Mac took twenty toothpicks out of his pocket and built a fort around his beer. He didn’t want to look at Eddie. He knew Eddie was headed for trouble.
“Roy’s my best friend,” Eddie said, taking a toothpick and snapping it. “But he screwed with me. He phones my wife every day. I love the man, but I got to hurt him. I’m going to break his ribs, and shove a phone down his throat.”
Eddie had plenty of gut and his butch haircut was overpowered with gray, but Mac knew Eddie could kill a man.
They sat in their usual booth in Tony’s Bar. Tony had glued mirrored tiles on the walls, installed a television, and enlarged the dance floor to the size of a suburban patio. He wanted to bring in the younger crowd who used credit cards. So far, Tony’s customers still had bellies that strained over belt buckles, and elbows hardened from leaning on too many bars.
Sally brought Eddie and Mac each another beer.
“I’m tired tonight,” Sally said, setting the tray on their table. “If I get spacey later, just bring me back to earth. Hey, you guys like the new band?”
The new band included a young drummer who wore headphones and was probably listening to a basketball game, an old saxophone player, and a middle-aged pianist whose voice belonged at home in the shower.
“Great,” Mac said, wondering what he might do to bring Sally back to earth. He watched Sally walk away and wished he’d noticed her before. The woman’s a worker, he thought, and not bad looking. She managed Woolworth’s during the day, then busted her buns here three evenings a week. Why? Mac wondered.
“Roy and I have been friends a long time,” Eddie continued. He chewed his lower lip and stared at the Hamm’s clock above the bar.
The band played “How About You” and the television showed scenes of the war. Mac expected to see pictures of his old Vietnam self on the screen. During this second week, the news treated the Middle East war like a daily miniseries. The special music, the way they rolled the credits at the end, made Mac feel like this had nothing to do with men being blown to hell.
“More coverage on this Mideast mess than there ever was on ’Nam,” Eddie said. “ ’Course, then, I was so high on hash I wouldn’t have known if they were broadcasting. Speaking of broadcasting, did I mention Roy talks to my wife every day on the phone? I come home from work and Connie’s hanging on the phone, laughing, saying, ‘Ah Roy, you didn’t.’ What does he mean, talking to my Connie like that?”
“Yeah, my wife started talking to another guy and left me,” Mac said. Mac remembered his wife as though she were a family vacation he took too many years ago.
“No woman is ever walking out on me again,” Eddie vowed.
Mac agreed. He had slogged through two years of depression before he could look at another woman. His work at the plant had gotten so bad he was almost laid off. And he still didn’t understand what had happened. One day his wife started staring at the wall when he talked. She started spending evenings in their bedroom, with the door closed, gabbing on the phone. And then, she left.
A guy with a ponytail and one earring strolled in and sat at the bar. The guy wore loafers, white socks, and a casual air of smarts and money. Mac remembered right after ’Nam, when he and Eddie had long hair. But this boy’s hair had nothing to do with war.
Mac felt Eddie’s anger. He tried not to worry about Eddie beating up Roy. Eddie’s fists were as thick as Mac’s father’s. Mac almost hadn’t been friends with Eddie because of those fists. But Eddie was nicer than he looked: he had never even shoved Mac.
Sally brought another round. Her gray skirt was so tight that Mac could see her butt jiggle when she walked. With her big thighs and comfortable breasts, she reminded Mac of home cooking. His wife had been a pale, puny thing. Mac was always scared he would crush her.
Mac remembered the smooth shine of his wife’s hair when he first saw her, his third day home from ’Nam. The tender way she typed his new account card at the bank, the way she winced when she struck the wrong key, as if a mistake might hurt her. Later, Mac’s mistakes hurt her and he dreaded that wince and the shouting that followed it.
A young woman came in. She stood near the door, rolling her white sleeves up and then down. She tucked the shirt tighter into her jeans and touched her small gold earrings. She looked hopeful and pretty. Mac watched as she hovered, then chose a table. She looked around before she sat down and Mac wondered if her smile had anything to do with him.
“I thought I’d find you two here.” A black-haired woman wearing a low-cut green jumpsuit banged her fist on their table. The last time Mac saw Eddie’s wife, she had brown hair and wore a sweat shirt and jeans. Eddie stared at his beer and acted like he was alone.
“Hi, Connie,” Mac said, looking toward the TV for more war news.
“If I had wanted to spend every evening alone, I would have stayed in the trailer and not busted my butt making a palace out of that shack you call home,” Connie said to Eddie.
“Why do you talk to Roy every day?” Eddie asked, not moving.
“Because you never talk. You come home from work and say not word one.”
“I don’t talk to people who are leaving me,” Eddie said. Mac didn’t like the low, dangerous sound in Eddie’s voice.
“How can I leave someone who’s never around?” Connie was louder than the band’s “Strangers in the Night.”
Mac put his toothpicks back in his pocket. His first girlfriend had talked like Connie. She had knocked out a couple of Mac’s teeth and broken a lot more than his heart by the time she finished with him. Mac cleared his throat and said, “Excuse me.” Eddie grabbed his arm as Mac moved out of the booth.
“Don’t leave me, Mac.”
“I see someone I know at the bar.” Mac sat on the edge of his seat, Eddie’s hand gripping his wrist. Connie leaned over and practically lay on the table, her breasts poking into view. Mac tried to look at Eddie instead of those breasts. He wondered why Eddie didn’t talk to Connie; she seemed worth hanging on to.
“What can I get you?” Sally came over, as though Connie were a regular customer and not a crazy bitch trying to destroy Eddie’s life.
“A new husband.” Connie stood up and looked right at Eddie. “I’m out of here.”
Mac watched her leave. Her walk was sex on wheels.
Eddie sat still, but tense, like he might crush something small and innocent in his bare hands. Then he bolted after Connie. Mac had seen that look on Eddie before, in ’Nam when one of the village girls tried to leave before Eddie was done with her. Mac wanted to follow Eddie, to make sure Connie didn’t get hurt. But Eddie would be furious if Mac butted into his business.
Mac counted the seconds and watched the war on TV. Two aircraft lost. He saw a picture of a hostage. The guy’s face was bruised. Mac remembered how it felt to be in gook land, where he couldn’t understand anything. Like being a kid again, with everyone knowing some great joke except him. The whole time over there, Mac felt like snakes lived in his pockets, snakes that could burrow through his clothes and gnaw open his heart. Mac didn’t sleep that whole year.
Eddie stomped back in. His eyes were red.
“When Roy comes in here, I’m gonna kill him.” Eddie clenched his fist and banged the table.
The boy with the ponytail got off his bar stool and went to the girl’s table. She touched her hair and he sat down. Then she smiled and they got up to dance. They moved smoothly, like they’d danced together before. Mac wondered what would happen if he asked the girl to dance. She might smile and say, “No, thank you,” then make a face at the guy and giggle. Or she might accept. Mac hadn’t danced with a girl that shiny and fresh in years. He didn’t even remember knowing a girl who didn’t have hostile in her eyes and savage in her heart.
“That bitch is like the rest of them,” Eddie said, pushing away his beer glass. “Promises you everything and gives you squat.” Eddie motioned to Sally. “Black coffee,” he said when she came over. “If Roy comes in, I got to be sober.”
Sally nodded. She looked at Mac. “I don’t know how you do it,” she said, “drink beer and stay so trim. I take a sip of liquor and it goes to my hips.” She glanced back at her buttocks.
“Your hips are perfect,” Mac said.
The news continued. Serious anchormen mouthed statistics. People appeared, wearing gas masks. The war hollowed Mac out and made him forget his drink. He stared at the pictures, remembering the time a bomb had hit too close and he’d cried. He’d lain with his arms over his head and sobbed. Eddie had dragged him into the shelter. Eddie had seen the shit stain his pants and the tears on his cheeks.
Mac jumped when Eddie touched his hand.
“Roy’s here,” Eddie said.
A middle-aged man with delicate features and a trim, gray mustache walked toward them, carrying a glass of white wine. He wore a gray suit and a red tie.
“That’s Roy?” Mac asked.
“He looks little, but the fucker is tough,” Eddie said.
Mac’s gut tightened. He wanted to get away.
“I need you as a witness,” Eddie said.
“Eddie, it’s been too long.” Roy sounded like a radio announcer.
Eddie made room and Roy settled beside him. Roy held out his hand to Mac and introduced himself.
Mac felt confused. He couldn’t imagine Eddie speaking to a guy who looked this prissy, much less being friends with him.
Roy told Eddie about his new job in the public relations department of some big company.
“I used to be in advertising,” Roy said to Mac, “but the pressure was giving me ulcers.” Roy smiled and looked right at Mac, right into Mac. Mac felt in his pocket for his toothpicks, pressed his finger against their points.
“I’m going to hurt you, Roy,” Eddie said.
Roy sipped his wine and didn’t look worried.
“That’s why I came over, Eddie, so we could talk this out.”
The band took a break and the ponytailed guy put quarters in the jukebox. He stood on the dance floor and held out his hand to the girl. She walked easy and light, like love in slow motion.
“You stole my wife,” Eddie said.
“No, Eddie,” Roy said, “I just listened to Connie. I thought talking would get the bad feelings out of her system.”
Mac watched the couple scoop across the dance floor, moving to every wiggle in the music. Mac could dance like that. He tapped his fingers on the table. The anchorman appeared, dressed to report on the stock market instead of destruction.
“Connie’s leaving me and I figure she’s heading out with you,” Eddie said. “Roy, I can’t let you take her without hurting you.”
Roy stood up. He looked thin, like Eddie could break him without even trying.
“I’m not running off with Connie. She’s going alone.”
“She doesn’t have the guts to go anywhere without a man,” Eddie said. He got up too, hoisted his belt. Standing beside Roy, Eddie looked like charred meat next to thinly sliced turkey. Mac wondered why Eddie had never made fun of him for falling apart in ’Nam, for crying and shitting and hiding when he should have been fighting. Eddie had never mentioned it.
Sally walked by and put her hand on Mac’s arm. “Take care,” she said. Mac looked into her eyes to see what she meant, but she moved away.
“Come on, Mac. I need you as a witness,” Eddie said.
I have witnessed enough, Mac thought, but he followed Eddie and Roy outside. Roy walked to a rough patch of dirt between two parking lots. Beer bottles, soda cans, crushed cigarette packs littered the scraggly grass. A street light turned the dirt into gray rock. Roy bent to throw away some broken glass and Eddie punched him in the stomach. Roy clutched his middle and smiled grimly. Eddie crouched in panting, monkeylike fury. He circled, moving lightly. Roy stood still, his hand on his gut. When Eddie got near, Roy flashed out of the way. He’s quick, Mac thought, and wondered if he could punch. He could. Eddie struck and Roy knocked him down with a swift blow to his face. Mac moved back, wondering if Roy would hurt him for being Eddie’s friend. Mac wished he were inside, dancing, breathing in the lovely new smell of that girl. Eddie crashed his fist into Roy’s side. Roy gasped and staggered backward. Then he spun around and kicked Eddie into dark, howling pain.
Mac wanted to get away. But he moved closer to Eddie, in case he needed help.
“Let’s not fight anymore,” Roy said, standing over Eddie and offering his hand. Eddie slapped the hand but Roy held it out, long and peaceful.
Mac waited to see if Eddie would jerk Roy down and beat his face off. But Eddie slowly got up, his eye bruised, his arm bleeding.
“I tried,” Eddie said to Mac, “but I wasn’t armed right.”
Eddie put his arm around Mac and limped toward Tony’s. Mac looked back. Roy stared at the ground, as alone as the last man in a bombed field.
Sally brought another round and didn’t mention Eddie’s black eye. The band played “I Get a Kick Out of You.” A TV reporter wore a gas mask and held a microphone.
“That Roy’s all right,” Eddie said finally.
Mac nodded. The young man had gone to the restroom. The girl waited at the table, moving her body to the music. Old music, thought Mac, yet she liked it.
He stood up, straightened his shirt, wondered what his hair looked like, how old he seemed, if he smelled of liquor. He walked slowly over to her table, as if the ground were mined, as if any moment he might explode.
“Would you like to dance?” he asked. He took her hand before she could tell him no.