We strapped the safe to the dolly with heavy-duty canvas straps. The tension was drum-tight; we couldn’t take any chances. Tilting it back on the two wheels was a delicate operation requiring great strength and balance. We grunted and groaned pushing it over the threshold of the store door. At over a thousand pounds of steel and concrete, a gun safe was the heaviest object I’d ever moved without a motor. It could crush me.
Each time we loaded a safe into the back of the van, I thought the tailgate would bottom out, but the Astro van’s suspension handled the weight. It was a beat-up piece of shit, but it always did its job. I figured we were putting five years of age on that motor every time we lugged that cargo, but it never failed us. We pulled out onto Indian Trail Road under a fall-gray Georgia sky. We were headed to DeKalb County, a section of sprawl to the south.
My coworker, Harold, was about six-three and three hundred pounds, if he was an ounce. He was a survivalist, a motorcycle rider, and an engineer permanently between contracts. He’d completed a bridge-building project and never looked back. He loved guns and he loved working for Bernie, who paid us under the table to avoid the illegal taxation placed on us by an international banking cabal. Or something. Harold didn’t give a fuck. I wanted to be like Harold.
Harold wore camouflage overalls every day and told me tales of his cabin in the woods. He hunted deer from his back porch. He’d shoot them with his .45 pistol and a laser sight. He ate a lot of squirrel, too, which he harvested with a .210 shotgun. He said his closest neighbor was five miles away. He didn’t care if I smoked in the van, but said that Bernie would kick my ass if he smelled it. According to legend, Bernie had been part of some elite killing squad in the Philippine Army, so I smoked at lunch only.
I felt I was too good for the job. I was a writer. I wanted to be a writer. I was ready to write anything, but I never wrote. I thought about writing while I was drinking. I’d only tell people I wanted to be a writer if I got really drunk and morose over my career path. It was my deepest secret. I’d get high on the idea of writing, drunk on the idea of language, but drunker on the whiskey. Yet, how could I ever say that I was a writer? That would open up all sorts of questions about what I wrote, why I wrote, if I was published. I had no answers for those questions. I couldn’t handle the truths they revealed, so I stuffed it all deep in the darkest places.
Late at night, I’d think I was Hemingway after scrawling a few illegible, shitfaced paragraphs into a notebook with one eye closed. I’d written one short story, which a friend compared to Raymond Carver. Of course, most of his notes indicated that the story was light-years from competent, but still, he evoked the image of Carver and, on that basis, I knew I was a natural. My books would come out of me any day, whole and all at once. Just not today.
″Motherfucker,″ Harold said, jamming down on the brakes. A muddy Ford hatchback cut in front of our van. I’m not one for physics, but our payload gave us a force of momentum that I doubted the brake system was designed for. Yet the trusty van defied the laws of motion and slowed with plenty of distance between us and the errant auto. Harold mashed his fist down on the horn. A guy in the backseat of the Ford flipped us off.
″Check this out,” Harold said. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a .45 revolver. He pointed it at the car ahead of us, the chrome barrel shone in the gray day. ″Fucking put a hole in their goddamn engine block right here on I-85. Bullet’ll melt to nothing. Totally untraceable.” I took his word for it. Though I don’t subscribe to the tenets of pacifism, neither do I know anything about guns or bullets or their velocity relative to caliber.
I consider myself a lifelong liberal, despite a youthful dalliance as a Reagan supporter. At some point, the macho sheen of Georgia republicanism wore thin and I saw through much of what society had to offer. I largely credit Mad magazine for my social awareness and awkwardness. I was always outspoken in school when I witnessed injustice, and when I went to a Quaker college, my bleeding-heart liberalism became etched in stone.
As a gun-safe delivery guy, I justified my existence by telling myself that I was keeping people safe. If the guns were in a secured spot, they couldn’t be stolen. A curious child, who otherwise might be unaware that the AK-47 assault rifle he found still had a round in the chamber, would be protected. I hoped that the complex locking mechanism would slow down a drunk, angry man long enough to give him pause before pulling an Uzi or a Glock or a Walther PPK on his wife. If a suicidal person had to remember her child’s birthday in order to open the combination, would that be enough to stop her from ending it in the bathtub? I hoped so.
At the end of the day, though, I knew I was doing nothing but reinforcing a notion that storing a large cache of weapons in a suburban dwelling was acceptable behavior. We were all involved in a mass delusion, sharing the mistaken idea that tools of violence could be contained and rendered benign. Guns may not kill people, but when their crazed, ignorant, and enraged owners have access to them, they don’t hurt the cause. Through my education and subsequent philosophical investigations, I had become convinced that truths were destined to be free. No container of lies could keep truth from escaping. I surmised that a bullet contained the same sort of energy. Its violence was fated to be released, no matter how weighty its container. In a heavily populated area such as a house or a subdivision or a shopping mall, that sort of truth was liable to take an innocent life.
Harold didn’t shoot the hatchback’s engine. We pulled into the client’s subdivision. Everything in the Atlanta sprawl is subdivided from everything else. It’s the culture. This particular residential cluster was older, constructed in the 1960s, a bit frayed by the time Harold and I arrived in 2004. Split-level ranch homes with shabby roofs and unkempt yards sat across cul-de-sacs from single-level ranch homes. Some split-levels were horizontally divided, others vertically so. We drove over a small bridge traversing a tributary of the Chattahoochee River. I imagined neighborhood children toxifying their bodies in dammed-up pools full of runoff from the four-lane road that served the neighborhood. The client’s yard was knee-high in weeds, and his driveway was cracked. The house was an anomalous bungalow-style, a starter home for an up-and-coming small family.
“Who’s there?” the client said from behind the door. There was an odor.
“We’re from Bernie’s,” Harold said. “Got your safe.”
“I’ll meet you in the garage.” I heard the whir and clang of an old electric garage door.
I opened the rear of the van and began pulling out the ramp and other tools we needed to move the behemoth into the man’s house. Harold met him in the garage with the invoices and product literature. I set things up to pull the safe from the van. This was the most vital part of my job, apart from keeping Harold company.
It was easy to see that the customer lived there alone. An aging sports car sat in the garage next to an empty space whose oil marks told of a car now long gone. There was a workout bench coated with a fine layer of dust. A tower of empty pizza boxes sat in the corner. He was one of those avid workout types—his outsized arms told me he’d used steroids at some point—but his ropy muscles were offset by a prodigious beer belly. His skin was washed out and blotchy.
He laughed at me pushing against the safe. I couldn’t make it budge. He wheezed the wheeze of a smoker whose lungs had endured abuse for years. In a sympathetic act, I coughed up a quarter-sized blob of phlegm, then swallowed it back down as I always did.
He pinched my bony shoulder. “You need more ass, boy.”
I needed to be bigger, stronger, more of a man. Harold laughed.
His old safe was full. He opened it to show off a collection of semi-automatic rifles, combat shotguns, and endless handguns. It all spilled out when the door opened. Since I’ve always looked younger than my years, he thought I’d be impressed with his M-16. He held it up for me to touch. I smiled and said it was cool. I didn’t have the guts to call him a deluded fascist with a weak sense of manhood. He was a customer. Besides, Bernie’d kick my ass.
He was an Atlanta police officer out on disability. Before the accident, he’d been on some elite cop squad. He wrecked a police motorcycle, so now he was arming himself against an unseen enemy. Crime was everywhere, he told us. Gangbangers knew who he was. They used to fear him. His best truth was in those guns and ammunition, in explosive force. Harold and I installed a container to hold it all; his was the sort of truth that was too dangerous and destructive out in the open.
The cop had been wounded and rendered incapable of performing his sworn duty, a duty he’d sworn to the City of Atlanta—and, I assume, to himself—to uphold. A cop without a beat. Not so unlike a writer without a story. He could only fantasize how he’d realize his deepest desire: to fire those weapons in a glorious blaze of noise and carnage.
I was too chickenshit to sit down and write. Would my wounds spill onto the page, leaving me exposed and vulnerable? Would my writing suck and be unreadable? I kept it all locked tight to keep myself safe from the ugliness that smoldered in the dark. In there, in that place, I was whatever I wanted to be. My imagined, unjust failures earned me as many drinks as my deserved successes. Either way, I won the battle. I lived to drink another day.
We installed the safe, Harold and I. We got lunch at the Waffle House. Harold flirted with some tailer-park hottie, and I did a crossword puzzle. I looked up and smiled when the purple-lidded, lip-glossy woman said I was cute and quiet. I asked for more coffee. I smoked in the parking lot until Harold came out beaming; he had her phone number. He said Bernie called. We had to bust ass back to the shop. There was another safe to deliver.
Rumpus original art by Xavier Almeida.