July 22, 2021
By David Landau
In the bedroom of the small sea cottage far from home, with beams of morning light through the curtain lace making strange shapes of rose gold on the pinewood floor, Elijah Walton Nathaniel Jennings—fine rancher, good husband, better father than son, a man of few words over his morning coffee or an evening sunset but teller of fantastical tales if anywhere near a wood fire, and never happier than when on a horse just riding around staring at things—sat alone in the corner in a ladder-back chair, pointing a gun at his temple.
He held his breath. He pressed the muzzle against his skin. He counted one, two, three . . . and then winced.
No, you can’t wince.
Waiting to try again, he bided the time humming a tune in his head before stopping. He couldn’t remember the rest. He twitched his facial muscles to ward off an itch. He tried a different tune.
He rolled his eyes around some in their sockets, scanning the room. He could see the smallest things. The nail in the wall where a picture once hung. A glint of light through the keyhole. A beetle crawling under the door, waddling along as if it had all the time in the world. Stopping now to investigate a black speck of something. Working it now with its antennae. Disappearing now into a crack in the floorboards. And there, just off to the left beneath the bed, a piece of Tommy’s Legos tangled in a dust bunny. By the nightstand, a shred of red ribbon tightly curled as if it’d just been run across a scissor blade. The pen cap he’d been looking for. A shard of broken glass from the night before.
He dug the muzzle in deeper.
He thought about home. And the mountains. And his friend, the blue star living above the field behind the shed on those darkest of nights, blinking secret messages in Morse code. He thought about hard work. The sound his saddle made rubbing against his jeans in the early morning cold. The silence of snowfall. He thought about being a boy again. And there was his grandfather—a full-blooded Shoshone Indian—turning out one of the workhorses. Shutting the screen door behind him without making a sound on a midsummer’s eve. Laying trout in a creel, like he was putting them to bed for a rest after a good fight. Coaxing sparks from a campfire deep into the night with the wave of a hand to take their place among the stars.
He thought about that late afternoon down by the road, three days after Grandfather died, when he spotted a two-headed eagle tearing a mouse apart between its two beaks. Deeming it a sign of something.
And seeing the lone coyote at the cattle fence come twilight and not shooting. Just watching it work its way across the meadow for the longest time, then it reaching the edge and looking back at him before disappearing into the foothills in a soft rain.
He thought about stormy days spent sitting in the barn, smelling the warm smell of horses and the rain beating down on the corrugated tin roof as if heaven itself had let loose a stampede of tiny angel horses and looking out and watching all the sky colors change, making way for the tiny angel horses to go back up.
He backed his head off the gun a moment as if pausing a telephone call, listening. But they were too far away now.
Then got right back at it.
Thinking about Kim now and that first day they met back in high school in Bishop, California. It was 1957. He was on the track field practicing. And there she was too straddling the blocks in a streak of spring sun just before a race. Those lean legs of hers tight as a bow. And eyes so dark and liquid you’d think they’d spill right out of their orbits if it wasn’t for those high cheekbones damming them in.
He thought about their first date too that Saturday night so long ago. Old Yeller at the drive-in in his dad’s truck. He cried at the end, but she didn’t. He said he’d known all along the dog was going to die. But she swore there was a version of the movie out there where he didn’t die. Didn’t have to. Just depended upon which theater you saw it in. And you couldn’t prove her wrong unless you went to all the theaters in all the countries in all the world.
And afterward, driving along Highway 395 back up to her place, just before town when he turned onto a dirt road. About half a mile in through the desert scrub and blackness of night— just this side of the Milky Way—he found a good spot and parked. He put his hand on her seat back. She looked out the front window and up at the sky. Then after a moment, turned and said her real name was Kimanah and she was Shoshone, too, actually half.
“The top half or the bottom half,” he asked.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she said. Then, “You may kiss me now.”
Caused a lump to swell down so deep in his throat, he almost choked.
Then he thought about the different sort of lump welling deep in his throat. The lump that hadn’t gone away. The lump that kept getting bigger and bigger. No matter what the doctors down there had been doing to try to fix it.
“Sweetheart,” a voice called from the front room.
He glanced at the closed door out the corner of his eye. But then looked straight ahead again.
Trying another way now, he slid the barrel up along the side of the cranium where his hair used to be, stopping at what seemed the appropriate place but to no avail. That wasn’t right either, he thought. Perhaps it’s best like this, turning the gun upside down, placing the muzzle up against the roof of his mouth.
“Sweetheart, whatever are you doing in there?”
I’d have to angle it up a smidgen into the brain cavity. He rotated his wrist slightly to see.
“You promised your son you’d take him down to the beach.”
And pull the trigger with my thumb. He considered this a moment too.
“And go hunting for Sand crabs.”
Yes, I can do that . . .
“Come look, Tommy’s got his pail and shovel all ready to go.”
. . . if I had to do that.
Kimanah called out one last time, “I said, Sweetheart.”
Just not today.
He extracted the gun from his mouth, wrapped it up in an old flannel shirt making neat little tucks and folds, and put the tidy bundle back high up in the closet where it came from.
Then he walked out the room.
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