It was a run-of-the-mill July afternoon in south Texas -- miserable. If you wanted to go outside, you had to be prepared to get bent over by the Gulf Coast humidity. I lingered in the A/C of the Chevron, where I took so long with the fridge door open looking at the six-packs that I got yelled at by the mouth-breathing pre-teen behind the register. I gave in to my impulse and ducked around back and downed a Mickey's big mouth before walking back to the hotel.
Felicia shot past me as soon as I opened the door, and on her tail was a wave of heat that had built up in the room. She shot me a look of supreme displeasure at having left her in there, and headed out towards the pool to lie on the concrete in the shade of the No Lifeguard on Duty sign. I wasn't far behind her, pulling off my jeans and putting on a pair of threadbare nylon shorts I should have been too embarrassed to wear in public.
A couple of Hispanic kids -- two boys, about four and six, Pedro was the older one I think but I'd never seen the younger one before -- were playing with action figures I didn't recognize in the corner by the fence. I nodded to Pedro and he nodded back a little, in that distracted distrustful way kids do with strange adults. But by now Pedro was used to seeing me like this -- chasing the shade while pouring a six of malt liquor down my throat, slowly getting quietly drunker and drunker until I finally went inside and could sleep through the rest of the afternoon, awaiting the cool breeze of sundown and a hangover to be wiped away with a few quick beers.
But that afternoon I don't pass out. I drink and drink as Pedro and his friend bang away at their action figures and finally leave them in a heap near the gate and take off on their bikes. I try to throw myself into the future, picture myself going to the Showdown, talking to Dave, finding Kay, confronting her. As the Mickey's took hold, scenarios unfolded on my inner movie screen, played themselves out, and as I got drunker and drunker, played themselves out with violence. The .38 had been in the glove compartment, but I had a little .25 in my backpack. It was around Mickey's four or five that I finally decided that I was going to take it with me.
At about two in the afternoon I went inside, and Felicia came in with me. She knew the routine -- I would take a long cold shower and then, because I am a fucking pushover, I would take a towel and wipe dry the tub, newly cooled by my shower, so that Felicia could lie in it. Some afternoons I lay in there with her.
I took the bus to the Showdown because I felt a perverse need to make myself angrier over having had my car stolen. I could have easily walked in the time it took me to locate a bus stop, figure out the schedule, and wait for the right bus to come along. When it did, it was crowded and I had to borrow a dime from the bus driver because I didn't have any change. Why I was deliberately irritating myself I didn't know, but when I got to the Showdown I was exhausted, pissed off and feeling the beginnings of the malt liquor hangover that was soon to come. I told myself that a couple of beers with Dave would put things right.
Luckily, I still got there early. The Showdown was one of those bars where there are people outside waiting for the bartender to open up, so I had to get there a half-hour early to avoid seeing anyone. But I knew that Dave would be there setting things up. I wanted the chance to talk to him. I had the notion that I would tell him exactly what happened. When you drink a lot, it's important to make sure you don't overestimate the depth of your relationship with a bartender, but it's difficult to tell yourself that when you're drunk. I had been working out elaborate lies to ask for Kay's address, but my brain couldn't pick anything that sounded convincing.
I walked around to the rear parking lot. There was a little beer garden out back, and Dave would have the back door open. There was a fence that was open during business hours, but even at night it was never locked. I undid the latch and walked inside, shutting the gate behind me so the opening-jumpers wouldn't pull up and think they'd opened early. "Dave?" I called out as I walked towards the building. Generally, the bartenders were milling around the rear hallway between the cooler and the bar, and with how narrow the hallway was I didn't want to startle him if I suddenly appeared right next to him outside the cooler or something. I took off my sunglasses and rubbed my eyes, which were having a hard time coming into focus.
The back door was open. I leaned in and looked down the hall. The cooler door stood open. I could hear Stevie Ray's "Little Wing" playing in the bar, and even though the main barroom was just six feet away, the placement of the speakers or something always made the music seem hollow and muffled in the hallway. "Dave?" I stood there at the door for a little bit. I reached out and pulled on it, let it fall shut with a bang, thinking that would get his attention.
The music stopped. I could hear the jukebox thinking and then picking a new song, and the opening stilletto snare of Tom Petty's "Breakdown" started. I walked forward and leaned ahead, so I could see most of the bar. There was nobody there. I turned and took another step and looked into the cooler, with Dave's name on my lips.
I said his name, instinctively, when I saw him, when I saw that he was looking at me. I heard his name in my ears, and it took a few seconds before my brain registered that he wasn't going to answer. That he would never answer to his name again.
What I would remember later -- forever, in fact -- was the fact that he was smiling. Despite his bent, pulverized nose, and the metal rim of a beer keg which had plunged into the back of his neck at the base of his skull when he fell, he still had a shit-eating grin, as if this wasn't so bad. As if worse things could be imagined.