“Another one,” Jeptha hollered at the cute blonde bartender at the West Side Lounge. It was the kind of dingy place on the wrong side of the tracks where people with class came only in groups and only for one drink just so they could tell their friends about it after. For Jeptha, who saw in its dinginess a home, the West Side was exactly the place he knew he deserved, particularly tonight. He’d long since lost track of his drinks.
Earlier, Jeptha had shown up at work two beers in, which was why they finally fired him. His friend Cody wouldn’t even make eye contact, just shook his head sorrowful-like, when Jeptha trudged out the door. Overwhelmed by shame, he’d driven to the Tuesday-empty parking lot of a nearby church, devoured the four beers remaining in his car, and driven around aimlessly. Finally, he called Lucy. He kept wishing he didn’t have to tell his wife, but he couldn’t see his way clear to that. She’d find out soon enough.
The disappointment in his wife’s voice, due any day now (although Jeptha was too drunk to say which day) with their child, was low and shocking. There’d been a shining moment in their marriage, a month back, when Jeptha was sober and working and they were happy. Then his dog, Crystal Gayle, got hit by a car. And, although he had never found himself in that situation before, Jeptha had known the truth of the matter: a real man shoots his own dogs. A real man doesn’t pay some over-educated, clean-shaven guy, probably a Yankee moved down here for the weather and the hospitality, five hundred dollars that Jeptha certainly didn’t have to send his dog off into that good night with some namby-pamby concoction of drugs shot through a delicately-placed IV. So, Jeptha had done what needed to be done. And been drunk every day since. Still, Crystal Gayle’s eyes haunted him. Lucy’s voice joined in, playing over and over in his head. He couldn’t stand either of them. The only solution was to get drunker.
“You better stop yelling at me or I’m gonna stop bringing you drinks,” the bartender said. Up close, she was older than he’d thought, but being smiled at by someone felt so good Jeptha didn’t care. “You on your own?”
“Looks that way. Texted a friend earlier, but I ain’t heard nothing. See?” Jeptha said, holding out his phone. “At WsTsde dirkin,” Jeptha had texted Cody earlier. But there was no reply. Jeptha figured Cody was pissed and likely to stay that way.
“Don’t see anything. ‘Cept it’s 6:00. You got off early today?”
“You could say that.”
“How’d you know?”
“You aren’t the first one coming in here at 2:00 in the afternoon drinking hard, full of piss and vinegar, wanting to get back at somebody.”
“No one to get back at but myself,” he said.
A man at the other end of the bar called out to her. “I’ll come check on you later,” she said.
Two hours and three drinks later, she settled back in across from him. “Your friend coming?”
“My phone died, but I don’t guess so. He’s the one got me that job. Probably pretty pissed at me.”
“You wanna charge it?” she asked.
“Doubt it matters,” Jeptha said. “But sure.”
“I’ll be back in a minute,” she said to the other bartender and nodded her head for Jeptha to follow.
She went through a metal door into a back storage room. Napkins, salt, ketchup and cleaning supplies nearly spilled off a set of shelves. A small desk sat in one corner, covered with papers, invoices and empty Diet Coke bottles. “Charger’s here,” she said, pointing at the cord snaking out of the wall. Jeptha slipped past her. He fumbled with the charger, too drunk to make the connection even after three tries. “Here,” she said, taking the phone from his hands and plugging it in.
“Thank you,” he said, taking a step toward the door. But she blocked his way. She put her hand on his chest and kissed him. Jeptha pulled back.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m bored. You’re cute. And had a shitty day. Figured I’d help out a little.” She kissed him again, and Jeptha felt himself giving in. He tasted cigarettes and cinnamon gum on her lips, that old combo that had welcomed him home on a dozen other girls before he’d met Lucy, who’d always tasted like the woods smelled, earthy and sweet.
Lucy. He pushed the bartender away, harder than he meant to. “I’m married. I can’t.”
“I saw your ring. Doesn’t bother most guys.”
“Bothers me,” he said, grabbing his still-dead phone. “Excuse me.”
Ten minutes later, sitting at Waffle House, Jeptha buried his face in his hands. He was turning out just like his dad. Drunk, unable to keep a job, cheating on his wife.
“Double order, scattered, smothered, covered,” the waitress said from above him, dropping a plate in between his arms. “You want more coffee?”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak anymore. Used to be, he’d spend all day drunk, not working, hitting on women and call it a damn fine day. Not anymore. How could he fix this? He had no job, no friend, a baby coming and a wife who should hate him. His head hurt from messing it all up.
Jeptha ate a few bites of his hash browns and pushed them aside, watching the cheese congeal. He knew he should get up and surrender his booth to the eager high-school kids waiting, but he just couldn’t do it. Instead, he lit a cigarette and asked for more coffee.
As he sipped it, Jeptha saw a woman as hugely pregnant as Lucy lumber out of a truck and take the arm her husband offered. She waddled to the entrance, where he held the door. Their faces were subtly lit with what Jeptha imagined was joy over the child she carried. Their joy, their laughter, the way they seemed to actually enjoy being together, was like looking into a mirror that had reversed its purpose and reflected all that he and Lucy were not. This couple was the opposite image of what they had become since Crystal Gayle died. The husband was not sitting drunk in a Waffle House by himself while his wife drove home from her late-night shift at Walmart. The wife was not sitting on the couch every night, watching The Voice or The Bachelorette with a face that suggested she would rather be anywhere and in any other condition than the one in which she found herself.
Jeptha watched them until the comparison became too unfavorable to bear. His marriage was in no better shape than Crystal Gayle had been when he put her down. He rubbed at his headache, caused partly by the drinks but more by his inability to decide whether a man was obligated to shoot his own marriage when it got to the same stage as a dog that needed killing. When he was drunk, he could believe that the problems in their marriage were just due to exhaustion and bills and would end once the baby came. On the wrong side of drunk, like he was now, he could no longer buy his own lies. He was the problem.
Finally, he scooted out of the booth and paid, nodding at the couple as he passed. He wanted that, he knew with a deep thud in his belly; he wanted what they had. Jeptha was smart enough to wonder if it was too late for things with him and Lucy to change. But he was just dumb enough to think he might as well try. And the only way to do that was to get stone cold sober again and stay that way.
Jeptha drove home slowly, wanting to be as close to fully sober as possible when he begged Lucy to forgive him. He drove out into the open countryside, where farmland was broken only by the occasional gas station and churches with their well-meaning signs lit twenty-four hours a day, a fluorescent ministry for wayward souls. “If God feels far away,” one read, “who moved?” He knew the answer.
When Jeptha pulled into his farm’s driveway, his heartbeat quickened as he saw that every light was on. It was 10:00 pm. Lucy was usually asleep by now. Although her car was parked out front, something felt wrong. He ran as fast as he could to the trailer. They were close to, or—shit, he thought, skidding to a halt at the bottom of the stairs—at her due date now. Her due date was today. He cursed himself, ran up the stairs, and jerked open the door.
There were bloody towels trailing into the kitchen and several discarded blue gloves. His heart beat faster. Puddles of blood led from the kitchen to the bathroom. He felt a pit open up in his stomach.
“Lucy!” he yelled, but there was no answer.
He walked to the bathroom, fear tingling his fingers. It was empty, except for a bundle of bloody towels beneath the sink.
“Holy shit,” he whispered to himself. He felt that same bucking sense of frantic fear that Crystal Gayle had shown the night she’d died. He bolted back down the hall and out the door.
From of the corner of his eye, he saw something white flutter down to the porch. He bent to pick it up, his finger caught in peppermint stickiness at the back. He held the note toward the full moon. “At hospital,” it read.
Jeptha jumped off the porch, his left ankle scraping against the hard leather of his boots as it bent underneath him, and ran to his car. All he could think was “Please God, be okay. Please God, be okay” over and over again. If there had been time to write a note, maybe things were all right. But, the blood—there was so much.
He roared down the driveway and into the street without even looking to see if a car was coming. He was five minutes down the road before he realized he didn’t have his lights on. Jeptha drove ninety miles an hour towards the soft glow that the huge chemical plant cast over Kingsport. He prayed as he drove, asking for three things: one, that he not get pulled over for speeding; two, that his wife be okay; and three, that he get there in time to see the baby be born.
In keeping with the general pattern of his life, God only granted one of Jeptha’s wishes. When he finally got to the hospital—having talked Rick Mullins out of taking him to jail for going double the speed limit only because he kept insisting that his wife was having his baby—he ran through the hallways in search of Lucy, but stopped short at the door of her room.
She was plainly okay, curled up on the hospital bed and smiling down at their baby, who lay on her legs. She rubbed his cheek with the back of her hand and kissed his forehead. Jeptha had never before seen his wife so purely happy, so full of joy. His stomach curdled as he watched Lucy fall in love for the first time.
Jeptha knew then that he had lost her, and for good this time. In his few short moments on earth, his baby had managed to create more of a bond with Lucy than Jeptha had in all the years he’d known her. It was excruciating to watch. He would never see that face of Lucy’s, the one that looked lost in love. It was all he had ever wanted and now, it was plainly, impossibly, out of reach. He thought for a minute of just walking away, but instead crossed the room to Lucy’s side.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” he whispered.
“I wasn’t either,” Lucy said, not lifting her eyes to his.
“What do you mean?”
She looked up at him then. Jeptha fought to keep his face from crumpling as he saw love fall away as she stared at him, rather than the baby. “I had him in our bathroom, with half the fire department.”
“Are you serious?”
“It went so fast. I didn’t realize that was it.”
“I’m sorry. I should have been there. Today was your due date. I should have been home.”
“It’s okay.” She stared at the baby, his hair fuzzy and his face squashed—Jeptha hoped temporarily—from being born. “I was thinking we should call him Jared. What do you think?”
“It’s perfect. How is he?”
“He’s perfect. Do you want to hold him?”
She scooted up towards the head of the bed, wincing with each shift of her bottom, and held him out to Jeptha.
Jeptha cradled his son awkwardly in his arms and watched him sleep. Tiny blond eyelashes wisped against his cheeks, fluttering up and down with each breath. Jeptha recognized miniature versions of his ears and Lucy’s upturned nose. Jeptha held his son’s head, the soft skin of the baby’s scalp against his palm like nothing he’d ever felt before, and wondered at how such a tiny thing could make him feel such a terrifying responsibility.
“He’s so little,” he said, with a smile.
“But cute,” she yawned. “They’re going to take him up to the nursery soon.”
“I’m so sorry, Lucy. I can’t believe I wasn’t there.”
“It’s okay,” she said again.
Jeptha could see that she meant it. It was truly okay with her that he had missed his own son’s birth. There was no measure for the hurt he felt, for the pain he’d brought on himself. He quickly thumbed one of his tears off of Jared’s forehead, hoping he had been fast enough to escape Lucy’s notice. Jared’s eyes opened slightly from the pressure of Jeptha’s touch. He stared up, his eyes unfocused, still shiny with some sort of medical goop. Jeptha wondered if his son was disappointed to meet this grizzled, sour-smelling man who was his father. He leaned down to kiss him between the eyes and his son’s eyelids closed again in sleep.
“He is perfect,” he whispered.
“I know,” she said. Jeptha thought she had never looked more exhausted or more beautiful. It was a moment he would remember for the rest of his life.
“You ready for me to take him up to the nursery?” a nurse asked from the door. Jared’s face pursed with every squeak of her footsteps on the floor. He tightened his grip. He didn’t want to give his baby, his only connection to Lucy, over to a stranger.
“That would be great,” Lucy said. She nodded at Jeptha, like this was no big thing. He squeezed Jared and kissed him one more time between his eyes. When he saw the pinched look on his face relax into sleep, Jeptha carefully handed the baby over to the nurse and watched her every move as she bundled him efficiently in the crook of her arm, laid him gently in the plastic baby box by Lucy’s bed, and pushed him with quick steps out of the room.
“Guess I…” Jeptha said, stopping to clear his tear-clogged throat. “Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you had him on your own. You’re about the strongest person I know.”
“Well, it wasn’t easy. But I didn’t have much say in the matter.” Lucy yawned and laid her head down on the pillows. “I’ve got to get some sleep. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll stay, wait ‘til he wakes up.”
“You should go on. I’m going to sleep for as long as he’ll let me. You look like you could use some sleep yourself.”
“You sure?” Jeptha asked, hating himself for the hope that had crept into his voice, hope that she would want him to stay, beg him not to leave.
“It’s fine. You should go on back. Come back later this morning,” Lucy said, sleep already beginning to slur her voice.
“Okay,” Jeptha said, his voice cracking.
“I love you, Lucy,” he said, kissing her on the forehead.
From the doorway, Jeptha saw that her eyes were closed and her breathing was already moving into that steady territory of sleep. His heart, his body, his everything wanted to lay down beside her and never leave. He wiped his tears away, glad she could not see them. Finally, he whispered “Bye,” knowing she wouldn’t hear, and walked down the hall. The same nurse who’d taken his son gave him a sad smile from the nurse’s station. Looking away from her, he saw another father stretched out in the chair beside his wife, their hands on their baby in the plastic box between them. He stopped, almost returned to Lucy’s room. But the image of her, staring down so contentedly at Jared, came to him. Lucy did not need him. She never had.
When he got home, he sat on his porch steps, elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. The sun was rising over the farm to his east. He waited for Crystal Gayle to rest her head on his leg, but then remembered he’d never feel that comforting weight again. Two weeks ago, he’d sat in this same spot and felt an overwhelming and unfamiliar sense of contentment and happiness, like life would be ok. He should have known better. Since then, he’d killed his dog, gotten himself fired from his job, had a kid, and lost his wife. He’d have thought it was a country song— a bad one—if he didn’t have the freshly dug grave, an empty wallet, a baby bearing his last name, and the miles of regret on his heart to prove it.
Header photography © Kelly Regan Taber.