March 2013

Rifles Hanging

The car is out there again. Claudia can see the Chevy, dark as it is outside, sitting at the end of the unpaved road, silent and solid as an army tank. She lets drop the window curtain. “Yes,” she says . “I think it’s him. Burke.”

“Jesus!” Peter says. “I’ll kill him!”

“Shh. What are you talking about?” In Peter’s mother’s living room Claudia’s children, Mikey and Kara, six and five, are watching TV. Claudia is frightened– by what Burke might possibly have in mind, and by what Peter said–although she wants him to act, to do something.

“Look in the hallway,” Peter says in a low voice. “See those?” They are in the kitchen, having coffee, talking about their upcoming marriage. Claudia doesn’t need to look. She knows there is a rack of rifles in the hallway, Peter’s dad’s hunting rifles. Peter’s dad is sweet and gentle, white-haired. She has regarded the rifles as decor, or harmless, like the machine the old man uses for tumbling rocks into smooth stones. Her children already call him Pop-pop.

“He doesn’t own you,” Peter says. “He can’t be out there.”

“Shh,” Claudia says again.

“Your children ought to know the kind of man their father is.” Peter’s voice rises in volume a bit, a tough bravado. The kids are sitting on the floor and laughing at the program, and Claudia wonders, briefly, about her marrying Peter. She reminds herself that he is the rational one, the one who isn’t bringing baggage into the relationship. There is no denying that Burke is baggage.

On her and Peter’s second date Burke materialized from behind a bush at the edge of the parking lot as they returned to their car. He had apparently waited outside the restaurant so he could accost them. “She is my wife!” he declared, and knocked Peter over. Peter lay stunned on the asphalt, reaching up, after a few seconds, to touch his jaw, checking. Burke ran away through the shrubbery. Claudia had assumed that that was the end of things as far as their dating went, but Peter stuck with her, arms out and palms up, as they entered any parking lot thereafter, even in daylight. They’d been on guard for the past six months.

“I know where he keeps the ammunition,” Peter whispers now, as though telling her a secret.

Claudia’s divorce lawyer has warned her never to be in a compromising situation, never to be alone with another man until after the court date, that she could lose custody of her children. “I need a chaperone?” she asked. She thought the word was funny. The lawyer answered, “Yes, a chaperone. Public spaces. Open drapes.”

So: Claudia has accepted her uncompromising situations with resignation, but Peter has assumed a heightened interest in the lurking drama, the tension. When Claudia blurted out that she was sure Burke had private detectives following her—he knew things he wasn’t likely to know unless she was under surveillance—Peter threw back his head and laughed. “What a fool,” he proclaimed. His tone, suggesting as it did both superiority and relief, has triggered another fear in Claudia, one that she blinks away since it makes no sense. Peter seems eager to define himself in a role of rescuer–the good guy in a mediocre movie–and she wonders what he gets out of protecting her. Or seeming to.

“He’s on our property,” Peter says now, moving to the window and returning. “I have every right to shoot him. ‘Self defense,’ I’ll say. ” He grips the back of his chair, moved by the theatricality of his own suggestion. Claudia finds the posture a little too self-conscious. “Defense of my fiancée,” Peter adds, using a word they never use, “and her children.”

The children come bouncing into the dining room, asking for pretzels, asking if Nanny and Pop-pop are coming home soon.

“That’s all we need,” Claudia says. “Your parents returning and Burke out there.” Peter strides abruptly into the hallway. He stands at the gun rack—Claudia can see him. His arms are folded across his chest.

“I think we better go home,” she tells the kids. “”It’s nine o’clock. Get your jackets.”

Peter returns in a rush. “You can’t,” he says. “I won’t let you get in your car and drive home with that maniac out there. He’ll follow you.”

It’s true. Burke probably won’t stay if Claudia leaves.

“I’m coming with you,” Peter says. “But I’m getting one of Dad’s shotguns first.”

Claudia says no, certainly not in her car. She cannot picture Peter even holding the gun, which he is removing—the top one—with some difficulty and is now clutching victoriously, as though by gripping it he is imposing his will on hers. The children are in the kitchen filling two paper sacks with pretzels from a large bag. “Ammunition,” he mutters and darts to the back room. Claudia grabs her coat and purse, helps the children.

“Are you going to hunt rabbits?” Kara asks. Claudia is crouched behind the little girl, and rises, heart thumping, to see Peter in the doorway, gun cradled.

“I couldn’t find it,” Peter says. “The you-know-what.”

“The bullets?” Mikey asks. Claudia has just realized he seldom speaks directly to Peter. “Ask Pop-pop. He’s the one that knows.”

Claudia wishes she could crawl under the old people’s table, huddled with her children in her arms, and wait until the world rights itself in some way.

“It’s late.” She pushes each child forward next to her legs, like chicks. Her eyes widen at Peter a brief moment, beseeching him either to stop the charade or go first, do something.

He stands, resolute, with the rifle. “Oh, I know where to look. Wait.”

“No,” she calls after him. “No, we have to go.”

Outside the darkness hides the road; in its dead end Burke’s car is hidden behind bushes.

The kids climb into her back seat, and suddenly Claudia cannot see beyond the floodlights Peter has switched on, until he is at her window, resting the gun against the car. “Promise you’ll drive right to a police station and report him,” he says. “Call me.”

Claudia agrees and backs her car onto the dark cinder road. Soon there are bright headlights behind her, creeping along. It is a mile from the rural house to the highway.

“Mommy, there’s a car behind you, close,” Mikey says, on his knees, looking out the back window at the high beams, so bright they—thankfully—obscure the car itself.

She reminds him there’s only one road out, to sit down with his belt on. Already she regrets leaving, but how could she have stayed and upset the old people? They graciously allow Peter to invite Claudia to their house, assuming there is more for the kids to do there than at Peter’s apartment. They know nothing of the crazy intrigues. “Probably one of Pop-pop’s neighbors,” she says, watching the lights through her rear-view. Surely Burke has seen the children with her? She hopes he hasn’t been drinking.

She steers her car onto the highway, and the Chevy follows. When she accelerates, it accelerates; when she slows, it slows. It: Burke. Then, the Chevy actually bumps into her car. Take that! And that!

The kids scream and pretzels fly. Another bump! Kara wails.

“We’re going to the police station,” she tells the kids. “It’ll be all right. We’ll get there.” She isn’t at all sure, though. Will Burke notice the detour away from her own apartment? Will he realize where she is leading him? “I won’t let you leave me!” he had told her. But she had already gone.

“Just stay down in your seats,” she tells the kids. “I think it’s clear now. We’ll be okay. I think that car is gone.”

The car follows her. Burke must know that the road past the mall, where they are now, is near City Hall, the police station.

He veers off.

Nevertheless, she pulls into the lot, traipses into the station, reports the incident. The children are in an adjacent room—she can see them through the window, excited at the setting. Burke will not bother them again, assures an officer privately to her, before he escorts them home.

Claudia knows that that probably isn’t true. But for this night it is. When the kids are in bed, she calls Peter, explains the complaint she filed.

He carries on about what a nervous wreck he’s been, waiting. He’s taking her call in another room, he assures her. She imagines he’s been sitting in the tweed easy chair, his legs crossed, his parents having tea.

“You should have let me kill him when I had the chance,” he tells her on his phone.

She doesn’t say anything. She hasn’t sent out invitations yet.

“I can’t believe the mistake you made marrying him,” he says. “Can you?”

For a moment she doesn’t know how to answer, and then she does.