Connecticut, October 1976
In the house perched on front stilts like a seated dog watching the night, they slept.
In houses all over America they were sleeping.
Even in Beirut, where it would now be morning, they would be sleeping, unable to sleep at night. Just like him. Eric Johnson. The man who would never sleep at night again...until a final sleep.
It was an hour when most people in the small towns and countryside would be asleep, or at least seriously considering it...if they had any sense. But for those who couldn't count on the grey assurance of dawn, for those who were hopelessly attuned to the great twitch of danger in the night...when a child could be blown apart or a young man's testicles might be cut off and stuffed into his mouth...in that other country...it was not a time for sleeping. And Eric Johnson could not sleep.
He sat in a chair beside their bed and listened to the intermittent delicate whistle of his wife snoring. She seemed disturbed, lost in the archipelagos of storm-tossed dreams. Reddened from housework and maybe the chopping of firewood she had corded for the winter, her hands were clenched in tight fists that enfolded the thumbs...a forty-year-old woman sleeping like an insecure child.
He put out his cigarette and reached over and unclenched her hands. Then he brushed a wisp of graying hair away and gently kissed her forehead. She would have been startled by such a gesture--an intimacy neither one of them could have abided had she been awake. He wondered if she ever did such things to him during those few daylight hours when he could rest. In the battleground of their lives, all intimacies had become uneasy, all gestures wary.
Her face was younger in sleep. Her thin, pinched features were softened by shadow. Her taut lips were not now set in some grim determination, but were parted slightly, almost in unconscious invitation. He leaned closer, closer. He let himself feel the intermittent stroke of her breath against his cheek. He saw one dark hair growing out from under her chin and he wanted to bite it off. He had an impulse to bite her throat in a rage of loss.
"Daddy?" Had his son called him or had he imagined it?
He went into the boy's bedroom and found him sound asleep, curled into a tight ball, under the bed where he had crawled to hide from the snipers on Beirut's nighttime rooftops. Except they weren't physically in Beirut anymore and there were no rooftops in the nearby woods.
"Tommy sleeps under the bed every night since we've been back," his wife had written. "How could you have kept us in that godforsaken country so long? How could you let a seven-year-old boy see bodies in the streets? When are you coming back to be a decent father to him? He needs healing. He needs the comfort of your presence. There are barn owls in the woods. And a possum..."
They all needed healing, but he had almost no capacity for that.
Lifting up the boy, he hugged him as if for the last time, put him in bed and covered him up. There was a chicken pox scar on the boy's left cheekbone, like the crater of a wayward mortar shell on an otherwise unblemished terrain. How many other things had he not noticed before or merely forgotten?
His son's pet white rat scratched in its cage. The rat was eyeing him...perhaps suspiciously.
"Yes, Rat, I've done things even you might admonish. We should sit down and have a chat about them some day."
He fed the rat a morsel of dried food and watched it eat. The rat hunched upright on its haunches and nibbled daintily at the kibble of food it held in its tiny pink paws. The rat stared back relentlessly.
(It was not half as large or as intimidating, or smug or perverse, as Ahmed's rat in Beirut. This rat did not ever seem to grin.)
He went out into the living room and picked up the gun. It was still a new feeling, the surprising weight of the thirty-ought-six rifle and the buck of it that seemed to want to tear the shoulder off. Powerful enough to knock down a bear, certainly powerful enough to kill a man.
He thought about putting it in his mouth. He already knew the taste of it.
He turned off the inside lights and went out onto the deck. The beams from the outside deck lights flayed off the skin of night and exposed the thin birch ribs of the woods. The air was still and smelled of decay. It was just cool enough for little puffs of breath-fog that reminded him of a steam engine idling on its tracks, waiting for directions, eager for impulse. The wind held its breath and waited with him.
He surveyed the woods, what he could see of them, and listened for intruders. He stood back against the side wall, just out of the light. After a while, he lit a cigarette. Anybody observing would have seen the flare of the lighter and the red coal of the cigarette's end.
("Give me one of your cigarettes, Crazy Rabbit. What's the point of not smoking, when I'm not getting out of this war alive anyway."
"I'll drink to that.")
There was a sudden clatter from behind the house. Johnson snuffed out his cigarette and moved as quietly as he could around towards the back, hugging the wall all the way, ready with the gun.
Another clatter. A rustle. Whatever was there was reckless in his intent. A garbage can fell over.
Johnson emerged from the shadows of the wall...pretending to be a figure developing in a black-and-white photograph, a picture snapped by a demented photographer, an image slightly out of focus. He knew he was a study in grey and black: grey-flannel trousers, black wool turtleneck, black loafers, black socks, black wool watch cap. His face and hands were white spectral disembodied appendages seeming to float and waver on the dark night's autumnal air...perhaps merely more breath fog.
At least that was how he imagined the possum might view him...the possum that was now perched on the rim of the garbage pail...suddenly alert to him. He moved the gun in the possum's direction, but he had no intention of shooting the possum. The possum was just another antic, disreputable creature of the night, foraging for food. Everything had to eat. Everything had to survive...if they could. At the rifle barrel's movement, the possum scampered off the garbage pail, bolted across the dirt road and disappeared in the birch trees.
He listened for other sounds.
("You're not cut out for this," Arthur had said.
"Who knows what a man is cut out for until he faces the moment?")
No! Not listening for those other voices in his memory. Nor the creak of wood-bent wind. But footfalls on the leaves. A twig snapping. A car's engine muffled by the curve of the hills. Anything that might mean threat.
He sniffed the air. He smelled the stale cigarette smoke in his sweater. He sniffed the barrel of the gun.
A gun-barrel doesn't smell of death, he thought. Death has a sweet-sickish odor, or rancid, depending on your point of view...and your circumstances. The smell of rotting meat or decaying flowers. The sour taste and smell of bile in the throat. The smell of burnt flesh. Or the salty, syrupy smell of blood, pooling and squandered. The smell of loss. Of finality. Overpowering, in any case. A smell you are not likely to forget.
A gun-barrel has subtler smells. The smell of preparation, the eager smell of oil worked into the metal and the wooden stock that cradles it, the smell of anticipation....or resolve. The smell of neglect, of rust and dust, of embarrassment and disuse. Or the concomitant smell of sweat...not the sweat that comes with hard work or the challenge of beating an opponent in a race or game...nor the delicate sweat along a woman's pulsing throat after you have made love to her. No, it has the sweaty reek of fear or of the adrenaline rush that precedes the moment when your are about to kill. Or, after the act, the acrid odor of gunpowder, momentarily and infinitely, recalls all the other gun-barrel smells and the feelings that accompany them... phantoms of memory.
A gun-barrel, when placed in the mouth, is cold, unlike any other cold thing, unlike an icicle or a woman's finger when placed against your lips in farewell.... the cold of regret and nothingness. And looking down the barrel's dark bore is a gape into the abyss of release....
But Johnson would not put the gun-barrel in his mouth this night to test its taste and smell and lack of all warmth. No, this night he was going to use the gun to ambush whoever might be coming up the road or through the woods to kill him or his wife or his son. Whether it was a Lebanese or Palestinian, or an assassin sent by someone to avenge a real or imagined hurt, and God knows there was enough of that for everyone involved with the war. This night he was going to finish it, one way or another. If they had managed to trace him here, to the prefabricated wood-frame house perched on that hillside in the backwoods of Northwestern Connecticut...if they really cared whether he existed at all...if...
He rummaged through the foot locker of these thoughts as he sat hunkered down on a stump, just deep enough in the birch trees where he could watch the house and the dirt road in both directions...forever...if necessary.
(Humpty Dumpty sat on a stump. And all the sheik's camels and all the sheik's men...wouldn't catch Humpty sleeping again.)
© 2001 George Dickerson
See companion story.
(George Dickerson served as a United Nations security official during the Lebanese Civil War. His fiction has been selected multiple times for Best American Short Stories. A former editor for Story, Time, and other national magazines, he is Big City Lit's Senior Consulting Editor. Masthead)