This story is dedicated very respectfully to both Gregory Peck
and Bob Dylan—The Gunfighter and Brownsville Girl respectively.
He was the fastest. There was no debate and few challengers to the fact that he was the fastest. He carried a matched pair of Circle M Colt 45 revolvers, shiny black grips in a black holster. He had a backup over and under derringer, gleaming like polished silver with a simulated ivory grip tucked into his front pocket for emergencies. But he never needed it. He was uncontested and the backup was just for peace of mind, in case a firefight did ensue and he needed that extra edge. He wore a black bandana and tucked his jeans into cheap beige square toed cowboy boots. He looked like a gunfighter for certain.
He was the fastest. All the kids within a 4-block radius said so. No one challenged him anymore, not seriously at any rate, so while his parents were at work he endlessly practiced 5 stories up on the roof of his tenement building, where he wasn’t supposed to be, a long and narrow broken mirror he had found in the trash, propping the half full length mirror up against the access door and trying to outdraw himself. At 8 years old he was faster than himself and he always beat himself every time he squared off at his reflection glaring back at the ready, drawing his guns, one bullet going high, one midsection low. The mirror took the soft impact and he would smile as his opposing image crumbled down in defeat.
The guns had come from Woolworths. He had saved for over a month; hoarding his Key Foods bagboy money and even forgoing his favourite comics to buy the guns and to be the best at something. He needed to be the best at something.
The pistols fired real projectiles, hollow plastic bullets which didn’t go very far and they didn’t hurt at all, even if somehow your opponent took one full in the face. The guns had just enough push to propel the bullet, which snap clipped into the cartridge, and travelled about 4 feet at best before losing impetus and dropping to the sidewalk. There were a lot of other cheaper guns to be had. There were single holster guns which fired cylinder caps or nothing at all and merely clicked cheaply and ineffectually. Mattel’s singular competition had something similar on the toy market as well; but Circle M—either two guns or just one, was definitely the best. There was a rifle too, a fine-looking replica of the Winchester that also shot projectiles. The competition had one that made rifle fire noises when the toy was levered and the trigger pulled; kind of cool, but not Circle M quality.
He watched John Wayne and Alan Ladd, Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck, learning their tricks because they were the best out west and because he was the fastest in the city and knowing that he was the fastest he began wandering into other neighbourhoods to prove it. He was still young and had much to learn. He needed to know that he was the fastest and the only way a gunfighter finds that out is to challenge or be challenged. Eventually he planned to go west and be the best there too. But for now, the city would have to do.
By the age of ten he was ranging 6 to 8 blocks from his own uptown neighbourhood. The quick draw was just beginning to lose its appeal but he had a rep to maintain so he continued into his 11th and early 12th years. He hadn’t discovered the appeal of girls quite yet. It wasn’t time to set aside his guns undefeated and settle down.
It was on a nearly condemned block more than 7 miles from home. He was facing down two older kids, maybe 13 or 14. They were chewing wads of gum, their gun butts sticking out of their sweat pants, hardly serious threats. The fastest draw was surprised that such older fellows would be inclined as to take him on when his reputation was untarnished. But they were. Totally relaxed and confident he watched them both whispering, fidgeting and fanning out. They were still in his peripheral vision however so he wasn’t stressing about their tactics. He had outdrawn two opponents before. He was used to this game.
A blink, a twitch, he smiles, his guns are drawn in a whirlwind flash of bright metal and clearly he’s beaten them both, one gun each firing at their bellies. Then the fastest gun gasps. He shrinks downward to the pavement, wilting like a dry, fragile flower with a neat hole in his right shoulder, a through and through in his left side. He drops his guns and the plastic handles break on the sidewalk. Involuntarily he stumbles a few feet, then crumbles to his knees first and the two older boys are laughing. They saunter over to where he is bleeding out; his head practically in the gutter of the cracked sidewalk and both point their smoking 22’s down at his face. He doesn’t understand. He had won fair and square. He had beaten them to the draw.
Perhaps 50 feet away at most a nearby garage attendant watches the entire incident and only registers that it’s no game when he hears the weapons discharging and then sees the young spindly kid dropping down in a heap. It’s a slow Wednesday at the garage, in between lunch and dinner, not many cars on the street. His repair jobs are finished for the day. He sits out front of the open bay door with an ice chilled beer. It’s a hot day in the city and others besides himself are sitting on chairs outside their buildings or hanging from open apartment windows. He is a big man, the mechanic, retired military, not especially smart though conscientious of his failing and failed neighbourhood. He lives above the garage in a tiny apartment scarcely big enough for him and the incessant cockroaches.
He watches the fastest gun going down and he reacts almost without thinking. Vaulting up from his chair he comes in reflexively, low and fast, tackling both gunmen simultaneously. He snaps the shoulder of one and slams the other in the face with a pile driver elbow. A rough and tumble wrestling match ensues with the two gunmen clearly outmatched. Hands grope for the real guns. Observers start heckling and routing for whoever is on top at any given instant, which continues to shift and alter as the wrestling match continues. Clearly the mechanic is winning by the time the cops arrive in a blare of sirens and protesting tires.
As he disentangles from the two assassins bemoaning prostrate bodies he is surprised to see 4 officers with levelled automatics and shotguns pointing squarely at him. The crowd quickly intercedes, which also surprises him; his neighbourhood being notoriously infamous for “minding its own business.” Then too he is a staple of the neighbourhood, a “neighbour” who has lived there, suffered there, gone away and amazingly come back again. There is a certain kind of unspoken loyalty unknown outside the ghettos of the world which those people in nice neighbourhoods, houses and apartments will never understand or emulate.
To the police, it is quickly evident what has occurred and they lower their weapons gratefully, hilariously outnumbered and none of them wanting a riot over a dead fair haired white boy pretending to be some sort of gunfighter, in a neighbourhood where practically every kid over the age of 10 carries a piece, a switchblade, a straight razor or all three. Two drugged up “homies” accepting or offering a lethal quick draw challenge and a huge, black good Samaritan arriving too late to do the white kid much good but apprehending the undeniable perpetrators whom the law will still define as “the suspects” until the court deems otherwise. It is indeed all clear and it’s all not clear at the same time. The mixed races cops shake their heads and start writing down the facts. A couple of bored detectives arrive on the scene, preceding the ambulance by mere seconds. The groaning, broken “perps” are removed in handcuffs of course, the white kid in a body bag. No one picks up his toy guns. They lie broken and blood covered in the gutter. No one recognizes the dead gunfighter and wouldn’t admit to even if they did. He was just a white kid in the wrong neighbourhood. Someone would miss him and someone would eventually come and claim his body at the morgue. The media began arriving. No one was concerned about the hero in THAT neighbourhood, just about the dead white boy. A pretty blonde haired white woman in a green dress stands in front of a camera crew and gears herself up to speak, while an anorexic Chinese woman in a striped pencil skirt primps and preens in front of her crew as well. The crowd of onlookers begins to disperse. No one in that neighbourhood wants to be on camera.
The word hero is bantered around as the shuffling crowd withdraws but only bantered, nothing even remotely serious enough to be TV worthy. It’s the neighbourhood after all and everybody who doesn’t live there wants to be gone from there as quickly as possible. The block smells like decay and hopelessness to those who don’t live there, let alone those that do. The mechanic watches for his opportunity and tries to melt away. Fifteen years ago, his beautiful young sister was gunned down in a night-time drive by case of mistaken identity. The mechanic had to come home from a war zone to bury her. He tries to walk away but facts are needed, his story is told and retold and one of the swarthy detectives is even grilling him that somehow, he had something to do with the whole affair despite what the crowd boisterously proclaimed to the rooftops about his innocence.
Finally, during a lull in the accusations and suspicions the mechanic manages to fade back into the shadows created by tenement buildings and late afternoon sun. He tries to be casual about his disassociation. He begins to sing a song as he moves back into the blackness of his garage, easing the dingy grey fiberglass bay door shut as quietly as possible.
There was this movie I seen one time, about a man riding across the desert and it starred Gregory Peck. He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself. The townspeople wanted to truss that kid down and string him up by the neck.
“Brownsville Girl.”
Christopher A Lay is a Vietnam Era vet with a penchant for writing poetry while reading very little of it. In his callow youth, he survived by reading Tarot at 5 bucks a layout and stole food from grocery stores with innocent nonchalance. He has two books up on Kindle (a paranormal novel based largely around personal experiences when he investigated such things) and a compilation of short stories and poetry, from which his forte derives: Slight Exaggerations (short stories and poetry) and The House That Killed Me. Soon to follow: Brooklyn Heat Lasts Forever and Tales Off The Cuff, first published through American Star (formerly Publish America).
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