Boston native Eugenio Volpe is a PEN Discovery Award winner and Pushcart nominee. His first book The Message was published by Solstice Literary Magazine and his short stories have appeared in publications such as Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Thought Catalog, and dozens more. Eugenio resides in Los Angeles and divides his time between surfing and taste-testing premium vodka.
Ann Hood, best-selling author of The Obituary Writer and The Red Thread accurately characterizes Eugenio and the sentiment about his stories: “What a talent Eugenio Volpe is! One of the freshest new voices around, I always look forward to reading his work!”
Originally written in 2010, “American Beauty Minus Kevin Spacey” is an illustrative example of Mr. Volpe’s style of writing which can be characterized by a blunt assessment of cultural and social shifts in today’s America and a subtle sense of suspense.
I first heard the gunshots within the context of a dream. My wife and I were robbing a convenient store. With a steady hand, she pointed a Dirty Harry-looking thing at a Pakistani clerk. She screamed at him to open the safe. Between sobs he insisted that a safe didn’t exist. I tugged at the sleeve of her black leather trench coat and begged her to steal me a case of Twix candy bars. She told me to shut up and go stand guard by the door. I turned my back to the Pakistani and walked over to the cereal isle in search of a hiding place. I pressed my nose against a box of Lucky Charms until my vision blurred. My wife was going to shoot the Pakistani in the face. There was no stopping her. I prayed that she was a Hans Solo type of outlaw and neither a Bonnie nor a Clyde.
Three resounding thunderclaps tore across my nerves. I awoke in a panic, but took some comfort in the realization that my wife had merely murdered the Pakistani within the legal boundaries of a dream. The truer danger, however, the fact that a gun had been fired in the near vicinity of our home had me trembling in my Ralph Lauren blue plaid pajamas.
There was reason for alarm. We lived in a suburban development of moderately liberal human beings. We drank soymilk. Some of us drove hybrid cars. We no longer supported the war in Iraq. We didn’t own guns. In fact, I had never heard live gunfire, but based on police dramas and action films, I concluded that the weapon was a non-automatic rifle. It had a deep commemorative yell, throaty and far-flung. The reverberations had a cliché ring to them. I knew a thing or two about clichés. My wife and I started each morning to the smell of coffee (organic and Fair Trade Certified), multi-grain toast, and free-range scrambled eggs. Left to myself, I would have eaten bacon and Pop-Tarts, but my wife’s father had been a bully and a fatso. She kept me nice and thin. We ate a healthy diet and not at the expense of some hard-up Guatemalan or genetically altered fowl. We weren’t the lovey-dovey type, but made up for it by being socially responsible.
My infamous imagination was on the verge of absolute power. I was already wondering which of my neighbors had whacked his entire family. I contemplated stealing a dose of the wife’s Valium to combat my hyperactive mind, but that would have entailed reaching across her snoring corpse for the nightstand drawer. She could get real ugly when aroused from La-La Land. She was prone to migraines, partial seizures, and diarrhea when annoyed, frustrated, or overtired. It was better to handle the situation on my own, let sleeping beasts lie. She didn’t have much faith in me when it came to rational thought. Come morning, she’d be pleasantly surprised upon learning that I hadn’t woken her in the midst of a potential triple homicide.
Before succumbing to paranoia and twisted thinking, I took a stab at logic. Somebody was coyote hunting. A few neighborhood cats had recently disappeared. Their owners were distraught. They assembled at town hall. The police were asked to lend a hand but refused. They were not authorized to shoot coyotes unless one was on private property growling at a toddler. Norma Hoskins, the town animal officer, assured everyone that coyotes were not a threat to humans. Some hissed at her. Others booed. Norma had hairy armpits and legs. She clearly sided with the animal world. I admired her for it. I wasn’t opposed to Mother Nature’s dirty tendencies, nor her lawful violence. I kept this sentiment to myself. A town meeting is a place for superegos, not ids.
We all left town hall disgruntled. Out in the parking lot, we shouted at each other in agreement. Buried in the hullabaloo were whispers of vigilantism. My wife and I didn’t have any pets or children, but we could imagine how painful it must have been for our neighbors, knowing that their precious calicos and tabbies had been crunched, munched, and processed into furry droppings. I couldn’t think of a more horrifying way to go, and for that reason I volunteered to assist in any way possible. My willingness was greatly appreciated by all and inspired a few of the wives to hug me. They were warm, full-bodied hugs. I thought nothing of it, but found it odd when my wife began hugging the husband of every wife who had hugged me. Nobody appeared threatened by all the hugging. People didn’t think of us that way. We didn’t think of ourselves that way.
The longer I lay in bed thinking about it, the more it made sense. A resident of Pine Mills had decided to take the law into his own hands. Someone had bagged a coyote. Chad Pickwick was the likeliest candidate. He was relatively new to the neighborhood and had recently admitted to liking NASCAR at a PTA meeting. It took gusto to confess such a thing in public. A few of the more progressive mothers wrinkled their noses in disgust and walked away. Nobody wanted to associate with a possible Klan member. I took a risk. I gave Chad a consoling pat on the back and befriended him on the spot. We rifled down my wife’s brownies and talked cars. She did all the baking for the PTA meetings. It was the only time that she allowed me to eat sweets. It was a strange reward for not giving her the children that she so desperately wanted.
By our third brownie, Chad and I made an amazing discovery. We both drove the new Lexus SC Coupe! Over the course of three weeks, we had lived a few streets apart without noticing this borderline miracle. The only thing keeping us from contacting the Roman Curia was that Chad’s SC was silver and mine red. I was feeling giddy, and I suspected that Chad was experiencing the same euphoria. I wanted to lean over and kiss the brownie crumbs from his lips, but not in a gay way. I couldn’t get the buzz out of my chest. It was some variation of love, some ancient, Jesus-like, heart to heart goodness between men. Not only did Chad and I drive the same car, but we both had dirty blonde hair and roughly the same physique. We were both slightly taller than six feet with sloped shoulders. I had an unimpressive chin. Chad’s nose was somewhat hawkish. If somehow biologically legal, we would have produced a baby who looked like Celtics’ legend Larry Bird.
My fears regarding the gunshots had been put to rest. I returned to my pillow admiring Chad. He was willing to break the law in order to spare his family from suffering. His wife, Merritt, was very attached to their cat. She was lucky to have Chad. The entire neighborhood was lucky to have him. How many cats had he saved? I presumed dozens. I fell asleep naming all the cats in our neighborhood, twenty-four houses, thirty-two cats in all. When finished with the cats, I began naming the children of Pine Mills. Charles…Charlize…Chadwick…
When the next round of fire came, I awoke to the most crippling of horrors. There was a man standing in our room. His head was enormous, his shoulders impossibly broad. His silhouette was that of a jumbo-sized Mussolini or Alfred Hitchcock. It was useless to resist such a formidable figure. It would only prolong my pain and suffering. He stood there brooding. I assumed that he was a Muslim extremist, but it was immoral of me to jump to such a racist conclusion. He and his comrades outside might have been domestic terrorists, a neo-conservative militia. I remembered Oklahoma City and how we were all ready to bomb Iraq before finding out it was three white Americans who had detonated a daycare center. I had made the same mistake after the World Trade Center. I blamed Iraqis instead of Saudis. They had fooled me twice. Shame on me. I waited for the jihadist in our bedroom to bring an end to it all. The bourgeois infidel had to die, the capitalist Sodomite, the lazy American.
While awaiting his assault, my eyes adjusted to the darkness. What I had perceived to be the head of a large-than-life Mussolini was in fact my wife’s replicate Faberge egg placed on top of the dresser. The irony of all this was not lost on me. As self-destructive and trivial as we were, it was good to know that my wife wasn’t going to die at the savage hands of a jihadist or militiaman. I took a deep breath and rolled onto my side facing the wall. We were safe for the time being, but there were still real gunshots to worry about.
While reconsidering the Chad premise, I remembered the barbecue incident. A week after the PTA meeting, Chad had invited us to his house for a pool party. His older son Charles was turning eight. Shortly before cake and ice cream, someone’s kid pulled a gun. The boy started blasting people in the face point blank. Chad jumped from his deck chair and disarmed him. He politely reprimanded the boy and his mother. He alluded to Columbine and Virginia Tech while lecturing them on how squirt pistols desensitized and popularized gun use. I was reclining next to my wife, bare-chested, lathered in SPF 36, listening and watching in awe. Chad was a securities analyst, but he was also a true individual. He supported NASCAR but not the Second Amendment. He was sympathetic towards blacks, but didn’t care for basketball. He supported same-sex unions, but not same-sex adoption. He was perfectly comfortable mismarrying political views. He didn’t care what others thought. He stood by his opinions. They were illogical and contradictory and they were his. No commie soccer mom or gun-toting rightwing evangelical could convince him otherwise.
Under no circumstances did Chad support gun ownership. There was no way he was out shooting coyotes. Therefore, the only reasonable explanation left was that the neighborhood was under attack. The terrorists would never prevail. They might feng shui Chad’s brains all over the Walton Cream walls of his color-washed bedroom, but they would never get him to break. Chad would hide his children and take a bullet before sacrificing his values. If need be, I would raise Chad’s children for him. I would sit them on my lap and tell them parables wherein their father died so that the rest of us could watch NASCAR without being labeled Republican, or support gay unions without being called pinko commie scum.
Three more shots were fired. They sounded more brutish and rowdy than the others. It was a no-brainer. They were shotgun blasts. I was reminded of particular scenes in the films The Godfather Part II (Vito Andolini’s mother being blown away by one of Don Ciccio’s bodyguards), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (the elevator scene in which the good Terminator splays the polyalloy cranium of the evil Terminator with a sawed off Winchester), and the black and white classic The Night of the Hunter (Lillian Gish rocking on the front porch with a shotgun across her lap, waiting to defend the Harper children against a serial-killing false prophet who is sitting on a stump in the front yard singing his rendition of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” to which the widowed farm woman defiantly counters by singing the authentic version which includes the spiritual reference lean on Jesus). The latter of these scenes unmanned me most. It was hauntingly similar to the circumstances surrounding my house. I was that widowed farm woman, God-fearing and pure, but I didn’t own a shotgun, and although I feared God, I didn’t necessarily believe in him. I believed in movies. I believed in Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees. I believed in Kodak and Dolby.
There was another shotgun blast and then more rifle fire. It was time to call 9-1-1 and wake the wife, say our goodbyes just in case. There was a phone on my nightstand. It was my first time dialing an emergency. Until that moment, my life had been curiously uneventful (aside from my mother turning into Joan Crawford after my father abandoned us for a faraway life in San Francisco).
When the operator answered, I developed a stammering case of stage fright.
“9-1-1. What’s your emergency?” she repeated.
“Gunfire. Shotgun and rifle. Possible jihad or militia. Get here quick. We are unarmed. Pine Mills. 13 Douglas Fir Drive.”
“Are you shitting me?” was her delayed response. “That sounds like quite the tall tale.”
I heard her puff a cigarette and jingle ice cubes in a glass.
“I am not shitting you. This is a real emergency.”
“It’s probably someone hunting coyotes. There’s been a lot of missing cats lately. Go back to bed.”
My wife began stirring beside me. I didn’t want her waking in the middle of a frenzied 9-1-1 call. I thought it best to downplay the drama and dump the operator that way I could update my wife on the situation in a calm manner. I did not want to be the cause of a migraine, partial seizure, or diarrhea. I hated seeing her like that. It scared the Jesus out of me. It also made me feel guilty, not to mention unlucky and resentful.
“I have already considered the coyote premise,” I informed the operator. “It’s a highly unlikely one. Nobody in this development owns a gun. I appreciate your help. I will call back if things escalate.”
I hung up the phone and leaned over to kiss my wife as she sat up. I misjudged the nearness of her forehead and accidentally stabbed her brow with my two front teeth. She let out a yelp.
“How do you feel?” I asked. “Do you feel a seizure coming on? Diarrhea?”
“I’m so sick of you asking me that! Leave me alone. I’m fine other than you trying to bite my head off.”
I put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“I’ve been hearing gunshots all night. I think Pine Mills is being invaded by terrorists. This is the end. We’re going to die, and it’s probably going to be extremely painful.”
I tried reaching out to hug her, but she yawned and rolled over.
“I just hung up on the 9-1-1 operator. I told her that Pine Mills was under attack.”
“I thought I heard you talking to someone. What did she say?”
“She told me to go back to sleep and not worry about it.”
“That’s good advice. Don’t waste their time. They’re busy dealing with real emergencies.”
She hadn’t finished the last syllable of emergencies before releasing a sharp snore. She was already asleep. My anguish bored her. I was sick of it. Had I believed in God, I would have prayed for a bullet to come whizzing through our bedroom window and shatter her phony Faberge egg into a million pieces. Instead, I tried wishing it into existence. I squeezed my butt cheeks together and thought long and hard.
A bullet didn’t break the window, but within a few minutes, another shotgun blast rattled the walls of our bedroom. My wife awoke in a convulsive panic, tossing herself onto the floor. After the vindicated smile left my face, I rolled off the bed and smothered her body with mine.
“Get off. You’re killing me!”
“Stop being so hyperbolic,” I whispered. “I am trying to protect you.”
She felt strange and tense beneath me.
“You weren’t lying,” she conceded. “There are people with guns out there. I heard the shot in a dream. You and Chad Pickwick were in bed, gorging yourselves on chocolate. You were both naked. There were Twix wrappers all over the mattress. I shot him, but then realized that it was all really happening and woke up.”
“Well, the bullet is really happening. I am not so sure about the rest of it. Nobody’s shooting Chad. He’s probably home, sprawled on top of Merritt and the kids.”
“Chad. Chad. Chad. He’s all you ever talk about.”
“You’re the one dreaming about the guy.”
“Let’s not get into this now. Get the phone and call 9-1-1 again.”
Commando-style, I rolled across the bed for the phone. Once it was in my grasp, I did a backwards summersault off the bed, landing with my elbow onto the small of my wife’s back.
“Do you have any regard for a woman’s body?”
“You know damn well that I’m pro-choice.”
“Shut up and dial 9-1-1.”
I dialed the number. The phone picked up, but nobody spoke. I could hear “The Sweetest Taboo” playing in the background. It was the same woman. I heard her jingling ice cubes again and then another drag of cigarette, which she exhaled in a long, gratifying manner. She finally asked me to identify my emergency.
“More shots,” I said. “They’re getting louder.”
“You again,” she rasped. “Turns out you were right about the gunshots. Some of your neighbors called reporting the same thing. Maybe you’re not such a nut job.”
“Did Chad Pickwick call? Is he okay?”
“I only answer the phone, son. They don’t leave their names and zodiac signs.”
Unsatisfied with the rate of information, my wife decided to chirp in.
“Tell her that the gunshot was really loud,” she said.
“My wife wants me to tell you that the shot was really loud,” I complied.
“I am sorry to hear that,” the operator replied sarcastically.
“Ask her when the police will get here,” my wife said.
“My wife wants to know when the police will get here.”
“They’re on the way. Tell your wife to relax. We don’t want her having a fit.”
“She said the police are on their way,” I answered to my wife.
“Ask her if you should go outside and have a look,” my wife said.
I began to ask the operator if I should have a look outside, but she cut me off mid-sentence.
“Tell your wife that you’re a big boy. Tell her to stop telling you what to say.”
“She says that I’m a big boy,” I said to my wife. “She told me to tell you to stop telling me what to say. She told me to tell you that I am a capable man.”
“She clearly doesn’t know you.”
I began repeating my wife’s message to the operator, but she cut me off again.
“I heard what your wife said. She sounds like a real bitch. You sound like a nice guy, a little light in the loafers, but nice. Stop being so afraid of her. She’s just a woman.”
Her ice cubes clanked again and then I heard her place the glass on a table and pour some more whatever into it. I imagined vodka, a generic store brand. I was angry at her for calling my wife a bitch, but what was I to do? She was the 9-1-1 operator. I didn’t want to get on her bad side. Our lives depended on her.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“Fuck should I know. Get a divorce or start role playing during sex. Dress her up like a sailor or a chimney sweeper.”
“Not that,” I said. “What should we do about the gunshots?”
“Oh, that? Fuck it. Stay low. Shut off the lights and pray. Call back if things get worse.”
I hung up the phone and rested my cheek on the center of my wife’s shoulders.
“What did she say?”
“She said that I sounded like a strong, dependable man and that you have nothing to worry about.”
“Liar! She didn’t say that. I heard every word. She called me a bitch and you didn’t defend me. She sounded trashy and drunk. Did your mother come back from the dead and get a job answering 9-1-1 calls?”
“She wasn’t just ragging on you. She said I sounded gay.”
“I know. I heard.”
“Is it true? Do I sound gay?”
“Yeah, a little. Why do you think I get so mad when you hang out with Chad?”
“Because you think I want to have sex with him? It’s not like that. We drive the same car. Isn’t that enough? Why does it have to be sexual?”
Six rifle shots popped off in rapid succession. My wife screamed. I pressed myself against her.
“Get off! Leave me alone! You’ve done enough damage.”
Not wanting to inspire one of her partial seizures, I obeyed and dismounted. I crawled over to the window for a look outside. The neighborhood glimmered like every suburban scene in every movie about the superficiality of the American upper middle class. The streetlights painted everything a fool’s gold. My Lexus gleamed. I thought of Chad and the time we spent an entire day together drinking micro brews and watching the final season of Oz. Merritt and the kids had gone to Belmar to visit her mother. After watching all the Aryans die of anthrax, Chad and I went skinny dipping in his pool. The impetus had nothing to do with the brute physicality of the R-rated prison drama. It was a sweltering August night. I didn’t have a bathing suit. The consummate host, Chad reciprocated my nakedness. His body glistened in the flood lights. Miniscule waves lapped against the vinyl liner as he performed naked back flips off the diving board, me shamelessly back-floating in his wake.
Three more shotgun blasts caused my wife to shriek. I was about to turn around and attend to her when I spotted two Native Americans dressed in full regalia sprinting down Douglas Fir Drive carrying rifles. The Western was long dead by the time I grew up in front of a television, but those two redskins put the fear of Christ in me like nothing ever had. Darth Vader had nothing on the thought of being scalped alive. I dove across the room towards my wife, accidentally driving my shoulder into her left buttocks.
“You’re killing me!”
“Shush! There are Indians outside with guns. Native Americans. We’re dead meat.”
“Native Americans?” she whimpered. “Dances with Wolves is my favorite movie. My family came here from Holland after all the bad stuff happened to the Native Americans. Why would they want to hurt me?”
She broke into sobs. I patted her head until she caught her breath.
“Hide my egg,” she said, wiping her nose on the back of her wrist.
“It’s a fake,” I reminded her.
“It’s not an original, but it still cost seven-hundred dollars.”
“You’re a phony,” I said. “The operator was right about you.”
She elbowed me in the ribs. I slid off her back pretending to be in more pain than I actually was.
“I want kids, you son of a bitch! You ruined my life! I’m hooked on Valium. You did this to me! Have you any idea how ridiculous we look? We’re the only couple in Pine Mills without kids, yet we go to all the birthday parties. We go to all the PTA meetings. We went to town hall when their cats were being eaten by coyotes. We don’t even own a cat! No kids! No pets! I married a latent homosexual who’s allergic to fur. What a punch line!”
Before I could defend myself against her claims, another shot was fired. She squealed. I sat there pretending to massage sore ribs. We had never been so physical with each other. It was our first argument in seven years of marriage. We had done a sensational job of not stepping on each other’s sore spots, but all it took was a few bloodthirsty Indians and she was tap dancing on my sore spot like a shirtless Gregory Hines in White Nights. We were on the brink of death and instead of making ill-fated love like two teenage counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, my wife and I were declaring our hatred for each other. I climbed back on top of her and squeezed.
“You make me hate myself,” I shouted. “You’re superficial. I hate your stupid egg. I hope it’s the first thing that they smash when they come to rape, pillage, and murder us. I’m tired of being afraid of you!”
“Who are they? Why do they hate us? Is it our dependency on foreign oil? Is it our sweatshops in India? Are they still mad about King Phillip’s War?”
“Look at us,” I muttered into the back of her neck. “Everything we have is the result of someone else’s poverty or misfortune. Everything we want depends on the despair of others. We deserve their hatred. The only thing I can say in our defense is that we never adopted an African or Chinese baby.”
“You’re the most self-loathing egomaniac I have ever met! All these years, I thought you’d at least knock me up out of a narcissistic need to see yourself replicated.”
Another shotgun blast rattled the walls. I feared for my life, but not in the obvious way that I had feared for it all night. I feared for my life in the grand scheme of things. I feared for my origins and future. I feared dying without a replacement. I could hear great-great-great grandfathers screaming at me from the ancient past, saying things like I survived a saber-toothed tiger attack so you could drive a gleaming Lexus, or I successfully dodged the bubonic plague so you could wear Ralph Lauren blue plaid pajamas, or I hid in the marsh grass while Roman soldiers crossed the River Medway. I hid while they slew the entire town. I suffered the fate of a coward so that you could laze around watching Die Hard 3. There I was, a middle-aged man in a dry marriage, living in relative comfort and peace with all the benefits of modern technology and medicine, not keeping my lineage alive. All those ancestors struggling to survive, willing my existence out of sheer determination would be for naught once the Indians scalped us.
I lifted my wife’s nightgown and began sucking on her neck.
“I’m ovulating,” she whispered.
“How the hell do you know that?” I asked between hurried kisses.
“I always keep track. I am completely obsessed with my ovaries.”
I reached between her legs. She was ready for me. I wasn’t quite ready for her. It had been a long time. It took some coaxing. Everything still fit. It was like riding the Little Engine That Could. After just a few thrusts, my wife let out a moan that would have put Meg Ryan to shame.
“I hate myself,” I whispered. “I resent you. I resent our crummy upper middle class existence, you and your stupid phony egg.”
“You ruined my life. I married a man who doesn’t like women. Whose fault is that? Huh? Tell me you son of a bitch. Whose fault is it?”
She was breathy and panting. I clumsily bucked my hips. The first few minutes were not pretty, but eventually I wrenched my way into a rather heroic rhythm. I picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1. The operator answered. I could hear “Smooth Operator” in the background. Between a sip of vodka and puff of cigarette, she asked what my emergency was. I didn’t answer. I put the phone on speaker and placed it on the floor next to us. Another gunshot rattled the house. My wife shivered beneath me. The operator’s voice sounded like a tiny megaphone coming from some shared space between our subconscious.
“I hear intercourse. Is that you, son? Bravo! I knew you had it in you. Make me a grandchild. Make me a frightened little hater. You’re all my children. Your fears belong to me. I’m always here for you. Don’t forget to call. The line is always open.”
My wife and I weren’t so bad at it. I was having a good time. Chad never entered my thoughts. It truly was a special moment. I couldn’t recall a single movie in which the protagonist secures his bloodline by making hateful love to his ineffectual wife as vengeful Native Americans splinter the bedroom door with hatchets. It was my fifteen minutes of fame. I could hide my pregnant wife in the attic and die a happy, capitalist Sodomite.
“What should we name it?” she asked amidst an outcry of shots.
“My father’s name was Alfred,” the operator interrupted. “My grandfather’s name was Benito.”