Before – New York City 1950’s
A spark was ignited fourteen million-millennia ago, back when the first stars formed from carbon dust.
Over time the fire has been injected into every one of us who has ever successfully slipped from the birth canal, creating something deserving of a big, complicated, bombastic, raging and powerful name.
But we call it simply “Life.”
This ancient, mystical, boundless flash can be shut down and snuffed out in less time than we spend in the cycle of one breath.
The entire process, the sentient action to end a life takes a handful of seconds. The methods have been experimented with and perfected and honed and polished within the confines of those thousands of millions of years into an art, a cold and ruthless art.
In this case, the process, the art, is the gunshot: shots fired from one gun.
The handgun, a revolver, was born shiny and clean and smelling of machine oil in a Smith & Wesson, Springfield Massachusetts factory in 1949, assembled by a couple of guys recently home from the big war.
A gun, any gun, is only an object. It can’t be good or bad, it doesn’t feel or think or desire or need, hurt or hunger. But the gun is the vehicle. The violence comes from men, from me, from men like me.
Men like me are drawn to many things. To shiny objects of money and power, drugs, and to safe, secure, sane and grounded women. To soft music and softer words of promise while we dance and beg the sweet ladies to leave their pretty summer dresses in a pile on the bedroom floor.
But then we run.
We run from the women because we run from the comfort, from the terror of family dinners and kids and dogs and well-trimmed lawns.
The gun was stolen from its original owner by a kid called Lucky Johnny. Johnny was from the streets of Brooklyn, 1950, a black and white world, a world of large analog and mechanical things.
He held odd jobs, lived with his mother in a third-floor walk-up apartment. The stoop out front was concrete and dirty. There were some flowers outside one first-floor window, but they seemed gray too.
One of his jobs was as a night janitor at the local police precinct. He hated the job. A couple of the local street cops were good to him and he considered them friends. The sergeant, though, was a master prick and treated the kid like crap, picking on him, calling him a loser, telling him how much he’d like to fuck his mom. Johnny hated him, and so did most of the beat cops.
One December, about a week before Christmas, the cops had a party in a back room of the station. Johnny was cleaning out the toilets when he found Sarge passed out drunk in a stall. Sarge had been loudly proud of his newly issued .38 Police Special revolver. It sat unstrapped in the drunk cop’s holster. Johnny, looking over his shoulder, reached in where the fat, drunk cop sat stooped over and stole the gun, sliding into his pants. He finished his work quickly, went back to the party, said goodnight to the other cops, and left for the night.
Walking home he passed a liquor store and thought of his mom, and the Christmas present he hadn’t yet bought. He needed money. Walking inside, he announced, “This is a stickup!” He pointed the revolver at the man behind the counter. Holding it with both hands, he fired off six shots. Glass and lead and whiskey filled the air. A bullet ricocheted and took out the front window glass and the neon sign that said, “Fine Liquors.” He missed the cashier entirely.
Johnny hid the gun under his bed in an old shoe box. He lay there awake all night thinking about the gun – terrified – scared the cops would find out he was the one who shot up the liquor store. The cops would realize he stole the sergeant’s gun. He poked his head under the bed and opened the box. It was real.
Lucky Johnny needed to be rid of the gun. He took a train to the Bronx. His friend’s brother, a jewelry store owner, wanted to buy a gun for protection. Johnny sold it to the guy for forty bucks, a fortune in 1949.
With his money he bought a Christmas tree and took it home to decorate it. He bought his mom some towels for the kitchen, a loud testament to his lack of imagination. He paid a girl who lived in the building on the floor above him fifteen dollars for sex. It was the best Christmas of Lucky Johnny’s life.
The mild spring of 1950 gave way to the summer heat of August. The jeweler was happy with his purchase. It seemed to keep a distance between him and the bad guys of the street.
One evening he was on his way to deposit the day’s cash in the bank before heading to his home on the Grand Concourse, near Yankee Stadium. The jeweler was a good guy, a decent guy with a family. He had kids. He liked beer and baseball. But he’d begun to fear the neighborhood where he kept his business, so he carried the Police Special revolver. It made him feel more secure, less afraid.
A thug named Angel, working an empty street turned dark and damp and drowned in an early evening and a late summer’s fog, jumped the jeweler and took the gun. The jeweler fought back, taking a long, arching swing, but he missed entirely and fell face first to the wet concrete.
In a flash of time, less than a second, Angel decided to transfer the power of life and death from his brain to his finger, to the shiny metal trigger, to the bullet.
The process is simple: the trigger pulls back against the force of a spring. A pawl pushes up and a ratchet is turned. A barrel spins one-sixth of one turn and is locked in place by another pawl. The spring, under pressure from the trigger, pulls the hammer back. The finger applies more pressure. At the apex of the cycle, a pause, that is only microseconds long, but seems a lifetime – possibly because that is all the time that remains for the jeweler – somewhere between that second and the next second, a life will cease.
After the pause, the split second, the trigger as far back as it can possibly go, now slams forward, like a hammer, like an uncontrolled and angry cock. It releases its kinetic power – driving into the primer of the bullet cartridge. The primer, pushing forward causes an explosion in the little shell, enough to force the lead from its casing and down the barrel. A death seed let loose.
To decide a fate, to take a life, in a moment, just a moment – breathe in and out – and count the seconds.
The bullet entered the jeweler’s body, bursting through skin and muscle and bone and passing through the heart at six-hundred feet per second.
Angel exhaled. The jeweler didn’t.
The damp, sticky air echoed the sound of the explosion that follows the lead from the barrel. It bounced off and was absorbed by the walls of the buildings on the foggy street, up and down the alleys and hollow city caverns.
Angel heard sirens in the distance. He pocketed the man’s wedding ring and cash, the day’s proceeds from the jewelry store. Angel is now the owner of the snub-nose .38, Smith & Wesson Police Special. The gun assembled by the guys, recently home from the war, in 1949 in Springfield Massachusetts.
The thug is also a refugee from the war. A man also weary of war and death, yet he continues in a lifestyle that embraces and requires violence and death.
Still a young man, but already so very tired. He finds his life on these dirty streets. He finds a way in, acceptance, into the mobs, the family businesses.
Angel hunkered down, he did his job, he hated his work, and he lived modestly, quietly.
He met a pretty girl and dreamed of a farm and a life away from all of this.
He hoped the farm would somehow silence the screams of those he killed with the .38 Smith & Wesson Police Special.
He married the girl and found the farm.
The gun went with him.
He was a terrible farmer. He got a job in a factory and raised his family and tended to his land and cows and chickens. Angel lived like a guy with a mortgage and bills and a crummy job. He never showed the world the money he took from those streets.
Angel became “Unk” to everyone – his friends, his family, even his wife called him Unk at times.
He had a favorite nephew.
That boy’s name, my name, is Richie O’Malley. This is my story.
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