Southern Exposure was nearly empty, which didn't make much sense for Saturday. Either there was a huge party somewhere or they'd hit beer while drilling on Erebus.
Karen was behind the bar. She was wearing that sheer red top and fishnet stockings. Let her hair fall in curls over her shoulders the way she does when she's hunting for tips.
I tried not to ogle the black lace bra that was obvious through the red, pulled up a stool and ordered myself a Bushmill's, neat, soda back, before she could say a word.
"Can't let ya stay unless you know Ron," Karen said, and a couple guys sitting at the round table in the corner stopped their discussion and glanced over. She took a tumbler out of the soapy water in the sink and wiped it with a wet rag.
"What's with Ron?" I asked her.
"You know him or not?" she said, all business.
"I'd really like that Bushmills," I said. It had been a tough week with Kendall all over my ass about the generator accident. If there'd been a replacement on station, I'd be dragging my shit up hill to MCC instead of sitting at the bar. Impossible to go job hunting from Antarctica and now even she was pissed at me. "Geeze, Karen. You got a heart under that skin somewhere, don't cha?"
She glanced over to the boys, then pulled a glass off the rack and dropped it in front of me.
"Say you know him," she said, lowering her voice, doing her leopard imitation, chin lowered, her irises deep black circles of soul in the dead Antarctic nothing.
Lost in those eyes I said, "Of course I know Ron. We served together on the U.S.S. Pine Island. I was radar, he was weapons. We hot bunked the same rack. We jerked off in the same towels. Married the same woman. We have the same kids. We drive the same car. Shared whores in the Philippines, whatever was left of them when he was done. Nearly had to volunteer for the chaplain's service. No woman would want me after twelve inches of good old Ron."
She nodded to the boys and poured me a Bushmills. Filled a tumbler with soda from the hose. Pulled out the pack of Marlboro Reds she knew I was going to ask for, took one out for herself and then tossed it on the bar.
I lit hers, then mine. Downed the Bushmills. Sipped the soda.
"Sounds like Ron," she said.
"You ever fuck him?"
"We're not going there," she said and she eyed a couple other ice people who walked in and sat with the boys in the corner.
"You go talk about Ron with the guys. Got a better man waiting for me tonight."
"Damn, you're cold. Can I get two more of these?" I tapped the rim of my empty glass.
"Harsh continent, lover," she said as she poured. "I know how you bastards are. You get booze and cigarettes and a bunch of you sitting around talking about pussy and a dead guy, all you need is a saxophone in the background before everything you think can't get any worse, gets a whole lot worse."
"Can't blame a guy for being a guy."
"But I don't have to take it."
She poured my drinks and turned to the other side of the bar to serve the guys waiting there. I did my best not to stare at her ass as she walked away. Didn't need that in my head right before a long day with nothing to do.
I picked up the drinks and smokes and went over to where the guys were sitting.
"Got any room?" I asked everybody there.
Charlie Jensen still had grease on his face from the generator. I handed him a Bushmills and he motioned to an open chair.
"I didn't know you knew Ron," he said.
"Old drinking buddy from Berkeley. We used to drop acid and kidnap coeds who wore makeup. We brainwashed them, made them wear Playboy bunny uniforms, and turned them into an anti-animal testing army. Bunnies for bunnies. It was Ron's idea. The all blonde mud wrestling in the Hoffman La Roche parking lot, well, they said it was me, but it was all Ron."
"Goddamned Ron," someone said.
"That son of a bitch Ron," came another voice.
"To Ron, that mother," someone said, and we all lifted our glasses and drank to him.
Kyle had been leaning his chair back against the wall. He sat forward, the front legs of his chair thumping into the floor as he came into the light and dropped his elbows on the table which tipped and nearly sent our glasses to the floor.
He said, "I remember when we were out at Marble Point in condition one. Fucking beakers working on a repeater got stuck up on Mount Voslips and their survival bag blows down the hill. So Ron fires up seventy-nine uniform. Helo lifts off in a frigging herbie. Nearly goes down three times over the Ferrar. I mean, the bastard 212 couldn't climb in that shit but you know Ron, he made it climb."
"Goddamned Ron," someone said.
We raised our glasses and drank.
"Wouldn't you know he gets those assholes off Voslips. Safety first. Lets them out while the blades are still turning, full power, because he knows he could get tipped over onto them. So they get out safe and then when he shuts down the herbie blows seventy-nine uniform over and Ron winds up with two crushed vertibra for his trouble. Think those guys gave a shit he could never fly again? Even sent a card?"
Kyle raised his glass. We followed suit. "To fucking Ron."
"Hell of a guy."
Kyle downed his whiskey. Went to the bar and Karen poured him another.
Charlie said, "And then while he's in the infirmary waiting for the storm to clear so they can airlift him to Cheech, he shows me the piece of helo blade they took out of his spine. He's going to save it to give to his kids when he gets home. But then what? He gets a Dear John e-mail from his wife. 'Dear Ron, while you've been gone I'm just too hot and there are too many guys here who want to fuck me. So please don't come home soon, because there's enough dick up here to last me forever. Love, Kathy. P.S. They told me you were paralyzed and unable to perform your connubial duties anymore so I FedEx'ed the divorce papers to the hospital in New Zealand.'"
Charlie raised his glass. "To Ron. Goddamned life saver."
"To Ron," everyone said and drank.
Karen came over with a bottle of Jack and put it on the table. "On me, for Ron," she said.
"Saved your life, too, I bet" Kelvin said.
"Made life worth living. The man was so large he rearranged my internal organs," she said, going back to the bar. None of us wanted that image in our heads so we got busy pouring the Jack while a couple more folks joined us.
Kevin said, "Remember that time the mattrack drove into a crevasse at the transition?"
We all had, but the story had to be told.
Someone added, "Because that GA with the huge tits was giving Kenny a hand job and at the ultimate moment his eyes crossed and he couldn't see the black flags and he drove right into it."
"Ron was first on the scene," Kevin said. "Got those kids out before they froze to death and what did they do?"
"They docked him a month's pay for being in a restricted area without a permit," Charlie said.
Kenny said, "And they fired him, too, like that time the diver's regulator iced at eighty feet, and Ron jumped in the hole and free dove down, got her straight, and pulled her out. Saved her sorry biology beaker ass."
"And they fired him because he wasn't a certified diver," Kyle said.
Kelly jumped in, "Well they fired him, too, for when he was out on the snow machine at Cape Evans and he passed those beakers who were broke down. And he fixed their snow machine so they could get home just before that killer storm. Fired him because he wasn't a licensed mechanic."
"To Ron," Charlie said, "Best damn diver mechanic I ever saw."
"Best man for the job," someone said as we downed our drinks.
It didn't matter who was talking anymore. At one point an FNG came in asking who Ron was, and Karen promised him a blow job if he stripped. So he did and before he knew what hit him Kevin and Kyle tackled him and chucked him in a skua dumpster out back.
"To Ron," Karen said, locking the rear door and lifting a glass of Absolut and orange juice.
I said, "Remember the time Ron went the whole season without getting laid?"
And everyone did. And everyone's faces darkened. They sunk their drinks and got up. Wobbled to the coat rack and started suiting up.
"Aww, shit, guys. I'm sorry."
Charlie put his hand on my shoulder. "Twenty two seasons for me, son," he said.
"Damn, Charlie. I'm sorry. What do I have to do?" I said, all the weight of the alcohol hitting me.
"Remember the time Ron fucked up the electronic timing on the generators and we had to do a complete overhaul? Took four days. Remember that?"
He smiled, said, "People would go to the wall for Ron. Because he was Ron."
He winked and walked away leaving just me and Karen.
It was going to be a long road if I was ever going to convince her I was sorry. I tried to look sober and alluring, strong and not pitiful while she shut off the lights. Maybe I could look like Ron looked that time she fell in love with him on the ice.