They’re regulars at Gray’s Sporting Goods, and not the regulars you’d expect—–fishermen, marksmen, student athletes—no, they’re an ancient man in a wheelchair and his equally old, but able-bodied wife. New-hires soon learn that they’ll never buy anything and let them be. A department head or manager will approach and say, “How are my favorite customers doing today?” or “I’ve got your skis on hold in the back!” as if they’d ever attempt such a task. And Trudy will repeat some version of the same joke, a play on their rhyming names—something like, “Trudy is fine, but I think Rudy is moody.”
While Trudy makes small talk, Rudy sits with one leg crossed, arms folded at his waist, and he grins as if he’s a forgotten jack-o-lantern whose bottom lip is falling from gravity and decay. He hasn’t spoken to anyone there in years, but the employees—young women especially—adore him for his loving puppy-dog eyes.
Dementia spared little time in taking Rudy following a fall down the stairs a few years back, when he tripped over their terrier and hit his head on the front door. Since then, the dog—who always looked old, even compared to them—died and Trudy didn’t replace him, as wheeling Rudy around provided her enough activity. Rudy still walks the house and will occasionally rise from his wheelchair when they are out, such as now, as he wobbles on weak legs to inspect the golf clubs.
Rudy reaches for a titanium putter, head turned through the act, engaging Trudy as a child who’s been told not to touch the cookies until they cool, testing her authority.
“Now, Rudy,” she says, “I know for a fact you have one just like that at home.”
His arm lowers limp to his side as his Thanksgiving jack-o-lantern grin grows a little longer. He returns to his chair and Trudy wheels him on to the next section of the store, but not before removing a handkerchief from her purse to wipe his nose, which has had a slow drip since the weather turned.
“Hey, kids, how’s it going today?” asks Otis, who’s young—and old—enough to be their son, had they any children.
“Well, you know,” Trudy says, short of breath, “we can’t get out of here without coming to see you.”
“Me?” Otis erupts in mad laughter. “Hell, he doesn’t want to see me. He wants to hold one of these beauties.” He gestures broadly, as if a king telling his prince that the kingdom will one day belong to him. Otis grunts as he stands. “How ‘bout this beauty here, Rudy?” He unlocks the glass case, slides the door open, and presents Rudy with a Browning Buck Mark.
Rudy grips the pistol, which shakes in his hand as if it’s a live firehose, and he touches the metal up and down with his other hand. He raises his left arm perpendicular to his body, rests his wrist on it, and aims at a banner hanging from the ceiling until the air conditioning twists the face of the banner to him. He fakes a soft recoil and pushes a mouthful of breath through his lips to imitate a gunshot.
“Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?” Otis says. Rudy relinquishes the pistol to him. “But you’re more of a rifle guy. I know.” Otis secures the pistol and retrieves the prize. “Now, I know you’ll like this one.” He hands Rudy a Ruger 10/22 with a black laminate stock.
Rudy’s face lights up as he rubs his hands up and down the rifle, as if he’s become reacquainted with a lost love or a childhood dog.
“You know, it’s strange,” Trudy says. “I’ve seen him shoot a gun two, maybe three times in my life, but he’s just crazy about that one.”
A couple years before his accident, Trudy convinced Rudy to sell his Ruger rifle. “It used to make me feel safe, you having that,” she said, “but now I feel like it’ll just get used against us.” Rudy respected his wife’s wish to get the rifle out of the house and they opted instead for a security system, whose monthly subscription she’s long allowed to lapse.
Rudy flashes Trudy his puppy-dog eyes, still sliding the tips of his fingers along the barrel. “Every time, Rudy. You beg me for that every time.” Rudy’s gaze falls to the ground, foiled again by his frugal and fearful wife, and he presents the rifle to Otis, who says, “Someday, ol’ boy.”
“Well, Otis,” Trudy says, “I’m plum tuckered out. And I’ve still got some bags to bring in from the dollar store. You ‘bout ready, Rudy? It’ll be dark soon.” She wipes his nose once more and tightens his scarf.
“Alright, then,” Otis says. “I’ll see you in a couple days. Don’t give up, Rudy. She’ll give in one of these days and you’ll bring it home.”
Rudy and Trudy arrive home in their white minivan just as the day has nearly disappeared. Trudy had wanted to get home not only because she fears driving at night, but because, when day turns to night and night to day—twice each day—Rudy becomes shockingly coherent, and for a few minutes Trudy’s husband is returned to her and they can reminisce or, most important to her, Rudy can ask how she’s doing, a small act of kindness that makes caring for him worthwhile. With their days numbered, every conversation she can have with her love is precious.
Trudy leaves the wheelchair in the van and leads Rudy to the side entrance, through the garage, and to the den, which has become their bedroom as Trudy can’t help Rudy up and down the stairs anymore. “You stay right here,” she says, releasing him onto the loveseat. She crosses the room to the record player and begins playing Elvis Presley. Rudy sways to one side and the other to the gentleness of His Hand in Mine as Trudy retrieves their things.
Halfway down on her first trip upstairs, Trudy hears the corded phone ring in the kitchen. “I’ve got it!” she says instinctively. “It could be the doctors,” she says through a sigh as she climbs the stairs she has just descended.
Typically, Trudy doesn’t have to worry much about her husband. So long as she plays music or the television, he is satisfied to sink into the loveseat and be entertained and to drift in and out of sleep until Trudy leads him to bed. But this evening, Rudy is energized and pivots on the arm of the loveseat and waddles down the hall, just as Trudy holds the phone to her ear and says, “Oh, Gloria! Did you make it down to Florida in one piece?”
Rudy reaches the screen door at the side of the garage, pushes his body into and through it and it slaps against the house behind him, all unheard by Trudy. He follows the cinderblock wall until it fades into grass and turns to climb the gradually sloping lawn. This is hardly the first time Rudy has escaped into the backyard, but he has failed to do so for so long that Trudy doesn’t think to peek out the kitchen window, where Rudy is crossing through the birdseed that has fallen from Trudy’s many birdfeeders, which hang from the broad oak that reaches beyond the property lines on both sides.
At the back of their yard, becoming overwhelmed by honeysuckle bushes, stickers, and vines stands an unlocked shed in not much better condition than Rudy. In the shed is Rudy’s gardening equipment, untouched since Trudy had to hire a neighbor boy to mow their lawn and tend what remains of the garden. He hasn’t trimmed at the property line since he contracted poison ivy two summers ago.
Although he is wheezing, Rudy hasn’t lost any momentum as he falls into the wooden double doors of the shed and throws them open. He enters knowing exactly where he wants to go, passing hoses, hoes, rakes, and sheers. He kneels at the work bench. Rudy opens a toolbox and pulls out a large flathead screwdriver.
Sweating and grunting, Rudy loosens nails from a floorboard beneath the work bench. He leans all his weight against the screwdriver and falls on his side as the last nail pops loose. Unfazed by his fall, Rudy collects himself and tosses aside the board, face glowing in excitement and exhaustion as he pulls forth a Ruger 10/22 with a black laminate stock.
Years ago, when Trudy insisted that he rid them of the rifle, Rudy couldn’t bring himself to do so. Although he never shot it, he felt that he would one day need it and felt, like many men his age, that he would be lesser a man if he didn’t own a rifle. So Rudy had waited for Trudy to walk the dog, then lifted a floorboard and hid his rifle someplace where she’d never find it.
Trudy is now attempting to remove herself from Gloria’s grasp, stopping and starting empty phrases to convince Gloria to release her. “Well, I better…” “Hey, I’ve got to…” “Good talking to…” Finally, Trudy asserts herself and promises to call Gloria after she gets settled in. “That woman!” Trudy says as she rushes to finish bringing in the bags from the dollar store so that she can enjoy her time with Rudy when he “wakes up”—what she calls his coherent moments.
Trudy gathers the last of the bags and waits to be sure the van hatch closes. She enters the garage and leaves the bags to be taken upstairs later. The record has finished playing. “Rudy, dear?” she calls, “Have you woken up yet?” She pushes her neck out and walks down the hall, expecting Rudy to greet her in his deep, gentle voice. “I’m sorry I was so long, sweetheart. That was Gloria and you know how she—”
Rudy is returning to the house now, rifle in hand, birdseed crackling beneath his feet and sticking in the soles of his shoes. Trudy desperately scans the room and decides that, earlier, he must have followed her. She calls his name repeatedly as she goes upstairs, assuming Rudy has found his way into the bedroom where they used to sleep.
As Trudy turns down the upstairs hall, Rudy opens the screen door with the barrel of his rifle and pushes through the unlatched door, making his way back to the den. When Trudy discovers that Rudy is nowhere upstairs, she assumes that he has escaped to the backyard. She rushes out so quickly that she doesn’t see the trail of birdseed leading to the den.
When Trudy fails to find Rudy outside, she begins a full panic and rushes back to the house to call the police. As she begins to climb, yet again, the stairs, Trudy hears a noise from the den that takes her breath. The needle has dropped on a record and the speaker pops, then warm fuzz fills the silent air and docile strings follow. She can’t yet recognize the tune, but she’s sure that someone has changed the record.
“Rudy? Rudy, you scared me. I didn’t realize you had woken up. Where did you go?” Trudy reaches the den, turns and screams when she sees her husband holding his rifle. Frank Sinatra begins singing from inside the stereo and Trudy now recognizes the tune—In the Wee Small Hours.
At the sight of Rudy’s rifle and the sound of Frank Sinatra, Trudy recalls a conversation she had somehow pushed out of her mind, something they had talked about on a candid night fifteen years prior. “We’re not getting any younger,” Rudy had said. “And I think it’s safe to say we’re never going to have any kids.”
“I certainly hope so,” Trudy had said, “at our ages.”
“Trudy, I can’t live without you.” It was an emotional statement from a man who prefers to keep things light, although he had been sipping a glass of bourbon and Sinatra always brought forth Rudy’s romantic side.
Trudy was taken aback. “I love you, too, Rudy dear.”
Although Trudy’s sight is locked onto the rifle, her mind is lost in the past. She’s trying to remember what Rudy had said next. Her memory stops and starts. She closes her eyes and it comes to her. She speaks what Rudy had said. “I want us to go out together.”
“So we won’t burden each other.”
Trudy gasps and opens her eyes. Her heart bounces around in her chest. “Did you just say that or did I imagine it? Rudy, dear, are you awake? Did you just speak to me, Rudy?” She squints to inspect his eyes through dim lamp light.
Rudy’s eyes engage with her and she’d be sure he’s awake if only he’d speak. But he doesn’t speak—he extends his arms and presents the rifle to his wife.
“Is that why you’re always wanting to go to that store? You were trying to remind me of our promise? Dear, I swear I’d forgotten all about that night. I just got so busy taking care of you I forgot. Rudy, I’m so sorry!”
Rudy shakes his arms and rattles the rifle. Trudy wipes her palms against her slacks and takes it from him. She begins to cry. “Rudy, do you really want this? Speak to me, Rudy! I need to know that you’re in there.”
She squints again. It could be her cataracts or the tears in her eyes, or just wishful thinking, but Trudy sees him transform, sees his eyes glaze over and sees him hunch at the shoulders and become weaker. Trudy extends her arms, brings the rifle near Rudy’s face, and wipes his nose with her sleeve. It had seemed too easy then, fifteen years ago when they agreed to die together by their own means, but now, facing Trudy is a frightened, aging lapdog and she can’t find it in her heart to put him down.
Trudy is suddenly terrified of the rifle and she holds it like a tissue with a dead spider inside, then hides it in the garage. She returns to the den, puts on the evening news and holds Rudy, crying gently until he’s ready for bed. Once Rudy’s asleep, Trudy retrieves the gun and sneaks into the backyard and hides it behind his toolboxes and places a plastic tarp over it, thinking that Rudy hasn’t been in the shed for years, thinking that he’ll never find his rifle before she can speak with Otis and find someone to buy it, believing that this will never happen again.
Kevin McMahon resides in Bloomington, Indiana. Shortly following his thirtieth birthday, Kevin decided to leave the corporate world and finally commit to his writing. You can find updates on Twitter @Kev_McMa and links to his work at kevinmcmahonwriting.com.