Warning: Story includes themes of suicide
The first rays of the July sun flashed off General Burton’s glasses and onto the refrigerator as he applied three drops of lubricant to the slide rails of his Colt .45. One, two, three on one side. One, two, three on the other. Two drops on the barrel. One drop on the engagement lugs. One drop on the interior of the barrel bushing. Re-assemble.
His fingers moved over the parts with a command accrued over seven decades. But his arthritic joints and knotted knuckles threatened the flow of his movements. He gritted his teeth and pushed on, willing his fingers to maneuver with the fluidity they once knew. He glanced through the kitchen window to note the position of the sun as it emerged over the lake, painting the sky with golden pink and orange streaks. The sunrise was his timer - the weapon must be fully clean and assembled before the sun fully appeared. He hadn’t missed yet.
It was Monday, and there were five things General Burton always did on Monday. First, he cleaned and oiled his pistol. The two pounds and seven ounces of carbon steel rested in his hand, a cold and comforting extension of his right arm. He rubbed his cloth over the hand grip, bringing out the shine where the patina had long since worn away. Turning the gun over, he worked the microfiber into the grooves around the trigger and drew it gently over the discoloration on the concave part where his finger rested.
Next, he pan-seared an eight ounce ribeye. Jake, curled into his bed by the kitchen table, raised his greyed muzzle as he heard the pans clanging. He fixed clouded eyes on the stove and tipped his shepherd ears toward the sounds. Six minutes on one side, five on the other. The smell of cooking meat warmed the house as drool dribbled from Jake’s mouth forming a puddle on the floor. Neither age nor blindness had dampened his legendary appetite. General Burton allowed the steak to cool and cut it into tiny pieces. When Jake heard the clatter of his dish on his feeding stand, he knew “Come, boy” would follow. He heaved himself up and moved his rusty legs to the bowl where devoured the steak in three gulps.
General Burton moved to the next item on his list, his military dress uniform. He took it out of the closet, removed the protective cover and laid it out on the dining room table, taking a moment to slide his glasses out of their case before inspecting it. He polished the gleaming brass buttons, the various medals and straightened the nine rows of colored medal ribbons decorating the jacket. Then, he picked off any strands of lint and re-ironed his trousers to sharpen the already sharp creases. He buffed his glossy shoes to an even glossier shine, pulled off his khakis and eased the trousers over his legs, turning on profile to the mirror.
Strain as he might, week after week, he couldn't find the ramrod posture of his days as a young officer. He despised the knots and bones protruding from his shrinking shoulders despite his daily grind through push up after push-up. Lifting his chin did little to recover his chiseled jawline and the bags under his eyes grew darker and more swollen with every sleepless night. Since last November the nightmares had returned with a vengeance he had never known, leaving him drenched in cold sweat and gasping for air.
He smoothed his jacket and evened his sleeves as he dressed, satisfied that the epaulettes adequately squared and broadened his shoulders. Finally, he returned to his pistol, slipping it into its holster, hand lingering on the leather. The canvas webbing sat neatly coiled next to the holster, and General Burton unfurled it, examining it for stray threads or marks. The "U.S." had faded to a smudge and there was a dark line on the fourth set of holes, where he had always fastened the belt.
He clipped the holster into place and cinched the belt. It still went easily to the fourth set of holes. The pistol's weight against his hip felt like a trusted old friend and he pulled his shoulders back another inch. Next task.
Belly full, Jake had already padded back to his bed. General Burton waited for his light snores, counting them. On the tenth, certain that Jake slept deeply, he positioned himself to the dog's left, careful not to disturb the sunlight. He drew the gun from the holster and with steady hands held it an inch from the dime-sized patch of tan fur just under Jake's right ear. His right finger lay lightly on the trigger and he focused on exhaling slowly. Just five pounds of pressure.
The shot would kill Jake instantly. He would never know. General Burton turned the pistol, opening his mouth and sealing his lips around the cold steel. Every movement would have to be immediate, mechanical. No final thoughts, no hesitation. He forced himself to stay like that, gun in his mouth, counting out ten measured seconds, still listening for Jake's snores.
It wouldn't be like last November. Hand upon his Bible, he had made that vow. Moments from that month collided with a time long ago and assaulted his mind in a pummeling kaleidoscope of fragmented images. A slip on the ice, a searing pain in his hip. Hobbling like the old man he was. Blood pouring from the open wounds of his brothers on the battlefield. Screams. His screams, their screams? The home health aide’s plump face and the walker she brought him. The pretty nurse who’d smiled and held his hand as he was carried off the front line in Bastogne. Tripping like a clumsy old fool on his morning runs. The walker. The damn walker, taunting him, laughing at him. Helpless old man. A fist through the wall and string of curses. The nurse’s scream. Cold steel of the pistol against his temple. Jake’s warm body pushing against his legs. Blank eyes on him, worried whines piercing his ears.
General Burton had hesitated only a moment before setting down the pistol and ruffling Jake's head. He’d felt the boniness of his skull and seen the sunken hollows of age in his flanks.
He had lowered himself into his leather chair, Jake at his feet. They'd stayed that way for hours, General Burton staring ahead at nothing, Jake's head resting on his foot. The room had darkened as the afternoon waned, but nothing moved until Jake finally rose and made his way to the door. General Burton had guided the dog into the yard, the icy air biting through his shirt. Maybe it was the snow crunching under his feet or the shadows of the trees' bony branches against the moon, but something took him back to that night on the Rhine River in 1944. The shadow of the young German officer on the cliff, pistol drawn, shot fired, body tumbling into the river, a sequence that unfolded with precision, deliberation and dignity.
That is how it must be done, General Burton had decided. For himself, for Jake.
He had not slept that night or the next day, worked out his plan down to the smallest detail. The moment of desperation had passed, but he knew it would return. And when it did, everything would be in place. He would be ready.
General Burton removed the pistol from his mouth, wiped off the barrel and took out the bullets. The movements came mechanically now, no more sweating, no more trembling. The morning sun had risen higher, warming the kitchen as the summer humidity crept in. He locked the gun and holster carefully in his safe, re-ironed his uniform and returned it to the closet. Jake began stirring and stretching as General Burton wheeled the vacuum cleaner out of the closet for his final Monday task. There was not a speck of dirt in the house, but it was Monday. And there were five things General Burton always did on Monday.