I noticed the table near the northwest corner of the establishment was unoccupied. That’s where I usually sat. It was darker there, and from there I could see most of the room.
I circled the table to pull out a chair.
As I turned, there stood Mary. Apparently she had followed me. I sat heavily, my forearms on the table.
She smiled. “Tired?”
I looked up. “Oh. Yeah. Long day with the storm coming in. You know.” She must not have noticed the bandage. That was the magic of khaki on khaki.
“You never sit in the dining room, Nick. Why?”
I glanced past her toward the east end of the room.
Although Barney’s was one big room, that was the unofficial dining area. You could eat anywhere you wanted, but most men in a jovial mood took their food in that section. There, they sat at round tables that were meant to accommodate four chairs but more often had six or seven crowded around them. Most of the jokes, stories and laughter in the place came from that section.
Really, it was too loud for my taste. Perhaps too happy.
Those like me were usually in a more somber mood. Those men sat at the bar or at the tables to the right side of the door. They were in Barney’s mostly to wash the salt air from their throat and the weariness of the day from their bones.
The tables in this end of the room were the same size, but I’d never seen more than three men seated at one of them. Often there were only two. Occasionally a lone occupant was seated at a table.
I shrugged and tried to force a smile. “Oh, you know. No particular reason.” Then I said, “It’s quieter over here, for one thing. I guess.”
For another, on those rare occasions when she did have time to stop and talk, it was more private in this end of the room. But I didn’t tell her that.
She crossed her arms and looked at me, a frown on her face. “But something’s different tonight. Want to share?”
Well, I killed a man today. That would be wonderful to share, wouldn’t it? I said, “Oh. Nothing I can think of. Just tired. Could I get a beer?”
She held my gaze for an extra second, then nodded. “Sure. Anything to eat?”
“Nah, that’s okay. I’m not hungry.”
“Be right back.”
I watched as she turned and headed for the bar.
She really was a very pretty woman. Narrow, strong shoulders, a generally slim build like maybe she exercised or something. Her arms were tightly muscled under smooth skin, her fingers long and slender. Graceful.
But aside from all that, there was something special about the way she carried herself. Confident, but not boastful. Quite a woman.
I was going to miss her.
The dress she was wearing was pleated. It had rounded, puffed-out, quarter-length sleeves and reached almost to her sandaled feet. It was kind of a dun color, like her sandals. And her dress was covered with twisting, turning green vines punctuated now and again with small, bright, rose-red flowers. They looked like miniature carnations, the petals overlapping and serrated on the end.
From the waist down, the front of the dress was covered with a white half-apron. The dress swirled around her legs as she walked.
The bartender, Arancio Aguilár, was a short, balding beefy guy with a white fringe above his ears. Barney’s cousin. He used to be a sailor, and he still wore the white cupcake on his head most of the time. It went well with his hair, his white t-shirt and the stained white bar towel that was most often draped over his left shoulder.
He had a broad, short face, a deeply lined, weathered forehead and close-set eyes. His nose had been adjusted to the left sometime in the past.
After a moment, he set a mug of beer on the bar and said, “There you go.”
Mary Jo hesitated for a moment, then put her palms on the edge of her side of the bar and leaned forward. She said something to him, but I couldn’t make it out. As she spoke, she pointed her right thumb past her shoulder in my general direction. A moment later she gestured with her left hand toward the dining area.
After listening to her for a moment, Arancio nodded and smiled. A little louder than necessary, he said, “Sure, sure, tha’s all right. Eef thay nee’ sunthing else, thay can come o’er here an’ get it.” Then he turned to draw two more draughts and set them on the bar alongside the first one. “There you go.”
I thought it must be an order she forgot.
She said, “Thanks,” then picked up all three mugs by the handles and turned toward me again.
For a moment I thought she must be taking the extra beers to a table behind me, but I was seated near a corner. There were no tables behind me.
As she approached the table again, she smiled. “May I sit?”
Sit? With me? Why would she want to sit? Could she do that while she was working? “What? Why?”
She laughed lightly and set two beers in front of me. She put the other one on the table and pulled out the chair opposite me. When she was settled, she leaned forward a bit and said quietly, “That isn’t the way it’s usually done, you know.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “The way what’s done?”
Still smiling, she said, “Usually, when a friend approaches the table and asks if she may sit, the other friend says, ‘Sure’ or something like that. They almost never say ‘What?’ and ‘Why’?”
That forced a half-grin. I glanced at the table, then up at her. “Ah. Yes. Well, I suppose I’m out of practice. But don’t you have to work?”
“Much more than I like to. But for the moment, no.”
“Ah,” I said, my head bobbing as if she had imparted some sage wisdom.
She laughed lightly again. “It’s all right, Nick. Arancio said he’ll watch the others for me for awhile. Do you mind?”
“Well, no, of course not, but—”
“Good.” She adjusted her chair, sliding it a bit closer to the table. Then she took a sip of her beer. When she set it down, she interlaced her fingers on the table and leaned forward slightly. “So tell me what’s going on, Nick.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“For starters, the bandage wrapped so poorly around your leg. Did you get that in the fight with the man at the dock?”
What? I couldn’t keep the frown from my face. How did she know about my fight with Jameson? Did she know what it was about? Is that why she was taking time away from her work to sit with me?
I wrapped the fingers of my right hand around a mug of beer and took a long swallow, then set it down. “It’s nothing really.” I shrugged. “A scratch.”
She locked her gaze on my eyes. Quietly, she said, “That isn’t what Rodrigo Nuñez said.”
Ah, Rudy the Mouth. I might have known. I leaned back.
She sipped her beer again, then set it down. “He said the man’s knife was buried up to the hilt in your leg.”
Rudy Nuñez was the first or second guy in line to get paid. Had he been gone long enough to stop here, tell tales, and then go on up the road?
Well, obviously he had. Of course he had. I was in line for probably fifteen or twenty minutes after he left. And then Morgan and I had talked. And then I’d walked into town. With a bad leg.
And Rudy probably hadn’t had to walk. He usually drove an old rust bucket of a Ford pickup. Was it parked near the pier today?
I couldn’t remember.
I shrugged again. “But it was only a small knife. A folding knife.” With a thick, five-inch blade.
“Ah.” She nodded. “Of course. He also said that you tried to quit the fight, but the other man wouldn’t stop.”
I took another long draw on my beer, then set the empty mug on the other side of the full one, and pulled the full one closer. “Yes. I remember it was something like that.”
She persisted. “And he also said the fight began when the other man said something bad about me.”
I looked at her. Her eyes were open a little wider than normal.
I nodded. “Maybe. You know. But Jameson often talks about one woman or another when he’s in a mood.”
She dismissed that. “Yes, but tonight it was about me. That’s what Rodrigo said.”
Rodrigo talks too much. That’s the problem. Anyway, what did she want?
Did she want me to acknowledge that I was angry about Jameson’s stupid comment?
Maybe she wanted me to apologize. Often women don’t want men to butt in. Often they want men to believe they can handle such things on their own.
Not that they can’t, but what did she want from me? The stupid fight happened, that’s all. “Mary, I—”
“And he said you went after him as if you were fired from a cannon. He said you were on the man—Jameson, was it? Before anyone saw you move. But then after he stabbed you in the leg, you tried to end it there. Only he wouldn’t stop.”
I looked at her, thoroughly confused.
Was she upset that I went after Jameson?
Was she upset that I tried to quit the fight after I was stabbed? Did she maybe think I was a coward?
Was she upset that I killed him?
I took a breath and spoke quietly, carefully. “Look, Mary, I’m not sure what you want here.” I took another breath and nodded. “What Rudy said is true. There was a fight, yes. And I did try to quit before it went too far. I didn’t want either of us to be hurt any worse than we were, that’s all.
“But as it turned out—” I paused and took another drink of my beer. Then I set the mug on the table and looked at her. “Well, as it turned out that wasn’t my decision to make.”
* * *