A Single Shot

by Tom Stringer

     My parents stopped speaking to each other one night after a dinner party at the neighborhood pool. I had stood on our porch, only a few hours earlier, watching them walk up the sidewalk, my mother in a new white dress with scalloped sleeves, my father in a baby-blue blazer and a straw fedora. It was the perfect night for a barbecue, a cool night at the end of a long humid summer, and my mother, a full step ahead of my father, seemed especially eager to get there. Above them, two dim stars, like a pair of steely eyes, peered down from a hazy, twilit sky.

     I watched until my parents had both turned the corner, disappearing behind a giant boxwood hedge. It was good they were getting out for a change. Earlier in the summer, my father had lost his job. For twenty years, he’d sold building supplies for a millwork company, and he’d probably expected to work there for another twenty years. But the company was bought out, the regions consolidated, and my father was offered a lay-off package that featured, as the primary benefit, a night school class in real estate. My mother, not one to complain, made her feelings known in silence. She was the manager of a gift shop in downtown Baltimore. She started coming home late from work, carrying armloads of papers and files. She spent her evenings in our dining room ordering wholesale from catalogs.

     By mid-July, my father had bounced back. He’d completed his real estate class, passed the licensing exam, and found a job selling houses in a new subdivision north of Dulaney Valley. A few weeks went by, with no one buying anything. Then a few more weeks. Every day, he’d sit in an empty house with a desk, a chair and a portable television.

     My mother and I visited once—a whole neighborhood of empty houses, split-levels like ours, but new ones without grass or trees. We brought lunch and my father turned off the golf.

     “Too far from the city,” my mother told him.

     “And they’re asking too much,” he told her.

     They had other explanations, like the weakness of the economy, the classic pendulum swings of the real estate cycle.

     “People always need houses, don’t they?” I asked. An easy question, I thought, but they both looked at me, dull-eyed, as though they’d forgotten I was there. My mother, fanning herself with a price sheet, turned and gazed out the picture window. My father leaned back and stared at the blank TV.

     Outside, as my mother and I were leaving, I stood on the dirt embankment that passed for a front yard and looked down the street at the double row of empty split-levels. The windows, with orange labels still attached, were clouded with thick brown dust. A huge bulldozer, abandoned in some kind of hasty retreat, sat parked in one of the dirt yards. One day, I figured, these houses would all be cleaned-up. There would be trees and lawns and bushes. Kids playing step ball, dogs barking and chasing cars—I could see them all, and hear them, on both sides of the street: big, loud, happy families. But not any time soon. That much was clear. The happy days for this neighborhood—any kind of laughing or playing or calling out to each other—those days, at best, were lost in a hazy, dust-covered, distant future.

 
 
     On the night of the pool party, with my parents out of the house, my sister Peg fixed dinner for the two of us—a big pot of cream of wheat drenched in milk and brown sugar. Always one of my favorite meals, it also served, on this night, as comfort food for Peg. A sophomore in college, she had just broken up with her boyfriend and was none too pleased to have a mere high school senior for her Saturday night companion. As we sat in the living room, sprawled across a pair of red corduroy armchairs, eating and watching a re-run of “McMillan & Wife,” Peg told me she would never marry a guy with a head shaped like mine.

     “I like men with compact heads, like McMillan’s,” she said. “Yours is too long and skinny.” Peg was strong and assertive, a pale dark-haired beauty, and although she made the occasional crushing remark, she was exactly the kind of girl I hoped to marry some day.

     When the front door flew open, we were snacking on powdered donuts and watching the 11 o’clock news—a report on some troops, battered and depressed, coming home from Viet Nam.

     In came my mother, dripping wet, her face red from crying.

     “What happened to you?” Peg asked in the irritated tone she usually reserved for me.

     My mother whooshed through the room, her white dress clinging in fleshy patches.

     “Would you tell me what’s wrong?” Peg slapped off the crumbs from her tee shirt and followed my mother upstairs.

     Standing in the dining room, I could hear their footsteps pound across the ceiling, the sound of bureau drawers opening and slamming shut. With Peg in close pursuit, my mother, clutching an armload of dry clothes and towels, careened down the stairs.

     “Where’s Dad?” I asked, joining the parade through the kitchen to the basement door.

     My mother clomped down the stairs in her flip-flops, a warm tasty odor of Scotch and party food lingering behind. At the top of the stairs, Peg and I stood listening, barely breathing, as our mother’s wet footsteps squished from room to room: from the den to the furnace room, to the laundry, to the bathroom.

     Moments later, we heard the front door bang shut. We hustled back through the kitchen. Cracking open the swinging door, we peered into the dining room. My father, grim-faced and flushed, strode to the liquor cabinet, dumped his keys into a silver dish, and marched upstairs.

     It was pretty clear now who’d pushed who into what. My father was an easy-going guy most of the time. He’d slip you a five-dollar bill now and then, or give you a ride to a movie or a party. But make a smart remark at the wrong time, or talk back, and he could lose his temper. His face would turn red, he’d grit his teeth, and if you didn’t keep your eyes down and answer his questions respectfully, he’d slap you across the face.

     Not that he would ever smack my mother. No doubt about that one. But I could imagine her making some wisecrack at the party, something about money or who wears the pants in the family, and I could see Dad giving her a good hard nudge into the pool.

     I told Peg what I was thinking, but she didn’t feel like talking about it. Instead, she went down to the basement a few times, reporting back: Mom was sitting in the rocker crying; Mom was back in the bathroom; Mom was lying down on the couch trying to sleep.

 
 
     Early the next morning, lying in bed, I listened for signs of life: No snoring came from my parents’ bedroom; no pots and pans clanged in the kitchen. My brother Pete’s bed, across the room from mine, was neatly made, which meant he’d already left for football practice. Pete was a first-string linebacker at Towson State. Since summer workouts had started, we hardly saw him anymore.

     I got up and wandered down the hall past my parents’ room. The door was closed, but from the bathroom at the end of the hall came the deep guttural sound of my mother clearing her throat. It was loud enough to serve as a command, intended for anyone within earshot, to stop snooping around. I went downstairs and peered into Peg’s room. She was still asleep, curled up with a pillow over her head. Down in the basement, I found my father soaking his golf clubs in a bucket of sudsy water.

     “Need some help, Dad?” I asked.

     “No thanks, Hank.” He was leaning over the bucket, slowly rubbing one of the metal club heads dry with an old dirty hand towel. Above him at the work bench, hanging from the pegboard wall, was an old Japanese rifle, a World War II memento he’d gotten in Guam. It hung there like a daydream, as though somewhere in his mind, instead of wiping down the shaft of a golf club, he was actually cleaning the barrel of that rifle.

     Back upstairs, I found my mother in their bedroom. She was dressed in a pair of red and black plaid pants she’d made herself and a bright yellow top. She was smoking a cigarette at her dressing table. In between puffs, she’d gaze out the front window at our big silver maple tree. Its star-shaped leaves fluttered in the sun.

     “Are you O.K., Mom?” It was unusual to see her sitting so still.

     “Yes, Hank.” She looked at me through a yellowish cloud of smoke rising around her. “Thank you for asking.”

     “Sure.” I turned to go.

     “Oh Hank,” she said in a level voice. She gazed out at the tree, chin in hand, the cigarette burning a little too close to her hair. “Whatever happens in our family should never be discussed outside the house. You understand that, don’t you?”

     “Yes, Mom,” I said. I’d heard this instruction before. The last time was the morning my father lost his temper with Peg for being surly to my mother. When I heard the yelling, I was upstairs in my room getting ready for school. I came down and peeked around the corner into the dining room. Peg was dressed in her high school uniform, a blue pleated dress with rounded white collars. Two wet lines glistened on her cheeks, her dark brown eyes narrowed in defiance. My father had backed her up against the sideboard, and in between slaps, he’d say, “Get that look off your face!” Whack! “Did you hear me?” Whack! “Get that look off your face!”

     My mother stood to the side, saying in a soothing voice: “Oh Henry, that’s enough. Come on, Henry. That’s enough. That’s enough, now, Henry.”

     I crawled upstairs when it was over, thinking my sister had brought the punishment on herself. She should have been more careful around my father. She should have changed the expression on her face.

 
 
     All day long, the day after the pool party, a strange silence burned in the air. At the dinner table, no one said anything. We just sat there, listening to our forks hit the plates. Then Pete started telling my father about football practice—about the drills and the plays and the coach’s comments—and everything seemed almost normal. But halfway through dinner, the silence crept back over the table, and my mother, looking up mid-bite, as if just then thinking of something new, asked, “How was practice today, Pete?”

     Pete looked down at his plate, a half-smile stretching across his big square jaw. “I was just saying that I had a couple of interceptions and—”

     My mother started chewing her food again, a vacant glaze covering her eyes. I could tell she was thinking about something else already, something she couldn’t help thinking about, that probably wouldn’t let go of her even if she tried once in a while to get free of it.

     Hatred’s like that.

 
 
     A month went by, and my parents still weren’t speaking to each other. Every night before dinner, as my father led us in saying grace, my mother would sit silently, looking away from the table, hands in her lap. She’d bought the food. She’d cooked it and put it on our plates. If the rest of us wanted to bow our heads and thank the Lord for the “gifts” we were about to “receive,” we were on our own.

     After dinner, my mother would sit by herself in the dining room working on her order forms. My father would wander around in the back yard, smoking a cigar and swinging a golf club. When it got dark, he’d go down to the basement den and practice his swing down there, the iron club head thumping against the acoustic tile ceiling. One night, as Peg and I played gin rummy at the kitchen table, we heard my mother sobbing in the dining room. The thumping down below had just begun.

     “I can’t stand this much longer,” Peg said in a hushed voice. A pink terry cloth turban swayed over her forehead. “If somebody doesn’t do something soon, something terrible could happen. Something really awful.”

     “I know,” I said, unsure of what she meant, but still glad we could have this conversation.

     “It’s just so creepy around here. And it’s going to get worse.”

     Peg dealt the next hand of cards while telling me, in a whisper, that Pete was planning to move out. His friends on the team had their own apartment and he was thinking of moving in with them.

     “I don’t blame him,” I said. “I’m thinking of getting out of here myself.” It was the first time I’d entertained the notion, but I felt pretty good saying it.

     Peg’s mouth dropped open. “What are you talking about?”

     “Away,” I said.

     “It’s a little early to think about college, wouldn’t you say?”

     “No,” I said, arranging the cards in my hand one by one. “All of the kids are picking out schools now.”

     Peg eyed me over her cards. “Are you serious?”

     “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I am.” Actually, I was tired of school and didn’t want to think about four more years of it. “Maybe I’m just thinking of taking off.”

     “How?” She said this snottily, as if it were a great challenge.

     “I have about a hundred bucks. I’ve heard the West Coast is an easy place to find a job.”

     When I looked up from my cards, Peg was staring at me, her eyes flooded with tears. “Don’t leave me alone with them, Hank.”

     “O.K.,” I said quickly. “It was just a thought.”

     “It’s not fair,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I can’t believe I have to stay around here.” Peg had wanted to go to a private women’s college in Virginia that my parents couldn’t afford. As some kind of consolation, they’d bought her a bicycle, a fat-wheeled old cruiser with a fresh coat of red paint and a new basket on the front. She looked like a little kid riding off to the community college every morning with her books in that basket.

     “Alright,” I said. “I’ll stay. We’ll see what happens.”

     “When the time comes for you to pick a college,” Peg said, “they’ll probably let you go away. You watch,” she said, looking back at her cards with a scowl, “I’ll have to marry some turkey just to get out of this stupid house.”

 
 
     Our parents spoke to each other on important occasions, like birthdays and holidays, but always the silence returned. Months passed. By spring, Pete had moved out, and a total stillness descended over us, enveloping the house like a giant black body bag.

     One night, down in the furnace room, while sitting at the workbench polishing my shoes for school, I happened to look up at the old rifle that hung on the wall. It had a short black barrel and a long, varnished wooden butt. As kids we used to play with it when my father wasn’t around. One guy would get the gun, usually my brother or a big neighborhood kid; the rest of us would use our fingers or just dart around and get shot. My father had told us it belonged to some Japanese soldier who’d either surrendered or gotten killed. Probably a little guy, I figured, not much older than myself.

     I took down the rifle, feeling the weight of its hard red wood. There must have been a time, I imagined, when that Japanese soldier had sat in some troop boat with this heavy gun lying across his lap. Who knows what attachment might have developed? In the desperate silence of a boat headed for battle, packed with hunkered-down, scared people, this rifle might have seemed to him like his only link to survival.

     In the den, on the other side of the pegboard wall, I could hear the wooden legs of my father’s rocking chair creak, his outline projected against the tiny pinpoints of light. He once told me he had gotten to Guam during the latter part of the war, after the fighting had moved north to some other island. He’d requested a transfer to get closer to the action, but the paperwork moved so slowly that the war ended before he’d gotten his chance.

     So he’d never fired a shot in battle.

     If he had, I wondered, would things have turned out differently? Would he be allowing this quiet little war to be taking place in his own home?

     That’s when I got the idea, with the rifle lying across my lap: A single shot might be just what this family needed.

 
 
     The following Saturday, instead of doing my chores and getting out of the house, I stayed in bed leafing through some library books about guns and ammunition. I was trying to figure out how I could make the rifle work. Would a gun shop sell spare parts? Or would it take a gunsmith? Could I just walk in and buy a bullet, a couple of new Japanese rifle mechanisms?

     Downstairs in the kitchen, my mother was banging things around: pots, pans, dishes. A drawer full of silverware slammed shut, and my father, in their bedroom across the hall, groaned as though a hunk of shrapnel had lodged in his gut.

     Skimming through the books, I noticed that one of them, “Bullet Park,” was actually a novel about a suburban neighborhood like ours. The story was about a kid who won’t get out of bed. His parents try everything, but for weeks he won’t get up. They bring in a doctor who examines him, then a psychiatrist. Even a guru gives it a try.

     While I was reading, my father went downstairs and slammed the front door, probably heading for one of his empty houses. My mother, over the whining of the vacuum cleaner, called up the stairs, “Are you getting up, Hank?”

     “O.K.,” I said. “I will.”

     A while later, when she’d turned off the vacuum, she called again, “Why don’t you get up now, Hank?”

     “O.K.,” I said. “I am.” I was on the part where the kid lets the doctor examine him. His body is skinny and saggy, but there’s basically nothing wrong with him physically.

     “You’ve been lying there all morning,” my mother said, as if surprised, when she came into my room with a dust mop. “It smells musty in here.” She slid the mop around the edges of the throw rugs. “You could take out the garbage for me.”

     “O.K.”

     “Are you going to do it?” she asked irritably.

     “Yeah.”

     “Well, you’re not doing it.” She reached under my bed and knocked the mop handle hard against my bedposts.

     I got up, threw on some clothes, took the garbage out, and headed for somewhere I knew I wouldn’t run into her.

 
 
     Bill’s Guns was in a narrow old stone building on York Road in Towson. Once somebody’s home, it now stood between a gas station and Gino’s Hamburgers. Around the front room, small handguns were displayed in glass counters. Rifles hung from one wall, new polished wooden jobs that shone with polyurethane, like bar tops or casket wood. A tall man with small eyes and a fringe of gray hair came in from the back room.

     “Bill?” I asked.

     “No,” he said.

     “Well, I need an old Japanese rifle fixed. Probably a new firing pin would do it.” I looked into one of the glass counters for what I imagined a firing pin would look like. A tiny mousetrap, maybe, that snapped easily into a gun. “And I’ll need bullets.”

     He took one of the bright new rifles off the wall. “Can I interest you in one of these?” With a loud snap and click, he demonstrated the spring-loaded bolt-action. “Or one of these?” A cowboy-style Winchester with lever action.

     The bolt-action looked more familiar.

     He checked the barrel and passed it over. “That’s your trap door mechanism on the bottom. In case you don’t use all your ammo, you just pop it open and out it comes. Now to load, you just snap your cartridge in up here. The bolt goes in, twists and locks.”

     I peered down the length of the barrel, lining up a shot. A man’s bright smiling face appeared on an advertising poster.

     “You see the red square? Line that up between the two black ones. Your target should sit right on top of the red one.”

     I pulled the trigger, then handed the rifle back. “I’ll fix the one I’ve got, I think.”

     “What makes you think it’s broken?” he asked, placing the rifle back on the rack, butt end down. “Of course I’d have to see it.” He reached under the counter and gave me a couple of back issues of Guns & Ammo and Shooting Times. “Bullets are available by the box,” he said.

 
 
     After dinner that night, I wandered into Peg’s room. She was on the bed sewing her initials in black on a light green canvas bag. “Hey Hank,” she said, then rolled her eyes. “I almost threw up at the table.”

     “How come?” I sat on the end of her bed.

     She curled some dark thread around one knuckle. “It was like a wave and I started drowning,” she said, “plummeting, stuff like that. It came over fast.” She pulled the thread tight and reached for the scissors. “I wish they’d just talk.”

     “Yeah,” I said. Then I told her about the rifle, how I thought it might actually work, and that I’d bought a box of bullets.

     Peg brushed off the new letter on her bag and began sorting through a pie-shaped sewing box with lots of little wedge compartments. “So what are you going to shoot?”

     “I don’t know,” I said. “Something inside, I think.”

     “You’d better not,” Peg said. “You’d better do it in the woods or somewhere, and you’d better not get caught.”

 
 
     Down in the furnace room, I unhooked the rifle from the wall and tossed it from hand to hand. I took aim at the pegboard wall. The trigger was cold and stiff, but clicked. I opened the green box of 250-grain Nosler Partition silver tipped cartridges, then jammed one into the slot. I reached up and pulled the light bulb string.

     In the dark, a field of lights rose: pinpoints, the pegboard wall, stars above the sea. From the next room, a brush of material—my father—made a rushing sound. A turning page leapt out: a wave slapping the boat. I pulled back the bolt, and the bullet, I could hear, engaged. I pushed and twisted and locked and then sat with a loaded rifle trembling in my hands.

     I didn’t know if I could shoot, but at least, I figured, I could aim it. I pulled the light string, and in the light, flipped up the sight apparatus: a metal square with two side-prongs. Lifting the rifle to my shoulder, I pointed the barrel toward the little window up by the ceiling. Then, narrowing my eyes, I saw, etched crudely into the rifle’s sight, a round symbol with four little petals.

     A Japanese flower, I thought. Or a word. An exotic Oriental message. Had the little guy scrawled it at some final solitary moment? A last message to someone he’d thought would get the rifle when he died? His sister? His parents? A message scratched in a dark boat to the next guy who found himself sitting in a dark boat? To the next guy who put the sight up to his eye and took aim?

     I decided I’d get a piece of paper, draw the symbol freehand. I’d take it to a Japanese expert, find out what it meant. A Zen master up on a mountain. I’d go there. Wear orange. We’d talk about the meaning of the flower. The nature of life. Sickness and spontaneity. Quiet. Family life in general. And if I didn’t find this fellow at first, I’d keep looking, enjoying the scenery along the way, the tall mountains in mist, the people carrying baskets across bridges. I decided right then I’d head for Japan.

 
 
Tom Stringer lives in California in a house with trees and grass and bushes. He likes his oatmeal rich and creamy, in tall brown bottles.

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