This is a novella by Harvey Stanbrough, posted here in its entirety.
What do you do when you’ve just killed a man and been fired from your job on the docks as a result? Your former boss knows you were in the military. What do you do when he wonders aloud whether you might be better suited for “jobs like that”? Where your only job is to kill.
Well, aside from nursing your wounded leg. And aside from giving some thought to whether maybe the guy was right. Aside from all that, maybe you give some thought to a very special woman, a waitress in the local tavern.
You know she’s far too good for you, especially with her history. And yours.
But it won’t hurt to see her a final time. Even if she doesn’t know you’re leaving.
Jobs Like That
We were all hot and tired and dirty anyway from pulling sea boats into the wharfs down at the dock and tying them up taut to the pilings.
The wind was picking up all day, landward, and the forecast looked to be rough. So that just made a lot of extra work for all of us because the bosses don’t want the boats to break on the pilings down there.
And we tied them up tight. Even if the boats slap too hard and don’t break it could cause cracks you might not see. And then those cracks might break later, maybe even while you were out.
And then broken boats meant less work for us, and less work meant Old Man Morgan would let some of us go. So it all made sense that way.
So we were extra hot and extra tired. Our muscles were knotted on our arms and chests with little streams of dirt and sweat running down. Our dungarees were wet from the waist down. So all of that was the reason for the general mood, I guess.
We’d been waiting more than two hours for our pay while Old Man Morgan sold the day’s catch at his pier-side table. We were paid by the hour, but not for the time we waited.
We listened to feet shuffling past outside as the women and old men came to buy their supper, and we could tell when the crowd was dwindling. We were hoping the old man wouldn’t come up with something else for us to do before he let us go.
Most of us, me included, were squatting down on our haunches in the crew shack, our backs along the walls. A few of the guy were standing, mostly in corners, mostly talking or laughing quietly as they shifted their weight from one foot to another.
I was in my favorite spot, directly across the room from the door. I was watching the latch, waiting for it to flip up and the door to open. The board creaked behind me as I leaned back against it. If I leaned back just hard enough, a little breeze passed through and cooled the back of my neck.
That was how we waited.
Soon the old man would come in like he did every day.
He’d huff and park his fat butt in the only chair in the room at the only table in the room. None of us would take that chair.
Then he’d heft his little cash box up on the table like it weighed a million pounds and he’d huff again, like paying us was the only part of the day he regretted.
But us being hot and tired didn’t have anything to do with the incident itself. Other than just our general mood. But I know specifically what caused the incident itself. Harlan Jameson popped off about Mary Jo McWherter not being a virgin anymore. That’s what did it.
Well, it was either that or the smirk that stretched across his face as he said it.
The woman was in her late twenties and had been married before. Of course she wasn’t a virgin. But she was a sweet woman, a very nice woman, and she didn’t deserve scum like Jameson to be popping off like that.
I guess it got to the other guys too. A couple of them gave him sideways glances and a few others shook their heads like they couldn’t quite believe he was that crass.
But it got into me deep for some reason. It got me right up off my haunches.
My dungarees chafed quick on the front of my thighs and everything after that was a blur. It was only a second before I was on him.
I caught him pretty good, I guess.
I saw my right thumb curled against my index finger and a profile of my knuckles with the side of his head just the other side of it and there was a jarring that ran up to my elbow. Then we went down and I flipped off the other side of him.
There was a roaring of voices in the background and he landed on me.
Someone grunted and we rolled around for a little bit. There wasn’t room to swing at all but my fingers on one hand closed around the edge of his shirt and the other grabbed flesh. I felt the sharp edge of a broken button against the inside of my index finger.
Then all I saw was wall, floor, boots and muddy dock shoes, ceiling, wall, and a corner with a little outside light shining through. The air tasted like salt, but I don’t know if that was sweat or the sea air coming through that crack.
Then something flashed, and somehow I knew it was metal. Somehow I knew it was a knife, maybe because I’d heard he carried a big Buck knife folded in his pocket.
I hadn’t thought anything about that before, but I don’t know that it would’ve made any difference whatsoever. I was that mad.
Anyway, when I saw the same wall a second time it was a lot closer and then the corner was right there and we stopped suddenly. I shook all over. I think maybe our sides hit the wall and the wall stopped us and sent a shiver through me.
Anyway, I was on top.
Then some part of him came loose and he moved quick under me and something twitched. Something maybe in his shoulder and arm on the left side next to the wall. And I saw that flash in the overhead light and tried to pull back, but when you want to pull back you can’t pull back fast enough.
I was slow. I had to let go partly to put one hand on the floor on this side of him and another hand on the bottom of the wall on the other side of him to push myself back and away. Only that freed up some parts of him that I was holding onto before, though I guess I still had his legs trapped solid with my knees.
I got myself pushed up and back and that was a good time for a pause. Only I guess Jameson didn’t see it that way.
I mean, if I was in his position and the other guy was turning me loose and pushing himself up I’d have let him get up so I could get up.
But while I was pushing myself up I guess I relaxed my hold on his legs a little too. I had to raise up on my knees. Or maybe I let go of my hold a little when that pain hit my right thigh. It was like a punch with a point and it shot clear up near my ribs.
I threw myself backward, doing the fight-or-flight, and there was a tug over there on my thigh, but then the tug let go.
Then I looked up, sitting back on my butt, and saw Jameson was getting himself to his feet.
Then I chanced a looked over and down and saw the handle of that folding knife sticking up out of my leg. And my first thought was at least he didn’t ruin my trousers because the blade wasn’t all that wide. But it was a deep ache like a growing pain mixed with a little bit of nausea. That told me it was clear down in the bone.
And that told me he was serious. And it told me just in time.
Well then Jameson came at me, reaching down with both arms.
The other guys were all still yelling, only I couldn’t tell what they were yelling.
But Jameson, I was pretty sure he was going to try to grab that knife. Maybe to finish the job or maybe just to get it back, but I knew it’d hurt something fierce if I let him get it.
So I shoved my hands down on the floor and pushed myself backward and yelled, “No!” And that should’ve been the end of it.
Only Jameson didn’t think so, I guess.
He kept coming and he leaned down over me with a bunch of faces blurred behind him. I saw his face, then his shoulders, then his hands, open. They were as grimy as mine. He was reaching hard for me.
I think I remember I licked my lips. I know I tasted salt and dirt. Down on the dock it covers you so you almost can’t breathe and you have to dig the crust out of your nose. Even in the crew shack afterward it’s like that. Most of us run a hand over our face, but that adds as much grime as it takes away.
Anyway, I kicked away again while Jameson was reaching. I might’ve timed it so I’d get him off balance but I can’t say for sure that I did.
I bumped solid against a pair of knees with my shoulder blades and my shirt moved up on my neck when the knees backed away.
Jameson was still coming. He was part of the blur by then but he was a closer part of the blur.
I twisted and reached left for the floor and the blur flashed past me on the other side.
Then there was a solid thump and some cursing. That might’ve been Jameson, or else whoever he crashed into if he crashed into someone. I don’t know.
It might’ve been me too because I caught the point of my right shoulder hard on a table leg.
I hit it pretty solid and all the table legs groaned at once against the plank floor as the table skittered sideways a little against the grain. The edge of the table must’ve hit the inside back of that ladder-back chair beside it too, because the chair fell over backward with a thwack just as the door opened.
Most of the yelling stopped then, so the only big sound was the wind going by. It sounded angry, but it almost always does.
Usually a door opening lets in more light, but there was just a flash of light just for a second, like the wind blew it in there to shove it out of the way. Then there was only a solid shadow.
I was already twisted hard left at the waist so all I saw was the leg of that table and the planks of the floor past it and then the shadow, but I figured Old Man Morgan came in. He’s big enough to close off the light from the open door.
I figured I was in trouble and he’d yell, “Damn it, Nick!” or something like that. Then he’d pick up his chair and slap it back in place at the table. He’d do that with his left hand because his cash box would be in his right hand. And the sound of the chair hitting the floor would be like a gavel slapping the bench in court and everything would be over.
But the shadow just stayed where it was and it didn’t grab the chair and it didn’t say anything at all.
Then I remembered Jameson was behind me somewhere.
I chafed my sore shoulder against the table leg again and pushed against the floor with both hands while I tried to move left and forward around that table leg.
Somebody behind me yelled “Oh!” but kind of quiet and something jerked hard on the side of my right leg. Not like it was grabbed but like it was being pulled on the end of a wire.
White-hot electricity fired through my thigh again, almost up to my shoulder, as something behind me roared with anger. Jameson.
I rolled hard to my left across the floor and ended up on my back again. But at least I could see him.
Jameson was up and leaning toward me. The others in the room were still part of the wall behind him.
I scrambled to my feet, my arms spread with caution in front of me. Part of that was to show him I had no weapon.
But Jameson’s lips were pulled back into a sneer, his eyes strained and focused and filled with crazy. His forehead was wet in horizontal lines, and little rivers of sweat ran down his cheeks and neck. His light khaki shirt was open and the third button down was only half there.
His red-streaked Buck knife was in his left hand. He held it with the edge down, his thumb on top like he knew what he was doing. In mute testimony, one big drop of blood hung in a blob at the tip, then stretched, then dropped.
Whatever caused the shadow on the floor was in my left periphery. Probably Old Man Morgan but I didn’t risk looking.
I put up my left hand and a shaking voice from somewhere said, “Harlan, if you don’t stop it I’m gonna hurt you.” That had to be me but I couldn’t swear to it.
I called him Harlan out loud on the dock and when I saw him around. But I always thought of him as Jameson, with that distance of a last name. I don’t like him. I never liked him, and you always think of someone you don’t like with distance.
Anyway, me calling him Harlan this time didn’t make a difference.
You ever seen eyes grin? Like they just made up their mind about something and decided it was time to put that something behind them?
Jameson’s eyes grinned. They almost glowed.
He ran his right hand up through the hair above his ear and his shoulders tensed. He was coming.
I kept my left hand up for another beat and planned what I had to do.
My right thigh muscle didn’t much like the plan. It stabbed a memory of that pain up through my leg again. The muscles cramped in my right jaw as I clenched my teeth.
Jameson noticed that, me clenching my teeth. He focused on it and misread it and his eyes went from a grin to a sneer. He charged.
My left hand finally dropped as I crouched, then stood, and Jameson was on me.
But when I came up I had my own knife in my right hand, pulled from the sheath at the base of my right leg.
My jaw clenched hard again as I braced myself.
Jameson’s right bicep hit my left shoulder and he stopped, cold, as I drove the blade home. He might’ve been a wave breaking on a rock.
His left hand shot forward and the blade of his knife grazed a rib on my right side, then dropped and clattered away across the floor.
He bent forward, sagged heavily over my right fist and arm, his head on my right shoulder. His breath was hot on the right side of my neck. A deep, quiet sigh huffed out against my ear.
A voice boomed, “Enough!” It was like canon fire on a too-distant coast. Close enough to hear but too late and too far off to make a difference.
My hand hidden from the blur along the wall by Jameson’s body and from Old Man Morgan by mine, I withdrew the knife. I tried to pull it out cleanly so as not to cause anymore damage or anymore pain. I tried to not think about Mary Jo McWherter.
My left arm around Jameson, I slipped the knife into my hip pocket and stepped back a half-step. I grabbed the ragged edge of his shirt with my right hand and his right arm with my left hand and helped him roll to the floor.
Then I just looked down at him, my chest heaving with the labor of exertion.
The blur along the far wall fell into a collective silence.
I twisted my head left to await pronouncement.
Old Man Morgan glanced at the figure of Jameson for only a second, as if there was nothing there at all. Then he looked at the blur along the wall and clapped his cash box on the table. “Well, you want paid or not?”
I queued up at the end of the line.
My mind raced as the line shuffled forward. There were what, ten of us in line?
I glanced forward and to the left at Jameson.
Well, nine. There were nine in line, what with him doing an impersonation of a rug.
The door opened, let in a flash of late blue sky as a man left, then closed.
Okay, so eight in line. The line shuffled forward.
I looked at the back of the man’s head in front of me. Tried to focus on that. It didn’t help a lot.
The guy had generally the same hair the rest of us had, ranging from dark brown to black. Some a little curly or wavy on the sides, some straight.
We all wore the same sweat-stained khaki ball caps with Morgan Fleet embroidered across the front in two lines. That’s the ambitious name Old Man Morgan gave his dozen or so fishing boats and the pier where they docked.
The door opened and closed. Seven still in line. The sky flashed with less blue and more dark grey clouds with a little white cotton here and there.
Boot soles scraped on floor planks as the line shuffled forward. Now and then someone coughed a little into his elbow or palm. Now and then someone released a little exhaustion with a sigh.
I looked down. The guy in front of me was wearing black boots, almost shiny black at the back from constant contact with the cuff of his dungarees. But they were scraped white around the edges of the toe. I wondered if mine looked like that.
I shifted my gaze away from his boots and back to my own.
Scraped white around the edges of the toe. But only a little. Scratches here and there. I probably polished mine a little more often than he did.
We all wore dungarees and either boots or dock shoes with thick soles. The dungarees and footwear were ours but mandated by the company and necessity. The boots or dock shoes were up to us as long as they were black or brown.
The door opened and closed. We were down to six. The same dark grey clouds flashed through in a vignette. Maybe closer though, with little or no white showing.
The guy’s shoulder blades twitched as the line shuffled forward. His khaki shirt stuck to the inside of his left shoulder blade for a second before he tugged unconsciously at the tail and it pulled loose.
We all wore the same tired khaki long-sleeve button-down work shirts with the same sweat-stained collars. Most of them were buttoned all the way up in the early morning and tucked in. Most were unbuttoned halfway and tugged free of the dungarees by 10 or so in the morning. Many were unbuttoned all the way down by 2 or so in the afternoon.
The door slapped open hard, banged against the outside of the crew shack. Whoever left—number six in line—took a moment to push it closed, but gently. And just like that, we were five.
As the line shuffled forward, Old Man Morgan looked up and gestured with his head. The first man in line stepped past him and secured the latch, then turned around to collect his pay.
There was a moment of silence. The old man was a creature of habit. I imagined him waiting for Number Five to resume his place at the side of the table.
The second guy in line—so Number Four—stopped a respectful distance back to reserve Number Five’s place in line.
Number Five realized his error. He jerked and took a couple more quick, awkward steps to move back to where the old man wanted him.
Old Man Morgan mumbled something barely above his breath. Counting out the man’s pay probably. I wondered if he’d get a little bonus for securing the door. Or maybe he’d sacrificed it by not returning automatically to the line.
I didn’t care enough to lean over and look.
As the man took his pay, “Gracias,” he said quietly. Apparently he thought he formed a personal if fleeting relationship with the old man when he answered the call to secure the door.
The door opened and closed, but under control this time, and we were four.
I leaned a bit right and watched as the latch slipped into place seemingly on its own. I didn’t notice whether the storm was closer, but the voice of the wind was about the same.
The line, consisting now of only four of us, shuffled forward.
The old man glanced up and locked his gaze with mine for a moment, then looked away.
Sometime during that silent exchange, he conducted another exchange as the paymaster. A second later the door opened and closed again.
The line shuffled forward with only three men left, counting me. If it hadn’t been for Jameson’s foolishness he and I both would already be home or on our way.
I looked again at the man in front of me, the dark brown curls, the hair on the back of his neck, the tributaries of sweat racing to beat each other to that spot between his shoulder blades. He was about the same height as Jameson. About six-two, maybe six-three. Maybe a hundred and sixty, hundred and seventy pounds.
We were all lean. Not weak, but wiry, with no room for carrying extra weight on the docks.
I know the guy, generally, but I kept imagining Jameson’s face on the front of his head.
The door opened and closed, as gently and as certainly as before. Number Three was gone. We were a two-man line. There was only the Jameson look-alike, at least from the back, and me.
Too bad about Jameson. I didn’t like the guy, but I didn’t have anything against him either. Not until he popped off about Mary Jo McWherter. Why’d he have to do that?
We all have a certain amount of attitude. Self-confidence maybe. Or maybe a lack of self-confidence. A tendency to show our ass. So why did I launch at him like that?
Because what he said wasn’t an empty boast. Or at least it wasn’t presented as an empty boast. It wasn’t an obvious joke or an obvious bit of juvenile braggadocio.
Then door opened and closed, quickly, like the man went through it without even opening it. Probably in that big a hurry to leave me and Old Man Morgan alone. I wish he’d turned around, even for a second. Just to prove to me I wasn’t following a ghost.
I stopped next to the table, nodded when Old Man Morgan glanced up. My lips moved and I meant to say something, though I wasn’t sure what. Anyway, nothing came out.
He had a wad of bills in his hand, the stub of a cigar in the left corner of his mouth.
He looked down and started counting quietly.
I glanced left out of the corner of my eye.
Jameson hadn’t moved.
I didn’t think he would but I was kind of pulling for him. I guess nobody else thought he would either. Nobody had gone for a medic or a doctor.
Why do they always think the guy of smaller stature is some kind of little guy? I mean, on a scale of here to the sun, there isn’t a lot of difference between my five-nine and his six-two.
Sometimes that little difference means an advantage, but the advantage can go either way. The difference today put my fist, wrapped around a knife, at Jameson’s solar plexus with almost no effort on my part. I didn’t have to reach down. I didn’t have to reach up. And just like that, now his six-two would make a difference only to whoever was going to build the box to bury him in.
The old man stopped counting and transferring bills from one hand to the other. He cleared his throat.
I turned my head to look at him and my right arm flinched, wanting to reach for my cash.
But his hands were still where they had been when he was counting. His eyes were focused on my face. “How long you been with me here, Nick?”
I relaxed my right arm, let it hang. “Almost a year now.” I wanted to say “sir” but my lips wouldn’t form the word. “Be a year in a few weeks.”
He nodded, his gaze still locked on mine. Then he gestured toward Jameson with his chin without looking at him. “That about a woman?”
“No.” I hesitated. “Well, yes, but not really.” Not the way he was thinking.
“Uh huh.” He looked at the cash box, then looked up. “Thing is, I can’t have hotheads on the dock, especially over something like a woman.”
I wanted to explain it wasn’t really about a woman. It was about Jameson being crass enough to cross a line that nobody ever crossed.
I wanted to explain to him that few other men would have said something like Jameson said. And even if it slipped out during a moment of foolish enthusiasm, it would be followed immediately with “I’m joking” or something else that would let the others know he wasn’t serious.
But there was no use. He already knew all of that.
Or maybe I hoped he knew. Maybe I hoped he was letting me go because of some flaw he had instead of what I’d done.
I just nodded.
“What will you do?”
That came from him, and it took me by surprise. “What?”
“What will you do now?”
Was he concerned? But he was Old Man Morgan. He couldn’t be concerned, could he? And if he were concerned, why didn’t he stop the fight? One word from him would’ve stopped it, at least on my part.
And if he had a reason to let the fight go, why did he fire me? Maybe he was going this far to prove to me it really was all my fault. That it had no bearing on him.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Something.”
“I’m just saying, I hope you wouldn’t go to work for one of my rivals.”
Ah, there it is.
But why would he worry about that?
I was conscientious, and good at whatever I put my mind to. But he’d fired me, so what did it matter to him?
Still, for some reason what he said annoyed me.
I repeated my response a little slower and more firmly. Maybe to make him think that’s exactly what I was going to do. Work for his rivals. “I. Don’t. Know.”
He flicked out his tongue, ran it over his lips, retracted it. “Of course, it’s up to you.” He adjusted his left forearm on the table alongside the cash box. “You were military for a time, weren’t you?”
I nodded. “For a time.”
For a dozen or so years. I considered it an extended civilian-appreciation exercise. If I’d known what most civilians are like I might have reconsidered. Most civilians are hens willing to lay their head on a block to avoid offending the butcher.
“Uh huh,” he said as if he’d uncovered a secret and we were nearing a breakthrough. “And then weren’t you a cop or something?”
I nodded again.
A cop or something. Yes, I did a brief stint there too, but it wasn’t the same. And it wasn’t enough.
In war, you get to be a bad guy.
Hey, don’t believe all the hype. Our guys are as bad as the other guys, only on the other side. It’s all a matter of perspective.
But as a cop, it’s different. As a cop you’re held accountable even if you shoot a bad guy.
In war—well, it’s just war.
I was on the verge of explaining that to him. Then I realized that wasn’t what he wanted to know at all.
He didn’t care whether I was military or a cop. He was asking me why I couldn’t play well with others.
He must have seen the understanding in my eyes.
As if to fill the suddenly uneasy silence, he said, “I was just thinking, you know,” and he shrugged. “Maybe you’re better suited for—well, jobs like that.” And he averted his eyes.
I’ll be damned. Jobs like that.
Not being held accountable. Not being expected to play well with others. Being expected to draw a bead, line up the crosshairs, squeeze a trigger. Being expected to jab deep with a knife.
C’mon, Nick, you know—jobs like that.
If he’d clapped me on the shoulder and laughed and said something like that it would have been great. It would have been a sign of mutual respect, one loser to another.
But the guy was afraid of me. He was seated firmly on his civilian pedestal, and he was afraid of me. It wasn’t brotherly concern at all. It wasn’t a mutual or even unilateral respect.
It was fear. It was a timid little man, despite his superior physical stature, screeching loudly, “Who thinks like that?”
Because there’s no possible way he ever could. He didn’t have the stomach for it.
I waited until he finally looked at me again. Then I steadily met his gaze and nodded. “Sure. I understand.” I roughly took my pay from his hand and brushed past him.
As I opened the door, the wind took it again, slapped it against the outside of the crew shack.
I reached for it at first, then decided to test my theory. I pulled my arm back in and looked over my shoulder. “You’ll get the door, eh Morg?”
He started, then stood quickly and turned around. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He gripped the back of the chair with his left hand, his knuckles white and protruding. “Oh. Sure. Sure.”
A cop or something.
Jobs like that.
I laughed quietly.
There I was, standing outside the crew shack on a dock.
My right leg was throbbing. I never did bleed much, even while standing in line. There was only a small blotch of blood around the cut in my trousers. The khaki made it look worse than it was.
But I might break something loose on my way into town.
I hobbled around the corner of the building, out of the wind, then took off my shirt and tore the left sleeve off it.
I used that to make a tight bandage, then turned the knot over so it was pressing on the wound. That should hold it for awhile.
I tore off the other sleeve, dropped it, then put the shirt back on and started walking toward town.
Town was a quarter-mile away along a quiet road of crushed shells. Well, actually Barney’s Tavern was a quarter-mile away. The town of Agua Andulado was a tenth of a mile or so beyond that.
The sun had dipped below the horizon over a half-hour ago. The moon wasn’t up yet. I think it was in its final quarter anyway.
But it didn’t matter. The crushed seashells that made up the roadbed had been compacted almost into a kind of concrete, at least in the tire tracks left by Morgan’s Caddy. In between the tracks and to the sides, they crunched quietly underfoot. I preferred walking there. There was something comforting about the quiet rhythm, especially with the way the shells glistened.
The road sparkled in the starlight, curved up and around to the left—the west-northwest—on a gentle slope. The curve was shallow too, and the edges were marked starkly by low grasses gone black in the absence of light.
When you leave the pier along the road, you start out walking slightly southwest. And by the time you get to Barney’s Tavern at the western edge of town, you’re angling only slightly north of due west.
All of that’s convenient on nights like this, when the day has siphoned your last bit of strength and town is still a quarter-mile away. Even when a major storm isn’t brewing, the wind coming off the sea is at your back, helping your tired legs get you into town.
As I walked, I thought about the old man’s question. Regardless of his intention, the question was legitimate. What was I going to do?
And he kind of had a point. All my life, at least when I was trying to choose a career, I’d chosen action jobs. Jobs where I could serve, I guess, but jobs where I’d be tested.
Well, until I took up on the dock.
That was a no-brainer. I wanted to escape the nonsense. I wanted to drop out of the world for awhile and be anonymous. That was a big part of it. And I wanted to get in shape physically. That was another part. I wanted to test my muscles instead of my brain.
I wanted to be responsible for myself, for my job. Not for a bunch of other people and their problems.
A cop or something.
Well, being a cop was definitely out. It took me less than a year to see all I wanted to see of that. Even in a small town, the politics seeped in. Fat cats got fatter and skinny cats got run over.
So that left “or something.” Like a hit man with a quarter-pound trigger pull. Or back to the military.
Only the military wasn’t big on re-hiring guys like me, no matter how good they were at “jobs like that.” Besides, that was back in the States, and I was over here.
I continued toward town.
The wind seemed anxious for me to go too. I was grateful, though. It was cool, and my shirt and even my dungarees were dry before I’d walked the quarter-mile swatch of road leading from the pier up to Barney’s.
I’d developed a habit over the past few months of stopping off there for my evening meal and a beer. I wasn’t particularly hungry tonight, but a beer would go down pretty good while I considered my options.
And Mary Jo McWherter might be on the floor.
She didn’t need to know anything, but it would be nice to see her again before I left. Even if she didn’t know I was saying goodbye.
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.
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.”
I wanted desperately to tell her what I’d learned long ago. That I wasn’t a good guy.
The thing with Jameson, it was a tiny, confined little war with only two combatants. Two bad guys. In war, there are no good guys. Or maybe they’re all good guys, only on different sides.
But I didn’t want to risk explaining all that, not with her history. And I didn’t want to tell her how I came to realize it. So I only shrugged. “I’m the one still standing, that’s all.”
She quickly reached across the table and lay her left hand on my forearm. A little too quickly, she said, “Oh, but I’m glad, Nick. I’m very glad you’re all right. It’s—I only wanted you to know—” She hesitated as color rose in her cheeks. Then, barely above a whisper, she said, “In my case there was nothing for him to talk about.” She paused. “Ever.”
Why is she telling me this? And why now? I’m leaving.
I looked at her. I felt my head cant slightly to the right and my brow knit a little. And I nodded as if my head was loose. “I, uh— Well, good,” I said. “That’s good.” I quickly added, “But I never thought so. I mean, I wasn’t jealous or—”
No. That was going in the wrong direction. Aside from having no reason to be jealous, I had no right. I let the sentence die.
She only looked at me for a moment, the fingers of her left hand still on my forearm. They flexed, squeezing slightly.
It was a wonderful sensation. I didn’t want to it to end. Even if I was leaving tomorrow. Or tonight. Maybe I should go tonight.
I picked up my remaining beer with my left hand and turned it up, but only for a sip. It was more for something to do than because I was thirsty. The action gave me an excuse to avert my eyes.
I had to be misreading things. And I couldn’t afford to misread things.
She patted my forearm lightly, then let her fingers rest there again. “Nick— you and I, we are the same in many respects.”
Her fingers felt wonderful on my arm. Warm and cool all at one time. I nodded. “Yes. We have some things in common. For instance, both of us are—”
Out of the blue she said, “I don’t blame you, Nick.” Quickly, she added, “Not because it was about me. I only mean I know you had no choice. When things had gone so far, like you said.” She hesitated, and color rose in her cheeks. More quietly, she said, “And I’m glad you stood up for me. I mean, I’m glad it was you.”
“Thank you,” I said, unsure what other responses were appropriate.
“No, I mean—” She pulled her hand back from my arm and clasped it with the other one on the table. The fingers of one hand worked in and out of the fingers of the other. “Oh, I’m getting it all confused. And I think you know what I mean but I can’t be sure.”
I knew what I hoped she meant.
Except that it was too late. I was leaving. I was going to find “jobs like that.”
She paused, then looked steadily into my eyes as she said, “I’m very glad it was you who stood up for me.”
A hundred responses fired through my mind, but I was unable to decide whether any was appropriate.
If she meant what I thought she meant, what I hoped she meant, I should stop her. I was leaving, after all. My time here was done.
I hoped for her sake she would stop, and I hoped for my sake she wouldn’t. And at the moment both of those were my greatest fear.
And I waited too long to say anything at all.
She looked down at the table. Quietly, she said, “I—I haven’t spoken frankly with a man since Ian.”
My stomach knotted. So I hadn’t known what she meant after all.
She only needed a friendly ear.
She was glad someone had stood up for her, as her husband would have done. She was glad it was me. Maybe I reminded her of him in some way.
I tried to disguise my disappointment. This wasn’t about me. But that was all right. After all, I was leaving anyway.
Maybe I could manage to utter something wise and leave her with a good memory. I nodded. “I’m sure he was a good man. I know you must miss him a great deal.”
She looked up sharply. “What? No. No, you misunderstand.” She paused again, then took a breath. “What I spoke frankly with him about— When he left that day, I wanted to go with him.” She quickly added, “Not because he was my husband, but because I am capable.”
And just like that, I was confused again. “Capable?”
She nodded. “For three days before he left, I talked about going with him. To defend our country. I’m very good at—certain things. I am not a typical woman. I would be of more use in battle than sitting at home waiting for— Well, frankly for someone I didn’t care about.”
Before I realized I’d said it aloud, I heard, “You didn’t care about him?”
She stared at me for the duration of a heartbeat, then audibly released a breath of air. It sounded like a great relief. “No. No, I didn’t care about him. Is that terrible of me? I wouldn’t have wished harm on him, but otherwise I was indifferent. But I cared very much about the nation. Understand?”
No, not really. Not at all. I didn’t understand.
But I nodded.
Why? Because all of this was neither here nor there, especially where she and I were concerned. There was no she and I.
I was leaving. And where I was going, she couldn’t go. Not that she would want to anyway.
She watched me nod, then said, “No, I think you don’t.” She straightened in her chair, raised one hand and shook it side to side in the air. “But that’s my fault. I’m getting sidetracked, and maybe for no reason. Let me try another direction.”
She took a sip of her beer, and after a moment, she leaned forward again. Again she allowed her left hand to rest on my forearm. “Nick, the last thing Rodrigo said was that he thought you would be fired. Were you fired?”
I couldn’t begin to understand why she was asking me such a personal question. But somehow I didn’t mind. Probably it had something to do with the point she hoped to make.
At least it was something to which I could respond plainly.
I nodded. “Yes, Mr. Morgan let me go.” The look on the man’s face when I asked whether he’d get the door flashed through my mind. I laughed lightly. To explain away the laughter, I said, “And he was concerned I might go to work for his competitors.”
She didn’t smile. She sipped her beer again, then set it on the table and looked at me. “But you won’t, will you? You’ll return to a profession for which you are better suited. Will you at least wait awhile so your leg will heal?”
I only looked at her, but my mind was racing. What did she know about professions for which I was better suited?
Old Man Morgan’s words came back to me. A cop or something. Jobs like that.
Had I ever mentioned to her what I’d done in the past?
I was certain I hadn’t. In fact, I’d safeguarded against it. It wouldn’t be fair to tie her in knots with something like that. Not a woman like Mary. Not after what she’d been through.
But maybe Rodrigo— No. I hadn’t mentioned it even to Rodrigo, had I? Or to anyone before Old Man Morgan?
I didn’t think so. So how did she know?
And more importantly, how could I respond to her question without lying and still keep my secret?
But I had to say something. I said weakly, “Well, I’m not going anywhere at the moment.” And I heard it as it came out. It was too guarded, too pat. Too deceptive.
She caught the confusion on my face and almost huffed. Her fingers slipped off my forearm as she sat back in her chair. She crossed her arms over her chest, and something akin to a smirk crept across her lips.
When she spoke, it was in that tone women usually reserve for sentences they begin with “Puhlease” as an admonition. Like when they want to dismiss nonsense. But she only said, “I know you were a warrior, Nick. I’ve always known. And I know you will be again.”
If I was stunned before, that practically floored me. She knew I had deceived her.
I quickly leaned forward and the words rushed out. “I’m so sorry, Mary. I would have told you, I swear. But after what happened to your husband I was afraid to tell—”
An exaggerated hiss came from the direction of the bar. And I realized it was the second time in short order.
Mary shook her head, twisted around and looked toward the bartender.
I leaned to the right a bit and looked past her.
Then the double doors, both of them, opened and seven young people, laughing and talking, headed toward the dining area. No umbrellas, and they weren’t drenched. The storm still wasn’t here.
Just before the doors closed, though, the thunder pealed loudly. It sounded closer, maybe by half. Maybe the part that had come inland to the north was sweeping to the south.
I was too far from the doors to catch the scent of lightning in the air. But I would bet it smelled great outside. And for a moment I both wished I was out there in it and that I could back up and keep Mary from rushing off. Because that’s exactly what was about to happen.
I shifted my gaze to the bar.
The bartender, Arancio Aguilár, must have been the source of the hissing. He was gesturing to Mary.
She nodded at him, then turned back around. Again she leaned forward and patted my arm. “Nick, I know you don’t understand, but everything is all right. I promise. Your leg is okay for now?” Then she slipped her hand away. It joined the other one on the edge of the table and she began pushing her chair back.
Oh, yes, my wounded leg. I’d forgotten.
I nodded. “It’s fine. Really. Listen, Mary, I have to—”
She stood. “I have to go, Nick, but I’ll come back. There’s so much I want to say. Please wait for me so we can continue.” Her eyebrows drew closer together. Her eyes were intense. “Please?”
Before that, I was going to say I had to leave tonight and then add some lie. Something about having a job waiting for me or some such nonsense. My intention was to spare her anymore of the strangeness that seemed part and parcel of my life.
But the look in her eyes was deeper than sincere. She was pleading with me.
Staying, waiting for her to come back, listening to her after she came back—all of that would be torture.
But something about her made her worth that and so much more.
I felt a frown scrape across my forehead. And just as if there was any chance at all that I might leave, I said, “Yes, I’ll wait for you. I’ll be here.”
She smiled then, and started to turn away.
“But please, Mary, before you go—tell me, how did you know I was a soldier?”
She stopped and turned to face me again. She put her hands on her hips and looked down at me. Then she shook her head slightly and smiled. Her right hand left her hip and her fingertips drew across the side of my face.
And quietly, she said, “Nicolas, how would I not know? You wear it like a suit.” As she turned away, she said, “Besides, I am your woman.”
For the second time in the past few minutes, I was left all but speechless.
She is my woman? What could she possibly mean by that?
She didn’t know me. We’d never been on so much as a date. Before tonight, we’d talked only in short, hurried snippets of conversation.
I’d told her I would be here, that I’d wait for her.
But maybe I should cut my losses—well, cut her losses—and leave. Barney’s didn’t have a pass-through window from the kitchen. When an order was ready, she was back there long enough for me to sneak out.
Of course, she would be disappointed if she meant what I hoped she meant. But if I let this continue, that disappointment would pale in comparison to how she would feel when I went off to war. And even more so if I didn’t return. That had already happened to her once. And once was more than enough.
That’s what I should do. Without question, I should finish my beer and leave. I didn’t even have to go to the bar first. I could gesture to Arancio, let him know I was leaving and that I’d left the money on the table. That’s what I should do.
But if Mary was capable, whatever she meant by that, I was not.
I was incapable of simply walking away after I told her I’d wait. And yes, staying was more an act of selfishness than one of weakness or even chivalry. And yes, I was aware of that fact.
In the end, I decided I’d better wait.
A few minutes after she left, the bartender put a blunt point on the matter.
He came out from behind the bar and brought me two more mugs of beer. He set them down, then straightened, nodded and slapped me on the back.
When I looked up and offered him money, he shook his head and waved his hands side to side in front of his chest. “No no. Tha’s okay. Tha’s fine.” Then he laughed and headed back to the bar. He shook his head again as he walked.
It was almost two hours before I saw Mary again. I mean, other than fleeting glimpses of her swirling dress as she flitted from table to table. And that was all in the other end of the room.
Had she asked Arancio to bring me the beers? Perhaps so she wouldn’t have to?
Or had he brought them on his own, maybe out of sympathy?
He repeated the action about a half-hour later, and again a half-hour after that, then again.
By the third time he brought me beer, I was sure he was acting out of sympathy.
Mary had spoken too quickly, that’s all. She had allowed something to slip out that she should have kept to herself.
Something she hadn’t meant to say at all.
It was a result of the compassion she felt for me because of my bum leg. That and her being grateful I’d done the right thing in jumping Jameson, even if it did go too far.
Or maybe she had meant to say it, but I had missed an important emphasis. Maybe it was sarcasm.
When she said what she said, maybe she emphasized “am.” Maybe she said, “Besides, I am your woman.”
Maybe it was her way of saying I had taken that assumption on myself. That I hadn’t bothered even to ask her before I defended her honor.
Women can be touchy about such things.
Yes, that was it. Probably it was sarcasm.
Probably she was hoping I’d drink the beers and leave. Or forget. But how could I forget a thing like that?
Probably she asked him to bring me two more beers every half-hour until they had that desired effect.
When she talked with him earlier, before she came to my table, maybe she had even asked him quietly to call her back to the bar after a certain interval.
That was probably what she said that I couldn’t hear.
Except that right after the bartender gestured, before Mary even got out of her chair, that’s when the double doors opened and those seven people crowded through them.
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.
Six months ago—had it been that long? Maybe a little longer—the little skirmishes in the northwest and northeast corners of the country had picked up in earnest. And in the central part of the east.
And the rumors. There were always rumors. The fighting in the northeast had expanded, some said. That explained the battles in the east-central part of the country.
I watched as Mary’s left hand continued to hover over my chest.
She raised her head, looked at Arancio. She moved her hand in a flat circle and said something.
He nodded and his mouth moved.
I tried to read his lips. I think he said, “Iss okay.”
No, other rumors said, in the east those were four isolated groups of skirmishers. Two in the north, two in the central region. Nothing more. It was catch as catch can on that side of the country, they said. Nothing was well-organized there, they said.
It was probably true. Most of the time the stuff in the east didn’t even make the papers.
Most would-be pundits agreed, the stuff in the northwest would expand first.
I thought so too. The units were more organized in the northwest, although the national army, thus far, was sitting it out. Awaiting orders, some said.
More likely the president was waiting to see which side to join.
But how could he not know? Whether the Communists were or weren’t successful from battle to battle, the men among the Nationalists were dying for their country. His country. They needed help. How could he not know which side to back?
The pundits were right.
I tried to keep up with the expansion of fighting in the northwest.
As it spread to the west-central part of the country over the past few months, I thought more than once about leaving the docks. Getting involved again in “jobs like that.”
But the docks were comfortable. No responsibility. No worries, as the kids say.
And Mary was here.
I might as well admit, that was part of the reason I hadn’t gone sooner. Like I was waiting for an engrave invitation or something.
I wasn’t sitting out the war. I was sitting out my life.
And there I lay, on the floor of Barney’s Tavern. Proof positive that the fighting in the north had moved south. Guess I had my invitation.
Arancio leaned into my field of vision again, insisting on my attention. His mouth was large, his lips moving. As if on satellite delay, I heard, “Can you moof you’ fingers? Moof you’ hands?”
I strained hard, picked up my hand, put it back down.
Mary frowned. She looked at Arancio. I read her lips. “He flexed his fingers.”
I picked up my hand again, put it back down.
Arancio said, “Hokay. Moof you’ feet.”
I tried to look down at my feet. Couldn’t.
I relaxed, strained my calf muscles, my shins.
Arancio grinned. “There. Tha’s good. You moofed.” He looked at Mary, then back to me and his mouth went large again. “Try now to sit you up.” He looked away toward the west end of the room. His mouth went large again.
I let my head roll to the right.
Barney looked over, nodded. He shook the kid’s arm and said something. Then he turned and started toward us.
Mary straightened and moved away.
I pulled my head back to the left. The ceiling moved past, but slower now, under control.
Arancio moved past where Mary had been. He disappeared above my head to my left.
I looked for him.
At the edge of the dining area, Mary took a chair from the floor, set it upright.
Then there were hands under my shoulders, under my lower back.
Arancio on the left, Barney on the right. They lifted me. My boot heels dragged, bumping over the rough places in the floor planks, and they set me in the chair. My hands lay palm-up in my lap.
My chin wanted to loll down to my chest, but I tensed my neck muscles, kept my head mostly upright.
Barney bent, looked at me. His lips moved, but I couldn’t make it out. He patted my shoulder, turned and faded off toward the far end of the bar.
Mary crouched in front of me like someone had dropped her there. She looked up at me, studied my face, tears on her cheeks. She raised up a little, reached for my cheek, but again her hand only hovered.
I tried to tell her with my eyes that it was all right. That I was all right.
Arancio crouched to the right side of the chair, one hand on my shoulder, keeping me against the chair back. He noticed my frown.
“You are cut some,” he said.
I let myself look down, but controlled it with my neck muscles. I was getting stronger. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?
My shirt and trousers were peppered with little tears and rips, little spots of blood.
The shells, probably.
Not the shell. The crushed seashells.
The powder was always so ready to blow away in the wind. The shards themselves blew away under the force of the blast. Through the open doorway. Through my shirt and trousers. Into my skin.
I could only imagine what my face looked like. It stung some, but overall it wasn’t bad. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a mirror though.
I raised my head and looked forward, slowly, under control.
Mary moved to the left side of my chair.
The bar itself was fine. It was peppered too with glistening white things.
There was a deep ache across my back, but nothing felt broken. I was breathing all right. My feet were tingling, and my hands.
I raised my right hand a few inches from my lap, let it drop. Raised my left hand, let it drop. A searing pain shot up through my shoulder and into the left side of my neck. I waiting a couple of beats, tried it again.
The pain came again, but much less strongly.
I worked my ankles, left, then right. The toes of my boots moved toward me. So my spine was intact. I was fine.
Well, Arancio knew that before.
I tensed the muscles in my abdomen, tried to pull my heels toward me.
They didn’t budge.
Well, later for that.
I relaxed my legs, flexed my ankles again and looked to the right.
In the west end of the room, earlier a couple of chairs were on the floor. They were back in position on the tables.
The kid must have moved them. Nerves. Going back to routine. Staying busy. He wasn’t there anymore.
Barney was coming out from behind the bar. Probably back there straightening things up.
I turned my head to the front, then a little to the left.
The left side of my neck hurt, but not bad. What I could see of the dining area was unscathed.
So the blast was far enough away that it hadn’t blown the doors off or the walls down. The only thing it really got was me.
The thought made me want to grin.
I had an idea who had done the shelling. Who had sent my invitation.
I didn’t like them. I’m sure they were good guys in their country, but this wasn’t their country.
It wasn’t mine either but—well, it was a job. And it would suit me.
I looked over at Mary, raised my left hand a bit, cupped it.
She knelt beside my chair and held my hand between both of hers.
I said, “Can you hear me?”
She nodded and smiled. Her mouth moved. She said, “Can you hear me?”
I nodded. “Yes. But we’ll have to postpone our talk.”
And I let my eyes close for a moment.
An hour or two later, maybe three, I was out of the chair.
Only Mary, Arancio and I were there.
Barney had taken his leave through the back entrance sometime earlier, with apologies. I saw him talking with Arancio. After all, he had to open sometime tomorrow.
Pretty much every inch of my skin stung, like I’d fallen face-first into a patch of short-thorned cactus. But I was walking all right, if carefully and a little off-balance.
Mary was tight beside me, gathered under my right arm. She felt good there, like it’s where she belonged.
I still couldn’t hear very well, but the roaring in my ears had abated considerably.
As I passed through the open left side of the double door, I noted the top hinge was loose. The door hung at a slight angle. Apparently the blast hit the edge hard enough to dislodge the screws about halfway.
Mary slipped loose momentarily and followed me through the narrow opening.
Arancio closed the door behind us as best he could. I heard the latch click.
Rain was falling, but it was very light, more of a mist. The majority of the storm must have been in the wind. Either that or it had blown around us. The air still smelled of electricity.
I looked down at her and tried a grin. “Well, we’re out. What now?”
She laughed and took my hand, but gently, as if touching me might break me. “We’ll go to my place if my car’s still out back.”
I read her lips and nodded. “Can we stop at my house first? I’ll need some clothes.”
“Or we can just stay there,” she said.
I thought of my three rooms. It was more of an efficiency apartment, though it was in a building by itself.
It had a small living room with a fold-out couch. Then there was a kitchenette, a very small bathroom and a small bedroom with a single bed shoved into one corner. I kept my clothes in the closet and the chest and slept on the bed. Occasionally I ate toast in the kitchenette, but otherwise I was seldom in the place.
It was more than I needed, but it wasn’t a place I would want to entertain a woman. Especially this woman. I tried to shrug. “Wherever you’re comfortable is fine. Then we can finish our talk if you want to.”
“Okay,” she said, “if we still need to.” She squeezed my hand lightly.
Then another thought struck me. “What time will Barney open tomorrow? Did he say?”
“I don’t think so.” She frowned. “Why?”
“I mean, won’t he want you here? I was wondering what time you have to be back.”
We were nearing the northwest corner of the building. She stopped and looked up at me. “I’m not coming back, Nick. Earlier, before I came to your table again, I quit.”
I frowned, certain I hadn’t heard her right. “You what?”
“I quit. I told them from now on, I’m with you.” She hesitated.
There was a powerful surge in my chest. It wasn’t pain. It was—well, a surge. I know of no other way to explain it. I’d felt it only one time before, on the night I’d first seen Mary.
But “What?” slipped through my lips too.
It was happiness. Pure joy.
But she heard only the heavy weight of it.
Her smile faded, then disappeared. She didn’t pout, but her face looked—resigned. As she looked away, she said, “Unless—” and something else. Then she remembered my hearing loss.
She looked up at me again. “Unless you don’t want me.” She hesitated. “I guess I did kind of spring things on you. Earlier, I mean. It’s just that we were so rushed for time. And then all of this other happened, so—”
She released my hand and took a half-step back. “There was no more time to explain, Nick. But I am your woman.” She took a breath and seemed to steel herself. “Even regardless of whether you are able to recipro—” She was starting to look away again.
She looked up again, her eyebrows arched. Tears welled in her eyes. “Yes?”
I bent down, wrapped my left arm around her shoulders and my right around her waist. I pulled her close and kissed her.
I’m thirty-two years old, and I have never given or received a kiss like that before.
Her lips seemed to know what mine were doing before they did it. Was there ever a more perfect kiss? A more perfect match?
After a long moment, we parted, all but breathless. I let my forehead rest lightly on hers. Quietly, I said, “Is that all right for the beginning of my reciprocation?”
She leaned back and beamed up at me. “Yes!” She laughed as she took my hands. “Nick, the first time I saw you, it was at a distance. You might not remember. But you came through the door, then stopped and looked around.”
I grinned and nodded. Trying not to yell past the roaring in my ears, I said, “I remember. You had just turned away from the bar with an order, right? I remember there were three plates and three drinks.”
She nodded and laughed again. “Yes! And I looked at you, and then you looked at me. And I almost dropped the tray.” She laughed again, the most beautiful, musical sound I’d ever heard. “At first I thought it was my heart. I thought my heart nearly leapt out of my chest.
“But I thought more about it. For days. Maybe weeks. And it deeper than that. It was my spirit maybe. It was as if my spirit recognized yours. It was as if we were reunited. As if I wondered where you’d been so long, why you were away. Why you were only now coming back to me.”
I laughed too and squeezed her hands. “That’s exactly how I felt. Exactly. Why do you think I’ve been coming here every night since that happened?”
She laughed as she turned and slipped her arm around my waist. “You mean it wasn’t for Barney’s food?”
She guided me around the northwest corner of the building, then along the west wall. Just past the southwest corner, an older model Jeep was waiting. She stopped and gestured toward it. “You like my car?”
I laughed. “Beats walking.”
I gave her directions and we swung by my place first.
Despite my misgivings, she insisted on coming in with me.
Inside, I gestured toward the couch. “Sit if you want. I’ll just grab a few things. It shouldn’t take more than a minute or two.”
She shook her head. “I’ll come with you. I can help. Do you have a bag? We’ll take at least a few changes of clothes. It will take you some time to heal.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. There’s plenty of room. If you stay with me, I won’t have to worry, and I won’t have to come back and forth. After you heal. Then we can get on with the rest of our lives.”
So we packed a duffel plus a hanging bag. Then we loaded them into the Jeep and she drove us to her house. It was nestled on a low hill on the outskirts of Agua Andulado. As we weaved our way up the access road, finally, the sun was dawning on a new day. It came up just as she turned into the short driveway.
The house was a small, neat cottage, a vibrant lime green in the early morning light. The living room was nice sized, with a full couch and a matching love seat. A small coffee table filled the L formed by those. There were also two small end tables, and on each was a matching brass lamp with a white shade.
The kitchen was huge in comparison with mine. The other necessary appliances were there as well, and off to one side a round oak table with only two chairs. It had belonged to her mother, she said, and was a gift.
“Where are the other chairs?”
“I asked her to keep them for me. Even two was one too many for me. Until tonight.” She smiled.
There was a full bath but with a shower built-in as well. And two bedrooms, one slightly larger than the other.
She gestured toward the smaller of the two. “You can put your bags on the bed in there for now. We can put things away later. Let’s get cleaned up first and I’ll tend to your wounds. After that I’ll make some breakfast. Okay? I’ll make enough for both of us. Even if you still aren’t hungry, you have to eat.”
The bedroom. The sleeping arrangements. It was no less than I expected. “Sure. Okay.”
I nodded and carried the two bags into the room. The bed wasn’t made. I laid the hanging bag on the mattress and set the duffel on the floor beside it.
A moment later she came in and led me into the bathroom. As the tub was filling, she removed the rough bandage I’d wrapped around my leg, then took a scissor from a drawer and cut away the right leg of my trousers.
She looked at the knife wound, then reached into the same drawer and took out a waterproof adhesive bandage, a bottle of alcohol and a cotton swab. She dabbed the area around the wound with alcohol, then applied the bandage. “We’ll bandage it properly after your bath.”
She helped me bathe, and afterward said, “We’ll probably be picking little bits of seashell out of your skin for a week. Are you all right?”
I only nodded.
The truth was, I’d never felt better.
She brought some clothes in from my bags, then left to go make breakfast.
After I got dressed, I padded barefoot back into the small bedroom and looked around.
My bags were where I’d left them on the bed.
But they didn’t look right there. If I was going to move in, I should move in.
I unzipped the hanging bag and opened the closet. There were plenty of clothes hangers. I set about hanging my shirts and trousers and the one suit I’d brought with me. Lastly I hung the bag itself on one end of the rod, its back to the wall.
On the shelf in the top of the closet was a set of sheets, a few pillows and a blanket.
I got those down and carried them to the bed.
I had the fitted sheet, top sheet and blanket on the bed in short order. I put pillow cases on two of the pillows and tossed them near the head of the bed. Then I went back to the foot of the bed and knelt. I was just about to tuck the top sheet and the blanket in when I felt a light touch on my shoulder.
I looked up.
“What are you doing?”
I stood and gestured. “Making the bed.”
“Well, because I have to get—”
“Aren’t you going to sleep with me? In my bed?”
No possible way did I hear that right. “What?”
Then she realized what was going on and grinned broadly. “Nick, I only wanted you to put your clothes in here while we’re getting cleaned up and eating breakfast. We’re together now, remember?”
“Oh.” I paused, looking for something better to say. “Okay.” It’s all I could think of.
I’d given up long ago on “happily ever after.” That sort of thing was fine for many people, but it wasn’t something that ever seemed to steer in my direction.
Yet here it was, staring me in the face.
I thought of Old Man Morgan and his “jobs like that” comment. Well, the nation could defend itself well enough without me.
Or not. I could go anywhere, move anywhere.
With Mary at my side, anything was poss—
Mary reached over and shook my shoulder lightly. “Nick. Nick, are you all right?” She paused. “Nick?” She frowned. “Nick?”
Why was she asking me if I was all right?
Then she blurred.
She blurred and was hazy.
And she disappeared.
I opened my eyes. “Mary? Mary!”
“I’m right here, Nick. I’m right here. Are you all right?”
There she was. She was crouched next to my chair, my left hand between both of hers.
But how were we back in the bar?
No. We weren’t back in the bar. We’d never left.
I imagined it. I imagined it all.
My heart sank.
She squeezed my hand. “It’s all right, Nick. I’m right here.”
And I heard her all right. The roaring was gone. Or most of it.
I nodded. “I know.” So my neck muscles were working better. Good. I blinked. “Did I sleep?”
“Maybe an hour.”
I flexed my ankles. My feet moved fine. I tested my abdomen muscles, my thigh muscles, pulled my feet up to the base of the chair.
My body worked. And Mary was right there beside me.
A glass scraped across the bar.
Arancio was back there, tidying up. He seemed to be intentionally busy minding his own affairs.
I looked at Mary again and raised my right hand, reached across my body. I lightly caressed the left side of her face.
I wanted to tell her about the kiss. About riding in her Jeep. About everything. I said, “Do you have a Jeep parked out back?”
She grinned and nodded, then canted her head slightly. “How did you know?”
A low rumbling came to me through the open doorway. A reminder.
Mary was right there, but I’d received my invitation. I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. Did I?
Quietly, I said, “I just know. And I know everything’s all right.” I looked down along my legs. “I seem to be working again.” I forced a smile. “Here,” I said. “Let’s get me out of this chair.”
She straightened and took a step back, retaining her grip on my left hand with both of hers.
I braced my right hand on the base of the chair and pushed myself up.
I tested my balance. When I was sure I was standing all right, I pulled her gently into my arms and held her for a moment. When we separated, she stepped back.
The distant, low rumbling came again. Was it beckoning me?
I held her hands and squeezed slightly as I looked down at her upturned face. “Listen, Mary. Awhile ago—when I said we’ll have to postpone our talk—” I paused. “I—I have to leave soon.”
I hated myself for saying it even as I said it. That one simple statement was going to cost me everything I ever wanted.
But the woman was full of surprises.
She beamed up at me. “I know that, Nick. And I’m going with you. As soon as you’re able to travel.”
I shook my head slightly. “No, you don’t understand. What I mean, I have to head north. I have to—”
She squeezed my hands. Quietly, she said, “Baby, I know what you have to do, and it’s all right. It’s who you are. It’s who I am too. When I said I’m with you, I didn’t mean I’d wait at home.”
I almost frowned, and then a realization dawned on me.
Earlier, when she was talking about Ian, she said had certain skills. No, that she was very good at certain things. Same thing. She was capable. That’s what she meant when she said she was capable.
I grinned. “You’re capable?”
She nodded quickly, still smiling. “Explosives. You name it, I’ll evaporate it.”
I felt my jaw drop open. I guess we were both suited for jobs like that.
“As soon as you’re ready, we head north. Now, are you ready to get out of here?”
“Let’s go,” I said, and we started toward the door. “But where?”
She laughed. “Well, we can go to my place if my car’s still out back.”
Straight out of my dream. But I had to wonder. “Can we stop at my house first? I’ll need some clothes.”
“Or we can just stay there,” she said.
I thought of my three rooms. But I already knew the rest.
I guess we wouldn’t need to finish our talk.
As I passed through the open left side of the double door, I noted the top hinge was loose. The door hung at a slight angle. Apparently the blast hit the edge hard enough to dislodge the screws about halfway.
Mary slipped loose momentarily and followed me through the narrow opening.
Arancio closed the door behind us as best he could.
I heard the latch click.
* * * * * * *
Thanks for reading Jobs Like That. If you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll check out other of my works at HarveyStanbrough.com.
Also, consider subscribing and hanging around. I’ll be renewing my story-per-day challenge soon! (grin)
If you’re a writer, you might also be interested in either my Pro Writers Blog or my Daily Journal. You can find both on my main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.