Contents | April 2001

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More fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.


The Gun Lobby - Page 2
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or years Chick has been disappointed in my politics, my education, my general deportment, and my overall lack of curiosity about the way things work. He has always seen the residue of potential, however.

The past few years we've been like the Collier brothers. I was over there most nights, nine to one. His wife went to bed at nine. He counseled me against involvement with Stephanie, though the advice came a little late in the day. Nevertheless, he had dry-mounted and pinned to his worktable in the sub-sub-basement an infrared photo of her that he'd taken with a night scope. It looked like a cross between a pinup and a black-light poster. I mentioned it to Stephanie. She didn't give me a lot of reaction. "The mystery of Chick," she would say to herself every so often when I was heading out the door.

A few months ago he dropped by to show off a set of Finnish Puukko knives and invited himself for dinner. Stephanie gave me a look, but I let it go by. So she said, "All righty, then," and stretched the fish by poaching it in a can of minestrone soup. Chick waded right in next to her. He started pitching spices into the saucepan and promised to get the dish up on its feet.

"Not that he'll notice," he said, indicating me.

"I could blindfold him and feed him an onion, he'd think it was an apple," Stephanie said.

They went on like that all through dinner. They commiserated about how my eyelids tended to droop when I was trying to concentrate.

"He lies all the time," Chick complained to her. "He tells you one thing and he's thinking another."

"Did you used to think he was kind?" she asked him. "I used to think he was kind. Or wanted to be kind.Or something."

"Sometimes I think he's a good man, and sometimes I'm not so sure," Chick told her.

"Exactly," she said. "Exactly."

I played with the knives and sat there. I told them I felt like a guy in a glass booth and they were two Israelis haggling over a verdict.

"That's perfect," Stephanie said. "The banality of evil."

"Oh, man," Chick said.

"You and Chick hit it off this evening," I told Stephanie later that night.

"When are you going to talk to me?" she asked. "Are you ever going to talk to me?"

"What are we doing right now?" I wanted to know. But that was it, end of discussion. She whacked her bedside-lamp switch and shut down for the night.

She called him once or twice that I knew about, and tried to talk to him about me. She even flirted with him once, a month or two after that dinner, when I was keeping to my bed. She went over there and hung out in the sub-sub-basement, with the wife asleep upstairs. She told me the next morning that she got a look at the canister. She still refers to the whole thing as her "low point."

For a while she drew lines on the inside of her arm with my Gillette. I didn't say anything. I broke it off with the auto-parts woman.

Like I said before, she's right. I have the integrity of a four-dollar tent.

ast night I gave it one last shot. I appealed to the Old Us. Remember when I used to listen? I asked. Remember when we respected me a little bit? Remember when there was something worth saving here? Meaning me. She just lay there, her palm spread over the Glock, her eyes wet.

Chick remembered. On the way out after his last negotiation attempt, he said to me, "Hang in there, buddy. Don't forget Orchard Street." He was talking about the morning in our junior year in high school when a woman sat down suddenly in the grass in front of us, and her grocery bag tipped over. He ran to call an ambulance while I sat with her. She was gray and sweaty and hung onto my shoulder and started telling me about how she had met her husband. How it was because he went back for his sweater, and how for a while she worried she didn't deserve to be so happy. Every so often whatever it was would grab her, and she'd clench my shirt in her hands. The ambulance went to Orchard Drive instead of Orchard Street, so it was twenty minutes getting there. I laid her down, and she kept my shirt in her hands. Chick stayed half a front yard away, watching. I had my hands on both sides of her head. When the ambulance finally came, they went about getting her ready to be loaded in; when they tried to separate my shirt from her fist and I saw her face, I said I'd ride with her. She nodded to them over and over again, and they figured I was family.

I sat with her the whole day and night. I called my parents to tell them where I was. Her husband never showed up. The nurses called, and then I called a few times. I found out her name was Anne Coulter. She had no kids. She was in a lot of pain and slept on and off. She told me again about her husband's sweater.

I told Stephanie about it on one of our dates. She especially liked the part about my going to see the bereaved husband afterward, and my asking to see the sweater. She touched my fingers on the tablecloth.

A little while later, before we got married, we were lying around in a bed-and-breakfast in Winsted one morning, and she started volunteering what she liked about me. I had a sense of humor, I handled instruction well, and I had a good heart. She mentioned the woman in the hospital, and the sweater.

I told Chick how much the story meant to her. That's also what he meant when he said, "Don't forget Orchard Street."

I fall asleep seeing him climb a balloon with Stephanie not far behind. Their faces are peaceful.

In the morning, when I come out of my doze, I'm alone.

I lie still, listening. The bedroom window's right there: all I have to do is climb out on the garage roof.

The whole house is quiet. It's quiet outside.

When I come downstairs, she's at the kitchen table, leafing through the little notebook she kept the first time we tried to get pregnant.

"I made tea," she says, like her heart's going to break.

We can tell that the sunlight's amazing even with the shades pulled. On the street things are stirring. The sound's off on the TV, but lots of vehicles are backing up and moving out. We've been breaking news for a full four and a half days, and the forces of order are probably getting antsy.

On the next channel the SkyView Eye on Connecticut shows a lot of activity in the rear echelons. Stephanie and I are quiet about it, just watching.

"I think this may be it," she says, like my corn muffin's ready. She throws the bolt on the Uzi.

From the helicopter view someone who looks like Chick is squatting near a hydrant. Guys fan out from dark-blue vans. Then the coverage switches to something suspiciously bland, a little stretch around our front door. You can see in the blurry foreground our mailbox, all shot to pieces when she hamstrung the mailman. The next channel's showing only talking heads.

Around us outside we can hear the thumping on the lawn of big, heavy guys trying to be catlike. The ground is covered with leaves, so the whole surprise thing is really out the window.

"Hey, Roger," Stephanie says: a nice hello.

Glass shatters, and there's a white, chest-thumping concussion of flash grenades and the sound of all three doors caving in, like four or five breakfronts being cannonaded. We're propelled out of our seats, spinning, moles in sunlight. The Ingram sounds like a portable jackhammer, and the Uzi like manic static.

I have a hold on Stephanie's ankle. For the longest time I'm not hurt. Her rate of fire is spectacular. The ordnance coming back at us sets everything in the kitchen into electric life. Our overhead fixture's doing a tarantella.

Sometimes events occur in which every second can be taken out of line, examined this way and that, and then allowed to move along. This is one of them. What I think are hits are shell casings cascading down on my head and shoulders. A flash grenade bumps and hisses and teeters on the floor by my cheek. Two guys are down in the hallway, and one seems to be napping on the sofa. A second concussion separates us, followed by the gift of resumed fire everywhere, and my foot and leg are grated and chopped. The house is a festival of small-arms fire. Stephanie's on her side, under the kitchen table. The .25 caliber has come down her forearm mount but isn't firing. The linoleum deforms and sprouts. This is my way of finding her, and her way of finding me. I have the time to think, and in that time I think that we failed not because of what we didn't have but because of what we wanted: one more look into those old hearts, the ones we turned our backs on, the ones we owed everything to.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2001; The Gun Lobby - 01.04; Volume 287, No. 4; page 82-85.