Christopher Shelley received his MFA in Creative Writing from NYU. His work has appeared in FRiGG Magazine, Carve Magazine, Prose Toad, Tryst, Fiction Warehouse, Plum Ruby Review, The Wild River Review, and Apollo’s Lyre. His story “Tongue Tricks,” was nominated for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. You can read more of his writing on his website.
A screen above my gate told me my flight from Texas to New York was ON TIME. Another screen turned to CNN alerted me to BREAKING NEWS that another lone wolf shooter had gunned down a dozen people near a small college in Vermont. The only thing about those two facts that amused me was the use of ALL CAPS for good news and bad.
Over the past few days I’d learned that making people laugh in Texas is as much fun as making people laugh in Florida or Maine or Tennessee or other states. Just two years earlier, I’ll mention since I’m catching you up on things, my brother Jake bet me $500 that I wouldn’t take a shot at doing stand-up comedy. I took him up on it not because I needed the $500, but because I love a challenge, and because I needed the $500.
My life became a series of moments when I was either collecting material or rejecting material for my stand-up routine, a pattern I’d accepted as philosophically sound. Was something funny or not funny? I tried, in every trying moment of my day, to discern things as being either the moon against the night sky or just the night sky against the night sky. The moon always reveals something.
Once again I glanced at the screen above the gate desk, confirming that my flight was going to leave on time, which meant that I had twenty minutes to post some social media nonsense, pee, pee again and get in line. I went to Facebook and put out word that I was flying back to NYC tonight, asking who was up for a drink.
During the flight home I only thought about dying for about three minutes when there was turbulence above Illinois or Ohio—I couldn’t recognize either state from up there. The thoughts about dying made me laugh about something, so I wrote a few jokes on a napkin.
As I rolled my luggage through JFK I noticed televisions showing what they still referred to as BREAKING NEWS about the same shooting they’d been reporting on before my flight—aerial footage over a parking lot next to some building on the campus. I couldn’t think of anything funny about that so I kept moving.
As I waited for the Air Train to Jamaica station I posted that I’d arrived and checked on responses to my drink invite. A dozen people said they’d maybe like to come! I posted that I maybe looked forward to seeing them, then took the train into Manhattan.
When I emerged from the train station near my apartment I checked my phone again and saw that my agent had booked me for a thing at Fordham. What would I say to a bunch of college students? What sucks in college? Classes. Food. Exams. Hepatitis. Dorms. Mass shootings. I’d have to put some thought into that.
Jud was behind the bar at Lincoln Park, as usual, while blocks away in an apartment his lovely wild wife wiped things off of their baby. Jud served me a beer and jutted his mouth at the TV showing the same CNN footage of the shooting and condemned the world in a sentence. I agreed with him and as he busied himself with bartender stuff I squealed at my friends, all both of them who’d taken me up on my invite. Kerry and Eric. They were giving marriage a shot.
We stayed at the bar and I caught them up on my flight and thinking about dying for about three minutes, trying out the jokes that had occurred to me, and since they laughed I made a mental note. Then I told them about the little clubs in Texas and how it’s okay to joke about guns and all the usual Texas assumptions there because Austin is like this little oasis of reasonable people. And they told me about they’d scored a nanny last minute with a new app they’d found.
“We really needed to see you tonight.” She held his hand as she said this and they shared one of those married in-cahoots looks. “This shooting thing is just so depressing. You always cheer us up.”
I could tell that the shooting wasn’t the thing that was bothering them but I let them believe I believed them.
Eric added, “It feels so hopeless. What’s wrong with this country?”
He said it with a mixture of earnestness and distraction. Saying one thing to avoid saying another. I sensed they needed Performance Janet.
“Sweetie I don’t know. I think it has to do with the asshole gene. Did you hear about the asshole gene? One scientist found it and got famous so the other scientists think he’s an asshole.”
Kerry smiled. “An asshole gene?”
“Lots of people have the gene and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s a small gene. In fact, it’s a skinny gene. They discovered it in Brooklyn.”
Eric said, “Let’s do a shot.”
Jud poured us shots and we downed them like we were young. I hadn’t done a shot since yesterday, but I think it had been longer for Kerry and Eric.
“Holy shit my brain is on fire!” yelled Kerry, a little louder than she needed to because I was right next to her and it was a Wednesday.
Eric shook his jowls and then laughed. “Janet, it’s so good to see you.”
“Isn’t it?” I said. I was getting the feeling they hadn’t seen anyone who didn’t wear diapers in a year.
We did another shot because Jud had refilled us without our asking—after all, who does one shot?
I made a finger gun and shot them both in the head while I made laser gun sounds. “Guys, don’t worry about the shooting. It’s far away. It’ll never happen here. Between auditions and tap classes, who has the time for plotting gun violence? Do you know how expensive rent is?”
“We live here.”
“Of course you do.”
“9/11 happened here.”
“Technically, that wasn’t gun violence. Let’s do this shot. What are we waiting for, right?”
We downed shot number two and this time a flame of pleasure flashed in Kerry’s cheeks and eyes. The shot grounded Eric to his stool. I surmised that Kerry would be on top tonight.
The television showed a still photo of the shooter: young, bearded, clear-eyed. It was an awkward selfie in what looked like a men’s room. He looked reluctant to pose. He looked like other men who’d caused other tragedies.
“What all of us need now is to understand each other.” I stood up, to be declarative. “We need to reach a gun-derstanding. This can’t be gun-derstated. This is a teachable moment.”
Eric slid our shots glasses across the bar to Jud, who lined them up again just so.
I felt inspired. “My friends, like this man we’re all watching on TV, I can’t think of a single problem that couldn’t be solved with a gun. I think everyone should have guns.”
Jud chimed in, “Everyone?”
“Everyone. Even you, Jud Judy. Give me any problem, I’ll give you a gun solution. Any problem. Hit me.”
Kerry piped up, “The Flint, Michigan water crisis.”
“Find whoever is working on the solution, hold a gun to their head and say hurry up. Next”
“Baby’s first birthday party.”
“Threaten people at gun-point until they agree to give the gift the kid really needs the most, like donations to baby’s theoretical favorite charities. Shoot non-responders in the foot so they’ll have to explain to everyone why they got shot in the foot. They’d have to say, “I refused to donate to Planned Parenthood so my righteous friend Janet shot me in the foot.”
“A child’s favorite charity would be Planned Parenthood?”
“Being a kid sucks. Next.”
“Come on, Alzheimer’s!”
“Give a doctor a reasonable time period to think up a cure, then shoot him or her when they fail to meet the deadline. Send a message to other researchers that there will be a reckoning. That goes for every disease—no more of these pointless fund-raisers. Give ‘em real inspiration. They’re never going to find a cure if they make tons of money while in the process of finding a cure. Let me ask you—would you rather cure breast cancer or get shot in the head?”
“I’d rather cure breast cancer.”
The shots started to hit, so I could no longer ignore something. I said, “Either you’re both hiding a deep dark secret or you have horrible acid reflux.”
If I could have taken the look on their faces and erased it from my mind forever, I would have. I held up one finger at them both, as a warning. “If you’re about to break my little heart, don’t speak. Neither of you speak. Otherwise, speak.”
They looked at each other to figure out how to proceed, the way married people do.
I added, “Can your problem be fixed with a gun?”
They laughed a little and Eric scratched the back of his neck while Kerry worried her glass in half-circles back and forth back and forth.
“No, no, nothing like that. Kids. You know, kids are hard, they take something from you. Out of you.”
“Look, I love you, but I’m not going to shoot your kid.”
With more coaxing, they divulged that little Samuel had a heart defect, and would require hospital time, doctor’s care, a surgery, horrible, horrible things to think about and I let them spill it all on me. Worse, it was an interesting anomaly of a heart defect, one doctors wanted to study and linger over. As I listened I thanked my lucky stars that I had no kids and the devil in me toyed around with how I could squeeze this into my stand-up routine because shit like this added weight for contrast to set up a light moment. Their story warranted some quiet hand-holding, which we all did, like we were doing an impromptu séance.
None of my other friends were going to join us it seemed, by the look of none of them being there. Every time the bar door opened I’d peek to see if somebody with a more serious demeanor could tap-in for me while I tapped out. Nope. I summoned my inner empathy, which I’d left in a jar in my heart under my inner-dispassion.
We drank some more and I got their thoughts arranged within a framework of bravery. We did a group hug and then I got their minds off things by telling them about this one-night stand I had in Austin with a calligrapher named Simon. Oh, how they laughed. That was all I could give them.
We parted ways and I headed home, browsing through posts on my phone when I wasn’t crossing streets. I looked up and recognized that I could pass through a parking lot for a short cut so I did. It was dark and foreboding but I’d been through there dozens of times in my life so I strolled along like it was any other Wednesday. Thirty freaking years in New York City, and for the first time in my life, it happened.
I heard a voice directed my way, which surprised me because most of the time in New York City, like thirty freaking years most of the time, nobody talks to you on the street but this guy did and he didn’t need directions to Rockefeller Center or Times Square, he didn’t need a light, or the time, or to know how my ass got to be that good, no, he wanted money. I laughed at him and told him it was the first time anybody had asked me that in such a rough way. I said usually people just asked if I could spare any change but he was so commanding. “You’re so confident,” I blurted, waiting for the punch line that seemed so close yet so not close—the way democrats felt after the last election! Geez, scratch that. I am so not the topical humor type of gal.
“Bitch I don’t care, give me the shit.”
“The shit? I’m not following.”
“Your money.” He made that exasperated lip-sucking sound that dissatisfied people make and hey, look he was holding a gun! He wasn’t black, if you were wondering. He was Caucasian, the kind whose life was a series of bad decisions. I imagined him working rough jobs with rough people, jobs where they unloaded trucks, jobs where they dressed up sweat shirts with jewelry. I can’t believe you assumed he was black.
“Wow, this is so real! And you think I have money. That’s so sweet.”
“Come on!” He shoved me a little, towards the side of a building, where it was a shade darker.
The shove succeeded in sobering me into the moment. When I regained my balance I handed him all the money I had, a sorry handful of fives and singles, and added a couple of Dunkin’ Donuts coupons, warning him that they expired in three days.
As I stood there watching him count the money, watching him examine the coupon, I thought gosh, I could really use a gun right about now.
He said, “That’s it?”
I said, “You’re my first mugger.”
He made the lip-sucking sound again and took off in a lumbering sprint.
I yelled at his back, “I’ll always remember you!”
I leaned against a cold wall, wondered how long my heart would beat that fast and if getting mugged could be considered cardio. I looked up to see a perfect moon. Then I cried like a perfect idiot. Why hadn’t I yelled for help? Why hadn’t I fought? Why are courses of action always clearer after the fact?
It had happened too fast. I’m not saying I wanted another chance but . . .
Well, there was only one thing to do at that moment and I did it. I posted ‘just got mugged!’ and typed a long description of the incident for my followers. A few people responded right away, one of them was my brother, asking me if I’d gone to the police and of course I was like, ‘this just happened’ which made him call me with a real phone call.