At first, Neil was pleased with their conversation about the recent killing, which had been all over the local news. The topic seemed to animate Pat, who was usually as loquacious as a monk, and Neil was grateful for the distraction—it kept him from looking at the clock on his garage wall. But then, as Pat worked on the alternator in Neil’s Beemer, he said something that almost made Neil drop the wrench he was about to hand his friend: “Man, I feel bad for that poor kid. He had his whole life ahead of him and now he’s going to spend it in jail.”
“Poor kid?” said Neil. “He marched over to that guy’s house and shot him in cold blood.”
Pat’s massive shoulders undulated beneath his grease-covered t-shirt as he worked the wrench to loosen a nut, and he grunted with effort between sentences: “They said he was shy. Hardly any friends. And he was humiliated. It wasn’t cold-blooded. There were mitigating circumstances.”
Pat was six-four and weighed nearly 300 pounds —he looked like a linebacker, but Neil knew better. When they first became friends a few years ago, Pat was an MFA student in creative writing while Neil finished his doctorate in American history. Pat had traded in football for literature way back in high school after suffering his third concussion, and as an adult, he disdained the violence inherent in contact sports. Which was why, as both their work on the Beemer and their discussion progressed, Neil was surprised by Pat’s position on the alleged murder. And concerned.
“I don’t understand how you think the kid was humiliated,” said Neil, handing Pat a rag.
“That guy professed his love to him on some stupid reality show,” responded Pat, wiping his greasy hands.
“And the kid made clear he wasn’t interested because he wasn’t gay. So how was he humiliated?”
During grad school, Neil would meet Pat daily for coffee at the student union, where they discussed everything there was to discuss in life. Actually, Neil had done most of the talking; Pat was more of a listener. Neil had a tendency to “lecture,” which often induced glazed expressions and eye rolls from friends and family. Pat, on the other hand, was patient and seemed to soak in all the facts Neil couldn’t stop himself from disseminating. They would fuel up on coffee and Neil, with occasional contributions from Pat, would exhaust all the important subjects—culture, religion, politics and because they were both young men, love. Eventually, much to Neil’s surprise, it was Pat who became the first to master that most important of subjects.
Pat had met Abby at the reference desk of the university’s main library where she worked. They talked sometimes, and Abby also found a good listener in Pat. She began telling him about her ex-boyfriend, how he’d show up in the parking lot of her apartment complex and at work and followed her on weekends as she ran errands. At his request, Abby gave Pat her ex’s address, and Pat took care of the situation. “I knocked on his door and asked him to leave Abby alone,” he had told Neil. The ex never bothered her again. Pat, being Pat, didn’t go into much detail, but it wasn’t difficult for Neil to imagine him simply presenting himself at the ex’s door and that being enough to make Abby’s problem disappear. At first sight, Pat was an imposing figure that was sure to rattle many men. But Neil knew his stature belied the faraway look in Pat’s eyes and the flowers he doodled on his notebooks.
After they started dating, Pat slid a birthday card for Abby across the table at the student union. He wanted Neil’s opinion. In it he had written, “The dropping of daylight in the West/The bough of cherries bought from Whole Foods/Draws from you alike the approving speech/As I stand mute and helpless as a fool/At the mercy of your smile and endless love.”
“I stole part of a Robert Browning poem,” explained Pat, “and made it my own.” Pat and Abby were married within a year.
Now, as he bent over the Beemer’s engine, Pat had more to say about the 20-year-old kid who had killed a gay man for having a crush on him.
“This is a small town,” he said, “and people love to gossip. You know there was probably talk about the kid’s sexuality after that show aired.”
“So that gave him a right to murder?”
“No, it didn’t give him the right, but it’s understandable. That man ruined his reputation. What more did that kid have other than his reputation? I mean, I get it.”
For what was probably the first time, Neil didn’t know what to say to Pat. He searched his brain for facts on the psychology of homophobia. He also wondered what Abby would say if she heard Pat now. She often complained of his quietness, how his placidity could seem like a brick wall. But Neil imagined Abby would be alarmed by what he said now. He was sure the current conversation would only confirm to Abby her original conclusion: she had outgrown Pat. He had been her champion and made her feel safe. But after five years of marriage, she didn’t want to feel safe anymore.
With his face shielded by the raised hood, Neil allowed himself a smile. Did that mean Abby thought he, by contrast, wasn’t safe? That maybe there was a whiff of danger about him? Neil didn’t see how that could be true but indulged himself with the possibility. He had turned down the opportunity to run his father’s business to get his doctorate in American History – that was a risky move, after all. And now he was a tenured professor at the university, the resident American Revolutionary War expert. Meanwhile, Pat, despite his MFA, worked in the mailroom at the corporate headquarters of a regional bank.
And then there was the fact that Neil was having an affair with his best friend’s wife. That certainly made him a maverick, no?
“If some guy tried to make a move on me, I’d mess him up so bad, he’d never get another date in his life. Hand me the wrench.”
That startled Neil out of his reverie, but, as he rummaged through the toolbox, all he could think to say was, “That’s homophobic.”
“Not that wrench – give me the bigger one,” said Pat. “All a man has in this world is his dignity, and he has to be willing to fight for it. I haven’t told Abby yet, but I got fired on Thursday, Neil. A package went missing, and my boss accused me of stealing it. Me. I didn’t put up with his shit, and he called security. I was escorted to my car.”
“Escorted to your car? What did you do, Pat? Threaten your boss? That’s not you.”
“Sometimes it is, Neil. You remember Abby’s ex, don’t you?”
“But you didn’t do anything. You just showed up and he backed off.”
“Yeah, right. I just politely said, ‘I would be ever so grateful if you would please leave our dearest Abby alone.’ Come on, Dude, you know what happened.”
“No, frankly I don’t.”
“Use your imagination, Neil,” Pat said with a smirk. “Hold on to this for a sec.”
Neil took the wrench; it quivered in his hand. He became aware of his heart pounding, and the clock, which he had forgotten, zoomed into his consciousness. God, where had the time gone? He had asked Pat over to fix his car as an excuse to get him to a comfortable but private place. Neil and Abby were to confess their affair to Pat that night and tell him about their plans to start a new life together. Neil had anticipated yelling, tears, a slammed door, maybe even a glass smashed against a wall, but now his expectations were as vast and ominous as the ocean. He set the wrench on the car to dig his phone out of his back pocket. He had to cancel their plans, tell Abby to stay away. Maybe it would be best for them to just run off and call Pat from Vegas or some tropical island.
“Motherfucker, this goddamn nut won’t budge,” said Pat, his voice booming from beneath the hood. “It’s like the whole fucking world is against me lately…goddammit.”
Neil desperately punched in a text message. Maybe he could get a teaching job at a college in Alaska? Or Europe? Maybe they need American history teachers in China?
“Motherfucker, I fucking hate you, you motherfucking nut.”
Just as Neil hit send, the garage door rattled to life, rising. He reached for the wrench. It was gone. Pat stood up from the engine and held it in his right hand, tapping it in his left.
As the door continued to rise, a pair of pumps and a suitcase appeared on the driveway outside.
“Is that Abby? What’s she doing here?” asked Pat.
Laura Knapp currently works as a marketing copywriter and was a freelance reporter in metropolitan Chicago. She received her MA in English from Roosevelt University, also in Chicago. Her short fiction has been published recently in Rum Punch Press, Rose Red Review, and The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and one of her short stories is forthcoming in The MacGuffin.