I knew something was up as soon as Bernie got home. Married for over twenty years, you get attuned to details —the slur of the gravel when the truck pulls into the driveway, the jolt of the truck as he rams the stick into park. There are hundred thousand things that characterize a person.
The truck juddered and skidded to a halt. Bernie left the driver’s side door gaping open as he jogged then ran toward the house, gripping a piece of white paper in his hand and waving it above his head. It was the gesture more than anything, the white knuckles, how they clutched the piece of paper, the set in his jaw. The faraway look in his eyes.
I’d seen that look before.
Once. A long time ago.
That look sent a cold wind whistling through my body.
I doubt Bernie saw the world before him, making it to the door by muscle memory alone. Waving a lottery ticket above his head, he said, “It happened. It really happened. We won, Dee. One hundred thousand dollars.” He panted as if he had traveled a great distance.
Before I can get a word out, he grabs me by the shoulders and says with unseeing eyes, “This is it, Dee. This is it. A second chance. We get a second chance.”
Bernie. I’d liked him the minute I had seen him for the first time. He was sitting at a table down at The Blue Pony. I noticed him because it was Kathy B.’s usual table right next to the jukebox. Kathy B. was laid up in the community hospital with a stomach ulcer but my eyes traveled to her table out of habit. Johnny Cash was singing something sorrowful adding to Kathy B.’s absence. He was completely bald and tiny lights from the jukebox reflected off his head. He seemed to be thinking of something far away, tapping the rim of his empty beer mug.
Another man, one of his buddies, stooped and overweight, shuffled over to him and said, “What do you think, Bernie? Are you up for another round?” Bernie himself said nothing, running his finger around the rim of his mug.
I’ve always liked sad men. Maybe because it makes them seem deep. Maybe because sadness makes men quiet, leaks the piss right out of them.
The day I met Bernie had ended in a fierce and glorious way. The sun blazed a path behind the bluffs, setting the prairies on fire. The tractors and combines, resting on their haunches, looked like prehistoric beasts grazing amid the flames. The Blue Pony was directly on the Old Highway at the edge of town. The bluffs were swallowing the sun when I pulled in and parked in my usual spot next to Dan’s old dodge around back. The floors were reclaimed barn wood with worm lines and knots. Everybody threw their peanut shells on the floor to soak up the spills. The bar was long and deep, made of rich mahogany with a large old-timey mirror hung behind it. Dan, the owner, always said the bar was the real deal, brought in from some saloon from Cripple Creek, an old mining town in Colorado, pointing to a few bullet holes as if that proved its authenticity.
I slammed two doubles and immediately felt the liquid fire flash through my veins. I was fortifying myself for the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting later that evening. It was a requirement: “Condition of your probation,” some pink-eared twat informed a cell full of us sweating it off in the Kimball County facility a few weeks earlier. More than once, I had run into one of my fellow drunks before heading over to the meeting on First Avenue.
“Pony up!” We would say, clinking longnecks. It was a well-worn joke among us.
The liquor gave me a settled in feeling and when I turned around my eyes automatically searched for Kathy B. I always said I knew a good thing when I saw it and that night was no different. Bernie must have felt my eyes burning holes in the back of his head because he turned and looked right at me standing next to the bar. I could see he was younger than I thought, which only made my insides jiggle more than they already were. I could tell he liked what he saw, too. Back then, despite my hard living, I was still young enough to keep my figure and most of my good looks.
I walked over to the jukebox and pretended to contemplate the line-up. I jutted my hip out and turned my head just so, brushing a strand of hair behind my ear. I knew how to do those things then. It had been a while since I hooked up and I was juiced, ready to meet someone new.
Bernie turned his attention back to his buddy, shaking his head no, he stood up and scootched his chair back. He was gone out the front door before I had time to make my move. I was disappointed, but it reminded me I was running late, too.
First Avenue is the main street through town. It extends for only two blocks before you hit the railroad crossing going north. The AA meeting was held in the old First National Bank of Nebraska building next to the diner. Years later, I took over the diner and it’s my coffee shop now but back then it was a run-down greasy spoon built before the depression. The bank used to be really something. I’ve seen photographs. Important and dead smack in the center of town, it is red brick with large arched windows and thin planked oak floors. Now the oaken floors are warped and water-stained, it’s been a long time since it was a bank— an antique store for a while before that went belly up, then a church until they moved to the old Baptist Church on 3rd. Now it’s a community center— a dusty old hollowed-out meeting room. Wednesday nights were for bingo, but on Friday nights it was the AA meeting.
There were probably just as many people at the AA meeting as there were down at The Blue Pony, half of which started out at the bar before making their way here.
I walked in and right away I saw Bernie sitting in the back row on the end nearest the door which was, incidentally, my go-to seat. I liked to be close to the exit. I guess Bernie was feeling the itch, too. I sat down next to him and our eyes met in recognition. He nodded and an understanding passed between us. The kind of understanding all drunks have especially the kind that sees each other getting a drink at the bar before an AA meeting.
Lou Ellen got up first, said her bit and everybody said, “Hi, Lou Ellen” like we always did. Lou Ellen had been attending AA the longest. In her mid-fifties, she worked the customer service desk at the Co-op. Weepy and syrupy sweet, she annoyed the hell out of everybody.
I suppressed a yawn. I don’t know why people think AA meetings keep people from drinking. I suppose they do for some, but for me and for at least half the other drunks I knew, these meetings were a trigger. When people like Lou Ellen got up and chirruped about their day, their week, their years of being sober, and how life was better and on and on and on, it just made me ache for a drink; a deep-down ache that started in my chest and extended outward until my fingers tingled and itched for a pint.
In the beginning, a few of us that met in the county facility congregated after the meetings, often going for a drive. We would pick up a twelve-pack of some cheap beer and drive up and down the old county roads, hanging out in the bed of Ernest’s truck, swilling and hollering at the moon. We did that for several weeks, it really helped me get through those first few meetings. But we stopped when Ernest got earnest about quitting after he drove the truck into a ditch one of those nights. After that, Consuela, his wife, started attending the meetings with him and parked the truck on First Avenue directly in front of the community center with their four kids locked up in the cab. She wasn’t taking any chances. Interest waned after that and so most of us started secreting a drink at The Blue Pony beforehand instead.
Once Lou Ellen finally sat down, Bernie leaned over and whispered, “I’m going to quit for good. I’m serious this time.”
I don’t know why he told me, other than I was sitting right next to him. But there was something about the way he said it that got to me. Now, I heard something similar a hundred thousand times before. Drunks have the best intentions of anyone. I had even said it to myself a time or two. But when Bernie said he was serious, sobriety seemed achievable, even to me.
After the meeting, Bernie and I went next door for coffee. At first, I was sheepish—we first met at the bar, after all. However, Bernie didn’t make jokes or try to make me feel ashamed. He owned up to his own failings and left mine alone. I liked him for that.
I gave up going to The Blue Pony after Bernie and I started seeing each other. At the meetings, Bernie and I always sat next to each other in the back row and then huddled over burnt coffee, talking for hours at the diner afterward.
Over time, Bernie and I grew close, even going so far as to confess our times in jail. I had only been a few times to county for drunk and disorderly conduct, but Bernie confessed a darker secret about having been in prison prior to moving to Western Nebraska. In a drunken brawl, he accidentally killed a man in a bar somewhere in New Mexico and got four years for involuntary manslaughter. Chills shivered up and down my spine when he told me this but I got a different kind of shiver when he took my hand across the table and said moving here and meeting me was the best thing to ever happen to him. By this time, I knew Bernie well enough to know he was no hardhearted killer. He was a recovering alcoholic, trying to stay sober and keep out of trouble just like me.
I’d like to say I didn’t touch another drink after I met Bernie, but that would only happen in fairy tales. It took many months and several false stops. It was only after we accidentally killed Lloyd Pickett that we quit for good.
There were times, when it was a nice night and the moon was high, Bernie and I would go for a drive in his truck, meandering up and down the country roads turned to dusty gray rivers by the moonlight.
One night we found ourselves east of town on Creasy Springs Road. Bumpy and not well maintained, the road travels a low-lying area along the river lined by scrub oak and Russian olive trees. There is a lot of poverty out in the county, but Creasy Springs is a different level of poor. You can always tell which way the wind was blowing by the direction of the sideways lean of the old barns and tar paper shacks.
It was late, probably midnight or so with fog already rolling in. In the growing mist and under the moonlight, the prairie was a glittering field of crystal and silver.
By this time, Bernie and I were all talked out, and listening to the radio turned low to a station playing the old classics like Patsy Cline and Glen Campbell. I sat next to him, leaned my head on his shoulder, feeling content and dreamy.
Lynn Anderson was telling us big girls don’t cry when Lloyd Pickett staggered in front of the low beams of the truck.
Lloyd was drunk, that much we could tell immediately. He seemed surprised as much as we were. His one eye, crazed and wide open, his mouth in a permanent “O” only having enough time to raise one arm in front of his face before the truck hit him head-on. Lloyd’s body hit the grill with a sickening thud jarring us permanently out of our sleepy haze.
Bernie sat up and slammed on the brake, saying “I’ll be goddamned. I’ll be goddamned.”
Lloyd Pickett was legendary. Lloyd had been born with only one good eye and for reasons unknown to me, the eye was always referred to as a “crazy eye.” Some people used to say he could see into the future or tell somebody’s fortune with his crazy eye. When something bad happened or when somebody died unexpectedly, they would say it was because Lloyd cursed them with his crazy eye. For as long as I can remember, Lloyd was always hanging around outside the Kwik Stop bumming for cigarettes or around the back of The Blue Pony haggling Dan for a free pint. Intermittently homeless and old as dirt, mooching off old family ties and acquaintances, there’s no one that has not witnessed Lloyd stumbling around town high and drunk as a skunk.
How Lloyd wound up in Creasy Springs, ten miles east of town, Bernie and I have always wondered.
Bernie and I got out and ran around to the front of the truck. Lloyd lay flat on his back, moaning, his arms and legs splayed. Blood trickled down one side of his face, his crazy eye open and jerking wildly as if he were scanning the night sky. He gurgled and blood bubbled up out of his mouth. Then he gave one long sigh and his head lulled to one side, his crazy eye open, but now unmoving and vacant.
We shouted his name a couple of times and watched for any telltale rise and fall of his chest but the only thing we heard was the report of some hound dog in the distance.
Bernie and I weren’t medical people. We weren’t even animal people. I had never seen a dead body before but even I recognized dead when I saw it. Bernie stood over Lloyd still saying, “I’ll be goddamned.” Bernie flicked his foot out and jostled Lloyd’s boot with his but we both knew it was futile.
“I’ll be goddamned. I don’t want to go back to prison, especially not over some sorry ass drunk like Lloyd Pickett.”
Bernie looked like a caged animal, shaking his head, pacing back and forth in the lights from the truck. “That could have been me, Dinah.”
“But it’s not you. It’s Lloyd. You’ve been keeping on the straight and narrow.”
I worked hard to mollify Bernie and I meant everything I said. No man ever told me I was the best thing to ever happen to them and the truth was he was the best thing to have ever happened to me. I would have said just about anything that night.
We hovered over Lloyd’s body for some time, his damp and sour smell getting riper by the minute. I think we were hoping he would miraculously wake from the dead, gasp, and make some sort of movement, sparing us the burden of his death. Bernie and I delayed as long as we could before coming to a decision.
Alcoholics are good at justifying their actions and that night was no exception. It seemed indecent, somehow, to leave Lloyd’s body lying dead in the middle of the road. We also knew it might take forever for someone to find him way out here in Creasy Springs and we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave him for the buzzards. Considering Bernie’s criminal record, we could not bring ourselves to tell the police what happened, either.
We did not see any other way than to move his body where someone could find him.
Shrouded in fog, at first feeling sorrier for ourselves than Lloyd, we lifted his body and carried him to the bed of the truck. He was even more pitiful in death. Dressed in only a ratty old pair of denim jeans, a soiled lightweight jacket, and a pair of scuffed cowboy boots with holes worn into the leather soles, he was a sorry sight. His body could not have weighed more than one hundred pounds soaking wet. Thin, unkempt and smelling like dirt and pickles, it was the first time we ever saw Lloyd for something other than the good-for-nothing town drunk. Lloyd Pickett was just a frail old man. It brought Bernie and I both up short for a moment.
We covered him with an old horse blanket from the cab. Bernie always carried around a few spare boards of lumber in the bed of his truck so we laid those over the body for good measure.
We turned the truck around, careful not to hit any dips or bumps that would dislodge the blanket or the boards. Just as we came to the intersection of Creasy Springs Road and the main county road, a pickup truck with one headlight busted out came barreling toward us heading west. The tires of the pickup screeched as the driver braked and swerved approaching the intersection. The bed of the truck was filled to the brim with a bunch of young guys, hooting and hollering, punching their fists in the air. They yelled something to us and the truck listed to one side as they made the sharp turn onto Creasy Springs Road.
Bernie idled the truck a moment, and we waited, watching in the rearview mirror until the pickup disappeared behind us in a swirl of dust and gravel.
“That was close,” I said.
“Just a bunch of high school kids out joyriding,” Bernie said. “Nothing to worry about.”
But Bernie’s arms trembled as he hunched over the steering wheel, turning his head left then right, peering into the emptiness of the county road for longer than necessary before he made the turn onto the main road. I could tell he was more worried than he let on.
It started to rain and in hushed tones, over the whoosh of the windshield wipers, we hashed out the details of our plan as Bernie drove slowly back to town, keeping check through the rearview mirror with furtive glances. But except for the pickup with one headlight, the county roads were dark and empty. Already, I was wondering if the truckload of howling boys had been only a figment of my imagination.
The light rain had turned to a steady downpour by the time we turned north onto First Avenue. We prayed no one else would see us and were relieved to see the windows of the Kwik Stop blurry and impenetrable from the rain and condensation. It was a ghost town this time of night, the diner and community center were dark and lonely, both closed and locked up by now. The street was wet and slick, and the truck floated down First Avenue like we were invisible.
In the pouring rain, we laid Lloyd’s body out on the tracks at the railway crossing north of town knowing the 3:00 a.m. west bound train would be arriving soon. Lloyd would not be the first drunk to be found along these tracks, and would not be the last. We apologized solemnly and quietly to Lloyd and then to whoever would find his body scattered along the railway ties. It was as close to a funeral service he would ever get.
On the drive home, we saw Lloyd Pickett everywhere. I saw him first loitering outside the Kwik Stop, his one crazy eye following the path of our truck through the intersection. Then I saw him weaving his way down the sidewalk in front of First Baptist on 3rd Avenue. Lloyd followed us home appearing on every corner, his crazy eye staring out, cursing us from every vacant window.
As rain slashed against the windows of the truck, every tree and shrub swaying in the wind was Lloyd. By the time Bernie pulled into the driveway to my house we were skittish and on edge.
If there was ever a time in my life I felt like having a drink it was that night. Later, we lay wet and shivering under the covers as the wind rattled the windows, and cowered and moaned when the horn of the 3 a.m. train bawled, warning us of its approach. Bernie and I clung to each other regretting and consoling one another, desperate to keep the ghost of Lloyd Pickett at bay.
Later, the police assumed Lloyd stumbled onto the train tracks in a drunken fugue just like we thought they would. No one expressed surprise at Lloyd’s death. No one admitted to seeing Lloyd anywhere but in town. No one mentioned Creasy Springs at all.
Some weeks later, Bernie and I were back in his truck on one of our melancholy sojourns along the county roads. He pulled into a small roadside park and turned the ignition off. Opening the glove compartment, he pulled out a tattered and soiled brown leather wallet and handed it to me. Smooth and oily, it was thin and light in my hands. Without opening, I knew it to be Lloyd’s.
I handed it back, unsettled by the fact Bernie possessed the presence of mind to rifle through a dead man’s pockets. “You took his wallet?”
Without saying a word, he pulled out a white paper receipt and waved it over his head. “The sonofabitch won the lottery. Ten thousand dollars.”
“You think he knew? He couldn’t have known,” I answered myself. “He would’ve collected the money in one hot minute.”
Bernie shrugged and was quiet for a long moment. “We could do a lot with ten thousand dollars,” he whispered, one hand on my thigh. “Let’s get married.”
We talked about what to do. Bernie wanted to hand in the lottery ticket. “No one knows we have Lloyd’s wallet. We can turn in the ticket, then just burn the rest.”
That night, a slip of paper was more powerful than a magic wand, tantalizing us both with the possibilities. Conspiring in the cab of his truck we traveled the world and for a moment, became the people we wanted to be.
But we both knew turning in the ticket was risky. The Kwik Stop has security cameras and might be able to trace who made the purchase. We would catch hell trying to explain how we came to possess Lloyd Pickett’s winning lottery ticket.
“We could say he gave it to me in lieu of repaying a debt. Besides, he didn’t even sign the back; no one would ever know.”
“Maybe. But you’ve got a record. The police might think you killed Lloyd to get the ticket.”
The date of the drawing preceded the date of Lloyd’s death, so we both knew this was a possibility.
I did not see any way around it.
“We can’t, Bern. It’s just too risky. We can’t backtrack and say it was all an accident. If the police think you murdered Lloyd, you’d go away to prison for good.”
I think it was this, more than anything else, that kept Bernie from turning in the ticket.
We made a small fire in the park’s metal garbage can, burning the wallet, and the ticket along with it. We were insincere when we said, “It’s for the best,” pretending to possess more of a moral compass than we had. In the false self-righteousness of the newly sober, we told each other that we would be in the wrong to profit from Lloyd’s death even if it had been an accident.
Months later, when the whole business about Lloyd and the lottery ticket were just a bad memory, Bernie and I got married. Signing our marriage certificate down at the County Courthouse felt like we were sealing a secret pact. Bernie moved into my small two-bedroom house in town and some years later when he got a job at Kelly Bean, I took over the greasy spoon and renamed it Dinah’s. By some unspoken agreement, we never mentioned Lloyd or the lottery. And we’ve stayed sober all these years mostly worried we might slip up, say something about Lloyd or the lottery ticket and give ourselves away. I think it’s Lloyd’s death and what we did that kept us sober more than any AA meeting ever could.
Bernie and I have never been back to The Blue Pony and we have never driven by way of Creasy Springs. But there are nights when the moon is full and turns the prairies into a glimmering sea of liquid silver, I remember Lloyd’s body and the lottery ticket and a deep heaviness overtakes me making me feel like I am on the verge of discovering some great mystery.
Bernie, still in his work pants and jacket, waving the ticket over his head, fingers white-knuckled around the tiny slip of paper with his whole face a giant grin, I knew it was a lottery ticket even before he opened his mouth. His eyes gleamed like a madman. I don’t think he saw the world before him, just the numbers dancing before his eyes.
“This time it’s legit. This is for real, Dee.”
Twenty years ago, ten thousand dollars was an awful lot of money to me and Bernie. So, tonight, to us, a hundred thousand dollars seemed more like a million. Bernie showed me the ticket and together we doubled checked the numbers on the website. Then he put the ticket in his wallet and set it next to him on the table as we sat down to eat. All through supper he kept running his hands over the wallet like the ticket was burning a hole through the leather. He kept opening the flap of the wallet and closing it. It was impossible not to think of Lloyd Pickett’s grimy old one.
Bernie got up mid-dinner and decided to put the ticket in an envelope saying, “It might get lost in the receipts. What if I throw it out like a receipt? You know me. We need to go in first thing tomorrow.”
His eyes shone like glass marbles and spittle formed at the corners of his mouth. I knew he was half out of his mind. Bernie, by nature, is not a talker. Yet tonight, he burbled and chattered like a hen.
“Go in where?” I ask, still trying to wrap my head around a hundred thousand dollars.
“To the lottery office. They have an office, right? They’ve got to have an office. How do you get your winnings?” He went to the back room and spent thirty minutes looking up addresses on the website leaving the envelope next to his plate of half-eaten Chili n’ Mac.
When he came back to the table, he said, “Holy shit! Dinah, why didn’t you tell me. What if I’d spilled food on it?”
Bernie alternated between standing in the middle of the room, rubbing his head, and running around moving the envelope to the top of the television, then to the mantle, then back to the table by his armchair before placing it on top of the dresser in our bedroom.
Finally, he sighed and declared, “Okay, that should be fine. For tonight at least. What do think? Think it’s okay on top of the dresser?”
By the time we finally turned in, I was exhausted by all his nervous chatter. It was only then, in bed and under the cover of darkness when Bernie settled down and we finally spoke of Lloyd Pickett.
“Bern, I can’t help but think about Lloyd. The poor man…the way it all ended for him.” I could not bring myself to say aloud what we did, although I know it weighed heavily on both of us. Ever since that terrible night, I have never been able to shake the feeling that we would someday be held accountable for what we did.
“That was a goddamned thing, wasn’t it?” Even in the dark, I could hear Bernie rubbing the top of his head like he always does when something bothers him. “But everything turned out for the best. Don’t you see? Lloyd’s death wound up saving us. All the years we spent worrying, saving, and scraping by, staying sober, Kelly Bean, your coffee shop—we’ve turned it all for the good. We have, we have.”
We talked like that for a long while and well into the night. Cajoling and convincing ourselves we somehow deserved this bit of a windfall. Our mood was more somber and tempered than that night in the cab of Bernie’s truck all those years ago as we gazed up at the moon and agonized over Lloyd’s lottery ticket. This night, we were older, wiser and our souls more contrite than those two young scared and misguided fools.
I don’t think Bernie slept a wink, at first, anyway. He tossed and turned like a tumbleweed. Eventually, he snored once or twice then quit before I was finally able to drift off to sleep myself.
Something woke me several hours later. It was still nighttime, but by the dim light from the alley, I saw someone sitting in the chair by the bedroom window.
It was Lloyd Pickett.
He leaned back in the chair, one skinny leg crossed over the other, still wearing the same worn and dusty boots he had on the night he died. I could make out the holes in the bottom of his soles. Staring straight at me with his one crazy eye, he held the white envelope in his hand and tapped it against one knee. Up and down, slow and rhythmic like the beat of a drum. Tap, tap, tap. Without saying a word, his gaze bore a hole straight through my heart until I woke up to the sound of a branch tapping against the windowpane.
I slept late. The light was pouring in through the shades when I awoke and Bernie was still asleep next to me. Bernie’s usually an early riser, no matter what day it is. So, I thought he must be exhausted by all the excitement from last night and that is when I remembered my dream about Lloyd Pickett, the lottery ticket, and the hundred thousand dollars.
My guilt over Lloyd Pickett waned in the morning light. I dawdled in bed, finally daring to think about the money. I’m not immune to dreaming a bit and I admit it felt good. Maybe it was a second chance, just like Bernie said. I started thinking about a few of the things we could do with the extra money. We could go on a cruise, maybe one of those trips to Alaska or Jamaica.
Why not both? I thought.
Bernie and I could buy an RV and go glamping like all those retired couples I see on blogs and the news. Their perfect dentures glinting in the sunrise, sipping coffee next to some roaring river in their tricked-out camper-van.
I think it was then, sometime between envisioning the snowcapped peaks in Alaska and dreams of a new RV that I became aware that Bernie had not moved. He had not kicked the bedsheets or groaned or stretched his calves like he always does when he is about to wake up. In fact, he had not moved at all.
I lay in bed and lingered in this space between not knowing and knowing. As a wife of twenty years knows but doesn’t want to admit. Like the hundred thousand things a person does or doesn’t do. The sounds he makes, the way he breathes the air or moves the sheets or groans just so. The way he rubs his nose, blinks his eyes, and clears his throat. The way he passes wind and apologizes in one long sound. It’s like when your eyes are closed but you know the lights are out. Or of electricity no longer flowing.
The bedroom was deathly quiet. The attic creaked, the heat kicked on, the water pump whirred, a car door clunked somewhere outside far away. But the bedroom was silent. Not a sound came from beside me.
And I knew.
I knew we would not be doing the hundred thousand things we talked about. The dreams between us, no matter how big or how small. Without Bernie, there would be no Alaskan Cruise, no shiny RV, no toast to the sunset and our golden years.
The wind blew and shadows grew longer, playing across the bedroom walls. I stayed in the silence for a long while, reflecting on Bernie and our marriage, and the whole of my life. What had Lloyd been trying to tell me in my dream? Looking about the room, as if looking for answers in the furniture, my eyes grazed the top of the dresser. The envelope with the lottery ticket was no longer there. It lay in the seat of the chair by the window.
Carol Willis grew up in West Virginia then spent her adult life in the Midwest and Western Nebraska practicing medicine. Now living the dream, she lives and writes full time in central Virginia. Her short story entitled “Laws of Attraction” was recently named the first-place winner for its category in the first round of the NYC Midnight short story contest. She is currently a candidate for an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can find her short stories in Crimeucopia: Tales from the Back Porch and elsewhere.