“The pipe is fine.” Oliver says, exasperated, handing Sunny the stack of instructions, “It’s schedule 40. That’s what the directions call for. Nobody is going to die, especially if we just use hairspray and we are.” He doesn’t look up as he talks, hardly taking his eyes off the two thin red wires in front of him, one indistinguishable from the other. “You need to calm down.”
Sunny looks at him for a moment, doubtful, then takes the instructions, three or four wrinkled pages of plain white copy stock. He flips from one sheet to the next, then back again. By the look on his face it might as well be written in Chinese and not English. Ni hao. More steamed dumplings? More fired rice? Pepsi products only, so sorry.
“This isn’t dangerous, is it?” Grace asks me, eyeing Sunny with growing unease. “And where did they learn to build a potato gun?”
“No, it’s not dangerous!” I attempt my best Bea Arthur imitation, all reason and sensibility, but fail. Instead, my voice comes out the high, frantic squawk of Don Knots. “They got it off the Smithsonian website. They have instructions on how to build a catapult too.”
Grace nods, not believing a word but wanting too.
“It’ll be fun.” I give her a reassuring smile knowing that- no matter how much she’d love to watch potatoes get shredded into hash-browns- she’d freak if she knew the truth, that Oliver and Sunny’s introduction into the world of less-than-lethal warfare came by way of a defunct anarchist website and several dozen YouTube videos, half of which containing the word fail in the title.
“What are they going to shot at?” Grace asks. Her overbite shows white as her excitement returns. “Do they have paper targets?”
I look around and see nothing but knee high wheat grass and, standing lonely in the distance like a ruffled ostrich, a solitary oak tree. Behind us, my van and Maxwell’s Saratoga sit on the thin dirt road we drove in on. June, Pen, and Brian sit beside them, waiting in plastic lawn chairs as Maxwell paces; his round, heavy face is purple in the heat.
“I don’t know.” I turn to Oliver, “What are you going to shoot?”
“Potatoes.” He says, his hands working skillfully with a pair of needle-nose pliers. Behind him is a bag of impossibly round Russets. He spent thirty minutes picking them out at Winn-Dixie, making sure of each one’s aerodynamic nature buy holding it up to the skylight, biting his tongue, and studying it one-eyed.
“I know potato’s, but what are you going to shoot at?”
We watch as Oliver clips off both wires and ties back the excess in case he needs to make adjustments. The boy always plans ahead. “We brought a kite.” he says finally, “We’re going to shoot it down.”
“A kite?” Grace glows at the thought, her smile exposing a dozen teeth. She’ll ask to fire off more than a few spuds before the afternoon is over.
“What’s taking so long?” Maxwell howls. He’s buried his face in the sleeve of his Seniors 2016 t-shirt, it’s one of the few XXXL’s made for the Senior class, and contains enough black and bright red fabric to cover a small SUV. With minimal effort he’s soaked every square inch of it with sweat.
“Just a few more minutes.” Oliver calls over his shoulder. He tries but fails to hide a grin. This will perhaps be the only time in his life he’ll have an audience, and he’s relishing it.
“Big boom! Me want big boom!” June bangs her meaty fists on her arm rests. Encouraged, Brian follows suit, turning his chair into a snare drum, while Pen (still the queen of the underworld with her black jeans, black Iron Maiden t-shirt and heavy black eyeliner) stomps her black leather boots, kicking up a small dust storm.
“Give us five minutes.” Oliver says. Through with the wires, he pushes a small red trigger placed on the rear of what looks like a white plastic bazooka. It clicks, he smiles. He tells Sunny to get the kite out of the van.
“It’s about time.” Maxwell wipes more sweat from his face, “Make it quick, its b**** hot here!”
Grace looks at me and we share the same thought. Maxwell’s forgotten that this is his field, or at least the field was his idea. He guided us here after hearing Oliver’s plans to test the gun in one of Greenville’s old used car lot. Maxwell said the blacks in that neighborhood (the abandoned lot is in Red Line, on 27th St. between a liquor store and a boarded up barber shop) would probably call the cops. That or take a shot or two at us. He spoke with the tone of someone whose actually been to that part of town, so we listened. All Oliver knew was that he’d seen empty lots there.
Out of a duffle bag Sunny pulls a cheap cellophane kite, one made in the shape of Buzz Lightyear, and begins assembling it. “We have twenty potatoes.” He says, his hands working slowly, having to go back several times where he’s mistaken shorter support rods for longer ones. “We’re going to shoot first. You all can decide who goes after that.”
“I’m after you.” Maxwell says. We watch as he wrings sweat from his shirt, creating a muddy pool at his feet.
June grunts something but doesn’t argues. It was, after all, Maxwell’s orange Saratoga that lead us here, putting down Hwy 486, bobbing on it’s stressed suspension like a rotten and sunken pumpkin on old mattress springs. He wouldn’t break 45mph no matter how closely I tailgated him.
Oliver pulls several economy size cans of hair spray out of his red metal toolbox. He sprays each one, testing the stream and nodding approval. He seems indifferent whether it’ll be a Spring Breeze, Summer Glen, or a Tropical Love scented blast of fire and smoke that will send the spuds to their demise.
“I like the last one.” Grace tells me, “It smells like a fruit salad.”
“Mom and Dad are getting divorced.” I tell her, my voice sounding strange, distant. For a moment I think its Grace speaking, that it’s her parents going through the Big D (as some country song goes) and helping keep lawyers and therapist in BMWs and summer homes. “They told us a few nights ago.”
“Oh.” Grace says. Her grey, uncertain eyes study me, deciding if or how to proceed. She turns to Oliver, then the potato gun, pausing for a moment on the end of the barrel where he’s glued a rudimentary sight (one taken from an old Nerf crossbow) and stenciled the words WARNING: PATATO END in red spray paint. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“I guess I forgot.” I say, the voice again sounding unfamiliar, a infomercial host attempting to sell me something I supposedly need, supposedly can’t live without, “I forgot.”
Or did I block it out? Is that preferable?
“I’m sorry.” Grace says.
What she doesn’t say is how could this happen? or if the Nolan’s couldn’t make it, who can? The implosion of my parents’ marriage was months or- according to Dad- years in the making. The sit down they had with us two nights ago, calling Oliver and I into the living room where Morgan and Mom were waiting, Morgan holding Mom’s hair as she cried into a couch pillow, was only a formality.
“We have something to tell you. Sit down.” From the couch Dad motions to a pair of folding chairs placed where our coffee table had been.
Oliver, a screwdriver in hand, looks a me, and I look at Mom, or should I say, look at her hair which shimmers as she cries into the pillow. I’ve never noticed her greys before, how they lace through her mouse brown like strands of silver wire.
Oliver and I sit.
“We have something to tell you.” Dad repeats. He rubs his hands together then studies them in the light. “We, your mother and I, are getting divorced.”
There’s a wimpier from the pillow, and Morgan presses close, laying her chin on Mom’s scalp. I can almost feel the warmth radiating from it.
“I know this isn’t a surprise,” Dad’s words are practiced, the syllables measured out as if with a teaspoon, “The last few months have been rough.”
“Yeah.” I say. Oliver shuffles in his chair.
Mom lifts her head. Her face is like a fresh salmon steak, pink and raw, and her eyes streaming black fluid. On her wrinkled white blouse is her golden Sunset Meadows name badge, Helen Nolan: Because I Care. “You won’t even tell me why!” Her words spill out, sloshing from the overfilled pail she’s become.
“We are not compatible.” Dad says. His voice is balanced as he studies her with cool, determined eyes. They’re the eyes of a marathon runner, someone who’s (as if were fat around his middle or under his arms) already burned off whatever excess emotion would’ve gotten in the way of finishing this particular race. “We never should’ve been married. I knew this from the beginning. You knew it too, on some level.”
“Knew?” Mom’s voice is high and thin, the cry of a baby bird, “What are you talking about?”
Dad turns back to Oliver, then me, looking at each of us for the same short length of time, three seconds apiece. His every movement seems timed and you’d think his brains had been replaced by gears and cogs and that a stopwatch now runs were his heart should be. I can almost hear the tick of it.
“There is someone out there for your mother,” he says, “someone who deserves her. Like there’s someone for me. People who can make us both very happy. I think that we all feel very alone right now.”
He’s said this before, perhaps hundreds of times. Maybe not out loud, but mouthed it in front of steamy bathroom mirrors, or as he drove to the paper mill mornings, riding alone as 97.9 played Alan Jackson or Garth Brooks from his factory speakers. Did he imagine us seated with him, a mute audience to his revelations? How did he think we’d react?
“Is there someone else?” Mom’s question hovers in the air like a wrecking ball. Yes, this home will be destroyed, but how small will the pieces be afterwards? I hold my breath. We all hold our breaths.
“No.” Dad says. There’s a tremor in his voice, one that moves to his lips then out to his hands were it waits, causing his fingers to twitch. “There’s no one.”
I grasp the side of my chair, fighting down the urge to hug him, beating it back with a club of cold discipline. I’ve felt this before, the urge to embrace him, but I forget when. Paw Paw’s funeral maybe? I fought it down then too. We aren’t a hugging family.
“Then why?” Mom takes his arm, pressing her fingernails into his bare skin. I notice now that he has lost weight. The flab under his neck is gone and his stomach is can almost be described as flat. He’s a handsome man. “Why?”
Dad’s muscles tighten, and his face grows taunt like a string about to break. He’s rounding the final bend before the finish and is pushing forward. He pulls his arm away. “I’ll be getting a place and all of you will be staying here. This will be good for us.” His fingers curl into a fists as he forces a smile, “We’ll grow closer because of it.”
The pillow hits Dad first, bouncing off his shoulder and flying harmlessly into the living room window, then Mom lashes out with open hands, slapping at his face and arms and chest. He brushes her off easily and stands, leaving her a crumpled, weeping mass on the floor.
“I’ll give all of you some time. I have my phone.” He moves towards the hall, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
We look at each other, not sure who you means. Is it plural or singular? Have we been melded together in his mind, forming a strange four-headed, eight-armed chimaera. The creature Nolan, many minds, one grotesque shape.
We listen as to the front door opens and closes, then as his truck cranks, it’s heavy V8 misfiring as he pulls down the driveway, exiting our lives with the grace of a drunken bear.
Oliver looks at me with moist eyes. He shrugs. I shrug back, wiping away my own small tears. We can shrug together. That means something, however small.
“Now that is unpleasant.” Grace taps my shoulder and points.
I turn to find Maxwell shirtless. “Gross-” The word catches in my throat as my stomach lurches.
“What?” He asks. In front of him his heaving gut bulges over the front of his shorts like an overstuffed garbage bag, stretched to bursting, leaving his belly button a black, toothless yawn. I would envy his perfectly round, impossibly full man boobs if only they weren’t covered by a thick carpet of curly black hair.
“God!” Pen presses her face into Brian’s arm, “Hold me!”
He wraps his arms around her, exaggerating a whimper. You’d think him a beaten puppy.
“Really?” Maxwell’s voice is powdered with genuine shock. After a moment he grins and slaps his belly, sending ripples throughout his body as if it were a hairy, bipedal waterbed. “I’m beautiful.”
“Oh, so beautiful!” June blows him a kiss, “Chico guapo!”
Maxwell rubs his nipples and licks his lips, gyrating his hips like a hula dancer. He’s remarkably limber for a fat boy.
“Jesus!” Grace whispers, shaking her head. “Lord Jesus…”
Grasping the potato gun with both hands, Oliver stands and turns towards us, catching a view of Maxwell like a pie in the face. He stares for a moment, then shakes his head.
“OK, we’re going to have a test shot first,” he motions towards Sunny who already has the kite gently gliding fifty feet in the air, “Then it’s your turns. I’ll load every shot so all you have to do is pull the trigger…”
There’s more to his speech (safety instructions and an explanation of the how and why of each of the gun’s parts) and to everyone’s credit, we listen quietly. Afterwards, Oliver gives special thanks to an absent Mr. King (West Greenville’s womanizing Tech Discovery teacher, once caught naked in the sport’s equipment shed with a substitute teacher) for the inspiration to build a potato gun in the first place. I’m sure the old man will deny everything if one of us happens to lose an eye or burst an ear drum.
“…we have everything planned out.” Oliver motions again to Sunny, then the kite, and finally the bag of perfect russets, “Just follow the rules and we’ll have a lot of fun today.” He begins handing out safety glasses from a Walmart bag.
Watching him I begin wondering what Dad would think of this? He only showed a passing interest in Oliver’s tinkering, his face containing only the most distant hint of pride when his son walked past grasping a hammer or pair of vice-grips. It was as if the short, red haired inventor wasn’t his own flesh and blood but a neighbor putting in a new pool or gazebo, graciously raising the local property value by default. Did he feel alone then too? Who knows?
We watch as Oliver picks out a potato, places it on the end of the barrel and slaps it home with the flat of his hand. He unscrews the back of the ‘combustion chamber’ and sprays in a short burst of Tropical Love before recapping it. “Be sure your glasses are on.” His own pair are pressed awkwardly against his prescription lenses, “Here goes-”
There’s a click, and with a loud whoosh the small golden sphere of starchy carbs is sent flying out of the plastic tube like a massive spitwad.
Despite flying wide, the potato missing Buzz by about twenty feet, everyone howls. June hoots something in Spanish, Santa mierda! as Pen and Brian stomp their feet, bellowing incomprehensibly. Maxwell, slapping his bare, shag carpeted chest with his fists, yelps like the caveman he is. Grace simply grins, her eyes wide as they follow the rocketing spud into the blue sky where it quickly goes from dot, to pin prick, to nothing.
“Holy crap!” Maxwell laughs, “Load that sucker up again and give Sunny his turn!”
Oliver turns to Sunny, telling him to give the kite to Maxwell or June.
Sunny, his eyes still up, studies Buzz, “I’ll fly the kite. You can skip me.”
Maxwell grunts his excitement and moves forward. He’s already picked out his potato and holds the gun carefully as Oliver loads it. “How long did it take to build this thing?” He asks, his broad, yellow teeth shining. “A day?”
“Yeah, just a day.” Oliver says, “It took longer to get everything together. The igniter comes from an old grill Sunny found in a ditch.”
“Just a day.” Maxwell mumbles, “This is some real pro work.” He nods as if agreeing with himself, “You can sell these things, you just need to paint it. I know some people who’d buy one.”
“Maybe.” Oliver uncaps the combustion chamber, this time spraying in a carefully timed dose of Summer Glen. “It would be nice to get some money for this stuff.” He smiles, but I know he doesn’t intending to sell anything to anyone. I doubt he’ll even shoot the thing after today. He can be strange like. Ideas take hold of him like a fever, seemingly embedding themselves beneath his skin. There’s nothing left for him to do but sweat them out. Only his ham radio is a lasting love. As for everything else, the joy is in the work.
Oliver hoist the gun onto Maxwell’s shoulder and gives a few last moment instructions on how to aim, telling him to ignore the sights. “They’re just for show,” he says, “just look down the side of the barrel.”
Maxwell takes a moment, his broad smile fading into a careful, determined scowl. There’s the click and the whoosh. The potato, staple of the American diet, giver of French fries, clips Buzz’s wing, sending him wobbling.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes…” Maxwell chants, and you’d think he’d just done something incredible, made the game winning pass at the Orange Bowl or found the cure for cancer or something, instead of simply not shooting down a kite.
There is a melody of boos from Brian, and Pen. June throws a handful of grass which flutter down around her feet like confetti.
Frowning, Sunny pulls on Buzz’s line, tugging sharply left then gently right, leveling him. He leers at Maxwell and lets out another thirty or forty feet of string. At almost a hundred feet up, Buzz becomes a tiny diamond in the sky.
“Your turn.” Oliver points to Pen who’s already on her feet.
Maxwell, jittery like a boiling teapot, moves close to Grace and I. “Did you see that?” His eyes move between the gun, the kite, and then some point in the cloudless sky, “I almost killed it!”
“Almost.” Grace, ever close with praise, smiles up at him. She keeps her eyes on his face, avoiding any accidental glances at his body, “You’re a natural.”
“I’ll get it next time.” Maxwell says, “Just a little to the left.”
“How did you find this place?” I asks, “Does your family own it?”
“This place? It doesn’t belong to anybody. No ones been here in forever.” He waves his arms around to emphasize the obvious: wheat grass high enough to hide velociraptors, the dirt road eroded to near ditch status. Besides the Army pilots (we’ve seen two helicopters fly overhead since we arrived, Oliver identified them as twin-rotor CH-47 “Chinooks”), we’re perhaps the first people to have laid eyes on this field in ten years.
“How did you know we could use it then?” Grace asks, the word trespasser etched over her worried face. I suppose the No Trespassing sign, nailed to a scrub pine by the road and pockmarked with a half-dozen bullet holes, should have been warning enough for us.
“The gate was open.” Maxwell says. He moves to the bag of potatoes, escaping our questions as he picks out another projectile.