01: Retriever

Story 014,884 words

Published by Plotter

Stephen Kearse

The first time a citizen teased that my surname, emblazoned on my uniform, is shared by the former Senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State, a gun was wedged into my name plate. I froze. I was fresh out of the academy and thoroughly bored with the field. I knew that in its inaugural years the Federal Gun Retrieval Agency was a quagmire of misery, but that was the past, when mass shootings outnumbered hurricanes and measles outbreaks, when NRA militias battled the National Guard in streets and supermarkets, when guns smuggled from North Carolina were used in Boston shootouts. The Agency was more despised than the IRS back then. My manager, a survivor of that era, claims we used to get 14 death threats per employee, per day. And that’s not counting the bullet-belted gunners that would stand at attention at the perimeter of the parking lot six days a week, or the recurring doxxings. I often suspect it was even worse than she lets on.

My experience was paperwork and economy flights, gnat-ridden small-town diners and frigid high-security storage lockers. My future, as I envisioned it, was to tour the heartland and cultivate a robust muffin top, to accumulate idleness in my thighs and decisively migrate it to my obliques, fusing them into a superstructure. But suddenly, in the doorway of a Seattle bungalow, the past returned. Maybe it never left.

I knew my uniform, a bulletproof skinsuit comprised of heavy-duty aramids, offered solid protection—barring bruises—but the woman’s contempt rattled me. The Agency does not provide weapons or train agents to use them. Retrievers are trained to disarm, disassemble, and discuss. In four months, I had only done the latter. That day, I had to contemplate survival. As the gun pressed into my chest, I visualized the wooden wing chun dummy I trained with, its grooves eroded by the force of my thrusts, its stiff limbs displaced by the force of my strikes. I couldn’t die there.

I still remember the way my body spilled of entropy as my eyes drifted from the opaque weapon to the pale, bony arm that held it, steadying myself to break the appendage in one motion. Green as all hell, I had left my helmet in the car, so the margin of error was slim. One inch off and I could lose an ear or an eye. Or worse. It was surreal to acknowledge that my life might hinge on one decision. Despite my occupation, I had never considered that possibility. But before I committed to thrusting my palm into her elbow, I inspected the face of my attacker. Pearl white teeth peeked from thin, upturned lips. She was smiling.

“I wish you could see your face,” she said, before cackling and pointing the water gun at the ceiling, where it fizzed out a geyser of translucent bubbles. The real gun, a matte black 9mm Glock, was on her mantle in a locked gun box, I later learned. I didn’t laugh, but I stepped inside. She didn’t have any more surprises, but the next white girl to pull that stunt got her arm broken.

I’ve been on the job for over a year now, and Marcella Brixton, a white woman, and resident of Grapevine, does not strike me as a prankster. Still, the fruit hangs too low to go unplucked. “They always said Clinton would come for our guns,” she says dryly.

“They were right!” I reply with a grin, shaking her hand. “Call me Laurie.”

When fellow retrievers ask me why I do not modify my name tag, I cite interactions like this one. It may have been a rightwing smear during the 2016 election cycle, but there was a kernel of truth in the conspiracy that the late Senator sought to disarm the country. The citizenry wanted Clinton to take their guns. Someone needed to. The joke just lubricates the exchange, turning social filler into social substrate.

For my younger brother, Cayenne, the go-to gag when we were growing up was that he had to love spicy foods. He didn’t, and was disgusted by the sweltering rivulets of sweat and mucus that our mother’s chili would induce (to this day he showers after particularly piquant meals). But the joke was told so often and enforced so dutifully by a corps of aunts and uncles and daredevil friends that he built up an ironclad tolerance to heat. He now likes to nibble on Carolina reapers and Trinidadian scorpions, but I don’t think he ever had a choice. Our prodding made it true.

The truth, that guns kill people, is precisely what has made my encounter with Marcella possible. I’m an agent of the 28th Amendment, the abolition of the 2nd. If it sounds sanctimonious to trace my authority to a decade-old government document that I have never read rather than my employee handbook, it’s only because I value my life. Marcella feels like a kindred spirit.

I keep my helmet on as she invites me into her home. I’m seated in a cozy kitchen filled with unlit candles and framed photographs. The pictures occupy the counters in neat rows, like soldiers in formation. An AK-47 is vivisected on the dining table in front of me.

I remove my helmet.

“I was scared to let it go,” she says of the Kalashnikov.

“I understand,” I reply. “It has a grace that other assault rifles lack. I’ve never fired a gun, but this model apparently had one of the best user experiences on the market. Easy disassembly, low jamming rate, high firepower, manageable recoil.”

“I was never a gunner,” Marcella corrects me. “This is my son’s.”

I nod. I have no relationship to guns, so I speak of them as technology. Civilians experience them as totems. I often wonder who is more deluded.

“You’ve never fired a gun?” Marcella asks.

I nod again. She studies me, wrinkles blooming across her brow.

“During his service my son fell in love with guns. When he came back and was between jobs, I used to drive him to the range. I didn’t approve at first, but they gave him such relief. He loved to take them apart and clean them. He knew their distinct sounds, too.” Her eyes settle on the long, thick barrel. “It used to tickle me how he described them. Some guns would applaud, others would cry, this one…”

A tear falls onto the table. I’ve been taking inventory and appraising the weapon’s condition as she’s talked, and every part is here and in excellent condition. I don’t mention the unambiguous cinnabar flecks caked around the muzzle. “I can give you $15,000 for this, ma’am.” I wish I could offer more.

My motel room smells of rubbing alcohol and feet. I am the source of the rubbing alcohol. The dank odor of toes and integument is a feature of the room.

I’m cleaning the muzzle of the Kalashnikov with a cotton ball. The weapon should be in the trunk of my vehicle, but I brought it inside.

Before I retrieved it, I was watching a movie to pass the time. Like most action films these days, the flick, Dakota Sunset, had a strange conceit: a futuristic gun is smuggled into the country through Canada and multiple factions attempt to obtain it. The gun is obviously a MacGuffin, but it’s hard not to dwell on its features. Elongated and laced with slack wires, it looks like a fishing rod. Even stranger, it fires “radio bullets” that can move through walls. It was used in the opening scene and sounds like a light bulb shorting out. It made me wonder what the AK sounds like, a curiosity that wasn’t sated by online videos of it being fired in war zones.

It violated protocol to handle the device before delivering it to storage, but I couldn’t shake Marcella’s words. No one had ever inquired about my relationship to guns. They were usually too focused on the payoff or the impropriety of my presence. And after being stalked for a week in Memphis by a militia that shouted “Don’t tread!” as I made my rounds, and having a rental car pelted with paintballs in Eugene, Oregon, I tended to focus on my exit. Speaking with Marcella made me realize my relationship with guns was abstract. I decided I needed to fully reckon with what these machines do, to hear the weapon’s timbre with my own ears, its violence unmediated, its allure unblemished.

I left my room and assembled the gun in the parking lot, my hands surging with warmth as the device’s parts crunched into a single mass. There was a rhythm to the assembly: pop, swivel, click, lock. I posed and aimed into the sky, my index finger flirting with the trigger. It was quiet out. Sedans and pickup trucks and crickets were my only company, the sky vast and freckled with stars. Just one quick volley and my cherry would be popped. A single squeeze. Just one.

The butt of the gun pressed into my shoulder impatiently as I stood in place for who knows how long. I shifted my feet. I massaged the trigger guard.

Eventually, I lowered the gun and laughed into the light-polluted sky. I was the absurd boogeyman the wingnuts used to invoke. I had watched a movie then went and got a gun.

The blood forms a rusty film around the cotton ball.

The empty highway yawns ahead. I see the potholes yards before I meet them, but do not attempt to dodge. If the government can pay for guns, it can pay for a rental car.

I turn onto an off ramp then merge onto a dusty thoroughfare where traffic picks up. The strip malls are infinite and indistinct: knife emporia, paintball compounds, Tex-Mex, titty bars. In Texas, you always know you’re in Texas.

The Houston residence I’m visiting today is a shotgun house, a term that shamelessly endures. Retrievers fall into two camps regarding its persistence: 1) culture changes slowly and 2) guns are American culture. I’m partial to group one, but I honestly can’t discern the distinction.

To my knowledge, Malachi Orenthal does not own a shotgun. The weapon he will be returning is an FN-15, the star or co-star of virtually every mass shooting with over 15 casualties until 2023, when the 28th passed. Like all guns it’s no longer available commercially, but they continue to emerge from the crags and crevices of the country, and the Agency sends us to retrieve them. Each assignment feels like it could be my last.

Malachi opens the door as I approach and requests ID. I pass him my badge and linger at the bottom of his stairway.

“Clinton,” he says flatly after studying it for a spell. I’m welcomed in.

The frail wooden steps gasp and wheeze as I ascend. I cannot determine how Malachi feels about the former senator, but I remove my helmet once I see his weapon splayed on the living room floor. He leaves the door open. There is no breeze.

“A fine sister comes over to take my gun and deliver my check!” Malachi says as I stoop down to examine the device. “Never would’ve thought reparations looked like this!”

I blush. I don’t like to talk politics with strangers. More importantly, I’m not allowed to, as the Agency is supposed to be nonpartisan. It feels impolite to not accept the compliment though.

“If this were true reparations, you’d be receiving a bigger gun,” I say. A baritone chuckle erupts from his thick frame, filling the room with a cozy dark joy. When your existence is a catastrophe, jubilation becomes a delicacy. We engorge. I wish all my retrievals could feel this warm, this welcoming.

I pick up the stock, which is heavier than I expected.

“It was modded when I got it,” Malachi explains, reacting to my face.

Modified guns are more dangerous and thus net higher government reimbursements. It’s one of the Agency’s most controversial policies—and, case in point, one of its most effective. Our payouts have so thoroughly disrupted the once expansive illegal gun market that some parties argue we are violating the 28th. In America a functioning constitution is a constitutional crisis.

My fingers surf the cold machine. The paint is chipped, the grip worn; this weapon has been loved. “DADDYS LITTLE ANGEL” is engraved on its side. I finger the grooves of the embossment and relief surges through me. Hauls like this are why the Agency exists.

“That was there when I got it,” Malachi says.  “Texas born and raised, and I never wanted one. Just wasn’t my style. But there was a shooting at the big department store that used to be out in Alief. I heard shots, so I hid in the home goods section under a bunch of comforters, three aisles away from the gunner. Nearly pissed myself.” He pauses.

“I did piss myself. This fool had a ’K and hundreds of rounds. Sounded like a glitched-out sprinkler—tchk, tchk, tchk, tchk.”

I’m intrigued by his description for all the wrong reasons.

He continues. “After an eternity I heard the shots stop and I got up to run out and a fucking cop shot me.” He strokes his knee and produces a sly smile.

He’s told this story before. The kicker is evergreen: “The gunner was white."

I laugh. In my brief tenure I’ve heard some form of this setup and punch across all lines: party, state, ideological. In every imaginable accent and dialect. All walks of life. Black lawyers, Latinx school teachers, Choctaw construction workers. Kenyan accountants, Cambodian sous chefs, Filipinx student athletes. Every gun has a story; every story has a white man, or boy. White men all the way down, Cayenne likes to riff. Over time it’s become hilarious. It’s had to.

Malachi points at the street out front, where a group of girls on bicycles loiters in the street. Ornate knife sheaths hang precariously from their waists, the designs of the sheaths matching their sneakers. Culture finds a way.

“Same day, went out there and bought this.” He probably paid a few hundred dollars for it. Today it will net him $25,000. He’s likely never used it, but he’s kept it all this time, through elections and legislatures and massacres, an enhanced assault rifle stowed in a shotgun house, accruing value, feeding off its owner’s trauma. I wish I could offer more.

“Is there a memorial?” I ask.

“Which side of town you staying on?” he asks.

“Jacinto City.”

“Oh, don’t go all the way to Alief, then. Jacinto’s got plenty.”

A roach darts across the television screen of my motel room. Lodging this cheap is precisely where roaches are spawned. If I kill this one, the universe will instantly replace it. Nature abhors a black woman at ease.

I ignore it and call Cayenne. He answers quickly.

“What it do?” he says. I mute the television.

“I’m chilling, trying not to think about how many bunkmates I have.”

“Damn, they got you at the Roach Inn and Suites again?”

“You know it.”

He laughs. “What was the haul today?”

“Modded F and N.”

He whistles like his husband just came out the shower, abs gleaming, skin glowing. I recognize it because I invented it. Vincent is fine.

“I can’t believe you guys work without partners. Is that ever going to change?”

“Don’t hold your breath. Recruitment is shit, and the optics are shittier. Top brass says we’re in the endgame, so we have to be extra strategic. The holdouts haven’t forgiven us for existing.” The TV displays the reddened face of a blowhard denying climate change despite a nationwide drought. “They probably never will.”

“Did they at least give you some nice wheels this time?”

“Kinda. Rides smooth, but the AC’s busted. I’ve driven worse. You know—” He sighs, sensing that I’m about to share some grim Retriever lore. He knows me well. I explain that before we rented cars, which still can be a nuisance when our cover is blown by trolls or teenagers, we drove marked cars. The graffiti and slashed tires were tolerable; the bombings, not so much.

“Laurie, you gotta get out of there,” Cayenne concludes.

“I know. But I like it. I’m doing good work, seeing the country. And there’s talk of hazard pay at some point.”

Cayenne laughs. “The day y’all get hazard pay, I’ll rub ghost peppers on my nipples.”

“We both know you’ve done that before.”

Gus van Frank has bed bugs. He tells me this five minutes after my ass has sunken into the couch of his Waco bunker, but I do not take offense. All things considered, the noxious combo of bug spray and instant coffee could be worse. Most bunkers smell like motel rooms. And most motels give zero fucks about pest control.

“Is this everything you will be trading in?” I ask. Though I want to scold him for not following protocol and having all his weapons ready and disassembled, with this many weapons I doubt he even has the space. Plus, white men always take instructions as suggestions. It’s their right, really.

“I’d prefer not to answer that,” he says as he fondles a small Kimber pistol. Another violation of protocol, but it seems to put him at ease. My discomfort is not a factor.

Like most preppers, Gus saw the passage of the 28th as an affront to his liberty, an insult to his way of life—so now guns are his life. During the two-month period in which 40 of the 50 states ratified the Amendment (retrievers refer to this period as the Great Scattering), he emptied his retirement, refinanced his house, and amassed his arsenal. His doomsday hovel, which became his home after his main residence was foreclosed, sports guns of all sizes, firepower, and color. His inventory far surpasses what is listed in the Agency’s registry—another constitutional crisis—but I can handle this. Though crates of ammo surround us, when it comes down to it, he can only use one gun at a time.

As he’s ranted about freedom and socialism and faulty air filters my eyes have repeatedly drifted toward the Mossberg rainbow that lines the wall of the room. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, black, brown, pink, baby blue. I do not think customized shotguns play a large part in the LGBQTIA community’s collective goals, but Gus is a confederate to all.

Well, everyone except the Agency. He made this appointment—he had to—but of course, that only exacerbated his fear of us. In his online vlog series, To the Republic, Gus spins the Agency as the ultimate government encroachment. In his view we are Clinton’s buccaneers, Obama’s death squads, ATF desperados, Spanish telemarketers, Mexicans (all of them), FBI Mindhunters, CIA black operatives, Black Panthers, a pale white horse, the reptilian agenda, and, my personal favorite, gay. I wish I could explain to him how exaggerated we know our impact to be, how invasive we feel entering homes and conjuring trauma and fear. Like vampires, we must be invited in—we don’t seize, we retrieve, as one Agency ad used to say—but that is a polite fiction. We are the law. And we don’t just enforce it, we implant it, insisting on a transmogrification within the transaction, an alchemical conversion of an intimate appendage into a foreign body.

“I can tell you about the process, but the process is fixed,” I say. I remove my helmet as a gesture of supplication.

He places the Kimber on the couch. “What do you do with the guns after you buy them?” he asks. It feels like he’s inquiring what the pound does with unclaimed pets.

“First, we check their serials for any pending claims or open criminal cases. Then, depending on their condition and status, we sell them to the military or private industry, strip them for parts and recycle the metal and plastic. Most end up destroyed.”

“You admit it,” he says as he rises and points an accusatory finger, “The FGRA is full-throttle Stalinism!”

I believe Stalin was more into mass murder than wonky bureaucracy, but Gus speaks with authority, so I do, too.

“The Agency is authorized by the Constitution to protect us from guns. All of us. Yes, there were some growing pains in the beginning, but mass shootings are so rare now that we’ve lowered the number of people it takes to count a shooting as mass.” This fact doesn’t seem to impress him at all. He remains standing.

I switch gears, thinking of another bunker dweller I once interacted with, a Wall Street banker turned anarchist. “Wealth has been raised across all demographics because guns are liquid assets. Gun smuggling is up, but we’ve cut into the base.” Again, nothing. I guess that chick was a bit of a unicorn. Great skin, too, considering she lived underground. Maybe what I thought was a sensory deprivation chamber was actually a tanning bed. Hard to know when the lights in these bunkers are so dim to save power.

Gus sits down and glowers as my words seep into the still room. He’s not wrong about the air filters. It feels like I’m huffing car exhaust. Coughs ping pong between us as we settle into silence, my hands trembling in my lap. I can feel this space reject me, the guns around us watching me, refracting Gus’s gaze, an unblinking argus.

The power needs of the average prepper burrow occupy my thoughts for a spell, but eventually, I fold. My inner bureaucrat can’t allow such blatant partisanship in public. “Did you hear about that stabbing spree in Tulsa a couple months ago?” I ask. Gus shakes his head no. “That’s fair, they barely make the news anymore. Well, I was in town in the middle of it, and it was scary. The culprit wasn’t actually stabbing people. He was throwing knives and then removing them from his targets. He got caught because when he went in to retrieve the weapon from his last victim, he couldn’t remove it cleanly, and someone downed him with a brick. We can’t stop people from being crazy, but imagine if he had had a gun.”

Gus smirks. “He wouldn’t have been the only one.”

Gus elaborates, but I don’t hear him. I’m more attuned to our bodies: his taut, varicose forehead and my throbbing temple; his oblong trigger finger now kissing his Kimber and my chapped, empty hands gripping my thighs. This is the job. Imminent danger deformed into bewitched courtesy. I can imagine viewers on Gus’s livestream, which I’m undoubtedly on, crowing for some action, begging me to break protocol, pleading for him to rescind the 28th one retriever at a time. I hear constitutional watchdogs monitor these streams alongside the truthers, but it’s a mystery whose rights they support and I’d rather not find out. I should go. Now.

I equip my helmet and rise to leave. “Story time over already?” Gus mocks. He sounds riled up.

I ignore him, but on my way out I find myself in front of the rainbow, surveying the variegated weapons and imagining the ideologies they will sustain, the fears they will abate, the cavities they will excavate.

“This is what freedom looks like,” Gus says. I don’t know if he’s talking to me, his audience, or just muttering to himself in the dark.

In a distant recess of my brain, I’m almost convinced. Perhaps these weapons will never be loaded and fired into some supermarket or congregation or sister-in-law. Perhaps they really are just machines and gunners can use them responsibly to shoot skeet and cull the tide of coyotes creeping into cities.

“I refuse to be silenced by these carpetbagger thugs and their thirty pieces of silver,” Gus continues. I’ve been called a thug before, but carpetbagger rankles. I’m from Tennessee. No point in telling him that though. The space seems to amplify his lies.

I turn from the rainbow and eye the stairway, assuring myself that my retreat is tactical and not ideological. A twinge of regret and stubbornness averts my gaze back toward Gus. Perhaps just a few more minutes in my or some other retriever’s company, and his Kimber, which he’s gripping tighter, and hoisting upward, and—I grab the violet gun off the wall and slowly back up the stairs. While it is not exactly pointed at Gus and I don’t dare pump it to determine if it is loaded, the machine and I are a gravity well of power and potential, its will pulsing through me and into the surrounding space. It disturbs me how readymade this new dynamic is, how easily this synthesis of metal and power and fear converts my caution into Gus’s nightmare, Gus’s contempt into my sanctum. It also, I hate to admit, gives me a relief my bodysuit and helmet have never provided. Marcella was wrong: I do not need to fire a gun to comprehend its power, to fathom its menace. I just need to arrange a person on the other end of it.

Gus remains on the couch as I ascend, hands up, pistol dangling, but punditry does not elude him for long. Adopting his trademark To the Republic howl, he begins, “They always said…,” right as the bunker door slams shut.

I walk to my car briskly, unkempt weeds grazing my knees, fox squirrels scampering at my feet. The sun hammers into me, but after Gus I’m more receptive to Texas’s charms. I open the trunk to retrieve a gun box and begin dismantling the shotgun—then burst into laughter. The gun wasn’t loaded. But Gus owned so many he had no way of knowing. I lean onto the trunk’s maw and let the humor roll through me, a sticky haze of sweat condensing in my helmet. I remove it and place it next to the boxes with Marcella’s and Malachi’s guns. I’m struck by the congruity of the collection: helmet, gun boxes, guns, me. We’re all decanters of fear and danger, negotiators of order and chaos.

I feel solidarity with these objects, but also a distance. When Gus is raided and jailed, these tools will not wonder if they entrapped him. Gus pointed a gun at me, yes, and I acted in self-defense, yes. Yes. But “self-defense” fails to capture the dissonance of my experience, the peculiar delight of nearly killing a man and knowing he might kill me. It’s fascinating, really. Either of us could have died today and that would have had no bearing on tomorrow. I envy the shotgun’s detachment from consequences.

By the time Gus’s shotgun is sealed away and I’m back on the highway, headed to Austin to deposit my retrievals at the only Agency storage facility in the state (Texas, y’all), the dark irony of an unloaded weapon nearly erupting into a firefight has smoldered into a thick knot of anxiety. Cayenne is right. How long can I do this? Why do I do this?

The rental car’s air conditioning sputters but only produces an arid draft, not answers. I roll down the windows and the world rushes in, tractor trailers grumbling around me, billboards sneering from the sky proffering spiritual salvation and repeal of the 28th. I focus on the road, reminding myself that I’m making great time. It’s just 100 miles from Waco to Austin. I’ll be in a bed within four hours, maybe less. All I have to do is push along. For a while I succeed, but the car feels increasingly leaden and sluggish and mechanical. Like the Agency. Like me.

I exit the freeway and stop at a diner sown into an expanse of asphalt that feels like an extension of the road rather than a standalone lot. I walk in and seat myself at the counter, my entrance acknowledged by a diffuse burst of howdies. I order buttermilk biscuits and devour them like I’ve just endured a minimal budget flight. The ceiling fan blesses me with a breeze as I linger at the counter, the seats next to me filling and emptying repeatedly, their occupants gloriously unremarkable. Time rinsing over me, I bite into a biscuit that I do not recall ordering, hum a melody that I do not remember learning, smirk at the joke of a server who might not be telling a joke, who might be a projection, a wish.

She’s very real though, as am I, only I am scrutinizing nothing, suspecting no one, my focus confined to the sweetsour skim of buttermilk, honey and flour adhering to my tongue. This is America, miraculously. A dream dimension. A context-collapse collapse.

Wait, no.

This moment of peace isn’t a miracle, it’s by design. The 28th’s, the Agency’s, and also, I realize, mine. An embittered voice radiates from obscured speakers and floats over the chatter of the patrons, loud and resentful, but I ignore it, my fingers tapping the mystery tune against my nameplate, my gut warm and fluttering and full. I order more biscuits.

U.S. Library of Congress
Stephen Kearse is an author, reporter, and critic. He is the author of the novel In the Heat of the Light (Kindred Books, 2019). His essays, reviews, and reporting have been published in The Nation, Pitchfork, The New York Times, The Baffler, and The Atlantic, among other outlets. He lives in Washington D.C.

©2020 Stephen Kearseplotterstories at gmail dot comPublished by Plotter