Jean-Pierre had been an engineer of Swiss watches. He had retired at forty-five after a very successful, brief career of twenty-two years. The thing on his arm looked like an aqualung. It weighed enough to make him feel it resisting his movements. Its face was extra thick, and the chunky bezel shone like a chrome grille. He had puzzled out its inner intricacies himself; he had made it as complicated as he could do. That had been his goal: the most complicated watch I can make—for no other reason than that. Just to do it.
As a child, Jean-Pierre had visited his Swiss grandparents twice a year. His American grandparents had died in an elevator fire before he had gotten to know them. He remotely remembered their faces but whether from sight or a photo was impossible to remember. He hated American sports. He liked shooting trap and playing pétanque. His attitude had not endeared him to his classmates. He had no friends in school and had often said that, anyway, he did not want any. When forced to play sports he excelled. He was stronger than almost every boy but not large. His body was compact, his limbs efficiently arrayed. Girls had liked him until he talked. His voice scared them away.
Although he had mentored a long string of apprentices over his twenty-two years as a horologist, Jean-Pierre had no friends.
He and his Swiss wife had met at a Jung conference while studying at the Institute. By then he was working in Geneva, traveling between Geneva and home in the Great Smoky Mountains, his house a complex that bore into a big rock—through which ran a mountain spring—and sprung above the water to a height of three stories, connected over a branch of creek by a glass tunnel, before descending two stepped stories, the final descent escaliered askew so that one arrived at streamside at the driveway, somehow uphill.
Once upon a time his father had sundered his life. He had a friend, a Little Michael, whom he visited but once for an enchanted weekend, with whom he had an almost mystical connection, and for whose continuing comradeship he had erected enormous expectations.
They had ridden Michael’s mini motorbike to the watershed lake, a body of water over which lay a primordial hush, broken—but enhanced—by the crying of a lone loon, and played at building imperial cities out of Lincoln Logs, ate honey and rye bread given them by Michael’s angelically Semitic mother (she had the most perfectly symmetrical aquiline nose and arch, ebony-crescent eyebrows that always registered humorous delight); and generally everything about his brief friendship with Michael seemed in the nature of something ineluctably ordained by the gods of fraternity, and irreplaceable, a once-in-a-lifetime benison. When his dad had uprooted the family to move from the finger lakes to the suburbs, the spell had been broken and never recovered.
Jean-Pierre switched on the engine. He clicked in his seatbelt. He adjusted the rearview. He adjusted the side view. He switched off the engine. He opened the glove compartment, fingered under the dark chunky pistol and removed a plastic sleeve containing a chamois cloth. He unlatched the seatbelt and got out of the Land Rover and wiped pollen from the windshield. He flicked the cloth and wiped again. He walked to the other side and wiped the windshield and popped the cloth then wiped again. He rapidly and repeatedly snapped the fingers of his left hand as he was walking around the car. He stopped at each window and wiped clear the pollen dust which began immediately accumulating again. Jean-Pierre sneezed twice violently in rapid succession in response to seeing the pollen wafting in the air.
While getting into the SUV, he saw the grocery list lying on the center console. Twenty-one items written in his wife’s neat, transatlantic hand on the buff card. Jean-Pierre preferred the card to Post-its because it did not easily fold and could be erased and reused several times. He lifted the card while settling into the seat, scanning items. As usual, his wife had put items in the order that he would encounter them from entry to checkout so that his shopping experience should be one smooth, unbroken arc.
As Jean-Pierre pulled into the parking lot of Whole Foods, a cloud of pollen like a murmuration of starlings gyred overhead and dashed on the cars like snow. He could not believe his eyes. “I cannot believe mine eyes full of pies Jesus Haich, can you relate,” he said. “Jesus and Joseph and Catherine de Medici, I bless the blessed canaries of the Marys,” he pronounced. He watched a car drive out, leaving a shadow on the asphalt like the bomb shadows on buildings and rocks at Hiroshima.
“Those poor allergic sumbitches are totally hating it right now,” he verbalized. He forgot all about the revolver for half a minute. He looked at his watch. He lifted his iPhone from the center console and read the time. He read the time on the dash display. “Perfect platinum-iridium synchronization,” he said, although meaningless.
“Meaningless phrases flake my psyche like pollen this cerulean vista overhead, he said,” he said. “Non sequiturs sequin my head like bed bugs redshift a bedshift on a bed,” he said. Jean-Pierre iterated and reiterated as he witnessed more pollen puff from the cornice of the grocery store then lob onto several parked autos.
He got out of the vehicle then reached back in and took the pistol from the glove box and put it in his rear waistband and dropped his denim button shirt, which went untucked, over it. As he left the private silence of his vehicle, the compulsion to rhyme phrases vanished.
Jean-Pierre came to the entrance and proceeded from there to collect his items in sequence: dill, lemons, lettuce, soppressata, gruyere, gravlax (a special-ordered item), not-too-bad parbaked baguette, cornichons, English mustard, Marmite, vinegar, biscuits, sultanas, rice cakes, muesli, PG tips and Eight O’Clock beans, eggs, buttermilk, milk, and yogurt. Baguette at the deli.
All the while he was walking about, he didn’t have the urge to clang; although, he did not voluntarily inhibit this. He was not in on the government of his tongue. It was a disease, like his alcoholism, and it only occurred in isolation.
Having been a regular here for years, this being a tiny town, he ran into many familiar faces, both with and without names attached. He smiled a straight smile while they glided by. Or he exchanged staunch salutations when they hesitated at his cart fender. He had espied Lonnie hying through the wine toward the frosty beer cave as Jean-Pierre had passed, watched him clunk with guilt when recognized, signal defeat with a penitent wave and disappear within. There he goes again, Jean-Pierre was thinking, that’s the fourth or fifth time he’s gone out this year.
Jean-Pierre passed over to the next aisle and left Lonnie in the lurch. He’d been taught, “If you can’t help them up, help them down.” Easy for Jean-Pierre, for he had never been the helping kind; it was always hard for him: giving a fuck.
“Jesus,” said Jean-Pierre, when the clerk told him the price of the gravlax.
He spoke reproachfully to the cashier, to whom he had often brought his custom, a middle-aged, pearish pinebark-colored woman with tight, curly black hair about two inches thick and large square frog glasses. She wore a pink and white, horizontally striped polo shirt and khakis. She said, “How you today?”
“Okay, I guess.” Jean-Pierre never made small talk with cashiers or service people, but he had become accustomed to seeing this lady bi-monthly for two years.
She began scanning his items. Doot…doot…doot…doot….
“You mean to tell me this little pink flag of fish is going to cost me fifty dollars?”
“Fifty-one twenty-five. Same as always. (She splayed her long elegant fingers over the package of fish.) You order this, what, every couple uh months, and it’s always fifty-one twenty-five. You surprised this time?”
“No, no. I’m not surprised,” he whisper-hissed “Smart ass——”
“What that? … Hunh: You havin a bad day,” she informed him.
“I’m not having a bad day—Shit.” Jean-Pierre exhaled through a little hole made by pursing his straight lips. It made a little omni-directional burst, like an anus, of the tight skin.
“Hey, I’m sorry for being an asshole, but … Not, but—I’m sorry. Just that—sorry.”
“It’s okay. Bad day?”
“Not really … just a day. Sorry.”
“We all goin through somethin. We always is.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” said Jean-Pierre.
“My daughter done got arrested last week for a DWI—You think we ain’t goin through it?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Been there, several times.”
“You done been arrested for DWI several times?”
“I’ve been arrested for it many times, convicted twice. Always had money for a good lawyer.”
“Money talks and bullshit walks.”
“That’s what they say.”
“But I know you got kids. How you do that?”
Now it was his turn to be a smart ass: “What, you don’t know how kids are made? How’d you get a daughter?”
“Honey, I got seven kids and my kids has got kids. I been a grandmother ten years.”
“No shit. I guess we’re about the same age. My kids are both ten now.”
“That’s how. That’s how you folks with money does it: Wait! Oh, Lord, I wish I done waited now. Maybe I still have my waist!”
They both burst out laughing, Jean-Pierre looked like he was about to cry laughing—to die laughing. He had not laughed in months. The cashier looked alarmed.
“Damn, Honey! I guess you needed that.”
Jean-Pierre was still laughing and could not get his breath for half a minute.
“Whoooo,” he sounded off. “Damn,” he could not stop yet. “Holy…” … “Almost done, whew, God!”
He felt drained and tired.
“Yes, sir, you needed that. You need to tell that skinny wife of yours yall need a clean-up day every now and then. You tell her that.”
“What’s a clean-up day?”
She smiled and said, “You jes think about it awhile. I ain’t tellin if you don’t know.”
Jean-Pierre blushed. He was too drained from laughing to blush, but he blushed.
“Hey Jean-Pierre! Wassup baby? You looking good as usual. Shopping for the fam? I’m just doin the wrong thing again, man, but you know how it is.”
Lonnie put on a bold front, but those deliquescent eyes would not let him hide his distress at having been witnessed doing what they both knew would kill him, eventually, if he did not stop altogether. His shame was one hundred percent his. Jean-Pierre knew wherefore Lonnie suffered, for he had suffered the same. The man simply was not ready to give up and surrender—no shame in that.
“Shit, Lonnie, you know it isn’t any business of mine what you do. But, hear me—but,” Jean-Pierre leaned in closer to Lonnie, “if you ever want to do something about it (pointing the case), you know where to find me. You have my phone number, right? Call me anytime. You don’t need an excuse to call; just to say hello is good enough.”
The cashier interrupted the reunion with a price quote for Lonnie’s groceries, and Jean-Pierre said his goodbyes to both and walked out into the allergenic swelter and tilted his Ray-Bans down over his eyes and made his heavy way, with the cartload of victuals, to the heat-radiant, mirage-making Land Rover.
Jean-Pierre went through his rituals with the chamois cloth (having deposited the gun in the glovebox before taking up the plastic packet holding the cloth), the popping and switching and finger snapping, wiping down the windows of the SUV all around. He put on his seat belt, took out the card and put it in the center console. He switched on the Land Rover. After a moment a sultry female voice announced her complicity by saying “Paired” and Jean-Pierre called Anna-Claire.
“Did they have the salmon?” she asked sans salut.
“They did. It was over fifty bucks too!”
“It always is. Did you get the English mustard?”
“I got everything but the ice cream. We’ll make some. I have everything to do it at home. The kids might enjoy it again. They really had fun last time, and you remember, they said it was better than Breyer’s.”
“Well, are you coming straight home?”
“Straight home. Why, do you need anything else?”
“Dry cleaning. They called; it’s done.”
“I’ll get it. Anything else you can think of?”
“Shit. Right, I forgot last time. What, double A? Why don’t I get those tomorrow at Ross in Morganton when I take Ross to the ball game. I want to pick up some hedge snips there too. Todd told me Ross has them for a decent price.”
“Right. Are you coming straight home, then?”
“Stopping for gas, then I’ll be right there. See you in half an hour. Love you.”
“Love you too, mon cher.”
Jean-Pierre fingered a knurled plastic toggle and the driver window came down. The tension he had felt to clang receded somewhere, he imagined, at the base of his skull, down the brainstem and along the spinal cord. Like mercury in a thermometer, the clangor energy sort of bobbed there below his neck, waiting for his isolation to be complete again to rise and balloon into full orchestration.
He watched a gust lift pollen off the cornice, then, as abruptly, capriciously abandon it to drop for a second before resuming its hold, then drift it down—the pollen (and its invisible interlocutor) wafting this way and that without rhyme or reason (to the season to the season, his spine whispered up to his brain)—and skid the stuff a flat foot over the tarmac before dropping it dead, the desiccated jetsam of the pines. Jean-Pierre wanted to vomit and felt that he was on the cusp of retching.
He checked his belt and pulled out of his space and turned left and then right into the lane that exits the lot, but when he got to the corner of the store he turned left again and drove around the back of the store past the grocery, behind Big Lots, and continued to the far corner, past the head shop and the Chinese takeout, behind the last dumpster, pulling the Land Rover’s nose close to a retaining wall.
He opened the glovebox and took out the pistol, “The glovebox revolver, a real problem solver he said, in the head,” he said.
He checked to confirm that there was a round in the cylinder; though there must be one there—the same one he’d loaded into the chamber two Septembers ago when the idea had come to him.
In the glove compartment was a plastic case for a mouthguard, like boxers and batters wear (“Mad hatters and adder matters under ladders!”), and he took it out. He had hated the sharp pressure of the hard, cold steel clacking between his shuddery teeth, so he’d used his son’s mouthguard after his first round. He removed the mouthguard from the case and inserted it in his mouth. “Woored, no weegred, ee shed, ee shed, wife om wife sherms,” he said. He took up the revolver, spun the cylinder and put the barrel between his protected teeth.
He pulled the trigger and it went click for something like the tenth time in over two years.
He laid down the pistol and took the mouth guard from his mouth and wiped it with a paper napkin and put napkin and guard in the case and the case in the glovebox. He opened the cylinder and held the gun up to his shaded face—his Ray-Bans still in position—and looked at the pin-dented shell.
“Sheesh, that’s a close’un bosun. That one almost cost ya lost ya the toss up boss pup. Whatcha do now is holy cow pal go to the gal and sock it to her really screw her brewer. Incredulous jealous Elvis pelvis with a chance dance till you drop pop go pop and you don’t stop.”
He put down his window. He would get a new round when he was home alone. He drove by a dumpster and tossed the dud through the open door and heard the dead clang as it hit the bottom. Jean-Pierre turned right and right again onto the loop that would carry him past the church.
Instead of passing it, he turned left into the church lot, made a circle and returned the way he’d come. He’d forgotten the dry cleaning; the cleaners were back the other way. What a drag.