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Loaded Question


Gene Jeffers


“Wake up, son.” An urgent hand shakes my shoulder. “I need your help.”


Roll over. Blink. See Dad silhouetted in the glow of a small light in the hallway. Too early, the clock on the nightstand groans. Blackness fills the window.


“Get dressed, get your gun and some rounds… Be quiet.”


Throw on jeans and shirt, tie tennis shoes, carefully retrieve the .300 Savage, once my Grandfather’s rifle, from the top of the armoire. Pocket some brass shells.


Are burglars in the house again? They had come in the past as we slept. Lucky no one had awakened, no one was maimed by machete or club. Were silent shadows prowling the house again?


New bars stretch across ground-floor windows and doors. Peter, a large German Shepherd, patrols the ground floor. More than once his deep growls have triggered the sounds of footsteps running away, nothing to be seen in the night. A watchman now sleeps outside with homemade bow and arrows. Almost fourteen, I have been moved downstairs to sleep in the den. A line of defense? A modern-day Isaac? I’ve always wondered.


In a little over two years since Congolese independence and my family’s move to what was then Leopoldville, there has been a procession of six prime ministers and three presidents, assassinations and provinces revolting, a United Nations Secretary General killed in a suspicious plane crash, thirteen UN Italian airmen murdered and reportedly sold for meat in a local bazaar, and multiple military and police mutinies. While calm in daylight, the city remains dangerous and desperate after dark.


            Can’t be burglars. The dog waits, quiet, head cocked to one side, asking “What is going on?”


            “Meet me outside. Cool tonight. Bring a jacket or sweater,” Dad says.


            What’s up? Too many questions. Remember to never question him. No time. Grab a sweater. The blue one. Head for the front door. He’s strapped his .45 beneath a tweed jacket. Begin to worry.


            We slip outside. New bars on the door rattle as it closes. The new lock clicks. Awake now, the night, rifle, tennis shoes, everything feels unreal. Head still cocked, Peter watches through the door’s thick glass panel.


            Dad motions to get in the car. I know to not slam the door. We crunch down the driveway, no engine, no lights. I feel the tires hit the street, the clutch pop and start the engine. He keeps the headlights off until we reach the wide and sparsely lit Independence Boulevard.


            “I have a meeting,” comes watery and distant. I see him glance from the road, look at me. “You awake, son? You okay?” A finger prods my leg.


            Mumble something coherent. Make him believe. Always make him believe. Ignore the growing storm inside. I look outside. Trees, darkened houses, storefronts, black alleys, bright orange streetlamps. They all fly by. A dream? Wake up now, I pray.


            “Mr. B is sick,” he says. “I need you for backup.”


            The car lurches, changes lanes, avoids something lying on the street. Drunk or dead or maybe an animal. Even major avenues are not safe after sunset. The blue helmeted UN peacekeepers and camouflage-wearing Congolese Army are all asleep behind barrack doors.


            “Okay,” I manage and sit up. Really awake now. I had always wondered what he did at the embassy. Odd hours, sudden trips, visits from strangers. Meet some, never see others. Spot extra drink glasses on a table in the morning. Cigarette butts in an ashtray. Mom doesn’t drink. Dad smokes pipes and cigars. I had learned never to ask what he did all day, sometimes all night.


            The car swerves again, avoids a bicycle. I stare as we pass. Long wooden planks teeter wing-like on the rack behind the rider. A battered jerry can balances on the handlebars. A hand waves and the bike wobbles, straightens, regains balance. The rider flashes an embarrassed grin.


            “I’ll be meeting a guy,” his eyes check me again. “Might be… dangerous.”


            I gurgle “Okay,” and hope the terse reply is mistaken for bravery.


            “Good,” he says. “I need you to cover me.”


            Too many questions now. He needs me in the middle of the night. To “cover” him. Like Westerns and war movies? Guys yelling “cover me” before going over the top. Before running toward bad guys. Before shooting starts. I’m unsure if that is what he means and fiddle with the cold metal cartridges in my pocket. Feel the lead at the tips. Feel about to explode.


            We ride in silence along the empty boulevard. How different from daytime. No cars, no trucks, no overloaded buses, no men going to work, no women with two or three cases of bottles on their heads, no hand carts laden with mattresses, lumber, cooking pots, sacks of homemade charcoal. The dark even smells different. Smoke and animal dung. The sweet, sweet fragrance of frangipane blossoms. Tomorrow, I know, the day’s heat and traffic will raise the smell of coffee and breakfasts, of diesel and petrol fumes, of sun-cooked garbage and human sweat. I try to remember those smells and the sounds of motorbikes buzzing and knitting their way through traffic. The road is alive by day, dead in the night.


            “Almost there.”  


            The car shudders, downshifts, turns hard off the four-lane avenue onto an unlit, unpaved side street. In the sudden pitch dark of the alley our headlights sweep across walls capped with barbed wire and sparkling broken glass. No sidewalks, only a meandering track. We bump and skitter through potholes filled with afternoon thunderstorm rain. Weeds scrape on metal as we swing near the edges of the track. A skinny dog stutters toward a dark corner, eyes aglow in the beams. Nervous shadows stalk along the walls.


            After forever, we stop near a large, heavily branched fig tree. He turns the lights off. I try to blink the dark away. The motor dies.


            Try to breathe, I insist.


            I retrieve the rifle from the back floor and hand it to him. He pushes it back in the tight car. It is heavy now, heavier than ever before.


            “See that streetlamp at the next corner?” He points.


            Nod as if I understand and focus on a tired yellow lamp perched on a slender metal pole marking a three-way intersection.


            “Quick now, I want you to get out with your gun, climb this tree so you can see that spot. Make sure it’s loaded, safety on.”


            My breathing chokes. I point the barrel away from him. Fumble to load five brass cartridges into the rotating magazine in the dark. Check to make sure they are seated properly. My fingers grown too thick and struggle at the familiar task. I worry about his impatience. Worry he will call this off. Worry that he won’t.


            “One in the chamber, safety on.”


            I slide the last cold round into the chamber. Bring the lever up. Snick the safety into place.


            “That thick branch on the right looks good.”


            Peering through the windshield, I’m unsure about the climb but I nod, mouth dry, knees uncertain. No room for questions or failure.


            “After you get settled, I’m going down to the corner, get out of the car and wait by the streetlamp.”


            Pay attention.


            “You’ll be fine.”


            Fine? Up a tree? In the middle of the night? With a loaded rifle. Fine? Shivers scrape my spine. But I can’t speak, can’t object, and have to concentrate on keeping my heart somewhere inside a mushrooming chest.


            “Probably nothing will happen.”


            I’m not reassured.


            “Maybe the guy won’t show… Maybe the guy will show and we’ll talk.”


            He coughs. Another cough. I wonder if he is rethinking, regretting this plan?


            “But if something happens, if someone starts shooting, if someone shoots me, you shoot him.”


            Someone’s going to shoot him? What? Who?


            I stammer “Shoot you?”


            “No, son, if someone shoots me, you shoot the other guy.”


            How heavy the word “other.”


            “You can hit at this distance,” his fingers tap my chest. “Aim here.”


            I work to breathe. Can he hear the pounding? We’ve hunted buffalo and antelope together. But shoot “the other guy” from up a tree? If he gets shot? In the middle of the night?


            Calm down, I tell myself. Focus. You can do this. Don’t let him down. My lungs, knees and thumping chest debate the matter.


            “If I get shot, shoot the other guy, then get down and head back home quick as you can. Don’t wait around.”


            “One in the chamber, safety on?” I confirm, trying to pretend all is fine. Questions hover. Not now.


            “If I get shot, shoot the other guy, then run home, have Mom call the duty officer. Understand?”


            “Yeah. One in the chamber, safety on.” I whisper and try not to worry how far home is in the dark. Don’t think about that. Don’t

wonder if I’m to leave him lying under the streetlamp. Don’t worry what Mom will say. Hear him echo, “One in the chamber, safety on.”


            I hear him chamber a round in his pistol.


            “Close the door softly when you get out. Don’t slam it.”


            I open the door carefully, quietly. Start as an arm is grasped.


            “Be careful, Son.”


            “Okay, you be careful, too.” Rifle over one shoulder, I focus on the tree. Branch by branch, I climb in the dark to a wide perch ten or so feet off the ground. Find a good spot. Wrap a leg around a lower branch. Make sure the patch of streetlamp glow is visible through the leaves. I wave “all set.”


            “Piece of cake,” wafts from below. Then the car starts.

            So here I am. Up a tree hours before dawn, rifle loaded and aimed toward a small circle of amber thrown by a lone streetlamp in an otherwise pitch dark neighborhood. Watching and waiting for a mysterious “other guy” I may have to shoot.

            We wait. He paces. We wait some more.


            My legs begin to cramp. I check the gun. Click the safety off. Ease the lever, open the chamber, confirm a round is seated. Close the breech, reset the safety, and nearly fall as a scuffle breaks out overhead in the tree.


            A bird catching a lizard? A snake? A rat the size of a housecat?


            Can’t look away from the circle of light. I really don’t want to know.


            Check my watch’s luminous glow.


            Where was “the other guy?” The one to maybe shoot. Trembling, shivering, I wait some more. Hours it seems.


            Finally he walks out of the patch of light and back to the car. I hear the engine wake, watch headlights jiggle across the dirt road, turn back toward the tree. It stops underneath, engine idling.


            “No show. Come on down, son,” he says.


            Don’t remember climbing down. I must have. On the ground I stretch tired legs, climb into the car, feel a satisfying thunk as the door closes. My hands and legs really shake now. I revel in the familiarity of the car seat. Revel that nothing happened.


            “Thanks, son. I needed someone I could trust.”


            Unloading the rifle, I put the cartridges back in my pocket. So cold. We motor back to Independence Boulevard and its now too bright lights. I hear gears shift and feel the speed build as we flee homeward, mission complete but unaccomplished.


            “Probably best if you don’t say anything to your mother. Our secret, okay?”


            I’m giddy now, part of his secret world. I wind the window down and let cool night air brush a too hot face, fill lungs too small. The sky gives a faint hint of a new day in the East. School in a few hours, I remember.


            “Dad…” I start. Something has changed between us. I pause, then ask “You’re not really a commercial attaché, are you?”

Published in the Winter 2021 issue of Passager Journal (print only)

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