They are hard little mankilling devices. I have made them myself, twenty-nine of them, that is seven and seven and seven on my belt and seven in my fist and one in the chamber. Their heads are dimpledandhollow.They are a family, my family, my only family. Once there was also my father and mother and wife, all poor souls, caught up with me, like scraps of trash in the storm. I have tried to do as my daddy taught me, I swear it, but even he was no good in the end. He had said the hollow ones were for mankilling and the round ones were just for practicing with. But even he could not bear to take his own life with the hollow ones. Because it would be too messy, I suppose, because he was a neat man. And I thanked him for it and mother thanked him for it and his friends did too that he could not bear to use the hollow-tipped ones. Though the wound was small they still felt its presence behind his sutured-shut jaw, as he lay there in the box, facing God.
My soldiers are small and heavy strapped to my body. It is the best kind of weight—dense little Christmas presents that fit in the hand, full of energy ready to burst, like sleeping vicious dogs. This I do for Dara and for myself. I do it for the millions and millions like Dara and me. I do it for myself. Yes. I do it for myself.
Of course I forgave her. How couldn’t I? This was not an option, never was an option. She is my wife and that is God’s truth. No matter where she has been to, or for how long she has been there, she is my wife. And still I love her, like I loved mother when she was still here, the poor woman, drowned in liquor as she was. So it breaks my heart to see her going the same way as mother. I do not touch the stuff myself. It is too thin, too airy, and it makes you thus. No, give me cool water. Give me the sky and the gray bodies of trees and the smell of the cracked earth and the rustle of dead leaves, my temple, my home.
It was late at night when she rang my bell after so many months, falling right there into my arms with her tense shoulders and tears. She reeked of wine. At first I did not ask about the why or the how and let her just lean up against my tired shoulder and cry.
But then I did ask why and it was like I had always known. They had done, it, those high-browed vindictive bastards of the School Board, they had taken her children from her. It was like them, to use such harsh logic, such deadly sentencing. I have met them all at dinners and festivals, all with their coiffed hair like powdered wigs and their pleated slacks like barristerial robes. I can see Doris Coen with her pastel suit, her dyed bob, her disingenuous smile as she hands my wife the pink slip. Her eyes damning. Her sin the worst of the lot. The proud bitch.
Coen had smelled the sweet toxicity on Dara’s breath and hated her, as if the blame lay on Dara’s shoulders. It seems it all turns out the same in the end. Mother’s friends all abandoned her when she started to go that way. And then they all showed up at her service wearing summer clothes and gobbling among themselves about what a damn tragedy it was, that it might have been helped if only someone had known, if one person had helped her, had stepped in to become a hedge against the tragedy, the tragedy.
I never gave up on Dara, though, in all her troubles. She was my penance. She was my wife. So I boiled water for some of the tea that I make from the woods-growing herbs and held her, saying she should stay the night, but she said no, Roland, no. The time for that has passed. She drank her tea and I mine and I slept alone.
Long had I dreamed of some antlered beast or monster out in the darkness. If I let my vision die in the grayscale moonlight I could sense it, its eyes like dimming bulbs, buzzing before they burn out. It sang my name from behind the glass.
This, at one point, was a mystery. This thing had no name. In my childhood it represented terror only. But it rears its head in books—the Red Man had, still has, a name for it, for the night-creature, and its deadly call.
Imagine the long-ago. Feel this thing sleeping in the darkness of the gray continent. It was in Aztlán. It was in the Iroqois Nation. It stirred at the fleets of Spaniards in their bladed helmets landing on its shore. It opened its eyes as this new virus encroached westward. It revealed itself to the medicine-men and the lunatics, always a symbol, a portent, of death: death by Spanish steel, by powder and ball, by disease, by the humid stench of dismemberment and heathen ritual. And then—then it chose me.
Its form in the dark was like gravity. I fell into it. Its voice. Roland. Your eyes and teeth will go gray with earth. It shook its hair-covered form and its skin creaked like dry leather. Mites fell from the ancient plumage and at their landing buried further into the ground.
Then I blinked and it winked out of form and vision, the lawn once again full of static moonlight and dry leaves.
It will happen on the coming Friday and it will unfold like this:
They will start their meeting at six p.m. and at six twenty-five I will park my truck against the school’s rear loading dock and enter through a side door. A corridor leads from there all the way to a service door in the atrium. From the atrium the main hall runs straight as a shot to the cafeteria, beyond which lies the board room, where they meet. This will be half-past, the dead-center of the hour. I will take my seat in the front and wait patiently to air my grievances. They will listen. I will draw my gun. In the ensuing silence I will demand that all except seven people leave, and these exceptions are:
Don Danovich and
(the witch and the chair of the board)
And I willdomywork. By a quarter of seven I will be done and satisfied and leave through the back door of the room. I will walk around the north face of the building to my car. I will get in and begin driving west on route 28 and then northwest on 12 into Canada.
I went to her on Wednesday, to her small, clean apartment high above Pine. She opened the front door and welcomed me into the small kitchen, the whole thing covered in white paint, clean and simple as a homestead. It was like she expected me. A pot of coffee simmered on the stove and there were two mugs set out and when I was about to ask if I could come in she pulled me by my shirt-neck into her arms. “Oh, Roland,” she said, “I’m sorry.” Then it was better. When she had come to me the week before it was like a shaman laying hands on my chest, feeling out the spirit nestled inside, and this moment—this the chant, the jolt of God coming through her hands into me. We drank the coffee the way we both used to drink it, with a shot of coffee brandy and two spoons of sugar, watching the sun go down from the end of the bed in the other room. The mug was an old familiar one, with a faded picture of us on it, standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building with our backs to the southern tip of the city, where the towers used to stand, where they still stood at the time we took the picture. And look, there they were, deceptively small.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t stay the other night,” she said.
She put her hands in mine. “I wanted to. I did.”
A pair of men’s boots stood by the door, caked with gray contractors’ mud. “Do you need money?” I asked.
Dara shook her head and smiled. “I…I just…I need to apologize,” she said. She had changed very little since the Empire State Building. For a second I let myself dream. With a couple of haircuts, with some different clothes, the Dara and Roland of now could be the Dara and Roland of then, again, so happy, so undamaged.
“I wish…I’m sorry too,” I said.
But there was no answer for this. Maybe it was the fear talking, the fear a man should not have once he has grown past the age when monsters wait outside his window. The fear and excitement of what I was going to do in two days.
Somebody knocked on the door while we sat there. I looked at Dara and her eyes said to me don’t answer it. So we did not answer. We sat on the bed pretending not to exist together. An anguished cry of her name, Dara, came from the other side of the door in a man’s rough voice, before the knocking ebbed away and boot steps faded. I wanted to ask “who?” and I would have if she had not shaken her head, once, gently. She finished her coffee and anchored her eyes in mine, like she had before she said “I do” and now she said, “Roland—Roland. I love you.” All the intervening time between those two moments—years, a decade—collapsed down to a small dense point, something I could almost put in my mouth and suck on, a fine black seed, but I did not; I leaned in and kissed her neck, her cheek against mine, and she put her hand on my knee and slid it slowly up and up and up.
At midnight I lay pressed between her warm body and the coolness of the white cinderblock wall, car noises drifting up from far below. The whole room swam in and out of gray static, going black, before I blinked and the room came back. Again, I let my vision die.
I slipped my arm around my wife because I knew what was coming. I would not blink. If I did, it might appear there suddenly—or worse, it might be gone altogether.
Singing, Roland— Mad buzzing in the corners of the room. The flies will come. All that made you will fade away. This is your peace. This is your salvation. Dust once and dust again.
Strange vision. Oddly I find the words comforting. The monster heaves in the darkness, sketched in grainy gray. My eyes water. I will blink soon; I will lose it. I narrow my eyes to slits and gone are the antlers, gone is the hollow cage of ribs. Only the golden spheres remain.
Roland. Listen to the earth. Listen to the trees. It reaches out. I feel the talon in my skull. Somehow it sends me to the woods, into the afternoon darkness of November. Wind rattles the naked branches of the trees. It sounds like the voice of the Wendigo. Then I look again and realize the branches have become bones—like finger bones stretched into willowy brush, each tarsal meters long. They join radii and ulnae, humeri, melting into scapulae, trunks of spinal columns growing up from where bleached-gray pelvises lie entrenched like the tops of deep root systems. I raise my hand to the sky and see it outlined there, like shy mollusk in its ugly shell.
Given the choice, would I live for something or die for nothing? This marriage was not built to last, Dara once said, five years in. And why not let it go. Why not commend something beautiful to the deep while it is still beautiful, and let the world remember it as such. This was the fault of the Red Man, the warrior. He lived to see himself corrupted and assimilated. He did not die quick enough.
The clock strikes six. I have stopped at Lundgren’s store at the edge of the eastern heather. Here I buy Red Bulls and Powerbars, a tin of caffeine-laced mints and a sleeve of Coca-Colas to keep me alert during the long drive into the north. I buy a long plastic-wrapped Dominican cigar from a glass case on the counter. I pay with cash.
At 6:10 I am driving through the center of the city. The sun is going down, glinting off the small spots of gilt and chrome in the city center. My heart leaps with a little bit of joy seeing the yellow light glance off the numbers on 2611 Pine, since this is the last time I will ever see it—by necessity, the last time I will ever drive through this town on the edgeoftheworld.Whenpeople speak about the middle of nowhere they are actually speaking about Meridean.
I roll the window down to catch a breath of the autumn air, smelling dead leaves, grass, running water, the iron of the hills. I love it because it is so close to ending. Is this what soldiers feel on the night before war? No. No. I have chosen my quest. I am not a soldier. I am on a crusade. In the calm I can hear the grasshoppers singing and for once I am not possessed of that creeping, eating doubt that has so often tempted me to go the way of my father. I wonder how he felt that night, with a snifter of brandy in one hand and a gun in the other. He had only loaded it with one cartridge, I suppose so that when he did it the slide would lock back, instead of rocketing forward again to destroy his teeth and upper lip. We thanked him for it. But I will not go the way of my father. My hand is raised not against myself but, in a small way, against the sinners of the world—against the sinners of the board.
I walk through the hollow halls of the school, my footfalls echoing. They are behind this door. I hear them talking, about something trivial, about how they want to allocate a thousand dollars to replace the old rectangular cafeteria tables with newer, brightly colored and socially-inclusive round tables. Somebody else explains they do not have a thousand dollars for tables. I kick the door open and walk in.
The room falls silent as I stride to the center of the room and take my seat. The heads in the room turn to face me, silhouettes dark and motionless as if they have all been cut out of tin. I set my body down, my elbows propped on my knees, facing those seven sitting at a table as if on a dais at the front of the room.
“Just call me Roland,” I say.
“It’s…good to see you,” says Aaron Jackson, spitting it through his overlapped teeth before he leans back into his chair.
But I don’t speak. I only watch the seven of them, centered beneath the dusty head of a magnificent twenty-point buck on the wall: DiPalma, Stowe, Jackson, Hendrich, Blithe, Danovich, and directly under the mounted head, in her pink suit, Doris Coen. I feel her eyes on me.
“Where were we?” says the discouraging voice I had heard from behind the door—it is Don Danovich, a man with pale and waxy skin, the one who runs the books for the board. “Right. John, now, we’re in a depression—you may not realize, of course—I understand that the cafeteria could use an update but the money…it simply…isn’t…there!” He says these last words while pounding on a green ledger on the table before him, his voice rising with each syllable to a higher whine. “Unless you would like to fund it out of your own substantially deep pockets—”
“Please!” Michael Hendrich shoots from his space on the opposite side of DiPalma. He presses his stomach into the edge of the table so he can see around the skinnier man. “The whole school needs an overhaul. The classrooms in the East wing have not been changed since the sixties. I say we say God damnit, right here, and appropriate the money. Make the purchase of the year. We need new computers, smart boards, desks, office spaces, library shelves, cafeteria tables, culinary equipment. Let the taxpayer buy it, it’s for their children, for God’s sake.” He leans back with a sigh.
“I tell you again, Michael,” Danovich says, “stop making these ridiculous requests. We do not have it. It is not there.”
“Do not tell me there is no money,” I say, picking my staccato words like strings on a zither. “There is money. You took it from Dara. Where is it? Has it disappeared?”
They are silent. “Well?” I yell at them. Their faces are chiseled stone.
“Your wife…” a voice begins from stage right, timid and dry, a conciliatory whine. It is Gregory Blithe. “Your wife is…she is….”
I snarl at him to spit it out. He glances at the others in his group before he does, saying, “Dara…is unfit to work with children,” and leaning back.
“What? How?” I hear a murmur in the crowd at my back.
“She was a poor teacher,” he says, riding on his words, now, the whine ebbing from his voice, replaced with a slothful exasperation. “Shall we say it? Shall we have out with it? She was lazy, Roland, that’s the word. Her students were suffering. They were lagging behind.”
“Bastard,” I growl, though Blithe only sinks deeper into his cushioned chair. “No lies. I know a conspiracy when I see it.” The murmuring grows. Chairs scrape. The room has become a tuning orchestra of heartstrings and nerves.
From stage left: “Please,” Don Danovich whines, and his voice is truly a whine, needling and toneless. “Conspiracy? You think we’re conspiring against that woman?” He runs a hand through his terrific combover and his tongue across his teeth, his green teeth, not a rotten green but just a smooth light-cast color, like the green of money. “It’s a matter of capital, what we’ve been appropriated by the town and the state—which is almost nothing, I’ll have you know.”
“She could not be satisfied!” says a third voice, a knife-sharp voice, Danovich’s neighbor. It is John DiPalma, hands clasped tightly across his gold-buttoned chest, a small plate of red cherries set on the table before him. “Do you know what she asked—no, she demanded of us—last month?” He spits a cherry pit onto the edge of the plate. “A raise of ten percent. Ten percent! And this when we ourselves are just…squeezing, scraping by. These are hard economics, and we have no room for…for bleeding hearts.” He spits out the last word like it is a cherry pit, small and bitter.
“It’s just a bit pathetic,” says Danovich in reply.
At this moment I realize the gun, which I have almost forgotten,hasstartedto dig into my side. I think about drawing it, but I refrain. Instead, Aaron Jackson leans out from his seat between Blithe and Stowe, with a scowl on his face. “Oh, she didn’t tell you? Last month she struck a student for throwing a tantrum. Slapped her! This isn’t the sixties. You don’t know how much work it took to avoid a suit. It’s not a new thing, either. Once she locked a nine-year-old boy in the art closet for an hour. She’s unstable. She’s angry.”
“And you must remember the drinking!” Michael Hendrich slaps DiPalma on the shoulder, knocking the skinny man over the table with the heft of his thick arm, scattering the cherries and their pits. “She’s an alcoholic. Absolutely certifiable.”
My breath catches in my throat. “No. She is not.”
“Yes,” Hendrich pushes his insistent weight against the edge of the table in an attempt to move his face closer toward mine. “Don’t even pretend you didn’t know. You must’ve smelled it!”
“Shut up!” I hear the door to the hallway slam as somebody slips out. This is wrong. The situation is beginning to run away from me. So I grasp. I stand from my seat and face Doris Coen at her raised seat in the middle of the table. “You! Tell me you did not want to give her that slip! Tell me it tore you up!”
She only smiles and looks to her left. She won’t speak yet.
Instead, Regina Stowe jumps up beside the pink woman in a flurry of black hair. The glisten in her eyes tells me that all reason has already left her. “Did you see what she wore? Leopard print, transparent shirts, lacy lingerie…tramp clothes, whore clothes! We warned her enough times about it. And all you boys…” she turns with a rictus of a grin to the five other men in the room. “Is there anybody between you who hasn’t fucked her?” The whole room grins back, their eyes also filled with the mad light.
And this is enough. I sweep my coat back from my belt and pull the gun in one beautiful motion, a figure-eight, leveling it at the face of the black-haired bitch. “Enough!” I say.
Her face shrinks, becomes as sallow as candle wax, as her eyes grow to size of pleading golfballs, as her thin lips work to form some rabid, frothing word. “Fucking….” is all she gets out. Someone in the audience screams, and again the door slams as another parent or teacher flees the room.
At this Doris Coen stands in the corner of my vision, snarling, raising her hand, bringing down something like a pink flail onto my forearm—her purse. It sends a shock down the length of my arm and I can feel my finger tighten against the trigger, can feel the gun almost fire into Stowe’s face. No. The purse clatters onto the floor. I whirl to face Coen.
“You bitch!” I scream. “What was that for? Are you trying to kill her?” I gesture with the gun toward Stowe, still standing like a wax figure over her chair. Coen plops her body back into her seat and looks up with her little pug face, a defiant sneer stamped on it as if it were the manufacturer’s stamp on another kind of gun. She turns her head to each side, surveying the other six. As if finding them lacking. DiPalma shakes his head, hard and fast.
She turns back to me and looks up, not into the barrel of the pistol which hovers a few inches from the space between her eyes but up at me, into my own eyes, as if the interstices, my arm and shoulder and my gun, the foot of space between the muzzle and the bridge of her nose, do not matter. At last she speaks, in that dulcet Kentucky drawl, that high prim pinkish voice that lies about her real nature, which only surfaces in the meaning of her words.
“Put that damn gun down. You want to shoot me, go ahead, shoot me. I know you, Roland—I know. You’re a pissant, you’re a cur, you’re a bitch and a baby. No wonder Dara never respected you. She’s screwed around for years and this—this!” she casts her head around the room, “is what really gets your goat. You know—I don’t give a goddamn what you do. Because I don’t think you could kill any of us here, least of all me.”
I back away, to hide the shaking of my hand, the quaking of my lip. And I look up.
The deer—its flesh, it has been preserved incorrectly. It hangs off in terrible drooping pouches. “You’re human shit, Roland,” Doris Coen says. Patches of skin have fallen from the buck’s face, exposing dried yellow bone beneath. Roland, comes the singing, the sweet grating of teeth. I turn my pistol from Doris Coen to the thing. And its eyes, its eyes! “You are no different from your father.” But it is unclear whether this comes from Coen or from the head above her, as they both sound the same, sweet, singsong.
It is too late. The door to the cafeteria swings open, and rushing through a policewoman in blue with a rifle. I tear myself from the face on the wall and turn toward her. How has she gotten here so fast? But now I realize that far too much time has passed, that I was not quick enough. And also that I cannot hold the gun on her. I fire once above her head and once below her right foot. She fires back—the shot like a detonation—and I feel something touch my shoulder. I shoot once to the left and once to the right. I am drawing the points of a star around her. Something grabs at my kneecap and I stagger, and I know that I am shot now, twice shot. I could kill her if I wanted to. I fire once outside her left shoe, once between her legs. Another bullet burrows deep into my chest and I fall back. When my hand hits the floor I send a shot into the unoccupied seats facing the front of the room—and this is it, there are none in my hand and only one left in the chamber, and only one way I can use it. I raise the gun to my own chin. Forgive me. Forgive me. The slide locks back; and I echo across the then, and the now, and the yet-to-come.