Photograph by Steph Thompson
I DON'T HAVE A GUN AND I DON'T HAVE YOU
by Marcelle Heath
When Ellie comes into Western Appliance, I’m behind the counter waiting for the owner, Chase, to arrive. I have the package that my Aunt Ginny gave to me in my pocket, and I’m supposed to drop it off across town at eleven. It feels like a key, with baffling grooves and a tinny vibe.
I imagine it’s a key to a mailbox or lockbox or box of some sort. The box is candy-apple red. The kind of red that has unintended results. Maybe it’s not for a box at all but for a piece of expensive luggage sailing on a ship in the Baltic sea.
Issue #10 soundtrack: Will Stratton "Bluebells"
All the packages that Aunt Ginny has given to me are wrapped in thick brown paper I think French butchers must use to wrap fatty meats. The paper is always the same, but the contents vary greatly in size. I had to rent a moving truck for the last one, and spent the night driving it up the mountains in a blizzard. Aunt Ginny thinks it’s better if I don’t know what’s in them, just in case.
"How’s it?" Ellie asks. Ellie is tall and voluptuous, with doe eyes and a severe mouth. Everything about her seems ready to battle. In other words, she looks like how I want to look.
"Who’s on the job?" she asks, unloading her keys, cell phone and spare change onto the counter.
"Tim and Jay." Ellie and I are the only women who work here. All the men have monosyllabic names, and sport mustaches that they caress at every opportunity.
I love this job because of Chase, but my days here are numbered. For one, I page Ellie after hours when I know she’s with him. I also make sure to send her out with Jay, who gooses her when she’s underneath large objects. It was Sam who hired me but it will be Chase who will sack my sorry ass.
At my last job, I was accused of intimidation, of provoking the elderly clients. All I wanted was their stories. What they made of the world in which they lived. Perspective for the younger generation. A little inspiration! The place I worked at was called The Elderhaus. I took care of the independents. When I started I was given a list of activities that my clients might enjoy. Many horrified me. 4) Horseshoes. 9) Make tape recordings. 11) Visit Skyhawk casino. I had nightmares about sweet, arthritic Mr. Parker, breaking his wrist casually tossing a horseshoe, Mr. Allen confessing to his crimes, or Ms. Pendleton gambling her pension away in a single game of blackjack.
That’s where I met Chase Hughes. Chase owns Western Appliance and splits his time between Durango and Telluride. He has a wife from Morocco who lives in Seattle. They’ve lived apart for most of their twelve-year relationship and have a seven-year old daughter. I don’t know where Chase’s cash comes from but I know that he’s forty-six, plays the hurdy gurdy, and is allergic to peanuts. Other fun facts include his fear of dead ringers, the Ice Capades, and safes that might fall from the sky. It’s the sort of lunacy that I want to open up with this key in my pocket.
At the Elderhaus, Chase was a friend of Mr. Allen’s. I later learned that Chase had known Mr. Allen from the Illinois State Penitentiary. Chase was in for possession, Mr. Allen for sexual assault. Mr. Allen had no family, was pushing seventy, and had spent the last quarter century in and out of prison. Chase took care of him. After their release, Mr. Allen wanted to be close to the mountains, and so Chase had brought him here to Durango.
Mr. Allen was a dependent, and so he was not my client, but I knew that he was on dialysis and was popular with the residents. Chase visited twice a week for months, and so I was bound to run into him now and then. He always came with gifts for Mr. Allen and the others: large print books, DVD’s, candy. I had no interest in him until I found out that he wasn’t a relative. Then I took notice. It was silly of me, to think that he came without obligation.
Speaking of which, Aunt Ginny will not be happy if I lose this job. I have to be her eyes and ears in town, as she rarely ventures from her fortress in the mountains. As her transporter, I have to be flexible. While there’s no racket like the tourist industry and therefore no shortage of jobs, the jobs themselves are shitty. Long hours, little pay, and most importantly, no loyalty. It takes a couple of months at the least to build some trust, convince the boss that you’re a hardworking, responsible employee before you can begin to break that trust and get away with it. It gets harder as I get older. I'm pushing forty and have nothing to show for it. I have Aunt Ginny, true, but I don't have a career. Or a family. Or Chase.
Where is he? Sam said he was coming by sometime today. It’s 10:36. I have twenty-four minutes. I don’t want to leave and risk missing him. If I have to, I can be out the door by five, to and back by 11:15. I should be thinking about the logistics of my drop off, which will require me to remember a password, engage in "non-threatening" small talk with the person receiving said package, and make sure that no one sees me.
Aunt Ginny worries that I’ll get my heart broken, and she should because my heart’s a fault line waiting to crack wide open. What can I tell her about his habit of resting his head in his left hand and blowing his bangs from his eyes in one poof? Or that first time that he came up to me in the lobby of the Elderhaus and flicked my nametag with his forefinger and thumb. The pin poked my chest? I looked down and readjusted the tag, which was peeling at the edges.
"Stella Gold." He smiled at me. He said my name again as if it were a problem to be solved. He was careful with each syllable.
"Can I help you?" I said. I was holding my work schedule. I was angry because Ms. Moore had complained to my supervisor. The paper in my hand felt greasy and uncouth, as if by holding it I was revealing more than I wanted to. I flipped it over and pressed it against my leg.
"Perhaps. It’s about Mr. Allen."
"In 2B? I don’t work with him." We liked to put things in productive terms. We didn’t use words like "help" or "aid" or "nurse." We used words like "work with" and "facilitate" and "growth."
"You might want to talk to Gladys." I pointed down the hallway to the Activities Room.
"I might want to, but I don’t. I’d rather talk to you." He smiled again, and I noticed that he had a lot of metal in his mouth. I saw a flash of gold from the upper left.
What did he want? I wonder now. Ah, it was the bedding. Mr. Allen’s bedding. It irritated his skin. I felt a surge of affection for this man’s concern over his friend’s skin. Chase asked about the detergent we used, and the thread count of our sheets. I told him that we used chemical-free detergent (a lie), and that the thread count exceeded 300 (another lie).
"Stella, you’re fucking with me," he said. He put his hand on my shoulder, as if to say-- what?
As if to say, Fuck with me. I won’t mind.
"I know what it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you back," Aunt Ginny said. We were drinking our morning tea at the kitchen table, watching the sunrise through the trees. It was going to be a busy day. A drop off in Farmington, a place Durangoans like to poach from for its cheap labor force and commercial goods, and which can only be described as apocalyptic.
Aunt Ginny, of course, was referring to my father, the one and only love of her life.
It’s 10:45. Tim and Jay stop in for parts while I handle a call about a leaky dishwasher. Sam is in the back doing inventory. I don’t know where Ellie is. I check the schedule, fax an order, and brush my unruly hair. This task is painful in its futility.
I do it anyway and press my hand against the package in my pocket. From a certain angle, it may look like I’m pressing my hand against myself, in the quick manner of an inexperienced masturbator.
I move my fingers over it. Now, the key feels like it has multiplied into a hundred sharp angles. Conflict diamonds, I think. A funny phrase, conflict diamonds. It’s supposed to elucidate but ends up lessening its meaning. Conflict, as if war were an argument started over a family dinner.
My family tree will tell that we are fluent in the language of war. But I should say branch, not tree, since both my parents were only children and are long dead. Aunt Ginny’s really my parents’ closest friend, Virginia Critchlow, daughter of Llewellyn Critchlow, who worked under Kenneth Bainbridge at Los Alamos. As legend would have it, it was Ellen, as Critchlow was known, who Bainbridge turned to at the Trinity Test site on July 16, 1945 when the mushroom cloud erupted over Jornada del Muerto and said, "Now we are all sons of bitches." Critchlow hired my mother, Ingrid Kohler, a German-born physicist in 1963, just one month after President Kennedy proclaimed "Ich bin ein Berliner."
The tide was changing, indeed. Ingrid, brilliant, imperious, met my father, Raymond Wade, at one of Ginny’s soirées in 1964. Ginny was a rebel even then; she abducted Raymond from her parents’ hacienda in Santa Fe where Ginny was contemplating her future life of crime after being suspended from Texas A&M and Raymond was working as a ranch hand. Ginny took one look at my father and saw her future as one big, bright explosion, and told him she needed him in Los Alamos. Raymond came reluctantly; he had seen pictures of Hiroshima in National Geographic, and he had read Howl and "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down." And then there was Ms. Virginia Critchlow herself, and she scared him more than the H-bomb did. She was fast and smart and a looker, and though it wasn’t love for him, it was something like it. Rebellion. Freedom.
When I got the job at Western Appliance, I didn’t know Chase owned the place. It had been six months or more since I had last seen him. He came in the store one day. At first I thought he had come in to see me. Wow, I thought. He’s tracked me down. Foolish girl. As soon as we figured out what we were doing here-- "Oh, you’re the new recruit!" and "Let me guess, you’re the tyrant I keep hearing about." Ha ha ha-- tears welled up in his eyes.
"I’m so sorry," I said.
Mr. Allen had been the only reason that he was staying in Durango full-time. He was building a house in Telluride and was set to move in August.
It was a glorious summer. We drank at the Strater and played pool at El Rancho and chased the wildfires that hopped from north to south and east to west like crickets in Apache Plume. The first question out of his mouth each day was "What are you doing later?" At El Rancho, he talked about Mr. Allen and prison, and I wanted to tell him that I understood what it’s like being an outcast and a criminal. Instead I told him about Aunt Ginny and how she raised me after my parents died in a plane crash outside of D.C. when I was three. My mother had been appointed to serve on the Atomic Energy Commission and was traveling to Washington once every couple of months. My father usually took care of me on these trips but Aunt Ginny offered to take me one weekend. Chase told me about his own daughter, Pauline, and how he hadn’t seen her in more than two years.
"That must be hard," I said, silently cursing the wife. I sunk the eight ball in my anger, and Chase bought us another round.
One night we got into trouble. We were drinking by the river when a mother bear with her two cubs appeared on the bank. Chase pulled me down and held me, and we were still. The family moved on, and he looked at me and smiled. I saw no hope or promise in that smile but I kissed him anyway. I don’t want to go into what happened next so I won’t.
Ellie was hired in the fall. I took one look at her and saw my future blow up in my face. I gave her bogus job orders, pinched tools from her truck, sent her out on wild goose hunts, but my attempts at sabotage were futile. People liked her. She was funny and smart and a good mechanic. What more can I say? She was on to me.
Chase didn’t go to Telluride. At the store they were discreet, but Durango is a small town. I can’t turn a corner without seeing them together and each time the door opens, the first question out of his mouth is, "Where is she?"
I go to the back to let Sam know I have to go. Behind him, in the parking lot, is Ellie. She’s standing next to a light blue sedan, talking with a man in the passenger seat. Another car pulls up next to the sedan. The driver, a woman, walks over to it. I can see a gun holster beneath her jacket. The man gets out and introduces Ellie. The woman shows her something (a badge?) and shakes her hand.
While they were as different as two women could be, Ginny and Ingrid were best friends. As a "lady scientist," Ginny admired Ingrid and sought her advice on everything, despite the fact that Ingrid was woefully inept with matters of the heart. Ingrid was flattered and a little awed by Ginny, who exuded sophistication and worldliness. She also had no interest in the work done at the lab and when Ingrid would talk about her neutron-scattering experiments, Ginny would laugh and say, "Oh, Ingrid, I’m as scatterbrained as your neutrons or neurons or whatever. I’m a capitalist, not a scientist."
Like Ginny, Ingrid was also beautiful, but men were more wary of her. She was too serious. And Ingrid had what was a dealbreaker for any would-be suitor at the time. Ambition. Unlike her good friend, Ingrid was a virgin. So when Ginny introduced Ingrid to the man who she was secretly seeing for months, Ingrid, guileless, shook Raymond’s hand warmly. Ginny, giddy at their meeting and at the success of her party, excused herself to greet her other guests.
The night I drove up the mountain in a blizzard, the snow came down in blue light. It was so lovely that I stopped caring about going over the edge. I almost wanted to, to see the light in the pine trees, gray green and blue.
As I drove, I was sure that I was carrying delicate Indonesian artifacts, glumly hued and stolen from Berlin. I imagined them falling all around me, ornate boxes and sculptures and utensils falling from the trees.
Sam is examining his clipboard. I tell him that I’m taking off and that I’ll be back in a half hour.
"Can you pick up a turkey sub for me?" he asks.
"Sure, you got any cash?" The man and woman look over at our window, but our window is tinted and they can’t see me. The woman is unfamiliar but I’ve seen the man before. He was in front of me at the grocery store two weeks ago. I remember him because he bought loads of gum and a teen magazine, which I thought an alarming combination for someone his age. I saw him later that day, behind me at a stoplight. I didn't make him for a tail.
"Here’s a ten. No jalapeños, and a large Coke."
"Got it." Ellie is walking back toward the building with the man and woman trailing behind her. Ellie looks regal, like a woman accustomed to getting what she wants.
"Hey, Sam, any chance you know who’s with Ellie?" Please, I think.
"No clue," he answers as I make my exit. In the hallway, I hear Ellie, faint but still audible, saying Officer.
I pocket the ten. I have five hundred in my wallet, fifteen hundred sewn into the passenger seat, and a trailer in Abiquiu. What I don’t have is my gun. That’s in the drawer next to my bed. For a moment I’m far away. I’m over the mountain with my beautiful things.
"Ellie?" I turn around. In the doorway of Sam’s office is Chase. When he sees that I’m not Ellie, the lines in his bronze skin arc downward, and his hazel eyes glaze over in a far-off way. It’s a look that I’ll never get used to. A here-but-not-here look that I think prison guards give to ward off need. Which, if I don’t get out of here, I’ll be seeing soon enough.
"Oh, I’m sorry, Stella. I thought you were Ellie."
"She’ll be here any minute." Chase blinks and nods his head slowly, as if he understands the gravity of the situation. I put my hand in my pocket. The key, the diamonds, the lockbox, the sea. I’d give it all to him.
Marcelle Heath is a freelance editor and assistant editor for Luna Park Review. She is also a contributing editor for Fictionaut. Her work has recently appeared in Necessary Fiction, Pear Noir!, The Northville Review, and matchbook. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and two dogs, one cat, and one tortoise.
Steph Thompson is a 27 year-old photographer/artist living in Los Angeles. She currently works in the corporate world, but feeds her creative factory any and every chance she gets. Steph has also worked with many emerging musicians in the Los Angeles area. Visit her online at steffaloo.com.
Will Stratton is a New York-based songwriter, composer, and arranger. He was born in Yolo County, California, and started making up songs on the piano when he was three years old. "Bluebells" is the opening track on New Vanguard Blues, his newly released follow-up to 2009's No Wonder and 2007's What the Night Said. For more, visit Will online at willstratton.com.