by Jason Francis O’Keane
You are already drunk when you see Peggy’s car come up the driveway. She will know it too, before she even opens the door, because your car shouldn’t be sitting in the driveway at five o’clock in the afternoon. You sit at the kitchen table, nothing in front of you except the newspaper from this morning, and rehearse your lines. You were going to go to work, the car wouldn’t start, your back flared up again. You tried really, really hard.
This morning you really did try hard. You woke up when Peggy did, even though she’s been sleeping in the spare room and you didn’t need to be at work until ten. You made coffee, scrambled some eggs, toast. Acted as normal as you could, like nothing was wrong. Peggy went about her business, ignoring you completely before leaving. Breakfast alone didn’t feel very appetizing, not without getting the bottle of vodka you had stashed in the drawer under the oven.
Peggy throws her keys and purse on the table as she walks in the back door. You smile, trying to put on a good show, like you were looking forward to her being home. You are surprised when she interrupts your gentle greetings, your concern for how her day was.
“I actually thought maybe your little stunt this morning making breakfast, pretending to be caring, meant that you were planning on going to work today.” She goes on about how you are a worthless piece of shit and that she can’t continue to come home to this. You stare at the tablecloth because you have no argument against what she’s saying, and because you don’t want her to see how you have trouble keeping your eyes focused on one place.
Peggy slams the cupboard door shut. Twice. “You know what else really sucks?” she asks. You know enough to not take the bait and answer. “I can’t even have a drink around here anymore. Can’t even have a simple glass of wine when I sit down to this nightmare after working all day.” She grabs a small glass out of the sink and throws it towards your head. After it hits the wall and shatters, you duck. Peggy sits in the chair across the table from you, her head sunk low into her shoulders. She grabs the ashtray off the counter and lights a cigarette.
You think about the wine. How nice it would be to share a bottle with your wife right now. You used to have wine with dinner. That cheap wine rack above the refrigerator always held two or three bottles. Sometimes in the summer, the two of you would grab a bottle and pack up some chicken and mashed potatoes, green beans, and have a picnic in your backyard. You’d lay out the Mexican blanket you brought back from your vacation in Cancun, spread out under the big black walnut tree and spend the evening out there—your backs to the house, overlooking the small woods behind the yard.
Peggy sits at the table in silence, smoking, not taking her eyes off the ashtray you swiped from a bar a while back. You read the words “The High Life” peaking through the grey ashes and you wish you had a beer right now. The smoke rises into the light above you, one of those circular fluorescent bulbs mounted in the ceiling that Peggy has always hated. You listen to the tobacco burn with each breath she pulls in.
Rubbing the end of the cigarette into the ashtray, Peggy turns to you. She looks like she has something to say. Or she’s waiting for you to talk, like she’s already asked you a question and you missed it, lost in your non-thoughts, watching her smoke. Your skin turns cold, heart and mind racing, trying to imagine what she could be waiting for you to say. You know it’s too late for I love yous and sorrys. That currency no longer holds any value. You need to get out of this. You need to get away with this, make everything better again. You can’t let her be done with you.
“I’m going back to treatment,” you hear yourself say, surprised with the brilliance of this move, how this promise can buy you one more night. Peggy seems surprised too, her eyes widen and her jaw hangs open for a moment. There’s the smallest hint of a smile as she slowly shakes her head, like holy shit, she’s heard it all from you now. You smile, impressed with yourself. With this new confidence, you gamble to look into her eyes.
“Fuck you,” she says and heads to the bedroom.
You sit in the kitchen in silence as you listen to Peggy go through your room, wondering what she is doing because she certainly couldn’t be getting you ready to go, not tonight, not right away like this. This isn’t what you meant.
But Peggy means it, and carries your suitcase to your car. You follow behind, rattled that this is happening. She opens the passenger door for you and guides you inside. A bit pushy, you think. You back in, your feet still outside, and sit down heavy and rock back, a little too much. Peggy walks around to the driver’s side and you put one foot in the car, the other still on the driveway.
She starts the car and tells you to close the door. You look at a crumpled McDonald’s bag on the floor and think of Plainview Rehab Center and the week you spent there once and how there is no way you are going back. You need at least another shot of courage.
“One more drink,” you say and look out the windshield at the closed garage door that you promised Peggy you were going to paint last spring.
Her hands are on the wheel, her body rigid. She is still in her work clothes, a navy pantsuit and cream blouse. She digs in her purse for a cigarette and tells you she’s driving to Plainview and that’s it.
“A last drink, Peg. Please.” You try the charm that used to work so well.
She pushes in the lighter, puts the cigarette in her lips.
“No, really. You have to let me stop and get one last drink.” You swing your other leg out the door with some effort and sit, kind of on your side leaning towards the open door. You would stand, but are waiting for the swaying to stop in your head. “I won’t go otherwise.”
There is yelling, screaming—words and sounds you don’t pay attention to. You turn towards her. Her face is red and there are tears. But you are calm. You keep your cool.
The lighter pops out, ready, and she drops her chin to her chest. “Fine, fine, we’ll stop,” she breathes. She throws her cigarette at you, hitting your face. “You have to win everything, don’t you?”
Four miles down Highway K, on the way to Plainview, you see Honest Abe’s Tap coming into view up on the left.
“There, there—the red, white, and blue!” you shout. “Stop there.” You point to the Pabst tavern sign swinging in the stiff November wind. You’re embarrassed by the excitement in your voice and drop your hand.
Peggy’s eyes stare straight ahead. “I’m not stopping and sitting here in the car while you get more drunk.”
“The hell if you aren’t!” Your fist hits the dashboard and then you sit back quietly. “Baby, just one more and then I’ll go.” She just holds that steely look. You are stuck with your last resort in negotiations with her. The bar is coming up fast. You have to be careful because it could backfire. Not that you have any shame left right now, like you would feel guilty anymore about not fulfilling your promises. But, it could cause more yelling and anger and you would miss the stop. In your most calm and sober voice you say, “You said you would.”
You have her, you’re sure, but she doesn’t move, except for her knuckles going white, gripping the steering wheel so hard, veins in her arms rising to the surface. Her foot is still on the gas, eyes on the road. You sit up, about to yell, she is about to pass the bar. Your forehead hits the dash as Peggy locks the brakes, tires squealing. She cranks the wheel hard, roaring into Abe’s parking lot. You bounce back in your seat, tossing side to side.
Peggy stops at the far end of the small parking lot, slams the gear selector into park and turns the car off. She seems calm but you are slightly afraid of her. You don’t feel triumphant, and actually begin to feel bad, like a kid that just got what he wanted after a big temper tantrum. She takes out a new smoke from her purse and waits again for the car lighter to heat up.
Everything is quiet and still. You don’t want to seem too eager to jump out of the car and get a drink. You try to think of something to say. You have enough sense to not say thanks. The lighter pops and Peggy lights her smoke as she cracks her window. You open your door, swinging your legs out slowly, trying to give the impression that leaving her here is a tortured decision.
“One drink. Fast. And you might as well not even come back out if it takes you longer than five minutes.” Peggy looks out her window, watching her smoke spiral out the slight opening. “’Cause I sure as hell won’t be here.” She takes a big drag and exhales through her nose.
That questionable remorse you had is now hatred, anger that you have been somehow manipulated into feeling bad about getting what you want. You notice the keys swaying back and forth from the steering column and, with your legs out the door, lean over and grab them in one smooth motion. You put them in your pocket and sit back for a second, admiring your skill and swiftness. Amazed you did that so well.
The shouting comes at you fast, hard, and you think she’ll probably start hitting you, but you just put your head down, shoulders hunched. When there’s a moment’s silence you say, “It’s my car.” You bought it in better times; a fat commission check in your pocket from Firestone, along with some savings the two of you had managed, allowing you to buy a four-year-old Cutlass Supreme, a V8. You and Peggy were getting by with only her car for a while, so it meant more than just another car, or a way to get from here to there. You can’t say what it was, but that feeling of having a car, a good car—it’s so much more than just transportation. You drove Peggy to Milwaukee that night for cocktails and a steak dinner.
You get out of the car and bend down, looking back inside at her. She is calm and turns to look at you with eyes out of the Inquisition—cold, withering. Goose bumps are on your arms, but you dismiss it; must be the cold air.
“I’ll be right out,” you say as if running into the gas station for smokes. You close the car door as the words “I promise” reflexively come out.
You do not linger on the details. You don’t pay attention to the bar, the other people, how the tables are arranged, what music is playing. Whatever cash you have in your pocket you throw on the counter and ask for whiskey. You don’t care what kind and the bartender has worked his job long enough to know that too. He brings the shot and takes your cash. You set the empty glass back down when he comes back with your change and ask for one more. You see how much money you have left and say, “Make it two.” You look out the window on your left and see Peggy sitting alone in your car, her forehead resting against the steering wheel. Her hair is tied up in a tight bun, her neck exposed—one of the things you love best. You think of kissing her there, a taste of jasmine and daylilies.
You turn back to find the two shots waiting for you.
This binge had started like they all did, with a single beer.
You had cleaned out the garage and gotten everything in the backyard ready for winter. You were late, waiting until the first week of November, but that fall had been so warm and pleasant, winter seemed far off. You thought you could have just one. This time would be different. All you wanted was one beer, to feel like a man having a beer after a long day of hard work.
You feel that even now.
Peggy wasn’t home. She was off in Beaver Dam for the day helping her sister recover from her own bad choices with men, after her latest ran off with some woman, leaving her with two pre-teens and a beat-up Impala.
But there were no beers in the house. It had been five months since your last drink and Peggy had scoured the whole place, making sure there were no more hidden stashes of liquor.
You had an old refrigerator in the garage that you kept plugged in for whatever reason. It had a large freezer that used to come in handy but you saw it was empty when you looked. Inside the fridge were a couple of soda cans, along with ketchup and mustard left over from the last time you and Peggy grilled some brats.
You should have closed the door. Instead, unable to give up, you checked the crisper drawer. Nothing. But then you remembered behind the drawer—a little space you had discovered a while back, in another time of secret stashes, that could hide a beer can. And there it was, a single beer, waiting for you.
Your fingers trembled as you pulled the tab. That first taste after the months of not having a drink was glorious, what you lived for. The cold fizzing on your tongue; the bitter, slightly metallic taste. Crisp, like fall. You walked out to the back deck to sit and savor it.
Over too quickly, you hid the can in the trash, satisfied.
You leaned back on the car and realized you had enough time for at least one more. You could drive over to the liquor store and get a six-pack before Peggy got home.
It is not too long before you leave the bar. A few shots; twenty minutes, tops. You feel now that you are ready as you will ever be to let Peggy take you to Plainview. You have come to accept this fate, that maybe this is actually the right thing to do. Spending all your money helps in reaching this conclusion.
You walk to the car and see that the trunk is wide open. So is the driver side door. You do not see Peggy and wonder if she has been abducted. This seems so obvious and terrifying. You stop in your tracks at the thought of her being taken away from you by some ruthless evil. Unnerved, worried, you shout, “Peggy!”
She looks out from behind the trunk, a glance, and ducks behind it again. You are overwhelmed with relief, you smile and feel your eyes water the slightest bit, happy she is still here. You know you love her and never want her to leave. You need to do whatever you can for her. You promise yourself, for real this time.
Peggy comes out holding your old softball bat. You wonder why that’s even in there anymore; it’s been years since you played. She walks to the passenger door and you think it’s probably time you cleaned out your trunk. You watch the bat, see it raised high in the air, and smash against your windshield. The glass spider-webs out from the end of the bat, spreading its way across the whole window. The bat rises again and comes down even harder. There’s a scream, like from one of those female tennis players you’ve watched on TV. It happens again and again. The windshield is a mosaic filled with tiny prisms of glass.
You stand there, mouth ajar. Peggy does not look at you and walks to the front of the car, satisfied with her work on the windshield. Or, maybe unhappy that she didn’t completely break through the safety glass and shower the front seat with shattered bits. She reels back and takes a home run swing right into the grill, embedding the bat in broken plastic. Without pause, without one more withering stare at you, she grabs her purse off the front seat and starts walking—out of the parking lot, down the road, back in the direction of your house.
It all seems to settle into silence now, even Peggy’s receding footsteps. You have not moved. You only watch her and wonder if she’s planning on walking the whole way back. You think about picking her up. You pull the bat out of the grill and throw it back into the trunk, onto your forgotten duffle bag. You look in the pocket where you always kept some change. Old batting gloves, quarters, and jackpot—a folded up twenty.
You know Peggy will be fine.
Jason Francis O’Keane is a former rocket scientist and biomedical engineer, and holds an MFA degree from Hamline University. He is a past winner of the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series and has served as an assistant fiction editor for Water~Stone Review. His short fiction has previously appeared in Reunion: The Dallas Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and Word Riot. Jason lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three daughters and is currently at work on a short story collection.