Fiction by Francois Bereaud
On an October morning in the last fall of his life, Art sits on his porch, a cup of coffee fortified with a half shot of whiskey in one hand – fuck you cancer – and his pellet gun in the other. Art’s not a stoic about his condition. He’s angry, scared, and intolerant of pain. He swallows gummies like Chiclets and bitterly questions whether his expiration date will come before his first social security check in February. His pea shooter takes the form of a handgun, intimidating until you see the bullets which look like the smallest of ball bearings. Two weeks ago, he dropped the whole box, and hundreds of them, silver and gleaming in the afternoon light, sped across the hardwood floor. Reflexively, he’d shot his foot out to catch some and gone down like Buster Keaton in a Sunday afternoon black and white special. Too stoned and stunned to get himself up, he’d needed Liz to rescue him and the BBs.
He spots his target and takes aim. Clear miss. The bastard doesn’t even have the decency to move, the spent ball lands in the frosted grass. He’s battled the squirrels since they’d bought the four-acre property a decade ago. He and Liz, she divorced, he widowed, each with a sixteen-year-old daughter. They’d tried every possible bird feeder and “Have a Heart” trap. The goddamn squirrels always came out on top. Post-diagnosis, he’d bought the gun. The women who filled his life were unhappy with the purchase but indulged him the folly. He didn’t know if Liz would maintain the bird feeders after – but, until then, it was war.
Another miss. Somehow, he’s managed to get a few. After, he’d grab the creature by the tail, body still warm, lumber halfway down their gravel driveway, and fling the corpse into the adjacent field. Coyote food. The short exertion would exhaust him and he’d have to retreat inside for a rest, often passing a mocking squirrel, ignorant of its dead compatriot, staking out one of the feeders.
After the third shot, he gives up. Despite his heavy jacket, he’s chilled. He’s lived in Maine for most of his life for fucks sake, how can he get cold so quick? He lifts his coffee, his hand shakes, and he drops the mug. Christ. His doctor said he was showing signs of Parkinson’s though, with cancer kicking his body’s ass, what did it really matter?
He’d always been clumsy. The summer after the girls finished freshman year, they’d liquidated their savings and taken a two-week trip to Paris. Two small hotel rooms in one of the lesser-known arrondissements. After a week of cafes and museums, he and Liz grew claustrophobic in the city. They proposed wine tasting in the Loire Valley, but the girls refused so they’d gone on their own. Sitting with a Swedish couple, he’d stood up and his belly clipped the table, knocking over four glasses and a bottle of Cabernet Franc. Upon their return to the city, they’d discovered both of the girls had taken older lovers. His bio daughter, Thea, had hooked up with Camille, a thirty something French woman with a permanent sneer, and Chloe, his step daughter, found Apalasi, a Congolese man whose mission was to get France to return stolen African artwork. Liz was skeptical but Art fell in love with everyone. He wondered which pairing had fucked in their bed and the three couples spent a last night in Paris drinking too much red wine over couscous in a dark Moroccan joint just outside the Quartier Latin.
Remarkably, the second relationship stuck, and, now, seven years later, Chloe and Apalasi were married with Sandrine, a gorgeous caramel-skinned, kinky-haired, one-year-old. Still in Paris, they had successfully “repatriated” one hundred seven pieces of art. “Only 45,000 to go,” Chloe said when Art had congratulated her on their latest recovery. About like my squirrel ratio, he’d thought. They were bringing Sandrine to the States for Christmas. “No dying before then,” Chloe said. Perhaps because of the distance – Thea had settled in a neighborhood of Boston whose name he always forgot – Chloe could speak to him bluntly about his prognosis.
He puts the gun in his jacket pocket, bends for the empty coffee mug, and stands unsteadily. Stay alive for Christmas. Could be the title of a terrible movie. And what will he do with a one-year-old? Not shoot squirrels.
The gun thumps against his thigh as he walks into the house. He imagines it going off. How far would the bullet get? Through his jeans, past the first layers of skin, into his atrophying muscle, past ligaments and tendons, to bone? Would it feel like a wasp sting or much worse? Only a BB gun but powerful enough to kill a squirrel at ten yards. Once he’d only wounded one, and, after missing three more times, had to finish the job with a shovel. He’d sworn off the whole affair for a week until they’d infiltrated the blue bird feeder, his favorite. He’d flown into a rage and sprayed at least a hundred errant rounds.
Inside, his senses thaw. He hears jazz, Sarah Vaughn. Then smell, blueberries. Fresh Maine wild blueberries. He looks toward the stove and sees a tray of muffins. So perfect it’s cliché. No sign of Liz – she’s undoubtedly upstairs doing yoga.
He refills his coffee, no whiskey this time, and bites into a muffin. A three-hundred-degree berry explodes and the juice scalds his mouth. He likes this pain. He puts the gun in the junk drawer. He’ll need another stash spot when the little one gets here.
From the bay window over the sink, he sees motion. A squirrel runs along the deck railing then leaps toward the precious blue feeder. He watches wide-eyed as the creature’s legs hit the tube and fail to find grip. There’s a thud out of view.
He takes another bite of muffin and feels lucky.