Jerry sits next to me, working on a fresh beer. It’s a Tuesday night and the bar is empty, save for a handful of lonely hearted men finding their love at the bottom of a glass. Jerry goes on about all kinds of things: asshole politicians, his dickhead boss, his wife who kicked him out last week. He tells me it came out of nowhere, that he the whole thing blindsided him. And now he’s shacking it up at a motel by the goddamn highway. Jim’s Tavern is the only place he feels he can come to with open arms.
Jerry and Helen married about fifteen years ago. Have two kids. A fat German Shepherd named John-Boy that Jerry is crazy about. I’ve known Jerry for thirteen years and I can remember that dog being around him every time I went over for dinner. I guess Jerry will drink himself to death when old John-Boy finally keels over.
He keeps telling me that his recent marriage roadblock was unexpected and won’t last long. But anyone who knows him will tell you different. We’re neighbors. My wife Nora and I could hear their fights clear across the street. Plates shattering and doors slamming. In our neighborhood everyone had a front row view to the local drama of Jerry and Helen Murphy. Nora would check on Helen during an intermission and she’d come back, telling me the things Jerry said and did to her. He once broke her mother’s china cabinet and threw the pieces out the bathroom window. I would always take him out for a beer and drive around the town lake with him. His side of the story was always different.
The night Helen kicked him out, Jerry tells me, she wouldn’t stop yelling at him. Questioned his masculinity, Jerry says. She hollered on about this and that, how she couldn’t live with him anymore. That he had to leave. She said she was seeing someone else and didn’t love Jerry anymore, hadn’t for years. So Jerry just smiled. He went out and slashed Helen’s tires so she couldn’t leave. Then he lit her rose bushes on fire. When she came out and saw the flames, she screamed at him to put the fire out before the damn house burned down.
He was out on his ass right after.
“She didn’t even let me take John-Boy,” he says. “She can fuck around all she wants and kick me out of my house, but that’s my dog.”
“Where you gonna put him?” I say. “John-Boy would tear that hotel to shreds.”
He orders another drink. The bartender looks Jerry over and continues to wipe a glass. “You’ve had enough, buddy.”
Jerry doesn’t want to hear this.
He’s not a particularly big guy, but when he’s drinking he gets to this point where he can snap anyone as easy as a toothpick. But he’s calm about it at first. A sleeping giant. Jerry doesn’t do anything to the bartender except look at him and waves his glass close to the bartender’s face.
“I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough,” he says. “Buddy.”
I look around the bar. Men without women. All these men. This bar looks like a sad club for local estranged husbands. I’m sure, when all the details are taken into account, that we’re all different. But on the surface it’s the same–men without women. Thinking about love and wondering if and when we’ll bring it all back home. Or if we’re just going to the dogs.
“I’ll tell you, Bill,” Jerry says. “Women don’t lead to nothing but trouble. You keep that in mind when you think about your wife.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe you’re right.”
He slams down his new beer and smiles. “Damn right I’m right.”
“Maybe I’ll call her tomorrow,” I say. “I don’t know.”
I’ll say it now, for the record. I cheated on Nora. I’m not too proud of it. Who knows why any man does it. I sure as shit don’t. All I know is that I did and she found out about it. She’s a smart woman. Now the one and only word on her mind is divorce. She told me she’s already talking to a lawyer. She wanted me out. Told me not to come back unless I agree to the divorce or go back to being a family man. Two options. They call that an ultimatum. How many marriages end well with that? She’s given me a week to think about it. It’s already been three days.
The funny thing is I can hardly remember the other woman. Her name was Nicole or something. I met her in a bar downtown after a Royals game with Jerry last year. For a few months we carried on with it. And now she’s a blur and Nora’s angry, sad face is what I see when I go to sleep.
Now I’m like Jerry, held up at some cheap motel, some grimy roach dump called the I-70 Inn, with a suitcase of clothes, and a beautiful view of cracked pavement and fast food signs. The sounds of late-night lovers and dying car engines are what I fall asleep to.
“I can’t believe she’s taking John-Boy,” Jerry says. “It’s my dog. I bought it, raised it. I’m the only one who feeds it. I love that dog. That dog is mine. She can’t keep my fucking dog.”
“Well,” I say. “Maybe you’ll win him in the settlement.”
“If she thinks she can stop me from seeing John-Boy,” he says. He finishes his drink, gulping it down in one big motion, and stares behind the bar.
He stares at nothing in particular, his mind thinking about this and that. Helen. His kids. John-Boy. He starts lightly pounding his fist on the bar, as if that will help him find the right thing to do
“Hey buddy,” he says. “Lemme see your phone.”
The bartender bites his lip and hands Jerry the phone. “Keep it short,” he says. “Keep it local.”
Jerry dials and waits while the line rings. I pay the bartender for another round and look at our distorted reflection in the bar mirror. Jerry gets an answer soon.
“Hello? Hello? Helen? It’s me,” he says. “I can hear the kids. How are they? Is there someone else there? I can hear someone else. I’m real sorry, baby. You know I love you. Why can’t I come back tonight? I miss John-Boy.”
When he’s on the phone an old woman comes in the bar. She looks like a tiny witch. Her gray hair is held in a bright patterned handkerchief. Her face is lined with wrinkles and she looks around the bar with nothing short of contempt. She carries a large basket of flowers, all different colors and breeds. She peeks over the petals and goes around to all the men offering to sell some.
I watch as they ignore her. They look at her face and her flowers and turn away, back to their bottles and broken hearts. She holds out her basket to them, and the smell of her flowers is strong enough to mask the stench of cigarettes and stale beer. But everyone turns away from her and she delicately walks between the men and chairs.
She comes over to me and Jerry. Her flowers look a day or two old. The rejects of whatever shop they’re from. She holds out the flowers to us.
“For your wife,” she says.
Jerry rolls his eyes and turns away, gripping the phone.
“How much?” I say.
She places the basket on the bar. “Ten for the half-dozen roses,” she says. “Five for the Just Because or I Love You Today bouquets.”
“I’ll take the I Love You Today,” I say. I take out a crumbled five dollar bill and hand it to her.
She nods and hands me the small bouquet. Some of the petals look wilted. But they still smell nice. She’s thrown together a collection of daffodils and tulips and lilies.
“Your wife should like them,” she says. “Make sure they get put in water.”
She grabs her basket and leaves the bar. I carefully place the flowers on the bar top and look at them. They’re delicate and I don’t want any of the petals to fall off. I wait for Jerry to hang up the phone.
“Listen,” he says. He’s not yelling and he’s not whispering. It’s like an in between. Real calm, and it’s his calmness that gets me. “I’m coming to get John-Boy tonight. You better be alone, just you and the kids.”
He slams the phone down. Some of the lonely men have paid their tabs and left, laughing to themselves about my flowers. Jerry sits quiet with his face in his hands.
“We’re taking a ride,” he says. “You’re driving. Stop at a gas station first. Need more beer.”
I want to tell him no. That this is more than just John-Boy and he should just go home. That I want to see my wife and not drive his sorry ass tonight. But I don’t say anything. He’ll go alone if he wants to.
“What are those?” he says, pointing to my flowers.
I pick them up and shrug. “Flowers for Nora, I guess.”
“That’ll fix anything, buddy. Straight up.”
He chuckles and we pay the bartender with worn-out bills. Our drinks are half-empty so we slam them down before we head out.
The night is cold for a late Midwest April. The brisk air hits me and sobers me for a moment. The stars are clear and I hold the flowers close to me. We get into my fast-food bag littered car and I place the flowers on the floor in the back and make sure nothing will fall on them. I drive to the gas station at the end of the street and Jerry staggers inside and comes back with a six-pack of tallboy Hamm’s. He tears two off, hands me one, and pops open his.
I set mine between my legs and head towards Jerry’s house. He chugs his beer and chucks it out the window. I keep an eye out for any cops but don’t see any. The streets are empty. Everyone is at home this late, under warm blankets. I think about Nora. I look back to see if my flowers still look okay.
“You know what I’m gonna do, Bill?” Jerry says. “When we get there?”
“What,” I say.
“I’m gonna take John-Boy. He’s mine, right? I’m gonna walk right in and take my dog. He’s coming with me. Man’s best friend. She can’t keep him from me.”
He goes quiet again and for a second I wonder if he’s smart enough to realize what he’s doing. Maybe it is just about him wanting John-Boy. He taps on the dashboard and turns Springsteen up. He fidgets off-beat with the music and makes me anxious.
“Maybe I should have bought some flowers,” he says.
We pull up to the house. The lights are on and there’s a car I’ve never seen behind Helen’s. I look over at Jerry. He clears his throat and says he’ll be five minutes, tops. He gets out and walks past the charred remains of Helen’s rose bush. He pounds on the door. I hear him yell her name over and over. I open another beer and watch him run inside as soon as the door opens. Then it slams shut.
I look across the street through the rear-view mirror at my house. Nora’s car is gone. All the lights are off except the living room. She could be anywhere. Maybe she’s with her parents, telling them about me. About the choice she’s given me. My father-in-law might be telling her to quit me for good. That he’s always hated me. He’ll kill me if she just asks. Say the word and that spineless prick is dead, sweetie.
Or maybe she’s with someone. Someone she met at the dental clinic where she works. Maybe they’re having a nice dinner on the town and laughing. She’ll tell me it doesn’t mean anything, just a friend taking another friend to dinner during a life crisis. These things happen, don’t they?
I drink it off my mind and look at the dashboard clock. It’s been more than five minutes. I roll the windows down for air and I hear muffled yelling and barking. Three people going at it. Two against one.
Then the front door busts open and Jerry comes out. Helen’s man – some guy I’ve never seen before, bigger than Jerry–comes out and grabs a hold of Jerry’s shirt collar. He throws Jerry down on and the grass and Jerry gets up.
“You motherfucker,” Jerry says.
He takes a good swing at the guy. It lands on his cheek and he staggers back. There’s a gash on Jerry’s right arm and blood runs from it. The man gets up and lands a fist in Jerry’s stomach. Jerry falls back but finds his footing. He tries to get the man in a chokehold. The man gets out of the way and punches Jerry in the kidney. Jerry jumps on the man and they fall down to the ground. John-Boy stands in the doorway barking at Jerry. Helen’s next to the dog, yelling at them both. Lights go on all down the street, neighbors watching the final act of the local tragedy. I get out to pull Jerry off this guy but Jerry pushes me back. I stand off to the side and listen for sirens.
“Jerry,” Helen says. “Stop! Get off of him! Do you want the kids to see?”
The man gets Jerry into a hold. Jerry tries to break from it but the man is bigger and gives Jerry one more good punch to the kidney. Jerry breathes heavy and he can’t do anything else. He calls the guy a son of a bitch over and over. It’s his dog, Jerry says. It’s his life.
The man throws Jerry and he lands face down on the grass. I go over and pick him up. Blood’s coming from his nose. The front of his shirt is sweaty and red. His arm looks mangled. He wraps his arm around my shoulder and lets me take him to the car.
“I’m so sorry about this, Helen,” I say.
“Just get him out of here,” she says.
“Do you want some flowers?”
She looks at me with eyes that scream bloody murder. She waits until the man comes back inside then flips off Jerry and closes the door. She turns the porch light off and me and Jerry stagger in the dark.
Back on the road, Jerry holds napkins to his nose. His left arm is red.
“Fucking John-Boy bit the hell out of my arm,” he says. “Little bastard got mad when I tried to pick him up. Bit me real good.”
He laughs for a few seconds, blood stained on his face. He laughs so hard I think he might cry. Then he stops and looks at his arm.
“You know,” he says. “I love that woman. Always will. I guess that doesn’t matter now. What do I do?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Nothing. Get over it. You’re lucky no one called the cops. I didn’t even want to take you. I could have been thrown in jail with you.”
We pull into Jerry’s motel. He sits still for a moment, thinking about tonight and the next step. He pats my shoulder and tells me I’m a good friend and that he can always count on me. I tell him anytime. I tell him we’ll have a drink tomorrow night and he’ll forget all about this. That both of us will feel better. I think he wants to believe that as much as I do. He gets out and heads to his room. I pull back onto the highway.
As I drive I think about Nora. I think about the men without women at the bar, all sad-eyed and dead. I think about Jerry, bloody and stupid, and Helen, and words that hurt, and burnt rose bushes.
I turn the car around and head back to my house. I pull up on the curb. Her car is there now but the lights are off. I grab a pen and write a note on a fast-food napkin. I write: Call you in the morning. Hope you enjoy these. Sorry they aren’t too pretty, this was all they had. L, Bill. I reach in the backseat and grab the flowers.
The night air is colder now and I worry the flowers will die overnight. I put the note under the bouquet and set them in front of the door. I think about knocking but decide to let her sleep. I look around the neighborhood and hear nothing but the buzzing streetlights. I walk back to the car and drive away. The stench of old flowers follows me until I get to the highway, and then it dissipates into the cold, late night air.