“Late again? You limp-dick bastard.”
Thayer met his wife, Laura, at the door to their apartment just as she was leaving. Her hair was down, falling over her shoulders, and she was wearing too much makeup, a silk scarf wrapped about her neck. She stood blocking the doorway, leaning on one leg, her head cocked to the side, her mouth a wicked smirk, her eyes daring, just daring, him to say something.
Thayer dropped his eyes to the ground. He stepped out of her way.
“The dumb bastard can’t do anything right,” he heard her say as she stormed past him. “I swear, If I’d only married a real man...”
Standing there, Thayer could smell perfume and alcohol, hanging in the air like the trail of a musky animal.
After a minute or two, Thayer sighed, and entered his dark apartment. He turned the dial on the wall and, with a dull hum, the glass tubes lining the corners of the living room came alive, filling the space with an orange glow. There were a couple of low-hanging pipes to the right of the main doorway that were used to hang jackets and sweaters; he tossed his own jacket over one of these, not bothering to hang it properly. He shuffled to the kitchen, came back with a torn chunk of bread, slices of cheese, some cubed meat. He flopped down in his threadbare easy chair in the corner (one of a pair he and Laura had gotten when they were first married; his wife’s was in the bedroom), sighed loudly, and ate a little bit of what was on his plate.
When he was done he stood, dropped his plate in the kitchen, and walked slowly to the bedroom. The room was small, with the bed as its centerpiece; a tall wooden dresser against one wall; another wall hung with framed paintings of him and his wife posed and smiling. In the largest of the paintings, Laura’s smile looked, to Thayer, stretched, too big for her face. His wife’s easy chair sat in one corner.
Thayer moved to the dresser, knelt, both knees popping audibly in the still room, and pulled the bottom drawer open. He submerged his hand in his neatly pooled undergarments, reached into the bottom back corner and felt around until his fingers brushed hard metal. He gripped the cool handle of his father’s blunderblast and pulled it free of its hiding spot.
Feeling melancholy, missing his father, he sat on the bed admiring the construction of this ancient device. It was heavy, its barrel of tarnished metal, its handle deeply oiled darkened wood; beautiful. The revolving chamber was in good shape; it held six lead slugs. Holding the gun, turning it in his hands, he could feel its violence; a jittery itch in the pit of his stomach; a rising flush in his cheeks; beading sweat on his upper lip, a drop falling, specking the old metal. The gun is simple, his father had once said to him. It is unyielding. It is not cowardly; it does not fold under pressure. It had been a long time since he’d felt its weight in his hand; it had been a long time since he’d thought about his father.
They’d had to leave the little motorized machine buggy, and the mobility and shelter it provided, behind them as the pathway narrowed, trudging on foot, skirting the deep crevasses and sheer drop-offs, making their way up the mountainside. The rain pounded their exposed heads, flung relentlessly from the Maelstrom above, making their progress slow, and treacherous, and slick with gray mud. It took them half the day, but, following the path that spiraled around a large rock spire, stabbing the sky like the tip of a spear, they came out over a vast ravine, and a young Thayer, on the verge of his manhood, gasped, his eyes widening at the immensity of the sight.
He’d been terrified to leave the Machine, to travel on the outside; the Maelstrom, it was called. His father had been uncharacteristically gruff. “My father took me,” he said, looking down at his son, his eyes set in a grave line that matched those crossing his forehead, “and now I’ll take you.”
Marrow’s Pit, it was called; a huge opening in the side of the mountain, dropping into darkness. Spires of pointed rock rose on all sides, jutting up into the Maelstrom like fingers dipped in tumultuous flood waters; steep cliffs worn smooth against the weather. Thayer stood with his father on a small barren clearing, looking across at the metal drainage pipes jutting from the other side of the pit, watching a steady stream of mechanical junk, trash, and excrement mixed into a gray sludge flowing endlessly from each pipe, cascading into the blackness below. As he stood there, looking across the great chasm, a furred carcass floated from the opening, riding atop the indiscernible muck. Even from this distance he could see one wide-open eye, hypnotic; it winked at him, or it seemed to, then fell.
Thayer shuddered and clutched his father. “That’s the Machine,” he whispered. “That’s where we live.”
His father looked at him sharply, but said nothing.
After several minutes, standing there, the rain forgotten, his father said, “Alright, shall we get on with it?”
His father lifted the blunderblast from the waistband of his pants and held it out to him. Starring at it, reluctant, Thayer took it, using both hands to carry its weight.
“Now,” his father said, “you’ll only get to do this once, so listen carefully to what I say. My father gave me this weapon when I was old enough to handle it, just as I will give it to you. It’s old, very old. There was a time when the Machine made a lot of these devices, but that time is long passed, ancient history. It’s engineering is lost to us now. Just like so many things, it’s forgotten.” His father was starring distantly into the pit, his voice dropped low so that Thayer could barely make out, “We’re so helpless here, but what can we do?”
His father had then shown him how to use the gun--cocking back the hammer, aiming, pulling the trigger, bracing for recoil. He was allowed only a single shot, his father explained. There were few bullets left and he would one day bring his own son out here for the same purpose.
He’d never forgotten how shooting the gun had felt; how the blast had echoed off the cliff walls of Marrow’s Pit; the wrists in both hands numb and tingly; the acrid sting of smoke; the echo fading, slowly and reluctantly, down into the black pit; it had felt powerful, and made him sick.
Thayer, sitting alone on his marital bed, lifted his father’s gun (he still thought of the blunderblast as his father’s, though his father had been dead many years now); he felt its weight in his hands; sighting down the barrel, he aimed. He came to the painting of him and his wife, crossed the small nub at the end of the barrel over his wife’s smiling face. Her lips were parted in a sneer. He imagined pulling the trigger, blowing those teeth from that mocking grin. He imagined yelling, You’ve bullied me for the last time, you bitch! Blazing fire and smoke, laughing like a loon, blasting again and again and again.
But he had no children to pass his father’s blunderblast down to; what did it matter?