As I push open the door, I loosen my tie and undo the top button of my white oxford shirt. I scan the room.
It’s large. Dark, polished wood, red accents, and brass hardware under dim, golden light create a weighty ambiance. There are about a dozen patrons inside, each silent or conversing in their lowest voices. The mahogany bar runs the full width of the front of the room.
I pick a stool near no one and order my first round from an indifferent bartender. He keeps his eyes on a muted flat screen television on the adjacent wall. It’s a re-broadcast of this afternoon’s Dodgers-Giants game.
While I sip my drink and peruse the kitchen’s menu, a man sits on the stool to my left.
The bartender immediately hands him a Budweiser without a word from either of them. He’s about my age, I discern from a sideways glance, though his hands look older. Their calluses and knobby knuckles remind me of my father’s hands. My father was a union man in an iron foundry for forty-two years.
I wonder briefly what this man does for a living, but the curiosity passes. There’s only one thing that occupies my mind tonight. One person.
My food order taken, the bartender brings me a second cocktail. I turn the glass in my hand. The slick condensation transfers from the glass to my fingers.
My neighbor on the next stool is peering at me with bloodshot eyes.
“Ricky! What’s it been?” he slurs. “A few years, I’d say. How you been, man?”
“I’m not Ricky, sir.”
His raspy laugh turns into a cough.
“What are you going on about, Ricky? I’d know you anywhere.”
“My name is David. I’m not Ricky.”
“Aw, don’t be like that, man. It’s good to see you.”
He swats my shoulder and almost slips off his stool.
I decide to ignore him. My brain returns to the same questions plaguing me since I flew to this city on Monday. It’s Thursday now.
How’s it going to be when I get home? More of this? What do I want it to be like when I get home? That last question is the one I know I need to answer.
“You heard what happened, I’ll bet.”
The man is teetering on that thin line between thoroughly intoxicated and sloppy drunk.
I stare into my glass after taking another swallow.
“Yeah, of course you heard what happened to my Jenny.”
He doesn’t seem to care that I’m not responding. I look toward the bartender for aid but his eyes are on the already played ballgame.
“Can I confess the truth?”
The man leans in as if he’s whispering, though he is not.
“Sure, sure, I can. You’re an old friend. You won’t tell.”
I shake my head, wishing I’d stayed in and ordered overpriced room service.
“I think I killed her.”
My fingers stop tracing the rim of my glass. I turn my head a little and meet his eyes. They’re wide and bleary.
He waits and I find my voice.
“Listen, sir. I’m not Ricky. Maybe you need to have a water, or a soda, and sober up a little.”
It’s as if I didn’t even speak.
“Geez, it feels good to admit that. Really good. I mean, don’t call the cops or nothing. I didn’t kill her.”
I raise my eyebrows.
“But still, I think I killed her.”
He goes silent for more than a minute and I hope it’s over.
The man downs the last of his beer.
“She only took drives like that when I made her mad. Fast. Old roads. Curves and hills.”
His voice fades out. There are fat tears on his cheeks. I doubt he even knows they’re there.
“‘You’ll kill yourself, driving like that, girl!’ That’s what I used to tell her. ‘Good,’ she’d say. ‘I have a way to do it then when you make me want to.’”
I shudder at the darkness of this exchange he had, more than once, with Jenny, whom I assume was his wife or near to it. Even as I think on it, I am flashing back to the bitter words that filled the air of our living room on Sunday night, and the cold indifference Josie and I maintained the next morning until I left for the airport. No calls, no texts. None, this whole week, and tomorrow I fly home.
“I made her so mad that night. Madder than I’d ever seen.”
He pounds on the bar and the bartender looks our way.
“Another!” he calls.
The bartender shakes his head.
“No can do, McNeil. I already called your cab. I warned you that bottle was your last for tonight.”
McNeil scowls. Then his expression clears and his focus is back on me.
“Do you think she meant to do it, Ricky?”
My mouth is dry. My drink is empty.
“Do you think she meant to hit that tree? Maybe, man, maybe. Either way, it’s on me. I knew what I was doing to her. I knew. I killed her.”
“Cab’s here,” the bartender interrupts.
“I could’ve stopped her, Ricky. I could’ve made it good.”
He stands and wobbles in his steel-toed boots. I see the grief, the self-loathing, in the lines of his face and the drop of his broad shoulders. He’s a large, muscular man, but he walks like a weaker, older version of himself.
After I watch him go, I rest my elbows on the bar and my head in my hands. Josie’s face fills my vision. The bartender slides my plate in front of me, but I stand up and mumble that I’ll be back in a minute. I reach for the phone in my pocket.
“I have to call my wife.”