“Chekhov’s Rule”

When I first met Walker, he had a job at the tackle shop on the river and a classic early-seventies Chevy Nova, competition orange. Still had all his teeth. Now, the job, the car, and half his teeth are gone, and he’s on Disability, like so many of the people around here who’ll do anything to avoid work. I’m not sure what his so-called disability is. The inability to chew solid foods?
Sure, every life has its ups and downs. But here the highs happen early, if at all, and they die quickly. And, if they ever come back again, it’s in a bottle, a bong, or a needle.

It was my wife Janine’s idea to move here. When she saw the job opening at the hospital in the little town on the bay, she squealed, “Alaska!” The romance of the far north had her by the heartstrings. She was hunting for houses before I could say a word, and would’ve gone for a yurt in the middle of a swamp if I hadn’t insisted on four solid walls and running water. We’ve been here two years now, and she’s more at home every day. Me? I can feel the hunger out there. This place is getting ready to eat us alive.

* * *

This morning, I was driving to the post office in town when I saw Walker down in the ditch alongside the road, slogging through hip-deep snow, mouth frozen in that toothless pink smile of his, eyes all over the place. The snowplows had left berms like mountain ranges on both shoulders, and more snow was coming down hard. He obviously did not want to take his chances walking in the narrow road. Walker is off a couple notches, for sure, but he’s not stupid. It’s easy to make that mistake, to think that about him. But trust me: crazy and stupid are sometimes two entirely different things.

He was bundled up in a long trench coat but had no hat, and I recognized his curly black hair, plastered with snowflakes, his silver sideburns, those two-tone eyebrows of his. The premature gray makes it hard to guess his age—mid thirties maybe—but, in spite of everything, it’s amazing how handsome he is. Picture a young Mel Gibson. Only even crazier. I wondered why he wasn’t riding the four-wheeler that had replaced his Chevy.

Since Janine and I moved here, I’ve tried to stay friendly with the locals. I really have. It’s cheap insurance. So, I honked my horn. Walker waved one hand high overhead, something big and shiny clutched in his grip. I was already past him when I realized it was an enormous pistol.

Maybe I should’ve turned around and gone back, offered him a lift, tried to stop him from whatever mayhem he intended with that weapon. But I can’t fix what’s wrong with these people, I told myself. Plus, it’s all perfectly legal. Sanity is not a requirement for gun ownership in this state, or any other. I kept driving.

A while back, it occurred to me that I was probably the only man in Cook Point who did not own a firearm. I wanted it to be a matter of principal, but it was beginning to seem simply unwise. So now, I’m just like everyone else. Except, so far, I haven’t felt the urge to shoot road signs and abandoned vehicles.

* * *

But back to Walker in the ditch.

I picked up our mail and drove back home through the still-falling snow. He was nowhere around when I made the turn off the pavement onto our snowed-over side road, so I tried to put him out of my mind. Janine’s shift at the hospital ended at 4:30, but I work at home translating Russian poets nobody’s ever heard of. All day I watched the snow fall wondering what Walker was up to. At five, I put out some snacks for Janine—salami, some cheese—but she didn’t show up at her usual time. By five-thirty I’d called her twice. Went straight to message. Five-forty-five, I tried again. Nothing. The snow kept falling and the forest around the house got darker and darker.

I poured myself a glass of Jameson’s, all the stories that she had brought home from the emergency room unspooling in my brain. The crazy bastard who took a bullet in the stomach when he asked his wife to shoot a pair of handcuffs off his wrists. The six-year-old boy whose stepfather burned all his hair off with a “hillbilly flame thrower” made from a spray can of engine starter and a Bic.

The shit these people do to each other. It amazes me.

One of the older nurses told Janine that it used to be a lot worse, back in the methamphetamine days. She said, “With everyone on heroin now, they’re more likely to kill themselves than anybody else.” I try to take some comfort from that.

At six, it was fully dark, and still no Janine. I was thinking about driving toward town to see if her Subaru was in a ditch somewhere, when two small headlights appeared in our driveway and Walker’s four-wheeler came fishtailing up through the drifts. Janine was riding on the back, arms hugged tight around him, laughing hard about something. When he stopped, she slid off the rig, and landed on her butt. More laughter. Not from me, mind you.

Walker still had his trench coat on, still no hat. No sign of that big handgun now. I looked for that. He glanced up at me standing in the window, trained his squirrelly eyes on me, gave me his gummy smile, and turned the machine back down the driveway.

* * *

]Janine told me she’d stopped to look in on old lady Grackly, who lives next door to the derelict travel trailer that Walker calls home. She couldn’t restart her car when she came out. Her phone was dead too. And, of course, neither Walker nor the old lady had phones of any kind.

“The car battery and the phone battery are both dead?” I scoffed. “You better check your vibrator.”

“Hah ha,” Janine said, peeling off her snowy clothes. “Some days are just like that.”

Yeah, I thought, more and more of them, all the time.

“Luckily,” as she put it, Walker was there to give her a ride home on his four-wheeler. She said, “That would’ve been a tough hike in this new snow.”

Janine isn’t aware that I know that she drops off bags of kibble at Walker’s trailer for the half-dozen sad-looking cats who share the place with him. She knows all their names. How can a person remember the names of someone else’s pets? I mean, really. If we had children, I’d need them to wear name tags.

But that’s so Janine. Lost animals. Lost souls. She can’t resist providing what she thinks everyone needs. More than once, I’ve had to convince myself that what she feels for me is love, not pity. That’s a hell of a distinction for a man to have to make.

Janine said, “Why don’t you like Walker?”

“I saw him walking in the ditch today,” I said. “Carrying a gun.”

“I know. He told me he saw you drive by. He was going to get his four-wheeler back from the Pakula kid.”

“The Pakula kid.” This just keeps getting better. “That one’s out of jail again?”

“Rehab,” she corrected me.

“Heartwarming,” I said. “Was anybody killed?”

“You know,” she said, “it would have been nice if you‘d offered Walker a ride. Or even just asked if he was okay.”

She waited to see if I was going to argue with that.

How could I argue with that?

She nodded to herself, took a piece of salami, and went upstairs. I heard the bathtub running. For someone who was in love with the idea of roughing it in the Great North Woods, Janine spends a hell of a lot of time in that bathtub.

“Plug your phone in, please,” I shouted up the stairs.

“Thank you for reminding me,” came back down.

Believe me, any time an evening starts out this politely, you know it’s going to be a long, hard motherfucker.

* * *

It has stopped snowing now. Walker’s out there somewhere. I’m sure of it. And I’m ready.

Chekhov said that if a gun appears in the first act of a play, a gun has to go off in the last act. He never said it had to be the same gun.

This is my life, here at Cook Point. You want it? Let me know.

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About Richard Chiappone

Rich Chiappone is the author of three story collections. His stories have appeared in Playboy, the Sun, The Catamaran Literary Review, Missouri Review, South Dakota Review, ZYZZYVA and other magazines, and have been presented on BBC radio. Chiappone teaches in the MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a former senior associate editor at Alaska Quarterly Review. He lives in Homer, Alaska with his wife and cats.