This story is by Lori Crispo and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
How my ex-fiancé came to inhabit the bar’s eponymous portrait, “The Country Gentleman, 1789,” I’ll never know. Last week, I was polishing glasses at the end of my shift when he initially made himself known to me. Two brandy snifters from another shelf shattered to the floor, my first clue. You see, George and I met eons ago over snifters of flaming Rémy Martin. Spandau Ballet came over the speakers, crooning they knew this much was true. That was our song, another sign. He must be here somewhere, but in a flash, I remembered the obituary my mother had sent me a few days before, “Philadelphia Litigator, George Gray, 42, Killed in Boating Accident.”
Presumably, he was now out of my life for good. And yet, when I squinted at the country gentleman’s portrait hanging opposite the bar, my scalp prickled. Intuition told me George had taken up residence. Here, at my place of work, my place of refuge. More than a decade ago, I escaped my past, and George, to build a new life in the Berkshires, a place where no one knew me. My job at The Country Gentleman Inn & Tavern paid the bills and offered enough human interaction for me to feel connected to the world while keeping most people at arm’s length, which pleased me. Now my refuge was under siege.
And so, it began. The portrait’s eyes followed me from every angle. Eyes that once appeared overly varnished and dull turned gleefully sinister. No matter where I was, trapped behind the long mahogany bar, he watched me. The dandy in the painting, with meaty lips and a fancy, filigree watch fob on a gold chain straining across a well-fed stomach, looked nothing like George. It was almost comical for him to haunt me in this old-fashioned guise. Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t believe George had changed in any way. This colonial painting merely had a vacancy.
What could have motivated him to take the offensive so many years after that autumn morning at St. Julian’s? Our last moments were imprinted in my mind as if I’d been a sparrow watching from high above the nave: the golden afternoon light pouring in from the church’s double doors; George turning to gaze up the aisle at me; our families and friends swiveling and craning to get a glimpse of the bride. Of me. My father tucked his arm through mine while my other hand held the heavy, fragrant bouquet in a vise-like grip. We took our first step-together-step toward the altar, and my heel caught on a wrinkle in the runner—a wrinkle in my plans.
I stumbled, and my father caught my elbow, steadying me. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed, wriggled out of his grasp, and walked. Not toward the altar, but right through the open doors, into the sunshine. The limo driver, dozing behind the wheel, head back, mouth slack, jumped at the sound of the door yanked open and the swish of tulle and lace as I slid across the seat. “Second thoughts,” I said, with a catch in my throat. “Can you please take me home?”
The kitchen phone was ringing when I arrived, with the voicemail counter already tallying eleven. The dread of answering to anyone, George, my parents, my maid of honor, was more than I could bear. Robotically, I relied on my innate efficiency to pack up and get away before anyone could catch me. I managed to avoid the world for two months until my money ran out. When I finally dragged myself back to my apartment, I found my wedding dress in a heap and my bouquet rotting in the kitchen sink where I’d tossed it, as if nothing had changed. But I had changed. My whole life had changed.
“What really happened? What ever possessed you?” my mother kept asking.
“You can tell me. What did he do to you?” prodded my best friend, Beth.
People had questions, but I had no answers. I couldn’t explain why I did what I did. But he knew why. George knew, that murderer.
“What do you mean you think you hit someone?” I asked, straining to understand his garbled story on that horrific night.
“There was a thunk,” he said, sobbing, grabbing at me, pleading with wild eyes. “I slowed down to see if anything was there, but it was dark. So, I just, I just… I kept going. You understand, right? Right?”
He had taken off from the scene. He didn’t call 9-1-1. He didn’t turn around to see what had happened. He wasn’t compelled to help a stranger. He was only compelled to help himself, to protect his precious career. It had to be a mistake: my George would never act like that.
In the middle of the night, I lay awake thinking of our earliest days together. How I loved his crinkly smile, the jokes, and the way he’d sneak up on me at the stove, grab me around the waist, and twirl me in some tightly choreographed routine. Betrayal now clouded those memories. Wide awake, I watched headlights shining across my ceiling: my neighbor leaving for the overnight shift, delivery trucks supplying the corner market, and, too soon, in the early gray light, the newspaperman delivering the news. None of them killed anyone en route.
In the morning, I couldn’t face the news reports. But not George. He searched until he found a small article mentioning an unidentified cyclist who died on a deserted road. “It appears he crashed his bicycle and hit his head,” said the officer who found the body.
George was relieved nothing could tie him to the ‘incident,’ as he called it. He didn’t consider words like ‘vehicular manslaughter’ or ‘cold-hearted murder,’ words that tornadoed around my brain. I yearned to go back to earlier times, innocent times when George was still my model boyfriend, my love. Instead, I had to force myself to move forward, to find joy in wedding planning and the prospect of our future together. I almost succeeded until I saw the priest up there at the altar, like a judge about to hand down my sentence: life with a murderer. I couldn’t go through with it.
That people condemned me for walking away while George, the poor jiltee, got all the sympathy was like the plot of a movie I’d never want to watch. If only I could share my secret; if only someone took my side. But no one did, so here I am, the stereotypical bartender who would much rather hear all the details of your life than share any bits of my own. I could be angry to have given up everything because of him. But what am I going to do, be miserable for the rest of my life? Until last week, I thought everything was pretty fine in this woodsy corner of the world, in this life I’d made for myself. Then came the answer to one of my many prayers: George was dead.
The Furies had exacted their revenge. Although, if you asked me, a boating accident seemed a little excessive, even for Fate with a capital “F.” But just when I thought I could finally take my first deep sigh of relief, George’s shade came and planted his flag in my territory, like some kind of terrible karmic joke. His death should have granted me freedom and release. Never, ever, did I imagine death would leave me shackled to this specter of George –for what, eternity?
It defies logic for him to be here, to be reminded daily of his deed and my judgment. His return throws me off kilter, which, I imagine, is part of his game. Yesterday, his ghostly prank involved messing with my meticulous bottle set-ups, screwing up their order, and disrupting my bartender’s rhythm. When he got bored with that, cocktail napkins started flying off the bar on an invisible breeze while I chased them down for his viewing pleasure.
Tonight, he dispatches an emissary, a George look-alike, handsome and compact, with the same glossy, curly hair I used to love. Apprehension jolts through me before I realize it’s not really him and never will be.
The emissary joins a group of pretty women at the bar. They’re ordering vodka tonics when I catch a whiff of George’s cologne. Lagerfeld fills the air like a cloudburst. One woman raises her pert nose. “Who smells so good?” she asks, and I swear, the portrait starts preening. Banker-types arrive on the scene and jockey for the women’s attention. The Country Gentleman is not pleased. Suddenly, the alpha male among them loses his grip on his cabernet, splashing it spectacularly all over expensive designer dresses. I race over with seltzer and towels to minimize the damage.
Cleaning up after him again, I wonder if this is Ghost-George’s idea of heaven. I know he knows it’s my version of hell.