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Fiction #44
(published June 14, 2001)
Mr. Oakley
by Paul Durica

On Sunday, he wakes with blood on his breath. The dream was the same. A wagon surrounded by Sioux, their war cry the rattle of a tin drum. He saw arrows and flame, a woman dragged off into the dust. Unbuttoning the top of his underwear, he swears about the bit of pork eaten before sleep, the nickel novel read, the empty space beside him. The sheets that covered her are creased by his body; he feels the groove in the bedpost where she hung her gun. She is off shooting, backward on a horse, blindfolded. He stretches himself diagonally across the bed and, fingertip to headboard, taps out the days.

On Monday, he sketches Dr. Conroy's silhouette in the parlor. The wall is covered in carefully framed silhouettes. As he cuts around the nose, Dr. Conroy sneezes, rubs his head. He swears about the heat and asks about the wife. She could not sit still the first time he sketched her. She tapped her foot and twisted her hair. Stood as he traced the square outline of her chin. He wanted to say something, but she took the scissors, kissed him, and said the photograph was quicker.

On Tuesday, he dusts the buffalo head in the sitting room. It hangs beside her portrait. She shot the buffalo when she was fourteen. She cried, but it fed the family for a week. Bill heard the story and visited her. They kept the head, and he paid to have it preserved. That night she took the bottles her father and Bill emptied, placed them in a line on the fence, and shot them one by one, spraying the air with green and blue glass, never missing.

On Wednesday, he remembers things over a bottle. The day they met, she offered to shoot off his hat for a dime. The hat was a gray derby, newly purchased from the Macy store. I'd rather not, he said. He told her about the store, dreams and desires fulfilled with a ring of the register's bell. They had a floor just of toys: wind-up trains, metal soldiers, paper dolls, and rifles like the one she carried. They could go there, he said, and he would buy her another. She spat on the ground and shot off his hat.

On Thursday, he purchases a bathtub from the Macy store. He installs it himself and takes a four-hour bath and shave. Afterwards, he puts perfume on his cheeks, combs his mustache, and reads the evening edition. A pint of whiskey pokes at his ribs from under the cushion of the Ottoman.

On Friday, he goes home with a girl in the chorus. She lies still in bed, and later he lights his pipe. A man of the mechanical age, he cannot look at her without thinking of his tub. Her hair is the dull brass of the fixtures. Her skin is smooth porcelain. She made the same hollow sound when he went in, and he wonders if he searches the small of her back, he will find a plug to drain her. One night his wife made love to him in the foyer. She pushed him and tore his collar. He let himself be ridden and watched the red spread across her chest, forming a triangle pointed down. Down, he thought, to the last paradise this world knows.

On Saturday, he lights the lamps at five and stands in the doorway, watching the sun set over the city. Lamps light up tiny rooms; the smell of cabbage darkens the air. A bum bends a crooked finger toward an apple core on the street. He knows where she is the sun is bright and when it sets the colors will be purple, orange, and red, and she will perform under a ring of gas made gold. Maybe tonight she will send a wire or conquer her fear of the telephone. They have them out there, he knows. He has seen a painting of an Indian standing against a pole, the dangling wire almost touching the feather on his head. He sees them patching her in at gunpoint. Her voice comes to him like lightning, swift and scorching, Honey, you should have seen me tonight.

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