Shadow Weight

By Jonathan Rice


The owner of another jewelry store was first. My father's
friend, taken from his home and beaten with boards, a pipe,

brass knuckles, whatever was at hand. They were too organized
to quit for his wallet, or kill before he uttered the answers

they needed for the safe and silent alarm, the switchboard
flashing two states away, and security on the phone

with a list of cues—the declensions of his childhood—a vision
before him between the blows to back and chest and face:

        How many ships in the harbor before the War?
    Thirty or forty. (They practiced mortars for a week.
    I saw the barrels flashing at dusk and the ocean
    exploding to the East. The blasts took seconds
    to reach us, waves of noise rattling shore-stone.)


        What did your father sell to feed the family?
    My mother's necklace. (Which she freely gave. Emerald,
    five gems, set in silver. She wore it every Sunday
    before my father lost his job. I believed her
    when she said it belonged to Spanish monarchs.)


        What was your father's occupation?
    Furniture maker, then day laborer (picking Winesaps
    in his brother's orchard, for which he was paid
    as much as the men housed in tents by the road).

And on, after broken ribs and shattered teeth, his teeth ruined
but the apparitions still running: his father

swaying on the ladder among apple boughs; then wrapping
the necklace in linen, the green echo of gems still visible;

then heavy guns firing far out to sea, and his father crouched
beside him, the flashpoints amidships lighting his face.


I'm nine and holding the .22 rifle.
My grandfather watches

the placement of shots. First
a charred tin can, picked

from the smoldering trash barrel
for the red circle of a tomato

left on the label. Its lettering turned
to ash at my touch and flaked

over the yard like snow. Now his voice
directing: breathe. I ease the trigger

back. Then the can reset, clip after
clip and ten rounds at a time,

until the center's blown out,
the jagged O of a wound pouring light.


Then they took the manager of a mall shop
that sold engagement rings and tennis bracelets.

That night my mother's voice in their room:
he was a black belt for christ-sake.

Thrown from a van at ninety mph, it took days
to identify his remains. This is what it took

for my father to purchase two pistols and keep
my sister and me out of sight in the office

clutter of findings and workbench, loose gems
and invoice. Our father shimmered in the silver

light of security monitors, laying the sharpened glint
of necklaces and princess cut diamonds in platinum

settings to the soft cloth before him, for anyone
who asked. Everyone recorded, we stared at their faces.


My grandfather holds the thirty aught six. There's ovals
of sweat on our shirts like target silhouettes.

This lesson: distance and elevation, windage, and the scope
his own from the War. When he leans forward to aim

his hula girl tattoo bares her breasts from the rise
of his rolled sleeve. Then the drawn breath

and infinite pause. Silence and sunlight. Gnawing
of woodpile termites. I stare two hundred yards out,

and the locust fencepost is a bleached sliver, halved
near pines in the rifle shot echo. This is our summer.

My father, alone in his store, grins above
the Windexed glass to sell their fields of clarity,

and calls once a week, and then every night, to prove
he's safe, to say good-bye more than once.


When it happened, it was cold enough
to snow. We'd closed early, and they followed.

They'd waited at a gas station for us
to pass. My father drove North for an hour.

In an empty parking lot, the lights
cast a sickly copper on my mother's face

and my father's was a blank when he turned
to hand me a pistol—the shadow weight of it

still in my palm. He shut the van door
behind him. They pulled in and drove a half

circle around us, staring, their faces
impassive. I aimed at each, unable to decide.

Then my father lifted his pistol, and we
watched them pass on, tires tracking

snow, the breath of our bodies
lifting visibly in the cold.