Yeah, he knew her.
Those frizzy, corkscrew curls were hard to miss. They stuck straight out and up, like little orphan Annie stuck her finger in an electric socket. The color was bright and fake like Annie’s too, which made Cal wonder if her hairdresser was actually licensed or just a beauty school dropout with an axe to grind.
To make matters worse, she ordered wine. When Cal told her all they had was cheap Merlot she said that would be just fine and smiled her pink, bubblegum lipstick smile. Cal grunted and walked back behind the bar.
Jugglers wasn’t a place for a woman like her, and not just because of its limited drink selection. Cal had tried to get the owner to expand his supply, but Joe was adamant that the bar remained a place for “liquor, beer and babes,” even though it was seriously lacking in the babes department. Women stayed away from Jugglers if they knew what was good for them. The only women that hung around were untouchables, Old Ladies of the bikers that frequented the place. Other than the leather-clad variety, the only other patrons were drunkards and the occasional blue-collar worker who was down on his luck. It was definitely not a place for a Mumu-wearing grandma.
By his own mental math, Grams had lived in Chesterville for almost 50 years, at least ten years longer than Cal had been alive. She looked to be in her 70’s, but he didn’t spend much time guessing at customers’ ages, unless they were kids. Even the kids in the neighborhood had more sense than Grams and heeded their parents’ warnings about their fine establishment. Cal hadn’t listened though, which was how he found himself working part time at Jugglers as an adult on his off days. His job as a mechanic at Old Man Derby’s garage paid the rent well enough, but he didn’t mind filling in for Joe when he was out of town.
As he took down the bottle of red wine from the shelf, Cal considered his options for entertainment after he closed for the night. He could call Laurie. She was always good for a roll in the hay and never complained much about what he did for a living, which was a good quality in a woman. He didn’t have it so bad. A decent job, a pretty woman, and all the beer he could drink. What more could a guy ask for? Simple. Uncomplicated. Just the way he liked things.
He emptied the bottle into a foggy wine glass and dropped it in front of Grams. Wine sloshed over the rim, but she just patted the mess with a cocktail napkin and looked up at him. Her big brown eyes were framed with enough blue eye shadow to make her look like an exotic species of parrot.
“You should really smile more,” she said, placing both elbows on the bar. “You’d be more handsome if you smiled.”
Cal considered her for a moment. She was short and slight; not plump like his own grandma who lived to be 99 even though she ate bacon every morning for breakfast. In fact, Grams’ hair was really the only big thing about her. He placed both palms on the bar’s sticky surface and leaned forward, towering over her and her glass of Merlot.
“Lady, this ain’t no place for a woman like you. Trust me. Consider the drink on the house and go on home to watch I Love Lucy.”
That damn smile stayed plastered on her face. “This place can’t be all bad. You’re here, aren’t you?”
Cal rolled his eyes and straightened, crossing his arms over his chest. “All due respect ma’am, you don’t know me.”
“Oh please, Calvin,” Grams guffawed. “You used to ride your bike through my rose bushes, remember? Then your mama would send you over with a Bundt to apologize. I had dessert for years thanks to Eleanor.”
A sharp pang vibrated through Cal’s chest at the mention of his mother. If the cancer hadn’t gotten her, she might still be making those damn cakes. He decided to try a different tactic.
“Look, it’s not safe, ok? There are some mean men in here. You’d better run along home now and tend to that garden of yours.”
She glanced around the bar and Cal followed her gaze. A few bikers in the corner were nursing some beers and staring them down. As usual, their expressions were unreadable. Cal didn’t sense any hostile vibes, but who could tell?
Grams waved away his words with a flick of one heavily costumed wrist. Fake gold everywhere, right up to her clip-on earrings. “Who are you talking about? Him?” She pointed to the biggest of the men across the room. “I haven’t seen Sam Spade in some time but I’m pretty sure he’s the one I remember running all over the neighborhood hollerin’ with Teddy Jefferson’s Shih Tzu chasing after him.”
Cal stole a glance at Sam, hoping he hadn’t heard what she’d said. The look on Sam’s face told him it wasn’t his lucky day.
“And sitting across from him is his partner in crime, Kenny Higgins.” She whooped a laugh and threw up her hands. “Lord, I spent hours cleaning up the toilet paper in my front yard the day after Halloween every year. It was nothing but trouble when those two got together.”
“Time to go,” Cal said, reaching for the glass.
“Now wait just a minute.” Grams grabbed onto the stem with both hands and jerked it back toward her. More wine spilled, but she didn’t release her grip on the glass. “I haven’t touched my drink.”
“I told you, it’s on the house.”
“I don’t care if the bottle is free. I mean to sit right here and take my time tonight. I deserve it.”
Cal couldn’t believe he was about to ask. “Why’s that?”
“Because for 49 years, Frank told me I couldn’t. Now that the son-of-a-bitch is dead, you better believe I’m doing what I damn well please.”
The chatter stopped. The fluorescent lights buzzed. Even the old jukebox in the corner sputtered and died.
A chair scraped across the floor. Sam Spade stood and glanced at Kenny Higgins who also got to his feet. The two of them moved to the bar without a word. Sam moved to Grams’ right and Kenny to her left. Cal gripped the towel over his shoulder with one hand and slid his other under the bar.
Sam saw him reach and smirked. Then he sat down in the empty seat next to Grams while Kenny followed suit on her other side.
Someone kicked the jukebox.
And Cal put two more glasses on the bar and went to work opening a new bottle of Merlot.