by Joseph Rakowski
Deer season was planned to open in a few weeks, and it was time Lorenzo took his eleven-year-old son to the store to get him his first long gun. He figured this would give him enough time to practice on it before the actual hunt, and it would be something they could do together that was still allowed during COVID. Lorenzo’s father had bought him his first gun at eleven, the same way it was done from his great-grandfather to his grandfather. It was a rite of passage before you took your first whitetail.
Lorenzo’s son had been hunting many times with him, and he’d shot his share of upland birds, rabbits, and squirrels, but no big game and nothing with his own gun. That’s something entirely different. It’s special. With his son’s school still closed, and Lorenzo’s work on the dip, and with the bad news on TV the way they’re running it day and night, they could both use something special. Probably everyone could.
Lorenzo finished work and picked up his son, and they drove across town to a store where he’d bought ammo before. They pulled into the parking lot, and there was a line wrapped around the building. Everyone standing six feet apart on bright orange Xs. Everyone lumbering back and forth like whatever they were selling inside wasn’t guns at all. Above the entrance a sign hung, and in rushed handwriting it plainly stated: One gun purchase per person of legal age. One box of ammo.
Lorenzo shrugged his shoulders at his son, and they pulled on their masks. They made their way to the back of the line, and everyone they passed seemed angry about the idea of another presence. A distressing undertaking ran among them; the orange Xs burned on the ground like fires signaling a meeting of some sort, or like an enemy had marked these spots and was hiding above their heads in the darkening blue sky, cloudless and thin, the way it appears before the air curdles and grows cold and fixed. Most people waited hiding under hoodies, and sunglasses, blue non-surgical masks, a few faces wrapped in handkerchiefs and scarfs. The last way you’d want anyone to look entering a gun store.
The line moved slowly, and Lorenzo’s son tried his hardest to wait patiently, waddling his feet in a square pattern around him. He talked excitedly to the woman behind them about hunting and getting his first gun, and the woman responded with something that, at the time, Lorenzo didn’t pay much thought, honestly wasn’t really sure what she was getting at. She said, “Don’t waste your one purchase on something small.” Lorenzo looked over his shoulder at her and took his son’s hand and pulled him back around.
Lorenzo noticed the messages being worn on t-shirts by the people in line. He’d never seen so many votive stances stitched across chests and shoulders. It was like the news had thrown up its headlines, opinions, and profanities. And the rival teams had taken up real estate at a gun store on a winding sidewalk across from a strip mall selling insurance and buying plasma. He wondered if he’d mistakenly gotten them locked in the middle of some madcap rally and if a retreat to the car was a better option.
As Lorenzo read clothing, every so often he’d spot a person leaving the store, their mask ripped down, a look of victory on their face as they walked through the parking lot carrying a new gun case under their arm and a box of ammo in hand. The relief in their gait like they could finally accomplish whatever abstraction brought them here.
The rumblings in the line grew louder the closer they got to the store entrance. Lorenzo wasn’t sure if his son was taking any of this in or if he understood what was going on. He found it all a little dishonest, and he wanted to explain it without sounding scared, but a feeling had grown in him. He guessed it had started twenty years ago on the day the planes flew into the buildings. His schoolteacher shutting off the classroom TV and then turning it back on when a girl whose name he can’t remember screamed that her brother was in the goddamn Marines. And they watched the buildings fall like some divine force had placed a finger at each of their tops and pushed down.
How could he explain that? The common poisoning of hatred and old fear. Something he had nothing to do with. Lorenzo thought about starting with most people are good people, but he didn’t really believe that. He worked up a whole talk about fair shakes in life that weren’t ever going to happen. He became worried for his son. He got terribly lost for a second: he’d put his father’s wide-brimmed hat on and brought wrath upon this line from his car’s rear bumper, firing again and again at this mess of charging boars. Let the blood and oil mix in the gutter, soapy and bubbled.
When they were through the doors and into the air conditioning, Lorenzo noticed the empty gun racks on the walls. The line stretched about twenty more people to the counter where easily as many employees were helping customers. No one was anywhere else in the store. Not among the shelves looking at clothes, or in the fishing section, or looking at camping gear. Nowhere besides this marked path moving in the direction of whatever violent awakening America was headed for.
They were finally greeted by an employee, and Lorenzo wrapped his arm around his son as a proud father. He told the man he was looking for a long gun for his son, his first, something he could grow into. Lorenzo’s son placed his little hands up on the glass cabinet in front of him, looking down at a few pistols in the case.
“Say hi to the man,” said Lorenzo, touching his son’s shoulder.
His son gave a shy hi and didn’t look at the man when he did it. Lorenzo didn’t say anything about this and just let it go. “Do you have any semiauto shotguns?” asked Lorenzo. “Remington or a Winchester or a Weatherby comparable if you got it.”
The man behind the counter scratched the back of his neck under a long ponytail. “No, man. We don’t have any shotguns, semi or pump.”
“Are you getting any more?”
“Not unless you’re looking for something tactical. We got some 870 knockoffs all tooled for home defense maybe coming in next week. If we stay an essential business, that is. But good luck shutting us down.”
“It’s for his first deer,” said Lorenzo.
“Don’t see why you couldn’t shoot a deer with one.”
Lorenzo looked around at the people next to him choking up every inch of those six feet they could, swinging guns around, aiming them up to the roof like they were going to shoot out the lights or at the phony animal heads on the wall. “What do you have in stock for rifles?”
“AR-15s, compacts, bullpups, AK-47s, a ton of mods for triggers, grips, optics, stocks, handguards and rail systems; you pretty much name it, we can do it to it.”
“Ah, we just need something for hunting.”
The man leaned forward. “Those will work for any kind of hunting you want to do.”
“I think we’re all set,” said Lorenzo.
“Hey, man. If you’re looking for something smaller, something right now he could handle, we still got a few pistols—nine millimeters—for sale, but those are going quick. It’s something in his hands, though. To be honest, I don’t know when we’re getting anything you’ll want in stock.” He pointed to the vacant racks. “Hey, man, as you can see, we aren’t even putting it on the shelves anymore. Not much point. It’s gun season.”
“I understand. We appreciate your time.”
Lorenzo told his son to say thank you to the man, but his son looked at him like there was something running sharply through his innards. Lorenzo figured he’d be upset, but he didn’t say anything as they turned empty-handed. Lorenzo’s son just kept looking at him with something in his eyes hightailing it from some other part of himself.
About halfway home, Lorenzo’s son touched his father’s hand on the steering wheel. “I’m going to be sick,” he said. Lorenzo pulled the car over, and they walked into the knee-high grass on the side of the road. Lorenzo patted his son’s back as he threw up. A few yards in past a rotten fence pole, Lorenzo spotted a raccoon watching them as it ate a perfect, bright yellow ear of corn. It hissed at them like God.
Joseph Rakowski is a fiction writer. His short stories are forthcoming in New South and have been published by The Antigonish Review, The Carolina Quarterly, The Normal School, New Ohio Review, Witness Magazine, and elsewhere. He can be found at www.josephrakowski.com.