Skip swallowed down the last of the coffee, rinsed out the mug, put it into the dishwasher, then put the gun in his jacket pocket. He turned off the overhead light and peered through the blinds. Suburban night had fallen. The Jensons’ porch light was already on across the street. He thought momentarily about the lawn he didn’t mow last weekend, the roses that were becoming unruly along the drive and the wild vine that had started climbing up the mailbox post. The back of his neck tingled with the guilt, but only for a moment. His priority now was going after Ruth.
He opened the utility drawer next to the sink and peered in. He pushed aside the pumpkin knife, the Santa-shaped cookie cutters, the half-full box of birthday candles. He bent down and reached way back and his fingers found what his head had imagined – his old Swiss army knife. He felt the weight of it in his hand and slipped it into his back jeans pocket. Always good to have a backup, to be prepared. No, that was the Cub Scouts, Troop 348. He was seven and loved the uniform, wore it around the house until Mother made him take it off to wash it. He’d sulked and wouldn’t get out of bed the next day to go to school, made her dry it and press it so he could wear it again.
He laughed as he backed down his driveway, bumping over the curb. He’d never been a Cub Scout. Davey was in the Scouts. Davey slept in his uniform and made Ruth press it before he’d go to school again. Skip had never been in the Scouts at all. Well, that was a slip. This whole thing had his head spinning. Ruth never used to go out during the week either.
Skip stood in the doorway of the Piggy Tail Tavern, his first stop. If Ruth wasn’t here, he’d know fast enough. He had a whole list of places to check. He knew her too well, knew her habits, her likes and dislikes. He tried the Piggy Tail first because it was only three blocks from home. He walked into the bar with his hands in his pockets, one warmed by the wool, one cradling gun metal.
“Out of the way, buddy.” A group of young men in jeans and T-shirts pushed past Skip. He hugged the wall and watched them. They were loud and joking. They stopped at the pool table, picked up cue sticks and staged a mock duel. The bartender yelled at them to order up or get out and they quieted down.
Skip huddled in the corner by the front door. He could see down the length of the bar but he couldn’t see into the booths at the dark back end of the place. He heard a woman’s voice somewhere, and it sounded familiar. It would be just like Ruth to stop at the first place she found. No matter, her car wasn’t out in the parking lot. Maybe she took a taxi or got a ride from a friend, from one of her many little friends.
Slowly, Skip walked deeper into the bar. The smoke in the place surrounded him. It was hard to see clearly. He ignored the bartender and pretended to be looking for the john. His wingtips slid a little on the slick floor, squished down just-spent cigarettes. He focused on one booth by the back door. Her voice was clear to him now and he could see through the muted light a head of blonde hair, short and teased-up, just the way Ruth wore her hair.
“Sorry, guy, this one’s bought and paid for.” The big guy in the booth turned his fleshy mouth toward Skip. He laughed so hard he bent over into a coughing fit, dumping cigar ash on the table.
Skip took one hand out of his jacket and leaned across the table to get a better look at the blonde.
“Honey, you’re just going to have to wait your turn, OK?” She ran her tongue over her teeth, smiling at him.
Brown eyes. Skip looked into her brown eyes and big red lips. It wasn’t Ruth. He backed away from the table.
“Sorry, I thought.” He put his hand back into his jacket and leaned against the booth, hard.
“I’d invite you in, guy, but this is a private party. Get it?” This time the man’s voice was firm and Skip straightened up.
“I’m looking for my wife,” he mumbled and tried a smile, hoping to win sympathy. Maybe they’d seen her.
“Well, if this is her, you’re going to have to come back in a hour or so.” The man turned his back on Skip, said something to the blonde and she laughed.
That wasn’t Ruth at all. She didn’t laugh like that. He knew it when he saw her brown eyes. Ruth has blue eyes. Even through the smoke, he knew it wasn’t her. Before he’d gotten up to the booth, he could tell it wasn’t. Ruth didn’t take up that much space. He should have realized it wasn’t her before he even spoke. Back at the door, he could feel she wasn’t in this place. He was going to have to trust his instincts more.
He drove downtown, further from home. Ruth’s old Galaxie 500 wasn’t in the garage, wasn’t in the parking lot of the Piggy Tail Tavern either. He should be able to find her just by cruising the parking lots, wouldn’t need to actually go inside the bars at all. He’d look for her car; turquoise with a white top, four-door, molding missing on the right rear panel. Then he wouldn’t have to go in and do battle. He’d just wait for her outside. He’d explain that he understood her need to get out of the house. He felt that way too sometimes. Sometimes it was all he could do to pull his old white Ford into the driveway and up into the garage. If he pulled into the garage, he’d have to get out of the car and if he got out of the car he’d have to go unlock the back door and if he unlocked the back door he’d have to go into the house and if he went into the house through the back door he’d have to walk past Davey’s room and if he walked past Davey’s room he’d have to wonder why the door was still closed and if he wondered that, he’d have to remember it all and then he’d be in no better shape than Ruth.
Skip put on the emergency brake and got out of his car. He’d pulled into the parking lot of the Tip Toe Inn, circled the lot, hadn’t seen the Galaxie but decided since Ruth wasn’t here that he’d go in and get a drink. This time he didn’t hesitate. He knew Ruth wasn’t here so he walked right into the place, right up to the bar, laid down a five dollar bill, waved at the bartender and ordered a scotch. He didn’t even sit down. He didn’t look at the men sitting at the bar, he didn’t hear the women’s laughter behind him, he didn’t think about the fight erupting over at the pool table. Just picked up his drink, looked into it once and smiled, closed his eyes and threw it back.
Davey looked just like Ruth from the moment he was born. Not just blond hair and blue eyes, but the delicately boned nose, thin lips and tiny earlobes too. As soon as he could walk he climbed into Ruth’s lap and stayed there as long as she let him. They had their big chair they’d sit in together and Davey never got too big for it. He loved uniforms. When he started T-ball he wouldn’t wear anything else to bed for a week and Ruth allowed it. The same thing happened when he started Cub Scouts. Skip learned to stay out of the way. Davey called Ruth Mommy. He called Skip Father. Maybe if he’d insisted on being called Dad.
“God, that wouldn’t have mattered,” he said through his scotch. He put the glass down and the bartender raised his eyebrows at him expectantly.
Skip nodded and sat down on a barstool. The noise of the place swirled back into his head and he looked up into the mirror behind the bar and watched two plaid-shirted muscle guys go at it next to the pool table. A couple of people sitting at the bar wandered over to watch the fight. The bartender brought him his drink.
“Some guys just need to settle things with their fists,” he told Skip.
Skip looked again into the mirror, not turning around and watched as one of the two guys hit the floor.
“Always over some woman too.” The bartender headed over to the guy on the floor. Skip turned around.
The woman at the pool table was tall and thin and blonde. Her hair was short and teased up in the front. Her features were delicate. Her makeup was light. Even from this distance Skip could tell she didn’t regularly frequent places like this or guys like that. She seemed unable to move. The guy he imagined she’d come with was being escorted out and guy number two was in no shape to be romantic. The woman looked around her. The people who had left their seats to watch the fight were milling back to their seats. The show was over. Skip watched the woman.
Slowly, she sat back down in her chair against the wall. She picked up her purse and pulled out lipstick and a little comb, the same comb she used to use on Davey’s hair.
Skip froze. In the soft light around the pool table he could just make out the little comb with the stars on it. Ruth used to run it through Davey’s straight hair every morning and say she was combing the stardust out.
God, was it her? He didn’t trust his eyes after two drinks. So many women had the same haircut, the same purse, the same natural look that Ruth had. Without going over, getting closer, he couldn’t be sure.
The woman’s movements were slow, as if she was moving through water. She sat stiffly in the wooden chair moving the little comb in and out of her hair without thinking. She was looking out the door as if trying to make up her mind whether to follow her date or stay put.
Skip finished his drink. The bartender had a fresh one in front of him before he could ask for it. He turned back toward the mirror and picked up the drink, watching the woman in the mirror. He watched as two men from the back of the bar approached her. She straightened her back immediately and put on a huge smile. Skip watched her tuck the little comb back in her purse, get up on unsteady feet and take the arm of one of the guys. The second guy took her other arm. She stumbled a little bit and they all laughed. The three of them walked out the door arm in arm.
Skip finished his drink and laid a ten on the bar.
“You know her?” He nodded out the door in the direction the woman had gone.
“Sure, she comes in here once in awhile.”
“With anyone special?” Skip asked.
“Usually comes in alone,” the bartender told him. “Never leaves alone though.”
Skip walked out to the parking lot. He realized how tough this had all been on Ruth. He’d been giving her space. She said she liked to take drives, would end up spending the night at a girlfriend’s house if she stayed out too late. Said she didn’t want to drive home alone. He accepted it. He understood.
The two guys had the blonde up against the side of a pickup truck. Skip could see her fluffing her hair, laughing, leaning into one of them, the other with his arm around her. Skip moved in between a Camero and a Honda, keeping his head down but his eyes always on the trio. He could hear what they were saying now. He moved closer. He could see one guy had his arm around her back and was pulling her back and forth between the truck and his hip. She was giggling, telling him to stop, pushing him away. The other guy had his hand in her hair and was leaning down whispering something to her.
“I do not like having men fight over me, don’t be silly.”
Skip moved into position where he could see and hear everything.
“I think I know what you’d like,” the pushing guy said to her.
Skip couldn’t hear the whispering guy at all but he could see his hands now. He’d undone the back of her dress and slipped one strap off her shoulder. Skip leaned forward, felt the gun in his pocket. Then he heard Ruth say “You boys better mind your manners or I’ll have to get rough with you.” And she giggled. She pulled down her dress and leaned her head back. The whisperer pulled her completely out of her top, mashing her breast with his big hand, moving his face from her hair to her neck. Skip pulled the gun out of his pocket and let it hang at his side. It felt heavy in his hand and slippery. He wiped his hand over his eyes and his mouth and through his hair and thought he might get sick. He watched the pushing guy pull her dress up then pull her panties down and reach in deep. She moaned and bent down to take his hand in deeper. The pusher covered her mouth with his.
Skip couldn’t see her face any more. All he saw was the blue dress she’d worn at parent night crumpled up around her waist. He watched the pusher finger her until she brought her legs up around him, watched him unzip, pushing her hard up against the truck, the whisperer bending down to her breast now, taking it into his mouth. Ruth’s mouth open, her eyes closed, jerking up against the truck, grabbing onto the sides, maybe not even breathing, and when he was done, turning around, spreading her legs and taking in the whisperer.
Skip leaned his face against the side of the car he was hiding behind. He took two big gulps of air, pointed the gun at an old caddie in the back of the lot, fired three shots and let the gun drop. It clattered onto the pavement. He heard the two guys swear, the truck’s doors creaked open and slammed shut. The engine rumbled on and the truck pulled out of the lot fast.
He watched the blonde pull her panties back on, pull her dress back down and into place and zip it up the back. She picked her purse off the ground and tucked it under her arm. Slowly, unsteadily, she walked across the lot. Skip watched her get into a drab green Toyota, start the engine and pull away. He dropped down to the pavement, sat cross-legged, his head against the car door.
Maybe it’s better this way.
He picked himself up, walked away from the gun and got into his car. He drove home the back way, avoiding the 2 a.m. traffic and the drunks. He pulled the car up onto the front lawn and walked in the front door. He set his keys on top of the old brown Samsonite he hadn’t unpacked yet. He didn’t turn on the lights. In the dark, he slipped out of his jacket, rolled it up into a ball, laid down in the middle of the empty living room, putting both hands under his pillow just like Davey used to, and closed his eyes.