I was sitting in Brewster’s one Friday morning in the middle of November, happily mauing my number four breakfast like a healthy growing boy. I was enjoying my friends’ goofy small talk and watching the weather out Brewster’s big front windows. Lightning ripped through black, boiling storm clouds, and sheets of cold, wicked rain slapped at the vehicles in the big parking lot.
Ah, late autumn in northeastern Ohio. Nothing else like it.
My name’s Terry Saltz. I’m a carpenter. Breakfast at Brewster’s every weekday morning is sort of a ritual for me and my friends. Eat. Shoot the shit. Get our natural juices flowing by ragging on each other before we head out in different directions to earn our daily pack of Marlboros. As I sipped my coffee and glanced around that particular morning, I was lazily speculating whether or not to go ahead with a fairly radical plan.
I was thinking about maybe getting a haircut.
My hair was long. I’d worn it long since I was thirteen. At first, it got long because my old man wasn’t around to spot me the cost of a haircut, and I wasn’t willing to hand my hard-earned paper-route money over to a barber. In those days, half the time I was using that paper-route money for food.
My hair grew down over my collar. Teachers started getting on me about it, and I liked being a bad boy.
When it got longer, the girl I’d been watching for a while suddenly got interested in me. Sometimes after school we’d go stand behind the middle-school building and she’d reach up to run her fingers through my long black hair and say how silky it was and how good it smelled.
After that, I was enthusiastic about three things: my girlfriend, my long hair, and what kind of shampoo and conditioner smelled best. No shit. I spent the better part of a year sniffing bottles up and down the shampoo aisle in the drugstore.
When I was fifteen, my older brother, P. J., got me and my best friend, Danny Gillespie, jobs as gofers for Red Perkins Construction. P. J. and most of the other carpenters who worked for Red wore their long, scraggly hair in ponytails, so me and Danny split a pair of leather shoelaces and tied ours back like theirs. That’s how we’d had it ever since.
Only recently I’d been thinking about getting it cut. All that long black hair was a lot of trouble. That November morning, while I chewed my Texas toast and watched the rain, I was thinking how much easier it would be if I got it all chopped off.
The absolute last thing on my mind was my wife, Marylou, also known as the Bitch. Which, by that time, she was supposed to be my ex-wife. Except that the divorce she’d so cold-bloodedly initiated six months earlier while I was sitting brokenhearted and forlorn in jail somehow got canceled once I was out and on my feet again, in a new town, with new friends, new money, and a new outlook on life.
The talk around the table that morning turned to names. Gruf Ridolfi mentioned that if your initials spell a word, it makes you lucky all your life. Danny Gillespie piped up right away with the information that his initials spell DIG.
I looked at him. “I? What’s your middle name?”
He got a look on his freckled face like he’d stepped in something. Which he had.
Bump Bellini grinned at him. “I can’t even think of a name that starts with I.”
Danny got busy stirring sugar into his third cup of coffee. He said, “Don’t start with me. Everybody has a weird middle name.”
John Garvey said, “Mine’s Thomas.”
Bump said, “Mine’s Edward.”
Gruf grinned. “Andrew.”
I said, “William.”
Gruf said, “William? So your initials are TWS? Ouch. Sorry, Terry.”
I said, “TWS spells something. It spells Twees.”
Bump said, “Nice try.”
I said, “Hey, you know? Twees wouldn’t be a bad nickname.”
Bump groaned. “Here we go.”
I said, “No. Really. You guys didn’t like Muzzy for my nickname. So let’s go with Twees.”
I saw them all make eye contact. Four pairs of eyes making connections all around the table. Well, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.
I said, “Yeah, I’m going with Twees from now on. That’s what I wanna be called.”
There was a heavy silence. Then Bump turned back to Danny with an evil gleam in his eye. “So where were we? Oh yeah. What’s the I stand for?”
We all watched Danny and waited. He squirmed.
John poked him. “Well?” He was grinning.
Finally, Danny blurted out, “Okay, it’s Ignatius. Happy now?”
I’d have to say we were pretty happy. Everybody howled.
And just at that point, Danny glanced toward the front door.
He said, “Uh-oh.”
I followed his eyes, and there was the Bitch, bearing down on me like a mall surveyor. All up and down the table, my friends saw her coming and got the squirms. It looked like Danny, Gruf, Bump, and John had all suddenly gotten infested by some kind of specialized flea that only enjoyed the rich red blood of mid- to late-twenty-something males.
She walked down the side of the table and stopped behind me. An expensive cloud of Jessica McClintock perfume wrapped itself around my head. I dropped my fork and turned to look at her. She smiled down on me, but you could see that behind her eyes, lots was stirring.
She said, “Hi, Terry. Can I talk to you a minute?”
I said, “Shoot.”
Her eyes flicked briefly around the table. “In private?”
In my brain, I said, Oh, shit.
I looked mournfully at what was left of my breakfast, picked up my coffee cup and my cigarettes, and looked around. The only open table in the place was a booth right behind the pushed-together tables where me and my friends always sit. That was way too close for comfort, but what was I gonna do?
We slid in across from each other, and she nodded when Mary, the waitress who takes care of us every morning as if we’re her own family, asked if she wanted coffee. Mary glanced at me and gently patted my shoulder. I noticed the slight rise in her sweet little eyebrows as she turned away.
She brought the Bitch a cup and topped me off. She said, “Don’t you want your plate over here, hon?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t hungry anymore.
There were a million thoughts flying around in my brain, but the main two were: How did the Bitch know where to find me? And what did she want? I wanted to say something to her like, Where did she get off bothering me during my leisure hours. Then I realized it wouldn’t make any sense.
So then I thought, Okay, what I was really feeling was that she must have been spying on me to know where and when I ate breakfast. Because ever since I got out of jail and moved to Spencer, I’d been pretty careful not to let her know how to get in touch with me. I should demand to know where she got off doing that. But I didn’t.
I thought about saying that I didn’t want her coming around me anywhere, anytime, anymore. I didn’t want to always be looking over my shoulder, thinking she might turn up here or there. But I didn’t really want to say anything hurtful. That was more in her line, if you catch my drift.
I ended up not saying anything. I just sat there looking at her, waiting for her to start, while my friends sat at the next table with their ears sticking out. You could almost see their little pink lobes quivering, waiting to pick up every word.
Oh, jeez, look at that. Bump and Gruf were laughing. Danny, too. Now John was leaning over to Danny. Yeah, Danny had said something to make Bump and Gruf laugh and now he repeated it to John, and they were all laughing behind their hands.
I knew Danny’s remark wasn’t anything mean directed toward me. These friends of mine, they’re the loyalest bunch of humanus erectus you could ever find anywhere. I doubted it was anything mean directed toward Marylou, either.
What it was, it was just one of Danny’s wry little comments on the situation in general. Danny can come up with some pretty good ones sometimes. But it wouldn’t have been mean. Danny doesn’t have a mean molecule in his body.
I looked at Marylou, sitting there with her big blonde seventies mall hair and her two-fisted makeup covering up all her natural good looks. I lit a cigarette and waited. She took a sip of her coffee. Then she looked up at me through her heavy black mascara, combed out into what looked like millions and millions of long, long lashes.
She smiled like she was flirting with me and said, “You could at least act like you’re glad to see me.”
I didn’t want to say anything hurtful to her, but I wasn’t gonna sit there and lie, either.
I said, “Why? I’m not.”
She poured it on, turning her head a little and batting those eyelashes. “Not even a little bit?” There was actually self-confidence in her voice.
“Not even a little bit,” I said coldly. “What do you want?”
Mary was over at the guys’ table with the coffeepot. She stopped by Bump, bent down to whisper something, and stayed bent down to hear the answer. It looked like he was whispering into a microphone hidden in the red carnation she had pinned on her green waitress dress. I swallowed a chuckle and turned my eyes back to the Bitch, who was busy pushing her cuticles back from her pearly white nail polish.
I said, “Marylou, say what you want and leave, so I can finish my breakfast in peace.”
She gave me a hurt face and puckered her lips. “You don’t have to be so grumpy.”
I drummed my fingers and waited.
She drew breath and said, “Okay. I want you to help me move.”
I thought about hauling her out of the booth, pointing her toward the door, and giving her a gentle shove, saying, There. You’re moving. Happy now?
Instead I said, “Move. To where?”
But I already knew to where. A few months earlier, she’d been in Carlo’s, the little pizza place where I worked nights as a driver, and she’d told Debby the waitress that she was going to sell our mobile home down in the southern part of the county and move into a town house here in Spencer. I’d been horrified at the news.
She said, “Green Meadow Town Houses.”
There it was. It was really gonna happen. Not only that, but she wanted me to help her do it. I got pissed.
I said, “I’m not gonna help you move up here. I don’t want you up here. Find yourself another sucker.
I reached to pick up my cigarettes and go back to my place at the table, but she put her hand on mine.
She said, “You have to help me.”
“No, I don’t. Get some of your friends to help you.”
“You’re my friend.”
“No, I’m not.”
“But I love you.”
“That’s your problem.”
You’re probably thinking, Why does this guy have to be such a hard-ass? Would it kill him to help the poor girl move?
If you’re thinking that, Chief, it’s because you don’t understand women. Or at least, you don’t understand this woman. Neither did I, back when she and I were together. But I’d learned a lot about women since then, and I knew for a fact that she wasn’t here about moving. She could get plenty of help with moving.
She was here because she wanted me and her to get back together. The moving was her excuse. She figured she’d get me to help her move, and she’d wear some Daisy Dukes or something. Then the whole time during the move, she’d keep brushing against me, keep posing and giggling, keep saying how much she missed me. Keep saying things about how nice the town house was and didn’t I think I’d like to live there with her? Look, we could get a recliner and put it right there in front of the TV for me. Wouldn’t that be nice?
I could see it all happening right before my eyes. And it would’ve worked once. But not now.
She tried to work up a tear. She even got a slight tremble going in her lower lip.
She said, “You loved me once. It’s not my fault if your feelings changed.”
Making a conscious effort to keep my voice soft and calm, I said, “Oh, you’re wrong there. It’s entirely your fault that my feelings changed.”
She looked away. “Anyway. We’re still married. You have to help me.”
This made me laugh. “We’re not married anymore. Our marriage was over the day I got your divorce papers in jail.”
I interrupted, making my voice even quieter. “But there’s still a piece of paper in a file cabinet somewhere that says we are married?” I shook my head. “It doesn’t mean squat to me. We’re not married anymore. Plain and simple.”
She looked down into her coffee cup.
I said, “And as far as that piece of paper goes, I don’t care anything about it. It can sit in that file drawer until hell freezes over, for all I care. If it bothers you, you go pay a lawyer to make it disappear.”
She said, almost whispering, “I don’t understand your attitude, Terry. You make it sound like you hate me.”
I said, “I don’t hate you. I don’t feel anything for you at all, except I want you to stay out of my life. Starting now.”
Then I did pick up my coffee cup and my cigarettes and move back to my place at the table with my friends. They were looking at me curiously.
I stole a glance at Mary. I studied her kind face like it was my own conscience, but I couldn’t tell whether she looked sympathetic or disapproving.
Well, whatever. I’d explain it to her later if she didn’t understand. Because I was pretty sure I felt great. I’d stood up to the strongest of the old forces that had led me down a self-destructive path that ended in a jail cell, and I’d said no—loud and clear.
Mary came over with the coffeepot. “More coffee, Terry?” she asked softly.
“Thanks, yeah. Top it off.”
I heard a little rustling sound behind me. In peripheral vision I saw a figure moving toward the front door. I turned to watch the Bitch go. Her short little black skirt bounced side to side like windshield wipers as she walked away.
All of a sudden, everybody was moving and coughing and talking at once. I looked around, waiting to hear what they thought.
A strand of long, golden hair had escaped from Bump Bellini’s ponytail. He tucked it back behind his ear and grinned at me. “Whew. I guess you told her.”
Daniel Ignatius Gillespie gave me a high five. He was laughing. “No offense, dude, but I really didn’t think you had the balls.”
They were all grinning and laughing. I started laughing, too. We all sat there, laughing like a bunch of idiots.
Everything would’ve been different if I’d helped the Bitch move that rainy November morning. Some stuff probably still would’ve happened, just in a different way. Some other stuff probably wouldn’t have happened at all. If I were the kind of guy who sits around thinking about what might’ve been, I guess I could log some serious hours wondering about this. But I’m not, so I won’t.