The night we met I was sitting at Bad Angel alone, which was not any place I wanted to be. No good relationship, if you could call it that, ever started in a bar. Back then finding ways to pass time until I died was my goal.
Bad Angel was a dive bar—sweet beer spill smell, layered with cigarette smoke, and body spray from Walgreen’s. I bought a pitcher of beer and then looked around for an empty seat, something near a corner, something I could claim. That’s when I caught Gil’s eye.
From across the bar he looked like a roughed up version of Paul Newman. He jerked his head, a mat of thick, greying hair. When I didn’t move he jerked it again. Why not, I thought. I picked up my pitcher of beer, walked over, and slid down onto the greasy red pleather of the knocked up booth.
Up close I could see he was no Paul Newman. Maybe he could see I was no Joann Woodward, I don’t know.
Gil said something like doesn’t look like you belong in a place like this. I told him I didn’t. I didn’t belong anywhere, but I didn’t say that.
What I liked about him was that I didn’t like him. Also, that he liked me. It was right after my divorce, and the way I felt about men was so far from what it had ever been, I couldn’t tell you what I felt.
That’s how it started and that’s how it always was. Me and Gil at Bad Angel.
I didn’t notice his missing front teeth right away, anyway, because Gil Grapp smiled with his lips stretched tight closed. When I noticed was the second or third time we got together—it was still a little light out and early enough we weren’t feeling good yet. Two pitchers in, hips unsteady on the decayed barstool, I looked over at him and saw that his upper lip shook like the fat edge of a thick slice of prime rib.
“Hey, what happened to your teeth?” I said.
“I swallowed them,” Gil said. Across the warped veneer bar top Gil looked at himself in the mirror. He sucked in his cheeks and turned his head, a movie-star move that showed the curve of his cheekbone.
He admired what was left of himself.
I called him by his full name—Gil Grapp—because it was a name as close to crap as anything I could think of. What is the Gil Grapp in life, was something I said a lot.
Nothing had to make sense back then.
“Swallowed your teeth, huh?” I believed maybe one out of five of his stories.
“Yah, I had a bridge, but I swallowed it,” He bent his head down and put his lips on the foam head of his beer. The man worshipped at beer.
What I know about stories is the crazier they are, the more likely they are to be true. It was a crazy enough story. But, some nights later he passed out with his mouth open and I saw the truth—rotted stumps. There’d been no bridge. I looked around further, saw a bunch more rot, and never looked again.
There were two things that I wanted to die over—the divorce and the car accident.
I was driving, my friend Catherine was in the front seat. One second it was talk about jobs, shoes, and then I turned a corner. A man named Scott Collins, in a 24-ton truck, delivering pressure treated lumber for Esco Contractor’s Supply, fiddled with his paperwork, and didn’t stop in time for the red light. I had the green, but slammed on my brakes too late.
When the car was still, I looked around. Only the passenger’s side of the windshield had any damage. I’d find out later that the metal deck to the rear of the truck sheared the right side of the car off.
She sat there perfectly normal, her hands curled up in her lap, nails manicured purple, but her head was missing. I could have lifted her silver and turquoise pendant necklace right off of her chest, which seconds later, soaked with blood. Could have just picked the necklace right up.
Ever since, my skin ached with a sort of crackling electric current.
Like I said, the crazier the story.
A few months later and thoughts played arias in my head at four in the morning. Things like, what happened to that necklace. Things like, if only I’d hesitated ten seconds, somewhere. I tried to spend as little time sober, and as little time alone, as possible.
I went to Bad Angel with Gil Grapp pretty much every night. Being with Gil was better than being a woman alone at a bar, and at home there was too much noise in the silence.
Gil wanted nothing from me, so that made two of us.
It took me a while to figure out that Gil was homeless, or couch surfing, as he called it. I only ever saw him with three things: a phone, a backpack stuffed with dusty clothes, and time.
I had a new Cadillac the insurance company bought me, an empty home, and a job I was inches from losing. They kept me on the payroll until their pity ran out. What I had been through was the sentiment I played. I don’t feel bad about it; we all angle to get what we want.
Gil and I were in love—he with his beloved beer—me, vodka and lime wedge, add ice if it was hot out. Since I paid all the time, I was okay with his drink choice. That’s what we did—drink. And talk.
You had to get Gil early. Too many drinks and all he’d say was, “Di-di-di-di,” over and over, his lip shook fat-loose where his teeth should have been. It was like he wanted to say something, but couldn’t find the first syllable. After I told him about it he started calling me Didi. I don’t know if he remembered my real name or not, which was fine by me.
Showing up to my job was about all I could manage. One morning as I dressed for work, on a whim, I took my wedding ring out of the tray on my dresser where it had been sitting for months and wore it on my right hand. It was a mistake—it was loose. I worried I’d lose it.
Plus, it looked like a wedding ring worn on a right hand, I didn’t want to be that kind of a woman. But I only wore it at work. I sat at my desk and twisted the ring around my finger with my thumb. Time has a way of holding you hostage when you want it gone. Two hours, three, finally—lunch. I called Gil and arranged to meet him at the bar in Southeast, close enough for him to walk to, from where ever he was.
It was spring. The smell of the earth just opened up and the thought of a cold vodka lifted me away from the edge of the abyss I always felt just beside me.
In the car, I rolled the ring off of my finger into the cup holder, shifted gears, and circled up, out of the parking garage. A few times a day I’d think about what my ex-husband was doing. Right then I thought he was planning to go to lunch with his new girlfriend. Where I was meeting with Gil, I knew my ex would never step foot in the place.
When I got to Bad Angel, Gil was on a barstool. His back curved down toward the bar, cradling the cold mug of beer I knew was right in front of him. The bartender looked at me with his fists on his hips for the entire time it took me to walk across the room.
I pulled at the barstool closest to Gil. “He says you’re picking up the tab,” the bartender said. Gil looked at me, and then slid his eyes back to his beer.
I ran my hand around the inside of my purse. “Yes, vodka with lime for me, please. No ice, tall glass.” I pulled out my wallet and handed him my credit card. He took it, glared at Gil, and turned toward his cash register to test the card before he poured my drink.
I don’t know what it took for Gil to convince the guy to hand him a beer, but I could see it took something. “Hey, Didi,” he said.
“Hey, Gil Grapp,” I said. I dropped my wallet back in my purse and hung it on the brown wood back of the barstool. Behind us two guys played pool. Light from outside filtered through the hazy glass, motes hung in the stale air.
I sat down and waited for my drink.
Back then, I weighed daily whether to live or eat the stash of pills I kept in five orange pill containers. Every morning I got up with the shakes, face burned red, bowels loose, head pounding. Every morning I thought today is a good day to die.
The moment I changed my mind, and decided not to kill myself, was that exact moment with Gil right before the first drink, with nothing but drinks, time, and a credit card ahead of us.
Maybe Gil saved my life, maybe I saved my own, or maybe I still need saving.
That first drink happiness, I knew Gil felt it too.
Gil’s lip twisted in the front, a smile to cover the hole. “Do you ever think you could date me?” He said.
Gil would pay for his drinks, but not with a credit card. “No,” I said.
The bartender held my drink, the glass coated in chill. It sparkled like a jewel. He slapped a napkin in front of me, and then set the drink on it. With his hand still on the glass he searched for the right sized straw.
“It’s okay, no straw,” I said. He finally let go of my drink. I picked it up and waived it in Gil’s direction.
Gil bent to his beer, and took a long drink. When he looked at me, it was with a different face. “Remember when you said you didn’t believe I had a daughter, well I brought a picture,” he said. He pulled a worn Polaroid out of his front shirt pocket and handed it to me.
It was Gil all right, but much younger. He looked good, like Paul Newman in Hud. He sat on a picnic table next to a young girl in a fancy dress. Her hair was that unfortunate tightly coiled red that always went with super pale skin, thin lips, and tiny, mean eyes. There was no grass anywhere around, just a low, tan concrete brick wall, and the desiccated granite you see in the desert. Gil wore a khaki jumpsuit in the photo.
I wasn’t disturbed by the picture, just saddened by a woman who’d dress her kid up to meet the father in jail, and then take a Polaroid of the event. Probably two photos, one for the kid and one for the loser father.
I handed the photo back to him. “She’s cute,” I lied. “Were you in jail?”
“No, not jail,” he lied.
That was our thing—lies and truths braided together and neither of us able to untangle our fucked up lives. We were each other’s lower companions.
For me, the whole point was the lies—Gil was fun, hilarious, or at least entertaining. I was willing to pay anything not to be home alone. For Gil Grapp my guess is that it was the free beer.
Every night I conducted my little experiment. I tried to see if I could figure Gil’s lie stories from Gil’s true stories. I was wrong about the daughter. Score one Gil.
I’d been right not to believe his story that he was shot by the enemy in the first Gulf War, and thus given an honorable discharge. Turned out Gil was dishonorably discharged. Score one me.
I was wrong to not believe him when he said he was in an elite Army force, point to Gil.
I was right to believe him when he said he’d been on the Today show at the start of the war way back in 1990. They only showed him for a second, but it was him alright. I had to play it over and over and freeze it, in order to see the patch with GRAPP on it. I could hardly believe my eyes how handsome and tough he looked sitting in the audience with his whole platoon or whatever, while the commander talked to Bryant Gumbal.
At some point in our relationship I lost track of the score, but was pretty sure I was ahead of Gil in the game. Not that it was fair—Gil had a tell. When he lied, he’d look at me to see how I was taking it. One night he said, “Didi, I used to own a Corvette,” then he looked at me.
“Uh hmm, right,” I said.
“Well, I used to be someone important,” he said and looked toward the bar.
One night Gil got to bragging. “Didi, I’m huge. Huge, really. Both my wives said so, and lots of other girls too,” he said.
“You had two wives?” I said. That was news. Score a point out of nowhere for Gil.
Gil put his beer down on the table, his eyes on it the whole time. “Not that it matters. Truth is I can’t get it up anymore,” he said. I believed him. Score one for me for not making the guy feel bad about it. I had lost track of the tally, and so just looked for daily victory in our lie game.
I smacked my hand down on the bar. “You ever drink champagne,” I asked him.
“Whoa, not in a long time, maybe ever. I don’t remember when, or if,” he said.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s order the most fucking expensive bottle of whatever they have,” I said. And that’s how we ended up drinking a $168 bottle of Dom Perignon, which didn’t live up to the hype, as far as we were concerned. I’d had Dom Perignon many times in my other life, but Gil didn’t need to know that. It wasn’t my favorite then either. I let him think we had it for the first time together, and together discovered it wasn’t up to our taste.
Truth was, I hungout with Gil Grapp because he couldn’t get it up. If he’d wanted anything more from me, I would have been gone.
Lots of times I’d listen to lies until Gil got to the Di-di-di stage and then I’d tell him things. I’d tell him how much it hurt to have a cheating husband. How I’d started to hate myself, a body not good enough to hold my husband’s attention.
I told him about the sound of breaking glass, the penny-metal smell of blood, how silence was louder than anything I could stand. I told him how Catherine’s shoulders slumped toward me in the car right before blood spilled over everything, how I screamed and screamed but didn’t hear myself. The necklace. I told him how I kept seeing cars that weren’t there. How I flinched while driving. I told him my plan to die—I’d take six Xanax. Then put the Cadillac in the garage. Duct tape a hose from both exhaust pipes into the window, turn on the car, and sit in there with a bottle of vodka. I told him I’d wash the Vicodin and Klonopin and valium down one at a time with swigs of vodka.
I counted on Gil to remember nothing.
Gil got drunker on less than me. I figured his liver was just more worn out. At closing time I left him on the street, or in Bad Angel, passed out in a booth.
I continued to wear the right-handed wedding ring to work. All day I worried about it falling off. No one asked about it. They barely looked at me, anyway. The longest I could stand to stay in the office was about three o’clock. At three I’d call Gil, and put the ring in the cup holder on the way out of the parking garage.
One morning, after a night out drinking with Gil, a morning like every other morning, I pulled into the parking garage, down as far as you could go—four floors—opened the door, and threw up, careful not to splash on my silk blouse. My puke burned —searing, sour, sludge. I knew that about an hour later I’d have scalding diarrhea. My body boiled from the inside.
I fished a napkin off of the floorboard, wiped my mouth and sat back to catch my breath. When things stopped spinning I reached for the ring. But it wasn’t there. I didn’t know exactly when Gil Grapp took the 1-carat, princess cut, platinum, wedding ring my husband had placed on my finger fifteen years prior, but I knew that he took it.
Catherine had been my Maid of Honor. Although I shouldn’t have, I’d worn white.
All that morning my thumb worried against the bare skin of my right ring finger. Tears and vomit pressed against my face. About one thirty, I left work, and without calling Gil, drove to Bad Angel.
I stood at the chipped, wooden back door, with the ‘must be over 21’ sign. I had nothing to lose—close to dead, capable of anything. In a nearby tree crows squawked and flapped.
Gil was at the bar, his back hunched, protecting his beer. I walked toward him. His elbows were on the bar, all relaxed, like it was just another day.
When I got beside him I saw the stack of bills he’d gotten in exchange for my ring. A pathetic pile of money given that it was what was left of my ten years of my marriage.
All the score—the entire lie game—went to Gil.
Gil looked at me and jerked a bit. “Oh, hey Didi,” his tone was too casual. I’d never tracked him down before. By his tell I knew he knew I knew.
I leaned my face to his. For the first time in my life, I wanted to kill. “You piece of shit you piece of shit you piece of shit,” I kept my voice low. I wanted to say what I had to say before whatever was going to happen, happened.
Gil turned his body to me, placed himself between the beer and the money, and me. He wobbled a bit, half down on the barstool, half stood up. He was at least four beers in.
His casual willingness to hide the money he’d stolen from me pushed me past thought. I made a quick move toward him like I was going to deck him. We were inches apart. What happened was all because of that look—anger would have been better than the sad fear in his eyes. Vulnerability—his worst crime.
His hands waived drunk out on front of him, like he was falling in the dark. They steadied on my chest.
I was as surprised as Gil when a fist came around and hit him in the face. It was a fist, but whose fist was it? I flinched like I was going to be hit.
The fist disappeared and then another showed up. Where the fist hit, I felt the scrape of his days-old beard, and the surprising soft of his lips.
I saw the third fist connect hard under Gil Grapp’s eye. The skin split and opened like the shell of an over-boiled egg—one straight, white crack that spilled too white flesh. Blood welled and hid the cut. I heard his breath push out of his lungs.
Gil put his hands up to protect himself, but not before my other fist came out of the left and hit him hard on the temple. His head jerked, eyes sprung in hurt surprise. My right fist hit where his lips came together in pain.
The fists—they were my fists—hit fast, one after the other. Gil’s formerly strong hands travelled around his face, always a step behind the next blow.
My right fist came from behind me again, and Gil’s remaining left incisor scraped my second knuckle. I wouldn’t notice for days. Days later when I’d go to the hospital for an x-ray and medication for the broken bones and infected skin on my swollen, damaged hands.
Had Gil Grapp yelled or even made a sound, someone might have stopped me before I pummeled his face. No one came until I had beaten him to the ground.
Someone knelt to help Gil Grapp, and someone else held my hands behind my back. I heard someone—me—laughing, and laughing, a terrible laugh. Almost like a cry.