Happy Hour

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Issue IX: Summer 2011

by Charles Geer Austin

Junior had just ordered his first beer when Bud walked into Fergie’s. Almost everyone in the construction trades in the eastern end of Chester County hung out at Fergie’s, a tavern with brewery signs in every window and a beat up parking lot out front. But Junior had never expected to see Bud there. Junior knew Bud from working construction jobs – Junior was a painter, and Bud was a bricklayer. They looked like bookends with baggy T-shirts, worn jeans, heavy boots, military haircuts and broad shoulders except Junior had a beer gut while Bud’s stomach was flat. Junior figured Bud was a teetotaler. He knew Bud prided himself on being a family man, married at 20, with four kids – a straight arrow. He and his wife centered their family life on the Baptist Church. Definitely not the Fergie’s type.

Bud ordered a Coke and stood with his back against the bar. Junior was just about to walk up and say hi when Sheri breezed by. Junior hadn’t seen Sheri in Fergie’s at least for a couple of years, though Sheri had practically lived in the place before she found Jesus. He shouted, “Hey Sheri. Let me buy your first drink back at Fergie’s. Over here, baby!”

It was happy hour on Friday night, and the place was jammed. Either Sheri didn’t hear Junior or she pretended not to hear him, because she made a beeline straight for Bud. When he saw her, his face broke into a smile as wide as kingdom come.

“Well, fuck me,” Junior said to no one in particular. He edged closer to where Sheri and Bud stood so he could catch what they were saying. It was hard to hear over the Dixie Chicks CD blasting and everyone shouting over the music, but Junior found a spot next to the person who was standing behind Sheri.

“What made you pick this place?” Sheri asked Bud.

Her hands were on her hips and her chin jutted up toward Bud’s face, quite a distance because she was only five feet tall and he was over six feet. She was small for a bricklayer, but she was good at her trade. Junior had worked with her on the addition to the post office. She had biceps just like a man, and she could heave bricks with the best of them. But, unlike the guys, she took a lot of care with her clothes, even the ones she wore on the job, and she had carefully tended long blond hair.

Bud looked at her like he wanted to gobble her up. “I thought you liked Fergie’s,” he said.

“Where you working?”

“Down at Green Fields Mall. Making almost 50 bucks an hour. They pay me by the brick. You know how fast I am.”

“Yeah Bud,” Sheri said, “You’re fast, but I’m fussy, and they pay me more where I’m working. For being perfect.”

“Where’s that you’re working?”

“On that art museum they’re building out at the university. They want bricklayers who work like artists. That’s why they picked me.”

Junior was willing to bet they were both pulling in union wages. He had never heard so much bullshit coming out of two people’s mouths at the same time.

“Yo Sheri!” Junior called out to her again.

She jerked her head around, and when she saw Junior, she said, “Hey dirtball. You’re standing in the same place as the last time I was here. You must be on your two millionth bottle of beer.”

“What’re you doing here?” Junior pushed around the guy who separated him from Sheri and Bud.

“Came to meet him,” she said, and she jerked her thumb at Bud.

“Show me your muscles,” Junior said.

“You never change.”

“Just give me a look.”

Sheri ripped off her leather jacket and posed for Junior like a bodybuilder. Then she turned around and posed for Bud. Her shoulder and arm muscles bulged and rippled. A tattoo of the Virgin Mary dressed in a blue robe poked out of her black tank top at her right shoulder. Junior thought the Blessed Mother had a fierce expression on her face, maybe because of the bunched muscles underneath, or maybe from hanging out on Sheri’s shoulder. Sheri let out a yell, “Yeah, Bud!” She slipped on her jacket, and then punched Bud in the stomach.

“Why’d you stop coming here?” Junior asked. “We all missed you.”

Sheri got an angry expression on her face. She planted her hands on her hips.

“What business is it of yours?” she asked.

“I just wondered why you finished with this place.”

“I guess I started feeling like I was some kind of back-up woman. Good old Sheri. Works with the guys and hangs out with the guys. Do her, then go back to the wife. When Bud called me, I thought, O.K., so he split with Deanna. Now he’s hitting on me.”

“I only wanted to talk,” Bud said.

“You left the wife?” Junior asked. “I thought you were some kind of born-again.”

“Just regular American Baptist,” Bud said.

“And I heard you found Jesus, Sheri, “ Junior said.

“I found Mary,” she said.

“Drinking’s against your religion, right?” Junior said.

Sheri didn’t answer for a minute. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes.

“Don’t go pushing your nose into Sheri’s business,” Bud said. He slipped his arm around her shoulder, but she shrugged it off and stepped away from him.

“You asked me here because you think you’re going to get into my pants, but you’ve got another think coming,” Sheri said. She pushed her index finger up against Bud’s head.

“Why’d you come, then?” Junior asked. “If it’s against your religion?”

Sheri closed her eyes. Her arms stiffened and spread out from her sides. Her fingers splayed at the ends. She looked like she might be getting the spirit. Junior stepped back from her and bumped against the guy behind him.

“Watch it asshole,” the guy said.

Junior stepped forward, and said, “Don’t go off on me Sheri.”

Sheri opened her eyes. “You guys are always watching me like hawks. You probably think women don’t belong in construction.”

“You’re good at your trade,” Bud said. “Nobody’s arguing that.

“But you think I should be more like your wives.” Sheri looked up at Bud. “Did Deanna get tired of slaving for you and kick you out on your ass?”

As big as he was, Bud shriveled up and looked like he was going to cry. Junior polished off the rest of his beer and edged toward the bar.

“I’m sorry,” Sheri said. “Your life is none of my business. And my life is none of yours. So I’m going to say goodnight.” She turned on her heels and ran headlong into the guy standing behind her.

“I told you asshole … Oh sorry, miss. I thought you was him.” The guy pointed at Junior.

“Don’t leave us Sheri,” Bud said. “I need to talk.”

“You want to talk? Come with me. This is no place for a conversation.”

Bud slipped on his jacket. Junior smirked as if he knew what they were up to.

“Don’t look like that Junior. You’re coming along for the ride,” Sheri said.

Junior looked down at his empty bottle of beer.

“Get yourself a six-pack, and we’ll hit the road.”

The two men stared at her.

“I’m not kidding. Buy yourself some beer and meet me out front. Don’t forget your coat. It’s a cold night for June.”

Sheri’s truck was parked out front among all the other trucks. Even though it was her work truck, it was nice and polished up, burgundy and chrome. Her name and phone number and the words “Masonry Contractor” were painted in white script with a black shadow on both doors. She sat propped up on cushions behind the wheel. Bud sat next to Sheri, and Junior rode the suicide seat.

“Where we going?” Junior asked.
“I’m taking you on a little tour,” Sheri said.

She drove down Valley Forge Road and stopped in front of the Flower Meadow Senior Housing Complex. It had looked good back in the 70s when it was first built, but since then the siding had mossed over on the north side and the shutters had lost slats.

“Hope I don’t end up in a dump like that,” Junior said.

“My mom lives there,” Sheri said. “It’s all she can afford, even with my help. I stop by a few times a week and run errands for her. Her back and feet give her so much pain. After my old man left town, she worked at Woolworth’s for 29 years to support the family. She did the best she could.”

“Judging from how you turned out, she did fine,” Bud said.

Sheri threw the truck into reverse and backed out onto Valley Forge Road. They fell silent for the time it took to backtrack to Fergie’s. Junior looked yearningly at the bar as they zoomed by.

“We’re not done yet, Junior,” Sheri said. “Just hang tight.”

Junior twisted the cap off one of his Rolling Rocks and slugged down a third of the bottle. The sky had begun to dim. He shifted the six-pack on his lap, and then eased it onto the floor between his feet. Out the window the Mobil station, the Texaco and the Sunoco flashed by in a blur of light and color. Next were the Steak ‘N Ale, the Harley shop and The Olde Towne, a shopping center designed to look like a bunch of Pennsylvania farmhouses strung together in a row. An Acme Supermarket occupied the biggest farmhouse, a Blockbuster was in the next biggest, then a florist, a dry cleaner and the like in the smaller farmhouses.

“I guess we all worked on that one,” Bud said. “You laid the brick sidewalks. Right Sheri?”

“I made good money on that job,” Sheri said.

Past the mall Sheri pulled into the parking lot of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church.

“We’re not going in there, are we?” Junior asked. “I’m not ready for that.” He crossed himself for good luck.

“This is where you found Jesus?” Bud asked. “This is what happened to you? When you stopped coming round?”

Junior looked hard at Sheri and Bud. There was something going on between them he wasn’t in on, but he was beginning to get the picture.

“This is where I take my Mom to Mass every week of my life except when I’m sick. You think I stopped hanging out because I found Jesus, but I never lost Jesus – God has always been here.” She thumped her chest. “But that church is where I found Mary.”

“Did the priest give you that tattoo on your shoulder?” Junior threw back his head and laughed.

“Just suck on that beer and keep quiet, Junior honey,” Sheri said. She eased out of St. Joseph’s parking lot and drove down Valley Forge Road to the George Washington Motor Lodge. “This is where Bud and I used to go whenever he could sneak a few minutes away from Deanna,” she said.

“So that’s what this is all about,” Junior said.

“How did I ever let you get away?” Bud said. His head slumped down on his chest.

“You’re a married man, Bud. You have four kids. Deanna’s a good woman, and I had no business trying to take you away from her. My only excuse is I loved you with all my heart.”

“What made you change?” Bud asked. “What did I do wrong?”

“One day I woke up and took a good look at the way I was living,” Sheri said. “My mind took over from my heart.” She gunned out of the George Washington parking lot, almost taking out a Mercedes that was nosing in from Valley Forge Road.

“No vacancy, asshole!” Junior shouted out the window. He threw one of his empties at the Mercedes, but it fell short and smashed on the pavement.

Sheri headed down Route 252 through Valley Forge National Park along Valley Creek. The road was wooded, and dark even though the sun hadn’t set, and curvy, and she took it fast. The truck tires squealed around the corners.

“Take it easy, Sheri,” Bud said.

“I’m sorry things are bad for you and Deanna,” Sheri almost shouted. “I always hoped you would come to me like this, but it wasn’t the path that God laid out for me.”

“God shit,” Junior said. “You just got tired of waiting.”

“You might be right,” Sheri said. She slowed down, and they passed a white clapboard covered bridge and a field where the park rangers’ horses grazed. Out of the park they had to stop at a couple of traffic lights, and then they climbed a hill past mansions and mansionettes set into yards where a weed would have a heart attack at the mere idea of putting down roots.

“What’re we doing on the fucking Main Line?” Junior asked.

“I’m going to show you Mary.”

“I thought Mary was at church,” Bud said.

“I found Mary at church, but she’s working now.” Sheri turned left onto Lancaster Avenue and then into The Spread Eagle Village. “Mary’s in there,” she said, and pointed toward the Salon D’Artiste.

“She’s getting her hair done?” Bud asked.

Junior looked at Sheri like she’d lost her mind.

“No, she’s the one who does the hair. Wait. I’ll introduce you.” Sheri pulled a cell phone out of her pocket and punched a number. After a moment, she said, “It’s me. I’m outside. Come out for a second. I want you to meet a couple of old friends.”

A very tall woman with short red hair appeared in the doorway of the salon, and for a moment a yellowish light from inside the building glowed around her body. She wore black slacks and a black T-shirt. She was laughing like someone had just told her a good joke. She paused and scanned the parking lot until she saw Sheri’s truck, then let the salon door spring shut behind her. She approached Sheri’s side of the truck, poked her head into the window and said, “Hi honey. What’re you doing here?” and pecked Sheri on the lips.

“This is Bud,” Sheri said, pointing over her shoulder.

“Oh, I see. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Mary jerked her head out of the truck. Her face clouded over. “I’ve got a client cooking under the dryer,” she said. “Got to run.”

“Hey I’m Junior. Nice to meet you.” Junior waved a bottle of Rolling Rock in Mary’s direction. “Want one?” he asked.

“No thank you,” Mary said. She looked at the truck and its occupants as if she didn’t want any part of them.

“Don’t be mad. I just wanted Bud to see you,” Sheri said.

“Well here I am,” Mary said. She waved, and ran back into the Salon D’Artiste.

“I’ll straighten her out when I get home,” Sheri said. “I think she got the wrong idea.”

“Just explain one thing,” Junior said. “You couldn’t have Bud so you went for a chick? I never figured you for a dyke.”

“Well don’t think of me that way,” Sheri said. “Look at all the parts of my life like dots. Connect the dots and there’s me. No need for a label.”

“I’m sorry about the way I treated you,” Bud said. His eyes filled with tears and spilled over.

“Shit! You’re crying,” Junior said. He pressed against the door and looked out the window.

“You’ve got to learn what I learned,” Sheri said. “When things seem most hopeless, that’s when they get better.”

Bud wiped his eyes and stared straight ahead out the front window. Nobody said anything while Sheri drove the truck down Route 252 toward Fergie’s. Night had fallen by the time they got there. Sheri parked the truck up the road from the bar. Junior hopped out and said, “See ya, I guess.” He trotted down the road toward Fergie’s, a bottle of beer in each hand. When he reached the door, he looked back at the truck. The cab light was on, and he could see Bud and Sheri’s heads. In the lit up box of the cab, they looked like people on TV. Sheri’s head shone gold in the light, upright and unyielding. Bud’s square head was slumped against the back seat. Junior guessed they would sit there for a while, and then Sheri would go home to Mary.

Originally published in The Potomac Review.

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