Deville at Home by Brooks McMullin
2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
Brooks McMullin made the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Deville at Home.
You can read Deville at Home below.
This story contains strong language.
Deville had not counted on the ground freezing up on him. He forgot all about that. While he was in jail the Mounties had come by and made a search and left a copy of the warrant on the kitchen table, held in place by a jar of Good Morning marmalade. That was their idea of a joke. He knew they would find nothing. That Mountie Taylor took his rifle last night, but didn't find his stash or his other guns.
What Deville had left of the black beauties and weed was inside the cabinet of his stereo receiver. (He had a turntable for LPs. He was old school about the music.)
The guns were hidden in the ground.
Last night the Mounties took the roaches from the ashtray, took the roach clip too, cleaned the ashtray, like a maid would, and set it in place again. Maybe they would charge him. Maybe they wouldn't. Mounties liked to play mind games. But they were lazy assholes. To find his stash Constable Taylor would have to remove four screws on the lid of the stereo receiver. He knew they wouldn't look there. That would take a little work. They'd have to lift the turntable from the top of the receiver, disconnect it and put it aside.
He knew they wouldn't crawl under the trailer either. Outside at the skirting hatch Deville had seen the impressions their knees made in the snow. He knew what they did. They shone a flashlight around under the trailer. Saw the furnace and a lot of frozen ground. Nothing else. Wouldn't crawl under.
Well he wasn't going to crawl either. Not this time. It was hard enough digging the hole when the earth was soft. He took a Skilsaw into the bathroom, ran an extension cord and cut a square out of the floor.
He looked down at the hole between the toilet and the tub. A good idea became in its realization tinged with doubt. The doubt introduced him to the finality of a very bad mistake. Then again, he thought, maybe the hole would come in handy later. A booby trap. "Yeah, think outside the box," he said. The joke made him smile in the bathroom mirror. There was swelling around one eye where Constable Taylor had hit him, a lot of blue. The eye almost closed but he could see well enough, he told himself. He gnashed his teeth against an irritation. It seemed as if his gums were wrapped in cotton. He looked at the hole in the floor. "Just put a bath mat over it," he said, as if it were someone else's problem.
He took a short-handled spade from his fieldgear and squeezed down through the hole and began digging beside the furnace. The dirt wasn't frozen after all. Because of the furnace. He never planned it like that. Putting the guns beside the furnace — he had to admit — it was pure luck.
All at once the furnace ignited, whooshing loudly to life beside him. He threw himself flat in the dirt. "Jesus!" he shouted. He lay there. "It's nothing," he said in a calmer voice. But he heard the fear. Useless to deny. It was always there. The furnace woke it up.
Everything was waiting for him, hidden away and waiting for him.
When he felt the spade stab boxwood he got excited. He felt very good now. Everything was waiting for him, hidden away and waiting for him. That made him think of the pills hidden in the stereo receiver, and he yelled, "Go get them now!" as if calling to someone, but he was alone.
No, he would do this first, he decided. Get the guns, and then when he was ready to move them, he'd call Grimes and ask to borrow his truck for an hour. Then he would take one pill only. He'd give a couple to Grimes for the truck. He had 18 left. He took two this morning and nothing gets the job done better. He could afford to give Grimes two. He liked to see Grimes's eyes light up when the pills came out.
It was the truth about speed, it was just that good. But you had to know how to mix it with the booze, that was the thing.
He let Constable Taylor hit him last night. He could have had Taylor a dozen times, but it was Deville who ended up handcuffed, thrown on the floor of the cop car. He learned his lesson. He had drunk too much, and you can drink a pile on speed. You have to.
The phone began ringing in the trailer calling to him through the little rooms down the hall and into the floor. The rings echoed and the emptiness of the place struck him. His wife, his kids were gone. "Don't forget the baby," he called, as if they were just leaving. You had to joke about this stuff. You need to have a sense of humour about most things. But the phone wouldn't shut up. The furnace cut out, and the phone strangely became faint like the memory of a phone ringing. He looked at the gunbox, and swiped the lid with the shovel. He imagined the rifle and the handgun inside. He had packed them in grease and wrapped them in towels. He knew how to take care of his gear. But the phone went on. And it seemed then that in this cramped space time opened up for him as if the phone were ringing all day and he had been digging in the dirt all day listening to it.
Finally the caller's message came on and he heard the voice of Joyce Walsh. He jumped up, missed the opening, and struck his skull on a joist. He squeezed halfway out and stopped to listen. She was reminding him of a dental appointment tomorrow. His torso stood out of the floor beside the toilet. For some reason he had a plunger in his hand. He looked like a sight gag in a bedroom farce. "She called me Wayne," he said.
He got up out of the hole, and walking into the living room, patted the top of his head. He looked at his palm. Blood. He tapped his tonsure. It was sticky up there.
He pulled out a Swiss Army knife and began to unscrew the stereo receiver cabinet. He smiled at the Philips head on the driver. Another reason the Mounties never opened the stereo. They'd have a flathead, but not a Philips.
He had one pill in his shirt, one he forgot about. He popped it, then removed the receiver cover.
Impatience seized him. The rifle and handgun were still in the box underneath the floor. He left that job undone. But here's the thing: He knew it would be hard to take his guns and hide them away from the trailer. He knew that. Him in one place, them in another.
He didn't like guns hanging around the kitchen. They were like really good friends who were always pushing things too far.
But it was for everyone's own good. This is what he had to do. That's how they got buried in the first place. He didn't like guns hanging around the kitchen. They were like really good friends who were always pushing things too far. Someone had to take the lead, someone had to say when enough was enough. But a handgun on the table, on a nice clean kitchen table, was nice. It was like looking at a manger lit by candles. With the baby Jesus.
"Don't forget the baby Jesus," he said and smiled.
The handgun was perfect on the kitchen table. You could take the gun if you were coming in. Open the door, come in, and there it is on the table. You could take it if you were going out. The last thing you did before you went out. And in the meantime it was just there on the table.
But the rifle when it was cleaned and stood against the wall added a whole new dimension to everything. The gun on the table and the rifle against the wall always got together giving him ideas, tempting him. They really should be apart for everybody's own good.
He looked at the big jar of Marmalade holding the warrant down as if the place were a wind tunnel. The gun and the rifle were waiting, calling him. Then he thought, no, leave them there. "The old back and forth," he said. It was like being a kid again. He heard a priest from the confessional ask, Have you been associating with lower companions?
"Yes, Father," he said. "A Beretta nine millimetre and a manual single-shot Enfield sniper rifle. But they're full of shit, Father, I never listen to them."
Shit or no shit, I want you to say 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys.
"Yes, Father. Right away, sir, er Father."
But he hadn't gone to confession in years and he wasn't in Somalia anymore or in the Heights. He wasn't on patrol anymore. He couldn't walk through a village of grass huts, flicking the weapon's safety and feel himself the most powerful person alive. Or he couldn't walk into a Jewish cemetery in the Heights and catch Muslim kids desecrating graves, bodies dug up, dumped out of caskets, him firing a warning shot. You bastards! Those bodies stinking in the sun.
He couldn't walk through a village of grass huts, flicking the weapon's safety and feel himself the most powerful person alive.
The rags, the rags they were.
Kids acting like it was none of my business.
Pissed off at me. At me? I'm the one keeping the peace here. Too much. How do they expect us to be peacekeepers with stuff like that? Answer me that.
Something was coming to him. He closed his eyes and held out his arms like the crucified Christ. The rush was on. The drug peaking in his blood a little bit. When he opened his eyes he dropped his arms resignedly because he knew everything about everything and it bored him. He looked at the cabinet screws in his hand. He wondered if he should just set the screws aside. He was with the Mounties on this one. There was too much work here, putting the receiver together. The pills and weed waited in their baggies among the receiver's circuits.
"Hey, I know," he said, and threw a dismissive hand to a basket of clean and folded laundry his wife had left on a chair. "I got this!" he said, and looked down the hall and noticed the Skilsaw's black extension cord running into the bathroom. Fear seized him. For a moment he didn't know what it was, what the cord was doing there. His mind fired off the certainty that the cord was something the Mounties had left behind for surveillance. Then he remembered his bright idea, cutting the hole in the floor. It seemed shameful now, part of his distant and shameful past. He saw the red abrasions on his wrists from the handcuffs. Another mark of shame. He looked at the screws in his hand, as if they were a puzzle to solve. He heard something dripping on the floor. Looking up expecting to see a leaking roof, felt the blood pool in his ear.
He took out his handkerchief from his hip pocket and soaked up the blood. The laundry basket stared at him like a loud invitation. He could stop all this. A folded t-shirt and clean jeans lay on top of the pile. He could start there. Take a shower and get into clean clothes. He did not have a plan. He did not need one. Without effort life would reveal its secret openings and hidden spaces. He knew that moving from this life to another life took no more energy than exhaling. It was an awareness beyond anything the drugs could ever bring him. After the shower he would call the cops on himself. Crazy. He would give them something for their warrant. He imagined calling Constable Taylor, imagined his own voice on the phone, how it would sound. He smiled. It didn't seem like him at all. But none of this, he realized, ever really was him.
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About Brooks McMullin
Brooks McMullin is a university lecturer of literature and composition, who writes short stories, novels and screenplays. He was a runner up in the 2012 CBC Short Story Prize for Pax and was a quarter-finalist in 2006 Zoetrope screenwriting contest for the feature-length script Coal War.
The story's source of inspiration
"The story was taken and reworked from a chapter of a novel I shelved called The New Teachers. In the story, Wayne Deville is one of five new teachers who begins a teaching job in a northern Alberta town. All fail to fit in. Deville fails because he has PTSD, a veteran of duty in Bosnia, the Middle East and Somalia. I have tutored college students, ex-military, and they have told me stories. Those stories have stayed with me, and helped to create Deville's experience."
The winner of the 2021 CBC Short Story Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.