Returned Fire began as a dream, specifically of the stop sign "art piece" that is at the center of the story. I rather liked the concept, but since conceptual art is not my forte, rather than try my hand at creating the piece myself, I created a character who is arguably more equipped to tackle the project. You'll have to read the story to see if he succeeds.
The story can be read below, or a print copy of the magazine issue can be purchased on AMAZON.
J. Edward Kruft
It had been a couple of weeks since
my girlfriend Molly had moved out because I was too listless. Like every night
since, I lay sleepless staring at the ceiling, trying to discern cracks from
shadows. And then sudden inspiration for a new artpiece took hold and I ran
naked down the crooked stairs to the cold basement that was my studio. The idea
was simple enough, and once I started sketching on a piece of cardboard I felt
immensely silly for thinking it warranted exposing my retreating balls to these
conditions. To save face, I made a quick list of the materials I would need to
realize my inspiration:
standard-issue stop sign, preferably a little beaten 2. At
least one gun, probably more, plus ammo 3. Someone
willing and able to shoot a gun or guns repeatedly at a stop sign
with my progress, I shot back upstairs and dove under the covers and had a
couple of hours of really good sleep, the first since Molly.
Later in the morning, after dressing and a
cup-and-a-half of coffee, I set out. The task of procuring a stop sign would be
easy, requiring only a loan of my bolt cutter, an Andrew Jackson, and the
neighbor boy (whose name is withheld to protect the guilty). Then to the
Internet to discover that, in fact, there was a shooting range just outside of
town. The manager, who may have been Ted Nugent, looked at my cardboard sketch
and listened thoughtfully to my description of the proposed artpiece. He said
he couldn’t give me any of the members’ names, but if I wanted to hand over my
name and number, he’d gladly pass it along. I gave him my card:
D. W. Chow Conceptual Artist 555-2519
thanked Ted and he wished me luck and I drove my Prius over to a café I
frequented that had really strong coffee and black and white photographs of old
Russian novelists on its walls. The morning server was a friendly type and she
asked about the cardboard sketch and I told her the same thing I had told Ted,
with the added touch of the title that had just come to me: Returned Fire. She
said she liked it, thought it was edgy. But, she added, I shouldn’t expect
folks around here to get it. Folks around here, she offered, would just see a
shot-up stop sign. Or worse, the wonton
destruction of public property, which she believed was a misdemeanor. I assumed
she meant wanton.
On my drive home I realized too late
that I had blown through an intersection where I swore there used to be a stop
sign. Truly, I didn’t make the connection until I got home and there, on my
back porch, was not one but seven stop signs.
Around noon a gentlemen who said he
was Freddy D. called, saying Bruce had told him I was looking for a marksman.
"The manager of the range."
it was not Ted Nugent after all.
We agreed to meet. I suggested the range,
but he said the kind of shooting I was looking for couldn’t be done there.
"Come out here. I’ve got land."
back to the Prius for what amounted to a 20 mile drive north of town. Freddy
had warned that there were several structures on his property, but that his
house was the green one with the American flag flying on the porch. Freddy
himself was on the porch when I pulled up. A beefy man with short legs but a
long torso, mutton chops and round glasses, Freddy was laughing like a Santa
Claus when I got out of the car.
"Somehow I just knew from Bruce’s
description that you’d be driving a Prius."
"My parents were hippies."
was a lie. There are no immigrant Chinese hippies. Freddy looked me square in
the eye as he clenched my hand in his death grip. It was always a toss up to me
whether big guys did that to intentionally inflict pain, or because they didn’t
know their own strength. With Freddy, I thought it was the former. As such, I
hated him immediately. But I was in the middle of nowhere, on what I feared to
be a compound, so I felt no choice but to remain friendly.
Inside, Freddy led me to the kitchen
table, which was round and covered in daisy’d vinyl. We sat. He told me he
liked my red socks and then did another Santa laugh. I got down to business.
"Here’s the deal. I have this idea and I
need someone – perhaps you – to help me execute it. I have seven stop signs in
my car. I only need one to be right, but I guess seven gives us some wiggle
room. I want someone – again, perhaps you – to shoot small holes through the
front. I’m thinking a handgun would make the smaller holes. I’d like about 10
of those, scattered across the sign. Then, I’d like to have one, big shot – I’m
thinking maybe from a shot gun, although to be honest I don’t really know about
such things, which is why I am bothering you – from the back of the stop sign,
right through the middle. What do you think?"
"You say 'shot gun' like it’s two words,
when it’s actually one. Shotgun."
had no outward response. Inwardly, hate grew. "You got a title?"
told him and he looked up at the ceiling as though being thoughtful. Then he
said he wasn’t sure, wasn’t sure at all, that he liked the message I was trying
to convey. I was surprised, frankly, that he’d divined any meaning, having
taken the café server’s word, and I offered an unthoughtful reply
"Too much of a challenge?"
I thought I’d seen Freddy’s Santa laugh before, I was wrong. The table shook. Even
though we were about the same age, when he finally settled down, he called me
"Son, I could shoot the pecker off your
boyfriend from across the Grand Canyon."
"You assume I’m gay. Why? Because I’m
Asian? To you, all Asian men are effeminates with little dicks? "
" I presumed you’re gay because you’re an
artist. My bad. No, you see, my problem with your idea is that it is, in fact,
meant to convey an anti-gun message, is it not?"
"Actually, it’s about society’s need to
stop violence, with a clear articulation that violence begets more violence."
Of course it
was anti-gun. But I had this speech prepared, anticipating guys like Chuckles
"Aren’t you at all afraid that your 'clear
articulation' will get mired by the hypocrisy of your methods?"
then a woman walked in the front door. She wore a Hello Kitty sweatshirt and
hastily braided pigtails: Mrs. Chuckles. Freddy introduced me as Conceptual
Artist Dave. Without missing a beat she asked if I leaned more toward the
Rauschenberg school or someone more contemporary, like Damien Hirst? Stunned, I
blurted that I wasn’t sure, to which she added a pretty smile and then excused
Freddy and I argued as time passed
and after a while it was inevitable that we were both repeating ourselves:
an important articulation!
night set in and Barbara (formerly Mrs. Chuckles) came wordlessly into the
kitchen and made us jasmine tea and soba noodles, which Freddy and I consumed
thankfully. Barbara said she had overheard us and in her humble opinion, we were
at a stalemate but both of us were too damned stubborn to concede anything. She
called us Two Peas, and further suggested that rather than continuing to
verbally masturbate around the kitchen table, Freddy should take me to his
room. As lascivious as that sounded, Freddy willingly obeyed, but instead of
being molested or conscripted into some sort of Freedom Army, I was awe-inspired.
Freddy’s “room” was one of the outbacks on his compound. I reluctantly followed
him through the door that he rolled open, expecting – what? – rows of neatly
pressed white sheets with matching hoods? Swastikas? A Sherman tank? Freddy
flipped on the overhead lights and a cool buzz emanated from above, and then he
spun around on me, giving his argument one last breath:
"You know how at the end of movies there’s
that disclaimer? 'No animals were injured in the making of this motion
picture.' Well, here’s my disclaimer to you: 'No guns will be used in the
making of your articulation.'"
I was hardly listening, for splayed out before me was a workshop, the likes of
which I had never seen. Part machine shop, part woodworking gallery, his many
and fanciful tools glistened and the long benches displayed his fine and, even,
artistic wares: a teak and rosewood rocking horse, puzzles made of pine, wooden
tops and airplanes and trains and racing cars, and a miniature kitchen set of
red cedar that could have easily graced the pages of House & Garden. I
looked at Freddy with my mouth agape, a question looking to form.
"In my spare time I like to make toys for underprivileged
He really was Santa Claus.
On my drive home, whenever I passed
under a streetlight, I would catch a glimpse in the rearview of the seven stop
signs in the backseat, each one as fully formed and unadulterated as when the
neighbor boy heisted them from their dutiful stations. And with each flash of
their presence a little greater understanding of this artpiece formed in my
After that, almost a year passed. At the
opening at the little gallery in the Circle District, the work hung on the far
wall and consisted of my original cardboard sketch, my nakedly written list of
must-haves, modified --
stop sign hastily drawn on a piece of cardboard, a little beaten 2. No
guns, plus no ammo
willing and able to tell me he won’t shoot a gun or guns repeatedly at a stop
sign, and that my asking to do so is hypocritical
and a 3 X 3 card, which read:
Title: Returned Fire: A Wonton
Display Of Public Destruction (*No Guns Were Used In The Making Of This
Artpiece) That Turns Out To Be The Artpiece That Isn’t, But Is.
across the gallery, I watched Molly take in the piece. She arrived late because
of Lamaze class, the first one of them I'd missed. When I approached her, she
turned and smiled. She said she liked it; she said she had always thought of me
as more of a words guy anyway, so the title was fitting and funny and me. I
asked if it wasn’t really just a cop-out. She took my left hand and placed it
on her bulging belly. When, from across
the gallery, we both heard Freddy’s laugh, our baby kicked.
(BIO as it appeared in the original publication)
J. Edward Kruft received his MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College. His stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Bop Dead City, Crack the Spine, Eunoia Review, Johnny America, Mulberry Fork Review, and Soundings Review. He was once complimented on the sidewalks of New York by Matthew Broderick for a particular t-shirt he was wearing. He no longer has the t-shirt. He lives in Astoria, NY and Asbury Park, NJ with his husband, Mike, and theirKeeshond-mix rescue, Aine.