So probably Arancio called Mary back to her job because he knew the evening rush was about to begin.
But how could I be certain of that?
I was no great catch, and I had deceived her. Probably she wanted nothing more to do with me. That’s probably what she wanted to tell me when we “continued.”
After all, she had been so open with me, and I had intentionally deceived her about my previous life experiences. And then I had deceived her about why I seemed tired when I first came in.
She knew all about the fight with Jameson, yet I had admitted nothing until faced with the statements of that treacherous, overly talkative Rudy Nuñez.
Still, twice as she passed by at a distance on her way to or from a table, she glanced at me and smiled.
Was her smile uneasy? It was hard to tell from this distance.
Maybe she was only checking to see whether I was still there. And when I caught her looking, she had no recourse but to smile.
As a diversion from my racing mind, I turned my attention back to the group that had come in before.
Thankfully, for me at least, the newcomers immediately turned left into the dining area. They went to the corner nearest the front wall and began moving chairs away from tables. Then, talking, laughing and gesturing the whole time, they pushed two tables together and began repositioning the chairs.
I was still wondering why they hadn’t simply crowded their chairs around one table when five more came in. They joined the others at the same extended table.
The revelers were men and women, six of each and paired off. They were young, college age or thereabouts, and chattering and laughing nonstop.
Among the men, the chattering was punctuated with an occasional backhand slap to another male chest or a clap on the shoulder. Usually that followed a laughter-filled question I couldn’t quite make out and “Ey?”
Into the mix, the women scattered lean-in conversations and giggles and smiles and eye rolls.
The result was an ongoing hum. The kind that’s loud and consistent. But it was also contained within itself by the sounds of the words canceling each other out. And that containment made it seem almost quiet. Or at least easy to ignore.
During the next almost two hours, several more customers came into the bar, individually or in pairs. I didn’t know any of them. I wouldn’t know the women anyway, but I didn’t recognize any of the men either. But most of them were dressed similarly to me and they looked as tired as I felt.
Several of them turned left when they came in and found a table in the dining area.
A few came into my end of the room, sat, ate, had a beer or two and left.
Each time the door opened, the storm sounded closer.
When the bartender came back the final time, he brought only one more beer. He set it on the table and grinned. “She’ be done pretty soon.”
Okay. Then what? I felt as if I had only moments to live.
But I nodded and smiled. “Gracias.”
I looked around. That was the first time in awhile I’d paid attention.
The other customers were gone. All of them, including the loud party from the dining room. How could I not notice when that group left?
Only a youngish man in a long apron was in the dining area. He was dusting chairs off with a rag, then turning the chairs upside down on the tables.
So they were closing the place. But where was Mary?
Then a motion behind the bar caught my attention.
The door to the kitchen opened. Mary came through, followed closely by Barney. They stopped and talked with the bartender for a moment. The two men were nodding and gesturing and smiling.
After a moment, the conversation ground to what seemed an awkward halt.
Then Mary held her hands out to her side. She said, “Well—” and hugged Arancio Aguilár briefly around the neck. Then she turned to Barney, said, “Thanks for everything, Barney” and hugged him too.
She took a step back, untied her half-apron and handed it to Arancio. Then she smiled at them, raised one hand, and turned toward me.
As she neared the table, she said, “Thanks for waiting for me. Are you ready to go?”
I nodded, and in the next moment I was on my feet. I cleared my throat. “So where to?”
“Well, first, to fix that leg. And after that, wherever you want.”
Wherever I want? “Well,” I said, still harboring all the uncertainty that had plagued me for the past two hours. “I guess we need to find a place to talk.”
“We can talk at my place after we get that leg cleaned and properly bandaged. Would that be okay?”
I shrugged. But I was concerned. If she had to work tomorrow, we wouldn’t be able to stay up too late talking. Besides, we’d gotten a good start. Maybe. I mean, it should be easier for us to talk from here on out if there were still things to talk about. I could even visit on my days off and—
Oh. But I didn’t have days off anymore. All of my days were days off. I’d forgotten.
Okay, so I’d visit her on her days off.
As we approached the double doors, she was on my right. I reached for the door knob of the left one to open it.
At my side, she stopped and waited.
I opened the left door and swung it toward me as I reached toward her shoulders with my right hand.
She looked up at me and smiled. “Thanks,” she said, and took a half-step toward the opening.
And the night exploded.
Something hit me full force.
Suddenly my back was slapped hard against the east end of the bar. I was straining backward over it. My ribs ached, especially the bottom ones.
My ears were filled with a loud roar. A roar tinged with a hum. I tasted ozone in the air. Salt and ozone. Maybe. Maybe it was a lightning strike. Salt and ozone. Or something.
Then pressure began to release and I was peeling leaned forward. Still against the bar but not so solidly. Like I was unwrapping.
I caught a glimpse of Mary. She was standing across the room, the closed right door behind her, framing her. Next to her a gaping rectangle where I had been an instant earlier. Her eyes were wide, her fists clenched at her side, her mouth gaping. She seemed to be yelling something at me.
Then she flashed upward as I fell flat on my face. Well, on the right side of my face. Then something wet leaking past the corner of my mouth.
I closed my eyes, opened them.
In the distance through a haze, there was my table. Then the other tables and chairs in the west end of the room. A couple of the chairs lay on their sides next to one table, but most were still upside down on their tables.
I closed my eyes, opened them.
The boy was there. The boy from the back. He was in the dining area earlier.
Now he was near my table, a cloth dangling from one hand as he stared at me. Well, probably at the sound of the explosion, but then at me. His eyes were wide too, like Mary’s. And his mouth gaping, but not like he was yelling. Like it had just gone slack from shock.
I pulled myself back in, took inventory.
My forehead was sore and my ball cap was gone. I felt its absence. The act of it being ripped off my head left a sore streak across my forehead.
My arms, my chest, my legs and shoulder were sore. My abdomen felt as if I’d been repeatedly punched. All of that would hurt a lot more later.
And I felt like a pool of jelled—something. Like any strength had left my body. Like I was melting into the floor.
But I didn’t go out, did I?
Not that I know of.
I closed my eyes, opened them.
In the distance, still the boy and my table. The other tables.
But Mary. I saw her before, didn’t I? Is she all right? Is Mary okay?
No, by the door. I saw her by the door. Mary was over by the door.
It took all my strength to turn my head. I scraped my right ear and cheek across a heavy plank in the floor. Trying to get past the point of my chin. Trying to look at the door.
Then there were fingers, then a hand, on my head above my ear, and light pressure. “No! Don’t move, Nick! Please don’t move!”
Okay, that was Mary. She’s all right.
“Here. I’ help.” Arancio. That was Arancio.
What about Barney? Is Barney okay?
At least the kid was all right. I saw the kid. My end of the room. Right?
I closed my eyes, opened them. Focused.
The kid. Mouth closed. Arms hanging.
And Barney was there. He had hold of the kid’s arm. His right arm.
Barney’s mouth moved, but nothing made it through the roaring in my ears.
Arancio yelled, “We got to turn him o’er now.”
He must have yelled because I heard him, although only faintly. Were he and Mary’s hearing faculties affected too?
I focused on Barney again. I couldn’t hear him. Probably he was asking the kid if he was all right.
Faintly, around the edges of the roaring, Mary said, “Nick, can you hear me?” A pause. “We’re going to turn you over.”
I wanted to say “okay,” wanted to nod. I don’t know whether any of that translated into physical action.
But then there were hands on my left hip, my left thigh, my left shoulder. They tugged, pulled, rolled. But gently.
I was on my face, my arms trapped under me.
Then I was on my right shoulder, my right hip.
My end of the room moved downward and part of the ceiling flashed by.
I was finally on my back. It felt better. The stinging subsided.
Mary was there, right above me. Her right hand was cupped over her mouth, her eyes were wide. The other hovered over my chest. Why didn’t she put it down?
I looked at her, yelled, “More lightning?”
Arancio leaned forward into my vision, said something.
I frowned, tried to shake my head. My face and neck hurt. The roaring was still in my ears. I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
He leaned forward again, his mouth moving large.
Around the edges of the roaring came, “—wass no ligh’ning, Nick. Wass arty. Hass not been no more.”
Arty. Artillery? What I thought was thunder wasn’t. It was shelling.
* * *