“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.”
In silence, the women gather. Girls draw together, jostling to get in front of the camera, but once they are there they don’t know how to behave. One chews her hair, the other gesticulates, losing her cool out the ends of her fingers, she fans them like a child searching blind-mole for a lost toy. A woman’s face has collapsed. A mother searching for a lost child. As she speaks of him she strokes her hand against her own cheek.
The men with guns are boys. They carry their weapons as extensions of themselves, lacking, as Wilfred Owen wrote, sharp teeth or claws they grow arms of steel and “How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood; Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash; and thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.” As though the guns were themselves alive, maddening animals, a hankering. The black and white security camera shows a high school cafeteria with students hiding under round tables that move across the floor like beetles, or turtles caught out of water, much less like a phalanx. A signal, a noise. An unseen chemical flash. They rush up the stairs so fast they become liquefied fear. A few remain, frozen with indecision or doubting the wisdom of crowds. The two boys enter, shoulders squared, combat boots slapping the tile like clown-shoes. Are we watching tragedy or farce? The security camera, its cold eye with fixed frame and unfeeling black and white, makes what follows seem inevitable. A time-line rushing to its conclusion. This has already happened. (It will happen again.)
Drama has its own gravity. Make something a story and you put the wheels in motion, making the ending inevitable.
The West was not won in a gunfight, it was discovered by scientists, partitioned by cattlemen and sold to the desperate settler by William Gilpin, the man who coined the term “manifest destiny.” Just as the hungry family believed that, as Gilpin promised, “the rain follows the plow” we retell the story of the lone cowpoke and his gun.
Every morning a man came into the cafe carrying a gun in a leather hip-holster. He was short, wore a cowboy hat and a black collared shirt, jeans and honest-to-goodness spurs on his cowboy boots. He would saunter up to the counter, hands on his belt, fingers just inches from his holster and I would nod and make his usual, a wet cappuccino. Even his drink was ridiculous, a wet cap is just a latte in sheep’s clothing. But he scared me. He scared me not because he was large or aggressive or menacing, he scared me because he was small and weak and had probably spent many years being the butt of jokes. It was his fear that scared me, the fear made manifest by the gun with its motherfucking mother-of-pearl-handle that dared you to laugh. His fear preceded him, I could smell it.
We scrubbed the floor clean every night with bleach-soaked rags. On hands and knees I worked from back to front, beginning near the fridge, where sour milk made a curdled skein, a wrinkled skin. I worked backwards past the register finishing at the door of the coffee shop where I took my shoes off and finished closing up barefoot so I wouldn’t mar the work I’d done. Locking the door, I stood shifting from one tired foot to the other, trading small change for folding money as I read and reread the quote taped up beside the register: “Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of man generally experience it” -Helen Keller.
“Guns, she was reminded then, were not for girls. They were for boys. They were invented by boys. They were invented by boys who had never gotten over their disappointment that accompanying their own orgasm there wasn't a big boom sound.”
--Lorrie Moore, Like Life
Michael and I became friends because his mom had cancer. We were in junior high together and when he put his head down to nap in Health Class I did, too. We’d whisper and make fun of the teacher (later that teacher would come to a play I was lead in and tell me how fun it would be to sleep through my performance, as I’d slept through his class). We never “hung out” outside school, though until one evening he dropped by my house with a video. Yes, an actual VHS tape that you could whip out of your bookbag with elation. It was called Ma Vie En Rose, or “My Life in Pink.” It was a manic Technicolor dreamworld, the inner life of a boy who thought he would grow up to be a princess. The only thing less likely was that he believed he’d grow up to be a girl, as though a caterpillar could grow wings and fly. I wasn’t sure how to take Michael’s signals, was he flirting with me? Was he coming out to me? We both watched, rapt, the idea of changing your life story so drastically, of becoming something beautiful and big and unlikely, changing the facts and changing what you thought was your fate, was the ultimate wish-fulfillment. When it was over, we sat on my parents’ couch holding hands, comforting each other as we came unwillingly back to reality. It was then Michael murmured, not looking at me, that his mom had cancer. I was shocked, this kind of thing seemed like something we’d only have to worry about in middle-age with aging parents, if ever. Parents seemed a given, like the house I called mine (though it was theirs), like the life I was planning for myself of beauty and books and big ideas. It came out that she had told him she was sick that afternoon after school. He must have gone straight from home to the video store, I thought, picked out this film and come here, to me. He’d sat there for two hours without mentioning it, watching a little boy swaddle himself in pink tulle, glowing with happiness, hoping no one would find out at the same time we were sure he was doing nothing wrong. Michael’s hand grew sweaty in mine but he didn’t pull it away. We sat there in silence and I squeezed his hand until he suddenly got up, ejected the tape out of the VCR and left, stuffing it back out of sight in his bag.
He never mentioned his mother’s illness after that, though I know she survived at least until college, when Michael again ran away (this time into deep Africa) and she thought, though Mike and I hadn’t spoken in years, that he’d have told me where he was going (he did). Michael and I would take long walks all that fall, pushing the leaves in front of us with our shuffling feet. We’d sit on swing sets talking philosophy or not talking at all, which seemed more philosophical. One weekend, soon after the first snowfall, he called to ask if I wanted to go to the shooting range with he and his brother. He had a brother? His brother was a bit older, 19 or 20 and had permission from their father, a history professor, to borrow his guns for practice that weekend. I’d never seen a real gun, let alone held one, let alone tried to shoot one. My parents hadn’t even liked my sister and I having squirt-guns because they were molded to look like real weapons and because they always prompted us to make up games where we tried to “kill” each other, making little explosive noises as we squirted (pew! pew pew pew!). When Michael called I imagined us a kind of Bonnie and Clyde, another film we’d seen together, the doomed lovers (Clyde perhaps gay, the relationship intimate but never sexual), shooting their way out of depression-era poverty and nearness.
The “shooting range” was a rock outcropping on a mountainside, about an hour up a winding dirt path with nauseating washboard ruts that made explosive noises when we ran over them at too fast a speed (you have to take washboards quick, Michael’s brother explained, ride over the top of them instead of falling into every one). I had imagined a kind of chaperone, an indoor facility like you see on FBI shows, big puffy earmuffs and an instructor pacing disapprovingly in the background. Instead it was me, Michael, his brother and one of his brother’s older friends who was easily twice our age and who, I could tell, the brother was enticing to hang out with him by the promise of just this outing, these guns. The only thing that signaled this out as a special place for shooting things was the presence of the classic tin cans showing ragged crowns where they’d been shot through, discarded paper targets that looked so ancient I imagined they smelt of gunpowder and a few deeply disturbing arms, legs and torsos, the bodies of dummies dragged out of the backs of pickups and propped against the sandstone wall, if they were lucky given a last cigarette (here let me prop this between your lips) and bravely refusing to say any last words.
I was surprised at the variety of guns on offer. There was a shotgun with a wide end like a brown bird’s wing and a long surprisingly wide barrel, an antique-looking rifle we never got to shoot because it wouldn’t load properly and three kinds of pistols. The pistols terrified me with their smallness, their agility, they seemed to have a will of their own. I opted for the shotgun, which made Michael’s brother raise his eyebrows, impressed. “Have you ever shot a shotgun?” I shook my head, declining to say I’d never seen a gun at all before today. He shook his head, impressed, “well, it has a massive kick, you can’t just shoot it, here,” he showed me how to kneel in a stable position on the gravel, one knee down and the other leg up like I was making a proposal instead of shooting a gun. He tucked my bottom foot under for stability and warned me that the “kick” might push me backward, make me fall. As I knelt, looking toward that pink and grey wall, he tore off a target from a pad like a stack of enormous post-its and walked the 30 paces or so to stick it to the wall with duct tape. “We don’t expect you to hit it!” he called back to me, “but it’s important to have something to aim at.” He brought me the shotgun and rested it in my arms, I tensed, “the safety is still on,” he said, pointing to it. Then he showed me how to put one hand here, to support the barrel, and the other here, “no, don’t put your finger on the trigger, never do that until you’re ready to fire.” He rested the butt of the gun in the crook of my scrawny shoulder, “ you don’t have much muscle there so it’ll probably hurt when it kicks” I still didn’t know what all this kicking was, could imagine only a horse or a donkey kick. He told me to take a few deep breaths, and I felt the gun sink into my arms, the weight of it already making my muscles ache. I tried to relax, to find a point of stillness in my belly like I did when I was playing goalie and a rival striker had the ball, when it was just she and I against each other, the green field and the stretch of no-man’s land between us growing smaller every second.
Michael’s brother told me he was releasing the safety and warned me not to turn toward us with the gun, “if you need to turn just turn your head, leave your body there.” He told me to line the sight at the end of the gun up with the target and then move it down just a bit, “the sight’s not right, you always need to compensate a little, to know your gun.” He stepped away and then said I could go ahead and rest my finger on the trigger, “it won’t fire yet, it takes a good squeeze,” I could hear them all backing up a few more paces and then, “ok, go ahead and fire! and don’t close your eyes!” Again, I remembered soccer coaches giving me the same advice when a forward shot on goal, training myself not to wince as my teammates shot ball after ball at me in practice. I looked down the barrel of the gun, at the sight, lined it up with the target as best I could and squeezed hard until I felt rather than saw the gun explode. It rammed backward into my shoulder and yes, it felt just like being kicked by a big animal. I fell backward onto my butt and tried not to let the gun fall in the dirt, though my arms were singing in pain. I heard the cheers behind me and was grateful when someone relieved me of the gun. I hadn’t come close to the target, in fact had shot so high I couldn’t see where the bullet landed.