It was a typical small town pool bar. The walls were blacked out, and the lights were turned down low. The bar ran along the back wall and two pool tables, with their low hanging florescent lights, were lined up along one side. Vintage video games like Space Invaders and Pac Man were stuffed in corners.
Kate sat at a scarred wooden table watching her boyfriend, Tommy, and his friend play pool. She took a sip of her Miller Lite and shook her head. How many other nights had she sat in this same chair watching Tommy get drunk? There must be more to life than growing old in this town.
She picked up her cigarette and took a long drag. Then she stuffed out the butt in an ashtray and stood, slinging her purse strap over her shoulder. She couldn’t handle being here tonight.
Tommy saw her get up and walked over.
“Gotta pee?” he asked.
“No I don’t have to pee. I’m going home.”
“You’re what? We just got here.”
“I just can’t be here tonight.”
“I’ll play a couple more games with the boys and I’ll take you home later.” He put his arm around her shoulder. He saw that the guys were watching so he slipped his hand down and caressed her breast. “Come on sweet thing.” He looked over at his friends and winked.
Kate pulled back from him. She reached up and slapped him hard across the face. “You make me sick, Tommy.” She turned and walked toward the front doors leaving Tommy standing there with a dumb surprised look on his face.
She pushed through the glass doors and stepped into the muggy night air. She marched across the blacktop parking lot illuminated by the dim light of two tall light poles. She passed two rows of parked cars and headed for the sidewalk that led to the center of town. Tommy wouldn’t just let her walk away from him. His boys and the others in the bar had witnessed the scene and by the next day the incident would be circulating through the grapevine in this small town where everyone knew everyone else’s business.
She hurried her pace to get away and to avoid another argument.
Kate looked back when she heard the bar’s doors burst open fifty yards behind her. At first she trotted, but as his heavy footsteps pounded closer, she ran. She took only a few more strides before feeling his hands grabbing her shoulders and her body being spun around. He slid his hands down, clamped his fingers onto her waist, and pulled until their belt buckles clanked.
Tommy said angrily, “Where the hell do you think you’re going, Kate?”
She squirmed in his arms, but had no chance of escaping his vice-like grip. “Let me go! I’m going home!”
“After a few more games we’ll go,” he said. “Get your butt back in there and I might forget you slapped the shit out of me.”
“You deserved it, you son of a bitch.” She stopped fighting his grip. “What were you trying to prove by groping me like that? Trying to impress your friends?” She looked up at him, taking in the dumb expression on his face. “Tommy, I’m sick of you and the way you mistreat me in public. You obviously have no respect for me.” She looked down as a tear formed in the corner of her eye. She fought it back, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
“Okay. Fine,” he said, slightly relaxing his hold on her. “I shouldn’t have done it. I’m sorry. I was just messing around. Now, will you come back inside and have another beer? If you want to go home after that, I’ll take you.”
She didn’t want to go back in the bar with him and she didn’t need him to take her home. She just wanted to be left alone. But she nodded her head anyway, pretending to agree with him. When he released his grip, she turned and ran.
She heard his footsteps catching up to her. He tackled her, his weight knocking her body down onto the grass next to the sidewalk. He easily spun her around and sat on her stomach.
She gasped for air, the wind knocked out of her.
“I gave you a chance,” he said, staring down at her with narrowed eyes and clenched fists. “I was willing to forget you slapped me. I even apologized. But you still ran. Kate, you just don’t have any common sense. I don’t want to do this.” He raised his right arm and made a fist. “But you give me no choice.”
She closed her eyes as the blow came down. It seemed to come at her in slow motion. But instead of punching her, he only slapped her cheek. He had only wanted to scare her, and to leave her a little something to remember him by.
When she opened her eyes, a dizziness gripped her for several seconds. By the time her vision cleared, Tommy was standing above her. He pointed his finger down at her.
“Kate, you didn’t really think I’d punch you, did you? Just a slap for a slap. I’ll give you some time to come to your senses. See you later.” He turned and stalked off in the direction of the bar.
She lifted her head. “Go – to – hell,” she called as loudly as she could, still fighting to catch her breath.
Tommy’s head went back in a laugh. “No doubt,” he said. His laughter faded as he continued toward the bar.
Crickets sang all around her, ringing in her ears. The leaves of a nearby tree rustled in the warm breeze. She lay dazed on her back in the damp grass, looking up at thousands of stars in the night sky. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. Was this really her life? She sighed deeply and let out a whimper. Then the shaking started. Finally, years of bottled up tears gushed forth uncontrollably.
Traffic escaping Detroit, headed for the suburbs jammed all four southbound lanes. His speed caterpillared along from five, to ten, to fifteen, and then back to zero. Today, the difference for Zack Taylor was not knowing where he would be tomorrow when these commuting accountants, secretaries, and autoworkers fought their way back toward the city, ready to put in their usual eight hours.
Tomorrow, Zack would begin a new life, one he didn’t choose. “At least you’re not married,” his friends and coworkers had told him. No, he had no wife or children to tell the bad news to. Most of the married guys he knew swam in bills, ready to drown if they lost one paycheck. Zack had no bills except his rent, car insurance, and phone bill. The cherry red 1985 Camaro he drove was paid for. He could manage. Sure, no problem, he kept telling himself.
He could collect unemployment for a while and take it easy – yeah, sure.
He reached down and turned on the radio. A familiar newsman’s voice called out, “Today, Congress continued to debate President Reagan’s tax-cut plan. Economists are calling it ‘supply-side economics.’” Zack pressed the button to change the station. A rock song from the 1970s replaced the news.
A horn honking jarred his attention back to the road. He swerved into his own lane, narrowly missing a perfectly preserved ’67 Falcon driven by a large, dark-skinned, bald man. He sighed, caught his breath, and waved sorry to the old guy. When he looked back up, bright red brake lights on the pickup truck ahead flashed at him. He stomped on the brake pedal. Screeching, more honking, yelling, and the smell of burnt rubber enveloped him. His head felt light, as adrenaline pumped through his veins. Come on, Zack, he told himself. He’d missed the truck’s bumper by inches.
Relax and pay attention before you kill yourself or someone else.
For the remaining thirty minutes of the trip home, he concentrated on his driving, trying to forget his problems, which wasn’t easy.
Almost 45 minutes later he spotted Mrs. Wilson as he pulled into the driveway. His landlady sat with her legs tucked off to one side under her faded blue housedress in front of her flower garden near the front porch. She was digging out weeds with a garden trowel held in her small gloved hand. She struggled to get to her feet. Zack guessed that her age, which must be in the mid-seventies, and her weight made her arthritis painful. She walked toward him as he climbed out of his Camaro.
“Good afternoon, Zack.”
“Hi, Mrs. Wilson,” answered Zack wearily, as he started walking slowly up the driveway, his head down.
“How was your day?” Her voice sounded a bit curious, since Zack normally stopped and chatted.
He stopped and turned toward her. “Not too good,” he said. “I got laid off.” Not wanting to pursue the subject, he turned and continued up the driveway toward the stairs leading to the upper-level apartment he’d rented from her for the past two years.
Mrs. Wilson slowly walked around the corner, catching him before he reached the stairs. “Zack,” she called out, and he paused, looking back at her. “I’m sorry.”
He only nodded and slowly climbed the stairs.
The apartment stood silent and hot in the scalding summer day. Circling the living room, bedroom, and kitchen, he pushed open the old casement windows to get some fresh air. He propped a two-foot square fan in a living room window and turned it on. He turned on his small TV and cartoon superheroes dashed across the screen. In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and grabbed a twelve-pack of beer, a loaf of bread, sliced ham, cheese, and a half-used jar of mayo. With his arms full he struggled to opened the drawer and get a knife.
For the next few hours, he would relax in his recliner, drink beer, and watch TV. His main concerns would be Three’s Company, Magnum P.I., and Entertainment Tonight.
Setting his freshly-made ham sandwich on the coffee table, he tore open the twelve-pack. Magnum, concentrate. He pulled an ice-cold beer from the slot, and moisture formed on the can as it hit the hot, humid air. He popped the top and foam came gushing out, so he quickly raised it to his lips so as to not waste any of the precious fluid.
Then, lifting the can in a mock toast, he smiled. He lowered it back to his mouth, gulped half of the yellow liquid, and set the can down on the table. He sank deeper into the chair and grabbed the sandwich, biting off a huge chunk, not realizing how hungry he’d been. Two minutes and five bites later, it was gone.
An hour passed, he felt like going out. Sitting around watching TV just wasn’t doing it for him. He scooped up the phone receiver and looked at the numbered keys. He paused. Who would he call, Jim? They’d always gone partying together before, but Jim still had a job. What would they talk about? “Sorry to hear you got laid off, Zack. Too bad.” No, not Jim. Maybe Ellen. Then he remembered the last time they had gone out. She had started hinting about getting married. He wasn’t ready for that discussion¾not with her and especially not now.
Getting laid off made him think about his life and future. Basically, they both looked bleak. He hadn’t spoken on the phone with his sister or her husband or their kids in weeks, and he hadn’t seen them in months. Good old Uncle Zack.
And friends? Now that he thought about it, his guy friends only showed up when alcohol or sports were involved. And women? He usually met them in bars and then dated them for a while, dates which consisted of taking them to other bars. After a while, it would get too serious, and he would just stop calling. Then he would meet another girl in a bar, and the cycle would repeat. He dug into the box for another beer. Yeah, the swinging single life, he thought, as he looked around his empty living room, which was now dark except for the light from the television. The phone sat silent on the end table. None of his so-called friends seemed to be too concerned about calling to check on his wellbeing.
Then, to top it all off, on Monday he wouldn’t even have a job to go to. How had his life gotten into such a state?
The curtains waved in the slightly cooler breeze. While listening to the swish of cars passing by, he slowly raised a beer to his lips, sipped, and then chugged the rest of it down. Taking aim in the darkness, he tossed the can at the wastebasket and listened for the soft metallic thump as it hit the bottom.
He closed his eyes and fell asleep.
Kate rubbed the last of the tears from her puffy eyes. Her breathing had slowed almost back to normal. A throbbing, raw pain stung her right cheek and a headache pounded under her temple.
Why had Tommy reacted so violently? In the past when he had thought it was funny to grope her in front of his friends; she had usually made the mistake of laughing it off. That was just Tommy and everyone knew how he was. But he’d never intentionally hurt her. She knew he had the potential for extreme violence. She’d seen him getting into bloody fights with men in bar parking lots or at drunken softball games. Ever since she’d known him, he seemed to have a knack for fighting, almost as if he’d been trained as a boxer or street fighter. But holding her down and hitting her in the face was unfathomable. He had reached an all-time low. She didn’t deserve this and she didn’t want to find out what else he might be capable of. Five minutes ago, she had been ready to break up with him for groping her. Now, she considered pressing assault charges against him. She quickly pushed that thought away. Getting the police involved wouldn’t be worth all the attention and hassle. The best approach would be to forget that this assault had ever happened and just consider their relationship over. If only Tommy would let her go.
What had she ever seen in that animal? Well, she supposed that when they’d first started dating she’d been attracted to his handsome, angular face, ice-gray eyes, dirty blond hair, and lean, but muscular body. He was that handsome, bad boy, athlete and all the high school girls had had a crush on him. But that was high school.
She lay in the grass, looking up at the full moon lighting the night sky like a giant, naked light bulb. The last of the tears had dried. She struggled to stand up.
As she walked home she continued to rub her cheek. She passed Hal’s Barbershop at the west end of the business district. She dug into her purse, found her cigarettes, and lit up. The storefronts loomed dark and silent except for Folsom’s Bakery across the street. The sweet smell of fresh-baked doughnuts floated through the night air. Judy Keeton was baking tomorrow’s batch of glazed doughnuts and apple fritters for the factory workers who would crowd around her counter at sunrise. She passed the Rexall Drugs, Reynolds Books, and Pete’s Shoe Repair. The town lacked variety and competition; there was only one gas station, one hardware store, one beauty salon, and one diner. She looked up at the one and only traffic light at the center of town. It flashed yellow, with no traffic to signal. Her heels clicked along the sidewalk, which was sheltered by metal-framed cloth awnings. Michaeltown was boring, just like her life. The older folks called the town peaceful and safe, but Kate felt trapped, with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
She turned up Third Avenue toward her house, which was two blocks up and around the corner on Hyde Street. The porch light lit her path as she approached number 122. Her watch read 10:15, meaning that Mom had probably gone to bed and that Dad was watching the ten o’clock news. Hesitating on the front steps, she finally decided to go in. The door was unlocked and she could hear the TV in the living room.
“Kate?” called her father. His footsteps slowly thumped across the carpet toward her.
“Yes, Daddy, it’s me.” She reached back, flipped off the porch light and stood in the dark foyer, trying not to rub her cheek. It hurt to talk.
“You’re early.” He stood in front of her, bent down, and squinted to see her. She turned her head so he couldn’t see her swollen face. “Is everything alright?” he asked.
“Tommy and I had a fight.” She had never lied to him before and wasn’t about to start now. “We broke up. Well, I actually broke up with him.” She wasn’t going to cry. In fact, in thinking about it, she felt so relieved. It was like she had awakened from a bad dream.
“He’s never been right for me, and I finally realized it.” She again reached toward her cheek, but lowered her hand.
Her dad reached for the hall light switch, but she grabbed his hand to stop him. “No,” she said softly. “You go back and finish your news. I’m going straight to bed. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
He squeezed her hand. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Good night, Daddy.” She leaned over, kissed his wrinkled cheek, and started climbing the stairs.
“Good night, Kate,” he said.
In her room, she slowly undressed. Her face had stopped throbbing, but it felt warm. Her headache had gotten worse. It hurt to touch her cheek. She thought of that old joke where the patient says: “Doc, it hurts when I touch my cheek.” The doctor responds: “Then don’t touch your cheek.” She smiled in the darkness, but that hurt, too.
She sat at her bureau and leaned in close to the mirror. With her hands, she pulled back her shoulder-length blond hair to reveal her cheeks, so she could compare them to see if the swelling was visible. Tilting her head one way, then the other, she couldn’t really see a difference in the dim light. She looked into her eyes, which usually appeared to be green, but they looked gray. At least he hadn’t given her a black eye. She gently ran a finger over her wounded cheek and thought she felt puffiness.
The next morning, she would do her best to conceal the swelling with makeup, but for a few days, the injury would be difficult to hide. She wondered how her father would have reacted if he had seen the evidence of what Tommy had done to her. Dad had never raised a hand to anyone, but what would he do to defend his only daughter?
Pulling down the blanket and sheet, she crawled into bed. She lay there, wearing only panties, and she fanned herself with a magazine. Her eyes open, she listened to the hum of the TV downstairs and heard an occasional rumble of a car passing by. Crickets chirped below her open window. Life went on.
At about eleven she heard her father shut off the TV. She listened to his slippers slap as he climbed the stairs and disappeared down the hallway. A door opened and closed, and then the house went quiet.
A disturbing sound broke the short silence.
She instantly recognized the chugging of a diesel truck engine. The truck came slowly closer and halted in the street out front. In the darkness, she smelled, or maybe imagined smelling, cigarette smoke. She felt Tommy sitting down there in his truck, puffing on a cigarette, waiting, and watching.
Would she ever really be free of him? She pulled the sheet up to her chin as if that would protect her. She finally heard him shift gears and pull away from the curb. The engine’s sound slowly faded into the night.
Had he known that she was listening? Had he come there just to scare her? Was his twisted mind plotting against her?
She reached for her cigarettes, sat up in bed, smoked, and worried.
Three chapters of 43 plus an Epilogue