by Dustin M. Hoffman
Above your bed where you lie belly up, Hector’s mom rattles around in the kitchen. She’s home like a haunting. She must’ve forgotten her midnight lunch at work. This woman, your unwilling adopter, lives her life reversed, nocturnal, a living-dead working stiff. You close your eyes and imagine her making a sandwich—a night-mother parting bread, spreading mayonnaise, shaking congealed mustard.
There’s only one way to know if a gun fires. When you pull the clip, yes, bullets gleam their tipped spirits at you. When you slide off the safety and pop the trigger, it click-click-clicks. But all reassembled and loaded, you can’t know for sure.
You raise your arms above you like those fanatics reaching for God, the ones you spied through the window of the barn-turned-revival-tent that Saturday night when you and Hector swallowed three mushroom caps each and tore through a cornfield for an hour before you saw the light of the barn and the raised hands inside. Hands that would crush you if they knew you, if they knew what you’d been hoping about Hector in the cornfield, if they knew how you wish he was reading his stolen library books in the bed next to you right now instead of being out with that bitch, April. If he was here, you’d watch him read and then tear out the pages, lost in his dreamland, and you’d keep your hands raised so you could touch his breath filling the room and not reach inside your pants.
Your hands meet around the Glock’s grip. Hector’s mom slams the refrigerator door, and you aim there. You could repay her hospitality. You could give her a night in the ER that would be like the Bahamas for this woman who never sleeps.
The rotted pine floorboards above you creak, and you track her steps with the barrel of your gun. She’s rummaging for a rinsed-out butter tub to store her sandwich in. You slip your finger over the trigger. She’s stashing that tub in a plastic Kmart bag. The trigger ruts into the crease of your index finger. She’s creaking back to the fridge for a Pepsi, thinks better, a beer, thinks cheaper, just water from the drinking fountain back at work at the old folks’ home. You aim between where her feet should be if her head is leaning against the freezer door where she’s wishing she could be done. You squeeze the trigger like a kiss and the empty gun clicks and that’s it. You still don’t know if it works. It needs bullets for proof of that.
She stomps the heel of her running shoes that never run against the floor. Three stomps. “You down there, baby?” she yells through the floorboards. “Hector, can you hear me? You sleeping?”
She rarely does this, rarely asks, for fear of waking Hector, or maybe because what the hell would she say to you? Are you still haunting my basement, a slug clinging to the bed beside my boy? You’re the slime she won’t risk even if she’s starved for her son, a peck on the forehead, a goodnight-lunch-break kiss she needs in order to face those salt-bleached roads on her way back to another double shift.
“Hector?” She waits. She doesn’t want you. This mother, any mother, they don’t want you.
The Glock’s barrel follows the sound of her steps on the pine boards above. The door opens, closes. The floor is just a floor now, holding nothing.
You roll off the mattress, and your body lurches. It’s full of dynamite and rubber, all bounce and boom just waiting to explode with the gun. You like the feeling. It’s hard to come by when you’ve numbed yourself to every shock. You’d roll this feeling into a Ziploc and sell it for ten bucks a hit if you could just figure out how to get it out of you. There’s so much that you wish out of you—this town, that boy, the life you can’t have.
You imagine what it would be like to snuff out that slip of moon slicing through your basement window: total darkness.
There’s a notch in the side of your head where this gun barrel was meant to rest. Putting it there makes your toes curl. Your gut flips. Your body doesn’t know what you’re going to make it do, and it thrills.
It’s like fucking, this buzzing of your body a moment before a terrible spilling.
You reach up and open that tiny basement window. Cold baptizes your whirring body, calms you, brings you back to the nothing that you can be if you just put your mind to it, to forgetting what you want and focusing on what you can take.
You load the clip, turn the Glock to the window and squeeze. It works. A bullet rips out of the room you share with Hector, out over the neighbor’s frozen, yellow lawn, out through his needle-shedding spruce and pine, outward and onward and upward, over rooftops, the Pine River, the school you quit, the downtown you avoid, out and out, farther than the refinery winking more lights than Christmas, through the burn-off tower’s glowing red hand, farther and farewell to ice-dirt cornfields-in-waiting, soybeans, strawberry patches, all waiting for the summer that is gone and will never return.
The floor creaks above you, and your heart quits. Someone has witnessed your first bullet’s escape. Hector’s mom. She step-step-steps and stops. She’s breathing gunpowder waft. She’s steadying herself, readying to confront you, to exhume you from your basement home. But you won’t let her exile you from Hector. You can’t.
You aim for her heart, her head, where you could loose another bullet and trace a line through everything important. Hector wouldn’t even need to know if you filled him full of the five mushroom caps in his underwear drawer. You could trick him into the car and down the road five hundred miles before he even thought of calling his mother, who he loves more than April, more than you.
You aim and start to squeeze, and she steps again. You learn where you stop, how weak your hands are, your resolve, your love for the boy you can’t love, and you slam the Glock between your mattresses. But she doesn’t come for you. She leaves for sure this time, won’t even bother to ask what sound, what crack, what break tore through her neighborhood. She cares nothing for things she can’t change. She’s smarter than every stupid fucker in this town.
Hector’s mother is already gone, already an absence called wage-earning. She’s a punch card and a paycheck, double and triple shifts. She’s the husks of rich geriatric bastards, the rotten breath of ancient hags. She’s the witness and the watcher of their deaths. When their last breaths float free and those twenty-one grams of afterlife spew past their gnashed red gums, she snatches the weight, slips it into the pocket of her washed-pale scrubs, and then she performs the service of forgetting their lives. Meaningless as pocket lint.
Hector’s mother works too hard to give a shit about bullets or you or this town or the leaving of it. She’s already achieved nothingness better than you’ll ever be nothing. She’s the goddamn saint of everlasting absence. If you can’t beat her nothing in this going-nowhere town, then you’ll have to become everything; you’ll have to become enough to take what you want, to steal Hector, her first-born son.