On the Coming Extinction of the Great White Male

A story by Marvin Shackelford, recommended by the Pisgah Review

AN INTRODUCTION BY JUBAL TINER

Marvin Shackelford’s short story, “The Coming Extinction of the Great White Male,” begins with a description of the daily grind of the story’s protagonist, Jack. He works in a meat-packing plant with his best friend, Dave; the men also share a house along with Jack’s girlfriend, Heather. Jack and Dave spend their days trimming the fat from stacks of ham to be sliced and canned further down the assembly line in the plant, after which they go to a local bar, drink themselves into oblivion, and get up the next day and do it all again.

But there are wrinkles in this routine. Dave and Heather are still attending college, and they find themselves increasingly passionate about their work for the college newspaper — and attracted to one another. Meanwhile, Jack can find no upward mobility in his life or job, seems to drift from one mildly vexing incident to another in a world filled with “rednecks,” the educated and upwardly mobile, and the family of wild raccoons that has taken up residence in the house’s attic.

Purchase the review.

In the crosshairs of these disparate and layered storylines, Shackelford deftly shows Jack beginning to question his identity and his place in the world, leading him to actions that test his perception of his masculinity. He thinks the raccoons are not cute (as Dave and Heather do), and are only one rung up on the ladder from rats in the world of vermin, yet he cannot bring himself to poison them with tuna and anti-freeze. As Dave and Heather work feverishly on the paper, Jack watches them grow closer together and does nothing to stop their romance. One evening in the bar after work, after a misguided attempt to present himself in brotherly solidarity, Jack is beaten savagely and without mercy. And yet, even in what seems to be Jack’s darkest moment, his great white maleness stripped from him, he appears unchanged. He remembers the rifle a friend from work loaned him and he sets up sniper positions to eradicate the raccoons.

What intrigued me most about Shackelford’s weaving of these narratives is the ending, where Jack almost crosses a border, moves away from his idea of masculinity. But Shackelford reinscribes Jack as a killer of the raccoons that begin our story, creating an ending of sublime, unflinching honesty.

Finding the story’s situations quirky, its structure challenging and well-built, and its characters durable, this story was a clear choice for 10th issue of Pisgah Review. It is always the best day for an editor when he discovers a gem in the rubble of submissions, and Shackelford’s masterful piece shone forth, and still does.

Jubal Tiner
Editor, Pisgah Review

 

On the Coming Extinction of the Great White Male

“On The Coming Extinction Of The Great White Male”

by Marvin Shackelford

It’s early. For me, anyway, and the raccoons are up and moving in the afternoon, hidden from daylight in the attic of the house. They usually keep still except at night, so we only hear them in the wee hours of the morning when we’ve gotten off work. But now they’re doing a matinee. I roll over in bed, clutch a pillow to my face. Dirty snowlight slips past the blinds. I’ve tried different things. Nailed sheet metal onto the porch posts, thinking once they came out of their hole above the porch roof and hit the ground they wouldn’t be able to claw back up. They got right back in. We put out the cage traps, but they took the food and disappeared again, ghostly. I’ve been thinking about buying a gun.

The house is empty. Dave’s taken my girlfriend and they’ve gone to class. They’re the real problem, him and Heather thinking the raccoons are cute, talking about they just want shelter for winter and they ain’t hurting anything. It’s a load of shit, though, because they’re tearing up the insides of the house.

“Your uncle owns this place,” I keep telling Dave. He doesn’t care, says it okay.

I go to the kitchen and dig around in the pantry. We’ve got all sorts of shit shoved in there — three shelves of canned food, a rotary telephone, two plungers, jumper cables, dead double-A batteries, a half-empty pack of diapers. A phone book from Tijuana, Mexico, and a bag of glow-in-the-dark dress sequins. I shove and shift the bottles and cans around until I find the one I want — big white plastic jug with a green cap. Antifreeze. I slam the bottle on the counter, grab a bunch of tuna cans from the cabinet and stack them beside the antifreeze. I figure the message ought to be clear.

“Would you rather,” Dave asks me, as our game goes, “be a shitty husband and father or a shitty leader, Jack?”

“Leader of what?”

“Think Bush,” he says, as though that explains it all.

Breath fogs in front of his face. I think on it a while. Another slab of ham slides to me along the conveyor belt, and I use the rounded shaver hanging from its cord along the power and support pipelines above us to hack at the strips and flabs of white fat wrapped around it. Then it drifts on down the line to my white-suited coworkers who do the delicate cutting on the meat.

“Bad leader,” I say.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You wouldn’t?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugs his shoulders and hacks at a ham. “We have a responsibility to the world. You know?”

“I guess,” I tell him. Then I think a minute and wonder what good a shitty dad does the world. I stop and stare at Dave until he looks up.

“You’re so full of shit,” I say.

“You can’t be serious,” Dave says to me. We’ve showered in the plant locker room and headed to the bar, the North-South, sitting by the railroad tracks at the grain elevators on the south end of town. He drinks a whiskey mixed with coke, then starts into the pitcher of beer I bought.

“I’m just saying. It’d be nice to be in Nashville again.”

“Fucking rednecks.” He makes quotes with his fingers and adds, “Country.”

“There’s rednecks here.” I take a look up and down the bar, over at the pool tables where guys in Monsanto jackets, corn guys, are drinking beer and holding cue sticks. I frown at Dave. “Everything’s so damn flat here. I want to see a Confederate flag or some shit again, you know?”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Dave says, and he says it loud, the bartender looking up from her magazine to put on a cross look. “That fucking racist shit.”

“It ain’t racist,” I say. “And what — you think nobody up here ever gave a black man shit? You ever talked to these people?”

“Not racist? Not racist?” Dave screams, not answering the pertinent question. He reels off his stool and shoves me in the back. “Are you out of your fucking mind?”

I drop my beer, and it clanks over the bar and crashes to the floor, out of sight. The bartender yells something real shrill, and I turn around and punch Dave, right in the mouth, and he near flips over on his back. Then we’re in a tangle, twisting around and aiming fists at each other’s heads until the Monsanto guys come over and peel us apart and shove us out the door, into the snow. We sit there a few minutes, asses thawing snow on the curb, until I can finally look over at Dave again. He’s lighting a cigarette.

“Go home?” I ask him.

“I guess,” he says, and we stumble to his car.

This is pretty much what we do. We get up in the afternoon and go into the hog processing plant where we work on the same line, shaving chunks of white fat and gristle off hams. We put on the stained but washed white over-clothes the company provides, we clock in, and we hack up pork. Sometimes one of us is dragged away for another job, things like slicing the knuckles off pig legs or dragging racks of ribs through pepper bins for curing. The pepper’s what’s really bad. They like putting me on those crews, for some reason, and I get to the lockers covered in seasoning, itching, and having to take a cold shower to get the stuff off. If you turn the hot on too quick the pepper heats up, burns the skin and leaves a red rash behind.

Then we go to the bar, drink ourselves under the table, sometimes fight over stupid shit. Dave is still in college. That’s how we both got off up here. He hasn’t dropped out yet, goes to classes a couple days a week while I stay home and sleep or play guitar or fool around with Heather, who’s still in college, too. She catches rides with Dave, and I wonder how long we’ve got left in this particular life. He talks about switching to third shift, the shipping crew, and running a forklift. He wants to work for the college paper in the evenings. I sometimes talk about moving to first shift and going to kill floor, the other side of the plant where they bring the hogs in smelling like shit and still squealing before they kill them, string the bodies up and dismember them and clean the unwanted parts out so they can send the good pieces on to the cold floor.

Our lockers are up a set of stairs beside the kill floor, and every time I go to change clothes or grab my lunch I see down the hall and into that end of the building. The sounds are mechanical and wrenching, the smell is hot and the air’s thick. Now and then one of the kill workers will step through the double doors, amping up those sounds for that moment and marching down the hall in blue over-clothes. The blue keeps only the shape of stains, big dark continents that could be sweat or blood or anything at all, and the doors swing shut behind whoever’s coming through and I’m a little scared.

Heather knows about my plans to move to the kill floor, and I’ve also made the mistake of telling her how it’s kind of terrifying. She keeps saying to me, every time it comes up, “You know you’re too much of a pussy.”

“And you’re a complete and utter cunt,” I tell her.

“Fuck you,” she says, and she climbs off the couch and walks to the kitchen. She’s disturbed by my use of that word, cunt, frowning and acting like she’s on the verge of tears. I watch her, try to figure out what’s going on in either one of our heads.

“Really, though,” she says later, snuggled up or head in my lap or, when it’s real bad, from a chair on the other side of the room. “I don’t see how you can kill things.

“It’s five bucks more an hour,” I tell her.

“But it’s just not right,” Heather says, and I’m forced to remember that we met, just a year ago, at an animal-rights group meeting at the college, before I had stopped going, and my pickup line had been something about saving the whales over coffee.

“You want a sandwich?” I ask.

“What you have to do is poison them little fuckers,” Ted Hennenfent says after I describe the situation to him. He works on the kill floor and makes five dollars more an hour, and for a second I’m not sure whether he’s talking about Dave and Heather or the raccoons. He takes another drag off the cigarette I gave him and stares at me over his bushy gray mustache. He’s waiting on his wife to pick him up, and I’m waiting on Dave to pull around. The plant reeks of pig and rolls black smoke into the dark behind us.

“Thought about it,” I say. “But they’d get pissed.”

“Now, listen, I’m not saying do nothing dirty. Just mix a little something into some meat and leave it out all night and — you don’t have dogs or nothing do you?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Right, so leave it out in the yard, they’ll come down, and bam.” He slaps his big red hands together. “Problem solved.”

The wind picks up. I light a cigarette and hand another to Ted.

“Trust me,” he says. “Coons are just another kind of rat.”

“You’re still going to put a word in for me, right?” I ask him after a minute.

“What, kill floor?” he says. I nod, and he shrugs. “Won’t do any good. You don’t speak Spanish, do you? Well, they want everybody on kill speaking it now. I ever told you how they won’t promote me to floor supervisor because I don’t speak Spanish?”

“Yeah,” I say, though I know he’s aiming to tell it again.

“Well, you know all the Mexicans they give jobs here, so many of them — ”

A horn blows and cuts him off. We look over and Ted’s wife’s at the curb, hanging her arm out the window and waving. Her hair’s bleached a horrible blonde and her face is streaked red from the cold, but Ted’s eyes light up when he sees her.

“See you later, Jack,” he says. “And yeah. Just poison those blame things and be done with it.”

“We’re working on this layout,” Heather tells me. “Isn’t it awesome?”

She’s gotten a job as opinions editor at the school newspaper, a position I get the impression no one else wanted. Dave has become her right-hand man, writing stories and assisting with all the decisions about her two broad pages of newsprint. They’ve turned our living room into their work space, covering the coffee table and floor with paper and pictures and junk. While he’s out of the room, Heather tells me all about it.

“See, I want to highlight all the positive things about this candidate. He visited Galesburg and we got a lot of good stories from it.”

“That’s kind of unprofessional, isn’t it?”

“What do you mean by that?” Her skinny shoulders scrunch up in her sweatshirt.

“Aren’t you supposed to tell the news and just the news? Not try to tell people what to think?”

“Well,” she huffs, picking herself up from the couch, “this is the opinion page. And we’re just telling the truth, anyway.”

“Truth!” Dave shouts, stepping back into the living room.

“Hell yes, partner.” Heather passes him into the kitchen. They high-five on the way by and then, no shit, swing on down and slap each other on the ass, like they’re playing football. I sit still, a little disturbed, and Dave drops beside me where she’d been.

“Isn’t this awesome?” he wants to know.

“We can’t move you,” the HR guy says. I’d gone through the channels, made an appointment and filed a request, but just like that, no preamble, he lets me know there’s no going anywhere. He sits at his desk, white shirt and a tie, but the room still smells like pig. That rubbery odor that seems like it must have something to do with hooves. It’s all over his family photos and his daughter, barely smiling out of her school pictures.

“We just don’t need anyone there right now, and you’re already trained on cold, anyway,” he says, looking up from his papers. He’s a dark brown color, like he’s been out in the sun, and he keeps wiping at the pencil-thin black mustache curling over his lip. “We can still move you to morning shift if you want, though.”

“Nah.” I sit and sharpen my working knife while he talks. “That’s okay.”

“Sorry, Jack. Maybe in a few months.”

I look him up and down, his ample forehead and combed-over hair. Thin shoulders. He kind of looks like a coke bottle that’s right on the verge of shaking itself up and spewing all over the room.

“Do you speak Spanish?” I ask. He just cocks his head at me.

We celebrate with drinking.

“Third shift!” Dave yells, and him and Heather slam their glasses together.

“Third shift,” she yells.

“Third shift,” I say, and they bump their glasses into mine. “Congrats.”

Dave’ll be driving a forklift between midnight and six, now, working for the paper in the afternoons. They gave him a desk, a phone extension, and a computer that doubles for laying out the ads. But it’s awesome. I take a look around the North-South. The Monsanto guys are playing pool, a little drunker than usual and laughing too much. They’re rednecks, and I feel like I could walk up and start a conversation with them. Something about football and the best time to start planting a crop. One guy smooths out his mustache and rests a hand on his buddy’s forearm. The green sleeve of the guy’s jacket sways his pool cue back and forth. Beside me, at the bar, Heather props her head on Dave’s shoulder while she tells the bartender, who pretty obviously don’t give a shit, how stealing beer from a bar is a felony but stealing it from a gas station is just a misdemeanor and how that just ain’t right.

“Fucking right,” Dave says.

“I’m not all that sure what I’m looking at,” I say. Everything looks funny from where I’m sitting. Nobody says a word, though, to try and help me make sense of it

“Would you rather,” Dave says, “lose your ability to speak or go deaf?”

“Speak,” I say.

“But how would you communicate?” he wants to know.

“I guess I’d write it down.”

“But that’d be hard,” Dave says. “Not being able to tell people what you think, never having any conversations, shit. I couldn’t do it.”

“I’d rather not hear,” Heather says. “I’d just use sign language.”

“They have whole towns for sign language now, you know,” he tells her.

They sit on the couch, leaning over their newspaper stuff, knees glued together while they move things around. I remember all of a sudden that semester I’d spent in college, sitting in Heather’s dorm room and trying to explain math to her. The x is always the same as what’s on the other side, I kept telling her, pointing to both ends of the equals sign and shrugging. She started crying and went to a math tutor at the library.

“I’m tired of this,” I tell them. I go to the kitchen. The antifreeze still sits on the counter, staring at me, but the tuna cans have started disappearing. It’s gone from six to four, and I wonder how much it’d take to kill a raccoon family. It’s probably a moot point. I hear them at night, skittering out of the ceiling and into the yard, vanishing in the dark if I turn the porch light on. But I don’t know if I can really do it.

I cut the top out of one of the cans and drain the water, start picking the meat up and eating it with my fingers. It’s too dry. Dave and Heather whisper in the other room. I kind of imagine they’re talking about me, but I don’t know. They stay up late now, even after I’ve turned in, and Heather sleeps on the couch instead of coming to bed. I’m not stupid. I know where it’s headed, my room to his, but I ain’t clear at all on how we’re supposed to make this sort of transition without things getting rough. They get louder in the living room, say how that candidate of theirs has got a plan, for the future, and peace, the only vague words they ever say about him. I wonder if they just somehow don’t know they’re doing it. Not even these two could expect to brush this off so easy.

“Jack,” Ted says. He pauses, drops the butt of his cigarette in the dirty snow piled up on the concrete, and lights another. He’s wearing a cowboy hat and a clean shirt — date night with the old lady, he told me. They’re making a late trip to the bars over in Galesburg. “How are you coming with them coons?”

“Haven’t done anything, yet.” I shuffle my feet and kick at a clump of ice. “I was thinking maybe some antifreeze.”

“Ooh.” He nods in appreciation. “Good choice. Though a lot of the time now they put stuff in antifreeze that animals won’t like the taste of. So many people poisoning the neighbor’s dog and all. Have to watch out what kind you get.”

“Well,” I tell him. “I’m really kind of hoping they’ll move on on their own.”

“You can forget that. Thing about a coon is they’re just like a . . .” Ted snorts and takes a look around before leaning in and giving me a wink. “Coon’s just like a coon. Once they’re in all you can do is run the little fuckers off.”

“I guess.”

“No guessing to it. You have to get it taken care of.”

His wife pulls up and blows the horn. She’s all dolled up, bright yellow hair curled and red shoulders showing above the steering wheel. She waves to Ted, and Dave pulls his car in behind her. He taps on the horn for me.

“Gonna get my own self something taken care of right now,” Ted says. He punches me in the arm and stands there a moment longer, his big hat silhouetted beneath the security lamps, and he looks like close to a million bucks.

We’re doing things an awful lot like living — Dave and my girlfriend get up in the morning and go to college, learn how to save the world, then me and him go to work in the afternoon. He switches to third in a couple weeks, so they take him off the line nearly every night. They’ve mostly got him peppering ribs. I stand on the line next to a blonde woman with chunky hips. She frowns from behind her goggles, thinks I leave too much fat for her to cut off. The cold’s what’s bad, really, the big refrigerated warehouse. I’ve started keeping a runny nose, have to wipe at it with my shoulder because my sleeves are too dirty around the wrists, smudged with blood and gristle. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but that ground-up pig smell’s growing thicker.

Then I go to the North-South and drink, eyeing the corn guys at the pool tables and telling the bartender, who you can tell don’t give a shit, how they don’t promote nobody that don’t speak Spanish. Can’t even get on kill floor and make an extra five dollars, I say, pretending she knows enough about it to understand and connect the two things. She shrugs behind her magazine. The corn guys sway around their cue sticks. When I get in the truck and go home Dave’s already there, bent over the coffee table and straightening up articles with Heather. He tells her what he still ought to write, what needs to be talked about. She smiles at him and tells me hey when I walk in the door. I go to bed too wide-awake to sleep and think about killing pigs. I’ve worked there near three years and still don’t know exactly how they do it, just piecing it together in my head from things I’ve heard and what my uncle used to say about killing hogs when he was growing up. You hang them up, cut their throats, and let them drain.

I eat the last can of tuna fish, find another can empty at the edge of the porch when I go out. Takes me a minute, but then it clicks — they’ve actually been feeding the raccoons like blame pets. I add tuna to our grocery list on the fridge and leave the antifreeze sitting out. I can’t think of anything to replace it. Seems like I’ve seen it kill dogs and coyotes, other things. Comes down to it and they might just eat it right up.

“I think we ought to have a date night,” I say.

“A date night?” Heather sinks back in the couch, stares at all her shit on the table. I drop beside her, throw an arm over her shoulder and tug at her hair. She’d probably look good with curls. When I don’t leave her be she tells me, “I’ve still got a lot to do.”

“Don’t you think it’d be fun? Get out for a night, let everything slide?” I kiss her on the shoulder. “Just you and me out in the world.”

“Out in the world,” she repeats. “I don’t know.”

I put on khakis and a polo shirt, trim my beard up and spray on some cologne I’ve had sitting around since Christmas. I slick my hair down and stand at the bathroom mirror a minute, decide I look pretty good and Heather ought to be happy with it. She shows up an hour late, riding in the passenger seat of Dave’s car. They’ve been working at the office on Saturday morning, and she comes into the house in a pair of overalls, hair frizzing at the sides of her head. Says she’s ready to go. We drive to Galesburg in my truck and eat at Applebee’s. I order steak and she gets a salad, and I find myself staring at Heather’s fingers while she picks at the food with her fork.

“Not any good?” I ask, but she doesn’t say. After dinner we go to this bar Ted always talks about, where I imagine him and his wife get on the floor and dance, her hair up and his hands on her hips while they slide along, but Heather won’t have it.

“I don’t want to dance,” she tells me, and I guess I should’ve seen it coming. We play a game of pool without talking while the couples line-dance at the center of the room, and then it’s just me playing. I shoot the balls off the table in order, one through fifteen, and she sits on a stool, staring over my head at the dancers, and I ask her again if she’s sure she don’t want to dance.

“Fuck no.” She shakes her head. “Rednecks.”

I drop my cue on the table. It rattles, just a second, louder than the music.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I say. Heather turns her chin down, finally takes me in with her big striped eyes. It’s the first time, I’m pretty sure, she’s really seen me in a while.

“I think we should take some time off,” she says. She bites down on her lip and stares at the floor between us, and I stare at her a minute. There’s a drunken crash and laughter behind us on the dance floor.

“Okay.” I pick the cue up and go back to knocking the balls into pockets. Each number higher is a step closer to something. I don’t know what, just something. Probably awful.

“Okay,” I tell her.

I pull the truck to the door of the plant and see Dave standing there talking to Ted. The big man’s laughing and smoking a cigarette, holding on to what looks like an oversized black suitcase. He rests it on the ground, holding steady with his elbow. Dave shrugs at whatever Ted’s saying, and when he sees me walks over and slides in the cab.

“Jack,” Ted yells. He tosses his smoke into the snow and carries his load over. I put the truck out of gear and roll down the window.

“No, drive,” Dave says.

“I was just telling your buddy here, the coon problem’s over,” Ted tells me. He swings the case up and over the rail of the truck and sets it in the bed. I hear the snow crunch and pack down beneath it. “Here’s you a rifle.”

“What?”

“Yeah,” Ted says. “I just bought a new one, too, so keep it long as you need it.”

“Okay. Thanks, Ted.”

“No problem.” He lights another cigarette, leans on the doorframe and smiles at us. “Yeah, figured this was the way to get it done. Got a scope on it and everything.”

“Well.” I try to sort it in my head. I’ve received my weapon, just been turned into a hunter. Ted, I guess, is my lady in the lake. We’re way past poison. I try to remember the last time I shot a gun. Scouts, maybe.

“I was telling Dave, don’t want you guys to have to burn your own house down to get rid of some coons.” He chuckles. “Yeah, all kinds of coons, you can burn them out if you have to. Had some of the one kind, whole family of them, move in over at Avon, back a few years ago. Didn’t anything else work.”

“The fuck,” Dave says. “Just what is that supposed to mean?”

Ted stares in the cab for a moment, looking between the two of us until the smile slides off his face. He shrugs.

“You know. Varmints are varmints.”

I don’t turn my head but can feel Dave’s face turning red. I put the truck in gear.

“Well, thanks a lot, Ted,” I tell him.

“You bet.” He slaps the side of the truck, and I pull us away from curb.

“What the fuck,” Dave says.

“Don’t shoot yourself in the foot,” Ted hollers after us.

“Last day shaving. Congratulations,” I tell Dave. I start to take the turn for the bar, but he waves me on, wants me to stay on the bypass.

“Just take me home,” he says.

“Are you kidding? We have to celebrate. This is the last time we’ll ever get off work together.”

“No,” he says and shifts in the seat. “That fucking Ted Hennenfent.”

“You’re gonna skip out because of something Ted said? Come on, man. You know he’s full of shit.”

“Some things you just don’t say.” He watches the dark alongside the highway.

“There’s nothing you can’t say,” I tell him. We pass out of town and into empty cornfields. “Just things you don’t do. And honestly, I don’t think he knows better.”

“Doesn’t know better?” Dave stares at me while I get a cigarette lit. The red flame of my lighter makes an angry shadow of his face. “If I was drunk, right now, I’d punch you in your fucking head.”

“Really,” I say, looking over at him. “Better be glad you ain’t drunk.”

“And, honestly, we have too much to do on the pages.”

“Well,” I say.

“So we’re taking time off,” I tell the bartender. I can tell she doesn’t give a shit, but I sit at the bar drinking whiskey anyway. She closes her magazine, though, and lays it on the counter. She sighs real loud, then stares at me a minute. I look back at her, thinking I finally must’ve gotten through to her. This will be the moment of truth.

“You’re just all messed up, aren’t you?” she asks me. She grinds her lips into a sad little smile and shakes her head. “Shouldn’t you be talking to your little friend about all this? Where’s he been, lately?”

I settle back and drain my glass. The ice chatters against my teeth, and I lay money on the bar for another.

“That’s probably not a real good plan at the moment,” I tell her.

“Well,” she says.

While she’s pouring me more whiskey, a long and terrible process, everything in my head skitters around. Thoughts start climbing down my forehead, and I stare at the Monsanto guys. The one I saw touching the other guy’s arm is touching it again, he’s leaned over whispering something to his buddy, and right there seems like something all summed up for me. As soon as the bartender shoves the fresh glass into my hand I walk over to them. They see me coming, and the one guy reclaims his hand.

“How’s the corn looking?” I ask. Their shoulders shrug and they both mumble something pretty noncommittal.

“Listen, I get it,” I say to the two of them. They stare at me a minute, and the rest of their buddies lean up from the pool tables to watch.

“Excuse me?” the one doing the touching asks.

“I get it. I know what’s going on.” I hold my hand out to shake, but nobody takes it. “It’s okay. Really.”

“I think you’re drunk,” the other guy says.

“And y’all are gay,” I say, spilling whiskey everywhere. “It’s okay.”

I throw my arms around their necks and hug and start to tell them, what you want to do is just fine even if I don’t like it, or maybe, you are who you are, but the whole bunch of them’s jumped on me. They punch me in the head a lot, and then the body shots pick up, and when they’ve got me on the floor it’s a lot of indiscriminate kicking. But I’ve made my point. It’s okay.

“Don’t come back,” the bartender screams while they’re dragging me to the door, but I’m not worried about finding a new bar. It’s okay, and even before they drop me on the snow-covered asphalt and kick my ribs in a little more, I realize it’s the only and best way this could have gone.

I coast up to the house and put the truck out of gear, sitting there a minute with the headlights shining through the windows. There’s a knot in my belly that I’m pretty sure is the whole world coming together to just plain be all right. Then I see the living room’s empty, but Dave’s car’s sitting right there in the drive. That knot’s something a little different, my stomach tells me. Dave steps out of his bedroom buttoning his shirt up about the same time I step into the living room. He freezes.

“Hey. What do you know?”

He shrugs and stands there, works the buttons all the way up to his neck. Then his eyes finally find my face.

“What the hell happened to you?”

“Nothing,” I tell him. “It’s okay.”

Heather steps out Dave’s door, shirt half over her head. She works it down, giggling a little, then she sees me. She skitters to a stop, gets quiet, and I drop into a chair. My eye’s starting to swell, and my lip’s been dripping blood and smudging the dark blue of my jacket, making an awkward new logo of some kind. I smile, and the two of them stand there, keeping carefully apart from each other and watching me.

“Dude,” Dave says.

“It’s okay. Really. But let me ask you something. Really think about it, now.”

“Okay,” he says, moving to the couch and watching me from across their newspaper stuff on the coffee table. The pile’s getting higher and higher, more stories and different new pictures, and I’m pretty sure it’s just gonna keep growing until it blocks our view of onne other. Heather stands out between us, arms wrapped around herself.

“Would you rather,” I ask him, as the game goes, “save the world or just save yourself?”

He doesn’t wait two seconds before answering, “Save the world.”

“Really,” I say, lurching up and swaying a second. I nearly fall over and Dave jumps up and grabs my arm, tries to steady me. He starts asking what the hell happened. I get my feet under me good, finally, and punch him in the face. Heather shrieks. She doesn’t know this is just something we do. Dave doesn’t go down, but he doesn’t hit back, either, stunned. I hit him a few more times and he just takes it, until I finally hit good enough to knock him backward. He hits the floor and bumps the table, rocking their newspaper stuff and sending a few stacks of the jumble right over the edge. I look to my time-off girlfriend. She’s crying and watching with too-big eyes.

“It’s okay,” I tell her. I look at Dave, sprawled in our living room floor. “It’s just you have to take care of yourself first. That’s the only way you get shit done.”

I puke by the truck and figure the blood that’s mixed in isn’t serious. The wind picks up at my back, feels like another snow’s blowing in, and I search overhead for stars. There aren’t any, just clouds hanging a little low but split here and there by moonlight. I tell the sky it’s okay, and it answers back. A gap opens up, and the moon winks down at me. Single most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

“Right on,” I say.

The clouds seal back up and my eyes drift, follow the trees in the yard, catch on the metal frame of the truck. I follow the line of the hood, over the cab and down into the bed. Ted’s rifle’s still there. I drag the heavy case onto the tailgate and open it up. Inside, the gun lays carefully pressed into felt, shined smooth and gleaming in the bare light. A single flake of snow drifts onto the pommel and melts. I pick the thing up, cradle it in my arms and sit to wait. Seems like I’ve been skirting something huge forever, but now it’s caught up. I’m stuck moving on.

After a while they come out of the house carrying a bunch of bags. They stand and watch me a minute, then start piling into his car. Heather climbs in without saying anything, but Dave waits at the driver’s door a moment. We lock eyes and he opens his mouth. I shake my head. He looks sad and sorry before sliding behind the wheel. They back out, turn around and head toward town, disappearing into the flat roll of the land.

I carry the rifle inside and kill all the lights, turn the heat down so it won’t click on, make noise. I raise the living room window and knock out the screen, push their newspaper mess out of the way and use the back of the couch for a support. The light slipping through the clouds makes the snow on the ground, in the trees, reflect a faint white. The world glows. I settle in the cold draft and wait. There’s the hum of something electric, outline of an old swing set beneath the trees, the gray rock of our snow-covered birdbath. It doesn’t take long. I hear their claws work. They rattle above, skitter to the edge of the house and come down. A moment later three raccoons hop around the edge of the yard, up to the porch, roaming and looking for food, more handouts. One of them’s half the size of the others, a baby, and it scuttles into the middle of the yard, stands up and turns its head all around. His fat gray body bows out over his back legs. I listen to them chitter to one another, like a family of cartoon squirrels. They’re so blame funny and innocent-looking.

But I can’t help it.

I grip the rifle tight, have to aim with my left eye because the right’s swollen shut, and squeeze the trigger. The shot blows up the air and sets my ears to ringing like I just went deaf. A puff of snow kicks twenty yards behind the raccoons. They raise and hunker themselves, sniff and peer, trying to figure out what’s going on. I fire again, over and over, unable to connect. They only stay still a moment before they scatter and dodge. I hit one just about on accident, its back end spinning. The baby. He turns a circle and hobbles to our big leafless maple tree and climbs. The big ones slip out of sight and I pull the gun back through the window, its smoky discharge thick.

I push off the sofa, trying to hurry. My body’s starting to ache and get stiff from the beating. Doesn’t want to move. I step out the front door, and everything’s quiet beneath the leftover buzz of gunfire in my ears. The snow comes up over my ankles, drifting deeper at the center of the yard. A thin, dark trail of blood runs to the maple. I follow it, stand at the base of the tree and search its branches until I find the wounded raccoon. He sits tight on a limb and clutches the trunk. I feel like I might get sick, this far down a road it feels like I’ve been traveling an awful long time. I catch the glint of his eyes and lift the rifle to put him in the sights. This is the part that seems hardest, the big step that really makes things happen. Puts the past and everything still coming on separate sides and changes it all for good.

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