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by Duane Hawkinson
In full dress uniform, the old man stopped on the street and watched them approach, his hands steadied on his hips. He then removed his beret, his ears still hissing from the military salute, and wiped his temples with a cloth in the early June sun.
“Hey Hardt, where ya going all fancy-fied?” Heather asked, her body both lean and swelled, an unlit Camel stabbed in the corner of her mouth. The Hennings were marching in mock unison, second-hand BB guns slung over their shooting shoulders. Those kids are nothing but trouble warned Mrs. Bertram, Hardt’s neighbor to the north, just like their ma, and the girl is pure evil. Watch out for her. They stopped and brought their guns to attention, as if ready for a command.
“A funeral,” Hardt said. “Already been.”
“Hunh?” Nathan grunted, splitting his attention between the old man’s polished medals and picking a scab on his nose.
Hardt moved on, then stopped again and turned around. “Better not shoot anything in my yard,” he warned, his voice slight and fatigued.
The Hennings snorted without turning around. Nathan mimicked the old man’s warning until Heather shoved him to stop.
“Got anything to spare, hey Hardt?” Heather stopped and rested her gun on her shoe and asked, mockingly sweet. “I could guarantee not shooting anything in your yard.” She winked and offered a thumbs up.
“Not today,” he said flatly. Mrs. Bertram’s warning repeated itself in his mind.
A tiny creature had been spying on them. It stood as rigidly as a garden fixture, then continued collecting spilled birdseed from the porch floor, skittering away when Hardt approached.
Ending another day, Hardt washed the traces of dirt left behind from what he had tossed onto the coffin. He peered into the bathroom mirror and saw, like a faded black and white photograph, his buddy standing next to him, an arm around the old man, and they were both young, the buddy from his album, the buddy he buried today, Corporal Dennis Denny Baker, always the jokester. He drifted into the kitchen and poured a shot of Irish whiskey. He offered a toast, his words, for no other ears, drifting just beyond the June bugs on the screen window.
Hardt tossed back the whiskey and dropped the shot glass next to a wilted rose bud he’d pruned from his garden. He returned to his bedroom and, after recording a date, June 13, 1971, he closed his album and placed it in his bedside table. He reopened it and wrote his date of birth below his image. Someone else would have to complete the other half, just as a gravestone needs its own conclusion, chiseled in relief.
Another black and white image flashed before Hardt's eyes, played like a rough-cut newsreel, showing his sergeant, lying face up on a cot.
Now the last survivor from his Company, he listened to the night sounds, to the robins’ finales in the twilight. A ruckus from the Hennings interrupted his ritual, the girl and boy bickering and fighting, routine skirmishes, their mother swearing in a drunken, fevered howl, their voices scratching through the russet screen windows of their rental property, releasing into the night air, edgy and charged. The old man took off his reading glasses and went to bed.
A single gunshot echoed in the night, its report seemingly only a tent away.
In the space between wakefulness and a reluctant sleep, a visitor entered his bedroom, lingering in layers of shadows, sweeping over him until the old man fell asleep. He felt the presence, holding him through the darkest hours of night. In the morning, when the bird chorus woke up the old man—and he lay in cavities of sweat—the visitor would be gone.
On its haunches, the chipmunk waited for its food on the front porch. With a cup of coffee in one hand and birdseed in the other, Hardt filled the feeder and left a deposit for the chipmunk. The little creature went about its business scouring the birdseed from the floorboard. “Leave a few for the finches,” he whispered, sipping his coffee, “or I’ll have to start a rationing program.” He smiled to himself. The chipmunk regarded the old man and returned to the seeds, efficiently packing away pouchfuls like duffel bags of seed. “You need a name,” he declared. He rubbed his chin. “How about Corporal Chipper? We’ll share rank,” he said, noting the twin white strips on the chipmunk. “Okay, Chipper is a long enough name.” Before it left, it looked up at the old man, then bounded like a wind-up toy across his front lawn.
During the next week of June, Hardt spent his mornings on his front porch, and the chipmunk returned every day, filled its cheek pouches with birdseed, and raced across the street where it disappeared in the neighbor’s woodpile. Every time it raced across the street, the old man noticed, it never stopped or reversed itself or paused from indecision—the way squirrels do—but raced full speed, fully committed, seemingly fearless, without hesitation, until it disappeared. If the neighbor’s utility truck approached, the chipmunk sometimes ended up dodging the wheels, by sheer luck of timing—by a fraction of a second—the kind of luck that runs out with time.
Hardt trained Chipper to claw its way up into his lap and take peanuts from his hand, fitting and refitting each one into its cheeks until the peanuts jammed and stretched its skin. He talked to the little creature, usually about the morning news, while it cleaned its face and scratched behind its ears. Then it checked on the old man, paused, and retraced its path across the street to its burrow in a woodpile. Sometimes, it left behind a small donation, mouse-size droppings on the old man’s leg. No friendship is perfect.
On one of its return shipments, it scooted just in front of the Hennings, who were blowing their duck calls ridiculously, another gift from their absentee father. Nathan cried out, “Hey, a chippy-rat! Let’s get our guns!” The Hennings broke out in derisive laughter, riding their bikes in circles in the street, and blowing their duck calls. “Oh, don’t have an attack, Hardt,” Heather mocked, pulling a Camel from her shirt pocket. “We’d never shoot your pet.” Her knees bumped against her belly as she pedaled home. “A little help would guarantee it.” She smiled at the old man, looping in the street. “I could do things to earn it.”
“I’m not deaf,” he replied and retreated into his house.
During the June nesting season, a mourning dove crashed into a porch post and the bird feeder and flapped pathetically in Hardt’s porch, its breast feathers shimmering red in the sunlight. Hardt dropped his coffee and backed away from the bird. It struggled to escape, rolling down the steps and flopping around in the grass.
In the south-side yard, a voice yelled out. “Where’d it go?”
Heather responded, “This way, hurry up!”
The Hennings invaded Hardt’s front lawn, their BB guns at the ready. The dove was heaving on its side, its beak opening and closing, like a malfunctioning cuckoo clock.
“Shoot it, shoot it!”
“I’m outta BBs!”
“I’m not going to, you shoot it!”
As the Hennings bickered about the bird, Hardt retreated, fetched a ceremonial sword, like an insane circus performer. Heather tumbled backward, screaming, “If you hurt my baby, I’ll kill you!” The old man raised the sword over his head, with both hands chopped the bird, across its neck, the tip of the sword slicing into the ground. He turned to the Hennings, who tripped over themselves backing away from him, their eyes fixed with both terror and fascination on the sword.
Heather braced to run. “You crazy bastard,” her voice broke. “My boyfriend’s gonna kill you!”
Hardt fought to catch his breath. He pulled the sword from the ground and wiped away blades of grass. “Why’d you try to kill a mourning dove?”
“Hunh?” said Nathan. “It’s not against the law, Hardt. It was in our yard when ... Heather shot it!”
Hardt glared at the Hennings until they retreated. “When you kill something,” he ordered, “kill it. Don’t torture it.”
On his way across the porch, he avoided the fresh spots on the floorboards, left by the mourning dove while its heart was still beating, its body, still warm, still soft to the touch; its opaque lids blinked mechanically, slowing to a stop, sealing its eyes. Hardt cleaned his sword and set it back on its mount above his fireplace.
When the chipmunk returned, it sniffed the fresh droplets and scurried off.
Mrs. Bertram appeared at the door holding a covered plate. “Just something to snack on,” she offered in a halting voice.
“You didn’t have to—”
“I enjoy it. I did it all the time for—”
Hardt reached for the plate. “Thank you.”
“Any problems with . . . them?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.
She smiled, lost for words.
The Hennings marched down the road, in mock unison, showing off, with a gray squirrel tied by its tail to the end of a stick. Hardt stopped feeding Chipper and observed them.
“We got one for you, Hardt. We’ll have squirrel stew,” Heather laughed. In her lowest voice, she added, “Next time, we’ll get your little buddy. Time’s running out. It doesn’t need to be much. You’ve got it to spare, a guy like you.”
Hardt handed the chipmunk a peanut, which measured it and stuffed it into its cheek; it relieved itself on his pant leg before scurrying into the ferns.
“Oh, and tell ya what, Hardt: We killed it ‘cause we wanted to!” Heather puffed out, smoking a rolled cigarette. “That’s what squirrels are good for—just like that chipmunk of yours.” She pointed at it with the lit end of her cigarette as if the old man weren’t aware of the chipmunk.
Nathan joined in, “We ain’t gonna shoot at it in your yard, Hardt-Attack. We can wait... We can wait.”
“Just shut-up already,” Heather ordered. “What a tough guy.” She taunted her little brother.
When they brought the dead gray squirrel into the house, a tortured scream exploded, dragging on for several ear-piercing seconds and evolving into a tirade of obscenities. The kids escaped out the front door, their mother howling, her robe flailing out like wings, and tackling Nathan, slapping him wildly, her fingernails slicing his cheeks. Heather wailed from the street for her to stop, swearing at her with the viciousness of a mortal enemy scrounging after the same hopeless scraps of passion. The gray squirrel dangled like a marionette from the stick.
Hardt watched them from his front porch, a tiny smile twitching from his lips. After Mrs. Henning tied her robe closed, she pulled her hair back, picking up a vodka bottle left on the front step, and turned back to them, “If you get us kicked out—”
“—It won’t be our fault if we get kicked out,” Heather challenged her. “I could make just one call,” she jabbed her finger toward her mother, “just one call, and it’d be all over for you—you and your boyfriend. That’s what you’d like to think—”
Glancing around, Mrs. Henning shot her the finger and stepped back inside the door.
“She won’t get away with it,” Nathan sniveled to Heather, his face reddened by the beating and glistening with tears and snot. “I’ll kill her!”
“Just shut-up about it,” Heather hissed unsympathetically.
From inside the house, Mrs. Henning finished her threat, “—You can go live with your dad! See how you like that!”
Heather swung the gray squirrel like a giant sling-shot and hurled it into Hardt’s garden, where it settled, tangled in his roses, and they jumped on their bikes and blew obscenities through their duck calls as they passed in front of his house. The old man’s eyes fixed on the squirrel tied to the stick, his vision blurring like Vaseline on his glasses.
Hardt kneeled in front of his roses with a small cardboard box, some rags, and a shovel. He studied the squirrel, its open mouth, its half-closed eyes, its body pocked with BB wounds. Next to the squirrel, the mourning dove hung suspended on a rose bush, its severed head dangling atop a cane of a pruned flower.
His sergeant appeared again, on the cot, a rifle lying on his stomach, his leg bent like a bullfrog’s, his toe on the trigger. Everyone called him Hands for his ability to fleece everyone at poker. He was just a little too lucky. Hardt called out to his sergeant, his voice muted and airless.
As he removed and wrapped the bodies, and starting digging holes, the street in front of his house filled with neighborhood kids surrounding the Hennings. Heather and Nathan were on opposite sides of a circle, their BB guns swinging wildly as they shot at Chipper.
“You got it!” one of the kids yelled. The chipmunk chirped, bounding straight up in a somersault like a spring toy.
“It’s still alive!” The kids were whipping themselves into a frenzy now. “Shoot it, shoot it!” Their voices shook and shrieked at the prospect of a BB-riddled chipmunk, tortured, then “taken out.” Heather glanced back at the old man advancing in his yard, a wicked smirk on her face.
Nathan aimed and shot. The BB missed the chipmunk and ricocheted off the asphalt. The cluster of kids froze, their eyes fixed on her, expectant. Everyone saw. No one said a word. Shocked by the sting, a little girl put her hand on her cheek and let out a wispy, “Oooh.” She held out her palm, filled with a sticky ooze. Then she burst in tears and wailed hysterically. “I’m telling!” she threatened as the other kids scattered. “I’m telling on you!” Hardt watched the kids abandon the little girl, collapsed in a squat on the street, crying and wiping her sticky hands on her sundress. Heather and Nathan escaped into the safety of their rented property, Heather tossing her BB gun under a spruce tree bordering the old man’s lawn. A gun abandoned. The ruckus had brought Mrs. Henning to the screen door, where she screamed for her kids.
“You’re ‘collateral damage,’” Hardt said to the little girl. “I’d say friendly fire, but I’m not so sure.” He picked her up and carried her home, noting the BB gun left hidden under a bough. He’d be back for it later. The tiny wound on her cheek leaked on his shoulder, along with her tears and snot. “Quiet now,” he repeated as a lullaby to calm down the girl. “Fussing won’t help.” A gunshot, indistinct, like static on a radio, played in his ears.
“Everything okay?” Mrs. Bertram asked, leaning out from her front door.
“I got shot!” the little girl bragged, showing Mrs. Bertram the wound in her cheek.
“Anything I can do?”
“She’ll be okay,” Hardt said, shifting his load to the other shoulder. “But her parents aren’t going to be happy.”
After a single solid rap on the screen door, Mrs. Henning stood in Hardt’s front room. “I suppose you heard about what happened this afternoon,” she said matter-of-factly, her breath polluted by a stream of cigarettes.
Hardt pulled himself from his recliner. He’d fallen asleep watching the nightly news.
“Now it’s all their fault,” she said. “My kids . . .”
Hardt set his newspaper down on a side table and tried to compose himself.
“Everything is my kids’ fault,” she choked. “It’s always my kids’ fault. Like no one else on this block can do anything wrong! And now I’m in trouble—”
“The Kleins reported my kids after their kid got hurt—“”
“—I carried her home.”
“And what about them? What kind of parents let a five-year-old girl run around loose? No supervision. Absolutely no supervision!” She scratched pockmarks on her arms.
“She’ll be all right.”
“Well, of course. It’s only a damned BB.”
“Right.” Hardt turned off his TV.
“My kids are good kids,” she stammered. “They’re good kids.” She tugged up her shorts, which could have been mistaken for sleepwear. She waited. “I mean, Heather is a good girl, she is, and Nathan just does whatever she tells him. He’s got no mind of his own. Just like his father. But she’s a good girl. She keeps him in line.”
“It’s not my fault she got . . . I can’t help who she hangs around with. She always likes older boys.”
“That’s not uncommon.”
“And she’s a damned alley cat, I mean, there’s no controlling her. What am I supposed to do, put bars on the windows?”
“Would you like to sit down?”
Mrs. Henning tugged up her shorts again. “Thank you, but I’ve got to go.” Her lip snagged on a chipped tooth as she tried to smile.
“Is there anything I can do—”
“My kids are good kids, they are. It’s all I can do—”
Hardt nodded. He was tired and wanted to go to bed.
“You saw what happened,” she continued. “All the neighborhood kids were there. They were all involved. So why do my kids get picked on? They’re good kids.” Her eyes glossed over and she wiped her nose. Her words fluttered on a current of vodka, her voice, like her body, an exaggerated inflection.
“I’m not sure—” Hardt tried again, wondering what to say.
“It’s the Kleins,” she repeated. “They want to get me in trouble. They probably want money.”
“I got no money.” They both stood staring at each other. “The cops said the least I can do is turn in the BB guns.”
“This whole mess is their dad’s fault. He’s always doing stupid shit like this. Buying guns. Getting my kids in trouble.”
Hardt waited for her to wind down.
“I found the one,” she said. “But I can’t find the other one. Heather says she left it under the tree, but the damn thing’s not there. Think you’d know anything about it?”
Hardt started walking toward the door, taking her gently by the shoulder, his hand trembling. “I’ll keep an eye out for it.”
She took his hand and held it over her breast. “You’re too kind,” she whispered. “I know you’ll help. We can barely make ends meet as it is... I know you’ll help.” Her words bobbed like a watery plea.
Mrs. Henning swung around and left as she had entered, letting the screen door bang on her way out. Her stench lingered.
“I’ll send Heather over in the morning.” Her voice swelled in the darkness.
The next morning invited a quiet respite. Chipper returned to the old man, its rear leg matted from its wound. It looked up at him, at the BB gun in his hands. Wary, it sniffed the barrel, nibbled at the sight, and peered into the muzzle. Struggling against its injury, it darted up the length of the gun and sat on the old man’s lap. Then the chipmunk escaped from the porch and disappeared, leaving a crimson spot on his pants. Just as quickly, it returned, drawn by the lure of easy food. “I see you’ve met the Hennings,” Hardt sighed. The chipmunk paused to groom its sticky wound, where infection had already begun to spread.
Hardt watched as the chipmunk collected its daily store, uneasy about fireworks exploding in the Hennings’ back yard.
The visitor returned, an unexpected gust of wind, and lifted the old man from his chair. He was floating now, his body weightless and painless and numb. He saw himself, like a fixture, lifeless; from a hanger his uniform shuffled in the breeze, the badges melting, the ribbons popping into sparks. His visitor, wrapping him in a body bag, rose higher as if in a balloon, above the maples and the power lines and the geometric shapes of roofs and chimneys and driveways and the parallel lines of neighbors’ clotheslines. Masses of sunlit blips moved in waves, children playing, out toward the boundaries of the neighborhood, disappearing beneath verdant cover.
A single gunshot, closer now.
The old man rested, sweat dripping off his hands, the BB gun leaning on his shin, his finger on the trigger guard. In the distance, Heather blew on her duck call, its raspy sound getting louder. He opened his eyes and he moved the sight toward the chipmunk, his finger trembling, gliding back and forth, involuntarily tapping the trigger. He squeezed, just enough to test the resistance of the trigger, sweat soaking onto his pant leg. Mrs. Bertram rested a hand on her mailbox as she watched Heather approach the Hardt house from the street, crossing the invisible line of the chipmunk’s daily route.
In a black and white image, a close-up, he followed the stock and barrow of the rifle up to Sergeant Hands’ head, where splatter, like black ink, blotted his face, and pooled on his pillow. His left arm hung away from his body, his palm up, his eyes fixed, waxen.
When Chipper finished stuffing its cheek pouches, it chirped at Hardt, chirped again and paused, directly below the sight, an inch or two from the muzzle, just for a moment, but a moment that offered him, if he didn’t waver, more than enough time.