"Your father says you bought a gun. He says you bought a surplus Army gun."
"We used the M16A2. This one, they call it AR15. It won't fire auto."
"What's that, Patrick?"
"Automatic, Momma." From the mattress where he sat, wearing camouflage trousers and a khaki T-shirt, his back bisected by the corner of the room, he said, "You know. Blam-blam-blam-blam-blam-blam-blam. That's semi-auto. You need to squeeze off one round at a time, but the rate of fire's good enough. Anyway, I didn't buy enough ammo to fire full auto for long. I don't need that much."
"For what, dearie? Why do you need a gun?"
"You talked to Pop?"
"He telephoned." She took her raincoat off and set it on the back of a short wooden chair. "Les answered the phone and of course they jawed."
"That's what Les calls it. He says it's like a couple of bull moose with their antlers locked and their forelegs set. All they can do is make noises."
"Now, what would Les know about two mooses?"
"Oh, dearie, he's a traveler. He's been to places. He's more like you."
"Travel. Here to Hawaii, and then Kuwait, then fucking paradise. Goats and camels and sheep and sand. And then I never barely came home."
"Dearie, yes. Yes, you did. Here you are."
"Here I am," he said. "That's right." Then he said, "That's right." His eyes were closed. She took one step nearer the mattress on the floor where he sat in his scuffed, sand-colored boots and his camouflage pants, his hands knotted around his knees, pulling them up against his chest.
He opened his eyes. What's the 'more like' supposed to mean?" he asked her. "More like me than he's like Pop? Except Pop's your husband. Legally, he still is, right?"
"But you want that part of it over," he said.
"Your life's moving along," he said.
"It is, yes."
"Mine isn't, anymore."
"You've just come back from a terrible time," she said. "You were in danger. You got hurt. You didn't have a shower for weeks and weeks. Those moistened baby wipesI must have sent you a hundred."
"I didn't get them. I told you that."
"I'm sorry, Patrick."
"The mail was fucked. Everything was fucked."
"Would you like to come over to myto where I'm living?"
"With Les and the mooses?"
"You could sleep on a sofa bed on clean sheets. We'd leave you be. Maybe you'd feel safe there."
"Oh, I'm safe, Momma. I'm safe. It's other people in danger." His face looked bony. He rubbed his cheek with the tips of four fingers of his left hand as if he wore a mitten. "I'm good to go."
She sat on the chair where she'd put her coat. She watched him look at her legs the way men look at a woman's legs. His etched, thin face was different, and so was his close-cropped hair. She realized that some of it was gray. He wasn't twenty-five yet, and his hair had gray in it and he wore a stranger's face, she thought. And he sized her up when he looked at her. She knew he wasn't her baby anymore, but now she wondered whether he was still her son. Her husband, Bernard, had said, "He's in trouble. I can't get hold of him anymore. He's out there. Have you seen him?"
She'd said, "You know how angry he got with me when he came back."
"He's loyal to me," Bernard had said.
"If that's the way you want to put it."
"I don't want to fight with you anymore. You're out of my life, and I'm out of yours. We're getting on with it. You wanted your freedom, you got your freedom, and now I'mI'm shut of the whole damned thing."
"Aren't we all free," she'd said. At that moment, she had felt inventive and full of effective words she had every right to call after her husband as he vanished from her life. "But here you are on the telephone," she'd said. "You didn't vanish, after all."
"What vanish? What are you talking about? Patrick's in an awful lot of trouble, and we need to be useful, or something. I don't know what to do."
"No," she'd said, still feeling wiser than Bernard. "Tell me how to find his place."
"It's a slum," he said. "I didn't know they let people live in those places. Down where the Earlville feed mill used to be, where the train station was in the old days. Somebody bought up all the old buildings down there. I wonder did they even bother to look at the wiring."
"I'll get down there. It'll take me an hour or two. I'll go in the morning. Is he sick? Did he come home, I mean, with some kind of illness? A lot of them had fevers when they came back. A lot of them had dysentery."
"'Saddam's Revenge,' he said the troops called it."
"And what did he say about the gun?"
"He said he felt the need of a weapon," Bernard said. "I asked him why he did, and he mocked me. He said, 'Danger lurks.'"
"It's what he said. I can only tell you what I heard and that's what I heard." Then Bernard had said, "So, your new life's agreeable to you."
"It is, thank you. How are things for you?"
"Well, considering. My wife leaving me, and the lawyer's bills, and of course I've got the sleep apnea thing. I keep waking myself up."
"I remember it well."
"Dr. Bittman says it can sometimes be fatal."
"Let's hope it isn't."
"You could sound a little concerned."
"Well, I am a little concerned. I'm sorry you don't like how it sounds. And this is about Patrick right now, isn't it?"
"Yes," he'd said. She said sullenly to herself, and the description pleased her. She had felt, when they hung up, as if she had won a small contest. And then the fear for her son had poured in, like the sudden sound of the nurses laying out instruments when the orderly pushes your gurney through the OR doors.
Patrick lit another cigarette. He looked so much older than when he'd left. And she couldn't find recognition in his eyes. She couldn't find herself. Before she thought she'd speak, she was saying, "It's me, dearie."
He looked her over, the way a man looks over a strange woman, and he blew out smoke as he said, "Hi, Momma."
Although his shoulders were wedged against the walls, she wanted to find a way to get her arms around him. But how could you protect a man this large and hard, in his terrible, dim room that smelled of rotted vegetation, when he looked like a stranger made of only angles and skull?
He smiled, and she saw how white his teeth were. She thought of trips to the dentist when he was eight or nine, of the coupon book for payments that the orthodontist had issued them when Patrick was thirteen. "We're paying the son of a bitch to buy a goddamned boat," Bernard had said. Each month, as he tore out the coupon and wrote out the check, he had said, "Here's for the goddamned boat."
"I thought of you," Patrick said. "I did. I thought about you and Les in your new house and you in your new job. I thought about Pop all alone. He'd be so bad at that, I thought. And I was right. He eats bologna on white bread with mayonnaise. That's his dinner, some nights. With a can of light beer to wash it down in front of the TV."
"He knows how to eat intelligently. He knows how to cook. I'm not his mother."
"No. You're mine."
"Yes, I am."
"And that's why you're here."
"Yes, it is."
"Because I own a Colt Arms AR15. If I didn't own it, you wouldn't be here, right?"
"I'd have waited until you invited me."
"You're always welcome, Momma." He looked to her like someone else, and she wanted to cry out a warning to him, tell him that he was disappearing, that he needed to return. "Just like I should know I'm always welcome in your house in your new life with Les, who is such an experienced traveler and he knows about mooses."
There was one window in the room, a beautiful twelve-over-twelve with crazed glass and mullions probably gone to pulp. She imagined that it would sell for more than a month's rent if the wood, through some miracle, hadn't completely rotted. The light that came in was like the water you look up through when you open your eyes at the bottom of the pond. She could see him by it, and, turning, she could see a knapsack and a duffel bag hung from nails spiked into the walls. Behind them and across the wide room was an old, dark veneer closet with no doors, and, in a corner of the closet, as she looked over her shoulder, she saw the weapon's ugly mechanisms, dull but a little lit by what was left of the window light that spilled into her son's room.
"Do they give you a bathroom here?"
"Downstairs, in the back corner. You want me to show you?"
She shook her head. "I'm all right."
"Momma, you are always all right. You land on your feet."
"Dearie, no, I didn't fall. I just kept living my life is all."
"Pop said you fell in love. That's falling."
"It wasn't falling, though, so muchwhat I'm saying about the next thing? That's what it was. That's what it felt like. 'Oh! We're here now. We aren't there anymore.' It wasn't about your father, all of a sudden. It was Les. I even tried to not let it be, but it was. And it couldn't be Bernard. It couldn't be your father. No matter how I wanted things to work."
"Shit just happens and have a nice day. The kid used to say that, PFC Hopkins, the one that I lost. He used to say that when he fired his weapon or when they opened up on us. 'Have a nice day, motherfucker.' He was the boy that I lost in Falluja, doing house-to-house."
"No, you didn't lose him, dearie. They shot him. The officers told you what to do and you did it and he got wounded."
"No, he was plain damned killed. He bled out while he kept on moving his feet. Never stopped until, you know, he stopped. I was fire team leader and he was my SAW gunner and they just hollowed him out. I tried to stop the bleeding with my hand, but there wasn't anyplace to put it. You're supposed to apply pressure. Right. Apply pressure. But on what?"
She knew that tears ran down her face. She wished that Patrick could cry too, though she had her suspicions that crying might not do all the good she used to think. It did help you realize that you were miserable, she knew. Maybe that was useful information. But she wanted to stop crying because she didn't know what tears might goad him to do. This was new between them, part of the so much unfamiliarity. That, she thought, was also something worth weeping about.
"Patrick, what's the danger?"
He motioned with one hand, sweeping it before him. He smiled, but his dark eyes told her nothing.
"Really. You told your father there was danger lurking."
"And he told you?"
"Well, we're worried, dearie. Guns make people worry. And you came home troubled. So naturally we'd talk about that. As your parents. As-because we love you."
"But you didn't send Les," he said, "your new next thing, with his travel experience, and knowing a lot about life."
"This is about us," she said, thinking that the words had come out in a whine.
Patrick said, "Wrong us. This is about reservists PFC Arthur M. Hopkins of Rome, New York, and rifleman Sweeney Sweeney of Madison, and PFC Danny Levine out of Gloversville, the ones who were not KIA. And me. I was the corporal let us get separated from the squad. I was the one directed our fire onto a little square sheep-shit hut, and I was the one got us shot to wet fucking rags. That's the us."
She said, "And that's the danger? Why you needed to buy the gun?"
"Why not? It's a reason. It'll do. That better not be Les," he said, his emptied face lifting as slow, heavy footfalls sounded on the raw lumber stairs.
But she knew the weight and pace of the sound of the steps, and she knew that Bernard would appear at the door, a little out of breath, a little wide-eyed because he stared so hard when he was worrieda tall, broad, decent man she had tried to live with after losing every reason except gratitude, regret, and this lean, sad man who was their boy once.
"Hi," Bernard said. "I had to come. I couldn't not come. Is that okay?"
She stood and went to the doorway and kissed his cheek. She knew that he'd close his eyes. "You smell nice," she said.
"A different soap is all."
"Well, good," she said, patting his chest, then stepping back. "Patrick was talking about Falluja."
"Terrible," Bernard said.
"That's because of the sweeps they had to send us on," Patrick said. "House-to-house is terrible in anyplace. The hadjis are good at ambush. You get your unit isolated, and you are pretty fast all fucked up. They smell how all alone you get to feel. Not PFC Hopkins. He just said, 'Have a nice day, motherfucker,' and he sent over one long burst of 5.56 and then he died, all scooped out, that kid." Patrick lit a cigarette and said, "I wish I had another chair for all the parents that are here."
"We're good," Bernard said.
She said, "It's fine, dearie."
"Okay," Patrick said, "good and fine, then. But you don't have to hover here, you know. I think I know what I must sound like. I think I sound like I'm blaming you for not being there, in Falluja. I'm not. Really. I wouldn't want you there, all scared and doing your duty and shit. I don't want anything bad to happen to you. This isI must be scary enough." She heard his throat close down and she watched him blink and blink, his dark eyes suddenly as wide as his father's.
Bernard said, "Is this the post-traumatic"
"Private First Class Hopkins didn't mention any open-sphincter stress syndrome while he was getting dead," Patrick said, "so I would just as soon skip it, Pop. Nothing personal. I didn't mean to insult you, right? You're my man. Only..." He crushed the butt into the coffee cup with the other butts and he lit a new one. "I apologize, Pop."
"No," Bernard said, "I'm good."
"And Momma's fine. And I am good to go. What?"
Bernard had walked across to the veneer clothing cupboard. He squatted, and she heard his ligaments take the strain. "This is it," he said. "I don't see the clip. This does take a clip, am I right?"
"We call them magazines," Patrick said. "Mags. I've got a couple."
"It's safety precautions, keeping them separate from the weapon," Bernard told her.
"I don't see anything safe about it," she said. "It's ugly. It's frightening."
"It's efficient," Patrick said. He drew in smoke, then said, "You're thinking I'm going to open that window and set a pillow on the sill, then insert a mag and lean the weapon on the pillow and do some wild-ass-vet-on-a-rampage deal with people out there suddenly all falling down. But no way. Do you know where we are? Greater downtown Earlville, New York, folks. There's nobody out there."
"But Patrick," she said, "you wouldn't do it anywhere. You wouldn't do it anyway. It isn't you."
"Patrick, boy," Bernard said, "you bought it. You went someplace on purpose and you bought it for plenty of money that you had to set down onto some gun dealer's table."
"You're right, Pop. I have to admit that."
She remembered them standing side by side and looking up at Patrick as he leaned over a rifle that he aimed at them. They were in the side yard of their first place, a tall Victorian farmhouse on a half an acre of land in a little hamlet that wasn't very far from Earlville. It was summer, and Patrick had been working for weeks on his fort. As an eleventh birthday gift, they had opened an account in his name at the lumber yard, and Patrick had purchased small lots of planking and studs, an expensive framing hammer, galvanized nails. He had built himself a fort in the crotch of a young sugar maple outside the dining room, and he was up in his safe place after dinner in June, she thought, or early Julythe sun was still high, and no one ever talked about autumn coming onand she and Bernard looked up at their son. He looked down over the sights of his wooden scale-model Garand M-1 rifle.
"You didn't see the ambush," he'd said.
"No, we didn't," Bernard had answered.
"You don't need to worry, though, on account of I won't shoot."
"You know, I knew you wouldn't," she remembered telling him. She remembered, now, in the old grain mill, looking at her grown and damaged, dangerous son, how disappointing to the boy her confidence had been.
"You knew?" he'd said.
"I mean I was hoping," she'd told him.
"We hoped you wouldn't shoot," Bernard had said.
"Please don't shoot," she'd called to him in the shadows of his fort.
"No," he'd said, "I won't."
Across the room from their boy who was now grown up, Bernard stood slowly. He leaned against the wall and put his hands in the pockets of his khakis. He always wore khakis and a blue button-down shirt under the white medical coat he put on when he was in his pharmacy, filling prescriptions. He said, "I'm worried about you. You can understand that."
"And I'm sorry," Patrick said. "I am. But now I think you need to go. You did what you could." He'd gone onto one knee, his forearm leaning on the opposite thigh.
"What does that mean?"
"You said what you thought you should say, Momma. And it was nice to see you and Pop be friendly with each other."
"And does something happen now?" she asked him. "Is that what you're saying? Because I won't leave here if it is. I won't."
Bernard said, "Me either."
Patrick flushed very dark. His lips were set in a bitter line. In the underwater light of his awful room, with his gray-flecked hair and his unfamiliar eyes, he seemed to her to be a new creature she must care for. She knew that she didn't know how. But she walked slowly to the cupboard, expecting each time she stepped that he would order her to stop, and she was breathless when she stood near Bernard and the gun she was afraid to look at.
Patrick said, "Please." His voice was flat, as expressionless as his face.
Bernard shrugged. She watched him take a deep breath. She squared her shoulders and waited.
"I am warning you," Patrick said in the flat voice.
"Dearie," she called to her son, seeking a level, low voice with which to address him.
"No more conversation now," Patrick said. "I warned you."
After twenty-five years, she thought, all they knew was this: standing in their separateness to hold their ground against their son. And what kind of achievement did that amount to?
"I warned you," Patrick said. He said, "Here I come."
He leaned forward, but he was far less graceful than she'd expected. He tripped off the mattress and then he caught himself. And she remembered this. She remembered standing in a room on an overcast day. It had to have been in their first house at the start of a long winter. Patrick was little and grinning. His chin was covered with drool. He'd raised his arms to the level of his shoulders. Then he reached higher. He lurched and then he righted himself and he made his way across the room in a wobbly march. She remembered how they'd clapped their hands to celebrate their boy's first step. She remembered thinking that there, stumbling across the room, came the rest of her life.
Frederick Busch's last novel was North. He died in February 2006.