“The world has just gone crazy,” she said. “I’ve seen so much happen in my life. It’s just not the world I used to know.”
The two cops sat on the couch facing Mavis in her TV chair. The Young and the Restless was on with the sound turned down. That morning the local news had told her the intruder she shot in the chest last weekend had just up and walked right out of the hospital, before the police could even place him under arrest for breaking into her house. Mavis didn’t understand.
One cop was black and the other white. I Spy cops. Mavis was plenty old enough to remember that show, the first to feature a black actor in a leading role. She knew she thought of these cops that way because of Richard Pryor, who told stories about the I Spy cop partners who policed the neighborhood where he grew up. She never approved of the comedian’s language and was often shocked at how he would say anything, but it was true, as her sons said when they got her to watch something, that he could make you laugh at a funeral on Sunday Christmas day.
Mavis didn’t feel like laughing now as the white cop tried to explain what happened. “Mrs. Stevens,” he was saying, “the doctors told us he wasn’t even ambulatory.”
“He couldn’t walk,” the black cop put in, as though Mavis didn’t know the word “ambulatory.” “They said it would be a while before we could talk to him after he woke up from surgery, but by the time we got there, he was gone. Just walked out.”
“But how can this be?” Mavis said. “That man kicked my front door right in, and Lord knows what he would have done if I hadn’t got to Ray’s gun before he got to me. And now you tell me he’s out there walking around?”
“Yes ma’am.” The white cop looked at the floor. “I’m afraid so.”
“But he can’t be walking around too much,” his partner said. “You shot him right through the middle. He was on the operating table eight hours. I can’t believe he’s not dead.”
“We’ll find him,” the other one said. “Just a matter of time.”
“What if he finds me first?” Mavis said. “He can’t mean well for me, after what happened. I need my gun back.”
The white cop cleared his throat and looked at the black cop, then at her. “I’m afraid that’s a problem, ma’am. See, not only is that gun evidence in a pending case—or one that will be pending, once we find the guy and charge him—but it’s unregistered as well, and ballistics is cross-checking it against other shooting cases where no weapon was found. So I’m afraid—”
“Why you keep saying you afraid?” Mavis heard her voice rising from her chest as her heart began to drum with anger and fear. She couldn’t get enough air and she was losing control of her words. She knew how to talk right, had always insisted her children do so, but just then all she could do was let out what was coming up from the place where her stomach used to be. “You both got you guns, and they ain’t nobody you shot walkin’ the streets waitin’ to get well enough to get even. What I’m s’pose to do, move? Hide? Get me another gun, is what I better do.”
“I really can’t advise you one way or another on that, ma’am,” the white one said. “I can tell you that you were extremely lucky last time. Most people who keep a gun for self-protection, if it’s ever used in a crime, the owner’s the one gets shot with it.” He handed her his card and they both stood to go. “We’ll increase police presence in your neighborhood while this guy’s still on the loose. Call if you see anything, hear anything. Many times in this kind of crime there’s some connection between the perpetrator and the victim.”
Mavis took the card and followed them to her new heavy-duty front door. “How many times I gotta say I never seen the man before?”
“We know that, Miz Stevens,” the black cop said. “What Officer Jeffers meant is someone who knows someone who knows you. Knows that you’re alone, an easy target with things worth stealing. You think of anything like that, you call.” He handed her his own card. His partner was out the door and headed for the police car at the curb. This one took a step off the porch, then stopped and turned back to her. “I want you to know I think you’re more than just lucky. You’re a very brave woman. And if it’ll make you feel better, get another gun.”
Someone who knows someone who knows her. When they were gone, Mavis tried to think of who that could be. She and her husband, Ray, rest his soul, had five children, three boys and two girls, all of them grown and gone into the world now, living decent lives thanks to the both of them. They had all come running when they heard about the home invasion. Some of their kids too—Mavis had sixteen grandchildren—and some of their kids’ kids, the great-grandchildren, eight of them now, in age ranging from infants to teens. As each generation had grown up, their language had grown looser, and the clothing too, on the boys; Mavis thought some of the girls dressed like tramps, in second-skin jeans and skirts and tops that showed more skin than the clothes hid. She didn’t like that anymore than the tattoos and piercings, but kept her mouth shut about it. They were all good kids—weren’t they? Lord knew she and her husband had done their best with them.
Ray’s grandfather had been a prosperous businessman in North Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” making a good living with his drugstore until it was burned down by a white mob in the race riot of 1921. Ray’s father had told him many times of how the family hid from the mob in the basement of the wealthy Jewish oilman in the house where his grandmother worked as a maid. Black Wall Street never rose from the ashes, and Ray’s father spent his life working as a janitor in the public school system. He was proud beyond words when Ray worked his way through college at Langston and went on to earn his pharmacist’s license. For thirty-five years, Ray worked at, then ran, then owned the neighborhood drugstore just a few miles south of their home, making enough money to save for his children’s educations, even as the neighborhood went down, until the big box chain store had gone up. That killed the business bit by bit, and Mavis wondered how long it would have lasted if Ray hadn’t been killed in a robbery. Then there was his life insurance, and Mavis had been able to retire after half a lifetime as a nurse’s aide at the age of sixty-seven. That was five years ago.
Her accountant son, Marvin, helped her with her finances, and Mavis was comfortable. She could have moved if she wanted to get away from the incipient decay of the neighborhood, but couldn’t think of leaving the home where she and Ray had raised five good kids. It was a modest well-kept home on a modest and still mostly well-kept street. The owner-occupied homes still outnumbered the rental houses, but there was always one more of them to start going to seed. It was the same anywhere people didn’t own the house they lived in, and here it was that way with some more than others, but there were no abandoned crack houses within miles, and Mavis had never heard gunshots in her neighborhood. She always felt safe enough, until the night of the break-in.
She had been watching The Voice when she heard something on the porch. She peeped through the hole in her door and saw a man in a dark hoodie, his face in shadow. Her face pressed to the peephole, Mavis was wondering what to do if the man knocked when she saw him hunch his shoulder and felt the door smash her in the eye.
She staggered backward, half-blinded and seeing stars when the door shuddered again, splinters flying from the doorjamb this time. She was in the hall when it burst open, the hoodied, gloved figure huge in the doorframe stepping into the front room with the leg that kicked in the door.
She was in the doorway of her bedroom as he started for her. She hadn’t thought of the gun in the drawer of her bedside table in forever, but she saw it there every night when she put her Bible away. Now it was in her hands, and as she turned back to the door, the dark figure filled its frame and she pointed and fired. The man said “Unngh!” and fell back into the wall behind him and slid down it. He looked down at the hole in his middle then up at Mavis, and slid sideways to the floor and was still. If he made any noise, Mavis couldn’t hear it because everything was dim now, her hearing, the room, the man she shot. She would not go near him to see if he were alive or dead, and kept the gun pointed at him as she dialed 911 with shaking fingers.
Then the blue and red lights were pulsing into the windows of the house: police cars, an ambulance, a fire truck for some reason. They found Mavis sitting on the floor in her bedroom rocking slightly back and forth, her arms around her knees, the gun on the floor at her feet, the phone at her side. She remembered the hours that followed as a blur of colored lights, uniforms, and questions. The EMTs in their white shirts and blue gloves brought in a gurney and took away the unconscious stranger with the bullet from Ray’s gun in him. When the police told her he wasn’t dead, she wept and thanked Jesus. They wanted to know everything but could tell her nothing. She heard one say to another that the man had no I.D. and was unknown to any of them. They kept the neighbors outside but let her kids in after the ambulance was gone, the girls in hysterics, the boys grim and angry-faced. When the police left, Robert took her home with him to spend what was left of the night, and to the police station the next morning to give her statement. They still didn’t know who the man was.
At times, in the floodtide of well-wishing friends, neighbors, church members, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she regretted insisting that she return home the next day. They all wanted to help. The women brought food; the grandchildren brought the baby great-grands to make her smile. The men in her family had another idea of helping.
The first was Raymond Jr., with a flat box he put in her lap. Inside was a gun, a revolver type like the one now gone from the drawer in her bedside table, but more unwieldy-looking, with a large elongated cylinder where the bullets went in and a big round opening at the end of the barrel where they came out.
Mavis didn’t know what to say or do except thank Raymond and tell him he shouldn’t have, and pray to God she would never have need for such a thing again. It lay in its fittings in the open box in her lap, looking evil. Raymond took the box from her and lifted out the gun. He explained it was some kind of Taurus gun that fired shotgun shells instead of bullets. He opened the other box he had brought with him and took out a red plastic tube the size of Mavis’ index finger, with a brass cap on one end.
Raymond said he was sure she had nothing to worry about, though they both knew the police had yet to find the man who kicked her door in. He went on to explain as he opened the cylinder and filled its chambers with the red tubes that these were four-ten shotgun shells loaded with birdshot so she didn’t have to worry about a bullet going through her wall and into the neighbors’ house if she ever did have to use it and missed. “But you can’t miss with this, Mama,” he said. “Just point and pull the trigger.” He handed it to her.
“God forbid,” Mavis said, and carried the thing with both hands into her bedroom and put it next to the Bible in the drawer beside her bed. Then she went to the refrigerator in her kitchen to find one of the dishes her neighbors had brought, for Raymond to take home with him.
When her son Robert saw what Raymond had brought, he said she would break her wrist shooting it and was back the next day with something he said was better. He told her the name of it and something about the bullets it used and that all she had to do was point it and shoot. This one looked more like her husband’s gun that the police had taken, but it was shiny and chrome instead of black. Mavis put it in the drawer in place of the ugly shotgun pistol, which she put way in the back of a kitchen cabinet.
The baton of providing for her home defense passed to the next generation when Marvin had nothing to contribute to Mavis’ growing arsenal. The grandsons all favored semi-automatic pistols over revolvers. Less recoil, they said, and more firepower, as if they envisioned a running gun battle between Mavis and the intruder, still unknown and unfound according to the I Spy cops who returned later that week. “Nobody’s talking, ma’am,” the white cop told her in an accusatory tone. The black cop just looked at the floor and shook his head.
The guns her grandsons brought were of all shapes and sizes: big, small, silver, black. Mavis protested that she already had enough weaponry to hold off the siege of a small army, but they insisted, and she didn’t have the heart to turn them away with their loving gifts, and was afraid of showing favoritism.
It ended when her great-grandson Damario brought her a “Glock 9,” as inelegant and ugly as its name, black and blockish-looking, but light and utilitarian and easy to use, he said. With this one, she didn’t need to worry about whether the safety was on or off, or if she needed to “rack the slide” to put a bullet into the firing chamber to use it. “You just point it and shoot, Mama,” he said, standing before her pointing the gun at an invisible enemy, holding it sideways in front of his face.
“I gotta hold it like that, child?” Mavis said, and Damario laughed so hard she thought his baggy pants would fall down. “Where did you get this anyway, son?”
“Don’t you worry about that, Mama,” Damario said. “It’s cool.” Cool. Not cool like Marvin Gaye before his own father shot him dead, but cool as in “It’s okay, nothing to worry about.”
Mavis didn’t tell him that if this made it cool, she wouldn’t need air-conditioning in her house. She already had another “Glock 9” or two somewhere, along with how many other guns stashed in cupboards, under the mattress, in drawers and closets—a half-dozen? Ten? She had lost count, and couldn’t remember where they all were. She would have to round them all up and put them in a safe place whenever any of the little ones came to visit or stay the night. So far, though, none of the grandkids had asked her to babysit again.
So that was why, as the weeks passed, she didn’t realize how like a National Guard armory her house had become until she saw it all laid out on her bed the Wednesday night she came home from church to find the man sitting in the chair in her bedroom.
There they all were, tossed randomly on her bedspread in all their sizes and shapes: big, small, matte black, stainless steel, nickel plate. Mavis froze in the doorway of her bedroom at the sight of them spread before her and didn’t notice the man sitting in the corner chair to her left until he spoke.
“S’up, Gramama?” he said. He motioned with the gun he held in a casual grip. “Come on in and sit down. Let’s talk.”
Mavis’ heart stuttered at the sight and sound of him. The room swam and she grasped the doorjamb to keep from falling down. When she didn’t move, the man sat up from his relaxed posture and raised the gun to point it right at her face. His eyes hardened and his voice had an edge to it when he spoke again. “Come in and sit down, I said.”
She stood paralyzed for a still moment in the wash of shock and fear that had almost knocked her over. She knew she couldn’t run; he would be out of the chair like a jungle cat and on her in an instant. She let go the doorjamb and found her legs, took one shaky step toward the bed, then another, meaning only to sit down before they gave way and she collapsed in a heap on the floor.
“Not there,” he said, his voice sharper. With the gun he pointed to the stool in front of the vanity where she put on her makeup. “There,” he said, and pointed it at her face again.
She turned her back to him and one step at a time made it to the vanity table chair between the bed and the bathroom. When she sat down to face him, he had settled back into his relaxed pose, the gun on his knee.
“You got you some heavy metal now, Gramama,” he said, nodding toward the bed between them. “What you think, Ima come back with a bunch of my banger friends? That’s what you think, ain’t it, I’m some kinda gangbanger, right?”
“I don’t know you, boy. I don’t think anything.” The sound of Mavis’ voice in the room surprised her. She hadn’t felt able to speak, and then these words came out of her mouth as if they were not her own. She wondered what was coming over her.
As the words hit the boy in the face, his expression changed, and changed again, from hot mad to cold hard, glazed with wonder, all of it melting into confusion. Mavis looked from the muzzle of the gun into his eyes. A boy, that’s what he was, younger maybe than Damario, and not nearly so huge as he looked in the frame of her broken-in door that night.
He came back to himself then, and started talking, and Mavis thought he would never stop. He bragged about pulling the tubes out of his body and walking out of the hospital. He told her about his girlfriend caring for him while the hole Mavis put through his middle got better. He said he told his friends he was shot by some dude he didn’t know, and his voice rose as he told her how he felt when they learned what really happened on the news. He talked about biding his time, in a menacing tone.
“Shot by a old lady!” he said, sitting straight up on the edge of the chair now. “Well I come for payback, Gramama!” He held the gun up and “racked the slide,” as Damario said, and it made that sound like in the movies when the guy holding a gun on someone means business, but he flinched when a bullet from the gun flew spinning through the air across the room. He didn’t need to “rack the slide” after all.
He collected himself again and focused a hard gaze on her. “Now I ain’t gon’ shoot no unarmed old lady like you prolly think I do,” he said. “So you take you pick of what’s there on the bed. I got mine.” He turned his this way and that, admiring it for a moment. It was one of the automatic pistols the grandsons had brought, a shiny one. He smiled at her. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you plenty time.”
As ridiculous as the idea of a May-December shootout was, Mavis could see he was serious about it. It was almost funny, but rather than making her want to laugh, the thought of it made her chest feel warm inside, and as the warmth suffused her body, she felt her fear pass over and through her and she was not afraid anymore.
He was waiting. She looked at the bed and saw the Taurus shotgun-pistol thing nearest her. He tensed and gripped the pistol in his hand as she rose from her seat as if in pain.
“All right, son, if you want me to arm myself before you shoot me, I will. But not with any of those things.” His eyes glittered—or did they glisten? It didn’t matter. There was only one thing for Mavis to do.
He stood, the gun in his hand at his side, as she took two slow steps toward the bed. She stopped at the bedside table and bent to open its drawer.
“That one’s on the bed too,” he said.
She didn’t answer or pause as she took the Bible from the drawer and returned to her seat. She sat at the vanity table facing him again, the book clutched to her chest. Her senses seemed as sharp as a twenty-year-old’s. She saw glints of light from the facets and bevels of the weapons of death on her bed. She saw the pictures of her and Ray and the kids on the chest of drawers. She saw dust in places in the room, and saw every muscle twitching in the face of the boy with the gun standing in front of the chair in the corner.
“Do what you’re going to do. You can’t hurt me,” she said. She closed her eyes and felt the rhythm of her heart’s steady beats against the book she held to her chest and was at peace with the thought that these could be the last beats of her heart. The boy’s ragged breathing came clearly to her from across the room, and she thought she could even hear the sound of his heart pounding wildly away.
Mavis didn’t know how much time passed like that before she heard him move. She heard the sound of cloth, and the clicks and clacks and thunks of heavy pieces of metal being thrown together. She opened her eyes to see he’d stripped one of her pillows of its pillowcase, and was putting all the guns inside it. He kept his eyes down and said no more as he finished gathering them up and slung the pillowcase over his shoulder and walked out of her bedroom and out of her house.
She didn’t report what happened to the police, and didn’t tell her kids. The solicitous family visits began to taper down as summer wore into fall and nothing changed except the leaves. That Thanksgiving her preacher grandson, James, blessed the food and the hands that prepared it, and remembered to give thanks that the shadow had passed over Mavis and she was there to share the meal with them. They all said “Amen,” and a couple of the boys exchanged secret knowing glances.
Mavis paid them no mind as the plates were passed around. It was for the best that they didn’t know, she thought. What happened that night months ago was between her and the boy and God. She never replaced any of the guns he took, and never saw the boy again.
Scott Cannon returned to writing two years ago, having learned nothing from a forty-year sabbatical to study life as a warehouseman, a printer, a brick mason’s helper, an art store proprietor and, for thirty years, an attorney. This is his fourth published work of fiction, to be followed early this year by two more stories accepted for publication in other magazines.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Payback”
In our opinion, good fiction combines humor and drama, as does this excellent piece by Scott Cannon. It gives you a lot to think about. Admittedly we had some reservations about publishing it at first because we weren’t sure we liked the idea of the guns she’d been given going back onto the streets. But then we realized that those guns were simply returning from whence they’d come. In any case, the author has told a good and unexpected story and at the same time added a good element of irony.