CAMARO ESPINOZA was on her tenth shot when the man across the table started to list. His eyes were wet and he leaned heavily in his chair, but he didn't fall. Camaro lifted her glass. Whiskey burned all the way down.
They had two bottles of Jack Daniel's between them, both half empty. The man was named Waid, and he tipped the scales a hundred pounds heavier than Camaro. His round face was hazed with a bristly, semigrown beard, and he flushed pinker as they drank.
She's been at the place for an hour and did her drinking at the bar. The sign out front said THE ALL-NITER, and it was stacked from front to back with denim and leather, men and women, and assaultive rock guitar played at heavy volume on battered speakers. The parking lot was jammed with motorcycles and more than a few pickups with Harley-Davidson stickers. A Harley logo was like a club seal, worn on hats and vests and do-rags. Camaro's T-shirt was emblazoned with the same, pulled tightly to her body over jeans an old motorcycle boots she'd worn since time out of mind.
There were eyes on her. Waid had been the first one to come calling. He put his hand on her rear, and she locked his wrist and twisted until he backed off. He laughed, and they had a couple of beers before he made another move. Camaro deflected him toward two bottles of Jack.
One of the waitresses cleared a table for them and set up the shot glasses. Camaro took the first drink, an ounce and a half of Tennessee whiskey catching fire in her stomach. She put the glass upside down on the table between them. Waid did the same thing.
As they emptied the bottles, drinkers and partiers closed around their table. Camaro didn't know any of them, though some knew Waid. They cheered whenever he downed a shot, and cheered again when Camaro put away one of hers. They didn't seem to care who was ahead, or who might remain upright in the end. Only the competition mattered, raw and unfiltered like everything else in this place.
Waid leaned forward, arresting his slide from the chair. "Did I tell you how hot you are?" he slurred.
"Drink," Camaro told him.
He sought out his bottle, and managed to pour a shot though his hands were as unsteady as the rest of him. He studied the glass, brought it to his lips. He swallowed and belched, and for a moment he looked as though he might vomit on the spot. He laughed instead. "Another one bites the dust," he said.
Camaro pointed to the table. Waid had issues turning his glass over. He brought it down sharply on the tabletop. His armed slewed and he upset the collection of upended glasses by his right hand. They hit the floor, the silvery tinkle of them on the concrete scarcely audible.
"Damn it. I'm gonna lose count."
Her head was murky, and she felt heaviness in her limbs to go with the simmering heat below. She poured another shot, drank it, turned the glass over and put it between them. She let herself sway backward in her chair. She didn't fall. Someone loosed a rebel yell.
"You're pouring 'em on the floor," Waid declared.
Camaro shook her head. "I'm drinking 'em."
"She's pouring 'em out!" Waid said to the assembled people. "You see it, right?"
A woman pushed forward. She spilled halfway out of a denim vest and wore no top underneath. The inky splash of a poorly drawn angel lay across one breast. "What's the matter, Waid? You got a problem with her?"
The man next to her cackled. The two of them teetered with beer bottles in hand. Camaro felt the ring of spectators close around the table.
Waid scowled. "I'm only saying she don't got the body for it. She's cheatin'!"
Jeers broke out. Someone pushed Waid and he nearly fell from his chair. He was slow to straighten, hanging on to the table with one hand. "Come on and quit," said the woman with the angel tattoo."Quit if you can't take it."
"I'm not quittin'!" He grabbed his bottle and poured another shot. Amber liquid sloshed over the rim. Camaro didn't object. Waid did the shot, roared through bared teeth. "I'm a goddamned machine, baby!"
Attention shifted to Camaro. Everyone watched for the moment she could drink no more. Bass rolled from the speakers, pounding the barroom. The tempo merged with her heartbeat. She felt right.
She poured a shot. Waid regarded her with glazed eyes. She held up the glass between them, put it to her lips. Head up and back. Whiskey down. The glass rang when she slapped it onto the table. "Did that one go on the floor?" she asked.
Waid didn't answer. Pouring another measure took all his concentration. His tongue protruded from between his teeth as if he were a child doing a complicated math problem. He put his bottle too close to the edge of the table. It started to fall. The woman with the angel tattoo caught it. She and her boyfriend laughed at him. His pink face flushed a deep red. He drank.
Camaro waited. Waid extended his arm, hand gripping the glass. He turned it upside down, held, cracked the glass onto the table. He laughed, he hiccuped, and was violently ill.
Waid lurched out of his chair, heaving. He tripped over his own feet and into the arms of a trio of heavyset men nearly as drunk as he was. They went down, arms and legs tangled. Cheers turned to hysterical laughter before the ranks closed up and Camaro was alone at the table.
She rose from her seat. Someone drew her arm across his shoulders. Camaro let him whirl her, the room tilting, her senses askew. She fell into the hands of a couple of women who shouted congratulations into her face. She fell through to another table, pitched into the lap of a man drinking rum and Coke with a couple of others wearing leather cuts.
"What the hell?"
Camaro looked the man in the face. She was slow to focus, but she made out even features, a youthful look, and sandy hair. The man had only a patch of hair on the point of his chin, no beard, no mustache. Two silver loops of fine wire pierced one earlobe.
"You okay, lady?"
Camaro glanced around at the other men at the table. They were all the same: early thirties at most and not so rough. Weekend bikers who rode shiny bikes they probably never got their hands dirty fixing themselves. "I'm fine. I need my bottle," Camaro said.
"Looks like you need to lay off," the man said.
"What's your name?"
"No, I don't want to know. Let me up."
"I'm not holding you down."
Camaro made it back to her feet. The man held her wrist and kept her from falling. She looked more closely at him. "Help me find my bottle," she said.
The man looked toward his friends, but followed when Camaro pulled him. Together they pushed through to Camaro's table. A bar girl in a tube top collected the remains of the drinking game. Someone had their hand on Camaro's bottle. She snatched it away from them, and cradled it. She drank straight from the neck.
"Take it easy with that. You're drunk," the man told her.
Camaro kissed him on the cheek. "Not as drunk as I'm gonna be."
"You need me to call you a cab? How about you come sit at my table for a little while?"
"That's cute," Camaro said. She took his hand. "Follow me."
She led him through the assembled throng, underneath a nest of speakers, punishingly loud at close range, to a calmer outlet ending in a door lit with a red EXIT sign.
Camaro found the ladies' room and pushed through the door. The man behind her said something. She ignored him. In the small restroom there were three stalls and two sinks. A pair of women stood at the sinks, reapplying makeup in the cracked mirrors. Two of the stalls had visible feet below the closed doors.
"Hey, this is the ladies' room!" one of the women called out.
"I'm only...I'm sorry," said the man.
She dragged the man after her into the unoccupied stall and pushed the door shut when they were both inside. The mostly empty fifth of Jack Daniel's went on the toilet tank.
She grabbed him by the leather of his cut. They kissed in the close confines of the restroom stall, while outside the two women at the sinks complained. The air smelled of hairspray and sweat.
"Wait," the man said when they broke. "One second."
"Shut up and take my shirt off," Camaro told him.
"Hard-boiled action... Tougher than an army boot.... It's deeply satisfying to watch her."—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review