August 18, 2015
The porch looked empty, but when I opened up the screen door, a man rushed at me, arms raised.
That’s what I’d told the jury. They’d questioned me for what seemed like days. A surgeon who took the stand said the bullet had entered the man’s abdomen, burst his spleen, and lodged between his seventh and eighth vertebrae. The jury determined I couldn’t be charged with any wrongful doing as the act was declared self-defense. The man survived, but he wasn’t going to walk right ever again. Social media interpreted the event differently because the man who was trying to attack me was doing so with a very large carrot that he’d stolen from Safeway only an hour earlier. Everybody with an opinion screamed about our country’s failure to help those with mental illnesses, that people like me had no tolerance for the less fortunate. But I’d sworn he had a steak knife covered in what I thought was fresh blood, but it was only the carrot’s hue turned reddish under the dim porch light. My testimony, however farfetched, was convincing enough and nine out of twelve jury members determined it was a no fault case. Reports showed that the man was not mentally ill but high on a psychedelic called Gator Grip. Apparently the drug made you feel like you were drowning. I didn’t know what people saw in it, except it made you think that every second was your last one alive. I guess there’s something beautiful about that.
That was the start of a pretty bad year for me, but I won’t say that the shooting led directly to anything that followed. There was only one common denominator that linked me to all those events. Me.
About the only good thing during that time in my life was Ash. Ash and I were together for three years, but I had no money most of the time because people remember the bad things a lot longer than any good thing. Employers were scared to the bone that I was going to drag some kind of drama from the shooting to the job, which seemed too big of a risk to take.
But I was a survivor, like Ash. That was one of the only things we truly had in common.
Ash told me that when she was a little girl, the electricity regularly cut in her house in the wintertime,. She said one time she woke up to her pet fish Captain Horse dead because the heat went off in the middle of the night. An ice cube, really, with a fishy center. Her father had taught her a life lesson that morning. He said plainly that when you get cold enough you die.
Her Pop, coincidentally, died a few years later when his shanty dropped through the ice while he was fishing on the Sacandaga Lake. One time I heard some guy on the radio say, “We all live some; we all die some.” I never figured out how you could die just some. But after Ash and I split it made a little more sense.
From the bluffs, Madi and I could see the entire city. Ash was pregnant with Madi when she was only eighteen, an entire lifetime before I met her; and Madi was now almost seven. The sky was empty save the moon, but the city lights burned like stars on the streets. This was weeks after Ash left, but she was in a pinch for a sitter, and she knew I could use the money, even though I told her I wouldn’t take anything from her.
“Everything okay at the house?” I asked Madi. “Your momma okay?”
“All the stars are gone,” Madi said, looking into the dark, dark sky.
I said, “People got greedy and wished every one away.”
Barefoot, she dug her toes into the dirt and pulled at the grass.
“But they’ll come back?” Madi asked. She was a sweet girl.
“You can see ‘em in your head, can’t you?” I said, and I figured I should take a lesson from Ash’s daddy and tell this sweet little girl that the world was only as evil as you make it. “Remember your grandpa and your Uncle Lou? Just imagine ‘em and the stars and anything you really want, and they’ll never disappear.”
“Never,” she asked, twisting a strand of grass. She looked just like Ash.
I imagined the stars, my father, and those summers night fishing for pike with him. It took my entire life to understand that no one ever dies in your mind. That’s the trouble with memories.
“Someday you’ll tell your own daughter about the things in your head,” I said, wanting to say more.
We watched the starless sky, and I thought that it was the only truth there was.
The next woman I ever loved was Gina Diane. We met drinking Mad Dog out back of the bowling alley after league night. I can’t say my life was any better or worse, because after Ash and Madi moved across the country I didn’t feel much of anything; my doctor had a lot to do with that. At the bowling alley, I had rolled a 280, which wasn’t my best, but I was still shooting for a perfect game. Seemed like a good thing to live for. In the parking lot, Gina Diane was sitting cross-legged, itty-bitty skirt hiked high, with a guy I knew, a floorer. She tossed gravel against the concrete wall. Floorers were a type I never got. Not like welders or duct workers. You need some know-how for that. But floors – you don’t even need to be literate.
The bug zapper hung off the exit sign, and it struck lightning here and there, but those two sat a couple feet in the dark. I went out to smoke, and when I had opened the door they stopped doing what they were doing.
“Need something, man?” the floorer said.
“Do I know you?” I asked. I’d seen him on a few jobs, way back too, from all-county football in high school. I said, “Cobleskill High, right? Full back?”
He said, “State champs three years straight.”
“I played tailback for Renbrook High,” I said.
“You mean Redneck High?” the floorer asked.
“I went to Renbrook,” Gina Diane said. “What year?”
I said, “1998.”
She said, “Jesus, boy. I could be your mother.”
I said, “I do need a good mommy sometimes,” and smiled.
“Why don’t we make this twosome a threesome?” Gina Diane asked the floorer.
Floorer said, “Fucking inbreds,” and he left.
We shared her bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, and she told me her biggest fear was that she’d die in a gutter, people driving by without helping her.
I said, “Why would you be in a gutter?”
She said, “Where else would I sleep if I couldn’t drive home?”
I said, “You’re no lady, but you’re all right.”
She said, “Now you tell me a secret you never told nobody.”
“I shot a man,” I said. “But that’s no secret.”
“You’re funny,” she said. “What’s your name again?”
“That’ll be the secret, how about?” I said, and we each drank again.
“I let my uncle touch me once,” she said, and laughed. “I’m only kidding. It was twice.”
I choked on the drink, and we both laughed hard. Then I kissed her; maybe she kissed me.
It wasn’t long after that we were pregnant, driving to the doctor’s office. Gina Diane and I were living together, and she said she was nervous because she was going on forty. The doctor had said the blood wasn’t abnormal, but he said to keep an eye out. I remember not that long ago that I was going down this exact same road with Ash saying we wouldn’t do to our kids what our folks did to us. I remember because it was all talk, hypothetical, but now, for the first time in my life I thought maybe I did want a kid.
We had shopping to do. Weekend yard sales, and not in the poor places either but in the neighborhoods with mailboxes with nameplates and two car garages. They sold a fancy dream.
We looked at a kid’s blue dresser, some girls’ names in black marker written down the backside. Some little dipshit, I imagined, writing Sandy and Amanda, like he would have options when he got old enough.
Gina Diane held a pair of black Levi’s to her waist. They were the kind she used to wear. Tight in the ass. Low on the hips. But she folded them, setting them back.
“They look good,” I said.
“Those days are plenty over,” she said.
I picked up a raggedy doll with red hair and spoke out the side of my mouth.
“Come on, girlie,” I said. “Let daddy buy ‘em for you.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” she said, smiling like the first time we met.
When I was nine my father sat me down at the kitchen table, his suitcase packed. The buckles were broken, but he cinched the bag shut with a bungee cord from his pickup truck.
“When you shoot one bird flying, you shoot all the birds flying,” my father had said.
“What does that mean?” I had asked.
My father had nodded at me, but he didn’t smile. “Means the last woman you meet is as good as the first one.”
And now I knew just how true that was.
Since high school Billy and I had been coming to Tiny’s garage nearly every weekend. Billy hung a turkey from the rafters. Its body half-skinned, hide pulled down like a sock. Sweat beaded on our Busch cans. Billy was back from West Virginia buying fireworks, selling M-80s and Blackcats to scrubs behind the Fuel-n-Food. The Yankee game cracked from the radio, and Tiny and some asshole were out front working on the F-150 Tiny bought at the police auction.
I leaned against the welding bench. “It really as backwoods as they say?” I asked.
Billy shook his head, slicing through turkey fat, yanking skin from muscle. “Third-world maybe. A lot more than here. Like, I saw a pet deer.”
“As a real pet?” I asked.
“Behind some dude’s house. Real beautiful eyes. That’s what he was trying to sell me after I bought up a bunch of his fireworks. Eyes you’d want to look at while making love.”
“Who the hell makes love to a deer?” I asked. “Everybody knows you just fuck ‘em.”
Billy scratched his neck, his knuckles covered in blood and hunks of white fat. “That’s how you got yourself in your damn predicament, huh?”
“Shit’s real, I guess.” I grabbed a handful of screws from a coffee can, tossing them back one by one.
Out front, we heard a loud metal crash, and Tiny called what’s-his-name a faggot, and they both howled.
“Really though,” I said. “I wish I could do it all over. Stuff I know now would’ve been nice ten years ago.”
“With Gina?” he asked.
“With Ash,” I said. “I’d a told her to go to the damn door that night. Let that crazy dude with the fucking carrot stab her in the face.”
Billy laughed, drawing his blade across the turkey’s thigh, leaving a slug of blood and slapped the blade shut. He gave a final yank to the hide, and the turkey was all pink and muscly.
Billy said, “That’s some shit, man. I thought you loved that girl.”
“Me too,” I said. “That’s part of the problem, I guess.”
I finished my beer, crushed the can. I really wanted to tell Billy that I thought staying together with Gina Diane was bad news; anyone could see that. Or maybe I knew that she’d run off someday, and it’d be me and the kid, and in twenty years that kid would turn out to be like me, and that’s a lot of misery for something so pure and good as your own blood. Why wait to break her heart, I thought. Everybody would heal better.
“If things ever got bad at home, you think I could crash on your couch for a couple nights?” I asked.
“You’re talking to the wrong person if you’re already thinking about leaving her. Jesus, man.”
“Yeah,” I said, opening another beer.
“I mean, you ain’t no better than every other piece of shit in this town,” Billy said, then admired the skinned bird’s slick, hard muscles. But he nodded slowly. “Sure. Whatever,” he said. “Stay as long as you want.”
“Maybe just one night,” I said, and I wasn’t sure if I felt better or worse.
Every light was off in the trailer, but the front door was open, TV going. News about protests in New York City; a cop shot a twelve-year-old boy who pointed a toy gun at him.
Gina Diane was breathing real quiet in the bedroom, but I knew she wasn’t sleeping. I knocked my knee against the edge of the bed.
I stripped naked, said, “Go back to sleep.”
In bed, she trembled when I pressed against her. Her breath reeked sweetly, like booze.
I said, “You’re not supposed to be drinking.”
“It’s cough medicine,” she said.
The first night we met, behind the bowling alley, we daydreamed. “In a year,” I’d told her, “I’ll be working regular. Jobs always pick up in the summer, and we’ll buy Heineken. Take weekends off too.” She said she was quitting cold turkey, meetings, twelve steps, all that. Then we drank all her Mad Dog and talked about the peppers and squash we’d plant someday in the garden. About the name of our first dog and our first born.
But the future was entirely different. I wrapped the pillow around my face
I said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“What?” she said. “Christ, what did you say?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “about seeing things through. About signing up for more.”
“You know what you sound like?” she asked. “Because I know every excuse from every guy in this town.”
I tried to remember that bronzed, drunken feeling I felt with her at the bowling alley or those mornings when I was a kid and my mother fixed cream of wheat on the stove and swore that dad leaving was going to be best thing for everyone. I wasn’t either of those people anymore, and I had no idea how to be start being someone better.
The bedroom was quiet and mostly dark, but straws of blond light bordered the windows. Somewhere out there was the moon, or just a street lamp. Either way, light rained down, trying to get in.
CRAIG BUCHNER’S short stories have appeared in Tin House, The Baltimore Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other literary journals. Craig teaches writing and lives in Portland, Oregon. Read more of his work at his website or find him on Twitter at @CraigBuchner.