Fiction · 04/23/2014

Cards, Jacks and Wooden Guns

Cards, jacks and wooden guns with clothes pins clipping rubber bands like bullets stretched tight and ready. These were my toys. My stories were of ghosts told by a frail woman, a Christian for decades, who told them as the truth, the way a grandmother will do and a good churchgoer.

My favorite toy was a wooden cowboy on horseback, dirty black chaps, green coat with a red bandana, dark steed beneath him at full speed. The green coat flying back from his hip in that imagined wind just enough to show his revolver. I always asked my grandmother, the teller of truth, what kind of gun the cowboy, soon named Jake, carried. She looked at the carved tiny gun, sat back and deliberated for a moment, sipping coffee. I liked that she gave my questions a lot of thought.

“I’d say a Colt. 45,” she said evenly. “Most of them carried that sort of gun then. Not later. Poppy, my daddy, carried an old .22 with him, especially when he was building shine stills or collecting from them. And most of all when he went into town. But back then, it was that Colt. It’s a heavy gun, and powerful.”

She eased into her chair and sipped more coffee, sat back up. Her eyes were sad and droopy. I’d not seen her face like this before.

“I’ll tell you a something,” she said. She sat her coffee down. “A .22 ain’t powerful. I know because that’s the gun I shot Max Lowe with after he burned Poppy up in his hunting cabin.” She didn’t look away from me for a second. “It went in the front of his head, I reckon, and got stuck between the skin around his noggin and against his skull. Made a round trip and came out the other side. All Max Lowe was left with was a couple blowed out cuts on each side and a mighty headache, I figure. That, and a bad awful grudge.”

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The next two days I spent building a gun of my own from scraps of wood at the edge of the house. Two clothes pins glued to the top once the wood there was smooth and whittled to barrel-round. A circular saw would have been faster and a jig saw to make the curves and tiny cuts, but none were handy. Plenty around, just none of them were going to be handy to me without sneaking. No time to get in trouble.

To keep out splinters, I used sandpaper to smooth out the edges, my pocket knife to slice some grooves and a dimple dent in the end of the barrel. The glue for the clothes pins came last. I had a pocket full of rubber bands. Without adding any paint just yet, my gun was in working order by the end of the second day.

The last thing I took care of before going home when the street lights flickered against the evening sky was pop loose the clothes pins, sand down the glue left there and toss the rubber bands.

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“It’s the truth before God,” she said another night. “They had to go get your aunt Pebble out of the school room and tell her that Poppy had burned up. She was in the first grade. That’s just how they told her, that he burned up. They could’ve said it some other way, you know?”

She kissed my forehead then and left the bedroom, the one she made up just for me when I was sent to live with her and Papaw. The dark and how it made me feel surprised me, and the sound of the wind chimes outside surprised me. I was jumpy. I kept seeing Poppy in his cabin, but all bent out of shape and black and however he must have been when they found him. I checked under the mattress for my gun. It was there. When the chimes started up again, I brought it out and put it on my chest. Just a wooden toy, but Jake was there, too. On the nightstand beside me. All of us wooden.

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I came to live with my grandparents when I was seven, two years ago. My mom and dad call about once a week to check on me, to check if I was behaving. I’m always behaving now. I understood what it meant to have two options – either live with my grandparents or go to a place where they put kids who set fire to their neighbor’s yards.

It was an accident. Me and Kent Sullivan were pretending to camp out like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett in the field beside my house. It wasn’t even a yard, like they say, just a big field far as I could tell. Nobody ever tended it. We took paper bags from the grocery store and cleared out a spot and set it with matches. It was fine for a little while but then the field, because it being summer and everything, caught fast. The fire department had to come and everything within a quarter mile was warm from the flames. I remember most the smoke covering all of the sky, looking at it while Dad whipped me in the middle of the road with Kent Sullivan watching.

Nobody explained to me the place where boys go when they set fire to a neighbor’s yard, which I didn’t even know was a yard. I just liked when we came here for breakfast. Not just bacon and eggs and biscuits and gravy. Pork chops, fried potatoes and apples, too. Now it seems dark, even in the daytime. I wonder if the place where boys like me go is dark. Probably. Kent Sullivan could be there for all I know. Still, it was an option meant to scare me. But that place might not have people who shoot other people in the forehead for burning things up.

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Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collection The Same Terrible Storm, recently nominated for the Chaffin Award, and the upcoming collection Where Alligators Sleep. His writing has been widely published and anthologized, and he was a judge’s selection winner in 2012 for the Still Fiction Award and a finalist in 2013 for the Gertrude Stein Award. He survives in Eastern Kentucky.