by John Brantingham
After Ginny and the kids were in bed, I was still awake and still drunk enough to be wobbly on my feet. I was feeling philosophical and romantic, and I wanted to go outside and see the snow coming down in the little puddles of brightness the street lights made.
I still had some bourbon left in the bottle, so I poured myself another in a highball glass and sat on the porch in my good winter coat with the lights out just watching as it all came down. A couple of poor guys drove by in cars. The snow splashed around their tires and formed ice ravines in the road, and I felt bad that they had to be out on a night like this. A small herd of deer trotted down the sidewalk. I could hear them snorting in loud, breathy pants. I felt bad for them too.
I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep until the guy who delivered newspapers tossed one that landed with a thud at my feet, and I stood up startled and shivering. I’d had my legs up on a hassock, so the lower parts of my legs were covered in snow. The clouds had cleared, and the moon was out. The wicker settee I’d been sitting on had let the cold come up beneath me. When I let myself in, the shivering turned to shaking, and I had to get into the shower to warm myself. By the time I’d gotten myself heated and dried off and into bed, I could hear Ginny up in the kitchen clanking dishes. I thought of her going up into the attic to get the hunting rifle that pop had bought me and putting a couple rounds into my chest as I slept, and I laughed to think of it, to think of her as being anything but too kind.
It was Saturday, so I closed my eyes and let myself sink into the covers. When I finally got out of bed, Ginny and the kids were gone and just to see exactly how gone they were, I checked the hall closet. She’d packed the suitcases and taken them. She’d taken the kids’ clothes and their favorite toys too, and I didn’t blame her or them or anyone, not even me. This wasn’t the first time she’d left, and if the precedent held from the last time, she wouldn’t be back for a few days.
Me nearly freezing and her leaving seemed destined, as if some ancient nameless god had preordained it all to teach me and the family something about the nature of life. I didn’t like it much, but this was how it was. I missed the shutdown and quarantine and how close we’d all been for those first few weeks when no one knew what was going to happen. It had a kind of end of the world feel, and Ginny and I decided silently to make the best of everything and simply love each other as we were.
That time had seemed like a moment in between, and she had drunk with me and then we’d spend the days hanging out with the kids. I’d started working out of the house, but even then, it had been like there was no outside, no other world, no time, just us, and while the rest of the world worried and moaned, I’d secretly wished for that quarantine-limbo to never end. Limbos aren’t supposed to end.
That evening on the porch, with my bottle and some blankets underneath me, I put a tarp over my legs. When it started to snow, I snuggled into myself. I watched the deer graze on my lawn and the cars filled with the poor bastards who had to commute on a Saturday night. I poured myself a tall one and used a handful of snow instead of ice. The crystals liquified into the brown, and I felt good.
I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until I felt a presence next to me on the porch, Ginny fiddling with the keys. When I stood, she jumped, so I figured she hadn’t seen me there. The deer were back, munching away at the neighbor’s bush. She stared at me, not moving for a long moment, probably wondering if I was still drunk. I wondered that too.
I followed her into the house, and she turned to me when I’d closed the door. She said, That was the last time.
The last straw?
She nodded. Yes.
I understand, I said. I’ll be moved out by next weekend, and you can bring the kids back.
I’m not kidding, she said.
I knew that I could talk my way out of this if I wanted to. She loved me more than was sensible. Instead, I said, You’re right. I’m not a good influence on the children.
This isn’t fair.
I know, and it’s my fault.
She grabbed what she’d come for and left. After she’d gone, I went up to the attic and found the rifle my father had given me all those years ago. I had never fired it, but now, I took it out of its case, still unloaded. I aimed it at one of the deer in the yard across the street.
Boom, I said.
I aimed it at the next and said, Boom.
I kept saying boom and boom and boom until I had pretended to kill the entire family of eight. When they were all pretend-dead, I watched them eat the neighbors’ bushes, and I thought about absolutely nothing. That void was a comfortable darkness that never ended and pulled everything near me into it. I was in there, and I’d brought the deer inside by fake-slaughtering them, and I’d brought the sounds that an empty house makes, and it would all last forever in my little pocket universe. And that felt right.
John Brantingham was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks’ first poet laureate. His work has been featured in hundreds of magazines, Writers Almanac and The Best Small Fictions 2016 and 2022. He has nineteen books of poetry and fiction including Life: Orange to Pear (Bamboo Dart Press). He is the founder and general editor of The Journal of Radical Wonder. He lives in Jamestown, NY.