Books by William Bryan Smith
Web Site: Free Range Men
An excerpt from the novel, Free Range Men
Donnelly’s favorite line:
“I’d love for you to buy me dinner sometime.”
It’s meant to be funny. He considers it suave. Sometimes it works—usually on women at a quarter-past-two in the morning, in the parking lot of The Galaxy, or Pink’s, or some other club—after several hours of ass-shaking music. They say, “Okay, yeah.” Then the echo of what he has said manages to rise up above the ghost of the heavy bass. “You want me to buy you dinner?” Stone-faced, Donnelly says, “Okay. How’s tomorrow night for you?” The women, thinking they’d heard wrong, sometimes agree, anyway.
I’ve seen it happen.
Donnelly’s sources tell him there’s a hot, new club in the old Bowl-A-Go-Go on Sterling Highway. “Steeped in pussy,” he says. His words slur as they drip from the phone. “Are you in?”
I tell him, no.
I hear his mother say something in the background. “Two sandwiches, no soup,” he says. Donnelly is thirty-one and still lives with his parents. To me, he says, “What?” I know he’s heard me. It’s his way of buying time, as if having longer to think about it will make me reconsider. “Steeped,” his says. “In puss-say.”
I tell him I don’t feel like it—the truth. It’s been eight months since my divorce. I’ve trawled the clubs with Donnelly for six weekends straight. An evening at home of ESPN—a pizza, some beer—sounds like a pleasant respite.
But Donnelly is tenacious—or irrational. It’s a tough call. He tells me he’s been washing his Xanax down with Miller Light. “Makes it work better,” he says. “Come on…don’t leave me hanging. You’re my ground support—”
I hear his cell phone ring. “Hold on, bro,” he says. Into the other phone, he says, “Yo, it’s Donnelly.”
I hang up.
The phone rings two-and-a-half minutes later. Against my better judgment, I answer. “You’re my ground support,” he says. “I’ll swing by your place at eight-thirty.”
“I’ll drive,” I tell him.
Driving. Sterling Highway. 9:00 PM. I hear the story for the one-thousandth time. I’m not exaggerating. It’s got to be the one-thousandth time. “She fucking cheated on me,” he says. “She cheated. I can’t ever trust her again.” It’s a moot point. His ex, Yvonne, is seeing someone else.
“You cheated on her,” I say. Seven times by my count.
“But I didn’t get caught,” he says.
The guy, Andy, has become Yvonne’s current beau. Donnelly’s been phoning him. “Goes to school in Tennessee.”
“He’s in college?”
He asks me to pull in at the Fuel-n-Food. Like an idiot, I do. I watch him at the payphone. The mayflies have hatched on the river. A flurry of them swarm in the amber streetlight; they orbit around his head. I roll down the window so I can hear.
“Is Andy there?” He pauses. Listening. “I know it’s you…yes, it is. I know your voice. One question: how did you do it? Was it missionary style? Did you look at her when you did it? Did you look into her—” He’s listening again. “Did you…Andy? Andy?”
Mayflies are getting into the car. I roll up the window as he fishes into his pocket for more change.
The new club is called The Sugar Bowl. The lanes are gone, but the ball returns remain. Counting Donnelly and me, there are exactly seven people in the place. That count includes a bartender and two waitresses. “We’re early,” Donnelly says. He asks the bartender for change and heads for the payphone near the men’s room. I drink my Coors Light and help myself to a bowl of salted cashews. Donnelly says that eating nuts can skew the results of a breathalyzer test. I don’t believe him, but, what the hell.
“Well?” I say when he returns to the bar.
“How long’s it take to get to Tennessee?”
On the road again—not to Tennessee—to Pink’s. Donnelly is watching the side-view mirror. “It’s her,” he says.
There is one headlight in my mirror. One angry headlight. It’s riding my ass.
I look over at Donnelly. He’s smiling. I turn back to the mirror. The lone headlight is darting and weaving like one pissed off firefly. “Pull over,” he says. I do. The headlight pulls in behind us. Gravel crunches under the sudden stop. Donnelly gets out and disappears, swallowed up by the dark ether. He reappears, red in my brake lights, as he makes his way to the driver side of her car.
There is shouting. Donnelly’s voice; a female voice. Their shouting melds into one—a cacophony of mounting rage. Then it is over. She pulls away, suddenly—swiftly. Rocks hit my car. “But I fucking love you,” he calls after her. I see that her car is an old Geo as it passes. She’s missing a taillight, too.
He gets in. “Bitch,” he says. Andy had called the police, who in turn, traced the call to The Sugar Bowl. Andy called Yvonne to tell her what her crazy ex has been doing. She waited for us in the parking lot. “Who does she think she is, Columbo?” he says.
“What did she want?”
“Told me to leave Andy alone.”
“Then that’s that,” I say.
“Not by a long shot.”
“She filed a restraining order,” he says, when I pick up the phone.
My room is barely lit. My mouth is dry. “What?”
“A fucking PFA,” he says. “Against me.”
My alarm clock reads 6:55 AM.
“I’ve got to talk to Yvonne about this,” he says.
“Isn't that exactly what you're not supposed to do?” I ask. But he’s gone.
Donnelly put a note on her windshield in the parking lot of the supermarket where she works as a cashier.
“What did it say?”
“It’s not important to the story,” he says.
We’re at The Lakeside, a roadside bar that’s barely hanging on. The lake dried up in ’67. There’s just a meadow now.
“She had me arrested,” he says, and dives into his dollar draft of Bud Light.
“What did the note say?”
“Will you forget about the fucking note,” he says. “I was incarcerated here.”
Two blondes walk in—probably ten years younger than me, if I was thirty-five. I’m not. “Note had to say something,” I say, “to make her call the police.”
He doesn’t answer right away. He’s locked on the women. They take seats across from us at the bar. “I don’t see any rings,” he says. He’s staring and I’m embarrassed.
“Lesson learned, right?” I say. “Only took a night in jail.”
“An hour,” he says, but he’s still eyeballing the women.
“You only got an hour for violating a PFA?” No wonder the system fails.
“You ever do time?” he asks. “It changes a man.”
The only import they have is Heineken. In a bottle. I get the bartender’s attention and order one.
Donnelly finishes his beer. He turns to me and says, “This is where Lloyd Donnelly shines.” He gets up, walks confidently toward the women. When he reaches them, he removes a register receipt from his pocket and—though I can’t hear him, I know he pretends to read, “You two ladies look very lovely tonight.” He looks up, followed by an awkward pause. Head back down. “And that is not a line.” He’s smiling. They’re laughing. It’s a critical moment; I’m not certain if they’re laughing at his joke, or at him, the human embodiment of a joke.
He points to me and they look over. He’s selling me to the one he doesn’t want.
After twenty minutes of small talk, Donnelly and I convene in the men’s room. “Emily’s into you,” he says. We’re side-by-side at the urinals.
“She’s got a boyfriend,” I tell him, repeating what she had told me. I don’t believe her. She’s just being nice.
“She’s got a smokin’ body,” he says. “I’d be all over her.”
“Why aren’t you then?”
He turns to me and smiles. “This water’s cold,” he says.
I don’t laugh. At least he didn’t say, “I heard this is where all the dicks hang out.”
When we get back to the bar, the blondes are gone.
Donnelly takes steroids. A guy at the gym gives him a shot in the ass in the locker room. He’s been on them for three years and has never cycled off. He’s built, I’ll give him that.
We’re running laps around the reservoir in Chamberlain Park. “Did you see that guy?” he says, as a man and woman run past us. “He looked like a chicken. I don’t get it. Why do women settle for scrawny dudes like that, when they could have us?”
I mention things like listening to your partner, volunteering to do things without being asked—being emotionally available—all the things my ex-wife said I failed miserably at.
“You’ve been watching Oprah again,” he says.
Another early morning call. Suze. A mutual friend of mine and Donnelly’s who has managed to resist all of our masculine charms to this point.
“I just got a strange call from Donnelly,” she says, when I answer it. “He was asking for your number.”
“He has it,” I say.
“He seemed disoriented,” she says. “I think he was calling from the psych ward.”
She gave me a number which I wrote down on the back of the phone book, on one of those full-page ads for an injury attorney. “I think it’s to a payphone in the ward.”
We say goodbye. I wake up and rub the sleepy dust from my eyes. I dial the number.
“Yo, it’s Donnelly,” he answers.
“Where the hell are you?”
“I took a whole bottle of Xanax,” he says. “Yvonne still won’t take my call. She doesn’t fucking care, man.”
He tells me what happened. After swallowing the pills, he immediately told his mother. His parents drove him to the ER and, subsequently, had him committed.
There are phones ringing. Donnelly is answering them. Some of the calls are for him. “Bring my Steelers jersey,” he says, presumably to his mother on one of the calls. Another time, he calls out, “Dooney…it’s for you.”
I can’t help but imagine everyone—including Donnelly—in straitjackets.
“There’s a girl in the bed across from me who eats glass,” he says. “She’s kind of cute.”
“Jesus Christ,” I say.
“He’s in the room across the hall.” He talks to someone and then comes back on the line. “When I get out of here,” he whispers, “I’m going to really kill myself.”
“I’ve had it. I can’t live without her. I’m going to fucking do it.”
The line goes dead.
I call Suze and tell her. “You’ve got to tell his doctor,” she says.
“I don’t want to get involved.”
“You’re his best friend,” she says.
I hang up and call the main number to the hospital. They connect me to the psych ward. “A patient has told me he is going to hurt himself if he gets out,” I say.
The woman takes down my name. “Will it be alright if the doctor calls you?”
“This is all confidential, right? You’re not going to tell Donnelly I called?”
“The doctor will call you,” she says, and hangs up.
Two hours later, he does. His name is Dr. Joe. He has a lisp. I imagine him with braces. “Do you lift weights with him?” Dr. Joe asks. I tell him I do. “Does he take steroids?” I say I don’t know. “Are you big like him?” I don’t like the line of questioning. No, I tell him. There is an especially long pause—long enough to make someone crazy if they were already halfway there. “Your friend is not well,” he says.
“You’re telling me.”
“This is not encouraging news,” he says. “His feelings for this woman—Yvonne—go deep?”
Deep? I’ve known Donnelly for years. The only thing that runs deep in him is the part in his hair. I say to Dr. Joe, “You’re the witch doctor,” and I remind him of my request that the call—and our conversation—remain confidential.
We hang up, and some small part of me feels as though I’ve been a good friend to Donnelly.
The call comes later in the afternoon, nearly nine hours after my conversation with Dr. Joe. The Caller ID shows it’s from Lloyd Donnelly, Sr.—Donnelly’s father. I answer, forgetting momentarily that Donnelly lives with his parents. “You really sent me up the river, motherfucker,” the voice slurs.
“Donnelly? You’re out?”
“No thanks to you,” he says.
“You threatened to hurt yourself,” I say.
“Just imagine my surprise when the shrink came in and said, ‘We were going to let you go, Mr. Donnelly, but we received a call from your friend….’”
Dr. Joe, that fucker—
“The shrink said, ‘We heard you’re telling people you’re going to hurt yourself when you get out. Is that true ?’ I spent the next hour trying to prove to him that I wasn’t crazy.”
“How’d you manage that?” I ask.
There is a silence, followed by what sounds like sniffling. “Thanks for caring, man,” he says.
It’s my turn to pause. I’m uncertain if he is still joking—or crying—or hopped up on meds.
“Seriously,” he says, “you’re the only one who cared.”
“You’re welcome,” I say. “I guess.”
“Munich Hotel’s got half-price wings until midnight,” he says. “There should be some ladies there. What do you say, pick you up at eight?”
I still cling to the fantasy that I, in some way, saved his life. That made me responsible for him. The image of a newly released mental patient eating wings by himself was too much. I tell him I’ll go.
“Mind if I bring Yvonne along?” he asks.
For a moment, I almost believe in miracles. Naively, I say, Sure.
“Think she’ll fit in my trunk?”
The Munich Hotel. The remains of two-dozen wings lay before me, along with four empty bottles of Yuengling Lager. Donnelly is sitting backwards on his chair, arms resting on the back, chatting up a blonde who calls herself Angelic. “I’m Angelic,” she had said, to which I replied, “I’m marginal.” She didn’t laugh.
Angelic has recently entered the adult entertainment business, she tells Donnelly—a red flag. She has just launched her own pay-per-view website and has webcams in every room of her house—a red flag. She is in negotiations with an adult video company to shoot a porno film in New York, next month—a red flag.
Donnelly is undeterred by Angelic’s career path. He’s listening, he’s nodding—he’s refilling her mug with beer from a pitcher at her table.
She is beautiful in her body-hugging black mini-dress. With her large breasts, tiny waist, and dancer’s legs, I’m sure she will make a wonderful porn actress. There’s a guy sitting next to her in a tight white T-shirt, with muscular arms and pectorals like river stones. He is Angelic’s physical equal. “Her boyfriend,” Donnelly tells me during a lull in the conversation.
“It’s okay,” he assures me, “they have an open relationship.”
At 1:50 AM, it’s a little early for Donnelly to pull the I’d-love-for-you-to-buy-me-dinner-sometime-line, but he does, anyway.
Angelic says, “Sure,” and I’m certain she hasn’t heard it right.
“Thursday?” Donnelly asks.
She frowns. “I can’t. I’m having an abortion on Thursday.”
“What about Friday?”
I’ve heard enough. I get up and leave. I don’t want to come to The Munich anymore—or The Galaxy, or Pink’s—or The Bowl-A-Go-Go or whatever the hell it’s called. And I don’t want to be Donnelly’s friend. I just want to go home.
I’m halfway through the parking lot before I realize Donnelly is my ride. I’m not going anywhere without him. I’m marooned here.
“Yo, bro,” he calls to me, as he navigates through the rows of parked cars like Pac-Man.
It has rained. The vehicles, the asphalt—everything—is wet. The buzzing neon that spells out MUNICH in pink and blue letters is reflected in the puddles.
“Did you want her?” he asks.
“I don’t mind sharing….”
“This just isn’t working out,” I say.
“What?” he asks, but I see the realization slowly materialize in his eyes. “You’re breaking up with me?”
“It’s not you,” I start to say but stop. “It is you, your life…it’s too much. I’m sorry.”
He gets this look on his face, as if it’s stuck—stuck somewhere between anger and sorrow. I wonder if it’s how I looked when I was told nearly the exact same thing a year ago.
“So what does this mean?” he asks. “We’re not going to hang out anymore?”
I shake my head and his expression takes a turn for the worse. It’s then that I’m struck by the notion of losing him—of losing another person—from my life. “Can’t you be a little less fucked up?” I say.
His face doesn’t change. “How’s that?”
He doesn’t know…he doesn’t see it for himself. He thinks it’s just normal everyday life.
“What do I need to do?” he asks. “What do I need to change, so you’ll like me?”
“Holy shit, Donnelly.”
“What do I need to do?” he asks, again.
“I suppose we’re both going about it wrong,” I say.
Angelic and her boyfriend leave The Munich. She holds thumb and pinky to her face, indicating for Donnelly to call her. They get into one of those cars where the doors open upward.
Donnelly watches her leave. “She’s not what I need, is she?”
I don’t answer him. Who am I to say?
“Probably wouldn’t have worked out, anyway,” he says. I’m not sure if he means with Angelic or with me.
It starts raining again, lightly at first—then a steady pounding. Patrons file out of The Munich, dash for their cars. The darkness fills up with red light—taillights and brake lights. They go. I wonder about their lives. Mine and Donnelly’s seem to have come to a halt—not necessarily a crossroads—but a halt.
When the last of the cars leave, we’re left stranded on a narrow islet of asphalt. Even the neon Munich has gone out.
“Jesus Christ,” Donnelly says, pushing his dripping hair back from his face.
There’s nothing left to say.
We stare out into the darkness, out into the nothing, as if the answer lies out there, just beyond our reach.
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|Reviewed by Ronald Hull
|I like the way the story is unfolding and its reality. Reminds me of a couple of nights with my cousin, definitely a Donnelly type. He once asked me to help him pick up a couple of lesbians. He didn't know it was "date night" and that they were out together.