An Essayby Andre Dubus III
His name was Elmer Lamar Lowe, but we grandchildren called him Pappy. In his retirement he’d cultivated a vegetable garden that was the size of a small farm, and every day he was out there not long after dawn picking peas and tomatoes, or starting up the rototiller to carve furrows into the ground for a late-season planting of some kind, and if he wasn’t doing that he’d be taking his chainsaw to a tall jack pine that was crowding other pines, or he’d be demolishing the back door’s cracked brick steps he’d laid ten years earlier, swinging his sledgehammer down onto the brick and mortar he’d dump into a wheelbarrow and haul off to a junk pile behind his biggest workshop.
Our first morning there, my grandmother cooked us a breakfast of smoked sausage and grits and eggs and homemade biscuits, and my brother Jeb and I made the mistake of sleeping in until we smelled that breakfast, Pappy already up and working for over three hours. When he walked into the kitchen carrying a basket of green beans and tomatoes, his face gleaming with sweat, his work shirt damp with it, he eyed my brother and me sitting beside our sisters like we’d not only disappointed him but that he could already see what kind of lives we were going to have, and it was nearly too late to save us.
He set the basket down and sat at the table across from us. My grandmother, Fern, the daughter of a rice farmer, a wry and small-boned woman who prized physical labor as much as he did, slid a full plate in front of him, and he ate it slowly and quietly. Every now and then he’d swallow and glance over at one of my sisters and ask, “How’s school?” He’d nod his head at whatever he heard, though his eyes were on me and my still long-haired younger brother. I ate my breakfast quickly, but I felt as if I was the dog and Pappy was the collar.
My mother, still young and beautiful, a single mother since she was twenty-eight, was talking about taking us all down to the creek for a swim. But Pappy said, “Those boys are gonna work first.”
And that was that. But I could feel my brother stiffen beside me. He was fifteen then, and for the past two years he’d been teaching himself to play classical music on his guitar in his room eight to ten hours a day, sometimes longer. His long hair was frizzy and wild, and his cheeks and chin were covered with young whiskers he’d rarely shave. I still had not grown any myself, and I envied those whiskers. And I envied what my brother did and said next. “I can’t. I have to practice.” Then he stood and carried his empty plate to the sink and walked outside to the bunkhouse and his guitar and metronome and music books.
My face burned. I glanced over at Pappy and saw him shake his head once. Then he narrowed his eyes at me as if to say, “Well?” and I nodded and carried my plate to the sink and stepped out into the heat. I could smell the sunbaked concrete of the patio, the hot sheet-metal siding behind me, pine bark, and my own rising sweat. Because my mother and father had eloped and left Louisiana, finally settling in Massachusetts, where my father had found a teaching job and where my parents’ short marriage came to an end, I had spent very little time around my grandfather, nor had I known any of my uncles, and my father’s father died when I was a small child. Being around a man related to me felt new, and so waiting for my grandfather out under the July Louisiana sun felt like far more than waiting for just him.
And I didn’t have to wait long. Soon enough I was following him down the narrow path between the camp buildings and his two woodshops to his large garden in the sunlight. Standing on a patch of turned-over earth was a new-looking rototiller, and the rest of that week was an eye-stinging blur of endless work under a taunting sun, yanking on the rope of the tiller till it roared, then sliding it into gear and having to wrestle it through dry, stony ground, breathing its exhaust, the unrelenting gas moan of its guttural engine, Pappy showing me how to swing a sledge with my legs spread and my target—those back brick steps—just the right distance away so I didn’t come up short and break the handle or else stand too far away and swing the hammer down onto my own foot or shin bone. He taught me how to hold and start a chainsaw, its steel teeth spinning so fast along the cutting bar it was just a loud, clacking hum, and when I touched it to the trunk of a tall pine, bits of bark and yellow pulp flew into the air and I nearly closed my eyes and I had to grip tighter or get jerked into the tree I was killing.
Those entire two weeks it seemed that all I did was till and cut and haul, my T-shirt and jeans heavy with sweat, my palms newly blistered along the calluses I already had from lifting weights back home. And some time that first week, maybe even that first day, Jeb was working with me too, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, his drawn cheeks no longer pale for once but flushed with blood, and always there was Pappy standing off to the side watching us, his arms crossed over his chest, a wad of wintergreen chewing tobacco in his left cheek, and there was the feeling that I was competing against my own brother, even against myself, in a very important test, one that would determine something essential.
And then Pappy asked us to kill something.
Down Highway 8, past Big Dean’s Creek and the gas station and the roller rink across from it, was a back road that wound east through the pines and on it lived Pappy’s friend, Howard Keyes. He was older than our grandfather, and he wore denim overalls with no shirt on underneath, his skin deeply tanned from working out in the garden that was his primary source of food. His chest and arm muscles, though slackened with age, were still defined and showed a lifetime of hard labor, and Howard had few teeth, but he shaved every morning, always missing a patch of white whiskers here and there. Today we might describe Howard as being on the autism spectrum, but Pappy just called him slow, his friend who every time he said goodbye would lift his hand and smile and say, “Hope y’all good luck.”
But now Howard was not smiling, he was crying. This had to be Sunday, the only day Pappy did not work because since early that morning our grandfather had been stoking the fire under his smoker, a big steel cylinder on trailer wheels he’d built for smoking the brisket and chicken and sausages he was slowly cooking now, its barbecue hickory smoke drifting over the patio, where my brother and I sat in the shade of a pecan tree. Jeb was practicing chords on his guitar, and I was drinking a cold Falstaff from a can. From inside the house came the happy voices of my grandmother, mother, and sisters, the muffled snapping of peas, the drip of the air conditioner, and through the pines an occasional pickup or logging truck drove fast up Highway 8. My fingers and hands felt swollen from a week of nonstop physical work, but my muscles felt warm and ready for the next task, and there was the sweet, contented feeling that I’d earned this chair I was sitting in, that I’d earned the beer I was drinking, and all the good food that was soon coming, and Jeb had too. For while he still spent hours in the bunkhouse practicing his Bach Preludes, words and sounds that were a foreign language to me, something had made him put his guitar down and join me and Pappy out in the heat, something that he did not seem to need to do as much as I did, for it appeared to have neither added to him nor taken anything away, but I could see the grudging respect Pappy was giving to my brother every time he reached for his guitar.
Because it was Sunday, Howard wore his newest denim overalls and a faded blue button-down shirt beneath it. His thinning white hair was combed back, and as he stood near Pappy’s smoker crying and shaking his head, my grandfather just half nodded and turned over chicken breasts with a long fork, squinting into the heat and smoke.
By suppertime, Howard had stopped crying and he ate quietly and reverently at the end of the kitchen table. I wanted to ask my grandfather what was troubling Howard so much, but then Pappy drove him home, and I sat with my mother, sisters, and grandmother getting ready to play Rook, a card game we only played when we came down to Fishville. Outside the windows the pine trunks looked copper in the last of the sun, and Jeb was back in his room playing old European music to his metronome, the kitchen smelling like coffee and blackberry cobbler. I had just finished a plate of it and was standing to serve myself some more when Pappy walked in and said, “Andre.” He motioned me to follow him back to his bedroom, and I left the table and the card game and soon enough Pappy was reaching into his closet and pulling out a side-by-side 12-gauge shotgun.
He handed it to me along with a box of Winchester shells he pulled down from a shelf. I had never held a shotgun before, but I did not tell him this for he’d handed it to me the way a fellow worker would a sledgehammer or a chainsaw, just another tool every man surely knew how to use.
“Armadillos are getting into Howard’s garden. Y’all need to get down there tomorrow morning and shoot ’em.”
I held the shotgun in one hand and the heavy box of shells in the other. I felt I’d just been given permission to do a bad thing for a good reason, and well, I had no choice, did I? Besides, armadillos were ugly and looked vaguely sinister too, with their long noses and tails and the leathery bony plates of their hides. They’d probably been on the earth since the dinosaurs, and wasn’t that long enough?
Early the next morning, I laid the shotgun and box of shells in the backseat of my mother’s faded red Toyota sedan, and Jeb and I drove down Highway 8 toward Howard’s place. We had all four of our windows down, the road wind whipping Jeb’s long hair in his face, something he ignored as he looked straight ahead. His mind seemed to be on other things, the great music of Johann Sebastian Bach, most likely, but there was an almost erotic pulsing in my blood, and I could hardly wait to load both barrels of that shotgun and start killing the armadillos who were killing the garden that fed my grandfather’s friend. It had been a long time since I’d shot a gun, and I was looking forward to it.
The first time was when I was six years old. This was in 1965 just outside Iowa City, my father and me standing on dried mud behind our rented farmhouse. It may have been summer or winter, I don’t remember, only that the sun was high in the sky, and I could smell my father’s cologne as he leaned close to me, his palm under the grip of his .22 Colt revolver I held with both hands as he told me to close one eye and line up the sights at the fence post I was aiming at, to hold my breath and squeeze the trigger, not to pull it. But I did pull it and the pistol jerked in the loud bang that smelled like burnt metal, and my father was smiling down at me and taking his gun back.
He was twenty-nine years old then and still kept his hair as short as the ex-marine captain he was, his brown mustache thick as a cowboy’s. Later that afternoon or another afternoon, my father shot and killed a rabbit with that same pistol, and I held the rabbit’s warm legs as my father cut and peeled its fur off, the skin underneath thin and wet and purple, the dead rabbit shitting pellets down my arms.
My father also owned a rifle, and when I was eight or nine and we’d moved to New England and lived in the woods, my mother and father only a year or two from breaking up, my father taught me how to press the rifle’s stock into my shoulder and lean my cheek against it so that I could shut one eye and line up the sights on my target—a fat pine tree thirty yards away—and, again, hold my breath and squeeze the trigger.
This time I did squeeze it, and there was a crack in the air, the stock tapping into my shoulder as bark flew off that pine. My father praised the shot, but I didn’t need any encouragement. I loved holding a loaded gun in my hands. I loved shooting things. I loved watching how just the twitch of my finger could change things permanently far away from where I stood.
When I wasn’t watching The Rifleman on our black-and-white TV, I was watching soldiers in Vietnam getting zipped up into black bags, their eighteen- and nineteen-year-old bodies loaded onto helicopters to be flown back home. I watched Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, shot in their heads months apart. And I watched my father drive away from us through the woods, his car loaded with his clothes and books and gun. But I had a gun of my own, a Daisy BB rifle, and for months after my father left I walked through the woods looking for birds or squirrels or chipmunks, and I would aim at them and squeeze the trigger and I tried to kill them all.
Now Jeb and I were pulling up in front of Howard’s house. It had a front porch under a shingled roof, and the posts looked newly painted, the front and side yards freshly mowed. I left the shotgun in the car and knocked on Howard’s front door. There was no answer so we walked around to his garden out back, but he wasn’t there, either. I assumed he was on one of his long walks somewhere, and I was glad he wasn’t there; I couldn’t wait to load that shotgun and do what we came here to do.
Standing beside our mother’s car, I found the switch that opened the shotgun’s barrels on a hinge so it could be loaded. I asked Jeb to hand me a shell. It was red, and I was surprised by how heavy it was. I pushed it into the right barrel and then took another, my fingers trembling slightly as I pushed it into the left. I swung the barrels back up and locked the gun into place and made sure to keep it aimed at the ground. Jeb started to walk to the side yard, and I said, “No, I go first, remember? The guy with the gun is always in front.”
It was something our father had taught us, and walking ahead of my brother with that loaded shotgun into the rising heat of Howard’s open yard, I felt like I was stepping into the tracks of men who had come hundreds of years before me, hard, good men prepared to do a hard good thing.
It was still early, the sun on my face and neck as we crossed Howard’s side yard to a split-rail fence overgrown with kudzu. Off to the right stretched Howard’s vegetable garden, but something was drawing me to that fence and when we got there Jeb whispered, “See it?”
“No.” And then I did. On the other side of the fence was the biggest rabbit I’d ever seen, its fur brown and gray, its ears pricked at a danger he was beginning to sense too late for I’d already raised the shotgun and pulled the butt of the stock to my shoulder, leaned my cheek against it and sighted down the barrels, my finger squeezing the trigger, a bomb going off against my shoulder, the shotgun jumping then dropping onto the top rail of the fence. The air smelled like fireworks and good times, but lying in the grass twenty feet from where it had been sitting was the rabbit, a hole through his torso the size of a softball.
I have no memory of what my brother and I might have said to each other about this, though I know we stood at that fence a while staring down at the awful power of what I still held in my hands. I began to feel sorry for that rabbit and remorseful for killing it, but then I recalled how big he’d been, which meant he was one of the raiders of Howard’s garden, which meant that rabbit had deserved to die.
And now it was time to find what we came here for, those armadillos that had made old Howard cry. I cracked open the shotgun and pulled out the shell. I asked Jeb to hand me a new one from the box and he did, my fingers shaking now as I pushed the red slug into the right barrel. The sun was in my eyes and I was sweating, and we were already walking toward Howard’s garden when I swung the long double barrel back into position and an explosion flung the shotgun backward out of my hands. I looked down at my empty palms and fingers. I turned and looked at the smoking shotgun lying in the grass. Then I looked at my brother. He was standing six feet in front of me, his lips parted, his face pale, and just a foot to his left, half a fence post was gone, its splintered insides blond, nearly white.
My mouth filled with saliva and I had to bend over and rest my hands on my knees. I may have sworn at my brother then. I may have yelled at him for walking in front. But I knew it was my fault. Those two barrels should not have gone off, but it was an old gun, and dirty, and I was the man carrying it. I was the one who should have been paying more attention. But I hadn’t. And I’d nearly blown a hole through my only brother’s back.
I spit onto the ground, then picked up Pappy’s shotgun. It felt poisonous to me now. I carried it carefully and quickly back to our mother’s car. Jeb followed with the box of shells, and we drove fast back up Highway 8. We’d killed a rabbit, I could tell Pappy that. I could tell him what else had happened, but I knew I could not and would not.
When we got back to our grandparents’ place, I could see our grandfather out in the garden stooped over some plant, and I hurried inside with the shotgun and wedged it deep into the corner of the closet. I put the box of Winchester shells back on the shelf too, then I closed the door and I did not open it again.
Then for my nineteenth birthday my father bought me a rifle. It was a .22 caliber Weatherby made in Italy, and it had a lovely rosewood stock and a 24-inch barrel and a magazine that could hold enough rounds to do what had to be done. It also had a switch near the trigger so the shooter could decide if he wanted to make it a single-shot weapon or a semiautomatic, pulling the trigger until the magazine was smoking and empty and—and what?
It was a gift I did not want. Or need. Though that new rifle looked beautiful to me, the same way my father’s handguns looked beautiful—the silver gleam of his .38 snub nose, the flat, checkered grip of his .380 semiautomatic, the square barrel and sure weight of the 9 millimeter, the Old West echo of his Colt six-shooter. And it was fun shooting at cans and bottles, deeply satisfying when I hit them, which was often, and so I thanked my father for this rifle but I only shot it a few times at that quarry, and when I left home for college in Texas, I asked my father to keep it in his house until I returned.
Those years he lived in campus housing at the liberal arts college where he’d been teaching ever since we’d moved East, and since my sister’s rape, he’d set up a shooting target in his basement laundry room. The target was a red steel box, and he’d hang a paper target over its opening, one designed to absorb the shot and direct the bullet in a ricochet into the belly of the box. One day my father called me and asked me to come over. He was excited because he’d done a domestic chore with his hands, probably the first time he’d ever done such a thing, and he was proud, and we both laughed as he showed me the hook and eye lock he’d put on the inside door casing to the laundry room. There were three or four holes near the hook latch, his earlier attempts at lining it up with the eye, and I shook my head and asked him why he needed that lock in the first place. He stopped smiling and narrowed his eyes at me. He told me his wife Peggy had walked in with a basket of laundry just as he was getting ready to squeeze the trigger of one of his handguns. “And I almost shot her in the head.”
A few years passed, and it was early fall and I was moving to New York City with my girlfriend, Emily. She had a warm smile, spoke kindly to everyone she met, and was tall and blond with the erect posture of the skier and gymnast she’d once been. She also wanted to find work in the TV news business, and I had started to write and to act in local plays, so why not go see if I could do that where people did it seriously? Through a friend, we found an apartment to rent, and we loaded her car with our books and clothes and at the last minute I drove over to my father’s house for my rifle. My girlfriend told me that it was illegal to bring a firearm into the city, that doing so could get me a year on Rikers Island, but this was New York in the 1980s. In the first year of that decade alone, there were 1,814 murders. In the subway tunnels every year, thousands of felonies were committed on passengers, more than 14,000 in 1981. Forty-Second Street in Times Square was lined with peep shows, prostitutes, and drug dealers, and not long before learning all this, I’d read about a twenty-three-year-old actress who’d moved to New York City from Massachusetts. She was working and taking drama classes, and one night after coming back to her apartment from a Broadway show, a man jumped her and dragged her to the roof of her building and began chasing her with a knife. The news article said that people who lived nearby could hear her screams, they could hear her pleading with the man, and they heard her shout her name and apartment number over and over, something she’d been taught to do in self-defense classes. The neighbors finally called the police, but they could still hear the screams of the young woman as she tried again and again to reason with this man, and then they heard the worst screams of them all, and then nothing.
I put down my newspaper and stared at the wall. Why hadn’t they tried harder to help her? Why hadn’t they done anything? And I pictured being at the window of an adjacent building on a floor higher than that flat roof where this woman was trying to reason with what could not be reasoned with; I could feel the rosewood stock of my rifle against my cheek, could see the man’s shadowed face and head in the sights of my 24-inch barrel, could feel the squeeze of the trigger as the man dropped without a word, his knife harmless now, that desperate young woman free.
The apartment we were renting was on the Upper East Side on Eighty-Second Street between Lexington and Third. It was on the first floor, but it wasn’t a real apartment at all. It was the former building supervisor’s office and when we walked into that eight-by-thirteen-foot room, I couldn’t believe the rent they were asking us to pay for it. There was one window and a kitchenette with a mini-fridge, and just behind the door was another that held a tiny bathroom. My girlfriend and I looked at each other, shrugged, and moved in.
The last thing I carried in was my rifle. It was night now, our short cross street well lit, very few people on the sidewalks. I leaned into Emily’s car and grabbed the handle of the case that held my gun and bullets and hurried inside.
That first night we slept on the floor, but over the next few days we bought a couch and a mattress and I found a hardware/lumber store not far away, where I bought two-by-fours and plywood. It took me three trips to carry it all down the sidewalks to our building, but I got to work and built us a sleeping loft above our only window. Screwed into the concrete wall outside that window were black iron bars that could be swung open on a hinge, and I bought a padlock and locked it shut, then Emily and I managed to get that mattress up into our new loft that smelled like freshly cut plywood, the ceiling just two feet above us.
Beneath the loft I loaded books into our two bookcases, then made a desk out of a knobless interior door I’d found on a trash heap near the East River. I rested it on cinder blocks, then used more blocks to assemble shelves with pine boards across from our couch. We set our TV and stereo on those, wedged our remaining books in beside and around them, and Emily wanted to lay a throw rug down but she couldn’t find one narrow enough.
My rifle had been leaning in the corner of the room in its case near the barred window, but I began to imagine some man following my lovely girlfriend home from the bookstore where she’d found a job, and what if he was armed and I couldn’t get to my rifle fast enough? I had found a job working as a bartender in a midtown restaurant, and one afternoon before my night shift, I pulled my gun from its case and carried it up into our loft. I loaded the magazine with hollow points, pushed it into my rifle, set the safety catch, then laid it between my side of the mattress and the wall, an act that made me feel safer but also somehow more imperiled. Like I was asking for trouble doing this, and one day it would surely come.
Then it was summer, and we kept our window open, the black iron bars snaked with green ivy I would often stare at while sitting at my writing desk each morning. We both worked night and day shifts, and on those I had off and Emily did not, I would walk the length of Manhattan. I’d cut west through Central Park and take one of its trails down to Central Park South and the Avenue of the Americas, the sidewalks always crowded with people, every day in this city like the Fourth of July anywhere else. I tried to avoid bumping into passing men in business suits, women in business skirts or shorts and halter tops, little kids holding the hands of their tourist parents, an old homeless woman pushing all her belongings in her rusted luggage cart, and I’d pass Rockefeller Center, then head west for the towering neon madness of Times Square, men in red coats hawking theater tickets, a brown boy banging drumsticks on an upside-down plastic bucket, some drunk getting handcuffed by a young cop, prostitutes in net stockings and platform shoes on the stroll in front of triple-X movie houses, plastic crack vials snapping under my feet. I’d keep walking down the concrete canyon of Broadway past Herald Square, street musicians playing under the trees, where I could smell pot smoke and truck exhaust and hot pretzels from a vendor’s cart. I’d head south down Fifth Avenue and all its expensive shops, their plate-glass display windows set back in granite and trimmed with gold, manikins wearing suits and dresses and shoes that cost more than I made in months. I’d keep heading south, passing under the Washington Square arch into the park where couples would be lying together on blankets in the grass, smoking, listening to a jazz quartet of young musicians my age, or watching a shirtless man juggle bowling pins while riding a unicycle six feet tall. I’d pass through Greenwich Village and its open-air restaurants, their sidewalk tables full of men and women sipping wine and speaking languages from around the world. I’d walk by all the smoky jazz joints and Italian and French restaurants to Canal down through Chinatown, its streets crowded with people speaking Cantonese and Mandarin, a woman hawking potatoes and cabbage laid out in bins on long tables, a man sitting in a canvas kiosk selling Chinese newspapers and magazines, another man cleaving cooked ducks on a bench, then hooking their red carcasses on a rack alongside twenty or thirty others, the fresh stench of prawns laid out in trays of crushed ice beside large white fish stacked on top of one another like firewood. And I’d keep moving south, past the New York Stock Exchange and into Battery Park. In the shade of its many trees were junkies passed out like the dead. There were homeless men and women and children. There were often men kissing each other, an old woman in four overcoats curled up against a maple. And I’d make my way to the steel railing overlooking New York Harbor, and for once there was wide-open space and I could smell saltwater and feel the sun and I could breathe.
I’d look out over the bay to Ellis Island and then farther south to the Statue of Liberty, her arm raised in the air as if she’d like to make just one important point, if only someone would listen. I’d stand there at the southernmost tip of Manhattan and look out at the water as long as I could. I already wanted to leave New York. I was happy to know that this wild tangle of living history and humanity existed, but I hated living in it. I hated how crowded it was and that this city never quieted down or stopped, that even at four or five in the morning there’d be bar customers making their loud way home past our window, taxicabs shooting by all night, car alarms going off. I hated how expensive it was to live in this place, and I especially hated seeing so many homeless people in this city that held so many millionaires and billionaires. I did not know how much longer I would be here, and on one of these afternoons as I squinted out at the sun on the water I had to summon my will to walk back into the crowded human noise behind me, and then I was on Wall Street and I heard someone running behind me and a man shouting, “On the ground, motherfucker!”
Something slammed to the concrete, and I turned and there, five feet in front of me, was a teenager on his chest and stomach, a big man with a short red beard straddling his back. The man was breathing hard, and he was pressing a .38 revolver to the back of the kid’s head. The sidewalk was crowded with men in ties and three-piece suits, many of them carrying slim briefcases as they walked right by what was happening at their feet. The man on the kid’s back was in a denim jacket and jeans, his chest heaving, his finger curled against that trigger. I could see the brass rims of the bullets in the chamber, and it would be so easy for one of these stockbrokers to bump into this man and blow this kid’s brains out.
Then one stepped over the kid’s legs and kept walking, and for a flash of a second I pictured myself pushing the man off, but then I saw the silver handcuffs in a leather pouch on his belt. I saw the kid’s outstretched arm on the sidewalk and the paper bag he still held, as a dozen crack vials spilled out of it in the sunshine. The cop was sweating and he kept saying to the kid, the muzzle of his gun pressed to his head, “You motherfucker. You little motherfucker.” Then he pushed his gun into his shoulder holster and pulled out the cuffs, yanked the kid’s arms behind him, handcuffed him, and jerked him to his feet. The kid was a tall, handsome Latino, seventeen or eighteen years old, and he was staring down at the crack vials on the sidewalk as if they had betrayed him.
The cop was on a handheld radio now, and in no time uniformed cops were there too. One of them swept the drugs back into the dealer’s paper bag, and then they were gone and it was over, the sidewalk filled with only stockbrokers now. On my walk back to the Upper East Side, all I could think about is how I seemed to be the only one who had stopped and watched that scene play out. Was it because I wasn’t a New Yorker who saw that kind of thing fairly often? Or did it have more to do with how many drug busts and guns to the head we all see on TV and in the movies hundreds and hundreds of times every year? But that had been no show, and it would’ve taken very little for that .38 to have gone off, its zipping bullet piercing the skull of a boy none of us would ever know or care much about.
One night after one of these long walks, Emily working at the bookstore, I came back to our apartment, and it was dark and too quiet. I had just shut and locked the door behind me. There was only the dim light of the streetlamp coming through our barred window, and from the center of our shallow kitchenette there was the blinking red light of the answering machine. I pressed its button, and it was Emily. “Honey, I tried to—” Something slapped the back of my head and I wheeled around and threw a punch at empty air. There was a soft, frantic fluttering, and Emily’s voice in the dark was telling me about the bird in our apartment, how she tried to catch it but couldn’t. My heart was thumping in my throat and fingertips as I fumbled for the light switch, and there it was, sitting on my desk under our loft, a brown bird. I did not know anything about birds, but it was bigger than a pigeon and it was brown, its wings folded until I took a step forward and it launched itself into the air, the flapping of its wings surprisingly loud. It grazed the top of my head, and I ducked and now it was skittering along the top of the wall at the corner of the ceiling, its tiny clawed feet tap-scraping the plaster, a few feathers floating down to our couch.
I unlocked the door and jerked it open, then I grabbed our broom and tried to lightly swat the bird toward the doorway, but it swooped behind me and crashed into the TV, dropping to the floor on its side before it righted itself, its small head pivoting on its neck. I ran into the bathroom for a towel to throw over it, but when I came back out the bird was perched on the railing of our loft. I lunged at it with the broom and it dipped right for my face and now I was scared. Later, I would think back to this moment, that that’s when everything changed. When I began to fear this bird trapped in our apartment.
Now it was flying in tight circles above me. I put my back to the loft and raised the broom and tried to swat the bird once more toward the open door, but it plummeted and hurled itself along the top of the couch and into the crack of air between one of our bookcases and the wall. For a second there was stillness and quiet, and I couldn’t believe it had been able to squeeze into that narrow space. I thought it must have broken its neck. But then came the soft and muffled struggle of its wings. It was clear it couldn’t open them, and their futile movement sounded to me like the strangled beats of a heart where there should not be one and it was terrifying and I just wanted this bird gone and that’s when I remembered my rifle.
I dropped the broom, climbed the ladder to the loft, and grabbed my gun. The hallway outside our doorway was empty. I swung the door closed, lifted the rifle, flicked the safety off, then aimed at that muffled flutter of folded hollow bones against books and plaster and I squeezed the trigger, a loud crack in the air like news of some sudden but eternal admonishment. There was a slight ringing in my ears, the spent shell scent of hot metal, and now all was truly still and truly quiet.
I lowered my rifle and set it down. I stepped over the towel on the floor and moved past the broom on the couch and put both hands on the top corner of my bookcase and dragged it away from the wall. There came the thump of the bird hitting the floor. I switched on my desk lamp and pulled the bookshelves back. On the floor the dead bird looked smaller than it had earlier. On the second highest shelf of my bookcase, bits of the bird’s feathers were stuck to spots of bright blood on my hardcover Faulkner, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Then something made me look at the wall facing the street. It was the severed cord of our clock radio, the bullet having passed through it into the Sheetrock and brick beyond. I thought how reckless I’d just been. I thought of how a .22 bullet left the barrel at 1,300 feet per second and how it could go over a mile before it stopped. And how did I know it couldn’t have made it through Sheetrock and mortar between two bricks into the chest or head of a fellow human being just walking by? I was tempted to look out the window but did not.
I got down on my hands and knees, reached under my desk, and unplugged the live cord lying on the floorboards. In the kitchenette I grabbed a handful of paper towels and a plastic garbage bag, then I crawled behind the bookcase, laid the paper towels over the dead bird, wrapped my hand around it, and picked it up. The bird felt heavier than I would’ve thought, its small head and beak lolling back as I stuffed it quickly into the garbage bag. I backed out on my hands and knees, and then I was outside on the—thank God—vacant sidewalk, pushing the wrapped bird deep into one of the trash barrels that would be emptied the following morning. I looked up and down Eighty-Second Street. There may have been a few people coming and going, but nobody seemed to notice or care what I was doing, and I hurried inside, where I took more paper towels, wetted them under the faucet, then squatted behind the bookcase and scrubbed the blood and feathers off my books. I wiped the floor, pushed the bookcase back to the wall, then stuffed those damp paper towels deep into the trash bucket under the sink.
On a shelf there I found a roll of electrical tape, and I took one of our sharpest knives and used it to slice and peel back the rubber coating on the alarm clock cords, twisting the wires back together then wrapping the black tape tightly around the copper wires until they were completely covered once again. I crawled back under my desk and plugged in the cord. Then I picked up the towel off the floor, put away the broom, and carried my rifle back to its place on my side of the bed.
Emily would not like what I’d done. I was considering maybe lying to her, telling her that the bird had left the way he clearly had to have come in, through one of those spaces between the black iron bars in front of our open window. And that is when, as I laid my rifle down, I remembered the padlock I’d put on those bars. That’s when I remembered the small key on my desk that would’ve unlocked that padlock and allowed me to swing open those iron bars through the ivy, would have allowed me to make a three-by-four-foot-tall opening to the outside air that bird surely would have sensed and flown to and away.
I lay down on my mattress and stared at the ceiling two feet from my face. I thought about that a long time, that the mere presence of my loaded and illegal rifle had called me to it, had blinded me to a more creative and humane solving of my problem. The fact that it existed presented an option that let my fear of that bird shut something down inside me and reach for the easiest and most final solution. I thought of nuclear weapons then, of how messy and difficult and compromising diplomacy was, of how much easier and cleaner it would be for a man or woman not so different from me to just push that damn button.
When Emily climbed into bed hours later, she woke me and asked how I had freed the bird. I lay there, not sure whether a lie would come, or the truth. Then she asked why the alarm clock was blinking and why it was hours behind, and I told her the whole story, and she spoke very little to me for days. The last thing she said to me before falling asleep, her back to me, was, “I can’t believe you killed it.”
A week later an Iranian friend of mine from college visited. Over a pitcher of beer at a bar on Third Avenue I told him the story of my gun and the bird. My friend shook his head. He stroked his mustache and looked out the window at the taxicabs rushing by on the street. He shook his head again. “My brother, in my country, if a bird flies into your home it is an angel who has come to bless you.” My friend looked back at me, his eyes dark with worry. “And you killed your angel.”
The summer of 1989, I married my wife, Fontaine, and now, six years later, we already had two of what would become our three children: a three-year-old son and a newborn daughter. My father’s third marriage was over, but it had given him two more daughters, the oldest thirteen and the youngest eight. As I stood at the foot of my father’s bed, fitting a trigger lock onto his 9-millimeter, I could hear their laughter behind the closed bedroom door and down the hallway. It sounded like they were playing with my son and taking turns holding our baby girl, and I was thinking once again how I still owned that .22 rifle and that it was time to get rid of it.
Fontaine and I lived nine miles east in Newburyport, an old shipping town at the mouth of the Merrimack River, and we were renting a narrow half-house with two bedrooms and one bathroom. It had an unheated attic that I used for my writing room, and there was a closet where I kept my unloaded rifle zipped up in its case. But my son was growing so fast, and it was only a matter of passing days and nights before he’d find it, I was sure, taking it out and playing with it, maybe discovering its bullets and—no—kids and guns just did not mix. It was past time to sell it.
My father felt the same way. He had just written an essay called “Giving Up the Gun,” and it was to be published the following winter. In it my father writes about my sister being raped at knifepoint, though in the essay he simply describes her as “someone he loved.” He goes on to write how he went to his local police chief “and told him I wanted a license, and that my father had taught me to shoot, and the Marine Corps had, and I would safely own a gun, and no woman would ever be raped if I was with her. I cursed and wept and he was sympathetic and said he would immediately start the background investigation by the state.” My father was given a Massachusetts license to carry. “In the space on the card for occupation, a police officer had typed Author; in the space under Reason for Issuing License, he had typed Protection.”
My father goes on to describe living the next thirteen years as an armed man. He writes how at first he only carried a gun when he was on a date with a woman in Boston, but then he began to carry it elsewhere, then nearly everywhere, and the essay culminates where my father’s armed life culminated, in his pointing his loaded derringer at a college kid who’d pulled a knife on a young black man and kept calling him “nigger.”
This happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1985. My father was less than a year from being run over, and he and his young family were there because he’d been invited to be writer in residence at the University of Alabama for the fall semester. In his essay, my father writes of that night: “To his right, some young white men were telling him not to do this; but to me, they were as distant as campus buildings hundreds of yards away. I still do not know how many of them stood there. My hand aiming the gun was steady and I said loudly: ‘Put away the knife.’
“He looked at me, recognized me, and said: ‘Fuck you.’ ”
This became a standoff that ended only when the young man’s friends talked him down, the cops on the way, but my father was shaken, for he’d come very close to killing someone, a drunk college kid, at that.
Later that night he called me, the bedside phone ringing in his own bedroom. Emily and I had not yet moved to New York City, and we were house-sitting that fall for my father and his wife. It was a good way to save money, which I was doing working five shifts a week as a bartender at a roadhouse a mile away. Because my father lived out in the country, I didn’t like leaving Emily alone so I’d given her my father’s .38 snub-nose to keep close by until I got home each night. She had grown up in a military family and was comfortable around guns and said little as I set it in the drawer of the bedside table under her reading lamp. When the phone rang it was after midnight, and while I don’t remember my father’s exact words, I do remember this: “I pulled my gun on a man tonight, son. I just needed to talk about it.” His voice sounded high in his chest, like it did when he was passionate about something, like any story by Anton Chekhov or when he was spent and beyond tired, all his reserves gone.
I asked him what happened, and he told me, and I think I told him he’d done the right thing, that that racist son of a bitch might have stabbed that young black man. I know I said something like that, but what I did not say was “of course.” I had not yet shot that bird in our apartment, but I had already begun to sense that guns, especially loaded ones, call us to use them. And more than once that fall, when I came back to my father’s house at 2 a.m. after a night shift at the bar, I’d hope the sound of my key in the door lock would be a signal of safety to my sleeping girlfriend and that she would not be in the shadows in her nightgown aiming a loaded .38 at my chest.
On the bed now, installing those trigger locks, my father had moved on to that Argentinean single-shot rifle. Beneath the barrel was the tube that held dozens of rounds, and he had just pulled it out to make sure it was empty and now he began to reach for the lock, the butt of the rifle’s stock pressed against his upper leg, the barrel pointing at the ceiling. I had just finished with the 9-millimeter, and I was getting ready to lock the .32-20 revolver. It was a heavy gun, and I always liked its balanced weight in my hands. I grabbed a new lock, pulled it apart, and began to fit both pieces onto the trigger guard, and I recalled that fall when Emily and I had lived in this house. She was gone somewhere, and I was sitting at my desk in the basement bedroom working on what would become my novella, The Cage Keeper. In the climax of the story, one of the main characters is shot by a .32-20, and I wanted to try to capture the sounds of those shots, then I remembered that my father owned one in this very house, and I was walking upstairs and into my father’s empty bedroom, pulling his gun box out from under the bed. I found the .32-20, loaded the chamber, then I was outside under the sun, pointing the gun at the ground and pulling the trigger fast three times—thack, thack, thack. Those are the words that came. But as I turned to hurry back inside to my writing desk, I could see through the trees my father’s neighbor and his wife and a few friends sitting on their rear deck, all their heads turned toward this young man who’d just shot live ammunition not thirty yards from where they sat. I had wanted to stop and explain myself, to perhaps utter some words of apology, but instead I rushed back inside the house, the word thack in my head.
A .22 being fired is no louder than a firecracker or a big man slapping his hands together at a microphone, and that was the sound that filled my father’s bedroom as he pushed the trigger guard into place, the smell of cordite in the air. I looked down at him. He was as still as an image in a photograph, his eyes on the small hole in the ceiling three feet beyond my head. Then he looked at me, and I looked down at the barrel of his rifle. It was still pointed at an angle toward the ceiling, and I could see that I’d been standing directly in its path, and if my father had lowered it only two or three inches, that small hole would have been in my forehead.
I have no memory of what words passed between us then. My father may have apologized, or maybe I did for standing where I had been, but what comes more clearly is my father’s deeply reddened face, the way he lowered the rifle and looked down at the locked and unlocked guns around him as if they were scorpions he had once considered pets.
I felt oddly calm, but my mouth was drier than it had ever been. I told my father I was going to get us some glasses of water, and I laid the locked .32-20 on the bed, then left my father’s bedroom and moved quickly down the hallway, for all I wanted to do was to find, and to hold, my children.
Ten years had come and gone. My father had died of a heart attack at age sixty-two, and my third published book had become a bestseller, and for the first time in my life I had money and I was able to build our first home. Fontaine and I had three kids now, Austin, twelve, Ariadne, ten, and Elias, eight, and we were still renting that narrow half-house in Newburyport. It had one small bathroom, the floor beside the bath so rotted that there was a hole where you could see exposed joists beneath it, the water from our showers dripping down the kitchen wall below, buckling the faded yellow wallpaper that had been there for decades. There were two other rooms downstairs, and because this was a half-house, there were windows only on one side, and so the rooms were always in shadow, the paint of their ceilings curled and peeling. On the worn floors were carpets that had been there since long before we moved in, and no matter how many times Fontaine vacuumed and washed them, they still held dust mites that nearly closed our oldest son’s eyes and made him sneeze day and night. In the living room a few of the windowpanes were cracked, and my elderly landlord promised to come replace them but never did, though he finally did do something about the exterior lead paint flaking off the clapboards outside because I threatened to call the state on him if he didn’t.
One late afternoon, as I pulled into the driveway after one of my college adjunct teaching jobs down in Boston, a crew of three men was nailing vinyl siding onto our home. It was starkly white and smelled like plastic and it was like covering up a lie with yet another lie, but at least now our kids were safe from being poisoned in their own yard.
Still, this neglected, dark, and cluttered half-house we’d lived in for eleven years was as good as, if not better than, a lot of places I’d lived in growing up with my brother, two sisters, and single mother. At least its street and neighborhood were safe, nobody yelling late into the night, nobody fighting or picking fights, no loud motorcycles or lowriders driving by fast at three in the morning, an empty bottle thrown out the window at whatever would smash it to bits.
But Fontaine was unhappy in that place, something I’m ashamed to write I did not see clearly until we’d finally moved to the house I hired my brother to design and that he and I and a rotating crew of friends and family built over three years. We built it on a two-acre lot of woods only a mile or so from where we’d been living, and to make room for it, I had to cut down dozens of trees and then blast and haul off nine hundred tons of rock. By the time all the permits were in place, it was December, the coldest winter in a hundred years, but we started framing anyway. There’s more to this story, and I’ve written about it elsewhere, but after record-breaking winter cold and record-breaking spring rains and record-breaking summer heat, my carpenter, Tom Dolan, climbing a ladder and looking over his shoulder under a berating sun, said, “What’s next? Locusts?”
But now, after three years of working six days a week, ten hours a day, on this house, it was done, and it was move-in day—not for us—we would move in two weeks later, but for my wife’s mother and father.
Fontaine and I never talked about it privately, but whenever we visited her aging Greek parents eighty miles south, after we’d eaten the Sunday dinner my mother-in-law, Mary, had cooked for us all, after she’d served us pie and ice cream or her homemade baklava, our kids would play in the small living room of my in-laws’ apartment, and we four adults would linger at the table, sipping coffee and talking about whatever came up, family mostly, or our jobs—Fontaine as a dance instructor and artistic director of her own modern dance company, me as an adjunct writing professor and self-employed carpenter—and nearly always I’d hear myself saying, “If we ever own a house, there’ll be an apartment in it for you two.”
I’m not sure why I kept saying this. Maybe just because I was so fond of them, especially my mother-in-law; Mary was a petite, warm, and vivacious woman, a first-generation American who grew up in Boston, one of eight children her mother raised alone after her husband died in his forties. Mary had a thick Boston accent and treated everyone with respect, and when she smiled, which was frequently, her eyes became two upside-down crescent moons, and she looked at you as if you were the finest person she’d ever met. Maybe that’s why I kept promising them an apartment near us. Or maybe it was how Mary often spoke of how much she loved the coastal town where we lived, that she was sorry she and her husband, George, had ever left there years earlier. Or maybe it was the sad light in her eyes when we all hugged and kissed her goodbye, and she’d say, “I wish we all lived closer to each other.”
My wife’s father, George, was a man who spoke fluent Greek and had worked his entire life as a small businessman in the Midwest and New England. His parents had emigrated from Greece, and he was born in Chicago in 1919, just two years after his sister. But their father died young, and my future father-in-law was just ten years old when one morning after a gunfight in the street outside their home—between Al Capone’s men and another gang, my father-in-law always said—his newly widowed mother, dressed in black, walked out to the oak tree on their sidewalk, stuck her finger into each of the fresh bullet holes in the bark, then turned to her small children and said, “That’s it. We’re going back to Greece.”
George lived there until he was old enough to be drafted into the Greek army. But it was the 1930s now, and Hitler was on the rise, so George stowed away on an Italian cruise ship and made his way back to America, where he eventually met Mary, and they married just before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. George enlisted and served in the army all through World War II. He was stationed stateside and one of his duties was to lay mines in Boston Harbor for German submarines. Between that war and the next, Mary and George had a son and a daughter, my future wife’s older siblings, and George took their photographs with him to Korea, where he was a supply sergeant on the front at the Thirty-Eighth Parallel. Decades later, he showed me black-and-white photographs of blown-up Jeeps and turned-over trucks and dead dogs on the frozen ground. He told me of a young Korean woman crying and pushing a baby at them as they marched by, a little girl wrapped in blankets.
It seemed that George was always showing me things. Sometimes on those Sundays, after dinner, he and I would walk out to the parking lot for some air. My father-in-law was small boned but had a deep, resonant voice and a midwestern accent he’d gotten from living in Chicago as a boy. He also wore thick glasses, and for his entire adult life he had worked for himself—co-owning a bar in Indiana, delivering pressed linens to restaurants in and around Boston, then later, running a fruit and vegetable stand north of the city. But he’d never made much money doing this, and this affable man in his eighties who was my wife’s father often appeared to me as a man who’d like just one more crack at it. Give him the chance, and this time, this time he’d come out ahead.
We’d walk out to his old delivery van, and he’d reach inside and pull out a worn handball glove, smiling at me. “Yeah, I was in shape. I was in shape.”
He’d show me other things, a framed newspaper story of his father, a successful entrepreneur in Chicago. The headline read Dollas Leases Friedman Building, and beside this hung a black-and-white photograph of a handsome young man in a coat and tie, his black hair combed back, staring into the camera as if he had little time for this, for he had an empire to build.
“My father was somebody. He was—” Sometimes George wouldn’t finish what he had to say, but it was hard to miss the boy inside him comparing himself to the man in the photograph in that framed and aging newsprint.
One Sunday afternoon after dinner he walked me out to the hallway of the apartment complex to his and Mary’s extra closet. Winter coats and suit jackets hung in there, and beneath them were stacked taped cardboard boxes. But George was reaching up to the shelf above, then he was holding an old cigar box and pulling out a small semiautomatic handgun. Its short barrel was silver, and it had pearl handgrips, and the magazine that held the bullets was in that handle, where it should not have been.
“Is it loaded?”
“Sure, I always keep it loaded.”
I could also see that the safety was off, but before I could say anything more, he smiled and closed the box and pushed it back onto the shelf. “I used to carry cash. That’s why I bought it.” George locked the closet door, and we both walked back into his and Mary’s apartment, my and Fontaine’s three young kids looking up at us from the couch as we came through the door, their father and grandfather, their protectors.
That night, back home and lying in bed, I told Fontaine about her father showing me his loaded gun, and how I felt like a coward because I hadn’t asked him to switch the safety on and to keep it unloaded. She said that when she was growing up he’d always had that gun, that one weekend afternoon when she was sixteen, she and her twin sister were sitting on the couch of their apartment watching TV, and their father walked into the living room carrying his pistol, saying something about it she couldn’t quite hear. Then he walked past the TV, slid open the glass door to their small third-story balcony, and stepped outside. A second later came the shot, George backing into the room, his face drained of color. He said he thought it wasn’t loaded, that he shot into the air, but he thought it wasn’t loaded.
When we asked my brother Jeb to also design an apartment for George and Mary, we told him that this would probably be their final home on this earth, and that we wanted it to be as nice as possible. (Nice was a word that Mary used a lot, and in those days I found myself using it a lot too.) Their apartment would be on the first floor with no steps to climb, and they would have an open kitchen and dining room, two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a large living room beneath ours, and six-foot windows to let in the light from their back screened porch. In the last weeks of construction, Fontaine helped me lay the floors and paint the walls, and I tiled the bathrooms with tiles Mary and I picked out together. Now, after all this work and more, it was moving day, but all I kept thinking about was how I did not want my father-in-law’s gun in our house.
I already knew how a gun’s very presence draws you to it, and years earlier I’d read a statistic that if you own a handgun, you are four hundred times more likely to get shot. There was also Fontaine’s story about her father and his gun, and there was him showing it to me, fully loaded and with the safety off. I kept picturing him mishandling it and firing a round through his ceiling into where his grandkids lived. Or I pictured my kids finding it, and then I wouldn’t allow myself to picture anything else. No, the spacious apartment on the first floor of our new home was George and Mary’s, but I could not allow him to bring that loaded gun with him.
But how was I going to tell him? How was I going to do it with the proper blend of respect and steadfastness? How would I do it without humiliating or emasculating him? This old man aging in a culture that patronizes and warehouses and dismisses the elderly? What was I going to say to him, and how would I say it?
Move-in day was a cold Saturday in February, the sky clear and blue. For nearly the past two years, George and Mary had been living with their son and daughter-in-law just a few miles from where we were building our new home. My brother-in-law, Chris, seventeen years older than my wife, was a warm, caring, and deeply likable schoolteacher, and on that morning when I was dreading telling George what I had to tell him, Chris and I and his two grown sons began to load up the U-Haul I’d parked in their driveway. George helped too. He was in his mideighties and walked with a limp, but throughout that morning he’d come out of the house in a cap and his winter coat and light gloves carrying a taped box, or a lamp, or a kitchen chair he held with both hands, his glasses slipping down his nose.
George and Mary did not own a lot, but I’d rented too small a truck, so now we would have to do two loads. It was late morning, and I could feel the sweat cooling under my clothes. My nephews were already on their way to my house in the older one’s pickup, and my father-in-law was about to get into his son’s car when I called to him, “Hey, George. Want to ride with me?”
He looked over at me and pushed his glasses up his nose, then he smiled and nodded and now he was buckled in beside me in the U-Haul, my heart beating in my fingertips as I followed my brother-in-law’s car down the road. We passed clapboard houses, their small yards covered with an inch or two of snow. A plumber’s van sat in one driveway, a covered motorcycle in another, and behind these houses was a stand of pines, their green limbs dusted white. Then we were crossing an old stone bridge, the brook below gurgling beneath ice, its banks lined with hardwoods whose bare branches caught the sun. George and I were making small talk of some kind, and I knew there were only a few more miles to go before I would turn down our long gravel driveway in the woods, and this could very well be my one chance with my father-in-law, so I turned to him and said, “George, I need to talk to you about something.”
I’m not sure if these were my exact words, but George turned to me, his eyes large behind his thick glasses, then said in his low and resonant voice, “Yes?”
“I can’t have a gun in my house.”
At first he looked confused, as if he thought that I was thinking of buying a gun and then had changed my mind. Or was I talking about his gun? Yes, I was, wasn’t I? I was talking about his gun. He parted his lips to speak, but I cut him off and began to talk too fast about too much all at once. I told him how I’d grown up with guns, that I shot my first one when I was only six years old. I reminded him that my father had been a marine and had owned quite a few guns himself, that when I turned nineteen he’d bought me a rifle, which I owned until Fontaine and I had our kids and how I’d sold it on the same day my father sold all his handguns. And while I did not tell George the details of that afternoon, I remembered driving my father up to the Trading Post in Kittery, Maine, on a lovely fall afternoon. This wasn’t long after the day we’d both put trigger guards on his guns and my father nearly shot me in the head. I remembered pushing my father in his wheelchair across the trading post parking lot, his lockbox of handguns across his lap, my .22 rifle and his Argentinean pump resting across the wheelchair handles behind his shoulders and head. I remembered how my father, cheerful and expansive, his thick beard neatly trimmed, wheeled up to the glass gun case, lifted his box of guns onto it, and said to the salesman in a heavy wool shirt, “I don’t care what you give me for these, I just want enough to buy a new coat.”
I was used to this kind of generosity-fueled financial recklessness from my dad, but I stepped up with the two rifles and said, “He’s kidding. We’ll take market value for everything.”
I did not tell my father-in-law any of this, but as I steered down the road that was taking us closer to our new home, matted salt marshes stretching out to the west and the east, I missed my dead father deeply and, again, I could feel the attraction I still had for these well-made objects called guns, but more, there was the iron-fused belief that they were the worst that our collective human ingenuity had ever invented, that they could bring about only pain and blood and loss.
I wanted to say more to my father-in-law. I wanted to tell him how I almost cut Jeb in two with a shotgun. I wanted to tell him how I’d risked prison to take my illegal rifle to New York City to protect my girlfriend and perhaps any woman running from a madman with a knife. There was so much I wanted to tell George, but now he was staring at me like he was stunned that I was actually saying this to him, that I was giving him an order of some kind, that I didn’t trust him.
“But I always keep it locked up.”
I pictured the cigar box in which he kept his loaded semiautomatic, the closet he’d locked it in.
“But there aren’t any locks on your new closets, George, and even if there were, it’s still too dangerous.”
“Well, I’ll buy a gun box.” George’s tone of voice concerned me, for he sounded anxious, as if I, his son-in-law, was backing him into an unfair corner.
“I’m sorry, George. This is going to be your and Mary’s apartment, not ours, but I just can’t have a loaded gun in the house. Not with young kids. I just can’t.”
“Well, then, I’ll keep it unloaded.”
“No, I’m sorry. I can’t have it.” My face heated. Chris’s van was taking the turn onto our road, a narrow asphalt lane that curved through woods, the winter sun shining onto bare oaks and maples, a few lone pines among the thickets as if they’d been left behind to take some sort of stand.
“But.” George’s voice was higher now than I’d ever heard it, and he seemed to be sitting back against the seat as if he was being held there. “What if Mary and I want to fly to Florida to visit family? I’ll need that gun.”
“They wouldn’t let you bring it on the plane anyway.” I began to feel like a bully, as if I were boxing old, frail George, and he was too easy to hit, but I kept hitting him anyway. I wanted this conversation to be over, and I was surprised by how much George wanted—no, needed—that gun. But why should I be? I had grown up knowing physical danger all too well, and once I’d changed my body from soft to hard, once I’d learned how to throw a punch that could knock a man down, I could forever feel that nascent punch in my right hand and hips and feet like a loaded pistol in my pocket.
“But you’re well-known now,” my father-in-law said. “What if somebody tries to rob you?”
“Then we’ll take him on with baseball bats, George. I’m sorry. I just can’t have it.”
I turned off the road onto our long gravel driveway and followed my brother-in-law’s car. His sons were already unloading their pickup, and my elderly mother-in-law was holding the door for them and smiling widely in her wool winter coat. She had been waiting for this day for a long time, as had her husband, and I was putting a damper on it all.
We spent an hour or so carrying George’s and Mary’s things into the various rooms where they belonged. Then we drank glasses of water Mary poured for us from a jug in her new refrigerator. On her kitchen table was a vase of roses my wife had gotten her. Tied to the back of one of the stools at the peninsula were red, white, and blue helium balloons floating above the heads of my nephews, one of whom was laughing loudly about something, Mary reaching up and pinching her grandson’s cheek. The sun was shining through her tall front windows across her brand-new floor, and the air itself felt celebratory, but George, still in his coat and hat, sat quietly at the table and he kept looking over at me from behind his thick glasses like he still couldn’t believe I was doing this bad thing to him.
It was time to head back to my brother-in-law’s for the second and last load. Chris asked his father whom he was riding with, but I answered before he could. “He can ride with me.”
Then George and I were driving back down the driveway in the U-Haul, and I was about to tell him that I meant no disrespect, that if we didn’t have kids then maybe I wouldn’t feel so strongly about this. But I knew that was a lie. I still didn’t want a loaded gun in our home, especially in the hands of this old man who years ago accidentally shot it into the air over a town full of people. But as I made the turn onto asphalt, George said, “I’ll keep it in pieces around the house.” His voice sounded pleading now, its normally low resonance gone. I started to shake my head.
“Then I’ll bury it in the yard.”
“What if one of my kids finds it?”
“I’ll bury it in pieces.”
I accelerated down the road, then looked over at him. His wool hat was pulled low over his ears, and he was staring at me from behind his thick glasses, and I was beginning to feel like the thief of whatever virility he had left.
“I’m sorry, George. But I’m not going to change my mind on this.” Up ahead the early afternoon sun lay across the railroad tracks, its steel rails glinting dully as I drove over them. I could feel George’s eyes on me. I glanced over at him, and he nodded his head once. It was as if I’d shown him something about me he should have seen earlier but had not, and now that he had, he didn’t like it. He didn’t like it one bit.
The rest of the drive was quiet, too quiet, and I wished the radio worked, but it did not. Finally we were driving up the steep paved driveway to my brother-in-law’s house. My wife’s father turned to me. “All right. It’s your house. But can I at least keep it tonight?”
“You people haven’t moved in yet. Please. Let me keep it tonight.”
He was referring to him and Mary being in a big house in the woods alone. He was referring to wanting to keep them safe, but my mind went to a dark place, to old George just ending it all on his own terms in this brand-new apartment we’d built for him and his wife of more than sixty years.
His eyes were big behind his glasses, and I could hardly bear how much power this man—born forty years before me—had just given me. “Sure, no problem.”
I told him he could give it to me the next day, Super Bowl Sunday, when I would pick him up and drive him over to our rented half-house, where we would watch the game with my two young sons. I went on to tell him that I had a friend who had a license to carry and he could sell it for us, but George was already out of the truck and walking back to his grown son’s house.
More than an hour went by, but there was no sign of George. Chris and my nephews and I had loaded the rest of George and Mary’s possessions into the pickup and U-Haul, and as I finished wrapping a moving blanket around Mary’s large living room mirror, I asked my brother-in-law where his father was. Chris just shrugged and said, “Resting, I guess.”
Again, my mind went to a dark place, but this time I imagined old George coming out of Chris’s house, only to aim that loaded gun at the man who was taking it away from him, then squeezing his trigger until that man lay dead in the back of his rented U-Haul.
I was pulling the van’s sliding door down into place when George walked across his son’s concrete patio to where we were. His wool cap was pulled low over his ears, his glasses fogging up slightly, and with both hands he held that cigar box in front him as if it carried the ashes of his ancestors.
On the drive back, George kept his eyes on the road, both hands folded over the box on his lap. He was sitting straight in his seat, but he looked smaller somehow. The air between us was heavy and still. I was tempted to fill it with small talk, maybe about the football game the next day, but to do that would be like chatting mindlessly over an open casket at a wake, for that’s what this ride felt like: my elderly father-in-law was in mourning; he was mourning the last bit of potency he had left.
The next day was cold, and I spent it inside playing with our kids, catching up on bills, cooking chili to eat during the game. Fontaine told me that her father and mother had both been in church that morning with her, and then she had gone over to their new home and helped her mother for a while, but all day long I kept hearing George’s voice in my head: Please. Let me keep it tonight. Please. Let me keep it tonight. Now the sun was going down and it was time to go pick up George and collect his loaded gun.
On the short drive over there, I decided to keep it locked in my truck until the following day, when I’d drive it over to my friend who would sell it for us. I felt determined yet guilty, sure of what I was doing but also wishing somebody else were doing it. But who would that be? I was my children’s father. It was my job to protect them. It was my job to keep them safe. And did it matter if someone got hurt in some way while I was doing this?
Then I was turning down the gravel driveway of this house I’d been building in the woods for three years, Mary and George’s front porch light on, their brown Buick parked up against it as if it was meant to be there. Beyond that rose the concrete retaining wall and hill covered with snow, the deep stand of pines and maple, the sky purple and red through the bare branches of the hardwoods. Standing in the lit windows of their new kitchen was Mary, smiling and waving at me. And George was already stepping outside in his cap and coat, that cigar box under his arm as he pulled the front door closed and started to make his way over to my truck. I turned the truck around, then got out and walked to the front of my hood and said, “Hey, George. Ready for the game?”
He didn’t say anything, just kept walking toward me, his eyes on the uneven gravel and patches of ice under his feet. When he was close enough, he raised his head to me and held out the box. His glasses were fogged again, and I took the box with both hands. It felt lighter than I would’ve thought. “Thank you.” I felt I should say more, but what?
George said, “The bullets are there.”
Then he moved past me and climbed up into the passenger side of my pickup, slamming his door before I could even get close to my own.
My father-in-law lived with us for nearly six years, then died in his sleep at age ninety. And it was a good six years. Often I’d come home at night, and our three kids would be down in their grandparents’ apartment, eating cake and ice cream, playing games or watching TV with George and Mary. We all became closer in many ways, especially George and me. He began teaching me some Greek, and whenever I saw him I’d call him sevestai petherai mou, my respected father-in-law, and he would call me gambreh, son-in-law, or masterah, master of all trades, because he’d see me running around doing all kinds of work on the house—finish carpentry, more tiling, painting. On Friday nights, I’d go down to their apartment after dinner, and George and Mary and I would scratch lottery tickets. We rarely won anything. More than once, George and I would sit at their kitchen table over cups of coffee and he’d show me those photographs from Korea, his liver-spotted hands trembling slightly as he pointed out an image of his much younger self, a thirty-one-year-old supply sergeant in thick glasses smiling into the camera.
Mary lives alone now. She’s ninety-six and does all her own cooking and cleaning. Every Monday she drives to the Greek church and helps serve lunch to people in need. A few years ago she had a mild heart attack, so now twice a week she drives herself to the hospital rehab and works out for nearly an hour. She’s made new friends there, men and women younger than she whose ailing hearts have forced them to look directly into their own mortality. On Friday nights, I still go down to Mary’s place. She and I sit in her living room and play music from the forties and scratch tickets and talk about whatever comes up—our families, old friends, often people whose lives have been harder than others’. Sometimes she’ll leave the TV on, and we’ll turn our attention to the news and to the terrible things we see there.
School shootings. Mass shootings. The presidential election of a man who has made bigots and misogynists feel that their time has come. Where we live, I often see pickup trucks driving by with full-sized American flags strapped to their ladder racks and flapping in the wind. There’s the daily sense that things have gotten uglier, more dangerous, that the school bullies have broken into the principal’s office and taken over.
Our three kids are grown now, and I can feel my own body slowly aging. There are the daily pains in my knees and back, the nightly trips to the bathroom, the fact that I need to wear glasses all the time now and not just when I read. I still work out hard five days a week, as I have all my adult life, and I may be lying to myself, but I can still feel in my right hand and hips and feet that dormant right cross should I ever need to throw it. But at what? And whom? Some heavily armed man in a Kevlar vest bent on murder? Some tiki torch–carrying white supremacist?
Since that year when I first shot my father’s .22 rifle at a pine tree in the New Hampshire woods, the same year that we lost Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, there have been more than 1,516,880 deaths by guns in our country. This is more than all the war deaths from all the wars we’ve ever fought: in Iraq and Afghanistan; in the Gulf War and Vietnam; in Korea and World War II and World War I; in the Civil War and the Mexican War and the Revolutionary War—combined. Each year, we lose roughly 33,000 people to guns, and two-thirds of these deaths are suicides.
A few months ago I went to the funeral of a high school friend’s younger brother. He was in his forties and had had a bad day at work, one of many, I’d heard. So he drove home and got his handgun, then went back to work, where—in front of his coworkers—he shot himself in the chest. In the coffin his handsome face made up, his hair combed back, he looked like a man at the peak of his powers.
Yet part of me, inexplicably, still loves guns. Their reassuring weight in my hands, the gleam of their polished woodstocks, their straight barrels and lead bullets, the smell of gun oil, the pulse of the trigger, the crack and kick of the shot as it flies.
A few nights ago, at two or three in the morning, I lay in bed in the dark beside my sleeping wife of nearly thirty years. I had gotten up to use the bathroom, and now I couldn’t sleep. I lay there and stared into the darkness. I listened to my wife’s shallow breaths, then I heard a car coming slowly down our long gravel driveway, and I sat up and nearly reached for the baseball bat I’ve always kept beside my bed. I imagined a car full of young men, their eyes on this big modern house in the woods, and now my heart was an echo in my ears and I was just about to rise from my bed and reach for that bat when I heard the rolled newspaper hit Mary’s front porch down below, the woman who delivered that paper turning her car around and driving away.
One day it may be just me and Fontaine out here in the woods. And maybe it’ll be my time to be old and frail, and I’ll want that loaded gun in my hands. I will. It will call me to it the way guns do. But I can’t have it.
I just can’t.