Bad Habits

B

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

I wish that had been the case. It would have made it easier to explain. I stepped further into the kitchen and stopped to watch Lauren. Her hands moved in a blur of motion, tidying up the sink area, placing all the dishes and silverware in even lines.

“You know you don’t have to do that,” I said.

She ignored me and moved into the living room then began straightening the magazines strewn across the coffee table.

“The maid is coming tomorrow,” I reminded her.

“That’s why I’m doing this,” she said. “I don’t want her to think we live like slobs.”

I never understood that logic, and no matter what I’ve said it hasn’t stopped her from going through this routine every month. So, I smiled and shook my head. “Okay, but can you sit for a minute? I want to talk to you about something.”

She looked at me as if I had just asked to have the talk. I took her delicate hand and eased her down onto the couch, which I probably shouldn’t have because her past welled up in her eyes.

“Don’t worry,” I told her gently. Like I’d break up with the best thing that’s ever happened to me. “This isn’t about us.”

She took a deep breath. “What’s up?” she asked casually, but inside I knew her heart was thumping wildly.

I didn’t delay and said, “Do you remember I told you my Father was dead?”

She nodded. “When you were fourteen, I think. Your Mother threw you out of the house around that time, too. Right?”

The first of many times. But now wasn’t about my Mother, though I couldn’t help but think about her. How she treated her love for me like a yoyo: one moment she’d bring me in close, and the next she’d push me away.

Before I could respond, a light flashed in Lauren’s eyes, and she said, “Oh I see where you’re going with this. Father’s Day is coming up soon. You miss him, don’t you?”

Hardly.

“No, that’s not it.”

She pulled a clump of cat hair out from between the cushions, and I raised an eyebrow. She blew it onto the floor and smiled. The maid won’t notice it there.

“I need to confess something,” I said. “My Father…he…he isn’t dead.”

That caught her full attention. She cocked her head to one side and said in an even tone, “Why would you say he did, then?”

She seemed surprisingly calm. I wasn’t going to over-analyze it, and responded with, “Because it was easier than the truth,” and that’s when Lauren pulled away. She probably didn’t even realize it. It was subtle, but I couldn’t help but notice.

“What’s the truth?” she asked, trying to conceal her disappointment, but I caught it when the corner of her mouth rose and fell in the span of a microsecond. I hesitated to respond, and then her eye twitched, and I knew what was coming next. “We’ve been together for three years, and you never felt like you could trust me with this? You better have a good reason.”

I meant to tell her. I didn’t think she would understand, however. Not with her upbringing; stable parents and an ideal childhood. I should have trusted her, I suppose.

“The details aren’t important,” I said. As soon as the words left my lips, I knew it was the wrong thing to say. I’m usually cooler under pressure, but not when it comes to Lauren. You know when you love someone so much you get all mixed up in the brain? Can’t think straight? That was me right then.

“They are to me,” she said, and leaned back and folded her arms across her chest. “I thought we told each other everything?”

“We do,” I said.

“Apparently not.”

I lowered my eyes. “You’re right,” I admitted, “and that’s why I’m telling you now. It’s time for me to stop running from my past.”

I didn’t know where to begin or how much I should tell until I saw the hurt in Lauren’s eyes. I knew then I couldn’t hold back anything. Not if I was going to spend the rest of my life with her, which I intend to.

“When my Mother threw me out,” I began, “I dropped out of high school and lived on the streets. Sometimes I’d stay with a friend. But after a couple of winters, I couldn’t take it anymore.”

“I know this stuff already,” she said, and added, “assuming it’s still true.”

I deserved that.

“It is.” I took a deep breath and continued. “I wanted more for myself and got a GED. But that wasn’t enough. I needed to get away from everyone toxic in my life. I saved every penny I could scratch up. I even turned in bottles for that nickel deposit. Eventually, I had enough for a bus ticket to California and put Boston in my rearview mirror. Along the way, the bus stopped in Arizona, and I got off to stretch my legs. I don’t know what it was, but something about the valley just felt like it was the right place for me and never got back on.”

My throat was dry and scratchy. I went into the kitchen and filled a glass with water and gulped it down. I offered to get Lauren one, but she declined. I refilled my glass and returned to the living room. She seemed more at ease. Well, she unfolded her arms, at least. I placed my drink on the coffee table, and she slipped a coaster underneath it, then leaned into the cushion and took my hand.

“What did your Father do that made you lie about him being dead?”

What didn’t he do?

She rested her hand on my knee and encouraged me to continue.

“Many nights he tied me to a pole in the cellar and beat me until he either ran out of beer or passed out. He’d leave me down there overnight. It wasn’t until the next morning my Mother would untie me, and then send me off to school as if nothing had happened.”

A look of horror suffused Lauren’s cheeks. She squeezed my hand, cutting off the circulation. “That’s horrible,” she cried. “Why… Why would your Father do that?” She covered her mouth. “And your Mother, she’s…” Lauren didn’t finish that sentence and took a couple of deep breaths. I waited for her to say something first. She wiped tears from her big round eyes, and said, “I don’t understand why you’re telling me this, now.”

“Because my Father’s here.”

“What?” She looked past me to the front door. “You invited him over?”

I shuddered. “God no. He’s here, as in Arizona.”

“He reached out to you?”

I shook my head. “I got a call from Joey.” She looked at me, confused, and I repeated his name as if hearing it a second time would make a difference. It didn’t. “Joey, the one who works down at Didn’t Do It Bail Bonds.”

She pulled her hand away. “You’re going to track down your Father and bring him in?”

I shrugged. “Why not? He’s no different from any other criminal I’ve caught. It’s just a job.”

She clucked her tongue. “Don’t give me that. You don’t have to take it. It’s not like we’re hurting for money.”

She was right. However, I couldn’t help wonder why she was against it. “What’s wrong with me taking it?”

She blinked rapidly, and said, “For one thing, it could trigger you.”

I scoffed. “Like I’d throw away ten years of sobriety for that bag of shit.”

“You don’t know what seeing him will do.” She frowned. “I don’t like this, David. Why do you have to be the one to find your Father, anyway?”

“Because running across the country…it made me…made me a coward.”

“You were a kid! Geez. Cut yourself a break.”

I shook my head. “I’ve been lying to myself my whole life, wishing that story about him being dead was true. After the first ten years, I even started to believe it. But now… Now, I need to confront my Father. Show him I’m not some scared little kid anymore.”

“Sorry to break it to you, but I doubt he even cares about you or knows you’re here.”

“But I know he’s here.” I sighed. “It’s like an itch, you know? I can’t leave it alone.”

We sat in silence for an eternity before I stood and pulled my duffle bag from the closet, which contained my gun, cuffs, id, and a few other things.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” I said.

Lauren looked incredulous. “You’re going out, now to find him?” I nodded. “Don’t you have to do research, first? Look up credit card spending, utility bills or something?”

I shook my head. “Not this time.”

“Where do you start, then? How do you find someone you haven’t had contact with for over twenty years?”

“People change locations, but they don’t change their habits. It won’t be hard.”

She sighed in resignation and walked me to the door. She pressed her soft lips against mine, and with her breasts firmly against my chest, she ran her hands through my short hair and tugged. I moaned. She stood on her toes, and our kiss deepened. I knew what she’s doing, and if I hadn’t been so determined, it would have worked. Before things got out of control, I pulled away.

“Nice try,” I said and smiled. “I won’t be gone long.”

She kissed me once more, this time on the cheek. “Good luck. And call your sponsor. No matter what happens. This is a big deal.”

As Lauren closed the door, her smile was the last thing I saw, and it carried me through the night.

#

There are a handful of all nude strip clubs in the valley where my Father could have been. But it helps to have inside information in my line of work, and I knew he was as cheap as he was mean and with his particular taste, that left two clubs; the real seamy kind. You know what I’m talking about. Where the management doesn’t bother to check the ids of the dancers, or more often the women have too many miles on them and are willing to do anything to make ends meet.

So, I had a fifty-fifty chance of finding him on the first try and rolled up to the Cracked, a real shithole on the west side of town. The parking lot was full, and so I made my own spot by the back door where I parked my ’88 Ford Bronco under a light.

Inside, the music was loud, and the place reeked of smoke, booze, and bad decisions.

“Hey David,” cooed Starlet, the Cracked’s manager. She was more like the joint’s Madam but no one, not even I, would dare to call her that. Things tended to get messy when anyone fucked with Starlet.

“Evening, Ms. Starlet,” I nodded.

“Surprised to see you tonight, hun. You here on business or pleasure?”

“Business.”

“As always,” she drawled. “For once, you ought to give my girls a try. You won’t regret it.”

I might regret the STD. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I smiled and said, “You know I’m taken.”

“That’s what all you men say when you come in here.” She licked her lips. “You change your mind, you know where to find me. And don’t go breakin’ nothin’ this time.”

“I promise,” I said and crossed my heart.

I scanned the main room, and a cloud of smoke hung in the air like rush hour traffic in LA. I pushed through the crowd, my eyes sweeping over every face, but found no sign of my Father. Just a few angry stares for blocking the view of those premium strippers.

I worked my way to the back of the club and started poking my head in the private booths. The bouncer, Jimmy Sands, didn’t stop me. He was a skip I caught a few years back. The best thing that’s happened to him, according to Jimmy. Jail straightened his ass out. Now, he says he owes me, and so Jimmy gives me a pass when I come looking for someone.

I checked every booth, thoroughly because you can’t always tell who’s face it is buried underneath a pair of tits. I even got a few invites to come in, but like I had said before, this is about business, and I’m spoken for. I made another pass around the club, even checked the bathroom.

Nothing.

I headed for the exit and was cut off by Ms. Starlet. “Leavin’ so soon?”

She ran her nails across my neck, and a chill ran down my back. I smiled, wished her a good night, and then got the hell outta there. Outside, I glanced back at the Cracked’s neon sign and thought about how I don’t miss wasting my life in bars anymore.

#

I floored it across town, the whole time picturing Lauren’s smile, and then I remembered what she had told me, and I checked in with my sponsor.

“I’m headed over to the Bad Habits club,” I said. “No, I don’t feel the urge. Honest. Yes, Lauren told me to call. I know she’s a smart woman. All right, Big Jim, I’ll call you once I’m done in there.”

#

The Bad Habits club was a small, cube sized building with a single window covered up in black spray paint and a faded Taco Bell sign still etched into the facade. The parking lot was mostly empty with just a beat-up Impala, an El Camino, and a pink Volkswagen bug.

Inside, there was just one stripper, bouncing her ass up and down to a couple of young kids leaning against the edge of the stage. One had a hand tucked into his pants, and the other was waving a dollar bill. Then she turned around, and my mouth gaped. I thought I had seen everything. She looked seven months pregnant.

I eventually shifted my focus to the bar and saw an old man sitting, slumped over a half-empty bottle of vodka. He had a scraggly build with wiry gray hair. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was my Father. It was pretty dark. And I admit, I had one eye, still on the pregnant stripper; she had just dropped down into the splits. Impressive.

I slid on to the barstool next to the man, and I could tell he hadn’t bathed in a long time. He reeked of vomit and Old Spice, and that’s when I knew it was my Father.

“What kinda trouble you getting into tonight?” the bartender asked. She leaned against the worn bar top, and pushed her breasts together and winked.

“Not that kinda night,” I said. “I’ll just have a diet soda.”

My Father scoffed, and slurred, “Why the fuck you at my bar if you ain’t drinkin’?”

Still mad at the world, eh dad?

Now, I could have just ended it there and taken him in. But I hadn’t seen my Father in twenty-two years, and curiosity had gotten the better of me. So, I thought I’d take things slow and see if he even recognized his own son.

I wasn’t going to have a drink just to make him happy. So, I did the next best thing. “Bartender, I’d like to buy a round for this man.”

“He’s drinking by the bottle,” she said.

It was the cheapest, shit vodka you could get, so I didn’t mind. The way I looked at it, he was the one buying the bottle with my cut of his bail for bringing him in. “That’s fine,” I said. “Bring him another.”

My Father pulled a pack of Marlboros out of his shirt pocket and fumbled around for a light. I grabbed my Bic and snapped my thumb over the spark wheel and held the flame to the tip of his cigarette. He drew in a breath, and broke into a coughing fit so bad, he nearly fell off his stool. I caught him. He jerked his arm away, and growled, “Let go of me.”

He tried to pour himself a shot, but his hand shook so severely he spilled half of it on the bar. I took the bottle from him and said, “Maybe you’ve had enough.”

He scoffed. “Ain’t no such thing.” Then reached for the bottle and pulled back in pain, grabbing at his side.

“Are you all right?” I asked and stretched my arm out hesitantly. I didn’t touch him, though. I just held my hand there, ready in case he fell over, again.

He ignored me. Hunched over, he drew in a long hit from his cigarette. He straightened, and a calming look washed over his face. “I’m ’bout as fine as a dead man can be,” he said.

I paused, like a deer in headlights. What? I put the bottle down, and said, “We’re all dying,” trying to play it off but also fishing for more.

The bartender poured him another shot. He tossed it back and smacked his lips. “Some faster than others,” he said and winced.

I’ve seen this before.

“Cirrhosis?” I asked. He nodded. “Shit. I’m sorry,” I whispered. I actually was. I’ve seen what this disease does. Lost several friends in recovery because of it. It’s a fucking terrible way to go.

“You got someone I can call to take you home?” I asked. My recovery head had kicked in.

He coughed for a bit and shook his head. “Haven’t had someone since my wife died ten years ago.”

I have to admit, he sounded pretty broken up about it. I figured he didn’t care about anything. I attended my Mother’s funeral, then but didn’t see him there. Though, nobody saw me, either. I watched from a distance. So, I suppose my Father was there, too like me, hiding. That was the only time I’ve returned home. It’s also my sobriety birthday.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said and meant it.

I leaned in and took a closer look. In just the right light, I could see my Father’s skin was jaundiced. He didn’t belong in jail. He belonged in a hospital. Well, anywhere but that fucking club. But there was nothing I could do. Technically I was his son, and technically he was my Father. But I believe you don’t have the right to tell someone else what to do when you’ve spent as many years apart as we have.

There just wasn’t a connection anymore.

The bartender had finally brought my soda just as Pour Some Sugar On Me kicked in, but I was no longer thirsty. No longer in the mood to do what had I gone there to do. So, I got up to leave.

The pregnant stripper rubbed up against me, and I slipped back, startled. Usually, I’m more observant than that, but given the circumstances, you couldn’t blame me.

“Want a dance, sugar?” she asked, then rubbed her belly. “You get a two for one, tonight,” she said and cackled.

I forced a smile and declined politely. She shrugged and disappeared when the two guys at the stage whistled for her to come over.

“I remember a time I wouldn’t have said no to that,” my Father said as I started to leave. “Would have nailed her out back. Without a raincoat. Can’t get pregnant twice, if you know what I mean.” He laughed and doubled over coughing, holding his stomach.

That was my Father; some people never change.

He had spent a lifetime of making bad choices. Choices that had brought him to the end of his road, alone on a barstool and there was nothing I could say or do to change that.

I left without saying another word. I climbed back into my Bronco and called Lauren to let her know I was all right, and that I’d be home soon. I called Big Jim, too.

On nights when I’m feeling low, I think about seeing my Father in that club and am reminded it wasn’t cowardice that had made me run away from my life all those years ago. It was strength.

About the author

Jonathan Austen

Hello, and welcome to my creative madness. I'm a writer, an IT professional, and adventure seeker. Fueled by my passion for people, places, and new experiences, I pour a lot of my personal life into my characters and stories. 

Here, you'll find short stories and random thoughts for your enjoyment. So, check in regularly and discover something new.

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Jonathan Austen

Hello, and welcome to my creative madness. I'm a writer, an IT professional, and adventure seeker. Fueled by my passion for people, places, and new experiences, I pour a lot of my personal life into my characters and stories. 

Here, you'll find short stories and random thoughts for your enjoyment. So, check in regularly and discover something new.

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