Henry wasn’t a bit surprised by the interior of the bar.
It reminded him Clarence’s joint back in Defiance, though this place had a more vintage personality and was significantly older. The interior was cloaked in dark wood paneling, the high ceiling covered in antique tin panels. The bar proper was ornate to a cliché, complete with a backlit, mirrored wall lined with shelves of silhouetted liquor bottles. It started just inside the door and ran the full length of the room, disappearing into the gloom at the other end.
A couple cowpokes huddled on stools at the front end of the bar near the door. A few more were at the pool table in the opposing back corner, and another few were spattered in booths along the sidewall opposite the bar. The heart of the room was filled with classic wooden tables and spoke-backed chairs packed in too tightly. It looked like something from a black and white John Wayne movie.
The other significant difference between this place and Defiance was the jukebox. It squatted like a time warp against the middle of the back wall, bellowing the usual country-western crap about pickup trucks and love that’s long exceeded the use-by date. Frank, Bridget, and Ed were already huddled over it. Henry wondered what musical misery that combination was going to unleash.
He towed Alice through the smoke according to plan. He led her all the way down the old bar, back to the Siberian end of the room. He pulled out the second to last barstool and held her waist as she hopped into place. She was wearing a silky red dress that wasn’t nearly worthy of its post. The fabric was printed in a Mesopotamian motif, though the sash was strangely oriental. He didn’t even try to make sense of it. It was one of hers. It had to be.
He dropped down beside her on the last stool just as the bartender appeared. He felt an odd twist of disappointment that it wasn’t Clarence, sucking on his plastic-tipped cigar and wiping the counter with that snow-white rag. On a positive note, however, the man looked like he was going to be Clarence eventually, one day. He had the same gangly, sun-worn shell, the same creased face, even the same serious eyes. All he lacked was the gray hair, a cheap cigar, and a few more decades under the belt.
“How’s it going, honey?” the bartender asked Alice as he began wiping the bar down in front of them.
“Like a dream,” Alice said.
The bartender looked at Henry. A toothpick back and forth across his teeth. He worked it as nimbly as if it were another appendage. “How you doing, boss?” he asked Henry. The greeting came with a look that made him think they weren’t going to be pals.
“He is also doing quite well,” Alice said for him.
“Don’t think I’ve seen you in here before,” the bartender said to Alice in particular.
“Oh, we’ve been here before,” Alice said, smiling, “But it’s been ages. Like… a year.”
“Well, I’m glad you found your way back in. You can call me Larry. Welcome to the Cheatin’ Heart.”
It wasn’t until that moment that Henry realized the bartender was a woman. She was dressed in a horse wrangler’s body. She had a crisp, mousy brown crewcut and a denim workshirt with the sleeves rolled nearly to her shoulders. There was practically no exposed skin beneath the tattoos, and she had biceps impressively bigger than his.
“It’s nice to meet you Larry,” Alice said, “I’m Alice. This is Henry. The conjoined twins out there dancing are Bridget and Ed. And that debutante there is my brother, Nancy.”
“Brought the whole clan in,” Larry said, “That’s real nice.”
She was looking at Alice with eyes Henry had seen at least once on every man he knew. They were hunter’s eyes.
“What can I get you, honey?” she asked Alice.
“Rum and coke,” Alice said, “Tall. Diet. Double double. Lots of lime.”
Henry laughed. “Really? You don’t sound too sure. You want to think about it a minute?”
Larry looked at Henry like he’d just spit up on himself.
“You are so observant, Superman,” Alice said, patting the big red S plastered across his chest, “And you’re so right. I’ve never ordered a cocktail before.”
“Well, that was some good guess, then,” Henry said, looking up at the bartender.
“I know,” Alice said, “I’m lucky that way. Did I mention to you that I have a sense about things?”
“Yeah, once. I think.”
“How about you, boss?” the bartender asked Henry, though her eyes were locked on Alice.
“Bourbon. Neat. Make it a double and throw me a beer back.”
The bartender slid a bowl of popcorn in front of them. “You got it, boss.”
She turned to walk back down the bar, but didn’t make more than five feet before throwing Alice a wink over her shoulder, saying “Don’t you worry. I won’t be long, honey.”
Henry watched her bow-legged ass mosey on down the bar. Then he looked at Alice. “Just what in the f—”
Alice slipped up and kissed his cheek. “Don’t be jealous,” she whispered in his ear.
That just irritated him more. Jealous? What reason did he have to be jealous?
Frank slid into the bar on the other side of Alice and slapped the counter. “Hold on just a sec there, pardner,” he yelled at the bartender.
Larry stopped and looked back at Frank from an expression of irritation that seemed pleasantly at home on her face. Finally, she consented to walking back down to them. “What do you need, princess?”
“A pitcher of your most delicious lager and five glasses, please.”
The bartender looked at Frank’s shirt like she wasn’t sure what to make of it. Henry knew the feeling. It was one of Alice’s. It was too similar to the one he’d almost had to wear himself. But truth be told, it didn’t look bad on Frank. At least his man-tits were camouflaged under the panel pockets.
“We got two kinds of tap,” the bartender said at last, “Bud and Bud Light. Got a few more in bottles, a couple in cans.”
“Bud and light” Frank said with pressured glee, “How wonderful! They’ve got both flavors of draft beer.”
The bartender gave him a look that had Henry worrying for Frank’s teeth. “Bud’s fine,” he said to intervene, “And make the glasses dirty.”
Larry threw him a scowl as she walked away. Henry was sure he heard her mutter something about ‘fucking breeders’.
Frank slid his arm across the bar and laid his head down on it in front of Alice. “So, how are you girls doing?” he said, looking up at them.
“Not as good you,” Alice said.
“Well, then you’d better get to work. You’ve got some catching up to do.”
“Gonna need a little time on that, Frank,” Henry said, “Four or five days, I’m thinking.”
Frank slipped in between Henry and Alice and hooked them both by the neck. He pulled them all noggin to noggin. “I want to tell you something,” he whispered into Henry’s face.
Henry tried to twist loose, but Frank had a solid hold on him. He was stronger than he looked. “You’ve got our attention, Frank.”
“I want you to know I’ve done you both a nice little favor.”
Henry rolled his eyes up to Alice’s, three inches away. “Really,” he said, “You took the cyanide pill after all, Frank?”
Frank snorted and wrenched them in tighter. “No, nitwit,” he said, “I’ve decided, as matron of this household, to give you both a little privacy.”
Henry gave Alice the WTF look. Alice only shrugged her eyes.
“I’m giving you the tent tonight,” Frank said, giggling.
Henry felt the ground shake. “What?”
“The tent!” Frank practically shrieked.
“And what exactly do we do with it?” Henry said.
“Well, you sleep there, dipshit. What do you think you’re going to do? Bowl?”
“Wait just a second!” Henry said, “What? Why?”
Frank twisted his face up into Henry’s ear and whispered, “So you can have a little quiet time together, of course.”
Henry nearly choked. “What are you talking about, Frank?”
Frank eased his chokehold hold a bit. “What am I talking about?” he squealed, “You don’t want alone time? You’ve got this perfect vision of womanhood hanging on your arm and you don’t want alone time with her? What are you, a homosexual? If that’s a yes, I have Plan B at the ready.”
Henry finally wrenched his head free just as Frank swept in for a kiss. “Now just you hold on a minute!” he said, “I mean… you’re giving us the tent? What do you mean, you’re giving us the tent?”
Alice was laughing, as usual, and not offering a bit of help, as usual.
Frank suddenly looked very serious. “Henry,” he said carefully, “It wasn’t easy to get you the tent. Bridget’s not a bit happy about it. I’ve nearly been disowned by her and that randy bastard attached to her vagina. They wanted the tent, but I said no. I said you and Alice needed some alone time. It’s the least I can do after what I put you through.”
“Damn you, Frank.” Henry couldn’t believe this was real. He had to be dying in a ditch somewhere. This obviously some kind of pre-death punishment for that poorly lived life.
“Henry, I treated you despicably,” Frank said from pouty lips, “I’m trying to make amends.”
“Frank, I’m telling you right now, you don’t owe me a thing. And I’m not sleeping in the goddamned tent!”