Bill showed up at the Club party late, almost at the end of the festivities. There were only a few of us still there, but I enthusiastically welcomed him, pressing a beer into his hands. Stan, my husband, took me aside and said, “I think he’s had enough already.” On closer inspection, I noticed the slurred speech and vague smile pasted on a bleary face. Bill was already in his cups when he arrived.
In those days, we lived in West Africa, all of us associated one way or another with the American Embassy there. I didn’t know Bill well, but we had a peculiar connection. When my first baby was born, he’d been listed on the Embassy Blood Donor list as someone who matched my blood type. As I’d waited at the hospital for my emergency C-section, the Embassy had tracked down Bill and he had given blood. Months after my healthy baby was born, I felt a certain bond with this man whose blood I shared.
We were the last to leave the gathering at the Club. As we walked across the dark, deserted parking lot, we watched Bill weaving ahead of us, making his way toward his own car. We were worried, knowing he shouldn’t be driving. But this was long ago, before it seemed natural to ask people for their car keys, especially if you didn’t know them very well. He might become belligerent, and there would be a scene, maybe a fight. We gambled. “He lives near us,” I said, “Let’s follow him.” What were we thinking, imagining that by watching him we could take care of him?
We were watching very carefully as he headed up the final hill to our homes, but his car still slid into the wrong lane as it rounded the sharp curve, and the roaring semi still plowed into it. There was no ambulance service there in those days, no paramedic on the scene, no telephone of any kind to call for help. Some kindly folks pulled off the road and Stan held Bill in his arms in the back seat as they rushed to the hospital, but he wasn’t hopeful when he saw the state of Bill’s head and the dark fluid trickling from his ears. Later that night, exhausted with fear and grief and covered in blood, Stan carried Bill’s body again, to the morgue.
Fast forward ten years. Our first child is in the third grade, and we are living in another West African country. One night, our new friend Jim pulls into our driveway and nearly falls as he pulls himself from the driver’s seat. He is loud and obnoxious, roaring drunk.
“Gimme a beer!” he bellows as he throws his arms around us. We guide him to the living room, and he sits, but continues his tirade, demanding a beer. Stan and my eyes meet, and we both have the same thought, the same vision in precise, gory detail. The blood, the loss, the terrible guilt. Without a word, we agree that we won’t be taking any chances tonight.
Stan says, “I’ll give you a beer if you give me your car keys.”
Jim’s head jerks back and he stares at Stan, then at me, as if shocked and insulted. Then a slow smile spreads across his face. “Sure,” he says, tossing his keys to Stan. “Make it a cold one!”