I had a question I couldn't answer. What in the hell was Davenport feeding the bug up his ass? Ever since I'd loaned him money he hadn't been the same with me, though admittedly we had an issue unconnected with the debt he could not repay. For years Davenport suffered with longing for my wife, Em, and after she left me he couldn't find it in his heart to forgive me for losing her.
After being let go from a string of jobs, Davenport was often unshaven and unwashed and tended to wear the same shirt for up to a week. On occasion I thought I'd caught a whiff of him in the air, but when I turned and looked I did not see him. As long as I'd known him he'd expressed grievances against any person or group with power over him, including his bosses and "the government," and I'd become a favorite target of his umbrage, a close-at-hand example of the forces tormenting him. Yet I'd done nothing to torment Davenport, and I was at the end of my wits with his harassment, exhausted by his twisted thoughts and the sound of his voice. If he wanted to keep coming at me, I asked myself, grappling with him, why should I put myself at a disadvantage by being even-handed with him?
I relaxed in the evenings by enjoying a drink, and one place I sometimes frequented was a hotel bar a block or so from my building. The trouble was that Davenport knew I went there, and one evening he brushed against me before I was served and took a stool beside me. The bartender soon set my drink down and asked Davenport if he wanted anything. "Not yet," he said, though he and I knew he had no money to spare for a drink. He eyed mine, his tongue moving inside his mouth, and sat quietly for a moment, letting his presence sink in.
"I have a confession to make, Richard," he began. "I think I may have damaged your marriage. Em must have known I loved her far more than you did. I saw her and listened to her in ways you never could and that must have weighed on her and caused her to see you as deficient in many ways. She didn't love me, much to my regret, but she must have felt she deserved to be loved by someone who valued her more than you did. She found someone more worthy of her, not surprisingly, and decided she'd be devaluing herself if she failed to repudiate your neglect and dump you. Like a fool, you let her get away, and you probably saw nothing lacking in you to explain what you'd lost. To be able to touch that skin and not have it mean everything to you. It's beyond me how you could let her go. I can imagine what you must have put her through, because my feelings for her allow me to feel her pain, just as much as if you'd done something to me. You make me angry, and I resent the pain you've brought to my life and Em's. The least you can do is buy me a drink. If you think it's right, you can add the cost to my tab."
"Please stop talking," I replied. "If I buy you a drink you'll only sit here and make me listen to more. Why would I want that? Don't talk to me about touching Em's skin. Can't you just leave me alone?"
"That question summarizes the goal of your life. All you really want is to be left alone, in this case to sit here by yourself with your self-centered thoughts. You'd prefer to move on and forget her, but I don't delude myself I can let her go so easily. I wish for her happiness more than you do."
"You can't know that. One thing I know is that either you're leaving or I'm leaving."
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm ordering a drink. We both need one, Richard, can't you see that?"
He waved at the bartender and ordered a vodka and tonic.
"I'm not paying for it," I said to the bartender, "and this man has no money."
I downed what was left of my drink, flipped some money on the bar, and hopped off my stool. Davenport canceled his drink order and followed me out. Rather than try to elude him, I stopped and stared into his face. He wasn't fazed and would have stared back at me for as long as I chose. What else did he have to do? I went on my way, Davenport on my heels or pulling even with me to make comments in my ear.
"Do you think running away changes anything?"
And: "Do you think you can ever be really alone?"
And: "Do you think you can erase a woman like Em from your memory or ever get over her?"
"What does it have to do with you?" I asked him. "What do you think I have to do with you? Is it because I gave you a loan? If you can't stand owing me money, why be angry at me about it?"
At that question he dropped back, his footsteps no longer dogging me. I entered my building, relieved to be safe from him yet cursing him on my way up in the elevator, talking over images of decking him or pushing him into oncoming traffic. I tried to shut myself up and clear my mind, but Davenport went on yakking in my head, unleashing on me his tormented inner world.
I abandoned the hotel bar as a destination and considered other places where I could enjoy a drink. I chose the bar at a Thai restaurant blocks away. Whenever I'd been to the restaurant it had been almost empty and I'd never seen a soul sitting in the bar, which was around a corner and not visible from the street. Before leaving my building I peered out the window to see if I could spot Davenport. I emerged, looking both ways, and walked to the Thai place, several times glancing behind me.
The bar was unoccupied, four empty stools, two small booths along a short wall, poor lighting, a muted TV showing a football game. I went to the bar, ordered, and then carried my drink to a booth, facing so that I could see anyone who entered. I enjoyed the stillness, the soothing drink and the ice tinkling in the glass.
A few minutes later I heard Davenport saying a few words to the host about meeting a friend. Did he have a way of tracking me through my phone? He rounded the corner and plopped down opposite me, his head lowered, suggesting he'd rather not lay eyes on me. If so, why had he come? Whether I stood and walked out or sat and listened, I'd feel at his mercy either way.
"You make me sick," he began, looking up.
"Please tell me more."
"Last time, you asked what you and Em have to do with me. Do you realize how small-minded that question is? Should I limit my concerns to things that only have to do with me? Can't I be angry on behalf of Em? I love her, and whatever affects her also affects me. I wish you could share in my compassion for her."
"I have a proposal. If you agree never to speak to me again I will erase your debt. The agreement would include any form of communication. Leave me alone, and you don't owe me a penny."
"I can't be bought off, Richard. I won't cooperate. I know you hate me and imagine doing things to me to make me be quiet. Did you think I didn't know? You can't use my debt to buy some phony peace of mind you believe is due to you. You wouldn't be giving up a thing by erasing it, anyway, because you know I'm never paying you. Do you think I'm stupid enough to take a deal like that? I'm insulted in more ways than one. You would never have loaned me the money in the first place if Em hadn't urged you to. That debt serves as a memory of her kindness. You can't just snap your fingers and make that disappear."
"Forgive me, I thought the debt was hanging over you. You do seem to be implicitly asking me for something. You seem to want to be on the receiving end from me, as if you're reversing the charges. What do you want? Is all your talk supposed to take me somewhere? Or do you see it as ongoing punishment?"
"Your manipulations won't change what I think. Every word out of your mouth connives to silence and obliterate me. I'm not surprised. My love for Em overshadowed yours, and you can't live with that."
"What would it take for you to get even with me?"
"It's impossible," he said. "This has to do with who you are."
"So why do you bother? Do you think Em wants this?"
"Em is through with you. This is what you deserve. Does anyone else care enough to deliver that message? I don't think so."
"How much do you owe to other people? I'm not offering to pay it off. Just asking."
"You know that's none of your business."
"Does it increase your sense of desperation? I'm trying to understand you."
"You never will."
He stood then, huffing some disdainful air toward me. After I heard the door close I ordered another drink.
I did not see Davenport for a while, but memories of him unsettled me and he spoke to me in my sleep, asking me to pay him back as he touched Em's skin. How could I know if he knew what he wanted from me or understand the hellish world he'd made for himself?
One morning I was eating breakfast at a Waffle House when I saw Davenport looming at the window alongside my booth. I could see he'd taken a beating. His shoulders drooped, one more than the other, his face bruised and scabbed, his eyes swollen almost shut, a bandage stuck to his neck. He gazed at me through the glass, as if making an assessment. Who could guess what he read or thought he read in my face? I expected him to come in and let loose a torrent of abuse. Instead, he turned and limped away.
He dropped out of sight after that, and for some time I imagined he'd appear suddenly at my side. I contacted Em to see if she'd seen him, but she said she hadn't and I believed her. Where was he? The image of his beaten face still came to me, but it left me angry and unsatisfied. His voice remained, humiliating me, echoing through me.
I can never pay him back.