As the Rifle Does: A Short Story by C.J. Nadeau

By C.J. Nadeau

Clouds are coming in and it looks like the rain is going to fall heavy. A great, formidable mass moves toward shore. Beneath it are hazy lines of rain falling, though it looks to me as though it were frozen. It all reminds me of the birch tree. The thick drops are visible and look like branches, upside down and forgotten at sea.

The only thing I’d have changed was that Mother didn’t do it with Grandfather’s own hunting rifle. Father keeps it hidden away in the glass door of a grandfather clock so it’s out of sight and in my old man’s mind. But Mother intended to do away with the only part of her that was supposed to stay fine. She resented that her mind wouldn’t atrophy the way her body did and she said she wouldn’t put the barrel to her heart because that’s where my Dad and I lived and will continue to stay. She was on to something because I still dream of that day.

Mother gave me a bishop chess piece she whittled herself. Hung from my neck is the playing piece. As I put it in my mouth a gull flies over. The sun is high above me and I curl up in the ditch and wait for sleep to come. Clear skies bring no shelter from the sun and I’m sweating without moving. This is my first summer in Peru and I hope the heat is abnormal. My dad brought us down here in hopes of forgetting about Mother, but I know he’s been dreaming too.

Outside of the ditch I’ve dug is the rifle. My fingers are stiff around its steel and it still holds some of the coolness night brought. Dad is surely worried about why the rifle is missing, but not for long because he has a drink to dull the world. I’m not concerned about worrying him. It keeps him honest. What scares me is waking up with a gun because I don’t know what it means. I know what guns imply but not what it means to sleep with one.

When I close my eyes I see that face. My mother’s. When she was seventeen and wearing a long dress and she was laughing, her bangs were short above her brow and her long crooked nose stopped above her lips. I see it because I want to.

I uncross my legs and try and judge how far from town I am and if Peru would permit me to carry a rifle through city streets. I panic. Digging again and using the butt of the rifle as a shovel, I excavate all the loose dirt and then try and ball it together. The mud is too dry so I pull my pants down and pee over the dirt. There is enough to dampen all of what I had dug up.

The dirt is now mud and malleable. Into three round balls, each one smaller than the next, I pile them one atop the other largest to smallest. For eyes there are rocks and a nose drawn with my finger and the same for the eyes. It requires a lot of mud but I make an arm for the mud man and prop the rifle in its hand with the barrel aimed at its head. I leave it there for another man to find on his walk back home.

Crossing the border from dirt to pavement changes nothing, the pads of my feet are caked in mud and I can’t feel the groove of cement. At the apartment, my father’s footsteps echo when I ring the buzzer. He gathers me up in his arms and carries me inside. I’m nearly done growing and I know Dad must have had a long drink if he can pick me up. He puts me down in the living room and I’ve dirtied his white button down with dirt. Even Dad’s face is smeared with mud. He tells me I smell awful and asks, where have you been? I’m sorry, I tell him. He tells me I am cold and starts the bath water.

Tears drop from his cheeks and blot the dirt over his belly. He folds his arms and rests them on his gut. I thought you—he starts to say. I didn’t, I tell him. Where’s the rifle? he asks. It’s not in the case, I say. And my father agrees. I tell him I’d like to wash. There’s mud everywhere, Dad tells me.

The water is warm and clouds when I get in it. From my toes, the dirt is stubborn and doesn’t come away easily. My dad comes in and sits on the floor. I sink lower until my ears fill with water. When I’m done blowing bubbles from my nose He asks me what I want for dinner. I tell him it doesn’t matter. Well, Dad says, I just want you to have a nice meal. I tell him there’s nothing wrong with his cooking. Then Dad begins to clip his toe nails and he says, I just don’t know your favorite foods. I tell him they haven’t changed and he says okay. He finishes clipping one foot and goes to the next. The sound of each individual clip begins to wear on me and I’m driven to peevishness. Then Dad lets go one of his long, laborious breaths. I tell him I can do more around the house, but he tells me to focus on school.

I unplug the tub and he asks if he should start cooking dinner now. I tell him, if you’re hungry. He asks, won’t you eat with me? He steadies himself against the wall and stands. How long will you be? he asks. I tell him I’ll be ready with dinner.

I don’t know when it stopped being weird that Dad would sit in the bathroom when I bathed—or if it ever stopped being weird. But it is where we spend our time together. Sometimes I would fall asleep listening to him and wake up in cool water and him slumped on the floor.

Dinner is macaroni and cheese mixed with baked beans and hot dogs. It is my dad’s favorite meal and what we always have for dinner lately. What I don’t eat, I push around my plate until it’s acceptable to throw it out and Dad asks if I’d watch a movie.

So we put on one of his favorites and it’s full of cowboys and all black and white. He asks if I’ve seen it before and I don’t say anything. He lets go a labored breath and before the credits roll Dad is drunk and falls asleep. You fell asleep, I tell him. No I didn’t, he says. Normally this repeats a few times until Dad gets up, but today I just tell him, you’re drunk. What? he asks. Then he stands up and goes to bed. When I hear him snoring I open my bedroom window and leave, dressed in Dad’s old boots and parka. The boots clop against the pavement and reverberate around my ankles. The wind fills the space where my socks should be and the night is calm. Dad used to tell me stories about the big cities he lived in where trains and traffic would tremble the night alive and make the tracks groan. That’s why, I think, he imitates their breaths with his own.

We moved here after I got suspended from school that last time. I wrote a story for my English class about a pocket watch man. It wore a suit and had a human-sized clock for a head and it couldn’t talk. It just ticked around all day. It was a student and I named it after myself and after school it went home. When it got home it opened the door and found a snowman in the living room. Two coal eyes, a carrot for a nose, and buttons made a frown for its mouth. It didn’t wear a scarf and it had twigs for arms. In its left twig was a hairdryer and the snowman had it aimed on its head. There was a crater where the hairdryer was pointed and drops of water ran down from the eyes like tears. Me–the pocket watch boy–watched in the doorway as the snowman melted and all the water washed everything away. I was sent to the principal because I turned it in as nonfiction.

The street lights begin to flicker out and I’m outside the city’s limit. In the moonlight the mud man doesn’t look immaculate. Now, he’s dried out and wind has already eroded his figure. I relieve him from his watch and the arm breaks away with the rifle. I feel sorry for my creation. In my pocket I have a magazine that I load into the bolt action 1942 replica, my grandfather’s old trophy. He was the one that taught me to shoot it and keep it cleaned. Now the steel chills my hands and keeps my hair on end. Loading, I begin to cry. It turns to a weeping and my stomach is pained. I take the bishop and put it in my mouth to pacify my sobs, but I cough and it drops to my chest and I begin to unravel. Snots dribble down and cauterize the tears streaming from my cheeks.

The butt of the rifle spoons my shoulder and I take aim, hoping routine will occupy my mind. I’m a good shot, but kickback always startles me. The first round enters the mud man in the center of its face. The shot echoes in the night and it sounds like the moon was a balloon and I popped it. I ready another shot and put the bullet into the stomach. And then another, then the fourth, the fifth. The man separates. Slow. And then the right side slides away and the mouth is split in half. It looks surprised, like it wasn’t expecting to go out like this. I’m sorry, I say and I take mercy and start thrashing at it until it’s gone. When all the mud is kicked into the hole from where it came I leave the emptied magazine as a tombstone.

Turning to leave, the city is an eyesore. The small place I call home lacks skyscrapers, but apartments and homes stick out from a confused skyline. Office buildings, four or five stories tall stick out like lanky grade schoolers. There was a time, Dad says, that they hoped this would be a city and now they’re building barns on the outskirts of town.

Dad is sleeping when I got home and his snoring could be heard once inside the front door. The place still smells like hot dogs and beans and the bathroom light is on and casts the kitchen in a familiar shadow. I tiptoe into Dad’s room and he is sprawled on top of the covers. I pull them back, remove father’s shoes, and tuck him in. Beside him I put the rifle and tuck it into the covers too. He would know it was fired. He would be worried. But maybe he could explain to me what it meant to sleep with a gun.

In the dining room I stand before the grandfather clock where the gun is kept. Slowly, it ticks away the beats of a minute. The wood is oak and lacquered, but does not reflect anything in the dark. On its top, the only numerals are the twelve, three, six, and nine and they are all roman. Of everything in our old house this clock was the only thing shipped with us. I open it and the pendulum tries to count time. I wonder how a rifle doesn’t impede the clock. So I climb in and lean, as the rifle does, against the grandfather’s frame.

C.J. Nadeau makes pasta one box at a time in Watertown, MA. He works as a teaching assistant at a special education high school and is pursuing a degree to teach students with severe disabilities. His work can be found in the Green Mountain Review, Rain, Party, & Disaster Society, The Emerson Review, Timber Journal, and Literary Orphans.

One comment

  1. Wow. The grief in this story is so tangible, I hurt after reading C.J. Nadeau’s story. Several things in this tale resonated with me. As an older man with cancer, I identified strongly with the mother. Her plight and the wake she left led me to considerations of how best to end my life, if necessary, while creating minimum harm to my loved ones. The scenes of the boy taking a bath with the father in the room and the discussion about food for dinner reminded me of how my youngest son and I experienced life after divorce. Those scenes reawoke that sense of confused intimacy that was like a lifeline which we both held tightly. I remember him sitting in my lap in front of his friends when he was a high school student and me thinking, “Hmmm, this doesn’t seem right,” but I did not push him away. From a strictly literary point of view, I admired the symbolic language of Nadeau’s writing. The images of snowmen and clocks were powerful in their depiction of the fragility of life and how one keeps ticking despite brokenness. I noted that the author works with people with disabilities, so he is undoubtedly well-acquainted with the themes he so expertly explored in “As the Rifle Does.”


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