The living room stank of spirits and torched Marlboros. Robin anxiously stabbed her cross-stitched landscape while Arthur pinched his cigarette hard enough to flatten and stain it with motor oil.
He was the best mechanic in the shop, and the hardest working. He spent more than 60 hours a week dismantling cars and castrating gremlins for Coastal Auto Mart, and preferred it that way. Cars he understood — people were fucked. Even his people, though he never complained.
Life was wicked hard, and complaining just made it worse.
Skinny as a fence board, he had once again ignored most of the food on his plate, though his sons — all three of them still living at home, more often than not with a friend in tow — had scarfed through another kettle of meat and noodles, the family staple, washing it down in a flood of Sweet Tea, an elixir they brought along in their move from Texas to California.
Daniel, his middle child, was the brash one. The tequila made him even more talkative, and hushed the internal alarms that would’ve usually kept him from mentioning the war. And once war was in the air, guns were an easy digression.
Arthur’s youngest son Michael — my best friend and host that night — had just turned 18, and his parents were the type to let the kids drink as long as they did it at home. We were halfway through the bottle when the story tumbled out.
Barely 18 himself, he’d enlisted in the U.S. Army. Not for any patriotic reasons, but because the draft would’ve weighed heavy on him otherwise. His number was likely to come up, he knew, and he’d rather sign the dotted line and get his choice of assignments than end up as just another grunt in the jungle.
He ended up working most of his time as a mechanic — where he learned all the skills that kept his family afloat — but also spent some months as the machine-gunner in a supply caravan.
He told us he’d manned a .50-cal mounted on the back of a truck. Holding up his hands at 2 and 10 like an old woman driving to church, he dry-fired for us there in the living room, jerking loosely around to demonstrate the ferocity of its recoil, the power of physics in action.
It seemed funny to us, so we laughed. He didn’t.
Afterward, he grew quiet, ruminative as the conversation drifted to other topics. Robin watched him over the rims of her reading glasses.
We’d left the subject far behind when, an hour later, Arthur sat up suddenly and shot a questioning look at his wife.
“Where’d you put that box of photographs?”
“Which?” Robin said, without looking up.
“You know damn well which — the cedar box, with the eagle thing on the lid?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said. She began clearing her place at the table.
With three kids and a husband, dishes piled up fast in that household, and it had been several days since she’d last scrubbed them clean. At half past one in the morning, she suddenly busied herself collecting dishes from around the house and preparing to scald them free of contaminants. We thought this was funny, too.
Arthur, meanwhile, disappeared into his room. We could hear him rummaging through boxes and drawers sealed since the beginning of time. Occasionally, the rustling would stop for several seconds and a violent sneeze would punctuate our conversation from the other room. We found it more and more hilarious as the night drew on.
Finally, covered in dust and sweat, he emerged bearing a small wooden cigar box and folded-up bundle of oil cloth. His boys recognized the bundle, and immediately grew excited. Dad’s pistol.
First, though, Arthur set it aside and cradled the box as if it were an ancient relic.
“These are the only pictures I have left from those days,” he said.
He handed Michael the box and took up the gun, unwrapping it slowly, with care.
The photos were mostly what you’d expect. A collection of portraits — skinny American kids propped up against the exotic background of a lush foreign jungle. One photograph, of a soft-eyed kid with a goofy look on his face, seemed to stand out from the others. The boy seemed too young for war.
“Who is that?” I asked, pointing.
Arthur leans over and squints down at the faded picture. He grunts.
“That’s me, shitheel,” he said.
Try as I might, I couldn’t catch the resemblance. So much had changed.
Daniel asked the obvious question.
“Did you kill anyone?”
He looked at us strangely for a second, then nodded his head. He told us the story, but I won’t repeat it here. It was sad, and horrifying, and — as far as I could tell — justified, as far as those things can ever be justified.
Among the pictures, he thumbed one out in particular and had us all guessing at the subject matter. Old photo, thirty years, out of focus — none of us recognized the human head mounted like a dead muppet on a crooked fence post. That’s probably a good thing.
We drank more, anxious to dilute the suddenly stifling complexities, and handed the pistol around. Arthur contemplated the weight of it, then gently tossed it from hand to hand.
After some time, he drained the bottle, cracked the cylinder open and loaded it with shells. He then handed it to Daniel.
“See how much heavier it is loaded?” Arthur said. “Crazy, right?”
We all took it for a turn, hefted it like the men we had yet to become, then handed it back. He shook all the shells out, but one seemed to reluctant to fall. Smiling, he spun the cylinder around.
“If you guys ever do something like this, I’ll kick your ass,” he said. “But if we were playing Russian Roulette, how’d we do?”
He cracks the gun open again and eyes the single round, one slot shy of the barrel. “Seems our luck is in tonight,” he said. “First one to the casino gets to fire the gun.”
He unceremoniously slammed the cylinder home. Eyeing the barrel down the length of his arm, lining the front and rear sights up together, he aimed the shining .357 and pulled the trigger.
Technical note: Shutting the cylinder advances the round.
I remember thinking that of everyone in that room, only Arthur had ever heard someone scream like Robin did that night. The gunshot rattled the house, shook the windows, and caused a slippery dish to fly out of Robin’s hands and crash to the linoleum floor — a much smaller crash in the wake of an explosion.
Gun smoke, a thin tendril much too delicate for such a gun, curled out from the muzzle as we all stared at the quarter-sized hole that had suddenly appeared in the floor.
As soon as Robin finished counting heads, and found every skull accounted for, she slapped Arthur once on his shoulder, then again on the chest. Her face crumpled and her body heaved with a sudden expulsion of anxiety.
She slapped him hard across the face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
It remains the most earnest apology I’ve ever heard, and most wasted.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.