Going Postal

How the phrase was coined — short story

Vincent had never fired a gun before, but he was excited to. He stared down in through the glass like a child in the pastry shop stares at chocolate éclairs and apple strudels. Only Vincent was in a gun shop and he was looking at handguns. Colt revolvers and Colt 1911’s. Smith & Wesson semi-automatics and Walther P22’s.

The only trouble is he knew nothing about guns. His parents never had guns around while he was growing up in Arlington. They were among the first generation of hippies.

Whether in earnest or not, they fit all the tropes. His mother, Eileen, wore and fringe leather jackets and a literal flower in her long black hair that she would steal from the flower shop where she worked.

His father, Paul, was a musician of sorts who claimed to have auditioned as a guitarist for a popular British rock band before they were popular. Vincent never considered the logistics. His father had never been out of the country.

When the lead singer of the band from Liverpool was shot a few months ago in New York, he had mourned, “Good riddance! That guy was a twat, man. He’s the reason I didn’t get in the band.” Something he had said about the other three members at various points in time.

Paul held political opinions as well. Though what he preached was often opposed to what he practiced. He was raised by two people who lived through the Great Depression, whose values he tried to rail against as hard as possible. That was, until the allowances stopped coming in.

He had been opposed to the war in Vietnam. He, a self-proclaimed communist, had told Vincent that the reason the country went to Vietnam was because the government wanted to keep their foot on the necks of the American people.

“The government wants to keep control of us without technically having control of us,” he would say.

“We’re not even a democracy,” he would say, “we’re a democratic republic, man. Might as well call that communism.” He was convinced that the government wanted to keep its elite class ruling over the lower classes.

He was sure that if we were communist, the playing field would be level. “We wouldn’t be scared shitless by the Russians, man,” he would say.

“Vietnam is just population control.”

“You’re an idiot, Vince.”

“There were too many young men.”

“You’re never going anywhere, son.”

“A rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”

“You’re just like your mother, Vince.”

“Draft-dodging isn’t technically illegal.”

All of these truisms he had picked up in college at NYU.

Paul was now an Postman at the Arlington, Virginia Post Office. A hypocrisy he excused by claiming its being the most communist part of the government. Whatever that meant. It was something to make himself feel better for taking a good salary, great benefits, and a wonderful retirement plan. He didn’t want to have been a sell-out.

At the gun counter, Vincent stared for an unknown amount of time.

He didn’t know what to choose though. I like that one, he thought, looking at a Colt .44. I wonder if they have a leather gun belt to go with it. One I could line with bullets all the way around. No you idiot, this one.

He saw something from a cop movie that looked interesting. “What’s that one?” he asked, pointing.

The clerk was leaning over with his hands on the edge of the glass case, watching the TV hung in the corner of the room. He didn’t hear Vincent.

“Excuse me, what’s this one?” Vincent said, poking the glass.

“Huh? Oh sorry,” the guy shook the cobwebs from his head and put on his glasses, “Yeah that one there is uhh… Beretta 92 9mm double action semi-automatic pistol. Just came out of Italy a few years ago.” Vincent didn’t comprehend anything except for “Pistol” and “Italy.” He retrieved it and handed it to Vincent.

Like most people, Vincent was surprised by its heaviness. It was black, cold, hard as steel. It felt good in his hand. He pointed it out the window. “Is it good for a beginner?” he asked.

“Oh yeah,” the guy said. “Say, point that thing down, would you?” Vincent did so.

He looked Vincent over and went on with his sales pitch, “It’s great for beginners. A 9mm will kill a man, but it won’t knock your hand off in the process. Cops around the world use them.”

Vincent peered at the steel in his hand. His eyes narrowed and the corners of his mouth rose slightly. “How much?”

Paul knew the Postmaster at another station across town, Courthouse Station, and called in a favor. Vincent needed a job after college. This was not something his father took delight in doing. He called Vincent indolent, and told him not to fuck it up.

The first day on the job, this big guy slaps Vincent on the shoulder. Only the man wasn’t big. He was rather short, but wide. He had a crew cut that made his already-square head even more blocky. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Sergeant Timothy Holbrooks, and almost broke Vincent’s hand upon shaking it. “Call me Sarge,” he added and slapped his shoulder again.

They walked back toward the Postmaster’s office.

“I like your dad,” he said, “Real funny guy.” Vincent flattened his mouth in disagreement. “Me and him started at the same time, over at the big office, after I got back from Vietnam. Then I got promoted pretty quick to supervisor over here, so I had to make the switch. And now I’m the top dog around the place.” Smiling, he slapped Vincent on the shoulder again.

After buying the gun, and being up-sold on a cleaning kit, four boxes of target rounds and four boxes of hollow points, “commie stoppers,” Vincent bought a carrying case and a trigger lock. The man behind the counter gave him a run down on how to load it, use it, and clean it. He was a remarkable salesman.

Vincent was ecstatic. Walking across the parking lot, Vincent scanned the cars. He hoped of spotting a masked bandit nicking a purse or a child being thrown into the back of a van. He was ready for action. The fact that he had never fired the boxed weapon made no difference.

The next day he went to the shooting range. There were some guys from work there, who had invited Vincent to, “blow off some steam and shoot some shit.” He had never been invited to anything, so he was nervous. One good thing, Sarge wouldn’t be there. Maybe Todd would be a little nicer if Sarge wasn’t around to instigate. Maybe work wouldn’t be such hell if he was closer to his co-workers.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said approaching the group of guys, “I got lost. I’ve never been out this way before.”

“It’s okay, could’a been worse,” said a familiar voice, “could’a been born a Gook!” Sarge wheezed a laugh and slapped Vincent’s shoulder.

Fuck.

“Yeah I heard you guys were coming down here so I figured I’d come show you pussies how it’s done,” he wheezed a laugh and slapped Vincent’s shoulder again.

The dynamic of the group was one of pack mentality. Sarge in the lead, Todd second. Vincent didn’t understand that the guys he worked with only picked on him because he was the weak member. Quiet, lazy, unsure. Like in a wolf pack. The alpha has his pack of brood bitches that snarl and snap at a vanquished challenger. They are loyal to the strong one out of the instinct of self-preservation.

This instinct did not occur to Vincent when Todd pointed a gun at him in jest and fired. Vincent hit the floor amid howling laughter. It was only a blank, they cried. It was just a joke. They laughed hard and mimicked his falling on the floor. He fired two more at some of the other guys.

Sarge wheezed a long and loud laugh. “God damn, son!” He said, “you wouldn’t’ve lasted in ‘Nam acting like a bitch like that!” He turned around and pointed his gun down range and looked at Vincent. “Now watch this, and take notes.” He fired five rounds through the wooden target, puffs of dust emerged from the dirt mound behind it at each round. “That’s how it’s done boys!” He boasted. He looked at Vincent, “You’re next dirtbag.”

Vincent got up off the ground. His breathing had slowed to a controllable pace. He put his gun case on the table and opened it. Having practiced the night before loading and unloading the weapon, he was ready to perform in front of his peers. He was shaking.

“Don’t point it at nobody, god dammit,” Sarge said.

“I’m not,” Vincent replied. He knew at least that much.

“Alright pay attention: you see this dot?” Sarge said, pointing at the front sight.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, put that dot in between these two dots, in a straight line. Put the front dot halfway over the target. Breathe in and let it out slowly while you squeeze the trigger.”

“Oka — ”

“SQUEEZE the trigger, don’t pull it. You understand? Squeeeeze it,” Sarge held up a finger and closed it slowly. “If you pull the trigger too hard, you’ll throw the gun off and fuck up your aim.” He handed the gun back to Vincent, barrel down, handle first.

Vincent held up the gun in front of him and pointed it toward the target for the first time in his life. His hands were shaky. His breathing was shaky. He wondered how hard the gun would kick so he tightened his grip. No, loose but firm, he reminded himself. His gaze narrowed. Okay, line the dots up, halfway over the target, loose but firm. He stood still for what felt like an eternity. Okay, he said to himself, squeeze don’t pull — POP! The gun went off.

The first shot was over and, to his surprise, the gun was still in his hand. It didn’t kick that hard after all. That was pretty fun, he thought, I could get the hang of —

“You didn’t hit shit!” someone yelled from behind him.

“You didn’t even hit the dirt pile behind the target,” Todd said gesturing downrange.

“Jesus Christ Vinnie,” Sarge started, “You need a lot of work!” He wheezed a laugh and slapped Vincent’s shoulder. He hated being called Vinnie.

“Okay, okay, another shot,” he said. He took aim once more and fired again and again. Hitting dirt each time.

“Squeeze, don’t pull dirtbag!” Shouted Sarge.

Two more rounds, he hit the wooden target this time. He stopped and looked at his accomplishment and turned to see what the guys were thinking.

“I said squeeze, god dammit! Are you listening to me?!” Sarge screamed.

The chatting of the guys stopped. They all looked at Sarge.

“God dammit Vinnie! You don’t listen to shit!” He laid into him, “I swear to god, this is why I passed you up for that supervisor position, ’cause you don’t ever do what I fucking say!”

“What?” Vincent said coldly.

“I said you don’t listen you fuck!” Sarge yelled, fully red-faced. “See you’re not even — ”

“You passed me up? That was my promotion!” He rose his voice in return, “I’ve been working for that for two years!”

“Working? You haven’t been working for shit!” Sarge replied. “You’re just like your hippie fucking father. You’re lazy. You don’t get your routes done on — “

“I don’t get my routes done? You’ve had me organizing the mailroom for months! How am I supposed to get my routes done?”

“You didn’t get the job, Vinnie, get over it.” Sarge concluded.

Vincent stared in disbelief. “You know what?” He started, waving the gun at Sarge, non-threateningly. Sarge looked at him with raised eyebrows. “You know what? You’re a fucking asshole. You’ve always been a fucking asshole. You walk around like you’re the best soldier there ever was. You brag about being in ‘Nam: ‘Back in ‘Nam, we fucked any gook we could find’, ‘Back in ‘Nam, it was the best time of my life.’ Hey, dick head, he lost the war in Vietnam!” Sarge’s face tensed.

He pointed at Todd and the guys, waving it around, “You guys are assholes too. All you ever wanna do his suck his dick.” He waved the gun back around at Sarge and pointed it to the ground. “There hasn’t been a day gone by when I don’t hate everyone in that office. You’re always picking on me, and calling me crazy Vinnie, or freak! Fuck you guys!” He threw his hands up and turned to put his gun back in its case. Everyone let out their breath. “I’m out of here.” He closed the gun case and started walking away.

“Hey!” Sarge yelled. “Don’t walk away from me. Hey!” Vincent ignored him. “Fine, you’re fucking fired!”

Vincent stopped. It was silent. He turned around, “What?”

“YOU’RE FUCKING FIRED, BUB, GET LOST!,” Sarge screamed, shaking and pointing to nothing in the distance. Todd and the guys stood silent.

Vincent looked at his co-workers, each avoiding eye contact. He glared at Sarge for a long moment. He felt the weight of the gun case in his hand. His eyes slanted and he turned to walk away.

Nightfall came with no word from Sarge or any of the other guys. He was really fired. Something broke within him.

He walked over and grabbed the phone off the wall and turned the dial until it rang at Sarge’s house. No answer, so he hung up.

“That mother fucker,” he said out loud. “MOTHER FUCKER!” He screamed. He picked up the phone and dialed Sarge’s number again but hung up after only two rings. He banged the phone against the receiver on the wall until it fell to the floor.

He picked it up and threw it across the room, knocking over and smashing a crystalline table lamp. He went over and picked up a shard of the crystal and stared at it. He placed the edge of the shard against his left palm and jerked his other hand down. Blood started to flow quickly in between his fingers.

He picked up the remnants of the lamp by its shade and slung it at the window. It crashed through the glass and hung limp by the cord on the outside of the house. He plopped onto the couch and watched his hand bleed.

Squeeze don’t pull, dirtbag. He laughed.

You don’t listen to shit.

Squeeze don’t pull.

You’re fucking fired. He laughed again.

Get going bub.

Squeeze don’t fucking pull.

His vision wavered. ”I should have killed him right there,” he said to himself “I should have killed that phony Army brat son of a bitch.”

Around 3:00 AM, Vincent was dozing off. A stray cat howled and yowled at the neighbor’s dog, which was tied to the oak tree in the front yard of his duplex. The dog was startled and ran to the end of its chain and began barking, and snarling, and growling.

Vincent couldn’t think straight. He walked outside without minding to don his shoes and went over to the dog. When it realized Vincent had come outside, the animal stopped barking and, letting his tongue fall out in delight, walked over toward the man. POW. The gun went off. The dog was motionless.

Vincent stood and stared at the dead animal for an unknown amount of time. He had never killed anything before. It didn’t register in the moment. But at least it was quiet. He stood there long enough for the woman who lived in the other half of Vincent’s duplex, the owner of the dog, to come outside. She came around the corner of the building folding a cardigan around herself and stopped suddenly.

“Vincent? What’s going on?” she asked. She came closer. “Oh my god, what have you done?” She plead, tears welling. “Oh my god, oh my god. Vincent, oh my god!” She shrieked and knealt the dog, paying no attention to Vincent.

She didn’t notice the dead expression on his face or the void in his eyes. In her experience, Vincent had been a harmless and lonely man who lived next door and kept to himself. As far as she was concerned he never wanted to be noticed. Her crying grew louder.

“Oh no!” She howled. “What have you done, oh my god! You — ”

POW.

The gun went off. The woman was silent. The echo from the shot rang off through the woods and the county road was quiet again.

Crickets sang in a neighboring hayfield. When he looked up through the bare oak branches, Vincent did not see the stars’ blaring light. He didn’t see anything. He didn’t see anything or feel anything.

He went back inside and had sat on the couch. There was a beautiful sunrise that morning. It flashed orange and pink across the Virginia sky, but it went unnoticed.

White foam collected in the corners of Vincent’s mouth. His eyes were red and unmoving. His skin was pale and his face drooped.

He had his new Beretta 92 in his hand. Only nine rounds had been spent from the fifteen-round magazine. He noticed the clock on the wall. The office should be opening by now.

Perfect, he thought. I’ve got to clean out my desk.

He got in the car and drove off, leaving his shoes and two stiff carcasses in the front yard.

“Squeeze don’t pull,” he whispered to himself through gritted teeth, “dirtbag. You’re fucking fired, dirtbag. You don’t listen, dirtbag. You can’t shoot shit, dirtbag.”

When he pulled into the parking lot of the Post Office, Sarge’s car was already there along with a few others.

One of which, on the back side of the lot, was Todd’s who was locking his door and walking toward the building. Vincent floored it. He barreled across the parking lot. Todd noticed the car and looked to see Vincent’s expressionless face through the windshield. This just before his own face met with the hood of the car with such force that his nose spatted blood across it.

His body ragdolled into the air and across the parking lot, coming to rest near the curb. Vincent slammed on brakes. He grabbed his extra fifteen round magazine from the passenger seat and got out without bothering to put the car in park. It rolled forward about fifteen yards and came to rest against Todd’s unconscious body.

As Vincent walked across the parking lot, his mind was clear. A customer came out of the glass double doors carrying a baby. Noticing him, she started to smile. When she saw his appearance and the gun in his hand, she dropped her mail and covered the child’s head, turning her back toward Vincent. She shuffled quickly down the sidewalk.

Vincent looked at her but didn’t see her. He shot in her direction and missed. The bullet passed through the bushes and hit the brick wall.

He entered the building. In front of him was a long wall of post office boxes. To the left, around the corner were the rest rooms. To the right, through another set of glass doors, was the post office. He turned to the right.

He opened the glass door and saw Chris rounding the end of the big blue desk. Vincent raised and fired two shots, missing with the first and the second passing through Chris’s left arm. Chris howled with pain and hit the floor.

Carolyn, hearing the commotion, stepped around the wall from the mailroom and slipped in the blood. Her right foot slid out from under her and she fell into a split before rolling backwards on the floor. She screamed when Vincent was standing over her. He fired at her twice. One in the head and one in the mouth. There was a black smoking hole left where her two front teeth had been. He pointed the gun at Chris’s head and squeezed the trigger twice. On the first shot, Chris was quiet, but the second was a mere click of the firing pin.

Vincent looked at the gun to see that it was empty. So he dropped the empty magazine on the floor and replaced it with the full one. He dropped the slide, just like the salesman said, and fired again at Chris’s head.

Suddenly the break room door flung open and two people ran across the office. Vincent fired quickly at them, hitting one in the arm. She fell and screamed in horror. Vincent walked into the break room. It was empty.

Vincent stood in the doorway and turned around, examining his handiwork throughout the office. Blood pooled and oozed across the vinyl flooring. The girl writhed on the floor. He turned into the break room. Pulling out some change, he dropped a few coins into the vending machine and pressed some buttons. He heard something beside the big machine. Peering around, he saw none of than Sarge, on the floor. He hugged his knees and looked up at Vincent in utter terror.

Vincent stepped around the machine and pointed the gun at Sarge’s head.

“Please don’t,” Sarge whimpered, “Please don’t shoot. Come on, I’m sorry, Vinnie.” He tried to smile at Vincent, but the void behind the eyes was too vast.

“Hm,” Vincent said in amusement, “Vinnie. It’s a little too late for sorry now, isn’t it?” He bent over and slapped Sarge on the shoulder. “It’s a little too late.”

“Look, Vincent. I’m sorry, okay? Just let me — ” Vincent fired into Sarge’s forehead from mere inches away. Sarge’s body slumped over and leaned against the vending machine.

Vincent walked out of the break room and through the office stepping over bodies. He walked past the long wall of P.O. boxes, leaving bloody footprints down the hallway. He went out through the glass double doors. He stopped on the sidewalk and scanned the lot for his car. It was not where he left it. He found it resting against the curb with Todd’s body wedged underneath.

When he stepped off the curb, two shots rang out from the across the parking lot. The police. He stooped and ran back into the building. Two more shots flew overhead, one shattering the big glass door. He ran back down the hallway and into the office. His breathing was heavy. His heart was racing.

He looked around the room as if for the first time. The stench of blood filled the room and stung his nose. The girl on the floor cried out in pain. It dawned on him what he’d done. He ran over to the trash can and vomited. A police bullet smashed the window across the room.

He stood up and wiped his mouth. He breathed quickly. He put the barrel of the gun against his forehead, thumb on the trigger and told himself, “Squeeze, don’t pull.”

Thinker. Writer. Naturalist.

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