It’s three in the morning and my wife is standing in the doorway of our garage in flannel pajamas and that pink robe she’s worn since high school. She’s watching me use a red Gerber spoon to dip into the urn and finally she goes, “Bobby, you just can’t do it — it’s too morbid. What kind of ceremony is that anyway, to shoot someone out of a gun?”
I shrug and cap a shell. She’s been riding me about it and it’s wearing on me. “There are all kinds of ceremonies, Kay,” I say. “Knowing Dave, this is some pagan thing.” I dip into the gunpowder, pack it down, ball the paper, layer it out, dip into the urn, sprinkle Dave, cap it off, pick up another shell and go again. I’ve been at it for hours. She shakes her head and reaches for my bottle of Beam.
I block her move with my foot and say, “Look, Dave put it in writing and this is what he wants. He wants me to load him into shotgun shells and then he wants me to blast his ass into the sky directly over Stone Lake – that place we used to hunt mallard in the fall. So that is what I’m doing.” I laugh. I don’t know why. I mean I think I have to. I’ve only got half of him because his old man kept the other, so I’m shoveling this particular half of him into plastic twelve gauge shells with a baby spoon. It’s slow going.
Kay’s eyeing me with her mouth open. I see a wad of gum on her tongue. Strawberry. She’s always chewing strawberry. She’s thinking. She crosses her arms, leans against the doorjamb and says, “Huh, I see.”
“The lake is just past the northern end of the pass,” I tell her. “I’ll be gone two days, tops. I need a couple days, Kay.”
She’s fiddling with her elbows now, rubbing that patch of rough skin between her fingers. Pulling it and twisting it so it looks like it hurts more than it does. I tell her to take it easy. “Well,” she whispers and wipes her palms on her belly then throws them up in the air like a choir leader. “We don’t really have the money for you to take off work right now.”
“You’re gonna have to do better than that,” I say. “The goddamn mill will keep running without me. I’m going today.”
“OK,” she hisses and kicks me back a step. “How about I’m pregnant, or did you forget about that? Look at the spoon your using! Or how about you’re not pagan — we’re supposed to be Baptists, asshole. And how about I’m asking you not to go, Bobby. How ’bout that?”
“Listen,” I tell her. “If Dave wanted me to throw his body in the back of my pickup, light his body on fire and drive him down Main Street like a parade – I’d do it. That” I say, “is love.”
“That,” she says, “is not love! God, you never even saw him once we got married.” She mentions this like it gives her a point.
“I didn’t see him, Kay, because we got married. And then he went and got himself blown up in friendly fire.” I laugh again, because whenever I say the words out loud, they just seem like something in a nursery rhyme. Something that gives you pause, because it doesn’t really make any sense but sounds good and shitty at the same time. Like Humpty Dumpty. You can’t tell me that poor freak ever came back normal after all the Kings men couldn’t put him back together again. You don’t come back normal after being cracked like that. Even if you look the same.
“And I don’t even know if I’m shoveling his ass into these shells, or his head,” I say. “Where the hell is Afghanistan anyway?” This is a joke. Sort-of. Dave would sign his letters off that way, like he had no idea where he was. Or why. “And who’s to say it’s even him!” I ask. The only thing that was dropped off to me with the urn was a compass that I didn’t recognize at all. We never used a compass in all our hunting trips. We grew up in this valley, and knew every bend of the river and curve of a trail and knot on an oak.
“And who’s to say it’s even him.” I say again and start to sweat and shake and try to close my eyes to that image of him blowing in the air like pollen off a bud. I have dreams of him opening his arms wide, like to a friend, like to that familiar bend in the river. Like to me. Welcoming that bullet like he would me, arms stretched out, and that bullet opening his chest up like a rose. Friendly fire.
I see Kay’s face start to blotch up and then turn white as a bass belly. I keep going. Bourbon makes me stupid. “I’ve been working my ass off since we got married. I haven’t taken a hunting, much less fishing trip, while Dave rotted away over there. Twenty-one. Before I even got myself together enough to say good-bye or tell him anything worth telling. And he was twenty-fucking-one.”
“Don’t blame me,” she yells. “Don’t even try to make me the bad guy here — you have your own damn mind.” Then she leans in and touches my arm and her fingers are cool. Light and cool. “Honey,” she says. “You’re really sweating. Why don’t you cap that Beam and come to bed?”
“Watch your mouth around the baby,” I whisper. She tells me to kiss off. “Well, if he’d of been a woman,” I say, “I’d of married him.”
She goes, “I’m outta here.”
Now she’s packing crap in the bathroom and I’m packing beside her. I see her lift my razor and slip it into her tote, so I grab her tweezers and stuff them in my shaving bag. She says, “What the hell are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I tell her. “What are you doing?” Then we’re both heading out the front door with bags full of shit we don’t need and I tell her again that I’ll be back in a couple days.
“Well I won’t,” she says. But she will. I think she will.
“Hell, in that case,” I say. “You wanna get down one last time?” I’m half kidding, but I figure it’s something we could really use. We used to make it when we were mad. It was great. Crazy. Lately, every time I try to work my hands inside those pajama bottoms, she tells me she feels fat. And she is, with the baby and all. I like it all right, though. I do. But she’ll start rubbing her belly, “You don’t understand the pressure I feel.”
And it’s a wash from there. Right. I don’t understand the pressure. Anyway, as she’s throwing her bag in the trunk, I say, “How about it, Kay? One last ball for the road?” She ignores me and gets in to crank over the engine.
The night is slowly giving way to dawn and I’m barefoot, still in boxers with my half of Dave strapped in tight, forty-six shells looped in elastic across my bare chest. I’m some messed up John Wayne in the middle of our street. October and it’s already so cold I can see Kay’s breath silvering against the cracked windshield. The mill is working away in the near distance and that silt hangs thick in the air.
“What do you say, Kay?” I’m really screaming at this point. It’s like I am refereeing a great match between me, and me. “Let’s get down!” I yell over the engine. “Let’s just FUCK! Right here, right now! You, me, and the kid!”
The neighbor’s porch light comes on and Kay’s eyes bug out. She pretends like that’s the most despicable thing she’s ever heard come out of my mouth. Then she rolls down her window, spits her gum into the dirt, flips me the bird and burns rubber in her Buick. I see her robe caught in the door like a pink tongue – nah-nah-ing me as she heads for higher ground. She’s driving like a lunatic when suddenly she jerks to a stop halfway down the road and yells back for me to be careful. “At least be careful you goddamn idiot,” she screams and makes the bend for her mother’s house four blocks down.
I see her car parked in their driveway on my way out of town. I sit across the street for a minute and roll a smoke. The kitchen light comes on and she parts that heavy floral curtain and perches in the window like she’s seventeen again and waiting for me to pick her up. Back then she’d come through that ripped screen door like a vision of something I thought was out of this world, man. Not even of the earth, with her body banging around beneath some soft blue dress and her hair braided down in funky ribbons.
She’d been waiting forever, she’d say. Waiting for me to come pick her up and tell her my big plans, and waiting for me to convince her that I was the One. I’m the one, come on, baby, and let me be The One! She’d wait to hear words that I had practiced and practiced until finally I even convinced myself that this was it, this was what life must really be.
And as I head out of town with Dave heavy against my chest, I gotta laugh. This is what life is. I got that compass. It’s tarnished and so random. Before I get to the highway, I pull over and open it up. I am eased and weak by the fact that the backside of it is a mirror. Something familiar. All I see are these big ass brown eyes tearing up but focused – knowing I’m heading due – future.
Dani is the past recipient of The Heritage Award in Fiction (GMU—MFA) and the Text and Community Award in Fiction for blue collar voices (Virginia). She had a great time as the fiction editor for So To Speak, and now you can read her work in the Raleigh Review, Adirondack Review, PANK, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Stirring, and Phoebe. She lives on an island in the Puget Sound and has the continuous pleasure of raising the coolest kid ever, Holden.