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Richard Hartwell

Richard Hartwell

Rick Hartwell is a retired middle-school English teacher living in Moreno Valley, California. He believes in the succinct, that the small becomes large; and, like the Transcendentalists and William Blake, that the instant contains eternity. Given his “druthers,” if he’s not writing, Rick would rather be still tailing plywood in a mill in Oregon.

Macho Men

I didn't think much about which one I took, although I should have. I should have thought about it when I put it back, too. That's important. It was probably the thirty-thirty, maybe the thirty-odd-six. It had to have been one of Roxie's rifles—one of the ones he leaned in the crook of the wall next to the back door for food or sometimes for varmints—not that he would ever need one again. Yeah, it was probably the thirty-odd-six, as we were supposed to be going out to poach a deer. It was the night before the funeral.

I'd taken Cynthia down for the viewing that afternoon, so she could see her dad one last time. We took his beat-up truck. I knew Fran wouldn't need it; she couldn't even drive. Cynthia wanted me to go in and pray and say good-bye, too. I said no to both ideas around the mouth of my bottle and told her I was just fine and that I'd wait in the truck. Roxie and I had spit good-byes at each other last October or November; him over the top of the barrel of one of his rifles and me looking at the bore. Linda had been in my truck and he had been yelling at me in a macho sort of way to take her and get the hell away from his family. Anyway, I didn't want to go in and see what the cancer had done to him. And I didn't need to pray.

She took her damn sweet time. I was a little buzzed by the time Cynthia came out of the funeral home. It was about eight. I guess they stay open late for family. She said she wanted to go see the ocean, to see the sunset. Something about death and sunsets made a little sense to me so I drove her out to Bandon. There were just a couple old surf-casters on the beach so we had it pretty much to ourselves. We walked up and down the beach awhile, holding hands, until the sun settled into the clouds out on the horizon. I remember thinking it was probably going to rain that night. Cynthia plopped down on the sand with her memories. I sat next to her with what was left of my bottle and listened to the booming surf inside and out. I could tell she didn't want to talk, just cry a little, or maybe pray some more. I left her alone.

The wind came up so I took my uniform jacket off and wrapped it around her. She'd been shivering and I'd thought it was still just her sobbing, maybe a little of both. The bottle was in the coat pocket and weighted down the right side, dragging it off her shoulder, sexy-like. Cynthia fished the pint out and finished off what was left— didn't even cough or choke— then just dropped it in the sand, stood up, and took my hand again. I brightened up a bit. We walked back to the truck and then emptied sand out of our shoes. I was thinking things I wasn't too drunk to think. She sat in the middle on the way back to Coquille, but I was still a little fuzzy and kept my focus on the road, dodging lowboys coming out of the dirt logging roads. She never said a word so I let my thoughts subside.

Most everyone was at the farm when we got back. Fran was up, making like she'd been cooking and cleaning for everyone, and started in bitching at Cynthia. She was thinking we'd been out screwing around. I told her to lay off; that we'd just been driving around after we went to the funeral home. I could tell she didn't buy it one damn bit. I got another pint out of my AWOL bag in the mudroom and poured her a drink. That quieted her down. Besides, by then Linda had started to glare at me and I guess Fran let her take over instead. Fran fell back asleep in her chair. I tried to ignore Linda.

We were all drinking pretty steadily and eventually somebody decided it'd be a good idea to put some food in the freezer, to get a deer. Yeah, it was the least we could do for Fran since Roxie'd been too sick the last few months to get anything that didn't just graze its way right up into the front yard. Little Roxie hadn't even made it out for the funeral and Vickie wouldn't show up for this bunch until the funeral. Royal and Royce were both too stoned to have bagged anything unless they could have laughed it to death. So that just left Linda's husband and me; not very likely poaching partners. Not for deer, leastways.

I'd been banging his wife less than a year before and here I was, sort of propped up right in front of him, back in town for her dad's funeral. The way he kept poking and prodding, I figured Linda must have told him about us and now he was out to prove himself a real man. He didn't like it one damn bit that I was there. I didn't give a shit what he liked. Me? I was just there for the funeral. I'd gone AWOL from Ft. Bliss since they wouldn't give me any compassionate leave when I got the call from Vickie. Anyway, I'd been to enough other funerals. Didn't think I owed anybody else another Goddamn thing, least of all not this prick still trying to get up in my face about going out hunting. The buzz that had worn off on the drive back from Bandon was beginning to ring in my ears again.

I'd been plowed since I got on the plane in El Paso, probably since I first got the call. Maybe even before. Vickie couldn't pick me up. She had to cover for someone at the hospital. So then Linda fetched me at the airport in Eugene.

So then her husband one-ups me and suggests we go bag a deer for Fran before I go back after the funeral. Tries to fan a little fear about the two of us being up on the mountain in the middle of the night. By now we were loud enough to wake Fran. She gets another drink, tells us both to shut up, and nods off to sleep again. Linda gets pissed and drives home, stranding numb-nuts. I figure he's too deep into his own macho plan to consider that. Linda's little sister, Cynthia, just starts to cry again and takes off to I don't know where. Probably praying. Royal and Royce try to get straight so they can come with us, but end up just getting sillier. The whole scene must look like something out of a Faulkner short story, but nobody's that twangy in Oregon.

I borrow some work clothes and boots from Royal's closet and check the bolt action on the rifle I picked up. Shit-head must have taken the other one. I only grab two rounds out of one of the boxes on the windowsill. I can't see loading up and blasting away all over the mountain. We'd be lucky to get off two good shots before someone calls the sheriff; maybe only one if one of us is just fixing to have an accident.

It was early summer and still dewy at night. Damn cold by midnight, too; at least compared to El Paso. And it did start to rain. Lightly. I remember we killed the kitchen light early to let our eyes adjust to the dark. I finished some of the coffee Cynthia had made earlier trying to sober us up. Bitter, but it sweetened up some with a splash from the bottle. We left by the back door, crossed the yard around to the left of the barn by feel, and started up the near ridge to cross over to the Gould's place. What's-his-face led. He said he'd seen some deer beds up by the spring when he'd delivered some fence wire the day before Roxie died. Industrious son-of-a-bitch.

I could drag this out all suspenseful like, but it doesn't seem to make any sense to do so. He starts in telling me over his shoulder just how much he loves Linda and how he knows we used to be shacked up together and how he only wants her to be happy and how maybe he ain't a big war hero and all like me and how he's trying his best with what he's got to provide for her and how he wants me to declare what my intentions are. He must have saved that up all year. He didn't even take a breath. Shit, I didn't think he owned that much vocabulary.

He turns around and I pull myself up real tall— didn't remember until later that he couldn't have seen that anyway— and tell him he better take care of Linda because she's real special and how I'll come back to shoot his ass if I hear he hasn't been good to her. Don't know where some of this came from, probably old movies. Or maybe some of Roxie's shit left over from last year. I sort of caught him off balance and so he tries to bluff his way around the stage for a moment saying that all that's up to her, not me.

About this time we spot what must have been the most hard-of-hearing deer in the entire Northwest. Old dumb-shit can't figure how to get his safety off, so I lift and shoot. Just high enough to look good, but meant instead to scare that stupid deer clean into Curry County. I never had any intention of bagging a deer and hauling its ass back down the mountain. Don't know what my original intention had been about this new husband.

We chuck it in after that one shot. Found out a long time later from one of Vickie's Christmas cards that most everyone figured one of us had shot the other. Guess they were just hoping for a little excitement. Watching their dad die of cancer for six months or more had been none too exciting before. All the lights were back on when we returned. When they saw us, nobody asked about the shot. Nobody asked about any deer meat either when we didn't haul any in. I left the rifle slumped back in the corner alcove. Fran never even woke up. I also left a twenty for her under her bottle where I knew she'd find it in the morning. Figured it might be more useful than a side of venison anyway. Royce drove dumb-shit home since Linda had his truck. Cynthia went back to wherever it was that Cynthia went when she left to be alone. Royal sat up with me at the kitchen table until he nodded off again. The rain had cleared off. I went back outside and waited for false dawn in the east, then caught a few winks on the porch until the funeral.

The funeral was over by eleven. The women all cried dutifully and the men tried to act stoic and solemn rather than stoned or just stupid. Most of us just glared across the open hole, too wide to fill with just dirt and the dead. I had to wear my uniform and felt pretty dumb doing so. Roxie would have laughed his ass off. Vickie took off immediately, sensibly, like she'd done before when she was thirteen. Fran had to be helped back home by Cynthia. Royal drove. I didn't mark when Linda left. Royce gave me a ride to the airport afterward even though my flight didn't leave until six. He was on swing shift at the mill and had to be back by three. He didn't make it and got docked an hour's pay.

I've been back to Coquille only once. Hadn't wanted to. Hadn't needed to. Ended up passing through one time going up the coast. Didn't stop. Didn't need to. A passing thought came up again about that damn rifle. Funny thing about it; I couldn't ever remember ejecting that second round. Guess I still associated the rifle with that night. Don't know what happened to it. Probably one of the kids ended up with it. I'm sure it was empty when I put it back. Must have been.

Vickie's kept me up-to-date. Royce's second wife left him about '91 or '92 after she caught him screwing around with his first wife. He lost his two kids and ended up in jail a bit later on a charge of selling dope. Small towns just seem to telescope everything. Fran died of emphysema and liver problems a year or two later. She wasn't despondent over Roxie's death. By then she was living with some old fart who had a pile of money she hoped to get. She didn't. Little Roxie died of a heart attack in Florida. He never made it back. Royal hanged himself in a closet when his redheaded wife left him in '97. Took his daughter away from him. Royal always liked redheads. I always liked Royal. He stayed out of other people's shit. Linda stayed married to the dickhead and runs a dog-breeding farm somewhere in Washington. She does all the big shows. I hear he's a good helper. Cynthia became a religious zealot. She married some mail-order minister with some left over kids from a previous marriage and runs a church school in California.

Maybe her prayers were answered.


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