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I Am Shooting At Your Feet


By Colin Tracy



Jerome says this is what we do: we pretend to live in a story. The kind with a point. We're characters, he says, in our minds, giving ourselves lines and watching ourselves in the movies we think of as our lives. Without that, he says, we'd go crazy. We have to think we're part of a story. The only important part of the story, you get the idea with some people.

But the reality is, he says, voice lowered and me of course with held-breath anticipation because Jerome can do that to you, he's dramatic like that, the reality is there's not a point.

I let that sink in, mostly because I knew he wanted me to.

This is a true story about Jerome*.

Here's the thing you have to know first, though: all of the following is true, but it happened inside Pedro's story, which, I admit, I did make up. But I made it up long before I'd even met Jerome, so we don't have to deal with any of that internal-logic-paradox bullshit you always hear about. Anyway, trust me:

It was nearly dark when Pedro Tavares saw the shell glimmering on the beach ahead of him. He had just watched a lurid sunset boil its way into the sea, and was walking slowly along the edge of wet sand the receding tide had abandoned. In one thick-fingered hand he carried a pair of leather shoes, laces knotted together. From the other hand trailed a long, thin, driftwood branch that left an uneven line in the sand next to his footprints.

Pedro watched the shell as he drew closer, refusing to hasten his steps, though certainly, he thought, this was a prize meant for him, lying as it did so squarely in his path. It was horned and fluted,

* Really. Call him and ask. His number is 617-522-9542. Do it right now. He's expecting you.



pink and smooth around its large mouth and translucent white along the outside spines and spirals. Just inside were lines of pale ridges that brought to Pedro's mind the idea of gentle teeth*.

Jerome's girlfriend Marie is a dental hygienist She's not very bright, but she's sweet and pretty and has enormous breasts. A lot of men like that in a dental hygienist, according to Jerome. They'd met when she was in his mouth. I asked her once if she truly liked cleaning people's teeth, and what it was she found satisfying about it, and she said it was like cleaning the bathroom. Don't you feel great when you're done? she said. All that clean, smooth porcelain, a feeling like you've put things the way they ought to be. Scrubbed it all the way down to the white.

I don't know, I said. Mouths.…

Jerome stays with her 1 think because she's a great audience. She listens to him, and agrees with him. I like Marie, but I don't like her around Jerome. Even though she fakes it, I know she doesn't really follow what he's talking about a lot of the time, and I think he appreciates that about her even more than the enormous breasts. I don't care what she doesn't follow, but it bothers me that she fakes it.

Pedro had walked this stretch of beach many times before. Each season brought forth different flotsam for presentation. In winter he would sometimes find hundreds of jellyfish, quivering in limp collections, stranded by the fast tide. After the more violent storms of summer, larger objects could be found littering the strand at the high water line. Once he had found an empty suitcase, locked

+ Put this down. Go into the bathroom. Smile real big into the mirror. Hold it. Don't look into your own eyes.



and half-full of seawater. Another time the battered carcass of a giant squid had been stretched out for the crabs and gulls to feast upon. Pedro had stood close and seen its huge gray eye, staring up at the sky in silent reproach*.

As he drew close to the shell, Pedro felt more and more sure that it had been placed there for him to find. He sensed ...what? An unseen hand arranging his life. It made him feel important. He didn't know of any other men from the village who walked this way back from the boats to their houses and wives at sundown. He alone chose to take the longer route along the shore, appreciating the sights and sounds of dusk. No one else had the spirit, the soul, to find value in these things. Pedro knew the other men talked about him, about his strange ways and his wisdom. He held his head high at church, at the village meetings.

Twenty-five years ago Pedro had taken for his wife the most beautiful girl in the village. He had always had an eye for beauty. True, she didn't often understand the things he spoke of, or recognize the cleverness and foresight of the decisions he made, but she had been so beautiful, and certainty she had enough brains to listen to Pedro when he had opinions to express or things to explain.

Would she have stopped to examine this shell? Probably not. Pedro smiled. She had grown more practical as the years had drained her beauty. Well, he would certainly spare a moment to lift the thing from the sand and appreciate it, though it was getting dark and no doubt his supper was waiting

* Did you go look at your teeth, a minute ago, or did you just picture yourself going to look at vour teeth?



for him. He reached the shell and admired it from above. It was larger than he'd realized from a distance, at least the size of a squash, or a conquistador's helmet.

He nudged it gently with his bare toe. It did not move at all. Pedro dropped the stick he held in his hand and leaned over to pull the shell out of the sand where it lay half embedded. He gave it an easy tug, but again the shell would not be loosened. Pedro straightened up and glanced around, perplexed and feeling a little foolish. The shell was large, but too delicate to be very heavy. Looking quickly about himself again, Pedro knelt beside the thing and set his shoes down. Using both hands he began to dig away at the sand around the shell. When it seemed it should be loosened enough, he tried to lift the gleaming object from its resting place. Though he pulled at it with ever-increasing strength, finally heaving with all his weight, the shell held to the sand as if cemented there.

Jerome gave me a birthday present last year that I bring up because it is so characteristic of him to do something like this: he stole a book from my shelf, probably weeks earlier, and gave it back to me one page at a time, one day at a time. He said, here's your present, to see this book you like so much in a new way. He meant he was giving me the pages out of order, and I was supposed to, I don't know, read them that way and be all enlightened. Like it would be a different book.

Come on, man, free yourself! Shit! 1 thought you'd appreciate it. It's just a fucking book! After two weeks he got tired of having to come by my place every day and drop a page off, so one morning I'm leaving for work and there's a pile of loose pages, the rest of the three hundred or so, on the porch step,



held down with a large round stone. They weren't even shuffled 8—he'd lost interest in the project that completely. I sorted the first fourteen birthday deliveries back into order and put a thick rubber band around the whole thing.

Pedro let go and sat back on his heels, breathing heavily. He was suddenly aware of the crashing and muttering surf behind him, mocking his struggle. Between the slow foaming metronomic crush of the waves there was another sound—faint, but curiously familiar to Pedro, definitely something he had heard before. What was it? He turned his head this way and that, trying to determine the direction of its source, but another breaker came in and drowned out the tiny sounds for several seconds.

The moment the wave receded and the ocean was temporarily hushed, Pedro heard the noises again. They were coming from the shell itself. There could be no doubt. The empty beach was nearly dark now, but Pedro looked around again to make sure this ridiculous scene had no witnesses before lowering his ear to the mouth of the shell.

Jerome sits down with a beer and picks up the thread;

Pigs. He lets it sink in. From within the pearly recesses of the shell came the unmistakable sounds of squealing pigs. Pedro sprang to his feet and took a few steps back. What was this? What could this mean? His legs were numb from squatting, and he took a staggering waltz around the pigshell. Forgetting to check for an audience, he slowly knelt and crawled to it again. He placed his ear to it, held his breath, and heard, unbelievably, inexplicably, the sounds of several pigs squealing, snorting, grunting, snuffling through their muddied snouts. For all its wonder, the effect was comical. Pedro began to laugh. Pigs!

§ Dance, pardner! (I am shooting at your feet.)



In a shell! It was too much. That an object this magical should reveal to him only swine. What would any other men of the village have made of this, if it had been one of them walking this beach, this night? It would have been simply beyond their minds. They would have taken it for a miracle, a magical wonder to be held in awe. And of course it was magical, but not in the way they would have thought. No, he was the only one who could understand this message. He had been given a gift. He had been let in on the Great Joke:

“The vagrant minstrel Ling, having insinuated himself into the confidence of a great and influential mandarin, made off one night with a thousand gold yuan and a priceless jade lion t a theft which so unhinged his former employer that in one night the old man's hair turned snow white, and to the end of his life he did little more than sit on the dusty floor of his chamber, plucking listlessly at a p'ip'a and chanting, "Was that not a curious minstrel?"'

The message was clear.

One had to be satisfied.

Pedro thought of his wife. What would she make of this? It was an interesting question. No doubt to her it would be something frightening, terrible, and incomprehensible. She'd need Pedro to explain it to her.

Chaos! he shouts. Acausal Anarchy! The Heisman Uncertainty Trophy! Sex in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction! Entropy! he screams.

I'm sorry. Jerome! Stopit! He gets like this, sometimes. When he drinks.



It had grown very dark now, and Pedro gave a last look around, to fix in his mind the exact position of his shell before picking up his shoes and resuming his walk toward the village. Tomorrow, maybe, he would bring her out here and see what effect** the shell had on her.



Jerome watched as Marie leaned over and tried to pick the Pepsi can up off the sidewalk, failing as he had the night before. Grunting, she pulled at it, and Jerome watched with satisfaction as she strained fruitlessly. Hands on her knees, she turned her head to look at him, a look of suspicion and raised eyebrows. Jerome gestured toward the can. Listen.

Marie knelt down and lowered her ear to the can's sharp-edged oval orifice, brushing long blonde hairs out of the way. Immediately her eyes opened wide in awe, and she gasped. Well? Jerome said. For a moment there was no response. What do you hear?

It's a miracle! she cried. Her eyes found his, and he was amazed to see them sparkling with tears. A miracle? Jerome squinted at Marie, unsure of how to read her dramatic reaction. She had her ear to the thing again. There must be thousands of them—tens of thousands! God ++, it’s so beautiful!

Jerome scoffed gently. Can't be that many, hon. Not more than a dozen, maybe. Squealing at the, what d'you call it, trough, for slop. Now it was Marie's turn to stare amazed. She raised her head to look at

** Put this down. Find a radio. Make sure the volume is all the way down, tune to a random frequency, put your ear to the speaker, and slowly turn it back up.

++ This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth: To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.



him, but left one hand on the can, caressing its smooth raised rim with her fingertips. But Jerome, it's angels—a huge choir of angels, singing. Again she lowered her ear to the Pepsi can. They're singing in so many voices! I don't know what language it is, Jerome, but it’s ... joyful! You didn't hear it?

She continued to kneel there, bent over the shell, eyes closed and smiling. Happy tears wet her cheeks.

Jerome was frozen for a minute. Unscripted, he spun in the void. He stared at her rapturous face. Then, grunting, he stepped in one movement to the can and pushed her away onto the sand. Ignoring her small cry of surprise and fear, Pedro knelt and thrust his ear at the mouth of the swinecan. The same porcine snorts and squeals that had amused him the night before filled his head. He clutched at the sand with his hands and pressed his other ear to the pink lips. The grunting and snorting continued.

Marie watched from her sprawl as Jerome began to tremble, first in his hands, then in his whole body. With a disgusted yell he pulled his ear from the shell and leapt to his feet. He pointed to where she cowered from the fury in his face. You idiot! You stupid, stupid woman! He laughed harshly. Angels! Pedro reached down and picked up an ocean-smoothed stone the size of a grapefruit and turned toward the shell. Angels! he choked from between his bared teeth, and raised the stone over his head.



Pedro! No! Please! Don't break it, please! She reached for his arm but it was too late, and as the stone fell and the milky shell shattered on the sand, one sharp fragment grazed her cheek, leaving a line of blood beneath her eye**.

Pedro stood over the crushed shell, chest heaving, eyes fixed on the largest piece left, a length of smooth pink with regular ridges like teeth on its inner edge. His wife was sitting in the sand, face held in her hands, weeping quietly. He looked at her for a long time, at her long, graying hair, her thin brown fingers. Then again at the pieces of the shell, and at the stone.

Angels. He shook his head. We're going home. Come on. He took his wife's arm and lifted her slowly to her feet. Marie pulled free from his grip and bent over the shattered pieces of the pigshell. One by one, she took each small sharp piece and collected it into the front of her dress



you did not speak again that night as I led you back to our home, but later, after we had gone to bed, you woke to the shaking silence of a man crying, and did not reach out to comfort me.

** Put this down. Go back to the mirror in the bathroom and this time look yourself in the eye. Now imagine someone is watching you do this.