by Aine Ant
The shooting happened on a Tuesday. That day, J.J.’s children were particularly difficult, and, of all days, the bus came early. Several times he’d hollered out to his wife, Sheila, for help, but she’d waited until the flashing lights from the bus illuminated their front room before emerging from the bathroom. In one breath, she meted out a mix of rebuke and praise that got their children out of the house, then grabbed her coat and mentioned she’d be late. J.J. moved to embrace her, but she was gone before he reached the threshold. Staring at the closed door, he was overwhelmed by how fuckable she’d looked.
Upstairs in his home office, he continued to think about his wife, especially her breasts, but also about her behavior. Sheila usually handled the morning routine, but lately she’d spent those precious minutes readying herself for work. She was a nurse at Baptist East where appearance seemed, to J.J., not to matter. Still, he liked looking at his wife when she took the time to get her hair to fall around her face in soft curls. This morning there’d even been a dewiness to her skin that made him think of the early years of their marriage, when they were daring enough to make love outside, in the car, on her parents’ couch. He sighed, thinking he should start running again. Adjusting himself, he decided that he, too, would make an effort—wear jeans instead of sweatpants, even if he was just working from home. The squeal of tires followed by the deadened thud of rubber hitting cement interrupted his resolve.
Their neighborhood, like every neighborhood in Memphis, was less than two blocks from trouble. His heart pounded, sounding in his ears like a playing card attached to a bicycle wheel. He peered out the window. A small blue truck had stopped with its nose at the curb and its pickup bed angled so that it blocked the road below J.J.’s house. The passenger door flung open, and in one motion, a woman with dozens of thin, black braids jumped out and began kicking at the tires and the fender of the vehicle. In the middle of this fit, the pointed toe of one of her knee-high boots got stuck in the truck’s hubcap. She started to cry.
This was not the first commotion J.J. had ever seen on their street. He ran a small tree service company out of his home, and because he was there when so many others were away, he watched over their street. He made sure their home was a place where his children could play in the front yard. The driver’s door opened, and he reflexively picked up the phone, dialing the first six digits of the non-emergency police number.
The wailing got louder. The woman’s boot remained stuck, and J.J. waited, not knowing if he’d need help. Another woman stepped out of the truck. He set the phone down, left his desk and opened a window. The panes were cool to the touch, and as he leaned his forehead against the glass, he watched the commotion unfold. The second woman wore baggy jeans, buckled around her hips, an oversized Grizzlies jersey, and glossy red sneakers. He expected her voice to be low and gruff, but when she spoke, it was like his children’s whines when they wanted him to buy some unnecessary toy.
“You scare me. Jumpin’ out like that,” she said, helping the other woman unstick her boot.
J.J. thought they might be friends, or cousins, but when the stocky one bent toward the tire, he saw a look pass across the other woman’s face that told him they were lovers.
“Dee, leave me the hell alone. Don’t want you near me, don’t want you near my shoes,” the first woman said. Her voice rose, and when Dee didn’t immediately get up, she started shaking her whole body. “Get off! Get off! Get off!”
“Fine,” Dee said. She backed away and settled herself near the bed of the pickup. “It wasn’t anything. Brenda and me always fool around. You know I love you, Keisha.”
Keisha had given up freeing her boot. She unzipped it, pulled her stockinged foot out, and turned to face Dee. She must be freezing, J.J. thought. In her flouncy skirt and a thin sweater, she wasn’t dressed like a girl who’d planned on spending any time outside. He glanced at her hard nipples.
Keisha hugged herself and ran her hands up and down her arms. “I do this for you, you know? You like it. You always going off about how Brenda got a new weave and how Lorna got dragons painted on her fingernails. I get what you need me to be. But it has to be enough.”
Throughout Keisha’s speech, Dee studied her fingernails. J.J. hadn’t wanted to assume the women were what they looked like, but he had. It made him feel better to know that they stereotyped themselves. He looked at Dee and tried the word out. “Butch,” he said and then, “Lesbos.” The standoff ended when Keisha took off her other boot and threw it at Dee.
“Cut that out. We got enough of a scene. And I told you about Brenda. We old friends. She mess with everybody. She even mess with you if you wanted.”
“She already tried that, and I told her I got a girl! This is bullshit.” Keisha took a backpack from the truck and strode toward the main road. It impressed J.J. that she walked without flinching or wincing at the small pebbles and debris that covered the sidewalk.
Dee looked as if she might go after her, but at that moment a sedan turned from Peabody onto Melrose and nearly ran into the truck. The driver rolled down his window. “What the fuck you doing?”
“What the fuck you doing?” Dee said, getting off the tailgate.
J.J. had thought during Dee’s fight with Keisha that she looked bored, fatigued by an argument the couple often had. He and his wife, after fifteen years of marriage, did a similar dance when they disagreed. He joked to his friend Jim, who was also married, that couples fought about two issues: things the husbands did and things they didn’t do.
J.J. panicked when he saw Dee clench her fist and walk toward the sedan. He understood now that he’d read Dee wrong, read the whole situation wrong. He rushed down the stairs, experiencing a surge of adrenaline that made him feel, for the first time in weeks, like a man. As he bounded out his front door, he realized he didn’t have his phone with him, but he kept moving, knowing from watching the neighborhood for so many years that the confrontation had reached the point that it would only end well if it ended early.
Emerging from his house, he decided to bluff. “The police are on their way.”
“I’m just trying to get this dyke to move her truck,” the driver said.
J.J. felt ashamed about his earlier thoughts. “You don’t belong here,” he said to the driver, who, although imposing, had the soft, plump cheeks of a teenager.
“Fuck you. Fuck this ho,” the kid said, leaning on his horn for emphasis, and then he must have spoken to the other people in the car because his passengers laughed, and one of them threw a half-empty Faygo bottle at Dee. Soda sprayed across the pavement. She flipped them off and pounded her fist on the hood of their car.
“Now, now,” said J.J., aware of his average height, average weight. “Just back up and take Willett. There’s a bit of a domestic situation here and—”
Dee said, “You don’t know nothin’ about this.”
The boys in the car hooted, putting their hands to their mouths and making cat calls. J.J. looked around his street, thinking he saw one of his elderly neighbors hiding behind her curtains. The teenagers hurled taunts at Dee.
“That leggy bitch a’ yours decide she want a man with a dick? I’ll stick around all day if she come back,” said the driver. He flipped his gaze to J.J., who saw that the guy had pupils the color of mud.
“The police will be here any minute,” J.J. said again. He saw through the still open door of Dee’s truck that the keys were in the ignition.
One of the passengers leaned out a rear window. He wore a dark, hooded sweatshirt and seemed oblivious to the cold. “Not if you told ‘em it was girls fighting. They only come if you tell ‘em you seen a BMY.”
J.J. stared at them.
“Black, male, youth,” said the driver, nodding at the other teenagers in the car.
He imagined he heard one of them say, “Fucking white people.”
“Forget this,” said Dee. She walked to the corner and hollered after Keisha. “Come back, baby. Come back.”
The keys glinted. A brown and white rabbit’s foot hung from the review mirror. J.J. realized he had the power to undo everything. He jumped in the open passenger door, closing it as he slid to the driver’s seat. “I’ll just move this out of the street,” he said to no one.
Dee snapped her head toward him when she heard the engine turn. The truck needed a muffler. J.J. put the car into reverse and stepped on the gas. At that moment, a police car driving south on Peabody slowed. “He stealing my truck,” Dee said, stepping into the street. J.J. motioned through the windshield that he was just moving it, but she didn’t understand. At some point during the commotion, Keisha had walked back toward them. J.J. saw that she was yelling at the officers, at him, along with Dee. The police car turned onto their street. One of the officers put on the cruiser’s lights.
At the sight of the blue lights, J.J. felt safe, and the tension he’d been holding in his shoulders drained from him. He knew he’d made the right decision to move the car, and he fully expected the officers to take charge of the situation. His street would remain a safe place. The boys in the sedan sat up straighter and pulled the hoods off their heads. The two women stood close to each other but did not touch. When the truck was parallel to the curb, J.J. cut the engine and moved his hand toward the door handle. Out of habit he pocketed the keys. They slid heavily to the bottom of his long pockets, feeling cold against his thigh.
He reached for the thin, metal handle of the truck’s door. As he opened it, he heard the electronic hiss of the speaker, and then, “Stay in your vehicle.” The megaphone distorted the officer’s voice. He saw Keisha recoil at the instruction. Dee reached out and touched the tips of her fingers to her girlfriend’s. J.J. felt less safe.
For several minutes the street remained still. The officers appeared to be talking to each other and occasionally reaching down and speaking into their radio. J.J. guessed they were running the license plates. He wanted to be back inside his house. He’d called the police before, and always he watched scenes like this unfold from the windows of his home office. Often, after the commotion dispersed, the officers would knock on his door, and he’d offer them a soda or water while they explained how they had made his street safer. J.J. liked to relate these stories to his family at the dinner table, retelling what the officers had said tohim about outstanding warrants or truancy.
At last, one of the officers stepped from the car. He held a clipboard in one hand and kept the other over his utility belt. He moved toward the sedan. J.J.’s heart thumped and he again heard the click of a playing card against spokes.
Keisha, who was still barefoot, ran toward the officer like a greyhound released from its gate. “They not the problem. You got to get him. He stealing our car. He stealing it,” she said pointing toward the truck.
Remembering this moment, J.J. told his wife that contrary to what he’d always heard, time didn’t slow. For him, it sped up. At the same time that the officer turned his head toward J.J., one of the passengers from the sedan opened the rear door and took off running through the yards’ of J.J.’s neighbors. Like dominoes falling, dogs started barking as the man ran from one house to another. The officer who’d still been in the patrol car jumped out and gave chase. The other officer talked quietly with Dee, who was gesturing wildly. Keisha stood behind her, stroking her lover’s back with her long nails. No one watched J.J. His legs twitched, and the smell of his own sweat filled the car. He looked over his shoulder and again at the officer talking to the two women, and then he slid out of the car.
He should’ve gone to his own home, away from the conflict, but he felt the heavy set of keys bump his thigh. Closing the distance between himself and the officer, he considered how he should explain why he was moving the truck. Keisha saw him first and let out a squeal that sounded like a puppy being kicked. The officer dropped the clipboard, and his hovering hand landed on the butt of his gun. Dee grabbed Keisha by the arm and crouched with her on the ground. J.J. knew if he could just show them the keys, he could explain his actions. He put his hand in his pocket and too late realized that officer was shouting at him to raise his hands.
The gun, which had been pointed at an angle toward the ground, was now trained on J.J.’s torso. He saw the cop’s pupils dilate and his jaw tense. J.J. moved to throw his hands into the air, but the keys were tangled in the soft fleece of his pocket, and he had to pull at it twice to free his hand. The keys tumbled from his pocket. The officer shot him in the shoulder as he reached his second hand toward the sky.
On his way to the hospital, J.J. thought about his wife, Sheila. Once or twice a year she developed adolescent-like crushes on men that she came into contact with at work. The first year they were married it had been a pharmaceutical salesmen. She’d never told him this, but he’d figured it out by listening to her conversations with girlfriends and from the attitude change she’d had toward her job.
When she had a crush, she lingered at work, started new exercise regimes, and purchased expensive cosmetics. She smelled good when she left in the morning and at night started initiating sex. The first time this happened, he’d worried about it, even—and he was ashamed of this—taken to spying on her to make sure she was out to dinner with friends or visiting her sister for the weekend. He went so far as to casually confront the pharma rep, Doug, one afternoon after the guy had bought lunch for the burn unit where his wife worked. The guy hadn’t even really known who Sheila was—not until J.J. showed him the picture he kept of her in his wallet.
“That’s a cute woman you got there,” the guy had said as he brushed lint off the cuff of his sports jacket before getting into his low-slung, yellow car.
“She’s goddamn beautiful and sexy as hell,” J.J. said to the taillights of the car.
After that, J.J. hadn’t worried about his wife’s crushes. In fact, he’d come to enjoy them and only let it bother him a little bit when at night she climbed on top of him and moaned, that behind her closed eyes she was picturing some other guy’s face. Cupping his wife’s ass, he would try to imagine Megan Fox, but he liked to make love with his eyes open, and what kept him excited was the swell of his wife’s hips and the way she bit her bottom lip when she was close to orgasm.
He didn’t know who Sheila had a crush on now. He only knew that a few weeks ago she’d started taking a yoga class at the community college and brought home a seventy-five-dollar bra that made her look like she had the breasts of a twenty-year-old. He’d been waiting to enjoy the spoils of this infatuation in the bedroom, but she’d spent the last few weeks teasing him, telling him she wanted to do everything but sleep together. He couldn’t figure what she was after. It’ll be so much naughtier when we finally do it, Sheila had said the night before.
Several officers and a lawyer affiliated with the police department filtered in and out of the room, asking him questions about the incident. In between their queries, he tried to explain to his wife what had happened. Instead of telling her about the commotion and getting shot, he kept returning to the women.
“They were really in love,” he said to Sheila.
“I don’t understand what you thought you were doing,” she said.
“Do you know how it is, when the love is new? They were like that, in love.” J.J. saw that his wife had tied her hair back with a cheap rubber band.
“You said that already.”
He said, “I know, but I didn’t get that at first, I just thought they were playing a part, you know? Like on Maury when the one who’s being cheated on comes out swinging and hollering. It’s what you’re expected to do. That’s what I thought was going on.”
Sheila shook her head. “I don’t understand how you got shot.”
“I’m lucky,” he said, thinking of all the other places he could have been shot.
“I told you before not everyone dies of a gunshot. You’ll still have to be on heavy antibiotics, but I can do that at home. Watch for infection.”
“I’ll be fine,” J.J. said. “I wonder what’ll happen to them.”
“They’ll grow up. Grow into themselves. Right now they’re just kids. We were all like that when we were young. In a few years it will be our own children falling so deeply in love they can’t climb out on their own.”
“I never loved anyone before you,” J.J. said. He’d wanted to tell his wife that he would never love anyone else, but he swallowed the words before they could escape. He knew, because he’d known his wife since she was seventeen, that she didn’t want to hear this from him.
“Sure you did. There was that girl from your science class. What was her name? Laurel? Holly?” Sheila rubbed the skin around her eyes. Now that the makeup had been rubbed off, he could see the delicate web of lines around them.
J.J. knew his wife wanted him to agree with her. But he’d been shot, and even though he hadn’t come close to dying, he would in later years describe the accident as a near-death experience, an event that clarified his thinking, made him realize he’d been wrong to indulge his wife’s infatuations. “I never loved her. She was in love with me.”
A familiar shrillness entered her voice. “Same difference.”
“No. That’s what I was trying to tell you about the women. They protected each other when the real trouble started. The disagreement, the earlier fight. That was all forgotten as fast as a heartbeat,” J.J. paused for a moment, reaching to tuck one of the curls that had escaped from her ponytail behind her ear. “The fight was all for show. They were both trying to say how much they loved each other but it came out all wrong until—”
“You got shot,” Sheila finished for him. She picked up his hand and held it in both of hers. “I wish you’d stayed inside.”
“Me, too.” J.J. looked up at the muted television. Jeopardy questions flashed across the screen. “Who has our kids?”
“The Sutters. Jim said he’d pick them up from school and let them spend the night. They’re too excited about sleeping over on a school night to be worried about you.”
“You talked to Jim? Not Kelli?”
“Mmmm huh,” she said.
It was an unwritten rule in their social circle that the wives spoke to wives and husbands to husbands. “When did you talk to him? I thought Jim would be at work.”
“He’s actually here. He works on contract now for the administration. Something about upgrading the hospital’s intranet. Anyway, we’ve been having lunch together occasionally. He was here when the girls called up from the emergency room to tell me you were coming in.”
Her voice was flat, and at the end of her explanation, she shrugged. J.J.’s stomach knotted up. There was a long silence between them. J.J. pictured Jim having lunch with Sheila, pictured his friend looking at the “V” in the neck of her scrubs, where her breasts were visible—lifted, as if by two hands, by that ridiculously expensive bra.
“Circle K,” Sheila said.
J.J. looked up at the television and realized she was playing along with the game show.
Again, he felt the nagging thought of what could have been. The bullet might have hit his collarbone, or that artery in his neck that made blood spurt like a fountain. It easily could have hit his heart or one of his lungs. Sheila hadn’t acknowledged any of these possibilities.
“7-Eleven. No. Wait. Plaid Pantry,” she said to the soundless television.
“I could have died,” J.J. said.
She didn’t take her eyes from the screen.
“I almost died,” J.J. said.
“Before I met you, I fell in love with a boy who died.”
He hadn’t known this about his wife. He knew about the boy. He’d been a friend of Sheila’s brother, and the story of his drowning was known, even years after it had happened. J.J. thought people brought it up for the same reason Catholics make the sign of the Cross—as an acknowledgment of forces greater than the self.
“That was a long time ago,” J.J. said. “You were a child.”
“I was fourteen. Nobody knew about us, and when he died, I couldn’t tell anyone. I know I should be more upset that you were shot. I should be terrified that I’ll lose you. My first thought, when I heard, was about the kids, about how hard it would be for them.”
J.J. felt sick. “I thought we were doing okay.”
Sheila refused to look at him. He put his hand to her chin and turned her face toward him. She tried to smile. “I thought we were, too.”
“But we’re not. Are we?” J.J. asked.
A nurse came in the room. She put her hand lightly on Sheila’s back and then gave J.J. pills and water. “You’re a lucky guy. Cops usually end up shooting folks in the torso. It’s all their training—the targets never have arms or legs,” she said, turning her back to them to change J.J.’s IV bag. He felt a rush of coolness enter his vein as the solution made its way down the plastic tubing. “Still, knowing that you belong to Sheila, we would have saved you anyway.”
The nurse was in the room for what seemed like hours. She talked quietly with his wife at the door to the room. J.J. thought about the way that Dee and Keisha touched in the back of the police cruiser that had shown up after the shooting. He thought about the boy his wife had loved, the secret that she’d kept from everyone, and wondered what it would have felt like to grieve in isolation. He reached for the metal basin they’d given him and retched.
The nurse rushed to his side and wiped his mouth with the waxy edge of his hospital gown. “That’s the pain medication. Sometimes it comes on too strong.”
From behind her, Sheila said, “I’ve got this.”
The nurse hugged her as she left the room.
J.J. watched his wife empty his vomit into the sink in the corner of the room. She kept her back to him, and he wondered if she was crying. “Do I?” he asked.
“Do you what?” Sheila said, turning off the water.
“Belong to you?” He choked the words out between his own sobs.
“Nobody belongs to anyone,” his wife said.
“I shouldn’t be here,” J.J. said, beating his legs with his fists.
She moved to the bed and held him while he cried. She whispered words that he couldn’t hear over his heart pounding in his chest. He wanted to believe that when he came home from the hospital, they would try making love with the lights on and their eyes open.