base appeal

Fiction, 4/11/12

I woke up early on Saturday hungover, reeking of fried food. The house was a mess—there were bottles and dishes strewn everywhere from the night before. To distract myself I went for a long walk, crossing through the park and looping back along Chestnut Street up the hill. It was chilly in my shirtsleeves, despite the climb. Overhead, the sky was gray and featureless, and I idly wondered when our summer would arrive.

Back in the house, I resisted the urge to tidy up and instead tried to start a book, a dystopian novel recommended to me by my father. I was three pages into the second chapter when Paul opened his door and walked toward the toilet. His eyes were to the ground and I watched him cross the living room, and neither of us spoke. After a minute I heard the shower turn on and I went back to my book.

Twenty minutes later Paul emerged and walked back to the living room, a towel around his waist and an unlit cigarette in his mouth. “Hey dude, I’m going to Wyatt’s for a wake-and-bake. You down?”

I put the book down and considered, but not for very long. “Yeah, sure. Right now?”

“Once I smoke this cig and put some clothes on.”

On the drive over Paul smoked another cigarette and I tried for a little conversation. “So I take it the deep fryer made an appearance last night? The house has that smell to it again.”

Paul ashed his cigarette on the window and didn’t turn his head. “Yeah. We fried up some chicken and potstickers when Wyatt and Sean came over. I think maybe you were still at the party.”

“Probably. I didn’t get back ’til late, like two-thirty.” I laughed at a foggy memory from the party but didn’t elaborate. Paul just smoked and stared straight ahead.

We got to Wyatt’s apartment complex at ten-thirty; the sky had lightened a little. “Hey dudes,” he called from his door, waving us in. The cozy one-bedroom was crammed with stuff: snowboarding gear, medical textbooks, two bikes, armchairs, a lush array of potted plants. The air inside was humid and smelled faintly of marijuana. “Take a seat, wherever you can find one.” Wyatt went to the kitchen, where on the stovetop was a knifer operation in the making: two charred-black butter knives and a halved two-liter bottle filled with ice, a cooling filter of sorts. He offered a hit first to Paul, and then me.

We sat around for a minute, Paul and Wyatt discussing the lipid-fest from the night before. I was stoned and not much use for talking. On the floor next to the coffee table was a balance board mounted on a ball—apparently designed for core-strengthening—and I preoccupied myself with it. After a lull Wyatt said, “So are we gonna go shoot some guns, or what?”

Paul looked over at me. I had almost plowed into the coffee table. “Oh yeah, dude. I forgot to tell you. Wyatt’s got some guns and we’re gonna shoot ’em in Alger.” Wyatt broke in: “And dude, it’s totally safe. I’m not gonna let you guys do any stupid shit or anything.” Wyatt was a trustworthy guy, I had to admit. He had served in the Marine Corps and was training to be a dentist, chain-smoking habits notwithstanding.

For a moment, though, I was terrified. I had never held a gun before, let alone fired one. My gut instinct was to back out, to cower away from those implements of destruction—but then my uninhibited, pleasantly altered state of mind took hold. It could be fun, I reasoned. And Wyatt knew guns like he knew teeth and weed, which was to say, exceedingly well. “Um…okay. Right now?” Wyatt and Paul nodded sagely.

We gathered some things and walked outside to Wyatt’s car. Paul and I carried an assortment of Wyatt’s old computer parts: target practice. We also brought a six-pack of Olywater from Wyatt’s fridge. We watched as he put a large black duffel bag into the trunk. “What kind are they?” I asked timidly. “Basically, it’s a rifle, a revolver, and a shotgun,” said Wyatt, closing the trunk. “All very old, all gifts from my granddad.”

Outside Alger we stopped at a sporting goods store for earplugs. “So you and Paul need a pair—cheap ones will do.” I offered to go in and buy them while they smoked cigarettes in the car. I pushed open the door and approached the counter. “Um, hello,” I offered, slightly paranoid, “do you have earplugs? I just need two pairs of earplugs.” The stolid woman across from me pointed to a large glass jar at my left. It was filled with dozens of pairs the color of Powerbait. “One dollar,” she said, and I paid, thanked her, and left.

We drove up into the wooded foothills, the road hedged by maples and upswept cedars. At a muddy turnoff we parked and lugged our cargo up a winding gravel road. “This used to be a granite quarry,” Wyatt said around his cigarette. “No one’s gonna bother us here.” After a quarter mile we reached a large concavity in the hillside. It indeed looked like an abandoned quarry. We set up the computer parts at the rear of the excavation and Wyatt brought out the guns. “Alright, dudes, pay attention.”

He went through the procedures like a drill sergeant: loading, holding, aiming, firing. All three firearms had beautiful walnut stocks and burnished steel bodies the color of the sky. As I took each into my hands I felt the sobering weight of them, their significant, serious heft, and I also felt an eerie, electric tingle that made my heart beat double-time.

We started shooting at the monitors, the outmoded modems, and the massive processing unit. Even through the earplugs the sound was deafening, shattering the woodland tranquil. Wyatt had cracked open a beer and held out cans for Paul and I; Paul took one, I declined. Wyatt was snapping pictures of us with his digital camera. The smell of cordite hung thick in the air; it reminded me of the Fourth of July. Wyatt instructed us to collect the spent shells and casings in an empty bullet box. We took turns, one person shooting at a time, and we cycled through the firearms. I especially liked the rifle: not as much kick as the revolver and the shotgun, and I felt a modicum of competency in aiming the thing. With each pull of the trigger my apprehension scaled back, swiftly replaced by a buzzing elation—a feeling of calm, collected coolness.

After about an hour of revelry, a man on foot rounded the hill with his two dogs. He was tall and bearded, boot-shod, clad in a red flannel coat. The dogs were medium-sized collie types that looked edgy, uncertain of how to react to us. It was my turn again with the revolver and Wyatt waved to me, signaling that I lower the gun. Wyatt pulled out his earplugs and set his beer down. “Hello there!”

The man stopped ten yards away. He appeared almost as wary as the dogs. “Hey…I don’t mean to interrupt, but your firing has really spooked my dogs…” He let the words hang in the air, glancing from Paul and me to Wyatt.

Wyatt held his gaze. “Well, you know, I’m really sorry about your dogs, but we’re legally allowed to shoot here. We could maybe hold off for a little bit…” The man looked at each of us again, his gaze lingering on the beers at Wyatt and Paul’s feet. I almost dared him to say something about the booze, something impertinent—such was the power emanating from the warm steel in my hand.

Finally the man shrugged. “Okay. Sure. That would be much appreciated. Thanks.” He led the dogs past us down the road. “Have a good day,” Wyatt said lamely, and we watched the stranger’s back disappear around the curve.

Wyatt shrugged and replaced his earplugs. He nodded to me and I took up my firing stance, intent on each exhalation, listening gleefully to the thumping of my wayward heart.


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