag, feeling the smoke wind inside her like a slowmotion, benevolent tornado; holding it as it bestowed a millisecond of calm; blowing it slowly back out into the troubled world.
“Or your lungs?” Earl added.
“I’m a dumb shit because I know?” Cooley asked, shifting on the stool. “And you don’t have a clue when and how you’ll go?”
“I’ll go out fighting,” she assured him.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Earl said as a golden glow spread across her face and his feathery wings flared open. She stared at him, awestruck for just one instant— and then he, Cooley, and the bar vanished.
And Grace woke up in her bed in her house. Alone. She winced and touched her forehead. No, not alone. She had a hangover, unfortunately. She didn’t think it was a result of the dream tequila; probably the actual Jacks and beers she’d sucked down last night. The squad’s most recent case had gone south in court. That was six in a row. Another asshole was walking. There was no justice. . . .
The rain was pouring down and thunder rumbled above her. She wanted to stay in bed, but it was time to rise up, protect, and serve. With a yawn, she blew wispy blond bangs off her forehead and grabbed her bathrobe. Her mind kicked over as she considered where she’d dropped yesterday’s clothes, and where her gun and badge were— nightstand drawer, good— and hustled barefoot into the kitchen/ front room, where Bighead Gusman sprawled on his doggie bed.
“Hey, Gussy; hey, Piggy,” she said as he lifted his head and panted at her. She opened the door and gestured for him to go on out. The raindrops beat a staccato rhythm on the cement, and Gus made a sound like a foghorn, plopping his massive head back on the soft padding. “Don’t blame you,” she said. “It’s raining like a son of a bitch. Let me know when you’re ready.”
She made kissy noises at him, grabbed a cigarette, a pack of matches from Toby Keith’s bar in Bricktown, a bottle of extra- strength aspirins from the cabinet to the right of the stove, and took everything with her into the bathroom.
Her neighbor wasn’t up yet so there was no one to flash. Popping the top off the container with her thumb, she tossed back a couple- four tablets as she turned on the shower and let it run hot. She climbed on in and let the water sluice down over her aching head, opening her mouth and gulping down some more relief. Her hangover would go away. It always did. She just had to work through it.