It’s an old-fashioned bar, the kind with thickly varnished gleaming wood, big rounded edges to run your hands over, and a mirrored back wall obscured by rows of liquor bottles; long like a bowling alley, it runs the entire length of the restaurant. At one time Chez Tony had been the place to go in Pompano Beach. Snow birds flocked there announcing their winter’s arrival, and locals clung to its barstools all through the endless rain-drenched, hot and humid hurricane season. Tony, like his father before him, served the best steaks and lobsters around. When business started falling off, he changed the menu to chicken wings, burgers and fries. Fickle Floridians had moved on to greener northern pastures in Boca Raton and Del Rey. Today the only thing left gleaming about Tony’s is the bar. Tony’s still around, but along with the ribeye and escargot, the well-heeled are long gone. It’s locals now, locals and budget-conscious tourists who frequent this small strip of seedy beach. The tables aren’t filled anymore, but every evening there’s not a stool to be had, and the sound level is as high as a rock concert. Cocktail glasses and bottled beers clink, people talk loud and fast as if they haven’t spoken to anyone all day, and a vintage jukebox blasts rock and roll from the sixties and seventies. Around five o’clock the feeling that anything is possible filters through the cigarette-choked air; by eight, it evaporates as the forlorn stand, drop some cash down on the bar, say their good-byes (or not), and head back to tight, depressing apartments or motel rooms, completely airless aside from the A/C.
Shortly after five, a pretty woman with long dark hair strolls over to a bald man with a beer belly parked at one end of the bar. She’s thirty-five, give or take, with a great smile, the type that can take a lot of men on a trip. It’s too noisy to hear what she’s saying, but the old man turns away from her, and she quickly moves on, past a pair of tourists throwing back tequila shots and eating peanuts from a communal dish. She stops behind a younger man wearing a baseball cap turned backwards over dirty, dirty-blonde hair. He looks like a guy who’s ready for anything except, apparently, her. She continues down the bar, biding her time, knowing her man is there somewhere if she keeps moving, talking, smiling.
Barry, a regular at Tony’s, just came from work. He’s been in sales for years, sold almost everything, but business is bad. Barry’s a terrific salesman, a natural, but you can’t get blood from a stone. The economy’s been in the toilet, especially around here. He nurses a glass of red house wine. He’s an alcoholic and shouldn’t be drinking at all, but denial and no longer attending meetings has given him permission to drink wine. As long as he steers clear of vodka he’s okay, that’s his new mantra. He holds the glass in his hand, loves the feel of it. He’d gone four years without a drink, every day a struggle. His most recent girlfriend was a wine drinker. Barry promised himself a drink with her last New Year’s Eve. One glass of wine. One glass to last him until the next New Year. But within a week he was back to drinking every day. Just wine. No vodka.
The woman sees Barry as soon as he sits down. He looks a lot better than the other men. Must have been handsome when he was younger, she thinks. Could even have a few bucks. Anyway, she’s done worse, a lot worse. She checks herself in an opening in the mirror, fluffs her hair, throws on a smile. Walking with purpose, she goes straight for him, as he raises the glass to his lips. He doesn’t know what’s about to hit him. Helpless prey. She knows she looks good, that makes it easy even after being blown off by the other two. She squeezes in between Barry and an obese woman with white hair.
“Hey,” she says.
Holding fast to the stem of his glass, he says, “Hey, you.” He smiles. No doubt about it, this guy was and still is handsome. Tall, dark, and handsome with the kind of deep tan no longer in style, and lots of thick gold jewelry around his neck and wrists.
“I’m going home with you tonight,” she says.
Bingo. He was having a rotten day, but he’s hit the jackpot. This one is a looker, and it beats another late night playing online poker.
He takes a sip, a longer one this time. “Buy me one of those?” she says.
“You mean what you said?”
“About going home with you?”
“I never say anything I don’t mean.” She smiles slyly. “I’m not like the other girls.”
“What’s your name?” He finishes his wine, and motions the bartender to bring them two more.
“Candy,” she whispers, smiling like she’s the one who hit the jackpot.
“Unbelievable,” he says.
* * *
Barry rents a one-bedroom in a high-rise condo a block from the beach. His old girlfriend would have done anything to move into it with him, but he was adamant in his refusals. “I need my space,” he’d say again and again. “You can stay over two nights a week. That’s my limit.” Then he’d tell her she wasn’t his type, the long-legged, gorgeous, blonde-hair type, but she was so crazy in love with him she held on thinking that in time he’d change his mind.
Back at his apartment with Candy, he doesn’t tell her about Jennifer. They don’t have much time to talk about anything because after excusing herself to go to the bathroom, Candy comes out wearing a screaming red Victoria’s Secret bra and matching thong. She’s the first woman he’s been with since Jen.
The next morning Candy’s up before he is. Coffee’s on and pancake batter fills a chipped yellow bowl on the gray Formica countertop she scrubbed clean. Barry walks into the kitchen. She’s nothing like Jen, but he knows what it means when a woman makes breakfast in your apartment.
“Don’t get any of those funny domestic ideas,” he says, motioning to the batter. “I’m just out of a three-year relationship.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I’m hungry, that’s all.”
Several weeks go by. Barry sees Candy almost every night. They meet at Tony’s or sometimes he picks her up after work. She lives with a friend of hers, a rough-looking guy everyone calls Schemer. It’s a while before Barry discovers that Schemer got his name in jail. Selling drugs, assaults, home invasion robberies, mom-and-pop store hold-ups. Schemer doesn’t like nine-to-five jobs; he’d rather make one dollar illegally than two legal, and he always has a plan, an angle. He’d rob his own grandmother. Candy lives in a small bedroom in the small one-story house he bought years before for a song. She earns her keep by cleaning his house and doing his laundry. She doesn’t like work either, but doesn’t mind cleaning. She picks up spending money by cleaning a few apartments nearby. She tells Barry she’s an administrative assistant, that she lost her job and is looking for another.
Candy starts leaving things at Barry’s, small things. A pair of jeans, makeup, moisturizer, underwear, an old robe. What Barry doesn’t know is that she doesn’t have much more than that. No furniture, no dishes, no photos, no books, no past. After thirty-nine years, all she owns can fit into two suitcases. She moved in on Barry without him even knowing. His two-day limit stretched to three, then four, then five. She goes back to Schemer’s only to appease Barry and to clean.
One afternoon Barry and Candy sit on his terrace sweltering in the hot ocean breeze. He’s on his fourth glass of red. Candy’s wasted on Bloody Marys.
“When are you going to Schemer’s?”
“Does that mean we’re living together?”
Candy smiles, reaches over and rubs the inside of his thigh. Barry leans back in the cheap white plastic chair, closes his eyes, and sighs. What Jen couldn’t accomplish in three years, Candy accomplished in under a month, and she’s not even his type.
Like every couple, they get into a routine. Candy cleans the apartment and does the laundry; Barry goes to work. Business is still bad, and his job hangs by a thread. If he doesn’t get home by five, Candy calls him continuously. She calls him all day long. He stops hanging out at the pool downstairs (she says she hates sun and hates the people in his building), stops seeing his old friends (she doesn’t like them, they’re not to be trusted), stops flying to New Jersey to see his kids and grandchildren (she accuses Barry of loving them more than her), or driving to Daytona to see his sister (ditto about love). He spends all his spare time with Candy. Once a week Schemer comes over. Candy goes downstairs and buys a pepperoni/sausage pizza and a few six-packs from the Italian place around the corner with money Barry gives her. They drink late into the night, until Schemer drags himself off the shabby gray couch, stumbles out to find his car, and drives home. Two nights a week Barry runs a poker game at a bar a few miles inland, supplementing his dwindling income with cash. Candy calls him every ten or fifteen minutes while he’s there. She accuses him of liking the women card players, of screwing them. She rages on like a lunatic when he gets home. She won’t let up.
Their fights escalate. Her life’s indignities swirl round her brain like an Alaskan blizzard; once she gets going she can’t calm down. Barry doesn’t know how to handle it. It lasts until she passes out from exhaustion and booze. After they’ve been together a few months, she starts punching him. Hard. He’s known a lot of women, but no one like this. She seems to be capable of anything. He doesn’t know what to do. Then she starts using household items as weapons: candlesticks, pots and pans, shoes. Sometimes it leaves marks on him. When anyone asks how it happened he makes up stories. A favorite is that he lost his balance and fell down. He’s had equilibrium problems in the past, especially when he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day. After a while he hits back. Not always, just sometimes. In the morning she acts like nothing happened. She makes him eat a big breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast before he leaves for work. If the fight was particularly bad, she has dinner waiting for him when he gets home, something she picks up at a local restaurant or supermarket. She doesn’t own a car, and lost her license the year before; it wasn’t her first DUI. Sometimes she cries like she’ll never stop. Her face turns red, and mascara, if she’s wearing any, drips down her cheeks. She tells him how she was put up for adoption with her twin sister, how her sister got adopted, how she never did. She tells him about the foster homes, the foster parents who beat her, what she remembers about the rapes. Tears mix with anger, and Barry tries to understand. He has a loving family; she’s been through hell. He stops hitting back. Her attacks get worse. Barry’s fading.
One night he gets home from his poker game and the apartment is oddly dark and still. His heart beats so fast he thinks surely he will die of a heart attack. He walks through the living room. She’s not there, and he can see she’s not on the terrace. He enters the bedroom with caution; she’s snuck up on him before, leaping out from the closet or behind the door, smacking him with whatever’s handy. He’s shaking now exactly like he does when he needs a drink. Only it’s not a drink he needs. Then he sees her lying on the bed, on top of the gray and white comforter his sister bought him. She’s wearing the same shorts and T-shirt she wore that morning. She’s fast asleep. He gets closer and watches her face in the moonlight shining through the window. She looks beautiful, such a pretty face at peace. Barry gently covers her with his robe, then goes to change out of his clothes in the bathroom. Life is perfect for now.
The next morning Candy’s in the kitchen making breakfast. After showering, Barry goes to his closet to get dressed. He does a double take. There are no clothes in his closet. He races into the kitchen, a beach towel wrapped around his waist.
“Where the hell are my clothes?”
She doesn’t answer, doesn’t look at him. She continues frying the eggs.
He grabs her by her shoulders. “What the hell have you done?”
She motions toward the terrace.
“What the f…” He hurries through the living room and out the sliding glass door. He looks twelve stories down. In the scraggly bushes below are blotches of color. Sometime the night before, after repeated phone accusations that he’s been having sex with other women, she threw all his clothes and shoes over the terrace railing. Nothing had been perfect at all.
On his way to work later that morning, Barry promises himself that it’s over for him and Candy. He’s had enough, more than enough. He makes plans in his head to go right home after his last appointment in West Palm and have her pack her stuff. Then he’ll drive her to Schemer’s. He promises himself this all day long. By the time he parks his car in the stifling underground garage he’s nervous as a cornered cat. Going up in the elevator he taps his foot without let up on the marble floor. The noise echoes in the small space. He chews his finger as he walks down the hall, then stands in his doorway, keys in hand, paralyzed, afraid to go inside. A neighbor walks by. “Barry, where you been? The guys all ask for you at the pool.”
Barry turns, forces a smile. “Bob, good to see you. I’ll be there this weekend.” Barry had been the life of the party, at the pool, at work, wherever he happened to be.
Bob continues down the hallway just as the apartment door swings open. Candy’s wearing a short pink apron with nothing underneath.
“Hurry,” she says laughing. “Someone will see me.”
Barry quickly slams the door behind him. He doesn’t say anything, he’s too angry.
“You’re still mad at me,” she says, pouting. “How can you stay mad at your very best girl?” She hands him a tall glass of vodka on the rocks she’s been hiding behind her back. It has a piece of lime on the rim and condensation coats the outside of the glass. Barry holds it at arm’s length. It’s an apparition, a welcome, old, gorgeous apparition. He hasn’t had a vodka in four and a half years. He thinks about going in the kitchen and dumping it down the sink. Candy smiles, takes hold of his free hand. He doesn’t smile as he raises the glass to his mouth, presses it against his lips. He closes his eyes. One vodka. What harm can it do?
* * *
“I’m really sorry, Barry,” his boss says. “There’s no business out there. I’ve got to let a couple of you go.”
Barry had a few at lunch so the impact of losing his job doesn’t hit right away. He clears some things from his desk, hurries outside, puts the top of his convertible down, and takes off onto Federal Highway. By the time he gets home, reality surfaces. He goes straight to the kitchen, chucks a few ice cubes into a glass, then fills it with Gordon’s. He’s sweating badly. The A/C must be on the brink again. Candy walks over to him. Her words are slurred. “Hey, baby, what are you doing home so early?”
“Better get used to it. I lost my job.”
“Who needs money?”
He gulps his drink. “I still have two poker nights. I’ll get more. And in a couple of months Social Security kicks in. I guess it’ll be okay.” He tops off his drink with more vodka.
* * *
Barry can’t remember exactly what happened the first time Candy used a knife on him. He never told anyone about it, and even while it was happening, it was a blur to him. They’d been drinking all day. It had been a while since he’d lost his job, but the Social Security checks were auto-deposited every month in his B of A account, and he was making a nice piece of change with the poker nights; he had three now. He allowed himself two vodkas while he worked during the games, but held back letting loose until he got home. The nights Schemer came over they did pills too. Schemer and Candy liked anything tranquilizing: Oxycontin, Ativan, Vicodin, Xanax, whatever Schemer could buy or steal. Barry’d never done drugs, but he was a quick study. So that night after Schemer left, they were both loaded and got into a big argument. It was the usual stuff, about Barry screwing other women, not loving her. At some point Candy must have gone into the kitchen because Barry was sitting on the couch and when he looked up she was standing in front of him holding a knife. That was when things really became blurry. Maybe he tried to grab her wrist to get the knife, maybe she lunged forward too fast for him to react, maybe it was all a terrible accident. Whatever it was, his leg was sliced open. There was a lot of blood. He remembered driving to Holy Cross Emergency, his leg wrapped in a towel, and getting twenty-plus stitches. Candy stood by, concerned, as a young woman holding a clipboard asked him how it happened. Apparently they had to determine if there’d been domestic abuse. Barry said he walked into the jagged, broken edge of his glass cocktail table. He laughed and called himself clumsy. The woman looked skeptical, but took her notes and walked out. Candy looked relieved, and gave him a big kiss. She didn’t want trouble.
* * *
Hurricane season rolls around again. The screaming and banging coming from unit 1214 is driving the neighbors nuts. A few times each week someone calls the police. Several of the owners set up an emergency board meeting. Leo Weinstein, president of the condo association, chairs the gathering in the meeting room adjacent to the lobby.
“This morning I spoke to Rochelle Brown, owner of 1214, and she tells me that woman is not on the lease. She has no business being here, and we are well within our rights to bar her from our building. And if Rochelle doesn’t comply and inform Barry, her sole legal tenant, we’re going to fine her until she does and seek other legal recourse.”
A short stocky woman with a face like a bulldog stands. “The police came to their apartment three times last week alone. I live across the hall, and I can tell you that it’s a crime, what’s going on in there. And a disgrace. My nerves are so bad I had to go to my doctor. We owners have rights!”
A thin, gray-haired man rises. “I spoke to the cops. They know the woman. Candy. They told me they’ve been through this same scenario with her at other condos. And last Monday they had to escort her out of Chez Tony. Yelling, fighting, drunk as a skunk. They call her a stray dog. She’s giving our condo a bad name. Could even lower property values if enough people get wind of it. She has to go.”
Late in the day, Barry gets a call from his landlord, Rochelle. She tells him Candy is banned from the building, and that if he doesn’t get her out within twenty-four hours she’ll sue him personally and throw them both out of her condo.
From the side of the conversation she hears, Candy knows what’s going on; she’s been through this before. She sits on the floor, arms wrapped around her legs, big blue eyes looking up at Barry.
“It’s over, babe,” he says. “Go pack. I’ll drive you to Schemer’s first thing in the morning. You can’t come back here, not even for a visit.”
She stares straight ahead. Barry goes into the kitchen for another drink.
That night Barry passes out on the couch after swallowing two of Schemer’s Vicodins and chasing them with a quart of Gordon’s. When he wakes near noon Candy is gone.
“Saves me a trip,” he says aloud. But he looks sad as he walks around the silent apartment. He dresses quickly, and heads to Tony’s.
Sitting at the bar, he orders a Bud. The bartender looks at him funny, like he’s got something on his mind.
“Anything you want to tell me, Mike?” Barry says.
“What about her?”
“Eric was here early this morning.”
“The guy who works at the pizza place.”
“Oh, yeah. I know him. That shit is barely edible.”
“He was with Candy. She had a couple of shopping bags with her. They went to his place in Deerfield.”
“There’s something else.” Mike hesitates. “Eric said if you try to get in touch with Candy you’ll be in big trouble. He said to stay away from her.”
“She ran off with the pizza man.”
“You got that right. Sorry, buddy.”
“Maybe it’s for the best,” Barry says, but doesn’t sound like he means it.
Before the week is out, Barry’s cell rings while he’s lying on a lounge at the pool working on his tan.
He sits up and instantly knows he is screwed.
“Barry, can you hear me? It’s Candy. I’m in trouble. You’ve got to come get me.”
It doesn’t take much convincing. He picks Candy up at a Deerfield strip mall to start over again.
Back at his building, Barry parks in the garage. He turns to Candy. “Don’t say a word. Not one word or you’re out of here.”
Things ended real bad with the pizza man. Candy has bruises on her arms and left leg, a black eyes brews on her unwashed face, and her long thick hair is knotted and disheveled. Barry walks to her side of the car. “Hurry,” he hisses, grabbing her arm and leading her to a back staircase no one usually uses. They climb thirteen flights. When they’re inside the apartment he says, “No screaming, no yelling, no throwing things, and don’t even think of leaving this apartment without me. I’m taking your key.” He goes to her purse, takes it out, and slips it in the pocket of his bathing trunks.
For a short time everything’s cool. Barry has the upper hand, though he’s crazy nervous his neighbors will find out she’s back and he’ll be out on the street with everything he owns. A couple of weeks later, Barry meets with an acquaintance of his at a downtown Fort Lauderdale Starbucks to talk about running another poker night in a bar in Hollywood. They sit at an outside table. Barry scours the bushes thinking Candy is hiding behind them. He looks into every car that passes, and scrutinizes nearby store entrances and windows. He checks his watch repeatedly. Dave offers him the job on a trial basis. Barry thinks about it a minute, then turns him down. One of his credit cards is maxed, he still hasn’t figured out how. He can really use the cash, but Hollywood’s far away. He can’t leave Candy for that long.
Barry’s family is worried. It’s been more than two months since he’s spoken to any of them. His daughters in New Jersey call his sister in Daytona. Carol agrees to drive down to Pompano to see what’s going on. She arrives late in the afternoon, and takes the elevator up. She rings the doorbell a long time but no one answers. She’s getting ready to leave when, for the hell of it, she tries the doorknob. It opens. Clothes, bottles, papers, and takeout boxes of crusted, stale food are strewn all over; the smell is overwhelming. The blinds are drawn, the room is dim even as sun blasts the west-facing windows. Carol turns on the light. She sees a man and a dark-haired woman sitting on the couch at the far end of the room. There’s a bottle on the cocktail table, and they both have glasses in their hands. They appear dazed at seeing her. Not alarmed, just puzzled about how she got in.
“Who are you?” the man asks.
“His sister. Where is he?”
“In there,” the woman says with a wave of her hand. “He’s all fucked up. Can’t walk. Can’t get out of bed. I’ve been taking care of him and believe me, it’s not easy.”
Carol rushes into the bedroom. Barry is sprawled on top of the comforter she bought for him last Christmas. It’s stained brown in large patches, and reeks of feces and urine. He’s naked, stick thin, and a white plaster cast covers his arm from the elbow to the wrist. In the middle of the cast there’s an imprint of slightly parted lips made with Revlon’s Red Hot Mama. Beneath it the words “I love you” are written in script.
“Oh, my God,” Carol says. She shakes him but he doesn’t respond. She thinks he may be dead. She continues shaking, calling his name, and finally he moans, opens his eyes. “Carol,” he says, then closes them again.
She runs into the living room. Candy kneels on the floor near where Carol dropped her handbag. Schemer stands in the foyer ready to take off.
“What have you done to Barry?”
“Nothing that he hasn’t done to himself,” Candy slurs. She tries to stand, has to hold onto a chair to get up. “I’ve been taking care of him.”
“Both of you get the hell out of here. Now!”
“Don’t push, we’re going,” Candy says, weaving to the door, then crashing it behind them.
Carol dials for the police and an ambulance.
A short time later, a police officer stands with Carol in the foyer as emergency workers wheel Barry out of the apartment on a stretcher, eyes closed, face drawn, a slight figure under the white blanket. When Carol saw him last Christmas he’d been thirty pounds overweight.
“I can’t believe this happened to him.”
“Happens more often than you think,” the officer says. “Fleas, that’s what the Mexicans call them. Women who go from man to man, take what they can, then move on. Usually when the guy’s flat broke. Trust me, there's nothing of value left around here."
Barry wasn’t wearing his jewelry,” Carol says, “and he never takes it off.”
He looks at her handbag on the floor. “Better check that.”
She pulls out her wallet. All her money is gone.
“Sorry. Nothing we can do if your brother doesn't press charges. And my guess is he won't. Men have trouble admitting they're abuse victims, even to themselves. Your brother got caught by one hell of a flea.”
* * *
Following six months of physical therapy and alcohol/drug rehab, Barry’s recovering. He walks with a cane now, but for months had to get around in a wheelchair. He hasn’t had a drink or drug since the day his sister came to his apartment. It’s tough, he tells anyone who’ll listen, much tougher than anyone aside from another alcoholic could ever understand, but his family is counting on him to stay sober, and how hard he hit bottom this time sometimes scares him. The doctors think he may have had a stroke, and there’s a possibility of brain damage from injuries or a fall. He’s been beaten, that much is certain, and not all of the drugs he took were because he wanted them. Barry won’t tell anyone anything. And he’s good at pushing what happened out of his mind when it begins to haunt him, a master of denial.
One afternoon he’s sitting around a table at the pool with a few friends when his phone rings. He’s not wearing his reading glasses so he can’t see who’s calling. It crosses his mind to let it go to voicemail, but he clicks on.
“You’re not supposed to call me. I’m just out of rehab. I can’t speak to you.”
“I know all about it. I wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. And I want us to be friends.”
His heart beats so loudly he’s afraid his friends can hear. “Sure,” he says.
“I love you, Barry. I’ll always love you. I’m your very best girl.”
“Yeah,” he whispers, “I know you are,” ending the call, though he’d much rather stay on and listen to the sound of her voice.
His neighbor Bob looks concerned. “If that’s who I think it was, you know you shouldn’t be talking to her. Your sponsor says you can’t have any contact at—”
Barry cuts him off. “I have to talk to her. Don’t you understand? She’s the one who kept me alive.”
# # #