“He wants a whaaat?” Mr Eliot said. Mr Eliot’s family had been in town since shortly after they filed off the Mayflower, but despite that had befriended the new family in town, even though they were suspiciously ethnic, and even, it must be said, Catholic.
But Mr Eliot prided himself on his ability to rise above the prejudices of his class and station, despite the fact that Mrs Eliot (who went to Wellesley, a fact that came up, fortuitously, sooner or later in each of her conversations) clung to hers. And that Kennedy fellow didn’t deliver us whole into the hands of the Pope, after all, did he? So one could invite Catholics to one’s Christmas Party, as long as they were the Right Sort. Just like one invited Dr Fischer, because “breeding” is a matter that’s not as related to bloodline as one might think.
“For Christmas. Extraordinary,” Mr Eliot continued, without giving the Right Sort of Catholic any chance to reply to his question — which was really an exclamation of surprise.
“Well, that was once something that was done,” he explained, “but nowadays, we’re suburban, not rural. A gun! Where would he use it?”
“His uncle has taken him shooting at the gravel pit, and of course there’s the municipal range in Big City,” the RSoC replied.
“I mean, it’s not like this is the wild west, you know,” Eliot said. “It’s not…” and one could almost see the steam coming from his ears as he cogitated about the geography of Indian Territory, which began somewhere along the Worcester — Paterson — Frederick line, and continued unbroken to Salinas and Bakersfield. “It’s not Wyoming.”
“Well, that’s what he wants. A .22 rifle. I suppose I can get it at Sears.”
Mrs Eliot could hold her tongue no more.
“Guns! They’re nothing but trouble. Murders, and robberies, and killings, and assassinations, all because of guns.”
“Mother, please — ”
(If it seems peculiar to you to call your wife Mother, we bet you didn’t come on the Mayflower. The rich are not like us, at least not the anciens riches).
“Surely, sir, you don’t like guns.” Her automatic volume control had apparently failed, and the others at the party all stopped their own conversations to look.
“Well, I don’t, particularly, but my son has asked for…”
“Well, you can’t just give him what he wants. You have a responsibility to uplift him. A gun will set him on the wrong track. It will change him. It will make of him a slayer of cats and birds, and a smasher of telephone-line insulators, and — ”
She didn’t stop, but people seemed to tune her out. Both Mr Eliot and his guest looked dismayed, and the host gave his guest an apologetic look and led his still-fulminating wife off to the side.
“It will change him!” she repeated in a near shout, over her shoulder. “It will change him forever.”
It took some time, but the susurrus of neighbors exchanging pleasantries and enjoying the holiday season gradually filled the room again. The host couple were still having a heated discussion, but everyone was trying to avoid being seen ignoring them too obviously.
The guest who precipitated the whole thing was, fairly or not, in a similar bubble of social invisibility for a time. Indeed, he was calculating whether enough of a decent interval had passed as to allow him to leave, when another guest approached him. The man was unknown to him, but he was dressed in chinos and a tweed sportcoat, one that did not come off the rack fitting him like it did. He was clean-shaven with Brylcreemed salt-and-pepper hair. He looked distinguished, and something about him seemed… trustworthy. Solid.
“So your kid wants a gun.”
The man nodded glumly. This was supposed to be a Christmas party — not an interrogation. He wanted to change the subject, but as the new guy, he didn’t dare. His wife, at least, seemed to be having a good time.
“Well, I’m a bit of a hunter.” It was a small understatement — the man had bagged the Big Five, which neither Mr Eliot nor the other guest had ever heard of, and he wasn’t the sort of man to boast about it, anyway. If you came to his home, his trophies would do the talking. “Does he know what kind of gun he wants?”
The man was relieved. This wasn’t an extension of the Two Minutes’ Hate.
“I don’t know. He showed me an ad for something called a Ruger. I couldn’t find it at Sears.”
“The Ruger 10/22. Not what I’d give a kid for his first gun — I’d start him with a bolt action or even a single-shot, if it was me, but today’s kids don’t have the patience we did. And I’ll tell you what — don’t go to Sears. Sears is great for a box of shells, but let me give you some advice.” The distinguished man drew out a very slender billfold and slipped a business card over, turning it over before the father could see what it said, and wrote in precise, careful block letters.
“Go to this place. You’ve probably seen it on Route 9. See this guy and tell him I sent you. Tell him what you want it for, and he’ll steer you right. And you might pay $2 more than you would at Sears, but you’ll know it’ll be the right gift for your boy, and if that’s not worth $2, what is?”
The guest murmured his thanks. On the card was written
The Gun Room
Tell him I sent you!
The man smiled, and caught someone’s eye across the room, and then he was gone.
At this time, Mr Eliot came back.
“Sorry about that. She gets like this sometimes. What did the Judge have to say?”
Judge! He didn’t say he was a judge. He probably thought I knew him. “I think he just gave me a very valuable tip,” the man said.
He turned over the card.
Hon. Elbridge G. Pickerell
Judge, Superior Court
Col, USAR (Ret.).
As it happened, the guest’s wife was having such a good time they stayed at the party another hour and a half, taking care not to be the first nor one of the last to leave. At some point, Mrs Eliot apologized to him, very graciously, and he tried to be half as gracious in his response. And they were, indeed, invited back, where for years he’d enjoy, among other things, the judge’s stories of African safaris and amusing occurrences in courtrooms military and civil (if anything happened of greater consequence that a good laugh in his courtroom, Judge Pickerell certainly never told the story).
And a teenage boy had what he called, “The Best Christmas! Ever!” a few days after that.
He never did commit the “murders, and robberies, and killings, and assassinations!” that so concerned Mrs Eliot, but she was right about one thing.
It did change him. Forever.
Merry Christmas from our family to yours.
This post has been edited. Some lines inadvertently deleted from the description of Judge Pickerell’s hunting career have been restored, and one typo has been fixed. We regret the error. –Ed.
Er, another typo has been fixed. Keep those cards and letters coming, fans. –Ed.