The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat began telling his story to the Therapist Emeritus, interrupting this time a session with the Geeky Guy. He didn’t even stop when they objected, saying they would be done in fifteen minutes. He didn’t even seem to care that the Geeky Guy was his boss, now, and might be accorded some respect. You would’ve expected him to wait in line, take a number, put in his reservation, but he budged in, as if he had a bad case of diarrhea and his story was a good shit. The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat spoke strangely in the third person, in an obvious attempt to distance himself from the protagonist of the story and disavow the actions he took.
I won’t tell the story to you as he told it, for the stories of overwrought people are really not that good. Their stories have plenty of angst, but lack the organization, comprehensibility, and polish that you, dear reader, have come to expect in these pages. Therefore, I tell you the story as I would tell it. Sit back and listen, or, rather, read, and know that no deed is without consequences, even if no one else is left alive to see it.
You never would have thought there was a war on to see the towering masses of clouds reviewed by the late winter sun. They were indifferent to the three bodies that lay, unmoving, a hundred yards from the sniper. A fourth writhed in pink snow. The sniper shivered as the clouds blocked the sun. He bit his sleeve with his chattering teeth, lest the sound draw them to his position. He hadn’t moved for an hour. After his first shot he had been surprised at how easy it was to kill. He followed the first with three more and then stopped, thinking they would see the flash of his rifle.
He was really just a boy in a hurry to become a man. Sniping came natural to him. It was in his blood. After the Big Fight and Dad left, his Ma would lie in bed for hours without moving. Once he thought she was dead until he pulled the covers from her head and revealed her pink, black, and blue face. Only her infrequent blinking told him she was still alive.
He busied himself with his Nintendo outside her door. The bright sunshine slashed through the cracks of the curtains, drawn over the trailer windows. He kept watch for hours. So long, in fact, that, when he stepped out of their metal box to go to school, it seemed as though he was leaving the real world to enter a fantasy.
Days later, when Dad returned, Ma was up and feeling better enough to complain about the Nintendo. She stood by the stove and he continued playing as if he didn’t hear her. They both made like they didn’t hear the door open. Dad came behind her and cupped her breasts with his hands as she stirred the boiling spaghetti. He let go when she lifted the pot to dump in the colander in the sink. The boy watched them out of the corner of his eye. Ma held the boiling pot in front of her and Dad reached his arms out, as if offering to take the pot from her. His arms were splotchy with tattoos. Dad cooed to her, but he could see from the stubborn set of her jaw that she wasn’t having any of it. She dumped the boiling spaghetti over the tattoos. A moment later, vapor roiled where his Dad had stood while the man ran, screaming from the trailer.
Ma pulled the plug on the Nintendo and ordered the boy to clean up the mess his father had made while she toasted bread to put under the sauce.
A dozen more targets stood between the sniper and a ruined house. One man, who commanded the rest, came out of the house to look over the dead bodies. He had a rifle with him. The rest pretended not to notice as he lifted it and took aim at the one the sniper had crippled. As the sound of his mercy killing rang across the hills, the man scanned the landscape, looking for the sniper. The sniper might have plugged him right then, but he had sport in mind. Instead, he took aim at the one nearest and got him through the ear. The commander scurried back to the house.
Some time after Dad left for good, the boy sat outside the screen door of the trailer and asked his Ma if he could have a pup. He could see her outline through the screen, sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette. She could not see a pup licking his hand. The boy had found the mutt dumped by the side of the road.
“We can’t afford no dog,” said Ma. “I just got rid of one worthless beast and I won’t be getting another.”
The boy took the pup to Jensen’s place at the top of the hill. He had a dozen dogs already and he wouldn’t notice one more. As the boy approached, a platoon of dogs set up a howl and the pup would go no further. The boy picked him up and they marched on, gravel crunching under his steps. Old Man Jensen lived in the two or three rooms that were left of his house after a fire. On one side stood a bare utility pole, like the house’s scepter, the wires taken down. The wall facing the pole was gone except for charred studding, through which Jensen stepped, loading a rifle.
“Who’s there taking one of my pups?” Half of Old Man Jensen’s face was burnt like his house.
“I ain’t takin’ it, sir, I was just…”
“Don’t give me none of your backtalk. Just leave it there and go away.”
The boy ran on home, half burning with shame, half with anger. The pup ran after him, but its legs being short, it could not keep up.
A column of smoke arose from where the boy’s trailer was. When he returned, he saw his Ma had lit a fire behind the garage and was burning up his Dad’s clothes. She had also thrown his Nintendo into the fire. The boy got there just in time to see the plastic warp and shrink before catching.
“You’ve been sitting around too much,” she said. “I want you to get out of the house and start doing other things.”
He might have complained that night, but she was making spaghetti again.
The sniper fired mechanically, reducing every creature in front of the dwelling to a pile of meat. When the sound of the last of his shots died, the clouds continued on their way. The warmth-less sun glared down on him still. The only sound: a wailing from inside the house.
The boy followed his Ma’s advice and stayed out more. He lingered in the garage, going through his Dad’s tools and sitting in the driver’s seat of the disassembled Fairlane they had meant to fix up. Standing by the wall were Dad’s guns: a .22 with a plastic stock, a shotgun, and a hunting rifle with a telescopic sight. The boy sat in the driver’s seat with the rifle, pressed the butt against his shoulder, and examined knotholes through the scope. The dark, woody stock was as muscular as Dad’s arms. The bolt, which could pinch a child’s fingers, had the same oily sent as his hair.
Days later, the boy watched from the garage as Ma left to get groceries. Then he snuck out with the rifle and a backpack full of ammunition. He spent an hour shooting at trees in the woods. When he returned, the Fairlane was on a flat bed truck and Dad was hauling the last of his tools out of the garage, his arms swathed in bandages. Ma had returned and the car was filled with bags.
“You seen my rifle?” he said.
“Is that all you can say? Your boy’s been wanting to see you. As if you care.”
“All’s I got is a room in a boarding house. You know I can’t have no boy there. You got the trailer. You keep him, unless you want to give me that trailer.”
The boy returned to the woods without ever being seen and loaded up the rifle. With a gun in his hand a boy’s not a boy anymore. A squirrel chattered in the tree above and he took aim at it. It took a minute before the end of the rifle settled down on the target; he had never taken aim at a living thing before. With a slow squeeze of the trigger, he knocked the squirrel down from the tree. With a gun in his hand, no boy feels rage anymore. All he feels is power.
At last, the sky above the sniper went dark. The towering masses of clouds snuffed out the stars. Snow was starting to drift behind the twenty corpses he had made, as if the late winter wind was on burial detail. The sniper hoped that more snow would come to cover his deeds. He could not brag of this to anyone. There was nothing to brag about, killing so many that could not return fire. After hours of lying motionless, he rose. He expected a bullet to fly right through him; he half hoped it. The sniper crouched and ran to the side of the building and listened for a while. It took a minute before he could hear something other than his heartbeat, and then he had to contend with his mind. There was only one thing he could do to say he was brave. He had to stand before the one remaining and invite being gunned down. That was the only thing that could make it right. The sniper’s heart began to pound again as he entered the building and looked for the remaining man.
The boy had waited till dark fell before returning home. Ma had brought in the groceries by then and she was in bed already. She was awake, though, and called him in her room.
“Your Father left us with nothing,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re gunna do. He even took the Fairlane that he said he was fixing up for when you turned sixteen. I asked him when he was gunna see you, and he just started talking like he wanted the trailer, too.”
The boy had hid the rifle in the garage and took a bullet with him. He went to bed and sucked on the bullet, hoarding its metallic taste. When he closed his eyes he saw the squirrel through the scope and marveled at how he could turn it into a cold corpse with a squeeze of his finger. He imagined biting the bullet’s firing pin and sending the lead through the roof of his mouth. Death must be a lot like sleep, he thought. One minute you’re awake, smelling smells, tasting metal, watching your father, and listening to your mother; and the next minute you’re asleep.
The first room the sniper entered had no furniture. One wall had collapsed during some calamity and the roof teetered, unsupported over his head, threatening to dump a load of snow into the room. The second room was filled with old hunting magazines and a duct-taped recliner. He wheeled suddenly to face something that moved from behind the recliner, almost forgetting his vow not to fire. There was the pup he had dropped off with Old Man Jensen two weeks before. It licked the boy’s hand as he scanned the room again, the rifle butt resting on his hip.
The room was getting too dark to see anything. The boy decided he would bring it on. He called out, “I’m sorry I shot your dogs, but you had a lot anyway. You can get some more. You can keep that pup I brought you. I can’t have it. My Ma won’t let me keep it.”
No one answered back with either a shout or with a bullet. As the boy circumnavigated the recliner, he discovered the reason for the silence. Old Man Jensen was lying on the floor, holding his rifle, like an oversized lollypop stick, in his mouth. He was lying on his side and, when the boy turned him over, one side of his face was covered with burns and the other side was covered with blood.