December 12th, 8:15 PM

The store officially closed at 6:00, but Harry had decided to stay open until all the customers in the store were dealt with. People passing in their cars and on the sidewalk saw through the window that the store was still full of customers and flocked to Harry D’s Gun Emporium to receive the gospel of security that would enable them to stand their ground on the day of evil. Harry had locked the door promptly at 6:00, but when he saw paying customers standing at the door knocking, he told Sophia to go let them in.

More customers meant they’d have to stay open longer, and the longer they stayed open, the more customers they attracted. Sophia had chosen her footwear poorly and it felt as though hellfire had collected under her soles and was following her every step. She didn’t complain. This beat the hell out of watching Friends and moping. Finally, at eight o’clock, Harry put an end to the self-perpetuating cycle and told the remaining customers they would have to come back tomorrow. With the store empty, Harry and Sophia finalized the sales records for the day and began restocking and reorganizing the cases for the next day’s crowd. Max spread a cleaning kit across the top of one of the cases and began rubbing down guns.

“Lot of people bought their first gun here today,” Max said. “And I told them all, every last one, ‘Listen, if you take that home and stick it in your drawer, it’s not gonna do you any good. Buy a couple boxes of cheap ammo. Go down to the range. Practice. Take one of those NRA Basic Pistol classes. Get your carry permit.’” The imprecision in his speech vanished as he became impassioned.

“When they walked in here, they were sheep, but now they don’t have to be sheep anymore,” Harry said.

“You’re damn right!” Max said, taking up a new cleaning patch and intensifying his strokes as he became more agitated. “Now they can protect their families instead of just being victims. A man who won’t protect his family isn’t a man. And I can’t stand all these touchy-feely liberals with their ‘Oh, I just don’t think I could ever shoot anybody. I don’t even think we should hurt plants.’” He disfigured his voice into a high-pitched mewling that was actually a fair approximation of the woman Sophia had hung up on earlier. “What? So if some gangbanger breaks into your house, rapes your wife, and stabs your kids to death, you’re just gonna talk about how this just shows how our schools and social programs have failed the spooks? If you won’t protect your family, you don’t deserve to have one.” Harry grunted his agreement.

Sophia could see that, despite their differences in age and temperament, Max and Harry viewed the world in very similar ways and that these exchanges were a kind of ritual for them. She immediately grasped the dynamic. Max got a chance to be fully articulate, as well as the approval that he so craved from his stoic, successful boss, and Harry was able to maintain the power he derived from his verbal thrift while expressing himself vicariously through his excitable employee’s rambling monologues. Sophia stood quietly by the register. Here was something in which she felt she had no part—a secret order of sanity taking a stand, to the last bullet and the last man, against a mad world overrun by liberals and psychopaths. Many of the regulars at the gun store were members too, and there was an unspoken agreement among all of them that they would all stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the day when the forces of madness broke out against them.

“I mean, Sophia, when you have a wife and kids…I mean a husband. Sorry. Long day. When you’ve got a kid and a husband would you want him to…I mean, wouldn’t you want to…God! How can people just sit back and do nothing?” Sophia assumed that this was a rhetorical question but was surprised to find Harry and Max looking at her, expecting an answer. Her first instinct was to simply divert their attention away from her by agreeing with them, but the memory of the trembling little businessman was too much with her.

“I think people are scared,” she said.

“Scared of what?” Harry said. “Scared to protect themselves? Scared to carry out their basic responsibilities? They get no sympathy from me. You didn’t turn into some kinda bleeding-heart at that college El sent you to, didja?”

“Well, when you carry a gun, you’re basically saying that you can exercise the power of life and death over anyone you encounter. A little fear is healthy when it comes to something like that. If there was somebody who had that power wasn’t scared at all, that’d be the person to watch out for,” she said.

“That’s a good point,” Harry said. “It’s important to have a healthy respect for what a gun is and what it can do. Not fear. Respect. And that doesn’t let those people off the hook. They’re still responsible. Things would’ve gone a lot differently in that movie theater a few months ago if that nutcase had walked in with an AR and found himself staring down twenty pistol barrels. An armed society is a polite society.”

She’s heard that before. It felt like something her father had told her, though she couldn’t call to mind a specific instance of him saying it. It was just in the ether. The idea was that people have two ways to relate to one another: persuasion or violence. If everyone has a gun, armed individuals can’t impose their will on everyone else. Violence becomes a less appealing option and people decide to be reasonable instead. Sophia had always thought a truly polite society would be one in which people were nice to each other because they really cared about each other, not because they were afraid of getting shot. But maybe that was naïve.

“Like I said before,” Max added on the heels of Harry’s comment, “a man who won’t protect his family is not a man.” He chuckled before adding, “I feel like Don Corleone. He said that, right?”

“I think so,” Harry said.

“So are you guys married?” Sophia asked during the lull that followed. She had seen how they functioned within the self-contained world of the store and was curious to see how they would talk about the wives and kids of whom they seemed so protective in theory.

“Not to each other,” Max said. Harry shot him a look.

“I’m divorced,” Harry said.

“Me too,” Max echoed. “Married my high school sweetheart after I got out of the Army. Didn’t work out.”

“Any kids?” she asked.

“Two boys,” Harry said, “Grown. They call every few months.”

“My ex and I adopted…a little girl,” Max said, rapidly stroking a lubricant-soaked cloth patch across the Colt 1911 barrel he held in his hands, “It seemed like we went right from the adoption papers to the divorce papers. I don’t see her much.”

“Alright,” Harry said, “You two finish organizing the cases. I’m going in the back to count how many ARs we have left. Tomorrow, I think I’ll rip off the price tags. With that new assault weapons ban proposal on the table, some of these people would sell everything they owned to buy one.” Harry disappeared into the back room and Sophia was left alone with Max. She felt a little uncomfortable around him, but was determined to conquer those feelings. She was not, however, sure of how to go about it, so she blurted out what she immediately recognized as the worst possible ice breaker.

“So, you were in Vietnam?”

“What?” It was too late to backpedal now.

“Vietnam. The guy who came in said he knew you from Saigon.”

“Oh yeah. Charlie. He and I worked at the airfield together.”

“Doing what?”

“Unloading crates, if you can imagine that. Everybody else came home talking about pongee sticks, and wading through rice paddies, and shittin’ bricks patrolling the villages, and here I am, did two years over there and never fired a weapon.” His words seemed to glide more smoothly over the worn surface of the past than the uncharted terrain of the present. The present had to be constructed on the fly, one piece at a time, but he’d had years to assemble the past.

“Aren’t you glad you stayed out of combat?”

“Sure, but it was hard to feel like I was helping. See, the guys on the front lines, looking Charlie, the V.C., I mean, straight in the eye, they know they’re out there making a real contribution ’cause it’s right in front of their faces. But me, I had to use my imagination.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, like, if I was unloading crates of ammo from the plane, I’d have to imagine them putting the ammo on trucks, driving it out to the grunts, them loading it into mags, and then using it on the gooks. It was even trickier if I was unloading rations or something. Then I’d have to picture the grunts eating them and then somehow imagine the way those rations gave them the energy they needed to keep fighting. Sometimes, I’d imagine them surrounded with no food for days and then somebody finds an extra stash of rations and because of that they’re able to launch a counterattack or something.”

“Did you like it?” she asked.


“Being over there. Unloading crates. You said you did two tours.”

“I guess I just didn’t know what I’d do with myself when I got home. I liked it until I didn’t like it anymore,” he said.

“What’s that mean?” Max looked away and closed his eyes for a few seconds, rubbing furiously at a spot on the finish of a nickel-plated Colt Python.

“One day, Charlie and I…this was during my second tour…so me and Charlie and these two new guys…was it Rob? Sam? Can’t remember…anyway, we’re sitting around the airfield waiting for the next plane to come in when we see this crate…this one crate, over by itself where it’s got no business being, so we decide to move it…so nobody, you know, was tripping over it or anything. So we uh, Charlie and I and the two new guys, we picked it up and started carrying it. So, we’re carrying it and Charlie drops his end. And the thing explodes. It just blows up. Charlie, I mean the V.C., had people in the city and one of them must have snuck the bomb in. Bastards. Charlie had a wife and kid. My buddy Charlie, I mean. The other two guys died right away. Charlie and I got lucky. His arm was…it…it blew his fuckin’ arm off. I got some shrapnel in my legs, laid there screaming with pieces of the other three guys all over me. It didn’t take long for…I mean, I got better pretty quick, but one of those pieces of shrapnel damn near took off my…well my…” He trailed off, gesturing vaguely at his belt buckle. He stared at a stain on the floor while disassembling a .357 AutoMag pistol without even glancing at it.

“What happened to him?”

“Got his arm blown off,” Max said, almost in a whisper, “Got hooked on pain meds in the VA hospital, got home, started drinking, wife left, spent some time in jail after a couple DUIs, ended up on the streets.”

“That’s terrible.”

Max made a visible effort to straighten his normally slouching posture and reestablish eye contact.

“We did our part. People will tell you the war was pointless, but communism was a real threat and we had to do something about it. We went through hell, but it…it meant something.”

“It’s good to have a reason for it, but you still have to feel it. Whatever your mission was doesn’t make what happened to you and Charlie and those other two guys any less terrible.”

She stepped toward him and he looked away again, focusing on reassembling the AutoMag. Just as he finished and racked the slide, she put her hand on his shoulder and he jumped, pulling the trigger. The hammer dropped with a click that resounded in the silence of the empty shop. Harry re-entered the main room.

“Did I just hear somebody dry fire? You know that’s bad for the guns,” he said.

“It was my bad, boss,” Max said. “Just slipped. I was just telling Sophia here about ’Nam.” Harry whistled.

“I couldn’t have dealt with all that jungle. I was in Desert Storm myself. Fighter pilot. Nice and simple. Fly across the desert. Blow up some tanks. Fly home. A hundred and fifty years ago, I’d have had to use a bayonet. Now I just press a button from a mile above him and watch the bastard’s tank explode. Much simpler that way. The plane would even let me know: TARGET DESTROYED. You could usually tell just by looking, but it was those words that really made it real,” Harry said. He went away smiling to himself like a former high school football star recalling the glory days.

“Good work today, Sophia. Head on home,” he called over his shoulder as he returned to the back room. “See you at quarter to nine tomorrow!”

Sophia thanked him, said a quick goodbye to Max, and walked out the door past the snow bank that still bore the impression of Charlie. The cold night air and the impact of every passing foot had begun to harden the slush on the sidewalks into ice and she had to walk the half block to her car warily, trying not to slip in her poorly-chosen boots. The fabric of her sweater dress had grown scratchy and stifling as the day progressed and she couldn’t wait to get home and get it off.

As she scraped the ice off her windshield, Sophia replayed her last conversation with Max in her head, especially her final attempts at consolation.

Stupid, she thought. The man’s talking about his friends getting killed and maimed and I’m trying to play therapist. As if I’m walking around with the magical cure for everything bad that ever happened. I’m probably more broken up about it than he is. And what was with putting my hand on his shoulder? What did I think that would accomplish? He’s probably in there right now telling Harry I was trying to fuck him. Seems to be all I’m good for. If I’m going to work here, I need to stop being such a baby. Say what you will about these guys, at least they don’t take everything lying down like I do.

Sophia collapsed into the driver’s seat of her Beetle, letting her aching feet hover above the floor mat for a few seconds before placing her left on the floor and her right on the gas.


For all installments of “A Cocked and Locked Christmas,” click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Part 1