Carla sniffed the spray as the breeze brought it from gentle breakers, tickling her nose with a curl of her own hair, which, on occasion, she caught in her teeth, playing with her hair even as the toddler played with the sea. The sand beneath the towel was firm, but it gave when she ground in her heels. Seagulls were competing somewhere in the distance, becoming as thin pencil sketchings against a brilliant blue sky. One seagull dove nearer, and its call mingled with the squealing of the toddler. Carla smiled again as she saw him bounding away from the tickling fingers of the sea, chasing her son as a father might do, thundering with great primal power, but relenting for the sake of mirth. He expended so much motion in his legs and arms, she thought, in a perfect caricature of a running toddler, yet moving only so slowly.
It wasn’t a gun shot, but her mind had to go to that possibility first because of all the news. Nevertheless, a startling cracking sound had come to her senses, perhaps through her feet and not through her ears. Was it an earthquake? Yet the earth did not move. She was sure something critical had sounded out, perhaps beneath the waves, a tremendous unleashing in an eyeblink of time. She pondered.
A shriek awakened her from her meanderings, that shriek which every mother perceives before she hears it, the change from play-acted fear to genuine terror. She was on her feet, running to him, his eyes filled with pain, his mouth in a howl for Mommy. She was to him in one, two, three leaps.
“What’s wrong?” she cried out to him. “Tell Mommy what hurts.” Between sobs, he babbled sensibly enough that she learned he had a boo-boo on his foot. She looked. His foot was indeed bleeding from the sole. What did he step on? She searched quickly, watching a wave recede. Yes, there it was: “You stepped on a sea urchin,” she said, kissing his foot, picking him up to carry him to her spot, where she thought she might have a paper towel to stop the bleeding, “a nasty little sea urchin.”
There, in the lamplight of his narrow above-ground hole, air-conditioned cool, but still damp, like the earth itself, without any television or radio, he sipped at his vodka, reminiscing, watching a water bug and a silverfish route themselves amicably to a common goal found somewhere behind the wall. Once the vodka glass was empty, he rose from his seat, went to a closet near his bedroom, pulled out a lock box, unlocked it, and wrapped his hand around his .45. He gave its muzzle a kiss, loaded a magazine into its grip, then went outside and around to the back of his trailer, where he shot at some shredded targets, practicing his grouping.
“Guess I’ve got to call some time,” he said, after the magazine was empty.
He went back inside, and after returning his pistol to its safe, he sat back down and poured another double-shot. He stared into the dark TV screen, contemplating while he sipped on his vodka. About halfway into that glass, he picked up the phone and dialed the number. The line did not ring; it went straight to voice mail, which confused Ernest. When the beep came, he stammered, “Yeah, uh, listen, Terrell, this is your father; I know: long time, no see. Or hear. You know. Yeah, uh, listen, Terrell, your Grandma Maude is dead. You can call me back. If you want. Yeah. Okay, bye. Love you.” He searched for the button on the number pad which ended the call. “I wish you could just hang these things up.” Vodka had made him forget that he could simply fold the phone closed.
“Odd,” she said to herself aloud. “It’s February. Why is Willie outside riding his bicycle?” She looked out the window again. “Oh no,” she said. Her heart had corrected her mistake before her mind had allowed. “Oh dear God, no.” She dropped her potato into the sink and jerked her head toward the living room, where, above the mantlepiece hung her crucifix, given to her at her Confirmation when she was thirteen years old. Seven years later she had given birth to Willie, delivering him to a proud William who had only eleven months earlier promised before God and man to care for her, to give himself up for her, and provide everything she needed to make him a house and a home till death did them part, and she delivered. He sang a doxology while he cried, holding up the boy, even as Zechariah sang when his tongue was loosed at the birth of John. “Ah, praise God,” William sang. “He has remembered us, Maude. Even us, a poor farm family doing the best we can to tear something up out of Adam’s cursed earth, he has remembered.”
Maude fell happily asleep with her baby in arms. “William, Jr.” she whispered as she forgot the pain.
Dust was not rising, but snow. It was not Willie riding his bicycle on the road, but a United States Army sedan, riding through drifts of snow, which rose up into the wind, whence they were whipped along the surface of the plains until the wind grew tired and rose up to regather its strength, releasing its present quarry to form another drift somewhere else along the road. The sun, hanging low in the southern horizon, never blinked, guiding the sedan without remorse.
“Ernest!” she cried. “Ernest, come here!” William was in one of the out buildings tending the animals. She slumped to the floor beneath the mantlepiece, clutching the ottoman, and she remembered the day the draft notice arrived. She held it in her hand, shaking with rage. “Why not class II-C?” she demanded of her husband. “Why not class II-C?”
“Our farm isn’t big enough, I suppose,” said William. “I suppose. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“What is it, Mama?” Ernest said to his mother. “Why are you on the floor crying? What happened? Are you hurt?”
“Bless your heart, yes,” said Maude. “Run outside and fetch your father. It is terrible. Terrible!”
Ernest heard the wrath in her heart pouring into her voice, so he ran, pulling on his boots in mid-stride, and without pulling on an overcoat, to fetch his father. By the time William and Ernest returned, Maude had composed herself and was listening.
I waited for Lily’s father to return home. “Rescue must die soon,” I blurted out, “but I do not know how to put him to his end.”
“Mercy will dictate,” said Lily’s father. “Mercy always dictates. How do you know your dog is sick to death?”
“Your brother says so,” I accused.
Lily’s father went over to Rescue. Rescue was suspicious of Lily’s father, but was not afraid of him. He did not wag his tail, but he did allow him to pet him, lifting up his head to receive a fine scratch on the chin.
“Yes,” said Lily’s father. “It is so.”
Pain came into my body at his word. “Is it because we let him outside in the rain?” I asked.
“No. Probably not.”
“Then why?” I was fighting tears, but these tears were not for my damn dog; they were for a host of spirits and immaterial effects and clouds and fogs that floated in me according to an unseen will, a will that was intent on pressing against my will, with an ability to touch nerves deep in my insides so that my mouth opened with nonsense, nonsense that was perfectly sensible when my dog was now dying and would die for a long time. I wanted my dog to come with me, to chase after butterflies and squirrels, to alert me to comers and goers, to be beside me at night, and to be a general companion, even if Shur-qa-hil was the guide. The trip north was for me and my dog. Me and my dog! My dog and me, who had no home, together, homeless, free, and far away.
Who loved Shur-qa-hil? That horrible, fat, corrupt, know-it-all, pompous, hairy monster!
“Rescue has lived his life a happy dog,” said Lily’s father. “As we all live our lives happy dogs.”
“Happy dogs!” I shouted.
“Our Father in heaven teaches us mercy by giving us dogs to care for. Did you ever make a slave of your dog?” he asked, being patient with me.
“Did you let him do what dogs do?” he asked.
“Did you clean him, feed him, tend to his hurts, pet him, tell him he was good, and otherwise take care of him?” he asked.
“Yes. For the most part,” I said. “I liked to just let him run around.”
“What more are you hoping for your own life?” asked Arret. “Do you desire mercy when the end of your time comes?”
More pain came into my body. Couldn’t the end of my time come very soon? Lily came into the room. She had been napping. Her face was flush with the awakening of recent sleep. I did not answer.
“Show mercy to your dog,” said Lily’s father, “and your Father in heaven will show mercy to you.”
“You’re frightening me,” the Android Assistant 2100 said. “Put that thing away!”
“Ha,” said Robert. “You should have seen the look on that hick’s face when I shot a glass jar sitting on a fence behind him. Oh, don’t be frightened: I rested my arm on his shoulder; the muzzle was on the other side of his head. There was no way I could have hurt him.”
“What kind of pistol is that?” she asked.
“Nothing special, just an old officer’s sidearm from WWII, an M1911.”
“Why did you buy it?” she asked, calming herself.
“That’s better, dear,” he said. “Do you know the manufacturer?”
“Show it to me again.”
“No,” he said. “You saw enough of it.”
She sighed, batting her eyelashes at him. This isn’t in my profile, he thought. She’s looking for the right algorithm. She cocked her head, saying, “It’s a true M1911, a Colt. You have the pre-WWII model, the one with the prettier screw doohickeys on the grip.” She giggled. “Doohickeys. What do you call them?”
Robert scratched his temple with the muzzle of the pistol. “Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m impressed you know that much about handguns. Did you know that before I asked you?”
She scolded him gently with her eyes. “Of course not,” she said. “You know that. And you’re not being very polite. Why don’t you put it away?”
“This city belongs to your king,” he said. “And you belong to him. A corporation, you recall, protects a man from liability. You have no need for such protection—” at this, he smiled brightly, “—because your king protects you from liability.”
Lily’s uncle smiled brightly, chuckling.
“Oh,” I groaned. “I’ve never had that experience before.”
“You have probably lived a lifetime of the opposite experience, haven’t you?” Lily’s father asked.
I looked at the floor, then at the leg of the chair he was sitting on. “I suppose so,” I said. “The constant demands were a factor in the decision to sell my house and walk away from the city. I did not want to serve in his military, pay his taxes, or anything else of the kind. Even now, knowing the circumstances of travel beyond the city, I still find it more attractive than property ownership under the king.”
“If you whisper much louder,” said Lily’s uncle in low tones, “agents will appropriate your person to another venue, whence you will nevermore be perceived by man. But,” he continued in a brighter tone, “you will still be a servant to the king.”
“This is the language of assassination and insurrection you are speaking,” said Lily’s father.
“I don’t want to kill the King,” I responded.
“No, but you are using the language of an insurrectionary,” he said. Lily’s uncle looked at me with his half-grin. I didn’t know what to make of this turn in the conversation.
Tuesday morning was making every attempt to brighten the master bedroom, struggling against the drawn shades to penetrate with rays of joy and hope. Spring was aging, about to yield to the Summer Solstice, so the morning was still very young. Nevertheless, Robert heard his two girls up and tramping about, preparing for the walk to Holy Assumption Preparatory Academy. Early to rise, he thought, so that AltVista might get them the early worm. Extra-curricular worms to be had this early will nourish them toward the rigors of university preparation, where they will assimilate into fine young adulthood, tasting those fruits, sharpening those minds, refining those wits, toward the end that they might climb the interlocking wheels of progress until they are proprietors of their very own blogs, whence they will lead their corner of the world…forward.
His wife lay sleeping next to him, breathing softly and heavily, on her side, facing away from him. He rose to relieve himself and wash his face. He caught his eyes in the mirror. He mumbled toward them, “One too many gins again.” Is that a song? A vision of a pickup truck drove across his mind. When he walked back to the bed, he saw the form of his wife gently rising and falling. She’s a beautiful woman, he thought. Even after twenty years, she’s a treasure.
The bedsheets, in the warmth of the early morning, she had kicked so that they covered only her ankles and feet. A wave of nostalgia washed over him. After some number of dates they had finally slept together, and he found it bewildering the number of straps to loosen, bows to untie, and hooks to unfasten, but they had giggled together, flush with excitement and embarrassment, and it was fun. Their wedding night had been to him something of an anticlimax because there was no naughtiness, no hooks, and no embarrassment, only a sheer negligee which aroused him easily enough, but the fun was immediately absent.
Perhaps she’s still asleep, he thought. Maybe she won’t object in that twilight state. Maybe she’ll enjoy it. The thought, along with her rising and falling form, aroused him, and he slipped into bed, snuggling close to cleave his body to hers. He laid his hand on her hip. Maybe she’ll ask for it.
A split-second later, she said, “What are you doing?”
His tumescent hope plummeted into emptiness, and he was lonely again. Nothing, he thought. “Snuggling,” he said.
“Well, quit it,” she said sleepily. “You’re too hot.” She rolled over onto her back, smiling at him. “I do love you, sweetheart,” she said.
He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling, aching. “I love you, too,” he said. “Want me to make you breakfast?” Where are the other cameras? he thought.
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to make you late for work.”
“I should shower, then,” he said. He sat up, putting his feet on the floor, his elbows on his thighs, and there, on the edge of the bed, he hung his head. There he sat for a few minutes, searching for the will to stand up. There he paused, on the edge.
“Are you all right, honey?” she asked.
“Hm? Yeah, I’m okay, just a little tired this morning.”
“How much longer before you can take a vacation?”
“Oh, any time, now,” he said. “All I have to do is give notice.” He looked at her. “You have the afternoon shift at the home today?”
“Yep,” she said, rolling over on her side again. “Easiest time of year, I think. Not too many viruses to send the usual crop to the nursing home, everyone is in love with Spring, and…let me know when you want to go. Where are we going? Maine?”
“New England is always nice, don’t you think?” Robert managed to rise and make his way to the shower, where he slowly transformed into Vice President for Account Analysis Robert Hughes, punctual, productive, and aching.
When he thus emerged from the master bath, the bed was empty and unmade. He heard the low volume of morning TV emanating from the upstairs sitting room, where his wife was sitting, sprawled out over the easy chair, one leg draped over the armrest and opening the slit of her bathrobe well up her thigh. Her hair was tied up in a towel; she had washed her hair in the hallway bath after she heard Robert get out of the shower. The bathrobe was open at the top because it was warm. He saw all of her neck as it gave way to her shoulders and chest, and there the bathrobe engaged his imagination. He couldn’t remember.
“Goodbye, Mr. Hughes,” she said brightly.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Hughes,” he said, brusquely, according to form, a game they had played since he’d made executive several years ago, and he marched downstairs in the stiffest British fashion he could muster. My instincts say I should skip work and take her, he thought. I don’t see how this kind of instinct is culturally conditioned. Why should I suppress it?
The girls were long gone, the dishes washed, the place mats put away, and a box of wholesome cereal left out on the counter. He got a bowl for himself and poured the contents of the box into it; only half a bowlful issued forth. Throwing the empty box into the trash, he fetched a full box from the pantry and pried open its top. “Why does expensive organic food always come in such cheap packaging?” He wrestled with the decidedly unwholesome plastic bag, unable to peel it open until, in a fit of exasperation, he suddenly exerted one of his larger arm or back muscles, which caused the thing to tear open from top to bottom, sending the entire box of cereal flying throughout the kitchen, from baseboard to baseboard, under the refrigerator, table, and chairs, all over the counters and into the sink, and even up into the light fixture. After using his arm to sweep enough into his bowl to constitute a healthy breakfast, he poured a little hot water into the cereal, sat on a stool at the breakfast bar, and munched.
The sound of the upstairs sitting room TV came to his ears between bites. I can’t even turn on the sports highlights anymore, he thought. Everything is so charged with progress. He found the remote for the kitchen TV, powering it on, then tuned it to Turner Classic Movies, where a man was grasping a woman close, pulling her to him by the shoulders until his face touched hers, in black-and-white, whereupon she turned her head away. Sensibilities of distinguishableness, he thought. That’s immoral what he’s doing to her. The man pried her face off her shoulder, where she was hiding it, wrenching it into his face. She relented, violin music swelling up, bearing up their passion, and they kissed. Disgusting. That’s practically rape.
“Practically rape,” he mouthed. We’ve progressed so far in so short a time.
Robert went upstairs again, against form.
“Honey?” she asked.
“I’m going to Mitch’s after work. I’ll be late.”
“All the way to Scranton?”
“Yeah, I’ll make the triangle from the office to there to here. Look, I don’t want to invent a thinly veiled pretense,” he said. “I’m feeling a little blue. It’ll be good for me to get away from the city and just hang out with my brother-in-law for a few hours.”
A tiny bit of trouble lined itself across her face, then disappeared. “Well, okay. Text me otherwise.”
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll just hang out and watch TV, I’ll bet.” He added silently. And I’m going to buy that unregistered pistol from his hick friend.