Amy was talking again. Wade tried to ignore her as the bartender brought him another sweating glass of Coors to go with his whiskey and water. The bar was almost empty, no surprise for a Wednesday night. On a Friday, soldiers from Fort Stewart and college kids would be swarming the glossy bar like flies. Tonight, Wade and his wife had the place to themselves. Except that fellow in the corner. Except him.
“Don’t you always tell the boys nothing good happens after midnight. That’s good advice.” Amy said. She tugged at the edge of her shirt where it had ridden up over the roll of fat that snugged around her waist.
Wade hated when she did that. If she wanted to be a goddamn fat-ass at least she could buy shirts that fit. Then he wouldn’t have to watch her fiddle with her clothes all the time.
“If your gonna quote me get it right. I always say nothing good happens after two AM. That’s last call. Its quarter till one.” Wade said, “And leave your damn shirt alone, every time you yank it down half your udders fall out.”
Amy blushed. She had been in the act. For a moment she looked like the girl she had been, six years and forty pounds ago.
“Please keep your voice down you’re embarrassing me.” Amy said.
“Nobody is looking at you.” Wade said. He threw a look back at the man seated in the dim light of the corner table. He was reading a paperback. A soldier dick by the look of him. Grey streaked the tight haircut at the temples, but he still looked hard. He was swirling some tan drink with a black straw as he read.
Wade executed the last of his whiskey and called for another. Going to ride it tonight. Ride it all the way home. I am not listening to the nag tonight. You don’t want to get in the way of this ride woman, I swear you do not.
Black thoughts. Of endless days crouched over hot asphalt. Racing time running sidewalk concrete, back bent. You could feel it going day by day. Your posture slumping. You settled more and more into the chair each night as your medicinal beer layered slabs of gut, puckered shame, over the man you once were. All because some cow had never heard of the goddamn pill.
Amy was watching him. Her eyes tightened at the corners as if she could see the dark shift of his thoughts. Working up the courage to try again. To try and get him home.
Wade watched with disgust as she changed her posture on the stool. Assuming what she thought was an alluring pose. Shoulder up, head tilted, a decayed Marilyn Monroe with vomit on her shirt.
“Josh will be asleep, we could have some fun…you know, if it was quiet.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. Her nails were cut short, the cuticles ragged.
Wade leaned close. “You got puke on your shirt.”
She jerked back her hand as if burned. “Please Wade just come home.” Now she spoke with the clipped annoyance of a mother to a stubborn child. “You have work, the kids have school. Harris will fire you if you’re late again.”
Whap. A meaty sound, loud in the anonymous white noise of the bar.
His hand print stood out livid on Amy’s face. Index finger and the curve of his palm just to the right of her nose. Her mouth was swelling already. She sucked in air to douse her sobs.
Wade looked hard at the bartender. A young man absorbed in a phone so large it was almost a television, the ghost of a smile on his lips. Another look over his shoulder at the paperback soldier. His eyes were on the page, his posture casual.
Wade snorted and took a pull from his medicine, avoiding Amy’s face. She would be feeling sorry for herself now.
“You don’t talk about my business, you got that? The day you get a job is the day you can run your mouth about one.” He tried not to see her, but her ghost stared at him from the bottles that backed the bar. A transparent Amy, shaking hand, stutter-covering her face, mouth working. “Get a cab.” Wade said.
Amy stood. Wade did not look at her. It had never gone this far, and he was afraid. He felt something stiff in her stance. Something that once seen would tip the ugly boat they rode together out of balance. She wanted him to look at her. He would not.
Her steps had a stalking quality. Clipped and brisk as she crossed the wooden floor and out into the humid Georgia night. Her footsteps were enveloped and lost, in the churning of insects and sigh of the passing river.
Wade ordered up and drank down. Riding it tonight. Sometimes you just had to go for the ride and consequences be damned. Maybe he would be late. Maybe that balding paper pusher Harris would fire him. Maybe Amy would get a lawyer. Didn’t matter right now.
As last call approached Wade reached for his wallet and slapped nothing but meat through his back pocket. After a quick frisk and a slurry look around his bar-stool he stared dumb stung at the puddle of condensation in front of him. He thought he might end up in jail tonight. No wallet, no money for the tab, and something dark moving just behind his eyes.
A hand on his shoulder startled him. The hand was heavy and rough, and he squeaked a little to his shame. Anger rebounded to quench the slip.
“What the fuck?” Wade said meaning to sound pissed off, but only sounding pissed. The words came thick and slow. The hand lifted.
The paperback soldier towered over him. His polo shirt was tucked into his belted tan trousers. His belly flat and his brow furrowed in concern.
“Excuse me Sir, I noticed you looking for something,” he said.
Wade’s head swam. “Yeah.”
“Well Sir, if it is your wallet, I think I can save you the time. The lady that was here with you left with it, your keys as well if I’m not mistaken. She scooped them up off the bar before she left.”
“She what?” it was an effort to wrap his soaked mind around this intelligence.
“I thought she was your wife, so I didn’t say anything.”
“That bitch.” Wade said. It sounded lame and ineffectual, so he repeated it with more force.
“Left you high and dry huh?”
Wade came clearer. She took his wallet. She took the car. He remembered with unease at the feeling of her standing beside him. As if some new realization of herself had been born under the rising swell of her busted lip. Some picture of Amy that Wade would have to put down hard.
These thoughts came slow and throbbing. They moved Wade toward something that lay in the shadowed under-place of his thoughts. A basement room where you say the things that cant be said in the light. Where you think of things that thrive in darkness. A fist clenching place. A skin twisting place. Hard cement workers hands around a fleshy throat. Recrimination throttled.
“Last Call guys can I get you anything before I close out.” the bartender said, smiling at his only customers.
“I have both tabs. One more of whatever he is having, and a cup of coffee for me, I have a long drive tonight.”
The soldier plunked down a hundred on the bar and sat down next to Wade.
Wade looked up at the stranger. “Thanks pal, mighty white of ya.”
“Names Neil.” He offered his hand and Wade took it.
Drinks and coffee appeared before them and the hundred vanished. Waving off the change Neil pushed the beer and whiskey Wade’s way. There was an odd shake to his hand as he shoved the booze. So slight that Wade might have imagined it. He knocked down the whiskey fast, as if worried this Samaritan might change his mind.
“I guess you’re going to need a ride.” Neil said. “You live in Savannah?”
“Ten minutes from here.” Wade said. Some native mistrust seeped out around the edges of his words. He looked slanted at Neil trying to gauge him. Neil sipped his coffee and seemed unaware or unfazed by this scrutiny. “You always so nice to strangers?”
“No, not always.” Neil said. “But If you don’t mind my saying so, I think you and I have a lot in common.”
“Yeah?” Wade snorted a bitter laugh. “Might as well be twins.” A wash of envy prickled Wade, beads of sweat appeared like magic. Neil and his clean hands and taut body. He did not stink of whiskey and sweat. He was compact. Nothing sticking out where it shouldn’t. No bad behavior, or shirt tail. No missing keys and old age with nothing to show for it. If he thought buying a beer and a shot was a free ticket to mock Wade Cranshaw he had another thing coming.
“I’m not making fun.” Neil said, as if reading his mind. “Come on, my truck is close.”
Wade followed the bigger man out into the night with a sort of dream like care. His equilibrium tinted a warm whiskey brown that threatened to tip the ground to strange angles without warning. “Damn,” he said. “That last shot was a doozie.”
Neil threw an arm around his waist, and just in time. Wade’s legs did not seem inclined to cooperate with one another and without the support he would have been on his ass on the rough cobble stones that paved the river-walk.
The two men passed through the steep alley that lead up from the waterfront bars and restaurants to a five-dollar parking lot manned by an ancient fellow with skin like parchment. The attendant watched them with a knowing smirk that tempted Wade to violence.
“Whatcha looking at old timer.” he tried to say. But the words fell a meaningless jumble from his numb lips.
A moment later he was being hoisted up like a sack of potatoes into an old Ford. The upholstery was cracked, and the dashboard split from the sun. In some hazy way he was surprised that neat and tidy Neil would drive a beater like this. Some deep alarm sounded at this thought but could not rise to the surface for examination. There were too many layers of booze between it and Wade’s consciousness.
The motor stuttered to life. “Here we go.” Neil said.
“Going the wrong way.” Wade tried to say. He slipped sideways from himself and collapsed into darkness.
Whap. Rosy sting to his cheek told him that he had been hit. Wade tried to lever his eyes open but they would not go. The next slap came with enough force to almost unhinge his jaw. He heard a squeak and a sob. Could that have been him?
“Wake up tough guy.” The voice broke through the last of his fog. That voice was a toneless music of finality.
Wade eyes opened. It was dead quiet on a stretch of road he did not recognize. The shoulder was overgrown, and his ass was wet from the dew. On his side of the road the dark shadows of trees, on the other intermittent starlight peaked from low clouds that spoke of rain just passed. Or perhaps rain to come.
His limbs were numb and useless, his memory full of holes. Amy’s reflection in the liquor bottles. His palm print on her face. Stolen keys.
“You drugged me.” Wade said.
“Rohipnol, commonly known as the date rape drug.” Neil said in that flat merciless voice.
“You some kind sicko fagot? You try anything and I’ll…” Wade looked up at Neil who stood monolithic and still against the sky. “What do you want? You know I don’t have any fucking money, the bitch took my wallet and keys.”
Neil’s hand came up. The lead color and blocked shape of a hand gun nailed its import through Wade. “Now that’s the kind of talk that got you here in the first place. Bitch? She is the mother of your children, two boys. She watched you drink your life away and wiped your ass and cleaned up your vomit along the way.”
Anger got the better of Wade’s fear. “What you gonna do with that? Shoot me? Well go ahead put me out of my misery. What do you know about it GI Joe? You have a wife? She probably brags to all her friends about her husband the fucking hero. Does she salute before she sucks you off? You think you’re better than me? Try a mile in my moccasins pal.” he sputtered out breathing hard from the exertion of speaking. His mind was coming clearer. There was some vague thought of playing for time. Maybe if he could get some of the use of his body back he could get away from this nutcase. But that gun. Why the gun?
The gun lowered. “I understand more than you think.” Neil said. “You see, I am an alcoholic, just like you Wade. And just like you I have a wife that put up with me while I sank down into the pit you are wallowing in right now. I got sober.”
“Oh Yeah?” Wade said. “Looked like you were enjoying your Long Island Ice Tea in the back of that bar. You fall off the wagon?”
“Sorry friend. That was just sweet tea. I have never let a drop of the devil pass my lips since the night I lifted my hand. Since the night I crossed the line.”
“So what? You gonna scare me straight or something? This supposed to be my wake-up call. Fine, thanks a lot for saving me from myself.” Sweat jumped out of the pores on Wade’s face. His mouth watered like a geyser. “Fuck, I think I’m gonna be sick.” Wade rolled to his side and retched. A viscous gray streamer connected his mouth to the gravel shoulder, but the real payload stayed down. He could feel it squatting down there in his guts, an evil poison mixed from the booze and the Micky Finn this lunatic had slipped him.
“That’s not why we are here Wade.” Neil hunkered down. “You see, I tried the twelve step programs. I don’t blame AA, it works for a lot of people. I could never quite get behind the higher power aspect. I have been going to church my whole life, still do, but I never felt God there. Never felt him in Iraq or Afghanistan. Never noticed him while I drank myself towards a shameful end. Rotting away in front of my family and friends, a pale shadow of the man I could have been.”
“What’s it got to do with me?” Wade said. His nausea had settled to a dull throb. “You got me out here with a gun. What the fuck are we doing here?”
Neil stood up over Wade. “For all of us there is a monster at the bottom of a bottle. You never know which one it is. Some of us blow through thousands of bottles before we find the one with the infection. The one with the monster.” Neil spoke in clipped tones. The gun hanging down at his side. He stared across the empty green fields, becoming more visible as the night waned to twilight.
“I get it.” Wade said, levering himself up to his knees. Pain knifed through his head like white light. “You saw me give my old lady a smack. You want me to see what slippery fucking slope I’m on or whatever. Message received. I’ll uh…I’ll get to a meeting tomorrow as soon as I’ve slept this off.”
Neil was quiet and did not move. Wade moved to stand.
The gun came up sharp, a foot from Wade’s sweating forehead.
“What do you want?” Wade said, a little squeal peaked through his shout. “What? I get it don’t let the fucking monster out. I won’t.” Wade had his hands up now. The gravel was grinding through his jeans, his knees felt like hamburger.
“The monster is already out Wade. You let him out when you hit her tonight. Seven years ago, I did the same thing.”
“You changed, look at you. Give me a chance I can change too.”
“This was never about you.” This came out low and dangerous. “The monster won’t go back into the bottle. Once he is out there are only two options. Feed him or bury him. He wants to hurt, he wants to hit. He wants to kill.”
“What the fuck are you talking about. I don’t want to kill anybody. I would never hurt Amy. I just lost my temper for one second.” Wade said.
“Wrong, you have already decided. There is no going back. You did it in your mind tonight. Now all it takes is the right circumstances. Losing your job. She wrecks the car. Could be anything. You will beat her. Each time this happens the beast will try and take her life. It wants to feed.”
“You’re fucking crazy. You think I’m the only one ever hit his wife? That doesn’t mean I’m going to kill her.” Wade worked through his muddy thoughts desperate for some argument that would get this maniac to lower the gun.
“This isn’t about you Wade. I know myself. I am… infected.” Neil pronounced this last word with an eerie, clipped, precision. “My monster wants me to hurt my wife and my children. Even without the drinking, it has never gone away.”
“That’s not alcoholism, that’s called being fucking insane. You need help uh… Neil, yeah. You need a damn doctor. That’s why AA didn’t work for you. They got drugs for this shit man, anti-psychotics and all kinds of shit. Come on. Let’s go to the hospital. You won’t even get in trouble. You been to Afghanistan and all that. You probably have PTSD and…” Wade trailed off. It sounded lame.
“Seven years ago, I learned. You see Wade this is my anniversary. Seven years sober. Not exactly tonight but close enough. Every year this time I spend my nights at the bars and find another monster like myself. I was lucky enough to see yours born right before my eyes. Monsters have to be fed or buried.”
“Wait just a….”
It was not so much a sound as a color. Wade was laying sideways. White light washed everything away.
Neil walked to the truck and lifted a shovel from the back.
Fed. Time to bury.