Donegan’s Lost Year by Tom Andes

That year, he lived in Egbert Sousé’s, on the corner of Piedmont and Macarthur. Outside, a bronze plaque commemorated W.C. Fields, I’d rather be in Philadelphia. Inside, the clientele was mostly African-American, but they didn’t seem to mind Donegan’s presence. He sat at the end of the bar, nodding into his gin and tonic, a lanky Caucasian in a cable-knit sweater who seemed always on the verge of setting his beard on fire when he smoked in front of the bar. One night, he played a couple tracks off the only Dylan CD in the jukebox. He drew a few arch looks, heard a couple ofay motherfuckers, but this was 2010, not 1962, and they were content to leave him alone. Another night, he skeezed a joint off the guys at the door, and after that, they were fast friends. After a few months, they let him mop behind the bar and take out the recycling for a few extra dollars after he paid his tab.
     It had started one night when he got change for the laundry in his building, which was up the street, on the low-rent side of Macarthur. Before he knew it, he was chatting up Zoe the bartender (the only other white face in the room), who wouldn’t go to bed with him but sold him a roll of quarters, and within a week, he’d taken up residence. By taken up residence, we mean he’d fallen off the wagon. He’d put together a few years here, a few years there, though this eighteen months was his longest stint in recent memory. He knew if he ever kicked for good, Shelly would never let him back. She’d taken up with some artist across the bridge in San Francisco—or maybe he was an art student, since you had to be living on someone else’s dime to pay the rent over there—and Donegan liked to think of himself as biding his time.
     Bud was a light-skinned African-American with freckles, forty-three, a few years older than Donegan. He wore a silver training jacket and cast disparaging looks up and down Piedmont Avenue, eyeballing the girls as they walked in and out of the bar. Terry, Bud’s cousin, wore the uniform of a younger generation, low-slung jeans and a jacket that could have fit two of him, baseball hat turned sideways. He sold weed to pay his way through college, and he liked to show Donegan his medical marijuana card, claiming it made him “legit.” They gave Donegan a few hits of whatever they were smoking and bummed him the roach, which helped him nurse his hangover. Mornings were worse now that he wasn’t working; now that he wasn’t working, he understood there was a countdown on his life.
     “You like the black cooze or what?” Bud asked him one night, lips curling as he expelled marijuana smoke. Bud glanced at Terry, and Terry laughed, slapping his thigh.
     “Naw, man, our boy’s got a wife,” Terry said, howling with mirth.
     “For real?” Bud looked at Donegan, who shrugged, the ember of the joint disappearing into his unkempt red beard. He took an attenuated toke and held it, the acrid smoke clawing at the back of his throat until he coughed, tears stinging his eyes. He passed the joint to Terry.
     “I’ve got Shelly,” he said, and he proceeded to describe the woman he’d lived with on and off for the last seven years: twenty-eight years old, an advertising executive with a thing for hopeless cases, she only dated men she could control, which meant alcoholics like Donegan or college kids like the one she’d taken up with the last time Donegan strung together enough sobriety to declare emotional independence. Now that he’d fallen off the wagon, it was only a matter of time before she wanted him to come crawling back.
     “I told you so,” Terry said, laughing while he passed the joint to Bud.
     “We’re not actually married,” Donegan explained, and he held up his hand, wiggling his fingers. “No vows.”
     Bud shook his head. The bar door opened, and a pair of girls floated out on a cloud of perfume, Toni Braxton swelling from the jukebox and fading again as the door swung shut. Bud watched their asses—one big, one small, a sun and a moon—as they walked up the street. Terry catcalled, and the thin one looked over her shoulder, rolling her eyes. Halfway up the block, the girls linked arms and crossed Piedmont, giggling as they climbed into a minivan.
     A few nights later, she turned up, and Donegan understood his days in Oakland were numbered. The conversation happened quickly, over a gin and tonic and a dry vodka martini at the bar.
     “This kid’s driving me crazy. I don’t know how much longer I can put up with him.” Shelly smiled ruefully at Donegan. “I don’t know about letting you come home, though, not in your condition.” She patted his arm.
     “I’ll change,” Donegan told her, a hollow promise, they both knew. “I put together a year and a half last time. This little episode is just a bump in the road.”
     “We’ll see.” Shelly took her purse, and threw her coat over her shoulders. She wore her brown hair in a bob. Last year, after developing ovarian cysts, Shelly’d put on weight because she’d stopped producing estrogen; he loved her body, nevertheless.
     “Don’t fret, pussycat.” She drew a fingernail down the side of his face, studying his expression. “You know I’ll only hurt you in the long run.”
     Watching her leave the bar, Donegan felt something go out of him.
     That night, perhaps out of pity, Zoe the bartender finally succumbed to his advances. A leggy redhead, approaching fifty, she helped him upstairs after service, and she shoved him to the bed, straddling him while she removed her top, her ponytail bobbing from side to side, the tattoos on her ribcage swimming in the streetlight that fell through the window, her breasts fuller and firmer than he’d expected. She lived in a cluttered two-bedroom apartment above the bar. When he woke the next morning, it took him several minutes to remember where he was. Though she wasn’t the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on, Zoe looked not unattractive in the late-morning sunlight.
     That night, at the door, Bud and Terry razzed him.
     “A bar full of perfectly good Negro tail, and he picks the one white woman in the place,” Bud said, shaking his head.
     “Like takes to like,” Terry shrugged, passing Donegan the joint.
     Syncing up perfectly with his eviction, Donegan’s liaison with Zoe led in short order to his taking up residence in her rooms above the bar. He moved in at the end of the month, hauling a duffel, a battered suitcase, and a few boxes of books up the stairs. He cleaned the bar during the afternoon, and Bruce, the daytime bartender, a muscular man with earrings in both ears, tipped him out in cash.
     At Zoe’s, he lived in the second bedroom, where he slept on a futon mattress, and once or twice a week, usually at her initiation, he joined her in bed. He didn’t know whether they were roommates or lovers, though the arrangement seemed to suit both of them: he didn’t pay rent, and she didn’t mind cooking him breakfast.
     Born and raised in Orange County, Zoe had studied poetry in graduate school at St. Mary’s College of California. She’d lived in that same apartment for twenty years and raised two kids there, one of whom was attending school in Davis, one of whom had followed his father’s footsteps and disappeared, becoming a professional grifter. Whatever Zoe told her one son left about the arrangement with Donegan, Donegan didn’t figure it was any of his—Donegan’s—business. He moved to the couch when the kid came home, letting him sleep on the futon.
     November passed. It was December before Shelly showed up again, and the first anticipatory whiff of Christmas hung in the air like the stink of fetid meat. Leaves had fallen from the trees up and down Piedmont —they called it autumn, where Donegan came from— and the leaves followed her in the door. She shook the cold off her charcoal jacket and took the stool next to Donegan’s at the bar.
     “How much longer are you going to waste your life slumming it with these people,” she said, loudly enough so most of the people sitting along the bar could hear, and she looked disdainfully at her martini, where a gnat floated next to a sliver of ice. At the other end of the bar, Zoe polished wine glasses, chin high, ignoring them. Donegan ate a handful of popcorn, the first solid food he’d eaten that day. Shelly fished the gnat out of her glass with a straw.
     “Were you proposing an alternative?” Donegan asked, swirling the beer in his bottle before he drained it.
     Shelly made a face, pushing her martini away.
     After she left, he swept the leaves that had followed her in the door onto the avenue, and he stood by the corner and smoked a joint with Bud and Terry. He looked at the hospital, perpetually under construction, the buildings sheathed in tarpaulin behind a barricade cattycorner the bar. He looked at the traffic signal, and he watched it change from green to yellow to red, wondering how his life had narrowed to this intersection, to the bar and the handful of pizza places, Chinese restaurants, and coffee shops up the street.
     “Your life is your business, but if you let yourself go crawling back to that woman, you’re making a mistake,” Zoe told him when he came back in the bar. “You don’t owe me anything. But take it from someone who knows, she’ll only do the same thing to you again.”
     Donegan knew.
     Christmas brought its own share of grief, though they managed to make a day of it at the bar. Zoe cooked a turkey, and they brought it downstairs and set it on a table in the corner next to the jukebox, along with stuffing and mashed potatoes and vegetables they’d ordered from the Boston Market on Broadway. Owen, the one son left, a fair-haired, lanky Northern Californian teenager who played in two bands and habitually brushed the bangs out of his eyes, shot pool with Donegan at the table in the back until by three o’clock, Donegan had imbibed sufficiently to call his parents, who had retired to an Airstream trailer on a mesa outside Bullhead City, Arizona. By the time he said goodbye to his mother, Shelly still hadn’t called, and though he hadn’t expected her to call, he’d come to anticipate her call when he least expected it, which is another way of saying the holiday made him sentimental. “Your break,” Owen said, handing Donegan the cue, and Donegan chalked it, staring at the triangular formation of balls on the scuffed green felt on the pool table. On the jukebox, Marvin Gaye sang “What’s Goin’ On?” Donegan sipped his gin and tonic, gripping the cue.
     He called Shelly the next day, Boxing Day, and left her a message. They’d always been civil to one another, even during their breakups—more civil to one another when they were apart than when they were together, in fact. Having done his due diligence, he settled in to wait.
     It was February before Shelly put in a third and final appearance at the bar, and three days of rain augured her arrival.
     “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner,” she said, patting Donegan’s wrist as she took her stool at the bar. “I’ve been so busy, you wouldn’t believe it.” She unloaded a Dutch oven from an enormous handbag she’d lugged into the bar with her and set it on the bar between them. “I don’t know how they’re feeding you in this place, but I figured you could probably use a little nutrition,” she sniffed, casting a disdainful glance Zoe’s way. “You need to take better care of yourself. You don’t look good. You’re wasting away,” she told Donegan, looking him up and down.
     The door opened, and some rain blew in, Bud’s round shape in its training jacket blotting out the muted grays and the dim glow of the traffic light. Bud’s gaze lingered on Donegan and Shelly. He took a barstool and hauled it back outside with him, the sound of cars passing in the rain filling the doorway and fading as the door swung shut.
     “I need you back in my life,” Donegan said, pitching his voice low, so none of the regulars would hear him beg—and so Zoe, who was serving a customer at the other end of the bar, wouldn’t hear him beg, either. “I’m like a junkie. I’m as addicted to you as I am to this stuff,” he said, and he raised his bottle. “I can’t live without you.”
     “Aw.” Shelly shook her head, giving him a mock sympathetic look, pouting and smiling at once, for she loved to hear such effusive declarations of love. She smiled sidelong at him, like a child who’d just poured boiling water on an anthill and was gleefully surveying the carnage. “You’ve made it all this time without me, and you’re still here.” She shook her head. “You only think you need me.”
     “That isn’t what I mean.” Donegan shrugged. He started peeling the label from his bottle with his thumbnail, which had grown considerably over the last few weeks. Whenever he got depressed, he left off grooming himself. It got so the same person answered every time he called the National Suicide Hotline and asked him not to call back.
     Shelly sighed, and she rose from her barstool, draping her cape over her shoulders. “I got rid of the kid I was seeing,” she said, hoisting her handbag and slinging it over a shoulder. “But you shouldn’t take that as an invitation. Besides which, if I do let you come back, I’ll probably just do the same thing to you again, and it’ll be even worse next time.”
     After she left, Donegan lifted the lid of the Dutch oven and examined the cassoulet she’d made him. Duck legs and pieces of sausage stewed with white beans, all of it encased in a layer of congealed orange duck fat. At the other end of the bar, Zoe stood with her back to him, filling the shaker with a heavy pour of well vodka. He studied the dimple in her chin in the mirror behind the bar. She finished making the drink, served it, and walked to the cash register, counting bills out of the drawer without looking at Donegan. Donegan picked up the Dutch oven and walked toward the door.
     Outside, a black Cadillac was parked by the curb in front of the bar, engine idling, windshield wipers running full bore, headlights illuminating pale shafts of rain, and Donegan stared at the tinted windows, startled at the possibility Shelly had waited for him. Then the rear window opened, and Terry’s face appeared. Terry exhaled a lungful of marijuana smoke, laughing as the Cadillac pulled away from the curb. Sitting on his barstool under the overhang next to the door, Bud looked at Donegan.
     “She went that way,” he said, nodding in the direction of Macarthur Boulevard, where a car was pulling out of a Valero station into the rain.
     Donegan nodded. “Thanks.”
     Bud took a toke of the joint he was smoking and held the smoke in his lungs. “Sure.” He sounded like he was about to pop. He extended the joint to Donegan, who cradled the Dutch oven under his arm and took the joint from Bud with his other hand. He took a toke of the joint.
     “You coming back?” Bud asked him, thrusting his hands into his jacket pockets.
     Donegan shrugged. “We’ll see.” He took another toke of the joint.
     Bud nodded, finally letting out a cloud of smoke. “You want me to tell her you said anything?” He nodded in the direction of the bar.
     Donegan looked at Bud. He shook his head. “No, I’ll come back.”
     “Sure thing.” Bud waved the joint away when Donegan tried to pass it back to him. “You keep it.”
     Donegan stubbed the joint out on his heel and tucked the roach into his pocket, and he started up Piedmont in the opposite direction from the one Shelly had gone. Under his arm, he held the Dutch oven, a reassuring weight. Though he had no particular destination, he took determined strides. Rain splashed his face, wetting his beard.
Tom Andes’ poetry, fiction, and criticism have appeared in News from the Republic of Letters, Santa Clara Review, Mantis, Bateau, and the Rumpus, among other publications. A hand-sewn chapbook, Life Before the Storm and Other Stories, appeared in a limited run from Cannibal Books in 2010. His story “The Hit,” which first appeared in Xavier Review, will appear in Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He lives in Oakland, California.