By the time she finally made it to The Lazy Eye there were a good half-dozen cars in the parking lot, all of them crowded against the building, every one covered with a light dusting of snow. Steam leaked from the tavern’s rooftop vent into a black sky. Pulling her Buick under the streetlamp Tina locked it up tight and stepped to the back door, fanning cold into the damp circles under her arms.
Merle was behind the bar when she came in, leaning on his elbows and looking at her as if he’d been waiting all night for her to arrive. “I was starting to get worried,” he said. The neon lettering above him glowed blue onto his bald head.
“I’m early, Merle,” she said. “I don’t start for another fifteen minutes.”
“Weather’s shit.” He reached under the bar and produced an apron, and laid it on the counter in front of her. It was a bicentennial rag, one of three still left in the place. Three more weeks and she could finally throw the ugly things out. “There’s drunks and idiots all over out there.”
“And about seven of ‘em still in here,” she said. She snapped open the stars and stripes apron and held it against her waist, looping the ties around her body twice before tying them off.
Merle straightened up and drummed his fingers on the bar. He looked at her like he did the first time he ever saw her, his eyes rolling up and down her body, stopping at the ‘Spirit of ‘76’ at her lap, teeth chewing on the stray hairs of his mustache. It was not sexy or salacious. It was as if he was the team captain, still deciding which side of the field she ought to play on. Finally he said, “I gotta ask you a hell of a question.”
“What is it, Merle?”
“You ever been in a fight?”
“That’s a hell of a question all right.”
“I wanna know. You ever been in one?”
“You mean, like, ever?”
Tina tucked her hands into her apron pocket and looked at the floor, flipping the entirety of her life through her mind. There wasn’t a lot down there for her, outside of the peanut shells at her feet, and a few cigarette butts, snubbed and crushed. “I don’t know,” she said. “In school I guess. Once or twice.”
“How’d you do?”
“I did all right.”
“You’re a little gal,” he said. “You must be quick on your feet.”
Tina looked him over. He held her eyes in his, red-ringed and unblinking. “I’m quick enough,” she said. “What do you want to know for?”
He walked away from her then, paced down the bar collecting empties from the three old codgers spaced out among the stools. One of the men held up two fingers. Merle went to the fridge and pulled out a couple cans of Rainier and slid them down the bar.
“I threw Freddy the Sailor out of here about an hour ago,” he said, walking back to her. “Belligerence and general vulgarity.”
“And this is news?” Freddy’s disagreeable effect was not surprising in the least.
“He was worse than usual. Took a swing at me and almost clipped me in the head. I sent him on his way with a split lip and a little bitty patch of hair gone from the side of his head.” He reached a finger up and touched himself, just above his temple.
“Well, that doesn’t sound good for him,” she said.
“It wasn’t. Thing is, Freddy’s old lady called about ten minutes ago, screaming all kinds of shit at me saying, How dare I touch her husband and he’s a honored vet and blah, blah, blah.” He leaned against the back counter and folded his arms over his chest. They were wrapped in tattoos, of an eagle and some words that Tina had never been able to read. “She says she’s coming down here.” He looked down at those arms of his. “So you need to be ready for her.”
Tina coughed out a laugh, a kneejerk reaction that was unexpected even for her. This, she’d already decided, was not her problem. Six dollars an hour paid for drink serving and small talk, not drama over something she’d had no part of.
“Ready for what?” she said. “I got no beef with her.”
Merle cocked his head at her. “I can’t hit a woman,” he said, as if stating the obvious. “If that broad comes in here raising hell, you’re gonna have to lay her out.”
“Do I have a choice in the matter?”
“Not really. I hate to put it that way, honey, but that’s the way it’s got to be.”
Tina felt her knees sigh, and she steadied herself on the bar. She didn’t have it in her to be without a job again. There were two mouths to feed at home, counting her mother’s. Christmas was around the corner and her car was running on only three cylinders. Merle stared at her with those reddened eyes. There was nothing else she could say.
“How big a gal is she?”
Over the next 45 minutes the door opened and closed at least a dozen times. Some people left and a few more came in already tipsy, including a couple rough-looking coots Merle knew. Every few minutes Tina passed by the front window and took a look outside to see if anyone new had pulled into the lot.
“What kind of car does she got?”
Merle shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “A Ranchero if she’s driving Freddy’s rig.”
She leaned over the booth and looked out at all the cars crowding the space under the tall, lit sign. There wasn’t a Ranchero and what was there looked empty and dark to her.
“Don’t tie yourself up in a knot, honey,” Merle hollered. “Freddy’s wife is a big talker. Probably won’t even come in.”
Somebody got up and changed the channel on the television to an old movie that was already in progress, a black and white western. A woman was standing with her back against the bare logs of an inside wall, a rifle held at her side. A man called something from outside among a band of sagebrush, huddled with a group of men squatted behind a low ridge. “You’re a bunch of liars!” the woman screamed back at them. “Every last one of you!”
Tina pushed off from the table and forced herself to wander the bar, collecting empties from the booths and making small talk with the guys she knew, tucking the occasional dollar tips into her pocket. They talked about basketball and last year’s shipyard strikes and she nodded along with them and teased them about their long beards and thin hairlines. Still, she stole glances out the window when she could. At some point Merle began running the blender, and a couple of young gals who had come in earlier started screeching over the pinball machine, cocktail glasses on the spindle table behind them, paper umbrellas scattered around the stems. Things were picking up and people seemed to having fun, forgetting all about what had happened with Freddy.
By 11:30 the parking lot was a field of white. Faint tracks snaked gray from parking stalls to the main road, some darker than others. In a cone that fell from the tall post lamp, flakes drifted and spun, and Tina found herself thinking less about Freddy’s woman and more about how good the tread might be on her own tires, and whether the plows would be out on the highway by two o’clock. She’d been there for three hours and there were only a few more drinkers in the place than there had been when she arrived. By now it was proving to be a slow night probably thanks to the weather, which was fine by her.
“I can tell you’ve decided that she ain’t coming.” A woman leaned back on her barstool and looked over at Tina, eyes glassy and seated over ruddy, puffed cheeks. “You think the snow’s gonna keep her at home.” She wore a man’s sports jacket with the cuffs chopped and frayed. She pointed a twig finger at Tina. “That bitch turns into an alley cat if she thinks she’s been screwed over,” she said. “I seen her in action.”
“I’m not worried about her,” Tina lied. Merle looked up from a glass he was cleaning.
“I didn’t say you was,” the woman said. “Alls I’m saying is that you better be ready for her if she does show.”
“Nobody asked you to weigh in, Hattie.” Merle walked down and took an empty glass from the space in front of her. He held it up and she nodded. “I wouldn’t make a five dollar bet on anything Freddy’s woman says she’ll do,” he said. “Chances are she’s dead asleep on the couch burning a hole in the upholstery with her cigarette. Either that or she and Freddy are up at the casino spending their rent.” He titled a bottle of gin over a tumbler and winked at Tina.
The woman shrugged her shoulders and tipped back to the bar, taking a scoop of peanuts into her hand. A guy next to her leaned in and said something into her hair and she laughed, cracking a peanut in half and tossing the shell onto the floor.
“How old is your kid?” Merle asked. He produced a towel and wiped down the counter. Tina took a seat on the stool opposite him.
“She’s eight,” Tina said. “My mom watches her when I’m here. She cries every time I leave.”
“Your mom cries whenever you leave the house?”
Tina laughed at that. “God I wish,” she said. “My daughter, Merle. She doesn’t do well with my being gone, especially at night.”
“She’ll outgrow it,” Merle said. “She’s only eight.”
Tina leaned over the bar and took a glass, and filled it with water from the faucet. Thank God, she thought, that he didn’t ask about the man in her life (or lack thereof). She didn’t have the energy to get into the particulars, dredging up stories of late night battles with her ex, the screaming. The unevenly placed pictures, hung for the sole purpose of covering the fist-sized divots left in the drywall. It was all months behind her and she was in a better place, even if it meant being under the same roof as her mother all over again. Even if it meant working nights serving well drinks and cheap beer to a bunch of bottom-rung alcoholics.
Tina asked, “You have kids?”
“Somewhere,” he said.
“You don’t know?”
“They’re grown and gone,” Merle said. “The boy, he’s twenty-six and in California. Moves about every six months. His older sister, I ain’t heard from in some time.” He stared past Tina at the wall behind her, where the picture window looked out into the front parking lot. “It’s complicated.”
The ice machine kicked up, like the low rumble of a passing train. Fewer people were asking for refills now. Maybe they figured they had plenty of time until last call and they were saving their dollar bills, or they were thinking it might actually be a good idea to get somewhat clear-headed for the drive home.
One of the pinball girls whooped and smacked the side of the machine, and Merle shot a look over at them. Tina said, “You want me to go kick their asses too?” Merle laughed at that and right then somebody sitting over at the window called out, “Hello Merle. Here she is.”
Tina stood just outside the front door with her hands in her coat pockets, watching the figure seated inside the darkened Ranchero. It had stopped snowing, though tiny glasslike specks still drifted and swirled in the air. The car was dirty white with gray paint splotches covering the fender, and there was no license plate where it should have been on its front. After a minute or so the driver’s door opened, and a plume of blue smoke rose up into the sky.
It occurred to Tina that Freddy’s woman might have thought to bring a gun with her, or maybe a knife, and at the same time those same men that had announced the Ranchero’s arrival were likely still staring out that window, waiting for all sorts of shit to come down out there. In fact, the whole bar was probably in there watching them, laying bets on the table and taking down names. Still, she kept her eyes on the car, and the woman climbing out of it.
As Tina had anticipated she was a rough-looking woman, heavy all around with sweat pants that hugged her wide hips too tightly, bunched down over slip-on canvas shoes not smart for the ice and snow. She wore a thick parka on top, its fur-lined hood cradling her pink, round, moonlike face. She could have been thirty or fifty as far as Tina could tell, with a long mane of crow-black hair that fell down over her broad shoulders.
“I just about ran my goddamned car off the bridge,” she called out. “I can’t fucking believe I made it here in one piece.” She walked over toward Tina, stepping on the concrete like she was learning to walk for the first time.
Tina said, “You look like you’ve been put through the wringer.”
“I feel like it.” She approached Tina and stopped, and slid her hands into her coat pockets. Her lips curled down at the sides and she drew her eyes into slits, peering like she was trying to see her through a fog. “You a lady bouncer tonight?” she said. “Merle send you out to knock me on my ass?”
Tina straightened herself up tall, as if the change in posture might give direction to the way things might go. Something rolled in the pit of her stomach and her fingers itched and crawled inside her pockets.
The woman laughed. “You don’t look like much,” she said. “I got a twelve year-old niece with more shape than you.”
“I can take care of myself.” Tina pushed her voice down into her chest, hoping the sound of it might carve itself into the air. “It’s a cold night to end up on the ground.”
“No shit,” she snapped, and then her face fell together again, the lines drawing down like lightning from the sides of her mouth. “Tell that to Freddy. He’s got a rash all upside his head and for all I know his shoulder is knocked out of joint again. I’m probably gonna have to run him to the ER tomorrow.”
“Merle says he was out of control,” Tina said. “Said he had to toss him out before someone else did a lot worse to him.”
She stepped back from Tina and yanked her hand from her pocket. It was only when she waved it in the air that Tina could see she had a ball peen hammer in her fist, the round metal head glinting from the lamp overhead. Tina pulled back, put up a hand in front of her.
“Look lady, I’m just doing what I’m told so I can keep this job,” she said. “I got a kid at home.”
“So what? I got two.”
There was no way of knowing what Freddy’s gal would really do, how serious or crazy, or high, she was. But Tina knew if that hammer came at her she would have a half a second to figure it all out. She looked at the woman’s legs, at the sagging gray cotton that hung like old skin. She could kick her squarely in the kneecap, knock the leg out from under her and send her falling to the pavement. That would not be hard to do.
“I’m sick of this,” the woman said. “I tell Freddy to stay the hell out of here but he won’t do it. Goddamn Merle in there, sucking up our money night after night, standing by while Freddy pisses our rent away on beer and pool. We got kids, for God’s sake. I don’t even know if he can work now with his shoulder the way it is.”
The hammer rocked back and forth in her hand as she went on, punctuating every cuss word she threw out. “This is bullshit. I gotta come to this goddamned place and fight his battles for him.”
Tina looked down at her knees again and moved in a little closer. Her feet dragged so heavy with each step, concrete cinderblocks fused to the ends of her rubber band legs.
“I could go and bust out that big window right there,” Freddy’s woman said, stabbing the hammer toward the front door. “And maybe while I’m at it I might just knock you on your skinny little butt. Knock you right out.”
Tina’s own knees shifted but she held herself still, frozen. Like a statue. What they were saying inside now, she wondered. Was Merle there with them and could any of them even see the hammer? It was possible, she thought, that she was standing in such a way that the line of sight between she and Freddy’s girl was completely blocked. She could have a gun pointed at my face, she thought, And nobody would be able to do a goddamned thing. Six dollars an hour plus tips suddenly felt like a hell of a lot less money now than it had the day before.
“You know they’re all just in there watching us,” Tina finally said. “Probably laying bets. Waiting for us to have at it.”
“Yeah, that’d be like them wouldn’t it? Fucking pigs.”
“Don’t I know.” Freddy’s woman stretched onto her toes. She squinted her eyes and craned her neck, as if those few inches would allow her to make out what was already impossible to see. “We could give em a show if you want to. Take a swing at me. See what happens.”
Tina looked back over her shoulder. Figures and shapes lingered in the glass, but she still couldn’t make out what was what.
“I say this whole thing is a lousy idea,” she said. “Even if you tossed that hammer on the ground to even things up it’s too damned cold out here to start punching on things.”
Freddy’s girl swung her arm slightly from her side, tapping the hammer against her leg. Her jaw clenched, and her eyes began to well up. Dropping her head back she gave out a rush of air then reached her free hand up to her face, wiping at her cheek.
A breath of wind kicked up, taking an icy hold on Tina’s bare neck. “What’s your name?” she asked. “Anybody in there just calls you ‘Freddy’s woman’.”
She looked Tina up and down, one edge of her lip curling. “You first.”
“Tina. Short for Christina.”
“Tina,” she repeated. “It figures.” She rocked back on her heels a few times then said, “I’m Sammy.” When Tina didn’t say anything she added, “I know it sounds like a man’s name.”
Tina said, “No it doesn’t.” Then she said, “I say it feels like a goddamned freezer out here, Sammy. How about we duck into your car for a bit? Warm our hands up.”
Sammy looked back over her shoulder at the Ranchero and stared at it as if she worried that the car itself would not allow such a thing. “Freddy still ain’t fixed the heater.”
“Come on,” Tina said. “It’ll take us out of the freak show we’re putting on just by standing here.”
Another gust of wind picked up and tiny flakes swept from the ground up into the air. Sammy shrugged her shoulders and slid the hammer back into her pocket, then reached up and wiped at her nose. After looking past Tina at the tavern once more she turned and walked back to the car.
The inside of the car reeked of dirty oil and stale cigarette smoke and man sweat, and the backseat was strewn with rags and clothing, and crumpled brown paper sacks and crushed soda cans. Tina sank down in the passenger seat, kicking aside candy wrappers and curled pull tabs from beneath her feet.
For a time they sat in near silence, Sammy’s rattled breathing the only sound filling the space between them. The spread of gauges on the dashboard were cloudy with grime but Tina could see that there was less than a quarter tank of gas sitting beneath them. She thought of how, even if she wanted to go, if she wanted to pull out of that parking lot and just keep on driving Sammy would likely not even get as far as the county line. She was just as stuck as any of them.
“I don’t know what the hell to do,” Sammy finally said. “He ain’t gonna be able to go to work tomorrow and we got bills due. Merle had no reason to beat on him like that.”
Tina turned in her seat and leaned against the door, the metal handle cold against her back. “I don’t know anything about it,” she said. “Maybe he didn’t. But like I said, I heard Freddy was pretty riled up.”
“Oh big goddamned deal,” she snapped. “He gets like that cause he drinks too much. Besides, Merle’s the one that serviced him. If he wouldn’t of poured the booze, Freddy wouldn’t of drank it, right?”
A curtain of fog began to draw down over the windows and Tina found her stomach finally settling. There was something good about being in this space with this woman, a comfort in spite of everything: the garbage, the hammer. The unknown. There was something to be said about a simple conversation, even a sharp one, possibly winning over a public brawl.
Sammy sniffed. “You think it’s easy for them boys to see their daddy all beat up?”
Tina shook her head. “It’s not good for them to be seeing him dead drunk all the time, either. That’s hard for a kid to take.”
“I know that.”
“I speak from personal experience on that one.”
“Well so do I, so I guess that makes us even, doesn’t it?” Sammy reached out and flipped the ashtray tab a few times. “What the hell else am I supposed to do? It’s too hard on my own. No man out there wants a woman who looks like me, and two kids as a bonus.”
“None of this here feels all that easy to me,” Tina said. “But then what do I know? The last man I had pitched the TV through the front window just because he couldn’t remember where he left the remote.”
“You’re shitting me.” Sammy pushed air through her teeth, a real grin pulled across her face. “Now that’s something I ain’t seen, and I have seen a lot.”
They sat quietly, Sammy still fiddling with the ashtray. Tina watched as a tiny drop of water slid down the slope of the windshield, leaving a dark stripe in its path where the blue neon of the Lazy Eye sign shone through. Finally Sammy dug into her pocket and pulled out a clutter of keys, and stabbed one into the ignition.
“You can go on in now,” she said. “I ain’t gonna raise any hell.”
“Yes I’m sure. What am I gonna do? The minute I walk in there Merle will call the cops and my ass will be in jail before I can say How Do You Do. And then what? My kids with no mama, just a drunk ass man that can’t even reach around to wipe his own ass.” She produced a pack of Marlboros and tapped one out from the box. “I don’t know why I wasted the gas to come here. Like he’s worth all this.”
Tina leaned to one side and reached into her front jeans pocket, and pulled out a folded stack of bills. They were all her tips for the night, not much. Twenty bucks, maybe a few more. But she handed it over to Sammy anyway, laying it on the dashboard.
“What’s that for?” she asked.
“I don’t know. A tank of gas,” Tina said. “Maybe a cup of coffee and a hamburger on your way home. Whatever you want.”
Sammy snatched it from the dash and handed it back over to her. “Hell no,” she said. “You earned that fair and square. God knows I wouldn’t have the patience for them sons of bitches in there. Plus on top of that, being sent out here to duke it out with me. I coulda had a gun on me or something.”
“The thought did cross my mind.”
“What the hell kind of boss does that? I hope he planned to give you a bonus or something.”
Tina put her hands up in surrender, and Sammy took back the cash, tucking it into her pocket with the ball peen hammer. “Thank you, then,” she said, almost in a whisper. “You didn’t need to do that, but it will sure come in handy.” She produced a lighter from somewhere and lit up her cigarette, and just like that the car was full of smoke.
“I better get back inside,” Tina said. “You drive careful on your way out of here. There’s drunks and crazy people out there.”
“At least I don’t have to worry about the ones in there,” she said, nodding toward the window.
A half dozen pairs of eyes locked onto Tina when she came back into tavern, some swollen behind thick eye glasses, all of them searching her face for some sign of a fight, maybe bruises or fingernail marks, Tina figured. Someone called out, “Merle, you need to give that woman a raise,” and another voice answered, “Amen to that.”
“You all right, girl?” Merle asked from behind the bar.
“Sure I care.”
“That’s easy to say from back there,” Tina said. “She could’ve killed me out there, you know.”
“What? She have a knife or something?”
“What difference does that make now?” Tina said, taking a seat on the stool. “I didn’t see you coming out there to check my pulse.”
Merle walked to the coffee pot and poured a mug half full, then reached under the bar and took out a bottle of Irish Cream, adding a splash. “Here,” he said. “Warm yourself up and maybe we’ll talk about that raise. Fair enough?”
She nodded and blew across the rim.
He waited a minute or so, let her take a couple drinks, and then he started asking her about all that had happened, about why they had gone to the Ranchero and what she’d had to say to Tina. Freddy was a hard man, Merle said, but his woman was harder. She had to be, to stick with the likes of him.
“She’s a tough gal all right,” Tina said. “But that shouldn’t have to be a bad thing.”
“I guess not.”
Tina gave up a few things but found that she preferred to keep most of what had happened back where it happened, and before long they left the subject of Sammy alone altogether. Merle started to tell Tina a story about his old man and his bootlegging days. The old coots sitting in the booths, meanwhile, seemed to have forgotten all about the fight and had no concept of the lateness of the hour. And if they had people at home waiting for them, wives sitting on the sofa in a darkened living room or lying in bed, curled on one side glancing at the red glow of the clock, the men didn’t let on that they cared in the slightest. Merle just kept on talking and pouring and Tina kept on bringing it to the men, taking their money and their words and, on occasion, a quick glance out at the curling tire tracks that stitched over the snowy parking lot.
Warren Read is the author of a memoir, “The Lyncher in Me” (2009, Borealis Books) and the soon-to-be-released novel, “Ash Falls” (2017, Ig Publishing). His fiction has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge, Mud Season Review, Sliver of Stone, Inklette, Switchback Magazine and the upcoming (Christmas) issue of East Bay Review. He is an assistant principal in Bainbridge Island, WA; in 2015 he received his MFA in from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.