by Michael Cuglietta
A coyote ate my cat. He licked the bones clean and left them at the back door, for me to find. In the grass, there were tuffs of orange fur, stained in blood.
I’d never killed anything larger than a cockroach. But when I found Winston’s remains, I went down to the shooting range. They have a small shop in back where they buy, sell and trade.
I bought an Italian hunting rifle, a real work of art with an etching of two deer, running through the forest. It held three rounds, which loaded from the top, one stacked above the other.
My brother-in-law has ten acres out in Pasco County. A few years back, he bought a bunch of sandbags, moved some dirt around, and set up wooden targets. I’d never fired a rifle before. I figured if anyone was going to teach me, it might as well be Bill.
I live just over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, on the Sarasota side. I do everything I can to avoid crossing the Skyway. But, from my place to Bill’s, there’s no way around it.
The Skyway goes up so high you get to feeling like you’re driving through the clouds. Your eardrums will even pop, like on an airplane. At the highest point, they have phone boxes. When you pick up one of the receivers, you’re connected with the crisis-counseling center. You don’t even have to dial. You just pick up and you’re speaking with a counselor. This is on account of all the jumpers.
When I pulled into Bill’s driveway, I saw his truck. But, when I rang the bell, I got no answer. I took my rifle and a few boxes of shells and went around back.
I found him on his porch, standing in front of an easel. In one hand, he had a paintbrush. In the other, he was holding an artist’s pallet with a bunch of different paints poured on.
I watched as he closed one eye and considered the oaks in his yard. Then he dipped his brush in a pile of ash-colored paint and took it to the canvas, hanging Spanish moss from the trees.
There was a cooler resting against the house. I reached in and got a can of beer. When I popped it open, Bill turned around.
“Jesus, Kyle,” he threw his hands up, “is this a stick up?” I hadn’t seen him since the funeral. He was thinner than I remembered, his face more wrinkled. But he still had his sister’s green eyes.
I set the rifle down on the patio table, reached into the cooler, and got him a beer. “You some kind of artist now?” Next to the cooler, he had half a dozen canvases, mostly landscapes.
“Counselor down at the VA suggested I pick up a hobby.” He cracked his beer open.
“I’ll toast to that.” We touched our cans together.
In the back of his golf cart, Bill loaded the cooler, my rife and the extra ammo. Also, he had a pistol in his ankle holster. He waited for me to climb into the passenger’s seat. Then we set out for the range.
“I used to buy that damn cat Christmas presents,” he said, steering the cart with one hand and holding his beer with the other. “I knew it was ridiculous but it made my sister happy.”
He parked the cart downrange and got the rifle out. “If you want, I’ll go back with you, shoot that coyote myself.”
I snatched the rifle out of his hands. “Show me how to load this thing.”
He loaded the first shell. I did the second two. There was nothing to it. I just pressed them in from up top.
There were two targets. The far one was fifty yards out. Bill showed me how to hold the rifle. Then stepped back.
“When Cynthia got sick, Winston could sense it.” As I spoke, I pumped the gun and pointed it at the far target. “When she got really bad, and couldn’t leave the bed, he’d lay with her all day.”
I didn’t see the first shot. But Bill had an eye on it.
“Bury the butt of the gun into your shoulder.” He came up behind me and adjusted my stance. “You can better manage the recoil this way.”
It took me three shots but, eventually, I found the target.
“You’re a natural,” Bill said, exchanging me his beer for the rifle. I took a long sip and watched while he loaded three more rounds.
“When Cynthia went in for her first surgery, Winston sat by the front door and cried.” He gave me my rifle back, loaded and ready to go. I took my time lining up my shot. “You ever hear a cat cry? It’s awful.”
Out of the next three, I managed one good shot. It hit just outside the bull’s-eye.
I put my hand on the barrel, to feel the heat. Then, I laid the rifle down.
Bill was sitting on the cooler, plucking the leaves off a fallen branch. “When you pulled into my driveway this afternoon, I recognized the sound of my sister’s car.” He jumped to his feet and swung the branch like a sword, breaking it over a tree trunk.
“Get me three beers from the cooler,” he said, making a gun with his thumb and index finger, aiming it at the target.
I fished the cans out of the pool of melting ice. He walked them to the nearest of the two targets and lined them up, one on each side and one in the center.
He took his pistol out of his ankle holster and stuck it in his waist. Then, he walked towards me, taking these big, exaggerated steps. He stopped after twenty paces. I know cause he was counting out loud.
In a single motion, he turned around, drew his gun and fired three shots. None of which found a can. He stood there, laughing. Then put his hand down by his side and let the gun fall to the ground.
I came up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder.
“Sun’s starting to go down,” I said. “We should head back.”
Bill had a bottle of limited batch Jameson, which he’d been looking for an excuse to open. We agreed I’d stay the night in his guestroom and, together, we’d put as big a dent in that bottle as possible.
I sat at his patio table, sipping whiskey while he laid a couple burgers on the grill. Along with the burgers he had the buns, face down for toasting, and a couple ears of corn.
Bill and I go all the way back to high school. We were friends long before I started seeing Cynthia. When he found out I was dating his kid sister, he came to my folk’s house, looking to defend her honor.
“Billy’s here to see you.” My mother came knocking on my bedroom door. “He won’t come in. He wants you to meet him outside.”
When I went outside, he laid me out with a single shot to the jaw, had me snoring right there on the front lawn, for all the neighborhood to see.
This is what he was talking about as he flipped the burgers and laid thick slices of yellow cheese on top.
“Cheap sucker-punch,” I said. “If I hadn’t been so worried about pissing your sister off, it would’ve been you lying on your back.”
“Sucker-punch my ass.” He pinched the corn with his fingers. “Run inside and get me a plate, will you? Before I knock you on your ass again.”
“I’m going to pretend like I didn’t hear that last part. For your sake.” I drained the rest of my whiskey. Then headed inside.
I found the serving dish in the kitchen. Along with it, I got some napkins and a couple sets of silverware. It had been a long time since I’d seen the inside of Bill’s house. Everything, as far as I could tell, looked the same.
Hanging above his television, he had a half dozen photographs, framed and matted. I couldn’t see them too clearly from where I was standing. I was pretty sure one of them was taken at my wedding reception. But I didn’t bother going in for a closer look.
By the time we finished eating, most of the Jameson was gone. I was ready to call it a night but Bill was feeling good. He had my rifle in his hands and he was pointing it into the woods.
“Bam. That coyote won’t know what hit him.” He pulled the gun back, simulating the recoil. “Bam. Bam. You sure I can’t come back with you? I’d love to get that son of a bitch.”
“What a day.” I yawned.
“Night’s still young.” He opened two beers, setting one in front of me.
“I want to wake up early tomorrow and head home.” I pushed the beer away. He put it right back in front of me.
“It’s been over a year, Kyle. Least you can do is have one more with me.”
We drank that one in silence. When we finished, Bill opened two more. I didn’t bother trying to refuse.
“You think my sister would be disappointed if she knew how long we’d gone without checking up on each other?”
Bill was talking but I wasn’t hearing a word he was saying. I was focused on an owl. It was calling out from somewhere deep in the woods. I was trying to figure out if it had just started hooting or if it had been making that noise for a while. I asked Bill.
“As far as I know, that owl’s out there every night,” he said. “It gets to point where I don’t even notice. It becomes background noise.”
I woke up some hours later, on Bill’s couch. He was snoring in the easy chair next to me. It felt like someone had filled my head with cement. I stumbled into the kitchen and drank directly from the spigot. I must’ve had half a gallon of water and, still, I felt thirsty.
I let the cold water run through my hair and down the back of my shirt. Then I dried off with one of the towels Bill had hanging from his oven.
I stood in the kitchen for a while, waiting for the fog to clear from my head. Outside, the sun was starting to rise. I could see it pushing in through the shades. I thought of waking Bill. But I knew he had a headache waiting for him. And if it were half as bad as mine, it’d be best for him to sleep through as much of it as possible.
Michael Cuglietta lives in Orland, Florida, and his work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Toad Suck Review and Passages North.