“On Wilson” – Brad Pauquette

My dog’s hair will not grow forever. Each follicle reaches its terminal length, and then his body discards the hair, littered about in vacuum-clogging clumps on the carpet and pooled in the corners of every staircase.

But each of my dog’s hairs will not grow to the same length either, the short hairs on his snout gradually increase in length as they run over his head to the full shag of his German Shepherd back, and then the length tapers down again to his paws. No one directs them, but each hair follicle knows its exact length, every hair succumbs to the greater mission of his beautiful black and brown coat, none rebel.

My wife sits beside me, fiddling with the radio. My son, two-years-old, babbles nonsense in his car seat, positioned behind me.

I back out of the driveway, put the car in drive and pull forward. We aren’t going anywhere important—out to lunch, cheap Indian food at the North Market or baked potatoes from Wendy’s.

A short block from our house, Lyncroft Ave. deadends into Wilson Ave. On the left sits a broken pink dinosaur of a house, returning to dust by natural decay right before our eyes. It sits empty, with rain coming through blanket-sized holes in the roof, and grass in the yard that stretches four feet high. On the right, an imposing yellow brick house stands three stories tall, with six chimneys reaching towards the sky and as many pitbulls roaming the backyard. A right turn takes you into downtown Columbus, a left turn takes you into Eastgate, one of the better black neighborhoods in Columbus. Our neighborhood is neither downtown nor Eastgate.

If you were to pull through the dead-end intersection at Wilson, you’d run into a white duplex, where a sixty-inch TV blocks the only unboarded window on the left half. The TV is either picked up or delivered by the Rent-A-Center or Aaron’s truck several times a year. It is apparent that the TV also partially blocks the front entrance, but there are many reasons “USE BACK DOOR” is spray painted in foot tall red letters across the front door.

A few times a week, I sit on my front porch late at night, dragging down a Turkish Gold as the cicadas compete with sirens and the sounds of casual domestic abuse. The foot traffic past my front porch never stops, no matter the time of night or day. Even in the wee hours of the morning, it never stops.

Jittery men, some young, some old, almost all of them black in this neighborhood, walk down Lyncroft Ave. and disappear across the street, behind that white duplex, their eyes jumping back and forth, nervously checking behind them. Fifteen minutes later they emerge again, heading back up Lyncroft Ave. to a vacant garage most likely, but now with a smooth, rhythmic gait, their eyes staring straight ahead, focused—mellowed, yet alive.

In the afternoons, when I pick up litter out of my yard, I see young men wearing coats, regardless of the weather, travel from that white duplex to the yellow brick house across the street. These young men know the pitbulls at the yellow brick house by name, but it doesn’t stop the dogs from barking each time the boys cross the street, the pockets in their baggy coats imperceptibly heavier or lighter, depending on whether they’re going to or from, determined by the relative weight of cash to crack and quarters to meth.

I don’t normally drive towards Wilson after noon, instead, when I need to head downtown, I’ll head north out of my block, and circle back around to Mt. Vernon. This particularly Tuesday I’m feeling frisky, or I’m tired of having the direction I can travel determined by an external authority like I’m nine years old, or perhaps I’m just careless.

I see them as soon as I pull out of my driveway, six black teenagers, looking up towards the white duplex, hollering at a girl on the porch of the right side. All six wear red, it must be a special occasion.

Neighborhood patrols don’t usually wear colors anymore. It only took the police fifteen years to figure out which color belonged to which organization, and then it took the young men who run the crime in the neighborhoods fifteen minutes to switch to subtler methods of team identification. Except for the kids. Kids always wear the colors—like children in the suburbs wear a t-shirt with the name of their favorite band, or the jersey of their favorite MLB star.

Yet, on special occasions, when it’s absolutely critical to determine who belongs on which team, the young men wear their reds in my neighborhood. It’s been a special occasion for a couple of weeks now.

A week earlier, I’d seen six boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, suited up in their reds, traveling East towards Pointdexter, ready to help a nearby neighborhood push off the “MS-13” or the “Rolling 22” tags I’d recently seen pop up north of Broad Street.

Just a couple of days ago, I saw the young men of the neighborhood, dressed in black, dispersing to their homes during the hour I sit on my porch, returning a few minutes later to roam towards Mt. Vernon in their red adornments, pants hung low, filled with instruments of exhilaration and destruction.

Red socks peek from beneath Daryl’s black basketball shorts, James wears a red hoody, Darius wears a red stocking cap. Alone, these colors wouldn’t look out of place, but it’s unlikely that every single one of them might have chosen to wear that color by coincidence.

On this particular Tuesday, these six boys making a ruckus with their backs to me, standing in front of the white house on Wilson where Lyncroft dead-ends, they’re wearing their colors. These teenagers aren’t in charge, they don’t get paid—they’re pawns, they get addicted, they get trapped. These ones in front of this house, every one of them is already lost, and most of them will never gain anything for their sacrifice.

These boys aren’t even trusted with guns. Most of them in this group of six are fourteen or fifteen years old. They could get a weapon if they needed to, but they’re not trusted to carry them regularly.

These boys should be in school, but instead they’ll stand in front of a convenience store somewhere to take the group’s numbers from two to six, two of them will be placed on a street corner two blocks down with a cell phone and be told to watch for cops and the right kind of hooptie. At this moment, they could be in school learning to read, learning basic math, but instead they stand in front of a shitty duplex—suited up, hitting a pipe, waiting to be told where their hopped up, hormone-addled brains should go stand—go stand and look like something, but be nothing. At least they know some math, it’s industry specific though, mostly revolving around fractions of an ounce, and the metric gram.

We could count off these boys—ten years from now—prison, drug lord, dead, hopeless addict, prison, dead in prison.

My wife coughs twice in the seat next to me, breaking me from a trance.

“Are you gonna stop?” she asks me.

“Sorry,” I say, and apply the brake.

I shouldn’t have gone this way, not this week—not ever. But today their backs are to me and they don’t look like they’ll notice. I click on my right blinker and pull to a stop at the sign. I turn my wheel and accelerate.

Clairvoyant, or possessed by the devil, one of them turns, looks me in the eye and shouts “Hey Bitch!” Spit dribbles from his blue lips, his glazed red, half-closed eyes look into mine. He lifts up his black sweatshirt, and slaps his naked, ashen belly with his flat hand.

The others turn slowly and snicker, evil eyes peak out from under hoods.

I should complete my turn, I should continue on my way and go eat Indian food with my family. But today I can’t.

They hate me because I’m white. They hate me because I take care of my yard and try to improve my house. They hate me because they can’t touch me, their Lords watch over me like guardian angels. Nothing would bring the cops crashing in on their operations like harming an articulate white family, but they still want me gone.

They steal from me. They come up on my porch late at night and run off with my furniture, they throw rocks through my windows.

Not today.

I pull to the left side of the street and park facing the wrong direction. I reach under my seat and pull out my Sig Sauer P226 9mm pistol, I flip open the center console and take out a loaded magazine.

“What are you doing?” my wife asks, clutching the armrest.

“Not today,” I tell her as I snap the magazine into the grip, and lock it in. “Not today,” I tell her as I stick the gun in my jacket pocket and open my door.

“Stop…” she says, but I can’t hear her, my foot is on the sidewalk and I elbow the car door shut behind me.

I walk directly to the group of six, they are forty feet from me. They turn and congregate to face me like a wall. They laugh. Corporately, they can not decide whether they are more confident or amused, their eyes shift and change.
I walk quickly, but not hurriedly, with my eyes fixed on the boy in the black sweatshirt with the blue lips. When I am twenty feet away, I pull the gun out of my right pocket, and pull back the slide to load a bullet into the chamber.

The boy’s name is Jared. He is seventeen. I know this because I know all of them. I know this because I had a functional basketball hoop, a rare commodity in this neighborhood, and I learned all of their names before I let them play.

The others see the gun and their eyes widen, bright white eyeballs glaring between their dark brown faces and their dark brown eyes. Their feet begin to hint of shifting. But Jared stares at me coldly, he smirks with only half his mouth.

I am fourteen feet away now, and I pull the gun up and level it at his eyes, still moving forward. The younger boys around him begin to back away when I pull back the hammer.

“You gonna shoot me crack—” he begins to say, but I refuse to hear him call me a “cracker” one more time, and the deafening blast of the 9mm cancels out the rest of his word.

The steel slug exits the muzzle of my Sig at twelve hundred feet per second, and my hand jerks upwards and slightly to the right. The round whistles through the air for the two-hundredths of a second it takes to travel the six feet between my outstretched arm and Jared’s forehead, the muzzle flare chasing close behind it.

The bullet splits Jared’s forehead just above his right eye, splintering his skull, immediately bruising his eye. Jagged fragments of bone chip from his forehead and the bullet forces them into his mushy, drug-addled brain. The once spiraling bullet now fragments into two pieces, each of which tumbles through the mass of nerve tissue, tightly orbiting the other like a satellite moon.

The hole in his forehead was tidy, but the mass of bone and matter and bullet fragments tear a ragged hole in the top of the back of his head, his matted hair and unwashed skin tears away and lands on the sidewalk behind him.

As the slide on my pistol recoils, the expended bullet casing ejects from the barrel, and the slide pumps another round into the chamber. The empty brass casing tumbles to the ground, ringing on a rock and tumbling through the grass to my right.

Jared’s body follows his matted hair, and he slumps backwards to the ground.

I hear my wife scream from the car, I hear the girl on the porch scream, but their screams are indistinguishable from the terrified shrieks of the teenage boys as they turn and run. Two of them bolt between the houses on this side of the street and I hear their feet beat down the alley, their voices trailing off. Two stupider and younger ones turn and run down the length of the sidewalk with their backs to me, and the one remaining hoodlum, Darius, tries to back away but trips over his heels. He lies frozen and silent, hyperventilating on the sidewalk in front of me, his narrow chest heaving.

I am tempted to shoot Jared’s lifeless, draining body where it lies on the sidewalk. I am tempted to shoot him in the chest for the basketball hoop he stole and destroyed, though he could have used it at my house every day. I want to shoot him because I can’t leave my son’s three-dollar plastic toys in the front lawn overnight and expect them to be there in the morning. I want to shoot him for every time I’ve been accosted while walking my dog because of the color of my skin. I want to shoot him for every thug kid who’s called me a cracker, for every bullshit gangster who’s threatened to shoot me, for every son-of-a-bitch hoodlum-rapper wannabe who I’ve had to kick off my back porch—smoking blunts on the cement steps when I pull into my driveway, threatening to hurt me because I don’t know “the rules.”

But I don’t have enough bullets for all of that. And Jared’s already dead.

For once I am glad that it will take the police twenty minutes to arrive.

I rest my index finger on the outside of the trigger guard and lower my weapon.

I turn to Darius, and look him in the eyes. I see only fear, I see only panic. I take two steps, bend over and snatch my discarded bullet casing from the grass.

“Not today,” I tell him, and I turn to walk back towards my car.

When I reach the silver station wagon, I slip into the driver’s seat. My wife is terrified. She’s scared of me, she’s scared of the gun in my hand, she’s scared of the neighborhood who will soon be here. I look in the rearview mirror where my two-year-old son is perplexed, his brow furrowed, yet he is silent.

I place the gun on the floor in front of me, put the car in drive and pull across the road to the correct side.

After three blocks, I pull down an empty alley, roll down my window, and toss out the spent casing. It glitters in the sunlight midway on its arc to its new home, hidden among the alley’s trash and vast collection of other spent bullet casings. Suddenly there is a pain in my neck, my arms shake robotically as if the world is a vinyl record player stuck in a scratch.

The bullet casing’s tumbling reverses and it glistens in the sun at the top of its arc again. Before I can comprehend what is happening my hand closes around the shell once more, and my car is traveling in reverse through an empty and gray world. All of the people, the traffic, the noise is gone. My wife and child are no longer with me, and the sun, the only source of color in the world, burns scarlet.

I am alone, paralyzed, trapped moving backwards in my car to an unknown destination. My car roams backwards through the streets to Wilson Ave. Jared, the only other occupant of this gray world, stares blackly at me through sunken dead eyes, standing in front of me on the sidewalk like a marionette held by strings. His matted hair and bits of skull lie in the gray grass behind him, and a pool of black blood stains the sidewalk.

My gun is in my hand again, and I am looking down the sites at Jared’s forehead. The pool of black recedes behind him. A cylinder of steel less than a centimeter in diameter escapes from his forehead, the skin closes neatly behind, and the bullet approaches my paralyzed body.

The Sig’s muzzle swallows the bullet whole, and I suddenly realize how cold the weapon’s steel grip is in my hands. I exhale in this gray world, my breath condenses and falls to the ground in front of me.

The scenery around me is the only living thing, still rushing past me. I continue traveling in reverse, paralyzed, until I am back in my car. I blink and the world fades, I blink and the blackness moves in closer still.

My wife coughs twice in the seat next to me. I look up and the sun blinds me, reflecting off the dull red stop sign where Lyncroft Ave. dead-ends into Wilson.

I look over at her.

“Are you gonna stop?” she asks me.

“Sorry,” I say, and apply the brake.

I signal my turn at the corner and stop, and begin to pull away.

One of the punks on Wilson, Jared, turns to me with his blue lips and ashen face, and yells, “Hey Bitch.” He lifts his black sweatshirt and slaps his ashen belly with his flat palm.

I neither look at him, nor do I look away, I simply execute my right turn, and depress the accelerator.

My wife sniffles in the seat next to me, and I shake my head. I look over to see her eyes turning red before she covers them with her hand.

“Not today…” I mutter to myself, and continue on my way.

_

Thank you to Brad Pauquette for sharing the complete text of his story “On Wilson” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Brad Pauquette is a freelance writer, editor and publication consultant in Columbus, Ohio. He lives in Woodland Park, a neighborhood on the near east side of Columbus, with his wife Melissa and two sons. In addition to serving as the developmental and production editor of this project, Brad is the founder and director of Columbus Creative Cooperative.
He is also the owner of Brad Pauquette Design (www.BradPauquetteDesign.com), a web development and media production company serving small businesses and micro-enterprises in Central Ohio. Find his novella, Sejal and the Walk for Water, which raises awareness and funds for the clean water crisis in India, on Amazon.com.
You can find more information about Brad on his website, www.BradPauquette.com.