Renee felt the coming rush of customers like Harley motors thrumming down the highway. It was 4:30 when she and Rick took over from the early shift at Titty’s Bar and Grille and got ready for the long night ahead. They were partners in everything, she and Rick, and had been for going on two years, which is why Jimmy Titty wanted the two of them behind the bar of his establishment. “Y’all’ve got my back,” he said on more than one occasion. “I know y’all do.” And sure they did, but that didn’t mean that every once in a while some cash didn’t get slipped into a pocket instead of a register or that a bottle of beer didn’t get opened and drunk and never paid for.
Tending bar was hard to live on as an hourly wage—even counting tips—and New Smyrna Beach didn’t bring in your spring breakers or snow birds so much as a Daytona or a West Palm did. She and Rick needed that extra cash. Hell, they deserved it. They could’ve moved on—had the chance many times—but New Smyrna was home, and Titty’s was family, and family helped you out no matter what.
What brought Renee to Florida was not so much a love of warm weather and palm trees as it was a need to be as far away from where she came from as she could imagine. But why New Smyrna Beach in particular?
The answer was simple: Bike Week. The first time she set foot in Florida was when she and her then-boyfriend rode into town on his Harley during Bike Week. The sense of immediate inclusion was like nothing she had felt before. No one gave a shit if she drank half a dozen shots a night or snorted a little something every once in a while. No one cared that she’d left her kid behind to be raised by her sister. No one cared that she barely knew Blackie before she got on the back of that bike. No one cared about anything at all other than getting messed up and having a good time doing it. And when she learned that Bike Week wasn’t just a one-time thing, she was sold.
In fact, Bike Week happened every year, rain or shine, and the heart of Bike Week was New Smyrna Beach and the ventricles were the many bars dotting the road leading to and from the beach. Bike Week was exciting, it was different, and, in the end, it was something to live for—that week in March when folks from all over would want to be right where she was. Right there. Sure, it wasn’t as big as Sturgis but it was big enough, man. It was big enough. And Titty’s Bar and Grille was the beating bloody pulse of the heart of Bike Week. It was everything.
A few months on, the bar would be packed already with bikers, getting rowdy, slapping ass, looking for trouble. There was no distinction between day and night during Bike Week. It was one long kick-ass party full of sex and drugs and beer and rock and roll. And thirsty, big-tipping, barrel-chested men on bikes.
But now was the time for prep—the time to mentally and physically ready yourself for the onslaught. Renee had been going to the tanning booth for months in anticipation, and judging from the eyes on her flat, brown belly, if she kept it up, tips would be good that year. She couldn’t wait.
She washed the remaining dirty glasses. Wiped down the liquor bottles and waited for Rick to finish loading up the coolers and the ice. “Dang ice machine is broke again.” Rick banged through the swinging door from the back with two cases of Bud, feet squelching on the sticky floor. Renee would need to get the mop out and wash it down before things got busy or else she’d go crazy with her feet sticking to the tiles every time she walked over to get a cold one out of the cooler. “Jimmy’s got a call in but who knows when they’ll come fix it. I’m going for ice.”
Renee nodded. Swiped the bar top with a clean rag, eyed the straggling customers to see if anyone was empty. “All righty,” she said. “You do that.”
“What?” Rick said, opening one of the coolers and placing beers inside. “I’m getting ice, I said. Ice.” He told her he was clean, but she knew different. The past few months he’d been slipping, needing, needling. She comforted herself that at least it wasn’t meth he was using—just heroin. Meth would mess you up. Sure, heroin would mess you up, too, but not like meth would. That shit was lethal.
“I know what you said.” Renee moved away from him to where a customer held up his glass, rattled the ice cubes.
Rum and coke, honey. Rum and coke.
She watched Rick walk out into the growing dark. Late-to-nest birds canvassed the dusky sky above the parking lot, swooping like feeding bats on a summer night, out of light, out of light.
There didn’t seem to be as many bats in Florida as there were back home. At least not near the ocean. Could be that the constant wind kept them away, or maybe it was the open space with nothing to bounce sound off but air and sand. Not like in the mountains, among the piney woods, flying low above the lake—sound echoed endlessly there, sound upon sound. She thought of the twilight sky at home and saw it as one mass of bat bodies, black and flapping, winged, moving forward, pushing away, pursuing.
Once she’d been at a house of bats with a man whose name she could no longer remember. It was not his house, but the summerhouse of his parents, both dead. He was there to clean it out, get it ready for sale. He did not live there. No one lived at the lake then. No one stayed past the time the last leaf dropped. She had sex with him in the bedroom of this A-frame on the shore of the lake.
The structure was painted red and roofed in wood shingles. The bats, he told her, live beneath the shingles. He motioned for her to watch out the window as the sun set over the distant mountains.
You’ll see them soon, he said. Watch.
It had felt good to be lying in the crook of his arm, hand on chest. It felt good to be told to watch as though she were someone worthy of watching when others commanded. She’d told her sister she had something important to take care of but really all she had to do was come to the house of this man she’d met when he stopped in at the store for supplies. He had written directions for her. Told her he’d cook dinner.
It wasn’t until she got to the house that she remembered he’d not bought any real food, only beer and coffee. A box of donuts. A roll of toilet paper. Matches. But he had pot and music. Soon they kissed.
Relax, he said. We’re cool.
She was relaxed. She was cool. She wanted to be there.
They watched and saw one black dot grow smaller in the twilight, and then another and another. It was spring and the window was open to let in a chill breeze. Small waves lapped the shore, tinkling the late remaining ice. They heard wind in the new green leaves. Once in a while, they heard the high-pitched squeak of a bat. The bodies grew frequent, indistinguishable one from the other. She reached her hand out in the direction of the window as if to grab hold of them and let them pull her out into the sky and share their night with her.
He got out of bed and dressed, went downstairs. She followed and took a sip from a sticky beer bottle on the coffee table, unsure if it was hers. He yawned and stretched, looked at his watch. She told him she had things to do.
Yes, he said. You better go.
He turned the porch light on for her and stepped out. She hesitated at the door, foot pushing against the screen, not yet ready to give up the potential of more time in this house with him, pretending it was where she lived and that he was her husband, or, at the very least, her boyfriend. The day had been warm but the night air was cold on her skin, still blushed and mottled from the friction of their bodies rubbing together. She wrapped her arms across her chest and stepped out onto the porch.
His back was to her when she noticed the thing at her feet, furry and brown, impossibly small. She nudged it with her toe and it flexed its wings. She felt she should do something before he turned around and noticed it. He had the look of cruelty about him—tightness in his lips, the linger of a smirk.
He saw the bat before she even noticed he was looking.
Hang on, he said. Don’t move.
He went inside and came back with a trowel in hand. He bent and smashed the head, then scooped the small body onto the blade, walked to the edge of the woods, and flung it far into the darkness. They did not even hear it land.
He walked back to her and leaned on the railing. He had no choice, he said. It could have been rabid, dangerous. A dog might have found it and eaten it.
It’s not good to take chances, he said.
Driving home in the pitch dark, she watched the telephone wires for the lights of oncoming cars to know when to switch off her high beams. Sometimes she would switch off her lights entirely, wait for the car to pass and switch them back on. She knew the road home the way a bat knew the sky.
Renee thought she had good instincts. She had, in fact, on more than one occasion called herself a good judge of character. The regulars at Titty’s knew different, though. To them, she was childlike, naïve, a collector of broken things: sea glass, stubs of pencils, sticky-eyed cats, and men like Rick who would never take to the fixing she so wanted to give them. It was easy for everyone who saw them together to know that Rick, a younger man—handsome enough to head down to Miami Beach and rub noses with the beautiful people—was playing her, that his protestations of staying off drugs were nothing more than protestations. And though she didn’t like it, she accepted it because Rick had never been bad to her, had hardly ever hit or yelled at her. And from the looks of her—wide-eyed, easy to smile at men of all ages—you could tell she always had accepted it from men. All it took was a “sorry” or an “I need you” to get her back on track with guys like Rick.
Renee had been able to handle the bar on her own but things were picking up by the time Rick showed his face. She noted that he came in through the back door and not the front door as he would usually do, even though Jimmy had warned them time and again that he preferred his staff to come in through the rear. “Looks more proper that way,” he said. Though some might wonder why there was a need for propriety in an establishment like Titty’s, where on your typical night anything went.
Rick stood next to her and squinted into her face. His eyes looked not right—not high, necessarily, more scared, or wild. She reached a hand to touch his arm. Her heart picked up pace. “What’s wrong, baby?”
“Come on in back,” he said. “For a sec.” Then he smiled and she saw that he was excited. The only time Rick was excited was when he was about to get high or when he was scheming how to get rich.
“We’ve got customers, baby,” Renee said.
“One second,” he said. “Please, baby.” He swung back through the door and she followed, more out of curiosity than any desire to be involved in whatever he had going. She was tired, still getting over a lingering sinus infection, and the night already seemed to have gone on too long. She needed to be in good health for Bike Week, that much was true.
Rick led the way to the liquor storage room, which they typically kept locked at all times. He jingled his keys to find the one that opened the padlock, inserted it, turned and opened the lock. He looked back over his shoulder and smiled a smile that said, wait until you see this.
On the floor, in the tepid beam of light, was a baby—five months old if a day—sleeping in its car seat. Renee’s breasts tingled as she thought of her own baby all those years ago. Thought of the day her milk came in and her sister helped her get the baby to latch on. “How do you even know about this stuff?” she had asked her childless sister Marie, who answered, “Who do you think helped your mother with you?”
For a wild second she believed this baby in front of her was her baby—her Cheri—come back to her. Traveled forward in time and miles and miles to where she was. She longed to pick the child up and hold her close, rest her chin on the soft crown of the head, breathe in the scent of her cradle cap.
“We’re going to be rich,” Rick said. “Rich.”
Excerpted from Echolocation, © 2012 Myfanwy Collins. Published by Engine Books, USA, March 2012.