David Ralph Johnson
Chapter 1 - New Porch
Minnesota, July 1955
The drop of sweat finally left the tip of carpenter Steve’s nose. It had been rocking there gently for a minute gathering courage for free fall. Courage found, the sweat released and splashed squarely on the head of Steve’s next nail. The nail was unmoved. Not for long. Bang. Bang. Bang. Steve’s hammer brought the nail home, through one board and into the board below. The nail’s shank married the two boards together into a porch railing.
“Man, it’s hot,” Steve said to no one. He had the shadeless job site to himself. His other carpenter buddies had moved on to the next story-and-a-half house coming to be in newly sold off potato fields north of Minneapolis. Post-war treeless suburbs were spreading like spilled milk into the farmlands around the city in 1955, providing Steve and those in his trade with steady money.
Steve reached into the nail pocket of this tool bag and found two lone nails hiding out. Finishing the porch railing called for three nails. “What the frig?” whispered Steve. More nails meant a long walk to his truck down Penn Avenue, which was little more than a clay-mud-boot-sucking trail than a suburban street. Grading and pavement were a month away.
“Well forget that noise,” he said. “Shortcut time. How ‘bout I put one nail at the end as normal and the other in the middle. That’ll hold.” Once painted no one would know the difference. He secured the rail end with the first nail, then eyeballed the midpoint and drove in the second.
Steve glanced up. “There you go, baby,” he said to the house. “Last nail for you. A little bit off, but it’ll do.” Steve’s final hammer stroke completed the railing and the construction of the house. The next pounding noise would be happy kids’ feet running around inside their new place. Steve smiled at that thought as he gathered up his tools and started toward his truck. Someday his two toddlers would have such happy feet. Two years, maybe. God willing.
Chapter 2 - Lead Ore
Utah, July 2015
Jerome brushed galena ore dust off his boots as he sat on the long bench in the Eureka Mine crew room. Bulbs in cages threw grim light on locker doors stickered with American patriotism and union devotion. Jerome’s day job with fellow miners was freeing galena ore from Utah earth with properly placed TNT and not getting blown sky-high in the process. If a blast didn’t kill him, ingesting the ore dust off the job would do it, although that took a decade or two. The ore was laden with lead, a sure killer when accumulated in the bloodstream. Avoiding that called for thorough cleanup at the end of his shift every day.
After the ore’s extraction and smelting, its lead would end up as bullets on the business end of cartridges made by OT Ammo a few states away in Rosebud Missouri. Lead for bullets started with Jerome’s hands on TNT. Hands he now scrubbed hard so he could hold his guitar cleanly and hopefully his girlfriend Rachel later that night after his stint at Eureka’s Whole Note Tavern.
“‘’Scuse me, Jerome.” A miner named Lefty inched by. He brushed Jerome with his bad right arm. Miners shared tight spaces all day long.
“You sure smell pretty,” Jerome said in a falsetto voice. Smelling pretty was an unusual thing for Lefty. “What you got lined up tonight?”
“Broasted chicken,” said Lefty, avoiding the real reason for his fragrance.
“Smellin’ pretty for a cooked chicken. Well, you’ll have to fill me in on how that turns out.”
“OK, I’m seein’ a girl kinda steady. Her name is Jane. She’s cookin’ me a meal tonight.”
“Yup, that’s worth smellin’ good for,” said Jerome. He got a backhanded wave from Lefty at the crew room door as he headed for daylight and Jane’s chicken.
Jerome switched gears. With Rachel in mind, he hustled his cleanup, punched out, and got to his pickup just as locomotive 4014 was revving up in the Eureka railyard, getting ready to run a week’s worth of ore to the lead smelter in Rosebud.
The 4014 was hitched to a long string of gondola railcars. Black smoke poured from its diesels. Five hundred tons of stationary ore was introduced to three thousand horsepower and after a pregnant pause, the ore started creeping down the track.
Jerome’s pending exit passed squarely over the rail tracks. He had a hundred yards to cover to beat the 4014. If the locomotive cut him off, it meant a prolonged wait as the train crawled out of the railyard. This was a weekly event – an event train engineer R.Tingle dreaded for the possibility of t-boning “that moron Jerome”; but one Jerome enjoyed as a thrill to kickstart the night to come.
Jerome smiled and gunned his engine. R.Tingle steeled himself and kept his stubby hand down on the throttle.
“I hope I let the moron have it tonight,” R.Tingle thought. “Take out the back half of the pickup’s box and stop this stupid game. Not kill him though. Just disable him for a month or two.”
The race commenced and Jerome’s pickup covered his distance with a second to spare. R.Tingle caught the flash of Jerome’s grin as he bounced over the rail tracks, crossing just in front of the 4014’s cowcatcher. “Nuts. Missed the twerp again,” R.Tingle lamented, but inwardly glad for no catastrophe.
The 4014’s line of black smoke crossed harmlessly with the red dust plume trailing Jerome, making a perfect X from above that marked the spot of their next contest.
Jerome got to the Whole Note on time, but Rachel was nowhere to be found. She arrived later though with her red dress on. That noticeably upped the passion in Jerome’s one-man show. R.Tingle and his crew would reach Rosebud as scheduled with the full load of galena ore ready for smelting.
Chapter 3 - Four Shorts
Missouri, August 2015
“Come on Billy. We’re gonna miss the 4014 train if you don’t hurry.” Tommy was already on his bike as he called from the backyard, trying to get his brother moving.
“Tommy, you leave Billy be. He’s got toast crust to finish.” The boys’ mom June required clean breakfast plates before their morning adventures could begin.
Billy washed down the final crust with the last of his chocolate milk. He was good at eating food so things ended dead even. All evidence of breakfast gone, June pulled the trigger on the morning starting gun with, “You boys be careful on those bikes. And stay away from the tracks.” Billy flew out the door and threw a “We will ma” back over his shoulder as he made a beeline for his bike. “Lord keep them safe,” June said to little Jesus above the sink.
The boys headed out on a dirt path the width of their bike tires. Their destination that morning was the Rosebud smelting plant to see the arrival of the half-mile long ore train from Eureka. Houses on the end of Rosebud where they lived were spread out over dusty terrain. The closer you got to the smelting plant, the sparser the settlements. Noise and stinking air were the deciding factors on proximity choices out there. With mostly uninterrupted areas to roam, kids on their bikes had worn dirt paths over the years directly to and from points of kid interest. Highlights were the smelting plant railyard, a spring filled abandoned quarry, the cliff above the county dump, and the airport beacon tower. One kid, Handsome, had a moped to gas power himself to those places. All other kids depended on good breakfasts and strong skinny legs for their locomotion.
The bluff above the smelting plant railyard offered the best view of the goings-on. Handsome was there when the boys pedaled up. They got out a “Hey Handsome” with their last breaths. The bluff was quite a climb. “Hey Harts,” he said, “clear as a bell out here today.” Smog from the smelter was blowing the other way for a change.
“Did ya git it?” Tommy asked.
“Yup.” Handsome reached into his backpack and produced a horn that looked the shape of their bike horns. But it was longer, with a can of seriously compressed air for its base. The three boys had pooled their money three weeks ago for a means to communicate with the train. Handsome had procured a handheld boat horn from God knows where. It was certainly up to the task. They sought loud and Handsome found ear piercing. Goats three miles down the Rosebud valley were about to wonder when the Queen Mary would arrive.
“Excellent,” said Tommy. He mastered the spelling of the word last year in third grade and decided to give it a try now in public.
“What is it, Tommy?” said Billy.
Chapter 4 - Hell’s Kitchen
OT Ammo was out of lead for bullets. Demand had exceeded supply for the last three months. Gun season in the mountains and midwest was approaching. Droves of hunters had boxes of ammo flying out the doors of sporting goods stores all over. Times were good. Dads were bringing their sons along this year. Great for the ammo business, but that left Harold Johnson of OT Ammo scrambling for lead stock.
“Katy, what’s the story? You promised me last week I’d have the lead today.” Harold stubbed out his cigarette. The ashtray on his desk had a berm of grey ashes around it. Harold was meticulous about cleaning his desktop once a year just before the OT Ammo Christmas party. That was six months ago.
Katy was the sole customer support at Rosebud Smelter.
“Mr. Johnson.” She felt the need to go formal given Harold was putting the heat on. “Smelter four at Rosebud broke down last week which caused the delay. Your lead will be on the road to you end of day tomorrow.”
“That gets it here Friday.” If there had been a man on the other end of the line Harold would have added “Jesus H. Christ.” But Katy was a girl, so he left that off. “OK, sweetie. Tell your boss Burt he will be hearing from me if ten pallets of Eureka lead are not sitting on my loading dock this Friday.” Pallets were heavy oak platforms on which lead ingots were stacked and secured for shipment. Ten pallets held a lot of lead.
“OK, Mr. Johnson. Have a good day.” Katy clicked off before she could hear Harold’s reply. He was creepy. The shorter the conversation the better.
“Hey Burt, that was old fart Johnson from OT. Is his lead going out tomorrow?”
Katy and Burt worked opposite each other in the business office at Rosebud Smelter, a cramped affair two stories up from the smelting plant floor. Their desks were next to a great window overlooking the entire smelting operation. It was bulletproof to fend off an industrial calamity or labor union uprising. Outside the window, cauldrons the size of school buses traveled by with bright orange molten ore sloshing around. Suspended on heavy chain, the fifty-ton beasts were directed by hardhat smelters who nudged inch long dashboard levers to get the ore to the plant’s hellfire blast furnace. Its two-thousand-degree heat separated out waste material, resulting in 99.9% pure lead ingots on the output side of the plant.
“Yes,” Burt replied. “It’s almost ready to go. He’ll see his ten pallets on Friday. Ah...coffee time sweetie?” He followed that with a midlife crisis wink.
“Geez, I gotta get another job,” thought Katy.
Chapter 5 - Ingots to Bullets
Ten pallets of Eureka lead sat soaking wet on the OT Ammo loading dock. Its overhang did no good when rain blew in from the north as it did then. The lead ingots stacked and bound squarely on the pallets weren’t affected. They were 99.9% pure. Quite indestructible. The only concern was heat above eight hundred degrees which seemed unlikely. The pallets had ridden from Rosebud Smelter under a star choked sky on an open flatbed semi the night before. Rain started as the pallets hit the loading dock.
Harold saw the lead on Friday morning as his car bumper touched the executive parking sign that held his name in fading yellow letters. “Finally,” he thought. “Now we can catch up on ammo backorders.”
Most of the lead on the dock would be cast into the usual bullets for cartridges sold to customers of OT Ammo. But the rest of the lead was destined for a special project Harold had going – a new bullet, less resistant to air as it flew along, giving it greater range. And a moneymaker since it called for less lead. Still very lethal though in that it would splinter on impact and shred the flesh it entered. Harold would make sure enough lead was set aside to get the new bullet on the shelves of sporting goods stores for sale that coming fall.
“Hey, Lloyd.” Lloyd got out of his car just as Harold was making his way up the loading dock stairs. Stairs were slow going for Harold after shooting his big right toe off testing ammo last month.
Lloyd was the top machinist at OT Ammo. “Good morning boss. Looks like I can get my molds online now. That the lead?”
“Yes sir. Fresh from Eureka. Molds ready?”
“Yup.” Lloyd machined a dozen molds perfectly to a very specific shape for the new bullet. He was skeptical about the big promises OT Ammo marketing people were making about a lighter bullet with greater range, but he kept his mouth shut. He got paid for making exact molds, not questioning the higher ups. That kept him on the job for thirty-three years. Got his mortgage paid off in the process. Retirement was looking sweet for him and wife Marsha.
Harold smiled at Lloyd’s response. He trusted Lloyd. Tens of thousands of OT Ammo bullets had flown true thanks to his expert mold making. They went inside together, happy to be out of the rain and onto the new venture.
A week later seven grams of Eureka lead were cast as the first bullet of the new special design. It rode atop a polished brass cartridge case, fresh off the assembly line. Harold and Lloyd were there for the sendoff. “Bullet One,” Lloyd said as he picked it up and gave it an approving look over. He passed it to Harold who rolled it back and forth in his palm and smiled. It felt sleek like it really could fly forever. “Make us some money, sweetheart,” he said as he put it back on the conveyor belt.
Ritual over, Harold said, “Nice work Lloyd. Again.”
Lloyd hit the green GO button. The conveyor belt started with a lurch, then carried Bullet One smoothly away to be packaged with its comrades following right behind. Boxes labeled New Design Special Aerodynamics Greater Range were ready and waiting.
Minnesota, September 2015
Donna ran her hand across the tape that sealed the box. No way she could open the box barehanded.
“Geezus, OT Ammo knows how to get a box to North Minneapolis without it falling apart. Elvis, honey, borrow me your box cutter for a minute, please.”
Her ask was directed at “Elvis” Presley Franklin. Presley slipped the box cutter from his belt loop and handed it off to her.
“I’m on break,” he said. “Back in fifteen. Don’t lose my knife.” His words bore slight disgust. Donna pissed him off pretty much daily, always asking him for help. Her pay was fifteen cents more an hour and he was the one who really kept the Howling Wolf Guns stockroom running right. That burned him.
“You’re in a good mood today,” she replied, pouring gas on the Elvis flame. He stomped off.
Donna slit the tape on the top of the box, splitting the seal. The box flaps flipped open exposing a dozen smaller boxes full of OT Ammo cartridges.
“Well, lookie here. A new kind of bullet from OT. ‘Special Aerodynamics Greater Range.’ My, my, ain’t that impressive?”
Shiny brass showed from tiny cellophane windows in the ammo boxes. Donna unlocked the back panel of the gun display case and placed the new ammo boxes in two neat rows. Bullet One stood at attention in its box, front and center, ready for action.
Chapter 7 - Purchase
IN GOD WE TRUST. ALL OTHERS PAY CASH.
April looked at the sign above her head as she ran a brick through the front of the gun display case in the quick in-and-out move of a practiced thief.
“Payment by brick tonight,” she thought.
Shattered glass fell into the case and onto April’s tennis shoes. She reached through the havoc and grabbed a box of OT Ammo and a handgun to match. She figured she had three minutes to get out of the Howling Wolf Guns shop before law enforcement came screaming up the hill. Plenty of time to exit the front door and melt into the teenage crowd forming in front of Tiny’s Cellar across the way.
“The sooner the better,” her bladder urged. She really had to pee, having spent three hours hiding scrunched down in the middle of the gun shop’s coat carousel waiting for the shop to close, and for Donna and lame-brain Elvis to vacate the place so she could rob it. She knew them from high school, but they traveled in different circles. Donna and her two friends were snobs. Elvis ran with geeks. He tried to date April once. No way. April was a loner, with one exception – her relatively recent friend Kiara.
Last spring, new to the neighborhood, Kiara walked up to April at the morning bus stop and said, “Hey girl, where do you get a boy ‘round here?” In short time, April could not go a day without Kiara’s unwavering optimism. And Kiara found April a quiet mystery with stories to tell – of which gun theft was now a new chapter.
April stowed the ammo and gun in her coat pockets as the Howling Wolf Guns silent alarm howled through the phone line to AACE Security down on West Broadway. Second shift Albert looked up from his Psychology II book and saw the 10-62 code on the bank of AACE alarm monitors. Break-in at the Howling Wolf Guns shop. Or a false alarm like last week when a squirrel bit through a wire in the same vicinity. Adrenaline kicked in, switching Albert’s brain from an anxiety disorder characterized by irrational fear on page 103 to a frantic search for the phone. Phone found, he speed-dialed the police. Sargent Harris picked up. “North Precinct Minneapolis, Sargent Harris here. May I help you?”
“Yes, Sargent. This is Albert at AACE Security. I have a 10-62 in progress at the Howling Wolf Guns shop.”
“On it,” Sarge replied. He hung up and left to get his boys rolling. Two squad cars hit the street a blink later, lights screaming but sirens silent. Better to sneak in than warn a burglar of their approach.
As North Precinct’s finest pulled up to the scene, April had already slipped through Tiny’s crowd and found relief for her bladder, secure with her new gun in a graffiti peppered stall, out of sight from authority. The responding officers found the gun shop door locked with no sign of forced entry. April’s exit from the inside out left the door closed and locked behind her. The coat carousel blocked the smashed case, covering her tracks.
The officers piled back in their squad cars, did a U-turn that many in Tiny’s crowd noted as illegal, and headed for donuts and black coffee. Later, Sargent Harris posted “squirels again” on that night’s activity report.
Chapter 8 - Repair
Abel slipped his hammer from the loop of his tool belt. His sister Ida’s house was a wreck. She bought the house cheap a few months ago with inheritance money from a favorite relative’s recent passing. Paid cash. No mortgage needed. A fortunate windfall for Ida and her daughter Kiara. But now Ida faced a lot of work to get it livable. Abel came over on weekends to help. They were lucky to have him.
It was hotter than blazes that afternoon on Penn Avenue, unusual for September in North Minneapolis. Abel decided to tackle just one outside job for the day – the porch railing. Sixty years of people and winters coming and going on the porch stairs had worked the head of a nail up from the middle of the handrail, just enough to catch skin or cloth.
Abel looked at the nail. “Huh,” he said to no one, “Somebody slacked on this work. Shoud’da used two nails.” He hammered the nail back in place, leaving a slight dimple and chipped paint. “Putty ‘n fresh paint, good as new.” He left for the garage as niece Kiara and her friend April ran up the stairs. No nail caught Kiara’s hand this time. “Good work, Papa.” She loved her uncle, the most dad she had known in all her thirteen years. And Abel loved her right back for the happiness she brought him and Ida. She was a good steady kid in spite of life’s odds stacked against her.
The girls went into the house and directly to Kiara’s bedroom. Kiara grabbed the top journal from a stack of five and they returned to the porch, crashing onto its ocean of a couch. The couch was where Kiara wrote every day, where she parted from adolescence and poverty on a magic carpet of imagination. She rode her words to exotic lands and kind people. April traveled along now too, drawn in as their friendship had grown.
The porch’s high ceiling provided shade and a mild breeze was cooling, a reprieve from the heat Abel was working in. “Hey Papa, you OK out there?” she asked as he returned from the garage.
In his youth, when he burned with energy, Abel would have been sweltering. But now heat felt good on his joints, even with bib overalls covering most of his three hundred pounds. “Won’t be long here. Got curtains to hang inside for your momma. Hi April.”
“Hi, Mr. Abel,” April replied with some hesitance. She liked the old man but was still working up courage to trust him. Men in April’s life were abusive, worse since she was maturing.
“Be sure to have a drink of water, please,” Kiara said.
“I will, sweetie. What you girls writin’ about today?”
“We’re lost in a desert but have a sturdy camel and a handsome guide.”
Abel smiled. “How many tents?”
Kiara caught on. “Three of course.”
They all chuckled. April loved the quick wit of the household.
“OK, I’ve had it out here. Have fun writin’.” He skipped the last of the work. The sun shone directly on the railing, too hot for putty and paint. “I’m headin’ in.”
“‘K, Papa,” Kiara said. She and April returned to the desert. The camel needed water. And Abel left to hang the curtains for Ida.
As suppertime neared, April rose and stretched. “OK, gotta go. See you tomorrow at the bus.”
Kiara closed the journal, ending their word adventure for the day. “’K,” she said, then after a pause said, “Thanks April.”
“For being my friend.”
Kiara’s words filled a long-empty hollow in April’s heart. Without pause, April wrapped her arms around Kiara. She could think of nothing to say to match the rush of joy she felt. Words didn’t matter. Her hug did the talking.
After a moment, they parted, smiling with the knowledge that tomorrow would bring another day to share together, as best friends do.
With the supper over and dishes done, Abel gathered his stuff and said, “Delicious as usual, Ida. Goodnight girls.” He got his big body moving. Out the door he went, on foot toward home. Ida plopped down in the living room to crochet and Kiara returned to the porch to write some more.
The heat of the day had subsided from Penn Avenue. Neighbors she didn’t know yet walked by in the cool evening air. Kiara slipped a quilt over herself to keep the chill away. Its checkerboard pattern took on the shape of a girl on the verge of becoming a young woman. She drifted off to sleep around her bedtime in the comfort of the quilt and dreamt of swimming with the handsome desert guide, now her true love, in a blue oasis pool.
Chapter 9 - Boxing
Next block over, at April’s house, Dick downed the last of the vodka. The cat clock above the back door read 2:15. Or 1:15. It was hard to tell. The clock hands were a blur. The cat’s eyes and tail swung back and forth oblivious to the time. No help there. His wife Angie was way overdue regardless. Out again with friend Dorothy drinking his hard-earned wages.
As the clock hands moved to 2:16 or 1:16, the backdoor knob twisted slowly. It was Angie attempting a quiet entry to not disturb Dick who was hopefully out cold on the living room couch, his place of sleep the last six months.
Dick, being quite awake, fired off a “Where the hell have you been?” from his corner of the kitchen. A boxing ring without the ropes started to materialize. Startled, Angie slammed the back door shut. Family dog Stealth figured it was a good time to go and evaporated.
“Jesus Christ almighty Dick, you scared the hell out of me.”
Angie took her corner of the ring and slipped her gloves on.
April was down the hall in her bedroom waiting for round one to begin. Fight night again. Sporadic in her youth, now it was a hellish routine event.
Her mom threw the next verbal punch. “Dick you’re drunk. Go to bed.”
April’s stepdad countered with a long sentence that included “slut” and foul profanity. He then crossed the kitchen ring and punched her mom in the face. There was no alcohol on Angie’s breath. She rarely had a taste of the stuff. The taste on her tongue now was blood from a split lip.
April felt the cold smooth curve of the trigger. The gun she stole two days ago rested loaded, lethal, and heavy in her right hand. Bullet One was third in the gun clip, ready for flight. She clicked the safety off.
Angie swung back at Dick. Her two small fists landed left and right on Dick’s chest, doing no damage. Furious, Dick grabbed her wrists and threw her to the floor.
Stomped down. Defeated. Angie pleaded in a soft voice. “Stop, please stop, Dick.”
April trembled with rage hearing those words. It wasn’t the first time. Now though, she held the means to end Dick for good. End the insanity of him. She flew from her bedroom, down the hall to shoot Dick dead.
Seeing her mom on her hands and knees sobbing, she stopped short of the kitchen, readied herself, and proceeded in with the gun in both hands like she’d seen on TV. A string of bloody saliva dripped in slow motion from her mom’s mouth as April closed her eyes and pulled the trigger three times.
The first bullet went into Dick’s liver, the second his heart. The third bullet, Bullet One, went high and out the backdoor as the gun barrel rose in April’s hands. It wasn’t needed. Dick was ended.
Chapter 10 - Oasis
Bullet One pierced easily through the single pane of glass in April’s backdoor. It flew free now with the late-night air its only impediment. It was designed for this. Sleeker. Faster. Farther. It passed in a split second over April’s backyard and between two houses, then crossed Penn Avenue with Kiara’s house dead ahead.
From the ocean couch, Kiara dreamt on of the desert guide she and April had contrived. She ached to hear him say her name. But he was silent. She would be patient. Dreams cannot be willed.
Bullet One entered Kiara’s yard at an angle. It sped silent, faster than the sound it made, and skimmed the porch railing, colliding with the nail Abel had righted the afternoon before, the nail that carpenter Steve had hammered home sixty years ago where it shouldn’t have been.
In her dream, Kiara’s eyes met those of her guide. Their glance held the point of no return. The point of surrender. When two become one, unencumbered in a faraway land.
The head of the nail sent Bullet One ricocheting slightly off course, through the porch screen door and into Kiara’s chest, shredding her heart and stopping there.
As the bullet reached the end of its path, a strange comfortable warmth enveloped Kiara and her guide. They embraced. Everlasting love realized, Kiara’s life was complete.
PATH OF A BULLET
Copyright © 2019 David Ralph Johnson
All Rights Reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.