Heartache. Josie knew what that was, and she’d been trying to avoid it for two years now. Two years, four months and twenty-seven days.
Then he walked back into her life. She hadn’t known that her heart could hurt any more than it already did. Not only hurt, but pick up its sorry little beat with hope.
Hope! She knew what hope was, too. Heart and hope, both got stomped by Bobby Ray Fenster, and here he came, carrying her broken, but hopeful, heart in his hands.
“Hi, Josie,” he said as he propped his battered guitar case against the bar and slipped onto the cracked, red stool in the farthest corner of the place. “What’s happening?”
When she could talk, she mumbled, “Nothing much. How are you, Bobby Ray?”
He grinned that grin. His crystal-clear blue eyes were like ice that burned. She felt her heart melting and her mind screaming at her to run.
“Long story. Get me a whiskey with a beer chaser, huh?”
“Sure, Bobby.” She moved down the bar and fixed what he wanted. She’d always given him what he’d wanted. Why hadn’t he stayed with her? Why had he left her for that tramp, that bitch, Nora? And why was he back? Nora must have dumped him, she thought meanly.
The whiskey went down in one gulp, and the beer in two. Bobby Ray wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “Another.”
Josie nodded. Her throat still felt closed up. Nerves jangling, she fixed him another, and he finished it off as quickly as the first round.
The bar was empty. Bobby Ray had planned it, Josie was sure, and come in when no one else could interrupt them.
“Something wrong?” Josie managed to ask. She’d never seen him drink so quickly.
He nodded. “I need your help, Josie. Will you help me? I need a place to stay. Just for a while.”
Don’t do it, her mind screamed at her. “Sure, Bobby Ray. You know you can always stay with me.”
“Thanks, Josie. You’re the best.”
The best patsy, she thought.
He patted her hand and pointed at the two empty glasses. She went to fix him another.
She closed the place at two, and they walked up the outside stairs to her apartment above the bar. Bobby Ray was so drunk, he simply collapsed on the couch, snoring before his head hit the cushion.
Josie sank down into the chair opposite him and stared. She drank in his lean body, his thick, dark shiny hair she had loved to run her fingers through. Why had she let him back into her life? Because he was beautiful. Because who he was did something to her insides, to her heart, to her very soul.
Sighing, she stood and walked to the kitchen where she poured a Pepsi into a glass and stood leaning against the counter, drinking it. Bartending was thirsty work, but she’d learned years ago to drink the soft stuff, not the hard. Her father had taught her that, when he owned the bar, and she began helping when she turned eighteen.
She knew that her being a woman of independent means had at first attracted Bobby Ray to her, and that, in the end, her independence had repelled him. He’d settled for a woman he thought was all Chantilly lace and a pretty face, but really a woman who was demanding of his time and his money.
And here he was, back with Josie again. Something had happened. What?
Bobby Ray explained the next morning over coffee, sausage, eggs, biscuits and gravy. The radio played the blues softly in the background, Josie’s favorite station, as a patch of sunlight climbed slowly up the wall.
“She got on my nerves, Josie.”
“Yeah.” He wouldn’t look at her. Stared at his eggs.
I could have told you that would happen. In as neutral tone as she could manage, she asked, “What did she do?”
“There was never enough money. I never spent enough time with her. She didn’t like my friends. She didn’t like our house.”
“You had a house?” Josie was unable to keep the shock out of her voice.
He looked at her then, and gave a short, rueful laugh.
“Yeah. Out in the ‘burbs.”
Josie shook her head and turned away from him, surprised at the tears forming, unable to stop them.
“You son of a bitch,” she finally said, turning back to him. Anger blossomed in her heavy heart, and she reached across the table and slapped Bobby Ray in the face. Hard.
He didn’t move. “I deserved that, Josie. I don’t know why Nora could get me to do things you couldn’t. I loved you. I just loved her different.”
“You loved her with your prick,” Josie said, spitting the words. “Not with your heart. And you lost your manhood in the process.”
She stood up and began clearing the table although neither had finished eating. She slammed the plates down on the counter next to the sink and scrapped the remains into the disposal. “Son of a bitch,” she muttered.
A pounding on the door made both of them startle.
“Josie, you in there?”
“Don’t answer,” Bobby Ray said. He jumped up and grasped Josie’s arm. “Pretend you’re not here.”
“Why would the cops be here, Bobby Ray? That’s Abel out there. I’d recognize his voice anywhere.”
“I’ll explain later. Just don’t let them know we’re here.”
She pulled away from him. “What did you do, Bobby Ray? What did you do?”
She started for the door, but Bobby Ray held tight to her arm. “I can’t let you go, Josie.”
“You let me go easy enough when Nora showed up. Let me go now.”
“You know what I mean. I need some time to think. Please.”
Had he ever said “please” to her before? She didn’t think so. She stood rooted to the spot, and she heard Abel’s footsteps on the outside wooden stairs, going down, going away.
Bobby Ray’s grip loosened on her arm. He walked out to the living room, shoulders slumped, and sank down onto the couch.
Josie followed, slowly, wanting to know, not wanting to know.
“What did you do?” she asked again as she sat down in the easy chair. Faintly, she could hear Otis Rush on the radio singing, “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and then a car door slam outside.
“She whined, Josie. She started whining all the time. I couldn’t stand it. You know?”
Josie nodded. She couldn’t talk. She had a bad feeling about what Bobby Ray was going to say next.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I hit her. Across the face.” He wouldn’t look at Josie. “But that didn’t stop her. She kept on. And on and on and on. Oh, Josie, why did I ever think I loved her when I had you?”
Because men like you love the bitches, Josie thought. You know you shouldn’t, but you do. Is it the excitement? Is it the arguing, and then the making up? She didn’t know. Didn’t understand. She just hurt.
She didn’t want to hear anymore. She realized she wanted Bobby Ray to leave. But she felt rooted to the chair, unable to speak. She didn’t want to know, but she needed to know. Maybe knowing would finally get the hurt gone. Maybe.
“I hit her again, Josie. I don’t know how many times. She fell to the floor, and I left her there. I left, and I drove around for hours. When I got back home, she was gone. And I haven’t seen her since. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead, Josie. I don’t know what to do.”
“When was that, Bobby Ray?”
“A week ago. I stayed in the house. I waited, but I never heard from her. And then I couldn’t take it anymore, so I came to you.” His look was pleading. She steeled her heart.
“You didn’t report her missing?”
“No.” He couldn’t look at her now. He simply sat, waiting.
Josie stood up and began to pace. Then she stopped in front of him. “How bad did you hit her, Bobby Ray? How many times? Was she bleeding bad?”
“I don’t know. No, there wasn’t much blood. I didn’t count how many times . . .”
“Well, what do you think? Three times, five, ten? What?
He swallowed and still couldn’t look at her. “Maybe ten,” he whispered.
“Maybe more. Not a lot more than that, Josie.”
“You’re a no-‘count polecat, you know that, Bobby Ray? I don’t know what I ever saw in you.” But she knew it was all just words. She’d always wanted what she couldn’t have, and she’d always known that she couldn’t have Bobby Ray’s heart. Probably no one could. Bobby Ray was too wrapped up in his ownself.
“You’ll help me, though, Josie, won’t you?”
Finally he looked at her, and those eyes . . . Oh, God, those eyes.
“We’ll see,” she said. “You stay here, lay low, and I’ll go out and find out what I can. Maybe Nora has shown up.” She didn’t say, dead or alive. And she didn’t want to think about what she’d do, either way.
Muggy air hit her in the face as she locked the door behind her. She wasn’t sure why she stayed in Louisiana, especially when summer came, but she guessed it still felt like home, even though her parents were gone now, and her only brother, killed in Iraq last year. She had some cousins, but they weren’t close.
She ran into Abel on the street soon enough.
“I need to talk to you,” he said in his gravely voice.
Josie nodded. She usually tried to avoid Abel. She knew he had a thing for her–just another one singing the blues about unrequited love. He wasn’t bad looking, had a decent job, and sometimes she thought she was crazy not to go out with him, to even consider marrying him and settling down. But there was Bobby Ray, still squeezing her heart. Abel took her across the street to his office at the jail. The town folks had discussed building a new one because the one they had was so old and rickety, it was a wonder the inmates didn’t escape more often than they did. But there never was enough money. The town seemed to be dying a slow death, but somehow most everyone hung on. It was too far from New Orleans to try to put in quaint shops and cafes to draw some tourists and all the surrounding towns too small for Wal-Mart to be interested in putting up a store. Most people farmed. There was the hardware store, the small, independent grocery, the feed and seed, Josie’s bar, and a small café. One doctor, no dentist, and a lawyer.
Abel’s office held a battered desk, desk chair and two metal visitor’s chairs. After they sat down, Abel said, “Nora’s brothers came to see me, looking for Bobby Ray. You seen him?”
“Nora has brothers? How many?”
“Two. You didn’t answer me, Josie. Seen Bobby Ray?”
“How come I don’t believe you?”
“Believe me or not. What did her brothers want?”
“They want to know where she is. They haven’t seen or heard from her in almost a week.”
“They keep in touch, huh?”
Abel blew out a big sigh. “I guess so. Look, Josie, I don’t like people coming in from New Orleans and asking me questions, treating me like a country bumpkin, you know?”
“Oh, gosh, I’m sorry, Abel. No one should treat you like that. You’re a good sheriff.”
“Thanks. Now, have you seen Bobby Ray?”
“I already answered that question, Abel.”
“Answer it again. And look me in the eye.”
“Suppose I have?”
“Abel, tell me what those brothers want, and then we’ll see how much I know. I didn’t even know Nora had any brothers. She must have told them about, well, about me and this town.”
Abel picked up a pencil and began bouncing the eraser end on his desktop. “They’re looking for their sister. Say they haven’t heard from her–I already told you this. They know Bobby Ray used to hang out here, so they came to find out anything they can. They’re staying over at Annabelle’s, and are looking around, asking other people questions.”
“Oh, Annabelle has some guests. That will please her. Why, she hasn’t had anyone stay at her new Bread and Breakfast since old Mac died and his daughter showed up to bury him.”
“Josie.” Abel’s voice had turned ominous.
“What do these brothers look like, Abel?
He glared at her. “They’re big, Josie. Big and mean-looking. I think they’re both carrying. They don’t look much like Nora, but one has her nose, and the other her eyes.”
“Well, they should give them back.” She watched Abel glare some more. “Sorry. I’ve always wanted to say that.” She was being silly, she knew. Silly and stupid. It seemed both her heart and her mind turned to mush when she thought about Bobby Ray. “I’ll just be going now, Abel. If I hear anything, you’ll be the first to know.”
She went to the bar. Where else could she go? She had no one to confide in. Jean, her best friend, would have a fit about all this, so Josie wasn’t going to tell her. Jean understood Josie’s attraction to Bobby Ray, but she never liked him much. She’d married Joe, the lawyer, and claimed to be happy, but sometimes Josie wondered.
As she unlocked the back door to the bar, a hand grabbed her arm, and she gasped. Another hand grabbed the other arm, and she was propelled into the storeroom, her feet barely touching the floor. Then she was spun around and slammed against the rack of paper goods. Heart pounding, she looked at two men standing in front of her, both glaring. She tried to glare back. “What do you want?” she asked, her voice a lot less steady than she’d like.
“We’re looking for Fenster,” said one. Both with shaved heads, massive bodies, and wore suits–in this heat, Josie thought. Then she remembered Abel’s belief that they were both carrying.
“Well, you didn’t have to manhandle me. Who are you, anyway?”
“You know who we are. You talked to the sheriff. Now cut the crap and tell us where Fenster is.”
“I haven’t seen him since he married your sister.”
“Really?” the shorter of the two asked. He was maybe six-five, had a ring in his eyebrow, and wore a blue suit. The other one had no visible rings or piercings, and his suit was brown. “We figured the minute there was trouble, he’d run back to you. Nora told us all about you and this Podunk town.”
“Well, you’re wrong.”
“Don’t like your attitude,” the big one said and slapped her. Not too hard, but it made her head jerk. She screamed, as loud as she could. In the back of her mind, there was hope. Hope that Bobby Ray would come rescue her. Sure.
Nora’s brother slapped her again, a bit harder. Then he put a hand smelling of bacon grease over her mouth and pushed her against the rack. The metal bars dug into her back, and she groaned, then gagged.
He spoke into her ear. “I’m gonna take my hand away, slowly. If you scream again, you’ll be sorry. Real sorry. Understand?”
He took his smelly hand away, and she said, “Big macho guys, aren’t you, hitting a defenseless woman?”
They both looked as if they’d hit her again, but they didn’t. “Just tell us where Fenster is.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, we think you do. Let’s go upstairs.”
The biggest one grabbed an arm and hustled her out the back door and up the stairs. At the top, Blue Suit took the opportunity to brush his arm against her breast as he tried the door. It was unlocked. Josie had a bad feeling. She knew she’d locked it when she’d left Bobby Ray inside.
“Always leave your door unlocked?” Brown Suit asked.
“It’s a small town,” Josie said.
“You should be more careful. Dangerous strangers could pass through.”
“I’ll remember that.”
There seemed to be no air to breathe in the living room with the three of them crowded in. Blue suit stayed and leered at Josie while his brother took a quick look around. Josie glanced in the corner where Bobby Ray had propped his guitar case. Gone, and she knew Bobby Ray was, as well. Elmore James sang, “The Sky is Crying” on the radio. Bobby Ray had forgotten to turn it off.
“No one here,” Brown Suit reported. “Now, where could he be? I’ll bet the old girlfriend would know. Give us some ideas.”
“Maybe he’s at home.”
“He’s stupid, but not that stupid. He’s on the run. I bet he’s been here, and left again.”
“I don’t know,” Josie said.
Blue Suit took a step toward her, and she sank down onto the couch. “Look, I haven’t had any contact with him since he married your sister. I don’t date married men. I don’t like trouble.” Maybe she could throw them off. “What’re your names?”
They looked startled, but Brown Suit said, “He’s Cliff, and I’m Clive.”
“Well, Cliff and Clive, I can’t help you. Has your sister ever disappeared before?”
“No.” This from Brown Suit.
“If she went off on her own, where would she go?”
They glanced at each other. It seemed they hadn’t thought of that.
“She’d never go off without letting us know.”
“Sure she would,” Josie said, “if she hoped you’d hurt Bobby Ray for her.”
“What was your first thought when you couldn’t find her? That Bobby Ray did something to her. What was your next brilliant deduction? Find him, he’d tell you where she is. And she wouldn’t mind your hurting him some to find out.”
It took them both a few moments to process what she’d said.
“Nora would never make us worry about her like that.”
Sure she would. Nora was a conniving, game-playing bitch. But Josie kept her mouth shut. At least she’d given them something to think about. Not that Bobby Ray deserved her help, but she needed these two goons out of her hair.
They left then, whether because she’d confused them or they figured she really didn’t know where Bobby Ray was, she didn’t know and didn’t care. They had been stupid enough not to check the bar. She gave them ten minutes of being gone, while the radio played three blues tunes. It suited her mood, so she didn’t turn it off. Then she went downstairs, through the storeroom, and into the gloomy bar.
They’d met here when Bobby Ray’d been passing through with his three-piece band. The early days. He was building a reputation in the area, and her father was happy to hire the band. They did bring in a lot of customers from miles around. Josie had been only twenty, and she knew now, a naive twenty. Just a country girl, for all the time she spent in the bar.
Bobby Ray was the best-looking man she’d ever seen. And he was different from the other men she knew. He’d grown up in New Orleans and had a polished way about him. By the time they met, her mother had been dead for three years, and her father was deep into the bottle, sometimes abusive. Josie was taking over more and more the running of the bar. In another year, her father would be dead from liver disease.
Josie had no one to advise her that Bobby Ray might not be the best man to fall in love with. And if anyone had told her that, would she have listened? Does the heart ever listen to the head?
Bobby Ray wasn’t in the bar, but Josie found his guitar in the broom closet, hidden behind the mops and pail. Somehow that guitar made her feel sad. Bobby Ray never went anywhere without his guitar, yet here it was, alone and probably as lonely as she felt.
Footsteps sounded from the back entry, and Josie turned around, waiting for whoever was going to, she was sure, disrupt her world now.
A small figure came into view, and as she got closer, Josie saw Nora. How many more surprises am I going to have today, she wondered. There must be a blues song for this, but I can’t think of one. I’m not even the other woman, and neither is Nora.
The remains of a black eye and a thin line of a healing wound across her left cheek marred Nora’s prettiness. The dark roots of her blond hair were showing, and she walked with a slight limp. Her jeans and T were as tight as ever, her boots as expensive, and she wore a jeans jacket short enough so that her silver concho belt buckle showed at her slim waist.
Her smile was bitter as she slipped her tight little bottom onto a barstool. “Hello, Josie.”
“Nora.” Josie went behind the bar and began fiddling with some bottles.
“Aren’t you surprised to see me?” Nora asked.
Josie had been more surprised to see Nora when she’d first seen her, in this very bar, hanging onto Bobby Ray’s arm. Seems Nora and Bobby Ray had met in New Orleans, and Bobby Ray had fallen. Hard.
“Not really. I expected you were alive, at least, and probably playing some game.”
Nora’s lips formed into a pout. “You never liked me, Josie.”
“What’s your point? Why are you here?”
“Look at me! Look what your precious Bobby Ray did to me!”
“My precious Bobby Ray?” Jose asked. “He was never really mine. Or probably yours, either.” Oh, her head was so smart.
Nora’s shoulders slumped. “I know that now. Why, Josie? Why did we both love him so much?”
“I don’t know. Because he’s so good looking, I guess. And because he treated us nice, in the beginning. He could be so sweet. And then because he pulled away, making us want him more. He played us, Nora, like he played the guitar.”
Nora looked at her, eyes wide.
“He loved it that we wanted him so much,” Josie continued. “I guess I ended up luckier than you. At least I didn’t marry him.”
Nora began to cry. “Where do you think he is now, Josie? I . . . I miss him.”
Josie didn’t know whether to believe Nora or not. She’s always been a good actress. But here she sat, living proof that Bobby Ray had beaten her.
“I have no idea,” she lied.
Nora looked at her through tear-filled eyes. Josie thought she was assessing whether Josie was telling the truth.
“Where’d you go, Nora? And why didn’t you tell your brothers you were okay?”
“I needed time to think. Without any advice. You know how it is.”
Josie supposed she did, but she still didn’t trust Nora. Nora didn’t seem surprised that Josie knew about her brothers. “Cliff and Clive have been looking for you. They’re staying at Annabelle’s. You should let them know you’re okay. They’re worried.”
Nora smiled. “They’re so sweet.”
“Yeah,” Josie said. She wet a cloth and began wiping down the bar. “I don’t think we have anything else to talk about, do you?”
Nora stood up. “No. No, I suppose not.”
After Nora left, Josie cleaned some more, trying to arrange her thoughts. She knew she’d had an “ah-ha” moment when she’d told Nora that Bobby Ray had played them both. When she got tired of cleaning and of her thoughts, she locked up, climbed into the old Pontiac convertible that had been her father’s, and drove around with the top down for awhile. She’d worked herself into a state of mindlessness, and only became conscious of where she was when she found herself on the old road to the dump. After about a mile, she turned sharply into a dirt turnoff and bumped down it for another mile or so. At the end was a clearing, and she saw Bobby Ray leaning against an old oak tree. She realized she’d been headed this way all along. This is where they’d come to be alone when her father was still alive.
You’re pathetic, she told herself as she climbed out of the Pontiac. Bobby Ray stayed where he stood, sunlight shining in his hair, his blue eyes softening as she approached.
“You came.” He reached for her.
“Don’t. Don’t touch me.”
He looked surprised.
She studied him. Still as beautiful as ever. But something in her heart shifted. In her mind’s eye, she saw Nora. Nora limping, Nora with a black eye.
They both heard the vehicle on the dirt road at the same time. Bobby Ray straightened, and Josie turned to watch as a big, white Cadillac came into view.
“Nora,” Bobby Ray said softly.
Josie hadn’t noticed the car following her, but she realized, she’d never even looked in her rearview mirrors. Nora must have found her brothers at Annabelle’s. Josie bet it had been a happy reunion.
The car came to a stop, seeming to settle into the dirt. Josie could just make out the song on the radio– Blues Ain’t Nothin’ Else But . . .
Nora climbed out of the driver’s seat, Blue Suit out of the passenger’s, and Brown Suit out of the back.
Josie’s gut clenched. This couldn’t be good.
Nora approached, her brothers following. Josie watched Nora look around the clearing, and realized Bobby Ray had never brought her here. Josie glanced at Bobby Ray. He was looking at Josie intently, and she saw the love for her in his eyes. No, it couldn’t be. He didn’t love her, couldn’t love her. He’d married Nora.
Nora was close enough to catch that look, and she screeched, “You bastard. You always loved her!”
“No, Nora, please,” Bobby Ray said. “It’s you I love.”
Coward, Josie thought. With sudden clarity, she saw that Bobby Ray was weak, that he’d always taken the easy way out. Only weak men hit women. Strong ones restrained themselves, no matter what the provocation. And Josie was sure that Nora was good at provocation.
“Kill him!” Nora yelled at her brothers.
They stood looking at her, gape-mouthed.
“We can’t do that,” Blue Suit said. “In cold blood. We could manhandle him a little.”
Josie relaxed a bit. So, they were cowards, too. They could rough up a woman like they had her, but didn’t have the guts to kill the man who abused their sister.
Nora glared at her brother, then reached under her jacket and pulled out a small gun. Josie stiffened, but before anyone could stop her, Nora shot Bobby Ray in the forehead.
He stood a moment as if suspended in the air, then crumpled to the ground onto his back. Josie heard someone scream. Then she realized she was doing it, and she knelt down beside Bobby Ray. His eyes focused for just a moment; he said, “Josie;” then he died.
Nora seemed as stunned as the rest of them. “Is he . . . is he dead?” she asked faintly.
“Yes,” Josie managed to say.
“He deserved it!” Nora screamed as one of her brothers grabbed the gun.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said
“What about her?” the other one asked. “She’s a witness.”
“Are you crazy? We can’t kill her.”
Josie turned back to Bobby Ray and vaguely realized they drove away, the radio still playing the blues. She didn’t care if they left her here, dead or alive. Love and hope were gone. But now there was another ache in her heart. Another reason to sing the blues. An empty heart was worse than a heart full of love and hope.
She never known an empty heart could hurt so bad.
BIO: Jan Christensen grew up in New Jersey. She bounced around the world as an Army wife, and in Texas after her husband retired. After traveling for eleven years in a motorhome, she settled down in the Texas Coastal Bend. She’s had over sixty short stories appear in various places over the last twenty years. She also writes a series of short stories about Artie, a NY burglar who gets into some strange situations while on the job. Recently elected president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, she also belongs to Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. Oh, and she writes mystery novels, too. Learn more at her website: www.janchristensen.com