It was cold that night but it was the wind that bit. The wind and the wetness that would sneak into your socks despite waterproof boots. I could smell the snow and the cold and could feel my nose hairs freeze and threaten a sneeze every time I breathed in and I burrowed deeper into my coat and scarf. I felt like an old fashioned sailor in some artic port. I don’t know why. Perhaps because the St. Lawrence River sends sea smells throughout the city or maybe it was just my general love of the sea. Perhaps it was just the beer sending odd and rambling thoughts through my mind.

We opened the door to the bar and stood a moment to let our eyes get used to the grimy light and to kick the snow from our boots and I noticed again that one of my socks was wet and I knew it would spread to my boot and it wouldn’t be dry till morning. We sat at the bar and ordered our beer. Never as good as a whiskey on such a cold night but good and sweet all the same and it didn’t cost so much. We let ourselves relax a little and thaw a little and I looked around the bar. A table of four Inuit women was our only company. They sat quietly at their table drinking their beer and talking only a little and I could smell their cigarettes and I could smell old ones too, ones that had been stomped out years ago and I thought how that smell always made me think of my father. The smell of stale beer just made me thirsty and I thought this was another thought best kept to myself. I watched the bar through the mirror behind the bar but there was nothing to watch but empty tables spread far apart so absent people would mind their own and the quiet jukebox in the corner with its Creedence and Cocker and Cooke.

Cedric tensed and I felt the wind and heard the door bang shut. A man walked past us and into the back of the bar and stood waiting, anxious and nervous. We didn’t watch him but we could hear his feet as he paced, hiding in the back though everyone knew what was happening. I heard the women talking and could feel their eyes on us. Cedric was watching them in the mirror but looked away quickly. We looked out the front window, silently wondering when we would progress across the street to a bar just as empty and just as cheap but darker and easier on the eyes. And Maureen was there. She was nice to talk to when she wasn’t too drunk and knew you weren’t a customer.

A second man came through the door and went straight to the back. Also anxious and nervous but somehow more hostile, his posture more aggressive and more suspicious. I could smell his hate and it scared me but when he looked at us in the mirror I looked back at him, let my eyes linger. In the back the two men did their business and went back outside, letting the cold air in one more time.

The women were getting louder and I watched them from the mirror. I recognized two of them, they had asked for dances and money before and I knew they wouldn’t remember us and that they would try their luck again. They saw me watching and smiled their crooked and beaten smiles. I nodded back. The looked at us and talked to each other and I wondered what they were saying. I wondered were they laughing at us. I watched their creased smiles crack their faces wide open but not much sound would come out, soft chuckling and the occasional cackle. I saw the bottles on their table were all empty.

One of them went over to the jukebox and started flipping the pages. The barman watched her for a minute and ambled over to put quarters in the machine. An eighties power ballad came on and she started dancing on the empty floor by the jukebox. Swaying and grinding and rolling her arms over her head, I wondered if she was too drunk to hear the beat or just didn’t care. She was short and thick and I thought she was built like a stuffed bear that had been beaten shapeless and hard. I went back to my beer.

A second woman got up from the table and came and sat next to Cedric. She asked us for a beer but we said no, both times. She left us alone and Cedric and I started talking. The music made the bar feel less empty. They women were trying their luck with the barman and I wondered did it ever work. Not that we had seen. He needed money like they need beer.

I looked again and all four women were dancing. Two were dancing with each other for laughs, being fake sexy, I wasn’t sure but I thought one was trying to be sexy for the barman. They sure had energy. The next song was a rock song and they were jumping and throwing themselves into the dance. We went back to talking and looking outside at the cold and we could hear them laughing behind us. Giggles and cackles and shuffles on the floor.

I heard a scream but didn’t think it would be much. A joke maybe. It wasn’t. One woman was bleeding, facing the others, fists at her side. I held my bottle tight and watched as the three women attacked the one. It wasn’t a play fight, wasn’t soft or friendly but hard and fast and painful and the woman was down and beaten by her friends and they didn’t stop. She was screaming as they kicked her in the ribs and pulled at her hair and scratched at her face.

No one did anything. Not Cedric, not the barman, not me. They kept beating on her. She tried to fight back but didn’t get anywhere, they slapped her away and I could tell she was weak from being hit. One of the three went through the beaten woman’s pockets. They kept kicking at her as they stole her money. The woman with the money went to the bar and ordered. The two helped their friend up and they went back to their table, laughing. The beaten woman laughing hardest of all. Giggles and cackles and the raising of glasses.

I didn’t understand it but thought maybe it wasn’t my place to.

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About Michael Caleb Tasker

Michael Caleb Tasker was born in Montreal, Canada in 1980 and spent his childhood in Montreal, New Orleans and Buenos Aires. He began his university education at the University of New Orleans, studying classical music and has worked as an actor, house painter, ranch hand and as a staff writer for Look, the Australian fine arts magazine. He has been published in numerous literary journals including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Shenandoah, The New Ohio Review and was runner-up in the 2014 John Steinbeck award for short fiction.