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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Happiness Is a Worn Gunn

 

"Bookstore in Austin, TX Offers 10 Percent Discount to Anyone Carrying a Visible Gun"
—Shane Ryan, Paste Magazine, February 5, 2016

JUST yesterday, at midnight, the ruling determined by the National Plebiscite of 2026 finally went into effect, making Open Carry the law of the land, and I for one could not have been happier.

At last I could appear in public, visibly toting the sacred object that made me happy. No longer would I have to conceal my pride and joy and take it out only when no one was looking. No longer would I be forced to enjoy my passion only at special events attended by those peers who shared my excoriated hobby. No longer would I be forbidden to enter certain venues because of the supposed danger I represented. After years of discrimination and hate-filled reproaches and exclusionary laws and incomprehension by the general public, I and my fellows were finally being accorded the respect and legitimacy we deserved. We had been deemed legally equal to the majority, to all those other citizens of this fair land who happened not to endorse our stance. After a long interregnum, our constitutional rights had been restored. Sure, we might be a minority, but that status did not mean we deserved fewer rights than others.

And so I got ready to leave the house and run a few errands. Actually, I confess, none of these chores were urgent, and could all have been put off entirely or done in dribs and drabs across a number of days. But I was in a gloating mood, and simply wanted some excuse to parade through my small town while enjoying my new freedom.

The only question before leaving the house was: which of my babies would I carry on my hip? I couldn't possibly take more than one, of course. That would just be too cumbersome and in-your-face. Surveying the ranks of beauties, I finally settled on a vintage model from 1955. Not the sleekest beauty, but a classic.

So I strapped on the big leather holster and dropped 'er in, snapping the safety retainer strap across the top, like any responsible owner. I put some "ammunition" in my shirt pocket. Then I sallied boldly out.

I'll admit I was a little nervous. But I was also determined to go through with this.

The first person I saw was old Mrs. Weatherall, out planting bulbs in her garden. She straightened up from her kneeler bench when she heard my footsteps on the sidewalk, shifting back into position the automatic rifle that had come forward on its sling while she was bent over. She spotted the item on my hip, snorted loudly while giving me a derisive look, then went back to her gardening.

Okay, I hadn't expected to be met with universal hugs and kisses. But if a few wordless snorts of derision were all I was going to face, I'd count myself lucky. Maybe I'd encounter some supporters as well.

Unfortunately, worse was to come.

My first stop was Handley's Hardware. I needed only some drywall anchor screws to put up some new shelves for my growing collection. I approached the counter, which was manned by a teenager I did not recognize.

As soon as his eyes alighted on what I was carrying, his hand zoomed toward the big pistol on his own hip. He had it halfway out of its holster when Jim Handley intervened. Handley spoke soothingly, as if to a nervous horse.

"Put that away, Scott. Mr. Emerson is perfectly within his rights to be carrying a book."

Scott's voice had yet to fully change. "But Mr. Handley, I thought public displays of them damn things was outlawed years ago."

"Yes, that's true. Under President Crumpderston in Twenty-twenty. You couldn't buy or sell or lend or display a book in public. All the libraries and bookstores were shut down. Publishers were taxed into bankruptcy. Amazon was taken over by the federal government. But that law has been reversed. Didn't you vote for or against the change during the National Plebiscite?"

Scott scratched his head. "Jeez, Mr. Handley, you knows I got trouble signing my own name, and they asks you to do that first thing at the voting place."

Jim Handley patted his employee reassuringly on the shoulder, saying, "Don't you worry, Scott, just a few more remedial courses and you'll be signing your name left and right!"

As Jim led me away from the counter, he said quietly, "Ralph, I know you're acting strictly in accordance with the law and your beliefs. But I've got to warn you: people are not going to take kindly to seeing you parade down Main Street with a book on your hip." Jim patted meaningfully the dual antique but well-oiled six-shooters he favored. "They might even seek to register their feelings with lead."

"I appreciate your concern, Jim, and I know all that. Only I figure that someone's always expressing their opinion with lead any hour of the day anyhow, and I may as well become a target for what I believe in instead of just being shot by chance, which is all too likely."

"But shouldn't you have your own gun with you as well as that book?"

"No, Jim, it's either one or the other."

Jim shrugged in an it's-your-funeral way, and then helped me find my drywall screws.

The confrontation had left me more jittery than I had anticipated, and I decided a coffee might soothe my nerves, so I went into McDonald's.

Crossing the distance from the door to the counter felt like crawling across the entire Sahara. Every occupant of the place directed withering stares at me. One fellow spat loudly into a paper cup he was holding while fixing me with the evil eye. A toddler pointed her pellet gun at me and said, "Bang!" And the hands reaching for hardware! You would have thought some drill sergeant had just barked out, "Port arms!" I even saw the muzzle of a small bazooka swerving instinctively toward me before its owner controlled himself.

At the counter I had to harrumph several times before the young girl playing with her pink derringer would consent to wait on me. Finally I carried my coffee to the farthest, most isolated table and turned my back to the crowd. I was just about to take my book out and begin reading when I was interrupted by the approach of a woman I didn't know. Bandoliers criss-crossed her ample chest as if she were riding with Pancho Villa. Our lack of acquaintance did not stop her from berating me, loudly and with much heat.

"You monster! Do you have any idea how many lives those things have ruined? How many deaths they've caused? Millions killed thanks to reading books by Karl Marx! Entire economies ruined thanks to books by Ayn Rand! And I'm never going to have any grandchildren!" She leaned in closer, her face inches from mine. I could smell the odor of Pyrodex rising from her. "And do you know why? Books by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem!"

And with those spittle-sprayed names, she spun around and marched off.

Utterly dispirited, I decided I would make one last stop, more symbolic than the others, since I needed nothing from the place, and just wanted to make a point and assert my rights.

Outside ARCHIE'S AMMO AND FIREPOWER PLUS, traffic was heavy. Tomorrow was the start of hunting season, and people were stocking up.

I only got as far as the front door, where I was halted by Archie himself. "I'm sorry, Ralph, I can't let you in. Not carrying that."

Prevented from entering or leaving, a crowd was forming around me and Archie. "It's my right to enter, Archie, even with my book."

"That may be technically so, Ralph, but I can't have you pissing off my customers. It's just a business decision, nothing personal. Unhappy customers don't buy as much as happy ones, you see."

I started to protest, but Archie cut me short. "Hell, Ralph, I even read a book or two in my time, I ain't ashamed to admit it. But you don't find me flaunting my literacy in front of everyone, do you?"

I reached slowly into my shirt pocket and withdrew my ammunition: printed reviews and encyclopedia entries on this book and its author. "Just listen to these words of praise for a second, Archie."

"Nuh-huh, you put those damn thinkpieces right away, you hear!"

I had hit my limit, and so with a quick action I hauled out my book.

The crowd gasped and stumbled backward, too scared even to draw their guns in response.

"Look at it! A Gnome Press first edition of This Fortress World, by James Gunn. Yes, that's right, this writer's name was Gunn! This copy is foxed and time-worn, sure. Not mint. But it still speaks! Listen to what he has to say. 'Distinct, separate, alone, divided by infinite chasms of hate, distrust, and the realities of power.… We remember, dimly, a golden time, a time of freedom and peace and plenty, and we weep sometimes for what is gone and will not come again.' Can't you see. It's us he's talking about, it's today. He saw it seventy years ago, and it's all here in this book!"

Slowly, amidst perfect silence, I reholstered my book.

And then came the sounds of many hammers being cocked.

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