July 12, 2021

“A Walk in the Woods,” A Short Story by Robert Perron

“A Walk in the Woods,” A Short Story by Robert Perron

Johnny knocked at the kitchen door, side of the house, just like when he and Mike were kids. But this fall day they were thirty and Johnny wore his deputy sheriff’s uniform, olive jacket over beige shirt, a badge on his left breast. In the driveway, his Department of Corrections sedan.

Mike turned the inside knob and pulled open the glass-paned wooden door. “Should I put on a pot?” he said, lips crinkling to a smirk, knowing the visit wasn’t social, certain it had to do with his soon-to-be ex-wife. Every day papers in the mail, his lawyer, her lawyer, the town, the state, the county. Now a visit from the sheriff’s department.

Mike’s parents’ kitchen of faded linoleum, paneled cupboards, and fixtures from the forties centered on a square, wooden table with four chairs. Johnny scraped back one of the chairs and sat, head lowered, thinning red hair catching a glint from the thin intrusion of autumn sunshine. With the fingers of his right hand, Mike harrowed his own hair, dirty blond, wavy, still thick, sure of the general matter of the visit but not the particulars. Lowering himself into the chair across from Johnny, Mike said, “I already been served.”

Johnny lifted his head. “Mike, you’re in arrears on support.”

Of course he was in arrears. Would he be living in his parents’ house if he wasn’t in arrears? Would he be sitting home nights if he wasn’t in arrears? While his estranged sashayed with a boyfriend, while she housed herself in his former apartment holding their daughter hostage for twenty-five percent of his adjusted gross income. Who wouldn’t be in arrears? But Mike kept his temper at bay. He said, “Work’s been picking up. Pulled in a new job just yesterday.” For his one-man plumbing business. “She’ll have her money soon enough.” Mike laughed. “Or should I say my money?”

Johnny sighed. “The thing is, Cindy swore out a complaint and the court issued a warrant. I can show it to you if you want.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Mike.

“So,” said Johnny.

“So?” said Mike.

“So grab your coat. Take a leak if you have to.”

As the semantics and mortification of “warrant” registered, Mike found his hands grasping the edge of the table, thumbs on top, fingers down, like he wanted to upend it. “You know that bitch,” he said. “You know how she—”

“Mike,” Johnny said. “Listen, Mike. When we get to the corrections facility, don’t talk like that.”

A nod. Johnny was right. Any outbursts or untoward behavior would only amplify his problems. Mike wasn’t his enemy; the corrections people weren’t his enemy.

Johnny said, “Do you have a few hundred for the bondsman? Best to bring it in cash.”

“Or?”

“Or you’ll get locked up. Look I can help you with—”

“I got it,” said Mike.

The two men stood up, Johnny pushing back his chair, Mike straddling his.

“Are your folks around?” said Johnny.

“Down to Florida for the month.”

“Can you get somebody to pick you up at county?”

“Why don’t I just take my van? I’ll follow you out, no problem.”

“Can’t do that,” said Johnny. “I’ve got to bring you in.”

“What else? Handcuffs?”

“Mike, this is no fun for me.”

Right. But as uncomfortable as Johnny might find the circumstances, his pain didn’t approach Mike’s. Mike listened as Johnny told him the folks at county would be fingerprinting him and taking his picture. That a bondsman would be available and he’d be out in an hour. That Johnny regretted not being able to drive him back, against regulations, he’d be going out on another call anyhow.

The booking at county went like Johnny said. After the picture taking, Mike took a chair in a small office with the bondsman, a fatso in a JC Penney suit. Before the bondsman could get started, a female corrections officer called “hey” from the doorway. Mike turned in his chair. She had blond hair but looked the same age as his mother. She said, “It’s unfortunate getting dragged in here but you can’t be ducking out on your support.”

Mike saw stripes on her sleeve and said, “I’m not ducking out on anything. Sergeant.”

“Don’t get smart.”

Mike pulled his lips together.

“You catch up on your arrears, hear? If you catch up before court date you won’t have to appear. Everything gets erased.”

Mike wanted to say, that’s nice, bitch, so why am I appearing now? But he kept his lips together.

The room had a telephone; the bondsman told Mike he could place a call. Mike got his sister-in-law and a minute later his older brother Will came on the line. “Jesus,” said Will.

Mike paid the bondsman and waited in the corrections department parking lot, coat zipped, hands in pockets. This was not a downtown court and jail, but a cinder block complex built in the hinterlands fifteen years before. Red and yellow leaves detached from their branches and danced in the breeze; they gathered on the cars and tar and lawns of the complex, maple and ash.

Will rolled into the parking lot crunching foliage beneath the wheels of his pickup, a blue F-150. As he and Mike exited onto the road, Will glanced across and said, “Jesus,” like he was picking up where their phone conversation had left off. Will turned his gaze back to the oncoming road then shook his head. “I hope it never comes to this for me.”

“I hope so too,” said Mike. His brother had two kids, eight and eleven. Mike didn’t know of any serious issues, just the dull plod of marriage.

“If we ever split,” said Will, “it’ll be after the kids are eighteen, I’ll tell you that.”

“That’s smart,” said Mike. “Look, Will, do me a favor, when Mom calls, don’t mention this.”

“It’s gonna get around, Mikey.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be you that gets it around.”

Will zipped his lips with forefinger and thumb but he was right, it would get around.

In his parents’ house, Mike opened the other kitchen door, the one to the basement, switched on the light, and descended rough, open stairs to where his extra stuff found storage. From a duffel, he extracted a rifle, an old 30-30 Winchester lever-action, ported into the woods once every year with his buddies, first or second day of deer season, a tradition. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d fired it but didn’t doubt his ability to hit the silhouette of a person at under eighty yards.

Upstairs, at the kitchen table, Mike wiped the barrel and stock, and ran the cleaning rod down and up the barrel. His actions flowed one to the next with minimal cerebral input. Six rounds of ammunition received a wiping, one at a time, and were pressed into the magazine using a rag. With care, again using the rag, Mike thumbed the hammer, touched the trigger, and guided the hammer forward to its safe position.

Mike stood. Upon reflection, the precautions—wiping the gun and ammo—seemed dumb, laughable. If the police found the rifle, they would come looking for him, fingerprints or no. Even if they didn’t find the rifle, they’d come looking for him. Just the same, after putting on his coat, Mike pulled on a pair of thin leather gloves before picking up the weapon. He had thought of filing the serial number but enough; the rifle had never been registered and Mike had a plan, to discard it in Foggy Bottom.

The distance from Mike’s childhood home to the two two-story brick apartment buildings that housed his soon-to-be ex-wife was one mile as the crow flew or a man with a rifle walked. Wooded for the most part with one road crossing halfway, the paths and byways memorized from years of childhood play. Mike picked up the 30-30 and stood at the kitchen door watching the outside traffic until there was none. He stepped out, closed the door behind, turned left, and loped up the driveway away from the road. A dozen strides carried him past the garage, another dozen into the woods. He balanced the loaded rifle in his right hand, arm hanging loose and straight.

In the rational world, killing his daughter’s mother, his mother-in-law’s daughter, made no sense. His chances of not spending the rest of his life in state prison: near zero. And he’d be a pariah because the rational world, while allowing divorce, while allowing sleeping around, while allowing the ripping off of ex-husbands, didn’t allow perforating the body of an estranged no matter the provocation. But Mike had left that world.

On three stepping stones, Mike crossed what he’d called Bubbly Brook as a kid and turned left onto a faint track that followed the waterway upstream. Those were the good days, pre-puberty, running, shouting, playing, no work, no worries, no wives. If she’d but left it alone, thought Mike. Wasn’t it enough having papers served to him on the job, throwing him out of the apartment, extracting support? She would have got her blood money as soon as work picked up.

The hum and drone of car traffic grew louder and Mike saw the culvert for the mid-point road that needed crossing. He climbed to the edge of the woods to the right of the culvert and stood in the shadows of a sprawling oak. Two cars passed. As they moved out of sight, Mike stepped clear of the oak, looked up and down, then crossed the road at a trot. The woods on the far side dropped into a swamp-like extension of Bubbly Brook. This was Foggy Bottom where Mike’s rifle would, following its employment, find internment along with the collection of bed springs, bicycles, rotted dimension lumber, and everything else discarded there over the years.

The track turned right and climbed next to a stone wall from colonial days. It widened into a path and the trees thinned. As the two red brick buildings of the apartment complex approached, Mike stepped left, over the stone wall, into the woods. He moved to a spot where he could see the parking lot through brush and branches, leaned the rifle against a tree, and squatted. Rubbing his hands together and pulling up his collar, Mike wished he’d put on another layer.

Minutes later, Mike picked up the rifle, sighted it over the parking lot, and returned it to its perch against the tree. He stood and put his hands in his coat pockets. Cindy, he knew, returned to the apartment after work before going to her mother’s to pick up their daughter. And she was seeing someone named Jack. Mike wouldn’t mind if Jack showed up too.

A car pulled in, not hers. Mike’s wristwatch showed five-twenty. It would be dusk by the time she arrived and as if to accentuate that thought, the overhead lamps in the parking lot came on. Not a problem, good in fact. There would be enough light for aiming, then he could walk back in the dark. He’d aim for the middle of her body to be sure of a hit. Middle of the body would also provide suffering before she bled out.

Another car entered the parking lot, its lights sweeping a hazy arc. Mike peered and removed his hands from his pockets. Green like Cindy’s. As the driver’s door opened, Mike reached for the rifle.

A happy ending would have Mike, as he brought the stock of the rifle to his shoulder, consider—if not the iniquity—the consequences of the mayhem he’d set upon. And that his accomplished actions, the cleaning and loading of the rifle, the mile-long walk on boyhood paths, the wait, the contemplation of her dead on the ground, that these actions would have drained the desire and attenuated the need for retribution. That he would realize this would be the end of his life too, the number one suspect, the dogs sniffing out his path of ingress and egress, locating the rifle in Foggy Bottom, the rest of his life imprisoned, an abomination to his daughter, his parents, his former in-laws. And reconsidering, he would take the rifle away from his shoulder and retrace his steps. At Foggy Bottom, he would stop to eject the six unspent bullets from the magazine and place them in his coat pocket, trembling at how close he’d come. He would climb to the road, wait for a dearth of headlamps and motors, cross, and follow Bubbly Brook back to his parents’ frame house.

That would be the happy ending.

***

Robert Perron lives and writes in New York City and New Hampshire. Past life includes high-tech and military service. He is the author of the novel The Blue House Raid (The Ardent Writer Press, 2020). His short stories have appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Lowestoft ChronicleThe Bombay Review, and other journals, and he has previously been published in The Fictional Café (October 8, 2018, “Rearguard”).

Visit his website for more of his work. 

A Walk in the Woods
#child support#divorce#robert perron#short story
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