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Jim Windolf

People need the company of other people. It’s how people are made. They can’t help it. This need can be degrading to a person’s soul, if souls are real. People begging for attention, for approval. People paying other people for company, using other people as goods, as objects, as meat, as a means to an end. People yelling or screaming at other people, or giving them the slow-burn silent treatment, which can be just as frightening, or slapping other people, grabbing them, shaking them, hitting them, beating them, throwing them to the ground, kicking them, making certain they feel physical pain, an experience that can lead the people on the receiving end to reply in kind but more often to cower in sickly obedience like abused dogs who end up grateful for any scrap of food or affection they can get. Brad Weir had been there, on both sides. What else was there? And what were the options? One was withdrawal, the life of a hermit. He was close enough to that already. He often went a week without having a real conversation with anybody.

Now he was sitting high above the ground in his pickup, engine idling, watching the supermarket that lay among a strip of stores about thirty miles from the place where he had been living the last year. A large woman emerged from an exit door. Moving slow, like she didn’t really have anywhere to go, pushing a loaded shopping cart toward a car two spaces away from the handicapped zone.

It was the last day of March. The sky was bright. The wind was getting sliced up by the massive spruces behind the supermarket. God didn’t control the weather. That was a theory only simple people believed. God had probably not even made the universe. And once you got the hang of seeing things that way, of seeing the sun as just another star, your mind got a terrible freedom.

Some of the time Brad felt like he was in a sci-fi movie, just another creature on just another planet. The supermarket was a place made for creatures to get fuel for their bodies. The creatures worked for money and traded the money for the fuel. It was a fucked up system in some way that Brad could not put his finger on.

He was not exempt. He had been working on a painting crew about two years, ever since he had gotten fired from Home Depot after arguments with customers. The manager said it didn’t matter that Brad was in the right. You were supposed to take it for the greater good of the company.

The money Brad made for the paint work was not great but it was steady. He preferred the larger projects for the ski resorts to the close-up jobs in the homes owned by rich people from the suburbs of Boston and New York. Brad figured he had gotten hired because the guy who ran the crew had taken pity on him. He was someone who had once lined up right next to Brad, knuckles to the grass, as part of the high school football team’s offensive line on those cold fall Saturdays twenty years ago, with the pep bands making noise in the stands and the smell of leaf smoke on the air.

Brad had been here before, in just this way, watching the supermarket’s entrance and exit doors from his truck. It made him feel like a cop on surveillance. It made him feel like he had a purpose. On the seat beside him there were the thirty rounds of ammunition. The rifle lay across his lap. He would make the news, he would be talked about, he would rise briefly above the crowd. And yet he was reluctant to be seen in this light. He was wearing a hoodie, hood up, and wraparounds. A thick mustache and beard concealed the rest. He had intended to be a carpenter. Have his own little business, earn enough not only for the body fuel but the comforts that would blot out the pain.

He lived in a rented house, more like a shack, nearly two thousand feet above sea level. It was far from any town, tucked into a hollow touched by the sun’s rays only briefly on the brightest summer days. Early mornings, through the window above the sink, he often gazed at the deer, their ghostly appearances like cave drawings come to life, and wished he could be one of them. You move through forest trees as if forest trees are nothing. You exist without complaint six or seven years, until your allotment of life comes to a quiet end.

A helicopter appeared above the spruces behind the building. Were the authorities tracking him? Did they know about his plan, through some combination of his receipts and his data trail? Brad lowered his head, watched the helicopter as it hovered. Then it darted off like a firefly. Safe for now.

He checked his phone screen. Three-thirty. This was the time of day, when he was a high-school kid, that marked the start of detention. He was aware that there was no good reason for some of the things he had done, especially the beatings he had delivered to kids younger or smaller than himself. School officials had often tried to get his parents to show up for meetings. His mother was the one who sometimes made it in. She sat mute, cowed by these men of refinement and education, by the books on the shelves, tears glistening in her eyes as she heard out the latest indictment of her son in person. He ended up getting suspended twice. The days of numb freedom that made up those punishments were not really so different from the routine he had now.

At some point the high-school shop teacher tried to help Brad. He attempted to poke around in Brad’s mind, to dig up facts on his home life. It seemed strange to think that the teacher’s interest, the teacher’s kindness, had inspired Brad to punch himself in the head in the quiet of his room at night and to berate himself inwardly.

In daily life he found no way to move through the world other than staying within the ruts he had chosen or had been mapped out for him. The self-questioning and recriminations of the night hours always seemed to die in the light, although a dull head pain lasted deep into the next day.

A skinny man in black-rimmed eyeglasses emerged from the supermarket. He was around Brad’s age, late thirties, and looked as if he had never in his life put in a day of real work or gone through a moment of trouble. He was wearing a denim jacket. So was his daughter, a girl around eight or nine years old who was sticking close to his side. Brad guessed the man was a high school teacher or college professor. He felt a stab of anger or envy. The girl appeared to be chattering like a bird as the pair moved along. She was one of those kids with rubbery legs.

Father and daughter passed through a patch of sunlight on their way to the back of a dark gray Toyota sedan with mud splatterings on the side. The man popped open the trunk and started setting the bags inside it. The girl lifted a bag out of the cart with showy effort and carried it to the trunk. She moved a little unsteadily, like a yearling, either because of her youth or because she was afraid she might be doing it wrong.

Brad pressed a button. The driver’s side window went down slightly. He wanted to hear the kinds of things this sort of parent-and-child would say to each other.

“I’m gonna take it back now,” the father said in a melodious voice once all the bags were in the trunk. He pointed the empty shopping cart at a little area bound by two metal rails where other carts were parked, or more like stashed.

“Can I come with you?” the girl said.

Her voice was sweet, mild, and Brad heard in it the hope that her father would say yes to her simple request. He could also hear in the girl’s voice an expectation that their returning the shopping cart together would be just the thing for the next event in today’s unfolding father-daughter adventure, although it was a minor and forgettable part of a routine chore, although the distance from the Toyota to the shopping-cart area was a mere thirty feet.

“Sure,” the father said with what sounded like enthusiasm in place of the parental grouchiness Brad had figured might be coming.

The girl bounced along at her father’s side, still chattering, as he rolled the rattling cart across the slightly rough pavement. At the midpoint of their journey they passed again through the patch of March sunlight, and the girl, illuminated for a split second, looked as happy as a kid on her way to Disney World, despite the banality of the task and the bitter wind.

Brad released the parking brake. He backed the truck out of the parking spot. He felt like he was going to weep. At the stop sign where the expanse of pavement met the road, pictures came to his mind of an old deer lying down to die in a silent part of the forest. Six or seven miles down the road, he tapped the brakes and eased into a graveled turnout along the Battenkill River. The sun was low now.

Brad gathered up the ammo and placed it in a well he fashioned out of the front of his hoodie. He stepped carefully down from the truck. He followed a thin muddy deer track between patches of melting snow to the riverside and dumped the ammo into the swift water. He climbed back up the short bank and reached into the truck. He took hold of the rifle and winged it high through the air. He watched it spin and he saw the quick splash it made where the water was deep.

He sat a moment behind the wheel, engine idling. He felt a terrific hunger. He tried to remember if there was anything in the house that he could make into a decent dinner.

Jim Windolf has published short stories in Ontario Review3:AM MagazineFive DialsSonora ReviewX-R-A-Y, and other magazines. His humor pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, and his poems in Opium and Poetry Motel. He works as a journalist in New York.