Paula Brown’s story, “Paper Man,” lingered in my head for weeks after I read it, and I couldn’t be happier to publish it in NDQ 85 (2018).
It’s a reflection anchored in stark imagery that offers vivid foundation for thinking about the fragility and resilience of life. As spring comes slowly here on the Northern Plains, this story is the perfect companion to the changing seasons.
For more selections from NDQ 85 go here, to purchase a paper copy go here, and to download the entire volume go here. By buying a paper copy or subscribing to the Quarterly, you help us make more great fiction, poetry, and essays available.
One day he came home and said, “I bought you a gun.”
“A gun,” I said. I didn’t go to see the gun. I think I spaced it off.
Then I thought, what would I use a gun for? It can only be used for one thing. There is only one thing you can use a gun for. That would be to kill something. I don’t want to kill anything.
Then I thought, well, that is not true. I kill the flies. I kill them mercilessly. When I am stuck in my work I walk outside on the patio and I kill flies. They don’t know I’m coming and I sneak up on them and I smash them with a flyswatter. Sometimes I get two with one swipe. My mother always said the flies are full of germs. They sit on everything and then there are germs everywhere. And then disease is everywhere. So I don’t care if I kill the flies.
Once I killed a bee. That is a very bad thing, to kill a bee. There are bees on the endangered species list, so you shouldn’t just go around killing bees. But this bee came to a party. It circled the table and scared my son’s girlfriend and made her leave the table. My husband chased it away with a towel. When he left it came back. It wanted my drink. It wanted everybody’s drink. So I folded the cardboard carrier from a six pack of beer and started waving it around. I was trying to scare the bee away with the cardboard, but it kept coming back. Then I took a giant swipe at it and it fell to the ground. But it was still breathing. Then my killer instincts took over and I smashed it with the cardboard. I looked around to see if anybody noticed that I killed a bee. I wasn’t sure if anybody was on my side or not on my side. But nobody noticed there was suddenly a dead bee on the patio.
Once in pharmacology lab I killed two mice. I wasn’t supposed to. The mice were there to be injected with drugs and then observed. I honestly don’t know if the mice were better off dead or injected with the drugs. So there is a slight possibility that I did a kinder thing. The mice should have been afraid of me, but I was afraid of them. I couldn’t bear to touch them so I used a great big mitt like a huge oven mitt to pick up each mouse. One at a time I picked them up with the gigantic protective mitt, and one at a time, I accidentally held them so tight they stopped breathing. After two times the professor said let someone else pick up the mice.
So you see I am already a killer.
My husband said, “You need a gun to protect yourself.”
And I immediately thought, yes. Rattlesnakes. I need protection from rattlesnakes. Terrifying creatures. I once saw a man jump out of a car and pick up a rattlesnake right out of the middle of the road. He picked it up by the tail and it swung its head around and tried to bite him in the leg before he flung it into the ditch. I was never sure if he was trying to help the snake by getting it out of the road or to hurt it by throwing it. Once I was face to face with a rattlesnake, too. It was curled up like a kitten on a bale of hay in the barn. I stared at it for a second while my heart jumped and my mouth went dry. Then I ran to get a shovel. When I returned with the shovel the snake was gone. I was upset and happy at the same time. Upset because now there was a missing rattlesnake somewhere in the hay stack. But happy because even though I had seen people kill snakes, I couldn’t imagine having the nerve to bring the shovel down at the right angle to dissect its head from its body. One doesn’t just practice these things. Besides, a snake is such a big thing. Not like a mouse. It would want to fight back. There would be blood. I didn’t want to kill a snake. Thinking about it, a rattlesnake would even be a tough shot with a gun. I mean you would have to hit it in the head while it was doing that snake thing, waving around from side to side.
Then he said, “I will teach you how to shoot your gun.”
And so he packed up my gun and we went to the gun range. The gun range had bars on the door. Inside were cases full of guns with smiling/unsmiling men standing behind them. One of the men said, “Can I help you?” so I asked him where the bathroom was, not because I needed it but because it’s always a good idea to be prepared when you are in a strange place. He pointed down a hall. I didn’t leave. Instead I signed my name on a paper that said: RELEASE, WAIVER, HOLD HARMLESS, AND INDEMNIFICATION AND ASSUMPTION OF RISK AGREEMENT. My husband gave me ear muffs and goggles. I put them on and we took my gun through the double doors into the gun range.
Inside was a row of wooden booths facing a gray berm. There was carpeting that was mostly grey concrete gaping through brown striped fibers. There was a fan in the ceiling blowing cold air all over the place. There were guns booming at random intervals. He said, “Pick a booth.” I picked the closest booth to the door. He unpacked my gun and showed me the parts. The sights, the slide, the magazine release, the safety. He said, “Always keep the muzzle pointed toward the berm.” The gun was very black. Everything on the gun was all one color, which was black. I couldn’t remember the parts. He kept showing me the parts of the gun. I strained to hear his voice through the ear muffs and the random booming gunshots. I couldn’t remember the parts.
He hung up the target. All along I thought the target was going to be a bullseye, but no, the target was the outline of a man. It was the head and torso of a man. I mean, it had to have been a man’s torso because it didn’t have any hair on its head, so probably not a woman. This was what he meant by “protect myself.” He would teach me to protect myself from this paper man. He showed me how to stand and hold the gun with my hands wrapped around the handle like a cup. To look down the barrel and line up the sights. He said, “Do not shoot at the head. Don’t ever shoot at the head. Aim at the middle of the chest.” He said that like it was so obvious, like it was some unwritten rule. Like at the gun range it was generally known to be bad form to shoot at the head. Maybe you would look like a serial killer if you shot at the head. Maybe one of the gun range people would come over and tell you to get out if you shot a hole in the head.
I said, “What if I accidentally shoot the head?” After all, it wasn’t like the paper man was a snake. It’s head wasn’t moving around anyplace.
He said, “Aim at the middle of the chest because it’s your easiest shot to do the most harm.” Most harm? What I was really hoping for was to hit a foot or a leg, so as not to do any irreparable damage but still look like I was serious. But the paper man didn’t have a foot or a leg, only that gaping head and torso.
I said, “You go first.” He looked so calm. He looked so composed. He fired the gun. The metal bullet casing popped out of the gun up in the air and hit me in the chest. I jumped back. There was a hole through the middle of the paper man’s torso. Then he handed me the gun. I stood with bent arms and held the gun in both hands. I lined up the sites. Everything on the gun was black. It felt like a heavy weight in my hands. It felt like a lit stick of dynamite in my hands. Everything inside and outside of me was shaking and so the gun was shaking too. The sights on the gun kept moving around with my shaking hands. Then I squeezed the trigger with my right index finger. Nothing happened. The trigger was hard to pull. I squeezed tighter with my finger and closed my eyes. The gun fired like a small explosion in my hands. It felt like fifteen firecrackers going off in my hands. The sound of the blast rang through my muffed ears. My hands jerked backward. The bullet made a hole in the paper outside the torso of the man. I laid down the gun with the muzzle pointing at the berm. He said, “Try it again.”
I did not want to pick up the gun again. I did not want to try to remember the parts again. But I also didn’t want to be an ungrateful person. Because, after all, he bought the gun for me. I told myself I could just put my mind away somewhere in my head and shoot the gun with the paper man staring at me and be someone who shoots the gun at the paper man just for fun and maybe if I put my mind away it could be some kind of a sport to shoot at the paper man. I picked it up. The gun was black and cold. He said, “Pull back the slide.” I took my finger off the trigger and put my hand on top of the slide. He said, “The other hand.” The slide was hard to pull. Especially with my other hand. I struggled with the slide. He said, “Keep the muzzle pointed at the berm.” So many things. And the gun was so stubborn. It was stubborn and rigid and cold. Finally the slide clicked into place. And I stood and fired six more shots. Then there were six new holes in the side of the paper man. And there were eight brass bullet casings all over the floor at our feet. The gun left a mess of casings all over the carpet by our feet.
“That was good!” he said. “Even if you didn’t hit the middle, you still would have killed or severely wounded him.”
Killed or severely wounded the paper man! Such a harmless thing, not spreading disease around or landing on my drink. And now it was possibly dead.
He showed me how to load the magazine with eight bullets. Then he pulled back the slide and said, “Try again.” I picked up the gun with the muzzle pointed at the berm. My arms and my hands were shaking. I wasn’t sure if I was shaking from the constant cold air blowing through the gun range or from touching the cold gun. Then I shot the gun eight more times. Every time I squeezed the trigger my shaking moved the gun off the target. Every time I squeezed the trigger I closed my eyes. But then somehow there were eight more holes in the paper man’s torso.
He cranked the pulley and brought the paper man back to our booth. Then he gave me tape to cover up all the bullet holes. I taped over every bullet hole so the paper man looked like new again. The paper man was all fixed up again. Then we pinned the paper man back up on the pulley and we cranked it back out for another go. We sent the killed or severely wounded fixed up paper man out for another go.
Paula Brown is a retired pharmacist and perennial student of the Writers Studio in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has been published in the Whitefish Review, South Dakota Magazine, War, Literature, and the Arts, and The Phoenix Soul. She lives in Tucson with her husband and six dachshunds.