Gary says I’ve got to let go. All them negative vibes, he tells me. All this bad fuckin mojo keeping you down.
He’s standing behind me and reaching up under my armpits to thump my chest with his bony fist. From a distance it must look like I’m choking and Gary’s saving me. From a distance, it must look like he’s copping a feel of my man-tits. If anybody were actually looking on from a distance.
The sun hasn’t fully cracked the tree-line out behind the old farmhouse Gary’s renting with his buddies. It’s barely eight in the morning.
Here, he says from over my shoulder. His lanky arms draped over my shoulders, hugging up against my elbows and forearms. His hands cupping my hands, cupping his gun.
I can hear my own unsteady breathing at full volume and I’m starting to feel like I’m under water. Like maybe I’m falling in love all over again.
There now, Gary whispers in my ears. Loosen up those shoulders, buddy.
I can smell the sweet stink of patchouli on his breath, the stale beer seeping out his pores.
Shake it all out now, he says and hugs me tighter, shakes me gently.
His chest, warming me from the small of my back up to the tops of my shoulder blades. He might as well be teaching me a forbidden dance. Propping me up in his arms, pulling my strings.
At some point, I feel Gary’s long bony trigger finger sliding down over my doughy knuckles and over my stubby trigger finger.
It’s a real wonder, the steadiness and comfort of a finger that bony as it gently curls up around mine with that little sliver of steel between the guard.
I can hear my heart slowing down from inside my own head, Gary’s breath tickling the edges of my earlobe. Everything so entirely underwater.
Easy, I can hear him whispering, his lips almost resting on the outer ridge of my ear. I think of my wife and all the years we’ve stuck it out together. I imagine she’s back to snoozing in Gary’s bed, still wearing Gary’s flannel, still not wearing any pants.
The blast seems to go off inside me. My eyes still closed tight. I feel the kick as if everything—Gary’s arms and hands and fingers and back, the gun, the bullet, this crackling moment—is exploding from somewhere inside my heart, inside the blood pumping from superior vena cava to anterior.
This jolt of lightning pinging from my palm to my wrist, my elbow to my shoulder to that hard hairy chest hugging so tightly my back and shoulders.
I don’t flinch, don’t jump, don’t open my eyes. I don’t want anything to ruin it, all this spastic energy ricocheting around inside me by the moment.
My wife swings Gary’s screen door open wide til it bangs the outside of the clapboard house. Our dog comes scrambling out.
The little furball won’t stop whining to go out, she shouts through the wind. He wants to be out having fun with his daddy, she says.
Can’t you see we’re shooting out here? I shout, not much paying attention which way the gun’s pointed.
What? she says. She’s squinting and shading her eyes as she says it as if the sun’s blinding her even though it’s still gray out. She hasn’t changed out of Gary’s flannel, hasn’t put on any pants yet.
It’s not safe! I shout. We’re shooting! I shout. Guns!
I’m waving the gun this way and that to show her what I mean. I imagine firing off a warning shot in the air as illustration, but decide against it. Only a few rounds left in Gary’s clip by this point, no time for wasting bullets.
Is the safety on? I wonder to myself. Gary hasn’t gotten to that lesson yet, hasn’t even warned me about pointing a loaded gun at him or other living, breathing things.
My wife’s still standing inside the screen door, squinting at us until Gary waves her off.
No worries, he says. Dogs hate guns.
You boys play nice now, she says. Gary and I both staring at her black panties, her bare legs as she turns to head back to bed. The screen door slamming hard against the doorjamb behind her, then bouncing a couple more times before it stops.
I’m still standing there with the gun up over my shoulders as I watch the foufy little white dog bound through the high grass until he stops about ten yards short of me.
Whoa, I say. Whoa. I’m waving the gun so he can see it in my hand. With my other hand I’m giving him the stop sign.
Sit, I say. Stay. He stands there, his head cocked to the side, the way dogs do when they’re confused.
Sit, I say again and realize I’m using the barrel of the gun to point down at the dog’s feet.
Dude, you worry too much, Gary tells me. There’s a peculiarity to his big toothy smile that unsettles me. He’s taken at least a couple good hits off his bowl by this time.
There’s no way, he says, smiling that big toothy smile. Pretty much.
You got any idea how hard it is to hit an actual living thing? he asks me. He sparks his Bic a couple times and takes another hit off his bowl. Puckers up and blows a ring at me that immediately disappears in the wind. A living breathing thing that doesn’t want to die? he asks. He’s looking down at the dog and firing off a finger gun with his Bic as the handle. You ever tried to shoot a small animal on the move? he asks the dog as he shoots it with his finger gun.
I haven’t, but I don’t tell Gary that. Until this morning with Gary who’s sleeping with my wife I’ve never held gun before in my life, but I don’t tell Gary that either.
Fight or flight, dude, he says and pats the dog a little too hard with his lighter in his hand still.
I look down at the dog standing there looking up at me then back to Gary staring back down at it.
Like eight billion to one, he says. He’s back to looking at me now. And that’s like if you’re a half-decent shooter, he says, shooting his finger gun at me now. And no offense, dude…
Sit, I tell the dog, pointing my real gun at his feet. Stay. He stares back at me unmoving, his eyes fixed on the little black stick-looking thing in my hand.
A moment or two of that and then he takes off bounding into the woods behind Gary’s place like a wild rabbit and I don’t call after him.
Kinda early, don’t you think? Gary’s hunched over this old picnic table behind the house. He’s packing a bowl all the colors of the rainbow. Then cupping it and trying to get it to light in the wind. The morning air isn’t cold but cool, breezy.
Long night? I ask, though I know the answer.
I’m lining up an empty can of PBR propped on top of an old rotten round bale in the field behind the house. The end of the barrel wandering from one side of the blue ribbon to the other.
Sunrise’s the only time of day for shooting, Gary tells me the night before, drunk and stoned out of his mind. The rising sun peeking ever so slowly out over barrel of your gun. Most beautiful thing you’ll ever see or experience, dude.
Gary’s gun’s not your classic old timey revolver where you can spin the chambers and play Russian roulette. It’s this jet-black James Bond looking thing.
A Berretta, he tells me last night. Tells me other things about it too, but I’m only half paying attention then the way Gary’s only half-listening now as I shift the weight of the gun from one hand to the other.
You gotta breathe, man, Gary yells louder than he has to. The picnic table’s stationed maybe ten feet from the target bale. He’s banging the end of his bowl on the end of it. Still hasn’t gotten the bowl to smoke.
The gun’s not that heavy per se, but heavy enough to where I have to tense up a bit to keep it steady and upright, which only makes keeping it from shaking that much harder. As close as he is to me, it would not be completely unbelievable that I might get nervous, this being my first time and all, and accidentally shoot Gary where he sits.
You’re holding on too tight, he says. You’re not breathing.
It doesn’t help that I haven’t slept, that I’ve been driving the backroads all night with a whining dog and mainlining Red Bulls to stay alert, stay ready.
I haven’t hit a can yet. First shot knocked one off the bale but that was mostly the tiny explosion of hay flying up from underneath. Haven’t so much as blown one over since then.
I keep flinching at the last second, closing my eyes, clenching my fingers, bracing for the sound, waiting for the jolt. What Gary tells me.
He also tells me I can finish off the clip, but then he’s only got one more after that and that’s for a special occasion, he says, though he doesn’t tell me what.
Bullets ain’t cheap, dude, he says. It’s hard to tell if Gary’s sore at me for coming back this morning and waking him up. Sticking around to shoot guns instead of taking my wife off his hands and being done with it. Or if he’s simply pissed he can’t get his bowl going.
I drop the gun to my side for a moment the way I’ve seen them do on all the shows. I’ve watched them all pretty much at one time or another. Diehard, Lethal Weapon, the Datelines and 48 Hours. I know how I’m supposed to act at times like this, what this is supposed to feel like, how it’s all supposed to go down.
I take a big slow sigh, shake out the tension in my shoulders, my knees, my hips.
Just let her go, Gary shouts. He points the tip of his bowl at me like a pistol and cocks back his thumb. Pull the fuckin’ trigger, eh?
Always these goddamn mixed messages with this guy. This is why I’ll never be a real man, I suppose. Too much patience, not enough blind rage.
I nod my head and go back to sighting in the little Pabst blue ribbon down the end of the barrel. My eyes twitching and blurring over as I line up the sights, my hands shaking ever so slightly.
Numb as I am in the cool morning breeze, I can feel the warmth of sweat dripping from my palms down the grip.
I’ve let myself in and I’m at the door to his room, big smile spread across my face.
Oh shit, he says opening the door all squinty and cockeyed. He nearly topples over backwards when he rubs his eyes and takes a good look at me and the little white dog squirming in my arms.
My wife here? I ask. I nod at the dog I’m holding like a toddler to my hip. I say, This one here’s been up all night crying himself hoarse waiting for his mommy to come back home.
The faster Gary tries to hop himself into those too-tight jeans the more he struggles with them.
He’s working on the zipper now, nothing on underneath except this bushy treasure trail of his on full display for me.
Careful, buddy, I say, smiling big as I can. I point down at his zipper with my free hand. Wouldn’t wanna mess around and get yourself caught, eh?
It’s a tough thing, I’m sure, trying to pull on a pair of jeans in a hurry, but then also half-asleep and hungover over, maybe still drunk, and all the while that chest and pube hair he’s got poking out this way and that.
Then having to look over your shoulder at some guy’s wife half-naked in your bed while that guy stands there at your bedroom door with his dog, both of them smirking a little while they watch you struggle.
Hey, babe, he says and tosses over a pair of crumpled-up jeans that may or may not be hers.
She’s face down sprawled out across his bed like a crime scene outline. Head under the pillow, covers kicked off, a flannel shirt I immediately recognize as not hers, not mine. These lacy black panties she hasn’t worn in years. Her pale bare legs slowly starting to twitch and come alive with the sunlight to peeking through under the shutters.
I’m sleeping, she says without looking up from the pillow.
He walks over to grab her ankle hanging over the bed, shakes it, taps it. Hey, he says. Come on. Get up. It’s time to go, babe.
The dog’s figuring things out now and is whining and grunting and squirming for me to let him go.
Don’t worry, I tell Gary. Let the little guy work his magic. I let the dog go to town licking her bare feet.
Ew! Gross! she cries out, this time whipping the pillow at the foot of the bed. Stop, she says. When she finally looks up, she sees the dog wagging its stub-tail at her feet, sees me waving from inside the door frame.
Morning, baby, I say.
My baby! she screams, though not to me. She snatches up the foufy little thing and pulls the little guy her chest. Promptly covers both of them with the blanket and turns away from me and Gary.
The sun barely peeking through the trees, but I’ll run out of gas if I keep driving in circles around the backroads. I give up and pull in Gary’s long gravel driveway, kill the engine, and let the dog out to piss and run off some nervous energy.
It’s this old farm house out in the boonies. Half the paint chipped off the siding around the house, the other half about to flake off with the wind.
I’m rattling the whole house as I rap the screen door, whacking it good and hard against the door jamb.
Knock, knock, I say. Rise and shine, sleepy-heads.
Sooner or later one of Gary’s roommates comes wobbling to the door. A pair of tighty-whities that aren’t fully pulled up and matted hair going all over the place on the sides and back.
What time is it? he says, blinks, then blinks again.
Gary. He promised to give me some shooting lessons this morning.
Oh shit, he says, giggles. I could’ve sworn you said David.
He up yet?
Fuck man, he says. Christ, he says. Shit, how am I supposed to know everything.
Starts wobbling back down the hallway, top half of his bony little ass-crack peeking out with each slow step. Knocks twice on the first door he passes. Then keeps walking.
Gary, he yells over his shoulder.
He’s here, he yells behind him.
What’s he want?
The fuck should I know.
He wants you, man.
Then from back in Gary’s room, some chick shouts, Why’s everybody shouting?
It’s so early, she shouts. Why are we all yelling?
It’s her voice, all right. My baby, clear as day.
It’s one in the morning and the dog has just shit itself for the third time. I’m assuming. He’s back home and hasn’t been out since we took off for the show six hours ago.
Gary keeps telling me it’s okay, man. It’s okay. He’s fine. Don’t worry so much, dude. Just chill.
It’s not your dog, I keep telling him. You don’t have to clean up after it.
When it’s not Gary, it’s my wife telling me not to worry so much. It’s okay, baby. He’s fine. Don’t worry so much. Relax.
It’s your dog, I keep telling her. You can clean it up.
It’s both our dog at this point. It’s been twelve years now. We’ve been married seven. The dog is thirteen, on its last legs. I’ve never signed any adoption papers or anything, but it’s probably been eleven years since my wife’s taken the dog for its morning constitutional. The dog’s not letting itself out to shit in our yard, is what I’m saying.
At the after-party, Gary’s drunk and stoned and making it pretty clear to me, my wife, and everybody else there that I’m not a real man if I’ve never fired a gun before.
Well, I’ve never fired a gun before, I tell him.
Well, that cinches it, dude, he says. First thing tomorrow morning we’re popping your cherry.
Maybe twenty-one, twenty-two. Half my age, though less than half my wife’s age. He’s maybe six-three, six-four. This lanky body on him with arms and legs to match. But hairy in ways lanky guys usually aren’t. This beard on him. This long bushy ponytail he’s got tucked up under a wool-knit cap. He’s like if a horny squirrel knocked up an anorexic grizzly bear.
He’s also the lead-singer in a country band, the one my wife made me come out to see tonight. Her former student. She and Gary’d been working together again this semester. Independent study, what they call it. He’d been showing her his new songs and she’d been helping him be more concrete, less abstract. To show more and tell less. More poetic and less bumper-sticker.
You’ve got to hear his songs, she’d been telling me for weeks. He’s gotten so good, she’d say when she’d play me the songs.
Then pretty soon it was You’ve got to see him play. You’ve got to meet him. I just know you’d hit it off.
You could talk music, my wife kept telling me. Maybe he could teach you a few things.
I’d taught myself to play the guitar a few years back. Nothing complicated, just a few licks, some familiar classics. I’d watched a bunch of videos from this Swedish guitar instructor on YouTube.
Down, down, up! That’s how he’d teach me. Down, down, up!
Then he’d sing in his dense Swedish accent. I want to live… / I want to give… / I’ve been searching for a heart… of… gold… / But I’m getting old…
Down, down, down, down, up, down, up!
Tonight I’ve given up and let my wife drag me out to her former student’s show and then the after-party back at his place. It’s not for my wife. Or rather it’s not to show my wife that I’m taking an interest for once.
It’s to see what I’m up against.
My wife’s curled up behind me in this ratty old recliner. I’m on the edge of a random footstool, stone-cold sober and sitting stiffly with no back support.
Gary’s handed me his guitar and wants to hear me play something. I’ve told him no twice but he won’t take no for an answer.
Before he can ask me a third time, my wife gets up from behind me, snatches it out of his hands. Shoves it into my chest. Like Gary, she’s had quite a bit to drink and taken at least a few hits off the community bowl.
Come on, baby, she says. Her eyes bloodshot, her eyelids droopy, she leans down, pats me on the back, and kisses the top of my head. Everybody wants to hear you play.
It’s true. Or at least everybody at the house is staring at me now as I finger the frets and adjust the body under my arm. It’s three guys from Gary’s band, each with a girl to entertain. Except Gary.
I’m stretching out my fingers and getting a feel for Gary’s guitar. The strings, of course, are much more spread out than mine. His longer fingers, my stubbier fingers. I think about my Swedish guitar instructor from YouTube. I go through the progressions in my head. Down, down, up! Down, down, up!
My wife tells the whole band and their girlfriends that my problem is I don’t drink or do drugs. You’ll have to excuse my husband, she says while I get a feel for the wider fretboard. He can be a bit of a party pooper, she says in her drunken sing-song voice.
She doesn’t explain about my blood-pressure medication or my anxiety pills. She doesn’t explain about the migraines I get when I mix those drugs with alcohol or other, unprescribed drugs.
One of the guys from Gary’s band says, Dude, that blows, then giggles. They all giggle, including my wife.
Gary’s not giggling. You’re too stiff, dude, he tells me, but he doesn’t mean the alcohol or drugs or this party I’m too old for. He’s down on one knee in front of me. He’s fixing my fingering, my posture.
You gotta let go, he says, adjusting my wrists, my elbow over the body of his guitar.
I’m real shitty, though, I tell Gary, almost a whisper. I apologize. I’m sorry, man, I say. Strum a couple muffled notes as illustration.
My wife says something from behind me and everybody starts giggling again.
Forget all that shit, man, Gary tells me. Forget everything.
For a second I think he might slap me like punch-drunk boxer. It’s the first time I’ve really looked him in the eyes all night. It’s maybe the first time I’ve looked any man in the eyes like this. I mean, with him looking me right back in the eyes. Neither of us blinking.
This whole time I’ve been thinking they’d be bugged out or beady but they’re not. They’re barely even bloodshot. They’re little and brown and deep set behind his beard and bony cheeks. It’s hard to hear anything else around me looking into those eyes of his.
Still staring wide, he pokes me gently in the chest twice and tells me, You need this, brother.
I look down for a moment to watch myself hitting the first few chords. When I look back up, he’s picked up another guitar from somewhere and is strumming along with me softly, his eyes closed now, his head tilted back.
We’re strumming together for maybe thirty seconds before I even realize what we’re playing, what I’m playing. We play the intro three times before we swing around and pick up the verse.
I want to live… we’re singing. I want to give… we’re singing.
Everybody’s singing. Gary’s band, the girls, my wife. We’re all searching for a heart of gold. We’re all getting old.
And though I can’t speak for the rest of them, from the sounds of it, we’re all following Gary’s lead.
Benjamin Drevlow is the author of the book Bend With the Knees and Other Love Advice from My Father. He has published short fiction and nonfiction at Gravel, Literary Orphans, and Split Lip, among other magazines. You can find these and other stories linked at thedrevlow-olsonshow.com.
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