Man Enough to Buy a Gun
I was eight years old, too young to buy a gun. My age didn't stop
me from trying. You probably question my parents' sense. Letting a
kid buy a gun. I do. But guns were a part of the family, as cozy and
close as the family dog. They were like altars to the saints,
shrines to the dead. They were symbols of power and defiance, our
constitutional right to keep and bear arms, like Moses with the
tablets of stone. After all, we lived in Bloody Tangipahoa Parish, a
region long known for its violence, a place dangerous enough to
boast one of the highest rural homicide rates in North America a
Guns. My grandfather, Talmadge Nard, had lots of them, over a
hundred. All well oiled and operable. He was a school bus driver,
auto mechanic, and farmer. He was the hardest working man in the
parish. Not long ago, a black man told me that my Grandpa Talmadge
would buy any gun brought to his mechanic shop, no questions asked.
He had enough rounds of ammunition to make the Imperial Wizard of
the Ku Klux Klan weep with envy.
I do not know how this could have happened, my buying a gun. I do
remember that Grandpa kept a couple of .410 shotguns in the kitchen,
leaned in a corner, always visible, always handy, always loaded. A
good little weapon for Maw to kill armadillos, possums, stray dogs,
or intruders that might wander up on their property.
By this time, many of my older cousins, ten, eleven,
twelve-year-olds, were graduating into rifles and shotguns, leaving
the BB guns behind. I'd been hunting with a Daisy BB gun since the
ripe old age of six, but I was only recently an accurate enough shot
to kill birds: sparrows, starlings, and robins. I suppose my parents
didn't want me to be left behind.
In 1978 we were living on Nard Hill, Grandpa's place, the home
place where many of my extended family lived, where cows used to
graze the fields. It was before the Louisiana oil bust of the 1980s.
We were building the biggest house in the neighborhood, a house we'd
later lose to the bank. My father worked in chemical plants, and
made good money, perhaps twice as much money as college professor
pay at the local university where I work. We lived in the Old House,
the turn of the century cracker cabin where Grandpa and Maw lived
for two decades, before they built a brick ranch style home in the
pecan orchard on the highest point of the property near the
interstate, where they could look down on their children like a
plantation house looking over slave quarters. We lived way down the
I worried the hell out of my parents, Calvin and Myrtis, about a
gun, day and night, night and day. A shotgun.
"What rhymes with son?" I'd ask.
"Damn if I know," said my father.
"Shotgun," I'd say.
My mother would squint her narrow eyes.
I saved my money, twenty-five dollars, Tooth Fairy money, school
snack money, money earned by returning glass Coca-Cola bottles for
This was "a fair enough price for an old .410," I heard my father
say. He added, "Plenty fair market price for an old gun, by God."
Grandpa had other guns, German Lugers, Browning Sweet 16s, .44s,
double barrels, high-powered deer rifles, autoloaders of all kinds,
even a BAR 50-caliber machinegun. He owned an unlicensed ammo dump,
enough guns to outfit a small republic, enough guns to take over a
weak-wristed city like Paris.
What would he need with a petty .410 shotgun? I thought.
The build up was terrible. It went on for weeks, pestering Calvin
and Myrtis while I saved money. I lost weight. I had sweaty palms. I
got chronic diarrhea. I chewed my little sister's Barbie doll head
off. Had I been old enough to smoke, I would have puffed away a pack
an hour. But I was not old enough to smoke. I was, however, old
enough to buy a gun. I hadn't even put anyone's eye out with the
Daisy. Not yet. My father was proud of that. Have mercy. Get that
boy a gun!
"Just go up yonder and ask 'em, by God," my father said, a
cigarette dangling at the edge of his lips while he rested in his
vinyl chair, his withered arm and withered hand holding a half-empty
hi-ball glass. The TV was on, the sound wide-open. The living room
lights were dim.
"Will you go too, with me?" I asked.
"No. By God, you man enough to buy a gun, you man enough to go it
alone, by God. Go alone if you want a gun, by God," he said.
My mother clucked her teeth in agreement, sucking her gums. She
exhaled a plume of gray smoke into the air above her head in an
arch. She was nodding for me to go for it.
They all feared Grandpa Talmadge, as scared of him as a
two-headed rattlesnake, if the truth be told. For example, all of
his daughters but one, four of them, were chain-smokers and he was
unaware of this fact till his death. And his wife smoked like a
freight train till the day he retired from the shop. His coming and
going would no longer be predictable and she had to give up a
sixty-year habit overnight. Women smoking and other topics were off
limits, and you learned as a child to keep up the charade, to be
sure not to ask your mother for a Zippo cigarette lighter to pop
firecrackers on the Fourth of July. This was not said in front of
I cried. I threw a tantrum. I kicked the dog, a Doberman pinscher
that tried to bite me on the ass, succeeding, making my ass bleed. I
pissed in the corner of the living room on the yellow shag carpet—a
necessary emotional release that I had started. I urinated in public
areas when I got nervous. (This led to my urinating on an uncle who
was picking on me for being a lardy-assed little boy. I shot a hot
stream of piss on his leg while he sat at the kitchen table smoking
a menthol.) I threatened to eat a pack of Q-tips one at a time, to
choke myself to death. But nothing worked. They wouldn't budge. For
once in twenty years of marriage they had resolve. They were as
stone. They had the resolve of Abe Lincoln. "Go see 'em about that
gun your own self, by God," my parents seemed to say in unison.
Twenty-five dollars in ones, a wad of cash in the front pocket of
my blue jeans. The trail between the Old House and the New House was
amid thick weeds, an old cow pasture turned to brambles, a snaky
passageway beaten down by grubby feet.
I was headed to Grandpa's house at dusk dark, dinnertime. I
learned to sing "Jesus Loves Me" while I walked the shadowy path. It
made me feel better, and Mama said it would protect me from snakes.
Grandpa was done bathing by then and would be at the dinner table
eating. I rehearsed my lines to avoid the stutter that would
overtake me at times of uneasiness.
I knocked on the door, the metal screen door in the back of the
house by the kitchen. I planned every detail. I would offer the
pitch to Maw first, since it was actually one of her guns, the ones
she used, and because she wasn't nearly as foreboding a creature as
Grandpa. I had C.O.D., cash on delivery, as Daddy called it. I was
there to buy the most precious thing a man could ever own. A gun, a
real dynamite-powered weapon.
In the kitchen the smell of fried bacon and white beans wafted
through the air. Maw, a good country cook, was waiting on Grandpa
Talmadge. When he was done eating she could fix herself something
and stop waiting on his every need. He sat at the far end of the
table with a piece of yeast biscuit in one hand and an iron fork in
I asked her to follow me into the car garage. I made my sales
pitch to her first. She was a short woman with a slight widow's hump
on her back.
My voice cracked and my nerves were frayed. I sounded like a used
car salesman, how I had cash money, pure-d market value, and I would
be willing to take the least best of the two .410s leaned up in the
corner of the kitchen. But time was running out, I told her. The
offer wouldn't last forever. I leaked a stream of urine down my left
She twisted the gray hairs of her little beard, a straggly roost
of hair she shaved every now and then with a straight razor in the
mirror. "No sir. I don't think we want to part with it. Don't think
we want to sell it to ye right now." She didn't mince words. "But ye
welcome to ask ye Paw Paw." She had the manners and ways of an
Appalachian woman, her language so far back in the piney woods that
she had a dialect akin to the Elizabethan of Shakespeare.
I walked over into the kitchen area toward Grandpa, hoping the
pee wouldn't be smelled. He finally acknowledged me after I stood
there at the table a minute with my hands in my pockets staring at
the floor, devastated for being sent up the chain of command.
"Kirby," he said. He always called me Kirby after a popular brand
of vacuum cleaner. I was a little fat kid, the fattest kid in a
family of skinny-asses. I ate like I had a tapeworm, fast and
furious, always begging for seconds and thirds. "I know ye want to
eat a little beans." He smiled wide. "Wife, fix that boy a plate of
beans. He looks hisself a mite hungry."
"No sir, I ain't too hungry," I said.
Grandpa looked at me over the top of his black horn-rimmed
glasses. He frowned. "Hum? Ain't ye always hungry?"
"No. I just come here this evening to buy a .410. C.O.D., cash on
delivery, a fair market price, if you care to do business with me.
Just one of the least best ones you own. And I got twenty-five
dollars here saved in case you want to see it." I palmed the wad
of bills that I had retrieved from the depths of my pocket. Mama had
stuck a rubber band around the cash.
There was a pause that must have lasted twenty seconds. "Nome.
Don't think I will. Ain't got enough guns around here no how." The
old man lowered his head for another fork of beans.
"Not even the least best gun for twenty-five dollars?" I asked.
He put down his biscuit and placed his fork on a terrycloth
"Son," he cried, standing up at the table's edge looking down at
me with an immediate scowl. "Christ Jesus, Kirby, I don't know if ye
heard, but there is a goddamned race war a-coming. It's a-coming and
we gonna need that gun. We got to fend off the niggers. And
them other guns is for the nigger-lovers. We can't spare no
gun. We got to fight them goddamned commie bastards. Boy, don't ye
ever sell a gun. If ye never learn yeself nothing, ye learn never to
sell a gun. Don't never ever sell a gun. Awwh! Go up town to Hammond
and buy ye one somewhere. Yes'm, we gonna need every goddamned gun
on the place. We ain't going to sell no guns!" He motioned across
the top of the table in a dismissive gesture with his hands. He sat
back down and started eating just as before, as if nothing had
"Yes. Yes sir," I said. Giant tears welled up in my eyes. I
pivoted on the heels of my feet and turned to the door.
Before I could open the door to leave, I heard him tell Maw to
fix me a plate of white beans to eat later when I got hungry again.
But I opened the door. I left into the night. I bawled. Tears fell
onto my shoes like rainwater. My face and shirt were soaking wet
when I got back home, and my jeans were waterlogged with the pee
that ran down my leg.
For twenty-four hours, I cried without stopping, all day at
school in class, tears never slowing. By six the next evening, I had
torn down my parents' resistance, and they hauled me to town just to
shut me up. We went to TG & Y, Toys, Guns & Youngsters, as we called
it when I was a kid in the small town of Hammond. Daddy bought me a
Brazilian-made single-shot .410, a more modern version of the two in
Maw's kitchen. It cost thirty-seven dollars. My mother had to kick
in twelve dollars from her purse. I didn't stop crying till the
gray-haired man at the store gave my father the shotgun at the
counter. Daddy handed it to me slow and easy, making sure I had a
good grip on it before releasing. I sighted it wildly, looking down
the fishing lure aisle, focusing the gold bead on a woman's ass.
The gun I bought that day is leaned in the corner of a closet
somewhere in my home. It's oxidizing, not nearly as well preserved
as Maw's two antique .410s. It has a reddish tint and is probably
loaded. It's certainly still deadly.
I buried the old man five summers ago. He was eighty-six years
old, eaten alive with cancer and heart disease. A hospice case.
I hadn't gone to see him in over seven years though I had passed
within a quarter-mile of his house almost daily, right up to the
weeks prior to his death. Finally, I showed up at his bedside, my
mother's request. He had shriveled up to the size of a faint
whisper, maybe eighty or ninety pounds. The disease made a shell of
him. It was as if the entire ranch style house sat on his chest.
Soon, I paid my respects, served as a pallbearer. After the
funeral service I ate with three dozen others at his house, and I
noticed that both of the guns were still in the kitchen. Same damned
guns were propped up there, oiled, the stocks as brown as mahogany.
The shotguns never got to see that race war. Thank God Almighty,
they didn't play a part in any race war.
But I never got a gun, even after the old man's death. I never
wanted anything else from him. Never wanted anything else from Maw
either, who died a year ago while I was trying to sell copies of my
novel in New York City. Nothing is all either of them ever gave me,
and I'm better for it.
Dayne Sherman is originally from Natalbany, Louisiana. His
first novel, Welcome to the Fallen Paradise, was published in
October 2004 by MacAdam/Cage. He works as a reference librarian at a
university in Louisiana. His blog is at www.daynesherman.com.