The Powerball is thirteen and I watch the guys in the bar clutch their tickets. They’re anxious for Laurie to scan their numbers but I don’t care. I sip the rest of my gin. It’s down to the dregs. Just melted ice and lime with a whiff of its piney scent.
“Hold your horses!” Laurie yells to no one and everyone. She looks over at me, then to my glass. I nod.
The Beefeater splashes into a glass of ice and Laurie drops in a lime wedge. I used to remind her she doesn’t always have to use a new glass but she says she’ll do whatever’s faster.
“You don’t play the lottery?” she asks. She puts the drink down just hard enough to spill some of the gin on the cocktail napkin. She knows I hate having a wet napkin.
“You know I’m not a gambling man.”
Laurie guffaws and rolls her eyes, bright blue pearls peeking out from dark hair, and I catch myself smiling like an idiot. I reach for a dry napkin from the bar caddy.
I push the lime under the ice with two thin black straws and stir twice. My hand shakes as I carry the glass to my lips. I look at the sports ticker on the far TV and only see hockey scores.
“I almost broke even!” a man yells when Laurie hands him some bills.
The wet air clings to my face when I step outside to smoke. The forecast calls for heavy fog by midnight and it’s rolling in early. The gas station on the kitty-corner looks like a picture with a soft filter and I can barely see the blue “OPEN” sign. I flick my Bic lighter a couple times before the flame catches. Cold air and smoke fill my mouth and lungs. I hope Laurie has last call early.
A man in a dark blue suit appears from around the corner of the building and asks for a light. “I just heard someone won the lottery,” he says.
His suit is nice and tailored and his shoes are polished even though they’re not shiny. I need a new pair. The upper is fine on my oxfords but the heels are worn from walking the lots. I wait for his punchline.
“I wonder what I would do if I ever won,” he says.
“You play?” I ask.
“No, I’m not a gambling man. Thanks for the light.”
He disappears down the street into the fog and I chuckle to myself.
My mind races when I sit back down in front of my gin. Did I put chicken breasts or steaks in the fridge to thaw? I wonder if I have my son this weekend or the next. He’s a good kid but a teenager now, and he doesn’t like me as much anymore. I think of his mom. When I first met her, she reminded me of some girl I knew the summer before my last year of college. I forget her name. Natalie or Nicky or something like that. A schoolboy’s dream with breasts and hips and a flat pale stomach.
I look to the far TV again and Golden State is not only covering, they’re on their way to an easy win.
Some of the guys are happy just to get anything back on their tickets and they’re spending it with Laurie. I consider putting down quarters for a game of pool, but the only guy I really like playing isn’t in the bar. The condensation on my glass slides down and creates a wet ring on my napkin. I take two gulps and leave a twenty for Laurie. She smiles and mouths her thanks.
I push myself off the stool and hope she doesn’t try to follow me to my car.
It takes a focused jiggle to turn the ignition but I’ve pretty much mastered it in the months since the problem popped up. When I pull out of the parking lot, I check my rearview and see light gush out the front door into the fog.
I drive nervously through the heavy mist, and when I pass my old elementary school I can hardly see the baseball backstop where I used to play kickball. I always look. I remember wrestling my friends during recess and getting grass stains on the knees of my jeans.
My body tenses at the approaching lights in my rearview, but the truck slows down and changes lanes before rushing by. People always drive too fast in the fog, they don’t know it’s thick enough to make the ground slick.
At The Pit Stop, the fog envelops the parking lot. Even so, there aren’t many cars.
The bar is empty, too, save a couple young women and two older men. “Smoke Rings in the Dark” plays on the jukebox and I think of an old bar up in the foothills that still allows smoking. Everyone’s been in one. Square building with chipping paint, simple rail bar, couple pool tables and a jukebox. I drive those two-lane roads now and then until I get hungry, and then I stop by whatever is closest. I usually get a steak or burger depending on how the waitress looks when I ask about the steak.
But this bar is brand new and brightly lit and I can’t even sneak in an after-hours cigarette because it might linger in the dining area.
“What’s your poison?” Damien asks after shaking my hands. I’m used to his two-handed shake now. I don’t know why but I used to think he did it because he’s part Asian; it’s really the one he saves for his close friends.
“Hell, let’s go with the Macallan. Eighteen. Two ice cubes.”
“Whoa. Going high end tonight?”
“You never know when it’s your last one. And, I figure you’re paying for it.”
He laughs and nods. “Not gonna let it ride?”
“Nah, can’t trust the house.”
He smiles and says, “You have been on a heck of a run.”
And I have. Over the last year or so I’ve been picking four out of five games against the spread. Mainly football and basketball but that already takes up ten months of the year. I guess I take a couple of the summer months off. Reminds me of vacation years ago before all the newfangled year-round and tracking nonsense.
Damien sets my drink down and pulls out dice cups. I win after a few rolls and he buys us shots of Stolichnaya.
“Here’s to getting into heaven thirty minutes before the devil knows we’re dead,” he says. I clink his shot glass, tap the bar and feel the warm vodka burn down my chest.
He hands me seven crisp hundred-dollar bills from his wallet.
“Let me get the bar a round,” I say.
“Him, too?” Damien asks while he looks past me.
I glance at the mirror and the blue-suited man is at the door behind me. “Sure, why not?”
“Round for the bar on John!” Damien announces.
The suit sits a couple seats away and orders a vodka martini, which makes no sort of sense.
“Fancy seeing you here,” the man says. “I’m Peter.”
He reaches over and his calloused hands are like my father’s.
“Are you from around here?” he asks.
“Yeah. I grew up here.”
“What’s there to do in this place?”
“You’re looking at it,” Damien says.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“All over,” Peter says. “Last place I lived was D.C.”
“What brings you here?”
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he says with a grin.
“You work for the government then?”
He nods and begins twisting his cocktail napkin around his left index finger.
I head outside to have a cigarette and can see only ten yards in front of me. There’s orange illuminated mist here and there in the distance where lights are supposed to be. Peter joins me and I hold out my lighter. He waves me off and pulls out a gold Zippo, flipping it open in one motion. Burnt fuel fills the air.
“Do you want to come in tomorrow or the next day?” he asks.
“I’m your contact.”
“I never went through with it,” I say.
“We watched you buy the ticket,” he says. “We have a deal.”
“How did you know I wouldn’t tell anyone?”
“The same way we know you won’t say no.”
“Then why are you here?”
Peter smokes at the kitchen counter with a beer in hand. He’s not talking much and I’m not asking many questions. I chuckle when I look up at the charred kitchen ceiling. A few nights after moving in, I drank too much and passed out with a small pot of spaghetti cooking. The smoke alarm woke me to flames shooting up from the pot. I won’t lay down anymore while I cook, especially not after a few drinks.
From the fridge I pull out asparagus and the Tupperware with two rib-eyes marinating in soy sauce, garlic and pepper. I retrieve red potatoes from the pantry and wash them under warm water before I quarter them. Laurie won’t be over for a couple hours but I like prepping before I cook. I pat the steaks dry and set them on a plate so they won’t be so cold when I throw them on the pan. In a mixing bowl, I toss the potatoes with olive oil, garlic and rosemary.
It’s the same meal I made my ex-wife when I proposed. She didn’t and still doesn’t know her way around a kitchen. Woman grew up on cold cuts, salad and taco trucks. Couldn’t even make scrambled eggs and bacon. She made a hell of a pretty sandwich though, as long as it wasn’t a BLT.
It was young love for a long time until she got mean and disappointed with our station in life. We didn’t live in a Norman Rockwell painting, and my job kept me from being home in time for dinner. She said I missed too many important events, which is true, but she was just lonely. Can’t really blame her. Now, she and my boy live with a divorced dentist across town. He’s a nice enough guy.
“Is there a kitchen?” I ask Peter.
“Yes,” he says with a smirk. “You’re not going to jail.”
“Sounds like one.”
“Think of it as… an extended vacation.” Peter smiles like he just said something clever. He looks like any number of actors who play middle-aged government employees. Average height, average build, graying brown hair. “You’ll be out in the great outdoors.”
“They won’t cut into me, right?”
“No, they won’t. Some scans here and there, but they can’t risk damaging whatever it is you have.” He takes a small sip of his beer. “What are you going to tell Laurie?”
“I probably won’t say anything.”
“Just disappear on her?”
“I don’t want to have to answer all the questions she’ll have.”
Laurie is that type of person. She likes to know things, the Hows and Whys. I don’t know if it’s only with me, but the first time I met her she had me lay out my life story before I finished my second drink. I didn’t even know it until I excused myself to go smoke and one of the regulars said he didn’t realize I had gone to college.
Laurie always grills me about my sports betting. Why I take a certain bet, how I come up with the idea that a line is wrong, where I get my information. She would make a hell of a reporter. It’s also why I didn’t tell her the truth about my recent run of luck. I couldn’t explain it except to say I dreamed it, and she’s not the type of woman to accept that kind of explanation. So I just said, “It’s variance. Waiting for it to go the other way.” And then I ordered another drink, and she shook her head and rolled her eyes.
More than a year ago, I started having these dreams where I would see letters and numbers. Vivid characters like on a computer screen or a blank sheet of paper. I’ve had dreams before where I see the numbers on a house or the sign of a business, but this was different, and the characters remained, sometimes to the point where I woke up in frustration. I didn’t make the connection for a couple weeks until I watched a football game and had a sense of déjà vu when I saw the final score: IND 27 SF 7.
The following week I wrote down the letters and numbers in a notebook and compared them to the games. I even tested the information for one of my bets, an outcome that went completely against how I was leaning, and won. I would have won seven of eight had I followed that dream.
A couple weeks ago a fresh-faced young man followed me outside to smoke and told me my dreams weren’t accidental. I thought he was pulling my leg until he started describing them, the letters and numbers against the white background.
“They’re images we’ve been sending from the future,” he said with nonchalance.
I was stunned. He invited me to be a part of his project but I said I still didn’t believe. He threatened to stop sending the messages and I said nothing.
“What can we do?” he finally asked.
“Help me win the Powerball and I’ll do it.”
When I get Laurie’s message about the bar closing, I let her know I’m home and then I put the potatoes in the oven. Peter chugs the rest of his third beer and reminds me to not say anything about the lottery or the project. He points to his right ear and waves his index finger in circles. I can’t tell if he’s serious. Peter forces a smile at me with the front door open and then he disappears.
Laurie walks in with a six-pack of Miller Lite and a wide piece of beef jerky covered in flakes of red pepper.
“I didn’t know you’re cooking steak,” she says as she leans to kiss my cheek.
Sour whiskey on her breath.
“Oh, I thought I told you. Are you hungry?” I ask.
“We can split one if you’re not,” she says.
“I’ll do both and we’ll figure it out later. I don’t mind leftovers.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” She sounds hurt.
“I don’t mind eating leftovers. Are you drunk?”
“A little tipsy. Aren’t you?”
“I’m stone sober.”
She pulls out a beer and puts the rest in the fridge. I cork a bottle of red wine because I don’t think I’ll be going to work tomorrow, and Laurie glares at me for a second before smiling. I pour two small glasses of scotch and nod to the balcony.
I like her most when we’re alone. I like the way she finds a way to touch me.
“We have to talk,” I say.
“You couldn’t have just told me before I came over?”
“You watch too many movies.”
Her grip tightens on her glass and she takes a long pull of her cigarette as she leans on my shoulder. When she finally breathes, faint smoke comes out.
I know they’ll kill us both if I say anything.
The happy hour crowd is a few drinks deep and getting louder. The pool table has a line of quarters under the rail near the coin slot and a handful of older laborers pound dice cups at the far end of the bar. Some say it’s a rough crowd, but I haven’t ever seen a knife pulled in my years working. Maybe I’m just not all that observant.
The round clock says seven o’clock but is fifteen minutes fast, so my relief has a bit before my shift ends. I have the fruit trays filled and clean pint glasses and mugs in the fridge. I usually do the night shift because I’m quick with a drink and decent enough in the looks department, but I traded shifts so I could be off tonight. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the day shift, especially during these winter months when the sun disappears after five o’clock. Last week I probably didn’t see daylight for more than a handful of hours. Luckily, the days have been windy and cold so we haven’t had much fog.
I look to the front door.
It’s around this time when John used to walk in and wave to the people he knew, maybe even shake hands with people in his vicinity. He never made a big scene out of it. He’d just take any open seat at the bar and order a glass of water and Beefeater on rocks with a slice of lime. I can still see his sweat-sheened hair.
He never talked much unless he had something to say. If there was a game of interest, he’d ask if any of the TVs were available. Sometimes he played Hot Spot, California’s Keno knockoff, and gave a wicked little smile if one of his numbers hit. Most of the time he made notes of some sort on his phone, just sliding his pointer finger back and forth on the screen. If I didn’t know better I would’ve thought he was playing some game. It went like this the first year or so I knew him.
One day he walked in without his wedding band and I saw the tan line on his finger right away. I didn’t even know he was going through problems with his wife. I tried to find sadness or relief in his eyes but they betrayed nothing as he looked for an open seat. I lifted the bottle of gin and he nodded. He found an open stool with a dry area on the bar and filled out a Hot Spot ticket. Three, eleven, twenty-nine and thirty-seven. As usual, he had half of his first drink before slipping out for a cigarette, and I followed him as I had been prone to do by then.
“Sell anything today?” I asked.
“Delivered a truck and a Mustang. Split a used car deal.”
“Not bad.” I lit my cigarette. “Hey, is everything okay?”
“Yeah, why? What’s up?”
“You’re not wearing your ring.”
“Yeah, I signed the papers earlier today.”
“Are you okay?”
“It was for the better.”
I put a hand on his shoulder but he didn’t move. We smoked in silence and then he flicked his cigarette butt across the parking lot, the sparks bouncing in the street. He thanked me and went back inside. We didn’t talk about it the rest of the night.
I quit smoking a few months back. Well, as much as you can say you quit smoking when you go from more than a pack a day to maybe two cigarettes a week, if that. Now I keep a couple different packs behind the bar and sell off loosies for a buck each or three for two. I still don’t understand people who won’t just walk across the street to the gas station. The problem with working in a bar and quitting smoking is your sense of smell comes back, and you realize how bad the bar and some of your customers reek. There are certain areas and people I definitely avoid now. I also have a little game I play where I guess what a person’s been drinking when they walk in the door, and if I smell puke on their breath, I just don’t serve them.
“Hey, blue eyes, lemme get ‘nother beer and a shot of Jameson. And close my tab so I can tip you.” The owner of the raspy voice is David, a white-haired gentleman who’s been coming to the bar before I was born. He’s a lovely man with a daughter my age whom I’ve never met.
“I’ll get this round,” I say over my shoulder as I take seven dollars out of my tip jar.
“You don’t need to.”
“Need’s got nothing to do with it.” I turn and wink at him.
“Did you boys see that?” he asks the guys around the pool table.
I pour his drinks and a Jameson for myself as well. “I’ll even have my shift drink with you.”
“Years ago, this place was real busy,” David started. “When the old highway used to run by it. Then they lifted it off the ground and rerouted it through a neighborhood where the Chinese used to live.”
“What happened to the Chinese?”
“Oh hell, who knows? Some stayed around and some went away.”
“Yeah, we don’t have many Chinese left in this town.”
“I won’t say anything,” he whispers while leaning across the bar, “but I know why you’re not working tonight.”
I give him a look and half a smile.
“It’s two years now, right? I miss him, too.”
I lift my drink.
After I pick my bundle of asparagus I push the shopping cart up and down each aisle, even the ones where I’ve never picked up anything. John used to amble through to remind himself of things he needed: toothbrushes, detergent, coffee filters, things of that sort. I tend to pick up candy. Yes, I’ve replaced cigarettes with Jolly Ranchers, and lately, I’ve been trying to wean myself off those with dehydrated fruit. Mangoes, apples and apricots.
I don’t know how he didn’t go crazy while he went through the aisles. I hate supermarkets. Everything is too neat and organized. The fluorescent lights shining off the floor. The canned food labels staring at you. I’m antsy but keep myself from racing through the store.
In the cards section, I stare at the wall of greetings and well-wishes. There are boxes of discounted Christmas cards and I throw two in my cart. They just say “Happy Holidays” and have a wreath against a red background.
I flip through the “I Miss You” cards and read all the puns and punchlines. I miss you a little, I guess you could say, a little too much, a little too often, and a little more each day. One has a blue sunset over water and I reach for it.
“I’m guessing you haven’t seen him, either,” Patricia says. She’s John’s ex-wife.
“No, I haven’t.”
She has oranges and tomatoes on the vine in her cart.
“I’m sorry, Laurie.”
“It’s okay,” I say. Patricia’s a gorgeous woman with wavy blond hair and gray eyes. I remember her on magazine covers. “Can you please tell Jack he still has a room at the apartment?”
“I guess without his father there…”
“I’m sure John will be back before we know it.”
She’s just being nice and positive. Truth is no one knows when or if he’ll ever be back. The last thing he told me was he’ll be gone for a while. Didn’t say where. Hell, I don’t think he knew.
The apartment is empty. Empty and sad.
I see the envelope on the kitchen table. It’s in the same place where all the others appear. The same where I leave my weekly letters for John.
I take out the letter and don’t bother counting the money. Like the others, it’s typewritten and generic. Asks if I’m well, says he’s well. Mentions the apartment maybe needing a new loveseat and asks if I’ve seen Jack. I know it’s him only because I recognize his signature from credit card receipts. Hell, I started going crazy and almost filed a missing persons report until the first letter arrived.
It freaked me out at first–the letters appearing in the apartment–and I tried to see who was leaving them but could never catch anyone in the act. Once, as I pulled into the apartment parking lot I saw a man in a dark blue suit walk down the stairs. He looked at me before getting into a large black SUV and driving in the opposite direction. Never saw him again.
I leave the letter on the table to remind me to write back and take the envelope of cash to the bedroom where I stash it with the others in the back of his underwear drawer next to an old wedding picture of him and Patricia. They were so young and beautiful. I still remember the first time I rummaged through his things trying to find a clue of where he might have gone and came across it. Him in his black tux and her in her white dress. Ken and Barbie.
The sheets and comforter hide the depression on his side of the bed, but whenever I roll a little too far I can feel it. I’m hoping I can even out the mattress by the time he gets home, but I might be too light to make anything permanent. It’s sappy but some nights I sleep on his side. It keeps me from waking up in the morning and looking at the empty space.
The first few months after John left, I just went to air out the apartment, maybe vacuum and dust once in a while. I threw out rancid milk and some green onions during my first visit and did half a hamper of laundry. When I noticed the bareness of the walls–he literally had nothing on any wall in any room–I found a few paintings to hang. “I like landscapes,” he said one night at the bar when I asked him about art. “Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church. And Edward Hopper, too.”
I had no clue who they were, I just wanted to tell him about my fascination with Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe. He showed me some landscapes on his phone and said the screen was too small to do them any justice. “You can fall into them if you sit there long enough.” I don’t remember if we ever got around to talking about the Marilyn silkscreen, but sometime after he went away I bought a small print and put it in his bathroom. I can’t wait to see how he’ll react.
I stay there most nights now just hoping he returns.
I put the potatoes in the oven and walk onto the balcony with a glass of scotch. The cigarette box is cold and damp, but the one I light is dry and harsh. I forget how long the pack has been sitting out on the balcony getting heated up during the day and cooling down after the sun sets. I barely inhale my first drag and the smoke hangs in the windless night. I brush it aside with a wave of my hand.
A lone figure stumbles his way through the parking lot. I stare at him and he tilts his face to me.
My heart bounces.
I recognize his features even though they’re muted in youth.
Jack steadies himself with the staircase railings and I meet him at the door.
“I didn’t think you’d be here,” he says.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
His pants are muddied and he smells of cheap beer and cheaper tequila.
“I’m at a party a few blocks down. I didn’t think you’d be here.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything. I didn’t think you’d be here.”
I sit him down on dining room table and pour him a glass of tap water.
“Did you have dinner already?” I ask.
“I had some tacos earlier but I can eat.”
“Good, you’re just in time for dinner.” I’ve been cooking for two for too long without someone to eat with.
I retrieve a pair of his father’s jeans.
He gulps down the water and goes to the kitchen. “I’m going to have some scotch.”
Jack walks out onto the balcony and lights a cigarette. I want to wring his neck but I realize I was younger than him when I started smoking. He asks if I’ve heard from his father and I tell him about the form letters. He gets them, too.
“Do you miss him?” he asks.
“Yeah. Every single day.”
He nods like his father and looks off at the orange moon.
“Lately, I’ve been having these dreams of him,” Jack says.
“Well, he’s not really in most of the dreams, but it’s his voice. It’s like he’s speaking to me. Sometimes I think I’m going crazy.”
I assure him he’s not and take another drag of my cigarette. The cold metal of the balcony chair bites through my jeans.
“He tells me to let you know he loves you and he should have told you himself and he’s sorry he didn’t.”
“He says he doesn’t know how long he’ll be gone but he thinks of you every single day and he’ll never forget you.”
“Almost every night I get these dreams,” he says.
I say nothing.
“What do you know about my father?”
“He loved you very much,” I say. “And he only went away because he thought it would be best for you and your mother.”
“My mom says the same thing, but why?”
“I don’t know the answer to that.”
It’s nearly midnight when we finish eating, and I put the dishes in the sink. I tell Jack I’ll give him a ride home after I go to the bathroom, but he’s gone when I return. From the balcony, I look in all directions but don’t see him. He seems to have sobered up by the end of the meal so maybe he went back to his party. At least he cleaned his plate of the rib-eye and two helpings of asparagus and potatoes.
I wonder if it’s too late to go to my mother’s to pick up my baby.
David’s more than a year old and perfectly healthy, and I hope John returns so they get a chance to meet, and he’s not just hearing the words and stories I’ve been telling since he was in my belly. He’s a bright little boy and I’m glad my mother is a willing sitter.
Sometimes I regret not telling John the night before he left. Maybe he would have stayed. I think he would have wanted to know. Even so, I’ve yet to mention it in any of my letters. I don’t want him to lose focus on whatever he’s doing.
I snatch my keys from the kitchen counter and head for the door but knowing my baby, he’s already asleep. And I don’t want to wake him. I’ll let him sleep until the morning.