Ben Fountain: Four Stories
(from Issue Four)
DRIVING HOME, he said to himself, I might die today. It was his wife’s incoherence that scared him, not the rage but the wailings and gasps of a woman who’d possibly lost her mind. So if you were really so smart, he told himself, you would’ve hidden the guns when this started.
Pulling into the driveway, he saw his golf clubs sticking out of the trash can, some snapped midshaft, others missing their heads. The symbolism wasn’t lost on him. He stepped into the kitchen to find his wife standing there with the 12-gauge aimed at his head.
“Sit,” she said.
Like his knees had been clipped, that’s how fast he sat. Directly across from him, pasted to the mirror, was the love letter from his girlfriend. His wife had torn the letter to shreds, then taped it back together piece by mortifying piece. Now the shotgun leveled down on his chest. “Start talking,” she said. “You’re going to tell me everything.”
HE HADN’T KNOWN pain like this was even possible. From time to time he tried to detach for a moment, just to get a proper appreciation of it, but the pain always dragged him right back in. He’d gotten careless, gone native, neglected his pills; no one had told him malaria hurt like this, like your bones were curling irons, like your eyes were going to dry up and fall out of your head. Meanwhile the young German nun, the only other white for miles around, was sitting by his bed and praying for him in her goofy, overenthusiastic English. For which he was thankful, truly, but why couldn’t she be just a little bit good-looking. That would help, he was sure. That would mean so much.
His housekeeper appeared in the doorway. Sampson is here, she said in Creole. He’s downstairs, he’s waiting out in the yard.
He nodded without lifting his head off the pillow. The young nun kept praying. So I’ll just die, he thought, that’s all there is to it. Sampson was waiting outside with a baggie of grade-A sinsemilla, but nothing could be done while the nun was here. For the first time in years, he felt homesick, and groaned. The nun placed her hand on his head and prayed louder.
HE WAS DRIVING to a meeting in the capital when the 4Runner cut him off, and faster than you would believe three men were hauling him out from behind the wheel and into the backseat, two wedging him in on either side while the third slid into the driver’s seat and peeled out.
Ou pral mouri, said the one with the gun. You’re going to die. They took the gold chain from around his neck, his wedding band, his watch, the wallet and cell phone, then told him he was being held for ransom and if his family didn’t pay he was going to pral mouri for sure, and that’s when he started talking. I’ve lived here for 10 years, he said, I married a woman of this country and we have two kids and I work for an NGO, I don’t have any money. He talked, he declaimed with great force of concentration, and what his Creole lacked in grammar and precision he more than made up for with heartfelt passion.
Give him his ring back, the one with the gun finally said. They kept everything else, the car, the valuables, and left him standing by the road with that wedding band burning a seal around his finger.
THE FAMILY WAS so mind-bogglingly rich that of course they couldn’t help fighting over money. The old man, the grandfather—or was it great-grandfather?—had made a pile in bauxite or tungsten, some exotic extractable that no one remembered, but there were stories—lots of stories, legends, myths—about the old man’s genius for turning a buck, and genes like that didn’t simply fall from trees. They all had it, that genius gene. The god of DNA wanted it so, and on-the-sly blood tests always made sure.
Mom and dad divorced quite some time ago. “Serial marriers,” said that wag of a poor cousin, and the family tree became a thicket that sorely needed pruning. The children went off to find themselves on half a million a year. “Awfully quiet around here,” said mom, who’d been gifted in her halcyon sexual past with a shoal of diamonds that spelled out Work Is For Suckers. They all knew the meaning of the phrase per stirpes. Didn’t everyone? Trust funds made for steady income and minimal contact, though it was never enough. Income, that is. “It’s not about the money!” the kids screeched at least three times a day. It was all about honor, integrity, a square deal, not to mention your own kids’ inheritance. You owed it to the offspring to fight for your share; the psychology of being chumped was quite damaging, and once the first lawsuit started it was all in. “The domino theory proved at last,” cracked the cousin. Lawyers begat lawyers, who begat PR consultants, who begat certain phrases that got tossed around like lye-laced water balloons. “It’s tragic.” “It’s so unfortunate.” “I love my [brother, mother, father, sister], but….”
When mom died of something wasting and horrible the kids sucked it up and came to church, because she was, well, their mother, and the PR flacks insisted. Open casket, incense, choir, the works. As each kid walked up to say good-bye and see what lay in store, they gasped. The good stuff, Mom was covered in it: the Mogul emerald, the palm-sized butterfly brooch, the Work Is For Suckers diamonds, they were all going down with the ship. Dad watched from the front row, immensely pleased. He knew the kids would not object, not here, not today. No scenes. But tomorrow everyone would be screaming for their lawyers.
IN THE DREAM the city was being evacuated for reasons that were never explained. Everyone had to leave, and there was, naturally, the absurd detail amid all the fret and urgency: Because it was raining, they should bring only one suitcase each, in order to have a free hand for holding their umbrellas. At first he was with his wife, the two of them moving with the crowds through a series of bland, upscale urban spaces. Bank lobbies, stone plazas, escalators trimmed in chrome, a constant shuffle in and out of the rain. His wife knew the basic plan, but it wasn’t as clear as it needed to be. They kept calling his father and older sister for clarification—they were to meet somewhere, take the subway to the airport?—and that was a trick, juggling cell phone, luggage, umbrellas in that steady drumming rain.
They stood to the side as people hurried by. The anxiety had an unformed, preliminary feel. At some point he and his wife became separated, but he had her on the cell. “Which way?” he asked, standing in yet another plaza, trying to read the street signs through the rain, and the next morning he said very deliberately to himself: You have dreamed about your father. While shaving, he replayed the dream in his mind, his father’s slow, ponderous voice as he gave directions over the phone. It had been incredibly irritating, how slowly his father had talked, but it was calming, too, that display of self-control. He’d heard fear in his father’s voice, but it was under control, and driving to work he thought: Suppose you dreamed you were sleeping, and in that dream-sleep you were having another dream that you gradually understood was a dream within a dream, but without upsetting the flow of the dreams. So that deeper dream, he thought, becoming conscious of it, maybe that was your mind telling you that you’d died.
At the office, he sat at his desk and worked. Just before lunch, he called home, 1,200 miles away. He talked to his mother for several minutes, then asked, How’s Dad?
He’s right here, I’ll put him on. Then his father came on the line and said, We had over an inch of rain last night, and boy did we need it.
JERRY BALDWIN WOULD sit with us in study hall sometimes. He didn’t really belong, though he seemed to think he did, and we, or at least most of us, basically tolerated him, his monotone, his deadly dull earnestness, his obsession with arcane sports trivia. He was a football player, a middle-school lineman of some promise who’d stopped growing around 9th or 10th grade, which gave his bulk a vaguely pointless air. The rest of us were runners: cross-country in the fall, track in the spring, and maybe an ounce of spare body fat among us. Our suburban cross-country course went down Jerry’s street; meets were Friday afternoons, football games were Friday nights, and after school on those days Jerry would fix himself a couple of pregame sandwiches and sit out on his front steps, eating and cheering us on as we ran by. Showing his school spirit, I guess, or whatever species of solidarity he felt toward us.
It wasn’t mutual. We thought we were so much smarter than Jerry; we were certainly faster, and more sarcastic, and it shames me now to think how we treated him. During track season, he did shot put and discus, and his little brother would follow him around the infield during meets, solemnly carrying his big brother’s gym bag and sweats. That was another Baldwin joke, how this boy was such a dead-on miniature of Jerry: the same rhino plod, the fat thighs that rubbed together, the pale, blunt head so much like a big toe.
A few years later, this boy was killed in front of their house. He was mowing the grass one day, and stepped out into the street just when a car came hurtling over the rise. We were in college by then; Jerry had gone to junior college to play football—still hoping, evidently, for that last growth spurt. I hadn’t seen him since graduation, but on hearing of his brother’s death, I tried in the way that we always do to put myself inside the tragedy; to imagine, if only approximately, how one might cope with the enormity of something like that.
I couldn’t, of course. We never can. Years passed. I graduated from college and moved away, married, started a family of my own. I stopped running; too many injuries, too little time, though if you’ve ever run that way it never really leaves you. We would always come back for Christmas visits, and one cold, rainy day we were driving far out in the country, going to or coming from some family gathering. Up ahead I spotted a man running along the road. A maniac, obviously, one of the hardcore; even in my youth I’d never been that crazy, to take it so far out on such a brutal day. I glanced at him as we passed, an ex-runner’s tic, and I’d settled back in my seat before it hit me: Jerry Baldwin. He was lean, all muscle and sinew, and taller than I remembered. The entire shape of his body had changed; there was only that pale, blunt face to know him by, but even that was transformed by the sense of distance about his eyes, which had the calm and focus, the fixed unthinkingness, of a man who’s been running for a very long time.
Ben Fountain‘s debut novel, recently published by Ecco, is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. He is also the author of a short-story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. He grew up in North Carolina and has lived in Dallas, Texas, since 1983.