My First Handgun
By Neil Crabtree
He’d lived with us as long as I could remember, except when he went away to college. I was a teenager before I figured out the college he went away to was the county stockade. If it rehabilitated him, I never saw it. My dad called him a drunken bum, strong words from a man who’d been eating Thorazine like M&M's since the Gulf War.
I can’t recall a holiday or family function where Charlie didn’t show up late and full of booze, talking loud and wearing a denture-shifting grin, carrying a bag full of liquor bottles like presents for everyone. One time he showed up for Thanksgiving with 48 fried Chinese eggrolls, just as we were sitting down to eat turkey and dressing. My dad laughed, but we could see Mom was steaming. We ate eggrolls for days. Charlie brought the waitress from the bar with him, a big-chested blonde with yellow teeth and a voice like a man’s; she sat on the sofa and smoked an endless chain of cigarettes. And one Christmas a bookie came and took Charlie’s car right out of the driveway while he stood in the dining room explaining the right way to make hot toddies. When I told him what was happening, he just shook his head, said he’d deal with it tomorrow. We never saw that car again. I’ve seen him drink a sixpack of Budweiser for breakfast, and look better for doing it. He looked like hell before he started drinking.
“I hate to eat on an empty stomach,” he told me.
He’d spend his infrequent paychecks paying off bar tabs and helping raise bail money for people he hardly knew, though he knew we were always short on cash. The electric bill would be past due and Dad’s government check would be delayed, and my mom would wait for Charlie to get home knowing he got paid that day. And some time after midnight he’d come tiptoeing in, broker than when he’d left in the morning, hardly able to stand he was so drunk. This happened more than once, I’m saying. Charlie once won $1,500 on a trifecta at the dogtrack and all he brought home was the story and a couple bottles of Polish vodka.
But he’d help, if you caught him early enough. When I had my first date, in the eighth grade, still too young to drive, Charlie saved me from being driven to pick up the girl by my mom. Somehow he conned a friend into letting him use his Thunderbird convertible, a beautiful classic ’58 four-seater, black with red leather seats. He was our chauffeur that night, to the school dance and back, and seemed pretty sober the whole time. The girl, Susan Kuzmarski, smiled like a movie star the whole ride. I have never felt so proud as when we pulled up to the front of the gym in that shiny T-Bird and Uncle Charlie held the passenger door open for us to get out. My friends were falling down in disbelief. As I shook his hand, he slipped me a twenty, told me to have a great time.
And when I got busted at school later that year giving out Dad’s Thorazines to the guys in detention with me, it was Charlie who showed up in a suit and tie and backed down the principal who wanted to prosecute me. They went round and round and I knew my ass was grass, knew my mom would be the lawnmower. Charlie must have known something about Mr. Sweeney’s nightlife, because he got me off with a two-week suspension and policing the grounds for the rest of the year. He was better than any TV lawyer I’d ever seen. I remember the grin when he turned and winked to me, like, how am I doing, kid?
This sounds like I’m Charlie’s number one fan but that’s not really true. You don’t know how many times I’ve had to walk home because he forgot to pick me up, or nights I’ve had to clean up his puke at the bottom of the stairs. I’m sure him living with us had something to do with my dad doing the daily zombie, getting stoned on pills to handle the constant shitstorm.
And poor Mom. Between running the house and taking care of all of us and working part-time at K-Mart, she just wore out. She was stuck with us, and there weren’t many alternatives. She never complained, but she never had much to celebrate either.
Then Charlie got the bad news. His number was up.
Doctor Martinez lowered the boom on him. The pain in his shoulder wasn’t arthritis or lumbago, it was a tumor big as a tennis ball, putting pressure on his vital organs, pumping cancer cells through his liver to every part of his body. Charlie hated doctors. They always told him to quit smoking, quit drinking, quit everything he loved doing, and he didn’t want to hear it. Mom had to force him to get checked out. When the tests came back and the x-rays, he went straight into the hospital.
He came out a month later cut up everywhere. He was dying, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He’d waited too long to get examined, like he knew what he would find out. The thing he drank so much to avoid arrived while he was sleeping it off. The artful dodger ran out of options.
Chemotherapy would just make him sicker, and radiation would burn up his throat and esophagus so he couldn’t eat or drink or even breathe after a while. The best they could do was give him stuff for the pain, and a prescription for Brampton’s Cocktail, some kind of morphine-cocaine mixture that I hoped to inherit when he passed on.
I felt sorry for him but I never could figure out what it was he’d be missing out on. He didn’t do anything worthwhile, didn’t really like anybody, or have a true love or children or even a pet to leave behind. But he was sure pissed about it, like he’d drawn the short straw, and was sure the game was rigged. He blamed us all for cheating him.
The hospital did not want to admit him, and then the hospice worker didn’t want to come anymore, because of his meanness and foul language. Charlie went downhill so fast it seemed like he’d evaporated. Every time I saw him, there was less and less to see.
We gathered one night out in the hall by his door, as he shrieked in pain and cursed us all, and I begged my old man, wasn’t there something we could do? The longer he went on, the worse it was going to get. My dad looked at me with those faraway eyes and shook his head. My mother fled down the hallway, and he followed her, then turned back to me from in front of their bedroom door.
I went and sat there in the chair, and Charlie turned from the wall. His face showed a tortured man, a Holocaust victim at the Death Camps when the GIs arrived, even looked black and white like the History Channel films. His crazy eyes bulged out of his emaciated mask. His nearly white hair stuck out in patches the way you imagine when someone gets hit by lightning. It took a moment for him to recognize me.
“Kid, you got to help me out. I can’t stand this. The pain…” and as he said the word, the lightning hit him again, squeezed the air right out of him, locked his body stiff until the spasm passed.
I seriously thought of taking the pillow and pressing it down on his face and holding it there, just keep pressing and holding the pillow on his face until he stopped moving, stopped breathing. But what if Mom came to the door while I was doing it? What if I took the pillow off and he jumped up gasping for air? And as I thought this I looked behind me and there stood my old man in the doorway.
“Go on out of here,” he told me. “I’ll sit and talk with Charlie a while.”
I went outside and slept on the chaise lounge so I wouldn’t have to listen. I tried to think of all the things a man might do when he knew he only had weeks left to live.
What he wanted was to get drunk, but his liver was too far-gone, he couldn’t keep it down. Charlie wanted to die, get it over with, like in the next life his bar tab would be renewed.
What could anyone say? There’s something worth hanging on for? My mom and dad gave up on figuring out what that might be a long time ago. I couldn’t say it, and I’m not even old or sick.
The next day, no one mentioned anything, but I could feel a decision had been made. I stayed outside, finally pulling all the weeds around the fence like I’d promised, so Mom could make her garden. I was drinking a beer I found in the back of the fridge.
My dad came outside carrying a nylon bag. From inside he took out his encased .38 Special and a box of bullets. He’d made a promise he’d give me the gun one day but I knew this wasn’t a gift. We weren’t celebrating my birthday or Christmas or anything. He handed me the leather pouch with the pistol in it and the heavy little cardboard box of rounds and stood there looking in my face to see if I understood.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I told him. The wrinkles around his eyes softened. “Thanks for the gun.”
“You’ve grown up a lot this past year,” he said, his voice threatening to pour out some speech he’d rehearsed for the occasion. I cut him short.
“I’ll need to borrow the car keys. Uncle Charlie asked me to take him for a ride out in the country.”
He nodded his head. “Do you want me to go with you?”
“I think it’s better if you stayed here. I can handle Charlie.”
My father straightened up and looked around. There was no else outside, no one showing in the windows. The day was chilly, and above us a low gray sky seemed streaked with charcoal. Smoke from fires out in the woods left an ashy smell on everything and refused to blow away. He ran his hand down into his pants pocket and brought out his keys on their brass ring.
“You call me if there’s any trouble,” he said. I knew what he meant.
He put his big hand on my shoulder. My father had two Purple Heart medals and a Silver Star we kept on display in the living room. The story of the price he had to pay to get those medals had many variations, but they all came back to the scars on his ribs and thighs and the wide open Thorazine eyes he carried around in his head everyday. I’d turned 17 in November and had been hearing about the wonderful benefits of enlisting right out of high school for months now, from the poster boy for service in our nation’s armed forces. The peacetime Army is different, he said, and I didn’t even bother pointing out that we were at war in the same place he earned his medals 20 years ago, and may be there forever. He’d recruited me now, given me my first handgun and an assignment neither of us wanted to put into words.
There was something military in what we were doing, but I didn’t know the ritual, the procedure to follow. I had the impression he wanted to shake my hand but my hands were full holding the gun, bullets and key ring. He knew what he was giving up. It scared him some, I could tell. It scared me too. He touched my head, mussed my hair.
“We’ll be all right,” I said to him.
“I’ll go fetch Charlie,” Dad said. When he turned to the house, he marched to drums so far away you had to be full of downers to hear them. But I could feel the rhythm in those heavy steps, in the bullets, gun, the keys given to me. Somehow I’d moved up the chain of command, been promoted to a higher rank in the Zombie Army.
I went to get the car, to let it run a while, so the heater’d be going and Uncle Charlie wouldn’t get cold. I figured he might as well be comfortable.
Neil Crabtree lives in Miami, FL, and offers commentary through his daily blog, Believable Lies. He is completing a novel, The Barricades of Heaven, and a short story collection, Isolated Incidents.
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