Whatever it took to save the world, Ruby Arenas worked all the shifts she could get as a server at RayRay’s Elbow Room to earn money for her master’s degree in environmental science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. RayRay promised to hire the 25-year-old nature lover fulltime as soon as he had an opening. He fit her into the schedule as often as possible.
A committed vegetarian who hated her parents’ beloved Cuban sandwiches loaded with roast pork layered with ham (two kinds of pig), Ruby bit her tongue at work to keep from spreading bad news about eating any kind of meat that walked, crawled or swam including seafood. Grinning and bearing her burden, serving heaping platters of chicken wings, grilled grouper burgers, conch fritters, honey-crusted salmon and anything else you could blacken or broil became the orders of the day.
Ruby liked people but felt closer to manatees, turtles and birds, particularly loving plant life on the planet. No place brought her into closer contact with Mother Nature than mornings when she swam in the Gulf. Sprinting across the white blanket of sand, she’d dive into bulbous whitecaps before starting smooth long strokes that guided her a hundred yards into the soft comfort of a salt water womb. Imagining herself as a mermaid, she sometimes held her breath so long underwater she almost lost consciousness. During those times she floated inside her own body as serene as a Zen fish becoming one with the deep.
That’s when she knew she was unique.
Humanity’s creatures of the sea origins remained imbedded in Ruby’s spiritual core, propelling her through the water, protecting her from harm, sending her to another level of supreme existence. No matter what any critic might say, her cosmic connections rang true with pristine purity.
Too bad the same couldn’t be said of the tousled, ruffled and bedraggled beast that washed up on the shore. Frowzy as a discarded feather duster gathering grime in a no-tell-motel gutter, the floppy sopping pile caught Ruby’s eye as soon as she emerged Saturday morning from her swim. Sand washed over the clump as she sensed slow, small motion but movement nonetheless. Bubbles emerged too, tiny bubbles forming, popping and disappearing like greasy, soapy foam on a worn wet kitchen sponge,
An emerald green parrot splayed on the beach now gasped for air near the water line. Reminding Ruby of a terminally hungover RayRay’s regular, she knelt by the bird’s side and brushed seaweed off his beak.
“Sonofabitch,” the parrot said.
Stunned, Ruby scooped up the parrot and cradled him to her shoulder. Opening his eyes, the bird looked at Ruby and addressed her like a conversation was the most natural thing in the world for a bird to do.
“What hit me?”
After a bath, hot towels and fresh-squeezed orange juice for her and the bird Ruby fed the parrot guacamole on tortilla chips with chipotle hot sauce. Ruby bundled him in a handwoven palm basket, took him to the bar and showed RayRay what fate had shipped her way.
“I’m not allowed to keep pets in my rental cottage,” Ruby said
“The bar could use a mascot,” RayRay said, his eyes lighting up like a big, fat joint in the front row at a Cheech and Chong film festival.
Within a week RayRay taught the bird to roller skate around the circular bar on black rubber toy truck wheels RayRay attached to triangular plastic bases connected by black plastic roll bars the bird clutched in his talons. RayRay made a tiny hockey stick out of swizzle sticks he taped together and taught the bird RayRay named Dillon to slam a mini puck (another rubber toy truck wheel) into the net in the corner of the barroom while RayRay screamed, “He shoots, he scores!”
Named after classic television sheriff Matt Dillon, this cock of the walk easily adapted to the saloon with an allure that sometimes outclassed regular patrons who flaunted their own freaky flair whether they possessed any real style or not. That sounds complex because it is. Personality disorders can get complicated.
One day Dillon started to insult a relatively new patron who now came into RayRay’s every afternoon at five for happy hour.
“Braaak! Braaak! Look at that fat whale. Look at that fat whale,” Dillon said lifting his leg to point a claw at the vodka-guzzling patron.
“I kill this bird,” said the hulking Russian sitting at the end of the bar.
“I like your gold teeth,” RayRay said trying to change the subject.
The drunken Russian went for the slight of mind distraction.
“You know how much teeth cost?”
“Lots, I bet. You look like a Moscow rapper on parole from the gulag.”
The hulking whale roared with laughter.
“Moscow hippie hoppers die before they get to gulag,” he said. “No rappers in Moscow. Just Cossack dancers. You want to see Cossack dance?”
“Uh, look, buddy, no, that’s OK.”
Leaping from his bar stool, 40-year-old Ivan Popov crossed his arms across his chest at the elbows. Bending at the knees, he first shot out his left leg. Pulling back his ankle, he shot out his right leg, then the left, then the right. The big clod repeated the kicks about a dozen times.
An Alcoholics Anonymous group that had fallen off the wagon together and met for drinks each afternoon began to clap in unison. The lead boozer tried to do the Cossack dance and fell flat. Another drunk took his place. Other AA dropouts howled. Before you could say “we will bury you” a half dozen other inebriated customers were Cossack dancing like VIPs at the season debut of The Alexandrov Red Army Ensemble.
Now Dillon flew into a fit of Cossack dancing, too – on roller skates.
Out of breath Ivan fell on his back and screamed for more vodka. Impressed, RayRay thought about putting some Russian music on the jukebox and booking Ivan for Cossack night during the winter slow season, but thought better of it with the Ukrainian invasion and all. When Ivan took the vodka bottle RayRay handed over the bar, this heavy breathing bear of a man asked a serious question.
“You like my teeth then?”
Specialized cosmetic dental surgery cost Ivan $14,000 to smooth over the hammer and sickle engraved for the past decade on the front of his two 24-karat gold front teeth, making his big smile gleam but not terrify.
“Better than George Washington’s,” RayRay said.
“Stalin was better father of country.”
“You’ve had enough to drink,” RayRay said.
“Bye-bye, Baldy,” Dillon said.
Ivan Popov staggered to his feet and went home to a spacious penthouse condo facing the beach his brother’s real estate development company built in 2002 and Ivan managed, a 14-story behemoth that now stood mostly empty and leaking because of Ivan’s shoddy management.
Watching the moon over the Gulf, he remembered the smell of the young woman who was coming into the bar as he was leaving, a woman with a scent like orange blossoms he’d never forget.
He knew she liked him.
He’d find out more about this sweet piece of bird’s milk cake (traditional Russian dessert) with a few phone calls to his Russian Mafia brothers in Florida. After all, he was the new mob boss who planned to take over what was left of beach bars, restaurants, apartments and other commercial property one business at a time. Thick-headed oligarch brother Boris would no doubt build the highest skyscraper on the beach. But Ivan Popov would win the prize.
Ivan Popov would marry this woman he saw at the bar. Ruby, that’s what the bartender called her.
Ruby, Ivan Popov’s bride-to-be.
Ruby, the future mother of his many Cossack crime family children.