past three in the afternoon, as I slugged back my fourth gelatinous
protein shake of the day--the stuff was supposed to increase my
muscle mass but all I felt from it was woozy--I heard three distinct
shots. Bam, bam, bam, bam! Make that four.
The sounds made me spit up a mouthful of the tan mass back into
the plastic blender container from which I drank. "Did you
hear that!" I yelled, without thinking, still used to assuming
Bonita was still there. My wife had left me over a year ago, sick
and tired of what she called my fixations. At the time I was going
through a period of abstinence. (Not impotence, as she could plainly
feel some nights, her roving hands nearly ruining it for me.)
I was in only month two. Just a month to go. I'd simply read that
if a man kept his sperm to himself, he'd be more vital and aware.
There was even evidence his IQ would rise an average of ten points.
I could use all the IQ I could get. It's a dog-eat-dog world out
there. Didn't mean I didn't love Bonita.
But Bonita fled.
Fear now overwhelmed me. Who was shooting out in the alley? I
grabbed the phone, shaking, and dialed 911. "Nine-one-one
emergency," came an efficient female voice, not unlike that
"I heard shots just now--in the alley," I blurted.
"Frank Spielberg." My last name was Philo, but people
always wrote it with an F. Rather than get into the spelling,
I tossed in an impressive last name. Maybe she'd think I was Steven's
brother, be more efficient and consider my life was worth something.
"Are you sure they were shots?" she asked.
"There were four quick ones in a row--you don't get that
with a car backfiring." Backfiring was what Bonita and I
had always called such noises, not wanting to admit they might
be something else. But not this time.
"What are the nearest cross streets to the alley?"
"Pleasantview and Line. Line Street and Pleasantview."
"I show an alley runs south and north near there. Did the
shots come from the south of that intersection, or north?"
"I don't know! It was somewhere near there!"
"We'll send a cruiser by."
I thanked her and hung up. A cruiser, she said? Cruising is what
you do as a teenager when you want to pick up chicks or eat a
couple of Big Macs.
As I waited, an overwhelming sense of doom choked me. It was
as if the person who fired the gun was blessed with ultra-sensitive
hearing like a Spandexed superhero gone awry. He knew I called
the police and needed to kill me. It was an irrational thought,
but at the time it kept pounding at me like the commercials on
TV for 99-cent Whoppers. I had to leave the house.
As I ran out the door and toward the garage, I briefly considered
whether I should first call Jungle Woman, the "movie-loving
late-twenties restaurant manager" whom I'd met on-line with
my computer on something called Singles Net. Jungle Woman and
I would type for hours to each other, express our innermost feelings
about lost love and such topics as the late actor Peter Lorre
and meat loaf (the food, not the musician). She finally offered
me her phone number and her real name: Pam. I discovered her wonderful,
caring voice, and that she adored Hitchcock films as much as I
did. Should we meet? What if we were club-footed hunchbacks to
each other? What if we had breath like fire hoses of methane?
We took the chance and met at a French-windowed coffee house.
We were bees to honey. She had lovely long, dark hair, thick as
a rain forest. She liked my boyish, honest face, she said. This
very night we were to meet at the Nuart Cinema--our mutual passion
for film. I couldn't call her now. I had to run like a refugee.
I was so preoccupied with leaving that only after I opened the
garage door and jammed the white Volvo into reverse did I see
that the back window was completely shattered. Other than two
oval holes, the glass was so crinkled I could not view through
it. The front windshield, too, was just as crenelated. I yelled
and jumped out as if the car glowed at a thousand degrees.
Two children, around eleven, dressed for baseball, saw me leap
out as they walked down the alley, and they gave me a look as
if I were insane--the same kind of look I'd given to Mr. Reilly
when I was a kid. My cousins and I dubbed Mr. Reilly the "Madman
of Maplewoods" after we had witnessed the gaunt man try to
shoot chipmunks with his .22 rifle. You had to be demented to
consider the cute creatures pests.
I leaped at the garage wall and pressed the button that made
the wooden garage door go down. After it thumped close, I was
bathed in near darkness and perceived four beams of sunlight from
four holes in the garage door. Motes danced in the light's streams.
I clicked on the garage light. The door and the back of my car
needed examination, even if I was still shaking.
In addition to the broken window, my Swedish chariot had one
hole through a brake light and a big dime-sized hole in the trunk.
A line of steel gleamed on the top of the trunk as if the bullet
had been Moses parting the sea of paint. It led to a gouge where
the trunk indented, forcing the bullet up. Sure enough, I could
see a bit of silver winking at me from a wooden beam in the ceiling.
The fourth hole in the garage door matched the height of the rear
I clicked open the garage door to run. The cruiser--a standard
black-and-white with disco lights--almost hit me as it slammed
on its brakes.
"What the hell do you think--" the Hispanic driver
in his dark blue uniform began.
"I've been shot!" I screamed.
The man and his husky white partner jumped out. "Where?"
said the first cop.
"In the rear!"
The white cop, who had a pock-marked face and a chin like the
crack on the Liberty Bell, dashed over and joined the driver in
bending to peer at my buttocks.
"Not me!" I said. "My CAR!" And I pointed.
"Oh, yeah," said the Hispanic. His name, Jones,
I caught on his badge. The other cop's badge proclaimed him as
Bleak. Why not go all the way and change it to Grim Reaper?
Jones scrutinized the car as I had. Bleak went back to the cruiser
and pulled out a clipboard and a form; he asked me basic questions
such as my name and address. Meanwhile Jones bounced into the
front seat and after a few minutes he shouted, "I found it!"
"Found what?" I asked, running away from Bleak.
"A slug," he uttered with pride. "Your front window
doesn't have a hole, see? The bullet had to go somewhere."
He scooped it out of the rubber seal near the bottom of the window.
He used the thin blade of a Swiss Army knife which still had its
He weighed the slug in his hand. "Twenty five caliber,"
he said assuredly. "These come from one of those cheap pistols,
a Saturday Night special. Probably some young kid trying out his
In this society I was now a rifle range? "What do I do?"
I asked seriously.
"Move," laughed Bleak.
Jones had his eye on a boy, about twelve years old, thin and
delicate, who rode his small bicycle like a butterfly on rubber
wheels but with a scowl toward the police. "There's a little
gang member right there," said the cop.
"He's in a gang?" At that age I was home watching "Lassie"
and "Father Knows Best."
"He may be the kid who did it," Bleak said. "In
the old days, we might stop and search him, or go to the Taco
Bell down the street and search everyone there. We can't stop
things now. So we just fill out reports after the fact."
"You'd search a whole restaurant?"
He tore off a duplicate of the form he'd been working on from
his clipboard with emphasis. He handed the yellow sheet to me.
"This long number here, that's what you'll be giving to your
insurance company. You have insurance, don't you?"
I nodded. I could picture the file in my mind. The file would
be in the red section marked "Bills," in the green Pendaflex
marked "Insurance," in the manila folder labeled "House."
After Bonita left, I had decided to organize my home office better--spent
three non-stop days at it. I was getting my life in order, even
if some nights I could only stare at the lightning bolts of lines
on the ceiling.
The police drove off and I gazed at my dead car. What was left
should just run over me. Or maybe I should put my lips around
the tail pipe. No. Had to move forward, as Pam, Jungle Woman,
once typed. First things first: I spackled the holes in the door
and then painted them to show the hoodlum that did this that I
did not rest. A call to the insurance company brought a mobile
auto glass unit that replaced the windows and gave me an appointment
for body work. And then I washed my hands a lot, at least once
an hour for the next two days. I couldn't help myself--they itched
otherwise. The compulsion stopped, to my relieved surprise, after
a trip to Gun Heaven on Olympic introduced me to the world of
Though I had for years been anti-gun, it was clear that society
would rather shoot it out with me. After all, every other movie
poster showed some handsome Wesley Snipes type or lissome Bridgette
Fonda-like waif with a big fat gun. Guns were sexy. Guns were
effective. Why fight it?
Gun Heaven lay like a shark-toothed guppy in a pod mall near
a hospital and next to a Pioneer Chicken restaurant. I imagined
someone munching on a drumstick, then waddling over to Gun Heaven
with greasy fingers, wanting to pull a trigger or two. Whoops--if
there's a mistake, there's the hospital.
The original pioneers, the ones who settled the
west and knew nothing of pressurized frying, nonetheless enjoyed
fried chicken and owned guns, so this mall played perfectly into
America's western myths.
"Now whatcha got here, let's call it the starting point,
is the Nef Lady Ultra at 32 caliber," said Hartmut--that
was his name on his tag--holding out a handgun with a four-inch
barrel. "Blue finish as you see, walnut-finished hardwood,
with a weight of only 31 ounces. I start here because it's only
149 dollars. If you want something a little more substantial,"
he said, alluding to my manhood perhaps, "This here's the
He showed me a model with a six-inch barrel. "A 357 magnum,
it has a six load capacity and, believe me, with one of the new
Remington Golden Saber hollow-point loads, you can put a hole
the size of a quarter into anything you want."
Hartmut, appropriately, had not shaved in three days and his
eyes, his whole face, was quite red. His skin, especially below
his eyes, hung like the face of a basset hound. He must have been
a drinker, though he seemed plenty sober to me. Behind him, in
lighted glass case after case, stood so many guns, an army could
be outfitted. I didn't touch either gun, overwhelmed by it all.
"Now I know what you're going through, a sense of violation,
a need to stand up to any possible intruder," Hartmut continued
without any prompting.
"People don't have any morals or manners anymore,"
I said, feeling his openness to understand. "A couple weeks
ago I was watering my front lawn when I saw three teenagers pushing
each other in front of the barbershop. One kid pushed too hard,
and his friend fell against the huge plate glass window at the
barbershop. It shattered. Know what they did? Just laughed and
walked away. And neither me or the barber ran after them or said
anything because who knows, maybe these kids had a gun."
"And all these car jackings going on," Hartmut added.
"Why succumb when you could sneak your own gun up and blast
them off the road!"
"You can have a gun in the car?" I asked innocently.
He straightened up his back and glanced at the young man in a
suit behind the counter who must have been his boss. "No,"
said Hartmut formally. "You can't conceal a weapon without
a permit, and the city gives permits to no one." Then he
leaned in conspiratorially. "But bad guys don't carry permits.
You think the kid who hit your garage had one? You think the druggies
with Chinese SKS semi-autos turned into automatics and fifty-round
magazines have one?"
"I just want something for the house," I said. "Isn't
a rifle better?"
Hartmut grinned as if I had given him a hundred birthday roses.
"My friend. The best thing you could get is a shotgun. He
waved me over to a case down the way and pulled out a double-barreled
gun which he called a Merkel 20-gauge Model 47E. "This is
the best value for the money, made in East Germany--well, it's
not East Germany any more, but you know what I mean. What I'd
do is saw the barrels down to 44 inches, which is still legal,
but it'll give you a nice, wide spread. You'll hit whoever's after
"Won't that damage the house?" I asked, imagining my
walls as thin and deteriorated as the Taco Bell wrappers in the
street after a rain storm.
Hartmut looked at me as if I just fell off the proverbial turnip
truck. "Are you worried about a few scratches on your house
or your life?"
"How many guns do you own yourself, Hartmut?"
"Two hundred fifty three, including the T-2i Lasersight
I just bought."
The answer somehow endeared him to me. And it's not that Hartmut
was the Robert Preston of gun sales--and nothing rhymed with G
and stood for gun right there in River City--but Hartmut sold
me. I not only bought the shotgun and a dozen packs of shells,
but signed up for a year's subscription to Guns and Ammo magazine
before I left. (I had a lot of ammunition, but as Hartmut said,
"Never know if there'll be another riot.")
I put the black-barreled gun, unsawed, under my bed for a few
days. I could feel its power when I went to bed each night. I
wanted to call Pam about this, but this wasn't a time to become
involved. And strangely, I heard noises outside each night, things
I had never noticed from my room before: an odd, loud cawing,
for instance. Couldn't be a bird--few birds are active at night.
Must be a robber calling to his cohort, like the bandits did in
Westerns as they surrounded unsuspecting pioneers. Another time
I heard a glass bottle drop out in the alley, but it didn't break.
That could be someone climbing up over the garbage cans and the
At each odd noise, I'd reach under my bed and bring out the shotgun.
The assailants, too, must have felt its power as no one bothered
me, much as I dared them to in my mind.
My gun. The protector. After owning it a week, I asked myself
did I really know how to use it? Was I just going to assume
I could shoot it when the time came? How much kick did it have--would
it surprise me? What kind of spread did it give? And could I assume
it would be reliable? After all, it had never been shot. It was
a virgin, as I was in a sense. But where would I try it? Someone's
garage door? The desert. Out near Lancaster.
Once, when Bonita and I loved each other, when we lived together
and groped for each other and performed sex acts as in the movies
(well, in the movies I now sometimes rent), we had heard about
land in Lancaster from a short door-to-door salesman, a man named
Fred with hair bright and gray as a cat. Fred was friendly. He
told us how he'd arrived from Cairo twenty years ago, penniless
but educated. He eked out a living teaching math, but then he
realized in America you needed to own things, particularly land.
He started small, as he suggested we do. And now he had a huge
home in Beverly Hills. "Beverly Hills," he said again,
pronouncing it enthusiastically as if it were whipped butter icing
on a glorious wedding cake. His gold chains on his wrists danced.
Fred spoke about our owning two acres that he had--two acres!--out
in Lancaster, where we'd never been before. At the time, Bonita
and I were renting a cute, shack-like house with window boxes
on a postage stamp-sized lot. He pulled out an official map of
Lancaster which showed a new, proposed airport a few miles away
from the land. It would only be a matter of years before the area
would be like the rest of L.A., houses crowded together like tea
cups on a glass shelf. Ten thousand dollars for two such acres
We bought his land, though it took him several visits. Fred took
our check and gave us the deed with a big grandfatherly hug. And
then we visited our two acres. We were crushed. We felt like bugs.
Sure, we had two acres, but two acres in vast nothingness: tumbleweeds,
a dirt road, and a line of telephone poles--all as it appeared
in the film Baghdad Cafe, which came out after we bought
our land. It was like owning a crater on the moon--what good would
it do? Now it would do me some good. I'd go try my shotgun there.
I had not been back to the land for ten years, but found the
original Fred map in my files under the yellow "Lost Causes"
section, "Life in California" subsection, "Land
in Lancaster" manila folder, not far from my Bonita file
which was stuffed with snapshots, mementos, and the "Dear
Frank" letter she'd left me.
As I pulled my newly repaired and painted Volvo into the dusty
lot, a buzzard landed on a hand-painted Burma Shave-like sign
that declared cherry juice was for sale at Jerry's Cherry Pit
Stop 5 miles ahead. Nothing like a long drive down a hot dirt
road to make you crave cherry juice. Another sign stood a few
hundred yards down. How dare Jerry put such signs on private land.
I was so mad I grabbed my gun and loaded in two shells. The bird
took off before I approached it.
With the sun beating at my neck and the heat strangling my arms,
I aimed my gun and pointed it at the word Jerry on the three by
four-foot sign and pulled the trigger, once, then again. The kickback
from the two shots was pronounced, but I shouldered them like
a pro. I missed the man's name, but the first "Cherry"
was mostly air now. That felt great.
Without thinking much, I loaded in two more shells, stepped closer
and aimed lower. With one shot I blasted away most of the two-by-four
holding the sign up. Sure enough, the sign teetered over. Problem
was, it teetered right at me, twisting, falling like an axe blade
onto my right foot, covered only by a canvas shoe. I screamed
and felt my finger pull the trigger again. I blew away a lot of
dirt, the tip of my left shoe, and by the looks of it, perhaps
I dropped the gun as I toppled and, as luck would have it, I
landed on my tailbone on a rock which caused me to scream again.
As I twisted in the hot dirt, seeing blood drip from my shoe and
feeling the drumming sting in my feet and back, I threw up. The
overwhelming pain was more than anything I had ever experienced
at once, and the reaction was all automatic.
What caught me unprepared the most was my instant vision of me
as this paunchy slob with a shotgun, reeling in the dust and vomit,
Bonitaless. As I writhed and cried, I then envisioned Bonita and
I making love in our honeymoon shack, her frizzed-out hair frolicking
on her shoulders. Bonita loved me kissing her breasts as she moved
her pelvis so dramatically atop me and, damn, the way her body
would shake in orgasm and the way she smiled those first few years.
I was thin and sure then. How could we have so much and lose it?
We had loved each other, the place, our situation until Fred stoked
our desires for more.
After I finished my agony on the baking earth, the buzzard circling
overhead, I hobbled to the car and washed my feet with a gallon
of windshield washer fluid that I found in the trunk. The sting
from the alcohol in it made me nearly throw up again but that
passed quickly when I saw I had all my toes. Some skin and toenails
were missing, but the toes were there.
I drove back from the desert with feet that stung with each heartbeat,
and I limped into my home, defeated. I wrapped yards and yards
of gauze around my naked, scarred foot. The only footwear that
would fit after that was a pair of white rabbit slippers with
floppy ears that Bonita had once given me for a birthday. I couldn't
very well go anywhere like that, including the doctor's office.
Besides, I'd probably end up telling him about the gun and the
sign, and then I'd feel even more like a koala in a tutu.
My toe became infected, but I explain it this way: when I was
a child, my mother would gasp at some of the cuts I received from
what had seemed like hundreds of sources: a band of metal that
protruded from a neighbor's home remodeling, a knife from a model
rocket kit, a broken spoke from my bicycle. More often than not
she hauled me up to the local clinic and had them clean the wound
and give me a tetanus shot. Why? I always asked. I never heard
of anyone getting tetanus. What was tetanus? My mother described
a situation in The Thirteen Ghosts, the scariest movie
I'd seen in my life, a film I could not sit through without having
to leave at several points. ("I'm not scared," I told
my mother, "I just need more Ju Ju Bees.") One scene
had a living skeleton suddenly appear who talked through a closed
mouth. His jaw didn't move. My mother whispered to me that he
had lockjaw from getting tetanus. He should have had his tetanus
"You can get disease so easily, you should always go to
a qualified doctor," she'd say as an aphorism. As my toes
swelled, I thought I'd let my body fight the problem. She didn't
always have to be right. I should have known better. While I did
not succumb to lockjaw, my big toe became so massively infected
and I was in so much pain, I finally went to the doctor. The big
toe had to be amputated. It causes me a funny limp now.
I recall how Mr. Reilly, the "madman," finally told
me he shot those chipmunks because "the damn critters carried
diseases." He, Howard Hughes and my mother had their point:
Disease is rampant everywhere. If pneumonia, tetanus and rabies
don't get you, the world provides ever new diseases: Legionnaire's
disease, Lime disease, AIDS. Guns and bullets are nothing compared
to the micro invaders trying to destroy us, trying to turn us
into one of thirteen ghosts. That's why I shower six times a day
Thank god we live in an age where air filtration systems have
become a science, where everything including food and clothing
can be delivered, where computers and modems let us work from
home and where, even if Bonita wanted to come back, she can't
because she'll disturb the seal. People carry disease. I even
stay off Singles Net (computer viruses, you know). It's a shame,
perhaps. Still, I've coped. I'm fine now. I really am.