Gun Case by Charlie Geer
In his nonfiction flash “Gun Case,” Charlie Geer dramatizes his preoccupation with foreign threats to national security as a child growing up in the South in the 1980s. The best memoirists, Phillip Lopate argues, employ a “double perspective”—“the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say)” along with “the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past.” Lopate’s complaint that too many contemporary memoirists fail to include interpretation of lived experience may be particularly true in the genre of flash, where brevity often leads writers to privilege speed, immediacy, and concrete details over reflection. Geer, however, skillfully combines both perspectives in a very small space. He focuses the child’s point of view in an object (the gun cabinet), contextualizes the boy’s “heady fictions” historically, and then looks back in the final paragraph: “I wonder now if I had it all wrong.” As Geer writes in his author’s note, “What began as a simple sketch of a silly boyhood fantasy soon evolved into something much deeper, and darker. As it tends to do, the act of writing became an act not of teaching, but learning; not of showing, but finding.” While it is not unusual for nonfiction flash to conclude with reflections that deepen and broaden the story that’s been told, the “double perspective” suffuses “Gun Case” throughout (“The arrangement seems grotesque now…;” “I hadn’t discovered The Clash yet, didn’t know what was happening down in El Salvador…;” “It was a lie that came easy…”). The opening line beautifully encapsulates the entire flash, directing the reader’s attention to the gun case, the era, and the small boy in his bedroom, while hinting that later events will cast a shadow over them all. —CRAFT
Later, after my uncle’s suicide, the gun cabinet would be moved into the attic, but in the early eighties it still stood in the upstairs hall, just outside my bedroom door. An unassuming wooden display case with twin glass-paned doors and an ammo drawer at the bottom, it contained a ragtag collection of aging rifles and shotguns that, like the musty old Harvard Classics and Britannicas, the moth-eaten overcoats and field blankets, had simply come with the house, gifts from the ghosts. If the gun cabinet was always locked, that was only because the lock, a tiny keyed hasp, functioned as the mechanism for opening and closing the doors. As a rule, the key was left in the keyhole, and on those rare occasions when it had gone missing, the hasp was easily breached: wedging my fingertips into the narrow slit where the two doors met, I’d simply pry them open.
The arrangement seems grotesque now, but at the time I drew comfort, even inspiration from it. A boy never knew when he might have to defend his people against some foreign threat. The Russians, say. It was the eighties, and they were coming. I couldn’t do much against an atom bomb—rumor had Charleston at number six on the ICBM hit list, because of the Navy Base—but I knew just what I’d do in the event of an invasion. When the choppers came thundering over the Eastern horizon, I’d run to the gun case in the hall, retrieve my dead grandfather’s side-by-side twenty-gauge and a handful of shells, rush back to my room, slide open my window, and take my stand against the Red Army there, with birdshot.
I hadn’t discovered The Clash yet, didn’t know what was happening down in El Salvador. I was still taking my cues from Red Dawn and First Blood, dreaming up narratives in which I, an American boy born to a harbor-side Queen Anne, somehow figured as the aggressed, the wronged, the outgunned underdog. It was a lie that came easy to a child of the South, and it was intoxicating. No sooner had I dreamed up the contingency plan than I found myself hoping for the chance to act on it, scanning the horizon for Soviet gunships. I figured I’d see them before I heard them, but only if I happened to be looking.
So I looked. My point of reference was Fort Sumter, the old Yankee garrison at the mouth of the harbor. Ground zero for the bloodiest chapter in American history, the structure was utterly unremarkable at a distance, a squat brown lump on the horizon—a simple landmark against which I might gauge the approaching gunships’ distance and speed. There was no imagined invasion that did not include Sumter at the bottom of the frame, and there was no scoping of the horizon, however hasty, that did not begin there. Looking out over the harbor toward the Atlantic, charged with anticipation, I’d locate Fort Sumter, then track my eyes skyward to scan for the incoming threat.
I wonder now if I had it all wrong. I wonder if, when it comes, it won’t come from across the ocean. If maybe it won’t have anything to do with Russians, and everything to do with us—men raised in the company of guns and the shadow of suicide, weaned on heady fictions in which we take aim at some enemy, any enemy. Surveilling the horizon for threats, maybe I needn’t have looked any further than that old Civil War fort, hunkered like a canker on the lip of the Atlantic.
CHARLIE GEER is the author of the novel Outbound: The Curious Secession of Latter-Day Charleston and ¿Qué Dices, Teacher?, a collection of essays in Spanish. Follow him online at @amerizano.
Featured image by Umbe Ber courtesy of Pixabay