When Brady first realized his wife Amanda was making hay with his work buddy Patterson, Brady was with Patterson and their other friend Frank, and they sat talking over the jukebox in Molly’s at the Market, a dive they frequented on Decatur Street when they were in New Orleans on business for Bayer. The waitress looked tired, the same weariness Brady had seen in Amanda the morning he’d left Bossier City. She’d stood in the doorway with their daughter Katie, something in his wife’s face he couldn’t read. Now—with a tock like a Louisville Slugger slapping a Wilson baseball over the Green Monster, the leftfield wall at Fenway—when Brady caught a whiff of Patterson’s cologne, he knew. A few weeks ago she’d come home smelling of cheap Ax body spray: the same scent Patterson, next to him blowing smoke rings, wore tonight.
Brady twisted the thin gold wedding ring on his finger, staring at the other rings, cigarette burns that marred the varnished tabletop, that smooth façade. When the waitress set his Tin Roof Juke Joint IPA in front of him, he murmured his thanks. No doubt, she’d been propositioned by a hundred drunken guys from out of town, and she must hate tourists like them: the buttoned-down suburbanites who went to Bourbon Burlesque, yet, for all that, were hopeless squares, registered Republicans with boats in their yards.
She touched his wrist. “It’s Mary, if you need anything.”
Patterson started before she’d even walked away. “Looks like Brady sees something he likes.” He dropped his hand on Brady’s back, like they were still best buds. Frank laughed, a barking sound, and Brady felt sick at the prospect of ending up like that: a graying cuckold, trapped in middle management at 50. According to the rumor mill around the office, and Patterson had confessed as much to Brady one night, Patterson had nailed Frank’s ex-wife, too.
Rage burned through Brady like flame through a stack of old Sports Illustrated magazines, from his guts to the top of his head. He fought the reflex to elbow the traitor in the chin, imagined shattering his trachea, Patterson clutching his neck and wheezing while he fell across the room, knocking over tables like bowling pins. Brady forced a grin at his coworkers, the people he’d have called his two best friends. In town for a conference to learn the new accounting software, and he swore that by the time they went home on Sunday, he was going to confront Patterson. Would he have the balls?
“Don’t touch me,” he said, and Patterson laughed. Frank did, too. Probably glad Patterson wasn’t picking on him for a change. Blood rushed to Brady’s face. Only Patterson’s hand moored Brady to his stool. It was August, hot. Inside his collar, sweat stung the razor burn on his neck.
Mary brought a second round. Bad skin, like she’d had acne when she was a kid. She covered it with too much base. Still, something about her made Brady feel safe, like he’d be a different person—happier, less boring, not the kind of guy whose wife would pork his best friend—if he could’ve gone home with her. Crooked glasses. Her cheeks dimpled, the neckline of her dress plunging down to the freckled tops of her breasts. Maybe 25—not that you could be sure in this light. She moved between tables, greeting the customers as if they were friends.
Brady took a pull from his Tin Roof, slurping foam from his lip. The jukebox played a Nine Inch Nails song he remembered from Milford High back in New Hampshire—that slow one with the piano from Pretty Hate Machine, “Something I Can Never Have,” which he’d listened to on repeat with his first girlfriend, Shelly Clevinger, hot and heavy with her in the back of the old man’s Chrysler Town and Country. You make it all go away went the song, but what would kill the pain of betrayal—Amanda’s, or Patterson’s?
“Faggot,” Frank said, but he wasn’t talking to anyone. “Limp-wristed fanny-lancer.”
Hadn’t smoked in 21 days, but Brady had a wicked craving, like always when he was getting his drink on, so he reached for one of Frank’s Marlboros and his Bic. Dizzy after the first few drags, and he smelled Patterson’s cologne, same as he had on Amanda, he was sure of it. Helping himself to one of Frank’s cigarettes, Patterson exhaled, holding the butt at a distance from himself, as if inspecting it—so in control, Brady wanted to cold cock him.
“I’ve always been able to put it down,” Patterson said—needling Brady, trying to get him riled, and succeeding at it. “I’ve never understood people who actually have to quit.”
The son of a bitch. Ten years Brady had known Patterson, since moving to Bossier City to take a position in accounts receivable at the North Louisiana plant, and most of that time, even if Brady should’ve known better, he’d trusted Patterson, despite the fact he skimmed from the petty cash at work, inflated his expense account, and had banged Frank’s wife, too. Easy to give him a pass on that stuff because he was a wild man, the kind of dude you wanted to hang with because he made everything in that hick town where they lived fun, the smartest guy in the room, and he’d never done Brady dirt because they were buddies—never, at least, until now.
“Maybe you should lay off.” Brady caught a buzz from the butt. His scalp tingled. His guts churned, like he had to shit.
“They say it’s a genetic thing, the addictive personality.” Patterson spoke in a deep voice, like he thought he was on the radio. “Guess it doesn’t run in my family.” His cheeks hollowed as he sucked in smoke—the hypocrite. Last time they came to New Orleans, he’d bought a bunch of coke from a guy he’d met in the john at Siberia, a heavy metal bar on St. Claude, and Brady had done it with him, sure—couldn’t take the high ground about that. “Might not have another one all year,” Patterson said.
Brady couldn’t stand being provoked anymore, and his stomach was clenching from the nicotine buzz, like he was going to have diarrhea, so he fled the table. Festooned with Saints paraphernalia, the hallway to the restroom was barely wide enough for two people to pass. He pushed open the door to the men’s, smelling the urinal cake. Tried the stall, but it was locked. He was going to crap himself, but the moment passed, and he pissed in the porcelain basin. Chilled, his face slick with sweat, he propped himself up against the wall and closed his eyes. That spring, Amanda had come home with a bruise on her thigh—the elliptical machine at the Anytime Fitness where she went on Stockwell Road, she’d told him. Over the last few months, when she did let him screw her, she smelled different, like her odor had changed. Now, he imagined he could smell Patterson had been inside her.
“The fuck took you so long?” Back at the table, Frank scrunched up his face, trying to give as good as he got, but the sight of him was like a vision of Brady’s doom, rushing at him like a freight train barreling down a long tunnel. Frank stood under a poster of James Booker playing the piano at Montreux. When they moved to Louisiana, Brady and Amanda had gone to the festivals—the Festivals Acadiens in Lafayette, Jazz Fest in New Orleans—but they’d had Katie, who was in the fourth grade with Patterson’s kid Eva at Southfield School, and Amanda had decided she hated it here. A year and a half of couples counseling, and she’d done this.
Holding a pint of beer as if he gripped a chalice, Patterson burped. He stood five-five, his head level with Brady’s chest. Why would Amanda have wanted to spread her legs for a guy she towered over in heels? Brady felt numb.
“What do we say, men?” Glancing at Frank, Patterson smirked, and Brady smiled back at him, the two of them ganging up—like always—on poor, pitiful Frank, who really was a loser, if he was still buddies with the guy who’d fucked his ex-wife. Sports Center played on the television, and one of the Tigers drove a Josh Beckett fastball into right centerfield. Brady had left New England years ago, but he still rooted for the Sox, loyalty being in short supply. Not that he felt any to Frank.
Outside the bar, Patterson said, “You should have asked for her number.”
“Like what,” Brady asked, “It would make you feel better if I got laid?”
He wanted to hear from Patterson’s mouth that he was slipping Brady’s wife the sausage.
They walked against traffic on Decatur, Frank stumbling down the sidewalk. Brady could’ve lived his whole life here, started over with Mary from the bar, never gone back to The Orchard, the subdivision where they lived in Bossier City, and maybe that would’ve showed Amanda. He’d given her everything: had 2400 square feet, a Bass Tracker on a trailer in the yard. But when he thought of coaching Katie’s Dixie League softball team, the sun filtering through the leaves of the trees in Walbrook Park, he couldn’t imagine letting go of his daughter.
“Might make you feel better,” Patterson said, “about whatever’s making you act like such a big, wet pussy.”
Should’ve known he wouldn’t feel bad. Guys like him got away with everything.
Upstairs at the Dragon’s Den—pressed tin walls and hipsters crowded around the bar—Brady sprang for the first round: three shots of Jack, Budweiser back. Frank gulped bourbon, dribbling it down his chin. Brady felt sick just looking at him, like that was what he’d be when Amanda took Katie and left: bitter, broken-down, and pathetic. Not that Patterson would bail on his wife Sue, who’d been putting up with his shit for years.
No, laying pipe to Brady’s wife was just fun for Patterson.
“How much cash do you have?” Patterson felt his pockets, and Brady knew what his friend wanted: sooner or later, Patterson would go looking for blow, and they’d be out till dawn.
“Enough.” Brady hesitated. Understood from long experience what was coming next, the night’s inevitable trajectory, the three of them rolling till the sun came up, like they did every time they were here: cutting loose, doing things they’d never do at home—cocaine, strip clubs like the Lily Pad in New Orleans East, Patterson the ringleader, egging them on. Brady hated himself every time, and even if he looked but didn’t touch, he knew it meant he had no leg to stand on with Amanda. But out of whatever loyalty he felt to Patterson, because it was easier to go along, and because Brady wanted to confront the dude tonight, he did it: he gave Patterson his wallet.
Patterson consolidated their bills into a single roll, which he tucked into his hip pocket. When he handed Brady’s wallet back, he’d left Brady a twenty. Felt like a slap in the face.
“Thanks,” Brady said, but the sarcasm was lost on Patterson.
“Played shortstop for Florida State.” Patterson gripped Brady’s shoulder—hard. He was still in good shape—strong upper arms, pecs showing under his white dress shirt—so despite the fact Brady had 20 pounds and a good few inches reach on Patterson, he’d probably wipe the floor with Brady in a fair fight. “Blew out my left knee, sliding home—big play, top of the ninth. Kept me from going pro, you want the truth. I was already talking to scouts from the Yankees.”
Half in the bag, washed up, and bragging—like Brady hadn’t heard it before. That bit about the Yankees a shot, since Brady was a Sox fan. Cheap, sure, but if it came to a fistfight, he was going for that knee.
“They sell cigarettes up here?” Katie would be disappointed, but he’d already slipped off the tobacco wagon. Been craving another butt since he’d finished the last one. The light glinting on Mary the waitress’s glasses—maybe he would walk back there and get her number. He’d never cheated, but Patterson was right: might make Brady feel better.
“Frank doesn’t mind if you have one of his, do you, old boy?” Patterson patted down Frank’s shirt.
“Give me a cigarette.” Brady had to ask twice before Frank handed him the crumpled pack of Marlboros. That silver band on Patterson’s ring finger—dude did whatever he wanted.
The lights above the bar glowed green in a drink. Brady knew well enough to trust his intuition when it came to certain things, such as the way Amanda had said goodbye to Patterson leaving a party at the district manager’s place that spring. Staying too long at the door, at the top of the steps in front of one of the sprawling brick houses on King’s Highway in Shreveport, she’d turned to Patterson. Wearing her black leather jacket, her blond hair cropped to shoulder length, she’d looked into his eyes, and it only struck Brady later, while she snored beside him in the Escalade on the way home, that he’d forgotten what she looked like when she flirted. Didn’t know what killed him more, her wanting his friend, or no longer wanting Brady himself.
Taking another drag of his cigarette, he wrapped his fist around his bottle of Budweiser. Over the last decade, the three of them had come to resemble a tribe. None of them from the South. Depending on the company, Patterson claimed Florida, but by his own admission, he’d grown up in the “Jewish” part of the state, “Manhattan with beaches.” They went to dinner parties across the bridge in Shreveport, and they tried all the ethnic places in town: the Pho Bowl, India’s Restaurant. Drove to New Orleans when they needed a cultural fix—music at Tipitina’s, the World War II Museum or a day at Audubon Zoo with the kids—while like the wolf in their midst, Patterson bedded their wives, knocking them off, Frank’s and Brady’s.
Yesterday, Brady would’ve said he was happy with his life. He’d have taken a mortal sin over this soap opera—something that mattered, a transgression worth suffering for.
“You long-dicking my wife?” Brady asked Patterson, who nearly choked on his Budweiser. Frank laughed.
“Jesus, dude.” Patterson wiped foam from his chin. “Who do you think I am?”
But at long last, Brady knew who Patterson was, and what he’d done. “She was gagging for it,” he’d said, mock contrite, the night he’d confessed to nailing Frank’s ex, who’d still been wearing her ring when Patterson had done her. “Tore that pussy up,” he’d said, and as horrified as Brady had been, he’d thought that could only happen because Frank was weak. Brady couldn’t believe he’d been so naïve about friendship, about love.
“You’re my best bud.” Brady slapped Patterson’s shoulder: hard knots of muscle.
Back in Patterson’s good graces, Frank pointed at Brady. “Fucking homo.”
Just to show them both he had the guts, Brady walked back to Molly’s. The crowd had thinned. Mary the waitress leaned against the bar. “Hey,” she said, like she’d been expecting him.
When he asked for her number, she looked like she hadn’t understood, and when he repeated himself, she laughed. To his surprise, as though she were in too much hurry to say no, she scrawled something on a pad, tearing the sheet off. The purple ink smeared, but the digits were legible. When she grinned, silver flashed in her mouth—a spike like a tiny barbell through her tongue.
“I have to get back to work.” She hoisted a tray, blinking behind smudged lenses. “But if you’re going to ask me out, you could tell me your name.” Brady realized on the way to the door that he hadn’t even taken his ring off. If she’d noticed, she didn’t seem to mind.
Waiting outside with Frank, Patterson nodded his approval. Their last visit to New Orleans, at dawn, he’d gone to a massage parlor, the Hollywood Spa, but Brady had sworn he’d never go with whores, not like Patterson did, though he had a way of making you break your resolutions. Always brought out the worst in a person, like when he made Brady gang up on Frank, like he wanted you to be as bad as he was, dragging you down to his level. That was Patterson’s particular genius.
“It’s not cheating if she doesn’t find out about it, old man.” Patterson knocked on Brady’s sternum. Brady felt exhilarated after getting the girl’s number. He’d made a good faith effort to save their marriage—that therapist, leading Katie’s Brownie Girl Scout troupe, for Christ’s sake—and apart from ogling the merchandise at a couple tittie bars, which didn’t count, anyway, he’d kept his vows. Maybe now he’d do whatever he wanted, just like Patterson did.
“You don’t have to lie to me about Amanda.” Couldn’t have forgiven Patterson, but Brady had to know if his best friend was screwing his wife.
“Dude.” Patterson put his hand on Brady’s shoulder. Unsteady, he leaned against Brady. “There’s nothing going on with me and your old lady.” Next to him, Frank was propping himself up on an iron post. Brady caught another whiff of Patterson’s cologne, like sex and acne.
“Tell me the truth.” His voice cracked. As many times as he’d asked, Amanda said she didn’t want another kid. Said it would ruin her figure, but who she was trying to impress, if not her lawfully wedded husband? Brady told his wife he would’ve loved her if she’d put on three hundred pounds, and he didn’t care about any damn stretch marks, but that just pissed her off.
Patterson snorted, laughing. Close enough to kiss. “What would you do, anyway?”
An hour later, when it started raining, they went into Checkpoint Charlie’s, a biker bar on the edge of the Quarter. Patterson bought a round of Turbodog drafts in sweaty plastic cups. Frank drifted off, sputtering in the opposite corner of the booth. Place still had the AC cranked, so the temperature dropped. Frank held a beer in one hand, a cigarette between the fingers of the other. His chin fell, touching his collar, and he snored. Pathetic. Brady reached across the table and took the cigarette from between Frank’s fingers. Keep him from burning the damn place down.
Patterson wasn’t having any luck trying to find someone to sell them coke. “No one’s holding,” he said, and Brady felt relieved. Better they called it a night and went back to the Sheraton. But he didn’t want to throw in the towel. Still hadn’t laid down the law for Patterson.
As if at a signal they’d agreed upon beforehand, Patterson stood, putting his finger to his lips, and Brady climbed out of the booth. Just to be a dick, he left a business card, propping it against the wooden buttons on the wrist of Frank’s jacket. In his rumpled tweed, Frank looked like a priest. With Patterson laughing beside him, Brady slid the plastic cup of beer back into Frank’s hand. Wouldn’t that be a joke when he woke up and didn’t know where his buddies were. Served him right for being weak.
At the bar door, a wet blast of warm air hit them. In less than 15 minutes, the clouds had spent themselves, and the sky seemed scoured clean.
On Rampart, the bars had closed—doors shuttered, neon signs dead in the windows. Through a brick archway and a wrought iron gate, folding chairs were arranged around a fountain in a garden that smelled of night-blooming jasmine, the view in half-obscured by the leaves of banana trees, like a glimpse of a life Brady would never have. “I can’t believe you dragged us here for this,” Amanda, depressed after Katie’s birth, had started telling him, two years after they’d moved to Bossier City—like the place was so terrible: good schools, no crime, but she wanted more for herself than cutting hair at Joseph Guin, the salon where she worked in Shreveport, and he couldn’t blame her for that. “Sooner or later, I’ll be promoted, and we can leave,” he kept saying, but it was like he knew he’d gone as far as he was going to in his life.
Across from Armstrong Park, Patterson stopped. The sign in front of the entrance lit up like a Ferris wheel. The gates were chained.
“We have two hundred and fifty bucks.” Patterson cleared his throat, tugging at his collar. “That’s enough for an eight ball, or maybe somebody can sell us some freebase.”
And though he had to be out of his mind to go wandering through downtown New Orleans on a Friday night in August looking for someone to sell him drugs, Brady saw his chance, and he said sure.
“Let’s do it,” he said.
Okay. He’d follow Patterson. And finally, they’d be alone. And Brady would get the answers he wanted.
They turned the corner by the police station and started up Basin.
“Where’re we going, man?” Brady asked, but Patterson told him to shut up.
Walking up Orleans, Brady worried that they’d be mugged, held up at gunpoint before he could act, before he could confront Patterson as Brady had sworn to himself he was going to do when he’d smelled his cologne earlier. But the streets were deserted. On the other side of an overpass, they emerged onto a row of tumbledown houses with boarded up storefronts, across from tall brick buildings: the projects, Christ, Patterson—but they were empty since the storm, Hurricane Katrina, five years ago, half-demolished, plywood nailed across doors and windows.
“Fuck.” Patterson held his side. Seemed pissed no one was around.
They followed the overpass, the I-10, on Claiborne. Above them, cars hurtled past, the early traffic sparse. Up the street, a blue sign was dark in front of the Circle Food Store, the place closed, the gates pulled down over the doors. A whiff of fried food from one of the late night places on St. Bernard nearly turned Brady’s stomach.
“Hey, what’s this?” Patterson dropped into a squat, picking up a shattered vial. On hands and knees, he sorted through the pebbles on the ground, picking one up and tasting it, spitting it out—the idiot, as if someone might’ve dropped a rock of crack. He didn’t seem human, and Brady imagined him giving it to Amanda, hips thrusting like a dog’s between her thighs.
Between the cement pillars that supported the overpass, a length of chain link fenced off a muddy enclosure where empty cans and bottles had been tossed. Rubble, as if from a construction site, too, and Brady thought of that Nine Inch Nails song from the bar, “Something I Can Never Have,” and the piano over the refrain: everything he’d wanted to be but wasn’t, mounting Shelly Clevinger in the back of his old man’s car. Until he’d smelled Patterson’s cologne earlier tonight, Brady thought he’d had the life he wanted: a family. Love.
From the pile of rubble under the overpass, Brady picked up a loose piece of rebar with cement crusted to the end of it. Looked like the stick after you eat a Tootsie Pop, except it was the size of a baseball bat and weighed 20 pounds. What if he hit Patterson once, just once, and got the drop on him, so he would have the upper hand? Couldn’t take him in a fair fight, so Brady deserved a handicap, didn’t he? He wanted to make Patterson answer a few questions. Brady wanted to know from Patterson’s mouth the truth, that he’d been giving it to Amanda.
Coming up behind Patterson, Brady lifted the piece of rebar in two hands. Off balance, or he probably would’ve killed Patterson, Brady hit Patterson on the back of the head. With an oomph, he fell forward, collapsing onto his stomach. Under the flickering streetlights, dark spattered the piece of metal in Brady’s hands. Blood. Had he done that? Didn’t seem possible.
Down the street houses were shuttered, windows darkened. A hand-lettered sign said Boot Repair. No one was around. Could he get away with beating Patterson up?
“Tell me you’re banging my wife,” he said. Just once, Brady wanted to have something on Patterson—to win.
“Hell you’re doing?” Patterson raised his hand, as if to ward off another blow. Blood stained his teeth.
“You get away with everything.” Brady’s voice echoed, like the announcer in the “Pigs in Space” bit from The Muppet Show when he was a kid.
“Get.” Patterson crawled a few feet.
“Tell me you fucked her, and we can both walk away from this.” Brady took a couple steps closer. “I just want to hear you say it, dude.”
Patterson seemed baffled, like he didn’t know why Brady would be upset. “Thought you were joking.” Patterson spat.
Beyond the gray shape of the overpass, moonlight filled the cloudbanks. Even as Brady lifted the bloodied rebar, he felt uncertain what to do. If he knocked Patterson senseless, Brady could go back to the Sheraton, and it would be his word against Patterson’s, if it came to that. But no: Brady had come here to do this, had been preparing for it all night, even if he hadn’t known it, not completely, or hadn’t been able to admit it to himself until now.
His hands shook. But when he realized what he was doing—when he saw that he was going to kill Patterson—he felt calm, flushed with adrenaline, like Big Papi, David Ortiz must feel when the first baseman stepped up to the plate with runners on the corners, the Sox down two in the bottom of the ninth. Brady seemed very far away from Katie and Amanda and all those things that should have kept him from doing what he was about to do. After all, those things that should’ve kept him from doing this were the same things Patterson was taking away.
Patterson reached for Brady’s ankle, and Brady brought the rebar down, hitting Patterson’s wrist. Patterson yelped, clutching his hand to his chest. “What’re you doing?” Like he was starting to get it, like he understood Brady wasn’t kidding.
Looking at his best buddy’s face, Brady nearly gave up and walked away, and when he swung the rebar this time, he did it to make Patterson turn away, to blank out those questioning eyes. He struck Patterson a glancing blow across the forehead, and he flashed to a night in college at Keene State, Amanda tipsy, drinking by a keg in a basement: Brady an Alpha Sigma, Amanda a Delta Pi, a couple of average people destined to have normal lives. Later that night, he’d helped her to the dorms, his coat wrapped around her shoulders, like he wanted to protect her, like a man did. That was what he was doing now.
“Looking out for what’s mine,” he said.
As Patterson struggled to his feet, Brady did what he’d always known he would do if he ever had to fight Patterson, who outmatched him in strength and skills, and who would’ve kicked Brady’s ass halfway to next Sunday if Brady so much as let Patterson stand. Brady aimed a homerun swing at the knee Patterson had blown out in college, and even if Brady had never been much of a jock, no college baseball star like Patterson, even if Brady rode the bench the one year he played junior varsity hockey at Milford, that did the trick. Cartilage snapped, bone splintered—heard that even over the sound of traffic—and the lower half of Patterson’s leg flopped from the joint at an unnatural angle, like a GI Joe action figure bent wrong, so Patterson toppled.
“Jesus.” Patterson screamed, and the sound echoed under the overpass. Clutching his knee, he rolled onto his back, and he managed one well-placed kick to Brady’s solar plexus, but Brady hardly felt it. As Patterson crab-walked across the gravel, Brady raised the rebar. This time, he threw it at Patterson’s face. It struck Patterson on the mouth and bounced to the dirt.
Bitch, Brady thought.
Patterson shrieked, covering his face. When he turned onto his stomach, blood dripped between his fingers. If he was turning tail, Brady had won, and he might’ve stopped. But Patterson still hadn’t told Brady what he wanted to know. And if Brady did let Patterson get away—what then? Wait for Patterson to find him, to call the cops?
Brady picked up the rebar. As moonlight touched the yellow sign in front of the Circle H Meat Market down the street, he stood above Patterson. Thought of Katie in her Brownie uniform.
“Tell me,” he said.
“Didn’t touch.” Patterson crawled a few feet, and stopped, like he saw there was no point.
“The fuck you didn’t.”
Patterson wheezed. “Not fault.”
Brady told him the world rewarded assholes, and that was the truth. Everybody loved a winner. But Patterson didn’t look so good now, did he, brother?
“Can’t kill me.” His voice softened, and it was pathetic, the worst to hear him beg. Brady hated Patterson more than ever for showing his belly. “Please don’t hit. Who’s going to take Sue and Eva?”
Patterson might’ve been crying.
“Tell me you fucked my wife,” Brady said, “and I’ll let it go.” Leaning closer, he caught another whiff of Ax, like a men’s locker room, and felt the same certainty he had hours ago in the bar. He knew, and it gutted him, but it also filled him with righteousness and rage.
“Tore pussy up.” That was Patterson’s last hurrah, like he’d wanted to go down swinging, or at least talking tough. Brady felt a pang, like he hadn’t really known the truth. But it wasn’t satisfying, considering he’d had to beat it out of Patterson, who might have been lying. And though Brady wanted to walk away, he knew what he had to do. He’d left himself no choice.
After the next blow, Patterson stopped moving.
“Who’s the limp dick now?” Brady raised the rebar and swung it, like he was chopping wood. Dripping sweat, he held the metal above his head. “This is for Frank.” Like he was getting back at Patterson for all the times he’d made Brady gang up on Frank, or for screwing Frank’s wife. Like Brady was killing a piece of himself, that part of him that had looked up to Patterson, and always followed his lead. That had wanted to be Patterson, even. That had let Patterson ruin his marriage.
One last time, Brady swung the rebar, hitting Patterson’s head, and he backed away from Patterson, letting his club fall to the side. When Brady wiped his brow, there was blood spatter on his sleeve.
“Take that.” He yelped, whooping, a sound of triumph, but there was no one to hear it, no witnesses, no cheering crowds to see that he’d won, that he’d beaten Patterson.
He squatted beside the body, rifling Patterson’s pockets. Took the wad of bills and Patterson’s wallet, the keys to his Suburban, which they’d driven down from Bossier City, and which they were supposed to drive home. Took his hotel keycard, and his gold-plated Rolex. His Blackberry. Make it look like he’d been mugged. Brady was going to tell anyone who asked—the cops, Frank, Patterson’s wife, or Amanda—that Patterson had wandered into the projects looking for drugs, and that was the last Brady had seen his friend. Brady pressed Patterson’s wrist, feeling for a pulse.
Patterson’s head looked like a deflated volleyball, a mess of blood matted like the rebar with clumps of his dyed black hair.
Amanda. Brady wanted to run to her, to hold her, to tell her and Katie everything was going to be okay.
Hours later, in Molly’s at the Market, Lyle Lovett played on the jukebox. Brady tapped his foot on the rung of his stool while he waited for the girl—Mary, working behind the bar now—to bring his Abita. A couple uniformed FedEx guys sat at the other end of the place. Brady had been wandering the city for hours. When Mary delivered his beer, she seemed frightened.
“Rough night?” she asked, and Brady said she didn’t know the half of it.
He took the wad of bills from his pocket and peeled off a twenty. Took Patterson’s wedding ring out of his pocket, and he yanked off his ring and left the pair of them—one silver, one gold—side by side on the bar. Figured he’d taught Patterson a lesson.
When she brought his change, she faced the bills. She bobbed up and down, too much energy for eight o’clock in the morning, chomping gum while she examined his face, his hands, and the rings on the bar. He wanted to confess, to tell her everything, but he wasn’t that stupid.
“Thanks,” Brady said. He imagined her apartment—dirty floors, bare walls, and a futon mattress. He wanted to see his daughter, but he couldn’t imagine going home to Amanda and that queen-sized Serta she’d defiled.
Mary’s eyes narrowed. “Bathrooms are that way, if you need to get cleaned up.”
He reached across the bar and took her hand. She started, overbite more evident as her smile faded. Looking into her green eyes, he slid the gold band he’d worn a dozen years onto the ring finger of her left hand.
“If this is a proposal, I’ll have to think about it.” Her hands shook. The corner of her glasses was taped. “You’re hardly the first customer to pop the question.”
Not interested. He’d struck out looking. Brady let go of her. The FedEx men sipped their beers. Brady had to piss. He left Patterson’s ring next to his beer. As he walked down the bar, one of the FedEx guys opened a cell phone.
Brady fumbled zipping up, wetting his fingers. In the mirror, blood streaked his face. Blood stained his oxford, his khakis, and his loafers. “Holy shit.” He looked like he’d walked through a slaughterhouse. No wonder Mary and the FedEx guys had been eyeballing him. His heart pumped, yet even as he looked for a way out, he stayed calm. He bent over the sink, splashing his face. Everything in his life was over.
In the bar, the jukebox played a song he remembered from college: Beck, “Devil’s Haircut.” Outside, people passed, the sun rising over Decatur. Next to Brady’s change, Mary had left a shot of clear liquor in a plastic cup. Tequila—a ploy to keep him around long enough for the cops to get there, she would say in her deposition.
Brady gulped it. One of the FedEx men was standing. On the bar, Mary had left Brady’s wedding ring. A text from Frank on his and Patterson’s phones: Fuck you both, it said. Butt pirates.
He took Patterson’s ring and left his next to his change, like they’d traded places. Waving at Mary, he made for the door. Though he knew it was absurd, if he could get back to the Sheraton, he’d be safe. One of the FedEx men, the more burly of the two, watched him. The other talked into his phone. One swarthy, one blond, in their uniforms, they looked like Ponch and Jon, the cops from CHiPs, that TV show about California highway patrolmen Brady’d loved in reruns as a kid.
“Hey,” one said, “buddy.”
Outside, the FedEx guys tailed Brady by a block. In front of Molly’s, Mary stood in the middle of the sidewalk, holding a baseball bat. Brady started running.