A man I haven’t thought of for nearly thirty years became a smoker of five-cent cigars during the war, and when the war was over he became a despiser of nincompoops and began taking his whisky from a pocket flask engraved with a tiny laurel wreath. He was the gunsmith in the sporting goods department of the Hudson’s Bay Company, at a time when sporting goods were sold by men of few words who favoured dark ties and white shirts with long sleeves. The gunsmith kept to his shop behind the wall at the rear of the department, from which could be heard the whine of metal lathes and drills and the occasional distant thud of gunshots as he tested his weapons in the firing range built into a walk-in closet lined with concrete and steel. He made rifles by hand from blocks of steel and exotic hardwoods; the rifles had long fluted barrels and sold at very high prices. He was a small, wiry man with a nose like a piece of flint, and he appeared only rarely on the sales floor, to greet self-important men who could afford to have their weapons made to measure and to whom he would speak in earnest low tones, or when nincompoops at the gun sales counter could be overheard making ill-informed remarks. At these moments the shop door would slap open and the gunsmith would appear in the doorway in a checkered shirt and a canvas apron stained the colour of old camouflage, waving his stub of a cigar and sputtering like a jealous professor: the burden of his life was forever to be setting the record straight in a nincompoop world. I was eighteen when I went to work as a part-time clerk in sporting goods and twenty-two when I left; never in that time did the gunsmith, who was more a force of nature than a mere man with a grudge, address me by name; nor would I ever expect otherwise.
One of my roles in sporting goods was to relieve the regular gun salesman (one of the men in white sleeves, a mild-mannered vet who had long ago made his peace with the gunsmith) for a couple of weeks in the fall so that he could go hunting for mountain goats, and he would lend me the latest edition of Gunology, a thick volume from which I acquired a lexicon of trajectories, velocities, foot-pounds and feet per second, entry and exit wounds, soft noses, copper jackets, shot sizes and powder loads. I wielded these terms from behind the counter while hefting off-the-rack Remington 30-06s and Winchester 30-30s and Husqvarna 222S and handing them over to inquiring customers, who would sight along the barrels and work the actions knowingly; whenever my expert chatter reached a certain exuberance, the shop door would squeal open and I would turn and look into the fierce eye of the gunsmith, who seemed to burn with the knowledge that I had never fired a gun in my life.
Deception is a fact of retail life, especially for young men who wish to appear to be in the know. I was more at home in the fishing department, which was run by a rotund grandfatherly man named Sam who rolled his own cigarettes on coffee breaks and tied flies of his own design in a tiny vise set up behind the fishing counter. On slow days he would take down one of the Hardy rods and show me how to cast a fly, which he did with an effortless thrust of wrist and forearm, forward and back, easing line from the reel, letting the line send itself forward by its own weight; soon great loops of line would be snaking overhead, whistling faintly and extending the length of the department all the way down into men’s wear, where unfailingly the fly would drop onto the underwear table and hesitate a moment, before leaping back into the air. I learned to cast flies as Sam did, less expertly, but spectacularly nonetheless, all the way down into men’s wear, to the alarm of customers who hadn’t yet made up their minds, and under Sam's benevolent eye I became the “assistant fishing expert,” even though I had not gone fishing any more than I had gone hunting.
Women working in sporting goods were consigned to selling garments and handling cash; certainly none were allowed “expert” status. I strove whenever possible to have my coffee breaks with those among them who came to occupy my fantasies as I sold sleeping bags and stoves and portable tents and canoes and small outboard motors, always demonstrating a spurious expertise to citizens whose names, to my dismay, I remembered from month to month, even though I never would have recognized them in the street. These were my days in retail: slow mornings and heavy afternoons punctuated by coffee breaks in a little café down the back stairs, and lunch in the windowless lunchroom on the sixth floor, and occasional encounters with young women in the stockroom: a brief electric touch in passing, the back of a hand on a sweater, a collision of fingers while reaching for the same Styrofoam cooler. There were no windows and so no daylight in the Hudson’s Bay Company and nothing to look at but ourselves and the merchandise: perhaps these were the conditions required for remembering the names of customers. The air was heavy and humid and it was not easy to keep one’s collar clean, especially in the stockroom, which was ill-lit and dank. The shelves in the stockroom were covered in a fine black grime that I came to associate, along with the heavy air and the clamminess, with a sexual undertow heaving ceaselessly through the depths of a submarine world, pulsing, grasping, threatening entanglement at every moment.
A few weeks ago I passed by the back door of the Hudson’s Bay Company, from which it was once possible to ascend directly into the sporting goods on the second floor, and I remembered going down those stairs with Sam and with young women for a glimpse of daylight and coffee in the little café . Now the staircase was blocked at the landing by a heavy security door: there was no longer a back way into the sporting goods department that I had known. At this moment I remembered the Friday night long ago when I climbed those stairs after a coffee break and discovered that a big freight canoe with an outboard motor had vanished from the sales floor, and I wondered who could have made the sale so quickly. Sam and the gun salesman told me that only moments earlier the store manager had run up the back stairs in complete disarray: he had just encountered two men struggling with a canoe and an outboard motor, and had had to assist them himself in getting down to their truck in the alley. Now he wanted to know who was responsible for such negligence; of course he had never thought of asking the men to show him a sales receipt.
Now, thirty years later, as I stood at the back door of the Hudson’s Bay Company, I wondered for the first time whether Sam and the gun salesman might have been pulling my leg with the story of the freight canoe, a story that has always seemed too good to be true, but which I have retold many times without questioning it. I was often alone in the gun department on Friday nights, when half-drunk men would come up the back stairs from the St. Regis beer parlour to browse among the guns and talk about hunting and shooting. One night four or five of them were handling weapons and telling noisy lies and I was standing behind the counter bristling with expertise when I realized that any of the ammunition boxes on display in the middle of the floor, cheery yellow boxes in neat stacks, one for each calibre, could be opened with a mere flick of the thumb, and that only a delicate balance seemed to preserve us in our amiability and to restrain these drunken men from reaching out in their exuberance to the ammunition, loading the weapons in their hands and opening fire on each other, and on me. This is my clearest memory of my life in sporting goods: seeing myself alone at the gun counter, caught in crossfire. I could feel in that moment the powerful absence of the gunsmith, who was never there at night, on the other side of the wall, monitoring our ludicrous talk, prepared to leap into the melee.