The helicopter alone usually does the trick. Swoop down, raise some dust, empty a clip, break some windows, shoot a dog or a mule to make your point known. That should do it. Land, swords unsheathed, safeties off, be ready. A few shots in the air never hurt. Round up the men in the center of town and empty the homes of their goods. Sometimes they get brave and one or two start shooting. Nothing can be done. Shoot back. Sometimes they’re ready and they’re holed up inside, fanatics, the dark eyes of rifle barrels winking from every window. They want death, so kill them. Burn them out. Throw bombs. Shoot them as they run. It doesn’t feel good at first, but do it. Later you won’t mind so much. Take the trucks and the livestock, the grain and the fruit. Take rope, take tools, take what there is to take. Take the cooking oil and the petrol, the jewelry, any pretty pictures on the walls. Take the books and the wine. Take liquor if you find it. Sometimes there’s a stash of cocaine or methamphetamine or a cannabis crop in the yard. Take it. Take the sturdy boots, the silky underthings, the linens and the feather beds. Take a guitar if you see one, saxophones too. And of course take the weapons, every last knife and gun and shell, or they’ll come back at you. Forget all the rest, take those first.
It’s Payne’s idea, the raiding. What he doesn’t have, he wants. This is not unusual. Look out at the world, at what was and at what is: This is what men do. They take from one another. They fight for what they can. We praise the bold and by and by ignore the rest. Payne is simply human. Perhaps he’s braver than you, more brazen. He doesn’t wait, he takes. His brashness offends, but where would we be now if it weren’t for men like Payne? Don’t judge, he’s just like you, only maybe not so shy, maybe less polite. Dig deep: Are his wishes far from yours? Are his fears? What is weakness, and what is strength, and where does virtue lie? Payne takes what he wants when he can.
“We don’t have enough,” Payne explains, prior to the raiding. “We simply do not have enough to get by.” And who can judge, really, who has enough and who does not? Where are the borders of need?
“It’s better this way,” Payne adds. “All around. Our hunger endangers everyone. Better that we be full.” And then he laughs, “Besides, stolen fruit tastes sweeter, no?”
On the first time out, Payne kills. It’s as if he’s in a hurry to get it done, as if after that it’ll all come easy. That first time out, the chopper lands and they fan out onto the ground, guns at the ready, Payne leading. A dog, hidden in the spiraling dust, whines, and snaps at Payne. He fires a shot, and the bark of his pistol is followed by a yelp. The dog’s lungs rattle and it muddies the dust with its blood. The rest of them walk around it, give it a wide berth, like it still might bite, like death is a disease that catches.
Payne says, “That house first,” and points to the biggest one on the street. His back is straight and his walk is certain, but they all hear his voice break when he speaks. He fires three shots at the door and kicks it open. There’s no one inside. Each room is empty. Coffee still steams in two mugs on the kitchen table and burnt toast jams the toaster, but there’s no one around. Payne sits and sips the coffee. Izzy takes a cup and Joseph grabs an apple from the counter. Payne puts his finger to his lips. They hear a cough, then another. From below. Payne tears a throw rug from the floor and uncovers a trapdoor. He fires twice down through the linoleum. He motions to Izzy to open the trap and when he does it, Payne says, “Come up outta there.”
It’s an old man, an old woman and three shirtless children, wide-eyed and pale, their torsos a washboard of bone. The old man’s sagging arm is bleeding from the bullet through the floor. “What nuts have you squirreled away?” says Payne, and he motions to Joseph to climb down the ladder and see. The old man steps between Joseph and the door, but his eyes are on Payne. “Thief,” he says. “Be ashamed.”
A vein pulses blue in Payne’s neck. He nods to Joseph again. “Go,” he says. And the old man spits in Payne’s face. A yellowy gob, flecked with browning blood, drops from his cheek to his chin. Payne grabs the old man by his bleeding arm and he cries out from the pain of it. Joseph steps back and Payne’s free hand is shaking and the old man sees it and sees fear in all of their eyes and takes comfort from it, and says again, calmer now, certain that his command will be heeded, “Be ashamed.” The barrel of Payne’s pistol shivers this way and that until Payne can still his wayward hand. He sucks in a breath and shoots the old man in the chest. He lets go the limp arm and the old man falls down the trap and no one in the room has ever before heard a silence as complete as the one that follows that shot, that clattering fall.
Payne burns the house without searching the basement. The whole ride home he grips one hand with the other to stop its trembling but after that day his hand never shakes again. After that it all comes easy. For Payne at least.
Everyone, he decides, must shed blood. A bond will thus be formed, he says. “And how can I trust you, otherwise?” He goes in order, from A to Z. Each will have their turn. Again, please, don’t judge too harshly. Who wants to be alone in guilt? Who among you has not sinned? Is it still allowed to ask that question? There are not two brands of humans. What exists in any one exists in every one. After that it’s all just scale. If Payne’s transgressions are grander than yours, who is to blame? He for his boldness, or you for your timidity?
The next time out, they enter a house and hidden in an attic they find a chest, an old wooden chest locked with a rusted padlock. A knock-kneed woman, hair thin and straight and brown, wears a starched yellow housedress and on her knees begs Payne not to touch the chest. He shoots off the padlock and she hurls herself atop it. “Not this,” she says. “Not this.”
Payne calls for Arthur and tells him to open it, but when he tries to lift her off, she bites him on the wrist, drawing blood. Arthur backs off. “Let her keep it,” he says, gesturing back to the helicopter, already overfilled with digital watches by the crate, with cakes and casks of wine and fuel. “We’ve got enough,” he says. “Who cares?” But Payne shakes his head and hands him his pistol. Will you hate Arthur less if I tell you his knees buckle with the gun in his hand, that his trousers darken as he pisses himself? Will you hate Zöe less for allowing him in her bed that night if I tell you she does not sleep, and that as she wrestles with the sheets a skein of bone fills the cracks in her heart, never to wear away? The wooden chest, it turns out, is empty, save a sheaf of age-yellowed photographs and handwritten letters in thin envelopes labeled Par Avion, a single threadbare dress shirt, plastic child-sized sunglasses, and one green silk scarf now soaked in blood.
The next time out a young boy hides on a rooftop and shoots clumsily at the raiders with an old .22. He has only a handful of bullets, and none find their targets, and when he runs out, they drag him from the roof. He is crying, and so is Carl, who does as he is told.
And the next time out it’s David, who ends the frenzied struggles of the huge man who has broken Robert’s ribs with his fists, torn Garth’s ear and bloodied Lily’s nose. When the giant’s neighbor comes running with a kitchen knife in each fist, it’s Elizabeth who, unblinking, does the honors. She never complains.
When his turn arrives, Felix tries to prepare himself. He’s quiet the whole flight in, jaw clenched, foot tapping. As soon as it lands, he storms off the helicopter, gun raised and ready. He kicks down doors and drags children from their beds. He pushes men twice his size to their knees. He barks out orders and slaps a granny to the ground. His face is purple with fear and rage. He kicks a cat and shoots a squawking chicken, and when an eye-patched man grabs at his arm and says, “Hold it, Shortstack,” Felix shoots him in his one remaining eye.
That night, as everyone sits around the fire, drinking brandy and eating pilfered chocolates, Felix stays in bed. When they at last stumble off to slumber, they find him lying in a fever, and fear his brains will boil. Penny hears the news and, for the first time in many weeks, comes down from the palace. She sits on his bed and holds his head in her lap. She smoothes his sweat-soaked hair and soothes his burning brow with a cloth chilled in ice water. Felix tosses his head and mutters dry-mouthed nonsense and then looks up, and through the fog of his fever he sees the wide-open green of Penny’s eyes staring down at him, and the haze lifts for a moment from his own eyes, small and brown, and he squeezes them tight and cries.
“What did you do, little Felix,” she whispers, “to make you feel so bad?”
He doesn’t answer, but lies curled in Penny’s lap, bawling until the sun arrives, ?and then he finally falls asleep, and Penny slips away.
THE SUITORS | By BEN EHRENREICH | Counterpoint Press | 256 pages | $23 hardcover
Ben Ehrenreich will read from his novel on Sun., April 9, 7:15 p.m., at Good Luck Bar, 1514 Hillhurst Ave., (323) 666-3524, and on Tues., April 11, 7:30 p.m. at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz (323) 660-1175.