He breathed in the smoke, liquor, and Minwax of the bar. The mirror reflected his creased, tanned face. He believed his bushy, dark eyebrows and sloping nose were his best features. He smirked at himself and rubbed his callused hands together.
Billy put a Bud on the counter. “Build anything new?”
“Finished Anna Mae’s new kitchen.”
Billy nodded. “Beer nuts?”
Beyond the tables scattered throughout the bar, wooden booths lined the outer walls. He looked over at the empty booth in the far corner. The jukebox’s neon lights glimmered red, blue, white, green.
“Here you are,” Billy said, setting down a wooden bowl of beer nuts.
Next to the mirror hung a shadow box. Displayed within were fourteen different medals, local soldiers’ memorials. Wilson’s Distinguished Service Cross was enclosed within. A small brass tag under it read: Sgt. Wilson Murphy, awarded for saving lives. He had told Billy, “Keep it here. Don’t feel like I earned it. I burned the building where I saved them, but others died.”
The door opened. Ted walked through sunlight beams and nodded. “Wilson.”
Ted sat two seats away and lit a cigarette.
“Margaret doing okay?” Wilson asked.
“Still a handful. You finished Anna Mae’s kitchen?”
“Whiskey or beer today?” Billy asked Ted.
“Let’s start with whiskey.”
“Heard your boy is coming back to town,” Ted said.
“Thinks he can help.”
Ted nodded. Billy placed a whiskey, neat, on the bar.
The dimness of the bar was broken by sunlight filtering through the opened door. Wilson glanced at his beer and took a long drink. The bitter taste filled his mouth and cooled his throat. He grabbed a handful of nuts. The salt acted like a chaser, canceling the bitterness and making it pleasant.
Bobby Jack slapped Wilson’s shoulder. “How you doin’ ol’ boy?”
Wilson nodded and grabbed another handful of nuts.
“Anna Mae’s going on and on about her kitchen. She’ll have a party soon to show it off,” Bobby Jack said.
Bobby Jack sat next to Wilson and rubbed his hands together vigorously. “Hell of a case I just won.” He stood on the footrest of the bar stool and leaned over. “Hey, Billy, let me have one of your fruit concoctions. Damn. This boy, my client, hell-of-a-case.”
“This meth stuff is good for my business. I’ve got challenge for cause and counterclaims down to a science. I bet I could win without showin’-up. Just call it in.”
“I use most of the stuff they make it with to clean my house or get my car going. Damn shame. Young people poisoning themselves on purpose.”
“Not just the young ones anymore. Defended a fifty-two-year-old a few months back. Won that one, too.”
“One Cosmopolitan,” Billy said setting down a cocktail glass filled with frothy bright pink liquid and garnished with a lime wheel.
“Cosmopolitan.” Bobby Jack adjusted his tie and sipped.
Sunlight filled the bar again. Marie stepped inside, looked around. The sunbeam accented her red hair, appearing blonde on the top. She walked to her table and loosened her silk scarf.
Bobby Jack said, “Heard about the old factory? I tell you, Ted, it’s the damndist thing. Bet you never would’ve guessed they’d turn your old place into a rec center. My plea bargainers will be in there doing their community service.”
Wilson stood up. “Billy, let me take Marie’s beer to her.”
“Sure.” Billy placed an orange wedge on the side of the tall mug filled with Blue Moon and handed it to Wilson.
Wilson drank a little of his beer as he walked.
“Here you go, Marie.”
“Thank you, Wilson. Have a seat.”
“How are Francis and Alexandra?”
“Good. Alexandra and her family are coming home for Easter, and Francis will be staying at the university over Spring Break. I think he has a girl, but he tells me he’s staying to get ahead on research.” She chuckled. “You know Francis. He may be behind, but he’s never ahead. So like Richard.”
Marie’s long red hair was pulled back and held up in a clip; he imagined her hair down, accenting her freckles. He envisioned her forty years younger at the lake: her feet dangling off the boat and her tanned legs welcoming the breeze as her cotton dress fluttered, teasing to reveal more leg. That same night, a citronella candle lit on the boat’s bow, they laid with only a blanket covering them.
“Perfect,” Wilson had whispered.
“It will be. I’ll come back a hero, and your dad will like me then.”
“Where did you go?” she asked.
“I was just thinking of the last summer we spent at the lake.” Wilson’s palms were sweaty, and he felt a blush rise. He wished he had a beard.
Marie laughed. “So long ago.”
He hadn’t wanted to start this way.
Billy put the beer nuts on the table. “Can’t leave these on the bar no more. Want another, Wilson?”
Bobby Jack’s voice drifted over, “You wouldn’t have believed . . . son-of-bitch. Just stared at me . . . could get any lawyer in town . . . I told him . . .”
“Who would have believed Bobby Jack would become a lawyer?” Marie said.
“I thought he’d be the one sitting in jail.”
Marie nodded. “Want music?”
“No, Marie. I just want to keep company with you.”
“Wilson Robert Murphy I’ve known you since third grade. Are you going to tell me you just want to keep company with me? What’s on your mind?”
She placed her hand over his. He looked at her small, soft, white hand against his large, tanned, callused one. Her brown eyes glistened. He took her hand into his.
“Marie, that summer at the lake.”
“Wilson, are you going to embarrass me?” She sipped her beer.
Wilson shook his head and looked at the table.
“Do you know why I sit here every Friday night?” she asked.
“Slumming? Town meeting place?”
“The jukebox.” Marie tilted her head back. “Remember the little Marina we went to in Berry Cove?”
“We danced to Tomorrow Is A Long Time.”
“The Beatles, Elvis, The Stones, a little Patsy Cline.”
“Remember Land of a Thousand Dances?”
“I remember someone’s foot was supposed to swivel outward, but landed on mine.”
“What’s this all about, Wilson?”
“Marie, I am not angry or sour. Not anymore. I thought I would tell you this when Dick died. But I was still married to Rosa. And not any richer than when I left or when I returned.”
Marie placed her hands under the table. Billy brought Wilson’s beer. More people entered the bar. It began to fill with the five o’clock crowd. Mumbled talk and robust greetings rebounded. Wilson waved at Anna Mae and her husband. “Love it,” Anna Mae said. Bobby Jack moved from the bar to sit at a table with three men in suits. “Hell of a case I just won . . .”
“I went to see the specialist today. Hell of a thing. I must have told ten different staff members that I was a flamethrower operator in Vietnam. Watched each one of wince like I’m radioactive.”
Marie gasped, and then wept. She took a napkin and dabbed her eyes.
“Sh, it’s okay. I’m ready for this.”
“I’m not. I wanted to wait for you. The war was so . . . hard . . . scary. Dick was here. My father . . . I’ve wanted to tell you so many times that I . . . There were no letters for so long.”
Wilson shook his head. “None of that matters now.” He reached into his pocket and took out a little wooden box. “I’ve been sorting through things. Giving away stuff.” He handed her the box.
She took it. It was hand carved with two crisscrossing jasmines.
“I bought it in the Philippines when I was stationed there. It was always yours.”
She stared at the box.
Voices from the bar drifted, “I heard little Annie is coming home . . . The last time I mowed the lawn . . . Who was playing . . .”
“What?” He sounded gruffer than he wanted.
Wilson swallowed. He opened the box and leaned in. “Marie Elizabeth Crowley, I don’t have much to offer you. Only my heart. Marry me?”
Marie took her wedding ring off and placed it on the table. “Yes.” She let Wilson slip the ring on her finger. The diamond turned to the left, reflecting the quadruplet of jukebox lights. “Kiss me.”
He kissed her. He lingered for a moment, and his beer spilled. It pooled around her wedding ring, leaked onto the floor, and soaked Wilson’s lap.
They broke from their kiss. Billy came over with a towel to soak-up what he could.