Charlie: Hampton, Off-Season
“So you’re the guy that they sent,” Margaret said. It was not a question. She spoke with a dusty weariness that matched the gray and the cold of the beach boardwalk on the other side of the door. Her tone said she was already beaten, that if she were to die today it would not make much difference. She reached down under the bar, picked a bottle of Budweiser out of the ice pan, opened it with a muscular twist, and looked at Charlie again.
“Mind if I have a beer?” she said. “I’d have something good, but Bud’s all we got in the low season in Hampton Beach.”
Charlie shrugged. “Makes no difference to me,” he said.
“Have a seat, then,” she said. “People standing when there’s nobody else around make me nervous.”
Charlie looked around—not the bar. Those seats were too close to where Margaret was leaning. He walked four steps to his left, to a high table with four empty stools, sitting on the stool closest to the bar. The table and stools were all bolted to the floor; Charlie leaned back, resting against the edge of the table.
“It’s interesting,” said Margaret. “When I was a kid, I’d think about this kind of moment. I always thought that I was going to be offed in a fight with ninjas, or robot killers, or something like that. You’re not wearing a ninja outfit undeneath that hoodie, are you?”
Charlie shook his head and allowed himself a small smile. “I don’t even know karate,” he said. “Ninja stuff is a little beyond me.”
“That’s why you’re carrying that,” she said, pointing at his lap.
“Is that a silencer?”
“I’ve never seen one of those,” she said. “I had no idea that they were so long.”
Charlie smiled for real. “You, know, you could take that in many ways…”
“Spare me,” she said. “I work behind a bar in Hampton Beach. I’ve heard it all.”
“What’s it like here?” he said. “When it’s crowded, I mean.”
She looked at him, then reached into her pocket. Charlie tightened his grip on the gun.
“Easy,” she said. “I’m gonna have a smoke. It’s illegal to smoke in here, but since it’ll be my last one, I think it’ll be all right.”
Charlie shrugged. “Fine by me.”
She pulled out a new pack of Parliament lights, smacked it four times against her hand, took a cigarette out, turned it over and put it back in the pack, then pulled out another.
“Lucky last smoke in the pack,” she said. “I don’t know why I did that; it’s not like I’m going to get to that one, right?”
Charlie said nothing.
“What’s it like in Hampton Beach in the summer?” She scratched a match to life and lit her cigarette. “It’s like someone decided to take all of the ideas that anyone ever had about summer, as if they stole from Rockwell and Peanuts and every Frankie Avalon movie, aged it all in a whiskey barrel, and put the ideas in place here.”
She exhaled smoke rings.
“I learned to make smoke rings here when I was fifteen years old,” she said. “Hampton used to be the kind of place where you could walk in anywhere, as long as your shorts were short and tight enough. A guy was sitting right where you are right now. I sat in his lap and asked him to buy me a drink and give me a smoke. He did both for a kiss, back in 1975.”
She laughed, smoked some more.
“It’s funny,” she said. Sometimes I think that this place just doesn’t change. Judas Priest played here in 1975, right when they were just starting out. They’re playing here again this summer, and most of the people who were at that 1975 show are going to be there, except this time they’ll probably bring their children. Who would have thought that those skinny metalheads would ever have children?”
“Do you have any?” asked Charlie.
“Children?” she said. “No. This is no place for kids. Maybe if…” She shook her head.
“If what?” he said.
“You don’t know it here,” she said. “In two months, the arcades will open, and they’ll start firing up the pizza ovens and deep-fryers in the kiosks facing the beach. There will be a few people here—mostly weekenders from northern Maine who are coming as far south as they can go, and think that forty degrees and sunny is Hawaiian. They’ll come in here for a beer or two, and some of them will stay late, and it will be nice, because somebody besides the usual five guys will be here, and there will be new things to talk about.”
“Five guys?” said Charlie, worried.
“Don’t worry,” she said. They don’t show up until around seven or eight; you have plenty of time.”
“How do I know…”
“That I’m telling the truth?” she cut him off. “Why would I lie? Besides, five sixty-year old alcoholics aren’t a match for a guy like you. You could probably snarl at them and they’d run screaming. Don’t worry.”
Charlie relaxed his grip on the gun.
“Hampton is a time warp,” she said. “Old guys with mullet haircuts, acid-washed jeans four sizes too small, t-shirts from Bike Week 1982…it’s all here.”
“Do you like it?”
She paused, smoked the last bit of her cigarette and put it out. “I don’t really know how to answer that question. I grew up here. I was born ten minutes away, and I was hitching rides to the boardwalk when I was nine years old. I kissed my first boy during a fireworks show in 1973. I lost the one thing you can only lose once in 1976 in the back seat of a Buick Riviera with the windows closed. It was a humid night, and I remember the sweat and the slick. My first job was slinging french fries at the burger shack; my boss made me undo the top two buttons on my shirt to try to get people to buy more food. I fell in love on the beach, lost that love on the beach, started making good money here right after I turned twenty-two, and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve never been south of Maryland or west of Niagara Falls; I don’t make enough money to have a real vacation, and I work seven days a week in the summer, when all of the normal people are road-tripping and traveling around. I’m here. It’s what I know. Asking me if I like it is like asking an Arab if he likes sand. It’s the world, and it’s mine.”
Charlie took his eyes off of Margaret and looked around the bar. There was dust on the table he was leaning on. Not dirt, dust—the kind that you’d find after walking into a tomb that had been robbed and sealed back up again.
“Can I have a beer?” he asked. “I hate to make someone drink alone.”
“You’ll be drinking alone before the end of the night, though, right?” she asked, cracking a wan smile. “Any flavor?” she asked.
“What’ve you got?”
“What I’m drinking, and the light kind,” she said. She reached down into her bucket, brought up another bottle of Bud.
“Just toss it over,” said Charlie. “I can open it myself.”
She shrugged and threw it right to him. He caught it with his left hand, wedged the bottle between his legs, and cranked off the top. The beeer was cold, and he shivered after his first sip.
“It is chilly outside,” she said. “Cold enough for most people to want whiskey or brandy. I just always wanted my last drink to be a beer.”
“Not light?” he asked.
She snorted. “I don’t drink that crap,” she said. “Beer is bad for you; people should just deal with it and move on. We all die someday.”
“But, if given the choice, I’d probably rather die of cirrhosis.”
She gave him a level look, then lit another cigarette. “I can’t believe you asked that question.”
“Sorry,” said Charlie.
“You know, you’re not like I pictured you’d be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought that the guy who came after me would be thinner than you, tall, wearing a black trenchcoat. He’d sneak up behind me and just tap me out or crack my neck, and that would be it. I wouldn’t feel anything, I wouldn’t know anything, and I definitely wouldn’t say anything. It would just happen.”
Charlie shrugged again. “I’m sorry…”
“There you go again. You’re not very good at your job, you know that?”
Charlie felt his face turning red. “Sometimes people tell me that.”
She leaned forward over the bar again. “Why?”
He shifted on his stool and took another drink of his beer. “Because sometimes I screw up. I miss shots, or I leave someone before they’re dead and they make it to the hospital, or, somehow, things go wrong. There was this one time…”
“Stop,” she said. “I hear enough sob stories behind this bar. I don’t need to hear another one today. Sometimes, I wish people would come in here to share their triumphs, the things that they’re bursting out with, and that they really want to share. Instead, I get the dregs from the dregs, the guy who just had his methamphetamine lab explode because he wasn’t capable of designing it without flaws, the woman who had her children repo’d by the state because they weren’t eating right because she was spending all of her time and money trying to pick up a sugar-daddy husband here at the bar. Forget it. I’m done with that.”
“Yes,” said Charlie. “I guess so.”
He brought the gun up from where it had been resting on his lap, and pulled back the action, cocking it.
“Does that actually do anything?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “It moves a bullet from the magazine into the chamber.”
“So, it won’t shoot before you do that,” she said.
He shook his head.
“So that whole time you couldn’t have shot me,” she said.
He shook his head again. “Not for a second or two.”
“Man, you really aren’t any good at this. I’m kind of embarrassed; why couldn’t they have sent someone else?”
“I guess they figured you’re no threat,” he said. He took another drink of beer, hoping to settle himself down. As he lowered the bottle, the label, slick from lying in a tub of ice for most of the day, slipped off in his hand, causing the bottle to fall to the floor and shatter. Charlie, startled, pulled the trigger on his .45 automatic. The silenced thud filled the bar, and the bottle that Margaret was holding shattered.
“Ow!” she screamed, her shout echoing in the silence of the bar.
“Oh, sorry!” said Charlie. “What happened?”
“I’ve got glass peppered up and down my arm,” she yelled. “You diot, you shot the fucking beer bottle! What the hell is wrong with you? This hurts.”
She held up her right arm; it looked like she’d been in a horrible mountain-biking accident; small wounds walked their way from her upper wrist to the middle of her bicep. All of them were bleeding, some were dripping on the bar.
“Don’t just stand there,” she said. “Do something!”
“Right,” said Charlie. He took out his cell phone and dialed 911.
“Hi,” he said when the operator picked up. “I’m in Hampton Beach, new Hampshire, at the big bar right on the boardwalk. The bartender’s arm is full of glass. A beer bottle broke. Can you send an ambulance right away? She’s really bleeding.”
He snapped the phone closed.
“There are some towels behind the bar,” she said. “Get me one!”
Charlie vaulted over the bar and knelt down to a small cardboard box. “Are these clean?” he asked.
“Of course they’re clean,” she said. “You don’t see any customers in here, do you?”
“Right,” he said. “Here.”
“Wrap it,” she said, offering her arm. “Not too tight; just want to make it not drip, not push any of the glass farther in.
Charlie wrapped the towel around her arm, then used three more to cover the entire area that had been punctured by the glass. The lower towel started to spot red on the outside.
“Man, I hope they get here quickly,” he said. “That bleeding could get ugly.”
“If it was the high season it would take them a while,” she said. “People get into fights, bottles get broken over heads, things go wrong, traffic is horrible. They should be here right…now.”
A siren wailed faintly from outside the bar, growing steadily louder until Charlie had to hold his hands over his ears.
“Idiots,” she said. “They just do that to feel big.”
The door opened, and two EMTs walked in; they were right out of a movie. One was short and fat, the other tall and thin.
“Hey Margaret,” said short/fat. “I was coming here tonight anyway. What’s the problem?”
She raised her bleeding arm. “This is the problem. My arm is filled with glass.”
Tall/thin blanched. “Oh my God. That’s ugly. Can you walk?”
She glared at him. “Of course I can walk. The glass is in my arm. Are you guys drunk already?”
Tall/thin shook his head. “Never on duty.”
“Except for when you come in to try to impress the beach bunnies with your uniforms and slam Jager shots,” she said.
Tall/thin shook his head again. “No beach bunnies around right now anyway. Come on. We need to get you to the hospital.”
She nodded. “Right, let’s go. Shouldn’t we do something about those towels?”
Short/fat shook his head. “Nah. We’d just put gauze on, and those look clean. Let’s go.”
The three of them trundled out the door to the ambulance. Charlie clapped his hands to his ears again as the siren started wailing. The wail receded into the distance, and he looked around the empty bar.
Charlie smacked his hand against his head. She had been right; he really wasn’t very good at his job.