The Squirrel Gun
(first published in Silk Road Review)
The boys’ faces lit up when Martin walked through the kitchen door with the thing slung over his shoulder, gazed at him like it was a new game system and not just an old shotgun. His wife Karen’s smile morphed into a confused snarl in the same instant.
Martin had anticipated her reaction. They had strict rules for the boys–rules that elicited poorly suppressed eye rolling from other parents: no toy guns of any kind; no violent video games whatsoever; strictly no violence on television or in movies (this included Batman, Spider Man, X-Men). They were raising the boys to be reasonable men, who did not resort to violence. Gentle men.
It felt strange to Martin too, bringing in a gun, like he was breaking the law–though he couldn’t deny the gun felt good in his hands. He imagined he looked like one of the rednecks he remembered from his childhood, who would emerge from the woods and hike along the roadside, shotgun broken down over a shoulder, four or five dead squirrels dangling from a belt or a fist.
He’d gone to his hometown of Hinton, like he did one Sunday every month. He had attended church with his mom and had taken her to the Golden Skillet Buffet, and then for a drive along the New River. As they said their goodbyes she’d forced it on him. The gun had been his father’s, he told Karen–it was an heirloom, not a weapon.
Both the boys had been mesmerized by it, their heads swinging in unison like puppies’ as they watched Martin carry it from the carport through the kitchen into the den. They’d pushed from the table and followed him, drawn from their macaroni and cheese as if in a trance.
In the den Martin showed the boys how to load the red plastic shells of six shot. It was small but heavy, so that when either Leo or Ian lifted it he pulled his shoulders up as if he were in cold pool water. He broke the gun down and it lobbed shells over his shoulder. The boys jumped to catch them, shoving and giggling. When the gun was broken down, Martin could see through the barrel from the back: the inside tube was a series of dark concentric circles leading to a glowing center, like a bright planet through a telescope. The black barrel was swirled with shimmering blue and dull orange and brown, like oil on water.
Karen sat on the edge of the sofa frowning.
He pulled ten-year-old Ian to him. He slid his arms up under the boy’s arms and around his thin body and held the gun. “Here’s how you aim it,” he said. He remembered his own father’s whiskers rough on his cheek as his dad showed him how to aim a gun. His face was at Ian’s shoulder and he could smell macaroni and cheese on the boy’s warm breath. “Put that bead on a squirrel,” he said, “and squeeze the trigger. Don’t ever pull a trigger. You’ll jerk and miss.”
“Let me try,” eight-year-old Leo said.
Ian aimed at the woodstove. He had a rooster tail that sprouted from his crown like a tuft of grass through a sidewalk crack.
Martin slid onto the couch beside Karen.
She said, “I don’t want that thing in the house.”
“It’s just a squirrel gun,” he said. “It isn’t a weapon.”
“Let me have a turn,” Leo said.
Ian’s cheeks puffed out as he made an explosion sound.
Karen said, “If it’s not a weapon, then it can’t kill someone?”
Leo stomped his foot and said, “Let me see it.”
Ian swung the gun around and pointed it at Leo’s head. He said, “See?”
Leo was saying you know what I meant as Martin jumped for the gun. He slapped the barrel and wrenched it from Ian’s grasp. He yelled, “Don’t you ever point a gun at someone.”
“I was just kidding,” Ian said.
“You don’t kid like that.”
Karen said, “I don’t want it here.”
Leo said, “Can I hold it now?”
Martin said, “You two go ride bikes.”
Leo said, “No fair.”
“Another time, Leo. Go ride bikes.”
Karen stood and looked away from Martin. She pinched her shorts out of her crack and walked down the hallway to the bedroom.
While she showered, Martin hid the gun in their bedroom closet behind two boxes of Karen’s winter clothes. The ammo was in a green and yellow Remington box that said, Long Range on the side. He took it to the hall closet and pulled down the stack of board games–Scrabble, Scattergories, Cranium–slid the shotgun shells to the back and replaced the games. Old winter coats, vacuum cleaner, rolls of wrapping paper–the hall closet was so full of things the boys cared nothing about that the door itself blended into the wall for them, Martin thought. They would never find the shells there, not even by accident.
The next evening Martin got home from senior seminar and found that Karen, in her passive aggressive way, had gone out and gotten the boys a Yellow Lab puppy. The boys were romping with the pup out in the back yard. Karen stood in the dark kitchen watching them out the window.
“They named her Butter,” she said.
“Shouldn’t we have discussed this?” Martin asked.
“Look at them,” she said. She put her fist under her chin and smiled wistfully out the window. She had her shoes off but was still in her work suit.
The boys tired of the puppy and ran to their bikes. Karen leaned out the kitchen door into the carport and hollered at them to be home in one hour for dinner, as they pumped their bikes up the driveway. Butter yipped and threw herself clumsily against the backyard fence.
Almost two hours later the boys hadn’t returned, and Karen said, “Go looking for them. They might be in trouble.” He was at his car with the door open when he saw them turn onto the street. He watched them ride slowly toward him. When they veered down the driveway and rode into the carport light, Martin saw that their faces were red-streaked from crying.
“What’s wrong, boys?” Karen said from the kitchen door.
“Sam,” Leo said.
Sam Mansel lived with his mother on the next street; a standard chain-link fence an oak tree and a walnut tree separated their back yards. A hanging fern in the kitchen window across the yards left about twelve inches in which Martin could catch flashes of Sam’s mom at the sink. Sam’s father was a state trooper up in Morgantown. At fourteen, Sam was already taller than Martin.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Sam.”
“What did Sam do?” Karen asked.
The boys started crying again as they told. Sam had repeatedly thrown them and their bicycles over the hill at the entrance to the Woodbridge subdivision, and wouldn’t stop no matter how they asked.
Karen said, “Are you hurt?”
They shook their heads no and said they didn’t think so.
“Are the bikes damaged?” she asked
Again they shook their heads and said they didn’t think so. Karen put her hand over her mouth to think.
Martin said, “What were you doing out at Woodbridge?” Woodbridge was outside their approved riding zone.
They both shrugged.
“No bikes for one week. Either one of you. Not even the driveway.”
“It’s not fair,” Leo shouted. “He shoved us over the hill and we get in trouble.”
Ian said, “Give me that gun. I’ll shot that son of a–”
“Ian,” Karen yelled. But then she wrinkled her forehead in an angry scowl and crossed her arms at Martin.
Martin said, “Violence is not how we handle things in this house.”
Karen said, “You don’t even say things like that, son.”
Six months later Martin was finished with his semester but was directing the summer research program, so he was still going to campus every day. After lunch he worked at home so Karen could go in and get some work done. One afternoon Martin was in his home office updating syllabi. He heard the boys come in the house and go to their room. They were arguing. The tone wasn’t unusual, but at some point a word caught Martin’s attention. He looked up from his computer and listened.
“You know you’re a fag,” Ian’s voice said. “You know you want to.”
Martin stepped quietly down the hallway toward their room.
Leo said, “You’re nasty.”
“You know you want to.”
Martin peeked into the room. Leo was sitting on his bed holding a tennis ball. Ian was standing on the other side of the room by his own bed, his rooster tail sprouting. Both boys had sweaty slick temples. The bedroom smelled like sweat and grass.
Then Martin noticed that the tip of Ian’s penis was out of his cargo shorts like a button mushroom cap. He held it between his index finger and thumb as if to urinate.
“You know you want to suck my dick,” he said, and he stepped toward Leo.
Leo rolled over and faced the wall. He said, “Get away you freak.”
Before Ian’s eyes registered comprehension, Martin, in one sweeping motion, had grabbed him and thrown him onto his bed. He curled toward the wall, pulling in his penis and zipping his shorts.
“What in the world?” Martin yelled.
Ian lay with his back to Martin. He did not respond.
“I asked you a question, son.”
“Just messing around.” Ian’s voice was muffled by his pillow and covers.
“You call that playing?” Martin realized he was still yelling. He took a slow breath.
“Uh-huh.” Ian said into his pillow. He lay still as a corpse.
Leo sat up on his bed and dangled his legs over. They didn’t reach the floor. He tossed the tennis ball from hand to hand.
Martin said to him, “Did that feel like play to you?”
“No.” Leo’s voice was loud and accusatory. A black and white poster of Shel Silverstein’s homework machine was above his bed, with the kid squished inside all the cogs and belts, writing away. Leo had scrawled his name at the bottom in blue crayon.
Martin turned back to Ian. He was on his back now, arms akimbo, staring at the ceiling. Martin said, “Where did you hear that kind of talk?”
The boy lay still in an oversized t-shirt, baby blue with a picture of Scooby-Doo on the front. His feet were splayed out in untied basketball shoes. He was as flat and motionless as a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“I asked where you heard that,” Martin said. “That was highly inappropriate.”
Ian said, “Sam.”
“When were you around Sam Mansel?”
“The other day.”
Butter trotted into the room. She looked up at Martin, then from boy to boy, and then went to the floor register where cool air was blowing out. She dropped as if shot, her dog elbows banging the hardwood floor with a painful sounding crack. She stretched languidly and closed her eyes.
“You were there too?” Martin asked Leo.
They both nodded their heads.
“Stay away from that boy,” Martin said. “You see him, you go the other way. Do you understand me?”
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” they both said.
Martin went to his bedroom and stood at the closet. Butter followed him. He changed into his grubby shorts and old sneakers and went out to mow the yard. Butter jogged wide loops in the yard as Martin mowed, barking at the mower, every now and then getting up enough nerve to nip at a wheel before running away. Each pass across the back yard, Martin glanced up at Sam Mansel’s house. He squeezed the handle till he could feel the vibration of the whipping blades up his arms and into his shoulders and chest. He pushed over walnut shells. Shards were zinging out from under the mower. Occasionally one whipped back and gouged his shin. When one did, he tightened his jaw and forged on.
It was dark inside Sam’s house. Nobody was there.
Eventually Martin’s heartbeat returned to normal. He finished mowing the yard, put away the gas can and mower and went in to take a shower. His shoes and legs were pasted with cut grass and leaf bits. Blood trickled down his left shin in two different spots.
That September Ian started middle school and turned eleven. He made friends with a kid named Payne, and the boy’s mother called and asked if Ian could go to the high school’s football game with them. Martin heard Karen talking about it on the phone with the woman, and somehow, without actually asking, she wrangled the woman into taking Leo along.
She hung up the phone and gave Martin her sexy look and said, “Friday night, we’re having a date.”
And they did. He had a strategic planning committee meeting after class, so that by the time he got home the boys were already gone. He and Karen put on piano jazz and drank red wine and cooked tuna steaks and white beans and tomatoes in white wine together. They ate a leisurely meal and had adult conversation. They made love that felt exhilarating and naughty simply because they did it on the couch in the den instead of hushed away in their bedroom.
They were back in the kitchen getting ice cream when the boys came home. Payne’s mom followed the boys into the kitchen, wearing a shiny Redskins jacket that made her look big as a body builder up top. Her bangs were teased out and she had on hoop earrings.
Butter jumped up on the woman and Martin shooed the dog away. After sex, Karen had thrown on a pair of loose sweats and one of Martin’s Oxford shirts over her bare breasts. She pulled her arm up to cover them and fingered at the top button.
“I’m so sorry,” Payne’s mom said. Payne hadn’t come in with her. She said, “I let them walk around the bleachers without me. I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
Karen poured herself more wine. She offered the woman a glass. The woman said no thank you, she was driving. She was in a hurry to get out of their kitchen too. She said, “I didn’t know about the trouble with that boy.”
Martin set his wine glass on the kitchen table. He said, “Sam?”
Leo told the story while Ian stood looking at the floor, holding back tears. Sam and a group of his friends, all fifteen years old and in tenth grade, were at the ball game. They got Ian behind the bleachers, then Leo too. They picked on them for a long time and wouldn’t let them go.
“Picked on you?” Karen asked. “Like how?”
“Hit us and stuff,” Leo said. “Got us in headlocks. They said they would beat us up if we told anybody.”
“Where were the adults?” Karen said. She looked at the woman. “Where was Payne?”
Leo said, “They let him go.”
Payne’s mom said, “He came and got me.” Her jacket swished when she moved. Martin disliked her intensely. She said, “I went as soon as he told me. I went, but it was over by the time I got there. Nobody was there.”
Martin looked at Ian. He asked, “How did you end up behind the bleachers with Sam Mansel?”
“Just hanging out,” Ian said.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman repeated. “I didn’t know about your trouble with that boy.”
Martin said, “Why on earth would you want to hang out with Sam Mansel?”
The boys hung their heads.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay away from that boy?”
The looked at the floor, didn’t answer.
“If you ever go near that boy again, there will be hell to pay.” He said, “Do you hear me?”
They nodded silently.
After everyone was in bed, Martin stood at the kitchen window and stared with seething hatred across the back yards at the Mansel house.
Fall semester was over. The boys’ Christmas Break began on Wednesday. They had early dismissal. Martin ran by his office and made two trips to his car with bags and baskets of gifts students had dropped by his office door. He felt great. It had been a long semester, with strategic planning and more campus politics than usual. He was ready to sit on the beach with a beer.
They were spending two weeks in Clearwater, Florida, with Karen’s parents. She had worked evenings all of November to get the time off at work. They planned to split up the drive, stay in a hotel, make it a leisurely trip. The boys would pick the restaurant for dinner, the only rules being that it couldn’t be fast food and it couldn’t be a place they could find in or around Charleston.
The boys’ bikes were in the driveway when he got home, so he had to park up by the street. When he climbed out of his car, Butter bounded up to him swinging her tail like a big slow propeller. He leaned over to scratch her ears. He heard a boy’s voice yell something in the backyard.
Butter almost tripped him twice as he hurried down the driveway and through the carport. She was growing fat. He saw the boys over in Sam’s yard—and Sam was there. He was in a sort of squat on his toes and hands. And his knees, like a football player waiting for a snap.
He was on top of one of them. Ian. He was on top of Ian.
Leo stood looking on with his hands in his pockets.
Martin stared as he walked slowly across the yard. Sam was on Ian’s chest. Ian’s legs twisted under Sam and his knees bent. One leg flipped over the other as he attempted to roll onto his stomach. Sam had Ian’s shoulders pinned down with his knees. He was holding Ian’s head with one hand and balancing with the other. He started thrusting his hips in a humping motion.
Sam’s penis was out, skinny and curved. Ian’s head was turned as far as he could get it with his hair sprouting from between Sam’s fingers. He was biting his lips closed and squinting as if trying to close his whole face against the blast from a garden hose. Sam humped his hips, slapping his erection against Ian’s cheek and mouth.
Leo said, “Come on, Sam, stop it.” His voice was a tired, whiny plea. “That’s not cool, yo.”
Martin slung Karen’s boxes of clothes from the closet and they toppled into the bedroom. He grabbed the gun. The barrel was icy cold. The front sight bead glinted silver and ovoid on the black barrel, like a drop of water on a shimmering car hood. He hurried to the hall closet. When he pulled the door open, rolls of wrapping paper fell out against his leg with a section of vacuum cleaner tube and hose. He shoved the board games aside and a bag of bows and ribbons dumped down on his shoulder, with two more rolls of wrapping paper. One was green with penguins in Santa Claus hats. Karen will want to take that, he thought.
He took two of the red six shot shells out of the box and slid it back and pushed the games back in front of it. He slid one shell into the barrel, pulled it closed and cocked the trigger with his thumb with two hard metallic cracks. He dropped the other shell into his shirt pocket, which still had his Pilot G-2 07 gel tip ink pen in it.
Martin stalked into the kitchen, pulled down one of the blind slats and peeked out to get his bearings.
Sam and Ian were no longer on the ground. The three had moved farther into Sam’s yard. They were lounging on the woodpile behind his carport’s half wall, looking across the side yard at another neighbor’s house. Leo pointed and said something. Ian nodded and Sam gazed toward whatever he was pointing at.
Butter’s claws clacked to the basement door and went silent as she stepped onto the carpeted steps. Martin’s boys stood and stretched. Sam stood too. The three of them walked through Sam’s carport and up his driveway toward the next street over. Martin stood in the dark kitchen.
He registered that Karen was in the house. She’d come in the front door. Her voice in the hallway said, “Good Lord, who destroyed the closet?”
She came through the den and stopped short at the kitchen door. The gun was heavy and cold and silent in his hands. Finger marks splotched the film of greasy dust on the closed blinds in front of his face.
Karen’s voice said, “You want to tell me what’s going on?”
He turned and looked at her. She was upset, but she would get over it. She was the woman he would grow old with, putter around the quiet house with.
The boys. He fingered the blinds open, peeked out. They were gone from his sight, and from his feeble care.