“That’s your third scotch.”
“Yeah? What of it?” The man loosened his black tie and downed half the drink. There’d be no ice in the next one.
“Nothing, I guess. You just seemed bothered by something.”
“What the hell do you know?” He stood and stripped off his stiff, black suit jacket, then shook his near empty glass at a harried looking waitress passing by. She thought she was having a rough day? She should try being stuffed in a wool cage on a one-hundred-degree day. Christ, the majority of Americans had become sniveling wimps.
“It was a nice service.”
“Waste of time and money, you ask me. Dead is dead.” He drained his drink, sucked an ice cube clean then pushed the glass to the edge of the table in hopes his scrawny waitress would get the hint. “All the bullshit pomp and circumstance in the world ain’t gonna bring ‘em back.”
“I don’t believe that’s the point of a funeral. It’s so the living can honor the memory of the deceased, and maybe have some closure.”
“Buncha bullshit.” He grabbed the waitress’s wrist as she passed by. The drinks on her tray sloshed over their sides at her abrupt stop. Her wrist was skeletal in his grasp. She gave him a forced polite smile, a smile he was well acquainted with thanks to his ex-wife. “What I gotta do to get another.”
“Coming up, sir. And please let go of me.” She twisted her wrist away out of his grasp.
She scurried to the next table, looking back twice at him. With her hoity-toity tone of voice, she’d probably be heading to the manager next.
“Looks like a goddamned starved mouse, she should be grateful a man touched her.” Back in the day, women had done themselves up right. Hair perfect, make-up spot on and curves in all the right places. Now days, they all looked like they rolled out of bed and went out into the world. And most of ‘em were either fat or skinny.
“A lot of people showed up today. A lot of people from the past.”
“Yeah, coming to gloat at the tragedy of it all. Can’t believe how many dumb shits from high school came. It’s been sixteen years.” The man shook his head, high school had been his time. Where had the time gone? Where had that cocky, world-by-the-balls boy gone?
“Do you remember that time you super glued shut all the doors to the student bathrooms?”
He hooted a laugh. “Damned right I do. There was a line of kids out the teacher’s lounge all day. Never got caught for that one.”
“What about when you put Ex-Lax in those chocolate chip cookies in Home Ec.?”
“Ha! That was an all timer! I did get caught for that one, but seeing all those prima donna, snot nosed shits running in the hallways grabbing their asses was well worth the suspension.” The waitress whizzed by, delivering his drink without pause or word. Bitch.
“One kid didn’t make it to the bathroom on time."
He shrugged, sipped. “Everyone went through shit like that in high school.”
And suddenly the man could picture the kid just as vividly as the glass of scotch in front of him. He was a sophomore, a tall thin kid, sitting on the hallway floor, back pressed to the lockers, head pressed to his bent knees trying to hide tears of embarrassment, as cramps caused his body to jerk and an odor thick enough to be visible spread around him in a widening circle.
He felt his smile falter and sipped again.
“Just the price of admission,” he added, then paused, “You were there?”
“I was. You met Judith in high school.”
“Christ, let’s not bring the ex up. Not tonight.” He felt a burn in his chest that didn’t come from the scotch. A small ember of resentment and jealousy he’d thought he’d pissed on and put out years ago. He hadn’t seen her for seven years, ever since the divorce was final. Seven years had not been long enough.
“Why not? Tonight seems an appropriate time to meander down memory lane, don’t you think?”
“Screw that. Memory lane is paved with bullshit and I’ve walked in it enough.” He raised his glass to the waitress. His tongue felt thick, clumsy but his mind seemed as clear as it had hours ago standing in front of an overpriced glossy white coffin, his ex-wife clinging to the arm of some snobby looking rich guy being comforted by every Tom, Dick and Harry within a hundred mile radius while he stood alone under the stingy shade of a pine tree. “The bitch left me, I won’t waste any more time on her.”
“Why did she leave?”
“Cause she’s too dumb to know a good thing when she had it.” The image of her, dressed in head to toe black, face as pale as the coffin being lowered into the ground, refused to leave him. She was still thin, but the aura of frail stupidity was gone and an uncomfortable essence of strength had come off her in waves.
“It had nothing to do with that night?”
“What night?” He had treated her good. Refused to let her work so she could look after the home. He’d worked his ass off in a job he hated, for a company he hated more, to put a roof over her and . . . to put a roof over their heads and food on the table. So what if he demanded a little respect? It was owed to him. His father had taught him that.
“Ah, right. I’m sure there were few. What about the night Phillip was conceived?”
“Prom night.” He looked up from the amber glow of his drink and smiled. “That was a good night.”
“She said no.”
“She- “ The smile fell off his face like someone had cut its string. Spiny tingles dance on his tongue. “What? No, no. It wasn’t like that. They all said no back then. It was part of the game.”
“Really? Then why was she crying?”
Rain had been streaming out of the sky that night. Had it been the car windows covered in rivulets, or her face? Maybe she’d got caught out in the shit. He’d drank half a fifth of Jack Daniels, the memory was blurred now, much like the condensation covered widows had been then.
“How did you know that?”
“I was there.”
“I woulda noticed you.”
“It doesn’t matter. But what about that last night? The night she left?”
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I don’t even know you, do I?”
“What did you say to her, that last night?”
“Nothing more than she deserved to hear.” He could remember her face, going rigid as the words left his lips. Even then, the strength had been there, with her, in her and he had hated her even more for showing him she was not broken.
“Didn’t you say she was an ugly waste of flesh that had only managed to give you one piece of shit son? Isn’t that the reason she left? She could handle your bile, but didn’t want it spilling over to Phillip.”
“You were there? How? How could you have been there?” The man shook his head, he needed to slow down on the drinks.
“I’ve always been here, you just never noticed me.”
“She tried to keep Phillip from me. She wanted to turn him into a weak ass pansy like every other kid. But I fought her, my son was going to grow up to be a man. Not some snot nosed wuss that needed to talk about feelings and shit.”
He had fought her tooth and nail, wasting dollar after dollar on stupid attorneys that advised him it was best to just let it go. Told him that ninety-nine percent of the time the courts awarded in the mother’s favor, no matter how unsuitable they were.
“How did that work out for you?”
“The bitch didn’t ask for a thing, just sole custody. Like she was too good for my money, after all that time. She had no trouble spending it while we were married. And she got it too. Sole custody. Fucking bleeding-heart judge. After all the money I spent, I ended up with every other weekend visits with my own kid.”
“Weekends you spent trying to make a man out of him.”
“Someone had to! He was a momma’s boy. So soft, so weak, just like her. But we had some good times.”
“Like the weekend pitching sessions?”
“Yes! God, that kid had an arm.”
“You made him throw what? Two hundred, three hundred pitches a day?”
“He wanted to do it. He loved it! Yeah, he’d whine a little bit but once I got through to him, there was no stopping him.” Phillips face would be beet red, wet with sweat, stopping to ask every few pitches, ‘Hey Dad, can we take a break?’ ‘Hey Dad, can we get a drink?’, but Phillip always pushed through, got the job done. In the end, wasn’t that what it was all about? Getting the job done?
“Sometimes he couldn’t move his are the next day, but ten or twelve Advil and he’d be back at it with a little four-letter encouragement from you.”
“I had to make him understand, nothing in the world is given. Nothing! He couldn’t be soft in a world this hard.” Sometimes there had been tears of frustration, even anger but it was his job as a father, to wring out the sweetness before the world got to him, right? Hadn’t that been his father’s way? Hadn’t he turned out to be a man no one messed with?
The memory, once a nugget of joy in the deepest part of him now lay like a mummified corpse, dusty and fragile, hollow where there had once been substance.
“How did that work out for you? For all of you?”
“I don’t know you. Why are you doing this? Bringing all this stuff up?” The waitress walked by, giving him a look like he was a slug she’d found in her sandwich. He shoved his glass to the edge of the table, ignoring the spin in his head, the fumble of his fingers.
“Because it’s time. Now tell me, how did that work out for you?”
“Phillip told his mother he didn’t want to come over anymore.” After all he’d done for the little bastard, Phillip had shown his father respect by trying to sever their relationship. No doubt so he could spend more time with his new weak chinned but rich step-father.
“And Judith valiantly went back to court to try to save her son.”
“I had rights! The courts agreed. Even she couldn’t take those away. It’s a father’s right to raise his son as he sees fit.” Phillip had tried to throw him away like a used rubber but he hadn’t let that happen. No way in hell he’d have let that happen.
“So, every weekend, he came over and suffered through your paternal lessons. Lessons passed down from one great man to another. You held it against him, didn’t you? That Phillip went to his mother for help? The pitching sessions became longer, the chores became harder, the swats to the back of his head became more frequent, didn’t they? Maybe even moved to the casual punch to the stomach or slap to the face? Not hard, just enough to wake him up, show him who was boss, right?”
“No!” He paused, thinking hard, thinking down dark and twisted roads he had never traveled. “Maybe, but I did it for him. For love. I wanted him to have a better life than me. To be better than me.” Most of the time he believed it. But more often, in the dark of night, lying in a bed that smelled of equal parts despair and stale scotch, he knew the truth of the matter. His son was already a better man than he would ever be. The father was a burden to the son.
“Then you found the journal, and you realized he was never going to be the man you wanted him to be and you lost it.”
“I don’t understand how you can know all this,” he whispered staring down at the dark wood table top. Remembering that terrible night made his chest seize up, an overwhelming wave of nausea swept over him. It took conscience effort to suck air into his lungs.
“Do you even remember what you said that night? What you did?”
“No.” It wasn’t a complete lie. The rage had been white hot and all-consuming, like a car barreling down on him in the pitch black. And he hadn’t been able to get out of the way. There was no room for thought, in an anger like that. No room for understanding. He knew, deep in his core, down in the rotting cesspool that had once been his soul, there was no coming back from the things he had said that night. “I can’t know. I don’t want to know.”
“You don’t get a choice. What you don’t remember, I’ll make up. I’m very inventive. What we do know is that whatever you said- “
“No more. Please, No more.”
“-whatever you did- “
“I can’t hear this.”
“-caused Phillip- “
“I hope you rot in hell.” He pressed his palms to his eyes and found his face wet.
“-the little boy who learned to fetch his Daddy beer at the age of three- “
“Oh God. Phillip.” He wept openly now, beyond caring if people were looking. Let them look. Let them see the visage of a man that hated himself so much he had to destroy all the good around him.
“-to hang himself from his bedroom fan.”
“Shut up!” The man hurled his now empty glass across the table, it thumped harmlessly against the red vinyl cushion and rolled to the floor and still the voice persisted.
“You were the rope. You were the fan. You. You. You.” It hissed at him now, insidious in its attention, grabbing onto every finger hold in his mind.
“Oh God, what have I done?” But he knew what he’d done. He’d snuffed out the only light he’d had in this world. Not directly, but like cutting off oxygen to a fire, he had smothered it none the less. He had ruined his boy, his one precious baby boy. His only chance.
“Please leave me, for the love of God, please leave me alone!”
“Oh no, I’m not going anywhere. We’re going to be friends for a long, long time.”
“But I don’t even know you!”
“We’ve never been formally introduced. My name is Guilt. What’s yours?”