Growler’s wasn’t the kind of place that needed gimmicks to draw a crowd. Rustic and long settled into its simplicity as the locals’ first choice for throwing back and chewing the fat, it had historic significance as one of the community’s first buildings. People still honored the priority that represented.
A month after the shooting, Mary Weber Cawley sat at a rough table in a dark corner of the saloon, sipping a beer and tapping her foot to jukebox honky tonk. Her new husband Asa huddled across from her with his back to the crowd, working on his second cold one without much enjoyment.
He’d danced with her. At least for a moment, when a slow song had come on, he’d taken her in his arms and swayed in that intimate way of his that wiped away common sense. He was going to be fine. They’d be okay. It was all good.
Then someone broke the spell, applauding their first public dance as newlyweds, spouting nonsense about appeasing the lake spirits. Asa went to the bar, leaving Mary feigning a smile as Dave Wendell, his blue eyes bright with liquor and fun under his cowboy hat, intercepted her.
“C’mon now, pretty lady! Any fool—‘cept the one you married—can see you ain’t ready to quit!”
And, just like that as the music changed, she was two-stepping with a sweet guy whose only agenda was to have a good time. So liberating; healing. Exactly what she wanted for Asa. It occurred to her to worry about gossip, about crossing that line she was still learning about as a town newcomer.
Too soon to be out having fun? While her husband moped?
She had nothing to hide. She loved Asa and wasn’t about to let him sink. But she couldn’t help him if she was pulled under.
As the tune ended and Dave, tipping his hat, found Asa and escorted her to him at the corner table, she beamed her exhilaration, willing it to be infectious. “Babe, let’s have some food. Aren’t you hungry?” When Asa shrugged, she squeezed his good hand, refusing to surrender. “I’ll be right back.”
Walking to the bar, she tapped Bonnie Slater on the shoulder. “Hey, Bon. How’s the play coming?”
A small woman with the taut build of a gymnast rolled her eyes. “Joyce dropped out. Again. You’d be good in the part. You should reconsider.”
Mary shook her head. “I dunno. Think I’d just make a fool of myself.”
“And that makes you different from the rest of us how?”
“She got enough trippin’ her up as it is,” said the balding man next to her. He wore a hunting vest and ruby stud in his left earlobe.
“Hey. My two-step’s not that bad.”
A cheer went up at the end of the old mahogany bar, where Adelaide Wrobel pumped the air with her eighty-year-old fists. “Three bull’s-eyes!” she screeched. “Told ya I was feelin’ lucky!” She showed off her winning rippie ticket while shoving a bundle of worthless ones to the floor. “Pay up, Nate!”
“You better’ve won more’n five bucks, Addie,” Nate the bartender barked. “I charge ten to sweep up around you.”
A bony guy wearing a tattered trucker’s cap razzed, “Lord, Addie! How much you drop on them ripples tonight?”
“Nunnayerbeeswax. Nate! Gimme a sandwich.”
“This lady’s first.” Nate, a big, barrel-bellied man with rusty red-gray hair and wild muttonchops, turned toward Mary. He liked her. She was savvy. Never once told him he looked as original to the establishment as the bar he constantly wiped—a dumbass mistake Nate loved baiting tourists into making. Then he made them drop a fin in his tip jar. Nate raised a lot of money for local charities. “Order’s coming right up, Nurse Mary. Two burgers, medium rare, and an order of home fries.”
“Just plain Mary’s fine.” Mary hefted the large tray a busboy brought out from the kitchen. Glancing back at the table, she saw that Asa was gone.
“Help you with that, Just Plain Mary?”
Mary looked up at the stranger from their travesty of a wedding: that smile, those eyes and ridiculous dimples. “No, thanks,” she shouted over the sudden squeal of guitars from the jukebox.
“Swede,” he reminded her, reaching for the tray.
She yanked it back. “Look, is there something I can help you with? Some reason why you keep sneaking up on me?”
“A woman was blinded. A boy who might be innocent was arrested. Your husband was wounded.”
“Life goes on!” Adelaide hooted.
“Don’t you want to know the truth?”
Adelaide snorted. “Aw, truth! Nothing but a general consensus!”
The loud music grated now; the bar atmosphere imploded from cozy to claustrophobic. Mary’s eyes searched for Asa.
Swede picked up one of Adelaide’s discards. The ticket he showed Mary contained images of two bull’s-eyes and a bullet.
“Big loser!” Adelaide laughed.
Mary set the tray on the bar, not caring when the old woman promptly filched one of the burgers. Wanting out, needing fresh air, she headed for the door.
Asa stood in the parking lot, leaning against a dark SUV with its engine running and its headlights off. Somewhere in the back of Mary’s mind, it registered that the vehicle was missing its left rear hubcap. A female hand emerged from the rolled-down driver’s side window to place a lit cigarette between Asa’s lips.
Mary realized she was watching another kind of dance, with familiar steps sunk deeply into the memory of habit and denial, when she saw Asa reach in, caress the woman’s hand, and pocket the vial she passed him.