The spring weather got everyone out of the house. See and be seen, as Bea understood it, was the driving principle for going out- aside from drinking. Women checked themselves in the bathroom, undoing a button on their blouse, or letting their hair down. A few drinks later, they'd reconsider their outfits, making even more changes. When they returned to their tables, they'd claim to be more comfortable and sit next to the man they were after.
Bea saw a lot of that. She knew the tricks. In some way, all they wanted was to be beautiful. Bea didn't blame them for how they felt, though she herself tried to be less obvious. She wasn't a kid anymore, so there was no need to make herself stupid over a man who might very well not be interested.
Knowing this to be all too true, Bea couldn't help noticing that one woman had spent the better part of an hour watching Ernest. She wasn't attractive. She was much older than Bea, with grey hair, and hips so round she looked like she had watermelons in her pockets, but the attention she paid Ernest unnerved Bea.
The woman and the friend she was with, a big guy young enough to be her
son, were getting their beer at the bar from Hank, so Bea didn't get to
talk to them. They were in the front window. Two decades ago, Bea would
have dumped a drink down the front of her, sending her home in a cab,
or she'd have whispered something threatening or cruel, but she'd grown
out of that. She almost lost a job once being smart to someone. The fighting
wasn't worth the reward; she rarely achieved what she'd intended. Instead,
when she brought Ernest a beer, Bea touched his shoulder, hoping the woman
would see how they were with one another.
Bea kept her hand where it was, feeling the muscle under his flannel shirt. He was fifty, and his hair had gone nearly all white. "That woman, the other side of the bar. In the corner with the big guy in the hat. See her? She's been looking at you all night."
Had she not been touching him, Bea might not have noticed - his expression barely changed, he was still smiling, but his shoulders tightened up. "I don't know her," he said, casual, but dismissive. He picked up his beer and took a drink.
"Maybe she's crazy," she said, taking her hand away.
She cocked her head and took a long look at him. He had a hand on the door handle already. What was up? Maybe this woman was an ex. Maybe it was his wife, who lived in some other city. "We'll see you later," Bea said. She suddenly felt self-conscious. The other woman was likely watching them both now. Bea told herself she could do whatever the hell she pleased. She straightened her back and squared her shoulders as Ernest winked and stepped out the door.
A good ten minutes passed in which Bea noticed the woman looking at her, the expression on her face mixed. Bea couldn't figure what it meant. Finally, when her big friend got up to go, the woman stood as well and untied her jacket from around her waist. She walked past the bar and met Bea at the entrance to the back room.
She was even older than Bea had thought. Her face was round, keeping her complexion smooth, but her eyes were wet and glassy. The woman leaned in and whispered to her. "I don't want to know what's going on between the two of you, but if you're sleeping with Ernest Mackey, I hope to God you don't have kids," she said coldly. She didn't hold the look. Her expression melted into something more like embarrassment, then she turned as quickly as she could and left.
Bea was speechless, watching the woman walk out the door, until Hank came to the end of the bar with her order.
"Woo-hoo?" he said jokingly. "You napping?"
Sitting at the bar, Ernest had been telling Nick and Figgy about Carter. When he was seventeen, Ernest had lied about his age and got a job apprenticing as a welder for Walter Henley. It was good work for a young guy. He and his buddy Carter used to pick up his pay-cheque on the Thursday and take the car down to the beach with their two-fours in the trunk, one case for each day of the weekend. Ernest was only part-time and had Friday to Sunday off. Carter wasn't working yet. They'd drink from noon till sundown because that was the hottest part of the day. Carter would walk around barefoot and he'd step on a bottle cap they'd tossed by the fire and missed, and he'd just look up and lift his foot with the teeth marks from where the cap squeezed his skin and say, "Damn, those things." He didn't bother to put shoes on though. The more they drank, the more bottle caps he'd step on. Ernest would laugh and say, "Fuck you're stupid, Carter, put some shoes on." Two years running they did that, all summer.
And then Ernest got him a job at the plant the next year. They had to wait till he could pass for older because they only hired students who were at least eighteen, but Ernest got him in. So one Tuesday, Carter comes looking for him. Walter has Ernest working round the front of a pressure vessel while he does his thing on the opposite side and the sparks are flying and some guy has left a bucket of oil nearby and one of the sparks takes a nose-dive and next thing, whoosh, the bucket's on fire.