Barney’s set back off the road across an asphalt parking lot. The parking lot looked a little foreboding, really. A little ominous. It was a big, dark half-moon with the flat side facing away.
Barney’s ran along about the middle third of that flat side. The near side curved away in a wide arc into the contour of the white crushed-shell road. That was where the road curved slightly east-northeast, the last big course correction before you come to Agua Andulado.
The owner had paved the parking lot himself, right over the crushed-shell base, which the previous owner had extended from the road. It was the same kind of establishment back then, or so I’d heard. But it did a lackluster business at best.
Customers wanted to relax at the end of a long day. They wouldn’t frequent a place where their food and drinks were likely to get a fresh layer of shell dust every time another car pulled in and stopped.
Even now, customers would slow on the road, then drive their cars slowly across the macadam surface.
On the outside the structure itself was unimpressive. It was a long, low building with three-foot thick adobe walls. But I only knew that because I’d been inside the place.
The casual observer passing by on the road to the pier would think it was just another ramshackle building. That was intentional. The exterior was covered with weathered boards. The roof, especially along the western edge—the predominant direction of the wind was west to east—had several shingles that appeared to be loose and about to blow away. Those were extras, of course, positioned to add flavor.
Few tourists ever stopped there. The few who made it to Agua Andulado stopped at the various tourist traps in town. Not that those weren’t fine establishments in their own right, but Barney’s held the heart and soul of the true atmosphere of a fishing village.
All of that—the aged wood siding, the shingles, the broad, heavy double doors—were in keeping with Barney’s reputation. It was a good place for hard, sea-going men and dock workers to spend a few hours. And their disposable income.
I angled off the right side of the road, the shells crunching underfoot, and across the west end of the parking lot. The first third or so of the asphalt surface was streaked and dusted with white tire tracks.
Most of it had blown away, though, in the strong winds. The rest of it would wash away when the storm hit full force.
Behind me, thunder rolled in the distant hills to the north. The storm must be wide, coming in all along the coast. It was still a few miles off the coast when I left work and it hadn’t reached me yet, other than the wind that had pushed me along the curving seashell road.
I tried counting to see how far away the thunder was. Then I shook my head. I hadn’t seen any lightning, so how could I count?
But it sounded far enough away that I wasn’t overly concerned. We’d have enough to deal with when it came ashore here.
Besides, even with lightning I was never sure the seconds I counted in my head were the right length. From what I could tell from the sound alone, it was probably fifteen to twenty miles distant. It reminded me of artillery I’d heard back in the day.
I tugged open the right side of the heavy double doors. The weighty stench of cigar and cigarette smoke, alcohol, and burned grease swirled out over me. I figured Barney must still be cooking. The smells were perforated with quiet laughter, overlapping conversations, and a quiet, mournful tune picked out on a guitar somewhere. Probably in one of the corners.
As I stepped inside the scent changed subtly to the salt- and ocean-laden air of all things nautical. The floor was heavy planks. The ceiling was covered with various fishing nets. The walls displayed everything from a Spanish cutlass to a main wheel, anchors of various sizes, part of a rudder and even a bit of hull from a wrecked ship. There were still barnacles on it.
On a stand in the northeast corner stood a corroded, ocean-ravaged ship’s bell. At a nearby table populated by five men, Mary Jo McWherter set plates in front of the last two, then straightened and turned around.
The slightest smile curled one corner of her mouth, and she raised her right hand in greeting.
I nodded, then turned right to find a table in the more somber end of the room.
A man was making his way toward me from the northeast corner of the room. In his left hand, he gripped the neck of a Spanish guitar.
He nodded as he passed.
Soon after I met Mary Jo McWherter, I felt a certain kinship with her. At first, I’m sure, it was only because we were both Anglos in a Spanish world. Still, it was a very strong feeling. Almost a kind of déjà vu, though I was certain we hadn’t met before. And how could we?
But that shared trait emboldened me to ask one early evening where she was from and how she had come to this part of the world.
“Well,” she said through a smile, “I was born in Dublin and—”
Then she stopped as a customer across the floor raised one hand. “Sorry,” she said, and hurried off.
Men were drawn to her, and who could blame them? Often they raised their hands for attention when they wanted nothing more than a salt shaker from the neighboring table.
Still, she never encouraged them with so much as a smile. Many times she responded to a hushed request with a shake of her head.
After that first meeting we shared snippets of conversation whenever she could linger as she waited tables and served drinks.
I never saw her linger with anyone else. That might have made a difference yesterday. But today, with me leaving, it couldn’t.
She was reared on a farm in the Irish countryside. She had no siblings and grew up with chores and games played with other children from the area. A bicycle was her preferred mode of transportation. Her favorite color—I expected pink—was a vibrant green.
Eventually as I nursed a beer or lingered over my supper, I entertained the notion of asking her out. But where would I take her? Certainly there wasn’t much in Agua Andulado. And a dock worker really had little to offer such a woman.
But I didn’t ask. I had learned over time to rely on my instincts. And about Mary Jo McWherter, my instincts said that in another time and place, perhaps, it would be all right. But as things were, she would make only a good acquaintance, a friendly face with whom to share a smile now and then.
So I developed the habit of stopping at Barney’s every evening for supper, even on days when I didn’t work.
But my instincts were always right.
In a later bit of conversation she confided that she was married at the age of 16 to Ian McGregor, a man her parents preferred. “We had no children,” she said.
Then, despite a raised hand in the dining area, she remained close to my table, one hand on the back of the chair opposite me. Her knuckles tightened, but only slightly.
I’ve noticed that women generally have a habit of dipping their head slightly when they relay bad news.
But hers remained upright as she said bluntly, “Ian was a soldier. He was killed a few years later. In an otherwise insignificant skirmish in Northern Ireland.”
So around a month after I’d asked the initial question, I learned that she had moved here shortly after her husband’s funeral. As an excuse to her parents, she cited her grief at having lost her husband.
To me, she confided she wanted a fresh start away from the war and away from the world.
Away from the war.
I had also been a soldier, but I survived. Had her husband been opposite me in battle, I might well have killed him myself. Not out of any animosity, but only to safeguard my fellow soldiers. Well, and to continue breathing.
So we were both Anglos, and in a negative way, we even had a similar background. She had been adversely touched by war. I had touched others adversely through war.
Of course, I never told her any of that. I silently thanked my instincts, locked away the information and kept it as a reason not to pursue her. To her, I was only a dock worker. It was for the best.
That was almost a year ago, soon after I’d started working at the docks. She had confided in me a great deal more since then.
Well, and I in her, but never about my having taken part in war.
* * *