Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2
J. S. Keithley
J. S. Keithley (B.A., Drake University) is a writer living in Atlanta. He is at work on a number of short story projects.
He calculated the shot calmly. The range was close to 400 yards. Robert had paced the distance off earlier, just after sunrise. Well before the work crew would arrive to continue clearing the land.
His head was throbbing. Jesus, he had one bastard of a headache going this morning.
Carl Siefert and his wife Chris had moved down to Atlanta from Minnesota eight years ago. The oldest boy, Tommy, had a congenital bronchial condition and the brutal northern winters were just too much for him. Carl had been a heavy equipment driver for Northwest Airlines and was able to catch on with Eastern in Atlanta. That was back in '82, before the Lorenzo—machinist union fiasco. He was laid off in '86 and, after six months, felt he was lucky to land a job with Kennesaw Construction pushing a bulldozer.
They were clearing land for a subdivision, northwest of Atlanta, in Bartow County. Tony Calvechio, the foreman, had called Carl at home Sunday and said they would be going in early and working Saturdays for the next couple of weeks. The rains last month had put them behind schedule. No problem. Carl could use the overtime. Chris was expecting again and he was trying to get some money ahead so they could add on to the house. It was either that or sell it and buy a larger one. With two kids and another one on the way, living with two bedrooms and a bath and a half was going to be difficult.
Lying in the grass, on a rise overlooking the scarred landscape below, Robert thought about how it used to be around here. It hadn't been that long ago that he and the dog could flush quail following trails only he knew down by the creek. He'd shoot dove in early fall over in Mac Baldwin's wheat field after the threshing, while there was still fresh grain on the ground. In the winter, deer would come down from the Appalachian foothills, hungry for forage. There were trout in the creek and bream and bass in the ponds and lakes. Red cedar, maple, hickory, oak and southern pine shaded dogwood, rhododendron, wild azalea, and wisteria in the woods behind him.
This place was a paradise then.
That was before the developers, builders and yuppies, most of 'em Yankees, moved in on it from Atlanta. Hell, the way things were going, it wouldn't be long before Atlanta becomes one continuous sprawl of a city from Rome to Athens to Macon to LaGrange.
Carl had gotten up early, before the sun, careful not to disturb Chris. They hadn't exactly planned this baby, but now they were both looking forward to its arrival. He was hoping for a girl this time. He'd always wanted a little girl. He was thinking of naming her Carla. After all, he'd gone along with naming their younger boy Christopher, hadn't he? That made two Chrises in the family.
He'd showered the night before, so all he had to do was shave, dress and make breakfast. He put the coffee on, made toast and bacon and that was it. He could never eat a big breakfast. Chris had left a bag of sandwiches and a hard-boiled egg in the fridge for his lunch. He packed the sandwiches and egg in his lunch box. He was rough on lunch boxes. This must be the third one he'd had in sixteen years of hard hat jobs. When he started to put the coffee in the thermos, he had to smile. Three lunch boxes, sure, but just one thermos. The old man had given it to him when he retired after digging iron ore out of the Mesabi for thirty years. It was stainless steel and had picked up a few dents in its time, but he'd carried it since day one of his first job. Now, he considered it sort of a good luck charm. He had just finished filling the thermos when he saw Tony's headlights in the driveway. It was Tony's week to drive.
Damn, but this was some headache. Robert had let the dog out early. Fred was a brown Lab, a good dog but getting on in age now. The old boy's bladder must have shrunk some, but he could still find a bird in dense cover after Robert had knocked it down. Used to be Fred could run loose all day. Now the dog had to have a collar and tag and stay on Padgett land or be on a leash. Hell, he'd heard Earl McCrae was getting himself sued because his coon hounds had chased some dirt bikers off his land and one of the assholes had fallen and broke a leg.
Too many people that don't belong here. Bringing with them noise, ugliness and restrictions. Taking the trees down, poisoning the streams and lakes with construction waste and sewage. Tract homes going up, along with shopping malls and new schools. And he was expected to pay the higher taxes to support this destruction of his way of life. By God, it wasn't right! His head was throbbing again.
"Yo, Swede," Tony hailed him from his Toyota pickup. As Carl approached, Tony grinned and said more quietly, "I hope I didn't interrupt anything between you and the wife."
"Fuck you, you dumb dago," was Carl's reply. "Is that all you people think about?"
"What's to think about," Tony replied. "It's doing it that interests me. Like that little redhead in payroll."
"If Rita ever caught you fooling around, she'd have you singing soprano," Carl said. "Besides, Rita's got nothing to worry about. Mind-fucking is about as close as you'll get to that redhead."
They went on like this good naturedly for awhile. If it wasn't sex, it was sports. Tony was an ex-New Yorker. They'd argue the merits of the Yankees and the Twins, the Giants and the Vikings.
The property amounted to about 160 acres running from the creek at the edge of the new subdivision construction site back to the foothills marking the beginning of the mountains. Except for the occasional small, subsistence farm like his own, the whole area was densely wooded. The property was his birthright. It had been Padgett land since ante-bellum times. His great-great-grandfather, Will Padgett, had farmed, ground hominy and traded with the Cherokee.
Robert had lived on the land all his life with the exception of his service in Vietnam. He had tried farming some, but by mid-day the sun made his headaches unbearable. Made him thirsty, made him drink more in the evenings. And made him mean. Hard to live with. Louise had left him two years ago, now. Taken the girl and gone back to her parents in Cartersville. He had discovered he didn't care that much. Didn't really miss them.
Louise didn't need his money. Or want it. Her old man never liked Robert anyway. Never wanted Louise to marry him. The old bastard had a face on him like he'd been sucking on a lemon all during the wedding. Cheap, too. Never gave he and Louise a dime. He could well afford to take back his daughter and grandchild. Probably felt it would be a small price to pay for proving he was right about Robert in the first place.
Being alone suited Robert fine. He was working two, three days a week for his old high school buddy, Ben McCorvey, at his gun shop and shooting range. It was called The Bulls Eye and Robert enjoyed the work. He knew guns and ammunition. Knew what loads to recommend for what weapon and what type of game. He also taught beginners how to shoot and got to practice his own marksmanship. Show off a little. Especially if the customer was a cute female, maybe a housewife moved up from Atlanta and worried about crime.
"Listen," Tony said, "You take the dozer over to the creek and dig out the rest of those tree stumps. I'm gonna have Willie and his truck crew over in the east quarter, clearing out that timber we cut last week. It ought to have dried out by now."
"OK, Tony," Carl said. "I'll see you and the boys for lunch back at the trailer. I hope Willie picked up the beer." They took turns stocking the ice chest in the trailer with beer. Toiling under the hot Georgia sun worked up a man's thirst. A couple of beers to wash down a salted hard-boiled egg and a sandwich was a welcome restorative. An hour after they were out in the sun again, they'd have sweated the beer out.
The headaches had been getting worse lately. More frequent and more painful. Robert had been to the VA hospital in Atlanta, but the quacks couldn't find anything wrong with him physically. The assholes wanted to set him up with a shrink. As if he had nothing better to do than drive sixty miles each way down to the city and tell some smart-ass head doctor war stories. Probably be some guy who'd stayed out of it by going to college, like Clinton, and had never heard a shot fired in anger. Some shitbird with an attitude about the military, the NRA and the South, in general. Fuck 'em anyway.
The grass was wet with dew and he was lying on a waterproof poncho and wearing his cammies from Nam. The sun was well up in the sky now, but a large oak shaded his position. A light breeze had picked up from the west, behind him. The Caterpillar bulldozer looked like a fat slug moving back and forth, digging out the tree stumps. A yellow dung beetle in the glaring sun, consuming what scraps were left on the ravaged land.
He wiped dew drops from the barrel of the rifle. It was a World War II vintage, British army issue .303 Enfield and he'd taken loving care of it. A marksman's weapon and he was a damn fine shot. He used it to go deer hunting.
It was coming up on nine o'clock and Carl's break. Time for coffee and a smoke. He kept the thermos under the seat. He'd been gouging hardwood stumps out near the creek that bordered private property. Whoever owned that acreage could have made himself some money selling out. Walter Howell of Howell Homes, the developer, wanted the land bad enough. Carl had heard of plans to dam the creek, flooding the low ground to create a pond. Looking to stock it with bluegills for the homeowners and their kids. Maybe put some swans out there, too. Clip their wings first so they couldn't fly away. The Howell people were big on swans. Scottish names for the developments like Inverness Heights and Loch Ness Estates and swans on the lakes. The hell with it for now. He'd made a good start on the stumps. Carl killed the diesel on the bulldozer, took his thermos and cigarettes and headed for some shade. He was always surprised at how quiet it seemed after the constant roar of the big Caterpillar's engine. His wife kept telling him he ought to wear ear plugs. Now he could hear the birds and insects and the stink of diesel fumes was fading away.
The headache was now a burning sensation above his left eye. Robert had to force himself to think of other things in order to bear the pain. For a moment, he was back on the rifle range at Paris Island. He'd wet his finger to test the breeze and adjust for windage. The target, a cookie cutter shape of a man's head and torso. He could almost hear the range officer's voice: "The flag is up. The flag is waving. The flag is down. Commence firing."
He'd started with the M-16 like all the other boots, but when they'd discovered how well he could shoot, they gave him an M-1 Garand. He still liked this baby, the .303 Enfield the best. With the Simmon's 44 mag scope he'd fitted to it, he could kick a beer can off a rock a quarter of a mile away.
Carl wanted to get out of the sun. He walked a short ways into the woods, following the creek. Finding a willow, the limbs draped over the water like a bridal veil, he pushed the feathery branches aside and sat down with his back against the trunk. Lighting a cigarette, he opened the thermos of coffee. Small insects darted over a back water pool behind a fallen tree trunk. He wondered idly if there were fish in the creek. He'd never been into fishing or hunting. He was a team sports guy in school and now he bowled and played a little golf.
God, it was peaceful here. The only sound was the occasional rustle of willow leaves, the bird and insect calls and the steady gurgling of the creek water running over smooth rocks. It was times like these when he almost had second thoughts about what he was doing lately. It was really kind of a shame to destroy all this. But then, hey, who the fuck knew about this place but him? Or cared? Oh, maybe a few birds or fish. Tough shit. If he didn't fuck it up, somebody else would. That was progress, right? He took a last drag on the cigarette and flicked it into the creek. Picking up the thermos, he rose and headed back to the bulldozer.
Robert had been awarded a sharpshooter citation when he graduated from the Paris Island boot camp. Later, in Nam, he'd won two bronze stars. God knows how many VC he'd taken out. Officers, commanders, leaders of any stripe were his principal targets. Killing from afar to sew confusion among the enemy. His victims never heard the shot. To him, they were only strange, foreign-looking faces brought closer by a telescopic lens. Portraits from old Charlie Chan movies framed by his sniper scope.
He hadn't suffered a scratch in Vietnam. Figured he was lucky and ready to forget the whole sorry business and get on with his life. But, after about a month back home, he noticed he was becoming restless and irritable. Then the nightmares started. Every two or three weeks in the beginning. Now he was having them once, sometime twice a week. And his head ached almost constantly. Except the morning after a nightmare.
He was ten years old, in the melon field behind the barn practicing with the .30—.30 Winchester his father had given him that spring for his birthday. "You practice, boy. Get your eye and maybe I'll take you deer huntin' this season." Robert would look for a melon gone bad, prop it up on some firewood and he had a target. The melon would seem to swallow the bullet, swelling grotesquely before exploding in pieces.
This was Robert's dream. Where it became a nightmare was the ending. Just before he squeezed the trigger, the melon framed in his sights became the face of one of his Viet Cong kills. In slow motion, almost like a slide show, he would witness the same macabre results as with the melon. He would wake in a cold sweat, gasping for breath, his heart beating rapidly. The dream was always the same but with a different VC face at the end. Robert would stumble out to the kitchen sink, wash his face and put down another couple of fingers of bourbon. Retiring to bed, he would fall into a deep sleep. The next morning the headache would be gone. Only to return later in the day.
Carl climbed into the cab of the dozer and fired up the diesel. Letting it idle in neutral, he reached for the thermos. It still felt warm as he loosened the top. One last swig of coffee and back to work. As he lifted the cylinder to his lips, the sun's rays sparked off the stainless steel and Carl felt a sudden, searing pain above his left eye and then… nothing.
Robert ejected the .30 caliber, soft point shell casing, pocketed it and rose from the tall grass. Scratch one more Mr. Charlie. He stretched, getting the kinks out and threw the poncho over one shoulder. Nam memories were flooding back now. He was sweating, slapping at the leeches while hearing the buzz of a hundred flying insects. The familiar smells of rotting tropical vegetation and the Mekong River were in the hot, humid Georgia air. Better be getting back to the lieutenant for de-briefing. He suddenly realized he was hungry.
Heading back to the house he massaged his temples. The headache was almost gone now.