Fiction: The Wheel Gun
By Ed Ahern
The Century diner was undistinguished in food or décor or service, but was consistent. John Kudzma went there Saturday mornings early to eat breakfast with a half dozen friends in the donut holes of their lives.
Fiftyish, jobs plateaued and skidding sideways toward retirement, they reaffirmed beliefs and offered sympathy. Except for Skinny Carl, they all were overweight.
“Hey, John, how’s it hanging?” That from Carl.
Petey was slightly more perceptive. “John, you look like you didn’t get much sleep. Stoke up on some grease.”
The corner booth, kept available for them, was a three-quarter circle. The latest arrival slid into one end or the other. John moved into the left end next to Petey, nodded to the crew and began listening to the chatter.
Maggie, their always waitress, came up and asked what they wanted. John could have ordered for everyone. Petey would have the French toast, because he always did. Harald was oatmeal and juice, Carl sausage and scrambled eggs, and so on around the table. John, his stomach churning, changed his usual order of pancakes and bacon to a cheese omelet. A few eyebrows raised and John told them he hoped it would change his luck.
Maggie poured coffees. John could barely sip it, and wondered why diner coffee was always thin and brackish. The conversation resumed, a hopscotch lurching from one topic to another. The food arrived, and while the other mouths were full of food rather than words, John interjected. “I’m being fired.”
Comforting words washed over the table. “They’re not calling it that,” John added, “they refer to it as an early retirement. But they’ve made it clear that it’s not voluntary.”
The expressions of the other five men were strained. They at least occasionally wondered if the same thing would happen to them. Bromides sprouted from their worries.
“Gives you a chance to decide what to do now you’re grown up.”
“Travel, leisure, I envy you.”
“The hell with them. Get a better job and tell them about it.”
The conversation faltered. They finished up a little sooner than usual and went their ways. John returned home. Margot was waiting for him.
“Typical that even now you’re off with your buddies. I still need to know how you want to split things up.”
“Margot, we don’t need to…”
Her expression saddened. “You were never any good with confrontation. Even with the kids. Do you want to keep the house or not? If yes, I’m going to need half its value.”
John flushed. “I’d have to take out a new mortgage. And with no job I don’t think I could get it. Why don’t we just celibately cohabitate? That’s what’s we’ve been doing for the last several years.”
“I’m out. I’ve called Ralph and Annie and explained why I’m doing it. They understand.”
“That’s typical, get your side in first.” His tone was spiteful.
She shrugged. “I moved some clothes over to Jane’s place while you were gone. I’ve got a lawyer; you should get one on Monday. Then mine can talk with yours and we won’t have to deal with each other in sorting things out.”
“No, that hurt puppy crap hasn’t worked for a long time. I’m gone.” She picked up her car keys and walked out.
John thought about a morning drink and let the thought dissipate. Whatever he was he wasn’t a lush. He checked his watch and called first Ralph and then Annie. Both were in armed neutrality, saying sympathetic words in monotones. John got the uneasy feeling that they supported Margot.
He put his phone away and looked around the house. Over thirty-five years they’d accumulated mounds of stuff no longer relevant, or even remembered. He laughed, harshly. She’d done most of the picking, she could have it. He walked upstairs to his little office, took out a lined tablet and thought about writing a to-do list, but all that came to mind was: Unemployed, no prospects. Divorced, no family.
He went back downstairs and mindlessly watched college football through the afternoon. He broke down twice, tears leaking down his face. Toward evening he realized that he hadn’t had lunch, and gleaned the refrigerator for enough to make another omelet. But once made his stomach was too upset to take more than a few bites. Time for that drink, he thought, and found the bottle of single malt scotch he’d saved for a success that hadn’t materialized. He drank two healthy pours, then took bottle and glass and walked up to the attic.
The unfinished attic was lit by a single, stark bulb. John found what he was after and sat on the plank floor. He poured another drink, then opened the gun case. The .38 special revolver looked smaller than he remembered. Supposedly once used by the Secret Service. John hadn’t cleaned it in over ten years, but it looked serviceable. Cops used to call it a wheel gun.
He released the cylinder, looked at the five slightly greenish rounds, spun the cylinder and snapped it back in. It would be messy, he knew. And he didn’t like leaving Margot and the kids with a rank mess to clean up afterward. John dragged a tarp out from a corner, spread it out, and kneeled on it. Under the chin, he thought, just do it.
Through the fears screaming at him, he realized that he was shaking. John cocked the gun, steadied it with two hands and jammed it in under his jawbone. Don’t think, do! The firing pin clicked as it hit a dud primer. John dropped the gun, shifted off his knees and sat on the floor, sweating. He flipped open the wheel and stared at the dented primer.
Not meant to be, he thought, failed at this too. Waves of shame and relief washed through him. Even poor and alone he wanted to live. He half smiled. Something he wouldn’t share with the diner guys.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had four hundred fifty stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he manages a posse of eight review editors. He’s also lead editor at The Scribes Micro Fiction Magazine.
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