Thursday, March 22, 2:49 p.m.

His editor was right to say “Damn.” Damn is right.

Jack O’Lies’ article on the Lake Washington murder hits the web at 2:46 p.m. I read it. I feel depressed.

I was at the same murder scene four hours earlier. I noted so much less. Could I have written an article even half as comprehensive in less than half an hour?

Could I have done it in half a day? Half a week? Half a month?

Yes, given half a month, I might be able to. I work at a monthly newspaper, so I’m comfortable with such a deadline.

But less than half an hour…damn.

I start to doubt whether I ought to try to interview him tonight—or at all. I am so far beneath him. Compared to him, I’m barely better than a blogger.

Then I start to think. To think cynically. A bad habit of mine.

Had he really gotten all those stellar quotes from the coroner? Or were they manufactured, id est, made up? Had his years—decades—of experience made banging hard core murder reportage effortless? Could I do it, if I had decades of experience as a crime reporter?

Only one way to find out.

At five p.m., I jump in this week’s press car on loan for review, an empowering $83,000 Infinity G convertible that can’t help but expand one’s confidence (arrogance). I drive in rush hour traffic from my newspaper’s suburban headquarters south to Seattle. The trip, twenty-four minutes at most according to the car’s GPS, takes an hour and thirteen minutes.

By the time I locate a parking spot outside the 3 Coins Restaurant, it’s 6:24 p.m. I step into the leathery gloom. I’m sure Jack O’Lies has gone home by now. Nevertheless, I take it upon myself to dodge first into the restaurant, then into bar to check.

According to the bartender in the leather-bound lounge, Jack is still in situ, seated in his usual booth in the back, drinking his usual Scotch on the rocks. I order a Diet Coke and a Scotch on the rocks. I carry them into the seen-better-days murk.

I don’t normally do stuff like this—stalk men to their favorite watering hole, buy them a drinks, refuse to take “no” for an answer.

But I’m working.

Sometimes I’m simultaneously amused and appalled at the lengths to which I will go when it’s for work. For fun, for friendship, for my own edification, there’s no way I’d skip dinner to drive through rush hour hell to Seattle to force a miserable widower to tell me about how he came to this sorry state. Especially after he’d made it clear he didn’t want to do so. I don’t cross the line—any line—in my private life. But for a story…I marvel at what I’ve done.

As I approach, a glass in each hand, I feel like the embodiment of stranger-danger. Want some candy, little boy?

“Jack?” I say. “Hi again! Katherine from the Journal? Mind if I sit?”

Seated within a semi-circular banquette, Jack O’Lies is stationed behind three empty highball glasses. The high walls of the booth are like the cubicle walls at the Washingtonian office, but studded with tarnished brass buttons and reeking of sixty years of cigarette smoke. His head is down, as if he’s studying his keyboard at his desk. He doesn’t look up at me.

I slide in uninvited and sit across from him.

“Wow,” I say. “Cool place. I’ve never been here before. But I’ve heard of it. It’s pretty historical, right?”

Jack still doesn’t look up.

“Traffic was crazy. I swear, it’s worse every time I come down to Seattle. You’re drinking Scotch, right? That’s what the bartender said. Want this? I didn’t feel like breaking the ten,” I say.

I think this sounds very cool. But if he asks me why, exactly, I felt obliged to dispose of a ten dollar bill rather than accept change, I’ll stutter stupidly and expose myself as one of the world’s worst liars. I had formal training in acting during my formative years.  Fat lot of good it’s done me.

“Here,” I say, sliding the highball glass filled to the brim with Scotch and slowly melting ice across the sticky tabletop.

Jack looks up. His pale blue eyes move from the glass to my face, where they lock on my pupils. He has the stare of a basilisk. I can’t move. I sense the poison coming through his eyes into mine, but it’s too late.

“Um,” I say, breaking eye contact nervously. “I read your article.”

He says nothing. He’s still staring at me. I can feel it. I play with the red straw that bobs in my soda.

“It was great. Very thorough. I was there, too. At the murder scene, or whatever. I really like your writing style.”

I just said “whatever” to a veteran crime reporter. His silent stare is rattling me badly. I’m reverting to age 13. I’m 33.
”Here,” I say, shoving the Scotch closer to him. “I was hoping to talk to you for a minute or two. About a piece I’m working on. Totally off the record, obviously.”

Jack O’Lies lets out a sound that would be a laugh if it didn’t sound so painful. I actually flinch at the harsh, throat flaying sound.

“There is no ‘off the record’ in an interview. You’re a blogger, aren’t you? The one that’s been emailing and calling me over and over?”

I bristle.

“I am not a blogger. I work for the Journal. I’m an editor. A print editor.”

BFD,” he mutters, dropping his gaze to the glass. He grabs it and takes a sip. “Never heard of it.”

“We have a circulation of over 93,000. Print circulation,” I retort.

“Never heard of it.”

“We had thirteen editions in two counties before we consolidated about a year ago. The North Seattle Journal, the Ballard Journal—”

He lets out a groan and looks up at me. His eyes, so light and so blue, grow drunkenly merry.

“You mean that thing, that neighborhood rag that used to just show up about once a month in my mailbox ever since I bought my house eighteen years ago?”

“Yes,” I say.

“It said Ballard Journal but there was barely any Ballard news. Just random feel-good features and…oh, good God,” he chuckles.

“Yes,” I snap.

“We used to wonder why the hell we got it every month. We never subscribed. We recycled the thing every month. Why don’t we get it anymore?”

“We stopped mailing to homes that make less that $100,000 a year,” I reply.

Ah, the satisfaction I feel as his smirk morphs into a glare and he lets the highball glass clunk too hard onto the tabletop. I raise my eyebrows innocently. Sometimes I manage to leverage that acting training of mine.

“I’m not interested in being in your paper,” he says.

“This isn’t for my paper,” I say. “This is a side project of my own.”

He lowers his eyes, picks the glass up, and drinks.

“So…how do you like The Chief? He said you’d be calling me.”

“Do you guys really call him that? Like, openly?” I say.

He stares at me. I fumble.

“I mean, isn’t that racist, or whatever?” I say.

“He’s our department’s editor-in-chief. Why do you think we call him ‘The Chief?’”

A year or two ago, I would have answered that and been trapped.

“He’s nice,” I say.

“He’s an ad department tool. A tool. In all five senses of the word,” Jack replies.

“Well, he’s a very good writer.”

“Good writers don’t make good editors,” he says.

So…I can be offended in one of two ways. I take a long sip from the red straw. My hands are shaking.

Jack drains the Scotch.

“Thanks for the drink,” he says. “Now, you’ll have to excuse me.”

He doesn’t make to rise or to grab his jacket, which is hanging on an old fashioned brass hook just outside our private banquette. The big brush off. I get it.

I refuse to play along.

“Oh, sure, sure,” I say agreeably. “I’ll get out of your hair, just let me finish my drink, okay? Why don’t we talk about that piece I’m working on? I just had a couple questions I wanted to ask you. It’ll take five minutes, tops.”

I can be so obnoxious when I refuse to be brushed-off.

Jack O’Lies neither sighs nor rolls his eyes. Instead, he turns that icy blue stare on me.

“I’m planning on doing something. I’d like to be alone,” he says.

“What are you planning to do?” I ask in the sweetest, fakest, most engaging voice ever to have come out of Acting 251. “You can tell me. Really…I’ll keep it a secret.”

Later, much later, I wish I’d kept my mouth shut.

 

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Thursday, March 22, 7:53 p.m.

In the brown, dim lounge, alone in our womb-like corner, Jack takes out his wallet. He holds it a moment, then sets it on the table beside the four empty highball glasses.

He inhales deeply. He stares at the flat, coffee colored lump on the table. He sighs shakily.

“You know what today is, right?” he says. His voice is soft and prone to cracking. “You must. Why else…why would you hound me like this all day?”

I’m at a loss, so I say nothing. I surreptitiously signal the bartender for another round for both of us. I will be insomniac tonight from the caffeine, Jack will be chatty from the booze. I hope.

He reaches for his wallet.

“They’re in a secret pocket,” he says, opening it. “Inside the money fold. There aren’t many. It’s easy to forget they’re in there any other day of the year. I never show them to anyone. Never look at them myself … except today.”

Jack slowly fingers photo paper hidden in the wallet and I feel apprehensive. Is he going to show me some kind of sex thing? Some horrifying pornography? He pulls the pictures out and lays them in a small pile on the table.

There are five pictures. They’re creased and split in places from being sat on for years.

“All the other pictures were thrown away or lost after…” he hesitates. He doesn’t speak for more seconds than I can count. “I do this every year. They’re more faded every time. Is that bad?”

All of a sudden, Wikipedia hits me between the eyes. Oh holy crap!

I forgot.

I forgot!

I get why the coroner was so upset to see him at the murder scene.

I get why he shoved that blogger.
I get why he was hostile to his boss.

I get why he kept telling me “Not today.”

His wife was killed twelve years ago today.

How, how, how could I have forgotten?

How tactless am I? How stupid? How unprofessional?

What must he think of my motives in following him here tonight?

“Oh Jack,” I say. I reach my hand across the table toward his, then withdraw it hastily. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. I really didn’t, I swear…”

“We were so stupid,” he says. “I was, what? Thirty-three? She wasn’t even thirty yet. I was gonna do something when she turned thirty. She invited my whole newsroom to an over-the-hill party when I hit the big three-oh. I was going to get her back.”

The waitress sets my Diet Coke and his Scotch on the rocks on the table. Jack grabs his drink. I ignore mine. He drains half of his. He hasn’t looked me in the eye since he took out his wallet. He stacks and smoothes the fragile photos once, twice, a third time.

“Lucy was in preschool. Three. Not four, not quite. We were talking about having another. My wife wanted a boy. A matched set. I didn’t care. I wanted another, boy or girl, healthy and who cares? You know?”

I don’t. I only ever wanted a daughter. And I got exactly what I wanted. I nod anyway.

“The thing was, we couldn’t afford another kid. That was the huge issue—the worst thing in our lives. How to pay for another crib. Jesus Christ.”

Jack suddenly twitches his gaze from his glass to mine. I flinch.

“Do you have any idea?” he says.

“No,” I say. And I don’t.

“I can’t really remember what she looked like anymore. Not what she really looked like. She laughed like Lucy, but Lucy doesn’t laugh much now. I have this picture of her in my head, but it’s not real. But…” he fingers the stack of photos. “There are these…”

He looks at me.

“Do you want to see?”

 

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Thursday, March 22, 8:01 p.m.

“Sometimes I have this dream where I can see her. It’s so damned mundane and stupid. I’m sitting at the breakfast table, harping on the tax return. She’s tying up a garbage bag and blowing her bangs off her forehead. She used to do that all the time, never cut them until they were past her nose. Then suddenly I wake up and I’m…shocked that she isn’t beside me in the bed. Do you know?”

“No,” I say.

Jack reaches for the pictures. His eyes are averted to the fake wood paneling that covers the wall of this hole-in-the-wall bar that grandly calls itself a lounge. He pulls one from the pile. It looks very old. Its corners are rounded. He looks at it, then hands it to me.

I take in the faded image of a much younger Jack O’Lies, clad in a salmon pink tuxedo with black piping all over the sleeves and lapels, dude cowboy style. He has pushed the sleeves up, a Don Johnson  wannabe.

Don Johnson Miami Vice

His hair is puffed out in a sort of white guy afro. His face is smeared by a bleary grin. He looks nothing like the haggard widower seated across from me.

I inadvertently laugh.

“That’s you? What year is this?” I say.

“Late eighties. Why?”

“You look like Miami Vice. How old were you?”

“Twenty-three,” he says.

“Wow. You got married young.”

He shrugs.

I know better than to laugh at his bride. Her wedding dress is horrible. It’s made of some kind of white and ivory checked gingham, all puffed sleeves and western flounces, like a virginal square dancer. Her hair is in braids. Her veil appears to be secured by a bit of knotted Christmas tinsel. She carries a mixed bouquet of dandelions and yellow roses. She looks like a hillbilly.

“Was…was it a theme wedding?” I ask.

“No. We were young. And broke.”

I feel I’m allowed to be judgmental, since I (not broke, but cheap) got my wedding dress for $35 at the Value Village. It looked a thousand times classier. Then again, maybe everyone at my wedding was secretly snickering.

“She was very beautiful,” I say.

And she was.

 

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Thursday, March 22, 8:11 p.m.

Jack shifts the wedding photo to the bottom of the stack and pulls out a scrap of fragile, holey paper. This one isn’t a photo. He gently unfolds it.

“I accidentally made a tear in it last year. Be very careful,” he says.

He hands it to me.

A big red blob dominates the construction paper. It has wild green hair and broom-like arms and no legs. Its eyes are askew like a Picasso. A series of letters, unconnected and jagged, spell out…something.

 Crayon drawing

“Did your daughter make this?” I say.

He nods.

“When?”

“In preschool. Maybe a week before the murder,” he says.

I look at the paper to hide how uncomfortable I am. If I had realized that today is the day his wife was killed twelve years ago, I would never have sat down at his table, laden with empty booze glasses and pictures from his dead past.

Or would I?

“What does this say?” I ask.

“‘HI I LOVE YOU MOMMY! LOVE LUCY!’” he spells out, tracing the text with his finger. The nail is nipped down so far it’s painful to look at. I’ve seen hands like his before. He must chew his nails mercilessly.

“Very sweet,” I say.

“It took me three of these days, three years, to figure it out,” he says. “It’s the only picture Lucy drew as a little kid that I have.”

“Did you throw the others out?” I ask.

Jack shrugs.

“Things turned bad after she died. Things disappeared. I have no idea why this didn’t.”

He signals the waitress. He’s already so drunk. He looks at me in a way that makes me shrink.

“Things went very, very bad after she was murdered,” he says.

 

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Thursday, March 22, 8:34 p.m.

“I’ve got just one photo of the two of them together,” Jack says.

He brushes the remaining photos aside impatiently. A dark one, shot through with alarming slashes of red and white, flashes out from the bottom of the stack. He snaps his eyes shut and slams his hand over it.

“Not yet,” he says.

He pulls another photo out, opens his eyes, and relaxes.

“Here. One week before it happened. That’s my Lucy. With my wife.”

I take the proffered photo.

Lucy, the crayon portraitist, is a chubby, cheerful three-year-old caught in mid-laugh, her baby teeth shining. She’s dressed in red cable knit tights and a plaid dress. Her dishwater blond hair is in two messy ponytails. She’s standing outdoors in early spring. It looks windy.

Jack’s wife, ten years older and fifteen pounds heavier than in the wedding photo, is kneeling beside Lucy. One arm encircles the little girl, the other points at the camera. She’s pushing thirty and looks it. Her face is careworn. But she’s still very beautiful.

“This was a week before she died?” I say.

Jack nods.

“We went on a picnic. We did that every weekend. Except when I had to work.”

“Where were they?” I squint at the oddly shaped gray smokestacks that tower over the blue pond behind Lucy and Jack’s wife. Black blobs dot the water. “Are those ducks?”

“Yeah. We used to drive up to the Indian reservation to feed the ducks. There was this animal farm…well, later I found out it was the front end of a slaughterhouse. But there were cows and horses and there was this duck pond. It was open to the public. Lucy loved feeding the ducks.”

I look at the photo. Cold, early spring sunshine gleams on their faces. Their cheeks are the same shade of pink. Behind them, those fat industrial steam columns seem familiar to me. On the ground between Jack’s wife’s feet is a bag of white sandwich bread that’s clearly destined for the ducks.

Duck and duckling

Is this the Last Known Photo of her? The one the TV news displayed as they detailed the fate of the latest victim of the Westgate Serial Killer? Why do all Last Known Photos have this same hazy aura of finality? I wonder if mine will. I wonder if it’s already been taken, waiting patiently in the digital camera I use for work, which freelances in off­-hours as my family snapshot taker?

“When it was warm,” Jack says, “We….my wife and Lucy and me…would sit on a ripped old quilt by the duck pond. Talking nonsense and tossing stale bread at the ducks. They knew us. They begged like puppies.”

Sitting across from me tonight, he’s so diminished. He isn’t the husband behind the camera anymore. He’s so drunk. I wish I knew how to help him. Long ago, in another life (career), I learned to shut up and listen when people were telling me horrible things. But I’m out of practice.

“When it rained or was cold, we huddled up in the car. My wife brought these great thermoses of soup and we tuned the radio to this oldies station. We didn’t actually like the music, but it reminded us of what our parents played when we were kids. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Janis Joplin. It was our version of church.”

He kills the last of the Scotch on the rocks. He’s so far from sober that I feel exploitative.

“It was going to be a car picnic, the day he killed her,” he says.

 

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Thursday, March 22, 9:23 p.m.

The fourth photo finds its way from Jack’s hand to mine. It’s a strange image: a Polaroid taken by a neighbor the day before his wife was no more. It’s a real slice-of-life shot, unposed, the subjects unaware of the cameraman’s presence. Jack and his wife are in their kitchen. They are sitting at their kitchen table, one on each side, facing off. I know this posture. They’re in the midst of an argument.

Weegee photo

“Lucy let the neighbor guy into the house without us knowing,” Jack says, as I study the photo. “I had a long talk with her that night about not letting anyone in without asking Mommy or Daddy first. For all the good it did.”

In the photo, Jack of twelve years ago is slumped in his kitchen chair, his head leaning heavily into his cupped hand. The other hand is balled up in a fist that rests on his thigh. Visible tension is all over him. There are stress lines in his forehead. His shoulders are up around his ears. He looks a lot less like the dork in the wedding photo and more like the drunk, widowed, ruined man seated across from me. He’s exactly the same age as me in the photo. Do I look like this?

His wife is in mid-sentence, frowning with her mouth open on a vowel, her hand out to help make her point. She looks even more upset than he does. Jack can remember every word of their conversation, thanks to this picture. Unasked, he recounts it.

“She said, ‘I hate this.’

“I said, ‘What?’

“She said, ‘Seeing you like this. You look terrible. You aren’t eating, you aren’t sleeping—’

“I said, ‘How would you know?’

“She said, ‘Well, unless you’re sleeping somewhere I don’t know about, you’re only in our bed a good three hours a night. And even then, you keep thrashing around and muttering. Are you having nightmares?’

“I said, ‘Can we just drop this, please?’

“She said, ‘Fine.’

“And she did drop it. For about thirty seconds.

“Then she said, ‘You’re on a team, you know. You don’t have to do it all. Can’t some of the other reporters pull their weight a little?’

“I said, ‘All of the other reporters are working just as hard as me! Do you have any idea how hard this is? If the cops nail this guy and the P.I. or the Times are there and we aren’t…do you know how that will look?’

“She said, ‘I just think you could…I don’t know. I just wish you didn’t have to put so much of yourself into some son of a bitch serial killer. It’s such a waste.’

“I said, ‘It’s been months and months—a waste? How the hell would you know? You never read my stuff! You don’t give a damn what I do for a living, do you? You bitch about it.’”

Jack hangs his head.

“I said that. She was dead eighteen hours later. I didn’t know what was coming, but still…I said that. Petty. Stupid. I knew she never read my articles. She never had in the ten years we were married. It hurt. She complained about how much time my job took, but she never bothered to check out the result. How many people’s jobs have an end product the whole damned world can see?”

I can relate. But I say nothing.

“She said, ‘Honey, I just mean it’s terrible that a good man has to give himself to some killer he doesn’t even know, not to the family that loves him. And misses him. Jack? Do you understand?’

“And right then, the flash went off. We both jumped and yelled, and our neighbor was all, ‘Hey, thought you’d be used to the paparazzi thing, Jack! Got any beer?’”

Jack sighs. He’s silent for a long time.

“I was about to say to her, ‘Yes. I’m sorry, baby. I miss you and Lucy. I love you.’ But I lost my chance. And I never got another.”

Thursday, March 22, 9:21 p.m.

The time has come to look at the final picture: the very last photo ever taken of his wife. Jack shudders.

“It’s a horrible photo,” he says. “But I want you to see it. Nobody’s ever seen it but the cops and the lawyers. And me.”

I’m not sure I want to see it. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to see it, actually.

Jack’s hands are shaking. He rubs them over his face.

“Today was so bad. I haven’t been at a murder scene in years. Twelve years. My old editor never made me go after what happened. It was the same today—the smell, the chaos.”

I expect him to add, “The corpse,” but he doesn’t.

“Maybe you shouldn’t show me,” I say. “Maybe you shouldn’t look either. Why not put the pictures away and I’ll call you a cab so you can go home to bed?”

Jack uncovers his face and gives me the basilisk gaze that I find so intimidating.

“Fall asleep, forget, and back into the mindless routine for another year? Right?” he inquires in a tone that seeks to entrap me. I know better than to answer. He wants me to argue so he can attack me, releasing his pent up anger on my uninvolved self.

After I remain silent a full ninety seconds, he scrapes his nearly nail-less fingers over his scalp.

“That was what got her killed. A mindless routine. Every Sunday, we went to the same store at the same time to buy the same stale bread to feed to the ducks. She and Lucy always went in while I waited in the car. I’d been writing about the murders for months. He was escalating. That’s what the police kept telling me whenever a new body surfaced. He was about to be caught, and they thought he knew it. He was getting careless. I know exactly how it happened when he took her, even though I wasn’t there.”

“Maybe we should call it a night,” I say. “Let me take you home. I’ve got a very cool press car. You’ve had a lot to drink. Where do you live?”

“I’d gotten so in tune with his methodology—the dump sites, the choice of victims, the things he liked to do to them. I should have been smarter. I was so stupid.”

Jack picks up the last photo. He doesn’t look at it. He closes his eyes.

“We were all set to go on our Sunday picnic that morning. I’d been putting in fourteen hour days for weeks. No time off, not even weekends. I told my editor I wasn’t coming in that Sunday. We were in the kitchen getting ready to go. Lucy was begging for a donut to feed to the ducks. She really wanted to eat it herself. She was three—thought she was so crafty.”

Jack’s face smoothes out, though his eyes remain closed. The crime scene photo is in his hand, turned away from me. I do not want him to show it to me.

“My wife told me she’d seen a crib on sale at the consignment shop up the street. We weren’t really broke financially. But emotionally…in our relationship, we were almost broke. It was all my fault and we both knew it. It was my job. My ego. But we were trying.”

I say, “Jack—”

And he says, “Let me tell you. Please.”

So I shut up and listen.

His eyes are still closed. It’s more unnerving than his poisonous stare.

“So many late nights, so many weekends spent writing about this guy. One day off sounded so wonderful. One day to sit in the toasty car with my family, singing old Elvis and Beach Boys songs, squeezed close, drinking hot soup. Lucy telling me all her silly stories from preschool, and my wife whispering that if we worked real, real hard, she could buy that crib before the sale ended.”

“God, Jack, are you sure you’re not ready to go home?” I say. “I’ll take you. Your daughter’s probably worried about you.”

“Then my beeper went off. And my cell phone rang. And my home phone rang. And everything went wrong.”

Jack bites the inside of his cheek hard, making a concavity on the left side.

“My wife picked up the land line. She lost that…that lightness. Turned all brittle. She said, ‘Jack, it’s work.’

“I said, ‘Look, tell them it’s Sunday. I’ll call them back tonight.’

“She said, ‘I already did. They say it’s urgent.’

“She looked at me, holding the phone halfway between me and the cradle where she could hang it up. God, I thought all I wanted was to relax and spend the day with Lucy and my wife. But I what really wanted was to take that call. Because I knew, I knew that it was big.”

Now it’s his turn to go silent for a full ninety seconds.

“You took the call?” I ask.

He nods.

“I remember the exact thought that I had: What can it hurt?

He ought to laugh cynically. He ought to shake his head or slam his fist on the tabletop. He does nothing. He is so still that I get scared.

“Jack? Jack? I think we should go. It’s a work night—”

“I told her to have fun with Lucy. I went to work. Why the hell did I do that? Why didn’t I know what would happen? I knew him. I knew how he operated. Better than the cops did. I should have known…”

He opens his eyes at last. They hurt me so bad when they meet mine.

“The last thing I said to her was, ‘Honey…’ And the last thing she said to me was, ‘Jack. Just go. We’ll see you at dinner. Maybe.’”

He’s wounding me mortally with his eyes.

“Are you married?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Any kids?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Do you do stuff like that?” he asks.

I don’t answer. I’m here, in a bar located over an hour from my house, at ten at night on a Thursday, interviewing a strange man.

Jack slowly reaches across the impassable space between us. His hand shakes as it snakes between the empty highball glasses in pursuit of mine, which are clenched together in a knot on the sticky tabletop. He knocks a glass to the carpeted floor where it bounces, rolls and does not break. He withdraws his hand, leaving mine unsqueezed.

“Don’t,” he says. “Just don’t.”

 

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