The Gun Lobby

A short story

My old friend Chick sells guns out of a hamper he keeps in his basement. He sells them at gun fairs and uses the money to buy more guns, which he sells at other gun fairs. "It's a living," he says.

I give him some mild grief about the hamper, and he puts up with it, like it's a little rain on a nice day. The hamper's got straw flowers on it and a little wicker clasp. He could have phased it out by now, certainly, and it hasn't been close to big enough since what he calls "the early years," but he keeps it in service. He says, "My reasons cluster in the what-do-you-care? category"—as in when you ask, that's what you're told. His attachment to the hamper feels to me like nostalgia. But Chick is a puzzle, and I may be wrong.

Chick says that a sentence about selling whatever you want to whomever you want is in the Bill of Rights but never gets talked about. He says that in our history books someone's reaching for a gun every paragraph and a half.

He gets no arguments from me. I grew up on all those snub-nosed pioneer kids sitting around on their little woven rugs, learning their long division with coal on the backs of shovels while they listened to stories about Daniel Boone's Old Bess, Bess Boone's Little Danny, Betsy Ross's Philadelphia derringer, or Carrie Nation's homemade zip gun. Sergeant York, from the hills of West Virginia, who could peg a squirrel's retina at 9,000 yards. Slow Tick Billy, last to draw but first to let fly once things were unholstered. As kids we just knew that everybody, tiny tots to tall Texans, sat around dreaming about potting the next Mohawk to cut through the back garden.

As far as Chick is concerned, guns pay for braces, trips, and, pretty soon, colleges. He has two big girls, Amanda and Astra, and two little boys, Emmett and Jasper. Before bed the girls kneel side by side and pass along to God prayers for Mommy and Daddy and their brothers and the gun lobby.

Chick sells Colts, Walthers, Glocks, Uzis, and Ingrams. He services the Colts and Ingrams himself, with one hand on the manual. He dabbles in Kalashnikovs. His big score was a Schmeiser with the original firing pin, which he turned around in two days for triple his money. He's had poison-tipped darts from the Amazon and a box of curved rubber truncheons said to be favored by the Albanian police. He has squirreled away in his little root-cellar sub-basement some high-end contraband laser sights, a crate of phased-out NATO flash grenades (with the rounder bodies, before they went to the narrow design), and a drop-tank from an F-18. In the sub-sub-basement, in a beer cooler, he has stashed an old scorched liquid-nitrogen canister wrapped in gummy and tenacious biohazard tape. The kids call the sub-sub-basement "Daddy's secret secret room." He's mum on what's inside the canister, which is part of the mystery of Chick.

He also stockpiled some Claymores for a buddy who wanted to move them upstate. He gave the buddy thirty-six hours to pick them up. They had to be primed and set to blow, but even so, you don't want the kids poking around the anti-personnel mines. He kept everything locked up tight, but still, how many parents have said that before?

He sold my wife everything she wanted when, without fully consulting me, she stopped by his basement. She went the better-safe-than-sorry route when it came to quantity. He sold her a Glock, an Uzi, an Ingram M-10, and a nifty little Travis Bickle .25 caliber on a sliding brace arrangement that fits around the forearm and allows the wearer to squeeze off a clip even after extensive arm trauma. The package looked like overkill to me, and now he admits that he may have gone, as he puts it, a gun too far. Stephanie paid in cash (Chick doesn't take Visa), and I have to assume that the total was a stiff piece of change, especially with holsters and ammo thrown in.

Stephanie kept her family name when she married me, so our mailbox says home of ROGER CHANUTE and STEPHANIE VON WATZDORF. I tell her I'm sorry she's never been happy here, and she tells me she's always thought the place was fine; it's me she's never been happy with.

"Here" is Waterbury, Connecticut, which right now is the main show in terms of the cutaway news, because of the standoff. You can see Stephanie or me, the hostage, at a window every so often on TV. We watch ourselves.

The house is always on. My rake is still in the leaves in the front yard. You can see frost on the ground.

Stephanie has turned off the heat (to get serious, she says), so she's usually in her outgrown Brearley blazer. In the mornings we can see our breath. I asked about the heat the first morning, but I'm not going to press it. She goes around the house with a semi-automatic in each hand. She's originally from Manhattan.

"They're lining me up right now," she cackled yesterday when she passed a window. "Some SWAT guy's shouting into his radio, 'I could take her now!'"

I reminded her of all the hostage movies we've seen that have turned out badly. Dog Day Afternoon. I ran out of titles.

"Rebel Without a Cause," I added.

"They weren't hostages," Stephanie said contemptuously.

"He was waving a gun around," I told her.

She was sitting at the kitchen table flipping a quarter in one hand, like George Raft.

"My point is, it was a tragedy that could easily have been averted," I murmured.

"You're a pig," she said. "You respect nothing. You have the integrity of a grease trap."

I asked her whatever happened to divorce in such situations. Flak-jacketed sharpshooters for the state were peeking out here and there around the cop cars and TV vans. She gave me a look to let me know that the whole standoff could have come to an end right then.

I'm not going to provide a whole Ring trilogy of what she has been mad about. I will say that she's right in contending that I'm not much good when it comes to empathy, my share of the day-to-day work, sobriety, monogamy, fiscal responsibility, or periodontal hygiene. We've had two trial separations, and she got skinned both times on support. She had her Manhattan lawyers, but they had to deal with good old-fashioned Waterbury judges. She didn't need the money, but, you know. It's humiliating.

Chick has been the only one allowed in to negotiate, maybe because he sold her the guns. Maybe because he's a mystery. She won't talk to the police directly, even on the phone. They drove Mel and Lucille, her father and mother, all the way up from the East Side, and she still wouldn't come to the line. Lucille's way of easing into the situation was to open with "Stephanie, pick up that phone." This over the bullhorn. I could've told her how that was going to go over.

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