His name was Crawford Norris. We’d spent more than an hour talking and drinking before he introduced himself. Crawford was tall and husky and looked to be on the long end of seventy. He finished the story he was telling me with a salesman’s smile, his lips parting to reveal a neat row of lime-white teeth.
I drained my Jack and Ginger, making sure to wince as I swallowed.
My pain wasn’t all phony. I was reeling from my wife walking out on me. That was the real extraction. The other, about having a wisdom tooth pulled out, I’d made up that morning. It was an excuse to get off work and drink, and I’d decided to carry the lie around with me the rest of the day.
Crawford siphoned off the head of a new beer. Wisps of foam clung to the sides of his mouth. “Know where’s she staying?”
The alcohol had loosened my tongue. Crawford was the first person I’d told about my wife.
“With her sister.”
“Then call her,” he said. “Tell her your mouth is sore. She’ll come back.”
“She hates me.”
Crawford shrugged his shoulders. “Women aren’t like men: they can still love someone they hate.”
I didn’t want to talk anymore about my wife. So I brought up his.
“I can’t believe she did that to you? I would’ve called the cops.”
“I almost did.” Crawford sucked up more beer.
“What stopped you?”
“I guess I thought that if she was willing to do all that to get my attention, it was worth giving it to her.”
“And things worked out?”
He paused. “Better than I hoped.”
“Ready for another?”
It was the bartender asking. He lifted away my empty glass and mopped up underneath with a hand towel.
“Sure,” I said. “And a beer for my friend.”
Crawford held his right hand up. “No more for me. Got to get home for supper.”
“Your wife must be a good cook.”
“She was,” he said, “before she passed.”
Crawford blew out his cheeks as he exhaled. “It might sound silly. But I still like to sit at my own table and eat dinner every night. If I don’t, I feel adrift. Know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“Your next is on me.” Crawford rose from the stool and nudged his chin toward the bartender who was busy making my drink. “Tell Jeff I’ll square up tomorrow.”
I scanned the bar. Only a few customers remained, all men, each intently watching a horse race on the overhead television. Underneath the television was a jukebox, unplugged and dull with dust. The flooring consisted of chipped checkerboard tiling. The metal stools were covered in black vinyl littered with cigarette burns.
“You’re Jeff?” I asked the bartender when he returned.
“The old guy that just left said to put this one on his tab.”
Jeff’s bald head was too big for his thin neck. He kept the drink in his hand and said, “Better you pay for it yourself.”
“Because he’s not good for it.”
I pushed over a ten-dollar bill. “He seemed solid,” I said. “Told me a helluva thing about his late wife – said she once knocked him cold with a baseball bat after finding out he was messing with another woman. Then she removed his front teeth with a pair of pliers. ”
“Not true,” Jeff said. “My mother never did that.”
“Crawford’s your father?”
“Maybe he never told you about it.”
Jeff took my money to the register. He stacked the change, five single dollars, next to the new drink. “If you don’t believe me, I’ll give you my mother’s number. Call and ask her yourself.”
“She’s not dead?”
“Look,” he said, “my father lies. I’m sorry.”
He moved down the bar and began working on the other customer’s refills. I finished my drink and walked out. It was dusk and coldish. I thought about what to do next. It occurred to me that I better go find some dinner. Then again, chewing food might hurt too much with the extraction I’d endured. It felt good to lie, even if only to myself. I turned and went back inside and ordered a drink. A new race on the TV had begun.