Winter 2011 KR OnlineThe Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest |

weekend-readsDeath Threat

She knew it was serious when she saw her father strap the gun belt over his pinstriped shirt in the morning as he was getting ready for work.

Guns were nothing unusual in their house—Robin’s mother often joked that the children had learned the four seasons the wrong way: fish, bird, deer, and fly-tying. When Robin would leave for college, she would shock her big-city roommates with stories about rifles stored in their coffin-like cases under her childhood canopy bed, about evacuating the house before a flash flood with her arms full of her mother’s Hummels and her father’s shotguns.

But the handguns were different. There was a .44 in her father’s top bureau drawer; she didn’t know if it was kept loaded or not. Robin was usually more interested in the roll of crisp twenties that he kept there, snuggled inside a pair of argyle socks. There was the semi-automatic, which he attached to his belt when they were going out for bluegills in his favorite secluded pond. “If a bear comes along, we’ll fire over his head,” he said, voice rolling with authority and cool-headed planning—as if Robin had a pistol, too; as if she were his lieutenant, his backup gun. The handguns were for protection, only, and when her father nestled one close to his body inside his tweed sport jacket, she knew that something was wrong.

“Your father knows what he’s doing,” her mother said, her voice too loud and bright as she slapped peanut butter onto burned toast like mortar onto bricks. “This isn’t the first time, you know. It’s to be expected. It’s the nature of the work.”

Robin pictured her father reaching into the folds of his black judge’s robe, fumbling for the gun, fingers getting caught in the shiny, slippery fabric, fingers missing the cold steel just at the critical moment.

“When has it happened before?” Robin asked. She sized up the charcoaled toast, crumbing under its peanut butter disguise. “I don’t remember anything like this happening before.” Her father had been a judge since before she was born—juvenile and probate court. It was mostly teenagers taking cars for joyrides, drugged-out parents forgetting to make their kids go to school, that kind of thing. Occasionally, a hard-eyed kid would approach Robin in the hallway at the middle school and say something like, “I hafta go see your dad tomorrow.” Robin would shift her weight from side to side, pick at her braces, shrug her shoulders in her best I-am-not-worth-messing-with kind of way.

But once in a while, her father’s job made him come home from work gray-faced, made him hug Robin and her brother to him tightly, bury his face in their hair until they squirmed away. The twelve-year-old who raped, beat, and left a five-year-old girl for dead, covered with leaves in the same patch of woods where he hunted for grouse. The man who kept his son locked in a closet for two years. The teenager with schizophrenia who had tried to burn his house and his whole family while they slept. Robin was not sure if the man who was sending her father death threats was one of these cases, or if he was just a man who had had his parental rights taken away for something run-of-the-mill, like belt whippings or methamphetamine addiction. It did not really matter.

Standing in the kitchen, watching her father check the safety on the gun before sliding it into the holster, she wondered what, exactly, the threats said. There had been one on the answering machine, but her mother had taken the tiny cassette tape to the police station last night before Robin and her brother could listen to it. Were they vague: “When you least expect it, I’m going to murder you and your family.” Or specific: “While you walk from your car to the courthouse—I know you use the back door, I’ve been watching you every day for two weeks—I am going to blow on my rifle and train my scope on you and shoot you down like a whitetail at a salt lick. And if I can get away with it before the cops get there, I’m going to gut you and string you up, just like I’d do with a scrawny, bloody-nosed little doe. I’d make you into sausage and give you away to my neighbors for Christmas. You’re venison to me. That’s how little I care about your life.”

Her father caught her looking at the leather holster, the nylon straps that went over his shoulders like suspenders. “Don’t worry, Birdie,” he said, winking. “You know what I always say. There’s no substitute for the trained marksman.”

It was true, he did say this—when they were watching a TV show or a movie and someone missed a shot, or when they made their target easily, felling the psycho killer just in time, saving the day. But Robin noticed that he didn’t touch his toast, either; that his hand shook, just a little, as he brought his coffee cup up to his mouth.

Robin stood at the front window and watched her father walk away. She was not sure if she was imagining a more hesitant, watchful rhythm in his step. She wondered if she was watching him walk away for the last time, and her wrists and fingers prickled with adrenaline.

Watching him back the car out of the driveway and edge out into the street, Robin had a sudden memory. She was about five. Burma, their Siamese cat—a bristling, yowling, emaciated thing—had crawled behind the piano and unceremoniously died that day. Robin wasn’t sad. The cat had terrorized her from babyhood, clawing at her from high above on top of the refrigerator, biting off her dolls’ eyes, skittering around after them with manic glee.

She waited out in the yard for her father to come home from work and ran up to his car when he pulled into the driveway. As he stepped out, she said—proud to be the bearer of important news—“Daddy, guess what? Burma died today.”

Robin’s father drooped like a puppet with a broken string. His face—his leathered, wise, mustached face—collapsed upon itself. His eyes closed, and tears began to river down his cheeks. “Poor old Burma,” he said. It was the first time she had seen her father cry.

Now, as Robin watched the car drive down the street, her father’s shoulders high and tense, she thought of that day, of the way her stomach clenched while she watched her father wipe the tears from his face with the backs of his hands. It was like the time her father had shaved off his mustache, making him unrecognizable. It was like the time she had watched him dancing with his friend’s wife at a wedding, his hands looking bizarrely large on the small of a strange woman’s back. It was like staring at a picture until the features blurred and ran together, something familiar turned frightening, something known turned mysterious and changed and very far away.