Brass by Christopher Dungey

Hector Fritch heard someone unlock the door from the garage. His estranged wife Gwen had the only spare key. Right. Today was Wednesday and she’d asked to do her laundry. No matter what, he didn’t want her to find out what a financial jam he was getting into–that he’d begun selling his plasma and had applied for food stamps. Under no circumstances could she learn that he was a month behind on the mortgage. She might start to rethink letting him stay in the house with joint custody of Wes. When they split up, he was supposed to be able to afford the place. Neither of them wanted to uproot the boy, who only had to cross the road to his elementary school. When the kid went to high-school in town, then they’d divvy up the equity.

“Hello? Anybody here?” She called.

Fritch sat up on the couch. “Yeah. I’m in the front room.” He tasted his coffee from a mug on the lamp-table. It had gone cold while he dozed. He remembered packing a lunch and walking Wes across. Barely light out.

“I need to do a wash. I reminded you Sunday.”

“Sure, sure. C’mon in.”

Fritch heard her footsteps go down the stairs to the basement. He hoped there was enough generic detergent. He didn’t have the heart to ask her to bring her own. In another moment the washer began filling and then she was standing in the dining room.

“This how you spend your day? Must be nice.”

“Nah. Just off to a slow start. I’ve got some projects, believe me. Why are you up so early?”

Gwen came into the front room as Fritch muted the television. “Just gotta get this done. I’ve got two midterms next week.” She shrugged out of her fall jacket. “Have you heard anything from work?”

Fritch sighed. “It’s frustrating. The new plant was supposed to open by the end of October. Now the union says it’s delayed because GM cut production. So the union’s trying to get us another unemployment extension. The Recession of ’82 might have to be renamed.”

Gwen said: “I don’t know what to tell you. I’m tapped out for school plus the apartment. Trying to save a few bucks at the laundromat. You might have to actually look for a job.”

Fritch yawned and stretched. Gwen was probably a year away from a good data-entry job. He’d expect her to help out more then. He missed her coming home from her waitress gig with $30 to $50 in tips every night. “I’ve had my ear to the ground, but we’ve been over this. There just isn’t anything out there worth paying a babysitter.”

Gwen sipped her coffee. “Wow, this is kinda awful.”

“It’s the no-name brand.” He chuckled. “You should try their cornflakes.”

“Well, I’m supposed to tell you Harry’s always needing dishwashers.”

Fritch cringed at the notion of returning to his part-time high-school job in Celeryville. He wondered if Titus Family Restaurant still had that tumbler for peeling potatoes. He used to push 30lbs a day through the french-fry slicer. And now he’d get the  added indignity of watching traveling salesmen hit on Gwen. “Let’s hold off on that,” he said. “See how bad it gets.”

Gwen shrugged. She continued sampling the ersatz coffee. “So what’s your big project? Look’s like you need to rake some leaves.”

Hector stood and pulled on his jeans. “Nothing spectacular. Could make a few bucks, though.”

“You’re going bottle hunting,” Gwen guessed with a grin. “I’m not going bottle hunting.”

“Well, who invited you?” Hector said. “Anyway, no. I did that yesterday on the bike. The ditches are clean for a two mile radius. I think there may be competition out there.”

Gwen went back into the kitchen. “Times are tough. You’ll have to get up earlier,” she called. “You know you’re almost out of sugar?”

“Yeah, hey. How about scoring me some packets from work?”

“If I remember.” She came back into the front room, slurping. “I don’t think anything can save this shit.”

“It’s just for the caffeine.” Hector tugged a sweater over his head. “Wow, I’ve gotta get going before shooters show up. I’m gonna sift for lead up at the gravel pit.”

“Cool. Are you taking any guns?”

Gwen had become quite skilled, plinking cans at the DNR range at the end of their road. An abandoned gravel pit on the edge of the State Game Area had been acquired for public shooting.

“I can’t afford to shoot. I just want to make a few bucks. Forty cents a pound as of yesterday. I just hope nobody else has thought of it.”

Gwen took one last sip then went back into the kitchen. “Alright. I tried.” Fritch heard her remaining coffee hit the drain. “Can I come? Sounds like a trip.”

Fritch said: “Oh yeah, I’m sure. You’d better follow me, though, in case you get bored.”

“Nah, I’ll just bring my Accounting. I can study in the car if you take too long. Just let me throw this load in the dryer.”

Fritch took his jacket from the coat closet. Only now did the prospect of sex with Gwen occur to him. Did she have an ulterior motive for sticking around, besides the laundry? It had been awhile. He tried to recall the last time. Her birthday in May? Wow. He’d bought her a new adult toy because she’d been whining about the scarcity of unmarried, untainted-by-marriage dating stock. One thing led to another. Had five months really gone by? He hadn’t been paying attention to who she was seeing. Amazing, he thought. Those conjectures used to be almost tantalizing to him. Now the prospect of making legal money without the encumbrance of an actual job had taken priority.

“I’ll put the tools in the car,” Hector called down the basement stairs as he tied his shoes. “And check my oil.”

The gravel pit was two miles north. Fritch drove slowly, a thin haze of white smoke trailing from the Pinto. There was just a single pick-up truck parked at the range, but the guys were putting away their guns.

“I shoulda been out here about dawn,” Fritch said. “I’ve got a bad feeling.”

“See? You’re getting lazy. What’re you worried about?”

Fritch lifted an old window screen out the rear hatch of the Pinto. It was a small one for a basement window that they had upgraded to glass-block in more affluent times. He handed Gwen an empty coffee can and a garden trowel.

“What am I doing with these?”

“Just carry,” he told her. “I’m thinking we won’t have long. Guys are getting their deer rifles sighted in. Opening Day is only two more weeks.”

“Oh.” Gwen followed him past the concrete traffic barriers that had been hauled in to serve as a firing line.

The killing ground between the firing line and the first gravel cliff was a tornado path of splintered devastation. Most prominent in the wreckage were several obsolete television sets; shredded hulks of plastic and torn veneer tilting into their own terminal discharge of shattered glass and tubes. Every manner of disfigured beer can and milk jug lay strewn between, as if mown down by a grenade. A toaster oven lay in smithereens, its Plexiglas door shot away; an old wringer washer, for chrissake, on its side, mortally blasted. Someone had taped a target to the enameled flank. The face behind the concentric rings might once have been that of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Fritch could make out the bottom of a cleric’s beard and the top of his turban. Exit wounds on the backside of the machine were already rusting. Scattered throughout the wreckage, the entrails of last week’s jack-o-lanterns added a fading orange gore.

“What a mess,” Gwen said. “Doesn’t anyone ever pick up their junk?”

“Doesn’t look like it. We…I always do.”

A low berm had been pushed up just before the 30 foot wall of clay where the gravel petered out. Wood stakes stood in slivers along this rise. Some still supported perforated cans; others had been severely shortened or beheaded. Fritch knelt and scratched at the dirt where shots might have fallen short or rattled out of the cans. There were misshapen slugs of many calibers lying exposed as well as just below the surface.

“Holy crap.” He began to pluck them up. The bottom of the coffee can rang like a dull chime until it was covered.

“What am I looking for?” Gwen said. She showed Fritch a palm-full of the bent and flattened projectiles.

“Yeah. You’ve got it.”

“Do I get a cut?”

“I guess so. Are you chipping in for gas? These have to go to Flint when I have enough.”

“I’m just kidding.” She dropped her finds into the can and moved further along the berm. “Hey, check out this round one.” She held up the dirty, grey marble.

“Musket ball,” Fritch said. “Or, something like a .50 caliber Sharp’s, maybe. Those’ll weigh up nice.”

They gathered the lead in silence then, Fritch working swiftly. He looked over his shoulder often, fearing the arrival of shooters. The sun climbed, its rays burning between pines atop the amphitheater of riddled clay. Gwen pulled off her hoody. Indian summer, Fritch thought. Can anything good happen before Christmas?

Gwen brought her full, cupped hands to the can and moved off again. Fritch scooted over the berm toward the taller backdrop. He scratched with the trowel. When Gwen brought her next load, the can was more than half full. Fritch tested lifting it. Melted with an eye bolt stuck in, it might make a fine anchor. In better times.

“That’s enough for me. I’ve got  notes I wanta go over, see if I can still read them,” she said. “My knees are getting filthy.”

“O.K., thanks. I won’t be much longer. You can take the screen.” Hector continued to work until the can was nearly full.

After a few minutes Gwen hollered: “Hey! Isn’t this coppery stuff worth something?”

Fritch stood, squinting to see what she was talking about. She held a small cylinder of metal between thumb and forefinger, a spent cartridge.

“Yeah, that’s brass,” he called. “Eighty cents a pound.” He lifted the can. He put the handle of the trowel into his back pocket so he could carry the lead with both hands.

“Why aren’t you collecting this?”

Fritch headed back toward the firing line, still studying the ground. Did he have time to gather some of these torn beer cans? Twenty-eight cents a pound. “Takes too much of it. A lot of guys police them up to reload.”

Gwen had squatted behind one of the barriers. “Well, somebody missed a few. They’re all over the place. Maybe I’ll go in business, too.”

“Help yourself.” He realized that he had nothing in which to carry the aluminum. He’d have to come back with a garbage bag and another coffee can. Right after school started instead of going back to sleep.

When he reached the firing line, Gwen had salvaged a McDonald’s bag from the rear floor of the car. She smoothed it against her jeans. “You aren’t in a hurry now, are you?”

“Where do I have to go?” He set the coffee can in the Pinto’s luggage space. The plastic lid wouldn’t hold if it tipped. Have to drive easy or spill it all over.

“You better knock the dirt out good,” he added. “They’re pretty fussy about contamination with the more valuable metals.”

Gwen shook the stained bag, already rattling like a tinny maraca. “Got ya. Hey, we could be Fritch Salvage, Incorporated.”

Hector said: “Well, I guess you’ll have to keep my name then. And I might need your car to get the product to Flint.”

Gwen tinked a .308 jacket on the concrete to dislodge a clot of sand. She dropped it in with the others. “Don’t worry. That’s one more lawyer’s fee I can’t afford.” She added: “Anyway, I’m still not hiking after bottles.”