Just after dawn Bruce stopped snoring and crawled out of the tent. He looked over at me where I sat against a cypress tree with my hands tied behind my back and fumbled with his prosthetic leg, strapping it onto the ruined pink thigh that protruded from his shorts.
“You comfortable?” he asked. “You want them ropes loosened up a little bit?”
He was serious. I told him I was fine even though my arms were stinging numb and I hadn’t been able to feel my fingers since before the sun came up.
Bruce shrugged and started a fire. He put some coffee in the percolator and stretched in the sun, wind-milling his arms, bouncing to keep his balance on the leg. The scar shifted with each movement, crawling like a snake across his torso, emerging from his shorts just to the right of his belly button, cutting across his chest and ending where his nipple would have been had it not been gouged away by the shrapnel.
When the coffee was done, Bruce poured two cups and stood looking down at me, trying to figure out what to do. “Tell you what,” he said finally. “I’m going to undo your arms.” He went around behind the tree and fiddled with the ropes, and I felt my arms fall to the ground. I tried to lean forward but he’d left the ropes lashed around my chest and gut. “Don’t get excited,” he said. “You ain’t going anywhere yet.” He gave me a cup, but my hands were still dead and I couldn’t hold it. He chuckled and grabbed my right hand, kneading the palm between his fingers and looking up at the sky. I thought about punching him with my other hand, but I didn’t think I could muster the strength to do anything more than flop my arm harmlessly toward his head. When he was done, he’d rubbed enough life back into my hand for it to feel like it was on fire, but it worked reasonably well, and we sat, drinking coffee and not looking at one another.
When I’d finished the coffee, I told Bruce that I was about to piss my pants. “So piss your pants, then,” he said. I told him that he would have to shoot me before I wet myself, and I was pretty sure I meant it. He tilted his head from side to side to look at me like a bird sizing up a worm. Then he stood up slowly and pressed the barrel of the pistol against my forehead. It was warm from sitting in his lap. “If I tell you to piss your pants, you piss your fucking pants,” he said. He cocked the pistol and my chest went empty. So did my bladder.
When he saw what I’d done, he laughed and dropped the gun in my lap. “Go ahead,” he said. “Pick it up. The fucker’s not even loaded. It wasn’t even loaded last night, because I was scared I’d shoot you if it was.” He went to the fire and stoked it absently for a few seconds before he looked at me again. “I would’ve let you up to take a leak, though,” he said. “I’m not an asshole. You ought to know that.”
Though Bruce didn’t believe it, there was nothing going on between me and Francine while he was in Iraq. I cut her grass and changed the oil in her car, removed spiders from the bathtub and poisoned her mice, things like that. That was all.
I scrupulously recounted these things in my emails to Bruce, especially after he’d called me one night when it was his turn to use the phone. He’d begun that conversation by telling me that hadn’t done any fighting this time, was just a glorified clerk around the base, but he’d been in a convoy that was ambushed. “Thing is,” he said, and paused so long I thought the line was dead “I saw one of them, laying in the road when it was over. It was a kid, probably fifteen. The back of his head was blown off, brains leaking all over the cement. And I turned him over and the motherfucker looked exactly like Malcolm Shumpert.”
Malcolm Shumpert was a kid who’d been ostracized in middle school so badly that his parents were forced to move him out of town. He was rumored to have gone on to Stanford or MIT, where he’d developed some sort of medical robotics technology. Someone told me he’d retired in his twenties to study Buddhism in Singapore, that he was married to a Bollywood actress, that his daughters were up and coming tennis pros. If he ever came back to Hammer Springs, though, he’d still be the kid who fucked a school lunch apple in the janitor’s broom closet.
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. “Francine said you been coming over a lot, that you’ve been a big help,” he said. “I just hope you know where the goddamn helping stops.” Of course I knew where the helping stopped, I told him. I didn’t tell him about what had happened two nights before, when Francine, sloppy drunk on wine and Xanax, called me in the middle of the night saying she’d heard someone breaking into her house. She asked me to stay the night, and I did, on the couch.
At some point in the night, she’d crept into the living room, and I woke with her head on my chest, her fingers fumbling with my belt. I asked her what she was doing even though I had a pretty good idea, and she pretended to pass out. I left as soon as she was asleep for real, and we never spoke of it. Two weeks later, she got the news that Bruce had lost his leg to a roadside bomb and might not make it out of the hospital in Kuwait alive.
Bruce decided that we couldn’t very well have me sitting there in piss-pants, so he reloaded the pistol and undid my ropes, reminding me that he still wasn’t sure if he was going to shoot me or not, but that if I tried be a badass, he’d make up his mind quick. I stripped down and waded into the creek. It was early June, and the water was still cold.
I thought about diving underwater and seeing how far downstream I could swim before coming up for air. I might be able to get away from him that way, even if he managed to get in the canoe to follow me, but I wasn’t sure, and then I’d be buck naked and literally up the creek, and I had no delusions about my survival skills, even with a one-legged man as my adversary not counting the gators and the moccasins.
We were somewhere on his uncle’s vast property, where we’d taken a canoe five or six miles up the creek. He’d brought me out here under the guise of a weekend camping trip, saying he needed to get away from Francine. I’d thought at the time he had no way of knowing how much I needed to get away from her myself, how much she needed to get away from both of us. I decided to come back ashore, thinking that I would be better at talking my way out of this rather than attempting some daring, athletic escape. Probably he didn’t really want to shoot me anyway, but you never knew with Bruce.
When I’d put a new pair of shorts on, Bruce tied me to the tree with my arms behind my back again. He sat down in front of me and put his face in his hands. “Alright,” he said finally. “I realize this is a pretty fucked up situation to be asking for advice, but what am I going to do?”
I watched a tick crawl up my sock and wade through my leg hair. “Are you asking me if I think you should shoot me?” I asked.
“I guess I am,” he said, leaning over to pick the tick off of me just as it sank its mouthparts into my leg. He crushed it with his thumbnail.
I’d like to say that I faced him down with steely eyes, that I didn’t crack under the threat of imminent death, but the truth is I started to blubber. I told him that I was sorry. I told him that I loved him. I begged for my life, sniveling so much that I tasted the snot running out of my nose into my mouth.
“Jesus Christ, what a show,” he said when my fit subsided. He brought a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the snot from my face and said, “I tell you what. I’m going to hobble off in the woods here and take a shit while you pull yourself together.” I suppose shitting in the woods is a bit of a production with only one leg, because he was gone for a long while. I tried to compose myself while he was away, wondering if I’d helped or hurt my cause with my pathetic outburst.
When he returned, I had a little speech prepared. “Look, Bruce,” I said. “I don’t blame you for wanting to kill me and all. But it’s not worth it. There’s no way you’d get away with it. People know I came out here with you.”
“Well,” he said, “the thing is, none of that’s going to matter, cause I’m fucked already. I might as well tell you now. I killed Francine yesterday morning before we came out here. I put a pillow over her face…” He paused for a second to mime his actions for me. “And I shot her with this very pistol, killed her right in her sleep. Never felt a goddamn thing.”
I’d known Bruce since we were six years old. We’d been inseparable until we drifted apart in high school, when he became a bit of a baseball star and I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to smoke dope in the bathroom without getting caught. He married Francine after graduation and went into the army, just like his father, who’d come back from Vietnam and promptly shot himself after knocking up Bruce’s mother. I flunked out of Clemson while Bruce was fighting the first Gulf War, and by the time I was thirty I’d found myself living back in Hammer Springs, selling radio advertisements.
I bought a house in a neighborhood quaintly named Live Oak Terrace despite there being no oak trees lining our cul-de-sacs. It turned out that Bruce and Francine lived about four doors down from me, and we became friends again in the way that men approaching middle age are friends: we drank beer and grilled steaks together, planned fishing trips that we never took, borrowed each other’s lawn implements, and generally stayed out of one another’s lives. Then his reserve unit got called up again. He cussed the army and said he wished he’d gotten out when he had the chance, but I think he was secretly glad to be going back.
Bruce was in and out of the hospital for a year after he came back to the states, having surgery after surgery. Even after he was out of the hospital, there were endless appointments: doctor visits, post-traumatic stress counseling, physical therapy, measurements and fittings for the prosthetic. On my days off I’d drive him around to these appointments or just keep him company while Francine was at work. He always made a big show of hobbling around to do things for himself, though he did consent to letting me do his yard work. He’d sit in the sun and watch me cut the grass and prune the bushes.
He loved to speak frankly about the state of his recovery and all of his bodily functions, and I listened, laughing when I was supposed to laugh and shaking my head gravely when I wasn’t. The medicines made his shit the color and consistency of used motor oil, he told me, and though the doctors said he might not ever get a hard-on again (they’d picked four individual pieces of shrapnel out of his dick) he proudly announced one day that he’d managed to jerk off that morning and held up his hand for a high-five. He always seemed buoyant with me, the very picture of mental stability and perseverance. But from the things that Francine whispered to me, I knew that he saved his darker moods for her.
When I first moved back to Hammer Springs, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Knocking around town on my own was unbearably lonely, but soon I’d settled into a little routine that made my early thirties pass by quite comfortably. There was no one to answer to, except my mortgage company, and I was in possession of myself in a way I’d never been before. I took to reading a book a week and saw just about every movie that came out. I started playing golf at Bruce’s insistence, and driving around a freshly manicured lawn in the brutal summer heat trying to knock a tiny ball into a tiny hole as an excuse to get drunk seemed like a good enough metaphor for life as any. I went out for a drink a few nights a week, and just when the routine started to get dull, something random would happen: a stranger at the bar with an interesting story, a reasonably attractive woman who took enough of a shine to me to press herself against me in the dark for a few nights before drifting away.
That was about all I wanted from women in those days, but Francine used to cluck over me as if being unmarried at my age was an unnatural and tragic state of affairs. Once, at a New Year’s Eve party, just after Bruce had gotten the news that he would be shipped off to Iraq in a few months, the woman Francine tried to set me up with had gotten drunk and left with some guy I didn’t know long before midnight. As the New Year rang in, I sat on the patio listening to the firecrackers and watching all the happy couples smooch.
I was actually relieved that Francine’s friend, whom I found interminably boring, had abandoned me for greener pastures, but Francine took pity on me anyway. “Stevie here doesn’t have anybody to kiss,” she announced at the stroke of midnight. Then she licked some salt from the rim of her margarita glass, and as fireworks bloomed in the sky she gave me a kiss that was a little too involved to be innocent but just short of scandalous. Bruce just laughed it off and planted an exaggerated open-mouthed smooch on her after she was finished with me. “Long as you don’t kiss her like that,” he said, patting her on the ass, “I don’t see no harm. No harm at all.”
It was like that with Francine. She flirted with me openly in front of him, putting her legs up on my lap when we were watching football or licking her fingers to smooth the cowlick in my hair. Bruce never let on that it bothered him. I suppose it was just that he trusted me, but it made me feel neutered, as if he didn’t perceive me as a threat at all.
All that changed after Bruce came home from the hospital for good. Francine called me every other day or so and told me all about their problems. She told me that he got angry with her when he couldn’t perform, and once he’d gotten it in his head that she’d bribed the doctors to spike his medicine with something to keep him from getting erections so she’d have an excuse to leave him. Some days he drank until he was sure that she secretly wished he’d died in Iraq, or that she was carrying on an affair with her boss, a dentist she’d worked under for ten years. Once he’d even accused her of being an Al Qaeda operative.
All of this put me in quite a strange position. On the one hand, I was loyal to Bruce, and it made me uncomfortable to hear things he wouldn’t tell me. On the other, Francine’s news brought out the protective streak in me, and I wanted to shield her in some way from Bruce’s madness.Maybe she told me those things because she had to talk to someone and she trusted me. Or maybe she was playing me like a fiddle, getting me all riled up and leaving me with no options to do anything about it. I don’t know. But I do know that when she knocked on my door one evening and collapsed onto my couch, I would have done nearly anything to stop her from crying.
Bruce was away for the weekend, playing golf on his new leg with some army buddies in Myrtle Beach, when Francine knocked on my door. “I don’t know why I came over here,” she said, resting her head on my chest. I could feel her tears soaking through my shirt. I smoothed her hair and tried to calm her down, and somehow my face came close to hers. Before I knew what was happening, we were kissing urgently and her hand was in my shorts and my breathing quickened when she found what she was fumbling for, and I thought that it couldn’t be all wrong because at least she wasn’t crying anymore.
“You know I was just joking about killing Francine,” Bruce said, looking back at me over his shoulder from where he sat fishing on the bank of the creek. “Don’t worry. Your girlfriend’s okay. She’s probably cleaning somebody’s teeth right now. I just…” he stopped talking when the rod tip jerked and he reeled in the line. When he got the fish to the bank he walked back to where I sat, still tied to the tree. “Well,” he said, holding a catfish by the bottom lip, “it ain’t much to brag about, but it’s good frying pan size.” He dropped it at my feet and I watched it flop around in the dirt. “Soon as it dies I’ll cook it up,” he said. “You hungry?”
I nodded, though I didn’t think I could eat anything, especially this creature writhing at my feet. I’d pretty much stopped responding to him after he’d told me about killing Francine. As soon as he saw that I wasn’t interested in talking any more, he’d gotten himself a half-pint bottle of Old Crow from his backpack and sat on the bank of the creek fishing, turning up the bottle every now and then. I thought about Francine lying on their bed, the blood soaking through the pillow over her face, feeling like it was my fault, but knowing it was just as much hers. I tried to be relieved by the news that he’d only been joking about killing her, but for all I knew, he was lying now and had been telling the truth earlier.
“So anyway,” Bruce said, “I didn’t mean that. I’m not going to lie. I mean, I thought about it all right.” He turned up the bottle and then nudged the catfish with the toe of his fake leg. “When I first started putting two and two together, and I figured out what was going on, I thought about it, and the longer I thought about it, the more I figured I’d do some crazy shit like one of these motherfuckers you see on the news that shoots their wife and then cleans up the house and finally blows his own brains out later that afternoon.”
He put the barrel of the pistol against his temple and looked at me. “What you think’s the best way to do it?” he asked. “Like this, or through the mouth? The mouth thing is more dramatic, you think? But you remember Buddy Craven’s daddy? He tried to shoot himself like that, and ended up just blowing his goddamn jaw off. Had to eat through a straw the rest of his life. What he should’ve done is did it like this-here.” He stuck the gun between his teeth and turned the pistol so the barrel pointed at the roof of his mouth. “You can’t really miss like that.
“Anyway, then I started thinking that I better get you in on the plan, too. I mean, a double-murder suicide thing. And then I had these moments where I was like fuck it, I’ll just move out and get a divorce and play fucking golf all day every day and they can both just go to hell. But then that would always go away and then I’d come back around and I’d want both of you to fucking die.” He took another drink and bounced on his toes. His prosthetic made wet farting noises and he dragged his camping chair over in front of me and sat down to take the leg off and swab at his stump with a rag. “What I’m trying to say here is I don’t know what to do.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You know what?” Bruce said. “I didn’t even know about it until you told me last night. I just figured is all. I sniffed it out about two weeks ago. I started to ask Francine about it, but that wouldn’t have done any good. Number one, she’s a good liar. Number two, I reckon you know I got it in my head that she was messing around with the dentist a while back, and she woulda just told me I was paranoid. She’s good at that, you know, setting you up to feel like a jealous asshole like she ain’t doing anything wrong to make you feel like that in the first place.”
He looked at me like I was supposed to say something. I didn’t have anything to say. I was wishing I’d have denied it too. Maybe I could have swindled him into feeling like a jealous asshole the way he was sure Francine would have done. But he’d proven trickier than I was when he’d trained the pistol on me after we’d settled in around the campfire and said “I reckon you better tell me all about you and Francine. And don’t leave anything out, because she’s done told me all about it.”
I wasn’t mad at Francine for letting me come out here in the woods with her maniac husband knowing that we’d been carrying on behind his back for six months; I was hurt. I couldn’t believe she’d do me like that after the way we’d been with each other. Now I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for it, though I might have ended up telling him even if he hadn’t tricked me. It had been bothering me since it started, and every time Francine and I got together I swore when she was gone that it would never happen again. I’d started to tell him myself on several occasions, but it just never seemed like the right time. I guess if you wait around for the right moment to confess something like that, you’d be waiting for a long time, or at least until there was a gun pointed at you.
But what was there to say? I’m sorry? That every other time I’d started carrying on with a woman all I could think about, in the beginning anyway, was her, that I’d catch a phantom whiff of this new lover while I was at work or hear a song and want to play it for her, but that with Francine all I thought about was him and how guilty I felt for screwing his wife? That it both unnerved and excited me to think about him finding out as she lifted my shirt and kissed my belly hair? That I wondered if she made the same little noises with him as she did with me? That Francine took some kind of pleasure in telling me all sorts of things about him, how he liked her to punch him in the chest while they were doing it, when they used to do it, or that he wanted her to cup his balls in her hand every night as they fell asleep? That it shocked me that she was unfaithful enough to tell me those things, but that they fascinated me anyway? That I loved her?
In the end I’d just stammered something about being sorry, and the whole thing had devolved into a question and answer session: How long? I don’t know, about six months. How often? A couple of times a week, usually in the afternoon while he was playing golf. Nothing going on while he was away in the war? No, I swear.
The catfish flopped weakly against my shoe and died just as the sun went down and Bruce was about halfway through his second half-pint of whiskey. He gutted the fish and laid it in a pan over the fire. He sat by the fire, pushing it around with a fork and singing softly to himself. He tilted back the bottle and his singing got louder. Tried to give you consolation when your old man had let you down, he sang, like a fool I fell in love with you, you turned my whole world upside down. I tried to place the song, but I couldn’t, at least until he got to the chorus and gestured toward me with the fork like it was a microphone and he was urging the crowd to sing. Come on, y’all know the words, he said and wailed Laaaaaaaaaaay-luh. You got me on my knees. Laaaaaaaaaaaay-luh. Beggin’ darlin please.
He stopped abruptly, the fork still held in front of his lips and said “what, you not in the mood to sing a song with your buddy tonight? Let’s see if we can find one you’ll like.” He took a nip from the bottle and cleared his throat to sing again. When I was just a baby, he began, and then switched to a lower key and started over. When I was just a baby, my mama told me son, always be good boy and don’t ever play with guns. But I shot a man in Reno just to watch the sumbitch die. He stopped singing and turned the fish in the pan. “I don’t guess you like that one much, either,” he said.
I didn’t think I could eat anything, but I told Bruce that I wanted some of his catfish when he offered it so he would untie my arms. I don’t know why, but if he was going to shoot me I didn’t want to die with my arms tied behind my back. I managed to get most of it down, though I was too nervous to eat and gagged on every bite.
When we were done he cleared away the dishes and stood over me. “Well,” he said. “I guess it’s about time to get the show on the road. You want a swig of this liquor before I do it?”
“Fuck you, Bruce.” I said. I hadn’t meant to talk.
“Fuck me. What kind of way is that to talk to your friend? Like I’m not the one’s been getting fucked all along.” He paused for a moment and staggered back a step or two before he tilted up the bottle and finished the last sip. “Of course, I mean fucked in the—what do you call it?—figurative sense. I reckon you’re the one’s been getting it literal.”
He paused for a moment and scratched his chin with the barrel of the pistol as if he was trying to figure out his next move. “I’m going to undo the ropes here in a second. Don’t try anything, because I’d hate to have to shoot you in the back.” He went around behind the tree and I felt the ropes go slack. I stood up and he poked me in the ribs with the gun. “Walk over there about halfway to the creek,” he said. I did, thinking about running and diving in the water, but before I could bolt, I felt the pistol against the small of my back. “Now turn around real slow and get down on your knees.” I did.
“Now,” Bruce said, shifting his weight off of his fake leg, “you got anything to say before it’s over?”
“You’re going to regret this,” was all I could manage.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. We been through all that this morning, remember? I was thinking maybe you had some last words or something. You’re good with words. Seems like you could come up with something kind of poetic you wanted to say.”
He looked up at the stars for a second and I started to lunge at him, but he looked back at me, straight in the eyes, before I could move. “Let’s say I’m just fucking with you, that this gun ain’t even loaded. Let’s say I just want to scare you a little bit, and then we’ll get back in the canoe tomorrow morning and go back home and it’ll be all awkward and shit for a little while, but then one day down the road, maybe a year or so, I’ll figure, hell, he ain’t the first guy ever did something lowdown for a piece of pussy, or love, or whatever the hell you want to call it, and by then me and Francine’ll be divorced and one day I’ll call you up and I’ll say ‘hey, let’s go play some fucking golf,’ and then we’ll play eighteen holes and both shoot about eighty, and then we’ll come home and sit on the porch and get drunk and laugh about the time you started screwing my wife and you pissed your pants because you thought I was going to kill you.”
He bent down a little closer to look me in the face, the gun just out of my reach. “Or, let’s say I am going to shoot you right now,” he said. “Let’s say I’m a crazy motherfucker, and I did kill Francine’s cheating ass this morning like I said. Let’s say I’m planning on shooting you in the guts and listening to you cry for a few minutes until I get sick of it and put a bullet right through your goddamn forehead and then I’m going to take a piss on your dead body and wade out in the creek and blow my own brains out. And you still don’t have anything at all to say?”
“Well, I got something to say,” Bruce said. He lifted his fake leg and let out a long, whining fart. He doubled over laughing, stumbled a little, and I dove at his knees, knocking him over in the dirt. His prosthetic had come off, and I grabbed it by the shoe, brandishing it like a baseball bat. He slid away from me, crab-walking on his three limbs, and I swung his fake leg, hitting him square on the jaw. He crumpled over face down in the dirt and I hit him again, twice, in the back of the head, bringing the leg down on his skull like I was chopping wood. I kicked him softly in the ribs to make sure he was out, then I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see Francine sitting by the campfire.
After a while I picked up the gun where it lay next to Bruce’s outstretched hand. I aimed it straight into the black water of the creek and squeezed the trigger. Nothing. It was unloaded, and I pulled the trigger over and over again, hearing nothing each time but an empty, metallic click. I sank to my knees and turned Bruce over. His head lolled crazily off to the side and one of his teeth was broken, embedded in his lip. He was just as dead as the Malcom Shumpert-looking kid who’d had his brains blown out on that highway in the desert. I thought about what I was going to tell the law, and I found his bullets in the tent, reloaded the pistol, and tossed it onto the ground beside him. Then I rolled him over and sat looking at him where he lay, kissing the ground.