Anthony Neil Smith


MY WORST DAYS

I shot first, I know, so the boy was already dead when he pulled his trigger. But it was a good shot for a dead guy, catching me in the shoulder, slicing through the muscles. Hurt worse than heartbreak. I was surprised I could still move, but I crawled over to the kid and nudged the cheap nine-millimeter from his fingers with my elbow. He looked twelve.

I didn't have a choice. He had shot my partner right then and there and would have tried for me, too. In the nightmares now, I keep wishing for things to change, but they always play out the same. My training was too good. Should've held back, let the punk baby kill me. Yeah, kid, run home and tell your folks you killed me instead of vice versa.

Benny and I were driving through a Gulfport subdivision while investigating a burglary—pulled off at five in the evening, late August, sun blazing, so everyone could see—looking for clues or witnesses or a big pile of stolen stuff being sold on the corner half a block down (one day that'll happen here, just wait) when Benny saw the boy.

"It's a toy, Tom," Benny said about the gun in the kid's hand. "I got ones like that for Christmas when I was little. Pellets, at worst."

I snubbed my cigarette in the ashtray, last one of my second pack that day, and rolled up my window. Benny was allergic to smoke but never told me to quit. We'd been friends too long, since high school, eight years by then. It was his idea to be cops, and he pushed me until I said yes. He knew I'd rather be fishing in the Gulf right then, knew I was dying to start my third pack. He tolerated the smoke and I kept my window cracked so it could swirl out of the car.

"Look at him, dressed like that. In this neighborhood? Spoiled little shit. Did we look like that back then?" I said.

"No, you were trying to look like Van Halen."

The kid was stumbling on a sidewalk. Either he didn't hear us or tried to play it off, act cool. The road was wide with a neat row of mailboxes by the white rounded curbs.

Benny said, "Let's talk to him. Think cops still intimidate kids like that?"

"You should know better."

This was a white kid, short, in baggy green jeans low on his hips. Stringy black hair hung over his ears. Black T-shirt, something about a raging mechanic written on it. The back said "Bulls on Parade" and I thought about that party in Spain.

Benny slowed the car and pulled against the curb, threw the stick into park, opened the door and stepped out. The radio buzzed but I quit listening. Benny wouldn't have let his son grow up to look like that. Linda was the soft one. Benny was strict and old-fashioned and proud of it.

I eased my door open. Toy or not, I was taught you never can tell. Benny was just naïve. He stood like a drill sergeant, fists on his hips above his belt. He kept his hair cut military close. I pulled myself out with one hand on top of the door, watched the kid limp down the sidewalk like a rag doll, all some gangster act like I'd seen everyday from the drug pushers: "Down with the gang, knowhatumsayin?"

"He might run," I said.

Benny smiled. "Then we'll chase him, Tom. Has he got a reason to run?"

The kid walked faster, gun dangling in itchy fingers. I hoped to see a suction cup sticking out of the barrel—just a plaything, okay? Didn't see it.

"Hey buddy." Benny walked over in a slow gait—clop, clop—near the boy, who turned and screamed and unloaded two rounds into Benny.

Two cracks. Echo. Ringing ears.

I dropped to the ground on one knee and wished I had stayed behind the car door. No noise from Benny. He died on the spot.

"FREEZEdon'tmoveDROPITNOW! DROP IT!" I yelled over and over while the kid kept screaming and waved the gun my way.

"DROP IT!" I said.

He didn't, and I was in the line of fire. I shot him in the chest once, prayed it hadn't killed him but knew it had—no quarter given.

He fell back, gun arm straight out, and his finger snapped over the trigger. The flash, the firecracker sound, and then it hit me. More force than pain, like a hard punch. But then it burned. I lost my breath, crumpled to the ground, pushed my legs in the right direction until I was over the kid. He wasn't breathing, muscles in him dying all over. Bloody mess of a chest. I nudged his gun away and passed out.

Then I woke up in a hospital with a dead shoulder—massive shredding occurred, get used to it, they said—and in deep pain despite the gallons of drugs they had pumped into me for two straight days. I asked about the kid, and they told me he was DOA. I had only wanted to teach him a lesson, give him a nice gaping wound.

* * *

The nurses said Linda had visited a few times, but I was either asleep or in therapy when she came. She sent flowers, too. I had known her a long time: Benny's wife, mother of his boy. I was the single one, the odd man out, and she treated me like the kid brother, tried to set me up with her friends. But it was her I wanted. I had wanted her since high school. It made sense that she came to see me in the hospital. But seeing her mowing my lawn on the day I came home surprised me.

I got a ride from a cruiser. He pulled to the curb at my little place, and there was Linda in a T-shirt and baggy shorts, pushing my lawnmower around the front yard in the dim gray as the rain started. Her red hair was tied back, and she was soaked in sweat and rain spatters, a big hipped woman with big legs, tiny ankles. The most beautiful girl.

I eased out of the car, a big cast on my shoulder, arm in a sling, wearing borrowed jeans and a loose flannel shirt. My driver said, "Behind ya all the way, Tom!" and drove off. Linda stopped the mower and walked over as I crept up the driveway to my truck. Walking ten feet tired me out. I stopped and leaned against it. The red metal was warm, but filthy, covered with dust, leaves piled up in the bed.

Linda reached over for a hug. My cast got in the way. Her sweat was ice cold, but I held her nearly a minute. She wasn't crying, just wheezing. Working hard, about to sneeze, I thought. I didn't mind if she sneezed on me. I patted her with my good hand low on her back and smelled her hair, then smelled the perfume. Perfume, to cut my yard. Of course she knew I was coming home today.

"How're you doing?" I said.

"We're making it, doing okay."

"How's James?" Their son was four.

"Good. He's been a little sad, you know. He doesn't understand yet. Lucky him."

I nodded. I tried not to look at her face, but kept glancing. "I'm sorry I missed the funeral."

"You had a good reason. Look, I'll finish the yard. I kept your mail, too, stacked next to your chair. Fishing magazines, you'll like those." She wanted to say more, needed to talk with me, but I wasn't up to it. Blame it on the painkillers, the pain, or her perfume that was driving me crazy even though she was my dead partner's wife and the girl I've loved forever. She's the one I tried for a year to keep, but I never asked her out—was worried she would say no. She became my friend, and I lost her to my pal.

"Want to come inside, make some tea? Do I even have any?" I bounced my hip off the truck and eased towards the front door.

"I need to finish before the rain."

"You don't have to cut my yard, Linda. I'll do it tomorrow."

She put her hand on my shoulder, rubbed it. I saw but couldn't feel. She said, "You won't be able to do a lot for a while. I'm going to help."

"You've got James to raise."

"But I'm going to help you."

We went inside. It was dark, cluttered. The mail was in two piles by the chair I had been dreaming of sitting in again—facing the TV, watching anything but news. The couch was like I left it: two blankets crumpled across the cushions, dragging the floor. My fish tank wasn't in good shape, with a few angelfish floating on the surface of the milky water, twirling brightly under the fluorescent bulb. The beta was still swimming, though. The beta could take anything.

Linda knew my kitchen, and had the water already boiling on the stove. The dry whistling of the kettle irritated me. My sinuses were pounding, but I didn't want to take the stuff the doctor gave me. I didn't know the name, but only took it when the pain got unbearable; I had learned to take a lot of pain.

"You okay?" Linda called out.

"Yeah, fine," I said. I hated that sex was the first thing I thought of—here she was, single again, in my house, both of us lonely and hurt. She would hate to be alone now, I thought, would hate the silence at night. Would hate her cold back where she used to prop against him as she slept.

I had been alone all my life and had gotten used to the quiet at night, no noise except the sliding of my afghan and neighborhood dogs and the TV turned so low that only the commercials could wake me in the recliner at three in the morning and cause me to stumble towards bed.

When Linda came back into the living room, I pretended to be asleep. I heard ice tinkling as she eased the glasses down onto the table, and a moment later, the door eased open, then shut, and the lawn mower started again. I opened my eyes, picked up the glass of tea and took a sip. Too strong, too sweet. Nothing tasted right anymore.

* * *

I stayed up late watching a spaghetti western about The Man With No Name while thinking about the bass boat I wanted and had been saving for. The Man With No Name told the undertaker to get three coffins ready, because he'd need them.

But I'd seen the movie many times before. My thoughts were elsewhere: If I took early retirement or disability, I could buy a boat and move to a little trailer over at Toledo Bend in Louisiana, where I'd spent summers with my grandparents when I was young.

We caught large mouth bass there by trawling deep-diving lures behind the boat on lines stretched out for yards. The rod would take a slow hard bend when I hooked one, and I had to brace my feet and fight for every crank of the reel until I pulled an eight pounder or so back to the boat. I would love to grow old like that, but I couldn't afford to.

Linda called once after she put up the mower and went home. I let the machine get it, and heard her say, "Just try to sleep good tonight," before she hung up.

I used to be the one making late night calls, back before she was dating Benny. We were finishing police academy and Benny was already talking about us being partners. Linda had been my friend since we were seniors at Gulfport High, too close to date each other. I wanted to, really, but then suddenly we're friends, and suddenly friends don't date. So we all hung out. At first, Benny and Linda couldn't stand each other.

"He's too...friendly," she told me. "Too casual with everybody."

"She's moody, got no sense of humor," he told me. "And when I asked her to dinner that time, she said she doesn't eat in front of people. Can you believe it? She's sure been eating a lot alone, then."

"He's so skinny," she said. "And not even funny, more silly. It's irritating."

"I don't like her sarcasm. It's more mean than funny. Too dry."

And me between them, saying, "Yeah, I understand," wanting to keep her for myself but failing. Who was she waiting for? I thought, Who could be better than me?

So I used to call Linda after midnight. She would always answer after three rings, and I could tell I hadn't woken her up.

"I can't sleep again," I would say while staring at flashbulb bright commercials. "Tell me again why it would never work." And I would stare straight ahead while she spoke in half-sentences, lots of "you knows," about the value of a special friendship. The words were hopeless, pointless. I just loved her voice.

I found out I lost her for good on one of those calls. Maybe I hadn't noticed that the times the three of us got together—sometimes at my place, or at a bar, or at the country club where Benny tolerated me as a golf partner and Linda was designated cart driver—happened more frequently. Polite hellos between them became interesting conversation, and all I could do was watch and think, I'm glad they're getting along now.

But the last time, Linda answered on the first ring. One ring.

"Hello?" she said. Expecting me, perhaps?

"I can't sleep."

"That's too bad. Go watch some TV. It'll numb you."

"But Linda—"

"I'm waiting for a call, Tom. I've got to go, but call tomorrow, okay? Promise you'll call."

I think I promised. I think I fell right to sleep.

That was then. On the first night back home from the hospital, I couldn't get tired enough. The painkillers had me hopped up and paranoid. I was dying for a smoke, but the cigarettes didn't taste good anymore. They were dry and bitter. On TV, The Man With No Name shot four men instead of three.

What had they ever done to him?

* * *

The kid's parents hired an attorney, of course, and he called to say they were suing—me, the department, the state, my gun manufacturer—for ten million. I offered my truck and a subscription to Field and Stream. I told him I wished I could bring the kid back, and that if I had to do it over again, I would let the kid kill me instead. But that was a lie. I'm so glad I lived, even if my whole life became worthless.

* * *

I woke up around two the next afternoon, had made it to my bed somehow but didn't remember anything except the dream—I was out West, facing down the kid again, and the Captain, and my teenage self. I shot them all, and then turned to find myself on a street in Gulfport carrying a water hose that dribbled. I yelled at the sky until it answered me, singing, "Jesus just left Chicago"—and the rock station set to my alarm kicked on, blasting ZZ Top.

Six messages on the machine. I poured a glass of pulpy orange juice and listened. One from Dad. Four from Linda. One hang-up, probably Linda. I rewound the tape, played hers again:

8:05 AM "Hey. Let me know as soon as you get up, okay? I can help around the house."

9:30 AM "HELL-OO, Tom? Haven't heard from you. Mom said she'd keep James today. She said to tell you she prayed for you. Call me, don't sleep all day."

11:00 AM "Now you're worrying me. Wake up. Wake up! I'm going to the store, so I'll bring you some things. But call first, okay?"

1:20 PM Silence for a moment, then, "What else can I do?"

The hang up was right before two.

I decided to go fishing. I had to wear the cast a couple more months, but then my right arm would be useless anyway. Time to learn to be a lefty. It took twenty minutes to get dressed, sitting on the bed and working my legs into some khakis, then draping on a loose paid shirt. The rod and reel in my closet didn't have a hook on it, so I worked up the nerve to see if I could tie it on one handed. There had to be a way. Anything to keep me from sitting around watching TV or keep me from calling Linda.

Maybe I imagined it, and she didn't want me that way at all. It could have been me, what I wanted to happen. I was an idiot, embarrassed, and I got to work on the hook. The line was reeled in, so I held the rod between my knees and threaded the blue line through the loops to the top, pulled it down and wondered how to tie the knot. Then the phone rang—could I let the machine—no, I needed to, but the line would unravel—

The rod fell and I grabbed the phone at bedside, pulled a muscle in my back stretching for it.

"What?"

"You're up?" Linda said. "You feel okay?"

"I hurt my back. I'll be fine."

"Didn't you get my messages?"

"Yeah," I said. I began to make an excuse, but figured it wasn't worth it. "I'm going fishing."

"How?" She said, laughing. "Let me go with you."

I looked at my rod on the floor. "No, I'm good."

"Where are you going? The pier? I'll meet you—"

"I want to be alone."

"Why are you doing this?" she shouted. "Why are you shutting me out?"

"Bye, Linda." I pressed the switch under the numbers. The receiver buzzed and then I flung it at the table. It hit the edge and bounced onto the floor, the cord vibrating in tiny circles before going still.

The rod didn't take as long to thread the second time, and I was able to tie the hook and tighten the knot with my teeth. I put on a purple worm, found an old Navy cap, and went out to my truck. It had been a while since I'd driven anywhere.

* * *

The sky was gray in the afternoon, damp warm air and murmuring thunder making threats. I walked the length of the pier, boards squeezing under me, to the end, covered by a wooden roof, with benches built on the rails.

Two teenage girls in sunglasses were in a corner, one with her knees on the bench, elbows on the rail. The other was flat on her back, in denim overalls and sandals, singing, "I'm alive? I'm alive," low and easy in a flat voice, almost tuneless. She turned her head to me.

"I'm alive," she sang.

"Obviously," I said, and they laughed.

I leaned my stomach against the rail that faced south into the Gulf, breathed in a mouthful of salty air. The girls were behind me, still singing and giggling and acting high when they should have been in school. If I had been on duty, I would've said something to them about it. Not anymore. I didn't care.

I lifted the rod, set my hook loose and waved it around. The ridges on the handle felt weird in my left hand. I pulled back to cast, held the release button until halfway through the arc on the way forward, and watched the worm plop into the water right in front of me. Too short. I needed to practice.

After a few tries I got it out far enough to satisfy me, and I didn't expect to catch anything, maybe a croaker or a hardhead catfish, nothing to keep. I put the handle under my right arm so that the pole rested on the sling. I should have reeled it bit by bit, jerked the line so the worm would look real to a fish, but I let it sit. I watched the horizon and remembered the shooting again.

Slow motion. I saw Benny acting arrogantly. Looked closer and saw that the gun was so real and obvious. I wondered how I could have thrown away my arm and dreams so my best buddy could play cowboy.

Were we really so wrong? If we go in with full body armor and guns blazing, we're overdoing it, but act casual and try to talk to people, they call us careless. The kids walk around and taunt us, push us, then sue when they get what they deserve.

This kid should not have died, or shot Benny and me, or had a gun, or looked like a punk. We should not have even been looking for a burglar in the middle of the day in the suburbs in a cruiser armed for war. We carried as much firepower as an infantry grunt in Vietnam or the Persian Gulf, and we needed it. God help me, I wish we didn't. Everybody should fish for their supper and share what they catch and help each other, forget about the VCRs and designer clothes and expensive cars. Just fish and love.

I heard the reel spin before I saw the rod bend with a snap and jerk. I grabbed for it with my left hand, but the rod and reel lurched away from me and flew into the Gulf, following whatever hit my worm like that, a big one, flounder or a red. The rod splashed down, and I cried. The girls stopped singing when I started bawling, tears pouring out against my will, dry heave caught in my throat. I held the back of my neck, clenched my teeth and breathed hard, calming down.

There was no use in rebuilding my old life or looking for answers in the maybes I'd tortured myself over. I was sure Linda would have taken care of me, and I could have found another job eventually, just part-time. I could have helped raise James, teach him like Benny wanted. To love his mother but not take any shit from anyone else. To be a man. But I'd teach him to fish instead of golf, and steer him towards college instead of the police.

But then, I would never have a moment's peace to forget the mistakes; I'd be living with the reminders. I'd have a woman who finally turned to me only after her first choice died. That wasn't the life I wanted, even if it was the one I deserved.

* * *

I knocked on Linda's door after sunset. She opened it and stood there with a look of pity and disgust, waiting for me to talk. She was beautiful, in a bathrobe and sweatpants, hair in her face and hands in her pockets.

"Here," I said. I handed her an envelope.

She opened it and pulled out the check. "Three thousand dollars?"

"Not enough for the boat I wanted."

"I can't take this," she said. She had already folded it.

"Yeah, you can. Put it away for James, for college. I don't know."

Linda was quiet, kept her eyes turned down.

"I'm leaving," I said.

"But you just got here. You can come in."

I looked out into her yard, tall grass and James' plastic golf clubs. "I mean, I'm leaving town. I'm putting the house up and getting out."

She nodded. "Where will you go?"

"North, east, west. I'll find somewhere, work in a bait shop, a boat dealer, something like that."

"Look, come in and talk."

"I'll drop you a line one day." I took a couple steps back.

"I'll give you a call in the morning. Or maybe tonight, like we used to." She grinned at me and held a corner of the envelope to her front teeth.

I grinned back. I waved and turned around, walked to my truck parked on the curb. It was already packed, half the bed filled with the TV, grocery bags full of clothes, fishing rods and my tackle box. Whoever bought the house could have the rest, except for the beta fish, which was in a beer mug full of water on the passenger seat.

Linda shut her door when I opened mine. She could call and leave a hundred messages, but I'd be driving west until I ran out of gas, hopefully near a lake. I could deal with casting off a boat launch, eating a lot of Cornnuts, listening to fish stories all day. Just as long as I stopped thinking.

* * *

Anthony Neil Smith is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Connecticut Review, Barcelona Review, Handheld Crime, and several others. He is an editor with Mississippi Review Web.

"My Worst Days" copyright © 2002 by Anthony Neil Smith.