By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Boulevard, vol. 16, issue 1-2, 2000; reprinted in Faithless: Tales of Transgression.
THE FIRST? That’s easy. My mom’s Bauer semiautomatic snubbie, a .25-caliber “defense weapon” good for six rounds. It was made of stainless steel with a pretty ivory grip and a barrel so short—two inches!—it looked like a toy. When we moved to Connecticut after Dad left us, she carried it in her purse sometimes when she went out after dark, but we weren’t supposed to know about this. She did have a homeowner’s handgun permit. She kept the snubbie in the drawer of her bedside table in case of intruders. “Mom is really worried Dad’s gonna break in and strangle her or something,” my brother used to say. Whether this was truthful or to make me feel bad, I can’t say. When we asked Mom who gave her the gun (we weren’t supposed to touch it but we could sometimes look at it resting in the palm of Mom’s hand) she laughed and said, “Who’d you think? Your dad.” In fact, my brother said, it was a private detective who sold it to her, or gave it to her. Those years, Mom was a woman men liked to give presents to, especially men who were new on the scene.
THIS RIFLE BELONGING to my Uncle Adcock, before he got to be a multimillionaire developing a thousand acres on Mackinac Island and feuded with the relatives. It was a Springfield standard-issue .22- or .30-caliber with a satin-nickel finish and a maple stock and it was so heavy, that long barrel, I staggered holding it. My cousins Jake and Midge got their dad’s glass breakfront open (the key was beneath a loose brick in the fireplace) and smuggled the rifle outside. After they played with it awhile, aiming at birds and sailboats on the lake, they told me to “try aiming.” I was afraid, but Jake insisted. He fitted the rifle onto my shoulder and my index finger against the trigger and helped hold the barrel steady. That rifle!—it had a cool oily smell, I’d remember afterward. And the smooth-polished stock against my cheek. I squinted along the barrel through the front sight (that looked bent) at white sails billowing in the wind. It was my imagination, the sails were magnified by looking through the sight. Uncle Adcock’s big sailboat had candy-striped sails you could recognize anywhere. Jake said, “If it was loaded you could fire,” then he said, “There’s a recoil, so watch out.” (I wouldn’t think until afterward what he said, whether it made sense.) I wasn’t sure what was expected of me. Jake and Midge were giggling. I suppose I looked comical, a potbellied little girl with glasses in shorts and a T-shirt holding a grown-up’s rifle to her shoulder, and her skinny arms trembling with the weight. We weren’t on the beach but in ankle-deep clover buzzing with bees. I was afraid of getting stung. Where the adults were, I don’t know. Maybe on the lake. Jake was eleven, Midge was nine, and I was even younger. These were Michigan-summer cousins. When I wasn’t with Jake and Midge it was like when I wasn’t with my mom or dad or brother or anybody, I guess—I’d just forget about them, as if they didn’t exist. But when I was with them, I’d have done anything they wanted.
THE STORY WAS, after the basketball game, around 4 a.m. the next morning, two or three carloads of black kids from Bridgeport drove past some Maiden Heights basketball players’ houses, plus the basketball coach’s house, plus the principal’s house, and sprayed the fronts with buckshot, breaking some windows. Or maybe it was only just BBs. You heard different stories. We’d moved from Darien that winter to live full-time with Mr. K. (“Kaho”), who was a Japanese-American (“Jap-Am”) architect and a self-described cynic. He made my brother and me laugh, and embarrassed Mom because it was usually her stories he doubted, saying with a roll of his eyes, “Oh, yes? Interesting—if true.” Which he said of the drive-by shootings. (How’d black kids from Bridgeport know where anybody lived? And why’d they give a damn, since Bridgeport won the championship?) By then, I was twelve. I was wearing contacts.
AT THE HUNGRY HORSE RANCH north of Hungry Horse, Montana, near Glacier Park, where Dad took us to learn horseback riding one August, I had a serious crush on Blackhawk (his actual name was Ernest, but he was from the Blood Reservation), who tended horses. I was always following Blackhawk. It got to be a joke, but not (I think) a mean joke. Once I trailed Blackhawk carrying a shotgun to where he shot at wood-chucks running for cover. The gun was a .12-gauge double-barrel Remington belonging to the ranch owner. The shots were so loud! I pressed my hands over my ears; it was almost as if I couldn’t see. Blackhawk, standing over a burrow and cursing and firing inside, ignored me. He’d missed every woodchuck except one he’d wounded (it looked like) that had dragged itself into the burrow, and now he was practically straddling the burrow and firing inside. The buckshot blasted into the earth! Blackhawk stood with knees apart horsey fashion and his dark face flushed and tight and clenched as a fist. Except for the noise, and the wounded woodchuck, and how Blackhawk could blast me in two if he whirled and shot like somebody on TV, it was such a funny sight I couldn’t help laughing.
ASHLEY, my first roommate at Exeter, took me home at Thanksgiving and I was surprised at how old her father was, expecting a man like my dad. Mr. D. was a congressman from Maryland. They were living in Annapolis in this old stone house they said had been completely renovated. It was a beautiful house but I remember that the white walls were too much. Not a big house upstairs and Ashley’s bedroom was close by her parents’ and I heard Mr. D. snoring through walls and doors and I couldn’t sleep. I tried, but I could not sleep. Ashley was asleep (or pretending: how she always dealt with things). I went downstairs in the dark and into a study off the living room and tried to read, pulling down books from shelves. One of them was a Reader’s Digest edition, very old and dog-eared, but I got to reading Lost Horizon by James Hilton and liked it. About an hour later there came Mr. D in a navy blue terrycloth bathrobe and barefoot staring at me. As if for a scary moment he didn’t know who I was. His big belly tied in by the sash. How he knew I was there, I have no idea. Mr. D scratched his chest inside the robe and tried to smile. In his right hand was what looked like a toy gun he might’ve hidden in his pocket but didn’t. As though he had nothing to hide he was ashamed of. Making then like a joke of it showing me the “snubbie”—it was bigger than my mom’s, with a three-inch stainless steel barrel—an Arcadia automatic “bedroom special” Mr. D. called it—a tough-looking little gun that fitted Mr. D’s hand just right. I liked the blue finish and checkered walnut handle. He had a homeowner’s permit for the weapon, Mr. D. wanted me to know. He kept the first chamber loaded with “just a .38 shot shell” (he showed me) to scare off an intruder, but the other chambers had the real thing, hollow-point bullets. I was too shy to ask Mr. D. if he’d ever actually fired his gun at a human being. I guessed I could see in his face he’d be capable of it, though. “Want to hold it?” Mr. D. asked. “The safety lock’s on.”
IN MOTHER’S SUMMER PLACE at East Hampton, I had my things spread out on the drawing board on the porch, radio turned up high, and I had a sort of idea something like this might happen; Kaho and I had had all we could take of Mother’s shit. So the floorboards behind me give a little beneath my bare feet and I’m leaning over the drawing board and there’s this poke, this jab against my rear (I’m in denim cutoffs cut pretty high in the crotch). My first thought is it’s a gun barrel, I was going to be shot at the base of my spine!—but it turns out to be Mikal with just a hard-on.
“WHAT’S IT LIKE? For a guy it’s like a gunshot going off. Before you’re ready. And this stuff that shoots out of you . . . weird like something in a sci-fi movie. Christ.”
I said, I’m glad I’m not a guy. It wasn’t true, though.
When we made out, I pretended he was Blackhawk.
WE WERE IMPRESSED! In English class Mr. Dix read to us from a biography of Ernest Hemingway how, when Hemingway was eighteen, at his family’s summer place in northern Michigan, sometimes he’d pick up a loaded double-barreled shotgun and draw a bead on his dad’s head (where the old man, oblivious, was working in a tomato patch). Wild! Before this we’d just been thinking of Hemingway as one of those weird wrinkled old coots with white beards they wanted you to read.
Did you ever think of doing it? To yourself? Charl passed me the note. Charl S., coming on like Junior Dyke (the guys resented her terrific style). Too lazy. Don’t do anything myself. I flicked back the note, and naturally we got caught.
THERE WAS Adrian L. we never saw again after Easter break our junior year. Adrian L., sixteen, from Rye, Connecticut, went home and died of a “gun accident” in the rec room of his family’s house. In a Rye newspaper (some kids who’d been at the funeral brought it back to school) the coroner was quoted saying that Adrian had died “instantaneously” of a 45-caliber bullet in the brain discharged while he was cleaning his father’s Army handgun. (A Government Model automatic.) Mr. L. had been a decorated U.S. Army lieutenant in Vietnam. Mr. L. insisted to investigators that the gun “was never loaded” but Mr. L. insisted too that his son had not shot himself deliberately. There’d been a single round of ammunition in the gun. At school we talked a lot about Adrian. We cut out his picture from last year’s yearbook. “Adrian treated a girl with respect. Not like some of these assholes.” We’d go around saying that, though actually none of us had known Adrian well. You couldn’t get to know him, he was so quiet. High grades but the Math Club type. He’d dropped out of school activities and missed a lot of classes that semester, staying just (his roommate said) in his room. Somebody’s dad (maybe my own?) made the remark that if you know guns, the Government Model .45 is a “classic.” There’d be worse ways to go than a .45 in the brain, point-blank.
THERE WAS a more romantic way, though. “Teen Wedding” was a song we listened to, a lot. We never knew anybody who actually got married but we’d heard of kids who got in so deep they wanted to die together. A red-haired boy called Skix (he’d dropped out of Exeter a few years before; almost nobody remembered him but tales were told of him) who’d shot his girlfriend (nobody we knew, from the Rhinebeck public high school) in his car they were parked in overlooking the Hudson River, then turned the gun on himself. Both bullets in the heart. Guys who knew guns spoke knowledgeably about how Skix had used a Crown City Condor semiautomatic .45 (registered in an uncle’s name). Skix had lived in Rhinebeck in what somebody described as “an actual castle, almost.” It was a sign a guy took you seriously, if at least he’d twist your wrists till you cried. The sexiest was both wrists twisted at the same time.
* * *
THERE WAS a certain avant-garde drug called “ice” not everybody could handle. A guy I knew after college, Kenny B., who worked for Merrill, Lynch in Manhattan, made us laugh recounting tales of his high school days in Westchester County. He’d been so strung out and crazed from “sucking ice” he’d actually driven to school one morning with a carbine rifle!—a Safari Arms .30-caliber with a satin blue finish and a smooth walnut stock with a thumbhole design looking like, Kenny said, something Wild Bill Hickock might’ve used shooting up the Indians. This fantastic gun had belonged to Kenny’s grandfather, who hadn’t touched it in thirty years. Kenny sat in the parking lot with the gun on his lap, hidden under his jacket. Watching kids trailing into school. He’d had the intention of shooting somebody, preferably his math teacher. “I just wanted to waste some dude. Not any girl, though. I wouldn’t have shot a girl, I’m sure.”
SOME OF US still missed Adrian. We believed we would miss him all our lives. We were stubborn and loyal. I’d say suddenly, in rainy weather, “I loved him.” Actual tears stung my eyes. We were young but prescient. These beautiful times! How they keep bringing you back to somebody gone.
WE WERE LISTENING to “Black Sabbath.” We were frankly stoned, but cool. My dad (we weren’t expecting him back so soon) came in, in this foul mood. The market was down, we knew. Everybody’s dad was scared, and pissed. A few months ago my dad had been mugged by (he said) a “black Hispanic” with a gun outside the 30th Street Train Depot in Philadelphia. He’d given up his wallet, wristwatch, and briefcase with no resistance, desperate not to die. Reduced to “quivering cowardice” in five seconds, Dad said. White pride! Didn’t save him from a pistol-whipping, though. So that spring he’d gotten a little crazed over the Tawana Brawley case, her photo and Reverend Al Sharpton’s on the front page of the Times. Staring at Brawley’s photo saying, this look in his face, “Who’d want to rape her?”
IN The Tibetan Book of the Dead some of us were reading spring of senior year (not on our honors reading list!) somebody had underlined in red ink, In the Occident, where the Art of Dying is little known and rarely practiced, there is the common unwillingness to die.
DRIVING BACK from a weekend at Dartmouth. Four of us crammed into the backseat and three in the front of my roommate’s boyfriend’s step-mom’s black Lincoln town car. We were totally wasted! The boyfriend was Nico W from Peru; his dad was a diplomat and his stepmom an American. Nico was “100 percent Americanized.” Insisted he knew a “scenic shortcut” to Bellows Falls but, sure, we got lost. Mountain roads turn and twist so, you can’t get anywhere. Then the road turned into practically a ditch from so much rain. Nico was trying to turn the car around in like a six-foot space and we got stuck in mud. It was still raining! Just off the road was this crude house trailer resting on tires with a plastic Santa Claus on the roof and a giant satellite dish. Piles of trash around the place and a pungent odor of smoldering garbage. We were so pissed at the situation we were laughing like hyenas. Nico turns these tragic eyes on us, the pupils tiny as poppy seeds. He’d been snorting other people’s coke all weekend and was burned out. But he was in the best shape of any of us to be driving. We heard yelling and looked and in the doorway of the trailer there’s this heavy woman in overalls, what looks like a shotgun over her arm. Double-barreled shotgun! Aimed at us! She was drunk or crazy, or both—”Get the fuck out of here, I’ll blow your fuckin’ heads off” It was a TV scene. On TV it’s funny, but in actual life it wasn’t. We were scared we’d all be killed. Nico was desperate, gunning the engine and the car wheels spinning and the car sinking deeper into mud and all of us screaming and laughing so hard I almost wet my pants, or maybe did a little. How Nico got us out of there, I don’t know. They would say the crazy woman fired the shotgun over our heads but I wasn’t sure I heard it. I woke up later, my head bumping against the back of the seat, Nico flooring the gas pedal. We got lost another time, too, before we got to Bellows Falls.
SEAN STAYED with some friends in a high-rise off Bleecker Street. We didn’t get much sleep. It was the Fourth of July weekend; through the night we’d hear firecrackers and gunshots like a war zone.
IN POUGHKEEPSIE, I ran a red light. Returning to school in a freezing rain. In one of those moods, thinking, If it happens, it happens. Like I wouldn’t use the brakes if the car skidded. On the other side of some railroad tracks there was a New York state trooper patrol car, I saw too late. Turns on his lights and pulls out after me. I wasn’t pregnant because I’d started bleeding in the car, into my clothes and onto the car seat. Here I’m stopping the car on the shoulder of the road shaking, crying, I’d been crying all the way up from the city. The cop is a youngish white guy, Italian-looking. He’s got his gun drawn! I just about freak seeing that gun. He sees I’m a Vassar student, sees I’m alone, holsters the gun but talks kind of suggestively to me, asking for my driver’s license, auto registration, etcetera and taking a long time examining them with a flashlight. All this, in the rain! He asks me then would I please step out of my car and accompany him to his car but by this time I’m crying so hard, I’m in no state to comprehend. My face all smeared and the crotch of my jeans soaked with blood. I can see he likes me crying but doesn’t want too much of it. The last thing a guy wants is hysteria. I’m pounding the steering wheel, “Shoot me! I hate you! I want to die anyway!” The trooper looks at me disgusted and relents. Lets me off with just a traffic ticket, $60 fine and a mark for moving violation on my license, and a warning. “Lucky this time, Vassar girl,” he says. I know I am.
LUCK RUNS in our family, Dad used to say. Maybe he was being ironic but it’s a fact, it does. Like when Mother was knocked down, robbed, and raped in the ass, she wasn’t murdered, too. See?
WHAT HAPPENED WAS: Mother was living in a two-bedroom apartment on East 77th Street, near Madison, in a building you’d think, she said, would be safe, except nowhere’s safe in Manhattan any longer, returning from a performance of Miss Saigon (in which she was an investor) and absolutely not drunk (though she’d had a few drinks just possibly at Joe Allen’s with friends), alone in the elevator to the ninth floor and alone (she swore!) in the hall, opening her door with her key and suddenly she’s hit on the back of the head, hard as a sledgehammer, a man’s fists, she’s knocked inside, flat on her face, too panicked to scream, or hasn’t the breath, he’s pounding her on the back with his fists, grunting and cursing her, bangs her head against the floor, she’s half-unconscious and he dumps the contents of her purse onto her back, back of her mink coat, paws through them to take what’s valuable, unfortunately there’s Mother’s “snubbie” with the ivory handle, so her assailant presses the barrel of the little gun against the base of her skull, he’s straddling her, panting and sweating, a dark oily smell she will swear, calls her bitch and cunt, a black accent, from the Islands she will swear, and he hikes up her skirt and what’s called “sodomizes” her and he beats her unconscious with the gun fracturing her skull and tearing the scalp so she’ll be found barely breathing in a pool of blood, but at least alive. She would beg my brother and me not to tell our father. Dad said, “What’s she expect? Living alone.”
WHEN I WAS with G. G. in his Varick Street loft, men wouldn’t leave me alone. Not just strangers, guys on the street, but G. G.’s so-called friends. One of them led me into a storage room at a gallery opening, pushed his tongue into my mouth and brought my hand to his penis, where it protruded from the fly of his stonewashed jeans like an extra, eager hand. “See what I’m packing, baby.” In a sleaze-porn film you’d be howling with laughter; in actual life you just stand there, waiting.
THEY WERE medical students high on some new amphetamine. They claimed they manufactured their own with Bunsen burners. We were telling nude stories. I was the blond, and blonds are listened to in a way that makes you uncomfortable until you get used to it, but it might be a mistake to get used to it. I told how in first grade at my friend Betsy’s house, her older brother made us take off our clothes so he could “examine” us with a flashlight. Oh, did that tickle! In the telling, which I tried to dramatize, making them laugh, because I’d taken acting at Vassar and was said to have talent, I remembered suddenly it wasn’t Betsy’s house and it wasn’t Betsy’s brother but my own brother. It wasn’t a flashlight he’d had but something else. Mom’s little snubbie? He warned, “This is gonna tickle.”
SHE HAD permanent nerve damage in her face and throat and internal injuries where he’d torn her anus. She had blurred vision in both eyes. Headaches. Spinal pain. Couldn’t sleep without barbiturates and then mostly during the day. We begged her to move out of Manhattan. At least, to get married again. She was still good-looking, she had a flair about her like, who?—Lauren Bacall in those old movies. She wasn’t yet sixty. She wasn’t a pauper. And she’d tested negative for AIDS. “Don’t tell me,” I said laughing over the phone, “you’re replacing that gun? Oh, Mother.” Mother laughed too, in her nervous-angry way, saying she had a new friend who was a retired law enforcement officer (Nassau County) and he was advising her to purchase, for self-protection, a .38-caliber Colt Detective Special, a six-shot revolver more reliable than the Bauer semiautomatic, though the Colt, too, had a snubbie (two-inch) barrel. Mother said, “Next time, I’ll be better prepared.”
G. G. SIGNED FOR a Fox comedy series. The pilot was being filmed in L. A. and we’d be living in somebody’s house in Pacific Palisades, a fantastic estate owned by a megawealthy record producer. If I came with him, which wasn’t 100 percent certain. G. G. had this weird old west-looking six-shooter, a stainless steel .357 Magnum with an eight-inch barrel. One of his doper friends traded him for something. (Maybe me? I’d had my suspicions.) G. G. put a bullet in, spun the chamber (it wasn’t too well oiled), saying, “How’s about Russian roulette? Me first.”
TARGET PRACTICE AT the town dump outside Greenwich. Rats and “garbage birds.” He exploded a grackle in midair and wounded a furry panicked scuttling thing he called a “rabid raccoon.” He was a pretty good shot. He closed my fingers on the rifle (a Winchester .22, nothing special), fixed my index finger on the trigger as if I couldn’t have found it myself. He adjusted my arm. My shoulder. Breathing into my hair. He steadied the barrel. It was our first time. He was married, he took all that seriously. I was set to pretend to be afraid, upset by the noise of the gunshot and the recoil but in fact I didn’t need to pretend. Afterward we made love so hard it hurt in the back of his Land Rover smelling of gunpowder, oil, grease, and aged running shoes and sweatsocks belonging to his sons.
RUSSIAN ROULETTE! I’d never do it, it’s a guy thing. They say you need to get a coke high first, then there’s no high like it.
AT SCOTT E.’S HOUSE, when we were living in Maiden Heights and just kids. Scott went to Choate. His dad (whose own dad had been a World War II Air Force hero) was showing us his gun collection. I’d had so many beers I wasn’t focusing too well. This guy I was with kept brushing against me, my breast. Scott was embarrassed of his father but sort of proud of him, too. We couldn’t touch any of the guns but he’d answer questions if we had any. I remember a “German souvenir” and a “man-stopper” with a nasty long barrel made of what looked like iron. I asked Mr. E. if he kept any of his guns loaded, which was a silly question, but Mr. E. said with a sly smile, “Maybe. Guess which.” It was like Scott, so quick, that guy was dazzling sometimes, in front of us all he picked up one of the fancy old revolvers, steely-blue with an eight-inch barrel at least, and silver engravings, and before his dad could stop him he turned the chamber and pulled the cock with his thumb, aimed at his own head and pulled the trigger. Click!
IN NEW YORK, I ran into my cousin Midge, now called Margery. I spoke of the time she and her brother Jake had been playing with their father’s .22 rifle at the summer place on Mackinac Island. Midge, or Margery, said with this frozen face, “We never played with Daddy’s guns. That’s ridiculous. He’d have given us hell.” (Uncle Adcock had died of cancer the year before, in Saint Petersburg. I’d meant to send a card or call.) I started to speak but Midge, or Margery, turned her back on me and walked away. I stared after her, shocked, as if I’d been slapped. I could remember the deafening crack of the rifle. The recoil against my shoulder that practically broke it. The burned smell of gunpowder in my nostrils. That exciting smell. And the way the white sails on the lake, billowing and slapping in the wind, looked almost, for a fraction of a second, like they’d been shot.
THAT EASTER BREAK, junior year at Vassar, I told my parents I was going skiing in Boulder with my roommate and her family but in fact I was with Cal at his stepfather’s lodge in the mountains. We spent most of the time stoned, in bed, listening to heavy metal rock and getting up mainly when we had to use the John. (We’d see who could go the longer. We were drinking fruit juice and stuff like that. I was embarrassed at first having to pee so often but would’ve been more embarrassed to wet the bed. I had sort of a yeast infection I guess.) I walked around naked, a Yale sweatshirt around my shoulders and the sleeves tied beneath my breasts. The sunshine was too bright for our eyes, we had to keep the blinds mostly drawn. I was looking through cupboards and saw a rifle and an opened box of ammo. A Winchester .22, hadn’t been cleaned in a long time and the blue-steel barrel coated with dust. On another shelf was a Sturm, Ruger six-chambered revolver, also dusty, stainless steel with a walnut grip and a barrel of about four inches. I liked this gun. I liked the feel and the weight of it. A heavy barrel and a sizable grip like you’re shaking hands. Cal came in and saw me and about freaked. Like he hadn’t known the guns were “on the premises.” (Cal wasn’t one to acknowledge his mother had married a paranoid schizophrenic who kept guns in all the places he lived and, being a criminal lawyer, had a permit to carry a concealed weapon.) Cal said, “Jesus, baby, put that down, OK?” I was stoned and really grooving with this fantastic piece. You hear talk like that, a man knowing when he connects with the right gun, but not women; but it was as though it was all between the Sturm, Ruger and me, and Cal was this third party, like a voyeur, looking on. I said, “Ever play Russian roulette?” Cal said, scared but trying to make a joke of it, “What the point of Russian roulette is, I never could figure.” I’d clicked off the safety. I was checking to see if there were bullets in the chambers. I laughed, saying, “You take a chance, that’s the point. If you win, you don’t get a bullet in the brain.” Cal said, as if it was philosophy class and arguing was part of your grade, “You don’t have a bullet in the brain anyway. That means you’re a winner?” “Hey, no,” I said laughing. “You’re a loser.” Cal just didn’t get it. A guy can be sexy and sweet and all that but just not get it.
AFTER MY MOM she was the first woman I knew who carried a gun in her purse. Kept it in her bedside table when not in her purse. It was a Sterling Arms Model 400 semiautomatic with a nickel finish and a three-inch barrel and a classy ivory grip. I was cool, holding it. Loaded, and the safety on. “Could you ever shoot this at a human being?” I asked. She just smiled, and took it back from me.
THERE WAS a rumor, Nahid A., this sexy rich kid from Kashmir we’d known at Vassar, had become a “mercenary arms dealer” in his native country. Other people said, “Bullshit. Nahid is a poet.“
SHOCKING NEWS! Charl S. (whom I’d been out of contact with for eight years at least) called to tell me. But I’d been reading about it in the New York Times and seeing it on TV. Lurid headlines on the front page of every tabloid. A pregnant social worker (white) and her unborn baby had been “riddled with bullets” and her husband wounded in their car in Worcester, Massachusetts, by a black male assailant believed to be (according to the husband’s testimony) one of her welfare clients. The dead woman had been a wan, pretty blond from a well-to-do Boston family. Her husband, Charl pointed out, was our old mutual boy friend Nico. Nico, wounded by gunshot! Charl sounded thrilled. “Who’d ever suppose Nico would marry a social worker? He wasn’t ever that type.”
* * *
MUST’VE BEEN a month later when Charl called back, this time even more thrilled. Now there was truly shocking news! Nico’s wife hadn’t been gunned down by a black welfare client after all but by Nico himself. He’d just been arrested. He’d caused every black man in the Worcester area to be a suspect. It was national news. “Nico insured that poor woman for $1 million only a few months before he shot her. Isn’t that terrible?” I was trying to feel that this was terrible news. Or even unexpected. I told Charl it hadn’t been very bright of Nico to insure his wife for $1 million and then kill her himself. Thinking of Nico’s velvety eyes and his weird lukewarm tongue thrusting and parrying in your mouth like some kind of sea urchin.
THE PHONE RANG during the night. It was my brother in Palm Beach. More bad news about Mother. But hadn’t she just gotten married? Wasn’t she on her honeymoon? The man sleeping beside me didn’t stir. He was used to me prowling the place at night. Already my head was pounding with pain. “No, wait,” I said, trying not to panic, “I already heard this. Didn’t I?” My brother said rudely, “No, you haven’t. This time she’s dead.”
HER COLT DETECTIVE SPECIAL was left to me, in Mother’s handwritten words, My only daughter. For her commonsense protection. That and a box of tangled costume jewelry (what had happened to the good jewelry?) and family mementos and a couple of million dollars in bonds.
I CRIED all that spring. Couldn’t stop. As though my heart was a block of ice now melting. Kaho held me for old time’s sake. He wasn’t so young and virile as he used to be, he warned. Kaho had been married, too, to an older woman who’d died in “mysterious” circumstances. (Not Kaho’s fault!) After a while in my bed Kaho’s ropey-muscled arm began to get stiff where I was lying on it, the weight of my body like a drowned girl’s. Between us where we touched our skins were slick with cold sweat like gun oil. I was crying, “I love you, Kaho. I always have.” But Kaho was embarrassed. It was all so long ago, he said. His big mariner’s watch glowed pale green in the dark like a floating green fish, or an eye.
YOU CAN special-order gun grips in rosewood, zebra wood, birds-eye maple, ivory. I’d always wanted ivory. In Jackson Hole, this “Native American” (Crow Indian, but he didn’t look anything like Blackhawk) carved gun grips out of blocks of wood with a knife that flashed so in his fingers, you’d swear it was throwing off sparks. Lyle Barnfeather carved custom orders for Smith & Wesson, had quite a back order, and wanted me to know he didn’t “come cheap.”
G. G. RETURNED TO my life. His TV career had bottomed out. Sometimes he seemed to blame me, for not coming with him. Other times, he borrowed money. When I kicked him out, he stalked me like a guy on TV. One of those serial killer specials. Except G. G. didn’t have a van, or even a car. How’d he dump the body? He called me leaving messages, Baby I love you don’t do this to me. It was all a bad TV movie except I didn’t know how the script would end. I had my mom’s Colt Detective Special, though, for commonsense protection.
AT THE READY-AIM-FIRE SHOOTING RANGE on Staten Island, we wore neutral (gray)-tinted glasses with adjustable nose pads. We were equipped with earmuffs approved by the EPA. Still, the noise was deafening. If you didn’t hear it at full blast, you felt it vibrating through your body. Some of the men were firing machine guns. Like air hammers, and their faces shining. One of them, I saw drooling down his chin. My (male) instructor Buzz was patient with me. We started out with just lightweight practice pistols, then after a few months graduated to the Remington .44 Magnum (“most powerful hand-gun cartridge in existence”). Target shooting was like lovemaking with me, sometimes I hit the bull’s-eye, but most of the time I miss. There was no logic to it. There was no design. My own wishes had nothing to do with it. My heart kicked when Buzz brushed against me, breathed into my hair. My bad habit was flinching. And shutting my eyes when I pulled the trigger. Buzz scolded gently, “That’s how in actual life people get killed.” The human silhouette is the hardest. You shut your eyes, breathe, and fire.
HOW MOTHER DIED was never satisfactorily explained. Her new husband who’d been seven years younger than Mother claimed he returned home after a two-day trip and simply “found” her. She’d been dead, lying part-dressed on top of her bed, for approximately ten hours, during which time, he claimed, and phone records would substantiate, he’d called six times, and no answer except the answering tape. The coroner declared her death a “natural” death. Yet it would remain a “mysterious” death. For why would Mother have taken her nighttime dosage of barbiturate at midday, why would Mother who was fastidious about such things have lain down on rumpled bedclothes, why would Mother who was obsessive about her nails have had several broken, cracked fingernails, the polish chipped . . . ? My brother was more stunned by Mother’s death than I was. He spoke of hiring a private detective to look into it. I’d become more accepting, more fatalistic, like Kaho. The Asian stoicism.
Also as Dad said, “It was a tragedy bound to happen. Your mother’s taste in men.”
MIKAL HAD RETURNED to my life. I was trying not to be happy, hopeful. I did not believe I deserved happiness or even hope, if you knew my soul.
The primary responsibility of gun ownership is not gun safety but gun maintenance. Because you don’t have gun safety without gun maintenance. I learned this at the Ready-Aim-Fire Range. I purchased in their front office:
- pistol cleaning rod
- proper size patches
- brass bore brushes
- special cleaning rags
- new toothbrush
- gunsmith screwdrivers
- Lewis Lead Remover
- Bore light/mirror
- Hoppe’s No. 9 powder solvent
- bore oil
- bottle, bluing solution
Mother’s Detective Special, my inheritance, had not been cleaned in years. Maybe it had never been cleaned. I held it in my hand, my hand trembled. I kept the chambers loaded. But would this gun fire?
You never know, until you know. But remember: You DO NOT OWE YOUR ASSAILANT THE FIRST SHOT
MIKAL KISSED ME, and held my head pressed between his two hands in a way I’d remembered from years ago, and nobody else had done, ever. His kisses were like a child’s, anxious, hopeful, not sexual (not yet: for this, I was grateful). “So life has wounded you, too.” But mostly we didn’t talk. Years away from me, married to other women, he’d become lean and nervy as an eel. I could feel the life-current moving through him. “My love. My love.” Mikal’s face was creased vertically as if with tears. His hair was graying at the temples but otherwise had the sheen of satin-blue finish. He was married, but separated from his (mentally unstable, suicidal) wife, whom I had met once, years ago, and could recall only as a flaming, blinding blond light. He was separated from his (vindictive, threatening) wife but deeply bound to her, and to their single child, a (somehow troubled? disabled?) daughter, that was clear. “Oh, hey, don’t ask. Not yet.” Long hours we lay together gripping each other’s lean torsos, pressing cheeks together. Not speaking. Like survivors of a desperate swim across white-water rapids. In the drawer of my bedside table was the Colt Detective Special, still uncleaned, unoiled. I liked the idea, it was a sort of sexy idea, that, when I left Mikal to use the bathroom, he’d roll over and quietly open this drawer and see this mean-looking “man stopper.” My new custom-order ivory grip, glimmering out of the darkness.
BUZZ FROM the shooting range came by, a few times. Buzz, too, was “in a bad place, temporarily” with his wife and family. But Buzz was an ex-US. Army sergeant, and you see the world differently from that perspective. And if your name’s Buzz, from age two. Still, seeing the condition of the Detective Special, the corroded finish, Buzz looked as if he was going to cry. Like stepping on something, and it turns out to be a crushed fledgling bird. “Jesus Christ. How could you. Even you!’ (He meant, even a woman. I knew that.) When I touched his wrist, he threw off my hand. He was, in his own words, seriously pissed. But we made up. Seeing where I lived, Buzz was always impressed. Expertly he dismantled the gun on a sheet of newspaper on the kitchen table, like an autopsy. His big fingers were deft and, in their way, loving. Using the items I’d bought at the shooting range he cleaned my mother’s gun and reloaded it and clicked the safety on. “Always keep your safety on, see? When you’re not preparing to fire.” I thought there was something like a Zen koan in this, but I didn’t pursue it. Buzz was the most silent lover I’d ever known. Maybe the word is stoic. When he came it was like somebody stepping on a nail barefoot, determined not to cry out or even grimace. How I knew Buzz came, he’d stop what he’d been doing and roll off me. He said I had “real class” but I knew he didn’t respect me any longer, seeing the state of my gun. A gun in a bedside drawer like that, like a baby in its crib by Momma’s bed, neglected. He’d seen into my soul. A man knows.
G. G. SEEMED TO HAVE disappeared. Maybe seeing me with Buzz scared him off. Or he’d gone underground, in disguise.
THERE WAS a campaign by the mayor of New York and the superintendent of police of New York for citizens to “turn in your handguns at your local precinct, no questions asked.” Now the Detective Special was so beautifully cleaned and oiled I actually thought I might turn it in. I don’t know why: to free myself of Mother, maybe. But I was superstitious, reasoning, The day I turn it in, that night I’ll need it.
MlKAL OWNED an import business, leather goods, jewelry from Morocco. Or maybe (Mikal’s business life was mysterious to me, like his personal life) he was partners with someone. His shop was on Madison at Seventy-fifth. One of those elegant little shops with window displays like something at the Metropolitan Museum. But he was never on the premises when I dropped in. One day he called me, agitated. He had to leave for Morocco that evening. It was an unexpected business emergency. Could I meet him in the park? I’d have preferred my apartment, but Mikal had a romantic attachment to Central Park. We’d actually made love there, to a degree, behind some boulders, once. He was twenty minutes late but arrived half-running and smiling, eager as a boy. His skin was waxy and gave off a clammy heat. He hadn’t shaved for possibly two days. We held each other tight. So tight! I liked it, Mikal could feel my ribs, how slender I’d become and I knew he liked thin women. It was difficult to think such a precious moment wasn’t being filmed. That melancholy twilight time when lights are coming on all over the city. Headlights of vehicles moving through the park, street lamps, lights in high-rise apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue. In the west, flamey red streaks of the sun. And the rest of the sky dark roiling rainclouds. In Central Park there was a damp chill earth-smell. Rotted leaves, mulch. Dark glistening of tree trunks. Mikal and I were holding each other like swimmers who’ve staggered up on to shore neither knowing nor caring where we are. He wanted us to meet here so we can’t make love. Our parting will be spiritual. I respected Mikal for this though I wanted badly to lie naked with him a final time before he went away, and to feel him inside my body. Mikal kissed me, fierce and hard, pressing into my arms a valise of the softest, most beautiful Moroccan kidskin.”Keep this for me, darling. Don’t ask why. I love you.” I weighed the valise in my arms. It was moderately heavy. “What is it?” I asked, though possibly I knew. Mikal said, kissing me again, “Darling, I’ll know when I can ask for this back. When I can see you again, and love you. And we can be together permanently.” Mikal was backing away. His eyes were ringed with fever-fatigue. I felt that my heart was being torn from my body. There were no adequate words to call after my lover. Back in my apartment I opened the valise slowly. Until I actually see it, I won’t know. But I saw. Wrapped in a chamois cloth was a handgun with an unnaturally long barrel, about eight inches. Without touching it I saw it was a .45 semiautomatic AMT Hardballer, stainless steel frame and finish. I’d never seen a Hardballer before. It was a heavy gun, a man’s gun. I wondered why the barrel was so long. I guessed the gun had been carefully wiped down. I didn’t stoop to smell the barrel but rewrapped the gun in the chamois cloth. I shut up the valise and hid it away on a closet shelf with my other leather things. I had quite a collection, Mikal had given me things. He’d given me jewelry, too. I was feeling faint. A high ringing sound in my skull, unless it was a siren in the near distance. I wondered if I would see Mikal again. Maybe he would summon me to Morocco. I wondered if I would be questioned about Mikal, if anything had happened in his life to warrant my being questioned. I wondered if I would dispose of the gun but already knew probably I wouldn’t, how could I, that beautiful Hardballer. I just can’t.
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.