by David Pandolfe (2005)
Colin placed the last of the clean glasses onto the shelves, trying to ignore the deluge of spring rain that continued to pound the roof of his empty tavern. A bad night, definitely, when even the regulars wandered off two hours before last call. But just a bad night, he told himself, nothing more. Every business had its ups and downs.
In the dining room, Dory continued to set the tables for the next day, removing unused linens and setting out paper napkins and placemats. Every so often the ting of silver rang softly. A pleasing sound, really, like the halyards of boats rocking in the harbor across the street. He tried to think of it that way, tried to settle into the sound, rather than worry about the money he’d failed to make that night. He glanced her way but she didn’t seem aware of him as she made her way from table to table. She’d been distant all night. He opened the register and took the out the cash drawer—not a moment he was looking forward to, recording another night’s loss.
The kitchen door whacked open and Jeremy approached the bar. He didn’t say anything as Colin counted bills and slipped them into the bank pouch.
“Almost done?” Colin asked.
Colin checked his watch. “Completely? It’s ten-fifteen.”
Jeremy checked his watch too. “Right, yeah. Can’t quite get used to this hourly pay thing. I keep forgetting to milk the clock.”
Colin poured a pint of Guinness and placed it on the bar. “That’s for not milking the clock. Did you lock the back door?”
Jeremy took his denim jacket off again and pulled out a bar stool. “It’s locked. I take it this was a record for lack of business.”
“Well, not quite,” Colin said, “but close.”
Jeremy dabbed at tan foam. Apparently satisfied that the Guinness had settled sufficiently, he raised the pint to his lips and took a swallow, leaving sudsy traces in his mustache and beard.
“Who’d go out in this if they didn’t have to?” Jeremy said. “I wouldn’t worry about it—not the beginning of a trend or anything.”
Colin gave up on the change, dumped the coins into respective baggies to be counted in the morning. He carried the bank pouch back to the office. He locked the office door and crossed back through the kitchen, checking the fryers and heat lamps, just to be sure. He flicked off the kitchen lights.
At the bar, Dory had taken a seat next to Jeremy, guest checks, credit vouchers and cash laid out before her as she attempted to determine what she’d earned in tips that night. She glanced up at Colin.
“Offer me a glass of wine,” she said.
“Dory, would you care for a glass of wine?”
“That would be lovely. Thank you.” She resumed counting.
Colin took a bottle from the back bar, one of the bottles of cabernet he’d been saving. Something was bothering her that night, something more than the absence of business. She lived with her ghosts, but usually it didn’t show. But he knew all about pretending things were fine—his wife part of the past now, his brother and sister-in-law dead less than three months. Soon he’d go home to see if his nephew was still up staring blankly at MTV. Colin wondered if Michael ever slept, but who could blame him?
He opened the wine and filled a glass for Dory.
Dory continued counting, barely looked up. His best bottle and she didn’t notice. “How about I buy one for Jeremy too?” she asked.
“Not really a wine drinker,” Jeremy said.
“Funny,” Dory said. “You know what I meant.”
Jeremy nodded and studied his pint of Guinness, as if consulting it. “Right, yeah. Thanks. But I think one’s good for tonight. Rain-check, maybe?”
“Couldn’t have picked a better night to ask,” Dory said.
Jeremy drained the rest of his beer, stood and slipped back into his jacket. He pulled his bill cap from his jacket pocket and put it on. “You guys have a good night.”
“I might as well lock up behind you,” Colin said. “We’re definitely closed.”
“I should probably get going too,” Dory said. “As soon as I finish this.” She tapped at the money spread out before her.
“Take your time,” Colin said. “Not like it’s late.”
He followed Jeremy, who opened the front doors to the sound of rain slapping brick and asphalt. Jeremy trotted off toward his car and Colin secured the doors. Not wanting Dory to feel uncomfortable now that it was just the two of them there, he took his position behind the bar again.
“Not much of a night,” Colin said. He shot some soda water into a rocks glass and drank it. The soda water tasted salty and warm.
“Even so, thought I would have done better,” Dory said. “Oh well, maybe I dropped some money. Whatever.” She sealed her bag of money and slid it across the bar toward Colin. “Always tomorrow and all that.”
“How’s the wine?”
Dory took a sip, went to set the glass down, then tasted the wine again. “Really
good. What is it?”
“Chateau Montelena,” Colin said. “Thought you might like it. I haven’t actually tried it yet. Good, then?”
“Excellent. Why don’t you try it?”
“Okay, sure.” Colin poured a splash and took a sip. “You’re right, this is great.”
“Are you going to keep standing back there?”
Colin swirled his glass. “Should I put more in here? Wasn’t sure. Seemed like you were ready to go.”
“Like you said, it’s early.” Dory took another sip, paused, then drank half the glass. She closed her eyes, briefly, then leveled her gaze at Colin. “Before you sit down, how about filling this back up?”
Colin put Dory’s turn-in into the register and locked the drawer. He filled both their glasses and left the bottle on the bar.
“Wait,” Dory said. “Any cigarettes back there?”
Colin didn’t sell cigarettes at the tavern, but sometimes packs were left behind. A quick search of the back bar drawers produced three.
Colin held them up. “Which?”
Dory pointed to the Camel Lights. “Those. Big Joe Camel fan.”
Colin tossed the pack onto the bar. “But you don’t smoke.”
“Just on special occasions.” Dory opened the pack of cigarettes and then closed it again without taking one out, apparently satisfied knowing the pack wasn’t empty. “And sometimes when I drink.”
Colin came around to her side and sat next to her. “So which is this?”
Dory traced her index finger around the rim of her wine glass. “Both.” She didn’t add any more but something convinced her to light up after all. She slid the pack at Colin. “Want one?”
“Which means you want one.”
Dory cocked her head and squinted at him, as if something had just occurred to her. “So, have one. I won’t tell a soul.”
Colin slid the pack to a point equally between them and left it there.
Dory laughed and nodded, then tossed her hair back. “Willpower. Good for you.” She drank and gazed at the ceiling, raised her cigarette to her lips and exhaled smoke. She remained quiet for a moment, then said, “So tell me about your wife.”
Colin reached for the cigarettes but then chose his wine instead. “Pam, right,” he said. “My ex-wife.”
“Pam, then. Tell me a little about Pam.” Dory drank more wine, keeping her eyes on his.
Fair enough, Colin thought. He’d asked her his share of questions. More than he should have in his early clumsy attempts. But he hadn’t known then, and he’d backed off after.
“Okay, Pam.” He drummed his fingers on the bar. “Kind of quiet, overall. Now that I think about it, she was always reading. She hated television, the noise bothered her and we almost never turned it on, except for movies. Which was fine, I guess. I ended up reading more myself.”
“So, this was good for you or she was too detached?” Dory slid her wineglass his way. “Do you mind?”
Colin emptied the bottle into their glasses.
“No, it was good, fine. Not a problem there. I liked that about her, the way she didn’t need anyone or much of anything to keep her occupied. But I have to admit there were times I wasn’t sure how much she needed me either. Our marriage wasn’t like yours, it really wasn’t—”
“I don’t think you should talk about that yet,” Dory said. “What was she like when you first met her?”
Colin wondered if she were laughing at him, had been waiting for this moment of payback. But Dory’s expression betrayed no malice, just open curiosity. Colin went behind the bar for another bottle of wine. He took his seat again.
“Well, she was great,” he said. “I was managing this place in Berkeley—a seafood place, amazing view of the San Francisco skyline—and she used to come into the bar and sit at one of the tables. By herself, a couple times a week, usually in the afternoon. She was working on her masters degree and she hated her roommate, but I didn’t know any of that yet. One day she asked her waiter if she could talk to the manager, and I went over to see if there was a problem. ‘Everything’s fine,’ she said. ‘It’s you I’m worried about.’ She waved me closer, you know, so she could lower her voice. I’ll never forget what she whispered. ‘I get the feeling you’re pretending to be here.’ Here’s the thing: She was dead right. I stood there for a few seconds not knowing what to say and she closed her notebook and slid out one of the chairs so I could sit. So I did, and she said, ‘So who are you really?’ The fact was, I had no idea, and she could see that. But rather than see that as some sort of tragedy—the way my family did—she saw it as being interesting, not so much a flaw as a challenge. She saw me, that much was for sure, although at first I tried to act as if she didn’t know what she was talking about. Like I was going to admit my entire life was bullshit. But I asked her out, of course, and we met later that night at a bar and talked until they closed the place.”
“So, she saw you in a way no one else did.” Dory pushed her wine glass his way and Colin topped it off.
“Definitely. She looked right through me. Which was a little scary. But, it was intriguing too. I mean, how often does that happen?”
“And that’s what attracted you to her?”
“Well, she wasn’t bad looking either.”
Dory snorted and nodded. “Honest answer. Good. What did she look like?”
“I’m pretty sure she still looks about the same.”
Dory gazed into her wine, silently, for a moment. “Right. What does she look like?”
“Blonde, well, sandy-colored hair. Cut kind of short, usually not much past her jawline. Light freckles. Thin. She likes to play tennis and she jogs a few times a week. At least, I guess she still does. It’s been…almost a year.” Colin ran his hand through his hair, disbelieving things a little. “Yeah, almost a year,” he said softly.
“She sounds pretty great.”
“She was,” Colin said. “At first, she really was.” He reached for the bottle of wine and filled his glass again. He nudged the cigarettes his way and withdrew one from the pack.
“Need a light?” Dory plucked a pack of matches off the bar.
The match flared and Colin leaned into the flame.
“So, what happened?”
“Well, you know, time. Things changed.”
“Sorry, you’re not getting off that easy. When in time and what things changed?”
Colin considered, suspecting Dory would never view him the same way again. Or, at least, not in the way he imagined she did. “Maybe it’s what things didn’t change,” he said. “Maybe that’s really it.”
“Exactly. Me. That’s what didn’t really change. Pam was right when she said I was just pretending to be where I was. I had no connection with things at all. And I guess she thought she could change that; I guess it became something of a mission for her. She changed; that’s for sure. She finished school, got a high-paying job as an account exec for a marketing firm…” Colin paused and sipped his wine, knowing he couldn’t turn back now. “She was ready to take all the next steps married people are supposed to take.”
“She wanted children.” Dory lit another cigarette, the flash lighting her green eyes. “And you didn’t.”
“Not then, no. I’ve thought about it a lot—I can’t begin to tell you how much—and I guess it comes back to what Pam originally saw in me. She was right, I was just pretending to be there. I had no idea who I was or what I really wanted. She saw that, which made me think I must have wanted her. When someone pegs you like that, you feel—I don’t know—almost obliged to credit them with being able to provide the answer since they’re so keenly aware of the question. I guess, with Pam, I assumed she was the answer. I think she thought she was too. And she was for a while. She really was. The whole thing’s confusing, but in the end we were pretending to be together and we didn’t know who we were. Like the whole spell had backfired and suddenly where my life had been meaningless now our life together was. The strange part was I saw that first, and I knew we couldn’t take those other steps. Pam had become the one pretending. Does any of that make sense?”
“Sure, it makes perfect sense. It’s ironic as hell but it makes sense.”
“Then can you explain it to me?”
“Sure, she tried to save you before you were ready to be saved.”
“From not knowing what you wanted, from not knowing who you were. She tried to keep you from getting sucked under before you were even struggling. She preempted your crisis when a crisis was exactly what you needed.” Dory burst out laughing, then filled her glass again without even pretending to think about whether she should drink any more. “Talk about ironic.”
“Not sure I’m with you,” Colin said.
“Colin, I’m here to get past something that will change me forever, and you’re here because you needed something to change you forever. You didn’t need your wife, you needed your nephew.”
Colin shook his head and looked down at the wood of the bar. “I’m not so sure about that.”
“That’s because it’s my turn to see something. Colin, I know it hasn’t been easy having him live with you. And I’m sorry about what happened—you know that. But you needed someone who needed you, not someone you needed. Does that make any sense?”
“Maybe,” Colin said. “I’m going to need some time to think about it.”
Dory raised her glass and drank. “It will,” she said. “It will. God, I love special occasions. That bottle looks empty. Is there another one?”
. . .
Dory knew Colin was right in convincing her to leave her car at the tavern. While she didn’t imagine he could be sober, she knew she was in no shape to drive whatsoever. Still, even in her buzzed state, she also knew that allowing the two of them to leave together that way—locking the tavern doors behind them before climbing into one car—would have suggested to anyone watching that they were a couple. But no one was watching, right? She was on her own in this world now. That was the truth, and she had to face that sooner or later.
On this night, of all nights, she desperately wanted someone nearby. No, not someone. Colin. The fact was she needed him tonight, even though she wasn’t sure she was being fair to anyone. Eric, Colin, or herself.
What she wanted, needed, was to go back in time. But that wasn’t going to happen, no matter how much she wished or drank. And there was Colin next to her, driving her home. A good man. A man she might have fallen in love with if she’d met him at some other point in some other life. A man she might be in love with now, but she couldn’t allow that. Still, she needed him right now. At least to get her home, she told herself. That much longer and she could face being alone again.
Colin slowed the car and Dory squinted out at the street, realizing where they were. “Oh, God,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Keep driving.” Dory laughed, knowing she was acting drunk but not caring. “I’m such an idiot; don’t stop. Keep going before anyone sees us. Gina’s an incredibly light sleeper.”
“Okay, sure.” Colin picked up speed. “What’s up?”
“I’m really sorry. God, I moved out of there. I should have told you; I wasn’t paying any attention.”
Having no idea where he was supposed to go, Colin cruised slowly through the neighborhood. Few lights shone from the windows of colonial homes. Just a couple TVs flickering, but mostly people were sleeping behind dark windows. Dory imagined lives. Children tucked in, their peaceful faces. Stuffed animals and storybooks fallen to the floor. Parents exchanging news of the day, laying side by side, keeping some secrets.
“Where do you live these days?” Colin asked.
“I rented an apartment on Sycamore, in that brick building. Know that one?”
“Sycamore? That’s right by the harbor.”
“I know. I should have been paying attention. Are you mad?”
“No, of course not.”
“I’m not mad,” Colin said.
She let her head sink back against the seat and looked up at the darkness. She let herself speak—she knew she could do that around him.
“I couldn’t stay at Gina’s anymore,” she said. “I was starting to feel like an intruder there. You know, every time I walked in on her and Bill, they acted like they weren’t talking about anything. Which meant, of course, they were talking about me. On top of that, the whole widow thing was freaking the kids out. Eye contact was out the window, you know? They kept staring at their shoes when I was talking. God.”
Dory burst out laughing again.
“After a few weeks I just stopped looking at their faces and started talking to their feet. Anyway, I love my cousin, but let’s just say I needed a little privacy.”
“Definitely a lot to be said for privacy.”
“Oh, my God. You must be an expert by now!” Dory glanced over at him, her head still lolling against the headrest. “How have you managed the last four months without going crazy?”
“By going crazy,” Colin said.
Dory heard herself laughing again. This was good. She hadn’t laughed nearly enough lately, but Colin usually made that happen.
“No, c’mon. You’re doing great. Hey, what are those lights?”
Colin kept his eyes on the rearview. “We’re being pulled over.”
“Exactly. Do you have any mints?”
Colin pulled over to the side of the road, and Dory rummaged through her purse.
“Here.” Dory slipped a couple squares of gum into his hand. Despite the situation, she let her fingers trail across his palm. He had nice hands, Colin. Strong looking, like Eric’s, with veins bulging across the back. She’d noticed that many times.
Their eyes met, while the blue strobe light kept flashing around them. The cop knocked on the window.
Colin raised his eyebrows. “Write to me in prison?”
“Every day,” Dory said.
He rolled the window down, and rain gusted into the car. The cop shined his flashlight in at the two of them, across the floor and back seat, and then back into Colin’s face.
“Sergeant Kelleher? How are you?”
Colin sounded fine, sociable, it seemed to Dory. She was glad he knew the cop’s name—probably didn’t hurt to own a business in town. Still, she tried not to bite her lower lip.
“I’m fine, Mr. Cooper. How are you?”
“Fine,” Colin said. “Was I driving too fast?”
A blast of tinny chatter crackled and Kelleher spoke into the radio strapped to his shoulder, reporting the time, his location, and the make of Colin’s car.
“Did you know you have a taillight out, Mr. Cooper?”
“No, I didn’t,” Colin said. “Which side?”
“Left,” Kelleher seemed unaware that he was getting soaked. He peered into the car again, this time letting his gaze rest on Dory. Colin turned her way as well. He raised his eyebrows again, and she thought he might have smirked.
Dory kept her face open and relaxed. She managed what felt like a poised smile. “Good evening, officer.”
“Good evening.” Kelleher didn’t smile back at her. He turned his attention back to Colin. “Everything okay tonight?”
“Just heading home,” Colin said. “Giving a friend a ride.”
“Have you been drinking tonight, Mr. Cooper?”
“No. Well, we had a glass of wine with dinner, but—”
“I see. I’m going to have to ask you to get out of the car.”
Colin paused briefly, then unfastened his seatbelt. Dory’s heart sank. God, all of this was her fault. She’d urged him to keep opening wine, to keep talking. And when she’d gotten drunk, he’d been put in the position of driving her home. On top of that, she’d failed to tell him she’d moved. Selfish!
Please, please, please, she thought. Not tonight.
Colin opened the door just as Kelleher’s radio squawked to life again. Kelleher held his hand out, palm flat, fingers spread. Colin remained in the car.
Dory squeezed her eyes shut, shot another quick prayer out there, then popped them open again before the cop saw. It amazed her that he could make out the garbled words through the clicks and static, but she clearly heard robbery and pursuit. After a few seconds, she heard Kelleher say, “On my way.”
Yes, Dory thought, just go! Leave us alone.
Us. Not him, us. The word bounced around inside her brain. That word she hadn’t considered using since Eric died, one she’d imagined lost to her vocabulary.
Despite the emergency call, Kelleher looked in at Colin again. “Mr. Cooper, I suspect you’re a lucky man,” he said.
Colin didn’t say anything.
Kelleher shoved a piece of paper through the window. “You need to get the taillight fixed. This gives you thirty days.”
Colin placed the ticket on the dashboard and patted it as if it was something he intended to pay special attention to as soon as time allowed.
Kelleher fixed him with a hard stare. “How’s your nephew doing?”
“Good. Glad to hear that.”
Kelleher sprinted back to his cruiser. The lights on top of his car flipped into a sequence of increased urgency and in a moment the cruiser screeched past them. Colin waited until the lights disappeared around the corner, and when the siren blared he started his own car again and pulled away from the curb.
Dory looked out at the neighborhood as they drove, relieved but still grappling with that word that had come to mind so naturally. Us.
“Old friend,” Colin finally said.
“Seemed like there might be a little history there,” Dory said. Funny, she felt almost sober now.
“Same guy who brought Michael in two weeks ago. He’s a little critical of my parenting skills. I tried to explain the difference between being a bad parent and being a bad uncle, but he didn’t seem all that sympathetic.”
“Maybe you should have him over or something.”
“Right, good idea. We could fondue and smoke Michael’s weed.”
“Exactly, a bonding thing. Just the guys, you know?”
A few minutes later, Colin pulled up in front of her building. Embarrassed, Dory realized it had taken them almost an hour to arrive someplace that should have taken five minutes. Colin turned the lights off, and she noticed he glanced into the rearview.
He shook his head and exhaled. “Thought I was going to end up in jail there for a moment.”
“You should probably come up and have a drink,” Dory said. “You know, to settle your nerves.”
“Are you trying to get me arrested?” Colin asked, but he laughed. He checked his watch, and Dory guessed he was thinking of Michael. But he shut the car off.
“Come on.” Dory got out, leaving him almost no choice but to follow.
Entering her furnished apartment, Dory found it comforting for the first time that it could have belonged to anyone. Like a hotel room. No memories there. Somewhere to begin, just stay for a while, or end. Up to whoever rented the place.
Colin stood in the living room, looking around. He seemed uncomfortable. He ran his hands through his hair and he looked pale. The near arrest had rattled him; she could see that now.
“Have a seat,” Dory said. She went into the kitchen, speaking over her shoulder. “The furniture’s hideous, but it beats sitting on the floor.”
“I’m good with plaid couches,” Colin said. “I think they’re coming back.”
Dory returned carrying a bottle of red wine and two squat green tumblers. She left the bottle and glasses on the coffee table and bent over a small stack of CDs next to the portable stereo on the floor at the end of the couch.
“Maybe I should use your phone,” Colin said, looking around again.
“I didn’t bother; I just have the cell phone.” She gestured toward the kitchen without looking up from the CD selection. “In my purse. It’s fine—don’t worry about it. But aren’t you just going to wake him up?”
“Not likely, but it’s not like I don’t get home really late sometimes.”
Dory wondered if his intention of calling Michael signaled his hope that he wasn’t coming home at all. A covering of bases. Was he going home tonight? She didn’t want him to, which was exactly why she couldn’t look at him.
She took a seat on the couch as music rose from the CD player, something new she’d picked up a couple weeks ago. A female folk singer, and at the moment Dory couldn’t remember the singer’s name for the life of her.
Clearly, Colin wasn’t sure if she wanted him to sit next to her. She’d forgotten that the only other chair in the room held a basket of folded laundry. He kept looking around.
“This is nice,” he said. “You have a balcony.”
“On a good day you can see the roof of the Stop and Shop. Did it stop raining?”
“Think so.” Colin opened the sliding glass door and peered out into the darkness.
Dory filled the tumblers and crossed the room. “C’mon, let’s take advantage of the luxury.” She handed one of the glasses to Colin and stepped outside. “I felt like having another cigarette anyway. I stole them—hope that’s all right. Want one?”
They smoked and drank wine, standing at the iron rail, not looking at each other. The clouds were beginning to part, clusters of stars reclaiming the night sky.
“April twenty-third,” Dory whispered, realizing only after she’d said it that she’d spoken out loud.
Colin waited for her to continue, but at the same time he seemed to know she was speaking to someone else.
“Six years ago,” Dory said. “We were married six years ago today.”
There. The words were out now.
A few silent seconds passed and she leaned into him, just her shoulder to his. He steadied her at first by straightening up, but then he put his arm around her, probably afraid she might fall. And his instincts were on. She might fall, if someone didn’t hold her up.
Dory flicked her cigarette into the night, a tiny sky rocket. She wrapped her arm around his lower back. “When was your anniversary?”
“It really doesn’t matter,” Colin said.
Dory thought about that. She looked at the sky above. “In a way that’s even sadder.”
“I’m really sorry,” Colin said. “You could have told me, taken the night off.”
Dory turned and drew him to her, resting her forehead against his chest. “And what? Sit on my rented couch staring at my rented walls? Most of my photos are boxed up in a storage unit three thousand miles away. I don’t even have those.”
She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, then raised her lips to his. They kissed, and for a while they couldn’t stop. She wasn’t sure where the taste of him ended and the rest of the world began again. She kept her eyes closed, not wanting to know, at least not at that moment. Tomorrow, she’d remember again. Tomorrow. Just not tonight.
“Should I go?” Colin said. “It’s late.”
A good man, this Colin. And in the apartment there was nothing, really, to remind her of when she’d been alive in a different time. And it had stopped raining, and they’d made it home safely. Us.
David Pandolfe received an MFA degree in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. His young adult novel, Jump When Ready, is now available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. His next YA novel, Streetlights Like Fireworks, will be published soon. Follow David’s blog here.