The Last Thing He Told Me

2.15 The Never Dry

chapter
Chapter

In the cab ride on the way to The Never Dry, Bailey keeps pulling on her bottom
lip—almost like a nervous habit she suddenly developed, her eyes darting from
side to side, frantic and terri􀏯ed.
I hear the questions she’s not asking me out loud and I don’t want to push
her. I also can’t just sit there and watch her su􀏦er, so I search obsessively on my
phone for Katherine “Kate” Smith, for Charlie Smith—for anything I can
possibly tell her, any new information I can o􀏦er up, in an attempt to soothe her.
But I 􀏯nd way too much. Smith is too common of a last name, even with my
subsearches (UT-Austin, Austin native, debate champion). There are hundreds
of hits, and images—none for the Katherine who greeted us at the library.
Which is when I have an idea. I plug Andrea Reyes into my search, along
with Charlie Smith, and I 􀏯nally hit on something that may help us.
A Facebook pro􀏯le for the correct Charlie Smith pops up. He is a 2002
graduate from the University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in art history,
followed by two semesters at the Graduate School of Architecture, and an
internship at a landscape architecture 􀏯rm in downtown Austin.
No work history after that.
No status updates or photographs since 2009.
But it says that his wife is Andrea Reyes.
“There it is,” Bailey says.
She points out the window to a blue door, vines around it. You could almost
miss it—THE NEVER DRY written on a small gold plaque. It sits there quietly,
kitty-corner to West Sixth Street, a co􀏦ee shop on one side, an alley on the other.
We hop out of the taxi and, as I turn to pay the driver, I see that our hotel is
visible across Lady Bird Lake. I feel a strange pull, wanting to call this o􀏦, head
back there.
Then Bailey goes to open the blue door.
And as she does, something happens that has never happened before. Call it
maternal instinct. I grab her arm before I know I am grabbing it.
“What the hell?” she says.
“You wait here.”
“What?” she says. “No way.”
I start thinking quickly, the truth not feeling possible to say. What if we walk
inside there and see her? This Katherine Smith. What if your father took you away
from her? What if she tries to take you from me? And yet, there it is, feeling
possible enough that it is the 􀏯rst thing that occurs to me.
“I don’t want you in there,” I say. “They’ll be more likely to answer my
questions if you’re not in there too.”
“That’s not good enough, Hannah,” she says.
“Well, how’s this?” I say. “We don’t know whose bar this is. We don’t know
who these people are or whether they are dangerous. All we know is that it’s
looking more and more like your father may have taken you from here and,
knowing him, if he did that there was something he was trying to protect you
from. There may have been someone he was trying to protect you from. You
cannot go inside there until I 􀏯nd that out.”
She is quiet. She stares at me unhappily, but she stays quiet.
I motion toward the co􀏦ee shop next door. It looks quiet, almost empty, after
the afternoon rush.
“Just go sit inside and get yourself a piece of pie, okay?”
“I literally couldn’t want a piece of pie less,” she says.
“Then get a cup of co􀏦ee and keep working on Professor Cookman’s roster.
See if you can pull anyone else up on a search. We still have a long way to go.”
“I don’t like this plan,” she says.
I pull the roster out of my messenger bag. I hold it out for her. “I’ll come and
get you when it’s all clear in there.”
“Clear of what? Why don’t you just say it?” she asks. “Why don’t you say
who you think is inside?”
“Probably for the same reason you’re not ready to say it, Bailey.”
This gets through to her. She nods her agreement.
Then she takes the roster out of my hand and turns toward the co􀏦ee shop.
“Don’t take too long, okay?” she says.
Then she opens the door to the co􀏦ee shop, a whoosh of purple as she heads
inside.
I breathe a sigh of relief. And I open the blue door to The Never Dry. There
is a winding staircase, which I take upstairs to a candlelit hallway and a second
blue door, which is also unlocked.
I open that door and enter a small cocktail lounge. An empty cocktail lounge.
There are maple rafters and a dark mahogany bar, velvety love seats surrounding
small bar tables. It doesn’t feel like a college town bar. The hidden doorway, the
intimate room. It feels more like a speakeasy—guarded, sexy, private.
No one is standing behind the bar. The only indication that anyone is even
there is the lit tea candles on the cocktail tables, Billie Holiday playing on an old
record player.
I walk up to the bar, taking in the shelves behind it. They’re 􀏯lled with dark
liquors, boozy bitters—and there is one shelf devoted to framed photographs in
thick, silver frames, a few framed newspaper clippings. Kate Smith appears in
several, often with the same lanky, dark-haired guy. Not Owen. Someone besides
Owen. There are several photographs of the dark-haired guy alone as well. I lean
over the bar to try and make out what one of the newspaper clippings says. It
includes a photograph of Kate dressed in a gown, the lanky guy dressed in a
tuxedo. An older couple bookends him. I start to read through the names
beneath the photograph. Meredith Smith, Kate Smith. Charlie Smith…
Then I hear footsteps. “Hey, there.”
I turn around to see Charlie Smith. The lanky guy from the photographs.
He’s wearing a crisp button-down shirt and holding a case of champagne. He
looks older than in the fancy framed photographs. Less lanky. His dark hair is
now graying, his skin weathered, but it’s de􀏯nitely him. Whoever he is to Bailey.
Whoever Bailey is to Kate.
“We’re not open just yet,” he says. “We don’t usually start serving until closer
to six…”
I point back from the direction I came. “I’m sorry about that, the door was
unlocked,” I say. “I didn’t mean to just let myself in.”
“Not a problem, you can have a seat at the bar and take a look at the cocktail
menu,” he says. “I just have a couple more things to take care of.”
“Sounds great,” I say.
He puts the champagne on the bar and o􀏦ers a kind smile. I force a smile
back. It isn’t easy being around this stranger who has the same coloring as Bailey
—and his smile, when he points it at me, is hers too, complete with her same
uptick, the same dimple shining through.
I hop up onto a stool as he moves behind the bar and starts unpacking the
champagne.
“Can I ask you a quick question? I’m new to Austin and I think I got a bit
turned around. I’m looking for the campus. Can I walk from here?”
“Sure, if you have forty-􀏯ve minutes or so. Probably easier to just hop in an
Uber if you’re in any kind of rush,” he says. “Where are you headed to exactly?”
I think of his bio, of what I just pulled up about him. “The School of
Architecture,” I say.
“Really?” he says.
I’m not a good actress, so trying to look casual while telling this lie is a
stretch. It pays o􀏦 though. He’s interested suddenly, just like I hoped he would
be. Charlie Smith: late thirties, almost architect, married to Andrea Reyes.
Married to Andrea at a wedding Bailey and Owen attended.
“I took some classes at the School of Architecture, once upon a time,” he
says.
“Small world,” I say. I look around to stop my heart from racing, to center
myself. “Did you design this place? It’s gorgeous.”
“Can’t really take that much credit. I did a bit of a redesign when I took it
over. But the bones are the same.”
He 􀏯nishes putting the champagne away and leans across the bar.
“Are you an architect?” he asks.
“Landscape architect. And I’m in the running for a teaching position,” I say.
“Just a temp position while one of the professors is on maternity leave. But they
want me to come have dinner with some of the faculty, so I’m hopeful.”
“How about a little liquid courage?” he says. “What would you like to
drink?”
“Dealer’s choice,” I say.
“That’s dangerous,” he says. “Especially when I’ve got a little time.”
Charlie turns and studies his choices, reaches for a bottle of small batch
bourbon. I watch as he preps a martini glass with ice, bitters, sugar. Then he
slowly pours the rich bourbon. Finishing it with a slice of orange peel.
He slides the drink toward me. “The house specialty,” he says. “A bourbon
old-fashioned.”
“That looks too pretty to drink,” I say.
“My grandfather used to make the bitters himself. Now I do it, most of the
time. I’m falling down on the job a bit, but it makes all the di􀏦erence.”
I take a sip of my drink, which is smooth and icy and strong. It runs straight
to my head.
“So, this is your family’s bar?”
“Yeah, my grandfather was the original proprietor,” he says. “He wanted a
place to play cards with his buddies.”
He motions to the one velvet booth in the corner, a RESERVED sign on it.
There are several black-and-white photographs above it—including a great one
of a group of guys, sitting in that booth.
“He spent 􀏯fty years behind the bar before I took it over from him.”
“Wow,” I say. “That’s incredible. What about your father?”
“What about him?” he says.
And I clock it—how uncomfortable he looks at the mention of his father.
“I was just wondering why you guys skipped a generation…” I say. “He wasn’t
interested?”
His face relaxes, my question apparently innocuous enough for him.
“No, not really his thing. This place was my mother’s father’s, and she was
de􀏯nitely not interested…” He shrugs. “And I wanted the gig. My wife, or exwife
now, had just found out she was pregnant with our twins, so my days as a
student needed to be over.”
I force a laugh, trying not to react to the fact that he has kids. Plural. I try to
􀏯gure out how to press on that, to wrap this conversation around to his wife, to
the wedding. To where I need it to go. To Kate.
“Maybe that’s why you look familiar,” I say. “This is going to sound crazy,
but I think we met a long time ago.”
He tilts his head, smiles. “Did we?”
“No, I mean… I think I was here, at the bar, back when I was in college.”
“So… it’s The Never Dry that looks familiar?”
“I guess that’s more accurate, yeah.” I say. “I was in town with a girlfriend for
the hot sauce competition. She was photographing it for a local paper…”
I 􀏯gure as much truth as I can muster is a good thing.
“And I’m pretty sure we came in here that weekend. This place doesn’t look
like a lot of other bars around Austin.”
“It’s certainly possible… the festival isn’t held too far from here.” He turns
and pulls a bottle of Shonky Sauce Co. Purple Hot Sauce o􀏦 his shelf. “This was
one of 2019’s winners. I use it to make a pretty feisty Bloody Mary…”
“That sounds like a commitment,” I say.
“It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure,” he says.
He laughs and I brace myself for what I’m about to do.
“If I’m remembering this place correctly, the bartender working here that
night was a total sweetheart. She gave us all sorts of tips for places to eat. I
remember her. Long dark hair. She looked a lot like you, actually.”
“That’s some memory you have,” he says.
“I might be getting a little help.”
I point toward the shelf of silver-framed photographs. I point toward one in
which Kate is staring back at me.
“Maybe it was her,” I say.
He follows my eyes toward the photograph of Kate and shakes his head. “No,
not possible,” he says.
He starts wiping down the bar, completely tightening up. And this is when I
should drop it—this is when I would drop it—if I didn’t need his help to get to
it, who Kate Smith is.
“Weird. I could have sworn it was her. Are you guys related?” I say.
He looks up at me, the look in his eye changing from avoidance to irritation.
“You ask a lot of questions,” he says.
“I know. Sorry. You don’t have to answer that,” I say. “It’s a bad habit.”
“Asking too many questions?”
“Thinking that people want to answer.”
His face softens. “No, it’s 􀏯ne,” he says. “She’s my sister. And it’s just a little
sensitive ’cause she’s not with us anymore…”
His sister. He said she was his sister. And he said she isn’t with them
anymore. This breaks something in me. If this is Bailey’s mother, she is lost to
her. Bailey has lived her life thinking her mother is lost to her, but this will be in
an entirely new way. She will be lost to her as soon as she found her. Which is
why the next thing I say is the truth.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say. “I’m really sorry.”
“Yeah…” he says. “Me too.”
I don’t want to push him further on Kate, not now. I can check death
certi􀏯cates when I leave here. I can check with someone else to learn more.
I start to get up, but Charlie scans the shelf until he 􀏯nds a speci􀏯c
photograph. It’s a photograph of Charlie with a dark-haired woman and two
little boys, both of the boys dressed in Texas Rangers jerseys.
“Maybe it was my wife, Andrea,” he says. “That you met, I mean. She worked
here for years. When I was in school, she put in more shifts than I did.”
He hands me the picture frame. I look closely at the photograph, at this nice
family staring back at me, at his now ex-wife, shining a lovely smile at the camera.
“It probably was her,” I say. “It’s weird, isn’t it? I don’t know where I put the
room key for my hotel, but her face, I think I remember.”
I hold on to the photograph.
“Your boys are adorable.”
“Thank you. They’re great kids. But I need some new photographs in here.
They were 􀏯ve in this photo,” he says. “And now they’re eleven, which, as they
would be quick to tell you, is essentially voting age.”
Eleven. That stops me. Eleven would line up, almost precisely, with when he
and Andrea got married. Andrea getting pregnant shortly before or shortly after
the wedding.
“They play me a bit now though, since the divorce. Think I’ll cave to all their
demands just so I get to be the cool dad…” He laughs. “They win more often
than they should.”
“Probably okay,” I say.
“Yeah.” He shrugs. “You got kids?”
“Not yet,” I say. “Still looking for the guy.”
This is truer than I want it to be. And Charlie smiles at me, perhaps
wondering if I mean it as an invitation. I know this is the moment, the moment
to ask the question I need an answer to most.
I stall as I think of how to get there.
“I should probably get going, but maybe I’ll head back if I get done early
enough.”
“De􀏯nitely,” he says. “Come back, we’ll celebrate.”
“Or commiserate.”
He smiles. “Or that.”
I stand up, as if I’m about to leave, my heart threatening to beat out of my
chest.
“You know… this is a bizarre question. Is it okay if I ask you? Before I head
out? I 􀏯gure you know a lot of locals.”
“Far too many,” he says. “What do you need to know?”
“I’m trying to 􀏯nd this guy. My girlfriend and I met him when we were here
that time… a lifetime ago. He lived in Austin, probably still does. And my friend
had this huge crush on him.”
He looks at me, intrigued. “Okay…”
“Anyway, she’s going through a crappy divorce and he’s stuck in her head.
That sounds ridiculous, but since I’m back in town, I thought I’d try to 􀏯nd
him. It would be a nice thing to be able to do for her. They had a connection. A
million years ago, but connections are hard to 􀏯nd so…”
“Do you have a name?” he says. “Not that I’m great with names.”
“How about faces?” I say.
“I’m pretty good with faces,” he says.
I reach into my pocket and pull out my phone, click through to the
photograph of Owen. It’s the photograph that we showed Professor Cookman
—the one on Bailey’s phone, the one I asked her to text me. Bailey’s face covered
with 􀏲owers, Owen smiling, happy.
Charlie looks down at the photograph.
And it happens so quickly. He throws my phone down, cracking it against
the countertop. He is over the bar and in my face. He isn’t touching me, but he
is so close that he could.
“Do you think this is funny?” he says. “Who are you?”
I shake my head, frightened.
“Who sent you?” he says.
“No one.”
I back up against the wall, and he moves closer to me—his face in my face, his
shoulder almost touching my shoulder.
“This is my family you’re messing with,” he says. “Who sent you here?”
“Get away from her!”
I look in the doorway to see Bailey standing there. She is holding the class
roster in one of her hands, a cup of co􀏦ee in the other.
She looks scared. But more than that, she looks angry, like she is going to hurl
a barstool at him, if she needs to.
Charlie looks like he has seen a ghost.
“Holy shit,” he says.
He moves away from me slowly. I take in a deep breath and then another, my
heartbeat slowing down.
We are in a weird standstill. Bailey and Charlie stare at each other as I pull
myself o􀏦 the wall. There are no more than two feet between any of us, but no
one is moving. Not toward each other or away. Charlie, all of a sudden, in tears.
“Kristin?” he says.
At the sound of him calling her by a name, even a name I don’t recognize, I
stop breathing.
“I’m not Kristin,” she says.
Bailey shakes her head, her voice catching.
I reach down and pick my cell phone up from the 􀏲oor, the screen cracked.
But it’s working. It’s still working. I could dial 911. I could get help. I inch
backward, toward Bailey.
Protect her.
Charlie puts his hands up in surrender as I reach Bailey, the blue door right
behind us. The stairs and the outside world just beyond that.
“Look, I’m sorry about that. I can explain. If you just sit down,” he says.
“Take a minute. Can you both do that? Have a seat. I’d like to talk, if you’ll let
me.”He motions toward a table where we can all sit. And he steps away from us, as
if giving us a choice. And I can see he means it—in his eyes. He looks more
sorrowful than mad.
But his skin is still bright red, and I don’t trust the anger I saw, the fear.
Wherever it came from, I can’t have Bailey around it, not until I know what his
stake in this is. What I suspect his stake in Bailey is.
So I turn to Bailey. I turn to Bailey and grab her shirt at the small of her back,
roughly, pulling her toward the door.
“Go!” I say. “Now!”
And, as though it is something we know how to do, we run down the stairs,
together, then outside into Austin’s streets and away from Charlie Smith.


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