It was his liver, hardened by 5,000 gallons of eighty-proof gin, that finally killed Harlin Wilder.
The sharp pang of loneliness Harlin’s first wife Janine felt when she heard this news surprised her. Her marriage to Harlin, which had lasted barely eight months, had ended more than a decade ago, and Janine had long since put that time behind her. Still, when Harlin’s lawyer Jake Grimaldi drove out to her house to tell her Harlin was gone, Janine sat down at her kitchen table and put her head in her hands.
Jake, who was a polite man, took a flask of whiskey out of his coat pocket and handed it to her. “I thought you would want to know,” he said.
Janine felt the booze go down and remembered how much she’d loved whiskey, which she hadn’t had since she’d become a nurse and given up hard liquor. She looked at the barn across the street, sagging in the middle as if it understood her. Harlin had remained in her memory as one of those fantastic alcoholics who never died, one of those flukes of nature that just kept on drinking long after the joggers and vegans died of heart attacks. And here was Jake Grimaldi, a drinker himself whom Janine had known since high school, a man she thought might have given in years ago, sitting in her kitchen alive and well and telling her that Harlin was gone.
“I represented him in court just this year,” Jake said. “His wife was suing him because he took all her money to start up a petting zoo.”
Janine laughed and took one of his cigarettes.
“He got drunk one day and decided he was going to start this zoo out at his dad’s old place. He took Charlene’s money out of her savings and spent it all on fencing supplies and animal feed.”
“And beer for all the people he was going to hire,” Janine said.
Jake smiled. “Naturally,” he said.
“Including you,” Janine said. She meant to laugh when she said this, but then she began to cry. She had loved Harlin, and he had loved her, and even though that time had passed, she remembered his voice and his hands, and the way he couldn’t get enough of her skin.
Jake pulled a cocktail napkin out of his pocket and checked it for phone numbers, and, seeing none, handed it to Janine. When he put his arm around her shoulders, Janine smelled good whiskey and cigarettes, a smell she’d always liked on a man. She breathed it in from his jacket before she pulled away.
The funeral was the next morning, Jake said, downtown at the funeral home on State Street.
“You going?” Janine guessed the answer even before Jake shook his head. The funeral would be full of his clients, and Jake, who she knew saw a little of himself in each one, wouldn’t want to be closer to their lives than he already was.
“No,” he said. “But Freddie Wilder was out last night telling everyone it was going to be a big party.”
Janine laughed and blew her nose. “I bet he was.”
One of her dogs started scratching at the door, and Janine got up to let him in.
“It was nice of you to come all the way out here to tell me about it,” Janine said.
“It was on my way back from the jail,” Jake said. Then, “You look good.”
“Thank you,” she said, running some water for the dog.
“You should call me tomorrow, if you’re in town.” It was a pass and Janine knew it, and for a minute she thought about reminding him that she was living with a cabinetmaker named Troy. But then she decided not to. It was rare these days that anyone, even Troy, looked at her the way Jake was now, like she was a single, delicious, ripe piece of fruit.
“You’re sweet to try, Jake Grimaldi,” she said.
“Nothing sweet about it,” said Jake.
The funeral was at 11:00, which was a bad choice since most of the attendees had been out the night before and were still hungover at that hour. “It’s not what Harlin would have wanted,” said Rita Hartwick, who was the first person Janine saw when she got out of her truck. Rita tended bar at Lucy’s, where Harlin and Janine used to drink, and she greeted Janine warmly. Then she said, “It’s too goddamn early. If Harlin were alive, even he wouldn’t have shown up.”
Janine nodded as if she knew exactly what Rita was talking about, even though she hadn’t been hungover like that in a long time. After she had left town she stopped going to bars as much, and when she did, it wasn’t the same. No one grabbed her ass the way Hank Stevens used to at Lucy’s, or told her long stories about their girlfriends that ended with things like, “You wouldn’t get mad if there was too much smoke in a strip club and make me leave the way she did,” the way Frankie Johnson used to. (To which Janine had responded, “I might if I was seven months pregnant.”) Without all the sexy tension she used to enjoy, bars seemed less magical, and more like places full of people getting drunk and acting stupid, and Janine had mostly stopped going. Still, this made her homesick whenever she saw Rita, or Jake, or heard a story about Hank Stevens driving his truck home naked.
Janine and Rita walked toward the funeral home, where it looked like there was an alcoholic’s revival taking place. Two men staggered up to the porch looking like they might still be drunk. A woman who looked like she could lift a piano carried a cooler of beer. She had put her hair up in a knot and wore no eye makeup, but lots of wonderful red lipstick. There were other women, some in black, but some in lighter colors—pink, and light green, as if they refused to be dark on this occasion. Some men wore work clothes—clean Dickies pants and work boots. Others carried containers of food.
There were a few faces besides Rita’s that Janine recognized from her drinking days. Stewart Levine, who couldn’t drive because of the metal plate in his head, rode in on his bicycle. He was wearing a brown corduroy suit that barely reached his ankles, and was carrying a fistful of balloons that said, “Congratulations” on them. Freddie Wilder, Harlin’s older brother, walked up the stairs with his cousin Buzzy Crenshaw, who had thick glasses and wore a neck brace. Most of the faces, however, were only vaguely familiar, and Janine was reminded that it had been a long time since she’d been back to this part of her hometown.
Janine and Rita went inside and took a seat between a nun and two men who looked like they’d been scraped up off the pavement that morning. Harlin’s sister, Becky, began the service by reading a piece from Corinthians. She had a plain, honest face and wore a shapeless dress with a collar that looked like a doily. The last time Janine had seen Becky, she had a perm and thick eyeliner and was at Lucy’s, where she had asked Janine if she thought $25 was enough to charge a guy for letting him see her tits. “Ask for $40,” Janine had said. “Settle for $27.”
“What happened to her?” Janine whispered to Rita.
“She found God,” Rita said.
Becky passed the microphone to her husband, who was short and had a sharp little black beard. He read a brief poem he’d written about God’s love and opened the floor to anyone who wanted to share words about Harlin.
Buzzy stood up and began a short speech about how he and Harlin had been friends since they were boys in the fifties, and how he used to hang out with all the Wilder boys, partying, driving, shooting things, and calling each other brother.
(is this supposed to be a section break or paragraph break?) “Harlin gave me this shirt,” Buzzy said. It was a purple tie-dyed shirt with a wolf on it that said, If all the animals in the world were to be killed, human beings would die from the loss of spirit. What happens to the animals will eventually happen to the humans. Chief Takoma.
“He told me how his grandfather taught him to look at trees, drive a tractor, and shoot a gun.” Buzzy started crying. “He loved nature. He gave me this staff. So that’s Harlin. If anyone sees me with it, you can come up and say hello to Harlin.” Buzzy sat down sobbing and Becky passed him a tissue.
“Shooting a gun isn’t exactly the same as loving nature,” one of the men sitting next to Janine said. He passed her a shot of whiskey and offered some to the nun, who smiled and took an eensy sip.
A black woman in a lavender suit and matching pillbox hat stood up.
“I run the shelter around the corner,” she said. “And I wouldn’t have been able to get in touch with the homeless people around here if it hadn’t been for Harlin.” There were a few “Amens” from the crowd. So he was homeless at the end, thought Janine. Oh, Harlin.
“And I know right now he’s in a much better place than that hospital,” the woman went on. “And he’s probably wearing that ugly leather jacket.”
People laughed and Buzzy got up again and reminded people that Harlin liked animals. A basket was passed around with sheets of paper so those who were shy could write something down. Janine couldn’t think of what to write right away, so she peeked at what other people had written. “Harlin, I love you. Keep on riding the magic carpet.” “Harlin, your love will live on with us.”
Janine thought about how, two nights before, her sister had asked her if her boyfriend was the love of her life. Yes, she had said. But she had thought of Harlin then, as she thought of that exchange now. Could she have stayed with him? No. But had she loved him? Yes. Yes, she had. “You were a good man Harlin,” she wrote. Then she remembered the time he lost his whole paycheck in a dogfight. “PS:” she wrote. “You owe me money.” (Or: “You just sometimes did bad things.”)
Rita left after the funeral to go help her girlfriend with their vegetable garden and Janine stayed out on the front porch of the funeral home, not sure what to do with herself. It was a beautiful spring day and she wasn’t quite ready for the thirty-minute drive back to her house. She took a beat up cigarette out of her purse and lit it, careful not to inhale. It was nice to have nothing to do but stand there and pretend to smoke and stare at the empty Masonic Lodge across the street.
The two men she’d sat with during the funeral came out and lit cigarettes. “I’m Billy,” said the slighter one. He was very thin but muscular, as if he lifted boxes of coal for a living. He had a sweet face but one of his front teeth was broken at an angle, which made him look cunning when he smiled. His friend Dave had a long face and some facial hair growing in no particular pattern on his chin.
“Janine,” she said, shaking their hands. “I used to be married to Harlin.”
“Sorry,” said Billy. He offered her a sip from the flask he was carrying and Janine took it and smiled.
“It wasn’t so bad,” said Janine.
“Harlin was sleeping on a bean bag chair in our living room before he got sick,” said Dave.
“Sorry,” said Janine.
“It wasn’t so bad,” Billy grinned.
Billy and Dave escorted Janine to the wake, which was held at the community center down the block. The mourners sat at long, cafeteria-style tables, with cans of beer and plates of macaroni and cheese, baked beans, and scalloped potatoes that had come in tinfoil pans. In the back was a cake with a picture of a waterfall on it where Harlin, according to Billy, Dave, and the police officers present, often went to drink alone. It was probably, Billy said, where Freddie and Buzzy were now, getting stoned in Harlin’s honor—especially since the police officers were present, and not out on their beats.
Janine, Dave, and Billy sat down next to two women who introduced themselves as Cadence and Ailene. Cadence, the elder of the two, got up to fix Janine a plate of food while Ailene, whom Janine recognized as the one she’d seen earlier with the lipstick and beer, cleared a space next to her. Janine draped her sweater on the back of her chair and began to make small talk.
“How did you know Harlin?” she asked Cadence.
“I met him when I was tending bar at Lucy’s,” she said. She had intelligent eyes and the gravelly voice of a lifetime smoker. “We were on-again off-again for about ten years.”
“I didn’t really know him at all,” said Ailene. “My fiancé, Jake, knew him, which is why I’m here. Only Jake disappeared an hour ago to smoke a cigarette, so now I’m here alone.”
Cadence had her eyes on Janine.
“And you were married to him?” she said.
Janine wondered if their relationships with Harlin had overlapped.
“It was a long time ago.”
“You’re the only ex-wife who showed up,” said Ailene. She had smooth brown skin and shoulders like a lumberjack.
“All the rest are suing him,” said Cadence, and let out a short, raspy laugh. It was a genuine sound, and Janine felt a twinge of jealousy. Harlin would have liked a woman with a raspy laugh. Janine had given up cigarettes when she cut back on drinking—and was glad for it—but she had never worn bad habits well. Cadence did.
“Isn’t that funny,” Cadence said, “the only women who are here for him are his first wife and the one he never married.”
“Harlin was a ladykiller,” said Dave, adjusting the farmer’s cap he wore backwards. “He wasn’t meant to be married.”
Cadence looked at him in a gentle way, the way you might look at a soldier who’s off to fight an unwinnable war. “Oh, honey,” she said. “By funny I meant pathetic.”
The group began to tell stories about Harlin. They talked about his lost jobs, his bad luck, the time he almost killed a friend with a broken beer bottle, the house he accidentally set on fire. There were heroic stories, too. Cadence told a story about the time Harlin rode his motorcycle into her bar because it was brand-new and he couldn’t wait for her to see it. Billy brought up the time Harlin took on Dale Oplinger, who was three times his size and crazy, and might have strangled him if the cops hadn’t come and made them both spend the night in jail. Dave remembered when Harlin put on an Easter bonnet to be part of a parade one of the women at the bar organized. Janine told them all about the time Harlin called a reporter from the local paper and told her he had organized a bus rodeo. “He got this big idea that he was going to get all his friends together and drive school buses around a bunch of pylons. He called a newspaper reporter and told her all about it and then he gave her the number of the bar and passed out. When the woman called back she got Rita, who said, ‘A bus rodeo? Honey, that man has so many DWIs he’s lucky if he can get on a bicycle.’”
Everyone laughed and raised their glasses, and in the moment of silence that followed, Janine, who was getting drunk, remembered her short marriage fondly.
“You know what I loved about Harlin?” she said. “I loved how Harlin could sing. There was so much longing in that voice—it got right into everyone’s heart. When he sang everyone around him just stopped and listened.”
“It got him evicted from his last apartment though,” Billy said. “Sometimes he sang really loud.”
“And he was good to his dogs,” Janine said, not wanting her warm feelings for Harlin to be shut down. “I always trust a man who is good to his dogs.”
“I trust a man who is good to his wife,” Cadence said. She wasn’t looking at Janine when she said this, but Janine heard it as a challenge.
“That’s a good reason not to date one that’s married,” she said.
Cadence looked at her and almost smiled. “I suppose that’s true,” she said. She ignored the No Smoking signs and lit a cigarette, and Janine wondered what she and Harlin had been like in bed.
Ailene took out some more lipstick and applied it. Her fiancé, she said, had been married when she first started dating him. Then she asked Janine if she wanted to see picture of her daughter. She opened her wallet and showed Janine a picture of little girl in a pantsuit.
“She’s beautiful,” said Janine.
“I’m having another one, too, which is why I’m so fat,” said Ailene. She pulled out a photocopy of a sonogram, where a ghostly white shape floated against a dark background. In careful block letters, someone had drawn arrows and written: Eye. Arm. Leg.
“That’s beautiful, too,” Janine said.
Ailene, who was not drinking, frowned. “You can’t see what it looks like yet,” she said.
Harlin’s sister, Becky, got up to lead everyone in prayer over the food. Ailene excused herself to go speak to her fiancé, who was talking to a girl with a nose ring.
“They’ll last about six months,” said Dave.
“Poor thing,” said Cadence, shaking her head.
Buzzy Crenshaw started pounding on a glass with his jackknife. He stood up and adjusted his neck brace and said he knew it was early for toasts, but he didn’t want people to be too drunk to listen to him.
“There was a lot you could say about Harlin,” Buzzy said. “You could say sometimes he went too far, and you could say sometimes he did too much, but Harlin was responsible for the mood in any bar. If he was drinking and the drinking was good, he could light up a place.”
The guests nodded. Dave got up and said Harlin was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. Then he said that he was also the kind of guy who would rip the shirt off the back of someone who insulted one of his friends. In fact he had, and Buzzy told the story about that, too.
“Harlin wanted to be remembered as a gentle man,” he said, “which was not easy, since he had a violent nature.” At this everyone laughed and raised their glasses.
“But there was something in Harlin that always made you want to help him,” Buzzy went on. He told the story about the time Harlin almost killed Danny Starner by hitting him in the head with a broken bottle, but Danny forgave him later and said he had it coming. “You couldn’t not forgive Harlin,” Buzzy said. “He had this kindness, a sort of wisdom. Harlin always knew what was eating you whether you told him or not.”
Janine took a sip of Southern Comfort from her styrofoam cup. She considered the times she had forgiven Harlin: for the other women, the coke binge(s), the things he forgot (her birthday, his car payments). No man had made her as angry as Harlin did, but she still hadn’t met anyone who meant an apology as much as Harlin did. “I’m so sorry I kissed your friend Helen,” he’d say, absolutely sincerely. “It was a crazy night, and she reminded me of you. Only not as beautiful.” That bastard, she thought now. The worst thing about him was that he meant it.
In his later years, Buzzy was saying, Harlin had reined in his temper. “It was Harlin who tried to teach Martin Pugliese not to pick fights.” It was Harlin, he added, who talked to Becky’s boy when he went through a bad time and threatened to poison his father.
“Buzzy!” Becky hissed, but Buzzy went on.
“The point is,” he said. “He was a good man and a free spirit, and that is worth toasting.”
Janine raised her styrofoam cup.
“What about how he stole his ex-wife’s money?” said Cadence.
Janine looked at her. “I’m not talking about you,” Cadence said, not unkindly. “I’m talking about his most recent ex-wife.”
Dave rolled his eyes. “Here we go.”
“You know why she sued him?” She was looking at Janine. “He took all her money to start a petting zoo out at his father’s broken-down house.”
Janine wondered if Cadence were drunk. She figured she was, since Janine herself was quite drunk, and Cadence was a much thinner woman. But who wouldn’t be upset by the loss of a man she’d loved enough to throw out and take back for ten years?
Janine patted her arm to offer some comfort, but she liked the idea of Harlin’s zoo. If nothing else, Harlin had a creative mind, and she missed that about him, too.
“He was an entrepreneur,” Dave said. “A free spirit.”
“It’s a lot easier to be a free spirit when someone else is cleaning up the mess,” said Janine.
“Or driving out to the jail to bring you cigarettes,” said Cadence. She got up to go sit with Freddie, the last living male Wilder, who was threatening to punch his brother-in-law in the eye.
“She’s not bad-looking for an older lady,” Billy said.
Dave pulled out his wallet.
“You want to see a picture of my daughter?” he said to Janine. He showed her a snapshot of a tiny blond girl with huge cheeks and messy hair.
“We were out in Kansas then,” he said.
“What were you doing in Kansas?” Janine asked. The fact that he had traveled surprised her, which made her a little mad at herself for being judgmental. But Dave reminded her of the kind of guy she grew up with, the kind of guy who never left, didn’t even want to, because there were too many jerk-offs in the world, and he had enough to deal with in his own county.
“I was in the army,” he said. Harlin’s sister Becky rushed past their table with a pan of baked beans, while her husband stood in the corner, looking for someone to talk to, probably about God, Janine thought.
“Until you got kicked out,” said Billy.
Becky’s husband settled on Buzzy, who had been telling off-color jokes about priests, and now wanted to arm wrestle Stewart Levine.
“I got drunk, got into a fight with an officer because he was saying bad shit about my mother. He didn’t even know her.” Dave carefully chewed on a pig in a blanket. “I let him throw the first punch, and then I just defended myself using all the things they taught me.”
Billy had picked up a pen and was drawing on Ailene’s sonogram. “I can’t fight when I’m drunk,” he said. “I get too mean. I’m a little guy, but I can drink about a case, and then when I’m smoking pot on top of that.” He shrugged.
“Yeah, he drinks like that and he passes out,” said Dave. “Then he gets his second wind.”
“I don’t even know what I do,” Billy said. “My wife gets mad at me.”
“I can understand that,” Janine said. “If I was your wife, I would get mad at you.”
“But you have a nice personality,” Billy said. “She doesn’t. She’s mean.”
“She’s vindictive,” Dave said.
“I love my wife,” said Billy. “We’re about to have a little baby.”
“You love your wife,” said Dave, “but you aren’t in love with her.”
“No, I’m in love with her,” Billy said. “I knew we’d have problems, that’s why I married her right away.”
“I married Harlin because I knew we’d have problems.” Janine said this because she wanted to make him feel less alone, and as she spoke she realized that it was true. She’d known right away that it wouldn’t last. She could see the trouble before it started happening, the promises he’d never be able to keep, the way his eyes got restless when it was five and he hadn’t had a drink yet, how it was never his fault when he got yelled at at work. Even at age nineteen, Janine, who was a practical woman, knew this was no good. But the night he’d proposed, Harlin had taken her ordinary face in his hands and said, “I could never get tired of looking at you.” She knew that he would, that she was not beautiful in that way, and that he was drunk enough that he might not even remember this the next morning. But oh, to be looked at like that. If I give this up now, she’d thought, will anyone ever look at me this way again? So she’d married him, to keep that for a little while.
“It didn’t work though,” she said now.
“It didn’t really work for me either,” said Billy. “My wife ran off with five guys.”
“Five?” said Janine. “At once?”
“She went to Toronto in a truck with five guys for the weekend. She didn’t even tell me,” Billy said. “I found out from my landlord.”
“My wife moved in with a girl,” said Dave, “who turned out to be a guy she’d been seeing for two months.”
“I still love her though.” Billy ignored him. “We’ll see when the baby comes. She’s my first wife, and I’m her first husband, and I want to do right by her. I’m paying child support no matter what.”
Stewart Levine got up and straightened the lapels on his corduroy suit. He said Harlin hadn’t lost his spirit, even when he was in the hospital. He’d thanked God for the nurses, and even got one of them to slip him Jack Daniel’s before he died.
Dave said that Harlin hadn’t had any spirit at all. He was just lying there, stupidly, pissing in a bag, and it was Stewart who thanked God for the nurses, one redhead in particular, and that was the main reason he kept going over there to visit Harlin. In fact, it was Stewart who brought in the Jack Daniel’s “for Harlin,” even though everyone knew Harlin drank gin. Then Stewart drank the JD himself until he was asked to leave.
“I bought her a thousand-dollar ring and everything.” Billy was still talking about his wife. “But she wore it on a trampoline and the prongs got bent and the diamond won’t stay in. I don’t know. She don’t wear it anymore. I have to find another girl because she’s all I think about and I can’t be thinking about that anymore.” He looked at Janine. In the corner, Ailene was talking to her fiancé, who was looking past her head and off into the distance, as if he’d already heard whatever she was saying a hundred times.
“You know? I just need someone to be with. I’d cook, I’d wash dishes.”
“That’s what I love about my boyfriend,” said Janine. Billy had pulled his chair a little closer to her, but she didn’t care. She was drunk and enjoying the attention. “He washes dishes and he picks up. I feel guilty about it sometimes because I’m such a slob.”
“You know what you can do,” Dave said. “If you have a glass of something, pick it up and take it with you next time you go into the kitchen.”
“Don’t leave stuff behind the bathroom door,” said Billy.
“Oh, I fucking hate that,” said Dave.
“I always do that,” said Janine. “I go in, take my clothes off, take a shower, get into a towel, and then go into the bedroom to get dressed.” It occurred to her that maybe she shouldn’t be talking about taking her clothes off. But then she decided that, no, that was exactly what she should be doing. She should be talking about walking around with no clothes on to men ten years younger than her at Harlin’s funeral.
“Take your clothes with you,” Dave was saying.
“Or put them in a hamper,” Billy said.
“You can make a chore list,” said Dave.
Dave got up to get some more beer and Janine and Billy got up to go the bathroom. Janine sat by herself, enjoying the solitude for a few minutes. She looked around at the people in the room—Freddie in his one fine suit, Buzzy Crenshaw trying to look over his neck brace and down Becky Wilder’s dress, Ailene’s fiancé swearing he didn’t do a thing—and it was as if Harlin were everywhere, in every man in the room. And then it seemed as if every woman were some version of her, or what she might have been if she’d stayed. The whole thing made her drunk not just on the liquor but on everything—grief, hope, longing, and love—and she felt her heart lift the way it sometimes did when a family gathered around a dying patient and was reminded how closely joy and sorrow live in our hearts.
Yet it was getting later, and the mourning party was beginning to turn. Billy and Dave came back and Billy started complaining about no smoking laws. Cadence was still on Freddie’s lap, and Dave said it was disgusting how some people never change, and how Cadence would probably end up that night with Freddie, Harlin’s brother—once a slut, always a slut.
“She’s good-looking for an older lady, though,” Billy said.
“You said that already,” Dave said. He looked bored and then asked Janine if she wanted to see his tattoos.
“I’d like nothing more,” said Janine.
Dave pulled up his shirt. Inside an uneven circle, a Chinese symbol, halfway filled in, took up most of his chest. “I paid a hundred bucks for that one,” he said.
“Man, you got screwed,” said Billy.
“I was going to get a star for the Dallas Cowboys on my stomach,” said Dave, “but I figured I’m going to grow old and get all fat, and it would stretch out.”
Billy pulled up his pant leg to show off a tattoo of a spider web that went across his kneecap. Then he showed her another one on his calf.
Janine smiled weakly. Each tattoo looked homemade, as if Billy had stabbed himself a hundred thousand times with a Bic pen.
“I love spider webs,” he said.
“He does, too,” said Dave. “At home he has notepads full of drawings of spider webs. That’s all he does is sit around and draw these fucking things.” He absentmindedly picked at a scab on his arm. “Show her the best one.”
Billy unbuttoned his shirt and revealed his finest tattoo. It was another spider web, but this one covered his chest. When Janine saw it, she gasped, not because the tattoo was horrifying, which it was, but because through its center, down the middle of Billy’s torso, ran a red scar, long and thick as a kitchen knife.
The scar was so angry, stuck in the middle of that sad, blue web that Janine felt a wave of sadness just looking at it. “Oh, Billy,” she said. “What happened to you?”
Billy looked down at his chest as if trying to figure out whether she was talking about the scar or the tattoo. “Someone beat me up when I was a baby,” he said.
“My God,” said Janine. “Who?”
“They don’t know, or if they do, Billy won’t say,” Dave said. “But someone dropped him off all cut up and beaten over at Willard, which isn’t even a hospital, it’s a mental institution, and left him there.”
“I had so many broken bones they had to cut me open,” Billy said. “It was so bad that the orderly had to hold my heart in his hands and massage it so I wouldn’t die.”
Janine’s eyes filled with tears. She saw some husband or wife bringing that battered baby to the mental institution—a fucking mental institution—and dropping him off. She imagined that little baby, unable to cry without breaking something else, starting life with his heart in someone else’s hand. She reached out and put her hand on Billy’s cheek.
“I’m not real proud of my tattoos,” Billy said. “I was only sixteen when I got most of them.”
Harlin’s brother Freddie came over and said he was going to be out drinking that night until he ran out of money. “Then,” he said, “I am going to find some more money, so I can put it on the Derby.”
Billy asked Janine if she wanted to come out for a drink, but Janine had had enough for one day.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I have to go home.”
But when she got outside Janine didn’t want to go home. She decided to walk to the Royal Court Inn, where she and Harlin had stayed one night years ago when they were too drunk to drive anywhere. As she walked she thought about Billy and all the hope he had for his doomed marriage and his unborn baby. That was what always got her about Harlin, his relentless hope. It was what kept him from being a bad man, and part of what made him a stupid one. She thought about Cadence, Harlin’s ex-girlfriend, and how she loved and hated him still.
The streets were empty and quiet, and Janine stopped for a minute to listen to the night sounds of the place she used to live. Down the street she could see the mourners staggering out of the community center, two or three at a time, some singing; one woman, Cadence, she guessed, was crying. It was a beautiful, romantic night, and this made Janine nostalgic for Harlin again. “Say what you will about drunks,” she said out loud to the Masonic Lodge. “But no one can love you the way they can.”
At the Royal Court she rented a room. She put her purse down on the bed, and took off her panty hose. She was still thinking about Harlin as she slipped her underwear off under her skirt and put on some lipstick. She picked up the phone and called Jake, who she knew was at home, drinking and waiting, if not for her, then for something or someone. “Jake,” she said when he picked up the phone. “It’s me.”
“Janine,” Jake said. “How are you holding up?”
“Good,” she said. “Fine. Drunk.”
In the pause that followed she could hear a cat yowling somewhere in Jake’s house.
“Should I come over?” he said.
“You should feed that cat first,” she said. She gave him her room number and hung up.
Janine turned off the lights in the room and lit a cigarette, and as she sat waiting for Jake, she drank another bourbon in Harlin’s honor. She thought about how he taught her to dance, and to talk dirty, and how long it had been since she had had good, sloppy, drunken sex like the kind she was about to have. She thanked Harlin for all that as she sat there smoking, a habit she’d given up long ago but still loved. He was her first husband, and she was his first wife, and she wanted to do right by him.