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Reginald Blisterkunst, Ph.D.
Among the Remembered Saints: My Life and Subsequent Death
Pluto Wars

Greg Chandler
"Bee's Tree"
"Local Folk"
"Roland's Feast"
"Pond Story "

Doug Childers
"The Baptism"

Gene Cox
The Sunset Lounge

Clarke Crutchfield
"The Break-In"
"The Canceled Party"
"The Imaginary Bullet"

Jason DeBoer
"The Execution of the Sun"

Deanna Francis Mason
"The Daguerreian Marvel"

Dennis Must

Charlie Onion
"Love Among the Jellyfish"
Pluto Wars
"Feast of the Manfestation"

Chris Orlet
"Romantic Comedy"

Daniel Rosenblum
"A Full Donkey"

Deanna Frances Mason
"The Daguerreian Marvel"

Andrew L. Wilson
"Fat Cake and Double Talk"


The Imaginary Bullet
Clarke Crutchfield

When my brother Robert came home for the next to the last time, I was ready for him.

I was out back shooting baskets—or rather I was aiming the ball at the spot on the backboard where the hoop had been till it wobbled and fell after a hard rim shot. Still, I was making a fair percentage of shots just above a rusty square with nail holes, the goal or the shadow of the goal, I guess, when I heard his car.

Robert was a quiet guy but you could hear his car coming a mile off. He was driving a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle that whined over the mudholes in our mother's long driveway as if something hurt, as if each bump was a mountain. I came around front and found my three sisters there to greet him, looking nervous, the ninnies. Of course it was up to me, the task of cheering him up. I was his brother, and it was up to me.

When Robert got out of the car it was a bit of a letdown, really, after what Mother said about what happened to him. He smiled shyly, like always, and shook my hand, and he even let Cynthia, our eldest sister, give him a hug. He looked the same, thin as a blade, just my size, though I was a skinny seventeen and he was twenty-six. He looked a bit tired with those shadows around his eyes, but hey, you'd look beat too after a six-hour drive from Roanoke. I couldn't believe the way the girls acted. They huddled around him as if he were about to break and they were going to have to pick up the pieces right there on the driveway. But he was all right. It was going to be all right.

"Tyler," he said to me.

"Robert," I returned the greeting. "You couldn't have picked a better day to come back."

"No," he said and blinked like someone who has come from a cellar. We had the best yard in town, no doubt about it. Tulip poplars and sugar maples and dogwoods abounded in no particular arrangement, each anchored by a tangle of honeysuckle. Those trees had been around for a hundred years but when it was breezy, like today, and their their leaves filled with wind they looked insubstantial, apt to sail away, past our Mother's frame house and into the woods beyond. Robert was home, all right.

We managed to get him from the driveway and into the parlor without breaking him. Mother greeted him fondly and formally. They talked about how his trip had been, and the weather, and she told him she had his room ready upstairs, still full of the radios and stereo equipment he'd built in high school. Then Mother said that awful word.

"How are you feeling, Robert. Is your depression better?"

We froze, Robert, my sisters and I. Mother had said something bad, uniting us in shock. A week before, Mother announced that Robert was depressed. Robert worked as an engineer at a TV station on top of a mountainside. His boss called Mother and said that Robert had gone in for treatment for a while, and then he was coming home for a nice vacation.

Mother thanked the boss and immediately sent her son a check for $25. "Nothing makes you feel better like a little money," she reasoned. It made sense to us.

But on this day, we didn't expect her actually to use the word. It was like one of those frozen schoolday mornings when our schoolteacher mother said "damn" while grinding the starter of our cold Corvair. It caught us so off guard.

"I'm fine," Robert said at last. "I got something for it."

That was all right then. Could be he had something you could treat with a pill, like blood pressure. But he spoke as if he were under fathoms of water.

"I'm glad, Robert," Mother said. "I'm sorry you've been ill. I want you to tell me if there's anything I can do."

"I will," he said. He was still standing, his hands in his pockets. We were all standing; none of us had thought to sit down.

This was getting silly. I spoke up. "Robert," I said, "Let's go to the state park and look at the river."

"I don't think so," Robert said.

"Come on, Robert," I said. "It's a great day for it. We can go to the cliffs and look for sharks' teeth."

He was facing the window, but he half-turned and considered me. Surely he wasn't about to let me lose face in front of our mother and sisters.

"Okay, let's go," he said.

Everybody relaxed; Mother and the girls looked at me with approval. No one else knew what to do with him. I had come up with something.

We climbed into his Volkswagen and drove to the park, my brother and I. The girls stayed behind. I suppose they thought we had something to discuss man to man. Our father had been dead ten years and there seemed to be a general feeling that at last I had a role to play. I did not know anything about a role but I did have a plan.

Our father once joked that if World War III ever came and the Russians invaded, he was going to take us to the beach under thes horsehead cliffs at Westmoreland State Park and we would take our stand. Those chalky sandstone cliffs above the Potomac River looked like the beginning of time, or the end of it. They slumped like somebody's tired shoulders but wore a coat of summer greenery, oaks and poplars leafing out with all the energy of youth. Fossils of whalebones and sharks' teeth lodged in the cliffs like heirlooms in the attic of your great-grandmother, but at their feet the river sparkled, fresh as green leaves.

He parked in the lot next to the beach and we got out and walked. It was high season but there weren't many people around. Some were lying on the sand while others were having cookouts, crouching under awnings and swatting flies.

"Isn't this great?" I said as we walked on the sand. I took my shoes off; he kept his on.

"Sure," Robert said.

"Feel better?"

"No," he said.

"I find a good day always cheers me up," I babbled. "I mean, no matter what you're worried about, if it's nice out, and you're by the water, it seems like no matter how bad a mood you're in, you feel better. Don't you?"

"No," he said.

I must have looked taken aback, because he conceded, "It might work for some people. But sometimes it doesn't work."

"But it's all in your head, isn't it, how you feel? It's how you look at things, don't you think?"

He didn't answer. My plan, which was to show him that sadness was all in his head and life was pretty good if you just stayed focused on things like a river and sunlight and horsehead cliffs, was falling apart. It was another case of me trying to be an adult and blowing it.

We moved to the edge of the water and started looking for sharks' teeth, something we had done since I was a small child. Robert usually found something. I rarely did.

Robert stopped walking. "Let me ask you something," he said, looking at his feet. "Hypothetical case, okay? Say someone is very, very depressed, and he, or she, shoots himself, or herself. Hypothetical case. If unhappiness is just something in your head, can you be killed by an imaginary bullet?"

Then I saw what he saw. It was a fossilized tooth, as shiny and smooth as if the shark had just lost it.

"Funny question," I said.


Neither of us moved to pick up the shark's tooth.

"Are you joking?" I said.

"Sure. It's a joke. Forget it."

We walked some more and then got back in the car. The Beetle labored up the cliffside road.

When we got home Robert collapsed on the couch and lay with his hands over his eyes. I went out back and threw a basketball at my imaginary goal until dinner, not wanting to talk to Mother or the girls. They could see I'd failed. I went back to being a kid brother.

Robert stayed on the couch for most of the next two weeks, until his vacation was over. The Beetle whined as it bumped down the driveway and out of sight.

We heard nothing about him till a couple of weeks later, when the state police called Mother to say that Robert's boss had reported him missing. A search was under way. A few hours later a state trooper came to the house, took off his hat when he saw Mother, and gave us the rest of the news.

I talked to the police later but forgot most of what they said about the circumstances. One of the details that stayed with me was that the bullet Robert had used was a .38.

Three days later, after my brother came home for the last time, we watched as the Reverend Hoke, never a polished speaker, stammered worse than usual and mopped his face more than the heat seemed to require. Still, we agreed, it was a fine eulogy. It was really a beautiful day and the oaks in the churchyard, very old and very green, made good shade for the burial. It was the sort of day that ought to have lifted anyone's spirits.

One thing I wish I'd asked Robert, though, back on the beach. If you could be killed by an imaginary bullet, then why couldn't you be saved by a day on the river with no clouds at all, and old oaks making green the horsehead cliffs?



About the Author

Clarke Crutchfield is a copy editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, to which he also contributes occasional articles. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and a lifelong Virginian, he has written short stories for WAG under his own name, and travel articles, book reviews and commentaries for the magazine under the pen name of Arthur Alexander Parker.


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