"Tupperware and Lies"

by Dwayne Phillips

Tommy melted into a still photograph. His scrawny arms supported his Remington 66. I knew he was about to shoot because he stopped breathing. He always stopped breathing. I counted. I reached twenty when the muscle, I call it muscle but I don't know that Tommy had any muscles, but only one muscle in his body moved and it was on his trigger finger.

The Remington spit a 22-caliber bullet. A squirrel fell from a pine tree and plopped on the bed of pine needles.

"There's another one up there," whispered Tommy.

He always said that. He never shot a squirrel without knowing that another one was in sight. A second target seemed to me of little value as Tommy's rifle only held one cartridge at a time. His rifle was found in the ditch alongside Highway 51. It was supposed to have a tubular magazine that fed the semi-automatic action, but the magazine was lost by the previous owner. Most of the action was frozen with rust. My dad took it apart and cleaned what he could so that the action would occasionally function, but Tommy had to cycle the bolt manually most of the time.

Tommy didn't care. His rifle was "his rifle." He found it in the ditch. No one gave it to him. It was the only thing in the world the word "his" described.

I tossed Tommy another cartridge. He slid it into the rifle and quickly and smoothly returned the rifle to the shooting position. He stopped breathing for a moment until a second squirrel lay on the pine needles.

Tommy and I would hunt squirrels in the woods of my parents' farm. It wasn't really a farm, but we called it that. My dad worked sheet metal at a petro-chemical plant in Baton Rouge. He farmed a little in the long summer evenings raising a couple of cows for meat and a dozen chickens for eggs.

Tommy always shot more squirrels than me. My .22 rifle functioned. It was old, older than Tommy's ditch rifle, but was in much better condition and had a scope on it. Tommy had tried it a few times, but he disliked the scope. "Can't see through it right," he said. "Like my iron sights better." The truth was that Tommy preferred anything to which he could attach the word "my."

I couldn't argue with the results. Tommy never missed. He would stare at the clear, crisp front sight of his rifle. Tommy swore he could see the layers of metal in the sight. Those little lines were like the neon signs on the dilapidated stores on Highway 51. The rear sight was blurry, but sharp enough to place the front sight in the center. Squirrels sat frozen on the top of the front sight. 

"Shoot!" I would shout in a whisper at Tommy as he waited and waited without a breath. He never heard me or at least never heeded me. He paused; he squeezed, and the squirrels fell from the trees.

That was poetic, definitely cheap poetry, but that was the best I could describe what Tommy did with that rusty rifle.

Tommy lived inside the town limits of Tickfaw, Louisiana. Only poor people lived inside the area where the Tickfaw Police, all one car of it, could, and frequently did, write traffic tickets. And Tommy was one of the poorest. His mother lived in New Orleans where "jobs" were easier to find—as was alcohol and places to sit and consume it. No one knew who or where his father was. His grandmother raised him, and that was a charitable description of her role in his life. She called him "nomus" as her lack of front teeth and general sloth kept her from biting a sharp "T."

Tommy and I brought our squirrels to my house where my mother would clean and stew them. She put the stew in faded Tupperware and sent it to Tommy's grandmother. She hoped Tommy was fed some of it, but Tommy's gaunt body gave my mother doubt.

This is how we grew up—at least I grew up. Tommy didn't change much with the years. He didn't go from pre-school through childhood and adolescence. He was always a teenager squirming to escape the boundaries imposed by the world.

Nevertheless, we passed the years together. We went to the same Tickfaw pre-school, Tickfaw Elementary School, Tickfaw Middle School, and the nearby Independence High School. I played baseball, while Tommy threw rocks. I went to the Baptist Church, while Tommy threw rocks. I dated a few girls, while Tommy threw rocks.

Everywhere I went, while Tommy threw rocks, people asked me about that skinny boy who was always throwing rocks. I tried to explain Tommy. I suppose as the years passed and I learned a few things about the world my explanations grew in sophistication. The girls in high school were enthralled with my tales of Tommy. I found the deeper my explanation, the more kissing I was granted with the girls. I enjoyed the kissing, and the girls enjoyed the mystery of Tommy.

Life changed during the fall of our junior year of high school. Someone left a gate unlatched allowing Tommy to slip prematurely through the next several phases of life. He escaped those of us who were his age, but were never his peers.

The event was an otherwise unremarkable turkey shoot. We didn't literally shoot at turkeys, but for a dollar a shot, you would shoot a .22 rifle at a paper target. The ten best shots won turkeys. The Parish Sheriff sponsored the event at the Sheriff's shooting range. The event lasted all day. Tommy and I arrived at the start of the day. As expected, by me if by no one else, Tommy's shot neatly marked the dead center of the paper target. I didn't miss by much, but with .22 rifles, missing by not much meant you didn't win a turkey. 

We had nothing else to do, so we stayed the rest of the day to watch as sundown farmers and teenagers from twenty miles around took their shots. Tommy's target was pinned at the entrance of the shooting line so everyone could see what they were supposed to do. Most people thought that the Sheriff had punched a target dead center with a pencil as a joke. One man, up from New Orleans or over from Baton Rouge, took great interest in the target. He knew the difference between a pencil hole and a bullet hole and wanted to talk with Tommy.

As a test of skill or luck, he put up five dollars so that Tommy would take five more shots. Tommy convinced the man to pay him five dollars more to take these extra shots. That was an innocent way to become a professional gunman.

Tommy, of course, made a hole dead center in the five targets. Tommy thereby won six of the turkeys put up as prizes that day. His grandmother didn't have any electricity that month, a common month as she often failed to pay her electric bill, so Tommy sent the six turkeys home with me. My mother eventually baked each one and sent them to Tommy's grandmother in the now well-worn Tupperware containers. 

Tommy also won the attention of the man from some big city. The man visited the high school; the man visited the Sheriff's office, and he visited Tommy's grandmother. The man was waiting outside her trailer when Tommy and I arrived after school in December.

There are times in life when you know something is about to happen and that you are a bystander, not a participant. I felt that when Tommy and I stepped out of the old Chevy pickup that I drove to and from school. The man approached us, Tommy actually, and began to ask questions about our, Tommy's actually, future.

The two-week Chrismas break was two days away. No, Tommy didn't have any plans for it. No, the man didn't ask me about my plans, and yes, Tommy was interested in going with the man for a few jobs that would pay more money than Tommy had ever seen. There was no such offer for me.

He was gone. I had a few holiday dates with girls who were even more interested in where that mysterious Tommy was. I liked kissing girls, so I lied. I told them that Tommy called every night at three minutes past midnight. The girls loved the lies. I liked the kissing. Everyone was happy.

Tommy continued the work he started at the turkey shoot—professional gunman. He did call his grandmother a few times each month during the six months that he was gone. He lied to her as much as I lied to the fascinated teenage girls. Tommy's lie was that he working on an oil rig near the Gulf. He spent his days shooting nutrea that otherwise chewed the hydraulic and electric lines and brought havoc. Stories of shooting pests satisfied his grandmother as did an envelope with a birthday card and a one-hundred-dollar-bill hidden inside it every month.

He was shooting pests, but not the four-legged rodent kind. The man from the city smuggled workers into the U.S. through the marshlands that transitioned the Gulf of Mexico to the "high ground" of Louisiana mud. Smuggling illegal immigrants was profitable work. So profitable that others were anxious to enter the market. People lurked about the transportation routes the man from the city used. Tommy sat in trees and reduced the competition. Tommy didn't miss, so each competitor was granted one scare.

The man from the city gave him a new Remington rifle, not a rusty .22. The expertly modified rifle fired cartridges powerful enough to drop deer at 200 yards, and used a silencer to lie and sound like a teenager shooting squirrels with a rusty .22. pulled from a ditch.

Tommy was appreciated, and that was the closest thing to love he had received in his life. He was a shooting machine, and no one would miss him if he never returned to his grandmother in that trailer in the poor section of Tickfaw. People would assume that Tommy found something better on the road and never turned back. Good for Tommy. Almost anything would be better than what he left.

The man from the city also guarded Tommy from the stupidity that so often plagued young men with money in their pocket and bravado in their chest. He brought Tommy "home" to see his grandmother on the eve of the Fourth of July.  He ensured that Tommy brought an appropriate gift as well as five hundred-dollar bills. The visit lasted an hour. I happened to drive by as Tommy was stepping down from his grandmother's trailer. I jerked my Chevy pickup off the road and bounded up to hug my friend. If nothing else, Tommy would tell me some lies that I could pass along to high school girls now entering their Senior year and approaching their eighteenth birthdays.

The man from the city permitted us five minutes to laugh and grin and tell lies. Tommy re-entered adolescence for those five minutes. Then the man signalled Tommy, and Tommy responded like a machine. He aged 20 years in that moment, said, "Goodbye," and stepped into the man's car.

They drove away.

The job in the people-smuggling business lasted a year or three. Time didn't matter to Tommy. When you neither come from anywhere nor have anywhere to go, what is time? The man from the city sensed boredom in Tommy. The challenge was gone, so Tommy would play games with his targets. He would miss them by a couple of inches just to see the expression on their face at the whizzing sound of a closley passing bullet. He would then put a bullet in them to freeze the expression. It was twisted "fun," but it was something.

The man from the city moved Tommy from the smuggling business on to one more dangerous and sinister: shooting for his nation. A war, or something that resembled a war but was called a "deployment" in the news, began in the backwaters of Europe. Tommy was surrounded by people wearing "IFOR" patches on uniforms. Once again, he was given a simple job that no one else seemed to able to do: sit motionless in the night, look through a night-vision scope, and shoot people without IFOR patches who crept through the dark.

Tommy wasn't supposed to be doing that—no one was supposed to be doing that. The not-supposed-to-be-doing nature of the job was why it came to Tommy. The professionals knew the job was officially prohibited, but also knew the job was necessary—keeping out predators at night saved several dozen lives for every one that Tommy dispatched. 

The job fit Tommy perfectly. Tommy didn't exist. Again, he didn't come from anywhere and wasn't going anywhere.

Time passed, and the "IFOR" on the patch was replaced by "SFOR." Tommy paid the change little notice. His targets were the same, and the result of his shooting was the same—one shot for each non-SFOR person crawling through the night.

I heard from Tommy once during this time. College had run its course for me, and I was working in New Orleans in a business office. My mother called me on a Wednesday afternoon to tell me that a crumpled, dirty envelope had come for me. I returned to the farm on the outskirts of Tickfaw that weekend to see what it was.

I took the dirty envelope out to the woods to examine it. Something told me that I shouldn't open it in the house in front of my mother. I was grateful for the instinct. My name and address was scribbled in pencil on the envelope. There was no return address, and the envelope was postmarked in New York. A dozen hundred-dollar bills were wrapped in a piece of paper. The paper, also scribbled with pencil, read:

"Squirrel hunting is good here. Lots of 'em all over the place. No one here can cook like your mom and I don't get any Tupperware meals but I get by. Pay is good so I sent you some of my extra money."

In time, the backwaters of Europe were replaced by the scorching sun of the Persian Gulf. The job was the same: shoot people the Army wanted shot but who the Army couldn't shoot itself for fear of bad publicity. There weren't any trees, just shallow holes in the sand. 

That exercise quickly passed, and Tommy wandered for a few years. I ran into him on the sidewalk outside my office building in New Orleans. I knew that we didn't just run into each other. Tommy had tracked me to this time and place. We drank thick coffee and ate thicker gumbo at a hole-in-the-wall just outside the official tourist area of the city. Tommy lied to me about his life. I soaked it in for some reason. I was married and didn't need any lies to pass on to eager girls. Tommy was Tommy, and I was still the only person he could call friend.

Another President came along and another Persian Gulf exercise began. Tommy was there. A shallow hole in the ground became a corner on a rooftop or a small window in a battered building. People without the right patches on their sleeves fell. A few months became a decade. 

I became a father and saw my children become teenagers. We were eating turkey and everything that goes with Thanksgiving at my parents' home outside of Tickfaw when someone knocked at the door.

Of course it was Tommy. He stood outside the door, not moving a muscle. I waited for his trigger finger to move and a squirrel to fall from a tree. He didn't breathe.

The odor of a Thanksgiving dinner reached the door. Tommy did something I had never seen him do. He flared his nostrils as Thanksgiving hit him. His ear twitched at the sound of teenagers laughing with their grandparents.

"My grandmother died," said Tommy. "I came back to bury her and burn her trailer."

I invited Tommy in to have dinner with us. I expected a not-so-polite refusal followed by a chat outside filled with lies about life.

Instead, Tommy said, "My old .22 rifle burned in the trailer along with a stack of never-returned Tupperware. I would love to come in and eat with your family."