I have been in a wheelchair since the car accident that killed my best friend Pete when I was sixteen, but the reason that I can’t use my right arm is because I fought a duel over a lady.
It was a question of honor. We used .357 magnum revolvers at 50 paces.
It all started when I moved to New York City from Austin, Texas. I moved to New York because my career had reached a dead end in Austin.
Even though I got a full scholarship to the University of Texas on account of my twisted legs, I never went to college. Instead, I became a professional welder. I specialized in making fancy fixtures for urban rooftop gardens. You know: fancy gates, fancy weathervanes, fancy sculptures shaped like fancy mastiffs that you can fill up with fancy English ivy.
The best thing I ever made was a giant wire sculpture of a bull that I welded on top of two mesquite trees in the Chihuahuan Desert. One mesquite tree is growing through the bull’s head and the other tree is growing through the bull’s heart.
It took me four months to build the bull, and I had to roll home to my trailer every night and fill a washtub with peroxide and kerosene to clean all the bleeding cuts on my arms and face. Mesquite trees have thorns the size of pinky fingers.
Though the bull is out in the middle of nowhere, I’m glad its there. I can shut my eyes and see it any time I want.
When I stopped being able to find work in Austin, I didn’t give up trying to be a welder. Instead, I decided to move onward and upward. There are all kinds of ways to build money trenches toward your pockets. You can build money trenches out of cunning, out of violence, and out of luck. You can even build money trenches out of pig iron and acetylene.
When I first got to New York City, Belinda was my first real friend. She was my next door neighbor in the Brooklyn apartment where I found myself living. Everybody in the building was Section 8 for disability or mental illness, but Belinda and I got along great from our very first conversation. When I told her about my bull sculpture out in the desert, she told me that it was my secret soul and that I had hidden it away so that no one could touch it.
Belinda was also the only other person in the whole apartment building that wasn’t from the Midwest. She was from some coastal New Jersey town named Napsack or Hatcrack or something like that. Everybody thought it was hilarious that it took me so long to figure out that Belinda had been born a man.
It wasn’t that I was attracted to her. She wasn’t my type at all. Too tall, too big-boned, and too classy. I like short redheads who have big white teeth and who like guys in wheelchairs.
But I liked Belinda anyway. She brought out the gentleman in me, and all these damn Midwesterners thought this was just so fucking funny. I opened doors for her. I picked up her mail and caught rats and bugs for her and took them to the dumpster. And why not? We got along because she was nice as hell. Truly nice -- not just pretending to be nice. Maybe she had wasted all of her “pretend energy” on pretending to be a man for so long.
When I finally did discover that Belinda had originally been born a man named Jacob Bell, it didn’t change my opinion of her at all. I still wasn’t attracted to her, but she was already a woman to me and so she always would be.
It was more than that.
She was a lady.
We really became friends one night when the whole apartment decided to have a party on our rooftop. I was excited. The whole reason I was in New York was because of the rooftops.
I got pretty drunk and Belinda kept me company when I started to get homesick. She was an interior decorator and she lifted my spirits by telling me stories about all of the wild parties that she had been to in the city.
“They probably wouldn’t let me into any parties like that,” I said.
“Oh, don’t be so down on yourself,” said Belinda. “You are perhaps unrefined, but you are not without charm.”
“Naw,” I said. “If I want to make money here, I’d better keep my head down. Let my work speak for itself.”
“Then you will miss all the fun,” said Belinda. “And, my darling, fun is the point.”
“Straight people can’t have fun anywhere anymore,” I said. “And you know what? It makes sense to me. Ya’ll deserve to have more fun and more sex than us, because ya’ll don’t have any rights. We deserve our fucked-up loneliness because we are all pieces of shit for keeping your rights from you. I get it, you know? Ya’ll are holding sex and good times hostage. That just makes sense. I can’t wait till ya’ll can get married, adopt children, rent carpet shampooers, and coach Little League baseball. Whatever you want! Then ya’ll will give us back our good times and – shit – that’ll be heaven on earth until we drop the first crop of ‘revolution babies’ and they turn out to be fucked-up puritans.”
Belinda looked at me as if I had tried to feel her up or something. Her hand went limp and she spilled her martini all over the rooftop. I blinked, going over what I had just said; trying to hear it the way Belinda must have heard it.
“Hey listen…” I started. But before I could say anything, Belinda was laughing her head off, clutching my thigh as if it was the safety bar on a rollercoaster.
Belinda and I were best pals after that.
She let me say anything I wanted without judging me. In return, I taught her all about Texas, sculpture, and plants. She said that I reminded her of people back in Jersey. I was just glad to be around somebody who didn’t care if I spit and swore.
Belinda was easily the most socially graceful lady that I have ever met, but she did have one colossal weakness.
Her weakness was named Smasha and she played drums in an all-female indie rock band called The Doolers.
Smasha was a native New Yorker and had gone to some expensive New England private college, but she had dropped out to pursue drugs, anger, and her music career. She was tall, skinny as a knife, and she never smiled. She wore cat-eye glasses and she had long black hair, but she wore it in two buns like bug eyes on either side of her head. She would stick her drumsticks in her hair when she wasn’t using them.
Belinda said that Smasha hated me because I always wore a belt, which I didn’t even bother trying to understand. Lots of people only liked me because I was in a wheelchair, but it was rare that people hated me for no good reason.
Since Belinda lived next door to me, I could hear her have a huge fight with Smasha at least once a week. Smasha would roll in drunk as a judge at five o’clock in the morning and demand the dirtiest, meanest sex from Belinda. At first Belinda would put up a fight about it, but then she would always give in. They would spend a few good days together, but then they would have another big fight and Smasha would leave again, usually after breaking one of Belinda’s priceless antiques.
One day, when I went to Belinda’s apartment to entertain her after one of Smasha’s tantrums, Belinda was particularly wrecked-up. She was sitting at her kitchen table, smoking menthol cigarettes and staring at her knuckles as if there was something wrong with them.
“I swear,” I said. “I think I figured out you ladies today.”
“Oh yeah?” said Belinda, not looking at me. I noticed there was a healthy bruise on her cheekbone, and I also saw that her fish tank had been smashed and that all her fish were dead, lying on the floor in damp spots.
“I figured it all out,” I said, rolling over to each of her dead fish and collecting them in one of her coffee mugs. “I was on the subway and this beautiful woman got on. Svelte, vivacious, great figure, great skin. Every dude on that train sat up a little straighter and his eyes lit up. The woman was so uninterested in us that it was like she was mad at us for recognizing that she was so beautiful. She had the hardest time finding a place to look where she wasn’t accidentally looking at a dude and making him think he had a shot with her. Finally, she just closed her eyes and leaned against the door.”
“Anyway, at the next stop, the doors opened up and this other lady got in pushing a baby stroller. Right then was when the woman woke up and got interested. She stared at the baby boy in that stroller with total lust. And that’s when I figured it out. You women are all pedophiles! You are sexually attracted to children! You look at a cute little baby and your tits start to twitch and you want to take that baby home with you and do obscene things to it. It’s as biological as an erection. And the sickest thing is that the subway ride will be the last time that a woman looks at that baby boy with total lust in his entire life. He will always be trying to recapture that glory.”
The whole time I was talking, Belinda just stared at her hands and smoked her cigarette. I couldn’t make her smile. I sat down across from her and sighed.
“She’s no good for you,” I said. “She’s doing you wrong.”
“She’s not coming back,” said Belinda. “She’s really not coming back this time. The rest of her band found out about us. They were going to kick her out, unless she agreed not to see me anymore.”
“Why? What in the hell for?”
“Lesbians hate trannies,” said Belinda.
I didn’t know what to say about this. It reminded me of how people back home used to talk about Mexicans. Like it was nature, and I was just too dumb to understand nature.
“Listen,” I said. “You don’t need her bullshit. There are so many foxy ladies all over this town. And you know how to talk to them. I’ve seen you. You know what they want. You are a civilized companion for civilized events in a civilized world.”
Belinda smiled at me and thanked me for caring. I tried to care even harder. I made waffles and we drank white wine. But it didn’t work.
A week later Belinda was in the hospital with irreversible brain damage from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The cops found her in her bed, dressed only in a fishnet body stocking and clutching a copy of “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” We all heard the shot.
There was some question about whether or not she had done it herself, but there was a twenty-page typewritten note with personal apologies to all of her friends and loved ones on her kitchen table.
I didn’t make it into the note, but I wasn’t offended. We hadn’t known each other for very long. And she hadn’t done a damn thing to me to apologize about.
Three weeks after she tried to kill herself, Belinda was released to a nursing home upstate. The bullet left her blind and unable to form sentences. She couldn’t focus on tasks for more than a few moments or remember her old life. I went to go visit her, but it was too hard. She didn’t recognize me. She tried to fight me and then she had a seizure, bucking on the ground and drooling out of both sides of her mouth while nursing home attendants swarmed around her.
The worst part was that they put her in with all the men.
I tried to get her friends organized to fight this and get her put where she belonged. We did good, at first. We even got an article in the Village Voice. But people are busy up north, and it wasn’t long before her friends lost interest and went on to other projects.
There wasn’t really much we could do. The nursing home was run by the state and, according to the state, Belinda had been legally insane even before she tried to take her own life.
Finding Smasha wasn’t hard. I went to the club where The Doolers played on Friday nights. They put me in the front row because of my wheelchair. No matter how hard I eyeballed her, Smasha ignored me, either keeping her eyes shut or looking slightly to the left of me. I’m used to that.
After the show, I waited for her in the alley behind the club. It was snowing and I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold. I caught her as she was humping her drum kit to a cab. She spun on me, pulling her drum sticks out of her hair and squaring up.
“What the fuck do you want?” she asked. “You want to fight me? I’ll fight you right here. You think I give a shit that you can’t walk?”
“Now good lord,” I said. “Be civil. I just wanted to look you in the eye to see what I could see.”
“You fucking hick.”
“You know what you did,” I said. “I just want to make sure you are suffering for it in your heart.”
“I didn’t make that bitch shoot herself,” said Smasha.
I stared at Smasha until she looked away. She wiped her nose, sniffled, and then spat at the wheels of my chair.
“It’s funny,” I said. “Your band is called The Doolers and that’s just what I want to do right now.”
“If you want to fight, let’s fucking fight,” she said. “I’ll break your fucking head open. My girls and I will destroy you.”
“I’ve seen how people fight in this city,” I said. “There’s no honor in it. It is gang on gang. First of all, I don’t have a gang. Were you afraid that people would find out about you and Belinda and stop coming to your shows?”
“Shut the fuck up,” she said. “You don’t know anything about me and Belinda.”
“You are right,” I said. “But I accept your challenge anyway.”
I wheeled closer to her, crushing a Styrofoam cup.
“I know how you feel right now,” I said. “That feeling when you try to look me in the eyes and you can’t? That feeling is called shame. I know exactly how to get rid of it. I accept your challenge. I know how you can sleep again at night.”
“How?” whispered Smasha. Her eyes were turning red and her face was twisted into a child’s petulant frown.
“Pistols,” I said. “At dawn.”
“You hick gimp motherfucker,” said Smasha. “You imperialist, belt-wearing, whip-cracker cobag.”
“Colostomy bag,” she explained. “Like what all cripples use. So where do you want to do this? Brooklyn?”
“Not here,” I said. “Belinda told me that your band is going to play at the “South by Southwest” music festival in March.”
“Yeah,” said Smasha. “We’ll be in Austin for one weekend. They are paying us ten grand.”
“I don’t care for your band very much,” I said. “There are four kinds of artists in the world. There are the geniuses. They don’t make very good art, because everything they make is new and therefore they can’t tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea. Then there are the hard-workers. They kill themselves to squeeze something out that is worthwhile. They make good art, but they have terrible lives. Then there are the thieves. These guys either steal from the geniuses, who may not know they have something good, or they copy the hard-workers and turn it into a formula. Most famous people are thieves. And then there are guys like you. People who copy the copycats.”
“That’s enough,” she said. “So you want to do this in Texas?”
“I will meet you there. I will set everything up. Texas is the only place where we can have a proper duel and where we will both be able to trust that everything will be fair.”
“Fine,” she said. “Fine! Fine, then. You think I am scared of Texas? I will see you in Texas, motherfucker.”
I smiled at her as she walked to her cab. She turned around once and seemed like she was going to say something. Instead, she spit at me again. This time, she hit me right in my cheekbone. As her cab drove away, I wiped Smasha’s spit off my face with a receipt from my pocket.
I bought a plane ticket that night.
Six weeks later, just as it was starting to get hot in Texas, I was sitting in Austin with my two oldest friends: Jaime “Goose” Guzman and Bill Shallows, Esquire.
If you leave Texas for one day and then you come back, you get shit for it. I had been gone for almost an entire year. We sat together at a backyard table at the Taco Shack and Bill and Jaime talked to each other as if I wasn’t there. As if they had so many secrets and stories between them that I had missed whole millennia of zany hijinx.
I knew what was coming.
Texas is a crass and horrible place. People pride themselves on being so emotionally dead that they can survive through anything, moving past traumas with a soft smile, collecting a tiny nugget of cynical wisdom to keep in their saddlebags. One of the things that Texans really like to do is gather together and tell each other the most evil things they can think up, seeing who will be the first to crack and display human emotion.
In the service of this game, nothing is sacred. In order to win, Texans will be as racist, sexist, soulless, and psychotic as possible in an attempt to make you have an emotional reaction.
If you have an emotional reaction, you lose. You show that you are out of shape, as emotionally and intellectually flabby as the ass and mind of a suburban Dallas televangelist.
I knew this game very well. I used to be pretty good at it myself. But I had become tired of it while living elsewhere. In New York, the crowds, the miserable weather, the long working hours, the high cost of all human things, and the terrible living conditions had the same effect on the soul as the constant cheerful hostility of my fellow Texans.
Texans maintained the same struggle for existence as New Yorkers by creating an architecture of deeply-oppressive speech and behavior, all dedicated toward making sensitive people feel as lonely and friendless as possible. In Texas, “life” was easy, but your soul was still constantly in dire peril -- not from stress, but from the weaponized minds of the people around you.
For instance, Bill Shallows, Esquire was a local defense attorney and my friend Goose worked as a meat inspector, making sure that animals were killed correctly in slaughterhouses and on ranches. I knew that they were both good people somewhere deep down, but I had no real evidence for this.
“Let’s cut the bullshit,” I said to both of them, rubbing my knees and staring at the three breakfast tacos laid out in front of me, swollen with good pork sausage, eggs, salsa, and shredded jack cheese. “We need to talk about something important.”
Goose and Bill Shallows looked at each other.
“New York City changed you, boy,” said Bill Shallows. “Here you come, marching down here, giving all kinds of orders, acting like we work for you. Don’t you even want to know what we’ve been doing while you’ve been out crashing the economy and doing coke with teenagers?”
“Sure,” I said wearily. “What have you been up to, Bill?”
There was no such thing as “cutting the bullshit” in Texas. In fact, the word “bullshit” came from Texas, a word meaning something ubiquitous and impossible to get rid of. In Texas, there was only “good bullshit” and “bad bullshit.”
“I’ll tell you what I’ve been up to,” said Bill Shallows, grinning at me. “I’ve been working on the damndest case I ever had. Break your heart, really. I’ve been working with this sweet retarded girl from Atascocita.”
“What kind of a case is it?” I asked.
“Well, it started as a molestation charge, if you can believe it. This poor sweet imbecile with a body like a long-haul trucker got herself molested by an in-house care worker provided to her by the state. This thing went on for years, and the state didn’t know how to prosecute when they finally found out about it because the in-house care worker was so nuts. When he got caught, he started weeping and swore up and down that he was in love with the girl. He even got the girl to say that she was in love with him, too.
“But then things took a wild turn. One afternoon, this poor sweet retarded girl is home alone and she is taking a bath. She is all curled up in the tub, nearly cracking the porcelain with her massive backside. Her hairy knees are scraping her hairy chin and she is wheezing on account of this stomach ache that she’s had for days. Well, anyway, she’s sitting there in the tub and then the water starts turning red. She starts screaming. She looks down and there’s an animal writhing around in the tub with her. She tries to toss the screeching animal out of the bathtub, but she can’t get rid of it.
“She tries to run away from it, but it seems to be chasing her, as if it is tied to her somehow. She runs outside to her backyard -- wet and naked -- and tosses the screaming creature on the grill. She squirts a bunch of lighter fluid on it and sets it on fire. Her surprise newborn baby wails like a hyena until it burns up, finally charring off the umbilical cord.
“Of course, that’s first degree murder here in Texas. Nobody likes a murderin’ mamma in this state, no matter how raped or retarded.
“But I feel like I’ll be able to get her off if I can prove that she thought the baby was a deranged weasel. The case hinges on the bites that were taken out of the baby’s thigh: were they from the family dog or were they from our big sweet feebleminded girl from Atascocita? Forensics did a jaw profile on both of them, and here’s the craziest thing of all: they were identical. A jury could go either way.”
I stared at Bill Shallows. Goose looked at the sky, smiling, trying to keep from laughing.
“Thank you for that, Bill,” I said. “Goose?”
“I’ll bet it was the dog for sure,” said Goose.
I picked up one of my breakfast tacos, folded it up at the end to keep the eggs, chorizo, and salsa from falling into my lap, and I took a big bite.
“How about you, Goose?” I asked through a mouthful of slop. “What have you been up to?”
“Just lots of problems, man,” he said.
“What kind of problems?” I said.
“Personal problems,” said Goose. “Intimate problems.”
“Are you still with Rebecca?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, man. We’re together forever.”
“Then what kind of personal problems are you having?’
“Well, they moved me to pigs,” he said. “I was on cows for so long, and then they moved me to the swine, man.”
“Well, they kill cows with a punch, you know? Pigs are different. They use these two prongs. They put each prong up against the pig’s head, right up against his temple, and then they run electricity through the pig’s brain, man. They zap the sucker. We call it “twitching” them.”
“Gruesome,” I said, licking my fingers and then reaching for my second breakfast taco.
“Yeah, man, but that’s not my personal problem,” he said.
“When you zap these pigs, man, they squeal, you know? And not only do they squeal but they arch their backs and stretch out their legs. And you know what? Pigs have human skin, man. Did you know that? And when you twitch them, their skin gets all taut and spankable. You know what I’m saying?”
“Sure,” I said.
“And then I’ve got to go home and be intimate with my lady,” he sighed. “I can’t help it, but I imagine those pigs, man, every time she has an orgasm. And it works both ways, you know? When those pigs get twitched, it gets me so hot. I’m always on edge now.”
“Sex and death have gone hand in hand since antiquity,” I said.
“Yeah, man,” said Goose. “But it’s starting to get weirder. I finally broke down and told Rebecca about it.”
He looked at me significantly.
“And she’s Jewish, you know,” he said.
“Yeah, man,” he said. “She actually got all excited about it. Way more excited than me. She went out and bought a pig nose, man. Now she wears a pig nose to bed sometimes. She pins her hair back, puts on a pig nose, and stretches out in the bed with nothing but a black scarf around her neck and high heels. Can you believe that?”
“She’s a good woman,” I said.
“Yeah, man, I know she is,” said Goose.
I leaned forward.
“Goose,” I said. “Tell me the truth. You aren’t fucking those dead pigs too, are you?”
Bill Shallows started laughing. He laughed so hard that he started to choke. We stared at him as his face turned red, wondering what would happen or if we should do anything.
He finally coughed up the bite of taco that was strangling him. Shaken, he reached for a glass of water and then drained it.
“Anyway,” I said. “The reason I brought you here for breakfast is not because I like you. It’s because I need your help in a bad way. Bill, you are a lawyer. Goose, you are a redneck sonofabitch. Tell me how you would fight a duel in this day and age.”
“What kind of a duel?” asked Goose, squinting at me.
“Any old duel,” I said. “Pistols at dawn.”
“First of all, you’d need land,” said Bill Shallows. “Land in the middle of nowhere.”
“There’s plenty of that around here,” I said.
“I’ve still got that ranch out in Caldwell,” said Goose. “That’s where I’d do it.”
“Okay, so we’ve got land,” I said. “What do we do if somebody dies?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” said Bill Shallows. “You call the game warden.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If you shoot a poacher on your land, you are supposed to call a game warden and not the cops. And if the game warden doesn’t buy it, he can be bribed. Game wardens make minimum wage. It happens all the time. You just say the loser of the duel was a poacher.”
“Sounds good to me,” I said. “So where can I get pistols for this weekend?”
Bill Shallows and Goose looked at each other and then they looked at me.
“It’s a long story,” I said.
Smasha’s bus arrived late at night on the Friday before the festival.
All three of us were waiting for her in the motel parking lot. We knew which motel The Doolers would be staying at thanks to their Facebook page. According to Facebook, they all thought the Austin Motel was just so cute and quaint and rad.
When their tour bus pulled up, we were all drinking Shiners from a cooler and eating barbecued chicken. Bill Shallows, Esquire was wearing the most ridiculous cowboy hat he could find: it was covered in spangles and Lone Star flags and it was so big that you could have worn an entirely different cowboy hat underneath it. Goose had on a serape and a bandolier and we were all smoking the most foul-smelling cigars that you could buy at HEB.
Smasha’s bandmates got out of the bus and headed for their rooms, carrying amps, instruments, and bundles of cord.
Smasha was the last one off the bus. She saw me and frowned, sucking on her bottom lip and adjusting her glasses. She stretched like a cat and then stalked over to us.
“You,” she said. “You twisted-up little asshole.”
“Hello Smasha,” I said, sitting there with a barbecued chicken thigh in one hand and a beer in the other. “Welcome to Texas.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” she said.
“We’ve already prepared everything,” I said. “The decision is really up to you. We can either do this in a couple of hours or we can wait a day and do this tomorrow morning. My friend Goose here is letting us use his ranch.”
“Listen,” she said, whispering to me through clenched rage-teeth. “What happened to Belinda wasn’t my fault. You are fucking crazy if you think I am going to let you drag me out into some field and shoot me.”
“It won’t be like that,” I said. “Bill Shallows, Esquire here is a famous Texas defense attorney, and my buddy Goose will make sure that everything goes down smoothly. You can trust these two fellows. You will need your own people, though. I suggest you bring your band with you. Or are all you brassy New York City punks just a bunch of cowards like everyone says?”
“Man, you don’t want to get me going,” she said. “I don’t care how crippled you are. I will fuck you up. I will fuck you up and leave you for the coyotes or rattlesnakes or whatever else will eat fucked-up cripple meat.”
“If you aren’t afraid to fight me, then answer the question: now or later?”
She glared at me. She glared at Bill Shallows. She glared at Goose.
“Why do you care so much?” she said. “She was nothing to you. You barely knew her. You don’t know what she was like. You don’t know what she did to me. You don’t know what we did to each other.”
“I only care for one simple reason,” I said. “For honor. The kind you read about in comic books.”
Smasha stared at the sky. Tears were streaming down her face. I leaned back in my chair, ignoring her pain, instead imagining Belinda on a cold tile floor -- bucking, drooling, and screaming -- nurses kneeling on her chest and shooting her full of drugs.
“Let’s get this over with,” said Smasha. “You think I haven’t fired guns before? You think I am afraid to hurt people? I’m not afraid. I like it.”
“Then let’s go,” I said. “If we leave now, we can make it to Goose’s ranch by sunrise with no problem.”
“I need to tell my bandmates what is going on,” she said. “They aren’t going to be happy about it. We have been driving all day. Do I have time to take a shower?”
“Not really,” I said. “We’ll finish this barbecue and then pack everything up. You can follow us or, better yet, we can all ride together.”
“We’ll follow you,” said Smasha, appalled.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s real easy to get lost on these dark Texas country roads. Plus, if we all squeeze into your tour van, maybe your bandmates will feel more in control of the situation.”
Smasha sighed, looking into the distance with an expression of pain and purpose.
“I’ll ask the girls,” she said, stalking away to the hotel room where the other Doolers were unloading their equipment.
An hour later, Bill Shallows and I were stuffed into the back of The Doolers tour bus, surrounded by a seething passel of militant lesbians. Goose rode up front with the lead singer so that he could give directions.
Bill Shallows held a heavy cherrywood box in his lap. It was lacquered to a shine and had thick silver hinges.
“What’s in the box?” Smasha asked.
“Your weapons,” said Bill Shallows. "They aren't pistols, but I think they'll get the job done." He opened the box, displaying two silver Smith & Wesson magnum revolvers embedded in blue felt. There was a red silk bag in another depression in the box, and Bill Shallows picked it up, opened the drawstrings, and poured cartridges into his hand.
Smasha lifted a gun out of the box and took a bullet from Bill’s palm. She loaded the gun in three nimble movements and sighted down the barrel.
“This will work,” she said.
“Those are some big-ass guns,” said one of the other Doolers, a skinny girl with cornrows and a shiny acne forehead. She played bass and she was the lead singer’s girlfriend. “I hate guns. No one should be allowed to have guns.”
“If we make the entire world safe for children, then that’s what we will all become,” said Bill Shallows.
“What kind of guns are they?” asked the bass player.
“.357 magnum revolvers,” said Smasha. "Antiques."
“Seems like an awful big gun for a duel,” said the bass player.
“It’s a good gun for dueling in my experience,” said Bill Shallows, holding up the other matched revolver in his left hand. His thick, gold ring from Texas A&M clanked against the trigger guard. “On account of the hydrostatic shock.”
“The what what?” said Smasha, squinting at him.
“The hydrostatic shock. If you throw bullets at someone with a gun this powerful and you hit them, the impact sends shockwaves through their body and shoots blood through their vascular system. It is like jumping on a water bed so hard that you pop it. You can hit a man in his leg and still kill him with a brain hemorrhage on account of the hydrostatic shock. You shoot a man with a gun this big and you can pop his eyeballs out on account of the blood pressure.”
“What happens when you shoot a woman?” said Smasha, smiling and pointing the gun at Bill Shallows. Bill Shallows took off his thick glasses and cleaned them with his shirt.
It was a neat trick. You can’t react to what you can’t see.
She handed him back the magnum grip-first.
“Of course, a duel isn’t just about killing your target,” said Bill Shallows, putting the revolvers back in their box and closing it. “A duel is about honor. A duel is an opportunity to satisfy your need for revenge without resorting to low tricks. A duel is an opportunity to show that you are better than the person who gave you the need for revenge in the first place. To show that you can face them head-on without fear.”
Bill Shallows twisted his Aggie ring around on his finger. I had always admired that ring and the college education that it signified.
“A duel is an opportunity to get rid of a person who needs killing while giving them a fair shot at you, but it is also an opportunity for reconciliation. It is an open-ended situation with definite goals but cosmic possibilities. You really see a person when you see them fight a duel.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” said Smasha.
She turned to me and poked me in the chest.
“If you think I won’t shoot you because of my cunt, then you are dead wrong.”
We spent the whole rest of the ride to Goose’s ranch in silence.
Bill and I looked out of the windows of the tour bus into the darkness of the country where we had both been raised. There was nothing out there but the flattest, deadest fields with ugly, solitary trees holding down corners of divided land like mean alley drunks.
The van started to slow down as it made a left turn onto a dirt road. The tires crackled and hissed as they kicked up dirt. We moved very slowly along this road, stopping and starting several times as Goose tried to find the gate to his property.
We heard him curse from the front seat and then we were backing up. Goose got out of the car and opened the gate to his ranch. We drove through the gate and then he closed it behind us. He got back in the bus and then we were moving again.
As we spurted over the cattle guard, the bus rocked like it had been hit by a wave and I nearly fell out of my wheelchair.
As we rolled up the road to the blue aluminum barn, we heard mooing from Goose’s fields. Cows had bedded down in the road and we had to move slowly, honking to clear them out of the way. They weren’t happy about it, and they stared at us from the side of the road, bleary and confused, moving just far enough out of the way to let the bus slide past.
“I didn’t know you had cows up here,” I said to Goose as soon as we arrived at the barn that was the only building on his property.
“Man, those cows aren’t mine,” said Goose. “The guy who owns the hundred acres behind me doesn’t keep his fences up and I guess they like sleeping in my pastures better than his. And the bitch of it is that he can sue me if one of these motherfuckers dies on my property.”
“So where are we going to do this?” said Smasha. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Goose. “I figured we could do this right here by the barn. We mark off the distance, man, and wait for the sun to rise. It won’t be long now.”
It wasn’t dark anymore. The world was the color of faded newspapers. My heart was beating fast.
“You each get one shot and one shot only,” said Bill Shallows as he loaded the guns with the magnum cartridges. “After this, whatever happens, your argument is settled. This duel is an end to current feuding, and an end to any feuding you may wish to carry into the future.”
Smasha and I each took a weapon. Goose marked off fifty paces with two dry cow patties. I wheeled to one cow patty and Smasha walked to the other. We stared at each other. The land was so flat here that it felt like we were two dots on a coordinate plane. Dawn would break to Smasha’s right and to my left.
“When the sun breaks the horizon, you can fire,” said Bill Shallows. Goose stood next to him with his hands in his pockets.
“Don’t shoot any of those cows,” said Goose.
I’d already told them what I was going to do, which is why they even agreed to help me in the first place. Yet, here they were staring me down like a dog, assaulting me with the full force of Texas pride and obligation, making sure I knew where I came from and what that meant.
I watched Smasha with my revolver in my lap. I watched her and thought about all the pain she had caused. I thought about Belinda, who would never again say anything witty or use her unique mind to put the perfect carpet on a living room floor. I thought of my bull sculpture out there in the desert and how it would live forever.
The sky was turning white. There wouldn’t be any clouds today. The only thing that broke up the flat horizon was a strand of telephone wire in the distance. The cows were waking up and we could hear them stumbling around and calling to each other. They sounded irritated and confused. Every moo was a question.
I slowly picked up my magnum, holding it with the barrel pointing to the side. I raised it over my head, pointing it over my head and away, aiming where the sun would break the flat line that separated the ground from the sky, aiming away from Smasha, aiming away from her band and my friends.
I extended my arm, frowning and raising my eyebrows. Letting her see that I wasn’t going to shoot her. I was going to fire away from her.
I wanted her to know: making her come out here to fight me was good enough for me and Belinda.
Belinda would never have wanted revenge.
Belinda was better than mere revenge.
Defending Belinda’s honor was about defending Belinda’s principles: mercy, respect, love, and beauty. I had challenged Smasha to a duel to prove a point. She had accepted my challenge, but I was an artist, not a killer.
The sun broke the ground, sending a blazing stroke of light at us, blinding us all. I fired my magnum and then Smasha fired.
Her bullet grazed my forearm, shattering the small bones there and taking out chunks of flesh, knocking the gun out of my hand and numbing my arm all the way to my shoulder. I puked all over myself as the blood hit my brain.
I cradled my arm and stared at Smasha across the fifty paces of dirt. She was shivering, holding her revolver with her mouth wide open and her eyes vacant. Tears were streaming down her face, smearing her mascara.
Goose ran over to me, wriggling out of his serape and ripping the shirt off his back, using it to immediately put a tourniquet on my arm.
Smasha didn’t lower her gun. She just kept staring -- staring and shaking.
I knew what she was staring at, so far away in her own mind. She was staring at that part of her that was so selfish that it could constantly brutalize an innocent woman who had only loved her. She had done it in order to drive Belinda away -- but instead it had driven her to suicide. Smasha was staring at that part of herself that could shoot a man in a wheelchair because she was afraid of him, because she was afraid that he knew too much about that part of her, that pit inside her head filled with fear and self-loathing.
She would be staring at that part of herself for a long time now. Her bandmates would know all about that part of her, too. And eventually, all of New York City would know.
I had pulled that part out of her so that others could see it and now she would have to deal with it. It had been the same exorcism that Belinda had been trying to do by letting Smasha have her way. It had cost me an arm. It had cost Belinda her mind.
Smasha’s bandmates pushed her into their tour bus and then they hauled ass away from Goose’s ranch, leaving us stranded there in the middle of nowhere.
“Honor,” I said to Goose as he cursed me and told me that I was goddamned fool who deserved to die from blood loss out here in a field full of cow pies for being so stupid.
“Honor,” I said. “For a lady.”