tagNovels and NovellasSouthern Comfort Ch. 05

Southern Comfort Ch. 05

byholliday1960©

We all have a backstory. Learning about someone else's sheds light on what that person is all about. An attractive face is nothing without a beautiful heart to go along with it. Sometimes, getting a glimpse of what is inside a person is a difficult task to undertake. Some people don't take kindly to having you slice and dice your way into their souls.

I had made a couple of attempts at getting to know Bob's backstory, and I even thought I might have made a little headway a time or two. While Bob had claimed he didn't push me away, I felt differently in that regard. And, I had just about given up on the idea that I would ever truly know the man behind the mask.

Summer had faded into fall, and cooler temperatures prevailed. There was a climatic change of a different nature as well. Bob and I had cooled towards one another and it had only taken a split second for that to happen. He did make an honest attempt to apologize for his part in Jon's ridiculous attempt to make me choose between them.

Bob's attempt at an apology was both badly timed and badly staged. He came into my place of work with an armload of flowers, and in front of Jon, he invited me to dinner. He even went so far as to tell Jon in his own words that he could 'consider it an infringement of territory'. That turned in to a fiasco all of its own. While the two of them verbally drew down on one another, I turned the tables on them in a different way. I asked Ivan to be my dinner escort instead. I even offered to pay his going rate.

At my suggestion, Ivan, after spitting his drink down the front of himself, and looking to add to his own amusement, not only accepted my proposal, but also offered to accompany me entirely free of charge. Both Jon and Bob were set back on their heels at that little maneuver. Ironically, Ivan sided with me that they both got what they deserved, a solid smack down and a reminder that I had a mind all of my own.

Ivan and I met at his apartment after we both had gone home to change. We decided to return to the bar where we felt most comfortable. We had dinner within eyesight of Jon and Bob who were still drinking together and soothing their wounded prides. I didn't think much about it at the time, but I should have. One of the first rules you learn on the streets is to keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. If I had paid attention, I would have noticed just how close an eye they did keep on one another.

Jon was completely convinced that I had engaged Ivan's services that night even to the extent of having sex with him after dinner. I let him think what he wanted to think because it kept his focus off Bob for the moment. Ivan was kind enough to agree to remain mute on the matter, neither confirming nor denying Jon's allegations.

Of course, some degree of fallout from my dinner with Ivan was to be expected. But, there was a series of events that followed so closely together that I can only choose which one trail to follow here. The others will have to follow in due time.

It was two weeks, give or take, after my dinner with Ivan that Jon and I happened to be at the bar. It was not a planned evening and it was early. We were both simply there at that same time having a drink with a group of friends. Neither of us was dressed because we had no plans for going out that night.

It was unusually busy for that time of evening and the bar was loud. The phone rang, and a moment later, the bartender shouted at me over the din of noise. I handed Jon my glass and went to take the call.

"Hello, this is Cindy," I answered in a loud voice.

"Hey. Are you busy?" I could barely make out the words. I paused for a moment, covered my other ear and strained to hear the caller.

"Cindy, are you there?" he asked. It was Bob.

"Bob? Is that you?" I asked to confirm my surmise. I heard him sigh into the phone.

"Yeah. Hey look, I didn't catch you at a bad time, did I?" His voice was different. He sounded distant and morose.

"No. No, I was just having a drink with friends. Where are you?" I asked.

"At home." There was a long silence before he mumbled something else I couldn't quite make out.

"Can you speak up a little, Bob? I can barely hear you there's so much noise here," I shouted into the receiver.

He raised his voice so I could hear him better. "I asked if you might have a minute tonight. I'd like to talk to you about something."

I hesitated for a moment. "Hold on a second, could you?" I asked before clapping my hand over the phone and waving in Jon's direction. I got his attention and waved him over to me.

"Jon, it's Bob," I informed him. "I can't hear him very well, but it sounds like something is wrong. Could you please hold this and let me go to the hostess station so I can hear what he's saying?"

"Sure," he replied taking the receiver from me and holding it up to his ear. He waited while I slipped into the foyer and picked up the receiver on the hostess' desk. He didn't hang up on his end, however. Instead, he clapped his hand over the mouthpiece and listened in on our conversation. I don't know if Bob knew he was listening or not.

"Hey, Bob. Are you still there?" I asked.

"Yeah. Can you hear me now?" he asked in a dull tone.

"Yes. This is much better. Now, what were you saying?" I replied. Jon was still listening.

"I just wondered if you had a minute to talk," he said.

"Sure. I guess so. Are you coming over?" I asked. "I'll have you a drink waiting."

"Do you think you could come over here instead? It sounds like there's a party going on, and I'm just not up for all that right now. If not, that's cool. I don't want to interrupt anything."

I tilted my head and looked in Jon's direction. He was looking at me with a slight frown. I shrugged my shoulders at him and motioned for his input. He shrugged back and nodded at me.

"Okay, Bob. I can do that. Do you need anything that I can pick up on my way?" I asked.

"No. We just need to talk." He sounded totally depressed.

"Alright. I'll be there in five minutes then, okay?" I said. He grunted in response and I heard the phone click as the line went dead. I hung up on my end and approached Jon at the bar. "What do you think?" I asked.

He shrugged at me. "I don't know, but he sounds like shit. He didn't tell you what it was about?"

"No, you heard him. He just said he needed to talk," I explained.

"Do you want me to drive you over there?" Jon asked. I was a bit surprised by his offer. In fact, I was a lot surprised that he allowed me to go in the first place.

"No. I have my car. I'll be fine. It's only five minutes away," I said as I reached for my purse and keys. "You're sure that you're okay with this, Jon?" I asked.

He put his arms around me and gazed down at me. "The man sounds like he's in distress, honey. You do what you have to. Just call me and let me know what's up, if you don't mind. I'll either be here or at the house. And, be careful on the roads."

I stretched up on my toes and gave him a kiss. "Okay. I'll give you a call in a bit then."

A few minutes later, I arrived at Bob's. He buzzed me in through the gates and then opened the front door when I tapped lightly on it. He looked like death warmed over. Even in the dark apartment, I could see he was, as Jon had put it, 'in distress'. The smell of hard alcohol, nicotine and pot permeated the apartment as I stepped through the door and took off my shoes.

I turned to face him where he had flopped down on the couch. He hardly resembled Bob at all. He was wearing a faded t-shirt and jeans. I'd never seen Bob in jeans at all. His hair was tousled and uncombed and he had what appeared to be two days or more of stubble on his face. Bob was always clean-shaven. I don't think he had shaved since the last time I'd seen him.

I dropped my purse on the carpet by the couch and sat down beside him. He said nothing at all. I glanced about the apartment. It was unusually messy. The coffee table was cluttered with overflowing ashtrays, dirty dishes and a few empty bottles that never made it to the trash. Bob had been a busy boy over the past few days and not in a good way.

"Well, you look like shit," I commented as I cocked my head at him and studied his face in the darkened room. He didn't reply. I sighed and slapped my thighs. "Hey, look, why don't I just empty some of these ashtrays and make myself a drink? Can I get you something?" I offered.

It seemed to snap him out of his stupor. "I'm sorry. I can get you drink. What would you like?" he asked as he turned his head to look at me for the first time.

"Well, why don't I help you pick up some of this mess and we can both decide what we want when we get up to the kitchen?" I suggested as I stood up and began stacking dishes in one hand and ashtrays in the other.

"I didn't ask you to come over so you could clean my fucking apartment. I have a maid for that," he slurred at me. Bob was some kind of fucked up. His eyes were glassy and his speech was slow and deliberate. I'd had the same look a few times myself. I was sympathetic to the condition.

"How long has it been since your maid was here, Bob? It looks like she's on vacation," I admonished him.

"I threw her out," he snarled back at me.

"Well, that would explain the mess to a degree," I said. "I assume you have a coffee pot somewhere up there?" I asked tossing my head in the direction of the loft. He nodded but didn't reply. "Do you mind if I plunder around a little bit in your kitchen?" I asked.

"Help yourself," he said waving his hand in the air. He made no move to attempt to accompany me upstairs.

I took what I could carry in my hands and made my way to the loft. I set the dishes down on the counter and searched for the light switch. Once I had lighting, the rest was a cinch. I went about scraping dishes and rinsing them before I loaded the dishwasher. I emptied the ashtrays, gave them a quick rinse and dried them with a towel. Then, I searched the kitchen for coffee and filters. In no time, the coffee was brewing. I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.

I made two more trips downstairs before I had cleared the table and made the living room a little more respectable looking.

Bob's only comment was, "You're wiping my fucking furniture with a wet rag?" as I wiped up the ashes and crumbs with a dishcloth.

"Who's fucking this mule, big boy? You just sit over there and hold the ears," I snipped back at him. He grunted in response and didn't lodge a second complaint.

A few minutes later, I delivered a tray with a pot of hot coffee, a bottle of whiskey and a set of filled cream and sugar containers to the living room. I sat down and began pouring. I stuck a full mug of coffee, light on whiskey, in his hand.

"It's hot!" I warned just as he took a slurp and jerked his head back in response. "I tried to tell you it's hot," I said shaking my head as he stared at the mug with a scowl. "Did you burn the fur off your tongue?" I asked.

He rolled his eyes and set the mug on the table. "Sometimes, I can't even understand what you're saying, do you know that?" he asked with a slight smile. "It's like you speak a different language."

"Now, how can you sit there and say that to me when I've heard you speak Coonass and Italian?" I asked.

"I speak a little Spanish, too," he informed me. "But, I don't speak that shit you talk most of the time," he said shaking his head at me. "Fucking a mule and holding the ears! What the fuck does that even mean anyway?" he asked with a snort of contempt.

"I'm sure if you think about it long enough, you'll figure it out. Besides, you didn't summon me here to give you language lessons. Now, what's up?" I asked.

"I summoned you?" he asked looking confused for a moment. "Oh, yeah. I guess I did invite you over, didn't I?" He sat silent a moment while I reached in my purse, lit a cigarette and handed it to him. I lit one for myself and sat there staring at him, waiting for him to remember why he had called me in the first place.

"I just wanted you to know that I hate you," he said as he studied the burning ember on the end of the cigarette with undue interest.

"You hate me?" I asked taken by surprise at his declaration.

"Yep," he nodded. "I hate what you've done to me. I hate what my life has become since I met you. I can't deal with it anymore. I thought you should know that."

"You're going to have to have another drink or something before I can understand what you're trying to tell me, Bob. I'm afraid one of us is too fucking sober, and the other one is too fucking drunk for us to meet anywhere in the middle. Drink your coffee."

This time, he made an attempt to cool the coffee by blowing on it before he took a small sip. He looked totally ripped as he eyed me over the rim of the mug. "Do you know who I am?" he asked suspiciously. "I mean, do you know who I really am, Cindy?" he repeated.

I shook my head and arched an eyebrow at him. Now, this was a refreshing switch, I thought.

"Well, let me tell you, just so you'll know. I am..." he stopped suddenly and let out a long breath. "I am a fucked-up mother-fucker right now!" he snorted as he set the mug aside again and made a swipe through his hair with one hand.

For one moment, I thought Bob was going to fill in some of the blanks. It was obvious he had second thoughts about doing that. He suddenly sat back and looked at me. "Did you know that I pulled two tours in 'Nam?" he asked.

"No, Bob, I didn't know that. You've never mentioned it before," I replied smoothly as I sipped my coffee. It wasn't the first time I'd had conversations with men who had served in Vietnam. It wasn't the first time I'd seen the pride and the pain in their eyes when they talked about it either.

"I was there in the thick of it. Laos. Cambodia. I watched a lot of men die," he said. "I was SS. Do you know what that means?" he asked cocking his head and squinting at me.

"It means you're fucking lucky to be sitting here talking to me right now," I said coolly. "It also means you're one of the elite. Special Services."

"How do you know that? You were just a kid during all of that," he said with surprise. He didn't wait for me to answer. "I've seen some shit and I've done some shit. I've survived a lot of pure shit, but you're killing me right now. You have single-handedly done what the entire US government couldn't do," he slurred at me once again. Bob appeared to be talking complete nonsense, but even nonsense has its kernel of truth.

"Well, Bob, I'm not sure I know what you mean. What has all of that got to do with me?" I asked gently.

"I told you. You're killing me, Cindy," he repeated while staring at the floor for a moment. "Come with me. I want to show you something," he said as he slowly staggered to his feet. He motioned for me to follow him into the bedroom. I stood up and tagged along behind him.

He paused to turn on a light then he crossed to the closet and flung open the door. His closet looked like a carefully coordinated and organized fashion showroom. He pushed back a row of suit coats and he knelt down before a safe. He fumbled with the lock for a moment before he opened it. He withdrew something small and stood up again.

He propped himself against the row of suits and thrust the item at me. I turned it over in my hands. It was a framed photograph of a woman. I studied her face for a moment. Bob suddenly brushed past me and headed back to the living room. He flung himself down on the couch again and propped his palm against his chin saying nothing.

I sat back down beside him and took a second look at the photo. She was young, blonde and very attractive. "Who is she?" I asked somewhat puzzled by his gesture.

"My wife," he said abruptly behind his palm.

"You're married?" I asked trying to remain calm and hide my disappointment.

He reached out and took the photo from me. He sat looking at it for a moment before he responded. "I was. It was a long time ago," he shrugged. He ran his finger thoughtfully over the woman's face.

"You're divorced," I said flatly.

He tossed the photo face down on the table making me wince for fear it would break the glass. "She's dead," he said sharply.

I felt the breath leave my body in a rush. "Oh. I'm sorry. I didn't know," I said softly.

"Give me a cigarette," he demanded. I handed him the pack and he fumbled with lighting his before I lit my own. I waited for him to speak again. "Would you like to know how she died?" he asked. His voice sounded detached and cold. It was a rhetorical question.

"We married when I came home on leave after basic training. We were young. There wasn't time to start a family before I shipped out. Later, I was home between enlistments and we had never had a honeymoon, so I decided to take her somewhere to try to make up for that. We went to the beach for a few days," he paused to clear his throat as he recalled the past.

"We were there, you know, swimming and playing. She was feeding the birds, throwing them the crusts we had left over from lunch. I was heading back to the water when I turned around to look at her and she was just lying there in the sand. She wasn't moving. I don't remember how I got to her, but I remember holding her in my arms when she died. She died before the ambulance could get there.

"I've picked up what pieces were left of some good buddies of mine, but I'd never looked at someone's eyes when they died before. They said it was one of those freak things. A blood vessel in her brain just burst for no reason," he explained without any apparent emotion. He held up one fist and made the gesture along with sound effects of an explosion. Crude perhaps, but effective.

I was completely speechless. I didn't know what to say in response, so I said nothing at all. I couldn't even begin to comprehend what watching someone you love die would be like, or how it would fuck with a man like Bob. This was over the top crazy. At that particular moment, I was wishing I had never answered the phone earlier. As incredible as it sounded, I could tell from the look on his face he wasn't making it up.

"I think that's why I reenlisted. I thought surely to God, if I went back, I'd get lucky and I'd die over there. But, I came home without a scratch," he concluded. He cleared his throat again and looked directly at me. "For sixteen years, I've never even dated another woman. That's why I hate you, Cindy.

"For sixteen years, I've never looked at another real woman. I hire hookers for sex when I feel the need for one, but I don't date other women. The day I met you, I put her picture away. I couldn't stand to look at it anymore. Every time I looked at it, I thought about you. You're the first woman I've met that makes me forget about her," he said dully.

What he was saying rang true. Jon and Ivan both had told me they had never seen Bob with a woman. Ivan had told me that Bob hired some of his associates, but he never even saw the same hooker twice. I buried my face in my hands and tried to comprehend what he was saying. "Bob, I don't know what to say. I mean, what the hell am I supposed to say? Do you know how crazy that is?" I asked looking back at him for some sort of answer.

"You don't have to say anything. I just wanted you to know," he shrugged.

"Can I ask you something, Bob?" I ventured. He nodded. "Do I remind you of her in some way?"

He laughed a little sardonic laugh. "Not in any way. You're nothing like her. There was never anyone like her and I've never met anyone like you. But, you don't remind me of her." I was thankful for that small favor at least.

"So, can I ask you something now?" he said after a long silence between us. "Where the hell do we go from here?"

"I don't know, Bob. I really don't know. You're going to have to give me a minute, because I'm just blown away right now," I said at a complete loss for words.

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