It’s Tuesday night and the four of them have gone out for dinner. Only Jack knows that they are the wrong four – that Alice has usurped Pat’s place, but he’s given up on trying to convince Josh and Liz of that. Now he’s sitting, waiting for the waiter to finish telling them what the specials are, and go get them some drinks. This is Alice’s treat, so Jack is planning on ordering a steak. If it was Pat’s treat, he’d find the cheapest thing on the menu and order that, but Alice, whoever she is, can pay for his steak. He figures she owes him, just for being there, in Pat’s place.
He doesn’t know why he’s there, at the restaurant with them – specifically with her. She’d phoned and asked him if he wanted to come out – told him that she was celebrating her promotion, but he doesn’t know why he agreed. He doesn’t know what position she was promoted to, doesn’t care what position she was promoted from, either. He has no idea where she works or what she does. No skin off his nose.
“And can I bring you a drink?” the waiter asks. “It’s Tequila Tuesday, and our specials are either a Margarita or a Tequila Sunset for $4.95.”
“I’ll have a Margarita,” Jack says, then to Liz: “What about you? Are you having one?”
Liz looks puzzled. “Oh, Jack,” she says. “If there’s one thing you know about me it’s that I never drink hard liquor.”
Jack thinks back to the tequila night that Liz won’t talk about, and to the night Pat disappeared, when they were all drinking grain alcohol and koolaid, to all of the drinking the original four have done since they were of legal age, and if he wanted to be honest, before that too.
If there is one thing he knows about Liz, it’s that she drinks like a fish. Beer, wine, hard liquor, doesn’t matter. If it’s liquid and contains alcohol, she’ll drink it. Josh, on the other hand, wouldn’t drink the grain alcohol, rarely drinks hard liquor, and would probably be just as happy to drink nothing alcoholic at all. If they need a designated driver, he always volunteers.
“I’ll have one,” Alice says. Then Josh orders a pop, and Liz orders a wine spritzer. At least Josh is ordering a pop, Jack thinks. Something in his world is still making sense.
They all start talking. At first Jack feels like the odd one out, but gradually, after a couple of drinks, and a pretty good steak, great actually, after all the hamburger and macaroni he’s been eating, he loosens up. Josh and Liz are being themselves, the friends he’s known since high school, and even if Alice isn’t Pat, she’s nice enough, he supposes. She even asked him if he’d found his friend, while Liz and Josh didn’t even seem to care that Pat was gone. Jack didn’t know what to say to that, so he just let it go, and the conversation went on to other things.
The only disturbing thing is the way that Josh and Liz seem to be holding hands under the table. They’ve all joked around, all four originals, flirting with each other and whatnot, but holding hands under the table? That just doesn’t seem like something Liz and Josh would do. When it’s time for dessert, they order one piece of pie and two forks. That doesn’t seem like something they’d do either. What they’d do, is that Liz would order pie, and Josh would sneak bites of it with his coffee spoon when Liz wasn’t looking. Jack doesn’t order dessert. He figured he’d sneak bites of Liz’s too, but he can hardly do that when they’ve ordered one piece of pie with two forks. Alice offers him some of hers, but he doesn’t like what she ordered. There he is, odd man out again, not eating dessert like everyone else because he felt bad about ordering the expensive steak when Alice was paying for it, watching Liz finger Josh’s watchband, as if she owned it.
“New watch?” Jack asks.
“Old one,” Josh says. “My parents are moving to Florida and cleaning out the house. Mom found this one in the back of a closet and gave it to me. It’s from Expo 86.”
“Your’s too, huh?” Jack asks. “What’s it with parents and Florida?
Josh shows Jack the watch. It has a logo on the face of it, with “86″ in big numbers.
“What’s Expo 86?” Alice asks.
None of them know. Just something that happened a long time ago, they figure, like Superbowl XXI.
A band is setting up on a small stage in the back of the restaurant. The waiter comes over with the bill. They all offer to pay their share, but Alice slips her credit card to the waiter, before they can even see how much the bill is, and that’s that. Jack starts to like her more.
“There’s a cover charge if you want to stay for the show,” the waiter says, but they all have to work in the morning. They make it an early night. As they’re leaving, the band is doing a sound check. They play “Stagger Lee” and play it well. Jack and Alice linger to listen. Josh and Liz go off singing the words, arms casually slug around each other’s shoulders.
“Go Stagger Lee, Go Stagger Lee…”.
“Cheerful song,” Alice says, and they start walking down the street.
“At least in the beginning of it,” Jack says. “The song. It ends up nasty.”
“I guess I don’t know all the words,” Alice tells him.
They pass a downscale bar, and a drunk comes stumbling out.
“Stagger Lee, himself,” Jack says, and Alice laughs. Up ahead, the drunk gets too close to Josh and Liz. Jack and Alice can see him saying something to Josh, see Josh backing away.
“Poor Josh,” Jack says. “If a drunk is out, he’ll find him. Same as Pat and clowns. Clowns don’t bother me, drunks don’t bother me, but they leave be alone.” As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he wishes he hadn’t said them – hadn’t said anything about Pat. He hopes Alice won’t ask about her again, and she doesn’t.
There’s silence after that. The silence goes on too long, and Jack breaks it, saying: “Josh and Liz seemed kind of cozy.”
“Cozy?” Alice asks.
“Yeah,” Jack says. “Like they’re an old married couple or something all of a sudden.”
Alice stops and looks up at Jack, a concerned expression on her face. “Are you all right?” she asks, then tries to lighten up by saying: “you haven’t bumped your head or anything?”
Jack shakes his head.
“Liz and Josh are an old married couple,” Alice tells him. “Or as good as. They’ve been going together since grade ten.”
Jack feels reality shift under his feet again, and has to stop himself from grabbing on to the nearest wall for support.
Liz and Josh make their way to Liz’ apartment, still humming the song, filling in the occasional line:
“Stagger Lee killed Billy, he killed that poor boy so bad…”
Until they fall into bed, mess around for awhile, and slip into sleep.
Josh sleeps like a log – at least at first. He wakes when Liz flails out her arm and hits him across the bridge of the nose.
“Ow! Why’d you do that?” Josh asks, sitting up.
Liz isn’t awake though, and isn’t about to wake up, no matter how much noise Josh makes. She’s in her nothing world of a nightmare again, in some void in time or space where she’s all alone and can’t see anything or feel anything and doesn’t know where she is. She hears voices though, voices calling her from a far way off, voices she doesn’t want to answer.
Josh lightly touches Liz’ shoulder, then, when that doesn’t wake her up, he pats her shoulder. Sill no response. He turns the bed side lamp on, but she just rolls over and scoots under the covers, still asleep. She’s moaning now, making strange fearful cries. It must be some nightmare, Josh thinks. And Liz says she never has them. He tries to wake her one more time, but she responds to his touch by lashing out at him. She’s already hurt his nose. He doesn’t want bruises. He gets out of bed.
Josh pulls his clothes on. He has to get home, get some sleep before it’s time to go to work in the morning.
He gives her a careful kiss on the cheek - and tiptoes away.
“Josh,” she says. He smiles, wonders if he should come back to bed, but he sees that she’s talking in her sleep. “Take Josh,” she says.
Josh walks home. He and Liz have talked about moving in together, saving on rent, but on a night like this it’s nice to have his own place to go to. If he’d lived with Liz, he’d have had to sleep on the couch. It’s not far to his place, and the night is nice. It’s still pretty early, just after 11:00, so there are people on the sidewalk, coming out of the bars and restaurants.
The drunk staggers toward him. The same drunk that accosted them when they came out of the restaurant earlier. Josh hates drunks. They scare him. They’re noisy and smelly and unpredictable, and this one is bad. He’s a real end of the road rummy. He’s got a big wet patch down the front of his pants, where Josh really hopes he’s spilled a beer, and his jacket is done up wrong. He has a loopy smile on his face, and he’s holding out a bottle.
“Come an have a drink!” the drunk calls out, slurring his words.
Josh pretends he doesn’t hear him. He walks faster.
“Come on, be sociable,” the drunk calls again. He staggers in front of Josh, giggling to himself.
“No, thanks,” Josh says. The bottle the drunk is holding has a poison label, he sees.
The drunk takes a swig from the bottle, and swipes his mouth with a filthy hand. “That’s a nice watch you got there,” he says.
Josh runs. The drunk runs after him, quick on his feet for a drunk. Before Josh knows what’s happening, the drunk has him in a headlock, is tilting his head back and plugging his nose, and then the vile stuff in the bottle in dripping down Jack’s throat, burning and gagging him. The drunk has Josh’s nose pinched off. All he can do is swallow.
“You afraid of being poisoned?” the drunk asks, and laughs. But by then Josh can’t hear him anymore, let alone answer.
The drunk strips Josh’s watch off his wrist, sees that it’s just a cheap thing – nothing but an old souvenir. He flips the watch into the gutter and walks on.
Where Josh was is nothing – nothing but a shimmer of light that dissipates and disappears.
TO BE CONTINUED!