The waitress offered me a blazing smile as the cold wind and I blew into the pub. Her name tag said “Maggie” and her expression said “Welcome home!” This from a total stranger?
“Hi, there! Grab a seat. I’ll be with you in a sec.” She lifted a huge tray of drinks as if it were empty and threaded her way through the tables.
I found an empty table and sat down. Maggie wasn’t much to look at, not at first glance, average height and build with a cap of fox-colored hair. She had deep brown eyes, and a smile that could light up New York.
It didn’t take long to empty the tray. As she approached, I noticed the design on the front of her black velvet vest. An iridescent Pegasus danced across the close-fitting garment. Unlike the other waitresses I saw, Maggie wore a white blouse underneath her vest. If Maggie had been large busted, the Pegasus would have looked suggestive. On her, with that blouse, it looked natural.
She followed my gaze to her chest and blushed. “Um, what-what can I get you?” she stammered.
“Did you do that?” I asked, pointing to the embroidery.
She looked down again. “Oh, the embroidery!” She shrugged, blushing. “Yeah. It kills time.”
“Very nice.” I asked for a beer and a sandwich. She returned quickly with both then hurried off to answer a call from another table.
As I ate, I wondered about her. I’d originally thought her to be in her late twenties. Fine lines around her eyes said otherwise. Beneath her eyes, her skin was slightly pouched and darkened, as if she hadn’t had enough sleep.
She wore a light perfume, lavender, lemon and something else. It was a refreshing change from the cloying scents of the ‘fashionable’.
I watched Maggie serve customers. She traded remarks with one raucous group, making them laugh. She laid a hand on the shoulder of a solitary patron. From where I sat, I could see their expressions. Pain dominated, with sympathy from Maggie and gratitude from the patron. He patted her hand and gave a wan smile. I watched as her denim-clad derriere swung deftly out of the way of a questing hand. The owner of the hand complained loudly. Maggie ignored him.
My view was blocked as several people came in at once, and then she was in front of me. She had a beer in one hand and a huge coffee mug in the other.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked. From her expression, I think she was expecting a refusal.
It surprised me. “Sure, have a seat.”
She sat down, putting the beer in front of me and cradling the coffee mug. “Thanks. I hate having my breaks alone in the back.”
“Why me?” I blurted out.
She looked confused for a second and then grinned. “You mean, other than the fact that you’re still sober?” She tipped her head thoughtfully. “Anyone who spends the better part of half an hour watching me either needs new glasses or a friend.” She sat back a bit, starting to relax. “And I was curious as to which one it was.”
“I suppose I could use both,” I admitted.
Maggie’s warm, welcoming smile returned. “Done.”
I studied the stranger sitting at the other side of the table. I knew what he would see, red hair and brown eyes on a skinny woman on the wrong side of forty.
I saw a man with sharp, hazel eyes. I don’t think he missed much. He was almost six feet tall, I guessed, with dark hair cut shorter than was currently fashionable. Crisp blue jeans and a beige work-shirt that almost exactly matched his skin gave me the impression of ‘institutionalized homogenization’. Either he was more timid than he appeared or he’d been recently released from prison, not that either really mattered to me.
I think what caught my eye was his aura of strength. Not just physical strength, but strength of character, too. There was something about him…
I don’t know how long we sat, just staring at each other, but when I realized it, I could feel the heat of embarrassment creep up my face. I don’t normally gawp at men, no matter how interesting I find them.
His eyes twinkled as he watched me.
“So,” I finally managed to stammer, “You have a name?”
He nodded. “My name’s Nick.” He looked around. “Nice place you have here.”
I tried to see the pub through a newcomer’s eyes. Everything was done in solid oak, deep blues, dark greens. A circular bar with a solid wall bisecting it, divided the games room from the dining area. A pocket-sized dance floor and the kitchen and storage areas, hidden from sight, finished the circle.
I don’t remember much of what Nick and I talked about. It wasn’t really important, but it was fun.
“Maggie!” a voice bellowed. It was Tony, the boss, reminding me of the time.
I scrambled to my feet and Nick rose as well.
“I should be going, too,” he said. “Later, Maggie.” Then he was gone, two bills and the empty beer glass on the table as the only indication that he’d ever existed. His abrupt departure hurt.
For a long while, I was too busy to think, but Tony had noticed a change in me.
“You like him, don’t you?” he asked during a brief lull. There was no need to ask who ‘him’ was.
I frowned thoughtfully. “He seems nice enough, Tony. He’s fun to talk to, but…” I shook my head. “Not that it matters. He was just… being kind.” I shrugged and moved away. I wasn’t sure I wanted to talk about Nick.
“Just be careful, Maggie,” Tony’s soft voice cautioned. “He’ll be back, you know. I recognize the look.”
I didn’t believe Tony, but there wasn’t much point in arguing about it. ‘See you later’ didn’t always mean what it implied, I’d discovered.
The door opened as Tony and I were finishing the last of the cleanup. Nick walked in, stopping when he saw me. My pleasure, I’m sure, showed on my face, but it died when I saw the expression on his face.
Tony took the dish tray from me and nudged me toward the door. “I’ll finish up,” he said. “Just remember what I said.”
The snow that had started that afternoon hadn’t been obliterated by the traffic. We walked through a silent, almost magical world. The sodium street lights gave everything a warm, yellow glow, the few cars at that hour a low hiss beside us. Unlike before, we didn’t speak.
“Maggie, Tony’s right. He warned you against me, didn’t he? I saw the look he gave you.” Nick said abruptly, bitterly. “I’m no good for you. I’ve spent the last ten years in jail.”
I shrugged. “Tony worries about everyone, Nick. I’m used to it. Neither one of you has told me anything I haven’t already noticed myself. Except for the part about you being no good, of course.”
That seemed to anger Nick. He grabbed me by the shoulders and spun me to face him. “So I’m not good enough for you. I’ve got one helluva temper I can’t always control. I’ll hurt you.”
I smiled, then, suddenly feeling safe, and thinking perhaps I’d suddenly gone crazy.
“It’s not funny.” He gave me another shake to emphasize his warning.
“Nick,” I put my hands on his arms. “Nick, I know you’ve just been released. The outfit’s standard issue, isn’t it? I’m not afraid of you, you know. I trust you. If I didn’t, you’d still be sitting by yourself.”
His hands dropped away and he stepped back. “You knew?”
I shrugged. “Well, I’d guessed, anyway.”
His expression changed, closed up. His chin rose defiantly. “I don’t need your pity,” he snapped, and walked away.
“Pity!” I squawked in my astonishment. I caught up to him and yanked at his arm, demanding his attention. “Pity? You think I feel sorry for you? You make me feel a lot of things, buster, but that ain’t one of them.”
Nick was easily six inches taller and twice my weight, but that didn’t stop me from jabbing my finger into his chest to make my points. “You’ve got a lot to learn about me, boyo. For starters, I never feel sorry for any one. It’s a waste of time. Secondly, you’ve got a sense of humor that isn’t based on bodily functions or hurtful remarks. It’s a bloody rarity and I like it. And I need a friend just as much as you do, so quit being such a chickenshit. Are we going to be friends or not?” I glared up at him, angrily brushing my tears away with a coat sleeve. “Isn’t that why you came back?” The last sounded lost, even to me, and I blushed, but didn’t look away.
Nick searched my face for a long while. Finally, after an eternity, he inclined his head in solemn agreement. “Friends.”