The kid I stand next to at the gun show and ask about pistols—which ones he likes, what he’d buy if he could, if he were 18—starts telling me about firecrackers. I’ve been watching him buzz all around the place, from table to table, picking up guns, putting them down, visibly annoying some of the vendors. He’s maybe 16, with a smattering of cystic acne along his jaw and neck, big red carbuncles that make me remember the almost suffocating embarrassment I felt over my own bad skin when I was his age. He wears baggy jeans and a yellow parka zipped up to the neck (an attempt to hide his bad skin, I think). His hair is down over his eyes, black, shiny, almost wet looking.
We’re at Expoland, a giant “for rent” warehouse a few miles from my home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, a place that hosts everything from quilting fairs and livestock auctions to Christian revivals. It’s 8 a.m. I walked here through the gray morning, over fields, along a gravel road, breathing mist. I don’t own guns and don’t plan to buy any. But I like to walk when it’s quiet; I’m curious; and there was a sign—Biggest Gun Show of the Year—so I paid five bucks to the old man in camouflage at the front door to see what exactly a gun show was like. The place, approximately the size of half a football field, with maybe 30- or 40-foot high ceilings, is nearly empty—20 or 30 vendors and maybe 15 men (all white) drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups and browsing. And then there’s this kid. His name is Sam.
I don’t know how he and I arrived at the firecracker story. There was no getting here, no one-idea-leading-to-the-next. He’s just talking because I asked him something and seemed willing to listen.
He says that, one time, when he was 10, his grandfather, who owns a farm near here, wouldn’t let him ride the four-wheelers that everybody else, everybody older, got to ride. He was too small, his grandfather said, and the four-wheeler would roll over on him in some far field, over some distant rise, and they’d find him broken or dead. All of his cousins and brothers were there on this day. It was the Fourth of July. It was a big party. A bonfire was blazing because they had a bunch of trash they needed to burn. Anyway, everybody was taking turns riding the four-wheelers, except him and his little baby cousin. He got “real, real mad, you know,” and he wanted to show his grandfather that he wasn’t any damn baby. So he took all of the firecrackers they were going to set off in a few hours after dinner, a whole “shitload of firecrackers”—maybe 100 different kinds—and he threw them, all of them, into the bonfire. They started shooting all over the place—up into the sky, and toward the house and the big barn, and out over the fields—and some of them shot straight out of the fire at face-level, like bullets or something. Everybody was ducking and screaming and “freaking the fuck out,” and he loved it, loved watching it, because it was so funny and because he’d gotten their attention. He was sorry that some hay in the barn caught fire, sure. And he was sorry that his older brother, Donald, beat him nearly senseless right there in the dirt and no one tried to stop it, but other than these minor things, this seems to be a fond memory for him, a defining personal myth.
His eyes are distant, drugged-looking.
“Do you have any guns?” I ask.
“Shit,” he says. “I got like four guns—two hunting rifles and two pistols. My brother’s here somewhere, and he’s going to buy another pistol, a Glock. Then he’ll probably give me one of his old guns for my birthday or something. People give me my guns. I’d like to have that gun—” he points to a $550 antique Smith & Wesson, “—but I ain’t got no $550.”
He sees his brother, a plump, blond guy with a goatee and wearing a football jersey, and walks away without saying anything, shrinking across the room like someone’s future nightmare.