What happens when one good-and-angry man fights back is murder-and then some…
I don’t know why. You don’t know why. Most likely God don’t know why, either. It’s just Government business, that’s all.
–Man-in-the-street interview concerning
Viet Nam, circa 1967
But Viet Nam was over and the country was getting on.
On this hot August afternoon in 1972, the WHLM Newsmobile was parked near Westgate at the end of the Route 784 expressway. There was a small crowd around a bunting-covered podium that had been hurriedly tossed together; the bunting was thin flesh on a skeleton of naked planks. Behind it, at the top of a grassy embankment, were the highway tollbooths. In front of it, open, marshy land stretched toward the suburban hem of the city’s outskirts.
A young reporter named Dave Albert was doing a series of man-on-the-street interviews while he and his co-workers waited for the mayor and the governor to arrive for the ground-breaking ceremony.
He held the microphone toward an elderly man wearing tinted spectacles.
“Well,” the elderly man said, looking tremulously into the camera, “I think it’s a great thing for the city. We’ve needed this a long time. It’s… a great thing for the city.” He swallowed, aware that his mind was broadcasting echos of itself, helpless to stop, hypnotized by the grinding, Cyclopean eye of posterity. “Great,” he added limply.
“Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.”
“Do you think they’ll use it? On the news tonight?”
Albert flashed a professional, meaningless smile. “Hard to tell, sir. There’s a good chance.”
His sound man pointed up to the tollgate turnaround, where the governor’s Chrysler Imperial had just pulled up, winking and gleaming like a chrome-inlaid eight ball in the summer sunshine. Albert nodded back, held up a single finger. He and the cameraman approached a guy in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves. The guy was looking moodily at the podium.
“Would you mind stating your opinion of all this, Mr…?”
“Dawes. No, I don’t mind.” His voice was low, pleasant.
“Speed,” the cameraman murmured.
The man in the white shirt said, still pleasantly, “I think it’s a piece of shit.”
The cameraman grimaced. Albert nodded, looking at the man in the white shirt reproachfully, and then made cutting gestures with the first two fingers of his right hand.
The elderly gentleman was looking at this tableau with real horror. Above, up by the tollbooths, the governor was getting out of his Imperial. His green tie was resplendent in the sun.
The man in the white shirt said politely: “Will that be on the six or eleven o’clock news?”
“Ho-ho, fells, you’re a riot,” Albert said sourly, and walked away to catch the governor. The cameraman trailed after him. The man in the white shirt watched the governor as he came carefully down the grassy slope.
Albert met the man in the white shirt again seventeen months later, but since neither of them remembered that they had met before, it might as well have been the first time.
Late last night the rain was knocking on my window I moved across the darkened room and in the lampglow I thought I saw down in the street The spirit of the century Telling us that we’re all standing on the border.
November 20, 1973
He kept doing things without letting himself think about them. Safer that way. It was like having a circuit breaker in his head, and it thumped into place every time part of him tried to ask: But why are you doing this? Part of his mind would go dark. Hey Georgie, who turned out the lights? Whoops, I did. Something screwy in the wiring, I guess. Just a sec. Reset the switch. The lights go back on. But the thought is gone. Everything is fine. Let us continue, Freddy-where were we?
He was walking to the bus stop when he saw the sign that said:
AMMO HARVEY’s GUN SHOP AMMO
Remington Winchester Colt Smith amp; Wesson
It was snowing a little out of a gray sky. It was the first snow of the year and it landed on the pavement like white splotches of baking soda, then melted. He saw a little boy in a red knitted cap go by with his mouth open and his tongue out to catch a flake. It’s just going to melt, Freddy, he thought at the kid, but the kid went on anyway, with his head cocked back at the sky.
He stopped in front of Harvey’s Gun Shop, hesitating. There was a rack of late edition newspapers outside the door, and the headline said:
SHAKY CEASE-FIRE HOLDS
Below that, on the rack, was a smudged white sign that said:
PLEASE PAY FOR YOUR PAPER!
THIS IS AN HONOR RACK, DEALER MUST PAY FOR ALL PAPERS
It was warm inside. The shop was long but not very wide. There was only a single aisle. Inside the door on the left was a glass case filled with boxes of ammunition. He recognized the.22 cartridges immediately, because he’d had a.22 single-shot rifle as a boy in Connecticut. He had wanted that rifle for three years and when he finally got it he couldn’t think of anything to do with it. He shot at cans for a while, then shot a blue jay. The jay hadn’t been a clean kill. It sat in the snow surrounded by a pink blood stain, its beak slowly opening and closing. After that he had put the rifle up on hooks and it had stayed there for three years until he sold it to a kid up the street for nine dollars and a carton of funny books.
The other ammunition was less familiar. Thirty-thirty, thirty-ought-six, and some that looked like scale-model howitzer shells. What animals do you kill with those? he wondered. Tigers? Dinosaurs? Still it fascinated him, sitting there inside the glass case like penny candy in a stationery store.
The clerk or proprietor was talking to a fat man in green pants and a green fatigue shirt. The shirt had flap pockets. They were talking about a pistol that was lying on top of another glass case, dismembered. The fat man thumbed back the slide and they both peered into the oiled chamber. The fat man said something and the clerk or proprietor laughed.
“Autos always jam? You got that from your father, Mac. Admit it.”
“Harry, you’re full of bullshit up to your eyebrows.”
You’re full of it, Fred, he thought. Right up to your eyebrows. You know it, Fred?
Fred said he knew it.
On the right was a glass case that ran the length of the shop. It was full of rifles on pegs. He was able to pick out the double-barreled shotguns, but everything else was a mystery to him. Yet some people-the two at the far counter, for example, had mastered this world as easily as he had mastered general accounting in college.
He walked further into the store and looked into a case filled with pistols. He saw some air guns, a few.22’s, a.38 with a wood-grip handle,.45’s, and a gun he recognized as a.44 Magnum, the gun Dirty Harry had earned in that movie. He had heard Ron Stone and Vinnie Mason talking about that movie at the laundry, and Vinnie had said: They’d never let a cop carry a gun like that in the city. You can blow a hole in a man a mile away with one of those.
The fat man, Mac, and the clerk or proprietor, Harry (as in Dirty Harry), had the gun back together.
“You give me a call when you get that Menschler in,” Mac said.
“I will… but your prejudice against autos is irrational,” Harry said. (He decided Harry must be the proprietor-a clerk would never call a customer irrational.) “Have you got to have the Cobra next week?”
“I’d like it,” Mac said.
“I don’t promise.”
“You never do… but you’re the best goddam gunsmith in the city, and you know it.”r />
“Of course I do.”
Mac patted the gun on top of the glass case and turned to go. Mac bumped into him-Watch it, Mac. Smile when you do that-and then went on to the door. The paper was tucked under Mac’s arm, and he could read:
Harry turned to him, still smiling and shaking his head. “Can I help you?”
“I hope so. But I warn you in advance, I know nothing about guns.”
Harry shrugged. “There’s a law you should? Is it for someone else? For Christmas?”
“Yes, that’s just right,” he said, seizing on it. “I’ve got this cousin-Nick, his name is. Nick Adams. He lives in Michigan and he’s got yea guns. You know. Loves to hunt, but it’s more than that. It’s sort of a, well, a-”
“Hobby?” Harry asked, smiling.
“Yes, that’s it.” He had been about to say fetish. His eyes dropped to the cash register, where an aged bumper sticker was pasted on. The bumper sticker said:
IF GUNS ARE OUTLAWED, ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE GUNS
He smiled at Harry and said, “That’s very true, you know.
“Sure it is,” Harry said. “This cousin of yours…”
“Well, it’s kind of a one-upmanship type of thing. He knows how much I like boating and I’ll be damned if he didn’t up and give me an Evinrude sixty-horsepower motor last Christmas. He sent it by REA express. I gave him a hunting jacket. I felt sort of like a horse’s ass.”
Harry nodded sympathetically.
“Well, I got a letter from him about six weeks ago, and he sounds just like a kid with a free pass to the circus. It seems that he and about six buddies chipped in together and bought themselves a trip to this place in Mexico, sort of like a freefire zone-”
“A no-limit hunting preserve?”
“Yeah, that’s it.” He chuckled a little. “You shoot as much as you want. They stock it, you know. Deer, antelope, bear, bison. Everything.”
“Was it Boca Rio?”
“I really don’t remember. I think the name was longer than that.”
Harry’s eyes had gone slightly dreamy. “That guy that just left and myself and two others went to Boca Rio in 1965. I shot a zebra. A goddam zebra! I got it mounted in my game room at home. That was the best time I ever had in my life, bar none. I envy your cousin.”
“Well, I talked it over with my wife,” he said, “and she said go ahead. We had a very good year at the laundry. I work at the Blue Ribbon Laundry over in Western.”
“Yes, I know where that is.”
He felt that he could go on talking to Harry all day, for the rest of the year, embroidering the truth and the lies into a beautiful, gleaming tapestry. Let the world go by. Fuck the gas shortage and the high price of beef and the shaky ceasefire. Let there be talk of cousins that never were, right, Fred? Right on, Georgie.
“We got the Central Hospital account this year, as well as the mental institution, and also three new motels.”
“Is the Quality Motor Court on Franklin Avenue one of yours?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I’ve stayed there a couple of times,” Harry said. “The sheets were always very clean. Funny, you never think about who washes the sheets when you stay at a motel.”
“Well, we had a good year. And so I thought, maybe I can get Nick a rifle and a pistol. I know he’s always wanted a.44 Magnum, I’ve heard him mention that one-”
Harry brought the Magnum up and laid it carefully on top of the glass case. He picked it up. He liked the heft of it. It felt like business.
He put it back down on the glass case.
“The chambering on that-” Harry began.
He laughed and held up a hand. “Don’t sell me. I’m sold. An ignoramus always sells himself. How much ammunition should I get with that?”
Harry shrugged. “Get him ten boxes, why don’t you? He can always get more. The price on that gun is two-eighty-nine plus tax, but I’m going to give it to you for two-eighty, ammo thrown in. How’s that?”
“Super,” he said, meaning it. And then, because something more seemed required, he added: “It’s a handsome piece.”
“If it’s Boca Rio, he’ll put it to good use.”
“Now the rifle-”
“What does he have?”
He shrugged and spread his hands. “I’m sorry. I really don’t know. Two or three shotguns, and something he calls an auto-loader-”
“Remington?” Harry asked him so quickly that he felt afraid; it was as if he had been walking in waist-deep water that had suddenly shelved off.
“I think it was. I could be wrong.”
“Remington makes the best,” Harry said, and nodded, putting him at ease again. “How high do you want to go?”
“Well, I’ll be honest with you. The motor probably cost him four hundred. I’d like to go at least five. Six hundred tops.”
“You and this cousin really get along, don’t you?”
“We grew up together,” he said sincerely. “I think I’d give my right arm to Nick, if he wanted it.”
“Well, let me show you something,” Harry said. He picked a key out of the bundle on his ring and went to one of the glass cabinets. He opened it, climbed up on a stool, and brought down a long, heavy rifle with an inlaid stock. “This may be a little higher than you want to go, but it’s a beautiful gun.” Harry handed it to him.
“What is it?”
“That’s a four-sixty Weatherbee. Shoots heavier ammunition than I’ve got here in the place right now. I’d have to order however many rounds you wanted from Chicago. Take about a week. It’s a perfectly weighted gun. The muzzle energy on that baby is over eight thousand pounds… like hitting something with an airport limousine. If you hit a buck in the head with it, you’d have to take the tail for a trophy.”
“I don’t know,” he said, sounding dubious even though he had decided he wanted the rifle. “I know Nick wants trophies. That’s part of-”
“Sure it is,” Harry said, taking the Weatherbee and chambering it. The hole looked big enough to put a carrier pigeon in. “Nobody goes to Boca Rio for meat. So your cousin gutshoots. With this piece, you don’t have to worry about tracking the goddam animal for twelve miles through the high country, the animal suffering the whole time, not to mention you missing dinner. This baby will spread his insides over twenty feet.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. I can’t move it in town. Who wants a freaking anti-tank gun when there’s nothing to go after anymore but pheasant? And if you put them on the table, it tastes like you’re eating exhaust fumes. It retails for nine-fifty, wholesales for six-thirty. I’d let you have it for seven hundred.”
“That comes to… almost a thousand bucks.”
“We give a ten percent discount on orders over three hundred dollars. That brings it back to nine.” He shrugged. “You give that gun to your cousin, I gaarantee he hasn’t got one. If he does, I’ll buy it back for seven-fifty. I’ll put that in writing, that’s how sure I am.”
“Absolutely. Absolutely. Of course, if it’s too steep, it’s too steep. We can look at some other guns. But if he’s a real nut on the subject, I don’t have anything else he might not have two of.”
“I see.” He put a thoughtful expression on his face. “Have you got a telephone?”
“Sure, in the back. Want to call your wife and talk it over'?”
“I think I better.”
“Sure. Come on.”
Harry led him into a cluttered back room. There was a bench and a scarred wooden table littered with gun guts, springs, cleaning fluid, pamphlets, and labeled bottles with lead slugs in them.
“There’s the phone,” Harry said.
He sat down, picked up the phone, and dialed while Harry went back to get the Magnum and put it in a box.
“Thank you forcalling the WDST Weatherphone,” the bright, recorded voice said. “This afternoon, snow flurries developing into light snow late this
“Hi, Mary?” he said. “Listen, I’m in this place called Harvey’s Gun Shop. Yeah, about Nicky. I got the pistol we talked about, no problem. There was one right in the showcase. Then the guy showed me this rifle-”
“-clearing by tomorrow afternoon. Lows tonight will be in the thirties, tomorrow in the mid to upper forties. Chance of precipitation tonight-”
“I -so what do you think I should do?” Harry was standing in the doorway behind him; he could see the shadow.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know that.”
“Thank you for dialing the WDST Weatherphone, and be sure to watch Newsplus-Sixty with Bob Reynolds each weekday evening at six o’clock for a weather update. Good-bye.”
“You’re not kidding. I know it’s a lot.”
“Thank you for calling the WDST Weatherphone. This afternoon, snow flurries developing into-”
“You sure, honey?”
“Chance of precipitation tonight eight percent, tomorrow-”
“Well, okay.” He turned on the bench, grinned at Harry, and made a circle with his right thumb and forefinger. “He’s a nice guy. Said he’d guarantee me Nick didn’t have one.”
“-by tomorrow afternoon. Lows tonight-' “I love you too, Mare. Bye.” He hung up. Jesus, Freddy, that was neat. It was, George. It was. He got up. “She says go if I say okay. I do.” Harry smiled. “What are you going to do if he sends you a Thunderbird?” He smiled back. “Return it unopened.” As they walked back out Harry asked, “Check or charge?” “American Express, if it’s okay.” “Good as gold.” He got his card out. On the back, written on the special strip, it said:
BARTON GEORGE DAWES
“You’re sure the shells will come in time for me to ship everything to Fred?”