Janis squeezed gray bleach water from the rag and wiped down the long, wooden counter at Sharkey’s, the dive bar in Aransas Pass, Texas where she’d been bartending since Billy ran off on her two years before. A steady trickle of ruddy shrimpers passed through the heavy, windowless door. She breathed in their familiar stench of beer and perspiration and leaned against the register to watch a group of deckhands from the marina laughing loudly around the pool table. Janis began polishing wine glasses. It was her favorite part of the job—a soothing, meditative task that left her satisfied and drowsy, like brushing her daughter’s hair, or nursing her son, she thought, back before Billy had her boobs fixed. His anniversary present, he called it; his parting gift, as it turned out. She didn’t mind the other grunt work, hauling trash or swapping out empty kegs—she had strong arms and could manage just fine, but Ol’ Buck wouldn’t allow it. He was fourth-generation Texan, and there were some things a man just couldn’t let a lady do. Besides, she was eye candy as far as he was concerned and the more time she spent behind the bar, the better, so she left the empty keg where it was, propped against the swinging kitchen door, and went on polishing.
It was late Saturday afternoon, beginning of her shift. The front door jangled open and a shaft of light wandered in along with a group of young men, “frat types”, Bucky called them, down from Corpus for some offshore fishing. A line of old, weathered faces at the bar swiveled toward the light then back to the TV in the corner of the room as the door banged shut, the cool, darkness rushing in again. She watched with a half-yawn as the newcomers stood and blinked, their eyes adjusting, until their collective gaze settled on the shuffleboard table in the back. She guessed at who would be the first to buy a round. Blue polo shirt, the runt of the group. “One, two—five coronas,” he shouted, looking over his shoulder to count heads. She smiled, felt him watching her as she wrestled the beers from the cooler, shutting the door with her ass.
“Thanks sweetheart,” he said, pressing a bill into her jar. He’d try with her before the end of the night—she could call that too. And she’d milk it for the tips, but it wasn’t gonna happen. Dim lights and heavy eye make-up took fifteen years off her. He was young enough to be her nephew and besides, she liked big guys.
Bucky’s taking his sweet time changing the keg, Janis thought. Probably back in the manager’s office watching me on the security monitors, the pervert.
“Hey Janis, any college girls yet?” he asked when he emerged thirty minutes later.
“Not since Bruce Jenner became a tranny, or since you went on break, whichever came first,” she answered, daggers in her eyes. “I’m going for a smoke.”
She dropped her wet rag on the bar, and there wasn’t much he could say but he’d cover for her. On her way through the kitchen she walked past Ernesto, the muscular, Guatemalan line cook, with deep-set eyes and soft black hair. The ticket window was empty and the kitchen staff were crowded around a cell phone watching a soccer game.
“Delivery out back,” Janis whispered, leaning in.
Ernesto nodded. He only spoke Spanish but knew their code and followed her down the empty hall, around the walk-in fridge and into the employee restroom. He hung his apron carefully on the hook on the back of the door as she wrestled down her jeans. She held the sides of the sink as he reached around her to turn the faucet on for the noise. He bit the back of her neck gently, no marks, and entered her, quietly but firmly, from behind. She watched him in the mirror as little beads of sweat appeared on his forehead until her own vision began to blur. Oh God, she breathed, trembling. His mouth formed silent words in Spanish, and he drew her against him until he finished on her lower back with his eyes closed. They put themselves back together, took turns washing their hands with pink liquid soap, patted them dry. She wiped the fog from the mirror with her paper towel, he wiped her back with his, and then left—first him, then her. Each encounter was the same and took less time than smoking a cigarette.
Ernesto was married to a young Mexican woman Janis had never met even though their kids went to the same elementary. Janis had seen her after mass once, walking out of Our Lady of Grace, the only Catholic church in Aransas Pass. Janis was filling up at the gas station across the street, and found his wife surprisingly young, and pretty. The affair had been going on for a year. Janis figured people in the bar knew—had to know—but she didn’t care. It meant nothing, and besides, no one let on either way.
Now she felt like having a cigarette. She went out the back exit to the smoking area, a small back deck facing the dumpster. There was a young woman smoking a few feet away, leaning against the back of the building. Her hair was pulled back in a blonde ponytail and the soft, yellow gauzy material of her sundress billowed around her tan legs, stylish gladiator sandals laced up around her calves. Arms crossed, she cradled her cigarette as though it were a martini. The woman looked as out of place as if she’d been ripped from a glossy travel magazine and dropped into a pile of burnt trash. They greeted one another with silent nods and Janis bent to light her own cigarette.
The woman’s eyes darted toward Janis’s t-shirt to read the slogan stretched across her chest, “I GOT ATE AT SHARKEY’S.”
“I know. It should say ‘eaten’,” Janis said, smirking.
“It’s funny,” the woman said.
Janis shrugged. “It’s the uniform.”
They took long, silent drags and then the woman asked if Janis knew of any good playgrounds nearby. Janis recommended the one at the elementary school. It would be empty on the weekend, and had more swings and less broken glass than the one in town. They listed their children by age and sex. The woman looked too young to have a seven year old and Janis said so. The woman smiled, said she was a yoga teacher, it kept her young. “But these…” she ashed her cigarette. “Just don’t tell anyone,” she said, winking, and Janis smiled back, Who would she tell?
The woman continued talking. She had flown down with her family for the weekend to watch her brother-in-law fish in the tournament. Of course. That’s why all these assholes are here, Janis thought. She wondered what the woman’s husband did. You can’t raise two kids and fly the family out for the weekend teaching fucking yoga.
“Nice chatting with you,” Janis said, stubbing out her cigarette in the mound of butts and walked back through the swinging door and into to the bar just in time to see one of the frat boys snap a pool stick on a ceiling fan. “Idiot,” Bucky said under his breath, shaking his head. “Alright, buddy, come on over,” he shouted toward the noise, wiping beer bottle rings and other liquid from the counter. “You owe the bar twenty bucks.”
Janis got home around eleven and snuck in the back screen door that Ted had been leaving unlocked since she lost her key a few months before. She glanced in at her babies: Max, 8, going into third grade this fall, and Emily, 12, starting middle school. Where has the time gone? Both were still sharing a room, though Emily had hung a curtain across her side “for privacy,” she had told Janis in a tone intended to remind her mother that it was just one of many things Emily wanted and couldn’t have. That her mother failed to give her. Janis pulled the curtain back now so she could see both of them at once, the sweaty hair stuck to their foreheads despite the rotating fan in the corner of the room, a mess of sheets and wrinkled pajamas, their features still as statues.
Ted was asleep on the couch. She had told him she wouldn’t sleep with him when the kids were home and meant it—reminded him every time he forgot. She didn’t want them getting too attached, and to Ted’s credit he hadn’t tried in awhile. She went to the kitchen to fix herself a nightcap. Emily had left a flier on the counter advertising a yoga workshop at the beach, her childlike handwriting scrawled across the bottom, Mom, can i go? Pleeeeease? At the top of the flier was a lotus flower logo and a picture of the woman Janis had met at the bar. Janis swirled her drink and wondered why the woman hadn’t mentioned it. Did she assume Janis wasn’t the type, with her tattoos and shredded jeans? Did she think Janis was too old? Too broke to afford the fifty dollars? Screw her, Janis thought. Then she smiled at the heart Emily had dotted the i with. Sure, Emily. You can go.
Ted woke Janis early, his heavy hand gentle on her shoulder. “Poles are in the truck—we’ll be back before they wake.” She followed him down the back steps and climbed into the cab as he lifted the cooler into the back of the pickup
They’d been friends as kids, used to surf together. Hard to believe considering the shape he was in now, bloated and soft, though he still had the blonde hair and sparkly, sapphire-blue eyes that the girls had gone for in high school—just never her. They’d lost touch for 20 years but got close again when a hurricane hit three months after Billy left her. Ted lived down the road and showed up with a truck full of plywood for boarding-up the windows, helped load up the kids and all their junk—even the goldfish—and drove them inland to a Motel 6 where he got her her own room. He knew better, even then. The storm made landfall just east of town and their homes were fine, but since then he’d just sort of stuck around.
When they were growing up, Ted’s dad had been sheriff. After high school, Ted began working a construction job and now had his own contracting business. Ted was a perfectly decent man—he drank less than she did and never raised a hand to her, which already made him better than the last two. He was a good father-and-husband type by anyone’s standards, content to hang out with her kids while she worked, watch TV until he fell asleep on the couch, and take her to the beach in the mornings to go fishing and watch the sunrise. It had become their ritual.
The cab of the truck smelled of stale cigarettes, and she lit one for each of them as he backed out of the driveway. It was 5am and Island Drive was pitch black. Ted drove slowly, the pools of light from their headlights extending only a car length ahead, the rest blotted out in darkness and fog. They stopped to buy tamales from Lucinda’s cart outside the RV park where a line of pickups was already forming, fishing rods protruding like spikes from truck beds and roof racks. They turned left at the water and parked at the canal, two miles past the pier, and each carried a side of the cooler as they picked their way along the jetty. They found a flat rock about halfway out, and settled into their folding chairs. In parallel solitude they watched a heron feed—white feathers on black water—and drank coffee from a thermos, throwing back most of what they caught.
Ted spoke little, about the usual things. His boss, the kids, the Spurs game. Janis wedged her pole between the rocks and told him a joke she’d heard at the bar.
“Why’d the blonde go to church?” she asked.
“I give up,” he answered, smiling.
“She heard there was a guy there hung like this,” she said, stretching her arms out wide.
Ted laughed, “You know, I’ve heard that one, babe.”
“No way,” Janis said.
“Swear to God…but I love how you tell it.”
“Impossible,” Janis said. “I just made it up,” and they laughed again.
After a brief, comfortable silence, Ted said, “You know, Curtis over at the navy yard was talking about how, you live someplace long enough, people start to remind you of the animals that live there.”
“I know, it sounds funny, but it kinda makes sense when you stop and think about it. I mean, what do we have around here? Old drunk pelicans, like Mr. Brundrett, or, hell, Bucky.”
“Urgh, gross,” Janis said, cringing.
“Pretty little young porpoises working the registers at the tourist shops. Greedy land sharks,” Ted continued. “You get what I’m saying. And I was thinkin’ to myself, what would Janis be? And I thought, you know, you might look like a mermaid, but really, you’re more like, like a barnacle.”
“A barnacle?” Janis laughed, offended. “Mister fucking romance.”
“If I’m a barnacle, you’re a codfish.”
“I’m not saying you look like one, I’m saying you are like one,”
“C’mon, let me finish. What I mean is, you’re sharp, and tough, and fragile…”
“…and little, and old as shit and I ain’t going nowhere. Is that what you’re saying?” she asked, smirking. She almost felt sorry for him, watching him grope for words, his face flushed.
“What I’m saying is, look. You know I love you. And Max, and Emily. And even though you like to act like you don’t need someone, you do. I know you.” He adjusted his ball cap, looked right at her, his face red and sweaty. “And I think you should be with me.”
Oh God, please don’t try to give me a ring. Janis was flustered and reeled in too fast. She cast out again, annoyed. “Jesus, Ted. We’ve been over this.” Then, more calmly, “Things are good how they are.”
“I can’t wait forever,” he warned—then a tug on the line and his pole bent toward the bite.
“Sure you can,” she laughed, genuinely this time. Kissed him on the cheek as he pulled in a flounder, smiled her beautiful smile. She hated these talks. They’d had them before, they’d have another one next week. Truth was, she had started to feel something toward him finally, had noticed it for a while. But she didn’t trust her feelings. She remembered feeling that way about Billy, too, and he wasn’t the kids’ daddy either.
Hey Ted, why did the brunette go to church? To spy on her fuck buddy’s wife.
The wind changed and the smell of fish heads piled atop an adjacent rock began making Janis nauseous. Ted was sulking anyway, so she suggested they pack up and head home, nothing good was biting. They left just as the predawn glow began its ascent, the darkness dissipating into indigo. Ted switched on country radio to keep from talking. They turned off the beach just in time to join a long line of cars backed up to flashing police lights where a car had gone off the side of the road.
“When are they going to put streetlights on this goddamn road,” Ted muttered, annoyed. Flares were out, and Officer Jenkins was directing traffic down a side street. Ted rolled down the window as they slowed to a stop, the wrecked SUV still on its side in the ditch just ahead.
“Morning Bobby,” Ted greeted the officer. “What’s going on?”
The policeman leaned into the window, “Family in town for the tournament. Heading out for an early breakfast and got ran off by some drunk teenagers,” he said, his face solemn. He looked down at Janis’s breasts. They all did. “Morning Janis,” he nodded.
“Any fatalities?” Ted asked.
“Dad’s okay, and the young kids just got cuts and bruises, praise God, but the mother’s hurt pretty bad. Some yoga celebrity they’re saying. Channel Four is gonna have a field day. They’re on their way to the ER at St. John’s now. Her head looked…” he shook his head, grim. “It didn’t look good, Teddy. We’ve got the drunk driver over there,” he said, nodding to a second car where a teenage boy stood in handcuffs, head hung low; his friends sitting in the grass beside him, his girlfriend crying.
Janis’s stomach tightened as she imagined the woman from the bar, her head bleeding, her yellow dress stained and torn. Janis felt an odd sensation, something akin to relief—a sort of perverse pleasure at seeing something so perfect made wretched. Pleasure followed by shame. That could’ve been me. She and Ted had driven that same stretch of highway just an hour before. How old did she say her kids were? Wasn’t her youngest son only a year younger than Max? Janis tried not to think about it.
Janis watched the clouds race over the dunes. Do you think you are a good person, Mom? Emily asked her earlier that week. Janis was washing dishes while Emily dried. What kind of question is that? Janis demanded in return, Why? Did someone say something to you? Emily rolled her eyes, No, mom. I was just asking, and they dropped it. Was she a good person? Probably not. But she would end her affair at least—though it was not the first time she’d made that decision. That poor family, Janis thought. No playground today. She hoped Emily wouldn’t hear about it. Maybe she could drive her up to San Antonio, take her to a rock concert instead. A little mother-daughter trip. And Ted could take Max fishing. Max would like that.
It was growing lighter by the minute, and the daybreak was exquisite. Red and orange clouds as bright as Officer Jenkin’s road flares, the cool air whipping her hair softly, dune grasses waving, Merle Haggard on the radio, one of her favorites, her cigarette passing from hand to lips and lips to hand. Just don’t tell anyone, the woman had said, winking. Well, darlin—I didn’t say a word. Ted was right, Janis decided—she was tough. So what if she was a fucking barnacle? She was a survivor. And she’d cling onto anything she damn well pleased.
“You okay?” Ted asked, squeezing her knee.
“You look funny.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just thinking how they need to put streetlights on the damn road.”
No, she couldn’t trust her feelings. Better to go it alone, Janis thought. The kids would be on their own in nine years and she could think about settling down with someone then, move to Florida like she’d always planned, maybe get her real estate license. There was time. And hell, Ted will probably still be hanging around anyway, the poor, relentless fool.