She arrived in the bar from the side door barely wet from outside’s rain, made up and dressed as beautifully as Jerry had ever seen her. But Jerry didn’t see her at first, his eyes on the TV as he sat watching the game, a large glass of Miller Light in one hand. The girl approached from the left side, and when he saw her he broke into a large grin, put his beer down, and opened his arms for an embrace. They hugged, and the girl took a seat on the stool next to him.
The bartender, a large white man in a black collared shirt approached, wiping a large glass down with a white towel.
“What can I get for you sweetheart,” he said with a smile.
“Lemonade, if you have it,” the girl answered. She wore a small black button up sweater over a black halter top.
Jerry noticed the looks from everyone almost at once. Without a doubt, this black girl that had just walked in, this lady of just twenty-one years old, was the most beautiful woman that had stepped in here the entire night. A group of men, standing around a corner pool table, looked with pool sticks in hand, shooting glances over their shoulders when they thought Jerry or the girl wasn’t looking.
“So the bar again,” the girl said.
“Don’t start,” he said, the handle of the beer mug back in his hand. He had it poised an inch away from his lips. “Just tell me about your day.”
“Same old, same old, nothing new. How long have you been here?”
“I’m not trying to start trouble or anything, I just want to know.”
Jerry looked closely at Thella for a moment, sure that she could already guess how long he had been here, and certain that if he told her that the fireworks would soon follow.
“Two hours. But it’s been about the game, not about drinking.”
“Why couldn’t we do a restaurant or something though? Why did we have to come to a bar out of all places? Forget the drinking. What about the atmosphere?”
Jerry looked around, trying to figure out what was possibly wrong with the atmosphere. What kind of atmosphere did she want? She had wanted a night out and they were having a night out. What the hell? It didn’t make any sense to him.
“They serve food in here Thella, probably any kind of drink you want.” The bartender brought over a large glass of lemonade with lemons and put it in front of Thella. She grabbed a lemon and squeezed the juice out into her glass.
Jerry pointed at her glass. “See, right there. Anything. Just because you’re here doesn’t mean that you have to drink too.”
“Whatever,” Thella said coolly, sipping from her drink. The lemonade seemed to cheer her up a little, and finally, she moved on to other things.
“The Flea Market’s coming soon,” she said with a broad grin. “Do you want to go? Try a turkey leg?”
Jerry chuckled and finished off his glass of beer. “Yeah, we can do that. I’d love for us to do that.”
“You remember the last time we were there, and how that couple’s dog was all over you, trying to get the leg from your hand?”
“Yeah I do,” Jerry answered, putting one finger to the air to signal the bartender to bring him another drink. “I ended up giving the dog a piece of the leg so he would leave me alone. It was a big German Sheppard and even after the piece I gave it, it still wanted more. The couple had to work all hard just to pull it away.”
“You looked mad. So mad. But you were trying to hide it, though you were doing a bad job at it.”
“Well, hey. I’m just saying, if you have a big ass dog, you should probably have more control over it. What if I had been smaller and not a full grown, forty year old man? How do you think that would have looked if it had been a kid or something?” The bartender brought his next beer.
“Yeah, I suppose someone could’ve gotten hurt.” Thella shrugged, and took a sip of her lemonade. She added quietly, “It was funny though.”
“But those were good times,” Jerry said reverently, the beer back to his lips. “Those were really good times. Yeah, boy, time goes by fast.”
“Yeah it does.” Then suddenly, “You take your pills today?”
Jerry put his glass of beer down hard enough to make it foam up over the rim. “What is this, an interrogation?”
“I have to ask. What can I say, I’m worried about you?” Thella looked like she was on the verge of tears, and Jerry, starting to feel bad, forced himself to calm down.
“All right,” Jerry said, rubbing her shoulder. “I’m sorry.” He sighed, glancing back at the basketball game on the screen for a moment and then looking back at Thella. “No, I haven’t taken my pills, but I will. And I’ll make sure that I do a better job with it too.”
Thella nodded, saying nothing. She only drank her lemonade, allowing her eyes to drift to the game as well. For the next couple of minutes they drank in silence, 2pac’s, Brenda’s Got a Baby, playing on the bar’s speaker.
“So the food here,” Thella asked. “It’s good?”
“You have no idea,” Jerry said, happy that she had asked. He asked the bartender for two menus and the bartender brought them over.
They studied the menus in silence, the bar tables and counters filling up as they did. After a few minutes of deciding Thella settled on a grilled chicken salad and Jerry went for the buffalo wings with a side of fries. They handed the menus back to the bartender and the conversation picked back up.
“I’ve been picking up my running time. Running every morning and not missing a beat.”
“That’s good,” Jerry said. “I’m going to be getting back on the treadmill soon. Since I have one in the house I might as well use it, right?”
“Well yeah, you have to take care of yourself.” Thella looked closely at him for a moment, and Jerry noticing, asked,
“What is it?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Don’t worry about it. I’m not going to say it. Let’s talk about something else.”
But Jerry didn’t want to let it go.
“Come on,” he said. “Tell me what you were going to say Thella. I know that you were thinking of something.”
Thella began to look uncomfortable, her hands rubbing over each other. She didn’t answer, and instead commented on the game.
“Tell me Thella.”
She exhaled. “When was the last time you went to the doctor?”
Jerry slammed his fist on the bar, shaking his beer and her glass of lemonade. The bartender came over.
“You should learn to treat your date with some respect,” he said.
“Don’t tell me how to talk to my daughter,” Jerry told him, and the bartender, with some effort, turned and strolled away.
“Relax Dad,” Thella said, putting her hand on Jerry’s shoulder. “I’m not trying to stress you out or anything. Mom’s just worried about you, and I’m just trying to make things easier on her. So I’m asking the questions.”
“But it’s not your place Thella.”
Jerry was pissed that his ex-wife had put her up to this. Every time he turned around it seemed that she was up to something, and the result was rubbing off negatively on their daughter.
“I’m fine Thella,” Jerry said. “Despite everything that your mother would have you believe, your dad is A- okay. I mean Thella, look at me. You’re not talking to a seventy year old man here.”
“Yeah, but you told me before that forty isn’t the same as being in your twenties and thirties. You said it daddy. Said that your body acts differently, that you wake up and things feel slightly older.”
Jerry nodded, and finished his beer in three giant gulps. He let out a burp without excusing himself.
“So what are you and your mother talking about,” he asked. “You all going on and on, saying I have a drinking problem, right? Like I haven’t heard you.”
Thella said nothing and just rubbed Jerry’s shoulder slowly. She turned away and drank her lemonade, and looked up at a basketball game that her father knew she wasn’t interested in.
“Mom told me you’re mad at her for the way she treated you long ago. That she said some stuff about your drinking then and ever since you’ve been mad at her.”
Jerry couldn’t help but notice that Thella was getting mad as well. She rarely raised her voice around Jerry for any reason, but her voice had gone up a few notches. He’d said something that had hit a nerve.
“Sorry,” Jerry said, rubbing his daughter’s shoulder. “I’m not trying to be mean sweetie.” Thella gave him a small smile.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“It’s just a lot that your daddy’s dealing with, and sometimes your mom doesn’t make that easier. I’m trying to get my act together, since the heart attack.”
“Despite what you might think Dad, she hasn’t stopped loving you and I know that you haven’t stopped loving her.”
“Yeah,” Jerry said nodding, expecting his daughter to say such a thing. His eyes fixed on his empty beer glass. The bartender, watching him closely, asked him if he wanted another one.
“Yeah, go ahead and do me another one,” Jerry said. “And get another lemonade for my baby girl here.”
The bartender, smiling at both of them, left to get their drinks. He brought them over a moment later, and ten minutes after that, their food arrived, on large, well-portioned plates.
The mood seemed to improve considerably once they began to eat, and Thella let her dad know, almost at once, how good she thought the food was.
“You did a good job daddy. I guess I can give you a pass on choosing this place.”
Jerry chuckled, tearing a generous portion of meat from one of the breaded drumsticks. “You can, huh?” He finished his buffalo wing and grabbed a napkin to wipe his hands.
“Yeah,” he told Thella. “Your mom doesn’t tell you but we used to come here when we were young, because the food was so good. She wasn’t much into the sports either, but she said she liked the environment, so you know. We came here and had a good time.”
“It’s a nice place.”
“You should have seen your expression when you first came in here. You acted like you’d just stepped onto a landfill or something, with the look on your face.” They both laughed. “You should have seen yourself girl. Anyway, this really is a nice place. Remind your mom about the food whenever she says something. Here…here, try one of these.” He slid his plate of buffalo wings over to her and allowed her to grab one.
“You trying to make it hard for me to run track daddy?”
His daughter was running track at CU, and doing a heck of a job at it too. She could out run anyone in the family, both in speed and in distance.
“You know I wouldn’t try to do that,” he told her.
She grabbed a wing with two fingers, and took a bite.
“Very. All breaded and everything.”
“Now tell me Thella. Is that not the best wing that you’ve ever had?”
“Wait, let me get another bite,” she said, and bit off another piece from the wing. She nodded, considering. “You know what? It might just be…it…might…just…be. But we’re black. We’re probably predisposed to loving any kind of wing.”
Jerry chuckled. “Yeah.”
His daughter grabbed another one of the wings from his plate. “But these are good, I could eat this all day. Sorry daddy.”
“No, feel free. Help yourself.”
Jerry went to work on his next beer and in two minutes had it finished. He ignored the looks that Thella gave him. At this point he was certain he wasn’t going to be able to win with her.
“It’s a Friday night Daddy,” Thella said, working on her salad. “Cops are swarming out there. You know how Colorado is. You want to let me drive you home.”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. You can drive me.”
“Good,” Thella said with a smile. “You know you didn’t have a choice, right?”
“You sound just like your mom,” he told her. “I swear to God, you do.”
The conversation moved to how things were going with Thella at school, from her grades, to the difficulty of her classes, touched briefly back on her track meets, and forty minutes later came back to Jerry and his drinking, after he’d managed to make it through another three beers.
“You are giving me a headache girl,” Jerry said, putting his head on his arms. “Really, sweetie. You’re going to meet me out here to have dinner when you were really planning to give me your mom’s spiel all along. I’ve heard it before sweetie.”
“Daddy,” Thella whispered, looking around at the people standing and sitting in the restaurant. She leaned toward his ear. “She’s talking about an intervention. God…and I’m not even supposed to be telling you that. Mom’s going to be so pissed.”
“Why are you on this?”
Thella pushed her food away, clearly done for the night. She glanced at the TV screen then back at Jerry.
“One of the reasons mom said you two had issues was because one night…one night she says you drove me home drunk, when I was just two years old. Said you were drunk as hell and she had never been so mad at you. Said you had a bottle Vodka in the car with you, that you’d been drinking it. She said that was how she knew you had a problem.”
Jerry chuckled humorlessly. “Yeah, she would say something like that.”
“Is it true Dad?”
The bartender came over to ask if he wanted a refill, and Thella watched him closely, her arms folded on the counter.
“You sure,” the bartender said.
“He’s good,” Thella cut in. She handed him her plate. “Here take this, if you need something to do.”
Before the bartender could take it, Jerry changed his mind.
“No, get me another one. You know what, get me another drink. I can have another drink.”
The bartender took the plate, but also brought back Jerry’s request, and Thella, clearly bothered now, locked her father with a cold stare.
“You’ll understand one day,” Jerry said, taking another drink. “Instead of all this judging that you and your mom like to do why don’t you take the time to try to understand? It would serve you better if you did.”
“What do you want me to understand Daddy?”
“That this—” he nearly knocked the beer over and Thella had to reach out to keep it up. Some of it spilled over the brim. Thella grabbed some nearby napkins and wiped up the mess, shaking her head.
“There have been a lot of nights dad, where mom just let you do your thing. Where she let you drink what you wanted without saying anything. For a very long time Dad. Something has to be said at one point, doesn’t it? Should I just sit here and let my dad drink himself to death if I can help it?” She stopped, wet napkins clutched in one brown hand, an open palm to her face in an expression of unease.
Jerry, on his way to the best buzz of the week if he kept it up, was becoming fed up with her. He’d raised her hadn’t he? He’d worked countless years at a goddamn cable company to make sure that she had food on the table and clothes on her back. Why couldn’t his daughter be more grateful?
He started to cry, and made no effort to wipe away his tears.
“Daddy,” Thella said, scooting her stool closer to his, and taking his hands in hers. God she had grown. One day she’d been big enough to carry in one arm, and now she had grown into a beautiful adult woman. And it all had seemed to happen magically before his eyes.
But he could barely look at her. Tears streamed helplessly from his eyes.
“Daddy,” Thella said, her forehead to his. “It’s not too late.”
Jerry didn’t respond, finding his mind too inebriated to even consider this fact.
“You can stop this right now. Let me drive you to the place right now. We can get out of here and go do that. It’s not too late.”
Jerry wiped the tears and snot from his face with both hands, and snorted in more phlegm. “But…but what if it is,” he said.
And when he looked up toward his daughters face, it wasn’t there. No one was. Only an empty bar and empty tables were visible before him. Like the beer in the countless glasses purchased over the years, she had disappeared.
He was the fifth officer to pull up on the scene, his rain slicker doing little to combat the night’s sudden rush of snow. He went into the trunk of his car, white smoke billowing out of the exhaust near his shins. He grabbed an extra-large DPD (Denver Police Department) coat out of the trunk of his car, then put the gloves on next.
Like a bar on a Friday night, people filled up the scene beyond the cut off point. The officer strolled away from his car, and approached the yellow tape. He lifted it and stepped smoothly under, and was instantly surrounded by firefighters and paramedics, seemingly moving in all directions. The rush of the snow made it hard to spot anything at first, everything showing up behind a thick sheet of white.
“Stevenson,” said a black officer with a winter DPD coat and winter cap on. He was standing in front of a three car wreck as firefighters worked on getting the doors open to a totaled silver Lexus.
The officer sighed, looking at the scene. He held a notepad in one hand. “Well this is a sad one.” Stevenson knew this man well. Saw him every day in the locker room after his morning workout. Also saw him often on the beat.
A groan floated out from the totaled Lexus and Stevenson looked in its direction. He instinctively took a step forward. He looked at the smashed windshield, the crushed side, and the smoke unfurling from under a severely bent hood. He noticed what looked like a young black man inside the car. Broken glass was stuck on his face from having smashed into the windshield. His face was bloodied—nauseatingly so—but from what Stevenson could see, he was conscious.
They were pulling him out of the car door, a door that they had successfully severed with a massive electrical saw. His body was limp, his arms and legs hanging like that of a large rag doll. Stevenson could see that blood was rushing from several deep gashes on the young black man’s face, including an almost comically mangled nose. The man’s eyes were completely closed, each lid swollen to abnormal size. He mumbled something and Stevenson noticed what looked like a mouth without teeth. Images of his grandfather, toothless, and half-crazy in an old folk’s home came to Stevenson’s mind.
Jesus, Stevenson mouthed.
The man mumbled something again, as several blue uniformed males lifted him onto a stretcher. A thick glob of blood overflowed from the man’s mouth. Stevenson held back a shudder.
“What was that?” he said, his nose red from the cold now.
The man mumbled soundlessly again, but this time Stevenson thought he was able to read the words on the man’s swollen lips.
“Daughter,” is what he must’ve said.
Stevenson looked back into the car then, and noticed—his stomach knotting up as he did—a smashed car seat in the back. Inside of the car seat—
Stevenson turned away and looked at the severely injured man.
“She’s all right, isn’t she,” the man mumbled, a small smile stretching his smashed face. “Doing track and everything, right?”
“His daughter was killed,” the black officer said then, watching Stevenson closely. “Killed instantly on impact.”
Stevenson regarded the wreck again. Looked at the small brown face of a girl with three braids and tiny colored berets on the ends, gazing blankly down to the side. Blood ran from her forehead.
“They parted the cars before you came in. Car seat was strapped in near the door instead of the center of the car. One came in hard enough from the side to get the daughter in the head on impact.” The officer brought his gloved hands together to simulate the effect. “It’s some sad shit.”
“What’s up with what the dad’s saying?”
The officer waved that off. “Don’t you worry about that. He ain’t gonna be right again. He hit his head hard enough against the windshield to be dead right now.” The officer gave the car a look of distaste. “Motherfucking empty vodka bottle on the floor. Man doesn’t die I guarantee you he’ll wish he did.”
Stevenson watched the man being toted away on the stretcher, at a loss for words. He watched the uniformed men lift him and put him in the back of the ambulance.
“Must’ve been dreaming, or something,” Stevenson said. “She was too young to run track.”
“Never mind,” Stevenson said.
He turned away and strolled back toward his car.