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Fiction

Before Using This Air Rifle

by Alex Littlefield

I waited until I was twenty-one to buy a gun, although, as I learned on the day of the purchase, I had been legally eligible for one since my sixteenth birthday. In my car outside the hunting store, Nathaniel and I unsheathed the thing from its cardboard packaging, marveling at its faux-wood stock, oiled pump mechanism, and the tiny, neon green sight on the end of the barrel. It was a Crossman 760 B, a bolt-action .177 caliber air rifle, and we had bought a canister of 6,000 lead BBs to start us off. Nathaniel read the instructions aloud as I drove us home, speeding through yellow lights, deliriously aware that, should we get pulled over, we had in our possession a potentially deadly, though as yet unloaded, weapon.

Popular memory tends to cast BB guns as kids’ toys, and maybe they were back in the fifties, but these days a Daisy is much more of a weapon than most people realize. Daisy’s Red Ryder, culturally enshrined in the movie “A Christmas Story,” has a muzzle velocity of around 280 to 350 feet per second. According to experts, BBs usually penetrate the skin at 350 feet per second, and the lead pellets can enter the skull at around 500. Our Crossman, I learned on the drive back, spat out BBs at a clip of 625 feet per second.

At the time, 625 feet per second meant nothing to me and Nathaniel, and we had only a vague idea of our rifle’s power when we swerved to a halt in our driveway, lined up six cans on the sun-flecked asphalt, and carefully loaded the gun. Still, we paid close attention to the warning on the box: “Read All Instructions and Warnings in the Owner’s Manual Before Using This Air Rifle.”

As I sat on the pavement, cradling the rifle on my thighs, Nathaniel again read aloud from the directions. “‘Four: loading and unloading BBs. Put the air rifle on safe.’ It’s that button there next to the trigger,” he said, pointing.

I pressed the safe button, and it popped out on the other side of the gun.

“Okay. ‘Point the air rifle in a SAFE DIRECTION.’ ‘SAFE DIRECTION’ is capitalized. Then, ‘Slide the loading port cover toward the rear of the air rifle.’ No, it’s that lid by your thumb. Want me to do it? ‘Pour no more than 200 BBs into the reservoir hole.’”

The BBs got stuck in the mouth of their canister, so I had to pour them into my palm and load bunches of them into the chamber with my finger.

“That’s enough, don’t you think?” Nathaniel kept reading. “‘Close the loading port cover. Pull the BB retainer button back. Point the barrel straight down. With a hand-twisting motion, shake and twist the air rifle to fill the visual magazine.’”

“What?” I interrupted, “What the hell? ‘Shake and twist?’ And what was that about the button?”

Nathaniel was getting impatient. “Here, give it to me, I saw the pictures.” He took the rifle from my lap, stood up, and, dangling the rifle muzzle-down in front of him, flipped a switch just above the stock and spun the butt of the gun in circles.

“Oh,” I said. “‘Shake and twist.’”

“Read the instructions, will you?” Nathaniel sat back down on the pavement, clutching the rifle in both hands.

I took up the map-sized sheet of instructions. “‘Cock the bolt by pulling it all the way back and then pushing it all the way forward. The magnetic bolt will pick up a BB.’”

Nathaniel pulled the lever on the side of the gun back and slid it forward. “Like that?”

“Yeah. All the way.”

“Okay. Then what?”

“‘The BB is now in position to be fired out of the barrel.’ Hold on, that’s where the section ends.” I scanned the instructions until I found the section “Pumping your air rifle” buried between orange warning signs. Meanwhile Nathaniel, who had practiced pumping the gun and shooting air at the floorboard of my car, had begun vigorously opening and closing the rifle’s forearm, the wooden grip on the underside of the barrel. The rifle hissed each time the forearm clamped back into place.

“Stop, man! ‘No more than ten pumps.’”

“That’s seven,” said Nathaniel, breathing hard.

“Okay, no more. It’s ready. Let’s shoot this shit.”

“Okay, me first.”

“No way! I paid for it!”

“Fine,” he muttered, handing the gun back. “I said I’d pay you back.”

I stood up and squared my feet about a foot apart from each other, pressed the butt against my right shoulder, and leveled the gun at the row of cans about thirty feet away. Next to me, Nathaniel backed up slightly. Tenderly placing my cheek on the stock, I squinted down the barrel and lined up the neon dot inside the sighting bracket next to my eye. The barrel trembled back and forth. I tried not to breathe, which made the rifle shake more. I held my breath. The shaking subsided. I pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

“What happened?” demanded Nathaniel.

“The trigger didn’t pull back,” I said frantically.

“Check the safety.”

“Oh. Oh yeah, it was on.” I popped the button next to the trigger in, hiding its red stripe. “Okay.” I planted my feet again, raised the rifle, took aim, and squeezed the trigger.

There was a satisfying pop and the rifle barrel bucked up slightly. In front of me, one of the cans toppled over backwards.

“Holy shit!” Nathaniel laughed. “Wait, don’t shoot!” We both jogged up to the row of targets.

The can I had shot lay forlornly on its side, its midsection perforated by the lead pellet. I picked it up and turned it in my hand. About a quarter of the way around the can I found the exit wound, four or five jagged petals of aluminum blossoming out around a larger hole.

“Wow,” I whispered. “This looks a lot like the slides of gunshot victims I saw during that coroner’s lecture.”

“What?” he asked absently, studying the hole.

“That biology department lecture last week?” I tried.

“Huh.” He wasn’t listening.

“It’s not much bigger, I mean. This is a point-one-seven-seven caliber, and most of those wounds were made with twenty-twos, I think.”

“Huh.”

I stared at Nathaniel. Nathaniel stared at the can.

“The BB went all the way through it, huh?”

“Looks like it,” I said, turning back.

“Okay, my turn.” Nathaniel grabbed the gun from my hands and trotted back to the center of the driveway. I righted the slain can where he had dropped it and followed him to the firing line.

Nathaniel raised the gun and tilted his head so he could see along the barrel. There was a brief pause. I thought I could hear myself breathe. The row of cans waited at stoic attention.

The gun popped. A Pabst can let out a ‘ping!’ and leapt into the air only to drop down on its side, stricken.

“Hehehe,” Nathaniel chortled as he tossed the gun to me and went up to check the can. I cocked the bolt back and pumped the rifle.

“Wait, wait,” he said, analyzing his kill before placing it back in line.

“I’m not going to shoot you, man,” I reassured him. “Or… am I…?” I began to slowly raise the rifle.

“Okay, okay.” He cringed and stepped behind me. “Don’t fuck around with that thing; you just loaded it.”

“The safety’s on, man. Whudduya think ah am, stoopid?” I said, waxing hickish.

“Come on, shoot.”

I popped the safety off, took aim at a can on the far left, and pulled the trigger. The can shuddered, but stayed upright. “What the hell?” I yelled. Nathaniel and I went up to investigate.

“No, you hit it, see?” Nathaniel pointed to one hole, then another. “It just didn’t fall over. So it didn’t count.”

“I didn’t know we were counting,” I protested.

“Hey, look,” he said. He had moved over to the garage several feet behind the cans and was pointing toward the bottom of its door. “It hit the door. Check out this dent.”

“Yeah, and here’s another one, and the other one.” I motioned towards two tiny sunken points with the barrel of the rifle.

“Man, that thing’s powerful,” Nathaniel whispered. He paused, then looked up. “What do you think it would do if it hit your skin?”

“It probably depends on how far away you shot someone from. Ali said she shot that kid by accident when she was little, and he had to go to the hospital and get it dug out of his leg.”

He followed me back to the center of the driveway. “Yo, we should hunt with this thing.”

The thought had already crossed my mind. “Only if we eat what we shoot. This thing could probably kill a squirrel, right?”

“You really want to eat a squirrel?”

“Sure. It’d be like Oregon Trail all over again. I’ve always wanted to eat a squirrel.”

“Yeah?” He thought about it as I pumped the gun. “I’ll bet rabbit would be good.”

“You think this would kill a rabbit? What if it just hurt it, and we had to chase it down and beat it to death with a hammer?” We shared a guilty laugh and turned back to the cans.

Nathaniel picked his next target. “This is the best idea we’ve ever had.”

“Which one are you going for?”

“That middle one. The Black Label can.”

In the brief silence, I strained my ears for the telltale sound of metal hitting hollow metal. It took a few seconds longer than usual. The trees above the garage rustled their leaves in a chorus of white noise.

The rifle spat out a BB. The cans stood still, but the pellet made a ‘thwap’ as it collided with the garage door directly behind the targets.

“Ooh,” I chided, “that’s going to leave a dent.”

“Yeah, no shit,” he said, taking the rifle with him as he went up to check the targets.

I was halfway to the targets when I saw a man coming across the field to our right, but Nathaniel was already bent over the row of cans, face close to the asphalt as he searched for a BB hole. For a second, I thought the guy wanted to congratulate us on our marksmanship, or maybe just bask in the glory of our gun. Then he spoke.

“Hey!” he shouted as he stalked towards us. “Hey!”

I looked over at him, clinging for a moment to my first impression. Nathaniel was still on bended knee, studying the cans.

“Hey! What the hell is going on here? What the hell are you guys doing?” the man demanded, arms stiff, legs pumping.

I stared at him. What could I say? I shrugged. “We’re shooting cans.”

His eyes widened. “Shooting cans? Shooting cans in front of my garage! You’re shooting … cans … in front of my garage! Why are you shooting cans in front of my garage?”

I gulped. Nathaniel was still hunched over the targets. Had he not heard?

“You’re shooting my garage!” the man exclaimed. “The door! Look, they’re all hitting…” His voice trailed off as his eyes drifted to the door, drawing the rest of his body towards it. Nathaniel finally stood aside, and the man crouched behind the row of cans and slowly ran a hand over the aluminum plane. From where I was standing I could make out the haphazard pattern of dents, and waited, speechless, as he winced over each tiny crater.

The man let his hand linger over the last dent, then straightened up and glared at me, making sure I could read the disbelief on his face. “This is unbelievable! What the hell were the two of you thinking?” I looked over at Nathaniel, who didn’t seem to be looking at anything. “I mean, this sort of blatant … disregard for other peoples’ property is just amazing! It’s unbelievable!” he spat out, almost losing a word in his spasms of anger.

I only got as far as “I’m sorry” before be interrupted me.

“Do you guys do this everywhere you live? Is this how you would treat your own garage? Your parents’ garage? Would you shoot that? Huh?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” I managed to stammer out, and for a moment he just stared at me, his eyebrows arched into the middle of his forehead. “You’re right,” I continued, grasping at words, “we shouldn’t have done that. It’s just that, we just got this thing, and we just weren’t thinking …”

“I mean, what were you thinking?” he interjected. “Were you thinking?!”

I hesitated. “No sir, I guess not. We just weren’t thinking. I mean, we just got this gun, and…”

“I mean, this is, this is ... fucking unbelievable. You two are grown men! Don’t you know better than to do this kind of thing? To completely disrespect …” He trailed off, exasperated, and motioned towards the door.

I scanned his face. He could only have been in his late twenties or early thirties, not more than a decade older than me. He had jet-black hair, a short, frenzied beard, and ears which stretched off the side of his head like wind-filled sails. He smelled vaguely like mothballs.

We stood there for a minute, locked in a stare at each other, both searching for words. He made a sound as if to launch back into his tirade, but I had already started speaking.

“I mean, is there something we can do?”

His eyes lit up with a crazed spark. “Do? What are you going to do?”

“I’d be happy to pay for it.” If it would calm you down, I thought.

“N-no,” he sputtered, “Leif already backed into those panels. See those dents? He already gave me money for it. You guys are lucky.”

“Oh,” I said, following the flip of his hand. About a foot off the ground, the left-hand side of the garage door was bent inwards. “Leif … who’s Leif?”

“Leif is the guy who lives there,” he said, pointing at the house with which we shared a driveway.

“Sir,” I said, “I’m really sorry. We didn’t know Leif backed into this, we didn’t even know this was your garage, and …”

“It doesn’t matter!” he shrieked. “You don’t just go around shooting other people’s property!” He paused, nearly hysterical. “My father owns these buildings!”

I froze. His father was our landlord, Mr. Abraham? I hadn’t known he owned both our house and our neighbors’. “Wait,” I said, panicking, “you’re Abe … you’re Mr. Abraham’s son?”

“No,” he said , “I’m Ray’s son!”

“Oh,” I said. I had never heard of Ray.

“This is my shop,” he went on, eyebrows stretched skyward. “I just put these doors in! And now Leif! And now this!” He gesticulated towards the garage, fingers splayed.

The garage looked like complete shit. Its pristine white door was sunken in the middle of the building’s bare cinderblock façade. Long strips of sky blue construction material stamped with “Tenneco Housewrap” hung out from under the tarpapered roof. The grass around it was dead. Stacks of wooden blocks lurked along the building’s sides, shrouded in blue tarps.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

“You should be sorry!” he shot back. “And what do you have to say for yourself?” he demanded, turning to Nathaniel. “You haven’t said a single thing! You’ve let your friend do all the talking!”

Nathaniel shrugged and stared at the ground. The man stared at us. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I had offered to pay for the damage, but it was already paid for. I had repeatedly apologized; I had admitted I was in the wrong, but the guy was pissed on principle.

“Do you know what ‘incredulous’ means?” he blurted out. “Huh?” He arched his eyebrows at me. “You guys are supposed to be smart. Don’t they teach you that, what ‘incredulous’ means?” He said it with an “ooh”: “in-cred-ooh-lous.”

I could feel myself prickle. I noticed a tuft of black hair protruding from the utmost corner of his nostril. “Yeah,” I said slowly, “it means that you can’t believe what’s happening right now.”

“Yeah!” he sputtered, then seemed to hiccup with rage. “And it also means … stupid! Stupidity!”

I looked at Nathaniel. Incredulity didn’t—and, as I write this, still doesn’t—mean anything close to stupid. I started to say something, but stopped myself. In front of me, the man seemed to quiver.

“Look, man,” I said, “I don’t know what else to say to you. I’m sorry. We’re both sorry. We won’t do it again.”

“No shit you won’t fucking do it again!” he jabbered. “I never want to see you two back here with that thing ever again!” He paused, slit eyes studying our faces. “Where do you live?”

“Right there,” I said, pointing to the house to the right of the driveway. “Where do you live?”

“Right there,” he said, indicating the house next door to Leif’s. “Great.” He glared at both of us, began to walk away, then turned back and summed us up from where he stood in the lawn of the house next door. “Unbelievable.”

Nathaniel stared after the man, the gun dangling loosely in one hand. “What the hell,” he murmured. “Incredulity doesn’t mean stupid. And that garage is a fucking total eyesore. How should we have known it was his? And ‘my dad owns these buildings’? He doesn’t even know which ones. Why would you scream at someone with a gun for, like, five minutes? Fucking ‘Ray’s son?’ Who the fuck is Ray?”

I felt like I was sinking into the driveway. The giddy thrill of having the BB gun was gone, replaced by a noxious blend of guilt and fury. He did this to me, I thought. We’re never going to be able to use the gun again. Fuck this guy.

All I can think about is reaching over and grabbing the rifle from Nathaniel, sliding the bolt up and down and pumping the forearm, swearing between thrusts, leveling the rifle at the garage and firing from the hip, the window immediately to the right of the garage door disintegrating in a hail of glass, large shards shattering on the pavement, smaller drops tinkling among them. For a moment I can see inside the garage, the paint-flecked sawhorses, jagged saws, and crumpled tarps that clutter the darkened room.

Somewhere behind me, a screen door slams. The last piece of pane crashes to the ground.

Nathaniel cackles and grabs the rifle from my limp hand. “Hey!” comes a scream from the lawn. I hear grass swishing. Nathaniel is pumping the gun.

“Nathaniel,” I wheeze, “he’s coming back!”

“What … what the fuck did you do?” I look back to see Ray’s son rounding the corner of knee high shrubs and making for us across the asphalt like he means to rip us both in half. “What the fuck?!”

“Nathaniel,” I begin.

Nathaniel clamps the forearm back into place along the barrel, raises the gun to his shoulder, and does exactly what I want to do. The rifle snaps viciously.

Ray’s son folds forward and crumples to the ground, gripping the side of his neck with one hand, and rolls over into the line of targets. Cans clatter in fifteen different directions like shrapnel from a bomb blast. Ray’s son bares his clenched teeth and makes a sound like a teakettle whistling. It builds into a guttural scream, his mouth opening until his cheeks are taut, until his incisors bump his knees.

A small stream of blood is squirting out from between his fingers and down into his white t-shirt. The rifle clatters to the ground and I can hear Nathaniel’s footsteps disappear up the driveway, but I can’t move, legs still frozen in a firing position, as I watch Ray’s son paw the asphalt with his feet. I wait for him to shout something at me, to moan or beat the ground in pain, but his movements slowly become sluggish, and finally he grows perfectly still, legs pulled up against his chest, his face eclipsed by one awkwardly twisted arm.

I glance around me. The windows at the top of the driveway are quiet and dark, and I can’t hear anything coming from either house.

The rifle is lying next to me, about five feet from Ray’s son. I bend down and pick it up without taking my eyes off him, expecting him to leap to his feet, to reach out and try to grab me, but he just lies there. I glance down at the gun. It’s scuffed, a fresh white scar ground into the brown plastic of the stock.

My foot knocks over a can and sends it on a hollow roll towards the garage door. For a moment I think that maybe it was him, and freeze. But the body is contorted and limp; one eye stares at nothing; one hand is still bent skyward.

What if he comes to? What if he’s just faking? I decide I don’t want to touch him, and lean over him instead, waiting for his back to rise, some sign that he’s breathing. I can’t see an exit hole on the back of his neck. Did the BB go all the way through? I straighten up only to look back down, transfixed by his unblinking eye.

Somebody next door shouted. I spun around, suddenly feeling the weight of the rifle. Across the lawn, the screen door of Ray’s son’s house slammed shut. I heard another shout.

Nathaniel was leaning off our porch at the head of the driveway. “Man, what the fuck are you doing?! Get in here!” I tore my feet from where they were rooted and walked very quickly up the driveway, breaking into a sprint halfway. “Come on!” The gun waved wildly in my hands. I didn’t look back.

I heard the sirens as I was mounting the stairs to the front door, and Nathaniel must have heard them, too, because he grabbed me by the arm and yanked me inside, rifle and all. He slammed the door shut.

“What the fuck were you doing down there? What were you thinking?” I stared at him for a moment, and he growled and stomped over to the window. I followed.

“Do you hear that?” I asked.

Nathaniel looked at me, then pressed his forehead to the glass. “That motherfucker must have called the cops. I can’t believe … I can’t believe it! He said the door was already fucked up! He said it was paid for! Right?!”

“Yeah.” I slumped against the wall, peering out the window. The sirens were growing louder, and for a moment I wished Nathaniel actually had shot our neighbor. “Why would he do that?” I pleaded, as if there was anything either of us could do. “We apologized, we stopped…”

“Did he come back out while you were there?”

“No.”

“Why didn’t you come inside? Maybe that’s why he called them, you idiot!”

Lights were flashing across the wilted grass of our neighbor’s lawn. A wailing cop car veered off the street and churned down the driveway, followed by Ray’s son’s wild hair and gesturing arms. I palmed the window, as if I could break through and claw after him, as if I could keep him from reaching the garage and its telltale white door, pocked by the pellets from our air rifle. He called the cops. What a motherfucker.

I grew giddy with explanations. We didn’t notice the BBs were hitting the door. It was dented anyway. We thought the building was abandoned. We thought it belonged to our landlord. He lives two towns away. We didn’t know he would mind. We didn’t think he would know it was us. One after another, though, each one dropped away, and I was alone, ashamed, incredulous, inexcusable, a grown man pressed next to a window, craning his neck along the wall, trying to see where the cruiser had stopped, but the window was filled with flashing lights, the wall of our neighbor’s house, and nothing else.



Alex Littlefield' photo

Alex Littlefield is a contributor to Radar magazine and a former police correspondent for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His play Indulgences was performed by an Oberlin College theater group, and his translation of an Argentine dogsledding memoir from the arctic north of Greenland is forthcoming in Canada. He works at an independent press in New York.