PHYLLIS SOUZA - BAD CHOICES
Frances, a forty-three-year-old divorcee, pushed through the saloon doors of the 276 Club, a favorite among locals. It had its walls plastered with faded Kentucky Bourbon posters, dusty tin liquor plaques, and a backlit Budweiser sign hanging above the bar. Some might consider it a dive, but to Frances, it was a place to have fun.
Sarah, a friend, sat alone at a table near the back, she waved to get Frances' attention, "Over here."
Returning the wave, Frances sauntered toward the table, "You ordered yet?"
"I was waiting for you."
"What would you like? I'm buying." Frances pulled out a chair and sat.
"A glass of red wine, thanks."
"Well, I need a martini." Frances signaled for service.
Jim, a new bartender around fifty, came over. He looked at Frances, raised a brow, and smiled.
About an hour later, Jim, leaving a co-worker to look after customers, strolled toward the jukebox. He shoved in some quarters, and the lyrics from "Now and Forever" sprang from the speakers. With a half grin on his face, he strutted over to Frances and offered his hand. "Would you like to dance?"
After the slow dance, he showed her back to her table. Reaching out to brush a strand of hair away from her face, he thanked her and asked for her number. She dug around in her handbag for a pen. She wrote it down on a napkin.
Looking at Sarah, she fanned her chest with her hand, "My god, he makes my heart race."
"That sure was fast," Sarah remarked.
A couple of weeks passed before Jim called and asked Frances for a date. He told her that he was retired from the NBA and that while refereeing a game at Madison Square Garden he collided with a cameraman and injured his leg.
"You seem fine. You don't limp or anything," Frances said.
"Yeah, but I sustained permanent nerve damage. Get bad cramps in my calf. I've got a lawsuit pending.”
After a couple of dates, Jim began going to Frances' home nearly every-day. He brought takeout food, and bottles of wine. He even left love notes hidden under throw pillows on the couch.
It didn't take long before Frances started going to the club every night. She sat at the bar and waited for Jim to get off work. Then he'd follow her home in his old '69 Chevy while she drove a new '86 Oldsmobile.
When he was about to get evicted from his apartment, for non-payment of rent, Jim asked Frances, "Can I stay with you?"
"Yes. Of course, you can stay with me."
So, with a half-dozen polo shirts, a couple of Oxford weave trousers, and a pair of Michael Jordan shoes, he moved in.
Frances married Jim.
Hmmm, whose car is that? I don't recognize it? Frances pulled in next to it. She got out of her car and walked into the house.
Jim greeted her with a smile. "Hi, I've been waiting for you to come home."
"Whose car is that in the driveway?" She put her keys on the end table.
"It could be mine. I brought it home for a test drive. Isn't it a beauty?"
"Married two months and you already want a new car?"
"Don't get upset. Come with me to Chase Chevrolet. If you don't like the deal, we'll leave."
"Alright—but I'm not paying for it." Frances raised a brow in disapproval.
A salesman came running over when Frances and Jim entered the showroom. He extended his hand to Frances. "You must be Jim's wife. Come to my office. I've written up a deal on the Impala. I need to go over a few things with you before we can seal it."
His office was a cubicle. The sales contract was complete, except for the name of the buyer.
"Jim tells me he has the two thousand to put down. Gets $500 a month disability from an injury and earns enough money tending bar to make the payments. Only one problem, his credit, it's bad. However, if we put the loan in your name, he can buy it." The man smiled. Frances noticed his nicotine-stained teeth.
"I don't like this," Frances said. She gazed at Jim's face. "Let's go."
"Come on. I only need your signature."
"You said if I didn't like the deal, we could leave. Now, I find out that I'm the one who'll be buying it. I don't like it. Not one little bit."
"I'm embarrassed driving around in a piece of junk. I only want you to be proud of your husband." He reached over and touched her shoulder, "Please, Frances."
"Well, if you promise not to miss a single payment?"
"I promise." Jim crossed his heart.
Frances signed the deal.
Frances and Sarah were having lunch at McDonald's. Sarah poked a straw into a paper cup filled with crushed ice and coke. "Frances, I heard a rumor. I don't know if I should tell you?"
"Oh, what was it?" Frances picked up a fry, dipped it in ketchup and popped it into her mouth.
Sarah sucked some soda, looked around, and lowered her voice. "Well, it might not be true, but I heard, Jim tried to kill himself."
"What? Why would he do something like that?"
"I don't know, but word has it, a couple of years ago, he drove his car into a tree and was committed to a mental hospital."
"Why are you telling me this?" Frances, appetite gone, pushed her fries aside. "I don't believe it."
"I just thought you should know."
"Let's get out of here." Frances slid out of the booth, leaving her food on the table. Sarah did the same.
Frances sat and rocked in a wicker chair. A car door slammed. The security door creaked open. Jim walked into the house.
"Why are you sitting there and not fixing dinner?" he asked.
"Dinner can wait. I heard a rumor. It's probably a lie, but—"
"First, I've got something to tell you. I got a letter from an attorney today. The NBA wants to settle my lawsuit."— He paused. "I need a beer." He talked while walking toward the kitchen, "I have to go to New York."
Frances rose from her chair, rubbing the back of her neck. Don't mention the rumor.
"Did you hear what I said?" Jim asked while taking a Bud out the refrigerator.
"I heard. You're going to New York."
"Yes, and you're coming with me. Everything's paid, except for your plane ticket."
"Fine, I'll pay it."
Jim returned to the living room, "What was it you wanted to tell me?" He set his drink on the dining room table, pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, and lit up.
"It wasn't important." Frances forced a smile. "I bet you're happy. New York is exciting."
"Exciting? I hate Manhattan. Whores and basketball players, I should know." Jim smirked. "Hell, I was propositioned more than once. The sluts even knocked on my hotel door."
"That's terrible. Why say something like that?"
"Because it's true. Hell, I made extra money, doing what I like to do best." He laughed, took a drag, and then blew smoke.
Frances screwed her face in disgust. What kind of mess did I get into?
Frances walked toward the kitchen. She paused on the threshold as Jim threw a handful of pain pills into his mouth and washed them down with a glass of water.
"I want a divorce," Frances said.
"What? You want a divorce," Jim repeated. "Well, you know what?" His voice rose. "I don't." He stormed out of the room.
For ten minutes, she stood beside the sink, looking out the window. The sun had gone down. The room had grown dark.
The kitchen light flicked on. Frances turned. Jim stood there with a smirk on his face.
"Now what? You got what you wanted, didn't you? A wife with an income," she said.
"You think you've got it all figured out, don't you?" He stepped closer.
She attempted to move away, but he grabbed her wrist. With both hands, he twisted.
"Stop. Please. You're hurting me." Her eyes flooded with tears, and her body contorted with pain.
He freed one of his hands and brought her to his chest. Her head pointed away from him.
Thoughts sped through her mind — rotten, rotten, rotten son-of-bitch.
With her brain spiraling out of control, her heart sank.
He spun her around, still keeping hold, he pinned Frances's arm behind her back.
"Please—Jim—you're hurting me. Let go."
"If you try anything funny, you'll regret it."
"Okay, okay, you can stay. I...I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean it."
Jim threw her aside. "That's better." He turned and marched out of the room.
Frances rubbed her wrist; the skin was red and painful.
The front door slammed. "Thank God," she muttered, shaking her head. She slumped against the counter.
A few minutes later, Frances staggered to their bedroom. When she looked at the bed, she'd have to share with Jim. A sour taste jumped from her gut into her throat. She started to shake.
In the hallway, she leaned against the wall and reached above her shoulder for the switch. The light turned off. She slid to the floor. "I'm tired. I'm so tired." Sitting on the carpet, with her face cupped in her hands, she sobbed.
It was three in the morning. In bed, Jim snored louder and louder. Frances couldn't stand it any longer. She rose, put on a robe, padded into the living room and sprawled out on the couch. She pulled down an orange afghan and comforted herself with its warmth and remained there until dawn.
"What's the problem? Rough night?" Jim snickered. "Get up and put on a pot of coffee. I'm meeting my buddies at eight-thirty to play golf."
Frances knelt on top of a brown sofa cushion, facing the driveway she peeked through the curtains. Jim's breath met the cold while he wiped the light frost off the windshield.
She turned, flopped down, and waited to hear his car back out.
Frances poured some coffee, buttered a piece of toast and sat at the kitchen table to thumb through the phone book for an attorney. She took a sip of strong coffee. When I get back from New York, I'll call—but—first I have to get rid of his car.
Jim's fingers were white around the steering wheel. He glanced over his shoulder and quickly changed lanes. The green sign on the side of the freeway read, "San Francisco Airport." He pressed his foot down on the accelerator and took the next off-ramp. As Frances' heart pounded, she yelled, "Watch out! You're driving too fast."
He rear-ended a Chevy van waiting to turn.
Jim got out of the car, and so did the other driver. Frances stayed glued to her seat.
In the glow of the headlights, Jim and the other motorist, a woman, inspected the vehicles. They shook hands. Jim got back into the car. "No problem," he said.
“All, rise!" The court clerk yelled as he approached the bench. The assembly stood.
A grey-haired judge entered the courtroom. He raised a mallet and slammed it onto a wooden block. "Court is convened."
At the defendant's table, Jim sat with his hands folded. Frances, in the gallery, was directly behind him.
"James Streight," a bailiff called out.
Jim pushed away from the table. He stood facing the judge.
The judge peered over his glasses, "You can sit." He cleared his throat and rubbed his chin. "I see from the settlement agreement, that you've been offered twenty thousand dollars from the National Basket Association for a leg injury you sustained at Madison Square Garden in 1972. Is that correct?"
"Yes, your Honor."
"You do understand if you accept this, you'll be giving up your monthly disability check and the medical insurance covering your injury?"
"I understand," Jim answered.
"Do you have any income?"
"Yes, your Honor. My wife. She makes thirty-grand a year. And I'm covered under her health insurance."
The judge deliberated a few seconds." I award you the twenty-thousand-dollar settlement." The total duration of the hearing was less than five minutes.
"Thank you." Jim pulled away from the table.
The judge smacked the gavel. "Next case."
Jim raked his fingers through his hair. He looked back at Frances and then strolled toward swinging gate of the railing. He waved his right hand and motioned to the door. Frances rose from her chair and followed him out.
Back in the hotel room, Jim boasted, "I didn't injure my leg refereeing a game. I got hurt playing baseball. Because I didn't have medical insurance, I blamed it on the fall."
Frances narrowed her brows. "What do you mean you didn't have insurance, you were a referee with the NBA?”
"I was a scab referee—a lousy fill in. When the referees went out on strike during a playoff game, I got called in.
"What kind of a person are you? Don't answer that, I already know."
"Fucking bitch. You don't know shit."
Several weeks later, after they returned home, Jim said, "Frances, I'm going salmon fishing for three days. I'll leave my car in front of John’s house. We're taking his motor home."
"Where are you going?"
"Humboldt County, along the Eel River."
Hmmm— he's going fishing. Two days. His car parked at the curb.
The next day, before dawn, Jim left the house. Frances waited an hour, then picked up the phone and called Sarah.
"Sarah, I need a favor. Can you come over?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"Jim went on a fishing trip." She bit her lower lip. "Sarah, I'm so nervous. I need to take his car."
"Because I'm filing for a divorce, but first, I have to get rid of his car. I'm on the hook for the damn thing. If I don't do it now, I may never have another chance. I'm desperate. I need your help — please, Sarah."
"I'll be right over."
Sarah took Frances to pick up the car. Frances hid it in her neighbor's garage. She had to figure out what to do next.
She paced and prayed as she contemplated her dilemma: My car. His car. Both depreciated. Think. There's got to be an answer.
And there was. Frances put $ 10,000 down and traded in both vehicles for a new Cadillac.
When Jim returned from his fishing trip, he found his clothes stuffed in a black garbage bag on the front porch. The next day, Frances filed for divorce.
One year later, Jim married again. His second wife, Desdemona, didn't take his abuse and blew his brains out---exactly want Frances wanted to do.
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