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.

Every so often I ask Stephanie what she thinks she's going to get out of this situation. I can tell it's not the right question to ask.

Negotiations have been on hold since one of the troopers took a round in the shoulder while passing out coffee. "What was that all about?" I asked her after I ran into the room. She didn't answer.

When Chick came, he came unarmed, which was lucky for him. You'd think she had been frisking people with the business end of an Ingram her whole life. He gave the pantry a glance to see how our food was holding out. Between calls from the police he talked to us about how the neighborhood was taking it.

When he got the chance, he gave me a look as if to say, Sorry, buddy. I gave him back the I'm-looking-through-you thing. I call it "The Stephanie."

For those who think that Chick would be a different man if he'd had some personal experience of what can happen when handguns proliferate, let me report that his uncle in Florida was shot four times in the head with a Saturday-night special in a disagreement over a game of gin rummy. Apparently it was the fourth shot that killed him. The guy who shot him was a real mutt. The guy had bought the gun that day, drunk, at a gun fair in Orlando. After his purchase he threw up in the aisle and got thrown out of the mall. A simple background check would have saved the uncle's life. Chick says a saliva test would have weeded the guy out. And has that changed his mind about guns? "Hey, I didn't stop eating ham sandwiches after Mama Cass choked to death," he says.

Nobody has even tried to negotiate with us for the past day and a half. We've been pretty much staying in the kitchen. Every so often I toast a little something in the oven with the door open, to warm up.

Stephanie has been keeping to herself, across the room. After Chick's last visit she Magic Markered an orange-and-white target and cut it out and pinned it to her Agnes B. blouse. She hung the blouse in the front window. It's a weird effect on TV.

In my opinion, the gun lobby is not pernicious or evil or embattled or heroic; it just is. It's like the Samarian gorge, or German efficiency, or beans in the soup, or the death of the sun. What does it mean to "stand up" to the gun lobby? How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

There are all sorts of things about this country I never liked, and I'm a guy who believes in making a difference. My way of doing that is by not taking part in any political activity whatsoever. While we were courting, Stephanie used to say that it was all of a piece: when we had a problem, if she brought it up, we talked about it, at least for a few minutes, and if she didn't, we didn't. I'm a big sins-of-omission kind of guy, apparently. I just go through life not doing anything to anyone, wreaking havoc left and right.

"Here are my options with you," Stephanie would say, lying in bed next to me, her eyes wet. "Either my lifemate-soulmate-husband is too stupid and self-involved to know what he's doing to me, which isn't good news, or he does know and he's being disingenuous about it, which is even worse news."

Then, of course, I'd catch grief for not having any comeback. And what, exactly, is an acceptable comeback to that?

The truth is, in most of my regrettable recent moves it's like I'm throwing a sheet over a sawhorse: I'm just trying to give some shape to all the disappointment.

I've been a problem baby, a lousy son, a distant brother, an off-putting neighbor, a poor student, a worrisome seatmate, an unreliable employee, a bewildering lover, a frustrating confidant, and a crappy husband. Among the things I do pretty well at this point I'd have to list darts, reclosing stay-fresh boxes, and keeping out of the way.

Stephanie has been pretty hemmed in for the past few years, between me ("The Lump"); her mother, whom she calls "Ilsa Koch without the charm"; and this whole cervical problem that has allowed us to go to meeting after meeting and watch doctors scratch their heads. Doctors find Stephanie's condition an interesting puzzle, something meaty to mull over. We see a lot of pursing of lips and nodding while we recite our tale of woe, and then we're told what it isn't, and then we all decide to wait and see how things develop, and then on the way out one of us pays what the insurance doesn't cover. They don't say whether we can have kids, but they do make it clear that I should have been doing more handwringing about it. Instead of screwing around with one of the checkout girls at an auto-parts store.

Add to that Roger's old friend Chick, handling the entrepreneurial training and emotional counseling. He and Stephanie hit it off, in a cobra-mongoose sort of way, right from the beginning. Iused to think they competed to see who could put up with more from me.

"You see that look?"he said to me, right in front of her, after he first met her. "That's the 'Now I see where my husband gets it from' look."

"Does he seem like a bad influence?" I asked Stephanie after he left.

"In every way possible," she said.

For 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.

Last 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.