Page 56 of Mystic River

You never would have thought it possible when Jimmy had first married Annabeth. Theo wasn't known for his friends back then. He was a boozer and a brawler, a man who'd supplemented his income as a taxi dispatcher by working nights as a bouncer at various buckets of blood and really liking the work. He was gregarious and quick to laugh, but there was always challenge in his jolly handshakes, threat in his chuckles.

Jimmy, on the other hand, had been quiet and serious since coming back from Deer Island. He was friendly, but in a reserved way, and at gatherings he tended to hang back in the shadows. He was the kind of guy, when he said something, you listened. It was just that he spoke so rarely, you were almost on edge wondering when, or if, anything would come out of his mouth.

Theo was enjoyable, if not particularly likable. Jimmy was likable, though not particularly enjoyable. The last thing anyone would have expected would be for these two to become friends. But here they were, Theo watching Jimmy's back like he might have to reach out at any moment and put his hand against it, keep Jimmy from hitting the back of his head against the floor, Jimmy occasionally pausing to say something into Theo's oversize prime rib of an ear before they moved on through the crowd. Best of pals, people said. That's what they look like, best of pals.

* * *

SINCE IT was closing in on noon? well, eleven, actually, but that was noon somewhere? most of the people dropping by the house now brought booze instead of coffee and meats instead of pastries. When the fridge filled, Jimmy and Theo Savage went searching for more coolers and ice upstairs in the third-floor Savage apartment? the one Val shared with Chuck, Kevin, and Nick's wife, Elaine, who dressed in black, either because she considered herself a widow until Nick came back from prison or, as some people said, because she just liked black.

Theo and Jimmy found two coolers in the pantry beside the dryer and several bags of ice in the freezer. They filled the coolers, tossed the plastic bags in the trash, and were cutting back through the kitchen when Theo said, "Hey, hold up a sec, eh, Jim."

Jimmy looked at his father-in-law.

Theo nodded at a chair. "Take a load off."

Jimmy did. He placed the cooler beside the chair and sat down, waited for Theo to get to the point. Theo Savage had raised seven kids in this very apartment, a small three-bedroom with sloping floors and noisy pipes. Theo once told Jimmy that he figured this meant he didn't have to apologize to anyone for anything for the rest of his life. "Seven kids," he'd said to Jimmy, "no more'n two years apart between any of 'em, all screaming their lungs out in that shitty apartment. People'd talk about the joys of childhood, right? I'd come home from work into all that noise and go, 'Fucking show me.' I didn't get no joy. Got a lot of headaches, though. Ton of those."

Jimmy knew from Annabeth that when her father came home to those headaches, he usually only stuck around long enough to eat his dinner and go back out again. And Theo had told Jimmy that he'd never lost much sleep when it came to child rearing. He'd had mostly boys, and boys were simple in Theo's opinion? you fed them, taught them how to fight and play ball, and they were pretty much good to go. Any coddling they needed, they'd get from their mother, come to the old man when they needed money for a car or someone to post bail. It was the daughters you spoiled, he told Jimmy.

"Is that what he called it?" Annabeth said when Jimmy mentioned it.

Jimmy wouldn't have cared what kind of parent Theo had been if Theo didn't take every opportunity to weigh in on Jimmy and Annabeth's deficiencies as parents, tell them with a smile that no offense, mind you, but he wouldn't let a kid get away with that.

Jimmy usually just nodded and said thanks and ignored him.

Now Jimmy could see that wise-old-man gleam in Theo's eyes as Theo sat down in the chair across from him and looked down at the floor. He gave a rueful smile to the clamor of feet and voices from the apartment below. "Seems like you only see your family and friends at weddings and wakes. Don't it, Jim?"

"Sure," Jimmy said, still trying to shake the feeling he'd had since four o'clock yesterday that his true self hovered above his body, treading air with slightly frantic strokes, trying to figure a way back in through his own skin before he got tired from all that flapping and sank like a stone to the black core of the earth.

Theo put his hands on his knees and looked at Jimmy until Jimmy raised his head and met his eyes. "How you handling this so far?"

Jimmy shrugged. "It hasn't totally sunk in yet."

"Gonna hurt like hell when it does, Jim."

"I imagine."

"Like hell. I can guarantee you that."

Jimmy shrugged again and felt an inkling of some kind of emotion? was it anger?? bubble up from the pit of his stomach. This was what he needed right now: a pep talk on pain from Theo Savage. Shit.

Theo leaned forward. "When my Janey died? Bless her soul, Jim, I was no good for six months. One day she was here, my beautiful wife, and the next day? Gone." He snapped his thick fingers. "God gained an angel that day, and I lost a saint. But my kids were all grown by then, thank Christ. I mean, I could afford to grieve for six months. I had that luxury. But you, though, you don't."

Theo leaned back in his chair and Jimmy felt that bubbling sensation again. Janey Savage had died ten years ago, and Theo had climbed into a bottle for a lot more than six months. More like two years. It was the same bottle he'd been renting for most of his life, he just took out a mortgage after Janey passed away. When she'd been alive, Theo had paid Janey about as much attention as week-old bread.

Jimmy tolerated Theo because he had to? he was his wife's father, after all. From the outside looking in, they probably seemed like friends. Maybe Theo thought they were. And age had mellowed Theo to the point that he openly loved his daughter and spoiled his grandkids. But it was one thing not to judge a guy for past sins. It was another thing to take advice from him.

"So, you see what I'm saying?" Theo said. "You make sure you don't let your grief become an indulgence, Jim, and, you know, pull you away from your domestic responsibilities."

"My domestic responsibilities," Jimmy said.

"Yeah. You know, you gotta take care of my daughter, those little girls. They got to be your priority now."

"Uh-huh," Jimmy said. "You figured that might slip my mind, Theo?"

"Ain't saying it would, Jim. Saying it could. That's all."

Jimmy studied Theo's left kneecap, pictured it exploding in a puff of red. "Theo."

"Yeah, Jim."