Bill Plum put some extra cream in his coffee. He had made it too strong yesterday and left it simmering too long this morning while he slumped on the sofa with an ice bag on his head. The black water was nearly as bitter as the charred toast on his plate. The only thing that he had managed not to burn for breakfast was his scrambled eggs. They gave off a faint sulfurous odor that offended his nose and roiled his stomach. He had downed nearly a third of a bottle of Scotch last night, and the after effects of drinking a cheap blend instead of his usual Laphroig were painfully apparent. He made a mental note: economy wasn’t a virtue when it came to liquor.
The phone rang. Eventually it stopped. It rang again, and its tone had somehow become angry and insistent. He almost let it ring itself out again, but thought better of it. He was off today, but his boss liked to call him in at odd hours to patch the holes left by some of the less motivated members of the “office team”. Bill wondered if being the indispensable man in a government office was just another term for being the biggest patsy. He barely earned a tenth more than the grunts he badgered and cajoled into doing their jobs, and he bore the responsibility of fixing their mistakes on his own time. Management was not paid by the hour.
He stumbled across the room and managed to avoid falling over the hassock, but stubbed his toe on the leg of the phone stand. He picked up the receiver as he hopped and cursed under his breath.
“BILL!” a woman’s voiced yelled into his ear.
“What? Who is this?” he asked cautiously.
“Aubrey, Aubrey Piazza, Bill! You’re supposed to pick me up! Didn’t they tell you?” the woman screeched.
Her voice sounded familiar, but the name did not match any one he knew. Aubrey was an unusual name, however, and there was a secretary in Thurston’s office down the hall who seemed friendly when he came by her desk. Her name was Aubrey, Aubrey something or other. He wondered how she had gotten his number. She was a married woman, so it did seem a bit odd that she was calling him at home.
“Aubrey…uh yes, does Thurston need me for something? I don’t remember any projects that we’re currently working on together…can you explain what you want again? My head’s throbbing and—yes, I can tell that you’re upset, but I don’t know why—yes, but couldn’t your husband pick you up? He’s dead? I’m so sorry! I beg your pardon…oh—you’re not sorry. I see…no, actually I don’t see. Well if you insist, but I truly don’t remember offering you a ride home from GURUTECH. Well, as I said, my head is throbbing with a…headache…a very powerful headache, and I may be forgetting that I offered you a ride. It feels like my brains are made out of cotton and shards of glass. Please stop yelling. Please. All right! I apologize. Yes. I’ll come right away.”
Bill scrambled to find his pants and his car keys. His shoes had somehow made their way into the bathroom closet, and all his decent shirts were in the laundry hamper. He found a t-shirt with paint stains and a hole in the armpit and pulled it on. He could still smell alcohol on his breath when he blew a puff of air into his cupped hand. He took a mint from the jar he kept by the door. With his luck he would probably get pulled over on the way there.
The car started on the second grind and left behind a noxious cloud of black smoke. The GURUTECH building occupied a whole city block near the south end of downtown. It would only take him twenty minutes or so in the midmorning traffic to get there if his car did not stall out at every other intersection. He hoped it would not. He wanted to get his errand of mercy over as quickly as possible. His plan was to pick up a good bottle of Scotch on the way home, or at least a decent fifth of bourbon, have a snort and fall asleep in front of the television. The way to survive a day that promised nothing but irritation was to ignore it until it went away.
When he pulled into the GURUTECH parking lot he saw a woman on the steps of the building. Her reddish brown hair stuck out in haphazard spikes from the sides of her head, and her eyes popped when she spied him getting out of the car. She stalked toward him with furious, quick steps. Her face was twisted into a fierce snarl that promised such violence that Bill retreated to the safety of his car before she reached him. He locked the doors and inserted the key into the ignition as she rounded on his driver’s side window. She beat her hands against the glass and screamed his name. Just as he was about to pull away she made an effort to calm herself, and she stepped back away from the window. She motioned for him to lower it so that they could talk, mouthing the word, “please,” with plaintive look on her face. Bill cautiously rolled the window down three inches.
“I’m sorry, Bill. I don’t know what got into me. I feel so out of sorts. My trip went badly and now nothing feels right. Those monks treated me so poorly. I can’t remember what they did, but I’ve just got to get out of here. Please take me home, Bill. I’m sorry I yelled at you. Please,” she begged.
“All right, Audrey, uh, Aubrey. Get in,” he said in a cautious tone that one would use to calm an angry dog.
The woman stumbled as she got into the car and almost fell across the seat onto Bill. Once she had managed to sit down properly, she could not latch the seat belt buckle. Bill finally had to help her guide it home. The woman panted with frustration as he pulled out of the lot, and nervously pulled on the skin of her forearm. She lifted flesh off muscle and bone, and let it drop back in place. She lifted and dropped. Her face was a study in confusion. After they had driven a few blocks north Bill worked up the courage to ask her where she wanted to be taken. She stared at him as if she did not fully understand what he was saying.
“Home—where else?” she said.
“Uh, yes, home. Could you tell me where you live?” he inquired delicately.
“The same place you took me last Sunday! The same place I’ve lived ever since we met. What the hell is the matter with you?” she yelled.
“Last Sunday…last Sunday…I believe you must be mistaken. I went bowling with some friends from work,” he said.
“You drank a bottle of cheap Chianti with me by the fire. We ate a take-out order of fried Thai shrimp.”
“Madam, I assure you that—“
“We got drunk. You ripped off my clothes and then you screwed me on the sofa! For god’s sake, you ought to remember that!”
“If you say so, Audrey.”
“Aubrey! Aubrey Piazza! Why can’t anyone get my name right?” she wailed.
“I’m sorry if I’ve said something to upset you. I don’t intend to make you any angrier than you already are. But I think that there must be some mistake. I’ve never been to your home, never gotten drunk with you, and we’ve never, ever…made love. I barely know you,” he said.
“Pull over! Pull over right this minute! Let me out of this car!” she demanded angrily.
“Gladly, Madam,” he replied.
She nearly fell into the gutter as she exited the car, and tripped on the curb as he drove away with the passenger side door swinging free. Bill pulled over a half block down the road and got out to close the door. The berserk woman came stumbling in a loose jointed run toward him. She muffled her sobs with one hand clamped to her mouth, but Bill could still hear her piteous cry: “Please, Bill. I’m sorry. Please forgive me!”
He slammed the door and ran to the opposite side. He screeched his tires as he pulled out into traffic and narrowly missed colliding with the back end of a pick-up that was slowing down to make a turn. He wiped the sweat from his forehead when he had traveled a safe distance away from the drunk, mad woman, and circled his way on side streets back to his apartment.
When he stopped at a liquor store on Old Winter Park Road he sat in the car for a moment to regroup. His nerves were raw. A memory popped into his mind of his mother lecturing him: she shook her fat finger at him and said, “Your father was a drunk just like you. You’re gonna end up in the gutter. I bet you can’t remember what you do when you’re drunk, can you? You’re just like your father!”
Dad had died broke and wasted, hounded until the end by a mistress and an estranged wife both demanding money and attention. Bill wondered whether it would be better to just go home and take a nap. But he could taste whisky on the back of his tongue. The sharp flavor lingered like a phantom that refused to give up its haunt and drove away his weak desire for a sober life. He fought the urge for several minutes and felt disgusted with himself as he finally succumbed, but when he entered the store the rows and rows of liquid comfort welcomed him as if he had arrived at a gathering of old friends. He bought a bottle of Macalan and headed straight home. He planned to quit boozing sometime in the near future, but as for right now, he really needed a drink.