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Dayne Sherman

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 century ago.

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 hill.

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 the deposit.

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 Talmadge.

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 the other.

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 leg.

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 napkin.

"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 happened.

"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

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