Sunday, January 20, 2013
My Gun Story
By Peter Rodman
This is a true story.
The cutest boy in our neighborhood was a 5 year old kid named Billy. He used to knock on our door and offer my mother "free toads" he'd found in the dirt.
Our parents were great friends, who belonged to the "junior woman's club" in the area, and socialized often. It was nothing for 10 or 20 couples to gather for cocktails, on a summer evening.
One day Billy's older brother Robby--who was maybe 9 at the time--found his Dad's shotgun, way up inside the attic trap-door. He then located the ammo in a bedroom dresser drawer, and just to see if he could, he tried loading the thing.
You know the rest: It went off, killing little Billy.
Needless to say, that family was never the same. The parents were rarely ever seen again--and certainly not at social functions. And everyone wondered what happened to the poor kid who'd inadvertently shot his little brother to death.
On a trip to NY last year I noticed some activity outside their house, which was directly behind ours. I drove on at first, but then turned the car around, and parked across the street. An old man was loading some rusty junk either in or out of his truck, I couldn't tell which. I sat there for the longest time--unsure of whether to re-start the car and forget about it, or get out and ask a few questions.
Finally, I got up the courage to walk over.
"Hi...I was wondering...do the Johnson's still live here?"
"Why?" said the old man.
"No reason," I said, "I was just curious. I used to live around the corner behind this house, that's all. I was friends with Robby, and my little brother was friends with Billy. Our whole family knew them."
"Who are you?"
I told him. He kept loading stuff in and out.
Finally he said, "My name is Robby Johnson. I don't really remember..."
You could still see the pain in his eyes, under a scraggily grey beard and his bald head, with long chunks of white hair ringing the bottom and sides. Most guys would wear a cap, if they looked like that--this man didn't bother. I could hardly believe that this guy, at least a year or two younger than I am, looked like he was 70.
I tried again: "I'm Peter. We were the Rodmans..."
"...Which house, again?"
He stared at me as if trying to see through time.
In another moment or so, his 'memory search' just seemed to come up empty, and he apologized--saying he could only faintly remember the name, if at all. It was as if I'd blown some dust off an old shelf, but even so....this person, whoever he was now, had never even heard of us.
There were awkward silences, as we struggled to find words.
I wanted to say something nice--anything to let him know the past is gone, and to wish him well. After all, it'd been 50 years since this happened.
"Robby, I'm glad I stopped and found you here," I started. "I really hope life has treated you well. So...what have you been up to, lately?"
"I collect things," he said matter-of-factly. "I just collect things."
I asked about his parents; they'd both passed on years ago. An older sister got married and moved away, too...
"But I'm still here," he said. "Still here."
There were no traces of humor, nor even any sadness or hostility--just a blank shell, going through the motions of life, delving deep into the things he might find laying around at garage sales and flea markets--as if there were less hurt to them, less of a chance he might lose them and care too much to bear. Not again. Anything...but not that. It didn't feel to me like Robby was even in there. I'd just met an anonymous prisoner, trying to quietly serve out the rest of his time in some cage I couldn't even see.
I thought of Billy.
One could never forget that face. As little as he was, he always seemed to be tanned, because he loved to play outside in his backyard--digging tunnels and collecting worms, or all those sprightly toads he would amass in a great big steel pail, endlessly entertained by their zest for jumping, each trying to outdo the other--his brown hair sun-bleached to match a bright little-boy smile, the kind a kid can only have before they lose their baby teeth.
His parents, by all accounts, had been broken to bits. Just never again could they face a world with such sadness in their hearts. Robby said they'd gone off to Florida to retire, as many New Yorkers do, and when the Mr. Johnson died, it wasn't very long at all before Mrs. Johnson followed.
I can still remember how my parents' social circle from the woman's club had tried to coax them back out into life, always extending party invitations that went unanswered.
Then I thought of Rob.
I kept looking into his face as he spoke, sifting--always sifting through stuff, and looking away. What must the years have been like, immediately after it happened? How did he get by, how did he even go on?
After I drove off, I was surprised to find I couldn't actually feel anything. It was like I wanted to feel sadness and couldn't; nostalgia, and couldn't; pity, and couldn't; fond memories, and couldn't.
There was just a kind of emptiness that Robby had almost seemed to transfer to me, through that last handshake.
For him, there would be no moving on. Not now, not ever.
He would continue along, content to shuffle through all this junk he'd collected, trying to better organize things. That's all.
It might as well have happened yesterday.
This article Copyright 2013 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.
Note: Some names (and certain details) have been altered to protect peoples' privacy.
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