Samuel R. Smith

Pictures of Venus

 

Robert Burden pulls a thin strip of cotton cloth through the barrel of his .38 Smith & Wesson, closes one eye and sights the barrel at the kitchen light. Light is immune to friction, he thinks. "Damn."

He imagines a single silver bullet leaping from a gout of flame, screaming into the night sky, chrome trail of vapor. He reaches for the half-dead bottle of Wild Turkey 101 on the table, hand slick with gun oil. It nearly slips.

He swallows deeply, then gingerly sets it back on the table. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve, wipes the revolver once more with a fresh cloth—no prints, no smudges —and stares at his reflection in the nickel plating.

It's a beautiful weapon—police surplus, bought it cheap when the local force switched over to 9 mm semi-automatics.

He gives the chamber a spin—like on Wheel of Fortune—loads a single hollow-point cartridge and snaps the piece shut, making sure the chamber with the live round is ready to dance. He walks back to the bedroom, places the .38 on the small table by his bed, within easy reach, reads two chapters of Trump: The Art of the Deal. God-damn fucking ‘80s, he thinks, then falls asleep.

* * *

"Dammit, Robbie, you make it sound like Leah was the last woman on earth." Marina, Robert's younger sister, was completely comfortable in her role as counselor, and why not? 28, slim, dark-featured, she had the sort of airy, helpless, pretty/cute looks that caused men to talk stupid and give her things. She was undefeated, one of the elect, and she glowed with the unearthly light of the terminally self-assured.

"That's not what I mean. Leah's just a symptom, you know? A symbol, maybe? I'm not making sense, am I?" He stirred his drink aimlessly, casting after a coherent explanation. "It's not Leah," he started, "just like it wasn't Karen, just like it wasn't Melinda, just like it wasn't . . . oh, that other bitch, dammit, what was her name?"

"Laura?"

"Yeah. Laura. Your favorite. Now I'm repressing." He stared at half-melted ice cubes, smiled faintly.

"Slut." Marina giggled. She and Laura had always hated each other, and neither had ever missed a chance at a catty shot.

Marina finished her drink, leaned back in her chair, tilted her head to one side, and narrowed her eyes at Robert. "You're clueless with women."

"You're a fucking genius. You should do this for a living." He mimed a fortune teller peering into a crystal ball and, in his best gypsy accent, said "Madame Marina sees all, tells all. The mysteries of love revealed. Fifty dollars an hour, Master Card and Visa welcomed."

"I'm serious, you asshole. Things don't always work out overnight. You're in too much of a hurry—hey, flag our waiter, I'm empty—you have to be patient. You'll find the right one."

Robert caught the waiter's eye, and Jean-Michel fairly sprinted to the table. Waiters and bartenders, an old girlfriend had once told Robert, scout customers, and their memories are infallible. He and Marina were generous tippers and every server in the West End knew it, so they always got priority treatment. Marina ordered up another round - Tanq and tonic, and a Stoly Cape Codder for her depressed big brother. "This one's on me."

Here at Harry's Hilltop the drinks were stiff—as were the prices—but you couldn't beat the atmosphere: patio service by 5th Street during warm weather, and cordials with cheesecake by the fireplace during late fall and winter.

Today the Tarheel Indian summer was back for one last early October curtain call, and the trendsurfers were out doing the happy hour thing: bean-counters, ambulance-chasers, bankers and account execs ordering G&Ts around, smiling a hair too broadly, their laughter a decibel too loud. And the receptionists who wanted to marry them clung to each inane syllable as though their lives hinged on the outcome of the boss' six-foot putt for par last Saturday at Green Lakes.

It was, thought Robert, so positively West End.

"Patient." He snorted, shook his head. "What if I already found the right one and she doesn't want me? Besides, I'm 34 years old. A lot of fucking good Miss Right'll do me when I'm 80."

"See? There you go again."

"I know, I know." Robert threw up his hands, exasperated with his sister's unflappable sense of destiny. "The world is a perfect place, right? There's a perfect someone for everyone and in the end we all deserve what we get and get what we truly fucking deserve, right?" Marina wasn't paying attention anymore. She was staring at something over his left shoulder, so Robert leaned across the table and knocked on her forehead. "Anybody home? Hellooo?"

She swatted his hand. "Cut it out. You're mussing up my hair. Look, no no, don't look. This guy in the blue suit over there smiled at me, but I'll bet he thinks you're my date. You should go tell him you're my brother so he'll come talk to me."

"Then will I be happy?"

"Maybe. I know I will."

She cut him a quick glance, like maybe she expected him to laugh, but he didn't. "Oh, lighten up, will you? You take everything so seriously. All I'm saying is if you'll give it time things will work out."

"How much time?" Robert mumbled under his breath. He slurped, loudly, the last of his drink, by now mostly water. "You know, I've kind of accepted the fact that I might never get to be in love with somebody who loves me back. Not everybody dies happy, you know."

Jean-Michel materialized with fresh drinks and a winning smile, then turned his attention to a table of lawyers a few feet away.

"Did you see the latest round of Voyager pictures in the paper today?" Robert asked.

"Yeah. Pretty spectacular, huh?"

"They say it'll keep going forever unless it hits something. Of course, they also say it'll probably never hit anything, because space is basically empty. Billions of years, and never even feel another planet's gravity. That's kind of weird, when you think about it."

"I don't know," she said, looking over his shoulder again. "If it got too close to something, wouldn't it crash?"

"I don't know. I guess. Like Pioneer."

"Which one is that?"

"It's in orbit around Venus. Keeps taking pictures. They say it'll crash and burn sometime in the next few years."

Marina opened the menu, which had been sitting on the table for the better part of an hour. "You gonna eat?"

* * *

No, it wasn't Leah. Leah had been his fault. Robert had wanted too much too soon, and she said she just wasn't ready. He tried to accept, to understand her need for space, for what she called a "cooling down period." His objectivity clouded a bit, though, when she turned up three months after they broke up wearing an engagement ring.

Karen? Well, that was unavoidable, sort of. He'd gotten involved, knowing full well that she might get a better job offer elsewhere. She did, in Denver, and Robert was outraged when she chose her career over his love.

No biggie, he remembers telling her as she crawled into her brand new '89 RX-7 -cherry red, convertible, 5-speed. Pure candy. Dress for success. "No big deal at all. Guys like me are a dime a dozen in the big city. I hope you wind up filthy rich. I hope you fucking drown in money," as she started the RX and ground it into reverse. She was crying, and she had never owned a straight-drive before. "I hope you wind up with every fucking thing money can buy!" The tires barked as she slipped the clutch too quickly, but then she gunned it hard and Robert never heard from her again.

Alone, he sometimes remembers one night just before the end. After making love she asked him to get her something to drink. So he trotted naked downstairs and filled a big Wake Forest Football cup with ice and Pepsi, and when he came back into the room she was lying on her stomach, arms folded under the pillow and her left knee bent, foot touching the inside of her right knee, like a ballerina arrested in mid-twirl, cast in porcelain and brought here for display in the gallery he'd made of his life. Streetlight streamed through half-open Levelors and fell like prison bars across the curve of her hips...

She was already asleep, and he stood there several minutes, enchanted, looking at her nude form. He knew what he admired in women—intelligence, humor, communicativeness—and Karen had all those things in abundance. But he knew that a man can also love simple beauty—primal, physical, elemental. There was no defense against it, this simple purity of form. Karen was sculpture, flesh and immortality, more exquisite in that moment than every hand-wrought majesty in a universe of Louvres.

"Everything money can buy . . . " It was the meanest thing he could think of to say. He then spent the evening with a bottle of Wild Turkey, talking back to the television.

Melinda? Pretty simple, really. She decided she would rather fuck one of Robert's friends. And, whatserface...Laura—Laura just decided that she didn't love him any more. Couldn't hold that against her. She decided that she didn't love him on three different occasions, as a matter of fact, and it was his own damn fault for letting her do it to him over and over again.

Leah, Karen, Melinda, Laura. Leah, Karen, Melinda, Laura. Plus the occasional Suzanne, Shannon (who looked kind of like one of those gorgeous, trashy blonds on television, trying to seduce him into dialing 1-900-HOT-BABE) and Katie, and there you had your basic litany of despair, variations on a theme. Clean the gun, watch TV. Open, unload, oil, wipe, reload. Open, unload, oil, wipe, reload. Leah, open, Karen, unload, Melinda, oil, Laura, wipe, Shannon, reload. Johnny Carson, then Letterman, then Costas, white noise, blue-white flicker in a mystic dance on the back wall of his cramped little den, all dark except for the tube.

* * *

Howard, whose father was the Pinyan in Pinyan Crusher Mountcastle, a PDQ/Worldwide subsidiary, was busy, screaming at the telephone. Evidently someone in New York was being difficult.

He was also Robert's best friend, although sometimes Robert wasn't sure why. "I guess I just like workaholics," he told Marina. "It's a subliminal craving to feel unneeded."

Besides, Howard would die of stress-induced heart failure here in the next few minutes, and then Robert could find a friend more to his sister's liking. Or better yet, she could just select one for him.

Robert looked at Howard's desk, at all the papers with all the numbers—Arbitron ratings from all over the United States, contracts, TV schedules, promotions proposals from every damned broadcast outlet in the free world.

Robert walked back down the hall toward his own office, Howard's tirade fading with each step. He sat down at his desk, turned and looked out the window onto the PCM back lawn, two acres of immaculately manicured greenery butting up against the back of Stratford Farms, Winston-Salem's elite residential neighborhood. The fashionably unkempt yard directly behind the office building belonged to one of the senior veeps at RJR/Nabisco.

At the edge of the lawn sat Lucifer, Lord of the Hunt. Robert had no idea who the cat belonged to, but it had become a shadowy constant in his weekday consciousness. He had watched the big black tomcat (Robert figured it must be a tom) stalk and kill dozens of birds and squirrels over the last two years. If mockingbirds have religion, thought Robert, there sat their anti-Christ.

At the moment, Lucifer seemed fixated on a squirrel scampering back and forth along a power line which ran from the PCM building to the edge of the RJR exec's yard. The squirrel stopped periodically to bark at the cat. Lucifer just watched, his tail twitching occasionally.

Then, inexplicably, the squirrel lost its footing. It flailed desperately, landing on its head twenty feet from the waiting predator. Robert had never seen a squirrel fall before, so he'd never wondered if they, like cats, always landed on their feet. Apparently not.

The squirrel lay there, stunned. Run, run you little fool. The cat stood up and walked, rather casually, over to the lump of twitching gray fur. Lucifer looked down on it for a moment, lowered his head and sniffed.

Then, with a look Robert took for disgust, the cat turned and walked back to his previous spot at the edge of the lawn. Shortly, the squirrel recovered its senses and ran like hell for the nearest tree. A couple of minutes later it was scampering back and forth across the power line, stopping occasionally to bark at the cat.

Stunned, Robert was jerked back, back into the starched reality of PCM, by the insistent chirping of his phone. His forehead was pressed tightly to the window, he realized; his eyes struggled for focus, settling at last on a single dollop of sweat trickling down the tinted pane. He fell back into his chair, his heart swimming in adrenaline.

He tapped the speaker button. "What?"

Someone in Evansville needed to change some TV copy. "And they shoot it tomorrow," said the voice on the other end.

Okay, sure, no problem, we'll fax it over this evening. Right, bye. He dialed Howard's number. Howard, agitated, preoccupied: "What? WHAT?"

"Howard, what if we don't finish today?"

"What?"

"What happens if we just say fuck it, take the afternoon off and go to Harry's?"

Silence.

"I mean, it's not like anybody's gonna starve, right?"

A click, and ten seconds later Howard's head, balding and prematurely gray, appeared in the doorway, followed closely by the rest of his body. He slumped in the chrome-framed chair opposite Robert's desk.

"Starve? No. But the Earth would stop spinning in its orbit and crash into the sun. Dad says it actually happened once back in the ‘50s."

Later, as they left for the day, Robert offered to buy. "Let's go to Harry's. I saw the damnedest thing today."

By 10pm, Robert and Howard—now quite buzzed—had migrated a few blocks down the hill to the 1st St. Tavern, famed for its vast imported beer selection (Howard said he had cashed three around-the-world cards in the last two weeks) and the best-looking bartenders (female) in town. Shelly, Robert's favorite, was off tonight, though. In fact, all three bartenders were guys. Which was odd.

They caught a couple seats back near the jukebox. Howard fished through his wallet, produced his around-the-world card, and noted that he needed something British. "Newcastle ought to do it," he said. Robert ordered a Turkey Manhattan.

Robert never talked much to Howard about women. Basically, Howard just wasn't that kind of friend; he was a social friend, not an intimate—a buddy, not a confidant. Some guys you hung out with and watched sports with and drank with, but you couldn't really talk with. Robert didn't really have a confidant, besides Marina.

Oh, you could talk women with Howard, but it was more about actions than emotions—this one's hot, that one has a great ass, the other one looks just like this girl I did on the Gamma Chi lawn back in college. For Howard, sex was a sport.

Also, Howard knew very little about "the right woman"; he was more of an expert on the wrong one—in fact, she was probably waiting at home right now, wondering where the hell he was. The last time Robert had tried to talk to Howard about women, he'd gotten about ten words out when Howard went ballistic. Two hours later, Robert was convinced he never wanted to get married. Ever. In this life or any other.

Of course, that was back when things were really bad with Howard and Elaine. Apparently they had been getting along better lately. So Robert decided to try again.

"Howie, did I ever tell you about that girl I met up in Wyoming last summer?" he ventured, dropping a ten on the bar and sounding as casual as he could.

"You mentioned something once. I figured it never got anywhere."

"Not really."

It still hurt to think about it. But Robert really wanted to talk. So while Howard drank, Robert talked.

An old college buddy had invited Robert along on his annual trek to the Wyoming Conference on English in Laramie. Evan, tenure-track at the University of South Carolina, was always doing seminars and panels and other such nonsense at academic conferences because it looked good on the vita. Publish or perish.

"Rob, man, you'll love Wyoming," he said. 7000 feet, you can almost touch the clouds. At night, swear to God, the moon's so bright you can read by it. You can even be on the program. You can be my media technician."

Sold. "I always did want to run a slide projector." Besides, Rob had never traveled west of Kansas City, and he was in the mood to escape for a few days. But when he found out they were driving the 3600-mile round trip, he almost backed out.

"Nope," said Evan, "the drive is great. There's something about the road that clears your head. It'll be good for you. Trust me." And it was good, sort of.

Conference tradition called for participants to spend their evenings rubbing elbows with real cowboys downtown at the infamous Big Sky Saloon—where, according to the conference brochure, people rarely got shot at anymore.

This was where Robert had met Julie—sapphire blue eyes and the most beautiful baby-fine blonde hair he had ever seen. She was tall, and her lean prep-school curves swayed beneath her clothing like a willow in an April breeze. "She was wearing this Carolina blue sun dress," he said, and he tried to think of a way to describe Julie so that Howard would understand. "She was like a waterfall. Do you know that Herrick poem, `Upon Julia's Clothes'?" Howard didn't.

So Robert recited it.

"Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows

That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see

That brave vibration, each way free,

O, how that glittering taketh me!"

It was one of two poems from his college days that Robert could quote. The other, also about a pretty blonde, was from Playboy's party jokes section.

Julie's roommate, Ann, was on the conference staff, and the two of them had won four straight games of 8-ball when Evan's quarters came up. Evan engaged Ann, and Robert said hello to Julie. He felt it instantly, that slight surge of adrenaline. How long had it been? Two years? Leah.

"Go for it," Evan said later, back at the motel. "She was all over every word, man. Look, we're having lunch with Ann and the staff tomorrow. I'll say something to Ann and she can say something to Julie."

No. Hell, no; the last thing Robert needed was the added strain of getting slammed on his vacation. Of course, if Evan did say something.

Whether he did or not, Robert never knew, but Julie was a fixture at the Big Sky every night that week, and she showed up at the conference a couple of times, too, including Evan's Thursday afternoon panel session on "Images of Women in the Films of Ridley Scott." Surprisingly, Robert found it fairly interesting.

A woman on the panel suggested that in Aliens, Sigourney Weaver's character was subjugated by the weaker male crew member. The scene where he teaches her how to use the laser rifle, clearly a phallic symbol, represented the male's need to enslave the female to his penis. Evan countered that, as Freud himself once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Likewise, maybe a laser rifle was just a laser rifle; certainly it was a damn sight more useful on homicidal aliens than anything he was packing in his jockeys. About half the audience—roughly the male half—laughed loudly. Many of the women, though, didn't laugh at all.

"See, this is why I went into advertising," Robert whispered to Julie, but he realized she was one of the ones not laughing. He spent the rest of the afternoon wondering what that meant.

When Thursday night rolled around, Robert knew there were only two nights left, and if he were going to make a move, it needed to be soon.

The house band at the Big Sky played everything from oldies to recent Top 40, but always with a serious Country & Western spin. When they got around to Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" Robert was ready. He and Julie danced that number and the next one, a slow one by Randy Travis.

"Want to take a walk?" he asked as they left the floor.

"Sure."

Evan had been right about the Wyoming moon, full that night. They walked through the streets of Laramie for the better part of an hour, talking about everything from Robert Browning to the Broncos' chances of winning the Super Bowl.

Finally, a nervous lull in the conversation. Robert, hands deep in his pockets, said "It's been a long time since I had someone I could really talk to."

She didn't stop him, so he went on, as smoothly as he could. He had a blind spot with women: in spite of his intuitive knack for people, he could never quite read a woman's intentions toward him.

"Anyway, I guess it's obvious that I'm really attracted to you. I have a hard time resisting beautiful women, especially smart ones." There, he'd said it. Out of practice—he'd avoided every hint of risk for two years—but he'd gotten it out.

She looked off down the street for what seemed like days.

"I don't know what to say," she began. "You're one of the most appealing, attractive men I've met in ages. I can talk to you, too. I've told you things my best friend doesn't know."

Something in her tone, her timing . . .

"If the circumstances were different . . ." She trailed off, staring down 2nd Street toward the Jackalope—where, according to local lore, people did get shot at occasionally.

"Circumstances?" Still vaguely hopeful.

"I'm living with someone." Robert imagined he heard regret in her voice. "I've been living with my boyfriend for the last three months."

"Uh, you've been out with us every night this week. Hasn't he noticed?"

"He doesn't really care. He doesn't like to go out, and he trusts me."

"You don't sound all that happy about it."

"Well, it's been kind of rocky lately. I'm not sure how much longer it'll last." She looked sad, Robert thought.

"And you're going to turn me down for this guy that you aren't sure about?" Robert knew the answer like he knew the plaster swirls on his bedroom ceiling—waiting for sleep, and the play of mercury shadows across a thousand drunken stupors. He'd known the answer, it seemed, for a million years.

"Evan was right about the road," Robert said to Howard. Robert paused, drained his glass, then continued. "I couldn't stop thinking about her, about her blowing me off like that. And that Sunday, driving back across Nebraska, there wasn't anything else to think about. She didn't buy what I said about passing good things up. At least, she didn't buy it enough to do anything about it. But you should have seen the look in her eyes. God. That made it hurt even more, you know?

"I mean, it's not that she hurt me—I guess I hardly knew her. It was just that it was so predictable. Evan was lucky. I was driving, so he got to sleep through Nebraska."

Robert mentioned a radio station he heard along the way that was playing a Pink Floyd tune, a song about making connections—asphalt and telephone lines, 3600 miles worth, and the damned phone's busy.

Hello (hello, hello)

Is there anybody out there?

Robert noticed that while his story had journeyed from North Carolina to Wyoming and back, Howard had toured half of Europe by beer. Somewhere en route buzzed had given way to drunk.

Robert paid the tab, then helped his friend, semi-comatose and fading fast, to the car. Howard hadn't said much through it all; he'd laughed at the part about the laser and the jockeys, but that was about it. No advice, no words of wisdom—which Robert hadn't expected anyway. But he'd listened, at least. Sort of.

"Hey wait a minute," Howard said before getting out of the car at his home. "I talked to some woman in Nebraska today, real bitch. Oma...Omaha's in Nebraska idn'it? Yeah, I think her name was Judy, too."

* * *

The TV keeps sliding, trying to drain off the screen. Robert is vaguely. . . . is this happening? A man is lying on the floor while a dog drinks something—milk? From his mouth. The TV slips right, Robert starts, lifts the bottle, which may as well be welded to his hand, drinks, feels tepid liquid running down his chest, stomach, slow motion trickle. Ohhh. Stupid pet tricks.

"Daaave."

Oh God, the noise. In his dreams holes are bored in his skull by a high-speed drill, its whining like the Emergency Broadcast System tone, and he can't make it stop. A single bullet, screaming through space, never hitting anything, forever and ever, amen.

And he wakes, his scalp feeling crusted and shrunk. The place reeks of bourbon, bottle of 101 overturned on the floor. Revolver beside it, amid the cleaning paraphernalia, cocked. Robert picks it up. One round, chambered.

He vaguely remembers Dali-esque dogs slipping off the TV and an incessant, torturous keening. His head feels like it might just explode. Taste of Wild Turkey and gun oil.

* * *

Baptist preachers—Robert had learned early—cultivate a gift for talking entirely around the point. At Pap's funeral, some eight years ago, the preacher went on and on about the quality of mercy and the importance of church and family in times of crisis—the earthly family, strong in God's grace, and the eternal family of believers, of which we are all a treasured part.

Of course, nobody figured that Pap—Robert's maternal grandfather—had too many years left. He was 74 and he'd had a go-round with colon cancer the year before. The doctors thought they got it all, but the fight took a lot out of him. And, as one of the doctors said, you never really beat cancer, you just put it off.

Fearing the worst, family members made it a point to visit often, to offer whatever help Pap and Grammaw needed, and reach whatever understandings were necessary. Nobody wanted to live with unsaid goodbyes.

Pap was busy, too, making out his will, providing for Grammaw's care, divvying up parcels of the old farm among his children so that when he died the tax bite wouldn't be so bad. After he died, he knew the farm would be sold to developers, and corporate interest in the land—which was near the planned I-40 bypass—had driven the price sky-high. Pap would leave his heirs in good financial shape.

Then, out of the blue, Grammaw died of a stroke. The funeral was held two days later at the church, and the preacher extolled the virtues of devout Christian women, on whose foundations strong Christian families were built.

One week later, Pap got up early, put on his overalls, and went out to feed the chickens and the dogs. Then he went into one of the old tin-roofed storage buildings by the barn, sat down by the corn sheller, put his double-barreled 12-gauge in his mouth, and blew his brains all over the back of the shed.

Sometimes preachers pray for the dead, other times for the living.

* * *

Maybe Marina was right—maybe he did think too much.

Robert cradled the phone with his left shoulder and reached for the oil. It would piss off Marina to know he was oiling the gun while talking to her. "I'm crazy because I said maybe it's okay to retire gracefully? Bullshit. Pap was smart enough to see that his life was over. There's more to living than just drawing breath.

"Remember that woman in the nursing home, the one in the room next to Aunt Audrey's? Her mind was gone, she didn't know she was alive. They fed her through a tube and changed her diapers three times a day and turned her every once in a while so she wouldn't get bedsores. And the nurse said she'd been like that for three years. The woman was dead, Marina, but her heart and lungs didn't know it. Remember what you said they should do to her?" Robert shifted the phone to his other ear and reached for the Turkey.

"That's different. Pap wasn't a vegetable, and all these people you're talking about not being suited for this society, whatever that means, they're not vegetables either. By your definition, `not suited' only describes maybe a billion people in the world.

"I mean, look at yourself for a second. Objectively. You're smart, you've got a great job, and in spite of what happened with Leah, women really like you..."

"Names, Les, I need names."

"Huh?"

Robert shook the can of oil. Almost empty. "WKRP in Cincinnati. Les says `Women like you, Johnny,' and Johnny says `Names, Les, I need names.' It's a joke."

"Oh. But you've always had girlfriends. One right after another."

"Yeah. Where do you think ex-girlfriends come from? Anyway, this is really beside the point. I'm just trying to make you see that maybe there are valid reasons why somebody might not want to go on. And Pap had plenty."

"Oh, bullshit. You've got to be sick mentally to want to commit suicide. It's not natural." He'd hit a hot button, he knew—Marina's abiding religious notions about what was "natural."

"Neither is being alone."

"But Pap was sick to start with—he was half-dead from cancer—and Grammaw's death was too much for him. He just snapped. He was sick."

"He didn't just snap, and he wasn't sick. Not mentally, anyway. He was as sane when he shot himself as he ever was. He even made sure he fed the animals first so they wouldn't go hungry if he wasn't found right away. He made the logical decision, a smart decision, and that terrifies you."

Robert squirted the last of the gun oil onto a fresh cloth.

"You've been drinking, haven't you?" Marina asked. He paused for a few seconds while he finished wiping the revolver, then laid it on the table. Next he started polishing the bullet.

"Yes, I've been drinking." He reached for the bottle and choked down another mouthful, loudly, so she could hear it. "So what?"

"I don't like it when you drink alone. It's not good for you."

She had heard it all, seen it all before. Or at least he had said it all before. No telling exactly what people heard.

"I just want to be loved, preferably by a woman that I can love back. And I'm not happy alone. Never have been."

"Robbie, we all love you. What about your family? What about Howard and Corey and the rest of those guys? I mean, don't friends count for anything?"

She was right, of course, but it wasn't enough. His family loved him, he had friends, money wasn't a problem, and he really did like himself—which hadn't always been the case. But something was missing. He felt incomplete, and nothing came close to filling the void.

The void was a cancer, a spiritual version of what Pap had. Robert didn't want to be eaten alive by his own soul. That much he knew.

"Besides, suicide is the coward's way out," she added. "It takes real guts to live, especially when things get really tough."

That old cliché. He supposed it was true as far as it went: getting out of bed did take guts. But it wasn't that simple. He knew fear when he felt it, and pulling the trigger wasn't easy. If it was he'd have been gone a long time ago. And Pap damned sure hadn't been a coward. Robert took another hit of Wild Turkey and stared at the bullet.

"Robbie? You still there?"

"I'm still here." He was tired, and getting drunk. "I guess I'm just feeling sorry for myself is all." He tried to brighten up, force a little sunshine into his mood. "Listen," he said, affecting the pretentious gush of Marina's yuppie boss, "let's do the lunch thing tomorrow, 'kay. Dillon's, noonish?"

"You know, I worry about you."

Robert felt guilty about dragging Marina into his private battles. As dizzy as she could sometimes be, she had always been good to him—his best friend, really - and now he had worried her needlessly just to make a point. Just to shake that damned pollyanna resolve. His sister's life was governed by a cocksure faith that all things ultimately worked out, and Robert could only recall a couple of occasions where this certainty had been really shaken. Once in high school, when a girl on her cheerleading squad keeled over during practice. Aneurism, dead instantly. And Pap's funeral.

That was it, wasn't it?: Marina had a stranglehold on life, shaking it for all it was worth, but she was immortal. She didn't see that life and death were connected. Or she refused to see.

"You better be there," she said. "Promise you'll call me if you need anything."

"Promise. Bye."

"Bye." Click.

Robert held the gun up to the light. All those people with near-death experiences talked about traveling down a tunnel toward a bright light. What's at the end? Something wonderful, was the consensus. "I'll never fear death again," one woman said.

Robert reloaded the .38, clicked it shut. He got up and flipped off Letterman, sat back down. He placed the revolver in his mouth: gun oil and the barrel's metallic cold sharp against his palate. Leah, Karen, Melinda, Laura. Leah Karen Melinda Laura.

His thumb pulled back and down, slowly cocking the trigger. He'd been surprised, the first time, to learn that a revolver cocking didn't make a single click, like on TV. Rather, up close, it sounded like a bone breaking—several slow, dry cracks all pressed together.

The hammer locked. Robert gently stroked the trigger. LeahKarenMelindaLaura ShannonSuzanneKatie. Julie. Leah Karen Melinda. Whatshername. Fuck.

Squeeze, don't jerk. Almost. Tighter. Leah. Almost.

He drew the gun from his mouth and wiped the saliva off, hit of Turkey to wash the oil out of his mouth, and walked back to his bedroom. He placed the gun on the table beside the bed, within easy reach.

That night Robert dreamed he was on death row —he never knew why. Julie came to see him, wearing this striped sun dress. When the guard wasn't looking she slipped him a gun, his gun.

In a frenzy, Robert turned and shot the executioner, squeezing the trigger again and again, knowing it was his only hope. But there was no effect; the executioner stood there, unfazed, regarding him clinically.

"You're using the wrong kind of bullets, my friend," he said, and as he did his features began shifting, contorting, becoming dark and feline, sinister.

"You're using the wrong bullets."

* * *

Sam Smith leads a double life these days. By day he masquerades as a corporate communication, marketing, and e-learning strategist for a small consultancy in the Denver/Boulder corridor. By night (and on weekends) he's trying to work his way back into his writing, which he more or less abandoned out of frustration over a decade ago. Sam has recently had a chapbook collection and a non-fiction piece accepted by The Dead Mule, and his poetry has also appeared in journals like Poet & Critic, The Cream City Review, The High Plains Literary Review, The New Virginia Review, and A Carolina Literary Companion.

Sam holds a BA from Wake Forest University, an MA from Iowa State, and earned his PhD in Mass Communication from the University of Colorado in 1999. In his "spare time," he maintains an active Web site, The Lullaby Pit (www.lullabypit.com), focusing on everything from politics to popular music to literature to digital art; plays basketball and baseball; and plots his first novel. He is recently married, and spends a good deal of time with his wife Angela and their Scottish Terror – err, Terrier – puppy, Ronan. Sam can be reached at sam@lullabypit.com, especially by those wishing to donate money.