It’s the small weaknesses, isn’t it? Our tiny, ungoverned quirks that lead us down passageways or dead ends we could not have foreseen or imagined. This is not the first time my compulsion, under stress, to shoot a hand to my forehead has gotten me into trouble.
Father Greave used to call it a character flaw. Once, he stung the backs of my legs with a leather strap because I tried to swipe my bangs away when I felt them tickling at just the wrong moment. He thought I was raising my hand after he’d ranged his knobby finger like a pistol at each one of us girls, then singled me out and finished his scolding with the big question: “Who among us objects to good order in the classroom?”
Well, let me just say those bangs got trimmed after that—and every two weeks from then on, until I graduated from Holy Mother of Jesus School for Young Catholic Women.
Today it was a fly, but you keep assuring me there can be no such thing as a fly in a meat cooler.
Bangs are no longer a peculiarity of mine, because my hair is gray now and swept up in a permanent wave like Queen Elizabeth’s. I like to think it makes me as regal as her, but who knows. You really can’t trust your own opinion of yourself. I wanted to tell that same thing to this young fellow who obviously thought he was someone he was not. Only moments ago, he stood right there looking me straight in the eye with all the confidence in the world.
Maybe he thought this morning it would be a simple matter to walk into Alfred Buell’s Fine Meats and Sundries, pull out a gun and ask for the cash and cigarettes. I thought it would be a simple thing to stroll down to Alf’s and pick up a package of tea, but there you go. We both were thwarted by chance and ended up, five in all, tossed into a common pickle by fate and frustrated ambition.
The boy had barely entered the store. There were only two other customers and myself, so he must have thought he would have the upper hand if he yanked that over-sized pistol from the pocket of his hoodie and shouted, “Everybody down on the floor!” At that very moment, there was a crash outside along with the squeal of rubber on asphalt and we all stayed standing. It took a few seconds for it to register there had been an accident right on Alf’s doorstep. You yourself know, the police are thick as ticks in a dog’s ear around here, so two cruisers wailed in almost before the one banged up car slid to its final resting place on the other side of Alf’s display window.
Now the child had to think quickly and not everybody’s cut out for that. I recognized panic in his eyes as they searched the four corners of this small groceteria. It was longer than it should have been before he wagged his hood toward the door of the walk-in fridge and stage-whispered, “Everybody inside!”
I guess none of us considered ourselves fools or heroes, so there we all shuffled, from the damp heat of an August Monday, into Alf’s meat locker. I am old, though; I have that excuse. I was a little slow rolling my walker and ended up pretty much next to the boy as we arrived inside. He hadn’t expected the chill and needed both hands to zip up, so he laid his weapon on the closest surface, which happened to be the seat of my walker. I was cold, too—cold and old but not dead.
I picked the thing up.
That sure changed the tone in the room. The silly boy playing robber realized he’d gotten himself into a real jackpot when he saw it was him at the business end of his own gun barrel. There were a few moments when the steel walls of Alf’s cooler reverberated with shouts and yells. I think a couple of sides of pork began to sway in the confusion. There might have been some debate about whether I should give up the weapon, but—save the boy—nobody else seemed to want it. Finally, Alf’s voice broke through the pandemonium.
“Everybody stay calm!” He looked long and meaningfully at me, then at the boy for another few seconds. “Let’s just cool down. Nobody needs to get hurt.”
We all shivered and nodded our heads and I kept the gun.
Now: Why that old dream would come back today of all days and under these circumstances is anyone’s guess. Who knows why the thoughts in our heads come and go as they do? When I was small, though, I would recount this dream to my sister. It was the same every time: Me looking down the barrel of a gun, then a flash of light, then nothing. I can’t tell you if it was a pistol or a rifle. All I’ve ever seen is the perfect roundness of the barrel end, the circle of emptiness within, the black metal sight exactly centred on top, and then the red-orange-yellow of the explosion. The sound never has time to reach me, but I feel a tick on my forehead before everything goes black.
As I grew into my teens, dreams of guns going off didn’t seem like proper imaginings for a nice Catholic girl—especially after that strapping from Father Greave—so I stopped mentioning them. After awhile they stopped coming. I think it was the tussle with this boy that brought the memory back. All of a sudden this child-man in Alf’s refrigerator seemed fearsomely familiar, and I could not back down—not this time.
Till today, I had no idea how heavy a revolver actually is. I had to use both hands. Even at that, it was unsteady. I suppose he took its bobbing to mean I didn’t know what I was doing.
“Ya gonna shoot me?” he says.
He is facing me with the walker between us. The others are a good distance behind him against the back wall of the cooler and I’m aiming the gun straight at him—or at least tipping the barrel in his direction. The tension is mounting, but I say, calm as you please, “I may do that, although I would prefer not to.”
He tosses his head and says, “Where ya gonna put the bullet then, old woman?”
I am not offended by this reference to my age. In fact, my thought is that the effect of his blue eyes and soft face inside that grey hood is not so far from that of an infant’s inside a blanket. I say nothing, though, because I’m trying to keep my gaze steady so he knows I will not be intimidated.
“Show me where,” he says, leaning back, supporting one arm with the other and pointing his index finger at me as though he, himself, is aiming a pistol at my head. That exact instant is when I see the gun from the dream. That’s when I feel a fly strike me between the eyes and reach up to nudge it away.
“Oh yeah?” says the kid, imitating my gesture and laughing a most derisive laugh. “Right here?”
I have to struggle to bring the pistol back to level. Off behind him to the left, I see Alf in his meat-stained apron contorting his chubby grocer face into a silent and desperate “No!”
I shoot him a strong glare because he should know me better than that.
About this time, the other two hostages begin quietly drifting sideways; one to the left, one to the right. Perhaps they are afraid of the wavering barrel. I am, I can tell you that. I’m praying for someone to swoop in and save the day before the thing falls to the floor from its own weight. But there is no way I’m going to give in to this bad boy. He needs to be turned around before someone gets hurt.
I must add here, it is a constant vex as I age that I am becoming increasingly oblivious to the world behind me and on both sides. It seems the more I concentrate on what is in front, the less I am able to perceive what is going on in the rear. So, before I realize Alf is missing from the group of prisoners, and before I become aware of his presence at my back, I see the youngster’s peepers widening like bull’s eyes. At the same time, there is a bumping sound behind me, like a toe stubbing, then an “Oof!” and a jolt from a soft, heavy body, which sends me forward over my walker that has been braked between the boy and me all this time. This causes me to squeeze the gun as I stumble.
Well. If you’ve never seen a young man’s forehead explode, I can tell you now, you don’t want to. You must believe me when I say that I would no more want to shoot down a smooth faced teenager than I would want to sit here on the seat of this walker afterward, wiping the gore from my face with your tissues and explaining why I did it.
If, in retrospect, I could make Alf believe that my intentions were good; if I could reach out and hand the gun back to the boy I surely would. If I could say to him, “Here, shoot me if you must but smarten up from then on,” I would be glad for that old dream to come true. But that is not the situation we have. What we have is a boy—I don’t even know what he’s called—under a bloody sheet, and we have me reciting to the police how it happened.
Jason, you say. Sixteen... Oh, my.
You must see this every day, Officer—Not exactly this, I mean, but good lives gone awry all the same. It can happen so easily and by such small degrees, don’t you think? But for one simple urge—to stand out among his peers, to smoke a Marlboro maybe—this young man might have done alright. But for me picking up that gun, or Alf misreading my intentions, we might not have had this terrible accident. If I had been content with the old Lipton tea in the cupboard instead of setting my sights on Tetley...
Do you have enough for your notes? I’m stiff and cold as a piece of meat.
—Don’t go for your gun! I’m not trying to escape. I’m just standing to give the blood in my legs time to circulate before I start moving again. I’m guessing you’ll be wanting to take me in. Since you’re offering I will take your arm, thank you.
Tell me, Officer, do you think everyone has some fatal defect? Some liability of spirit that threatens to take us down, even as we feel assured of our final redemption? And, if we knew the forerunners of our disasters, could we prevent them, or are we locked on course to them no matter what? If I had looked into that dream instead of burying it; if Alf had trusted in me instead of trying to save the day. If Jason had recognized that car crash as a way out instead of letting it drive him farther in, do you think... Or were we all set on our individual courses to disaster before we were even born?
You’re shaking your head, Officer, and by your sideways grin, I get the idea you don’t think much of my questions.
Well, I hope your scepticism is well-placed.
In case not, though, I pray you discover your own defect—and arrest it.
Ruth Edgett is an aspiring novelist and short story writer. A former journalist turned communications consultant, Ruth is the author of A Watch in the Night: The story of Pomquet Island’s last lightkeeping family (Nimbus, 2007), and of many other stories—both true and made-up and mostly set in the Canadian Maritimes. Sometimes she mixes it up with a bit of poetry.
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