Photo courtesy of Thieuthieu on Flickr
Well, they can't all be winners. This piece was just rejected by Mused--Bella Online's Literary Review. I didn't consider it (or the other one I submitted this time around) to be very strong. But it's not entirely worthless, so I offer it to you here.
Again, these are excerpts from Below Sea Level, the novel-to-be about my ten-year relationship with a charming but dangerous man. These are non-fiction, with only the names of the guilty changed. Enjoy!
When Rick first introduced me to his friends Buddy and Trey, they were fairly drunk, still working on getting stoned, and flying radio-controlled airplanes out at the Bonneville Flats at the edge of Salt Lake City. Rick brought beer along, which proved unnecessary when we reached their location. They were set up better than your average Salt Lake Circle K by the looks of it—though they’d made a sizable dent in their supplies.
It was the first time I saw Rick actually look scared to do something. He was convinced he was going to crash his RC into the ground. His friend Buddy had taught him everything he knew so far, and apparently this did not yet include landing. Though Rick got his black and pink striped plane off the ground without any major mishap, he circled nervously for as long as possible as Buddy attempted to talk him down. Unless he actually aimed it right for one of our trucks, there wasn’t much to worry about. The ground at our feet was flat for miles. Apparently the danger came in the angle you chose to descend. When you are flying a hand-constructed plane made of balsam wood and contact paper, it’s fairly easy to crumple it like a piece of paper when it hits the ground. And though they weren’t made of much, they weren’t cheap. Once you accounted for the loud little engines, these babies costs upwards of $350. And took weeks to make. These are the things that make men cry.
At the last minute, Rick panicked and thrust his joystick towards Buddy. Buddy was still flying his helicopter—a vehicle more expensive and more difficult to fly. He handed that one to Rick, who looked even more terrified than before. His hands trembled as he worked to keep Buddy’s copter in the air and well away from the landing zone. Meanwhile, Buddy brought Rick’s plane in so light it barely made tracks in the sand. Rick quickly gave Buddy’s controls back to him and he landed that one with equal precision.
That was enough stress for Rick for one afternoon, so he headed for the beer. Buddy set his controls on the sand and joined us. He was a small man, though in fairness, most people looked small next to Rick. Buddy was maybe 5’8” and walked with an obvious limp, a result of being electrocuted some years earlier when they both worked power lines in Nebraska. Buddy was only 27 when the bucket lift he was working in lost power in the bucket. The guys on the ground were trying to get him in where he needed to be to work the lines when they misjudged and took him too close. An arc streaked from the line to the bucket and Buddy dropped from sight. Rick was watching the whole thing from the White Whale, his mechanic’s truck.
Everyone expected Buddy to be charcoal when they got the bucket lowered, but he was still alive. Badly burned, but alive. The arc cooked him from the inside out, and he was on life support for weeks. He said the pain was still almost unbearable—everything inside him hurt all the time. Rick said the lawsuit was still pending, and would probably take years to settle. Buddy never went back to power lines, choosing instead to take odd jobs re-modeling houses. Apparently he could and would do anything. Anything but electric.
Though Rick played no part in Buddy’s accident, witnessing it was enough to make him carry substantial amounts of guilt about it. He claimed the “kids” in the bucket truck were idiots and that management knew there were problems with the direct controls in the bucket. A working radio would have helped, too. Buddy never should have gone up in that piece of equipment. There were two other bucket trucks sitting in the field office, but it would have caused a two hour delay to get another one out there. The fact that they were working on hot lines meant it was already an emergency for someone, somewhere, and there was no time to waste. You could always get another guy for the bucket. That decision would be the end of the company when the lawsuit finally reached settlement.
But for now, Rick and Trey still made their money off the company, and opportunities like that one were too slim to make it financially safe for them to jump ship and look for something else. Buddy had no gripe with them, but both were uncomfortable about it, feeling it a kind of betrayal to continue working for a company that nearly killed their best friend.
Nothing dulls guilt faster than a couple of Bud Lights and a few rounds of a well-rolled joint (Trey’s specialty, apparently), so the boys were all in fairly high spirits as I sat on the edge of the truck bed and observed them observing me. For being so far removed from my usual setting—at home or a library surrounded by books—I was inexplicably at ease. Most of that was Rick. He had so much charisma that you could be a rock and still make use of the extra energy that poured out of him. And I didn’t have too much invested in what they thought of me, as I was pretty confident about how Rick felt about me.
“So Nancy is afraid of guns.” Rick finished off his beer and tossed it out onto the flats.
Bastard. Buddy and Trey turned and grinned at me. Buddy looked embarrassed. He had sounded like a nice guy, and his reaction proved it. He knew it was not nice to put your new girlfriend on the spot in front of the guys. Having spent the greater part of my childhood exchanging dares with a boy my own age in the backwoods of Kentucky, I knew exactly where Rick was headed. He had brought his .357, and he intended to make me shoot it. I would “shoot like a girl,” and his penis would magically grow three times its normal size. It was already the biggest damn thing I’d ever seen, so it was never clear to me why he needed to inflate it, but it was clearly a guy thing.
“You’ve never shot one?” Asked Trey.
“I’ve shot a couple—I tried a Colt pistol and a Glock at a range once. I sucked.”
Trey, clearly the slow one of the group, turned to Rick. “You shoulda brought your .357!”
Rick went around to the driver’s side and reached into the truck console. He came back out with a gun and a fresh box of bullets.
“Imagine that,” I said, throwing him a look that only Buddy caught. Rick was far too amused with himself to be aware of my reaction. He was already loading it, the muzzle pointed towards the salted earth.
“Trey,” he said without looking up. “Go step off thirty feet and move that can out.”
Trey trotted out to retrieve the can. He brought it back to the truck and proceeded to take thirty crooked steps into the desert. At least he proved he could count to thirty. I wondered if his house frames ever ended up on 90-degree angles. Hopefully he used a measuring tape on the job site. And didn’t measure stoned.
Resigned to my fate, I slid down the skirt of the dually and watched Rick handle the gun. It looked more or less like the Colt six-shooter, only much larger. I didn’t relish the thought of the kick it would have.
“Wait,” Rick said, as he handed it to Buddy and went back into the truck. He fished around in the glove compartment until he found a set of earplugs for me. Now the gentleman was coming out in him. As I stuffed them in my ears he took the gun back from Buddy and showed me how it worked.
“First of all, there’s the safety—right here. Slide this forward and you can’t shoot it, no matter how hard you try. So we want that off.”
Of course we do, I thought. I’d abandoned safety a long ways back. No point pretending now.
“Now, you cock it like any regular pistol—just like your little cowgirl .22 you shot before—by pulling this back as far as you can. I won’t do it yet.” He winked at Buddy.
“To aim, you use the marks on the end of the barrel. We’re not shooting far so it’s gonna travel pretty straight. You’re definitely gonna wanna hold it with both hands, ‘cuz it does have a good kick.”
“More or less than a Glock? That had a really heavy one.”
“So does this. Worse, I reckon.”
“All right. Let me have it.”
“You wanna shoot first?”
“Does it really matter what order I humiliate myself in?”
Rick flushed; Buddy and Trey laughed.
He handed me the gun. It was much heavier than the Glock, which I had not enjoyed shooting. I cocked it. It was much harder to do that than I thought, too. Too late to back out now.
“Okay—careful…” Ya’ think?! He stepped next to me. “This is a heavy gun with a very light trigger. It won’t take much pressure before it goes off, so be ready.”
I waited until all three boys stepped back before I raised it from the ground. I lifted it enough to put the beer can in the sights, took a breath, and shot. The gun jerked my wrist hard. The beer can spun and shot out another ten feet or so into the desert. I lowered the gun and slid the safety to locked. I turned back to my audience and handed the gun out at arm’s length.
“Son of a bitch, Rick, she shoots better than you!” Buddy shoved Rick, but it was like an aspen shoving an oak. Rick didn’t budge. He hadn’t lost his cocky grin, though. I knew that was something that would only go away if surgically removed. He looked at Buddy.
“Well, I guess you better see if she shoots better ‘an you, huh?”
Buddy took the gun, slid the safety off, and stepped up to the plate. Carefully placing aim, he pulled the trigger. The can didn’t move. Rick and Trey roared.
“Sorry, Buddy. Did you want to use the .22?” Rick took the gun from Buddy, who seemed unconcerned with his performance. Rick raised the gun and shot. A chunk of salt flew up a few inches to the right of the can.
“Damn it. Better get me a .22.” He turned and held it out to Trey, who was clutching the remnant of a joint. Holding his breath, he smiled and shook his head.
“Back to you, babe.”
The first time I was so sure I would miss I had barely aimed it. I was also perfectly relaxed, since failure was a foregone conclusion. This time I felt a little more pressure. To cover for it, I made the same movements in the same period of time. The slower I moved, the more I would shake, I figured.
This time the beer can jumped about two feet in the air when I hit it. It was beautifully dramatic. I slid the safety shut again and turned to hand it to Buddy.
This time, Buddy was more measured about it. He studied the target for a bit before he raised the gun. He held his position for almost thirty seconds before he pulled the trigger. Another chunk of salt flew into bits.
“Shit,” he laughed and shook his head. “Guess I shouldn’t have been drinking the targets.” He handed the pistol to Rick, who turned sideways and spit about ten feet. He stepped forward and squinted at the beleaguered can. He lifted it in one fluid motion and shot. There was no movement at all in the vicinity of the target. This time I could tell he was irritated behind his signature smile. It didn’t seem like a good idea to me to piss off a short-tempered man carrying a large weapon—though we had exhausted its rounds.
Buddy laughed and walked over to the cooler to grab another “target,” tossing one to Trey. He nodded in Rick’s direction.
“In a second.” He was headed back to the cab of the truck. I heard bullets clinking as he fished for another round.
He came back out and headed straight for the shooter’s mark. Raising one arm, he let a shot go. The can jumped about a foot and skidded out a few more feet. Rick was all teeth. He handed the gun off to Buddy as he reached for a beer himself. He was clearly a happy man.
Buddy set his beer on the ground behind him and took his shot. Nothing. He just shook his head and handed it back to me. I walked over, raised the gun and shot. The muscles in my wrist snapped back and I had to stifle a verbal reaction. The beer can shot back into the desert like someone had kicked it at close range. I couldn’t hide my smile anymore, so I decided to enjoy it. I had no idea I could kill beer before today. This, I thought, might just come in handy someday.
Rick didn’t tease me about guns anymore after that.