The frozen laundry had hung in the snow for three days. When Martha finally went to get Fidel’s shirts, his pants, his underwear, it was already late evening, on the fourth. They were so stiff, those clothes.
“I can’t take this no more,” Martha said to the large black cat that swirled to the garden door, with an anxious purr. The clothes on Martha’s arm crackled, her warmth renewed their emptiness. If the cat could talk, it would have agreed with Martha. It would have said, It’s not fair that Fidel leaves you out on this lonely lake front, that each time you rescue him, it’s worse than before.
The first time Fidel left home, he was only thirteen. He was just recovering from typhoid. From where could he have got such a disease – it mystified Martha. She spent many hours and days honing in on one possible suspect after another, from colored people, to white people to travelers to water bottles and even to her own finger nails. Of course it was a meant to be thing. The high fever probably killed some portions of his mind. Otherwise how would his brain have gotten crazy.
Fidel was just recovering when his father had slapped him stinging hard for breaking the apple tree, just ready to bloom with its first bloom. Fidel took off that evening. He turned up two years later, a fifteen year old man, lean and strong, his bones meant business.
Martha opened the kitchen cupboard and looked in the bottom shelf. Her old gun was still there, still loaded. There were patches of grease and dirt on it. She carried it to the kitchen and took out a bottle of turpentine from under the sink. It must be what, fifteen, no, at least eighteen years ago that Wendell had bought it for her. To shoot the deer that were just everywhere. She had learned to use it very well, as if her hand and eye keyed into some pre-existing knowledge in her brain about how to be supremely accurate.
The lid of the turpentine bottle came off in her hand and some of the turp spilled onto the counter top. Irritated with all this, Martha found a rag and wiped the counter top and started on the gun. She began to cough as if she would never stop.
On some form he had to fill up, maybe it was the census form, Wendell had written they did not have any children. She had coughed then at the unfairness of such a statement, at the unfairness of not letting her decide such matters. She went over one side of the gun meticulously, getting the grease out till it was spotless. Then she turned it over, stood back and surveyed it. She had always been hurt that her only contribution to the unfairness was silence. Some women might nag and argue, some may walk away, she listened to loneliness, as it gradually coated her husband’s brain until he died. Only because she was such a good listener she had never felt lonely herself.
Martha went back to cleaning the gun. When she finished, she held it up against the kitchen window light to see if there was any place she had left out. Until the babies stopped coming, she had shot two, sometimes three deer during the season. Even Wendell did not have such a wonderful record. One summer, when there was a mild hope that they had a future after all because Fidel was around the house, a normal Fidel who ate and slept and listened to music, she taught him to shoot as well. Martha smiled at how quickly Fidel picked up as if it was long ago born in him to shoot straight.
That was before she had to bail him out two successive years for drugs and larceny.
The gun felt reassuring in her hand. Especially now when Fidel had left with the money she had kept carefully over the years, about twenty three thousand dollars of it. Still, if they asked her to fill the census form now, she would not have written, no children.
She carried the gun carefully to the back of the house. The backyard fence was badly broken. Once she had seen a fox wandering in. The oak looked naked, the snow made it even more gigantic than usual. The clothesline stretched from one of its branches all the way across to the elm. When she had brought in the clothes, she had left the pegs almost perfectly equidistant from each other. She stood for a long time in the cold, thinking that they were old pegs and maybe tomorrow, she would buy new ones. Then, she took aim and shot every one of those wooden clothes pegs.
The snow started to fall again when she went to check how she had done. Except for the last one, all the wooden pegs had been shattered. Still, she had nicked the last one. She shrugged, maybe a snow flake had got in the way. The gun was empty. Martha put it back in the cupboard and poured out some milk for the cat.