by Jon the Semite
My car was the only one in the little gravel lot. I hadn’t passed another driver all afternoon, and there were only fifty or so miles to my next stop, a campsite on the Tennessee river, just about where the state’s border meets Mississippi’s and Alabama’s. I was driving cross-country, covering only a couple hundred miles a day, seeing what I could see. Unsure how I’d ended up on these backroads, I was happy enough with the chance to stop by this little antique store in the middle of the woods. It was a simple stone structure, probably older than emancipation, with thick walls and tall cast-iron windows. Behind it, two wood barns lay dying in a sea of Sun and tall grass, red walls chipping and buckling as if only their paint had kept them standing so long.
I pushed through the store’s iron door, into a forest of rust and dust growing on cash registers, a bowl of keys to extinct Americans—Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Plymouths—and racist wood carvings of nondenominable indigenous men. I nearly jumped when I found, in the very back corner of the store, hidden behind the rows of shelves, a large old man hunched over a desktop computer. I said “Hello,” and garnering no reaction, repeated the word, nearly shouting. He did not respond. Guessing he was deaf, I gave up, and continued to tour the single room. In the adjacent corner, I entered a section devoted to farm tools: hoes, machetes, spades. My TV-brain concocted a scenario in which this old man would lock the door behind his visitors and wait for them to choose a weapon before beginning some sadistic game. This thought was easy enough to brush aside until the man stood, and began his slow march to the front door, carrying a keychain.
Still unsure if he knew I was there, I watched him through the shelves. Holding my breath, I heard only his steps, the creaking of boards beneath them, and the jingling of his keys. He reached the door, and opened it. How stupid was I, hiding behind these crumbling plows? He was probably calling it a day, going home to take a shit in a building with air conditioning.
I ran, but it was too late. The door was locked behind him, and he couldn’t hear me banging on the windows. I tried kicking the door, even pulling the knob with both feet on the wall, like a cartoon character. The windows were unopenable, just glass interruptions in the wall. I momentarily considered breaking one, but the iron muntins would have caged me, anyway. There was no back door, no fire escape.
The only window which opened was beside the man’s desk, but because the building sat on a hill, this window overlooked a full-story drop. I searched for a ladder or rope, but found nothing of use amongst the jaundiced War Bond posters and Ronald Reagan’s cigarette ads. After nearly an hour, the prospect of sleeping on the floor of this shop, while preferable to being hacked to death with a rusty sickle, was becoming more distressing and more likely. I could have called the police, but my intuition warned me against this course of action. My story didn’t seem plausible, and I didn’t want my face in the local news. Maybe my TV-brain was still in the pilot’s seat.
It must have been, because I soon found myself standing on the shopkeeper’s desk, prying open his enormous window. Shaking a little, I slid my legs over the sill, and lowered myself until my legs dangled out against the stone wall. One glance down convinced me to pull myself back in, but when I looked up, I noticed, for the first time, the double-barreled shotgun leaning against the desk. In a way, it was probably an antique, but so was this building, and so was the shopkeeper. They were no less real, and the shotgun, unlike everything else, was spotless.
In perhaps my one moment of clarity that day, I realized the situation probably looked more like a burglary than an escape, and I figured this was more or less the purpose of the gun. I took my chances with gravity, and peeled out of the gravel driveway with a twisted ankle on my gas pedal and a bruised elbow hanging out my open window.
(Title inspired by Spike Milligan's Mussolini: His Part in my Downfall, first published in 1978.)
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