MITCH HAD TO WORK IN THE MORNING AND DIDN’T WANT TO WAKE UP HUNGOVER OR GROGGY FROM LACK OF SLEEP. Loading and unloading trucks for ten hours in the cold made the day long enough. The Reeses’ party was on its last leg anyway and he couldn’t see a valid reason for staying any longer. But Gina didn’t want to leave yet. On her way back from the bathroom, Mitch had managed to corral her in the little alcove between the laundry room and kitchen. She was giggly and drunk. “I’m having a blast!” she said.
_____ “I’m sure you are,” Mitch said. “But it’s time to go. I’m tired. You know I have to be up at six-thirty.”
_____ “Oh, come on. It’s not that late.” Gina looked over at the table in the dining room where some of the guys were playing drinking games. “Let’s stay a little longer. Please!”
_____Mitch pointed to the clock on the Reeses’ microwave. “It’s after two.
_____Gina stared at the ruby digital numbers with burlesque astonishment. “No way!” she said. Then she laughed suddenly and stumbled backward into the wall, nearly falling onto a pile of boxes stacked in the corner. With his free hand – he still held a half-full cup of warm beer in the other – Mitch reached out and caught her by the arm. The abrupt motion caused some of his beer to splash onto the floor.
_____ “Easy now,” he said. Gina steadied herself and swept strands of auburn hair from her flushing face. “Let’s go,” Mitch said, forcing a smile. “I think you’ve had enough.”
_____ “You’re the one who just spilled beer.”
_____ “Yeah. Trying to save you from breaking your neck.”
_____ “Come on,” Gina begged, kissing him on the cheek. “Twenty more minutes. Please!” Her voice was loud and whiney. A couple of guys at the table glanced over. Some of the girls standing near the table looked also. Gina had been mingling over there before going to the bathroom.
_____“Let’s just go,” Mitch said.
_____Gina shook her head, her lips pursed together with a fresh gloss of pink lipstick. “Every time I’m having a good time you try to ruin it.”
_____ “That’s not true.”
_____ “Then what do you call this?”
_____Mitch tugged gently on her elbow in an effort to direct her out of the alcove. “We’re going,” he said. “So say good night to everyone.”
_____ “NO!” Gina shouted. “I don’t want to leave yet.” She tried to edge away from him.
_____Mitch slid his hand down from her elbow and clenched her wrist. “I don’t care what you want. We’re leaving. You’re shit-faced.”
_____ “Stop it,” Gina said, struggling to free her hand from his grip. “LET GO!”
_____ Mitch hated scenes, so he let go. But before Gina could walk away he stepped in front of her. “Twenty minutes,” he told her. “Then we leave. No arguments. Understand?”
_____ “Sure thing.”
_____ “I mean it.”
_____ “Okay! No arguments. Honest Injun.”
_____ Mitch stepped aside and Gina pushed by him. “Dick,” she muttered.
_____ He watched her walk back toward the table. Feeling at a loss, he lingered by the laundry room where the air was warm and humid and tinged with the pungent odor of detergent. He could see snow swirling under the streetlight through the hexagonal window at the end of the hall. Yet the smell and feel of the muggy air drifting out of the laundry room reminded him of summertime. He yearned for a vacation, a break, and for a second he envisioned himself sitting in a lawn chair on an exotic beach somewhere. Instead, he had to go to work on a cold Saturday for the twelfth week in a row.
_____ He walked into the kitchen and lit a cigarette. In the mood to keep drinking, he watched the blue smoke twist around beneath the fluorescent tube above the sink. He hadn’t missed a day in six months and knew he could make up the hours in overtime the following week. Imagining the plausible excuses he could use to call off without getting reprimanded, he dumped his warm beer down the drain.
_____ In the living room, Don Reese and his wife Jamie were standing by the keg talking with Gene Schultz. The three of them had just come upstairs from getting high in the basement. A Creed album played at medium-volume on the stereo. “We’re going back down in a few minutes,” Jamie said. “Wanna come?”
_____“A few minutes?” Don Reese said. He laughed and blinked rapidly. His eyes were watery and bloodshot. “Maybe you are. But hell.” He laughed again. “I’m stoned enough.”
_____Gene laughed too and raised his hands in the air as if surrendering. “I agree. I’m hemped out, Dude.”
_____“Lightweights,” Jamie said. She looked at Mitch. Her blue eyes were bright and clear, and she didn’t appear the least bit high. “What about it, Mitch?”
_____“Maybe,” Mitch said. “Find me when you’re going back down.”
_____“I’m ready right now, if you are.”
_____Mitch felt cornered by the way she looked at him. He topped off his beer. “All right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
_____Jamie led the way down the creaky wooden steps into the basement, a tiny coal cellar with a dirt floor. A naked bulb hung from a dusty brown cord at the bottom, leaving the corners and the area behind the stairwell in shadows.
_____“Hell,” Mitch said. “It’s freezing down here.”
_____Jamie reached into the front pocket of her purple jeans and tugged out a small pipe with a brass bowl. “Hold this for a sec,” she said, digging into her other pocket and pulling out the baggie of weed. Mitch held the pipe upright on his palm. It was still warm from earlier usage. After Jamie opened the baggie, she took the pipe back. Mitch watched her fill it. Her black sweater was unbuttoned down to a tight red sports bra that compressed and elevated her breasts in a way that her cleavage couldn’t be ignored, and though Mitch pretended not to notice, she caught him staring. She took a hit and passed him the bowl.
_____Mitch inhaled too much and coughed. “Whoa,” he said. His mouth was immediately dry. He coughed again and took a sip of beer. “It’s been a while.”
* * *
_____“So are you and Gina going to get married some day, or just keep living together?”
_____Mitch was rotating the toe of his sneaker into the dirt of the basement floor. “The way she acts sometimes, I don’t think I could ever marry her.”
_____“I wouldn’t, if I were you.” Jamie lit the pipe and took a hit. She had just finished packing it again. She kept her mouth closed and held her breath to get the full effect. Mitch watched the smoke roll slowly from her nostrils. “Besides, you deserve better.”
_____“Got someone in mind?”
_____Jamie stared into his eyes and held the pipe out to him. “Gina’s not exactly trustworthy, if you get my drift.”
_____“Whatever that means,” Mitch said.
_____“I’m sorry.” Jamie crossed her arms and gazed pensively toward the corner of the cellar to Mitch’s left. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
_____“People are entitled to say anything they want in this world.”
_____“Don’t be mad.”
_____“It’s just that I hear things. You’re a nice guy. I’d hate to see you get hurt.”
_____“I won’t let that happen.”
_____“Me and the idiot upstairs lived together for two years before we took the plunge. So you got time.”
_____“What, we have to follow your path?”
_____“No. I didn’t mean that.” Jamie stared down at the footprints on the dirt floor. “Hell no. Certainly don’t follow our lead. If I had to do it all over again, if I had another chance…I wouldn’t marry Donny again.”
_____“Why?” Mitch looked up the stairs to make sure no one was standing in the doorway listening. He and Jamie had been passing the pipe back and forth for a while as they talked and now Mitch was buzzed and getting paranoid. Their conversation seemed suddenly to have taken an illicit turn. “Things not going well between you two?”
_____“It’s not that. It just seems like the romance is gone. Maybe we need to have kids.”
_____“That’ll solve all the problems.”
_____Jamie pounded the pipe on the railing to empty the ashes. “Don’t make fun.”
_____“Sure you are.” She stuffed the pipe back into the pocket of her purple jeans. “Let me have a sip of beer.”
_____Mitch handed her his nearly empty cup. “Just showing concern, that’s all.”
_____“No need to worry about us.”
_____He looked again at the vertical rectangle of light at the top of the stairwell. “You know what I mean.”
_____“Forget it.” Jamie took the last sip of beer and handed the empty cup back to Mitch. “Maybe what I need is to have an affair. What do you think?” She stared directly into Mitch’s eyes and didn’t quit until he blushed and looked away. She gave him a playful shove. “What’s the matter?”
_____“I don’t like it when people look into my eyes like that.”
_____“All people?” Jamie had moved her face to within inches of Mitch’s. “Or just me?”
_____Mitch looked down at Jamie’s black boots. “I don’t know.”
_____She reached out her hand and caressed his cheek, then slowly ran her fingers through his hair. “Let’s go back upstairs,” she said. “Before something happens that shouldn’t.”
* * *
_____Mitch filled another beer while Jamie slipped back into conversation with Don and Gene. In the kitchen, Gina was sitting at the table, playing quarters with the guys. It was her turn and she was trying to balance the quarter on the bridge of her nose so that it would roll off the tip. She was too drunk, though, and when the quarter careened down it fell awkwardly and hit the table with a thud, bouncing flatly in front of the beer-filled glass. Bill Ferguson, who sat next to her, went to take his turn, but Gina tried to grab the quarter from his hand. “Let me try again.”
_____“Just drink,” Bill said, lifting his arm to keep the quarter out of Gina’s reach.
_____“Come on, Bill,” Gina said in a pleading voice. She put her arms around his neck. “Give me the quarter.”
_____“It would take more than just a little hug, honey.” The comment elicited laughter from the others hanging around the table.
_____Gina ran one of her hands down Bill’s chest. “Like what?” she said, her voice childishly seductive. There were three other guys sitting at the table – Mitch knew Jay Peterson and Alan Jansto, but not the third – and they were all getting a charge out of this. Apparently, they hadn’t noticed Mitch had returned. Cindy Deluca, who stood behind Bill Ferguson, saw him though, as did Belinda Peterson and another girl beside her.
_____“Gina,” Mitch said, as casually as he could under the circumstances. “Are you ready yet?” Gina detached herself from Bill so quickly that in doing so she belted him in the face with the side of her palm. Neither of them looked at Mitch. To ease the situation, he glanced at his watch. “I have to be up for work in less than four hours.”
_____Gina gave him a quick, furtive glance, then looked at the table. Her pinched, flustered expression revealed a trace of resentment, implying that Mitch was the bad guy. He figured she had no right to act indignant and stood with his arms crossed, waiting for her to get up from the table. Gina took a large drink of her Bacardi and Coke. Finally, she looked up at him. “You go ahead. Cindy is going to give me a ride when she leaves.”
_____“Oh?” Mitch gave Cindy a hard stare across the kitchen.
_____“We know you have to get up for work,” Cindy said. “And us girls want to hang out and party a little while longer. We don’t get to see each other that often.”
_____“Yeah. It’s not that often us girls get a chance to party together like this,” a rather liquored Belinda chimed in. “So you guys just let us have some fun.” The girl standing beside Belinda suppressed a chuckle by covering her mouth with the back of her hand. Then she let out a muffled bray that sounded similar to a car having trouble starting.
_____Jay looked over at Belinda. “We’re not staying too much longer, honey. So don’t get your hopes set on seeing the sun rise.”
_____“You can leave with Mitch, if you want. Cindy’ll give me a ride home, too. Won’t you, Cindy?”
_____“You know it, girl,” Cindy said.
_____Belinda stuck her tongue out at Jay. “So there.”
_____Jay’s eyes widened and he made a threatening gesture by raising his fist in Belinda’s direction. Rumor had it he sometimes hit her.
_____“Relax, Jay,” Cindy said. “We’re just having fun.”
_____“Tell her to relax.”
_____Alan stood up from the table. “Time for me to leave. Bill, need a ride?”
_____“I drove,” Bill said. “Remember?”
_____“Obviously not,” Jay said. “Or he wouldn’t have asked.”
_____Alan put on his thick plaid flannel jacket and began walking toward the front of the house. “See you guys later,” he said.
_____“Wait up, Alan,” Mitch said. “I’m right behind you.”
_____Mitch searched through the coats in the closet by the kitchen until he found the fleece-lined denim jacket his mother had bought him for Christmas. In the process, he purposely knocked Gina’s red leather off its hanger and left it on the grungy floor. “Night everyone,” Mitch said. “And Cindy, try not to bring Gina home in vomiting condition.”
_____“Real funny,” Gina said as Mitch followed Alan out of the kitchen. “Ha ha HA!”
* * *
_____A harsh gust of wind pushed a twister of snow across the Reeses’ small front yard. Alan had parked a few cars in front of Mitch’s blue Tempo on the freshly plowed street, and when Mitch stopped to unlock the door, Alan asked if he wanted to go to Denny’s. “I just rolled a nice fat one,” Alan said, taking off his beat-up Steelers’ hat. He ran his fingers through his long red hair. “Good shit, too. If you gotta go to work that early, might as well stay up all night now.”
_____Mitch stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets and leaned against the car door. “I was thinking of calling off.”
_____Alan grinned. “Well, hell,” he said. His brown eyes were watering in the cold wind. “If you’re calling off, forget breakfast. Let’s go to Starkey’s.”
_____“I don’t know,” Mitch said. Starkey’s was an after-hours club in Conway, a twenty-mile jaunt neither of them was in any condition to drive.
_____“Shit,” Alan said. “We’ll have a good time. I’ll drive.”
_____Mitch didn’t know Alan too well, but over the years he’d formed the opinion that he was erratic and somewhat sinister. He’d been in and out of jail since junior high – convicted of aggravated assaults, drug charges, petty thefts, and several DUIs – so the idea of going to Starkey’s with him made Mitch wary. But Gina’s nonsense had left him feeling reckless. “What the hell,” he said. “Let’s go.”
_____On the way they smoked Alan’s joint and guzzled a couple of nearly frozen beers from a case of Busch that Alan had stored in the back seat. Alan informed Mitch he was supposed to meet a girl at Starkey’s at 2:30. “Guess I’ll be a little late,” he said. “She ought to be happy I’m showing up at all. She wouldn’t come to Reese’s party with me.”
_____“She’s a bitch like that. I can’t believe she wants me to come down to Starkey’s. I hate the shit-hole. If you weren’t coming along, I’d blow it off. Going there alone sucks. Too easy to get jumped or suckered or some shit.”
_____“Glad you’re bringing me,” Mitch said.
_____“Don’t worry. It’ll be cool. Besides, Sue will have some friends with her. Lookers, too. ”
_____“I’m not really looking.”
_____“You will be,” Alan said, laughing. “Believe me, you will be.”
* * *
_____The inside of Starkey’s resembled a gymnasium with a concrete floor and no bleachers. Tables and chairs surrounded a red square in the center – the area designated as the dance floor – and on either end of the vast room were small makeshift bars where you could purchase mixers for liquor. Alan and Mitch brought in two beers apiece and found a table toward the rear. Mitch hadn’t been to Starkey’s in years and he looked around a bit, trying to remember the place as it used to be. “I see they put in new restrooms,” he said.
_____Alan cracked open a beer. “Couple months ago.”
_____The rest of Starkey’s was as seedy as Mitch recalled: paint-chipped walls, the concrete floor stained from all kinds of spills, the air permeated with the scent of evaporating alcohol. A rough-looking crowd inhabited the place, and large bouncers wearing yellow T-shirts that said SECURITY in big black letters circulated in pairs to make their presence known. The DJ played hard rock for dance music, but not too many people danced. Mitch was thinking he should have just gone home when a good-looking blond came up behind Alan and covered his eyes with her hands. “Guess who?” she said.
_____Alan clamped a hand around one of the girl’s wrists. “The bitch from hell?”
_____The girl quickly removed her hands from Alan’s eyes and slapped him in the back of the head. “Aren’t you sweet.” She sat down in the wobbly chair beside him but had to quickly grip the table for support. “Jesus Christ!” she said. “I almost fell on my ass!”
_____Alan stood up and grabbed a chair from an unoccupied table. “Use this one, dummy.” When they were both seated again, Alan introduced Mitch to Sue. She and Alan knew each other from Stiefel Industrials, where they worked together on an assembly line. Sue’s long hair was bleached white, and Mitch thought she had a smile like Patricia Arquette. For several minutes after she chided Alan for being late, the two of them conducted a conversation that didn’t include Mitch. He feigned indifference by watching a couple of girls who were dancing wildly on the red square. They were the only two out there, and they kept hugging and rubbing their hands up and down each other in a kinky display that seemed to captivate a good number of spectators.
_____“Check out the lesbos,” Mitch said.
_____Alan and Sue looked out at the dance floor, and Sue laughed loudly.
_____“See that type shit all the time in here,” Alan said.
_____Sue turned to Alan. “Are you a regular?”
_____“Not quite. But I’ve been here enough.”
_____“Then you should know the bartenders pretty good.” Sue lifted a pint of Smirnoff from her purse. “Go get me some orange juice to put in my Vodka.”
_____“Is that all you brought?” Alan asked. “I told you to pick me up some Beam.”
_____“Oh, well. I forgot.”
_____“Go get your own orange juice then.”
_____“Fine,” Sue said. She clasped her purse shut with both hands and stood up. “Asshole.”
_____“I’ll go get you some orange juice,” Mitch offered when Alan remained seated.
_____“You don’t have to,” Sue said in a pseudo-sulky voice.
_____Mitch stood up. “I was going to head up there anyway,” he lied. “I think I know that girl working behind the bar.”
_____Sue stared down at Alan. She was expecting him to apologize and then go to the bar instead of Mitch. But Alan just gazed at the floor with a stoned grin on his face. Mitch told them he’d be right back and started walking toward the bar. Before he was ten feet away, he heard Sue call Alan an asshole again, and then they were arguing.
_____Mitch decided to take his time. He took a stroll around the dance floor to get a closer look at the two lesbians, and then went to the restroom. When he came out the DJ was playing Matchbox 20’s “Long Day,” and the dance floor was now packed. At the bar, he ordered a tall orange juice. The bartender he told Sue he thought he knew was an attractive brunette with a petite build and a tiny dignifying mole on her right cheek above the corner of her lips. Mitch watched her pour the orange juice. After he paid for it, he hung around by the bar for a couple of minutes watching her work. Customers kept lining up and she was busy. She wore sexy black pantyhose and a white blouse tucked into a tight black miniskirt. Mitch thought if he got a little drunker he might muster the courage to ask for her number, in case his relationship with Gina didn’t work out. He was standing there watching the brunette and trying to think up a not-too-corny way of initiating conversation when somebody bumped into his back. It seemed intentional and Mitch turned around, backing away a little in case he needed to defend himself.
_____It was Chip Ingram, Gina’s ex. He and another guy, who had a shaved head and a black goatee, stood staring at Mitch like they meant trouble. “Meet the asshole who stole my girl,” Chip said. He had his eyes fixed on Mitch. He was about Mitch’s size and clean-cut, and Mitch wouldn’t have been worried if he didn’t know how psycho Chip was from all the stories Gina had told him. A few years earlier, Chip had beaten some guy half to death with a golf club because the guy had asked Gina out. He spent six months in the county jail for that one, and it was part of the reason Gina had dumped him.
_____“How you been, Chip,” Mitch said.
_____“Yep,” Chip said. His face was quivering a bit and Mitch suspected he was on crack or something. “This here’s the jag-off who stole my lady, man. Too bad I’m still fucking her on the side and dildo here doesn’t even know it.”
_____Mitch’s grip tightened around the glass of orange juice. He held it in the hand he would swing with, if necessary. It was a thick glass and he knew it could inflict enough damage on the first guy who came at him that he’d have enough time to prepare for the other. But he decided to attempt a peaceful resolution first. “No need for any trouble between us, Chip. It’s not my fault Gina didn’t want to be with you anymore.”
_____“Not true, my man,” Chip said. His blue eyes were glassy and wild, and Mitch figured he was getting ready to take a swing.
_____Mitch shrugged in a way he hoped would seem cocky and unafraid. “Believe what you want to believe.”
_____Chip smiled crazily. He held a bottle of Iron City in his left hand and Mitch watched him switch it to his right. “Fact is, my man, she never really dumped me. Hell, I been fucking her at least once a week since you moved in with her. Just banged her on Wednesday afternoon while you were at work, my man.”
_____“Whatever you say, Chip.” Mitch knew Chip was lying because Wednesday was his day off and he and Gina had spent it together at her mother’s house.
_____“You don’t believe me, motherfucker? Why don’t you ask her? She’ll tell you.”
_____“Sure thing,” Mitch said.
_____Chip’s friend was sucking on a piece of gum and smiling. “Chip, you going to drop this pussy or not?”
_____Mitch could feel every muscle in his body tensing. His left fist clenched and he stared at Chip. He heard a distant voice in his ear saying something he couldn’t comprehend. Then Alan was between Mitch and Chip, reaching over to shake hands with the guy with the shaved head and black goatee. “What’s up, Rod,” Alan said.
_____Chip gave Alan a shove. “What the fuck,” he said.
_____But before anything else could happen, Rod pulled Chip back by the shoulder. “Relax, Chipper. He’s cool.” Then he turned to Alan. “Right, Jansto?”
_____Alan had a can of Busch in his hand and he took a sip of it. “No problem here.”
_____“Alan Jansto. Long time no see.” Rod and Alan shook hands again and gave each other a drunken hug.
_____“What’s been going on?” Alan said.
_____Adrenalin continued pumping through Mitch’s body and he kept his eyes on Chip.
_____“Not much,” Rod said. “Working up Koppel Steel these days. What about you?”
_____“Eh. Same ol’, same old. Still down Stiefel.” Alan looked at Mitch, and then at Chip. “So what’s between these two?”
_____Rod took a swig of beer. “Who knows? Lovers’ quarrel, I guess.”
_____“Fuck you,” Chip said. His face had turned pinkish under his pale hair. Mitch watched him, waiting to see what he’d do next. Chip looked over at the packed dance floor, and Mitch could tell he was quite drunk by the quirky, uncoordinated movements of his body. Then Chip refocused, and he looked back at Mitch and took a couple of steps in his direction. “Motherfucker,” he said.
_____He was still several feet from Mitch, with Alan and Rod between them. Mitch chose not to reply. He realized if this thing escalated, Rod and Alan would step in. Chip was glaring at him but the intensity of his desire to fight seemed to have dwindled.
_____“Why don’t we all just calm down,” Rod said. He put his arm around Chip. “Let’s go get another beer, Killer. Whadaya say?”
_____Chip kept staring at Mitch as Rod tried to turn him around and steer him back toward wherever they had come from. At first Chip appeared compliant. But then he had to get in some last words. “Your sheets are green, man – dark green, with some brownish design on them. Now how would I know that? How would I know that, man, if I wasn’t doing your old lady?”
_____Mitch’s face burned. He made a move toward Chip but Alan held him back. “Brush it off, Dude,” Alan was saying. “Brush it off.”
_____Rod had spun Chip around and had both of his hands beneath his underarms, pushing him in the other direction. “Later, man,” Alan called out.
_____Back at their table, Mitch snapped open another beer and quickly drank half of it. Sue told Alan that her friends had gone home and that Alan was now her ride. Mitch didn’t pay too much attention to their conversation. They tried to engage him in it several times but he didn’t feel like talking. Alan kept telling him to calm down and forget about Chip. But jealous rage had tightened Mitch’s stomach. His face was hot and he could feel his heart beating faster than normal. Chip knew the exact color of Mitch and Gina’s sheets: they were dark green, as he’d said, with a brown-and-gold vine-like jungle motif; and they were purchased within the last year, which meant Chip couldn’t have seen them unless he’d been to their apartment. Mitch tried to convince himself it wasn’t true, that maybe it was a fluke guess on Chip’s part. Gina’s favorite color was hunter green, and Chip would know that. Based on that simple bit of information, he could have deduced what color sheets were on their bed. Besides, Mitch didn’t think Gina would two-time him like that. They loved each other. They had talked about marriage.
_____Still, Mitch couldn’t quit thinking about it. He didn’t buy the part about Chip being with Gina once a week since he’d moved in with her. But maybe there had been a few times. Even though Gina and Mitch worked similar schedules throughout the week, there was no way to account for all the time spent apart.
_____Mitch’s mind would whirl all night if he allowed it to. “How much longer we staying?” he asked.
_____Alan and Sue were sitting close together now, hugging and kissing.
_____“Hell,” Alan said. “We just got here.”
_____Mitch looked at his watch: 4:40 a.m. He thought a lot more time had elapsed. Alan and Sue were having fun, and Mitch guessed they wouldn’t want to leave until Starkey’s closed at six. He lit a cigarette. “It’s fine with me if you two want to stay until closing. But I’m almost out of beer.” He shook his can so they could hear the last ounce swishing around at the bottom. “I’m on E.” Sue smiled at him.
_____“Okay, man,” Alan said, reaching into the pocket of his flannel jacket. “Here.” He pulled out his keys and tossed them across the table to Mitch. “Run out to my car and get us a few more. Hell. Make that about six more.”
_____Mitch went into the foyer where the bouncer sat checking IDs and pushed through the double glass doors into the cold night. Alan’s red Monte Carlo was parked at the far end of the lot. When they had arrived earlier all the closer spaces were filled. Now half those cars were gone and the parking lot seemed eerily desolate. Mitch walked briskly against the wind, hands in his pockets. The wind was strong and cold and he was trying not to think about anything except getting to Alan’s car and grabbing the beers so he could head back inside as quickly as possible. He didn’t hear the set of running footsteps until too late. Something hard struck him on the back of the head, followed by a jolting pain that rippled the night sky. He landed on the blacktop, his nose an inch from a car tire. Then someone was kicking him. Mitch was lying on his stomach and the kicks were attempting to get at his ribs but kept hitting his left arm. By the third or fourth one, he rolled over quickly and lunged at the foot doing the kicking. He closed his eyes expecting to get kicked in the face or head, yet somehow managed to grab hold of a foot: a work boot. He tugged at it until he had a strong grip around the ankle. The person whose leg he held began pulling at Mitch’s hair. Mitch stood up fast, with all his strength, and using the momentum of the move, he let his right hand slide down to the guy’s heel and pushed it away from him as hard as he could. The guy slammed into the side of a pick-up truck and fell to one knee: Chip Engram. Mitch swung down on him with a powerful right, catching him in the left eye. He tagged him with two more rights to the temple, and then Chip was covering up. Mitch drove a knee into his spine and pulled his head back by the front of his hair. “I ought to kill you,” Mitch said. Chip tried to squirm free. Mitch drove his knee harder into the back and tugged sharply on his hair. “Quit moving or I’ll snap your neck.” Chip became still and took in deep breaths. “Have you really been fucking Gina since I’ve been seeing her?”
_____“Got that right!” Chip said.
_____Mitch punched him in the ear. “Now’s not the time for playing dumb ass.”
_____“I been fucking her, man. And I’ll keep fucking her. Nothing you can do.”
_____Mitch couldn’t be sure how many times he hit Chip after that. Later, all he would remember was that he started pounding on him and didn’t quit until his fists were too sore to be used anymore. His right hand hurt so much he was sure he’d broken it. His knuckles were bleeding. Chip wasn’t moving, and his face wasn’t a face anymore. Blood shimmered like a thick liquid mask over misshapen features.
_____Mitch stood up and looked around. A girl was shouting at him. He saw two bouncers emerge from the entrance of Starkey’s and before he could think of what to do, he heard sirens. He chose to run. He sprinted around the rear of the shopping plaza, climbed over a chain-link fence and scrambled off into the woods.
* * *
_____Mitch stepped out of the cab four blocks from his apartment. It was still pitch-black. His shoes were soaked from the snow, his toes frozen to the aching point. He’d called the Taxi from a payphone on the outside wall of an Eckerd’s drug store, several miles from Starkey’s. The few times a car passed as he walked the remaining four blocks, he took cover behind the nearest tree or row of hedges.
_____Gina wasn’t home yet, and for an anxious hour Mitch sat on the couch, expecting the arrival of police. On the brink of sleep, he heard Gina’s drunken laughter from down in the parking lot, followed by a car door slamming shut. A minute later he heard a set of keys hit the wooden planks of the porch outside their apartment door. “Shit,” Gina mumbled. “Stupid fucking keys.” He could tell she was quite drunk by the resonance of her voice and the prolonged cadence in those few words. He listened to her fiddling with the keys. It took a while before she finally had one working in the lock. Mitch waited until she was inside, and then stood up. Gina turned on the kitchen light.
_____“It’s about time,” Mitch said.
_____Gina let out a shriek and dropped her purse on the floor. “Christ almighty!” she yelled, covering her chest with both arms. “You scared the hell out of me!” She breathed in heavily.
_____“Sorry. Expecting someone else?”
_____“Why’s your car still at the Reeses’?”
_____Mitch walked into the kitchen and took a can of Coors Light out of the refrigerator. When he turned to face Gina she was leaning against the wall by the door with her eyes closed. He snapped open the beer and took a few sips. “I’m in trouble.”
_____Gina barely opened her eyes to look at him, but then they widened quickly and she gasped. “Jesus Christ! What happened?” She stepped toward him, putting her hands on either side of his face, her eyes examining his chin. “My God, Mitch! You’re going to need stitches!” She looked at his hands and saw the blood on his knuckles. “Who’d you get in a fight with?”
_____“Your former hero.” Mitch went into the bathroom to look at his chin – he must have cut it when he hit the parking lot – and Gina followed. He turned on the sink faucet. The gash was three quarters of an inch long and he tried to rinse away the blood surrounding it. “No wonder that cabbie looked at me so weird.” Mitch laughed but Gina didn’t find it amusing.
_____“Who did you get in a fight with?” she asked again.
_____“I told you. Chip.”
_____“Why?” Gina was leaning against the bathroom door, staring at him through the mirror. She looked suddenly wide-awake. “Where’d you see him?”
_____“Starkey’s. He told me he was still fucking you.”
_____“Goddamnit, Mitch.” Gina left the bathroom stomping her feet. “You need to grow up!” He heard the refrigerator open, then the unfastening of a Michelob Light, the only beer Gina would drink. He came out of the bathroom as she plopped herself down on the couch. She grabbed the remote control from the coffee table and flicked on the television. Early morning sunlight, coming in through a thin part in the curtains, cut a diagonal stripe across the screen. Since returning home, Mitch had occasionally peered out at the parking lot through that opening to see if any police cars were pulling in.
_____He walked into the living room and stood between Gina and the TV. “Hey. I’m not the one who started it. Your former lover boy jumped me.”
_____Gina looked at the coffee table, her hands between her legs cupping the remote control. Mitch wondered then about the fate of Chip Engram. Possibly, at that very second, the coroner was zipping him up in a body bag. Hogan’s Heroes played on the television behind Mitch’s back. “I didn’t just pick a fight with him, if that’s what you think.”
_____Gina sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I don’t know what to think anymore.”
_____“What are you crying about?”
_____“I’m not.” She looked up at him with one of her guilty expressions. “Bill and I did some lines.”
_____“You and Bill.”
_____“Don’t be pissed.”
_____Mitch felt the anger-burn running up his neck and around to his cheeks like two clawing hands ready to tear his eyes out. Calming himself, he walked around the coffee table and sat down on the couch next to Gina. “I wondered why you weren’t passed out yet.”
_____Gina struggled to take off her red leather coat. She placed it over the arm of the couch and then stood up. Mitch watched her. A couple of seconds later, without looking at him, she sat back down.
_____“I think I might end up in jail over this,” he said.
_____Gina lit a cigarette and leaned forward. “Maybe that’s where you belong.”
_____Mitch knew something then. He glanced at the TV screen. Colonel Klink squinted through his monocle at Hogan and predictable canned laughter followed. “You should go to bed,” Mitch said. He stood up and went over to the window. Through the crack in the curtains, he stared down at Gina’s hunter green Intrepid. The sun, barely above the horizon, reflected near-blinding light off the hood. A triangle of snow covered the headlight on the passenger’s side. “Shit,” he said.
_____Gina stood up and staggered into the bathroom. Mitch turned off the television and went to the refrigerator to grab another beer. He could hear the splash of Gina’s urine falling into the water of the toilet. It sounded thick, clotted.
_____“You slut!” he yelled.
_____Gina didn’t respond, and for a second Mitch considered kicking in the door and beating the hell out of her. But he had never hit a woman and, even though he was presently a fugitive with nothing to lose, he didn’t plan on starting now.
_____The bathroom door remained shut. Inside, it was silent. Mitch didn’t hear any movement at all. Maybe, he thought, Gina had passed out sitting on the toilet.
_____He took his beer into the bedroom and pulled his blue duffel bag from the top shelf of the closet. He began stuffing his clothes into it, being careful to open and close the dresser drawers quietly. He packed as much as he could: his nicest shirts, Dockers, jeans, underwear and socks. Maybe in a few days he’d come back for the rest.
_____Beer in one hand, duffel bag in the other, he returned to the living room. He lifted the keys from the pocket of Gina’s red leather jacket. Standing in the kitchen, he gave the place one last look around. On the way out he slammed the door.
_____It took the car a few times to start. Mitch backed away from the curb and then glanced up at the window of their apartment. He saw Gina standing behind the glass in her pink underwear and white bra, lit fully by the sun, the lacy black curtains draped around her like a cloak. She looked ghostly pale and somewhat frightened. Mitch could see her lips moving. She was trying to yell something to him through the glass.
_____He thought about flipping her the bird but decided against it. Instead, he put the car into drive and gripped the freezing steering wheel with both hands. Eyes squinting against the glaring sun, he put his foot on the gas pedal and sped across the long icy parking lot. For the next few days he would stay at cheap motels, paying with cash only. He’d watch the news and read the papers to find out where he stood. At this point he was sure of only one thing: he was never coming back.