Big-Game by Chris Dungey
How long can it possibly take a supposedly motivated shop-rat to cash a paycheck, minus the $5 fee, knock back just one draft, as he promised, then buy six for the road? For the umpteenth time, Hector Fritch consults his wristwatch in the dashboard lights. And now a cold, early April rain has begun to spatter the windshield. He flips the wipers, smearing the reflected neon of Jack’s Bar where he has parked to wait. He’s gotta buy some wipers, soon, for this piece of crap. It’s a ten year-old Mercury wagon to replace the Comet GT he wrecked a month ago. At least the guy has already seen the rifle which is laying in its case on the back seat–seen, admired, and agreed to purchase after looking it over during lunch break. Of course, the deal must wait upon fresh funding. That buyer in there doesn’t seem to be the sort of good old boy to value savings, or even solvency through the entire work week. But, once secured, and the transaction completed, Hector will be a big step closer to putting together the lawyer fees. This is going to be a full DUI, not impaired driving like last time. The Big Leagues, as the lawyer had warned him.
The gun was a gift from his father. Five years ago, weary of having no car and no money, Fritch had quit college. He’d taken a job on the night shift at Pontiac Motors. The elder Fritch assumed that there was no more excuse why Fritch couldn’t go Up North for the annual whitetail opener along with the rest of his cousins and uncles. The kid hadn’t visited the family cabin in nearly a decade. The old man presented the weapon when Fritch showed up for breakfast one August morning after a few hours of overtime.
The gun was a bolt-action M1903 Springfield .30-.06 from World War I. The Garand stock had been sporterized to look like a big-game rifle–dark walnut stain, carved cheek-rest, rubber recoil butt, and cross-hatched grip. A high-powered Weaver scope had been mounted in front of the breech, replacing the peep-sights. It looked like something Hemingway would be grinning over, propped against the horns of a deceased Cape Buffalo. Fritch happened to be reading the Carlos Baker biography, a paragraph here and there whenever the line halted for a minute. There were plenty of illustrations.
Soon after that, plans for the hunt was put on a back burner. Things got in the way, more specifically he’d knocked up his girlfriend, Gwen, at an August wedding reception. At least that’s when they’d narrowed it down to, give or take, based on the missed period and onset of morning queasiness. She was seventeen and had been suspiciously voracious in the back seat of his new Comet GT, and on the fold out couch of his efficiency in town. Looking back, Fritch would recall how much she hated life with 6 brothers and sisters on the diary farm the family didn’t own.
At the reception Fritch remembered dancing and eating. He snuck Gwen drinks from the open bar at the Celeryville K of C Hall. Then there was the sweaty, tipsy thrash amid rolled up panty hose and his dress slacks left over from Senior prom, one pant-leg pulled inside out in haste. They were parked in the last possible row so the windows could be cracked for the humid night. An adjacent field of sweet-corn breathed over them.
Eight weeks later, Gwen had quit school and they hunted for an apartment with his last paycheck. General Motors was shut down for a strike that would turn out to be the longest in history. The leaves were beginning to turn and Fritch resigned himself to rake them for the old lawn-mowing customers of his youth. He tried to revisit the notion of deer hunting while Gwen applied make-up before going to her waitress job.
“We’ve been married three weeks and you need to get away from me already?”
Fritch thought he heard a break in her voice. For Christ’s sake, was she going to weep before her mascara was even done? He suspected a surge of the volatile hormones she’d been trying out.
“Nah. No. It’s nothing like that. But I kinda promised Pop last summer.” From behind, he placed his hands strategically on her hips. “It’s just for four days and you’ll be working anyway. Why don’t you have one of the other girls come stay a couple nights?”
Now Gwen actually sniffled. But then she squinted up and brought a tiny brush to an eyelash. “They’re going to put me in the kitchen pretty soon. I don’t know what’ll happen to my hours. They don’t want a minor waddling around out on the dining-room floor after a football game.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t seem fair.”
Fritch moved his hands up to massage her neck but Gwen shifted away. She said nothing more. Fritch knew her well enough from their seven months together to recognize the beginnings of a sustained pout.
He went to his picket duty twice each week. He raked three lawns and raked them again, burning the piles in the street when the village said it was legal or at the ends of driveways. He and a car-pool buddy from the plant painted the bungalow of an elderly couple. Gwen was relegated to the kitchen of Tillotson Family Restaurant. She didn’t complain again about the approaching hunting season. She complained about dishpan hands and the loss of tip money.
Wednesday evening, November 13th, Fritch waited for Gwen to get home from work. His dad would pick him up before dawn tomorrow for the opener on Friday. He had just cracked a can of cheap A&P beer when he heard Gwen’s tired trudge climbing the back staircase. “I don’t know why you can’t just go up Friday morning,” she began. “All you’re probably gonna do is drink.” She seemed to have prepared her argument on the way home. She unpacked some unclaimed take-outs onto the second-hand dinette.
“Dad wants to build his blind and I need to find I decent spot. What’ve you got there?”
“Fries. O-rings. One coney. One grilled cheese. A chili, feels like it might still be warm. And you’re not going into those bars in Lewiston? Don’t hookers from Saginaw go up there the first weekend?”
Fritch lifted the cardboard lid on the chili. “I guess we might. Whatever Dad and Patrick wanta do. Seriously, do you think those two will go looking for hookers? If that’s even true? Look, we’ll be home late Sunday afternoon. Did you invite Robin to come over?”
Gwen shrugged. She took the grilled cheese into the next room of the railroad flat, the living room. She plopped onto the thread-bare davenport and slowly unwrapped the wax paper. “Yeah, but she wasn’t sure. She might still have a life. Senior year gets busy.”
When Fritch had found a spoon and followed her, a single tear reflected in the glow of the black-and-white TV. “Move over.” He squeezed himself in between the arm and her hip.
When his buyer finally emerges Fritch probably hasn’t been waiting more than half-an-hour. It just seems longer. He’d started formulating excuses and alibis. Then remembered there was no hurry to get home. The driver’s side is cracked to keep him awake. Pay-day juke box music follows the guy out. He’s by himself so it must not be last call yet. He pulls a parka over his ball-cap and steps out of the doorway into the rain, squinting into the private parking lot. The owner of Jack’s rents spaces to the regulars so they can come straight in from work. Fritch flashes his parking lights.
“Ah, there you are. How ya doin’, partner?” the guy says as Hector climbs out. “Sorry, ’bout the wait. I got to talkin’.”
“No big deal.” Hector opens the back door and lifts out the gun case.
The buyer places his beers on the asphalt, slow rain drops pattering. He digs an envelope out of an inside pocket. “I prob’ly can’t talk you down to four hunnert, can I?”
Aww, fuck, Hector thinks. Here we go. “No sir, $450’s fair and I need all of it.”
“Yeah. Yep, I fig’ured as much.” He hands over the envelope and takes possession of the Springfield. “Don’t hurt to ask. My old lady’s gonna kick my ass.”
The envelope feels like a wad of tens. Hector resists the urge to count it. He settles for riffling through the stack to make sure it isn’t ones. “Well, good luck with that,” he says, closing the rear door.
The buyer hefts the case and Hector hopes he isn’t going to pull the gun out in the rain. “Gotta get this baby sighted in first, but I can’t wait for next fall.” Then he situates the case under an arm and reaches down for the six-pack. He heads toward his own car but turns back. “Say now. If ya’ll ever have any other pieces you figure to sell, come find me. I’m over in door-glass sub-assembly, South Trim.”
“I’ll do that,” Hector says, climbing behind the wheel.
It’s not that he hasn’t thought about it, but if he were ever to sell the little Winchester .410, Dad would hunt him down. His grandfather would haunt him. The gun is an actual heirloom, handed down; a sweet double-barrel, and very light; perfect for a woman or a kid. As he pulls on the headlights and eases into the street, Fritch pictures the first time Gwen fired it up at the gravel pit. They had moved to Lapeer by then and Wesley started in pre-school. The DNR had purchased a played-out gravel pit up at the end of their road for use as a target range. She got pretty good, hitting cans on sticks poked in the ground, even knocking down cans or milk jugs he tossed in the air. He heaved various objects as high and far as he could and she hit most of them. But they never got around to buying bird licenses. Fritch was convinced it would be pointless without a good dog.
He stops for the traffic light at Baldwin Avenue then turns north, out of Pontiac. That’s certainly one thing they could still try doing together. If he could talk her into coming back.
Retired auto worker in MI. Ride mtn. bike, sing in Presbyterian choir, feed two wood-stoves, watch plenty of Premier League, camp at sports-car races, spend too much time in Starbucks. More than 58 stories published. Last year in Icarus Down, Amaranth Review, Viewfinder, Ragazine, Aethlon; Journal of Sports Literature, Heart and Mind Zine, Eskimo Pie (twice), Birch Gang Review, Old Northwest Review.