Lock & Load author Gale Walden discusses “Cafe Americana”
The boy didn’t completely understand that there was an internal trigger someplace, maybe in your soul, that allowed you to pull the other one. —“Cafe Americana”
L&L: How and when did the story evolve?
GW: Around 2007, when it was just starting to dawn on me that you could be in a college classroom or a coffee shop and somebody could pull a gun. One day I was in a coffee shop with windows, looked up, and there in the street was a cop with a gun trained on a guy with a gun. It was so stunning to look out and see that. I actually got up and ran into the bathroom. The gun didn’t go off. They caught the guy, but it could’ve gone bad.
“Café Americana” started to become so real to me that I didn’t want the coffee shop I was writing in to get robbed someday. I can’t put this out of my mind, either: my nephew’s high school prom date was killed at Virginia Tech in 2007. So I guess with those two things, I started to think about guns more than I had previously, which was hardly at all.
However, the catalyst for the character, the boy with the gun, began when I was in a journalism class and the professor, an investigative reporter, talked about these kids who were joyriding in Chicago one night, and they had a gun they were using to scare people, in a mischievous way. But the gun went off unexpectedly and hit someone who was killed. . . it was unintentional, and, yet, these kids were riding around Chicago with a gun—a bad choice that led to a lot of lives changed. The professor kept thinking about these kids he had to write about and then I did, too.
These kids didn’t go out intending to fire. They were on a joyride with a gun. In “Cafe Americana,” nobody is completely innocent. Levi, the protagonist, takes the gun along as part of his robbery plan, with an almost cartoon idea of what a robbery should be, but that changes. Nothing has gone right for this kid. He wants love. He’s not mean-spirited. I started thinking about that, also, and the character of the boy with the gun was born.
L&L: We don’t know much about the gun, how big it is, or how much it weighs. The boy doesn’t consider any of this; he doesn’t intend to fire.
GW: I didn’t get into the specifics of the gun. I knew it was small enough to be hidden and that Levi wasn’t familiar with it—it was almost a prop for him. He had used a rifle before but not this gun. We live in a very liberal town, and I’m sure people have guns, but they don’t talk about them. We had, until recently, very strict gun control laws, but when my daughter was young, a friend who lived in California said, ‘When your daughter goes to somebody’s house to play, ask if they have guns.’ I finally started asking people that question when she went to parties; most said, ‘No,’ and one guy said, ‘Yes, we do, here’s where it is, here’s where it’s locked.’ He’s the one I asked to read the story, to make sure certain things were even feasible. You always want fiction to be plausible, so I sent him the story and said, “Point out things that couldn’t happen with a physical gun.”
L&L: What can you tell us about the narrator, the voice of Café Americana? I don’t know who is telling the story—it’s almost a God-like narrator and the narrator knew more than I, the author, did. One thing I realized after I wrote the story is that I only named some of the characters. And, although I’m not completely sure who lives and who dies at the end, I know that not everybody made it out of this story. I started to believe that who is named is a clue to who didn’t, but that wasn’t intentional.
I usually write about relationships and love. I probably won’t [write this kind of story] again, although I could make a case for it being about relationships and love.
About Gale Walden: Gale’s newest poetry book, Where the Time Goes, was published in April 2017. She has won the Boston Review Annual Fiction award, and Stephen King chose her story, “The Train” as a notable story in Best American Short Stories. She is currently at work on a memoir. “Cafe Americana” first appeared in Arts & Letters.