Feeling restless and anxious, with nowhere else to go, Jimmy wandered into Gimp’s Pub and sat at the bar. The wedding decorations had been taken down, the greasy tables back in their proper places, the way Jimmy preferred. He found comfort in knowing Gimp’s never changed. The pub looked and smelled exactly the way it had when he’d been a scrawny kid, stealing sips from his father’s beer when he wasn’t looking.
Gimp’s was where James had brought Jimmy to celebrate his twenty-first birthday, James’s forty-fifth. After an exceptionally long day siding a house in the bitter cold, the conditions made worse by an occasional shower of sleet and a massive hangover from partying with his friends the night before, they sat in one of Gimp’s back booths, facing each other, with two shots of whiskey on the table between them.
Instead of lifting his glass, James had started asking questions. He quizzed Jimmy on codes and standards, tax laws, how to calculate concrete and shingles, weight restrictions, when to adjust air pressure in trailer tires. With every question asked, Jimmy grew increasingly agitated, but he didn’t dare interrupt. And he didn’t dare up and leave.
When James finally ran out of questions, he pulled himself to his feet, clapped Jimmy on the shoulder and said, “You’ve got a better mind for construction than I ever will, Son, but with the way you’re living your life right now, all that knowledge isn’t worth a pile of shit. Unless you find a reason to start driving your heart into every nail you pound, you’ll never amount to more than what you are right now—a stupid, little boy swinging a hammer.”
Without another word, James had left the bar, leaving Jimmy pissed, confused, and alone, staring at two untouched shots of whiskey on the table in front of him. He’d had no idea what his father had meant, why he had said what he’d said—until the day he’d met Kylie.
Cheryl came out of the back room and grabbed a beer out of the cooler. “Why the long face, Jimbo?” She twisted the cap off the bottle and slid it over to him.
Jimmy shrugged and took a drink from the ice-cold bottle. It felt good in his mouth, but he couldn’t taste it.
“Brayden sure has grown since the last time I seen him.” She wiped down the bar and leaned against it with a sigh. “He’s growing too fast.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy agreed. He couldn’t seem to get his eyes to lift off the bar. It looked cool to the touch, beckoning him to rest his hot forehead upon it and fall asleep. He was afraid if he did, he’d never wake up. He’d be trapped in his nightmare forever.
“He sure was happy to see you.”
Jimmy ran his thumb down the side of the bottle, pushing a river of condensation down the length of the glass.
“Don’t feel like talkin’ today?”
Jimmy lifted a shoulder, then his beer.
“How about a little listening then?” Cheryl suggested. She didn’t wait for a reply. “I have no idea what you did or didn’t do that night with your little Miss Thing, what was going through that head of yours, messing with that girl again. But it’s a good thing you were honest with Kylie and told her what happened, so don’t go thinking that you should’ve kept your mouth shut and hid it from her. I know it hurts like crazy that you kids aren’t together, but it’s nothing compared to the way you’d be feeling ten or twenty years from now if you had to live with the guilt of a secret burnin’ up your gut.”
Jimmy sat frozen, listening, afraid if he as much as drew a breath he would cry.
“I watched you two out there on the dance floor, and my heart broke for you. I could see you struggling to control your feelings for her, and she was looking the exact same way. She’s in love with you, Pumpkin, so don’t give up. You’re not going to fix it all on the first try, or the second. Maybe not even the third. Mending a hurt heart is a whole lot of one step forward, two steps back. She’s here for a few more days. Take advantage of the time and start working on gaining her trust. Don’t hide from her this time, or you may never get another go at it.”
Jimmy picked at the label on his bottle. He didn’t know if he was worth her trust, whether he deserved to fight. Cheryl looked at him, waiting for him to say something, but the lump in his throat was too big to work words around.
“You’re a good man, Jim Rogan. I’ve known it since you was a scrawny little pain in my tuchus, coming in here with your Daddy. It’s high time you start believing it.” She patted his hand and went to check on her other customers.
Jimmy finished his beer and left his money on the bar, slipping out the door before Cheryl returned. He pointed his truck toward home, but once he got there he didn’t have a reason to stop, so he kept driving. Mile after mile of gravel flew by as he debated what to do, whether to fight or to just let her go.
He didn’t know if he would ever become the man his father would have lifted his glass to and toasted on his birthday, but he had to try. He was nothing before Kylie and nothing without Kylie and he was sick and tired of being nothing. The only way to become something was to fight for Kylie and the life he wanted, fight for the little boy who made him feel like the man his father had raised him to be.