Brownie Versus Mouse

William Lychack

If only I’d had what it took to shoot him. Not so much killed or crippled Brownie, just taken the gun and put a nice clean wound into his shin or foot, Brownie writhing on the ground in pain and blood, and this Mouse character—me—some scrawny little twelve-year-old kid running for all he was worth through the cemetery for help. Now that’d be something they could have told about us down at the Elks. We’d be able to dine on this sort of story for the rest of our lives. It’d be one of those perfect moments, an aria of stupidity, the two of us connected forever like brothers in this half-funny, half-horrifying, totally-fucked-up kind of way.

We’d tell everyone about it—the time I spazzed and put a bullet into Brownie—and if the mood was right he’d take off his shoe and sock and let that mangled toe breathe. It’d turn into a comedy act of ours, Brownie saying nobody messes with the Mouse, my cue to stand up and be all like, “Mouse no more, muthafuckas!”

And I’d be raising a glass, “Mouse is dead!”

And Brownie’d be right there with his, “Long live Mouse!”

No stopping two little psychos like this—if only we’d had the presence of mind to stand calm as cake as one of us squeezed the trigger straight into the sneaker of his friend. Kids able to do that would have been able to do anything they wanted in the world. We’d have skated through just fine. Nothing could have touched us, no one able to piss and moan about how useless we were. We’d have shot a gun before we drank a beer, before we kissed a girl, before we drove a car. If we did it right, if we showed who we really were, then the whole world could go scratch. We could have stacked a woodpile any which way we pleased. From this day forward, Brownie’s father could cluck his tongue all he wanted, and we’d look at him all incredulous, like he was just so beside the point.

Wish the gun had done some of this for us. Wish it’d made us killers or just turned us back to normal kids again. Either way we’d have known who we really were inside. If the gun didn’t give us power, then at least we could have lumped it in with all the other dumb-shit things we did growing up. We once set an empty field on fire with a lighter and an aerosol can. We once drove the Cutlass into a ditch. We once found a pistol in the woods after school. Just another lark among larks. Gun like the time we discovered his father’s gin over the sink, gun like my stomach being pumped at the hospital, gun like the chore of hosing down those pants of mine in the yard the next morning.

Wish the gun was more like that. Wish we could have made fun of ourselves about it later. Wish we’d been able to bust on each other about all the hem-and- haw melodrama of us with that pistol. Wish we’d been able to joke just once, make the gun no worse than Father Barney with his hernia tests at CYO basketball. Wish the pistol was like the pay phone at the aquarium—the list of these things would be endless—a school field trip, everyone waiting in line, that briny smell of mollusks and horseshoe crabs in those welcome tanks in the foyer, and the coin-return slot we couldn’t help but finger as we stood there. Wish the gun was like this, just some little bit of mischief. What self-respecting boy could resist pressing that filthy receiver of the phone to his mouth and ear? Truly, who’d not have to dial that nasty little zero?

There used to be these things called pay phones. They were on street corners in glass booths. They were tucked out of the way in foyers and vestibules of office buildings and restaurants. The older fancier booths had wooden seats and smelled of furniture polish and had recessed spotlights that came on in the ceiling as you closed the folding privacy doors. For a dime you could make a local call and talk forever. For long-distance an operator would come onto the line to help you complete the connection, tell you how much it would cost for how long, and if you had no coins they could reach out like a medium in a séance, asking the other party if they were willing to accept the charges.

One might have thought things such as operators and phone booths and record albums and clock radios and so much else would have been more permanent. One might have thought at the time that it’d never seem necessary to document how telephones had this steady drone when you picked up the receiver (a dial tone, they called it), that hum letting you know that the line was working, and that the operator (a real-life person) would answer if you dialed zero. There were times when you could dip your finger into the coin slot and come up with a jackpot of quarters and dimes. The world was often magic in this way.

Our gun had that same kind of poetry to it. And so didn’t the field trip to the aquarium, whole middle school waiting in line, Brownie dialing the zero on the pay phone, him handing the receiver to me, that greasy mouthpiece going straight to my lips, the operator (that voice) asking if she could help, and me blurting out, “Suicide Hotline, please.”

It’d be a bolt of lightning—and I’d slam the receiver to the cradle—and that jangle of coins inside the face of the phone, everyone laughing like it was the best joke ever, like it was the funniest thing, like it wouldn’t be any more than that. Just a coincidence. Nothing else. Just a pressure, the air all humid and fishy and hard to breathe. I mean, what would a kid know about it? Not like he could see something on its way to them. Yet why would a boy come up with this kind of thing to say? Of all possible things he could have blabbed into the phone, how come it was this?

Mrs. Jankowski would glare from the front of the line for us to behave back there, everyone starting through the turnstiles into the aquarium. We’d shuffle slowly forward, get maybe ten feet closer to the entrance, but then that blare of pay phone behind us, this loud ringing so sudden and shrill, Brownie lunging back to grab the receiver, Brownie quick to get the alarm to stop, an after-hum of bells in the alcove, panic on his face, and the rest of us silently watching him put the phone to his ear.

“Hello?

He’d slip up next to me in the aquarium later, whispering that they put us through to the police, saying someone was on their way to help. It’d only follow that I wished the gun could be more like this: uncanny, maybe, but ultimately nothing. I’d wish all my life that the gun was of consequence only in some brief and unimportant childhood way.

Same with me and Brownie down at the pond, pistol rude and stark in his hand, and nobody else around. No one would have any reason to be here at this time of year—pond shining black, air licking cool off the water, our whole world in this little arena of pines.

We had to banish the weak and soft in ourselves in this place. It was our job to deny any fear, so Brownie would just raise the gun like he knew what he was doing. I watched for any cracks in the façade of him, but there weren’t any that I could see, Brownie moving as if he’d slept with weapons under his pillow his whole life. I stood and squinted in mild awe, just waiting for him to fire at the pond. The trigger seemed to move the slightest nick under his finger. Not enough to touch any bullets to life. Not enough to make anything happen, though I knew also to be wary of him. It’d be just like Brownie to be playing me. It’d be just like him to jump in last minute with some kind of gotcha, only pretending to be all shaky and powerless. That’d be my department, he’d tell me, shaky and powerless.

But, then again, maybe it was real. Maybe he’d not be able to fire the gun after all. Hard to fake those cords in his neck as he strained, the barrel of the pistol trembling as he aimed at the trees. I started believing he’d bend or snap the metal, trigger cutting into his knuckle. He tried pulling the hammer, tried knocking it loose, tried looking for some lever or toggle. He lifted it up again and tried the trigger and still couldn’t seem to shoot the gun, Brownie lowering his arms, saying it was stuck or jammed or broken or something.

I nodded—speechless and amazed—and Brownie let out this long breath, like steam escaping, his whole body deflating slightly. It was wrong to feel happy, bad to outwardly gloat, yet how satisfying to have him try as hard as he could and fail, Brownie tapping the gun on the spillway wall and then raising it up again and trying the trigger once more. I had to literally chew that grin off my face, Brownie with his arms shaking, him using all his strength.

What a relief in the end when even he couldn’t get the pistol to fire. If Brownie wasn’t able to get the gun to go off, then no one would be able to do it, which meant there’d be no tragedy here, no bullets firing, nothing worth remembering about any of this for us. Brownie must have seen what I was thinking, because he said to quit being so happy about it. He mimed shooting me in the side of the head.

“This is so lame,” he said.

And he turned from me—that sense of obligation for each other like a weight we carried—the two of us looking out at the pond, the trees, the water curving over the dam, and the gun in Brownie’s hand all over again. I tried asking if he was hungry or cold or anything—things I must have been feeling—and I tried wondering to him if maybe the gun got left in the woods in the first place because it was frozen. He didn’t answer, and for a moment I wasn’t sure my voice was working, as if maybe I hadn’t said anything out loud, Brownie in his own world, saying there had to be some rivet or lock we were missing. He said there had to be some clasp for the trigger. He said the gun must have been customized or modified in some way, Brownie shaking his head and saying we couldn’t be this retarded, could we?

Sure we could, I told him—and still the clouds moved all low and gray, pond riffling with air, and these two ducks arriving to the water when we looked. We both had the same idea, saying we could shoot those ducks. They seemed too good to be true. We calculated the distance—a hundred yards, the birds small but clear on the water—but then both of us had those looks to each other again, like how stupid and great and funny was this? We didn’t even have a gun that worked, did we? And even if we did, what made us think we could hit something that far away? And what if, by some miracle, we actually killed one of them? What then? Would we just leave it out there? Would it float to shore eventually? Would the other come back to see its mate? How sad would that be? Would we shoot that one, too?

Brownie had little tolerance for these kinds of questions. Even as a kid he was practical, his fingers pressing at each screw and nodule, Brownie trying to unlock the handle like a puzzle, and still nothing happening, unless anger was something, unless disappointment was something, which, of course, they were.

I must have been smiling again—that simmering relief right there under the surface of my face—and the longer Brownie pulled and twisted at the pistol, the more frustrated and pent-up he seemed to become, the gun not anything like we expected it to be, the whole world turning out different than we thought. He flipped the pistol around in his hand, holding it like a hammer, hitting the edge of the handle on the concrete of the spillway, that solid clank of metal.

I said to be careful, and so, naturally, he had to strike down a little harder next time.

“At least keep it pointed the other way,” I said. And he said, “Yes, Mother.”

Brownie motioned for me to step to the side. He slowly raised the gun over his head, fist tight around the barrel, and he chopped down, a loud chock of metal against the wall, this lighter chuck whiplashing back from across the pond. The ducks flew away at the sound. You could follow them, the birds skimming low across the water, little circles from the tips of their wings on the glass of the pond, and then Brownie hitting the wall again hard.

He smiled and lifted the pistol and struck down on the concrete with the handle once more. The sound cut right to bone. Bright chips in the wall like wounds. And if it went off now, if the bullet fired anywhere at this moment, it’d go straight into his chest or stomach. You could see it happen perfectly. You could trace the line clean through him. It’d be awful. And it’d be all you could do, it seemed, to just wait and watch and hope for the worst to happen, finally.

But nothing turned out the way you imagined. In some way he’d be hitting that wall for the rest of his life. Yet he’d also just hammer the gun like this until something gave way inside, the sound going from solid and thick to broken and loose.

One moment the metal was hard as an ax, and the next it turned all cracked and slushy, a sound of cutlery, a sudden gap at the base of the handle, Brownie opening the gun even more. He got that told-you-so grin on his face, Brownie coming over to show me the bright metal track, which he eased from out of the bottom of the grip.

There were bullets inside, a line of cartridges like seeds all golden and glossed and clean. He slid the magazine from the gun—long scrape of sand and oil as he pulled the metal free—and Brownie handed me the pistol so that he could concentrate, the outside of the gun rough and gritty, the inside pristine and gleaming. And always that surprise of gun in my hand—so much warmer and lighter, balance much different without the bullets, those fresh cuts in the handle, the metal sharp from where Brownie had been hitting, and a smell of sewing machine oil from inside the handle. Brownie counted the warm reddish tips of the bullets.

There were six of them, brass nubs fitting one on top of the other, and Brownie touching each of them with his fingertip. He slipped the last from its slot. A spring closed the space so instantly that suddenly it seemed not to have happened at all. And maybe this was part of the act—behold—Brownie producing a single bullet from his sleeve, lifting it to the light like it was a honey bee between his fingers. He raised it to his nose to smell. For a second he might have put it into his mouth, but then he reached for me to have the bullet, pressing it to my hand. I half expected my flesh to go soft as butter, half watched for the metal to push warm as a knife into me.

In the meantime, Brownie took the gun and lined the magazine back into the handle. I wondered aloud if there could be any bullets anywhere else—some chamber we didn’t know about—and Brownie shrugged and hit the clip home with the heel of his hand. He stood all firm and impressive, lifting his arm and trying again to fire the pistol. He used two hands and pressed down on the trigger. I braced for the sound of it. I hummed inside for the shot to just go off already . . .

“Gun, go off now,” I said inside of me.

“Gun, go now,” I chanted—and I squeezed the bullet in my fist, trying to will the pistol to fire—and all the pleading in the world only seemed to push this hope away. Maybe that was the lesson, maybe that was what we needed to learn here, Brownie unable to fire the gun because he and I wanted him to fire the gun so badly, hope always holding things away.

He finally tossed the pistol to the ground, like he was done with all of this, just more trash, gun in the gravel, bits of long grass near the wall. If a person didn’t know any better, he might have imagined he was only just discovering this object, last thing he expected, the gun like a bottle or toy or little creature lying there in the dirt.

I took a mitten from out of my pocket. I could feel Brownie watching as I picked up the gun and brushed the sand from the handle. I placed the mitten on the wall. I laid the gun all meticulous and gentle on top of the mitten. I didn’t want the metal hurt any more than it was, didn’t want the gun cold and neglected. I didn’t want this thing feeling it’d just been tossed away like that. I wanted it to feel at home in this little wool hand. I wanted the gun to be comfortable there. I stroked along the grain of its face with my finger, as if trying to coax the pistol calm.

Brownie watched all this. He shook his head to mock me, him saying, “See, that’s nice.”

“You’re just jealous,” I told him.

“Even the fact you have mittens,” said Brownie.

“Exactly,” I said—and I touched the wounds in the handle of the gun—and Brownie clucked his tongue and turned and walked away through the ferns to- ward the woods and cemetery. I wanted him to just keep going. If only he’d disappeared in the trees, that crunch of steps fading to nothing. Inside I was humming again, chanting for him to keep walking home from here.

“Just keep it moving,” I was saying.

“Just keep going,” I was telling him.

I pressed the back of his windbreaker with my eyes, pushed him through a kind of circle of stones with my mind, got him past where the campfires would be in the winter, past the logs where we’d sit to change into skates. Brownie stopped and opened his pants and started pissing, and still I kept pushing at him—go back to the cemetery, back through the streets we knew, away from here for once and for all. I tried burning that idea into the back of his skull, tried planting that seed in him, how everything would have been so different if he just left, if he just moved on from Cargill Falls, just kept walking away from this place.

Even at age twelve, I knew enough to want him to leave like this, yet I could also hope for him to stay at the pond. In my own little head-case way, I could know what’d be good for Brownie to do, yet I could also want what’d be better for me, which was for him to never go anywhere. I don’t think I cared about the contradictions. I could love and hate in the exact same breath. I could need him gone and need him here at the exact same time. I could slip the bullet he gave me into the pocket of my pants. I could lift the pistol from the mitten. I could take the mitten from the wall. It could be my turn now with the gun. I could gear up to shoot my friend in the woods. I could aim at his back. I could wait for him to turn.