“I don’t know, Goddamnit!”
It’s the only thing Hank’s sure of, and he keeps shouting it at the cop. In the dark room, a spotlight is burning his eyes down to the sockets. It’s a basement of sorts, the ceiling a crisscross of piping and duct work, industrial grey and dark green. The spotlight sends streaks into his eyes every time the cop steps out of the beam.
“What did you do last night?
“I told you, I don’t know.” He’s struggling against the strap that’s tethering him to the chair. His hands are bound in cuffs on a tabletop.
The cop punctuates each word with the smack of a nightstick against his palm: “Just— tell—me—what—you—did.”
“For God’s sake, I don’t know.”
“Maybe this’ll help his lousy memory,” the cop says to his assistant, handing him a belt. The assistant wraps it around Hank’s forehead, cinches it tight until the bones above his temples begin to creak. “Can’t I please just have some water?” His tongue is swollen, his throat so parched, he can barely mouth the words.
The cop fills a glass with water, placing it just out of reach. He stares into Hank’s eyes, his face looming so close that Hank can smell his fetid breath. “Tell me what you did, and it’s yours.” He bangs a fist on the table with each word until the glass tumbles off and shatters on the concrete.
Hank is sobbing now, tears streaming down his cheeks. He looks down at his fists on the table. They’re covered in blood, not tears. The cop is pressing the tip of a kitchen knife beneath his Adam’s apple. Hank stiffens. One wrong move and he’s a goner.
“What did you do last night, Goddamnit?” Their eyes are dead level now. Hank blinks hard, trying to clear the spotlight streaks from his vision. When the face zooms into recognition, it’s not a cop. It’s his father, glaring straight down into him: “What the Hell did you do, you sonofabitch?”
“Pa, I don’t know. Swear to God, I don’t!”
He opens his eyes behind a wall of glass. His hands are in his lap, unbound. No blood and no cop. Just raw blades of sunlight streaking through a car window and the vague outline of a garage door: His. No idea how or why he’s out here, parked sideways in his own driveway.
His eyes sweep the dashboard and the seats—his car all right. Whatever he did last night, he’s got one helluva hangover. His temples are pounding, his mouth a dry sponge.
He flips open the glove compartment, fiddling for some aspirin, when he spots the half-pint of Old Crow right where he left it a year ago.
Hair of the dog.
It’s Louie’s favorite antidote for a hangover: “Another shot, and you’ll be good as new.” Hank turns the bottle over in his hand, puts it back into the glove compartment, snaps it shut.
He’d left the bottle there as a reminder after his last binge: Never take another drink, no matter what. It was a little over a year ago, and he’d been out in the garage, tuning up the car, the bottle in his back pocket—what Lorraine didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. He’d been on the wagon for a couple of years by then, and it tasted so good that he kept driving back to the liquor store all weekend, buying one half pint after another. By Sunday afternoon, poor Lorraine walked out to the garage and caught the worst of his bad temper. All he remembers from that day is the screaming match just before she grabbed Jess and drove away to her mom’s.
Must’ve passed out after that.
Next thing he knew, it was Monday morning. He woke up, sprawled on the couch with a parched mouth, a piercing headache, and a black hole where his memory should’ve been. When he went out to the garage to look for her car, it wasn’t there. Just four half pints standing like soldiers on the windowsill—three of them empty.
The rest was a blur.
When Lorraine finally came back days later, he thought she was lying. But the welts and bruises told the tale. She always comes back. He loves her for that. Feels like shit afterward, vows never to touch a drink, and he means it. But after weeks or months, sometimes a year, the voices inside his head start cranking away: Go ahead. Just one drink. You can handle it. Then another. And another.
It’s not the booze exactly—it’s the things that drive him to it: his dad winding the screws down on him at work, bitching about about every little thing, until something snaps. Next thing he knows, he wakes up empty as a shot glass, no sign of his family.
He racks his brain, trying to reconstruct yesterday. It was his last day at the chemical plant—he remembers that much. Pa had sent him out there almost a year ago to design the piping and duct work for the new annex they were building. Yesterday at quitting time, old man Mueller called him into the office and poured him a glass of Seven Crown to thank him for for his good work. He’d walked out of there feeling like a big shot, stopping off at Frank’s bar for a boilermaker before heading home.
Kenny Myers was there, shooting his mouth off, as usual. He’d won a wad of money at poker, and he lined up five shots of whiskey on the bar.
“Ten bucks to anybody who can drink all five of these in under a minute,” he’d said.
Hank took him up on it. Downed them all in fifty-two seconds flat. Last thing he remembers, he was stumbling around the parking lot, looking for his car. And now, here he is behind the wheel. Must’ve passed out. Whatever he did, Lorraine’s gonna be pissed.
“Jesus Christ.” His eyes flash at his watch. Due at Mrs. Curtin’s in fifteen minutes and still in his dirty work clothes. No time to change. He stumbles out and heaves the garage door up. His heart stutters. No sign of Lorraine’s car. Calm down. It’s Monday. She’s probably driving Jess to school—which means she saw him passed out in the car. Christ. He’ll concoct a story later. First, he needs to get to work, try to fix his splitting head.
He’s streaking down Saint Paul’s Street when he glances at the gas gauge: Empty, shit. He pulls into the nearest gas station. He’ll duck into the john while Eddie pumps the gas.
Eddie saunters out of the garage, a free tumbler in his hand. Lorraine’s collecting them. He’ll bring it home tonight, a peace offering.
“Hey Hank. What’ll it be? The usual?”
“Yeah. Two bucks, ethyl. I’m gonna use your can, okay Eddie?”
He walks to the bathroom, throws open the metal door. The smell of urine mixes with the nausea brimming in his gut. He pees forever, then turns on the faucet, running water into his hands and gulping it down. He splashes his eyes, slapping himself hard in the face with both hands. “Wake up, asshole—Goddamned house calls,” he says to no one.
Eddie’s hanging the handle on the pump when Hank slides into the front seat.
“Two bucks,” Eddie says, holding out a palm.
Hank reaches into his back pocket. No wallet. What’s left of his stomach lurches as he fishes around in the car seat. “Jeez Eddie. I musta left my wallet home. Can I pay you later? I’m running late.”
“Sure thing. Just bring it whenever.” Eddie hands him a tumbler with rainbow stripes.
He drives to the shop. No sign of Pa, thank God. He runs to the back room, grabs some washers and a roll of plumber’s tape then barrels out to the car, puts them in the trunk, and heads down Fourth Street.
He knows why he’s on the house calls and Louie’s at Mueller’s’ today. Must’ve been the job offer that riled Pa up. Six months ago, old man Mueller called him into the office.
“We’re very pleased with your work, Hank.”
Through his thick German accent, Hank could hear the admiration in his voice. The Muellers were rich as thieves and nutty as bed bugs, but the smartest old Germans he’d ever met.
“Just doing my job, Mr. Mueller.”
“No, Hank. You’ve done a lot more than your job.”
He’d been their jack of all trades, designing the intricate routing plan for the piping and fabricating the supports and flanges from Mr. Mueller’s sketches. He could weld a pipe, fix a sputtering motor, and climb to the top of a tall smokestack for repairs in the same day.
“You see, Hank, we need someone with your skills for another plant we’re opening, and we’d like to offer you a position.”
He pictured the look on Pa’s face at the mere mention of leaving the business.
“I appreciate the offer, Mr. Mueller . . . but . . .”
“We’ll double what your dad’s paying you and give you retirement benefits.”
The only benefit he ever got from Pa was a halfhearted hint that he’ll inherit the business when he finally kicks off. Sonofabitch will probably die in his work boots.
“Well, that’s certainly tempting Mr. Mueller, but my dad depends on me.”
“I understand Hank, but we’re opening a new plant in California, and we could use someone with your skills. Think about it.”
At the mention of California, Hank’s heart had jumped. He thought back to his army days in Fort Ord.: the girls with picnic baskets beneath the cypress trees, his walks down Cannery Row—Steinbeck country. He’d borrowed the book from a guy in the next bunk. They were the best two years of his life.
Lorraine was not convinced when he told her about the job. She fidgeted with her wedding ring. “I don’t know, Will—your father’ll have a fit.”
“I know.” He could already feel the heat of Pa’s rage.
“And what if they laid you off for some reason? You could never go back to your dad.”
He pictured himself, hat in hand, begging Pa to take him back. “Yeah. Probably a bum idea. Nice to be asked though.”
He tried to keep the offer a secret, but somehow Pa found out. Goddamned Louie probably told him.
“So, I heard you’re jumpin’ ship here. Signin’ up with Mueller.”
“Where’d you hear a thing like that?”
“Never mind. I just know.”
“Aw it’s just gossip, Pa. I wouldn’t do a thing like that to you.”
His dad squinted sideways at him. “Why would somebody make that up?”
“Damned if I know, Pa. Honest to God.”
But his father had his number, and today’s the proof: He’s on the house calls, and Louie’s at Muellers, finishing the job that was supposed to be his—Louie—not even a blood relative.
He turns onto Chambers Street, pulling into the Curtins’ driveway and cutting the engine. He pulls his toolbox out of the trunk and walks up the sidewalk. He’s still steaming about the house calls when he spots a Jack o’ lantern on their front porch.
Suddenly, the image of a smashed pumpkin and a butcher knife flashes before his eyes. Did he carve a pumpkin for Jess last night?
More flashbacks, firing like gunshots: Someone banging on his front door. Lorraine running to answer it. Jess on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. It’s coming back in bits and pieces now. He pictures himself running out the back door, his feet slipping on wet grass. He’s running from something—or someone, spots his car lurched in the driveway, opens the door, slinks way down in the seat.
The images begin to darken, fading—slowly—into black.
“I’m so glad you came, Hank”
Mrs. Curtin is standing in the doorway in a bathrobe and pin curls, a seat wrench and a paper bag in her hands. She’s muttering about how her husband bought all these parts at the hardware store, and now the tub faucet’s leaking worse than ever.
He shakes the images out of his head, gathers himself. “Pete didn’t try to replace the seat, did he?” He turns the seat wrench over in his hand.
“No, it’s the bathtub faucet, not the toilet seat.”
He looks into the bag: a couple of washers and a brass faucet seat. Leave it to a do-it-yourself plumber to strip the old seat and turn a five-dollar job into a fifty-dollar mess.
“Don’t worry Mrs. Curtin. I’ll take care of it.”
He walks down the hall. Just as he thought, no access door behind the tub. Bathtub’s a hundred years old. Seat’s probably stripped and stuck in the corroded threads. He’ll have to cut a hole in the plaster to get out the old faucet, install a new one, and make an access door. A half-day’s labor. Pete will have a fit.
He opens his toolbox and fishes around for a flashlight to look at the old seat. He pulls out a hacksaw blade instead. He turns the jagged metal over in his hands when more images flash out of nowhere:—a butcher knife—Lorraine’s hands—his—the knife gripped between them. He’s trying to wrest it out of her hand or something.
Please let this be a nightmare.
His stomach churns. He slams the toolbox shut, hurrying out to the kitchen.
“Sorry, Mrs. Curtin, but this is turning out to be a bigger job than I thought.”
“Really? Pete said the parts only cost about a quarter.”
“Well, I think the old faucet seat’s stripped, and I’m gonna need to saw a hole in the wall to get it out from behind and install a new one”
His mind’s exploding now. He pictures Jess on the couch, Lorraine at the door, somebody outside in the porch light. A cop? Did Lorraine call the cops?
Got to get home! Now.
He collects himself, “Mrs. Curtin, I’ll try to give you a fair price, but I really do need to go out and get some supplies before I know what everything’ll cost. I’ll come back later. Promise.”
He doesn’t wait for an answer. Grabs his toolbox, barreling down the front steps and into the car, squealing tires all the way down the street. Houses and cars blur past on Gun Club Road. Was Jess hurt on the couch? Was he was hiding from a cop in the car?
By the time he careens into his driveway, he’s starting to talk himself out of it. Probably just that nightmare coming back—the knife and the blood, the cop.
Just a crazy hangover dream.
He checks the garage. His stomach tightens. Still no car. He walks around to the front, opens the door, steps into the living room, spies the blanket on the couch.
Lorraine’s not the best housekeeper. Nothing wrong with a blanket on the couch.
When he veers into the kitchen, he knows it wasn’t a dream.
There’s a smashed pumpkin and a butcher knife lying on the floor, chairs tossed all over the place.
The back door ajar.
It looks like the scene of a bar fight.
He sits on the couch with his head in his hands. Been there for hours. He gets up, walks to the front door, checks again for Lorraine’s headlights.
Just the dark driveway.
No sense calling her mother’s again. He called a dozen times before she finally answered.
“She doesn’t want to talk to you.” She slammed down the phone.
He feels the familiar blackness creeping up. This time it’s real, not just the dark scenes in the nightmare.
He opens the front door and steps outside then walks to the car, opens the door, and
sits in the passenger seat, as if waiting for someone to drive him home. He glances in the rear-view mirror, praying for a glimmer of headlights.
He sighs, snaps open the glove compartment, lifts the bottle, twists the cap, taking a long draw.
He’s already screwed.
What the Hell?
Susan Hynds is a professor emerita and former director of the English Education program at Syracuse University. Before that, she was a middle-and high-school teacher of English, speech, and drama for almost a decade. She has written or co-authored seven nonfiction books and an international literature series for middle- and high-school students. An emerging fiction writer, she has narrated her short story “Cinema Noir” for The Strange Recital fiction podcast and was a featured essayist in Listen to Your Mother, a national event featuring live readings by regional writers on the topic of motherhood.
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