“I hate beer.”
That being said to no one in particular, I kiss the glass, my jaw jumping at the sharp rush of alcohol, warm and rancorous like the rampant sting of anise. I let it tear its way down my throat and frown deeply.
The pub is quieter than usual. Only a handful of umber-faced workers have washed up, sitting curled around mugs and bottles with their chins and cheeks thoroughly sunken. They pull drink after drink, staring for entire half-hours at the blanched fliers on the walls and picking at table splinters. It’s a genuine hole in the wall, but at least they don’t play that damn song here. Instead there’s this miserable, crackling blues tune limping about, and I could listen to it for days.
The bartender nods at my mug suggestively, as if I could possibly want more. I shake my palm at him and he leaves. I take another stabbing gulp, coming up for air with an arid cough.
“It’s an acquired taste,” someone says with a grand, galumphing laugh—the same laugh I heard in the factory.
A man of immense presence sidles up beside me, his face a symphony of wide and rosy features, his mouth beaming from within the bushels of his impressive beard. He swipes a flat hat off his head, freeing a light billow of pearly hair, and bows gallantly over the bar. “Name’s Sam,” his rumbles, straightening up and smiling at me with eyes the color of layered glass. “I’m new to town, and I was hoping I could join you.”
I tap the side of my mug. “If you want.”
Sam nods gratefully and settles into the next seat over, sighing with delight and flagging down the bartender. “A flask of your finest poison, please.”
“I got beer,” the tender deadpans, slamming an empty mug on the counter and sloshing it full of fulvous alcohol.
Sam just beams at him, pleasant in every sense of the word as he closes his thick and weathered fingers around the mug. “Perfect! Keep ‘em coming!”
People are starting to glance at us. I can’t help myself. “You really are new here, aren’t you?”
“Well, new to Steel River, yeah,” he says casually, sipping his beer like spring water. “I’ve been to New York before. I used to have family in Rye. Have you ever been to Rye, Miss…?”
“Constance. And no, I’ve never been to Rye.”
Sam nods at my name and bowls on. “Beautiful place—just beautiful. Real woodsy. Lots of trees. Nothing like this sad dump.” He throws a hand around the room, but I know he means the entire shipyard, metal and barren as it is. “Lots of nice houses, too. Big, beautiful houses with gardens and fountains and pools—have you ever been swimming, Constance?”
I vaguely remember the small beach off of Rogers Avenue, where I would kick around in the water for a few minutes before deciding I couldn’t stand the grimy taste. My foster parents never took us to any pools. I decide to simplify things by saying “No” and pushing back the last few swigs of my beer. I must make a decidedly unhappy face, because Sam booms with laughter.
“It’s none of my business, Miss Constance, but why are you drinking beer if you hate it so much?”
Miss? I haven’t been called Miss since the Cataclysm, when my hair was cut off and my wardrobe reduced to androgynous work clothes. Most people just shout “lad” at me. To be called Miss didn’t sound right anymore.
I lean away from the empty mug and slouch. “I don’t know. It gets the job done.” That’s what my life is about, after all. Getting the job done. Getting in line, building those yokes, accepting a few bills of cash with a shut mouth and then drowning my objections. It’s all minimal and dirty, but it gets the job done. The scraps I buy with the scraps I make keep body and soul together just a little longer—and that gets the job done.
“Aw, now, Miss Constance,” Sam croons. “You’re a tough young woman, aren’t you?”
I shake my head noncommittally. “Ten years in Steel River is enough to make anybody tough.”
A strange sort of strain seeps into Sam’s buoyant features, and for a half a second he looks remarkably grim; but it comes and goes so quickly, it may easily have been my imagination.
“Yeah, I’ll bet it is,” he says dimly. “I’ll bet it is.”
He sits through two more beers in silence.
“I don’t intend to stay here, Miss Constance,” he says eventually.
I pinch my brows at him. “You’ll be lucky if you can.”
The turnover in Steel River is a brutal thing. People pass through like clippings of dirt on the wind—deposited among the shipyards for a time, an inevitably kicked up again. ‘If you can’t keep up, then we can’t keep you’. That’s what the foreman says, and that’s what the foreman means. Anyone who can’t pull his weight is dumped way out in the Ashlands—a cold and forsaken place where no man deserves to tread. I’ve never been, myself; but the stories aren’t pretty, and I can hardly imagine a man of Sam’s caliber shuffling around out there like a shaken corpse.
“It’s all right, Miss Constance. I don’t intend to wind up in the Ashlands, either.”
This startles me out of my thoughts. Had I said something out loud? “How did you—?”
Sam laughs. “You have a very animated face, Miss Constance. …I know what happens to the folks who can’t make it here, and it doesn’t scare me. I can hold my own, don’t you worry.”
“Who says I was worried?”
He chuckles and brazenly prods his finger into my cheek. “Your face, Miss Constance. Your face. Tells everything about ya. You oughtta be more careful if you don’t want people reading you like a book.”
I buck my chin indignantly. “Keep your hands to yourself.”
Sam buries himself in his mug while I debate whether not I should just leave. It’s getting on to be eleven, and Copper will wonder where I am. I pull a ball of scrunched bills out of my jacket and smooth five bucks out on the counter. The bartender appears promptly and swipes them away, giving me a solemn nod before returning to his business.
“You heading out, Miss Constance?” Sam asks, watching me rise from the barstool.
“Yeah,” I mutter. “I got someone waiting up for me.”
Sam sighs blissfully. “Ah, well, then I won’t keep you a second longer.” He slaps his knees and leans to one side so he can grin brightly at me. “See you tomorrow, Miss Constance.”
I nod a bit awkwardly at the boisterous man I’ve just met, his pale green eyes shining brighter than the September sun. “See you tomorrow…Sam.”