The following is an excerpt from my novel, which is currently under aggressive consideration by a big-name literary agency. After an enthusiastic phone conversation and some brilliant suggestions from my would-be agent, I spent two months revising the manuscript. Last night, I sent her the rewritten draft. Fingers crossed.
To celebrate a year-long process, here’s a sneak peak of the opening chapter.
May 4, 2013
All at once, I’m looking at a gun. A small handgun, in a glass case. I’ve stood here for minutes, but now I’m really standing here. I look at the revolver, and it dawns on me why they call it a revolver. Because the cylinder of a Smith & Wesson actually revolves. The piece is tiny, like a toy pistol, a water gun, as easy to stow in your pocket as a glasses case. A barrel like a big pen. A curved handle made of inelegant wood, like wood paneling. A vintage gun, from the old cop shows. A harmless antique. Hardly a gun at all. What gun?
“Help you?” says the clerk.
My face emerges in the glass. My eyes shift focus, and my reflection replaces the gun. I see myself, and I look calm and normal. A little under-slept, but sane and healthy, a regular guy looking at stuff in a pawnshop. I’m innocent. I’ve done nothing wrong in my life. I hardly even jaywalk.
“Just looking,” I say. I smile.
The clerk smiles back. A broad-shouldered guy, but not tall or big. A wrestler’s torso. His beige sweater looks particularly woolen, the thick surface full of nits. He’ll remove the sweater soon. It’s cool this morning, and it’s cool inside the store, but he’ll take it off. By that point, I’ll be somewhere else. I don’t know where.
“I like that one,” he says, his eyes downcast, directing me back to the revolver. “The guy who brought that in didn’t want to give it up. I wouldn’t, either. Almost brought it home myself.”
The clerk looks so friendly, with his coiled wave of hair, a sideways pompadour. A narrow head. Like an old-timey mechanic. He should be wearing Carthartts and wiping his hands inside a rag, telling me about my carburetor. But no, he’s here, in this pawn shop, and he could sell me this gun. I have money. He could run my card. We could do this, right now. I could own this quaint machine that houses tiny explosions and fires ugly bits of metal at ballistic speeds. This man could bag it for me. I could stroll down to the CVS with a lethal weapon jiggling in my pocket. I could kill within the half-hour.
Not that that’s my plan.
I don’t want to hurt anyway.
I’m just scared. Scared shitless. So goddamn, fucking scared. Jesus. Does he see me shaking? How do I not scream? My body contains a scream like an oven holds fire, and it’s so white-hot that it’s ready to burst through every pore, a lunatic shriek. But I don’t scream. It’s somehow still inside. I almost laugh instead. Can you believe this shit? I’d cackle at the clerk. How the hell am I keeping it together? Do you know? ‘Cause I don’t have a fucking clue.
“Say,” says the guy, “I have to check out the storeroom. Just holler if you need anything.”
“Yeah,” I puff.
We nod to each other. Manly, friendly nods. Like two marines who trust each other with their lives. No problem. You can count on me, bro. He takes a few steps backward, gives me a small thumbs-up, and pushes through the two-way door.
I’m still here. The store is silent. I’m alone. With the gun.
I feel like I’m dreaming. Or I’m high. Or I just woke up from a night of fitful dreams. But I’m awake, sober, I’ve sipped a cup of coffee from Dippy Donuts. My mind is sound, my body is in working order. Nothing is wrong. That realization is all the more frightening, when you feel your fingers squeezing together inside your jacket pockets, you curl your toes, you sense yourself blink—once, then twice—and your life, your living, feels so utterly vivid. The blood-pumping, breath-quickening, high-definition, surround-sound factuality of your existence explodes in your frontal lobe. This is real. You are alive. Don’t fuck this up, asshole. You get one shot. One.
The store is caving in. Over-packed shelves, narrow walkways, the chalky scent of dust. Every inch is stuffed with army surplus—ski masks, duffel bags, plastic canteens, gaiters for high snow, tackle boxes, First Aid kids, paratrooper boots, tactical packs, gas masks, modular sleeping bags, rubber galoshes, collapsible bunk beds, orange caps, camouflage bandannas, heavyweight suspenders, vertical flashlights, plastic tarps and complete mess kits, plus entire machetes hanging from hooks, knives, pickaxes, and ammo cans. Somewhere, there’s a can that contains all the bullets for this gun, the Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .38 Special.
I back away from the display case. I should tell the clerk I’m leaving. But I can’t stay here. The ceiling panels are spinning, just as the ceiling fans are spinning, a slow and nauseous whirl, and soon the shelves slide past my elbows, the glass double-door enlarges, it opens, I’m outside, in the shadow of the store. The sun bursts from behind the corrugated steel roof. I hear the highway traffic howling past. The eerie Doppler Effect, a beastly crescendo, then the sound softens, car after car.
Grass crunches beneath my hiking boots. There’s no sidewalk. I shouldn’t cross the lawn to the next store, but I have to. There’s no other way. I dip into a ditch between properties, then climb back to the next parking lot. The building is painted a soothing red. The wooden surface looks old and full of splinters. The glass reflects the early-morning sun and blinds me. When I open the front door, a bell tinkles—the tinkle of faeries and country charm. A man smiles from behind his cash register. He puts down his coffee and says, “Good mornin’.”
I have no gun. Not in my hands. Not in my pockets. I am an unarmed man. I have no capacity to harm anyone. My veins swell with relief, my heart pounds, but with power, not panic. I don’t need a gun. Fuck that gun. Who ever thought I was the gun type? Stupid, stupid fucking idea.
“A coffee,” I say. My voice dry. Husky. The voice of a man who just crossed a desert. But I don’t need coffee. Coffee makes no sense, with these nerves. “Decaf,” I add. Then: “Please. If you don’t mind.”
“Don’t mind at all,” says the cashier. He’s older, wears big-framed glasses, reminds me of a folk singer on a dog-eared LP. The kind of man who sings about mountains and streams. If all the people in town were like this cashier, life here would be dandy.
He places a steaming paper cup on the counter. It costs more than three dollars. I fork over the cash, unconcerned that he’s ripping me off. As he counts out change, eyes trained on the grids of paper money, I glance around the store. This place is some kind of craft shop. In two months, I’ve never visited this place before. It’s only a seven-minute walk from my motel, and yet I didn’t really notice it. The shelves are built into the walls and arranged like cubbies. Natural light illuminates the ceramic vases and metal sculptures, the photographs of snowy fields and the watercolor landscapes. The place feels so cheery; even the rocking chair with its afghan cover looks eager for someone to sit and gaze out the enormous windows. Just outside, the blades of ornamental windmills rotate lazily. I could spend all day in this store, sipping my coffee and deciding where to put the wagon-wheel chandelier.
I sit at a table by the window. I press my fingers against my neck, and my pulse races, but not as frantically as before. I didn’t buy the gun. Of course I didn’t buy the gun. I’m not the kind of man who buys guns, much less uses them. I don’t even know if I could buy a gun in this state. Is there a waiting period? A form I have to fill out? I didn’t bother to look. What a stupid fucking idea. What an idiot.
I spin my phone on the tabletop. My phone is scratched and the protective case is dented. When I return to Cleveland, I’ll have to replace it. The thought comforts me, because I really could just leave, right now, walk away from all this bullshit, and nobody would bother to track me down. Why would they? Almost everyone involved is dead or in jail. I’m innocent. I’ve done nothing wrong, except ask some simple questions. But questions frighten people. They can’t anticipate other people’s answers. They don’t know how defiantly they can hide the truth.
“Waiting for somebody?” asks the cashier.
I crane my neck to see him.
“Phone call,” I say. I shouldn’t have said it, but I do. I shouldn’t have anything to hide. I shouldn’t have to protect myself. There are a lot of things that shouldn’t be, but one thing should—this meeting. Whatever happens, it has to happen now.
My phone lights up and starts to vibrate, mid-whirl. I let it succumb to inertia, then stare at it. The phone number is unlisted, of course. I stare at it. It hypnotizes me.
This is it.
This is it.