"Courtship" by Terry Mergenthal

Updated: Apr 3

The Walther P22 in Carl Peltier’s glove compartment isn’t the same gun his father used. That was the P38, heavier by a pound and forever lost when Hurricane Floyd tore the roof off the Perle Municipal Building. Police reports and court records and newspaper clippings are gone too, leaving only memory as evidence.

This morning, after deadheading the peonies and watering the mums, Carl removed the gun from the bottom of his clothes hamper and put it in the car. Tonight, he’ll toss it in the creek behind his parent’s house. His sister Fran lives there now, but chances are she’ll be asleep. Even if she’s awake, snacking on raw cookie dough, and watching SNL reruns, she won’t hear a thing. Fran smokes enough pot to put an elephant down.

Whenever his therapist asks about growing up in that house, Carl tells her he can’t remember much. Try, she says in a gentle whisper and when he hesitates, adds Anything. Anything at all. He chews his bottom lip and gives a slow, deliberate nod because he longs to see that spark of hope in her eyes. It starts to fade when he describes the stuffed peppers and rice they ate on Wednesdays, or the impatiens his mother planted every spring. Doing homework at the kitchen table and catching lightning bugs with his sisters. Singing along to Beatles songs on the radio. By the time he describes the cowboy wallpaper in his bedroom, the spark is gone for good.

At least once a month, Dr. Bruner tries to get him to talk about his father. Carl doesn’t fall for it. He attends night school at the community college and has taken at least a half dozen psych courses. General Psychology and Behavioral Analysis, Stress Management and Self-Hypnosis Techniques. When he ran through all the psychology courses, he took Statistics and Beginning Meditation. Then, Winter Gardening and Japanese Cinema. The Language of Clouds. His sisters don’t understand why he bothers and to be honest, he’s not actually sure himself. He tells them he’s expanding his horizons but wishes he could come up with something that didn’t sound like a marketing campaign. Whatever, Fran says, trying to sound young and cool, though she’s almost forty. Birdie tells him he’s just like their father as if that’s a good thing. Dr. Bruner approves. She says being around other adults in a ‘non-threatening environment’ gives him an opportunity to form real social connections. He tells her that’s exactly what he’s doing, but the truth is, Carl hasn’t spoken to another student in the eight years he’s attended classes. But he plans to, after tonight.

The red metallic Cherokee is parked a short distance from the school entrance, angled carelessly into an adjacent space. Carl eases his Honda in the spot behind and lowers his window a few inches. Classes don’t end for another half-hour, but he slides down in his seat, just in case. People leave early all the time – a sudden illness, a last-minute date, a babysitter who needs to get home. After a long day at work, he’s been tempted to make up an excuse himself. But he’s never given in, never once skipped a class until tonight.

As if on cue, the side door of the annex swings open. A man in torn jeans holds out his hand for a girl who giggles like she’s just stiffed a waiter. He pulls her close, and they kiss. When he pushes up her sweater, she says his hands are cold and slaps him away. Carl can tell she’s not angry because when the man does it again, she laughs. This is a game couples play. She doesn’t want him to stop. There’s no need to save her.

He strains to hear the coarse words they say to each other. Some people, like his father and sisters, and possibly his therapist, might call it eavesdropping, but it’s more than that. If he can solve the puzzle of how other people manage to go through life so easily, he might discover a path to being normal again. Because he was, once. That’s what Dr. Bruner doesn’t understand. She only wants to talk about the things that made him crazy.

The girl reapplies her lipstick before they drive off, a clear sign that the man must take her somewhere nice if he expects more. This is one of those agreements couples make without saying anything. Carl has a lot to learn.

He checks his watch, a cheap Casio with oversized numbers. Nothing like the Omega Seamaster his father wore. That was a beauty, made even more lovely by the feathery Roman Numerals that circled the dial. He remembers his father polishing the large sunburst face with a silk cloth. He’d hold it up close to his face, check for smudges, and then start on the platinum band. Fran has it now, along with his mother’s opal earrings. She grabbed everything worth anything after the funeral.

Carl slips off his watch and places it on the dashboard. Another ten, fifteen minutes and it will all be over. Twenty maybe, because Hamlin is always the last to leave. It doesn’t matter.

Nothing matters except the plan, and he’s gone over that a hundred times.

Later tonight, he’ll call Fran, ostensibly to talk about the art class he’s taking, and then very, very casually bring up the watch. He’ll make it sound like an afterthought – Remember Dad’s watch? Whatever happened to it? – and maybe she’ll let it slip that it’s in a kitchen drawer, or she sold it, or she’ll ignore the question altogether and ask about his class – What, you’re an artist now? – just to change the subject. And he’ll say, I don’t know, maybe, and she’ll pester him, and eventually, he’ll tell her the whole story because honestly, he’s been dying to tell someone.

The day had been a clusterfuck. He was buried in work orders at the cable company, and barely had time for lunch. As he was leaving, his boss asked him to stay for his quarterly performance review (productivity excellent, communication skills poor), which left no time to change for his first Tai Chi lesson. When he finally reached the classroom, late and out of breath, he stopped at the door. A dozen students turned to look at him. They wore canvas aprons and sat behind wooden easels. The instructor, a plump-cheeked man in leather pants and a Paisley shirt, glanced briefly in his direction and went back to reading names off a list. Carl put down his gym bag and searched his pockets for the registration slip. Room 381. He’d switched the eight and the one. In five years of classes, he’d never done anything like that. He took a step back, unsure if he should interrupt the introductions.

Politeness succeeds where ability fails, son. That’s fortunate for a boy like you.