“Dummy Cartridges”

Amy Eldridge

Matthew Cohen, husband to Sandra Cohen, was well-acquainted enough with Mr. Baker to occasionally buy the barrel-chested man a gin and tonic when they found themselves on the same end of the bar counter at Joe’s.

“Emphysema,” Mr. Baker said of the gut that bulged from just beneath his oval belt buckle. Positioned above the image of a coiled timber rattlesnake on its cheap silver, the words “DON’T TREAD ON ME” were engraved.

Mr. Baker worked full-time at the solid waste facility from which he would frequently bring back trinkets like defective ammunition disposed of by the U.S. military base to proudly display to his fellow bar patrons.

“These ones are for training,” he said of the gold-colored cartridges, demonstrating with cocktail in hand how, in theory, they were to fragment upon impact rather than pulverize to dust like the cartridges he brought in the following day.

Matthew Cohen preferred the dummy cartridges, if any, but not for their lack of gunpowder or potential to cause harm. He simply liked the way they looked. In comparison to the brass, small caliber ammunition cartridges with their multi-colored coding on the bullet tip, the dummy rounds came in fluted, tin cases perforated just along the sides. Yes, those were much more suitable in appearance than the rainbow menagerie of tracer rounds and jacketed bullets Mr. Baker frequently brought in.

However, Matthew was not yet, nor did he ever intend to be, well-acquainted enough with Mr. Baker to share this preference, so he simply nodded and said, “Yes, sir, that’s a good one. Mighty fine, mighty fine.”

And Mr. Baker gleamed one of his famous smiles, all teeth and no gum. “Yes, I thought so.”

Matthew was, however, familiar enough with Mr. Baker to take Mr. Baker’s daughter, Francis Baker, to school for the last two weeks of February when Mrs. Baker fell ill with tuberculosis. Sandra Cohen, Matthew’s wife, brought cookie tins and knit gloves for the Baker’s twin boys, Tucker and Thomas Baker, who liked to play basketball in the driveway on early Sunday mornings when the rest of the neighborhood was still asleep. Matthew thought to thwack each of the towheaded boys about the head for the incessant pounding of the rubber ball against the asphalt in the hours he was meant to be slumbering; however, Sandra insisted against it.

“They’re only boys,” she said, braiding the long black locks of their own daughter’s hair into simple but tight three-part strands at their kitchen table.

“I was a boy once just as much as they are boys now.” Matthew kissed the top of his daughter’s head even whilst scowling. “I never felt the need to do that.”

The “that” he referred to was, of course, not only the basketball playing in the early hours of the morning, but also the constant bickering they would get into in the church pew just behind the one where the Cohen family sat, as well as the remnants of food which never seemed to disappear from the mouths of the two messy boys. Matthew could not remember if they were eight or nine. Matthew never knew much else about the twin boys of the Baker family until the day Mr. Baker did not arrive at his usual time at Joe’s.


Matthew sat down amongst the rest of the group who were prattling on about that night’s topic of conversation–things they wished they never saw.

There were all the usual answers to be expected, like the first glimpse behind the workings of the meat industry or the sight of their elderly parents copulating. Everyone got a good laugh over Allen Peterson who all too eagerly recalled the sight of his wife going into labor into the middle of the supermarket. Yes, most of the stories ended pleasantly like those.

Only occasionally was their joyful musing interrupted by one’s recollection of catching their spouse having an affair or another’s memory of a bad fight they couldn’t seem to tear their eyes from. Then, just as the discussion began to quiet down, Tina Peterson, the kid sister to Allen–who was only allowed in the bar because she tossed some money on the table during poker games–spoke up.

“I wish I’d never seen Mr. Baker’s boys playing with that scrap of his from the landfill.”

Matthew Cohen’s ears perked up at that. He lowered the whiskey sour from his lips to get a better look at her.

The Petersons–unlike the Bakers who had moved into the neighborhood a couple years prior–could trace their ancestry in the town probably all the way back to its founding. Matthew was quite familiar with Allen and Tina Peterson, both of whom had red rings on the tan skin around their brown eyes from the cold front which recently blew in. Tina, although loud and frequently nasally, was a good girl, if a little slow. Tina wasn’t the type to say things just to get attention like some of the other girls in the neighborhood.

“I don’t know why. Not really anyway. I just didn’t like the look of it,” she continued.

“It?” Matthew was surprised to hear the question slip out of his mouth.

“The bullets and all. It just made me uneasy. They don’t need to be learning about that kind of thing at such a young age, that’s all.”

Rather than answering, everyone seemed to silently absorb the information over their array of cocktails and playing cards. No one offered any more answers to the initial topic of discussion and Matthew allowed the ice cubes to melt away the remainder of his whisky sour, letting his eyes dance over the faded murals of scantily clad women in ten-gallon hats and leather boots with cast metal spurs. The green felt fabric of the poker table complimented the burnt orange glow of the neon open sign and embers flicked from cigarettes onto the wooden countertops which were permanently sticky with a thin residual layer of club soda and perspiration. Mr. Baker never made an appearance.

Matthew didn’t think much of it, or rather, consciously tried to avoid thinking about it until he pulled into his driveway to see the flashing blue and red lights of police cars and ambulances surrounding the Baker’s house next door. He was greeted with his wife Sandra’s pale face soaked warm and wet with tears when he flung open the car door.

“Oh honey, it’s awful,” she just kept repeating, “it’s awful, it’s awful, it’s awful.”

He pressed her head tight against his chest, trying to make out any shapes in the darkness which newly hung over the Baker residence. 

“I don’t know what happened. I just saw them wheeling Tucker out on a stretcher,” Sandra sobbed into his chest in that same awful kind of way, nearly knocking him backwards. She wasn’t considered heavy-set like the pear-shaped silhouette of Mrs. Baker, but she always looked rather comical next to the gangling figure of Matthew. Ever since they began going steady back in college, there were jokes about how many Matthews they could fit in one Sandra. They said she grew him up one day in a bowl of water like one of those plastic capsules that expanded into soft foam animals of elephants and lions. Now, Matthew would have loved nothing more than to sink inside the woman who collapsed against him and disappear from the scene unfolding before their eyes.

He was trying in desperation and failing to remember which of the two sandy-haired twins Tucker was. Was he the one with the prominent gap between his two front teeth or the one with the birthmark on his cheek? Was it a birth mark at all or yet another remnant of last night’s microwave dinner? Did it matter? And what of Mr. Baker?

As if she had read his mind, his wife said, “Mr. Baker–was he with you?”

Matthew shook his head, suddenly wracked with guilt.

“I just assumed he went straight home from work.”

“Oh God, oh God.” Her breathing picked back up again. “Oh God, Matt, I can’t even imagine.”


Mr. Baker never arrived home that evening to find one of his twin sons mistakenly, fatally, shot the other twin in their shared bedroom while Mrs. Baker and Francis Baker sat oblivious in the living room, watching It’s a Wonderful life on their 13-inch CRT television.

“You could swallow it,” James Stewart suggested to Donna Reed in the moon scene Francis loved oh so dearly. “And it’d all dissolve, see? And the moonbeams would shoot out of your fingers, and toes, and the ends of your hair.”

Francis wiggled her fingers and toes then where she and her mother sat on the faded yellow and orange upholstered chenille loveseat, as if she herself felt the moonbeams of which James Stewart described. Sometime around when Francis Baker wiggled her toes and Thomas Baker fumbled with the pistol–making “pew-pew-pew-pew” noises as he waved it around like a flag– Mr. Baker was trapped beneath the crushed driver’s side door of his sedan, overturned in a ditch just off the side of the highway.

Matthew Cohen could picture the barrel-chested, sandy-haired man pinned beneath the wreckage and struggling to breathe through just pursed lips as the bar patrons gossiped about it the following day and the next one after that. They said there was no telling of how long he’d been trapped there, which was maybe a lie, but that he didn’t die from internal bleeding because none of his bones were broken, which was true. Either due to the weight on his chest or the smoke from the flaming hood which filled his lungs, Mr. Baker, without a doubt, irrefutably suffocated. And he certainly did it sometime during the same span of a few hours in which Tucker Baker was bleeding out in a hospital bed.

“He probably swerved to avoid hitting a deer. He was always a good guy like that,” one remarked as a cluster of calloused hands shot out to place their poker chips upon the table.

“Either that or someone ran him off the road. Had some real nasty folks come through here lately,” remarked the bartender with a stack of bills between his fingertips and a mint green floss pick hanging out the side of his mouth

“Maybe his emphysema flared up and he just lost control of the wheel,” Allen Peterson offered in the same nasal tone from between a set of narrow, pink lips.

“In the same hour in which his boy was bleeding out on his bedroom floor?” Tina Peterson asked. “No, that was the work of God. He knew he couldn’t handle knowing that it was his own gun that took the life of their child.”

“Work of God, my ass,” a poker player opposite the young girl snarked. “No God of mine had anything to do with that. That’s for damn sure.”

The matter of certainty soon became an important concept to Matthew in a world suddenly plagued with precariousness. Tucker and Thomas were in the same class as Matthew’s daughter at the nearby elementary school. This was another irrefutable fact. 

“Even the teacher slips up and calls him Tucker sometimes,” the little girl said one morning, roughly a week after the accident, as Sandra combed and braided her forever frizzy black hair. “I really didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings.”

“I’m sure he knows it was an accident,” Sandra tried to reassure her, gesturing for Matthew to do the same. “You apologized after, right?”

Their daughter nodded.

“Then, that’s all you can do,” Matthew agreed feverishly. “He’s just going through a lot right now, so you have to be patient.”

Satisfied with that answer, his daughter toddled off from the kitchen and into the living room to pack up her backpack, but Sandra looked at him warily. Patience was a concept Matthew himself fell out of touch with.

At first, he tried to be patient with the empty barstool that now sat next to him at Joe’s, with the lack of boisterous chatter from the other patrons, or with the extra money in his faded leather wallet, but there wasn’t much more he could stand. Of the flowers alongside the highway or the framed pictures in the driveway. Of towheaded boys with birthmarks and gap teeth or the way the whole neighborhood seemed to quiet whenever Mrs. Baker walked past. And himself, Matthew Cohen, head slumped against the bar next to a White Russian that was less vodka and considerably more half and half, pondering why the Baker boy had to lose a father and a brother in one night. Would it kill God, should there be one at all, to at least separate the incidents by more than a couple hours?

No response. Matthew sipped his drink resting in one hand, clutching tightly to the dummy cartridges given to him by Mr. Baker in the other.


The following night, he stood, basket of dried fruits and nuts under his arm and rose bouquet in hand, on the doorstep of the Bakers after an extended discourse from Sandra about the difference between white roses, pink roses, and red roses. The florist insisted upon white roses on the contention that the white shade would speak to the innocence and youth of the deceased Baker boy, while Sandra remained firm on red roses for their appeal to tradition and elegance. Matthew was now left with a bouquet split unevenly between the two shades and a sympathy basket full of condolence goods he wouldn’t offer to the squirrels in the backyard. It all felt rather fitting for the irreconcilability of his thoughts on the matter.

Had Sandra not prepped the metal cookie tins or knit small worsted weight yarn gloves for the twin boys? Or too held the smooth cartridges between her fingers to remark on their size or purpose in an attempt to please Mr. Baker? Or considered what to make of his daughter who sat next to the snotty-nosed boys in three of her four classes? Why did this weight fall upon his shoulders, sinking him slowly into the Bakers’ manicured lawn which the stretcher once rolled across?

Mrs. Baker opened the door with a resounding creak that, for a moment, Matthew couldn’t determine whether it came from the rust-covered hinge pins of the door or the willowy woman herself.

“Oh, Matthew. Please, come in. Make yourself at home.”

Matthew entered with a polite smile, depositing his coat and condolences at the entryway. Every floor of the house apart from the black and white checkered linoleum tile of the kitchen was covered in a thick, plush carpet dotted occasionally with remnants of the twin boys’ childhood in food, crayon, and ink stains. Even from what he could glimpse of the hallway leading back towards the twins’ bedroom, he could tell where the plush carpet was removed to reveal the dusty and discolored hardwood floor beneath. He did not want to consider the reasons why.

“Can I get you anything?” Mrs. Baker asked from the dining room where she was transferring the mismatched bouquet of roses to a vase full of water. “Tea? Lemonade? I’m sorry I can’t offer you any coffee. The damn thing just won’t brew.”

Matthew visited the Bakers’ home maybe once or twice for neighborhood events, but never took much notice of the display cases upon the living room walls, now empty of firearms, or the wooden mounted gun racks made of maple or walnut near the back of the house. He thought back to his father’s guns tucked out of sight on the top shelf of the closet and in the back of dresser drawers. It certainly didn’t stop young Matthew who was frequently foraging within any nooks and crannies he could locate. It was only a matter of luck.

“Could I take a look at it?” he asked, suddenly turning back towards her. “I think I might be able to help.”

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