By Tom Swoffer

The staccato tapping of his wife's high heels on the concrete driveway slapped him out of his nightmare. Her car door slammed. The screech of the starter motor he'd been promising her he'd fix was like an electrical shock through his already tingling body. He listened to the fading sound of her driving off to work, leaving him alone to face another jobless day, with nothing but his hangover to keep him company.

He rolled over and saw her pillow lying next to him, fully fluffed like an iceberg adrift on the wide ocean expanse. How long had it been since she'd last slept in their bed?

God, what a night, he thought, shuffling to the bathroom. He turned on the light and was startled by the reflection in the mirror. He hoped the yellowish tint to his skin was only from the bulb, and not his true condition.

He turned on the faucet and was about to slap cold water on his face when he noticed his fingernails. Immediately he swung around to the toilet and threw up. When he finished he stared at his fingernails again.

Could that be blood underneath them?

Had he fallen somewhere last night? He remembered he hadn't eaten anything. The unemployment check had come in the mail yesterday afternoon; after he’d cashed it at the bank he went straight to the bar across the street.

How many beers did he drink there? He remembered watching the ball game. It had gone into extra innings. And then he got into his car and the damn battery was dead again. Yes, and he'd asked that tall brunette if she'd give him a jump. You'd have thought he'd asked to jump her the way she slammed her car door, quickly locking it and driving off. Those glowering red tail-lights were still etched in his mind.

It should've been her, damn it!

He'd started walking; he could still feel how the frustration had started boiling up inside him then. Maybe he should've called home. But no, he knew she would never come get him if he were drunk.

He passed Harold's Club as music throbbed through the building's walls. He and she used to go there every Friday night. Way back when things were still good. Another lifetime ago.

He didn't remember going inside, but he remembered the band playing loud, the dancers all in a frenzy. Taking his darkness up another notch.

Then he remembered those three women sitting at the table next to the dance floor. Two of them, both bleached-out blondes, were talking animatedly: cigarettes held between their fingers, jerking their hands in the smoky air, the fire-tips of their cigarettes like the wands of a team of devil-crazed magicians. Though they were talking loudly he couldn't hear what they were saying over the music. Their feminine boisterousness rankled him.

The third woman, though, with her brassy red hair glowing like a flaming bush, when she knew she'd gotten his attention, glanced towards him furtively, boldly, beckoning him on. He made sure he was polite while insisting she dance every dance with him, quickly paying for the rounds of drinks that kept coming to their table. Though towards her friends his politeness had been like ice-cold and slick.

She had been light on her feet, following his lead perfectly. Not like his wife: unable, even refusing, to stay in step with him. Brazenly dancing with other men at the parties they once went to. Disobeying, worse, ignoring him at home now. She was a tramp, just like his mother had warned the night he ran off with her.

By evenings end, the two blondes had disappeared from his consciousness. It was just him and the redhead. The final dance was slow, the lights dim, all the dancers mysterious, romantic shadows in each other's arms. He thought he remembered the woman trying to suppress a laugh as he slowly slid his hands down the supple curve of her back, carefully balancing himself against her shoulders while he deftly kneaded her ass like bread dough.

What was her name? Julie? Joyce? Janice? Hell, he had no idea. He forced himself to picture her face one more time: the brassy hair crackling under the smoky lights, igniting him; her full lips moist and tempting, dark red lipstick the color of…blood; a trace of a smile, Mona Lisa-like, as if she were resigned to her fate. He could still see those impassioned eyes, jade green, hungry, and so vulnerable.

They had left the bar together. He could remember how firmly he'd gripped her arm as she led him to her car. Once she'd stopped and tried to pull her arm free of his vice-like grip while staring guardedly into his eyes. He kissed her then, forcefully, greedily, and he could remember how she slowly relaxed in his firm embrace. When he looked into her eyes again he saw her vulnerability return, and it had made him feel strong, like a conquering warrior.

She had a convertible, and though the night air was crisp, he drove with the top down, pressing her shivering body close to his side. He could still feel the air stinging his face, the streetlights streaking past. Intoxicating desires racing through his mind, scrambled like the blur of the lights.

He took her out to the state park next to Deep Lake, his favorite spot since high school. Where he'd first taken his wife, back when love and desire still felt clear and clean to him. So long ago.

They parked in a small meadow beside the lake. He could still see the moon, full and bright. They were alone; he had made sure of that. He had driven past the parking lot, with the few cars parked a discreet distance from each other. He drove until he found the meadow, empty except for the incessant din of the crickets.

She made love with abandonment; the muffled cries of her passion singing like a mournful dirge out over the lake. The reflection of the moon shattered across its rippling surface.

Afterwards he remembered carrying her down there in his arms. She'd felt so light, her hair drifting through the tall grass like lamenting dancers. The splash twinkled with reflected stars, skimming away from the shore, taking his anger with it.

He stared once more at his fingernails. No . . . Yes, it was blood. Her blood. He turned on the hot water faucet and picked up the soap and brush.

As he scrubbed his hands under the warm water, he wondered: had he proven his manhood to her? Could he still satisfy a woman? That was always the part that bothered him the most. Because that was the part he could never remember.

-The End-