Our American Friends
It was one those long, glorious summer evenings we often have here. We were enjoying aperitifs and nibbles in the garden with our American friends, Al and Mary. Sitting in the dappled shade of our large Walnut tree, a light breeze cooled the warm evening air. Drinks flowed as the sun began to set over Brittany's rolling green hills.
Al and Mary, (he’s a retired Texan oilman, would you believe?), spend every summer in France to escape the scalding humidity of their Texas home. The broiling heat of Brittany is pleasantly balmy to these desert dwellers.
We often spend evenings at each other’s homes enjoying good food (both Jane and Mary are excellent cooks), good wine (it is France, after all), and lively conversation. The evening had been arranged for us to meet Mary’s delightful cousins, Cathy and Lee-Anne.
They were on a flying visit and each was a first-time visitor to France. The elder sister, the tall and elegant Cathy, dressed in tailored white shorts and a figure-hugging yellow T-shirt, had never been abroad before. She possessed the wide excited eyes of the novice traveller. Her bubbly enthusiasm was infectious.
Petite and brunette, Lee-Anne was dressed in expensive grey slacks and a shimmering black top. She was stunning, and could have passed for a Hollywood A-lister. She was polite but said little; I took this to stem from an inherent shyness. She took only the occasional sip of wine, but listened attentively as the conversation ebbed and flowed.
As host I like to play Devil’s Advocate but only if I feel the time is right and the guest amenable. I find it stimulates lively conversation.
That night, after the introductions were over and we had become comfortable in each other’s company, I felt the time was right. Before the party was over I had managed to cover all the subjects usually deemed taboo for polite conversation.
Jane turned towards me at every opening gambit and gave me her patent, “Don’t you dare go there!” glower. I ignored her, as usual. She would have kicked me in the shins had I not taken the precaution of sitting at the opposite end of the garden table; I learn from my previous mistakes.
I started off gently with Sport: “Is Gridiron Football softer than Rugby Union?” “Why do Americans claim to be World Champions in sports they don’t allow anyone else to compete in?”
Next subject Religion: “Why are all televangelists sexual deviants and swindlers?”
Now Politics: “How did the largest democracy World, vote a moron like George W. Bush into the most powerful job on the planet?” Given that our guests were card-carrying Republicans, and the two of them hailed from the Lone Star State, I expected that one to raise the hackles, and it did.
“You Brits can’t even vote for your own Prime Minister!” was one of Al’s counter-thrusts.
“ I'm Irish, so don’t you lump me in with the Brits!” This was my usual repost to such an comment, and Al knew it. I say it with a smile, but I'm only half-joking.
During this discussion Cathy and Mary made a few valid interjections and Al was in his element. Lee-Anne still kept her own council but nodded and smiled regularly.
Next subject, Diet: “Why are so many Americans fat?” This particular discourse moved inevitably onto fast-food, Mickey D’s, and Cola; America’s gifts to World Cuisine.
We cracked open a third bottle of red, this time a 2007 Burgundy; rich and vibrant. By then Jane had resorted to her usual tipple, lemonade. Dusk had fallen, the star-scape shone bright above us, and our voices rose with the setting of the sun; and the downing of the wine.
Finally, Gun Control: “The National Rifle Association, gun-toting loonies, or defenders of personal freed....?” That was as far as I got. I felt an immediate tension in the air.
Apart from the gentle summer sounds of the breeze stirring the leaves, crickets chirruping in the cornfields, and Pipistrelles swooping through the trees there was an intense silence around the table. You could have heard a pin land on a pillow.
Al straightened in his chair and raised an eyebrow. I put both hands up in surrender, had I finally overstepped the mark?
All at once the tension was broken and three American voices piped up in quick succession.
Al opened with, “I’m all for a little gun control.”
Mary's, “I’m not.” was instant.
Cathy nodded, “Darn right. Everyone has the right to bear arms; it’s enshrined in the Constitution n’all.”
Lee-Anne nodded and Mary’s, “Goldarn’ right, Cathy,” was interjected with real gusto.
“Abso-goldarn-lutely!” Cathy continued, she was becoming quite agitated at this stage.
I thought it was pure gold.
I turned again to Al, “What do you mean by ‘gun control’, Al?”
“I can’t see anything wrong with having to wait seven days for a gun license. Most states have some form of mandatory waiting period for police checks to be made. Nothin’ wrong with that in my opinion.” The reasonableness of Al’s tone and his measured response was typical of the man.
“Nonsense, what if you need a gun right away?” challenged Cathy.
“Why would you need your gun right away?” I asked in all innocence,
“Why, if you were being attacked, o’course,” she countered.
“Attacked in a gun shop?” I offered.
“That’s not what I meant!” It was the first time I’d heard any real pique during the evening. I smiled my most disarming smile and raise both hands again, but she was having none of it.
“It in’t funny Kerry,” Cathy continued with passion. “We live in vi’lent times.”
“Yes! And that’s because everybody’s carrying guns over there!” Touche?, I thought.
“We need to defend ourselves,” Cathy responded vigorously, “Only the other day I heard ‘bout a home invasion down our way. The home owner was all on her own with her kids. She would have been raped or worse if she hadn't pulled her gun and shot the guy dead.”
I managed to prevent myself coming straight back with the obvious, 'how could the home owner have been on both her own, and with her kids?' Instead Jane entered the debate for the first time, “Really?” she asked, “In your own neighbourhood?”
“Well.... no, not on our block, but not far away.”
Lee-Anne still hadn't spoken but I could tell she was really paying attention to the way things were going. She sat up, took a slightly longer pull of her wine and helped herself to a single peanut.
Mary rallied to the support of her young cousin, “Yeah, I heard ‘bout that too, happened a couple of months ago not far from you.” She paused for breath before adding quickly, “And there was that young family Upstate got slaughtered.” Another pause, “Five of them, chopped up and left for dead in their own beds,” she added, her strident, her voice breathless.
Jane looked shocked, “Dead? How far from you is this ‘Upstate’?” she asked
Lee-Anne and Cathy looked at each other and shrugged. “Couple hundred miles, I guess,” Cathy answered, Lee-Anne nodded. “In the Boonies,” Cathy added by way of explanation.
I knew what she meant: Boonies, or Boondocks, or the US equivalent of the outback; I watch American films.
“An’ then there’s all the drive-by’s; an’ the drugs shoot-outs; and the armed bank rob’ries,” continued Cathy in full flow.
“Jees,” I choked. “Where the hell do you live, the Bronx?”
“No, I live in a nice quiet little gated community, couple blocks up from Lee-Anne,” Cathy replied, apparently confused by my question.
“Gated community?” asked Jane.
Al explained, “It’s a real nice quiet little estate in the country. It's fenced off and has its own private security. You need a pass to get in an’ all.” He looked at the women, “You’ve got a Country Club too, haven’t you?” The young women nodded proudly.
“Can’t be all that safe if there’s home invasions and rapes and shootings all over the place,” I suggested; butter wouldn’t melt.
Cathy and Lee-Anne both turned on me and gave me the cold stare I’d seen before. I had offended their home town. “No,” responded Cathy firmly, “these home invasions happen outside. We’re safe in Parklands.”
“Don’t you see,” I added patiently, “these are all scare stories. Propaganda put out by the NRA and the twenty-four hour news channels. They want you to live in fear and buy your guns and pay for your home security and your gated communities." I prodded the tabletop with an index finger for emphasis and added, "It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy! More guns equals more shootings!” Touchenow, surely?.
Al nodded sagely and smiled but this time kept his council.
The women though, were adamant. “No,” said Mary again, "You see it all over. Vi’lence and gun crime everywhere. Nobody’s safe in their homes anymore!”
“That’s why I sleep with a Glock 19 in my bedside cab’net,” piped up the demure little Lee-Anne. It was pretty much the first thing she’d said all evening.
You could have knocked me down with a Colt .45!