General Fiction posted January 23, 2022

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You just never know.

Out of His League

by Wayne Fowler

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

"I'd like to buy a gun," she said.
Of course he knew that. She was standing at the handgun case and had been looking at the display of small semi-automatics. He grimaced, noting something in her voice, some kind of urgency. It could have been simple nervousness, but... he'd seen and heard it a hundred times, like someone speaking against their principles, or contemplating going against their conscience. Her statement rang false, almost as if it was a question – “I'd like to buy a gun?” Spoken with a distincy upift.
"For yourself, or someone else?" He already knew the answer. A glance outside revealed her Mercedes that must have cost more than he’d ever see.
Merle was the assistant manager of the small, guns and ammo shop connected to the feed and tackle store in unincorporated Mayfield. Assistant Manager was a running joke, since there was only the owner/manager and himself. But since the owner also owned and managed his larger store in nearby Mount Plain, and Merle was on a monthly salary instead of an hourly rate, he called himself the assistant manager. The owner, Will Smith (no relation) hired him as the manager, but Merle preferred assistant, claiming that gave him leverage to defer issues he didn't want to take credit for, blaming decisions of the manager. He also felt that being of Latino descent, albeit only one quarter, always gave people pause, questioning both him, and the establishment. Ruddy blond hair and fair skin betrayed his ancestry, it was his slight accent that gave him away more than his appearance.
Merle made eight hundred dollars a month, with a bonus of a tenth of the profits at year’s end – more money than he’d ever dreamed of making. It was more by twice than his father had ever made. Living in a rough-hewn cabin on unclaimed land, a hand pump for water but all the firewood he could cut, he was content - once he learned how to keep the weather out. The homestead his family had farmed was taken for unpaid taxes. His parents farmed the forty acres, nearly ten of them river bottom land until they took some sort of fever and died, both of them. Somehow, Merle and his older brothers scratched a living, raising and growing enough to eat, selling hides and timber for enough cash to buy what they couldn’t. After Pearl Harbor, the older brothers joined the U.S. Navy. Merle made his way to town and worked odd jobs. 

Elmer Dale, Merle’s father, was a descendant of a native family dispossessed by the government's takeover of the Buffalo River region. The family didn't own river-front property, but was close enough to be swallowed up, an obscure quarter section never set foot upon since they were run off. Merle was the only one remaining in the Ozarks.
"A handgun for yourself?" Merle repeated the request, not because he was hard-of-hearing, or understanding, but to hear her voice once more, to better appreciate her demeanor. Call it sexist. Merle questioned everyone's desire for a gun, but especially women. It was simply a matter of reality that most of his customers were male and their request fell within the range of likelihood: I want a deer rifle, home protection, a skeet gun, a .22 for my grandson like I had. Had she stated a reason at the outset: I'd like a pistol that would be good for concealed carry, or I need something that would scare away intruders... Instead, her request sounded more like - I'd like a gun to kill someone in particular.
Merle wasn't a mind reader, and he didn't know if she was going to commit murder, or suicide, rob a bank, protect herself against some perceived threat, or simply wanted a house gun. He couldn't read minds, but he could read people. And Miss Van der Stek wasn't right about something.
"Uh-huh,” Miss Van der Stek uttered.
“Okay,” Merle said, considering how he could stall her. “I’ll need some ID.”
As she dug into her purse, Merle noticed the various rings on her hands, six rings, most likely real diamonds, one of the stones as large as a black-eyed pea.
Looking the drivers’ license over, Merle took a shot in the dark after noting the Little Rock address, some eighty or ninety miles distant. “Camilia Drive. Isn’t that the McMansion development on the west side?”
“Uhhh, heavens no. It’s on top of …” She stopped speaking.
“Ohhh,” Merle began. “The mansion on Mount …”
“We call it Mount Guinivere, after my mother.”
“Oh, yeah. I think I’ve heard of it.” He hadn’t, but continued his attempt to delay her. “Yeah, your gate prob’ly costs as much as any ten houses in Mayfield.”
Miss Van der Stek made a move as if to look out the window. Turning back, she admitted, “More than likely. So, the gun?”
“And do you want the gun to actually use, or just to frighten people, the bad guys, robbers like?” Before the lady could give voice to the words she’d taken a breath to speak, Merle interrupted. “Because, if it was to actually shoot, it would be a different gun from one that someone could see, a big ol’ bazooka coming out of your hand. To scare someone, they have to see something frightening.” He allowed her time to digest the thought.
“I need … I want …”
Pointing to a .380 replica of the James Bond 007 semi-automatic, he said, “You could hurt someone real bad with that one, kill ‘em sure. But this one,” he said, extracting a 1911 .45 caliber hand-canon, “This bad boy will blow their head right off their shoulders. Shoot ‘em anywhere in the face. Hit ‘em in the chest and with the right ammo, you can cut ‘em in half, fill the room with guts an’ gore, cover the carpet with blood. You know you could paint a football field with the blood from just one person? You can buy a bullet that would pop a person’s head like a bomb in a watermelon, brains an’ bone bits like you put ‘em in a shredder an’ sprayed ‘em on every wall. You can …”
Merle sprang over the counter in an attempt to catch Miss Van der Stek before she hit the floor. He was too late, but crumpling straight downwards in a wad, she hadn’t hit her head. Merle first locked the front door, and reversed the open/closed sign before picking her up and laying her on the display counter, using the woman’s own purse as a pillow. He removed her shoes and raised her knees, hoping to get blood back into her head, glad that she was wearing a pant suit. He held off on getting her water, not wanting to chance her falling off the counter.
Miss Van der Stek suddenly inhaled deeply, as if startled awake from a nightmare. Her eyelids fluttered to open, her hands trembling at her sides. “Wha …”
“Easy. Easy,” Merle said, calming her. “I’ll help you up. Go slow now. You passed out. Sit still just a second. I’ll get a chair and a bottle of water.”
Once settled and her clothes arranged to her satisfaction, Merle slid an ammo box to sit beside her. “Would you tell me about it? What do you need with a gun?”
Miss Van der Stek glanced around as if trying to see who else might be present
“There’s no one here. You an’ me. I’ve closed the store.” He waited her out.
As she was unable to manage the plastic water bottle cap, Merle gently took it from her, handing it back without spilling.
“My sister …”
“Surely you don’t want to …”
After a confused squint of her eyes and shake of her head, Miss Van der Stek, said, “Oh, no. My sister, older by a year. She, she killed herself. And then Father removed all his guns from the estate.”
“Oh Miss. You don’t want to do that.” Merle took her hands in his, holding them as he might a baby bird fallen from its nest. “You don’t want to hurt yourself. Things will …”
“Not me. Not that. Her boss … he …” Miss Van der Stek clamped her jaw, her lips pinched and teeth grinding. Her breathing became rapid, her nostrils flaring.
“So you definitely want the smaller one.” Merle thought that might be the tack to keep her still. “I can show you how to use it, but would you tell me the story first? Maybe together we can figure the best way to … you know.”
“My sister, Jillaine, was an intern at First State.”
Merle assumed she meant First State Bank, but did not interrupt.
“She was invited to go to New York for a conference, she was the only intern going. Her, the CEO, and a couple of the Vice Presidents. They drugged her, and …”
Merle gently squeezed her hands, attempting to keep her steady.
“She told me that she went through the motions at the conference, not sure if it was just one, or all of them. When she got back home and went in to work that next Monday, one of the other women welcomed her ‘to the club’, smirking and winking.
“She left that minute. I was at home when she got there and she told me. In between crying. I went to call Dad, and she did it.”
Merle turned to face her, letting her fall onto his shoulder, sobbing. “Look, Miss …”
“Jullie, I’m so very, very sorry about your sister, Jillaine. I’m sorry that you didn’t have a chance to help her. That I can’t help her. But we can’t let those men destroy your life too. We can’t let them do that. Right? Am I right?” Merle lifted Jullie’s chin, forcing her to look him in the face.
Ever so slightly she began to shake her head. Merle assisted, urging her head and neck to lean side-to-side, eliciting a strained smile.
“Jullie, listen. I could sell you a gun. I’ve sold them to people before that I didn’t think should have them. I could show you how to use it. Shoot! I could go into that bank and do it with you, for you. I want to. And then we could both go to prison. Or I could give you something even better.”
Jullie looked up, her expression that of wonder, whether he was going to sell her poison, or a bomb, or …
“I could give you my Savior, the one who heals broken hearts, and takes your burdens, your debts, as his own. The best two-fer in the world. He fixes them for eternity, and heals you at the same time.
“Jullie, there is a God in heaven. He’s made a way for us to get there. And he loves you. He hates evil worse than you or I do. Would you pray with me?”
She did.


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