I Shot Sonny Battalion
by Mike McNichols
part 1 of 2
The first time I shot Sonny Battalion was in 1935, in Barker City, Missouri.
Sonny’s old man was a French slumlord, and he owned the building that housed my dad’s bakery. My dad and Maurice Bataillon — in the proper French — had a distant but civil relationship.
Even in the years of the Great Depression, my dad figured out how to get the rent paid on time. When old man Battalion showed up each month, squeezing his fat body through the bakery door, my dad paid him. Battalion just nodded and lumbered out. He mostly left us alone, especially when something needed to be fixed.
Sonny was an only child, like me, and he was a miniature version of his old man, minus the thin moustache and rumpled suit. The kid acted like he had something coming to him, like the rest of the world had yet to catch on to his specialness.
He showed up once in a while in the alley in back of my house where my friends and I played. It was better for a bunch of ten-year olds to play in my alley on Saturdays than at the schoolyard, where the older kids always shoved us around when they showed up.
The alley was our playground, and when Sonny came around, we usually shoved him around. My friends and I lived in the mid-range of the shoving hierarchy.
On that particular Saturday in October 1935, I figured that Albert, Douglas and I would shoot some cans with our BB guns. But when they showed up with a chewed-up old bat and a ball so wrapped up with twine that there was hardly any ball left in it, I stashed my rifle, fully pumped, behind a couple of trashcans.
It was a fine old rifle, that Daisy number twenty-five. I remember it to this day. How my dad managed to afford to give me that used gun on a Christmas during those hard times is still a mystery to me. It had a straight barrel, an accurate sight, and a nice wood stock that fit my shoulder like it was meant to be there. My fascination with guns started with my Daisy and never went away. Maybe it was the beginning of my destiny.
When Sonny wandered into the alley on that Saturday afternoon, we ignored him and kept playing our three-man ball game. After a while, Albert asked Sonny if he wanted to play.
Sonny shrugged and said it didn’t look like we had any kind of a ball worth playing with. He said his old man bought him real baseballs that made ours look like crap. I told Sonny he could go piss up a rope. Douglas shoved him and told him to get the hell out of our alley. Albert threw a rock at him. It hit Sonny in the shoulder.
“Knock it off, assholes.” Sonny’s voice got high, like he was going to cry.
“Get out of here, you baby.” I’d had it with Sonny. I couldn’t stand looking at his pasty white face.
“Shut your mouth, Francis.” He said “Francis” with a girly whine in his voice. I hated being called Francis. My friends called me Franky. Nobody called me Francis, except my mother, and that was only when I was in trouble.
“Come over here and I’ll shut your fat mouth, Battalion.” I took a couple of steps toward him.
Sonny looked panicky and started stepping backward. “I’m gonna tell my dad to kick your old man out of that lousy bakery. He’ll do it, too.”
It made me sick that Sonny’s old man owned that crappy building. I wished my dad could afford to run his bakery somewhere else, but that wasn’t up to me. I wanted to put an end to the Battalion presence in my life. I moved over to the trashcans and retrieved my BB gun. “I told you to get out of here, Sonny. I mean it.” I took two more steps toward him.
Sonny started howling and turned to run. “I’m telling my dad!”
I didn’t much think about it when I pulled the butt of that rifle to my shoulder and took aim at the back of Sonny’s head. In that moment my old Daisy became a part of me, an extension of my body and mind. All thought evaporated, and I became one with my rifle. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking at all when I pulled the trigger.
To this day, in my mind, I can see that little round ball emerging from the end of my rifle. It comes out in slow motion, spinning like a miniature planet hurtling through a galaxy. The afternoon sunlight flashes on the BB’s copper surface as it plunges through time and space. I see it now, the trajectory true and inevitable. I imagine a tiny target at the base of Sonny’s skull, where his buzzed crew cut met his flabby, sweaty neck.
The BB didn’t hit Sonny in the head as I had intended. It hit him between his shoulder blades, cushioned by the striped t-shirt that he wore and diminished in its powerful thrust by Sonny’s desperate lurching away from my assault. When it struck him, he howled like he’d been blown apart by a bazooka.
After Sonny disappeared around the corner of the alley, screaming and crying, we laughed for a while and then started throwing our twiny ball around. I worried that Sonny’s old man would give my dad a hard time, but he didn’t. At least, nobody gave him a hard time right then.
Old man Battalion just kept collecting my dad’s rent check, never saying a word. I don’t think Maurice liked his own son very much. Nobody really liked Sonny Battalion.
Albert and Douglas joined the Army as soon as we finished high school. I joined up a year later. After the War, Douglas went to college and then got a law degree. Last I heard he had a good law practice up in Omaha. Albert took a bullet in the head in France, on Omaha Beach. Both of them ended up in Omaha. What a joke. Albert should have come home and had a life instead of getting killed by Nazi bastards before he even got out of his teens.
My mother died eight years later, right after Albert and Douglas left town. Dad was depressed, and I used trouble as my escape from grief and loneliness. The guys I started hanging around with were as bored as I was in that little town, and I guess acting like punk hoodlums was how we broke the tedium.
It was just a little burglary and joy-riding in cars we boosted, but it was enough for my dad to threaten to kick me out of the house and turn me over to the cops. I joined the Army and left Barker City in ’44 and never went back.
Dad kept working that bakery into his early seventies. I called one day after finishing a job in Pittsburgh, just to see if anyone was still alive back home. He said that Battalion had forced him out, raising the rent and giving him grief. Dad just gave up the fight and closed down.
I told my dad that it was just as well, that it was time to get out of the bread business and retire happily. He died that next summer. They said it was lung cancer, and I’m sure it was, since Dad was a long-time smoker.
At sixty years old, with no family and no kids of my own, I started thinking about my life. My business, as you might call it, took me all over the country, but never to Missouri. I was slowing down, but I still kept a few irons in the fire.
Then, in late 1985, I took a job in Kansas City. It was quick, in and out, some union thing, if I remember right. I always required my clients to have a car rented and paid for in someone else’s name so I could get around without leaving obvious trails; I wanted my cars to be as untraceable as the guns I carried.
My assignment took me to a dumpy part of town, a section of Kansas City that hadn’t seen new development since the 1940s. When I finished the job, I drove past a row of dingy storefronts that included a pawn shop, a check-cashing service, and a small bakery. It reminded me of that old street where I grew up.
My life was, for the most part, rootless, and I had come to like it that way. But there was something about seeing that little bakery that made me want to know if there was any root left inside me. So I took advantage of the free vehicle and made the two-hour drive south to my old hometown.
Copyright © 2014 by Mike McNichols