The first thing that stuck Darrin was the seasick smell of chowder and bar funk, the combination of cigarettes and alcohol and something distinctly sweet cutting through that made up the fetor of every bar he ever loved. He ordered a beer at the counter, slid the bartender a good tip, nodded to the guys at the end of the bar, their heads bent over a poker machine. Nothing stirred the thick smoke, no amount of hard whiskey laughter could break the gloom of the place.

Waterfront was a strange name for it. A bar with stilts plunging into the fill. The water went way up, over this spot, up the hill a little, but they moved it for the railroad, the lumber plant now mothballed, the trains that hooted and rolled all night like restless kids at a slumber party. Darrin sipped his beer, licked the suds from his lip, and stared idly at the car race on the TV. The bartender turned and glanced up, the tip of his bar towel crumpled and damp from a glass.

“That’s the thing about Bellingham. Not enough car races. I lived in Charlotte, man. Fucking car racing Mecca.”

The word “Mecca” caught the attention of the man at the end of the bar. He sat bolt upright, his hands clasped around his beer, his lean arms stretching the sleeves of his
t-shirt. Darrin nodded in his direction and turned his gaze back to the television. He could feel the man’s eyes on the bartender. The man raised his beer and paused before sipping. Darrin watched out of his periphery, his scalp tingling with warning. He took a sip of his beer and glanced down the bar. The man was still staring. The bartender leaned back, his head next to Darrin’s.

“You think that guy’s gonna give me trouble?”

Because the guy was black, Darrin hesitated. They were acting like stupid white boys. “Nah. He’s fine. Just drinking a beer like me.”

The man downed his beer and slid off the stool, unfolding all six feet four inches of himself. Darrin stared at the television with a laser beam focus. The bartender took the glass from the counter and dunked it into the soapy sink. The man paused at the door, stared at them, and said, “Watch your mouth, infidel.” And then he left.

“What the fuck?” The bartender’s face was pink. “Is he a Formula One fan or something?”

Darrin stared at the doorway, the door slamming into place. “He sure seemed mad.”

“He’s been in here a couple of times. Never tips, always stares. Never heard him speak, except to order a beer or ask for more popcorn.” Darrin nodded, and the bartender turned back to watch the race. “I’ve served a lot of freaks and weirdoes in here. Ted Bundy. Gary Ridgway. Kenneth Bianchi. They all been here. Ninety-nine victims among ‘em by my count.”

Frances Badgett

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Excerpt from “Afternoon at the Waterfront”