You could call me a late bloomer. Until very recently I was in the intellectual dark ages. But I've come around. Now I am only carrying out to the logical conclusion what the educated world has known for some time.
So I bought a gun.
On a cold drizzly morning I pulled into the ranch-sized asphalt parking lot of the new Super Walmart off the Interstate (to replace the obsolete regular non-super Walmart on the old state highway). I parked between a mammoth Ford Expedition and an inferior Dodge Caravan, my Honda hiding in between like an elephant calf in the herd. Into the compound I went, the surplus stretching far out to my left and right; before me was the women's personals block. I asked for directions from a worker stocking McLarge sized black panties on a rack. She was a permed blonde with glitter frame glasses and a set of teeth telling of the crude natural meanness of things.
"Which way for sporting goods?" I politely asked. She looked at me and then all around her, up, over the products, into the hazy distance. She pointed with one straight arm and finger in a southerly bearing across the vastness of panties and brassieres and the household goods section, like a nomad in the desert. I headed that way, down a linoleum thoroughfare that parted the household goods and the gardening block. On my right stood a rack of gardening hoes. The left wall was lined with ceramic lamps. I had the tangible feeling of a wooden shafted hoe in my palm as I thought of breaking every one of those lamps. My eyeballs swelled with volatile blood. Every conceivable need could be met, but who would answer my question—really, what is the point?
In the sporting goods section, I wandered about looking for help. Tennis balls sold by tonnage, aisles of golf equipment for the poor bastards trying out a new form of delusion like the latest titanium driver, pool cues of fine Chinese wood, mountain bikes and baseballs and cheap polynylonalloy tents. And then in the back against the wall, locked in the velvet-lined racks behind glass, the hidden goods–firearms.
I stood at the counter taking in the selection—all carefully lined up in a vertical row. Weapons. I mouthed the word; on my lips and tongue it formed like a well-crafted arrow. Visions of my task danced in my head, with me cradling one of these rifles in my hands. The metal vents high above droned their conditioned air. The place was deserted. Dark images of a high perch with a synthetic-stock .308 swirled in my mind, when a nasally voice made me jump.
"Can I help you sir?" He was shorter than me, well rounded with folds of scraggly pale flesh below his chin and jaw. A rough mustache and hair combed and gelled into long straight ranks over his skull.
Standard-issue royal blue polyester vest, the collar's edge smudged darkly. Walmart was embroidered over his fleshy chest in white. A laminated nametag pinned upon his vest: Hi, I'm Charlie, may I help you? So he stood, suddenly, behind the counter, presenting himself just shy of dutiful for my inspection.
"Yes thank you," I said so politely. "I will purchase a long-range hunting rifle today. An accompanying scope. Which of these do you recommend?" I pointed over his shoulder.
"Excellent sir. First, where will you be hunting?" he asked with a slight tilt of the head and a gregarious smile. If you only knew, I thought. I was hit with a subtle paranoia. Does this cretin sense the desperation, the rage in my sublime voice? Can he see where reality burnt the fire into my eyes? I recover in a millisecond.
"Long-range. Five hundred yards maybe. Going with a brother-in-law to New Mexico. Antelope and elk. Maybe in both woods and open plain."
"Yes, excellent. Never forget my first kill. Oklahoma whitetail. With a 30-30, from only about seventy-five yards. My dad had me finish him with my knife, drink the blood."
Who, Charlie, are you to insinuate that I've never hunted or killed before? He inflected the "my" like he was escorting me into the Great Outdoors. No I never had killed, but that couldn't have been evident in my person there. Charlie was pompous. But I played the game, used him for information. It was helpful to my plot to be underestimated.
He turned to the rifles and pulled a ring of keys attached to a cable from his belt, opening the glass case and unlocking a bar that stretched over the rifles. Oh key master, you powerful being! Another one adrift in his own little world, deluded, the vanity of it escaping him and mocking him all the while. I might've beckoned him to take a rifle and follow me. But he was too weak, I could see that. He pulled out a black bolt-action and turned around and holding it at port arms, began to recite a lovely passage from some gun manual that I imagine is laying on his nightstand, with its dog-eared pages and broken spine.
"This is the Browning M382 7mm Magnum with incorporated B.O.S.S. system. Synthetic stock of Kevlar-carbon graphite, free-floating barrel, muzzle flash-suppressor. At 250 yards it will hit one-and-a-half inch groupings." He ratcheted open the bolt, then closed the breech and took aim.
"How much does it cost, Sergeant?"
"What else might you suggest?"
"Well." He replaced the Browning and picked out a more homely, more by the fireplace at the lodge model, less techno-tyrannic LAPD SWAT tactical style.
"This old faithful will do the job very well, drop that buck at 500 yards with the right shooter. Winchester Model 70 .30-06. Laminated walnut stock, a hardy bolt action. $429."
"I'll take it."
"Excellent. I recommend the Leopold 3x15 power scope. Its lenses are fashioned with the latest nightlight enhancement technology. We can bore-sight it here on the compound."
"Excellent. Anything else? Ammunition?"
"Yes, good idea." He selected a .30-06 round designed for piercing thick-hided game; I took 10 boxes, with 20 rounds in each.
"Shall we bore-sight it now?"
"Excellent. It will only take about 20 minutes. You can look around to see if you need anything else."
I picked out a case for the rifle and some woodland camouflage. Felt the excitement of a boy setting off for camp. Perhaps I only needed a dose of hunting, a camping trip, stargazing and marshmallows, a campfire. So I was tempted. I strolled about, elated, like I just took in a gasp of fresh air after a long bumper-to-bumper spell in a city tunnel. But then I wandered into the entertainment section, down aisles barren of human presence. Just rows of black-faced TV screens, stacks of DVD/VCR players, columns of extras in cardboard boxes stacked high up into the fluorescent light.
"Attention shoppers," a happy older man said over the announcement system. "Don't forget our special on 50 gallon trash bags at $4.99 per box. Also selected tasty frozen treats at 99 cents. Here at your family Super Walmart." I must say it slapped me back into focus.
I marched back to the sporting goods counter. Charlie had disappeared. The announcement began again, this time in Spanish. The ethnically diverse, loving arms of our goddess, Corporation. No matter your race, you may lay down your cash at her computerized, laser-scanning altar. She blesses you with consumer goods.
I had to move. Left my supplies on the counter, backtracked my trail along that linoleum corridor between Teflon skillets and mulch. I reached the Women's Personals section and over a rack of bras, at the thick sliding glass doors, spotted some gray natural light that died upon entry into the store. I cut through the underwear; at the exit I was intercepted by the eagle gaze of an old lady, posted as sentry, uniformed as Charlie was, eyeing my hands, my pockets and shirt, for any unnatural telltale lump. The glass doors parted on my approach and I passed through the vapor-lock pressurization chamber where lines of shopping carts were on standby. The doors behind me slid shut; before me the last barrier of tinted glass sensed my presence, parted, releasing me into the outer space.
The air was better—damp, unprocessed.
I never had intentions of escape. Of slipping off to Acapulco with a cool million and a costume. For of death, there is no evading, anyway. That's what I'm trying to say. Here we are, spawned from the primordial soup, our ancestors the incestuous apes, and dust is our destiny. And we find football important? The Mona Lisa? Beluga whales and whooping owls? Death is lying in wait for us all and I have to wear my seat belt? It enrages me to consider it.
The first one was a well-fattened blue-collar type smugly waddling out to the family Astrovan. His name and other superficial details I'm sure the media has advised you of. But I remember what he looked like. Swollen lips, a swollen belly, swollen calves pasty white. A Cowboys T-shirt like a shower curtain hanging out over his shorts. The wife at his side regal in her purple sweats. It wasn't that I picked them (which would entail an exciting stalking scene that Hollywood may jam into the movie version anyway). More like we were all picked to play out this drama for the watching world.
I needed to fire from an easily concealed position, so the stand of trees across the Interstate from the Shoney's was the obvious choice. The parking lot allowed for a proper killing field. A good soldier, I'd arrived pre-sunrise and took position in darkness. It was a Sunday morning, a dull chill had set in, the timbers were quaking above in the wind. Perhaps there is a God, named Chaos, and I lay there possessed by him. I watched the couple arrive for their late morning breakfast. They showed no timid reservation; you could see they were regulars, the way they worked the buffet line, deftly and efficiently hoisting sausage links and french toast sticks and ladles of syrup onto plates. I watched through the riflescope, laid the crosshairs on his plate, her hoop earrings, the waitress's hind quarters as she went off to fetch their drink orders. They went about the eating in a silent, morose way. I could've taken him there, through the plate glass window, sitting in that vinyl booth. But I wanted it to be at that moment of slight peace as he strolled out to his van with a full tummy and his cares, the strain of the world, faded from mind.
He came out of the restaurant and stopped at the newsstand and dropped his coins in the slot with pudgy fingers under the crosshairs. The headlines on the USA Today read "Osama puts the world on high alert." I was breathing hard. Nervous I admit. Perhaps scared?
Forgot what the exact goal was, laying there on wet, mossy earth with a rifle. He pulled out his paper and turned, facing me. I cocked the rifle, the action smooth. It was so easy. All this power, in my hands, unleashable by a slight squeeze of the trigger. He raised up the hand and, with the remote, unlocked the van, its lights flashing to signal its alarm system disengaged. I breathed in, exhaled slowly (as a friendly fellow shooter at the range suggested) and pulled the trigger. He got his. The paper was flung into the air, spreading open, front pages, the sports pages carried off in the gusting wind, his van was unlocked, he clenched at his chest and writhed on the wet asphalt, All was Chaos, All was Clear.
It could have been a dream the way I ran without effort through the woods, hurdling fallen trees, weightless, back to the rental car. At the hotel I watched the developing scene, new actors on the stage. The sheriff, the Shoney's manager, the dramatic wife. It just bit me more.
"He was a good, simple man” and "looked forward to watching the Cowboys game that afternoon." Oh, the tragedy! As if another five to ten years of sausage-born cholesterol wouldn't have done it. There'd be no news camera at that scene. Perhaps another backhand to these people would adjust their vision.
The next morning I was perched atop a parking garage in the back seat of the car. She was walking to an office building in a plaza below, the concrete walks lined by flowers and green landscaping maintained by a platoon of Mexican gardeners. She was well dressed in a teal jacket and skirt, high heels, lovely bare legs. She carried a leather briefcase and a styrofoam cup of coffee. How was I to know she was an analyst of the local field office of the FBI? I simply despised her for her supreme appearance, her manicured persona, her wholeness. Clacking her heels along, drinking her high-priced bean coffee. The charade. The front. It is not that we are out to impress others, it's that we try it on ourselves that makes us such a dysfunctional race. She reeked of pretentious ego, from five stories up. So she got one in the spine, center mass. The coffee, evidently a creamy formula, browned the concrete. Right hand still clutching the briefcase, it her last hold on dignity in her splayed-out pose, in her exit out into Nothing.
I rushed back to the motel room, leaving the rifle in the trunk. It was 27 minutes from when the shot was fired to its impact on the TV screen. And all day I was barraged with mini-reports between soap operas and sitcoms, the noble hick sheriff swearing that "our way of life will not be interrup-ped. We will find this dastardly terrorist sniper."
Death is the sleeper agent dormant in our genes. We are defenseless. But society will still blame me for these deaths. I'm only messenger. Sending out the rally cry. We should all band together. Eat. Fight. Have sex with multiple partners. This legal quagmire we call government is boring. These suburban lives dripping out like I.V. fluids will not save you. Primetime TV will not. Prozac will not. Why not inhale that smoky wrath and burn with the joy of letting go?
The news had placed so much attention on the dangers of open commercial areas that I decided to move into the neighborhood. I made a hide in trees at the dead-end of quaint Boysenberry Row. Behind me through the stand of trees was a city park where my escape vehicle was staged. I had breakfasted early at the IHOP on the beltway and downed four cups of coffee while reading the paper and eating my pancakes. The lovely vignettes of witnesses to yesterday's op fascinated me. But dutifully I pulled myself away before scanning the comics.
Needless to say, there beyond the end of Boysenberry Row I was a bit jittery. All sounds of the woods, the neighborhood, the distant highway sizzled like raw voltage in my head. Close in front the clunk and hum of a garage door opening by its electric motor. A jeep starting up, its exhaust pluming out the garage. It backed out with a middle-aged man at the wheel. He was white, maybe 200 pounds, slight balding, glasses. I could hear the talk radio muttering through the canvas roof. I had no idea who I'd shoot. I just lay there. Waiting for inspiration I guess. The lawns were well clipped, hedges were trimmed. Houses of brick with fairly the same design for each.
A burgundy sedan turned left onto the Row, eased up and midway shut off the engine, coasting into a driveway on the left. My interest was peaked. A male teenager got out, shut the door softly and stepped across the lawn to a side window that faced me. The air was still, cold, and damp, in that dawn's early light. Sound traveled well. I could hear distinctly the screen being pulled off the window.
He was fit looking, probably a football jock. He wore a hooded sweatshirt and jeans. Just back from a night's carousing, I presumed. Snuck out the old man's car. Wouldn't it be funny, this punk thinking he's pulling another one off on his dumb parents, and wham!—right as he's opened the window. It would be his own fault really, being out when he shouldn't. Even the suburbs can't filter out the dark world. The parents would find him there in the grass. The window screen removed. Two and two are put together. My fingertip tickled the threaded trigger. A quarter-pound of pressure was all it would take. But then I thought, Why him? He's a fellow soldier. Let the youth enjoy their youth! I say. So I laid the rifle down and watched, in the prone position in my woodland camo coveralls and ski mask.
Next came the paper-delivery man in his pick-up, tossing out the rolled-up fresh print to each lawn. The press would give him instant martyr status. Reporters would be brazen cowboys, heroes. My intentions would be convoluted in their reportage. So he passed in safety.
You've read the same papers as I. There's no surprise when I say the one who got the 30-06 round that morning was eighty-three year old Ellen Louise. A head shot as she went out to pick up the paper in housecoat and slippers. I knew she was it the second she stepped out the front door. Maybe to egg on the public's frenzy even more. To watch the anthill go mad as all hands abandon ship in fear of a jabbing twig and pouring gasoline. Indeed if anyone should be liable it is the old, around long enough to know, yet still playing the game. Ellen Louise, queen of her own plot of suburban privacy, audacious in her nightgown and her interest in petty histories that seconds later would be eternally meaningless to her. Her frail carcass was deftly tossed into a nearby row of hedges.
I slung the rifle as I stood up. Pulled from my chest pocket what CNN calls my "calling card", Death from a stack of Tarot. I placed it face up where I had lain. What symbolizes our lot better than the card picked at random from a shuffled deck? I tossed a .223 caliber brass casing off to the right (a little twist for the PD). No one came out to investigate the loud report of my rifle. It was just Ellen Louise all alone out there. I walked back through the woods to my getaway car, waiting in the parking lot. Secured my rifle in its case in the trunk. Slipped out of my coveralls, pulled off the snazzy polypro balaclava, a bargain $9 at the Super Walmart. These also were stowed in the trunk. I started the engine, smoothly, no need for dramatic revving (nota bene: Hollywood). One snag as I calmly drove down the lane connecting the park to the main road. Some wild woman clad in high-tech jogging gear with leashed hound at her side came leaping out in front of me from an intersecting trail out of the woods. I should have creamed her. She never even waved, just kept trotting along.
This next account may seem incongruous to your notions of me. As it should. I am no schizophrenic barbarian. Every Sunday I make a visit to my grandfather's where we eat and watch 60 Minutes. This week was no different. I've not gone off the deep end. I'm just a clear-thinking man who lives close to his ideals. I brought him a jar of some local-made marmalade he enjoys, and the Sunday edition of the New York Times, another ritual. If he didn't get their Sunday crossword puzzle he may have called the cops on me as a missing person. I don't need any brush ups with them, do I? When I walked in he was in his usual chair, the afghan my dead grandmother had crocheted over his legs, watching the news. And there she was on the screen, still wearing her Nike headband, her space-age smock with Nike embroidered upon the turtleneck.
"I was jogging with Trevor at East Lakes Park as I do every morning, which I've always thought was safe since it's early morning and daylight. I heard a loud crack, like a gunshot you know. And later on the trail came to the little park road and I was crossing it when this white car came out of nowhere just flooring it you know…" I thought about my white Chevy Capri rental out in the driveway. "And I picked up Trevor and leapt out of the way."
"Were you scared?" The reporter asked.
"There is nothing new under the sun," my grandfather said. I should have creamed this woman, I was thinking. "All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing."
"Yes, I was terrified. I just knew it must have been the sniper."
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun," my grandfather said. What is he trying to say, I thought. No one's ever made such a bold message.
"I think it was a Chevy, a sedan," she said. My time is short, I realized.
"I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind," he was saying. I had to move quickly. I made for the door. "God will bring every deed into judgment . . ."
I crossed through the kitchen and out the front door, his words "Fear God and . . ." shut off by the whack of the screen door.
I returned to the motel and hid in my room. The blinds and curtains were shut. I cracked them open, peered an eye out onto the parking lot. All seemed clear. I stretched out on the bed. If I have any worry at all it is that of my grandfather's reaction. He's a man of old-time religion, of Great Depression and World War II. I'm his only family left. Him thinking of me killing those people might kill him. But what is this to me? You have to live with the truth. Still, part of me wishes I'd never crossed this threshold. He's a good man, really. I lay there mulling it over. Rolled onto my side. I realized my back was to the door and rolled the other way. Just the feeling of the rubber heels of my boots caught on the blankets infuriated me. How twisted we humans are. Like little molested children aimed for psychosis. Tangled up in remorse and sympathy and desire. I sat up on the edge of the bed, stared down at my boots caked in the mud of a bloody morning. My mouth filled with spit; I was nauseous. Did he know? Was he tipped off? I can't see him again.
Why can't we just enjoy simple food and labor? Revel in the hunt? Dislocation from simplicity is the symptom essential for the diagnosis. Our slippery gray matter conscious of itself, bred by chaos the sweating stag, Mother Earth the bitch. Midwifed by evolution. Chaos was the furnace that smelt my brain. I'll fight it.
I stood up and got a Coke from the refrigerator. I turned on the TV. The Coke felt good in my stomach, washing out the nausea with cold carbonation. A lovely music video came on MTV– Britney Spears, fresh and young, telecasting her pleasant pelvic thrusts and song. I thought of my own face being poured through the TV into a million slack eyes across the nation. My face scandalized by slobbering media types. A little apologetics would be necessary on my part, I thought.
So I switched off the TV and sat at the table and wrote up this feeble report. Tomorrow I'll return the white Chevy and move ops to another town. With appropriate measures there shouldn't--
Hey--they're knocking on the door. I'm ready.