I heard the gunshot at noon. “It’s about time,” I said to myself, as I sipped my third cup of coffee. Jim had gone out late that morning with my father’s old rifle in his hand, mumbling about how he was going to deal with things. He’s not exactly what you would call a man of action in most circumstances, and I wasn't sure what to say. Does a man with a gun need words of encouragement? I rolled that thought around in mind as I sat at the chipped formica table in the kitchen, filling random numbers into the boxes of the Sudoku puzzle and waiting to see what would happen.
I thought he’d be gone twenty minutes, but I guess these things sometimes take hours. “Hunting is an art,” my father used to say, before he crashed his pickup into the side of a highway overpass one night as he drove home from the cabin in Hayward. There was an empty pint of Wild Turkey underneath the dash and a twelve-point buck in the truck bed, a bullet in its brain. I was thirteen years old and I still haven’t forgiven him for screwing up like that. But that was a long time ago and I’ve worked hard to put those thoughts away. If you dwell on the past it will eat you alive, one slow, painful bite at a time. Jim helped teach me that lesson. “The past is past,” he said to me one night as we lay on the hood of his car, the warm summer darkness draped around us like a worn, familiar sweatshirt. “You've got to give it up.” I saw the whites of his eyes in the dark, unblinking.
When I met Jim—three winters ago at the Saint Ignatius Friday fish fry—he was smoking behind the gymnasium and I bummed one of his cigarettes. The collar of his denim jacket was turned up against the cold and when we drove off in his car with the shaky exhaust pipe I didn't look back. Jim was exactly what I was looking for at the time, which was trouble, but I think we straightened each other out in the end, with only three or four regrettable tattoos between us. “What you need is a man who will love you just as you are,” my mother said, right before she covered up the gray in her hair and moved down to Pensacola. She may have been right.
So when Jim came over the night he got out of jail and asked me to marry him, I said yes. He looked so embarrassed when he proposed, like he was sure I'd say no, and I couldn't bear to break his heart. All my friends were already sliding toward divorce or pregnant with their third kid and shacked up in one of the little go-nowhere towns that dotted our county like sprinkles on a cupcake. I was beginning to feel old. The skin around my eyes had started to crinkle and I'd found strands of gray in my thick dark hair, which I plucked, one by one, squinting through the twinge of pain. I knew Jim had some bad habits, and I'd been thinking about telling him to get lost after the most recent bar fight, the one where he'd knocked out two of Brian Larsen's teeth for no good reason that I could see. But bad habits can be broken. I knew from experience.
Peter Knudsen, one of our town's three cops, had hauled Jim off that night at the bar, apologizing to me as he wrangled my boyfriend's heavy body into the back of the cruiser. “I don't have much of a choice, Katie,” he said. “You shouldn't let him drink so much.” Peter had played football in high school and sat behind me in ninth grade algebra. Every day in class that year I could feel his eyes on the back of my neck. Sophomore year, after the homecoming dance, I'd let him touch my breasts (under the top of my dress, over the bra), as I leaned against the lockers in the hallway by the science labs and tried to figure out what the big deal was. That faraway night was in mind as I drove home alone from the Wayside Tavern, listening to the static crackle on the radio and wondering if I'd made a mistake back then, that maybe I should have let Peter under my bra.
But I can't undo what's done, so here we are. Jim works every day and I stay home unless the temp agency calls and says they need someone to answer phones in an office in LaCrosse or Winona. On Fridays we still go to the fish fry. On Saturdays, like today, we sleep late. Which is why I didn't realize that Penelope, the cat, was missing until 10 or so, after I'd showered and started making pancakes. I knew right away who was to blame. For weeks, the coyote had been skulking around the fringes of the yard in the evening, and on a few mornings I'd found the remains of once of our hens scattered about in the dirt—bones, a beak, a few bloodied feathers. Losing the chickens didn't bother me too much. An animal has to eat, just like the rest of us. But when I realized the cat was gone, I lost it. Jim came into the kitchen and saw me crying into the batter. At first, I tried to tell him it was just hormones, but I’m a terrible liar. He said, “Penelope?” I nodded. That’s when he disappeared into the hall closet, where we keep the rifle on the back of the top shelf.
Jim came in fifteen minutes after that single shot, letting the storm door slam behind him and stomping his feet in the mudroom. He kicked off his work boots, leaving tiny mounds of slush to melt into puddles on the concrete floor. His T-shirt was streaked with dirt, and when he stripped it off I realized for the first time how soft and white his skin had turned since taking the job at the call center six months ago. I closed my eyes and rested my hand on my belly, feeling the baby kick inside. Jim came over and put his hand on top of mine. “I’ll take care of everything,” he said. “You know that, right?”
Megan Elliott is originally from the Chicago area and now lives in San Diego. Her work has appeared in pacificREVIEW, City Works, and A Year In Ink, Vol 7.