Wednesday, March 5, 2008

ground rules

by: martin ferris

Peering around the corner edge of a freestanding, one-story brick house, the young boy eyes the two-acre wheat field for any trace of other-than-normal movement. His eyes register the swaying wheat stalks, the slow-moving white clouds against the azure sky, and a low-flying black crow. Further down the horizon, the boy takes in the snow-glazed peaks that form the V of a well-traveled canyon from which a pale, daytime moon slowly emerges. Almost anticipating the solitary snap of a single wheat stalk, the boy drops to his stomach. In the same movement, he cocks his gun, and pulls the butt into his shoulder, using his left arm to balance the stalk and his right hand to tap the safety into firing position. He places his forefinger softly on the trigger. He balances on both elbows, prone in a firing position seen most likely in a favorite WWII history book, a book in which the ever-righteous allied forces march into Hitler’s lair and herald the cause of truth and goodness. The book, of course, mentions nothing of Dresden or Hiroshima.

The boy eyes the field through the rising and falling bead of the sight and can’t help but look back up at the rising moon in the V of the canyon.

Focus, he sharply whispers to himself and forces his eyes back to the bead.

Seeing nothing, the boy sweeps the gun across the field, whispering, c’mon, c’mon. He begins to switch focus between the field and the bead at the end of the barrel, blurring the background then the foreground. He keeps in sharp focus the very tip of the barrel, while blurring everything in front and behind, including his hand on the trigger.

A searing shock of pain, centered on the boys’ right knuckle, knocks his right hand violently to the left, and throws the rest of his body off the balance established by his elbows. The boy pulls back his right hand and his forefinger releases the trigger. As the gun goes off, the boy focuses on his hand, blurring everything else. He sees a large red welt forming between the knuckles of his forefinger and middle finger. Another shock of pain registers and the boy sees another welt forming.

Sharply rolling into a sitting position, the boy moves his head, gun, and body in parallel motion to confront his assailant but he can’t change his focus quickly enough and his eyes stay focused on his red, swelling knuckles. The boy blinks twice and slaps the side of his head with his left hand. He shakes his head and looks, blinking his eyes. He sees the head of an older boy peering around a tree, not more than thirty yards away. The younger boy fires, cocks, fires, cocks, fires, cocks. The older boy slips behind the tree. The younger one lowers the gun and surveys the scene. Simultaneously, 3 older boys step from behind trees, guns raised. The younger shoots but misses. They are advancing steadily now, twenty-five yards away, cocking and shooting. The younger boy feels a rush of wind to the left of his head and he makes a quick decision: run.

The boy is running now gun in right hand, body hunched to the ground. His running, bouncing vision sees nothing but his destination: a tall, well-groomed bush on the other side of the house, now less than fifteen yards away. The darkened, lower side of the deck, a possible and well-concealed hiding spot, goes unnoticed by the boy. When the boy was seven, he would spend hours there, sometimes smoking found cigarette butts, deftly mimicking the adolescents he saw roam the neighborhood, getting thrills from smoking contraband and committing minor acts of vandalism. At other times, when, say, a neighborhood baseball game was unavoidable, he would hide under the deck and read and reread b-level spy novels, giving special wear and tear to the pages with in-depth foreplay description. After these shameful consumptions, the boy would tear out the offending pages and burn them with the same matches he used to light up his spent Marlboros.

Pleasuring himself to these pages was never something the boy considered, until one day, when he was ten or eleven, his dad sat him down to explain sex and bodies, the ‘birds and the bees’ as he later learned they were called. His dad told in stark and sterile detail how bodies work and the functions of the ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ and how and when they were used (“Only after marriage, and only with the opposite sex”). Almost as an afterthought, the dad explained that God did not look kindly on those who played with themselves to the point of ‘excitement’ and ‘ejaculation.’ He explained that the sacred powers of procreation were only to be employed in the bond of marriage.

Later, in the dark cover of the underside of the deck, the boy would flip through his novels to find his worn pages, and read and fumble with himself until he was sufficiently excited, although not excited enough to finish. He knew how to avoid God’s disfavor. He was safe.

Only once did he invite a friend under the deck. The friend had recently procured a BB gun and was eager to show it off. Earlier in the day, however, while watching the movie Big, they paused, rewound, watched, and re-watched Tom Hanks—a twelve-year-old in a man’s body—slowly fondle a woman’s breast until her brassiere fell limply off. The boy invited his friend to the dark, dank deck under the guise of checking out the new gun, but talk quickly turned to the mysterious scene. As they discussed and questioned, the boy's friend slowly moved the butt of the gun into his own groin, and rhythmically moved it back and forth. Without moving the gun from its newfound position, the friend cocked it and fired a blank spurt of air. The soft kick of the gun created a sensation in his groin that was both funny (he laughed after every shot) and, he said, strangely nice.

The boy, coached by his friend, tried it. That night at dinner, he asked his mom for a gun.

Three weeks later, their under-deck episode a faded memory, the two friends met up for target practice. The boy’s gun was brand new, not yet shot. His friend set up a target (the dark shape of a deer on large, white paper) on two stacked bales of hay. The friend shot first, tearing a small hole in the deer’s paper chest. The boy took his first shot by lining up the sights on the deer’s head, and softly squeezing the trigger. Looking down the barrel, he saw the BB leave the gun and travel in a small—almost imperceptible—arc. He lost sight of the small brass ball just before it hit the target.

Shit, Justin, the boy’s friend exclaimed, using binoculars to eye the target, you hit white. Where were you aiming?

The head, the boy said, I want to kill it, right?

No no no, you’ve gotta go for a body shot—right to the heart. That way, if you’re off at all, at least you’ll hurt the son of a bitch. In his spy novels, Justin had seen that phrase spelled son of a bitch, sunuvabitch, and sumbitch. He wondered which his friend was using. He actually wondered a lot about his friend lately, especially about his penchant as of late for swearing. The friend seemed proud to out-swear anyone else at school. Apparently, the more you swore, the more popular you became. The friend started to use curse words in creative combinations—shithole, assmunch, even fuckbrains—and the most popular, most unapproachable guys at school were now giving the friend an ear. The boy, not wanting to be left behind, occasionally experimented with the technique.

I don’t know why the shitcake I keep missing, the boy ventured, but maybe I’ll try aiming for the body this time.

The friend paused, looked at the boy, then said, I hold my breath right before I squeeze the trigger. Try that, and this time aim at the heart, shit-for-brains.

The boy nodded, pulled the butt of the gun to his right shoulder, closed his left eye and looked down the sights at the deer’s chest. He breathed in deeply, and squeezed the trigger. Once again, he watched the BB leave the gun in an arcing motion then lost sight as it neared the target. He heard the paper rip, but couldn’t locate the tear.

I think you may have hit it, the friend said, eyeing the target with the binoculars, run and check.

Uh, okay. The boy jumped up, gun in hand and walked toward the target. Hurry, the friend yelled. The boy walked slightly faster then felt a sting on the back of his upper thigh. He reached back to soothe the spot, but when he touched it, the pain increased. Another pelt, this time on his buttocks, made him jump. He heard his friend laughing and looked back around to see a gun pointed directly at him.

What the hell? the boy cried.

Oh calm down Justin, the friend called, it’s just a BB gun. It doesn’t hurt that bad, and he fired again. The boy dropped to the ground, hoping to avoid another stinging pelt.

Knock it off, asshole, the boy yelled.

Ooh, Justin’s talking shit now, the friend laughed.

I’m serious, the boy called back, quit it.

Look, the friend called back, gun still leveled at the prone boy, I get two more shots: I’ll let you run for one, but for the other you gotta stand still. Then you get 3 shots at me. The friend paused, and shrugged his shoulders, I’ll stand still for all three. Deal?

There was a short pause.

Okay, you ready? The friend called. I’ll count to three, and then you run. Another pause. 1…2….

How far?


How far away do I have to be when I take my shots at you?

The friend paused, same distance we are now.

The boy saw his friend’s questioning shrug over the barrel of the gun. The boy nodded slightly, almost not at all, and saw the friend’s mouth open, then heard the friend yell, three.

The boy jumped up, sprang up, leapt into action, a sprinter leaving the block, a spooked deer seeking shelter. He ran a straight line toward a far tree, then as quickly as he started doubled back and ran the opposite way. He jumped, ducked, and then changed direction again.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his friend waving his arms and heard him yelling. Okay, Okay, the boy heard. I missed.

The boy stopped, placed his hands on his knees and panted.

Okay, that’s perfect, the friend called. Now don’t move.

Huh? The boy looked up, hands still on his knees and saw the gun pointed directly at him.

Close your eyes, the friend shouted, I don’t want to take your eye out.

The boy slowly moved his hands from his knees to his groin. He stood straight, arms forming a V. He closed his eyes and waited, teeth gritted. A wave of anticipation shuddered through him.

He heard a metallic plunking sound and, almost simultaneously, felt a stinging pain centered on his upper-right thigh. The boy gurgled a slight shriek of pain and used his right hand to rub furiously at sting while jumping up and down.

The friend laughed loudly.

Shut up dude, the boy managed between jumps, it hurts.

I’m sorry, the friend said between laughs, it’s just the way you jumped.

Eventually, the boy took his turn to shoot at the friend; however, the friend turned profile to the boy, explaining that nowhere in their negotiations did they state the illegality of standing profile.

The boy missed his first two shots, but he saw his friend jump with pain and surprise on the third. The boy laughed. He couldn’t help it. He shot a fourth time and caught his friend by surprise, hitting him in the hand. He laughed again. The friend didn’t.

For the next hour, they chased and shot each other, each laughing at the other’s pain.

They did it again the next day and the next and the next. Then they did it the next week and the next and the next. Their numbers grew. They went from 2 to 10, and soon split into teams of 5 and warred wars that went down in neighborhood history.

A group of 14-year-olds (two years older than the boy) heard of the showdowns and one day showed up with high-powered, pump-action pellet guns. A single pump delivered twice the power of any red ryders the younger boys carried. But when the guns were pumped ten to fifteen times? Forget about it.

The biggest of the older boys stepped forward. Hey, we want in the next war. The boy noticed the leader’s voice was low, completely changed, and he had a slight growth on his upper lip. In school, they’d learned about puberty, but the boy had yet to see any signs on himself—no hidden hair, no voice changes, no unseemly body odor. This older boy, though, obviously had all those things, maybe more. That year in gym class, they had to shower after running the mile, no exceptions. One boy in class already had developed large genitals, profuse with growth and pubescence. That boy proudly took his time in the shower. Justin, however, kept his towel wrapped tightly up to the last possible second, then, hastily throwing the tower aside, showered as quickly as possible, (the rule was your hair had to at least get wet), never turning from the wall.

So what do you say? The older boy said. Justin, still examining the boy’s quasi-moustache, looked to his friend, the de facto leader of the younger group of boys.

The friend stepped forward. Fuck you think? We’re gonna let you in with those high powered things? The friend looked back at the younger group of boys, then again faced the newcomers. You must think we’re so damn insane, like Saddam Hussein. The friend drawled Saddam Hussen’s name to match the sound of So Damn Insane, and a few of the boy’s carrying the smaller guns nervously laughed.

Nah dude. It’s not like that. I think you’ll like our deal. The older leader looked back at a smaller, sickly looking boy, who nodded his head once.

Okay, here it is. It’s the four of us against all ten of you. We promise not to pump our guns more than once. The older boy sounded as if he were delivering lines in a school play.

The hell you think? The friend came back quickly, we’re gonna believe you’ll only pump once?

Look, the bigger boy said, you’ll have the obvious advantage. You outnumber us two to one--We pump more that once, we’re out. The boy held out his hands, palms facing upwards, moving to the side. What do you say?

The friend blew a bubble from his wad of Big League Chewing Gum, snapped it loudly and turned around, gun at his side.

Waddaya think? Justin realized his friend was looking right at him. Was he considered one of the leaders? A decision maker? A person of knowledge and know-how?

Well? The friend hadn’t broken his questioning gaze.

Uh…sure…why not? The boy stammered. Let’s do it.

The larger boy who made the proposition looked back at the smaller boy again and nodded his head.

Okay, the smaller boy back in the crowd said as he stepped forward, we have some ground rules.

Ground rules? The friend said. Fuck that. We don’t play with ground rules.

No? So you wanna just run around, shooting each other in the dicks for a couple of hours?

The fuck are you? The friend took one step up to the new boy. As he did, the new boy raised his gun and pumped it in the same movement, aiming the barrel in between the eyes of the friend.

I’m the one with the ground rules. Now shut up or leave.

Justin saw the rest of the younger boys take an almost imperceptible step back. He watched as the friend’s gun fell to the ground and the friends’ hands came up, covering his face.

Hey man, the friend slowly said.

Didn’t I tell him to shut up? The new boy said into the air.

Yeah you did, the larger, mustached older boy answered and smiled, somehow sensing the question was his to answer.

Everything was still for several seconds then Justin took a small step forward. The new boy’s eyes shot to Justin’s feet.

It’s cool, Justin said, taking small steps. We’re cool with the ground rules. The new boy said, that’s smart. His eyes shot back to the Justin’s friend, you’re lucky you’ve got a smart friend.

Justin took his friend’s elbow and guided him back into the group of boys.

The new boy turned, aimed at a small robin perched on a fence post and fired. The group of boys heard a soft pelt sound and saw the bird drop to the ground, a few feathers falling silently behind.

Okay, here are the rules, the new boy said, turning around from his kill. One: you get hit three times, you’re out. Two: no head shots. Three: we playin’ steal the flag. First team to get the others’ flag wins. Questions?

The younger boys shook their heads; no one said a thing.

Good. We start in three minutes. Here’s your flag, the boy tossed a duct-taped ball of socks and rag-tag fabric to Justin. There are no boundaries. Hide your flag if you want.

Justin caught the ball and paused to look at it, to consider it. He threw the ball to his friend and put him in charge of planning the hiding spot. Justin then organized their strategy, assigning groups of two to different spots, offensive and defensive.

Two long rotations of an outward zoom lens and the now-hovering camera easily captures the entire war zone, spanning 3 neighborhood yards and two wheat fields. The friend runs to hide the younger groups’ flag behind a tall shrub behind the southern-most house, while the older boys place theirs atop a fence post in plain view in front of the first wheat field.

As the game begins, the overhead camera hovers above the area surrounding older groups’ flag. When the younger group sees the flag in plain view, they send two-by-two sallies to pick off the flag. Each time they are hit with pump-action pellets fired by snipers hiding in the edge of the field. They appear as wounded ants, scurrying back to the cover provided by the multiple trees. Soon, the older boys have lead four of the younger ones into the jail, where their guns are confiscated and they must wait until the next game.

The overhead camera watches on as the game continues until all the younger boys are out but two: Justin and his friend, both of them left guarding the flag.

Okay, this is what we’re gonna do, Justin told his friend. You stay here by the flag. Stay hidden. I’m going to try and pick a few of them off.

The zoom lens sweeps down and follows Justin in his run to the far corner of the house, where he is eying the wheat filed, telling himself to focus. The lens turns to see a barrel sticking out from behind a tree and watches on as Justin is shot twice.

The lens becomes Justin’s vision as he, racing toward a large bush on the far side of the house, turns and glances at the underside of the deck. The boy shakes his head, as if shaking off a night of sleep, and continues his charge toward the far bush.

He slides safely behind the bush and clutches his gun tightly to his chest, barrel pointing straight up, his back snug against the upright bush. He tries to quiet his labored breathing, but can’t tell which is louder: his long, drawn-out breaths or his fast-beating heart. He pokes his head around the bush to eye the layout of the vacant backyard. Seeing nothing at first, his eyes focus in on a dark movement against a far fence-post.

Suck, the boy quietly curses, realizing the moving spot is the shadow of one of the older boys. Here they come, he whispers to himself. He moves his head back out of sight and closes his eyes. Summoning his powers of concentration, the young boy blocks out the sounds of his own body—the beating heart, the labored breathing—and focuses on the sounds of the yard: The swaying wheat stalk, the call of a bluebird, the distant rumblings of a train and its blaring horn. Two weeks earlier, while walking home from school, the boy, hiding behind a neighbor’s house saw the older boys’ strategy of all-out attack. They would collect their numbers, then effect a full-blown rush on their unsuspecting opponents. One of the boys would run point, and the others would line up behind, forming a protective V.

The boy, eyes closed behind the bush, knows he will have one shot to take out the point man or he will quickly be surrounded. He’ll have five seconds, the boy decides, from the initial sound of pounding feet, to the time he must shoot.

He exhales sharply, and listens. Another bird. The faint sound of an overhead airplane. A dog’s bark. Feet Pounding. One. More running. Two. Three. A stampede now. Four. The boy grips the gun tightly. Five.

He stands and swings the gun into position atop the bush. Over the barrel, not more than ten feet away, he sees the smaller leader running point. The leader begins to yell and starts to raise his gun.

The young boy points the end of the barrel at the leader’s face and fires.

For the boy, time slows as the small brass ball leaves the gun. He sees it exit and begin its arc of travel. He looks at the leader’s angry face and loses the trajectory of the round projectile. His gaze stops on the leader’s large, accusing eyes bouncing slowly along. An eyelid shuts in almost stop-motion time. As the lid rises, the boy sees a small indentation form in the leader’s right eye, just above the pupil in the small strip of exposed white space. The indentation grows and the boy sees a red ripple encircle the enlarging divot. Then, as the circle expands, the divot breaks the surface of the eyeball, and a small surge of blood comes rushing from somewhere deep in the eye, surrounding the brass ball and filling the divot, and sprays a fine, dark red mist out of the now-dark void. The boy hears a dull, moist thud and watches the leader’s head snap back. He sees the leader’s gun drop and watches as the leader moves his hands slowly to his face. The force of the shock upends the leader and he takes two eternities, sounded as two of the boys’ heartbeats, to fall to the ground. The red mist floats softly in the air before slowly sprinkling over the now-lain-out leader. The last drop of misty blood falls with a prolonged splat on the leader’s clenched right knuckle and the sound throws events back into real time.

The leader writhes on the ground, both fists clenched at his left eye. He screams. The other three charging boys, already stopped, now stare silently at their leader. The larger, pubescent one kneels to the injured boy’s aid. Shit man, you okay? He says. The leader screams again, kicking his feet at the grass. The other two boys stare widely at Justin. Justin sees one of the older boys raise his gun, and Justin runs.

He runs without looking back. He runs with abandon. He runs with terror. He runs away. Away from the blood. Away from the shock. Away from the memories of shame. He turns the corner of the house and continues to run. Down the hill of a long, semi-paved driveway, rife with overgrown weeds and troubled landscape, the boy escapes.

He turns right at the end of the driveway and, without slowing, moves to the cluster of trees in front of the house two lots away.

He ducks into the natural opening provided by the trees and enters a cavernous space, dark and damp, but otherwise pleasant and shielded from outside view.

The boy smells the pine gum and sees the fallen pine needles, now brown and brittle, long-since fallen over the dark brown soil. This dark wonderland provided his first opportunity to be alone with a girl. She insisted they play house and gave him the role of husband and herself the role of wife.

He drops his gun, staggers to what they decided was the bedroom, and falls to the ground, curling himself into a ball. He lies there silently, frozen, motionless. Minutes pass. The boy quietly laughs.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

the hunt

by: martin ferris

Without getting out of his sleeping bag, the young boy pulled his cold, stiff jeans on over his long thermal underwear. The light from the outside Coleman lantern, tinted blue by the tent, outlined his crystallized breath. He searched for his wool socks at the bottom of his sleeping bag. Slipping them on, he stood, shaking off the cold air. He stepped into his winter boots, out of the tent, and crunched across the frozen ground, layered with a thin plate of ice and frosted snow. His way was lit by the Coleman lantern that sat on the camp stove and by the campfire that was already a long time burning. There was no light from the moon, but the Milky Way blurred across the sky, softly outlining a dark, black forest-shaped void.

Arriving at the fire, the boy held his ungloved hands, palms down, over the flame; his white breath created figures that leapt and danced and disappeared above the yellow, orange and blue burn. Turning to warm his backside, he cupped his hands to his mouth and softly blew a long time, shifting his weight from right foot to left.

An old man interrupted the boys’ warming ritual.

-Bring me them matches, the old man called.

The boy turned to face the fire, looked down, leaned to pick a small box of matches from a rock that helped form the circular fire pit.

He walked to the old man and gave him the matches.

-Here Grandpa, the boy said. He handed the box over.

-Good, the old man said, turn the tank on. As he spoke, the harsh light from the lantern illuminated his cold breath. The boy turned the metal knob on the tank. He twisted at first slowly then faster and faster until he could flick the knob with middle finger and thumb and watch it spin several rotations.

-It’s on.

-When I say so, the old man motioned to a metal lever on the camp stove, turn this to the right.

-I know, the boy said and placed his forefinger on the tip of the lever. The man struck a match on the side of the stove, leaving a gray streak on the otherwise dark black of the camp stove. He held it to the burner and grunted at the boy. The boy nudged the lever to a right angle and listened to the slow hiss of propane. The wind extinguished the match. The old man opened the box and retrieved another match, leaving another gray streak as a bright flame burst from the match’s head only to be snuffed out by a brisk breeze.

-Here, let me try, the boy said, looking up at the old man.

-Oh, the man grunted, just be careful.

The boy took a match from the opened box in the man’s hand. The boy crowded his body against the stove and cupped his left hand around the match. With his right hand, he struck the match against the metal. A tiny flame exploded on the tip of the match. He pointed the tip toward the ground. The flame slowly crept up the wooden shaft. He moved his cupped hands against his body, blocking the wind, a man guarding a treasure. He slowly moved his body over the stove and moved the flame-treasure to the burner, his body and head following his cupped hands.

All went silent. The boy heard one amplified crackle of the flame, then saw it extinguished by the rush of muted wind, the prelude to flame-on-propane explosion. He saw a blue-purple flame exploding, enveloping his hand in a wave of heat and force. The wave hit his face and knocked his head back. The shock moved from his head to the rest of his body, throwing him in the air. The boys’ hands moved slowly to his face, while his body floated steadily backwards and downwards toward the cold earth, his feet eventually upended by the ripple of shockwave through his body. The old man emitted a deep guttural shout and he reached out his hands, trying in vain to catch his grandson. As the boy neared the ground, the old mans’ eyes fixed on a slight rip in the boys’ coat, a coat that, as a child, the old man wore. He saw a bright day, the day he ripped that very jacket on barbed wire while running to retrieve a downed bird on the first day of his first hunt. He saw his grandfather lower his gun to reload in the old double-barreled shotgun. Then saw him fire again at two other birds. The spark of the gun mingled with the crackle of the campfire at present. He focused on the campfire, then saw the boys’ feet in the air from the corner of his eye. He heard a single heart beat and the whoosh of wind created by the boys’ feet flying through the air. The boy hit the ground, landing on his back. A soft thud against the frozen ground echoed the single heartbeat and brought time back to its regular course. The boy yelped, rolled to his side and clutched his face.

The old man cursed softly and knelt at the boys’ side. Across the camp, the door to the camp trailer opened and the boys’ father stepped out.

-Jacob? The old man said as he touched the boy on the shoulder, you awright?

The young boy groaned.

-What happened? The dad called from the trailer.

-I think he’s burned.


-I think he’s burned.

The dad jogged over to the boy. He smelled burnt hair as he crouched over the boy.

-Jacob, the man said, you okay?

The boy moaned.

-I’m just going to take a quick look, the Dad said as he moved the boy’s hands from his face. All the exposed hair on the boys’ face—eyelashes, eyebrows, and the hair showing underneath the orange hat—was singed back almost to the root. The ends were curled and melted, giving he boy a bushy, older look, as if the brown hair had suddenly grayed, but the gray was slightly polluted with smog and debris.

-Does your face hurt?

-No, I’m fine.

¬-Can you move? The old man asked.

-Uh…yeah. Only my back hurts.

The dad laughed quietly at first, then slowly it started to ripple through the rest of his body.

-What’s so funny? The boy asked, looking up at his dad. -Stop laughing.

-I’m sorry, the dad managed, but you look at least 40 years older like that. The boy let his head move to the side so he was facing the fire, away from his dad.

-Okay, okay, the dad said. Sorry. You’re right. It’s not funny. I’m just glad you’re okay. The dad looked over at the now-burning stove.

-You go get your gun ready, he said to the boy, I’ll help grandpa with breakfast. Here, the dad said as he extended his hand to help the boy off the ground, at least you got the fire started. I’d say that’s a pretty good start to your first hunt carrying a gun.

When he got to his feet, the boy had a single tear in his eye. The dad reached down and brushed it away.

-You’re okay, he said. Your gun’s in the back of the truck. Go get it assembled like I showed you. He motioned back toward the stove. I’ll cook these eggs with grandpa. Sorry I laughed. Here, take this flashlight, the dad handed the flashlight to the boy and guided him toward the truck by pushing the palm of his hand on the small of the boy’s back.

The boy sniffled loudly, wiped his teary eyes with the back of his hand, and continued on into the dark void. The dad and grandpa watched his body disappear until they saw only the beam of the flashlight. They turned and the old man took out an egg and cracked it in a bowl, throwing the shell toward the now low-burning fire. The shell hit the rocks that formed the pit, and cracked into pieces that fell soundlessly, displacing millions of particles of dust that mixed with the sparks of the fire and the ash of long-burnt log and twigs that rose into the sky and became one with the particle-like stars that formed the white blur of the milky way and millions of other galaxies and worlds, the glare of which compared not at all with the dome light of the truck, where the boy now sat and screwed the barrel of the Remington thirty-ought six to the wooden stock while still sniffing away the tears of pain, shock and embarrassment.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Dinner

by: martin ferris

“Wait…You’re what?”

“Yeah….It’s true.”

“Doesn’t that mean you have like 4 moms? How’s that for you?” She smiles as she puts the menu on the table, placing her chin in her cupped hands supported by her elbows resting on the menu.

“Eff you,” he smiles back, without looking up from this menu.

“Wait, you don’t swear either? You just euphemize with the first letter of the swear word? What is that? You’re really too much, you know that?” She clasps both hands together and sets them on the table. “So, you’re really into this whole church thing then, right?”

“Just average, I guess. What are you going to order?”

“I don’t know—the steak, the halibut, the eggplant. I can’t ever decide until they come and ask.” She lifts her right forefinger and lazily points it at the boy, “Seriously though, I heard Mormons are polygamists. Are they? I mean, are you?” She keeps her eyes trained on his head, which is still buried in the menu.

He pokes his head over the menu, eyes still trained on the choices, and asks, “Do you think the Thai Chicken Salad has peanuts?”

“God! Can’t you just answer the question?” She takes a drink, shakes her head slightly back and forth.

“I’m sorry,” He smirks slightly, “But I just don’t like peanuts that much. But I do love chicken. It’s what my moms always made for me.”

“Ha! I knew it.” She slaps her two open palms onto the table. The couple sitting next to them eyes them without turning their heads. “So…” She laughs, “How many were there?”

“Nine,” he says as he looks around (for the waiter, perhaps?).

“Yeah, right,” (She is still laughing).

“Yep. Let’s see, there was” he begins counting on his fingers “Martha, Sarah, Caroline, Leeane, Nicole, Gene, Mary, Emma, and Penelope.” He shows her his nine fingers. “Where is the effing waiter?” He drops his fingers and closes his menu, places it on the table, looking past the girl.

“Penelope? That’s the best you could come up with?”

“Fools shall mock, my friend.” He looks straight at her. “Penelope was my birth mother. Please don’t laugh at her name. She didn’t have the easiest life. She was the last sister-wife of nine. You have any idea how hard that is?” Unsmiling, he sips his water. “The first wife, Martha, was a slave-driver. Plus she resented my mom. Martha was 65 when my dad, also 65, married my 22-year-old mother. You can understand her resentment. I have older siblings who were twice the age of my mother.” He turns his head again, “Can you see the waiter?”

The girl holds her glass with one hand—semi limp at head’s height—elbow resting on the menu. “Older siblings, huh?” She places her glass down, folds her arms on the table—shoulders raised slightly—and leans forward. She is still smiling.

“Yeah. 37 in all, if I remember correctly—it’s not really a time I care to remember. I didn’t really know my oldest siblings. They were more like distant uncles and aunts. We didn’t even live in the same town.” His eyes shoot to oncoming movement, “Finally, here comes the waiter. You ready?”

“What? Oh. Right. I will be. But I don’t like that you’re fucking with me.”

He looks up quickly with wide eyes (Hurt? Offended?), “Why would I be effing with you?”

“I don’t know, asshole,” she whispers just as the waiter reaches the table.

“You folks ready?” The waiter talks with a slight, unidentifiable accent.

“Does the Thai Chicken Salad have peanuts?” The boy asks.


“Good. I’ll have that.”

“And for you?” The waiter turns to the girl.

“Um….” She pauses, looks at the boy, “I’ll have the steak, medium rare.”

“Great. Anything to drink?” The waiter addresses both boy and girl.

“Should we get a bottle of wine?” She is smiling again.

The boy shakes his head. “Sorry,” he adds.

“The Mormon thing again?” She says this as both a question and a statement.

He raises his shoulders and puts his arms out with his palms upward. He makes a sound that is a cross between “yeah” and “eh?.”

“Unbelievable.” She now turns to the waiter. “Can you believe this guy? He’s a Mormon. You know, he goes to church and shit like that. He can’t drink, and he has nine moms.”

After a pregnant pause, the waiter ventures an “Uh….great. So…no drinks?

The girl shakes her head no.

The boy says, “Diet Coke please.”

“What were we talking about?” He asks as the waiter leaves.

“You were busy bullshitting me about your older siblings,” She pushes her dark brown hair out of her right eye, and looks at him with an I’m-all-ears look.

“I have no reason to B.S. you.” He looks down at his utensils. “I usually don’t tell people about it when I first meet them. I guess I know why. I didn’t appreciate you shooting off your mouth to the waiter. People around here can be very judgmental about that sort of thing,” He looks up at her. “I didn’t think you would be too.”

She slightly cocks her head to the side, “Look at you, Mr. Sensitive.” She laughs. I didn’t realize you were such a Mommy’s boy, but then again, you did have 9, right?”

He says nothing.

“Oh…what’s wrong? Did Mr. Sensitive get his feelings hurt?” She talks like she’s talking to a baby.

“I’d rather we didn’t talk about this,” he softly offers.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait. Hold the phone. Are you telling me you’re serious? You ARE a polygamist?” Her smile softens almost imperceptibly. She moves her arms so they are parallel, 3 feet apart, and facing the boy. Her hands are clenched loosely.

“Not exactly,” he says.

She visibly relaxes, moves her right arm in slightly.

“I mean, I don’t practice polygamy now—we actually like to call it plural marriage—but I definitely grew up in it.”

Her arm moves back into place. No smile now. “Wait, so you were serious about that?” He nods his head. “I feel like shit for making fun of it. I guess I’m sorry.” A pause. “How was it? I mean, was it hard on you? I want you to tell me every little thing about it, at least if you feel comfortable with that.”

“I mean, it wasn’t so different from a normal family, I guess. We ate together, prayed together, sang together….”

“You sang together?”

“Sure,” he takes a drink, “A family who sings together, stays together. We used to have a family band. I played guitar, three of my brothers played fiddle. I had one sister who had a killer voice. Of course, that was before the incident.”

“What? The incident? What happened?”

“Oh, its hard to talk about.”

“Come on, you are killing me. Tell me now!”

“Well we were playing a sold-out show one night, and what we thought was the spotlight, actually was an incoming space ship. That’s when the robot-aliens took over and began transplanting our skin and turning us into mimicking machines and….” He laughs a laugh that gets caught in his throat, so he can’t finish the thought. Then he laughs again, but tries to keep it in a closed mouth.

“What?” She shrieks. “So you WERE bullshitting me?” She is smiling, mouth slightly open, and sitting up straight. Her hair has fallen back over her eyes. She sharply flips it out of the way with her right hand and slaps her arm down to her side. “You bastard!”

“What?” he manages defensively, though he is laughing steadily now.

“Fucking bastard!” She laughs.

“I don’t know where you heard Mormons are polygamists, but it’s not true.” He laughs again. “But I’m glad you did because that, my friend, was classic.”

“I hate you.” She is laughing with him now. “Seriously, I want you to die a slow and painful death.” She shakes her head, “God!”

“Relax, Relax,” he puts his arm out like he is going to comfort her with a pat on the shoulder. “People will stare.”

“Shut up,” She is finished laughing, but still has a smile. “So how did I hear Mormons are polygamists?”

“What do you mean?” The boy says into his cup, as he finishes off his water.

“I mean—you lying son of a bitch—if Mormons aren’t polygamists, how did I get that in my head?” She takes the saltshaker and screws the lid off and then on again.

“I don’t know—how did Columbus think the world was flat? How did Hitler think the Jews were inferior?” He smiles wryly.

“Oooohhh,” she blurts in faux-disgust, “So I’m a bigoted, imperialistic murderer now?”

“If the hat fits…” the boy fishes out a piece of ice by tipping the cup into his mouth.

“So you’re telling me,” She asks over the crunching noise of his ice, “That Mormons were never polygamists?”

“No, No,” he says as he chews. “I didn’t say that.” He swallows the ice; “I just said we don’t practice it now.”

“WTF? What are you, a lawyer? So what’s the actual story?” She takes to her cup to find some ice for herself, fishing it out with her tongue.

He doesn’t reply, just watches. His eyes go from her searching tongue, to her of brown hair over her eyes, to her bare olive shoulders, and then back to her exploratory tongue.

“Well?” She asks with a mouthful of ice.

“Huh?” He shakes his head slightly.

“Hello…The polygamist thing? What’s the story?”

“Oh” he says with a start, “It’s a long and boring story, not really dinner conversation, you know what I mean? Plus, I’m still not sure if I trust you with my personal information.” He smiles as he talks.

“OK,” she says, “But you'll tell me about it sometime.” She pauses, sits back in her chair. “I think we’ll probably have plenty of chances to get the whole story straight.” She smiles and brings her hands off the table into her lap.

“Yeah?” the boy says, almost invisibly nodding his head.

The girl shrugs her shoulders and nods back--all the while sucking on the piece of ice she finally retrieved from the cup.