The contest consisted of holding a sawed-off at arms-length and shooting into the air. Whoever didn’t drop it won. No one ever won, especially since they were drunk when they played. And, they never played long before the cops showed up. It started by one of them talking shit about how he could win the contest. Then someone would issue a challenge. Then someone would get the gun. Then the braggart would attempt the feat, drop the gun and the cops would come.
Sometimes someone else could get off a shot before the neighbors called, but it wouldn’t take long before the cops rolled through. But by the time they showed up everyone was gone. Junky Jeff had a scanner. He lived next door and was Duke’s friend. They always sat on my front hill so they could hear the scanner through his window. His invalid father was part deaf, so the scanner was always cranked loud. The only thing louder was their TV, so he could hear it over the scanner.
As nickname would indicate, Junky Jeff was a junky. Not the hard-core-down-and-out type, but the always-using-and-in-love-with-drugs type. He was tall and skinny with long stringy brown hair and a patchy thin beard. He had bad acne and pockmarks. His green eyes were bloodshot and heavy-lidded, and if he sat still too long he slipped into a catatonic stupor. But he was a nice guy, and he loved my parents. He would do anything for them. He cut our lawn. He ran to the store for Mom, helped Dad work on the station wagon. He found car parts cheaper than at the junkyard, sometimes so cheap Dad was afraid to ask. He helped Mom in the garden until she saw he was growing pot with her irises.
Mom and Dad knew Jeff wasn’t an angel, but they knew him since birth. They were friends with his dad and liked that Jeff didn’t leave when he got sick. He could have put him in a nursing home but instead let him die in the family house. He had cancer, got it from Bethlehem Steel. They didn’t admit it but gave him early retirement. He had twenty years in when he started spitting blood. Jeff’s mom left long ago. She couldn’t take it. Jeff quit school in twelfth grade to care for him. And since he couldn’t leave the house, he often sat in front of the house. Then Duke and Lenny started hanging with him. The neighbors called the cops, who came and harassed them, for music or drinking, but nothing major, until they brought out the shotgun.
I was in the kitchen when I heard a blast. I looked out the window just as Duke and the guys ran by. Jeff dove under our deck. Everyone else scattered. He crawled out a minute later and snuck through his back door. When the cops showed, Jeff was watching TV with his dad.
Later, Duke picked him up. I could hear his noisy tow truck out front. When they sped off I crawled under the deck and found the shotgun in our mulch pile, next to it a big bag of weed, really big, a giant Ziploc stuffed full. It looked like a pillow on Mom’s sofa. I opened the bag and held it to my nose. It smelled too good to make them cough the way it did. I closed the bag and stuffed it back in the mulch, picked up the shotgun and held it in the crook of my arms. It was heavy. It felt like a dead animal, not that I knew what a dead animal felt like. But I imagined that it felt like a sawed-off shotgun.
I lay back on the mulch pile and rested the gun on my chest. The barrel was hard, cold and smooth. The wood was smooth too. It felt good. It felt beautiful. I had no idea how to use it, but I felt safe hugging it, like no one could hurt me while I was hugging it. I had never seen anyone shoot a gun, except on TV. But I heard it when they were playing shotgun contest. It sounded powerful. BOOM. I could feel it in my chest. My mom would jump every time. She hated it but knew they were just shooting into the air. Of course she never let us out while they were doing it, but she never called the cops either. She was the type to leave people alone if they weren’t hurting her or the family. She didn’t want anyone telling her how to live, so she didn’t tell anyone else. Mom was cool that way.
I put the shotgun back and climbed out. When I stood, Duke was sitting on Jeff’s porch smoking a joint. “Hey Little Mann, what you doing down there?” He said nodding at the deck while holding in his hit, with smoke creeping through gritted teeth.
“Nothing,” I answered, not sure if he was pissed.
“Nothing, huh?” He exhaled. A cloud circled my head. He glanced at the deck again. Then he looked at me. “Come here.” I hesitated, then walked over. “So, you found our stash?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t take none, though.”
“I know. I know. Don’t worry, Little Mann. It’s cool.” He took another hit from the joint. “Come here.” He slid over and I sat next to him. He reached over and messed up my hair. I could smell his musky shirt. “You’re alright, Little Mann.” I tried not to smile. I didn’t want him to think I was a pussy or anything, but it felt good sitting there with him, better than hugging a shotgun. I started daydreaming: Duke and I were outlaw bank robbers, racing through the south in his old tow truck. Duke was driving and laughing and slapping the steering wheel, and I was next to him with the shotgun and a mean glare for anyone who looked at us.
The next night Duke and the guys were sitting on the hill. When Duke saw me watching, he waved me out. Mom was washing dishes and didn’t see me leave. And since she didn’t see me, she couldn’t say no.
Everyone was sitting around talking when Duke told Jeff to get the gun. When he got back, he handed it to Duke, who looked at me, “Wanna play?”
“Yeah,” I erupted, jumping up and running over to him.
“Ok, now. Take it easy,” he said holding out the gun. “You know how this thing works, right?”
“Yeah,” my mouth said. But my face said, “Hell no.” Evidently, Duke could read faces.
“Ok, it’s easy. Just point that end at what you want to kill, hold on tight and squeeze the trigger. Simple.” He hesitated, then added, “But for now, just shoot it into the air.”
“Won’t it come back down?”
“Yeah, but not here, so who cares.” He stepped back. The gun was heavy. I could barely hold it up. It swayed around as I waited for Duke’s approval. Everyone was watching and swaying with the swaying gun, trying not to get shot. I turned to Duke. He ducked under the barrel and came up next to me. “Here, Little Mann, let me help with that.” He pointed the gun straight up, then looked at me, “You got this?”
“The rest is easy,” He ducked down and stepped back. I stood for a while. The gun was getting really heavy. Everyone was watching. I didn’t know what to do. I was waiting for Duke to say go or something. The gun was getting heavier. I had second thoughts. I was about to put it down when Duke yelled, “SHOOT.” It scared the shit out of me. I flinched, dropped the barrel and pulled the trigger. The sound was deafening. The blast knocked me on my ass and the flash lit up the neighborhood. The shot whizzed past Junky Jeff and blew out the porch light of the mean old lady two doors down. It ripped through her gutter, which swung down and decapitated a lawn ornament, then creaked back and forth until it came to a stop.
Dead silence. Everyone sat staring at each other. Smoke floated into the night sky, but the smell of gunpowder lingered. A moment later, Jeff twitched nervously and grabbed at his ear to make sure it was still there. Then he jumped up and brushed himself off, frantically checking for bullet holes. Everyone started laughing at once. The sirens were immediate. Duke snatched the gun and they all ran off laughing into the night.