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.
A woman in a black jumpsuit gave a caffeine-fueled history of every art class she’d taken since kindergarten. A pale young man jumped up when his name was called, took a long drink from a bottle of water, and spoke of how Art saved his life. One by one, the students talked endlessly about themselves, candid in a way that unnerved Carl.
Screw politeness. Screw his father’s rules. He bent down to retrieve the bag that held his sweats and figured he’d have to work out in his dress shirt and khakis.
“Finola, not Fiona. West.”
Carl let his bag slide to the floor. When the woman repeated her name, he was struck by the catch in her voice and then everything else: her steady gaze, the thoughtful tilt of her head, those dark curls captured, but not tamed, by a blue scarf. He felt a tightness in his chest and realized he was holding his breath.
The instructor leaned forward. “Any experience?” He grinned. “In oils, I mean.”
Two women in the back exchanged looks.
“A little. I mostly work with clay.”
“I see.” He scribbled something next to her name. “Such a sensual medium, don’t you think?”
She tucked a stray curl behind her ear.
“Well.” He smiled again, wider this time. “I have a feeling you’ll do just fine here, Finola-not-Fiona.”
It wasn’t just his remarks or the insinuating tone in the instructor’s voice. Something about the way she looked over at Carl pulled him into the room. He walked to the vacant stool behind her and placed his bag on the floor.
The instructor fanned his clipboard in Carl’s direction. “You are?”
“Late, I – I know, sir,” Carl said, lapsing into his childhood stutter. “I sure do apologize, Mister – um...”
“Professor Um.” He waited for a few appreciative giggles before adding, “Hamlin. Which you would know if you’d bothered to read the course description.”
“Sorry, I –”
Hamlin stopped him with a wave of his hand. “Are you sure you belong here?”
Carl looked down at the soft curve of Finola’s neck and felt a swell of confidence. When he spoke again, the stutter was gone. “Yes. Absolutely. I’m not on the roster yet – some administrative mix-up, I guess. But I am registered.”
Hamlin twirled his pen impatiently. “Your name.”
“Carl Peltier, sir. Professor.”
Carl watched as Hamlin added him to the list. “I’m looking forward to your class, Professor. I’ve never painted before, so I’m eager to –”
But Hamlin had already turned his attention to a girl with a row of safety pins above her left brow.
Carl sat heavily on his stool, the metal legs scraping the floor. When Finola turned at the sound, he searched through his bag to keep from staring at her. She was so close he could almost see the air pulsing between them. Electrical waveforms or sinusoidal vibrations or some other principle he’d learned in Intro to Physics. Forgotten, along with all the other horizon-expanding classes that now seemed like a waste of time.
Maybe the purpose of those hours spent learning things that didn’t change one thing in his life was to guide him here, to this room on this night, sitting behind this woman. Maybe it was all part of a plan. Carl looked down at his lap and smiled to himself. He was already a different man.
Students pour out of the building, none of them Finola. Hamlin was always keeping her after class to talk about her work. Two weeks ago, Carl saw them walk out together. The professor was gesturing like a clown, doing his best to keep her attention, while Finola walked alongside him with her arms folded. She laughed once, but only to be polite. When they reached her car, he leaned in as if to kiss her. And he would have if Carl hadn’t set off his car alarm. That’s when he decided to make sure Hamlin never tried that again.
Carl presses against the back of his seat, anxious for the day to be over. He wonders if his mother would recognize herself in Finola, with that same quiet beauty and overwhelming need for protection. And if she’d understand why her son was parked in a school lot on a cold night, planning something she’d consider a sin. His father would. He never let anything get in the way of his love. Like that time at the dinner table when Carl’s mother called their next-door neighbor, Mr. DiFranco, a real gentleman for collecting the trash when their garbage cans blew over.
His father put down his fork.
Sylvan, darling, I just meant –
For pity’s sake, the man is a goddam house painter.
Unlike Sylvan Carl James Peltier, who came from nothing but knew everything. Who posted elaborate house rules on a chalkboard in their kitchen and changed them without warning.
Who removed the cord from their TV before he left for work. Who told his family what they could do and when they could do it. Who kicked over a kitchen chair that night and broke the legs with the heel of his shoe. And later, when he thought everyone was asleep, went outside and keyed Mr. DiFranco’s brand new Taurus.
The sound rouses Carl from what feels like a dream. He opens his eyes in time to see Finola walking out of the building, alone. She struggles with the zipper on her parka – impatient, jerky movements that tug at Carl’s heart. He pulls the slider on his own jacket up and down, up and down, hoping that will somehow guide her through the motions.
“Fin, wait up.”
A girl from their class, mohawked and heavily pierced, throws an arm around Finola’s shoulder. They speak in whispers until the boy saved by Art runs over to join them. The three of them huddle together in the cold, Finola still tugging on her zipper. The girl – her name is Maddy, Carl remembers – bends down and helps with the zipper while the boy talks on and on, his voice high with optimism. When Finola touches his elbow, Carl squeezes his hands together and slides them between his knees. He leans forward and spits out the sour taste in his mouth. He should’ve eaten today.
Maddy and the boy step back as Finola gets in her car. The touch was nothing, a friendly way of saying goodbye, that’s all. There’s talk of going for drinks, but she shoos them off and pulls the door shut. Maddy blows a kiss and walks away. The boy glances over his shoulder as he strolls to an ancient Volkswagen, clearly hoping to be called back.
It takes Finola a long time to start her car, or it just seems long because Carl is tired and nauseous and convinced this night is never going to end. When Finola finally turns the key, the car coughs out a purple ring of smoke and dies.
The boy scrambles out of his car, not bothering to shut the door. Something hard and despairing lodges in Carl’s chest. His breath comes out in short, hurried whisps and a chill that has nothing to do with the weather settles on him. He wonders if he’s having a heart attack in this nearly empty parking lot. He’s only thirty-six. But heart disease runs in his family, both sides, and probably would’ve killed his parents if they’d lived long enough.
Finola tries again, holding down the gas pedal until the outline of her car is blurred by exhaust. Carl tries to remember the breathing exercises he learned in a meditation class last year, but it’s no use. Tears, born of frigid air and leaden frustration, roll down his chin. He’s done everything right, prepared for tonight in a way that would meet even his father’s exacting standards, but it’s all gone to hell. He starts to pray, Our Father Who art in heaven, words he first heard at the funeral, and every evening afterward when his grandmother said the rosary. He bows his head and prays harder than he ever has before, prays until tiny puffs of spit strike the dashboard like buckshot.
Deliver us from evil.
When Carl looks up, the cloud of exhaust has dissipated. The boy is fumbling with the hood, eager to take advantage of his good fortune. Finola leans out of her window and tells him not to bother, it always does this, but he only tries harder to open the latch.
The snow that’s been promised all-day begins to fall, quiet as fog. Carl presses his palms against his forehead. His body is stiff, his joints sluggish from the cold, but he will force himself to get out of the car and deal with the situation. Nothing is going to come between him and his plan, not some lovesick boy, or piece of shit car, not even Finola. He’s tired of believing in forgiveness and healing, and the promise that, if he just works hard enough, talks every week with his therapist, surrounds himself with supportive, non-threatening friends, he can free himself from the past. There are consequences to what he’s considering, serious ones. But if he’s willing to sacrifice everything, if it isn’t really a sacrifice because life has been a struggle ever since he failed to decipher his father’s moods and his mother’s silences, then consequences can be borne.
The car starts, just like Finola said. He watches her drive away, knowing she holds the cure for everything wrong with him. The boy is gone too, no more substantial than Carl’s dead father. There was nothing to worry about. He knows that now.
He opens his glove compartment and takes out the gun. It’s colder than his hands, colder than the steering wheel or the leather seats. He should’ve worn gloves. There’s a pair in the trunk, along with a goose-down vest but it’s too late to get them. He puts down the gun and picks it up, again and again, until the rubber grip glistens with sweat and his hands are no longer shaking. He thinks about what he plans to say, but does he have to say anything?
Carl gives a quick shake of his head, but the thought remains like a persistent cough. He’s never used the gun on anything but empty soda cans and isn’t going to start now. He’s exhausted, that’s all, beleaguered by his life and the women who shaped it, his mother and sisters, Finola. Beleaguered. His father would’ve liked that word. He would assign Carl and his sisters vocabulary words from an SAT workbook. Only after they’d looked up the word and used it in a sentence, were they allowed to eat dinner.
Carl watches the silver web of his breath sail out of the car. The wind outside picks up, curling the snow like ruffles on a dress. He’ll make sure it’s only a flesh wound, but one that will leave a scar. Light years away from a simple threat, but wasn’t that always the plan? The reason he’d spent hours in the Pinelands perfecting his aim? What had he been thinking, if not this?
The side door opens and Hamlin strolls outside, his arm slung familiarly around the shoulders of a young man. Carl leans forward, the cold forgotten.
“I know he’s your friend and everything –”
The young man scoffs. “Whatever. He’s a lousy teacher.”
“Well, I agree he has a limited grasp of –”
“And he hates me.”
Hamlin squeezes the other man’s shoulder, draws him closer. “I seriously doubt that.”
“He never calls on me, okay? And he refuses to give me anything above a B. He doesn’t even bother to show up for office hours.” He lowers his voice and Carl strains to hear. “He’s an asshole.”
“A goddam asshole,” Hamlin agrees.
“A goddam motherfucking asshole,” the man says, and they both laugh.
Hamlin pats his cheek. “Stay over tonight. We’ll grab dinner and see a movie.”
“I have work tomorrow.”
“Stay anyway. We’ll order in.” Hamlin searches the pockets of his overcoat, never loosening his grip on his friend. When he pulls out his car keys, a pack of cigarettes drops to the ground. He raises his shoulders in a comical shrug.
“I have no idea where those came from, kid.”
Shaking his head, the young man bends down and pockets the cigarettes. Hamlin opens the car door, and the interior lights go on. The man is a boy, Carl realizes, barely out of his teens. His chin is firmer, hair a lighter brown, and there’s an innocence in the eyes that’s missing in the older man. Everything else is the same.
“We had a deal.”
“And I intend to keep it. Starting tomorrow.” Hamlin hands over the keys. “You drive. I’m beat.”
The boy pats his father’s cheek. “You’ll be asleep by ten, old man.”
When Mr. DiFranco ran into the kitchen, he was still carrying his paintbrush. He walked carefully around the bodies, whispering Jesus Mary and Joseph over and over. Carl’s sisters were crying, or maybe they’d stopped, he can’t remember. He was staring at the green drops of paint on the linoleum and wondering if he should ask Mr. DiFranco to wipe them up. He tried to point, but his fingers were gripping the sides of his chair and he wasn’t sure how to let go without falling. On the floor. With the bodies. Then the brush was gone, and Mr. DiFranco was leading Carl’s sisters through the living room and out the front door. He called for Carl to follow, and Carl wanted to, he did, he just couldn’t let go. When he tried to speak, the words stuck to the roof of his mouth. He waited, wondering if he would always be alone, and waiting. But the man came back and carried both Carl and the chair outside.
To belong to someone who scolds you with tender exasperation. To make mistakes and be forgiven for them. To be loved.
On the drive home, Carl thinks about the chrysanthemums he planted the last week of August. Unsuspecting and cheerful this morning, they’ll turn to straw after tonight’s freeze. His ornamental cabbages, on the other hand, thrive in cold weather, their purple rosettes deepening with each front. And the red and white kale will find the resilience to flower all winter.
Terry Mergenthal's works have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Philadelphia Stories, The Baltimore Review and, most recently, American Literary Review. Mergenthal has also received the Elizabeth Beasley Award at the Rutgers University Writers' Conference.