.....Eddie Palmieri’s rhythmic collage of noise blasted out of the juke box.  I leaned against its side, trying to look innocuous.  Nevertheless, I got my share of dirty looks from the regulars at the El Negrito.  It was an old place – pressed tin ceiling, tiled floors, the walls a grimy blood-red – and big, deeper than it was wide.  They managed to fit in a couple of pool tables, and both were in use, players maneuvering around drinkers and vice versa like an oft-performed ballet.  The place was half-crowded, fewer people than I’d expected on a Thursday night, but still standing room only.  I hung near the back anyway, as far from the door as possible.  I didn’t want Mercedes to see me too soon and take off if, against the odds, she did pop up. 
..... The Palmieri segued into Celia Cruz, and in the small open space in front of me, a handsome, slickly dressed young couple, who seemed out of place in this dive, danced to the salsa beat.  They were good, their moves as polished as their appearance.  The woman worked her hips with the precise, energetic rhythm I remembered from the Latina girls of my youth, and each time she twirled, her skirt lifted to reveal smooth, bare brown thighs.  A minor thrill, but a thrill nonetheless.
..... Probably I was stupid to come here.  Nearly two years ago, Mercy had brought me to the El Negrito for a few drinks on the way home from my introduction to her sainted mother.  I didn’t think that she’d returned to Jersey City when she ran, but I didn't believe she'd be able to get into Mexico with the cash, and I was running out of places to look.  And it was her hometown, coincidentally mine as well, and her family was still here.  Lots of family – brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles.  And there’d be a bar.  But maybe not this one.  Maybe she’d think that she was too good for a hole like the El Negrito these days.  But it was a place to start, and the Budweiser was liquid ice.
..... I applauded when the couple left the floor.  They ignored me.  Detaching myself from the jukebox, I took the few steps to the bar and handed my empty to the bartender over people’s heads.  He brought back a double shot of Jack Daniels and a Bud.  I handed him a ten dollar bill and the empty shot glass and returned to my perch.  There was a girl I hadn’t noticed before at the juke box checking out the selections.  I say girl because she looked no older than eighteen, a very pretty eighteen.  She was tiny, maybe not even five feet, but she filled her Levis and Subway sandwich tee shirt in a way that caused a catch in my throat, and there were a couple of inches of flesh between where the shirt ended and the jeans began.  Her hair was a mess of honey-colored curls piled on her head.  I stood a foot or two away, not wanting to crowd her.  She pressed her body against the front of the box as if she were trying to climb it.  She was pretty drunk, I realized.  Once in a while, she’d crane her head back to take a long drink of some clear liquor in a tall glass.  She caught me looking at her and yelled over the music, “Willie Colon!”
..... I nodded.  She punched some buttons.  “What else?” she asked.
..... “Tito Puente?”
..... She shook her head like she was fed up with me and my idiotic suggestions.  Finished with her jukebox selections, she took an unsteady stumble-step back from the machine and stood, swaying, glaring at me.  “You a cop?”
..... “No,” I said.
..... “Well, you’re something,” she said.  “You got that whole Dog the Bounty Hunter vibe going on.”
..... I smiled; after all, I was there hunting someone.  “You’re nothing but a dirty, filthy lying fucking cop,” she said in disgust.
..... “No, I’m not,” I said.  “Boy, you really don’t like cops.”
..... “If you’re not a cop – if ,” she held up a finger, “then what do you do?”
..... I was having trouble hearing her over the music, so I took a few steps away and motioned with my head for her to come with me.  Partly so I could hear her better, partly to see if she’d follow.  She did.  “What do you do, Mister Non-cop?” she asked again.
..... “I’m an English professor,” I said.  I didn’t look at it as a lie, just an exaggeration.  Once upon a time, I had studied English and dreamed of becoming maybe not a professor but a teacher or some sort of renegade scholar, whatever that meant.  Saving the world with carefully arranged words.
..... “Oh, yeah?  I’m a professor too.”  She put a hand on my arm and took a long drink.  “Tell me some Shakespeare, professor.”
..... I thought for a moment.  “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” I quoted.  “Coral is far more red than her lips’ red; if snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; if hairs be wires then black wires grow on her head.”
..... She shook her head.  “No, I don’t know that one.”  She looked at me suspiciously.  “Hey, you just made that shit up, didn’t you?”
..... “Yes,” I said.  I noted she had that thick, broad Jersey City accent which, combined with the Latin tang and her level of intoxication, made her sound hot, tough and a little retarded all at the same time.
..... She laughed.  “Damn, that’s good!  Her breasts are done!”
..... She clinked her glass against my bottle.  We drank.  “What’s your name?” I asked.
..... “Irma.  That’s a cop question.”
..... I stuck my hand out.  “Irma, nice to meet you.  I’m Jim.”
..... She shook my hand.  “That’s a pretty name, Irma,” I said.
..... “Bullshit,” she said with a snort of a laugh.
..... “If you don’t mind my asking, Irma, how old are you?”
..... “That’s definitely a cop question.  And the way you keep saying my name.”  She was glaring again.  “Don’t worry, I’m legal.  I’m twenty-four.”
..... “You don’t look it.”
..... “It’s true!”  She reached into her back pocket.  “You need to see my driver’s license?”
..... “I told you I’m not a cop,” I said.
..... “Right, I keep forgetting.”  She slapped her wallet into my hand.  “I need another drink.”
..... “Me too,” I said.  “Let me get it.”
..... “Okay.”
..... “What?”
..... “I said okay,” she shouted.
..... “No, what are you drinking?”
..... “Peppermint schnapps.  Tell Tito it’s for me.  He knows.”
..... “Be right back,” I said.
..... I tried to give her the wallet, but she looked at it like she’d never seen it before.  “I don’t want that shit!” she said.  
..... So I put it in my jacket pocket and shouldered my way through the crowd to the bar.  Tito, the bartender, was already bringing the drinks over.  “You got a new friend,” he said, his tone a cipher.
..... I looked over my shoulder.  Irma, eyes closed, swayed along to the music where I’d left her.  I leaned in.  “What’s the story with her?” I asked.
..... He shrugged.  “Crazy girl,” he said.  “Trouble.”
..... “She thinks I’m a cop,” I said.
..... Tito shrugged again and moved off to make change.  Irma had turned around when I got back to our spot, so I handed her the drink over her shoulder.  I got a deep whiff of cigarettes, fruity shampoo and sweat and resisted the urge to plant a small kiss on her neck.  She leaned back into me and took a deep swallow of the schnapps.  “Thanks,” she said.  “I’d buy you a beer, but I lost my wallet.”
..... Again, I thought to return it to her, but there was a lot going on.  With her warmth pressed against me, the smell of her hair wafting around my cranium, and my hand not-so-accidentally grazing her hip, I was in the process of moving from mild amusement to major lust.  In truth, I’d had too much to drink, as well, and I’d quickly developed a drunk guy’s singularity of purpose, my purpose being carnal knowledge of this beautiful sylph.  My hand locked lightly onto her hip bone, my index finger stroking an unclad band of flesh.  She twisted away from me.  “Let’s shoot pool,” she said.
..... She darted toward the closer of the two tables.  I grabbed her hand.  “There’s a list,” I said, pointing at the chalkboard on the wall.  “You have to put your name up if you want to play, then you have to wait.”
..... “That’s boring,” she said.  “Wanna dance?”
..... “No,” I said, but she was already shimmying up and down in front of me.  She seemed to have less rhythm than even I did, which was saying something, but she compensated with an excess of enthusiasm, and in a few short moments her wild flailings and guttural attempts to sing along to the music drew an amused crowd.  The pool players paused, rested the ends of their cues on the floor to watch the show.  As the song reached its closing crescendo, Irma spun around and around, her arms out-flung, and as I somehow knew she would, she lost her legs and would have wound up a puddle of limbs on the floor if I didn’t snag an arm around her torso and support her weight.  There was some applause as I led Irma to an empty bar stool, and a couple of guys slapped me on the back.
..... She climbed up onto the stool and rested her head against my shoulder.  “I’m hungry, papi,” she said faintly, dreamily.  “You hungry?”
..... “No.”
..... “What about if we go to my house, and I cook for us?” she said.
..... “Sounds good,” I said.  “Let’s go.”
..... I helped her down from the stool and, holding her shoulders, I steered her in front of me to the door.  Several knowing looks from guys in the bar left me feeling guilty, but it didn’t last past the street corner.  I wasn’t the only guy to ever try to get with a pretty, drunk girl, and I surely wouldn’t be the last.  Still, part of me told myself that at this stage of the game, I should be home with my wife and kids and long past this kind of nonsense.  I could only half-blame Mercy.
..... It had gotten dark out, and there was a chill in the air.  The drop in temperature sobered Irma up a bit, and she walked quickly, in a more or less straight line.  I suggested a cab, but she said she lived close by.  Sure enough, she stopped in front of a brownstone two and a half blocks from El Negrito and fished out her keys.  I unlocked the door and followed her up the stairs to the third floor.  At the door, she turned, stood on her toes, and kissed me.  “I was lying,” she said.  “I don’t have any food.”
..... “I’ll survive.”
..... She went into the apartment ahead of me and flipped on the lights.  She went into the kitchenette while I checked the place out.  It was newly renovated, with white walls and light colored hardwood floors.  There was a futon, a big television, and a stereo slotted into the living room fireplace.  And boxes, boxes everywhere, most of them still sealed, but some had been torn open, and clothes and other items hung out of them.  Irma came back in carrying a bottle and two water glasses.  “German brandy?” she said.
..... “Sure.”  I took off my jacket and draped it over a futon arm before accepting a full glass.
.....Salud!”  We clinked glasses and drank.
..... Irma bent over in front of the stereo and pushed some buttons.  Soft jazz piano wafted into the room.  She stood and turned to me, smiling.  “Have a seat.”
..... I sat on the futon, and she stood in front of me, sipping at the brandy.  “Nice place,” I said.  “Just move in?”
..... “A month or three ago,” she said.  “I moved back up from Tampa.”
..... “Oh?  What did you do there?”
..... “I was a dancer,” she said with a graceless little plié.
..... After her performance at El Negrito, I was skeptical, but I played along.  “Really?  Jazz?  Ballet?”
..... “Mostly lap,” she said.  “Wanna see?”
..... She put her glass down on the floor and stepped up onto the futon mattress.  “Thirty dollars a song, two for fifty,” she said, gyrating above me.
..... Irma dropped heavily into my lap and started grinding into me, kissing my neck at the same time.  I tangled my hand into her hair and pulled her head back to kiss her mouth.  I bit her neck.  “Ay, papi,” she murmured.
..... She tried to pull her tee-shirt off, and I helped.  With my hand on her breast, clasping a rosebud nipple lightly between two fingers, I guided her off my lap and onto her back.  I positioned myself over her, my arm under her head, and gave her my best romantic kiss – gentle, but not too much so, firm but not hard, moist but not sloppy, sucking at her lips a little without actually trying to swallow them – a kiss I’ve always been proud of.  She turned her head away and made a “Tssssst!” sound before saying, “Bite my neck again.  Hard.”
..... So I did.  Irma groaned, made small animal noises, called me papi a couple more times.  All in all an arousing soundtrack to the festivities.  I felt myself getting hard, which was a relief.  With all the Jack Daniels I’d had, it had crossed my mind this might turn into an embarrassing non-event.  But the god of drunken leches was in my corner.  I moved from her neck to her breasts, really getting into the moment, finally able to escape the nagging little voice in my head telling me I shouldn’t or couldn’t or mustn’t.  But after a minute, I noticed that the sounds Irma made had changed.  I paused and listened for a moment.  Snores?  I looked up at her.  Her eyes were closed, mouth open, and kitten-purr snores vibrated out of her.  “Fuck,” I said, more in amusement than disappointment. 
..... I flopped down next to her, figuring maybe this was just a cat nap and Irma would waken ready for round two.  After a while, my arm went numb from the weight of her head on it, but I left it there.  Soon, I was in the middle of the same dream I’d been having lately.
..... I was myself, but I was also me as a small child.  Mercedes looked regal in a fur coat and hat, and she held my little-boy hand as we walked quickly through Journal Square.  I wore a ridiculous suit I remembered actually having as a kid – brown shorts and a double-breasted blue and white striped jacket.  I also had on a skipper’s cap.  As we marched along, I kept looking up at Mercy, but she ignored me.  She was in a hurry but not impatient; she smiled with the blissed-out expression of a Stepford wife.  We stopped at the big display windows in front of Godwin Fine Jewelers, a place that hadn’t existed for thirty or more years.  Mercy ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed at the diamonds and rubies.  I never remembered all she said about the jewelry, but “tiara” always stuck with me when I woke up. 
..... For my part, I wasn’t interested in the necklaces or rings.  But there was a moth inside the window, and it kept flying into the glass.  I was concerned, certain it would hurt itself, and considered going into the store and rescuing it, catching it and setting it free outside.  But I remembered how sometimes, when you touched a moth, the dust came off its wings and it could no longer fly, instead getting eaten by a cat or simply starving.  So I left the moth alone.
..... We started moving again, faster than ever.  Mercedes practically dragged little-me behind her.  We went about half a block and stopped in front of a building.  The wooden door had a big square window in it, and the window was covered by a thick white curtain on the inside.  Mercy knelt in front of me.  With a motherly smile, she buttoned my jacket and adjusted the cap.  “I have to go inside,” she said.  “You wait here until I come back.”
..... “I can’t come in?”
..... “No.  Stay here.”
..... She kissed me on the cheek and opened the door.  It was pitch black inside, but she entered without hesitation.  The door slammed violently shut of its own volition.  Suddenly, I was scared.  I knew that Mercy would never come out of there, that something really, really bad was going to happen and they’d never let her out.  I’d have to save her.  I looked around to see if maybe there was an adult that could come with me and help.  But everybody on the street ignored me.  They had that same happy zombie expression Mercy wore.
..... I’d have to go in alone.  I grabbed the knob, turned it slowly, and pushed.  Nothing happened.  I knew sometimes doors could be very heavy and hard for a kid to open, like church or bank doors.  So I turned the knob again and pushed harder, with my shoulder against the door.  Still no luck.  I became frenzied, frightened for Mercy, but also for myself.  What if she never did come out?  What would I do?  I’d be stuck there forever and all alone.  I rang the bell, and I could hear it inside it going bing-bong.  Nobody came to answer it, and I rang it another ten times.  Each time, the bing-bong got louder.  I backed up to the curb so I could look up at the building to see if anybody was looking out the window to see who was ringing the bell.  But the building was just a flat brick wall, no windows.  I knew that if I didn’t get in there nothing would ever be right or good again.  I went up to the window and threw my elbow into the glass with all my might, but it didn’t break.  Now I was crying, and I started banging wildly on the door, screaming to tear my throat out, “Let me in!  Let me in!”
..... The window of the door filled up with clouds of smoke or fog.  A witch – a classic storybook witch with the hat and pointy nose – came through the clouds like the window was no longer there.  “Let me in!” I screamed.
..... “Never!” she cried, and she sprayed me in the face with a fire extinguisher while she laughed a hideous, witchy laugh.
..... I woke up, breathing hard and sweating.  When I realized it was over, I laughed.  I was embarrassed to be so terrified at a silly little child’s nightmare, but it never failed to have this effect.  It took me another few moments to remember where I was.  I was alone on the futon.    Swinging my feet to the floor, I sat up.  The floor seemed to sway sharply, and a wave of nausea hit me with force.  I put my head between my knees until the sensation passed.  I needed caffeine.  I got up and went towards the kitchenette.  Passing an open door, I looked into the room and saw Irma sprawled on the made bed.  She still wore her jeans and sneakers.  I pulled the door toward me, leaving it open just a crack, so I wouldn’t wake her in my coffee quest.
.....  Bright sunlight flooded the kitchen through open shutters.  I checked my watch – nearly nine-thirty, which I estimated meant I’d slept ten hours.  The coffee can and machine sat on the round-top, two seat kitchen table.  After I got it percolating, I found a mug in an open box near the sink.  I used to say I liked my coffee the way I liked my women – cold and bitter – but I drank down the first mug molten and sweet.
..... I poured a second and took it into the living room.  I’d noticed a book case next to the fire place.  Irma’s literature collection was eclectic.  One shelf was devoted to the Spanish-language, photo-illustrated romance novels I remembered my friends’ older sisters reading when we were kids, a blast from the past.  Half a shelf held high school English text books, the rest of the shelf packed with paperback classics also, I assumed, from high school.  I thumbed through a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls and was touched by the tentatively penciled notes in the margins.  It occurred to me that Irma must have attended a private school where she’d been required to buy her own books.  A jumble of mystery, sci-fi and horror filled most of the rest of the case.  But scattered throughout I found some interesting choices: DeLillo, Oates, Bukowski, Junot Diaz, Louise Gluck.     
.....     I moved on to the mantel piece, where a number of framed photos were displayed.  Most showed Irma at various ages – as an insanely adorable toddler dressed as a witch for Halloween; an awkward, unhappy eight-year-old with braces and glasses; an impish fourteen-year-old in a St. Al’s basketball uniform (I could imagine her dwarfed and feisty on the court), and then a solemn graduate in cap and gown posing with mother, father, younger brother.  Irma’s mother looked somehow familiar, and I studied the snapshot for a few moments.
..... But the next photo stopped me cold.  It depicted two beautiful women in bathing suits at the beach, each with an arm casually around the other.  Irma was on the left.  Angled a bit closer to the camera, grinning happily, stood Mercedes.
..... I studied the picture and saw the resemblance almost immediately.  Mercy had coarse, wavy hair, so black it was blue, as compared to Irma’s dyed, permed amber curls.  Mercy's eyes – nothing like the sun – were a depthless black that in certain lights made her appear deranged even when she wasn’t.  I'd noticed Irma’s eyes the evening before, light green, probably color contacts.  But the two women had the same longish, thin patrician nose, odd given Mercy's mongrel ethnicity.  Their lips, too, were identical, so thick and plush you’d think they were doctored.  And the same cleft in the chin – how I loved to dart my tongue into its recesses.  Mercy had called me a stupid pervert, as if that were the dirtiest thing we did.
..... I heard the door skreek open behind me.  I turned, and there was Irma standing in the doorway six feet away from me.  "Hi," I said, keeping my tone light.  I held up the picture.  "Who's this?"
..... She stared at me for a moment before bringing a small pistol from behind her back and pointing it at my head.  "Who the fuck are you?"