I’m posting a short story and asking for your advice about it. About six months ago, I decided to make a serious effort to break into one of the top literary magazines in the country. So far, it’s all rejections, but I expected it would be a tough goal to achieve. The story below is the story I’m currently submitting. I believe it is my most publishable story. If you would take the time to read and comment on it, I would be extremenly grateful and willing to reciprocate.
The story is titled One Foot In The Grave and is about 4,500 words. There are three things I’d like to know from those of you who are willing to read it.
1. How does it compare to the published writing you read?
2. Could it somehow be made better and if so how?
3. Should I continue to submit this story or switch to another one?
Thanks for taking the time and brain space to do this.
One Foot In The Grave
Word Count – 4,495
Archibald had been in the doctor’s office two hours. But walking slowly out to his rusty pickup, the old man had the same steely expression on his face he’d worn on the walk in. He had on his newest overalls, a white tee, and scuffed farmer boots. In his hand were papers, two new prescriptions and his test results. His other hand held a Cardinals ball cap on his head to keep a sultry southern breeze from taking it. Too warm for October.
The parking lot was bordered with sugar maples turning the colors of the sunset, and the truck waited under one of them, bloodred leaves littering the bedliner. He climbed stiffly into the cab and turned the key, left in the ignition, and the truck cranked over slowly and finally fired up with a roar, belching blue smoke that wisped across the asphalt. He backed out carefully and pulled into traffic and drove a few blocks to Mr. Burger.
Usually his choice was the small combo, Jr. burger, small drink, and small fries, but today his order was different. A big bacon cheeseburger, large fries and a small bucket of Coke. The white bag the girl at the window handed him was heavy, with growing grease spots soaking through the paper. He pulled the truck into a space at the edge of the lot where sparrows hopped around looking for crumbs. He’d eaten about half the burger and a few fries when nausea and dizziness welled up and he took the uneaten food and shoved it back in the bag.
He drove the highway out of town, past strip malls and convenience stores, past hip-roofed new housing additions, past the city limits and then the dwellings began to thin out. Cities were a lot like tumors, growing, metastisizing, unchecked by anything. A few more miles and he turned down the dirt road, and the truck bounced and rattled through potholes, rocks clattering against the underside. Blackbirds strung on the wire like beads. Golden rod and purple aster roadside. A doe ran across the road in front of him and he hit the brakes and sure enough two half-grown fawns followed their mother out and froze in the middle of the road and stared at him. He pulled the truck to a stop and stared back until they broke and ran. He drove on, past mostly single-wides and double-wides until he came to the old farm house where he’d lived for forty years.
It had been solid for decades, but now it was falling down, the roofline curved in a sag, corrugated tin roof rusted reddish-brown and some of the pieces of tin loose and clacking in the south breeze, water coming in when it rained heavy, guttering rusted and broken, the siding bare gray weathered wood, only the glass in the windows standing up to time. He stuffed the two prescriptions and his medical paperwork in with the leftover fast food and got his giant Coke and took it all inside. In the kitchen, he threw the bag in the trash. Then he took out the big bottle of aspirin and shook out three and washed them down with a long gulp of cola.
He eased into a big overstuffed chair in the living room and picked up the remote and found an old western and turned the sound up loud. Like most all the old cowboy movies, he’d seen this one quite a few times. He closed his eyes against the flickering blue-white light from the TV and listened to the dialog and let his mind form the pictures and waited for the aspirin to kick in.
Justin Murdock liked to sleep late. The sign on the apartment manager’s office door, in his scrawl, read, “Open when I feel like it, closed when I don’t.” More often than not, he didn’t. It was usually late morning, or early afternoon when he emerged from his apartment wearing baggy shorts and a black tee and walked across the street into the park. On this day, the fresh mown grass smelling like watermelon rind. He cut through the park walking briskly along the tree-lined sidewalks until he reached the busy street opposite and then it was just a block to the shop called Coffee Creations where he ordered a large strong black cup of drip roast to go in a styrofoam cup and a pastry.
Then he’d tunnel vision his way back the way he came, head down, ignoring anyone he met, and hole up in his apartment until he had the right drugs in his system. Caffeine and thirty dollars worth of crank, more or less, was usually what it took for him to walk down and unlock the office and slide in behind the desk.
Justin’s parents owned the apartment complex, and they’d made him the manager when he’d come back to town. The parents owned a lot of things, most importantly a bank, but also considerable real estate, a dry cleaners and a payday loan place. Since he’d been back, they thought they owned him too, the way Justin saw it.
In some ways, he wished he were back in the asylum, where they brought you your drugs with your breakfast and the expectations were minimal. The six months he’d been in had been the most peaceful of his life. All the decisions, even the little ones, were made for you. There were all kinds of screwed-up men and women, people twisted in just about every way they’d bend. But seeing all those misfits every day felt good, like you weren’t the only one. It felt like a kind of support group where nobody could judge you because they were just as bad off as you.
But now, if he dared look up, there might be a set of eyes boring into him like a drill, and sometimes when he met their gaze, they looked off, but some of them just kept eyeing him like a rabid stray dog.
The old man would have slept poorly without any help, but his old friends Jim Beam, Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker were there for him every night and lulled him into numbness for a few hours. He woke up early with a hangover and took three more aspirin and drank a big glass of water and went out on the porch to see what kind of day it was going to be. The mist still stood in the meadow, the edge of the woods ghost-like, the sun a golden ball muted by the moisture. But there were no clouds in the sky and it looked like it could be another warm one after the vapors burned off.
After a while, he went into the bedroom and took his guns out of the closet and carried them into the living room. He leaned the rifles against the couch and set the handguns on top of the TV. He got out a shop cloth and the Remington gun oil and wiped off the dust and applied the oil, the smell rich and organic, life coalesced into lubricant. Most of the guns he’d owned for decades, some had been his father’s. He hadn’t fired one in more than twenty years, but that didn’t diminish their magic and power. They were souvenirs more than weapons. There was his father’s Springfield carried in the world war next to the M14 he’d brought home from Vietnam. There was a Browning twelve gauge pump that had been passed down from his grandpa. A lever action 30-.06, an over and under that was heavy and ponderous, a semi-automatic Marlin .22, an old French Lebel rifle, and the single shot .22 that had been his twelfth birthday present. Then there were the pistols, a big .45 Colt automatic, a snub nosed S&W .38, a .22 revolver they’d used for target practice, a German luger and his favorite, an old Western style peacemaker .44 revolver.
After he’d disassembled and cleaned them and they gleamed with oily luster he gathered them in his arms and made several trips taking them out and putting them in the cab of the truck. The effort tired him out so he went back into the bedroom and lay down and rested for a while. He still always lay on his side of the bed, even though Lily had died four years ago. Her clothes still hung in the closet, her cosmetics still rested on the dresser, and her toothbrush still stood in the holder in the bathroom.
That morning four years ago had seemed just like any other. He was sipping a third cup of coffee after finishing breakfast. She was getting dressed for her appointment at the beauty parlor. After he got back from taking her into town, he planned to do some hoeing in the garden, pick some snap beans and tomatoes. It was the same as thousands of other mornings, only it wasn’t.
Amy didn’t know Justin was back. The first thing she thought was that someone should have told her, that it was outrageous that he had been released and was out in the world and she hadn’t been contacted.
She’d gone out jogging and had come across him and reacted with the same shock she felt when she was driving her car and came upon mangled road kill. And the meeting came with the same kind of lack of warning. Suddenly there he was, and she was running toward him. At least she thought it was him. He was looking down and she couldn’t see his face until the last moment when she was jogging by, but then she saw for sure it was him and a shiver ran down her back and she ran faster, as fast as she could until the breaths came like fire and her side ached and she pulled up and looked back and he was just an ant in the distance.
The worst thing was that her mind grabbed the opportunity to revert to that day she was trying to run away from . She was in a constant battle with her brain, that blazoned memory always trying to replay, her present conscious trying to keep it stuffed in some recess. It was like a song you couldn’t get rid of, even though you didn’t like it. The first thing you knew, when you were doing something normal, like jogging, it popped in and you had to deal with it all over again.
She brushed some fallen leaves off a bench and sat down to catch her breath. Only having the one lung made breathing more of a challenge. To anyone passing, she would have looked like a cute twenty-something exercising her glowing young body. Except for the anxiety on her face, which would have seemed out of place in a park, a place people go to play and relax.
Chub looked at the guns piled up on the counter of his gun shop with a puzzled expression.
“Why are you getting rid of all your guns, Arch?”
“Not all of them. I kept my favorite, but I’m not gonna be needing the rest of them anymore.”
“Lots of folks has way more guns than they need. My whole business is based on that. Most of them think of their guns as family heirlooms. There’s a lot of family history in your collection. Just surprised you’re wanting to give all that up.”
Chub picked up the old twelve gauge pump and hefted it and shook his head like maybe the old man was addled.
“I know you’ll make me a fair offer,” Arch said.
Arch had never bought a gun from Chub, nor even any ammo. The only item Arch had ever carried out of the gun shop was the very can of Remington gun oil he’d just used to brighten up the barrels and stocks. But for years, he’d been coming by Chub’s and talking guns, sometimes for hours at a time. They talked makes, models, best uses, value, gun laws, and lifetimes of gun stories. Arch didn’t have many friends, but Chub was one.
“You dropping out of the NRA on top of this?” Chub said.
“I’m dropping out of everything.”
Chub gave him the same funny look, like Arch was jiving him. In his day, Arch had been known to pull a funny now and then. But Arch wasn’t grinning. He looked more like he didn’t feel so good.
“This doesn’t feel right,” said Chub.
“It’s either you or the pawn shop.”
Chub looked down at the guns for a few long seconds.
“Give me a minute. I need to look a couple of these up,” he said and went over to a desk and tapped on a computer keyboard and wrote something down. He got out a calculator and did some figuring and then wrote down a number on a piece of notepaper and got up and walked back over to where Arch was looking out the front window watching a crow pecking at something on the side of the highway.
“This is what I could do,” said Chub, sliding the paper toward Arch, who glanced down at it, and then looked up and said, “That’ll be fine.”
“I don’t have that kind of cash around, but I can write you a check,” said Chub.
“A check will do it.”
Amy stood in the shower, letting the warm water run down her body like a cleansing baptism. The introverted man she’d seen walking through the park wasn’t the Justin she’d known. She wondered what had been done to him, how they’d lowered his voltage so much. Her memories were only of a man-child on fire.
Right from the first it had been wild and frenetic. She’d been attracted to Justin because he dressed nice, groomed, drove a new car and came from one of the town’s old line families. All the wrong reasons.
He asked her out for lunch. That seemed low key enough. He’d taken her to an IHOP and they’d had pancakes with all different kinds of syrup. He’d picked at his food, she noticed, which explained his skinny, wiry frame, she thought. After lunch, they rolled to a pool hall and shot pool and drank a few beers. Then they went bowling. After that, ice skating.
It was dinner time. They ate at the best steakhouse in town and he took her home, but only so she could shower and put on her dancing shoes. Justin danced wildly, savagely, sweat flying off him. They hit bar after bar, a hungry look on his face like he was searching for something that matched his rpm. When they closed down the last bar in the early hours, she was weary and Justin was just hitting his stride, but he took her home and dropped her off and didn’t even try to kiss her.
They’d been spending all their days and nights together for a month before she figured out most of his energy came from icy white powder. It was a warning flag she ignored and rationalized. She felt like she was hitched to a shooting star and who was going to turn down a ride like that, even if the fuel was forbidden? They boogied on, living life like the world was coming to an end next week.
Every day was an endless round of activities. They both worked, but all their free time was spent moving, hiking, biking, skateboarding, rock climbing, caving, swimming, canoeing, or just driving on endless rushing runs to endless destinations. Sometimes, she felt more like an activity partner than anything else. They had sex, our course, but that was as fast and furious as everything else, sandwiched in between exhaustion and sleep.
Arch was picking through Lily’s jewelry box, putting rings, bracelets, earrings, pins, and pearl necklaces, one by one, into the pillowcase he’d pulled off his pillow. Lily had favored jewelry, so for birthdays, anniversaries, Christmases, Valentine’s, Arch nearly always came through with the gems. He picked up a gold bracelet with red garnets and turned the facets and watched them glow with light even in the dim bedroom. Was that an anniversary or Valentine’s Day? He couldn’t remember which.
They’d been married for forty-five years and the jewelry box was packed full with pretty baubles. Arch hadn’t opened the box since he’d put in Lily’s wedding rings the day after her funeral. The past began to flood him like a rising river and he took the box and dumped the rest of it into the pillowcase and tied the end in a knot. He walked out to the truck feeling like he’d burgled his own house.
The storefront with the sign that read WE BUY GOLD AND DIAMONDS HIGHEST PRICES PAID was in the downtown area. Arch pulled the old truck up to the curb and grabbed the bag of jewelry and went in. A middle-aged man with a combover wearing an ugly sports jacket sat at a desk and he rose and greeted Arch and looked at the pillowcase expectantly and said, “You got something there for me to look at?”
Arch undid the knot and dumped the lot on the desktop and the man’s eyes got big and white. The old man took off his plain gold wedding band and tossed it in among the rest.
He walked out with another check and the pillowcase and drove to the bank, the one the Murdock family owned. He felt dizzy when he stepped out of the truck, and the world spun like he’d drank too much bourbon. He walked unsteadily into the bank and was glad there was no waiting for a teller. He handed the two checks to a young Asian woman and explained what he wanted, but she didn’t understand the first time and he had to go over it again, swaying unsteadily. The teller looked at him accusingly. He could tell she thought he was drunk. But she closed out his account and cashed the two checks and prepared a cashier’s check for the total amount. He staggered out the door, the sidewalk rolling, and made it back into the truck and sat there and after a few minutes, the world stopped whirling and he only felt light-headed and weak.
He wasn’t quite thinking straight and took a wrong turn and drove by the courthouse and his mind stretched back and recovered the weeks he’d spent in the back of the courtroom during Murdock’s trial. It hadn’t been nearly as exciting as he’d thought it would be, at least not at first. Most of the time, the lawyers or the judge made speeches, or held conferences at the bench. When witnesses began to be called by the prosecution, the lawyers asked the same question over and over, finding different ways to word it. Some members of the jury fell asleep when the courtroom warmed in the afternoon.
The Murdock family sat up front, right behind the defense table where Justin Murdock looked bored in his expensive tailored suit. His team of lawyers were some of the best in the state. They objected frequently to the prosecutor’s questions and about once a day, they offered a motion that charges be dismissed. But the judge was a steady older man with a shock of gray hair and reading glasses halfway down his nose. He denied the defense motions and moved the trial along.
It didn’t get tough until the day they called Amy to the stand. She took the oath looking nervous and pale and took the stand and started telling her story. How she’d left Mudock a note that morning, asking him to be out of the apartment by the time she came home from work. How she’d been pinning up Lily’s hair when she realized Murdock was standing behind her with a gun. She faced him, looking first at the end of the barrel, and then into his face, his pupils just dots, his hair pasted to his head from dried sweat, his lower lip twitching. Then he fired and the shot hit her in the chest and spun her back and he fired again and the bullet went wide and hit Lily in the face. Then the other women shrieked in horror, high-pitched screams that broke Murdock’s concentration and he turned and ran out the door. A few seconds, two shots, two women’s blood puddling on the floor and running together.
The ambulance came and Amy was rushed to the hospital and had emergency surgery and lost a lung but lived and recovered. Lily had gone straight to the morgue.
The defense team argued insanity. They put Murdock on the stand and he testified he didn’t remember anything after he read Amy’s note. The prosecutor pressed him hard, but he stayed with his story. The defense lawyers called a psychiatrist who testified he believed Murdock had lapsed into an episode of temporary derangement. The prosecutor countered with another head shrinker who offered that he found Murdock of sound mind.
The jury retired and deliberated and came back with a verdict after a day and a half. When they said guilty, there was no great joy in it, but Arch had felt something, a amelioration, a scar going from purple to pink.
Then the judge thanked the jury for its service and set aside their verdict and ruled him not guilty by reason of insanity. He ordered Murdock be transferred to the state hospital for the criminally insane. The judge gaveled the trial to a close and the bailiff escorted Murdock out of the courtroom.
Arch felt a black rage rise up from deep in his core and he stood up trying to think of what he could do. He felt like taking a swing at the judge, but the courtroom was quickly emptying, the defense team smiling and congratulating each other. He stood there seething, hearing his heart pumping hard, glaring at the Murdock family members with relief on their faces. He’d stalked out of the courthouse past the head of the defense team being interviewed by a TV reporter. His anger had never really gone away, just subsided some.
At the edge of town, the nausea and spins came back and he pulled the truck onto the shoulder and threw up into the floorboard. After that he felt a little better and made it to the dirt road and on home. He tried to walk into the house, but passed out in the yard and when he came to, the stars were out and the ground was cool against his cheek. He crawled across the yard, up the steps and into the house and pulled himself into his chair and passed out again.
He woke there the next morning feeling better and clear-headed. He went into the bathroom and brushed the puke taste out of his mouth and put on fresh clothes. Arch sat down at the kitchen table with a writing pad and a pencil and composed a short letter of instructions to his son in Chicago, the stockbroker who he’d last seen at Lily’s funeral and even then the son had arrived just before and left right after without going to the cemetery. The son who faithfully called three times a year, birthday, Father’s Day, and Christmas, the calls lasting about ten minutes and never touching on anything important. Archibald addressed the envelope and slipped in the letter and the cashier’s check and sealed it up and slapped a stamp on it. The old man stuck it in his back pocket to mail on his way to town.
Late morning, he sat on a bench in the park and waited and watched, the old .44 six-shooter behind the bib of his overalls. Another unseasonably warm day, the trees bending in the wind. A red squirrel ran up a big oak and stood up on its back legs on a branch and barked. The stacatto of a motorcycle accelerating on the busy thoroughfare. A door slamming at the apartments across the street from the park.
When he saw Murdock coming down the sidewalk, he stood up and walked out and faced him blocking his path. He pulled out the .44 and cocked it with a authoritative click. He put his finger on the trigger and raised it. Murdock was looking down at the ground and almost didn’t see him until he was right on him. He stopped a yard a way, and looked at Arch, recognition coming into his eyes just as the gun exploded.
Murdock took a step back, heart blood spurting out like a geyser and he clapped a hand over the hole dark blood seeping between his fingers and then he wilted down to the concrete and lay there on his back, blood fountaining out onto the front of his black tee. Arch went and stood over him and watched his final spasms and jerks, the pistol pointed at him in case he tried to get up. But it was all over quickly and Murdock was stilled. Easier than he had thought. The movement of an arced piece of metal partway of an inch. Arch went over and sat back down on the bench and started waiting again.
In a few minutes two police cars screeched to a stop at the edge of the park, blue lights strobing, sirens keening. Two police officers jumped out of each car and moved abreast into the park in a broken line. When they saw Murdock lying on the sidewalk, they pulled out their sidearms and then they noticed the old man on the bench, the gun in his lap. Arch stood up, and walked back out to the sidewalk and watched them move toward him, the revolver at his side. Ruby red dots danced across his chest as they stopped and took aim.
“Drop the weapon,” one of them shouted.
Arch looked down at Murdock and then looked up and raised the Colt and pointed it. A volley of shots rang out, and he stumbled back and looked down and there were three wounds in his chest. The gun clattered to the sidewalk. Arch sat down hard on the concrete and then lay back and looked up at the leaves moving under the wind, some high clouds sailing across a jay-bird blue sky. A cop came up with his pistol pointed at him and picked up the old gun where it had fallen.
Amy jogged up onto the scene as one of the cops was covering Justin with a blanket. She immediately intuited what had happened. Arch was still alive, his rheumy eyes blinking against the sunlight, and she went over and knelt beside him. Arch looked into her face and his oxygen-deprived brain saw a young Lily and his last thought was that he was in the afterlife and there they would finally be together forever.