The shop door clicks to a wooden close behind, and a young woman in an oversized men’s raincoat hunches there, rubbing her face. Ella Fitzgerald croons “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from a boxy speaker surrounded by power tools. The lighting is dim and deep yellow like old coffee, but eventually her eyes focus on the nearest glass showcases, and then on the impressive ranks of shotguns and rifles lining the walls. These are black and greased, catching the light murkily enough to be mistaken for hanging eels. The air is the cool, still air of a basement. Heads of animals spout from plaques on the walls, and she does not recognize some of them.
A shirtless man, the clerk, stands behind one of the glass cases. A maroon and bronze cash register looms in front of him, and to a customer he may appear to be naked. The clerk watches the woman and does not say anything. Her eyes adjust and she glances at him and then steps over to the glass countertop, surveying the items on grey felt underneath. The music hums.
“What you need?” the clerk lifts his chin and hollers. “We don’t buy no jewelry. Usually.”
The woman continues to hold the coat around her shoulders, and with the way she is leaning over the glass, the weapons arranged below might have been inlaid with rare gems.
“Hey,” the clerk hollers again. She does not answer and he starts to wander over in her direction.
“I can hardly see these. Too dark.” The woman’s voice is quiet but perturbed; she takes off a hat and her hair is chopped nearly back to her scalp in some places, like she cut it herself, quickly, and with no mirror.
“I like it this way, I guess,” the clerk says distantly. The woman drifts up to him and passes him, scanning the items and occasionally wiping little circles in the glass with the sleeve of her coat. Her left hand is holding the coat closed at her waist, and her arm is pressed, hard enough to whiten the knuckles, against her lower belly. She moves delicately and doubled over, perhaps overly conscious of keeping the coat around her, or perhaps stepping the way a person sometimes does around a sharp pain.
The woman points to something below one panel of glass.
“What you got there?” the clerk says, shuffling over, “buying something for your husband?” He steps up and looks. Her fingertip remains pressed against the glass and she raises her head. She is hard and tight under the skin of her calm face, her eyes large and filled with reflection.
“I can’t let you hold that,” the clerk says.
The woman shakes her head and closes her eyes. “Not hold. I want to buy it.”
The clerk decides something and shakes his head and laughs. “That bad, sugar? Look, these are tasers on the rack up here, and these guys pack a load of wattage, could drop a gorilla. And they got these stylish handles.” She ignores him and taps the glass impatiently, staring through the grime at what she wants.
“Or if you need something, you know, a little more ‘don’t tread on me,’ you got these .22s over here. Now that little guy’s got nickel plating and he’ll fit right in your purse.” She is not carrying one.
“No. I don’t want that. I want this.”
“You didn’t even look at it.” The clerk stares her down, but she is still bent over, pointing and waiting. “Well, I guess you could look at these .38s. You know, cops use ‘em, so you know they’re dependab — “
The glass pane jangles loudly when the woman’s palm pounds against it, and the white knuckles of her left hand claw into her belly a bit. “I do not,” she says in a wavering tone that suggests she would not like to discuss it twice, “know how to use a gun. I promised someone a long time ago that I would never touch one. And if I wanted one, I wouldn’t need you. This,” she thumps the glass again and breathes a calm wind of composure over her body’s tremble, “is what my husband wants.”
When she gets home, she hides it in the bottom of the crisper, then thinks better of it and seals it away in a can of flour. It probably does not matter. He is too far decayed; things like flour are gone to him now.
Her husband’s shifts have grown longer and more erratic. Sometimes he does not even come home in his uniform, says that he is on assignment. She wonders, as always since the accident, if he knows he is lying.
For the past three mornings, after her husband is gone again, she has found a small yellow slip of paper curled up in the dusty mason jar on the porch. The notes are coldly, incoherently journalistic; they are in her husband’s jagged script and seem confessional of some unmanageable horror just below the surface. She does not know if these letters are intended for her or indeed if her husband is even aware of writing them. This morning’s note began with what seemed to be yesterday’s date:
friday morning june 3hird––4ourteen minutes after 2econd hour––emergency vehicle en route to redruth on hawkins drive rounds bend on west bank of river––unit answering anonymous call for elderly man in insulin shock––unnoticed obstruction shears front axle instantly––vehicle tumbles shredding––occupants shriek over sound of fire
He has not spoken that many words to her in over a year. Tonight, she is holding this letter as she sits quietly buoyed in the kitchen rocker by the open window. It is deep night; light wind pushes through the cornflower blue curtains into the dark room. She has lived here only a year, but already she knows the form of the avenue as it lolls by the house; it is always in her periphery. Only a year. It was not a special house, or even a pretty house. A square, brown thing with a porch and dead blue paint at its eyes. She was not really sure how much of the surrounding forest they owned, but their nearest neighbor was miles away. At first she had been in awe of the woods, been simply content to live quietly outside the city. And now she knows the shape of the tree line, no longer confuses the sound of an oncoming car with the haunted vowels of forest wind.
A filmy sheen cools on her forehead and over the bridge of her nose. The pain has subsided to a dull red bulb; she could probably sleep now, but she will not. There are two crocheted pillows in the seat beneath her, and she delicately adds another.
She knows that the city is killing some suffering thing inside her husband. She has seen him rawing over and becoming something else, and it frightens her. He does not like anything on the walls anymore. He has stormed through their unlit rooms, slapping and hurling the frames to the floor. Paintings, photographs, calendars, diplomas. He uses his thick fingers and pinches the nails out of the drywall. Each day he finds more nails hidden in the pattern of the wallpaper, and she gathers them out of the carpet the next morning and throws them away.