f i c t i o n a l e x k e e g a n
sleeps now, naked, in a white room. In the morning, he will rise, dress and take up his chair. They will take down the front wall of his room and he will sit so he can look out at the Capitol.
When this all took off, one of the things John Dee asked for was this view of the White House. Then, when the guns started piling up, he said, “Please, can we take down the railings?” but they said they couldn’t. Instead, they said, they would build his white room higher, lift him up so he could see the growing pile, and behind it all, the pure white building. To meet John Dee now, you walk up fifty white wooden steps and the whole thing creaks.
John Dee sits in front of the White House. The Washington Post says he’s a bigger target than the President, but, unlike the president, he is unprotected. Anyone can come, that’s the deal, John Dee said, no exceptions; and he has made them agree, no searching, nothing, and no armed guards. If someone decides he’s John Dee’s killer, it’s OK, he told them, really, it’s OK.
As John Dee sleeps, I wait, writing in the book. I’m dressed in simple stuff; grey sweatshirt, grey pants, grey socks, just the way John will dress when he rises. John Dee knows I think I saw into his soul once but he tells me every day, “No, Jack, I am an ordinary American, that’s the point. That’s why we wear grey, why we do things simply.”
I understand this and I know it’s why we don’t allow cameras on the ever-growing trestles under the chair where John spends the day. And I know why John resists the calls for him to speak on television, why he refuses to talk to the NRA or the lobbies against private guns. He says all we have to do is be examples. He says all we have to do is be prepared to die.
Before this started, John Dee lived in Binghamton, NY. He had a business there refurbishing office furniture, using druggy ex-prisoners as help, jittery types, fly-triggers. So when he announced he was giving up guns, and putting a sign outside his house to say it was gun-free, the TV people came round. That was the first time John said, “It’s OK, America, if you need to, come kill me.” Within a week his wife had left him and gone to L. A.
I have the footage of that interview. I watch it a lot. Dee says “America, if you need to, come kill me, “ and this reporter guy, he tries to snigger to camera, like you might when some kook says he’s Jesus Christ.
“No, really, “ John Dee says, and he goes inside, comes out with a chair and sits down. He smiles at the reporter. Then he says, “Maybe you could set up cameras, get yourself a scoop?”
When you look at the video you just know that John Dee is real. It’s the quiet way he speaks, the utter calm in his face. Looking from here, it’s as if he knew that if someone just stopped and started swimming the other way, all this was bound to happen.
The reporter eventually went away. I guess footage of a man sitting on a chair in his yard wasn’t considered great television then. John Dee just sat there until it got cold, then went inside.
In the morning, when John Dee came out, a man was there with a gun. John Dee smiled and sat down in his chair. He asked the man had he seen the sign, didn’t he know John Dee would have nothing to do with guns? The man said he knew that. He said Dee was one dumb mother-fucker and the NRA was already taking bets on whether he’d live a week.
“And will I?” John Dee said.
There isn’t film, but I know from John Dee what happened then. This guy lifted his arm and John Dee was looking the wrong way at a piece. Maybe he was scared, but he smiled and told the man it was OK. The man was there for America, wasn’t he? And John Dee had already told America that it could kill him if it needed to.
The man was skinny, jumpy. It turned out he had a history of mental stuff and shouldn’t have been able to get a gun. He jerked down the path to John Dee, stuck the gun to Dee’s temple and twitched, “You–You dumb. You dumb!”
This guy shook, locked, shook, the gun still pointing, but John Dee stayed perfectly still, accepting, passive, until the man stopped shaking, then like in some slow ballet, like some bird-dance unfolding at a frame a second, Dee moved his head, the man moved his, they looked at each other, and then the man gave up his gun. John Dee put it on the floor.
That was how it started, a skinny would-be killer with the shakes and John Dee who told him it was OK, really, it was OK. That afternoon an old man brought his . 22 to the yard. He told John Dee that if he ever used it, he’d miss anyway, so he put it down by John Dee’s chair. Then a black woman brought a gun she had stolen from her son’s room. “Bless you, “ she said, “I hope you don’t get hurt too bad, “ then a squad car came and John Dee was taken in. Then they let him go, and he went back to his yard.
The next morning a small pile of guns was laid at John Dee’s gate and the police came again and took them away. A crowd had gathered and the reporter was back. Then the police told John Dee he was attracting the wrong types and that if he was to continue his sit-out, he should do it in a prescribed place.
That afternoon, someone drove by – some say it was kids, three black, one white, some say it was a car sent by one of the gangs – and they sprayed John Dee’s yard with bullets. The camera shows John Dee flinching at the first bang but then he begins to smile. The camera shakes, wobbles, and falls away, like a Vietnam newsreel but then it comes back up. It shows broken windows, and a little of John Dee’s chair which is splintered. Dee is still smiling. Then someone in the slowly recovering crowd shouts, “Hallelujah!” and tosses a small white hand-gun into the yard. There is applause.
The camera pans the crowd and then goes back to John Dee. A smidgeon of blood is on the back of both his hands and from nowhere, a medic appears, but John Dee waves him away politely. The medic is all-American, tall, blond, no more than twenty-five. He looks at John Dee’s face, lit by the low afternoon sun, pauses, then shakes his head and turns away. But as he leaves the yard he turns again, looks at John Dee and raises his white arm in a quiet salute. A helicopter chatters overhead.
The next day there were more guns, and the next more again, but then two policemen were left outside the yard, a squad car opposite. The guns almost stopped coming and John Dee spoke to the cameras. “Please, ask the police to leave me alone, to take away their protection. I’ve already said, America, it’s OK, come to me.”
But the police insisted. There were legal and illegal guns being dumped in a Binghamton yard, available to anyone, criminals, a passing child. If John Dee continued to sit in his yard, they would continue to be present.
The press and TV loved it, of course. An American couldn’t sit in his own yard without armed guards, even when he asked not to be guarded? It was a media dream, perfect for the lawyers, and a ready-made career for kooks, crazies, copy-cat martyrs, and me.
I went outside into my yard the same day John Dee shook his head, gave up, got off his chair and went inside. I heard that day over a hundred JD-Sit-Outs began to add to the two dozen that had started earlier that week. I knew most of them were nothings, like I said, kooks, crazies, copy-cat martyrs, but I was serious. I knew it right at the start, the way a guy sometimes knows a thing way-down deep, but I didn’t know why.
I guess, looking back, it was a sixth-sense or something, but when the Time-Life video came out, (this was later), it had one close up of John Dee’s eyes, a zoom shot which just sailed in on his face, right at the moment he was saying, “It’s OK, really. America, if you need to, come kill me.” There was a light there, something so real and deep and definite in the way John Dee had decided to do what was right, that his soul shone out, straight at me.
The next day, I threw my guns in my trunk and drove towards Binghamton, but I was still half-a-day from there, four or five hours from the organized line that had grown up, the stalls and T-shirt vendors, when I heard John Dee had gone back inside.
I pulled off the road, into the dust and weeds at the side of the highway. Ahead I saw three cars do just the same, as if every one of the drivers had just heard what I’d heard and like me, they couldn’t go on. I knew right then that I would sit outside, in my own yard, with my own sign, and if needs be I would out-sit the police if they came; that I would wait for the man with the gun who would come for me.
You know this is a looking-back because of who I am now, what I was brought to do, but right then, I confess my emotions were not of such a fine spirit as John Dee’s. I had wanted him to win and when I saw he had lost, I set my mind to follow in his honor, to do what they wouldn’t let him do. But unlike John Dee, I wanted someone to come to me who wouldn’t lay down his gun; someone who would take away my despair.
My sit-out made the local news when I started, made the local-TV when I was shot, got a mention in the New York Times when I came out of the hospital and set to sitting outside in my yard again. Then I was forgotten, and I guess so was John Dee, and we were locked away in the small minds of America with all the other crazy things that make us, Stealth Bombers, Oklahoma City, Charles Manson, Silence of the Lambs on Widescreen.
But then it was a year and two months since I’d first gone out in my yard and a year to the moment since I’d been shot. Maybe news was quiet or maybe some reporter really wanted to know where I was coming from, but I found myself talking to a camera, a bit jaded and out of it, my talking skills not as sharp as they were before I first heard of John Dee.
I knew that if the Lord wanted it so, here was a chance of sorts. I didn’t have the light shining from my soul like John Dee, nor did I have that soft, sure drawl of his, but I knew that I had to try my hardest not to let these TV people make a fool of me, and more so, not let them make a fool of John Dee’s memory. I remembered that the day I was in my car going to John Dee, so were lots of other guys, women too, driving in their pick-ups or whatever, and that every gun dropped in John Dee’s yard was a statement, and every one was one less to kill with. I was trying hard to remember that saying about lighting a candle rather than just complaining about how dark it had gotten.
So I just sat there and listened to this smooth, white-toothed woman from TV, one minute sympathetic, then talking with that edgy whine a woman takes up when she wants to put you down, then speaking with authority, and not too kindly, about me and John Dee. She finished and the bright lights went out. That was when I got up from my chair.
I went to the camera. I asked was it on and right then the woman reporter swept back into view, flicking her hair back, her eyes wide, her face refixing itself. She had a microphone and was circling her hand. Technical guys were slapping open cases, spilling cups of coffee and frantically pushing plugs.
“And we are here, “ the woman began, sort of breathy, excited, “with Jack Carmen in his yard, one year to the day from his near-fatal shooting. And Jack still says, no guns, he will sit in his yard, the only free man in America.”
“I never said that, “ I said, leaning down to the microphone. Then I knew it didn’t matter what I said if they wanted to twist stuff around. I forgot the woman and her microphone, I just looked at the crouching guy with his camera and stared down into its ugly glass mouth.
“I’m here, “ I said, “only because you wouldn’t let John Dee lead us out of slavery to freedom, “ but no sooner had this come out and I was thinking, “Oh, sweet Jesus, let me say something that’s my own and from the heart.”
Then I just said, looking at the lens, “I’m tired, John Dee, and I’m not so much scared as I’m lonely. I been here a year, and they’ve brought me three hundred seventeen guns. Now I’m lucky to get one a week, but I still get them, John. They haven’t stopped coming.”
I knew the TV wanted more, but I was learning that sometimes a man can be his own testament. I sat down, and even though the reporter woman tried, I didn’t speak again. I simply smiled, not like John Dee, you understand, but the best one ordinary man can. Eventually, as I knew they would, they went away.
The next day a boy dropped me a pistol, then a woman came and crouched by me and whispered I was brave. She said if I was going to continue could she bring me something now and again, a blanket, food maybe? I don’t know why, but I said, “Bring flowers.” She nodded, then she touched my hand and left me.
John Dee turned up three days later. There was a short line of people bringing guns and he joined it, so grey and small I didn’t see him stand there. When he came to me – after a woman who found her little girl with her pearl-handled . 22 – he just stood.
I had got into some habit of not lifting my head and this person just waited, knowing I would have to look up, and when I did I was looking at John Dee. I guess I was about to get up out of my chair but John Dee stopped me and waved me to sit, then he squatted down and said would it be all right if he just shared my day?
The next person in the line was a kid maybe eighteen, with a square jaw and built like a line-back, so I called him forward, trying to look regal or profound or something. I knew people seemed to need that. He was a sweet kid, softer in the eyes than any part of his body. He just wanted to say thank-you, he said. He didn’t have a gun, but now he knew he’d never need one.
I’d been taking to sitting in the evenings under the porch light waiting in case just one more person would come along, but when the line ended, John Dee said, “Jack, it’s cold, let’s go inside.” I looked into the street and when I was sure it was empty, I said OK.
What we talked about that evening, what got me here, well, those things are a bit private, but John Dee told me about the Peace Foundation and how he had been invited by the President to set up his chair in front of the Capitol. He wanted me there with him, he said. John Dee said he had given up, but I had given him the inspiration to start again. He asked me to be his witness.
The surrender lines are amazing. By sun-up they stretch out of sight along Pennsylvania Avenue and a small world of commerce shadows them, selling hot-dogs and T-shirts. Once there was a service selling guns so folks would have one to give up, but that went. The people just want to meet John.
It’s strange how people see us now. There are still kooks and cases, of course, there used to be many, and even now, every fiftieth guy who comes up the steps is dressed in fatigues and practicing his thousand-yard stare, but even the crazies and world-enders are somehow quieted.
The old guys are interesting. Sometimes they tell John how once they used their gun. Maybe they caught a burglar or someone tried to take their car and being armed saved their day. But always, when it happens they seem relieved to be giving up their weapons. They walk away less laden. They breathe a deep breath, and sometimes John Dee will put his arm around them and together they’ll look at the pistols and rifles on the White House lawn, the ones at the bottom already rusting, eager to become dirt again.
And John Dee says what he always says, “Be proud, be brave, thank-you,” and these old men, many who fought for their country, they cry because they’ve finally discovered what courage really is, and they cry because they see the glorious, obscene pile of death trying to hide the White House. Sometimes they look like a spirit has left them and I think they may crumple, but most times it’s like a new one has entered and they stand taller, more American. But all of them want to stay and look again at the mountain, and behind it, the white, white buildings.
Now John Dee is awake. For breakfast he has coffee, orange juice, and a bowl of Cheerios. He dresses in his soft grey clothes, stretches, then comes to talk to me. He always says the same thing. “Today it’s supposed to happen, Jack, and if it does, please let it. I’m just one ordinary American.” Like always he sweeps a hand towards the pile, now more than ten million weapons, a small percentage of the nation’s deep hurt. “All that matters is they keep coming. What matters is someone sits here.”
It’s gotten so sometimes we joke and we say John Dee’s breakfast prayer together. Maybe I’ll grin or punch John Dee’s grey shoulder. He’s older now, much, much older, yet we’ve only been here two years. It’s a long haul, he says, and he knows he won’t see it through, but then he grins and he reminds me of the city gun-collections, the clean schools, the gang-member from Watts who drove a truck full of guns into a lake and stayed with it as it sank, the cancer being sucked out of our country with nothing but kisses.
We start at five minutes past seven in the morning, as soon as the front wall comes down. The workmen melt away and John confirms he can see no policemen, no soldiers, that the man who will kill him today is free to do so.
We know that National Guardsmen and marines are protecting the rusting pile, but they are hidden behind boarding that is covered in peace-graffiti and flowers. We know that out of sight are patrol cars and mounted policemen, and we know far distant, in the sad ghettos of Washington they still kill each other, still stumble into gunfights on street-corners or blunder from a 7-11 into cross-fires. But that is now, John Dee says, and if we are patient. . .
Today, the first up the steps is a young man. He looks like the blond medic who tried to treat John Dee. He is shy, gentle, and I wonder if he’s gay. Then he tells John Dee that when he was twenty-two he shot his lover in an alley, and he nods to me as if he knows I’d guessed.
But now he has forsaken the gun, he says, and he drops a pistol on to the floor. Then he waits, looks for John Dee to nod, takes out a silver derringer, and drops that too. He turns and stands above the crowd and throws his ammunition into the sky. This has become a tradition and every afternoon workmen arrive to begin sweeping up from underneath the trestle. Then the young man – his name is Peter – signs the book where I sit, turns to look out over Washington, and like so many, he breathes deep as if the air is full of Thanksgiving.
We have a rule that only one person comes up the steps at a time. The tower has grown and John Dee fears its height has made it progressively weaker. A steward waits at the front of the line, and lets out the next man, just as Peter is stepping down. The two men pass, and something in the electricity between them makes me think that a killer is climbing the stairs. The knowledge is not fear-bringing; I am only frightened I may not be able to allow John Dee to die – that I will betray him.
I will discover the man is called Christos. I watch as he reaches the top of the trestle and I step forward to shake his hand. He is dark, about fifty, perhaps Turkish or Albanian, and his neck is tight. His eyes are slightly too large, faintly yellow, and I think they bulge. “I have guns, “ he says.
The beginning of what happens next, I have seen many, many times before. When the Washington Sit-Out began we would get a crazy a day, then maybe one every other day, two a week, then almost none. We know the world hasn’t yet pulled back from wildness, so we presume that some aura now surrounds John, myself, the trestle, and the growing pile of guns.
Christos reveals his gun – it will turn out to be an illegally-owned . 38 – and flourishes it with an air of superiority as if his very owning and drawing it is supposed to surprise us.
“I am America!” Christos says, with an accent so strong it takes me a second to back-track and work out what he has said. “I am America and today I take you up on your free offer. I kill you.” There’s spittle around his mouth and he shakes, almost as if he’s stifling a giggle.
John Dee has been here before. “It’s OK,” he says. “If you need to, it’s OK.”
“See, I kill you.” Christos says.
“Yes,” John Dee says. “I believe you. I don’t want to die. I’d like to be an old man. I would like to live in Florida, play checkers and complain about the heat. But it’s OK, really it’s OK.”
“See, I kill you.” Christos says, and I know then that this one will not be paralyzed by the forgiveness in John Dee, will not look like a bemused puppy and begin to waver.
“John Dee,” I say, “this is—”
I hear John take a long deep breath. “It’s OK, Jack.”
“See, I kill you.” Christos says.
“Would you like a juice?” John Dee asks in his gentle, curious voice. “We have water, if you would prefer it, or Jack can make you coffee. Everyone who climbs these steps is a friend.”
“See, I kill you,” Christos says.
John nods his head. “Yes, I understand you. I promise you, it’s OK. Jack will not interfere, will you Jack? You’ll be a good boy, yes?”
I stand up, to relieve tension. I tell Christos I am an observer, a recorder.
“An’, I kill you, too!” Christos says.
I nod, whatever.
Christos drinks some orange juice, then he asks John Dee to stand and they walk to the front of the white room to where the steps lead down the trestle, where by looking out they can both see the rusting guns and the White House below them. Christos raises the gun and I realize that John Dee is so relaxed he has his hands behind his back, one finger of one hand clasped in the palm of the other. I’m behind them but I can only see that Vietnam War moment where a Viet Cong soldier was executed in Saigon.
“John, “ I say softly, “they’ll think your hands are tied.”
“Thank-you, Jack, “ John Dee says, and he lets his hands drop to his side. Below, the crowd murmur stops. Somehow they seem to know that this gunman is committed, that John Dee’s day has finally come.
These minutes are so charged, so slow and I know they are final. I want to say something, to honor my friend, but then, as I am about to speak, the air about me changes and Christos crumples. There is a hole in his face from a marksman’s bullet. I have heard no sound.
The pain. I know immediately this is a betrayal, that we have never been unprotected, that whoever has arranged for a hidden sniper to protect us, still doesn’t understand, that the whole point is not to save John Dee.
We have been betrayed, and the crowd, the long line of Americans is betrayed. But worse, I know they will think they are betrayed by John Dee, and by me, his witness. It’s over. I know it, and as if to emphasize this, I see someone break from the line, wave his gun and begin to walk away.
Then John Dee calls out, “Wait!” his voice huge and filling, and only then do I realize that the world below us is almost silent.
The man pauses, and John Dee picks up his murderer’s gun and holds it high. I see the man’s body change, then his focus turn to John Dee who is speaking, not to the crowd, for they are too far away, but for the record.
“I told America, come kill me if you must. This was my pact. This is why Americans are prepared to take their own small risk, to be courageous enough to forsake the weaponry which enslaves us.”
He points the gun at himself. “John Dee did not betray you,” he says. He puts the gun under his chin and pulls the trigger.
I don’t know how long I am still, but then I go to the open space, look down, and wait. I wait because what I have to do now is painful. I wait, for though I know I can summon the small courage to take John Dee’s place I don’t yet know if I can do what he has made me promise to do.
I look again at the rising day. The White House gleams in fresh sunlight and before it, squalid metal settles into the earth. The crowd, Washington, America, looks up to me.
I am crying. I pick up John Dee’s body. His scalp is sticky with his blood but his face is undamaged. I kiss him and hold him, but then, with the air going from me, I throw him away, off the edge of the steps, and down, onto the grass where Peter’s bullets lay. I look to the crowd. I look out at America. I look at the White House.
I take a deep breath, one last look at John Dee’s body, then down at the Stewards.
“Next!” I say, and take my seat.
“John Dee and Jack Carmen” appeared in print in The New Writer (U.K.), 2003.
Living with Guns, An Occasional Series (this
Mary-Sherman Willis, “The Fight for Kansas”
Marilyn Johnson, “Why They Shot Us”
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