The Next Right Thing A Novel
By Dan Barden
The Dial Press Copyright © 2012 Dan Barden
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780385343404
OFFICIALLY, I STARTED DESTROYING MY LIFE that Wednesday morning. But it had been on my mind for a while.
As I drove up Pacific Coast Highway past the Laguna Art Museum, I suddenly longed for still-sort-of-disreputable Santa Ana, where there would have been a neighborhood nearby that would better reflect my mood. There’s nothing worse than a beautiful town when you’ve got an ugly head. From every corner of always-blooming Laguna Beach, bougainvillea announced that unhappiness was not an option here.
It had been almost three weeks since Terry died, and I hadn’t done a damn thing but drink espresso and avoid the people who loved me.
It reminded me of when I first got sober. I didn’t want to drink, but I held the idea of drinking close, like a suicide bomb inside my heart. Just bend my elbow and a world of possibilities would open up. Bad possibilities, but possibilities nevertheless. I’d never see my daughter again, but I’d make sure that a few people paid for their sins.
I could hear Terry’s voice: Clamoring for justice again? Is that it, Randy?
I was waiting for the light beside the Cottage to change, staring into a pack of well-dressed skateboarders pointed toward Heisler Park, when my cell phone rang. It was Wade’s number, so I didn’t answer. Sometimes you’re too lonely to talk to your friends.
Instead, I drove my F-350 up to Jean Claude’s café in North Laguna. Like every other morning these three weeks, I would park my ass in a molded plastic chair beside a molded plastic table and try to clear my mind with double espressos.
That morning the sidewalk and the shrubs were still dewy. Across the parking lot, surfers were jaywalking across Coast Highway, shrugging into wet suits, blowing their noses into the street. Above the beach access, a gray shelf of fog announced the Pacific Ocean.
At a table nearby, a couple of rich people waved at me tenta- tively. I vaguely remembered being introduced to them by someone who thought I might design their home. She was too old to be his daughter and too pretty to be his first wife. I’d prob- ably been dodging their calls, but they wouldn’t approach me here. I had perfected my sullenness. It was another way that my old life clung to me: sometimes I scared people.
For three weeks, I’d been pretending I was just a home de- signer and not that earlier, angrier version of myself. It wasn’t working. Every day it got harder to pretend I was anyone but myself.
Jean Claude set down another double espresso on the flimsy table. He was hardworking Eurotrash—a contradiction I liked. Also, the only guy in Southern California who didn’t look like he’d grown his goatee yesterday.
“Ça va?” he asked.
“Ça fucking va. How about you? Who are you humping these days?”
“An important man, works for Obama. He’s too good for me, though. I want somebody bad, like you.”
One good thing had come out of the past three weeks: I’d fi- nally found a way to describe the sound of my diseased con- science. It was a Styrofoam ice chest wedged behind the seat of an old pickup. The rougher the road, the louder it squeaked, until the noise became unbearable.
My cell phone rang again as Jean Claude was clearing away my second double espresso. This time I answered: “What the fuck do you want, Wade?”
“It’s not Wade. It’s Tom. Wade got into a fight. He wanted me to call you.”
“Tell him that I’m not coming.” I hung up.
They couldn’t be anywhere but the Coastal Club, one of the places I was avoiding, a place that I’d been avoiding even before Terry died. I poured my espresso into a sip cup and sped out of the parking lot. Something that had stuck with me from that lost decade of being a cop: running out of coffee shops and driving away too fast.
. . .
A simple white building in a glade of oak and eucalyptus just off
Laguna Canyon Road, the Coastal Club was nicer than most A.A. clubs because a rich gallery owner had endowed it thirty years ago. Then it took them almost half that thirty years to de- cide on a design. It was just down the road from the old Bhag- wan Ranjeesh place—now a nursery school—and you could have mistaken it for a deal like that. The architectural equivalent of a freshly laundered linen nightgown. They’d done a good job.
I hated going there, but it was the place where my life began. Once I would have slept there if they had let me. I first met Terry in the gravel parking lot where I was now skidding my truck into a swirl of dust.
Wade stood at the front door beside Tom and several other fools from the seven A.M. meeting. It seemed like everyone but Wade wanted to tell me what had happened. But they were a little scared to tell me, too. Since Terry’s death, I’d become an authorized repository for community grief. One reason I hadn’t attended a single meeting since the funeral was that I was sick of people looking at me as though I might break down or explode. Wade’s pal Tom, an overweight photojournalist who’d taken the highway patrol on a chase through two counties last summer, gave me a jaunty and ridiculous salute. He and a guy I didn’t know at all, with dark glasses and a bomber jacket, stood behind Wade like Secret Service agents: arms at their sides but ready.
When I rolled up beside the curb, Wade said, “Dude.” “In the truck,” I answered.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Tom said. “Troy Padilla came out of no- where.”
“Out of nowhere,” the other guy underlined. “In the truck, please,” I said to Wade.
“His dad’s a mafioso or something,” Tom explained. “He knows how to do that shit.”
“In the fucking truck.”
When we got back to my house above Bluebird Canyon, MP—only her father calls her Mary Pat—was back from yoga training and drilling up something in the blender that I might drink if I were dying of cancer. She gave Wade a hug. They’d gone to Catholic high school together in Ranch Santa Marga- rita. Wade had grown up surfing and perfecting his substance abuse and brushing his blond hair out of his eyes. MP had grown up riding horses, wishing she weren’t flat-chested, and steering clear of boys like Wade.
“He won’t talk to me,” Wade said. “All the way over here, he wouldn’t speak.”
“You guys are going to have to work this out,” MP said. “While I’m somewhere else.”
“He thinks I’m lying to him. This dude came out of nowhere to punch me, and he thinks I’m lying.”
I sat down on the Indian daybed that MP had found for me at a swap meet. Not as comfortable as my Eames chair, but it pro- vided me a great view of my home. I’d taken a midcentury hill- side ranch-style and redone the interior as contemporary cottage. Eclectic furniture like this daybed contrasted with the white ceilings, white walls, and white plank flooring. I had used traditional materials and hadn’t goobered them up with too many fixtures. Reclaimed oak beams in the ceiling were the darkest element by far. Otherwise, it was a playground for the light from the hills.
I’ll always be happy to see Wade—forever, for the rest of my life—but he’s the guy who finds your kitchen first. The guy who wonders if you’ve made coffee. The guy who pleads his case to your girlfriend. The guy who was now scanning my living room.
We’d been friends long enough that I could read his mind: Is that a new Blu-ray player? The kind that records? How much does something like that cost? You’d think he was still a crack-addicted surf rat instead of a guy with a modest trust fund and an after- noon job as a scuba instructor.
I’ll never not love him, though. Him and Terry. “Coffee?” Wade asked.
MP shook her head and punched up the blender again. She was the only brunette with bangs I would ever love.
“Not until you drop the bullshit,” I said. “Bullshit?”
MP had her back to me, but I could feel her smiling.
“The bullshit about how this guy attacked you for no rea- son.”
“His father’s in the Mafia,” Wade said. “He’s from New Jer- sey. He needs a reason?”
Even Wade knew better than to sit down in my Eames chair, so he passed it to stand in front of the window watching the goats across the canyon. Wildfire control: they ate everything on the hill until there was nothing left to burn.
“I think he’s the guy who was with Terry,” Wade said. “That’s not why he hit you. Once you’ve got Tom and that
other bozo defending you, I know it’s a bigger story than that.” Wade smiled. My friends can get mighty full of shit, but
sometimes they’ll drop it if you ask them. While Wade consid- ered how to tell me the truth, I watched Yegua, my Guatemalan laborer/assistant/better half, cross the backyard with a posthole digger.
“Well . . .” Wade finally said. “I’ve been telling everyone he was the guy with Terry.”
“Do you know that for sure?”
“No,” Wade said. “But it makes sense.”
“How does it make sense, Wade? And if it made so much god- damn sense, why didn’t you tell me?”
Wade turned from the goats. “You were too busy hiding out at Jean Claude’s. I thought I’d wait until you showed up at a meeting.”
“Fuck you, Wade.”
Wade stared across the room at the nook where my electron- ics were stacked. I could feel that MP wasn’t smiling anymore.
“Okay,” I said after a while. “I’ll fix some coffee.”
Wade looked at me. “Rick Buford at the South Coast hospital meeting said that this dude Troy and Terry had been driving around all day, checking out Terry’s old drug neighborhoods. A nostalgia trip. Sometime after the funeral, Troy told Rick how guilty he felt.”
“Feeling guilty doesn’t mean he was with him when he died.”
Wade sat down on the couch. He leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Rick said Troy told him that Terry fell like a tree, that he’d never seen anyone fall like that. He saw it happen, Randy. Then he must have just bailed. Didn’t even call the fuck- ing paramedics.”
MP set down her protein drink and leaned against the coun- ter. For the first time in forever, I wished that she weren’t in my house.
My sponsor Terry was a big man, about six foot three, with silver hair and a pale youthful face. I’ve had moments when I thought he stood straighter than any man I’d ever known. He’d been off booze and drugs for fifteen years on the night that he died. On the night he died from a heroin overdose in a shitty motel room in Santa Ana.
My friend Terry would have fallen like a tree.
This was what I’d been waiting for. My gift from God. And not the loving God people talked about at meetings but a God, like me, who got pissed off when good men died. I’d been sitting on my ass for three weeks because I needed all my righteous strength and every bad impulse I’d been saving from eight years of sobriety to go kick the shit out of this little prick from New Jersey.
MP walked down the hallway into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
I said, “Let’s go find this asshole.”
. . .
The first time I really talked with Terry was over breakfast at Corky’s. He was already hanging with Wade then, although Wade still had one more drunk left. They had invited me to breakfast after the seven A.M. meeting at the Coastal Club.
Sometimes people in A.A. will say, “Let us love you until you can love yourself.” I don’t think it would have worked on me. At the time I wouldn’t have trusted anyone—besides my SAPD partner, Manny, and my sister—who pretended to love me.
With Terry and Wade, though, it was a totally different deal. Corky’s was a great place to have breakfast, and I fell right into the food. Terry and Wade talked about people in A.A. whom I didn’t yet know. Mostly I ignored them. I wouldn’t admit that I needed this thing. When they asked me questions, I answered. Terry seemed like the kind of smugly successful attorney I had always hated. And Wade seemed like a tadpole who needed to be
slapped every time he said the word “dude.” Still pretending to be one tough hombre, I let them know early and often that I was a cop.
About halfway through my bacon, cheddar, and avocado omelet, I could feel Terry staring at me. When I met his eyes, he said, “You know, Randy, we don’t hang out with you because we like you. We don’t like you. Isn’t that right, Wade?”
Wade nodded slowly.
“We hang out with you,” Terry continued, “because it’s head cases like you who keep us sober.”
It was an important moment in my life. I stood up from the table, threw down twenty dollars, and walked out of the restau- rant. I think I told them to fuck themselves. Wade said I did, and Terry said I just walked out.
By that night, I knew who my sponsor was going to be.
. . .
Halfway to our destination, I realized that I hadn’t even said goodbye to MP.
“It’s not on Temple Hills,” Wade said. “And it’s not on Arroyo
“I don’t care, Wade, where it’s not.”
Wade looked at me like I was rushing some terribly impor- tant process—the composition of a symphony, maybe. His sun- glasses were hanging from his neck by one of those Croakie doodads. I pulled them off and threw the doodad out the window. “You don’t get to wear that anymore.” I tossed back his
glasses. “It looks too stupid.”
The asshole Troy Padilla lived in a “recovery home”—words that should be said in quotation marks. People in Alcoholics
Anonymous were always thinking up new scams, and lately the new scam was this: rent a big house and fill it with newcomers who couldn’t pull together a security deposit if they owned a gold mine. Put two of them in each room, invent a bunch of bullshit rules about curfew and house meetings, and you can rake in at least twenty grand a month over the actual rent. At best, it was “stone soup”: the newcomer went to A.A. meetings and didn’t mind getting screwed by some old-timers. At worst, the people who “managed” the houses began to think they ac- tually knew something about recovering from alcoholism.
In Laguna, the scam had been refined a bit, which is often what happens to scams when they reach Laguna. An A.A. member named Colin Alvarez, who’d made a lot of money as a mortgage broker, started a corporation called Recovery Homes Incorporated to administer the houses. Sober just about as long as me, Colin was the kind of guy who, unlike me, didn’t make jokes about A.A. He’d come back from a meth addiction in his early twenties and, also unlike me, didn’t miss many meetings.
What did I know? Maybe the “recovery homes” were the best thing that ever happened to some of these people. Terry used to say that A.A. itself was the biggest scam of them all, but it had failed as a scam, and it had become something better.
“Wait,” Wade said. “It is Temple Hills.”
Eventually, Wade steered us to a little ranch house hanging its ass over the side of a hill. This dwelling had absolutely noth- ing going for it but the fact that it had landed in Laguna Beach. The porcini-mushroom-and-sun-dried-tomato color scheme beneath the shake shingles was the only upscale element in the design. In Tustin or El Toro, it would have cost half of what it did here. I parked my truck pointing down the grade beside the house.
I thumped hard on the front door, which was suburban and hollow-core and made a nice scary sound. A near-teenager with a bare midriff and a pierced navel answered. In my limited experience, these recovery homes existed somewhere on a con- tinuum between a prison and a pajama party. I saw that contra- diction in the girl before me. She might have been near the bad end of Laguna Beach High, but something in her eyes was harder than that by a lot. It reminded me that in spite of the affluence surrounding them, some of these kids could be living on the street before the year was out.
“Look who’s here,” she said. “It’s the let’s-drink-too-much- coffee-but-not-smoke-enough-cigarettes-and-still-think-we’re- better-than-everyone-else brigade.”
I was wondering what meeting she knew us from when Wade shouted after a dark-haired kid in his early twenties peeking at us from the end of a long central hallway. The kid ran, and I ran after him. Wade and Pierced Navel followed. At the end of the hallway, in what looked like the kitchen, I saw three more twentysomethings—two boys and another girl—watching us but apparently staying put.
The kid slammed through a door into the garage, but the au- tomatic garage-door opener was taking its sweet time letting him out. I pushed the button to send the door down again and tossed him up against an old Datsun pickup. Troy Padilla fea- tured grungy black hair, baggy pants, and a faux hip-hop uni- form that would have been current anywhere but Laguna. He was about five-ten and all worked out, but none of it was real muscle. “Fluffy” was what Terry would have called him. I was probably old enough to be his father, but also very much not his father: my still-hanging-in-there blond hair and slow-to-tan skin came from an entirely different gene pool. I was five inches taller and thirty unfluffy pounds heavier. My nose had been broken enough times to prove that I hadn’t always been smart about who I fought.
The garage door finished closing. I could feel Wade some- where behind me.
“Were you with him?” I asked.
“You’re talking about Terry now?” the kid said. “Who the fuck else would I be talking about?”
“I wasn’t with him. Not at the end. I was with him early, when he was looking. We went to the racetrack and a few shop- ping centers in Santa Ana. But he never found anything. Then he got pissed off and left me at a bar.”
I slowed down my breathing. I checked the garage for blunt instruments that numbnuts might grab for. There wasn’t any- thing in here but that old Datsun pickup.
“Which bar?” I heard Wade ask behind me. He had his arms across the doorway to keep Pierced Navel out of the garage.
“The TGIF off Orangethorpe.”
“That’s not a fucking bar,” Wade said. “That’s—”
I looked back with steel in my eyes, but Wade wouldn’t stop talking. “No, I’m not going to shut up, Randy. I’m sick of this guy. Tell him how tough your father is, Troy. I never heard of a mafioso with the name Padilla. You’re so full of shit.”
I stared at Wade again. This time he got the message. “Okay,” Wade said. “I’m done.”
I backed away from Troy a little, but I kept my hands up in case he tried to bolt. “How did you know my friend Terry, and how come I don’t know you?”
From behind us, Pierced Navel suddenly pushed Wade in the chest, but he stood his ground. Then she got really close to him and sniffed him repeatedly, which was, well, very weird.
Troy looked me straight in the eyes. “I loved Terry, the same as you guys.”
“I’ve never seen you before in my fucking life, Troy. So tell me why I should believe you.”
“Everyone knows you, Randy. Just like everyone knew Terry. You guys were like A.A. royal—”
I pushed him back against the Datsun, not enough to hurt him but enough to let him feel how much I wanted to hurt him. “And if you loved him so fucking much,” I said, “why didn’t you call somebody? Why didn’t you call one of us?”
“I had ninety days of sobriety. He was like a god to me. I thought I was just going to snort a little smack. That’s different, right? I thought that was different. I was insane. If you guys don’t understand that, who the hell understands that?”
“What Troy’s not saying,” Pierced Navel shouted from be- hind me, “is that you don’t know him because you haven’t fuck- ing been around. It’s hard to be Mr. A.A. when you don’t go to any fucking A.A. meetings.”
“Crazy girl”—I pointed at her—“you shut the fuck up.” I turned back to Troy. “Did he talk to anyone else while you were with him?”
“He called Claire.”
“Claire Monaco? Why did he call Claire Monaco?”
“It was after midnight,” Troy Padilla sneered. “Why do you
think he called Claire Monaco?” He made a move to get away.
This time I threw him against the truck hard. “What was this shit about him falling like a tree? Isn’t that what you said? That Terry fell like a tree?”
“That’s the way I imagined it,” Troy said. “He was a big guy. You gonna beat me up because I have an imagination?”
Troy’s face started to cloud. He reminded me of the tough guy in high school, which was to say not tough at all. I noticed, however, that I believed him.
“I figured Terry knew what he was doing.” Troy started to cry. “Didn’t Terry always look like he knew what he was doing?”
Troy’s jaw began to shake, and Pierced Navel went apeshit. She kneed Wade in the groin and pushed past him into the ga- rage. She slapped my face—hard—but her assault didn’t seem to have any purpose other than to focus my attention. Which it did.
“Do I know you?” I said.
“You should. Because assholes like you have been stepping on my feet and ramming pencils up my nose since before I knew what feet and pencils were. You’ve got a big fucking truck where your soul should be, and you want to drive it over someone, but you can’t because it’s encased in flesh and you would die if you tried. Fuck you, fuck you both.”
She swung back to slap me again, but Wade had by then re- covered from her knee, and he got himself around her pretty good. She couldn’t do much but thrash and spit.
Wanting to punch someone so badly that I thought my heart would seize if I didn’t, I got right into Troy’s face. “I think you were there,” I said. “I think you were there and you were too chickenshit to call the paramedics.”
“I think you feel guilty,” Troy whined. “And you’re taking it out on me.”
I don’t know if I would have hit him or not, because two things happened at once: a dark stain grew from Troy’s crotch,and shame spread through his face. The smell of urine filled the garage. As I backed away, the rage settled down inside me. I pushed Wade through the door with a hand that was no longer a fist. Pierced Navel followed us to the front door, screaming. “I don’t care how many A.A. enemas they stick up your ass, you’re still just a cracker with a badge!” She looked familiar, like I’d seen her regularly in some other life. And by the time Wade closed the front door on her and she didn’t open it back up, she seemed almost as young as my daughter.
. . .
As my truck slammed down Temple Hills, I wanted to puke from the adrenalin. I felt like the first time I beat up someone in a bar with my nightstick. My training officer had stopped at the door and tipped his hat, and I got that this was my little hazing. As the guy came after me—a big crew cut with swollen eyes— I would have sworn that I didn’t need the nightstick, but appar- ently, the nightstick needed him. It wanted his knees and then his kidney.
My cell phone startled me. The world of wanting to smack some guy from New Jersey shouldn’t have cell phones. It was Jeep Mooney, my business partner.
“Wade and I are on our way to your place,” I said. “You’ve been avoiding me for weeks,” she said. “Two minutes.” I flipped the phone closed.
Although she now lived with my sister, Betsy—in the biblical sense—I’d met Jeep in A.A. She’d been agitating for my return to work since the day after the funeral.
When we showed up, she was standing on her driveway. “It’s Punch and Judy.”
Wade looked at me. “You’re Punch,” I said. “I’m Judy.” Some- one from the seven A.M. meeting must have called Jeep about Wade’s earlier encounter, but there was no way she could know about Troy Padilla and me. Yet.
Jeep was wearing a slate-blue suit over a white blouse. About an inch taller than me, she was stick-thin and regal as a queen. A once-upon-a-time debutante, she’d been spared the upper reaches of Orange County society by her Roman nose and car- toonishly bulging eyes, which weren’t most people’s idea of beautiful. She wouldn’t say exactly how she got the name Jeep, but I bet it was a taunt she transcended.
As Wade headed for Betsy’s office—lots of new toys there— I walked with Jeep through the backyard.
“Have you darkened the door of an A.A. meeting since Terry’s funeral?” Jeep said.
“Did that guy drop off those pavers?” I squinted as though I were calculating material costs.
Jeep stopped walking. “Have you punched anyone yet?”
I told myself again there was no way she could know about
Troy Padilla. “Who told you about Wade?” I asked.
“I’m everyone’s den mother this week,” she said. “Yours, too. You look like shit.”
“The thing is,” I said, “I feel worse.”
We stood near the edge of my sister’s carp pond. We had both argued strenuously against it. But without Betsy’s carp pond, we wouldn’t have bisected the yard with a tight little man-made stream, exactly four inches across, which fed the carp pond. That got us into Dwell magazine.
“Am I here to look at something? Or is this where you take people when you want to ram some recovery up their ass?”
“The answer to both questions is yes,” Jeep said. “You should get back to work. You’re going to need money for this custody thing.”
“Betsy said that Jean has to give me what I want.”
“She also said that any time you walk into a courtroom—” “Besides”—I held up my hand—“I’ve got fifty thousand out
About six months before, Terry had asked me for fifty thou- sand dollars, to be paid back within a year. I had it, so I gave it to him. Still, it was a lot. Terry was sometimes reckless with money, but he would have gotten it back to me eventually.
“Oh, Christ,” Jeep said. “The money you loaned Terry is gone. Come back to work, and we could make that on just one job.”
“Maybe I want to fly solo and I don’t have the balls to tell you.”
“Balls aren’t your problem,” Jeep said. “Your brain’s too big for the inside of your skull. That’s your problem. You need to build something, relieve the pressure.”
I laughed. “When did you start quoting Terry?”
“He had your number,” Jeep said. “I’ll give him that.” “But?”
I looked at the back of the house. The balustrade was thick with jasmine. In another lifetime, Betsy’s home was a faux Tudor–ranch style, as ugly as pink concrete. Now it had a second floor and a fucking carp pond.
“Okay, then,” I said. “What does she want now?” “An extended balcony.”
“An extended balcony?”
“You want me to define the term for you? Yes, an extended balcony.”
“Tell me what comes after the ‘but’ that you claim wasn’t there. Then I’ll dish about the extended balcony.”
Jeep set her hands on her hips. “You know he wasn’t always such a good role model. He cut corners.”
“He cheated on his taxes. The IRS slapped him around,” I said. “Big deal. You know many lawyers who aren’t a little crooked? For that matter, you know anyone in A.A. who’s not a criminal at heart?”
“Me,” Jeep said. “I’m not a criminal at heart.”
“Which costs us money every time we do a deal. Listen— why does Betsy’s brain always reach for the first cliché it can find? A patio would work. A lap pool that goes all the way into the trees would work. But an extended balcony? I’m still not sure we did the right thing adding a second floor. Let’s not push it. This won’t be a balcony; this will be an invitation to musical theater.”
“Oh . . .” Jeep shook her head fiercely. “You can be such a
She stomped across our high-tech stream toward the house. I followed her into the kitchen where Betsy and Wade were sip- ping from bright ceramic mugs. They stopped talking when I came in. Jeep pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the freezer. “He thinks it’s a stupid idea,” she said.
Wade lifted his mug. “Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, dude.”
“For him”—Betsy pointed at me—“we’ve got Folgers.”
My sister is the most beautiful lesbian in the history of La- guna Beach. Ask anyone. Long brown hair, olive skin, green eyes that make you forget you’ve seen green eyes before. As she pushed back her reading glasses, her contempt for me seemed sharper than usual. I poured myself a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain just to spite her.
She didn’t meet my eyes, which was a bad sign. Then again, it didn’t take much to piss off Betsy lately. I noticed her iPhone was out on the table. News of my behavior was often where the journey to being pissed off began.
Betsy used to prosecute hate crimes for the U.S. attorney. Somewhere along her trajectory, she took the advice of her Stan- ford pals and invested in social networking sites. She was soon able to quit her “codependent relationship with the govern- ment” to become a woman of passionate interests: like improv- ing her already much improved house, like the huge model railroad in her attic that only Jeep and Wade had seen, like her folksinging. Her new Shawn Colvin Signature Martin guitar was sitting in the chair that no one had offered to me.
Jeep turned toward us as she lit her cigarette. “Guess who hasn’t been to a meeting since the beginning of fucking time.”
“Didn’t I tell you that in confidence?” I asked Jeep.
“You didn’t tell me shit.” She blew smoke past me. “I knew it before you opened your mouth.”
Wade lifted his nose from the coffee. “We can go right now, dude. There’s a meeting at the club in, what, forty-five min- utes?”
“Or don’t go,” Betsy said. “And we can take bets on how long he stays out of jail.”
Apparently, Betsy knew about me and Troy Padilla. Once again I found myself giving Wade a look that would have killed a more thoughtful man.
“She got a call,” Wade said, “while you were outside. This place is like the A.A. nerve center.”
“Doesn’t anyone in A.A. have a job?” I said. “Who the hell called her?”
“I’m disappointed in both of you.” Betsy got up from the table. “You preyed on this kid. How’s that different from a drunk working over his wife? Or a guard beating a prisoner?”
Wade pointed to the scrape above his eye.
“Don’t give me that crap.” Betsy poured more coffee. “I heard you were running around making him into the guy who killed Saint Terry. He had to hit you.”
Wade dove again into his bright mug. Betsy wasn’t really talking to him anyway.
“I’ve spent half my life on the list of people who are denied basic human rights,” Betsy continued. “When we got married, they held up signs saying we were animals. I can’t be around this shit anymore.”
The freezer chugged from coughing up the cigarettes. Wade and Jeep both looked down. Then I got it.
“You think I jacked him up because he’s Mexican?” I said. “I’m not even sure he is Mexican.”
Betsy stared. Jeep stared. Wade kept his eyes on the floor. By asking the question, I had somehow proved her point.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ll kick that pigeon another time. But please, don’t tell me again how Terry’s death makes sense. That he was a junkie and that’s how junkies die. One day he was a poster boy for Southern California A.A., and the next day he was dead from a heroin overdose in a Santa Ana motel? I know some- thing happened, and I’m going to find out what.”
Betsy shrugged, not unkindly.
“Christ, Betsy,” I said. “Who goes out for one night and hits the jackpot? After fifteen years? Hell, before he got sober, he’d survived ten years of overdoses worse than that one.”
I wasn’t shouting anything that I hadn’t shouted weeks ago, after the memorial. I wasn’t shouting anything that I hadn’t shouted at myself every day since then. What was he doing in Santa Ana? Who was he with? Why did he need to borrow fifty thousand dollars from me six months before he died?
Wade continued to avoid my eyes. Betsy watched her guitar. Jeep was the only one who would look at me.
“I thought all of us had a solution,” I said to her. “One day at a time.”
“Maybe he didn’t want it anymore?” Jeep said.
A question people had asked, I was sure, but not yet to my face.
“You don’t drive to Santa Ana to kill yourself. That’s pretty easy to do right here. I’ll never believe that.”
Jeep held my eyes. She thought I should let it go. She thought I wasn’t a cop anymore, that I hadn’t been a good cop even then. But I was dying from the pretense that I was anyone but my old angry self. Three weeks was, it turned out, my limit for lying to myself without a Jack Daniel’s to chase the lie. I had to find out what happened in that motel room. If only to prove to Betsy that I didn’t assault Mexicans anymore—or whatever the hell Troy Padilla was—for no good reason. Continues...
Excerpted from The Next Right Thing by Dan Barden Copyright © 2012 by Dan Barden. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
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