The story of Johnny accidentally shooting the boy instead of the dog -- the dog having seized the boy's arm -- was really too awful for Gilbert to seek clarification. Sally insisted on telling it through about five cigarettes. Johnny was drunk. He liked handguns. She knew something would happen -- if not the gun, the dog. I told him, she said. At least everyone was alive and would recover. Johnny was remorseful, but still drank too much. She'd have to support him now because he lost his job with the county. He promised to have therapy. She spoke of therapy as if it were a series of surgical procedures that would remove growths from her husband, nasty character defects that had surfaced.
They should start by removing his shooting hand, thought Gilbert. The nasty white- noise sound the kid had made running from room to room sounded as if it were in the back seat. He turned around to make sure the boy wasn't there.
Like other people in front of him Gilbert stepped out of his car, only to notice that his exit was to his immediate right -- a few yards away. How could he not have seen it, a name often on the morning traffic reports. He made a series of right turns, boulevard to street to lane and parked in front of a house that was barn red and white. The curtains were drawn and the lawn was unmowed and swampy with the sprinklers on full.
Sally had given careful instructions about entering the backyard. Johnny, she'd said, would be on a deck by the pool lifting weights and drinking beer. He wouldn't answer the door. He had trouble using the house after the shooting. You'll have to go, she said, to the gate on the side of the house. And make sure the dog is tied up. Johnny is one of those guys who likes to call the dog off people just before it bites. And if the dog wasn't enough she mentioned guns. Johnny always had a few handguns on the picnic table. He liked to clean them while he was lifting weights.
There had been a good deal of nostalgia in Sally's instructions, even a few tears. She wished it hadn't happened. They'd been drinking and the boy had startled the sleeping dog. At that point she began crying. A cigarette waved up and down with each sob. Gilbert wanted to slap her. The boy had run up and given his mother a half-hug then sped off to the bathroom and turned all the faucets on.
Gilbert removed his sandals, expensive leather sandals with generous arch supports he'd bought to wear when he had to stand for prolonged periods. His feet oozed down into the soil as he walked across the lawn sprayed by the sprinklers. At the gate he called for Johnny, like a whore yelling for a GI. A TV was playing, but there were no other sounds. He called again.
"Just a minute."
A nude man approached. He had a huge upper body, but skinny white legs. Johnny had a baby face, sandy hair, a big rock star mouth, small unfocused eyes and a can of beer.
"You got something for me?" asked Johnny as he unlocked the gate.
The dog wasn't in sight, but Gilbert could only see the walkway by the side of the house and what he assumed to be the cement around the pool.
"The dog is chained. You got something for me? We'll have a beer first. You'll have a beer with me before I sign away my life, won't you?"
"Sure. I left my briefcase in the car."
"It'll stay there. This is a good neighborhood."
The dog was chained in the shade in the back corner of the yard. The chain wrapped around some plumbing and looked very secure, slightly exaggerated. The dog was sleeping in an area littered with excrement and discolored from urine.
The pool was large, almost too large for the backyard. A covered deck had been built right up to the edge of the pool. Johnny appeared to live on the deck with expensive lawn furniture, a table with TV and VCR, a small refrigerator, free weights, bench and Soloflex machine. The last images of porno disappeared suddenly as he stopped the VCR.
"Be with you in a minute."
Johnny gave Gilbert a beer and finished his workout, hissing after each rep. Gilbert looked around, but he'd already seen enough. He didn't appreciate having to wait for Johnny to finish working his biceps. After Johnny finished, he put on his shorts again and sat with a beer.
"How's Sally and the kid?"
"They seemed fine. They said hello."
"Yeah, I talked to them while you were driving out here. You're Gilbert."
"Right, Gilbert Forbes."
"You must think I'm a real shit."
"Something like that."
The sky was sulphurous and close. Gilbert was sweating. He hadn't cooled down from the drive and the air was not moving, unusually humid.
"I am a shit. At least a shit. I drink too much. I won't do anything to change. I won't work. I just drink beer, lift weights and buy porno. I don't rent, I buy."
If Gilbert were working in another capacity -- as a therapist -- he might have pursued the significance of the buying over renting porno, but he didn't.
"I've never been divorced. Easy?"
"Not at first."
Johnny lay back in his chair and smelled his armpits. He was restless, got up and had a drink out of a bottle he kept in the freezer, perhaps tequila.
"She's giving me this place. Me and the dog. I don't know if that's generous or if she thinks I'll just shoot myself, shoot the dog, then myself."
The dog had not moved. It did not look healthy.
"I'm giving up the rights to my kid because I don't deserve them. I just get the house so I can sit here and go nuts." Johnny stopped and made a going-nuts face, which was less menacing than his real face, furiously atop of his overdeveloped torso.
"I got money for a year or two. I can just work on my body and let my head go to hell. Does that sound like fair punishment?"
"I'm not here to tell you what kind of punishment you need."
"Right. You saw the kid though. He ain't right now having his arm missing. I know it fucked him up having his old man shoot him. That's just common sense. I got some common sense."
"The kid seemed traumatized."
"That's the word I wanted."
Johnny was looking through a pile of cassette tapes. He couldn't choose. He had the same kind of frantic energy his son had. Maybe it wasn't the missing arm.
"Want to go for a swim? I've got some trunks that will fit you."
Gilbert had been eyeing the pool since he'd entered the back yard and saw the dog in chains. Now he could have a swim and clear his head (he still heard the boy at play), then get the paperwork signed. He planned on finding an air-conditioned lounge and killing time until after traffic.
The trunks were big, shapeless. Gilbert wandered into the house. The scene of the shooting was not apparent. The living room was full of garish furniture. The front door was secured by a police lock, the kind Gilbert had seen in New York. A steel rod on a diagonal ended in a crude hole drilled through the carpet into the slab. Maybe this guy's a speed freak, thought Gilbert.
He stepped into a bathroom and changed.
Johnny was already in the pool splashing around, cooling off. He got out and found his beer just as Gilbert jumped in feet first. His head cleared in the cool water, and as his feet gently touched bottom, he pushed off toward the dog end of the pool. He surfaced in the opposite corner. The dog hadn't moved. It was dumb looking, more liver colored than brown, more neglected than vicious.
The dog end of the pool smelled from the excrement. Gilbert went under and swam back to the deep end. It wasn't just the cement where the dog was chained, the water smelled as well.
"What am I signing?" asked Johnny.
"Didn't they go over everything with you?"
"Yeah, but I didn't have a lawyer."
"Maybe that was a mistake."
The mistake, thought Gilbert, was getting in this stinking pool. He struggled to get out, but his arms did not support his body. Amused, Johnny sat crosslegged on the deck above Gilbert blocking his way out.
"I got the house. That I know. But the kid's another story."
Johnny lit a cigarette and exhaled. Gilbert hung on to the side of the pool resigned to hear what Johnny had to say. If he argued, he'd never get the papers signed. With his free hand he took the beer Johnny had put on the deck for him.
"I won't contest custody. I did wrong. The kid needs some time to understand that I didn't shoot him because I was mad at him. It was an accident."
At the hotel Sally had used the word accident. They seemed to understand the word as luck, good or bad. She'd lit a cigarette and told the story of buying the lottery ticket and not knowing she'd won for several days until the name of the convenience store was announced. The rest of the story -- moving to California -- was predictable. They came to San Francisco as tourists and bought in the suburbs. Sally was very young with unrestrained gestures and a giddy voice. She been dressed by her checkbook in pearls, loop earrings, a halter top with a tattoo above a breast, Guess shorts and cared-for toenails. She only stopped talking when she carefully planted the cigarette between her lips and carefully removed it from the slight pull of her lipstick.
Gilbert swam to the other side. He used the ladder.
"I miss them already," said Johnny. "The kid was having nightmares. If I'd have gotten rid of the dog, we could have worked it out. I've tried to shoot him, but I can't. That's the problem. One of these days I'm going to shoot the dog. He knows it too. I'm going to shoot the dog and sell the house. Sally and I and the kid are going to take an ocean voyage when this is settled."
"The water stinks, Johnny."
"I've got pool service."
"It still stinks. I'm going to take a shower. Do you have a towel?"
"There's a closet by the bathroom."
In the shower Gilbert found soap hanging at the end of a rope, pendulous and obscene. He could not bring himself to use it. The designer shampoo, though, was strong and effective in masking, if not removing the smell. He dripped across the hallway. The towels had been draped over a modified shotgun that looked booby-trapped. He carefully removed a towel.
Gilbert dressed quickly.
"I'll get the papers."
"Bring a pen," said Johnny. He was sitting in front of the TV.
The inside of the car was very hot. By the time he returned to the deck with the papers, his clothes were damp and he smelled like the dog.
"He's bringing the papers now," said Johnny on the phone, suddenly upbeat. "Sure I'm going to sign them. I miss you and the kid. You do. Maybe a year? Gilbert, Sally wants to talk to you."
Gilbert took the phone.
"I was thinking that maybe I don't want Johnny to sign the custody papers," she said. "I don't know if it's right. It was a bad accident, but it was an accident."
"I'd say sign them. You can always change your mind later."
"I'll sign them," said Johnny fingering the cross he wore around his neck. "We worked it out. I got to think this out. I like having it on paper."
Gilbert handed the phone to Johnny.
"Honey. We'll do this the way we planned. We got to give it six months. Right. Six months. I'll get rid of the guns and the dog. Maybe we'll get an RV and do that for a while. So I'm going to sign them. Gilbert drove out here in the heat so I should send him back with the right paperwork. Love you. Tell little Johnny that Daddy loves him. Will he talk to me?"
Johnny waited. Two women were in bed together on the video. Gilbert could see Sally running around the hotel room after the boy trying to get him to talk to his father.
"He won't talk right now?" said Johnny. "Tell him Daddy loves him."
Johnny put the phone down. His face was sad, tightening.
Gilbert had the papers ready. Two copies.
"That's that. Maybe I'll shoot the dog now."
"Can you give me a minute?" asked Gilbert.
Gilbert gathered his sandals and briefcase.
Johnny had a pistol ready. He turned the volume on the TV up full. Gilbert could hear women moaning as he sloshed directly across the lawn to his car.
A single shot reverberated through the neighborhood. Gilbert's feet slipped on the pedals as he drove away.
In Posse: Potentially, might be ...