Salty Salt Sue met Fat Johnny Little at a card game so hot it burned a girl, the sultry Louisiana night dampening her clothes, making her tingle from the waist down. She sat next to Vinnie DeLuca, who bore a passing resemblance to Dillinger—his pencil moustache and fancy cigar and straight flush minus one—with her knee crooked over the arm of his chair like she could keep her legs anchored solid that way, keep everything from going south.
Going south was what she was doing, of course. Had been, all the way from Quebec farm country, leaving behind the rippling acres of corn and barley, the damp, whispering rustle of unbaled hay, heading for the desert from one man’s bed to the next until they all looked the same, both the men and the beds. All the way from Canada, and she’d made it only as far as Louisiana swampland.
So here she was in a roomful of small-timers, boys playing men who only heard about real mobsters on the radio, who muttered long-dead gangsters’ names like the litany singsong of prayer: Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow. They toted iron to card parties and bet on the bangtails, and talked about the big house like they’d done real time, though Vinnie DeLuca had never been north of Tennessee. He’d been named Vincent by his cold northern father and his warm Cajun mother, who pronounced it like she had marbles in her mouth: Van-sawhn. Sometimes Vinnie took a page out of his dead daddy’s book and hit his women. He thought it proved he was tough, a real public enemy, but Salt Sue just thought it proved he was mean.
That night, as the humidity got to her at last and she felt that dreaded shimmer below the waist—soft, almost rubbery behind the kneecaps like undercooked yolks—she excused herself from the poker table and stumbled to the powder room, her legs already forgetting what they were just from the moisture in the air. Tears welled over in her eyes and left black mascara streaks as she fumbled with the doorknob and let herself into the john. At least tears and sweat were saltwater, or she’d have been a goner for sure. Sold by the boys to some traveling circus for a freak, maybe. Or maybe just lynched, strung up and hung out to rot in the moist southern night like those poor Yankee boys over in Shreveport, who just wanted it so everybody got treated the same regardless of the color of their skin.
A light knock came at the door. Sue scrubbed her eyes with trembling fingers. “Go away,” she said, adjusting her garter strap, reassuring herself by touching her own thigh, feeling its roundness, its solidity, the smoothness of skin rather than scales beneath the satin and hooks. “I don’t feel so good.”
It was Vinnie, his voice heavy with frustration and owed apology—thousands of owed apologies, but most especially this one. “You got to come out,” he said, francophone roots not weighing down his southern accent the way they sometimes tinted her northern one. “I done lost you in a card game to that skinny fella on his way to that town the millionaire done rebuilt. That town with all them lights and the legal gambling, way out in the middle of the goddamned desert. Dang…” His anger was at losing cards, not at losing her. “Dang…”
She excused herself from the poker table and stumbled to the powder room, her legs already forgetting what they were just from the moisture in the air.
A few heartbeats passed before Sue threw open the door. “Desert?” she said, but he was already gone.
Just the thought of dry air cleared her head, made her stand straighter. She wobbled only slightly as she ran down the hall to lurch into the smoky room where the boys were scooping up cards and coins and strapping their guns back on beneath black pinstriped vests over white cotton undershirts. She looked around the room, clinging to the back of a chair for support as salty sweat gathered under her arms, rolled down the collar of her dress between her breasts.
“Desert?” she said again. “I’m going to the desert?”
Fat Johnny Little scooted his chair back, tipped his hat at her like a gentleman. “Yes ma’am,” he said, removing his toothpick with one hand, smoothing his slicked-down hair with the other. “If’n you want to. A place called Las Vegas.”
They drove all night, Sue at first grateful for the top folded down on his convertible, black wind whipping around them, keeping moisture from settling on her skin like poison. But eventually, as always, she started to worry about rain.
“It ever rain where we’re going?” she asked, squinting up into squid-ink darkness, raising her voice above the rumble of engine, of tires on hot night road.
“Hardly never in Vegas, ma’am,” he said, the first words he’d spoken since she’d thrown her battered carpet bag in the back seat of his bran’ new 1966 red convertible car and they’d squealed out of Vinnie’s mother’s driveway, gravel spraying behind them like ocean froth off a wave. “Hardly never rains in Vegas,” he repeated. “Convertible makes sense in a place like that. Good investment.”
“Good poker playing, I think you mean,” she said, and he smiled without looking at her. Boys and their cars, she’d never understand. But the desert… the desert… “No rain?” she asked again, wind grabbing her words, tossing them out onto the long ribbon of freeway behind them.
“How ‘bout guns?” She was less afraid of guns than of rain, but thought she should ask.
The reflected glow of headlights flickered up onto his face, casting it into choppy black and white like an old silent film. “There’s guns,” he said, watching the road. “But Mister Hughes is working to change all that. He’s been real good for that town. I figure I’m going out there to work for him.”
Eventually, as always, she started to worry about rain.
She studied him by the cinematic flickerlight, his long frame impossibly skinny, his brilliantined head oddly naked without the oval brim of his hat. “Are you muscle, Mister Little?” she asked. “Are you like Vinnie and those boys, like to push a girl around? Like to carry guns? Thinking maybe they’re wiseguys or something? Just what kind of work you plan to do for this strange Mister Hughes, who makes so much money, who the magazines say steps out with pretty movie stars, who’s supposedly been so good for a desert town hardly anybody ever heard of until he decides to make it heard of?”
Fat Johnny’s hands tightened on the wheel as she talked. The knobs of his knuckles glowed starkly, each joint white against the black grip, against the blacker night beyond the windshield. “No, ma’am,” he said, staring straight ahead at the road. “I’m not muscle; I don’t do dirty work for nobody. Not even a Mister Howard Hughes.”
He glanced at her then, expression nervous, but also almost laughing at himself, hands relaxed on the wheel. Looking at her sideways, he said, “I’m an accountant. Seems I’m good with numbers. Self-taught.”
And for some reason it was funny. Even though Salt Sue had just been lost in a poker game—passed from one fella to another like she had been since she was sixteen and her père sent her off with a north-ranging Fuller Brush man who wasn’t too proud to be seen with a scrawny little farm-country thing who refused to bathe in good clean water like decent folks—even though all that, Sue laughed.
They both laughed. Laughed till they cried salt tears. Fat Johnny had to pull to the side of the road, easing his big candy-shine convertible into the parking lot of an abandoned Navajo souvenir stand at the edge of one of that American President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highways someplace in New Mexico. They sat on the cooling hood of his car and ate hardboiled eggs as the sun crested lavender over distant mountains like Sue had never seen, so crisp and clear was the air.
“Good to see you laugh,” he said, pouring her the first cup of coffee from his Thermos into the cup lid and handing it to her like a gentleman, before his lips had even touched the rim. “I watched you all night at that card table back there. It pretty-near killed me to see a person looking so sad.”
“And so you won me in a poker game.”
“And so I did.”
Fat Johnny had the good manners to look ashamed, but there was a defiant set to his narrow chin that made Sue smile. “Did you cheat, Mister Good-with-numbers?”
He stared hard at her a moment. When boys thought they were bigger than guns, cheating got them killed. Sue had seen it more than once, and by the look in Fat Johnny’s eyes, so had he.
“I did,” he said. “I cheated. And I won you in a card game.”
She handed him back his Thermos cup, empty, with a lipstick stain red against its green aluminum rim. “Won me to do what with, Mister Little?”
He looked self-conscious again, suddenly taller and even thinner than before. His belt pulled tight around his waist; there were no notches beyond the one he used. His shirt hung from his shoulders like it was draped over a wooden hanger, and in the early morning light, in the abandoned gravel parking lot of the closed tourist souvenir shop—a plywood teepee with peeling paint in the vague outlines of animals—he looked gaunt, skeletal, and very, very young.
“To set free,” he said.
They drove all that day too, the sun hard and bright against Salt Sue’s cheeks, the dry air making her skin feel tight, making her lips chapped even under her thick dimestore lipstick. Not much peace for talking, what with the constant wind and the awkwardness building up between them with the miles. At roadside diners where they stopped along the highway—she unceremoniously letting him pay for everything since she had no money, had never had any money—he couldn’t get enough water. Big glasses of it, tall and sweating from the ice inside. She shuddered, and scooted far to her side of the table, upending the salt shaker into her glass until the granules swirled inside against her spoon like snowflakes in a souvenir globe from a state fair.
He shook his head. “I never seen nobody put salt into fresh, clean water to drink,” he said, at least two or three times, until she answered.
“I can’t drink it straight,” she said. “I’m allergic, if I get too much.”
He frowned. “But you drink coffee. You drink gin, and eat fruit.” He pointed to her hard china bowl of wilted brown-tinged strawberries. “That’s the same as drinking water.”
Sue dumped another teaspoonful of salt into her glass. “Non,” she said. “No sir, it is not.”
“Don’t you go swimming?”
“How do you…” His voice dropped, and he slid a glance sideways at the waitress walking by with a slice of pie for somebody else. “How do you take a bath?”
She shrugged. “I most often did not, ‘til I was sixteen. Then I discovered the salt trick. Salt, it is cheap. And the saltwater, it does not aggravate my condition.”
“Well, then.” He leaned back against the red vinyl of the booth behind him. “I guess I see where you got your name.”
Salt Sue took just a tiny sip of her water, as though to drink more would negate the powers of the concoction’s salinity. “I guess you do,” she said.
As they left the diner, she placed a hand on his arm. It was the first either of them had deliberately touched the other. “Mister Little…”
He stood still under her fingers, so skinny she could practically feel the bone of his arm through his sleeve, as though there was no intervening flesh or fat or muscle or skin between her hand and his skeleton. “Yes?”
“Thank you for getting me out of that swamp. The humidity, the water so heavy in the air, on the skin, rolling off the body… That place, it nearly killed me.”
He nodded. “Me too. And please, call me Johnny.”
She tilted her head. “Not Fat Johnny? That’s what Vinnie calls you. That’s what everybody calls you, back there.”
He looked away, looked at the asphalt unfurling from the diner parking lot across the scrub and the reddish pebbles as far as they could see. “Yes, ma’am. I thought I might just be Johnny in the new town, though. Thought I might start with you.”
She squinted up at him. “I’d like that,” she said. “Back home, my Maman, before she died, called me Suzette. But here I am Sue. You should call me that. Call me Sue.”
He nodded, as though a bargain had been struck. “I reckon I will, then.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “I reckon you will.”
No setting sun could compete with the lights of Las Vegas. Mister Hughes had breathed life into the stillborn town, lit up everything brighter than Christmas. Brighter than 20 Christmases all in a row, visible, clear as daylight, from a mile away.
Clouds, too, were visible on the horizon. Dark, heavy clouds rolling in to obscure the setting sun, to turn its orange rays red, fading to grey. The first drops fell as they passed the outskirt motel, with its kidney-bean pool and wrought iron rails painted hard, plastic, pink to match the hollow lawn flamingos thrusting up from cracked dirt by the roadside.
Salt Sue sank low in her seat, trying to screw herself up tight against the falling drops. “No rain,” she said, salt tears tracing down her cheeks, each chasing the next. “No rain in the desert, you said.”
Fat Johnny Little pulled to the side of the road, left the engine idling, helpless in the face of her misery. “It’s okay,” he repeated like a mantra, like a misbehaved schoolboy left to write something a hundred times or face the paddle. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Panic painted her face in stark flushed hues. “Put the top up!” she cried, eyes wilder than a horse’s in a barn fire. She beat her balled-up fists against the folded convertible top, pretty and white-pleated and smelling of new rubber. “Put the top up!”
He watched, frozen by the sight of her as she writhed on the seat beside him, raindrops fat with un-desertlike moisture splatting onto her cheeks, her hair, the thin ridges of her clavicles where they angled from the scooped neck of her hand-me-down dress. “It’s okay,” he murmured, wrapping his arms around her; “it’s okay,” while her legs lengthened, merged into one.
As her legs stiffened the rest of her softened, like wax running down the side of a candle. She became like melting butter in his arms, flowing toward the floorboards of his candy colored bran’ new 1966 convertible bought off the lot with hard-won money. He held her as she changed, as her body shifted, as her tail grew, fusing together where her feet had been.
He watched, frozen by the sight of her as she writhed on the seat beside him.
Freshwater rain slid down her cheeks to mingle with saltwater tears. “It’s supposed to never rain in the desert,” she sobbed. From the waist up she was still a girl, farm-country raw and whiplash thin, with huge round eyes and a permanent downward twist to the corners of her mouth. Below the waist, she was something else.
“Not never,” he said, her despair like a knife to his ribs. “Rarely. Hardly ever. But not never.”
She cried and he let her. The rain blew over as quickly as it had blown in, dissipating on the final rays of red sun where it dipped below the sand. A few minutes was all; a few minutes between a secret, and a secret revealed.
But he didn’t let go. She dried her tears, listening to the sound of water soaking into hot thirsty desert ground, soaking until it was gone. “I come all the way from the north,” she said. “I come all this way for a beginning. And now it’s over before it even can start. Ended. Fini.”
Fat Johnny Little—just Johnny now, if he had his druthers—watched her tail, vivid and scaled, flap against the red vinyl seat of his shiny new car. On the floorboards, pushed off by the realignment of flesh and bone, lay her shoes, red buckle t-straps with a sloping wedge heel. Beside those fluttered her shredded nylons, and a garter belt he’d only glimpsed back in Louisiana, where he’d blushed and looked quickly away without her noticing. Her skirt rucked up about her hips where she’d slid down in her seat, the lower half of her body not accommodating an upright position better suited to hips and to thighs than to scales and fins.
From his awkward angle, he smoothed away the rivulets of rainwater running from her hair, the saltwater from her eyes. “Nah,” he said, self-conscious, trying not to think about how he looked so close up, how deep his ocular sockets, how unnaturally sharp and bony the planes of his face. He was certain his teeth, when he smiled, stuck out like broken piano keys. “Nah,” he said again. “It ain’t over. It’s just beginning. Agreed?”
When she lunged up and kissed him it was a surprise, though not unwelcome. He heard the wet slap of her tail against his floorboards and glanced down in time to see her legs reform as the last raindrops evaporated into the dry desert air off her scales, off her skin.
Her fingers, light in his, were tiny and soft. “Agreed, Sue?” he asked again, and remembered to breathe.
In the fading light he made out the shape of her smile, off-kilter and unpracticed. “Agreed, Johnny,” she said, and reached to straighten her skirt with one hand, not letting go of his hand with the other.
Camille Alexa’s short fiction has appeared in many magazines and anthologies. She is the author of the short story collection, Push of the Sky, which was nominated for the Endeavour Award.
This article was originally published in our “The Unlikely” issue in August, 2013.