Fishman met Darlene at his very first AA meeting. On the south shore. In the yellow-lit basement of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. There were 20 of them there. He made 21.
He had never quite bought the AA god-stuff but most of the rest of it made damn good sense. His ex-wife told him he had a problem. He thought the problem had been her.
Out of a job, unmoored, out of money and new ideas, he realized, she had had a valid point.
He felt drawn to Darlene in a way he couldn’t quite fathom, not that he gave it much thought. He was not prone to introspection. Another of his ex’s valid points.
She had a certain curious unbending brittleness to her. A wary self-consciousness. A sharpened edge. Defensively happy. He took it for strength. A strength that he wished he had.
What was it though that drew him to her? Nothing more than the way she’d caught his eye. The way she looked at him. That was it. The look. Period.
“Hi, my name is Darlene, and I’m an alcoholic.” Looking straight at him.
They left the meeting together. Talked in the parking lot. Shared a couple of smokes.
She leaned against the fender of her car, coaxing a wisp of smoke up from the corners of her mouth and drawing it in through her flared nostrils. “You new in town, cowboy?” she said. He laughed.
Her car was black. A ’67 Mustang V-8 re-ferb. Bruised like it had had a hard luck life. Rubber worn thin. Steeped in the comingled aromas of cigarette smoke, bitter coffee, and Taco Bell hot sauce.
She had blond hair, a kid, and a job.
He was looking for all of that, he thought.
He liked her and she liked him. That seemed enough.
It was intense for a few months. Fireworks. Then the bottle rockets and roman candles stopped exploding and they felt like a bleary-eyed couple standing up, ears ringing, folding their beach chairs and going off in the dark to find where they had parked the car.
Nevertheless, they tried dating for a while more, off and on, but it didn’t work out. There was an unfilled space between them.
Like this one time when he asked her to a concert. She’d never seen a string quartet before. She was psyched to go. Her mother stayed with her five-year-old. She dressed for the occasion.
At the intermission they went out. He lit a cigarette. One for her too.
“What the fuck?” she said. “You’re a total moron. Your friends in the band, or whatever you call it, are all morons. The shit flute music they played is a moron.”
She had worn a borrowed gold lamé sheath. Matching heels.
“I felt like a fool. Like a clown leaving the bathroom with a Cottonelle tail hanging out from between my cheeks,” she said. “You let me walk in there looking like that? They looked at me like I’m a total freak. Their fucking tweed pants and earth shoes and smelling like a patchouli bath water? You have no brain,” she said.
A few days passed and then she called him. “You’re a prick,” she said.
“Meet me,” he said. They met at a dive bar called the Malt Shop. He had an O’Doul’s and she had a black coffee.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“This is not working out,” he said.
“No shit, Sherlock,” she said.
“I…,” he said.
“Asshole,” she said. She left the coffee on the table.
He found a new group to go to. Maybe she did too. He thought about her in the evenings. They both found ways to stay apart.
But then, Rosario, a guy from Perpetual Sorrow, died. They both knew him. Knew his quick stories about Nam and shooting up in Fishkill with a Bic pen-and-Visine-bottle ‘binky’ or, when he got out, looking for some consensual ‘leg’ wherever he could find it. He was easy to love.
She was there.
After the guy’s funeral, she follows Fishman home. She is sitting, hands on the wheel, a cigarette keeping the beat to Skynyrd on repeat. Waiting for his car to pull into his driveway. When he does, she comes over to him.
“Get out of the car,” she says. He rolls down the window.
He’s thinking, maybe she misses him.
“I said get out of the fucking car.” He flinches.
Maybe she doesn’t.
“You think you’re shit on a hot rock? I know the guy eight years and can tell you the location of every mole on his skinny white ass and who do they ask to ‘say a few words’? Me? Nooooo! You!”
“His father asked me.”
“I don’t care if Mother Teresa asked you. Get out of the fucking car.”
“I will not get out of the car,” He tells her. “Let’s drop it. Let it go.”
“No,” she says. “I won’t. I can’t. I never wanted to see you again and then you show up. I fucking hate you.”
“Don’t shut me up. You just don’t get it. I love you and you left me. I know you better than you do. No one else can love you like I do. You need me. So much you don’t even know it. I can help you.”
She slams her fist on the roof of his car and walks toward her waiting Mustang.
A light goes on in his house. Darlene stops.
“There’s someone else? I knew it!” she screams
The front door opens a crack. They both look.
“Marvin?” a woman calls out. “Would you and your lady friend like to come in for something to eat?”
Darlene turns to him. “Shit, Fishman, you live with your mother? Your mother?”
“Wait!” He opens the car door. Too late.
He stands. He watches her inflamed taillights pull away.
The driving rhythm of the last 3 minutes of Skynyrd’s Free Bird gains purchase over the fading throaty rumble of her pair of dual cherry bomb glasspacks.
Oh God, how he loves that song!