I knew it was going to be a bad day when Lorelei took off and left me with the snake. Just not how bad.
It started out as just another day in Paradise—the Paradise Bar in Daytona Beach, spring break just over, summer crowds still up north. A Florida-bright day filtered in on a brisk ocean breeze, mingling with the inside air—tangy and smoky and beery, smudged with a touch of coconut oil.
Hoagie was loafing behind the bar, putting the moves on two girls at the far end, a blonde in little-girl pigtails, a brunette with sparkly toenails. Shorts barely covering their butts, boobs jiggling out of halter tops, they tickled frozen blackberry Margaritas with their tongues. Holton Carmichael, a man too freakin’ handsome to be a bartender, had it easy today.
My customer, the old man in the back booth, signaled to me. I nodded at Hoagie. “Another draft Bud for Mr. Kapolnik.”
“What? He never has two.”
I smiled. “Maybe it’s his birthday.”
Hoagie set the foaming glass on my tray. “How about the beach tomorrow? Pick you up about 11?”
I knew better than to say yes. “I’ll meet you there. Eleven’s cool.”
Just then our entertainer, my good friend Lorelei, came strutting out of the boss’s office and stood in the light, the sequins on her T-shirt throwing glitterspots on the walls. She beckoned me over with a gnat-fanning wave, her expression like she had a hot tip on a greyhound.
She was never here in the middle of the day.
I signaled for her to chill and took the beer to Mr. Kapolnik. A regular, he walked here almost every day from his condo.
When I set it on a fresh beermat, his bloodhound eyes met mine and a sly smile spread under his walrus mustache. “That young man likes you, Daisy.” He nodded toward Hoagie.
I shrugged, picking up the empty. “Yes, me and half the female population of Volusia County.”
Mr. Kapolnik cocked his head knowingly. “You want someone special.”
“I’m through with special,” I told him. “It doesn’t work for me.”
His bushy eyebrows shot up, colliding with his bald and spotty pate. “You’re just a young girl! There is time yet!”
“I’m thirty-eight,” I said, tucking the tray onto my shoulder and shifting my aching feet, definitely not sparkly like Miss Suckytoes’ at the bar. “For me, marriage was a 6.7 on the Richter scale. Ask my two ex-husbands. Better still, don’t ask. Do you blame me?”
Mr. Kapolnik sipped at his beer thoughtfully. “Things are blackest, no, right before the sun climbs the sky? My Sofia and I had fifty years before she died, and almost I did not propose to her because I thought she loved my rich cousin.”
Fifty years. My own parents had forty so far, and I was hoping for many more. “And now, Mr. Kapolnik? Why did you never remarry?”
“I had my true love,” he said, “and yesterday my daughter gave me a parrot. I’m celebrating. Go on, go on.” He waved me away. “See what your friend wants. And Daisy? If love calls, you must answer the phone.”
I would hang up. Love was like tabloid news: plunk down your money for the sensational story, but once past the flashy headlines, past the mirrors and smoke, you realize you’ve been had.
“I wish customers didn’t take an interest in my love life.” I set down the tray on an empty table near Lorelei, the only good friend I’d made since I arrived here to make a new start as a beach bum.
“Oh, that old man is sweet,” she said, and batted her long spiky black eyelashes, those green eyes wide and innocent. Innocence wasn’t Lorelei’s strong suit, not with all that black hair piled up high and curled like Cher's, with that cropped sequined shirt and those tight spandex pants, teetering on those Manolos. She was a tiny gal, and she loved those shoes.
She parted curvy Latin lips. "But, chica, I want to ask you something. You’re my best friend.” Each word landed softly as a lasso.
I knew that tone of voice. “What do you need, Lor?”
“Don’t be like that, Daisy. I just need somebody to keep Bogart for the weekend. I'll be back Monday night." She pointed to the fancy flowered rolling backpack at her feet, its top securely fastened.
I took a step back. “Oh no. Oh no. Snakes and I don’t get along.”
She stuck out a well-glossed lower lip. “My sister is coming on the bus from Tampa to keep my little boy, but she won’t have Bogart in the apartment.” She gestured at the basket. “Come on, Daisy.”
So Sis would baby-sit, but not snake-sit. I couldn't say I blamed her. I took a prudent step back. “No freakin’ way.”
Lorelei grabbed my hand. “Please, Daisy. Don’t tell me you’re afraid of him.”
“Me? Afraid? Of course not.” Daisy Harrison, afraid of a snake? Daisy Harrison, who freaked out so bad when Luke McDuffie put a green snake down her shirt when they were thirteen that she didn’t speak to him for a month? And she’d really, really liked him? Once upon a time.
“He won’t bite.”
I took my hand away and waved it. “But he’s a snake! Doesn’t he eat disgusting things like rats?”
“He won’t need feeding. He only eats twice a week.” She glanced toward the office. “Rasmussen was gonna do it, but he backed out.”
“I don’t blame him. He probably figured out you’re never going to park your shoes under his bed.”
She grimaced. “Sshhh, Daisy. I got a good act, but I’m not really that kinda girl.” She drew closer. “Come on,” she pleaded. “I know you have a heart. Do it for Raj. He worries about Bogie. With you keeping him, Raj can visit and have a reminder of me nearby.”
Raj, her little boy. I had a soft spot for the kid, a Mowgli look-alike—big black eyes, silky black hair, caramel-colored skin. Had Lorelei ever mentioned the boy’s father? I didn't remember. We didn’t get many India Indians here in Paradise.
With my mistrust of getting involved with anybody, I’d wound up baby-sitting Raj often enough, and now....
“So where are you off to, Lorelei?”
She licked her lips. “It’s hard to esplain. I got a big problem. A man problem. I got to make arrangements.” There was a hint of desperation in her voice.
Maybe it was the way she shifted away from me when she’d said it, maybe it was the way she licked her lips, but I felt she wasn’t telling me everything. “Are you talking about Vinny? Your old boyfriend? Or is it a new one?”
Her Manolos had been a gift from Vinny. The fancy watch she wore had been a gift from Vinny. The diamond earrings. But there hadn’t been any new gifts in a long time. What was going on?
“Oh,” she said. “Just a minute, I forgot to tell Rasmussen something.”
“Yeah. Uh-huh.” I looked over and realized Table Three was dry. “Well, I’m not keeping that snake.” I turned and grabbed my tray.
After I’d delivered another set of Bird of Paradise margaritas to Table Three, I saw Rasmussen’s hulking form filling the doorway of his office, his cottony head brushing the top of the frame. He crooked a little finger at me, a bad sign. “Get that basket off the floor,” he grumbled.
The backpack containing Bogart was right where Lorelei had left it. I walked over. “Sure. Where’s Lorelei?”
Rasmussen shrugged. “Dunno. I’ve got to find somebody to fill in for her Saturday night. You know anybody can dance with a snake? We got customers who love that. Good tips.”
He was looking at me hopefully.
“No, Ras, I don’t. The only way you’re going to see me in snakeskin is in a pair of fancy shoes.”
“You in fancy shoes? Ha!”
I stared down at my Birks while he walked back into his office, then I rolled the backpack to the tiny changing room where the dancers kept their gear. Lorelei wasn't there, nor was she in the restroom. I stowed the snake in a corner. “Take a nap, Bogey,” I said.
I looked for Bogey’s friend outside, but she was gone.
Yikes. Had she left me holding the pack? I ought to leave the thing here and let Rasmussen call the wildlife people. What else would you do with a five-foot ball python?
I marched over to Rasmussen, who was talking with Hoagie. “Boss, about that snake....”
I never got to finish. The door opened and three carloads of sunburned, sweaty, testosterone-high rally fans jostled and elbowed through, whooping and hollering.
“The snake can wait,” said Rasmussen.
The thought struck me. Mr. Kapolnik? Maybe he would welcome a nice snake as company for his new parrot. I hurried back over to his table, but the old man had gone, leaving an empty beer glass and a few dollar bills.
I had to face it. I couldn’t leave Bogart at the bar. Lorelei knew a softie when she saw one. Finally, my shift was over and I loaded the beast in my purple VW bus, the one I’d insisted on keeping when I left my second husband, the artist-professor with the long gray ponytail and a taste for sophomores, as well as a taste for my hard-earned money. I stowed Bogart in the back with the jumper cables, the beach blankets, and the bag of power suits meant for Goodwill, left over from my days in the real world as an art-gallery manager.
As I carefully navigated the wide flat boulevards, the jumble of shops and offices, rumbling past fortunetellers and shell shops, seafood palaces and bars, scraps of what Lorelei had told me about Vinny sizzled in my mind like shrimps in oil. All the expensive presents, the long absences. I’d only met him twice, once when he’d come to the bar to watch Lor’s act, once when he’d come to pay for the painting he’d commissioned me to do of her and the snake.
Everywhere and nowhere, he’d told me, when I’d asked him where he was from. Darkly handsome, olive complexion, blinding white shirts, tropical suits, eyes that hardly ever stayed in one spot, fingers that liked to snap. Big sparkly diamond on his pinky finger. One day he was here, one day gone.
After he’d left the last time, Lorelei asked me about the apartment for rent downstairs from me at the Sea Spray Villas, and moved in a month later. She’d hung the portrait I’d painted of her and Bogart, the one Vinny had paid for, over the apricot plush sofa. I’m not a bad painter, no matter what Ex No. 2 said. Some of my work has actually sold.
I pulled up to the yellow-green block of low-rise apartments. Her little turquoise Mustang was parked by her door.
Opening the back of the van, I hefted the contraption containing Bogart and rolled it through Lorelei’s collection of weird and artsy concrete planters to her door. I knocked, rang the bell, and waited, glancing down at the colorful pots of plants with violent tendencies—cactuses with long spines, Venus fly-traps with big green teeth, sundews, pitcher plants.
No answer. I left the backpack in the shade behind the pots. Her car was here, so she must be napping or whatever. I’d check back in a bit.
I clanged up the metal stairs to my apartment and unlocked my door. The hot, stale air hit me with the usual odor of fried plastic, and this time, with a slight musty difference. I turned up the air conditioning, headed to the kitchen for a cool glass of water, and took it to the sea-green secondhand sofa. I sunk down, kicked off my shoes, and propped them on the black plastic coffee table. Between my feet and the TV set, I spotted a large plastic tub, the kind you store blankets in. Right in the middle of the floor.
I shut my eyes, and when I opened them it was still there. I went to inspect it and found it was furnished with some kind of sawdust and a water bowl.
With holes punched in it. A portable snake habitat.
I was quite sure I had not, at any time, given Lorelei a key to my apartment.
I’d take the container back later. I dragged it out to the little balcony that faced the pool. Those balconies were really too small for sitting, and anyhow it was usually too hot. Their main purpose, I figured, was for hanging swimsuits and wet towels, which never actually dried.
By this time my stomach was gnawing on my backbone. How I could be both hungry and nauseated is a mystery to me, but it happens. What did people do before ramen noodles? I put a pot on to boil. The noodles were barely resting comfortably in my belly when the doorbell rang.