“What kind of dog is that!?” yells Mark, fogging up the back seat window. I bite my tongue hard. Hard enough to imagine drinking a hot cup of coffee with this jerk later on and trying not to show the aggravation in my eyebrows.
“Mark, no. Leave the windows up,” I tell him. I look back at the dog and only one ear goes up this time. I can't take it anymore.
“Well anyway, her name's Kelly and she just absolutely loves everyone,” he says. Typical. “I don't wanna freak anybody out or nothin' but I lost both my legs a long time ago–back in The Long War. Kelly's been helpin' me out,” he says. The dog's already cute enough, Bud. I keep the gun trained at his head and raise my voice.
“Look, Jack. We need to get to Pittsburgh and we need this vehicle. Take this T.P. or leave it but–we need this van,” I tell him. It was worse than telling off Ron for the last time at our front door, Mark in the car-seat and Linda crying about starting a new school. This time, there's no grandparent's house to bring them to. There's no hotel. When it went down, we came back to an empty house and no sign of my ex-husband. Jack leans on his steering wheel, rubbing his forehead and looking off into the upper corners of his thoughts.
“Alright, hold on,” he says. “Not Pittsburgh, lady. Excuse me, what's your name?” he asks.
“It's fucking Ellen Degeneres,” I tell him and hold the gun tighter like I'll shoot him harder or something. “So–why not Pittsburgh?” I ask. I look at Linda, who folds her arms at me, and then at Mark, focused on the dog, not a care in the world.
“Pittsburgh's bad news. They got all kinds of government remnants trying to claim highway taxes in and out. You get in, that's one thing. All the T.P.'s gone around there and people're collecting scrap. Don't go down there unless you got a half-ton of steel you can trade. Ellen, if I can just call you that, you gotta get away from those cities,” he says. He's so confident with his hands draped over the steering wheel.
“So then–where do we go? Ride with you?” I ask him, still trying to pretend he's Ron and that a stupid answer waits for me somewhere.
“Well–” he answers, cut off by Linda smacking the side of the truck a few times.
“It's not like Grandpa's truck will arise from the dead anytime soon, Mom. If you shoot this guy then I'll forever blame you for ruining the only chance you had with a NORMAL GUY in years,” she says. I look at her again and her face has that Ronnish look again. She got me. Bitch. Who am I kidding? Amputated but relaxed does seem pretty normal these days.
“What is that? Twenty-gauge? Probably just bird shot in there, right?” Jack interrupts. He nods the tip of the barrel, next to his dog's face, pointed at his soft smile. It's the last straw.
I point the muzzle down and scream in the middle of Interstate Seventy-Nine. Linda comes over to me, reaching for my shoulder. The dog turns her own muzzle, confused by my rage and looks back at her owner, sliding carefully out of the driver's seat.
Jack waddles over to Linda and I, each foot looking tied down to a brick as he lifts it to its next spot on the asphalt. His boots are just like Mark's and he shoots him a thumbs up and a wink as he comes around the front of the van. Behind the window, Mark looks like he just met his favorite baseball player, wiping the fog away to get a better look. I take a step back, my elbow corralling Linda behind me and point the gun at the dotted lines between us. He puts his hands up again and then points at the back of the van.
“I just wanted to give y'all something. Something for your travels in case y'all don't want to hang around with a creep like me,” he says. He opens the back hatch and then another long plastic container lying across the trunk.
“Got a twelve-gauge for you. Instead of that little twenty. Good thing about the heavier metal is you can use these whammy shells,” he says, reaching in his jacket pocket. “It's like shooting a fat, steel slug at someone. Could even hurt their car–real bad.” The weight of the shell sinks in his hand like a roll of nickels.
“Did you just say, whammy shells?” I ask him. “Like that stupid game show? Press Your Luck? No Whammies, no Whammies?
“Yeah, that's right, I remember,” he laughs. “No more whammies for you.”
“Why're you being so nice to us–Jack?” I ask, trying to make the name sound dumb. I love his name.
“Well, Ellen. Ever since I got this new set of stilts, I'm just trying to help everyone else hold on to theirs. Having no legs ain't too good of a time,” he says, laughing at Mark, who finally releases a muted giggle after his silent admiration, fading away behind the fog again. My daughter finally unfolds her arms.
“My name's Linda, and that's Mark. I know my mother already introduced us in a very rude way, but hey, what are mothers for, right?” says Linda.
“Oh, I don't know about all of that. You kids ought to be nicer to your mom, out here on the highway, holding up some stranger with a shotgun. She's got a lot goin' on. Y'all could of ran into some character who decided to take her away from you. Why don't you hold on to this one,” he says, handing the twelve-gauge to Linda. “Now, you have two–no trades needed.”
“You mean THREE!” yells Mark, disobeying my order to keep the door closed, holding up the pellet gun. “My Dad got this for me and I shoot pigeons.” he continues.
“That's pretty neat there, Mister Mark,” says Jack. “You know, when my daddy gave me my first gun, do you know what he said?” he asks Mark, looking over to me for a moment and pausing, mentally telling me how nice my hair looks today even though I haven't shampooed it in months. He smiles again. “He said, 'Son, you don't ever have to shoot a living thing on this Earth if you don't want to, but if you do–you need to know that it's a trade. Gotta give something up for it. And don't you ever load this weapon with the intention of wanting something. You understand that?” he tells Mark. The more he talks, the more I watch his hips sway back and forth, keeping his balance on top of what might as well be a pair of stilts.
“Do you want to maybe sit back down, Jack?” I ask him. Linda doesn't speak–or look either. Mark grabs the pellet rifle from the seat next to him and looks at it like the thing can shoot laser beams now. Jack looks up and down the highway, sliding his hands into his pockets. Any other person could've blown him away by now and he probably wouldn't even bat an eye.
“I think it's getting dark soon. You guys wanna check out an old parking lot where you can get whatever kind car you want? Alls you need is a good battery to throw in it and some gas. Sound good? I got some rusty sheets of steel that still have some meat on 'em. Maybe find a nice min-van, bullet-proof it a little bit,” he says, stopping in order to reserve his plethora of tips and tricks, waiting for us to sound interested and not annoyed. I know that face. Again, this man wants nothing but to give to the woman pointing a gun at him, and I just want a generator so my kids have lights to pretend to do their homework with.
“Look, Jack. We're sorry. I'm sorry. My name's Patty, by the way. Could you maybe just drive us back up north a little. The border would be great. We've had a long day and we'd really appreciate your help,” I tell him. He finally lets out the smile and nod he's been saving, waiting for me to cave in. He helps us carry the Charmin over to his van, reciting every cute little anecdote about every cute little Patty he ever knew.
“That being said--ain't never met a Patty with a shotgun before,” he says. “Nice to meet you. That's for sure.”
Jack's van sits rumbling and idle, waiting for Linda and I to salvage what we can from Grandpa's truck. Mark's inside, reaching his arms out, amazed by the amount of room and seating options. Linda always gets shotgun, but now, Mark can have any seat he wants. It's even more amusing to the dog, her tail waving frantically for someone new to play with.
“You mind sitting gunner for me, Linda? Usually Kelly does it, but it seems we now have some more firepower available. Maybe your mom can catch a nap on the way home. Just in case?” asks Jack. Linda looks up at the driver's seat and then to me, grabbing the new shotgun and walking to the front of the van.
I sit on a bench seat with Mark, his head resting on my lap after only ten minutes north-bound. It feels good to sit in the back, to not be driving, or holding the gun, or keeping watch. I watch the green signs with names in German and Dutch and Seneca, no bullet holes on them. This is how Mark sees the world, trying to remember the French translations. We're going home; not to the house that used to be Ron's, but to the house that my children and I built; the house we defend.
I did need a nap and as I join Mark, snoring in the back seat of Jack's ugly church van, my last thought is that no one will mess with us when they see the bullet hole from one of those fancy whammy shells. Rita will start rumors about where we went and who this man is and how we got this other gun, or a new car. No one will understand her chirping through the muffled gas mask. I'll tell her we just needed to get out of the house for a while.
By Andrew Wiechert