Norman had been on me for months to let a gun in the house, and I kept saying no. Then we scored some dollars with a lottery ticket. Not the jackpot, mind you, but real money, enough to grant a wish or two. I wanted a raised deck outside the kitchen, for barbecues and parties and outdoor living, like they show in the magazines. Norman continued going on about the gun. So I gave in, and we got both.
Norman insisted that I drive us all the way to Gurnee, Illinois, and the Bass Pro Shop just off the freeway exit. He had convinced himself that buying a gun was impossible or illegal in Chicago, which is not true. I found local stores that sold guns and I showed off their web pages. But Norman would have none of it.
A Bass Pro salesman dressed in khakis and wire-framed eyeglasses sold Norman a deer-hunting rifle, the kind Elmer Fudd shoots at Bugs Bunny. Norman also bought a few rounds of ammo, and I made him buy the manual on maintenance and safety. When we got home, Norman stowed the rifle in the big closet in the basement. He smacked his hands together and said, “I sure feel a lot better.”
Meanwhile, the deck happened, but it was a lot smaller than I’d hoped, because the lottery winnings stretched only so far. The deck is more like an extra-large balcony outside the kitchen. I installed a barbecue grill and a couple of chairs, none of which we use all that often. There never were any friends for parties.
Another problem is that the deck overlooks our next door neighbor, which is the back parking lot of the Dominick’s supermarket. They keep the dumpsters there.
We were able to afford the house in the first place, I think, because no one really wants to live next to the dumpsters of a supermarket.
As for the rifle, Norman will sometimes stop what he’s doing and trudge down to the basement closet just to look at it. (I refuse to store the thing on the main floor, that was part of the deal.) Sometimes he’ll load up the bullets and then unload them again. Never once has he pointed the rifle at anybody, let alone fire it. He will talk about it, though.
Like when the kid in the Sox hat was raiding the bread dumpster.
This went on for about a month. Picture Norman sunk into the easy chair in front of the cable news, maybe with a beer bottle and some chips. I am in the kitchen, preparing dinner or washing up from just after. Then comes a loud clanging noise from across the barbecue deck. It’s the sound of the dumpster lid slamming shut.
“That damn kid again!” Norman shouts, “That’s it, I’m getting the rifle.”
“Norman!” I yell.
“I ain’t shooting him, I’m just scaring him!”
Norman extracts himself from the Barcalounger and ambulates toward the staircase, holding onto the cane if he remembers to bring it, grabbing the wall if he forgets. Norman had been a lineman for Commonwealth Edison, but he screwed up his pelvis something awful when the belt slipped on a utility pole, and he crashed onto a rock pile. He’s been on workman’s comp ever since. The checks pay the mortgage and a few bills and not much else.
By the time Norman finds the rifle and hauls it upstairs, the kid is long gone.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” I tell him.
“We live here!” barks Norman. “Our neighborhood is not a place for bums to steal food.”
“He doesn’t look like a bum.”
Norman returns to the easy chair and his beer and the television. He’ll forget about the kid and instead parrot the politics of the cable news. Eventually he’ll exhaust himself and fall asleep.
The kid doesn’t look like a bum. He is well-dressed in a button-up shirt and long pants, like an office worker, with combed blonde hair that just escapes from his black-and-white baseball cap. The cap features the interlocking S-O-X logo. When our son Johnny was little, he thought that the three interlocking letters looked like a monkey. He called the Sox the monkey team, and he liked finding the players’ pictures in the newspaper. That was many years ago.
Norman never knew it, but I often watched the kid in the Sox hat as he gathered up the stale bread and muffins and pastries. I watched out of the kitchen window. The kid would lower a cardboard box into the dumpster and shovel the baked goods into it.
The kid’s mistake was letting the lid slam when he was finished. The loud clang could be heard for yards around, including inside our living room where Norman was sitting and watching cable news. It was the sound that set him off.
Finally, one evening, after a particularly loud clang from the dumpster, Norman does something he never did before, which is actual confrontation. Without the gun, fortunately.
Yelling and waving his fists, his face beet red and the big vein on his neck pulsing like Jiffy Pop, Norman lumbers his broken body out the screen door, onto the deck, and then right up to the edge of the fence. All the while he is yelling loudly but unintelligibly. He may mean to give voice to actual words, but when they leave his mouth, they cease to be language. They devolve to the dominant emotion, which is anger. Which is rage. Which is pain.
From the kitchen, I watch as the kid looks curiously in Norman’s direction. Maybe he noticed the barbecue deck and our house for the first time. Then the kid picks up his cardboard box, which is full of muffins and rolls, and walks away.
The next morning, on my way to work, I stop at the Dominick’s and ask to see the manager. I explain the situation; not the gun part, but everything else. By dinner-time, someone had fit padlocks on the dumpsters. There would be no more raids.
I work at the neighborhood post office. It’s a good job, nice people, kind of interesting. It’s not true what you hear in the news sometimes about post offices and their employees.
The other day, the kid in the Sox hat comes in. I am working the counter. He has a package to mail to Florida, also he wants a sheet of stamps.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” I ask the kid in the Sox hat.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “Have we met before?”
The kid has a pleasant voice. He is not a bum. He also isn’t really a kid. He is maybe 25 years old, or a little older. He could be Johnny’s age, had Johnny lived.
“Why were you raiding the dumpster at Dominick’s?” I ask.
The kid looks at me blankly.
“The stale bread,” I say from behind my counter, and from behind my uniform of the United States Postal Service, and of middle age. “The muffins and the hamburger buns. Did you really need all that?”
Our eyes meet, for a moment.
“Chickens,” he says eventually. “My mom raises chickens at home. Chickens eat everything.”
“Oh,” I say. “I didn’t know you could have chickens in Chicago.”
“We live in Aurora.”
“What are you doing here?
“School. I go to the chiropractic college down the street. So you saw me at the dumpster?”
I tell him my story. Once again, I leave out the part about the gun.
Norman and I had met at a dance at the legion hall, when we both were a lot younger, and when we both moved a lot faster. He was a great dancer, and he was excited about his new job for the power company. I felt like my life was just getting started, and I think Norman felt the same way. We got married, and pretty quick we had Johnny.
After a few years, the three of us moved into our first house. It would prove to be our only house, but Norman called it our first house because he thought we’d move into a better one when more money arrived. Then came the accident that screwed up Norman’s pelvis. Then Johnny got killed by a stray bullet. He was a 9-year-old boy, playing on the sidewalk, and a stray bullet from some maniac struck him, right in the heart, and he died quickly.
I think Norman remains a good man, somewhere, in some way. I also think that I am a good woman. We don’t have much to say to one another, though, not any more. It’s too bad, but not much can be done about it.