Too drunk to drive home, Matt Hodges spent Monday night in the Denny’s parking lot, just north of downtown Modesto.
The old Denny’s. The one across from the pathetic American Graffiti Monument at George Lucas Plaza. Bronze statue of two 50’s-looking teenagers leaning on the left front fender of some old Chevy or something. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Matt stared closely into the eyes of the boy and the girl, and the emptiness he saw frightened him. Other times, when he really needed a drink and the inevitable delirium tremens approached, the two looked like clothed reptiles.
After a long night of lonely bar-hopping, Matt had washed down a Grand Slam Breakfast with eight cups of coffee, trying to get focused enough to drive home. He would’ve driven if he could, he wasn’t being all ‘don’t drink and drive.’ But, once he vomited the eggs, sausage links, and pancakes all over the driver’s side window and door of his 1971 silver Mercedes Benz 280 SE, he could only crawl onto the backseat and pass out.
He awoke at 7 a.m., the already bright August sun in his eyes, barf all over the front of his shirt, piss in his pants and an ache behind his left eye like the slash of a box cutter. Used to greeting the day this way, Matt couldn’t muster up the energy for the obligatory shame attack.
He drove home, stripped off his clothes at the foot of the bed where Lydia lay, and took a long shower. Made sure to stay in until he used all the hot water. His headache dissipated some as he let the stream hit his forehead, but he still felt nauseous.
“Did you hog all the hot water again, asshole?” Lydia said. She stood naked in the bathroom doorway, watching him dry off. Make-up smeared and curly red hair wild. After dieting and going to the gym obsessively for months, his wife had gotten way too skinny. Sure, she looked hot as hell in her new sexy clothes, but it didn’t do Matt any good, her pussy was off limits to him. Her naked body, with all the extra skin hanging, and the stretch marks, just looked … weird.
“Did you fuck that sonofabitch Hunter Manning again?”
“Cause you look like you’ve been screwing all night.”
Lydia squeezed by him to piss, both of them avoiding the touch of each other’s bare skin. Matt dropped his towel on the floor and went into the bedroom. Lydia hated it when he left his wet towels on the floor.
They’d barely spoken to each other the past several weeks. She was pissed at his drinking and intermittent employment. And, until recently, he’d been in a rage that she kept fucking other guys to get back at him for being a marginally employed drunk. Lately, though, he’d stopped caring so much about all of that. He just hated the worthless bitch. He couldn’t recall any feelings of love.
Plus, this new one, Hunter, scared the shit out of Matt. He looked exactly like what he was: a shaved-headed tatted-up baddass ex-con with Aryan Brotherhood associations. Matt didn’t understand why Lydia couldn’t have an affair with a CPA, or an engineer, or one of the lawyers she worked for, someone whose ass he could kick. If it ever came to that, which it wouldn’t. Matt wasn’t a very tough guy.
“Whatever, man,” Lydia said. She dabbed at her vagina with a piece of toilet paper, stood, and flushed the toilet. “The closing is today, right? I mean, fuck, please tell me that you’re finally going to bring home some money.”
“The closing’s at nine. Soon as the title company opens. You don’t need to be there.”
“Don’t worry. Wouldn’t think of intruding on your big emotional moment. Gag.”
In addition to the Mercedes, Matt’s dead mother left him the piece-of-shit house out on Rumble Road where he’d grown up. A 1700-square-foot lime green stucco ranch-style built in 1966 as part of a then high-status subdivision. Ankle-high brown weeds now dominated the yard. The back and side fences barely stood. Vandals broke most of the windows and Matt replaced them with sheets of plywood. It sat on a street surrounded by similar structures, most in various stages of foreclosure or short sale. Shocked to get an offer for a hundred and sixty thousand, he accepted immediately before the dumbasses changed their mind.
Delores Hodges died of liver cancer just before Matt and Lydia married. A large debt remained on the second mortgage she’d gotten during the peak of the real estate boom. After paying off the bank, and the closing fees, and the sales commissions, little profit remained. Still, Matt felt fortunate to actually be making some money.
Lydia studied herself in the mirror. With both hands she tugged at the skin above her waist.
“Did you find out how much you’re going to get?”
God, he knew that today would be the day he’d suddenly become fascinating again.
“Twelve thousand, six hundred and fourteen dollars. And ninety eight cents.”
“That’s it? I still can’t believe you didn’t hold out for more. That house is worth at least one ninety.”
“Yeah, right. Eight years ago. Maybe.”
“The market is improving. In six months you’ll look like an idiot. Fuck, in two weeks you’ll look like an idiot.”
He dressed quickly in shorts and a black t-shirt. All he wanted was to get away from Lydia. In her presence he hated himself even more than usual.
Lydia turned sideways and stared at her profile. She sucked in her belly.
“Don’t you dare forget our deal,” she said.
“I know, Jesus.”
“Five grand of that cash goes for my tummy tuck and the rest pays off your credit card debt. I’m sick of my salary going to finance your drinking and trips to every goddamn Indian casino between here and the Donner fucking Pass.”
Matt went into the bathroom and stood behind Lydia.
“Jesus. How could I ever forget?”
“And if there is anything left over, it’s mine. You owe me for supporting your ass for two years. Shit, this marriage might be the worst investment in history.”
“You’re just going to get fat again, and waste that five grand. Talk about a bad investment.”
Lydia turned around. She started to slap Matt. He was ready and caught her right wrist with his right hand.
“Fuck you,” she said.
“Fuck you,” he said.
She tried to free her hand, but Matt held tight.
“You’re such a fucking joke,” she said.
She reached out with her left hand and twisted Matt’s right nipple.
“Ouch, shit,” Matt said. He let go of her wrist. “Fucking slut whore.”
“Oh. And don’t think I’m going to let you off the hook and forget your promise of going to rehab ‘as soon as all the stuff with my mom’s estate is settled.’”
Lydia recited the last part in a pathetic sing-song whine.
Matt looked away.
“Remember? Re. Hab?”
He walked out of the bathroom and out of the bedroom.
“Right! That’s what I thought. You get that money into the bank right away. Today. In case there’s a hold. My procedure is Friday and since it’s not covered by insurance I have to pay upfront.”
In the hallway he bumped into Tanner, Lydia’s son from her marriage before last. The tall, slender, and handsome 18-year-old’s morning erection had emerged through the slit in his boxer shorts. Matt felt himself blush as he noticed the impressive length and thickness of his stepson’s uncircumcised cock.
“Hey dumb shit,” Tanner said.
“What’s up, douchebag?” Matt said.
“Eat me.” Tanner stumbled into the bathroom.
“Okay,” Matt said to the shut and locked door. “Have a nice day.”
Tanner seemed even more aggressive and belligerent than his usual frightening self ever since Lydia had been seeing Hunter. Coincidence?
He heard Lydia shouting something at him as he went out the front door. His nipple stung like freaking hell. It felt like she’d pulled the thing off. Thinking back, he realized she’d stopped wearing her engagement and wedding rings. No surprise. Who cared, anyway?
He started the car and turned on the AC full blast, but the sweat still poured down his face. Already 80 degrees, the temperature would hit 108 by noon.
God, he loved the Mercedes. For years it sat in the garage. His mother never let him drive it, so, as soon as she got too sick to notice he made it his own.
Matt had been around a lot of divorces and separations. His own and those of his various exes. So, he knew a thing or two about California community property law. He knew that, technically, Lydia had no legal claim to whatever money Matt got from his mother’s estate. But, it was true that since a couple of weeks into their marriage, Lydia almost completely carried the financial load. He couldn’t blame her for being so pissed. He wanted to even things up somehow. It was the right thing to do. Still, why did she have to be such a cheating bitch?
Matt drove to the White Elephant Lounge for some hair of the dog. Still an hour before the closing. He hated the place because the morning regulars always laughed and joked and shouted as if no one ever had a freaking hangover. Plus, they ignored him like he was diseased or something. Even the total-slut flirty bar maid treated him like shit. He didn’t get it. But, the bar opened early and was on the way to the title company offices. And, it was cheap.
The Elephant sat between a liquor store and a nail salon on Standiford Avenue. In the middle of the oldest strip mall in Modesto. At one time the little island of buildings had been a mile out of town.
The 24-hour store also sold gas and milk and candy and lottery tickets. Taped to the clear glass doors were video stills of recent armed robberies and shopliftings. Getting in and out of the nameless place required passing through a soiled and smelly gauntlet of panhandlers, talkative tweakers, and inert splayed-out bodies.
As far as Matt could tell, the always-packed nail salon also never closed. Owned and operated by a Vietnamese immigrant along with her daughter and granddaughter, just inside the door was a Buddhist shrine covered with offerings: oranges, cantaloupe slices, cigarettes, chewing gum, antacid pills.
On the outside, the bar looked like the worse kind of dive. Old sign with chipped paint, a white cement wall, and a black bullet-hole-ridden wooden door. Inside, though, it looked like all Modesto neighborhood bars: fake wood-paneled walls, pool tables, posters and pennants of the Giants, the A’s, the 49ers, and the Raiders, an electronic dart board, and six large-screen TVs set to ESPN channels. The owner recently spent some money on renovations, and the White Elephant actually looked pretty good.
Thank god the place was at least a little cool when Matt walked inside. He ignored the usual crowd at the left side of the joint, and took a seat at the far end of the bar to the right.
A bartender he did not recognize walked up and met him across from his stool. She actually smiled. Matt figured her for early 40s, like him. She wore black high-heel boots, tight black pants, and an unbuttoned lacy black blouse over a pink bikini top. Her hair a 70s-style shag, dyed jet black. She turned Matt on, especially because of the way a bit of her gut spilled over the tight jeans, and the way one of her top left teeth over-lapped the tooth behind it. The best part: she didn’t know he was an asshole yet.
“What can I get you, sweetie?”
“Can you make me a bloody Mary? Except with tequila?”
“Double tequila, please.”
“You got it, double bloody Maria, coming right up.”
Matt watched her big ass jiggle as she made the drink. He put the last twenty from his wallet on the bar. Watched her make change as he swallowed the drink in one gulp.
“One more please.”
“Are we celebrating or trying to cure a hangover?”
“A little of both, I guess.”
He drank the next a little slower. Two swallows instead of one.
The bartender went to the other end of the bar to serve the shouting regulars.
When she came back she poured them both a shot of Jose Cuervo.
“This is on me.”
Wow, he could get to like this new addition to his least favorite dive. Maybe he’d become a regular, after all.
“I’m Beth,” she said, extending her right hand.
They shook. She smiled.
“What are we celebrating?”
“I’m about to leave town with a bundle of money. Maybe do a little gambling.”
So what if it was a lie? Who the fuck cared?
He drank his shot. She drank hers. She looked him straight in the eye. Big sexy smile.
“Oh, that’s always nice. Getting out of dodge with a big fat wallet.”
Matt felt great, drunk as hell. The White Elephant glowed. Bright, shiny, and beautiful. The liquor bottles behind his new friend sparkled and hummed. He saw his reflection in the mirror. He looked good, handsome even. Full head of blond hair, blue eyes, hardly a wrinkle. His eyes only looked a little puffy.
He pictured himself in a casino, playing poker, wearing a black silk bowling shirt, crisp khaki shorts and brown leather slip-on Italian shoes. Big pile of chips. Beth stood beside him, running her nails up and down his arms. Two aces in his hand and the dealer dealt two more—one in the flop and one on the river. He went all in.
Back in his reality, he put his right hand on Beth’s left.
“Why don’t you come with me?”
“I’m serious. I promise we’ll have a great time.”
“I don’t think my husband would like that.” She pulled her hand back. Moved back down the bar to the right and started washing beer mugs. Matt stared. She didn’t look back. Eventually, Beth went to serve and flirt with the regulars on the other side of the bar.
Whatever. Her loss. He remembered Lydia and the tummy tuck and everything else.
Checked his watch: 8:50. The room spun as he got off his stool. He looked at the back of Beth’s head on his way out. Noticed Hunter Manning standing against the wall. Never seen him in the Elephant before this morning. Dude stared at him with vicious cold eyes. He wasn’t drinking.