Ben leaned in, urged the others to scoot closer. When they had shrunk their triangle, he reached into the bag at his feet and removed a wooden box.
“Ooh, the evidence would suggest that you have been shopping,” Ralph said.
Ralph had been a personal injury lawyer in what they called “the life.” Before their wives moved them to Santa Fe, so they could kill time.
“Guilty, your honor,” Ben said.
“For me? You shouldn’t have,” Ennis said. “Mystery box. What do you think’s in it, Ben?”
Ben pursed his lips, not in the mood. He lifted the lid. Inside lay three identical over-under derringers.
Ralph and Ennis stared at them, then at Ben.
“One for each of us,” Ben said. “Lattes, anyone?”
They had a date. Today was not it. Today was for prep. If history was any guide, today — like every day before — would confirm their commitment to fewer such days.
Per their new habit, they had arrived within minutes of each other at the patio outside Quintana’s Cups. It had become a daily deal, time they could subtract from the surplus of each day.
The three found each other quite by accident, arriving on their own one Thursday a year earlier, aimless beyond escape from the clutches of their spouses. After purchasing coffees that day, one by one they had taken seats at a civil remove from the others. None of them had brought a book, so they busied themselves with their phones. Every so often, one would look up as if bidden, and randomly scan the trees, hoping to catch a glint off the goggles of a sniper, or, in lieu of anything quite so dramatic, perhaps to find an answer to “what next?”
Eventually, one of them pushed past schoolboy cynicism and broke the ice. What next but the first-date dance? They learned that except for the details, they were pretty much the same. On the downhill slide.
“What’s next?” Ralph asked.
“More,” Ben said.
“Of what?” Ralph said.
“This,” Ennis said.
After the guys checked out the derringers, Ben closed the box and put it in the bag.
“Don’t you just love Santa Fe?” Ben asked, staring at Ralph.
“Why would that be?”
“Decent connections to Albuquerque?”
“Reminds me, my clients didn’t need a connection.”
“They didn’t fly?”
“They had the only connection that matters anymore,” Ralph said. “Smart phone. Seriously, everybody running around with their phones. Back in the day, I didn’t need minimum two bars. I didn’t need a web site. Now, everybody’s got one.”
Ben knew where Ralph was going. So did Ennis. They both thought Ralph was spiraling into a state of single-note dudgeon.
“What did I have? I’ll tell you. Billboards. Absolutely killed. We put them by intersections. Drivers reading our billboards, they ran into each other. Who you gonna call?”
“Trust busters?” Ben and Ennis moaned.
They chuckled. Ennis had been mostly listening, sipping his cappuccino.
“Why do you love Santa Fe?” he asked.
“Sarcastic,” Ben said. “What’s not to love, right? Don’t get me started.”
Ben didn’t want to state the obvious — “Art, red and green chile, the air” — because he didn’t care. The place had energized Sharon, his wife, providing her new walls and the task of finding things to hang on them.
The city enervated him. From busy to bummin’. Same-same, all day long.
Ben had managed a small chain of boutique hotels. Nothing about it prepared him for not managing a small chain of boutique hotels. It had been months since anyone told him about “the meth mess in 102. Straws, ballpoint pens, urine, folded foil. Somehow, dogshit in the carpet.”
“Actually, the airport here sucks,” Ennis offered. “If you need to fly. Glad I don’t. Not any more.”
“And before?” Ralph asked. “You ever get your wings?”
“Nope,” Ennis said. “Fear of falling.”
Ennis had graduated MIT in aeronautical engineering, self-funded some prototype UAS designs, sold one to a large aerospace company. Foreign policy poured gas on the opportunities in drone warfare. Before long, he and his partners were rolling in it, tweaking tools to blast rebels and other suspicious characters from the oil-rich scablands of the Middle East.
“Right place, right time,” he said. “I guess.”
“Until that school bus,” Ralph said. “I coulda owned you if I had been repping those Houthis.”
Ennis said nothing. It was an unkind poke, but what could he do about operator error, a drone strike that killed dozens of children?
“Kind of in the crosshairs, right?” Ben said.
“Sorry?” Ennis said.
“P.C. types,” Ben said. “Protesting drones. Joystick cowboys and all?”
“I prefer to think about all the pilots we kept alive.”
“To do what? Fly people like us to Santa Fe?”
“Maybe they like art,” Ralph said.
Ennis didn’t. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate it. It was just that he couldn’t understand why someone would devote their life to imagining cowboys, hung on walls until someone stopped to look at them bucking skyward. And move on to the next slice of alien life.
He realized he was contradicting himself. He built stuff. He just didn’t want stuff, least of all stuff that didn’t do anything but hang. It was an odd leap from that to thoughts of his underperforming penis.
He saw himself as a walking testament to loss. If he wasn’t inventing, he swirled like smoke through the home and social life Donna so clearly relished. She craved the big house, the furnishings, the space-age kitchen.
In Santa Fe, he followed her and their realtor dutifully and mutely in search of “a new home.” For some reason, they led him into an upgraded casita. From the outside, it looked like a peasant hovel. Inside, Ennis was struck by the enormity of its constricted space. It had everything a person could want. It was simple. Three rooms. Neat, clean, essential.
A place for a wide bed and end tables, to hold water and books for the night.
A restroom with the three kings of porcelain: tub, toilet, sink.
And a sitting area, galley kitchen on one side, armchairs and ottomans facing each other across a low, rough-hewn coffee table.
“Cute,” Donna said. “Too cute. Any cuter, and it would disappear.”
“We live in a museum,” Ennis told his fellow expats, after Donna identified the place where they eventually settled. “Keeps Donna busy. Donna, and the staff.”
“We had a housekeeper, before,” Ralph said. “She sued us for wages, if you can believe that. We paid her. She said we owed her more. Based on what? Minimum wage? She fired us. Maybe they sent her back.”
Their conversations seldom strayed much from random thoughts on current events, critical appraisals of their past lives. Ben and Ralph skirted mention of “the call.” Still, they all knew it hung like a huge accusing finger over their every attempt at jocularity. Four months before, sitting in their same places, wrapped in winter clothing, Ennis felt the vibration, answered. All color ran from him as he listened.
“Was anyone home?”
He listened a bit more. “OK. I’ll fly out.” He paused again. “Well, I can — if you need me.”
Someone had secured explosives to a small drone and flown it into his house back in Maryland. The fire consumed much of the structure. Their son lived nearby and was handling things. Whoever launched the attack sent a manifesto to the New York Times.
Ennis wasn’t the same after that. He listened mostly, thoughts elsewhere. His occasional comments seemed forced. He laughed after sharing simple news with no overlay of irony or absurdity.
One day, he shared a story about standing to the side with Donna, inside a gallery, as a couple from upstate New York regaled the gallerist with their travel logistics. Incredulous and mocking, he assumed the voice of the wife:
“No, we’re upstate, he’s a teacher, so we only go on school breaks. We fly from there, not from JFK, because it’s cheaper. They charge more to fly from JFK. The airport food in Rochester is much better, anyway. They have these sandwiches with meat and cheese but no tomatoes. Harold” — the husband — “just loves them, don’t you, sweetie?”
Ennis told how the gallerist laughed and chatted and tried to feign interest, even though he knew these two were just passing through and couldn’t afford a thing.
“God, I bet he just wanted to shoot himself,” Ennis said, “after shooting them,” and sailed away on his thoughts.
They all went quiet, sipping coffee, listening to the breeze moving leaves.
“We could do that, you know?” Ralph eventually said.
“Do what?” Ben asked.
“What Ennis said. Shoot ourselves.”
“Harsh,” Ben said, but Ralph cross-examined both and cited the evidence of their spiritual malaise and disengagement from any productive or remunerative pursuits.
“Hell,” he said, “we’re bored. Depressed, probably. We don’t need money. We could go back to work, but what for? Now’s the time to spend it, right, but I’ve got more than I need. How about you guys?”
Ben and Ennis nodded, letting Ralph’s closing argument settle in.
“Got hemorrhoids,” Ennis said. “More than I need. Eight inches less colon. Wear a diaper.”
“I never learned to do anything else but work,” Ben said. “I loved it. Maybe too much. Is this what divorce is like?”
“No idea,” Ralph said. “Lucky, I guess. She does her thing. I do … this.”
“Well, guess I better see what Donna needs,” Ennis said, standing up and leaving his cup where he had set it.
Ben carried his cup and saucer to the self-bussing tub. If I had less money, he thought, I’d have less to worry about.
“Tomorrow?” he asked.
Ralph and Ennis flapped their hands as they strolled off.
Ben arrived early on the chosen day. He saw Ralph and Ennis coming. They halfheartedly lifted hands in greeting. Ben waited while they got coffee. They took their chairs, settled in, let out held-in breath.
“Thought about it,” Ennis said. “I’m in.”
“Me, too,” Ralph said. “I don’t want how it is now to be how it is every day of the rest of my life, especially if it turns out I’m one of those people who hang around forever. Nope.”
“So,” Ennis said, “how does this work? I’m not sure I can shoot myself.”
“Not necessary,” Ben said.
“I mean, we’re winners, right?” Ennis said. “Winners don’t do this. Do you have the guts? I don’t.”
“We were winners,” Ralph said. “We’re empty. What’s to lose?”
“It takes guts,” Ben said. “Time to man up.”
He explained that each derringer was loaded. They would sit close. Each would aim at the person to their right. “Impossible to miss,” he said. “This way, it’s not suicide. It’s a three-way murder. We all fire on three. Anybody chickens out, it’s prison for life. Worse than Santa Fe. Clear?”
The others thought about it. Was this really what they wanted? Could they look at art for the next twenty years? Play golf? Sip martinis and talk about looking at art and playing golf?
After a couple of minutes, Ennis looked at Ben.
“Let’s end this shit,” he said.
“I hear that,” Ralph said.
Ben let them choose their weapons. “Scoot in,” he said, and they did.
“Aim your guns right at the temple, OK? All set?”
They nodded. Ben began.
“One … “
Ennis realized he was guilty, guilty as hell, but not enough for this.
Ralph concluded that, in a court of law, he could offer no plausible defense for this.
Ben knew that he wanted only to see the headlines after this.
When the moment passed, and the guns remained silent, he looked at his associates. They looked at him, at their guns. This was still better than that.
“Consider them a gift,” Ben said. “You never know when you might need them.”
Then they sipped their coffees, and waited for something to talk about.