This is the latest chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE.
He smiled across at me, his blue eyes squinting a little. It was a slow smile that started at his eyes and flowed down like molasses, but never grew very big. “It’s not a huge tragedy, Lila Grace, don’t worry. I’m not so noble as to have say by her bedside for a year while she slowly withered from cancer or anything like that. No, it’s a boring story with a few exciting moments, but there’s unfortunately nothing unusual or even uncommon about it.”
I didn’t speak, just held on to his hand and kept looking at his face.
“Okay, fine,” he said after the pause grew to uncomfortable lengths. “Nancy and I were both married before, and both divorced when we met. It was one of those rare things – we met as adults not in a bar, not as a hookup from friends, and not in a church.”
“Where did you meet, then?” I asked. He’d hit the top three places I knew of that grown-ups met, so I was genuinely curious.
“Waiting in the lobby of an oil change place. I was getting my cruiser worked on, and she was getting the brakes checked before a road trip. I needed new windshield wipers, and she turned out to need new brake pads, so we started talking. I ended up sticking around an extra hour after my car was done, just to talk to her.”
“That’s sweet,” I said.
“Yeah, well, she was easy to talk to, and easy on the eyes. I reckon back then I probably wasn’t too bad to look at myself. I was a good forty pounds lighter, with a little more hair on top, and a lot less hair in my ears.”
“You’re not doing too bad for an old man, Willis,” I told him, patting his hand.
“Flattery will get you pretty much anywhere you want to go, pretty lady,” he replied, and I felt the blush creep up my chest to my neck. I looked away from his eyes for a second, and he resumed his story. “So we went out a few times, and after a little while we decided that we liked each other more than casually. She wasn’t crazy about the idea of marrying a cop, but I’d made detective by then, so I wasn’t walking a beat anymore. At least I worked hard to convince her that was safer, anyway.”
“We dated for about a year before we got married, and were married for a good eight years.” He chuckled. “I usually tell people I was married for six good years, and two lousy ones, but that’s not fair to Nancy. She was great to me, right up until the time it all fell apart. I wasn’t as great to her, though.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Same thing that happened with Gina. Same thing that happens to most cops, I guess. At least from talk around the stations, anyway. I got promoted to Homicide, started spending more and more time out at night, at crime scenes and dealing with informants, suspects, and other unsavory types. It made me a darker man, and I was never exactly the life of the party. After a while, I wasn’t the man she married anymore, so…”
“So…what?” I asked. “You’ve got to remember, I’m the old spinster. I’ve never been married, to a cop or to anyone else, so I don’t know what ‘so…’ means.”
“She cheated,” he said bluntly. My eyes snapped up to his face, and I could tell by the set of his jaw and the flat gaze he directed at the table that it still hurt him to the core, even now. “She cheated, with a guy from her work. A middle manager named Rico, who was in good shape, used a lot of hair product, and pay her a lot of attention.”
I eyeballed the buzzed grey stubble sticking out maybe a quarter-inch from his head. “I can see how you would lose out in the hair product department,”
Willis laughed, a genuine laugh with just the lightest hint of self-deprecation behind it. “Yeah, I didn’t do a lot of that kind of stuff even back before I started going thin on top. Once I hit thirty-five, my hairline didn’t recede, it went into full retreat.”
I chuckled, and said, “That’s funny, that’s about the time my boobs started moving south for the winter and never came back north.” We both laughed with the ease that only people who have grown into being comfortable with themselves can have.
His smile faded away, and he said, “There’s more. Because when you have a man in his late thirties, who’s spent a life in law enforcement, and he finds out that his wife is unfaithful, you have one of three possible outcomes. Way too often, it ends up with the cop knocking his wife around. Well, the only redeeming quality I held onto in this mess is I never hit Nancy, or any other woman that wasn’t actively trying to kill me.”
I filed that away for future investigation, because I thought there was a little too much specificity in that sentence to not have an interesting story buried in there somewhere, but I kept my mouth shut. I just sat there, waiting for the rest of his moment of confession.
“Well, it’s pretty obvious from the fact that I’m sitting here that I didn’t swallow the barrel of my service weapon, although I’ll admit I thought about it more than once. This whole scene cost me years of therapy.”
“So that means you did exercise Option Number Three?” I asked.
“Yep,” he nodded.
“Which is what, exactly?”
“I waited outside their work, followed them to a motel where they met up to have sex, and when they went into the room, I waited about fifteen minutes then knocked on the door.”
“Oh no,” I said.
“Oh yeah. Rico came to the door, and I broke his nose with it. I shoved the door into his face, then shoved my way into the room. I beat the shit out of him with my wife naked and screaming the whole time. I broke his nose, three ribs, his collarbone, one arm, and three bones in my right hand. I went full crazy on his ass. I’m not anywhere close to proud of it, but it happened, and I’ve got to carry it with me.”
“What happened after that?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the whole sordid story, but he seemed like he needed to get it all out, so I figured I’d better let him lance the whole thing, as it were.
“I sat down in the one chair in the room, you know how those cheap motel rooms are set up, with a little crappy table by the window and one chair over there. Well, I sat down in that chair and just stared at Nancy. She was scared, and I couldn’t blame her. I figured she would be, that’s why I made it a point to leave my gun in the car.”
“I sat there for a minute, then she called to cops. I didn’t go anywhere, but I did tell her she might want to think about putting some clothes on before they got there. She wore a sheet into the bathroom and came out about the same time the first patrol car got there. I was still sitting at the table, my badge out in front of me, both hands in plain sight. Rico had managed to sit up, and had his back to the dresser, a towel over his junk, and another one pressed to his bleeding nose. He was spouting all kinds of crap about suing me and making sure I spent the rest of my life in jail, but it was all crap.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m a big dumb ox sometimes, Lila Grace, but I ain’t stupid. I knew going in there how everything was going to play out, and it went just about how I expected it to. I got busted back down to a patrolman, spent a month suspended without pay, and ended up giving Nancy pretty much anything she wanted in the divorce. She got the house, both cars, and all our savings. I got to keep five grand in our bank accounts, my clothes, and my bass boat. I had to borrow a truck from a friend to tow the boat out of our driveway so I could sell it for enough money to buy a beat up Saturn.”
“But I didn’t serve any time. I knew the cops that came to arrest me. I went through the academy with one of them, and I’d met the other one a few times at union meetings. They didn’t hassle me much, and I didn’t give them any crap. The DA didn’t push too much, and Rico couldn’t get them to press anything more than assault charges. Intent wouldn’t stick because I left my gun in the car, so I obviously didn’t want to kill him. I paid a fine and did community service for that, and the whole thing was behind me. I haven’t seen Nancy since we met in the lawyer’s office to finalize our divorce. She sold the house and moved to Phoenix, and I decided that I’m pretty much not the marrying type.”
“I don’t know that I think that’s very fair, Willis,” I said. “But if that demotion is one of the things that kept you from getting a job in a bigger city, I can’t say as how I don’t like it at least a little bit.”
He smiled at me, a shy little thing that kinda danced around the corners of his mouth and eyes for a few seconds, then ran away when it saw me looking. “I ain’t proud of what I did, but I’d do it again. That little sumbitch needed an ass-whooping, and I reckon it was on me to deliver it.”
“Is this where you go into some stupid diatribe about the man code?” I asked, taking a sip of my tea.
“No, this ain’t got nothing to do with the man code,” he said. “This is just about being a decent human being. Marriage is supposed to be sacred, and it ain’t something to interfere with. I wasn’t the best husband to Nancy, I know that. But I didn’t deserve having that little snake come into my relationship with his good teeth and his hair gel and steal my woman away from me. It hurt my pride, probably more than it heart my heart. If I was to be honest about it, me and Nancy had been growing apart for a while, and it was almost something of a relief when we finally split up.”
“But your pride demanded that you beat somebody up over it,” I heard the disapproval in my voice, but I didn’t mean it much. I grew up in a small town around men, and I knew them to be fragile creatures. The big idiots could cut a finger off with a chainsaw and keep going with it wrapped in duct tape, but God forbid you hurt their feelings.
“Yeah, it did,” he sighed. “It ain’t the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but it makes the top five, that’s for damn sure. Come to think of it, most of the rest of them involve a woman, too.”
“Where does going out with a woman who talks to dead people rank?” I asked. My voice was softer than I wanted it to be, and the joking lilt I planned on being there was missing somehow.
He reached across the table and took my hand in his. “Lila Grace, I know you ain’t crazy. I know you ain’t evil. I don’t know how it is that you see and hear the things you do, but I know them to be true things. So as far as I’m concerned, you ain’t a woman who talks to dead people, you’re just a woman. A woman I’m mighty interested in getting to know a lot better, and I don’t give a good goddamn who in this town thinks they’ve got something to say about that.”
“That might be just about the sweetest thing anybody’s ever said to me, Willis.” I meant it, too. Growing up the freak of a small town made for a lonely life, at least among other warm bodies. “I’m pretty interested in getting to know you a lot better, too. But not at the cost of your job.” I pushed back from the table and took my glass over to the sink.
“Now you been over here way too long for any reasonable lunch break, so why don’t I wash these dishes while you get on back to the station and try to catch some bad guys?”
He stood up and walked over to stand behind me, close, his breath tickling the little hairs on the back of my neck. “I’ll go back to the station,” he said, his voice low and husky. “But when I get off at six, I’m coming right back over here and we’re going to explore that whole ‘getting to know each other better’ idea.”
“I’ll have pork chops and mashed potatoes ready by six-thirty,” I said, looking down at the sink. I didn’t trust myself to turn around, or I was liable to jump him right there on my poor kitchen table.
“Keep talking sexy like that and I’ll never leave,” he said with a laugh. Then he put his arms around me from behind and kissed the side of my neck. “I’ll see you later, Lila Grace.”
I braced myself on the sink against a sudden rush of weakness in my knees. “See you soon, Willis.”
I didn’t turn and watch him go. I didn’t even sneak a glance out of the corner of my eye at his firm butt in his uniform khakis. And I most certainly didn’t sit down in my chair at the table, downing a whole ‘nother glass of tea while fanning myself vigorously with the latest issue of Southern Living. Really, I didn’t.