It was a carpenter who taught me how to shoot – a skill for which I had an uncanny knack, burning a hole dead-center into a Genesee can at twenty paces on the first try. And the second. And third…. I was nine years old.
The carpenter was impressed. Creepy guy – probably a child molester. Definitely a child molester. He told me to hold the butt of the rifle snug alongside my little titty to reduce the kickback. And chuckled in a sick way. Then he showed me just how close it needed to be. I figured that was enough of that and would have gotten the hell out of there – gotten away from him and his large, hovering body, white tee-shirt stretched tight over his pregnant beer belly – but I couldn’t. The carpenter was my father. (Well, stepfather, but nonetheless.) This was the place that, for lack of a better word, was my home, so there was nowhere else to go.
I had always thought you were supposed to feel safe at home. Secure. Loved.
Home was not supposed to be a place where you couldn’t even sit down to pee without someone leering at you with arousal because you were vulnerable, exposed; and that was the least of it. Not a place where, when you came home from school alone because your sister was at cheerleading practice or chess club or some such other extra-curricular bullshit, you hoped and prayed and wished against wish that you wouldn’t see his van when the bus dropped you off in the long, muddy driveway at the end of the day. In that middle of nowhere. From which there was no escape.
Not that kind of place. Not a place where you were always scared and uncomfortable, and your mother suddenly hated you, and your sister ratted you out on every single little thing you did – always making you out to be the guilty party, even if (somehow, for once) you weren’t.
Not a place where you had no allies.
I never took an interest in firearms after that. Perhaps that was my mistake. Perhaps I should have become an expert marksman – learned to clean and oil the apparatus, stroking its long, hard shaft with a sniper’s keen anticipation. Taken pride in lubricating and priming the instrument, relishing the way it exploded – discharging its load so deftly and fatally into any unsuspecting, innocent target. Or … maybe I simply should have shoved the barrel of the .22 up the carpenter’s extra-wide nostril and pulled the fucking trigger. But, as I said, my interest in that particular pastime was never rekindled.
It could be that I took after my mother. She was surprisingly skillful with a gun. For example: the time she shot out the tires on the pickup truck of the deranged, alcohol-steeped yokel from whom we had purchased the (middle-of-nowhere) property on which our double-trailer now rested. Lack of teeth, health, and brain matter notwithstanding, he was like a bonfire out there in the front yard – screaming and swaying in one of his misdirected, drunken rages: how we had stolen his property. Threatening to drive home and get his shotgun. And my mother walked into the trailer, collected the .22, and stood on the front porch and shot out his tires so that he could not, in fact, drive home and get his shotgun. Game over.
My mother was never the type of person you wanted to piss off.
I remember being impressed with that: my mother protecting her brood – for just she and we girls had been home at the time. I can’t say that it instilled in me a sense of relief, but I knew then and there that my mother had balls of steel. And a deep-seated anger that would fry the eyebrows off your forehead, should you be the unfortunate object of that anger. An anger that would consume her entirely, crippling her relations with her children and certain other prominent characters who walked across our lives. “Better to be pissed off than pissed on,” my grandmother used to say. Not really so in my mother’s case.
There was one other incident involving firearms that informed my youth. One of those events so completely surreal, one remembers it in a very vague fashion – as if it were a dream. It was before we moved the trailer onto the lunatic’s property. It was, in fact, before the trailer – very soon after my mother asked my sister and me, on the car ride home from church, with whom we would choose to live if my mother and father were to separate; very soon after my mother met the carpenter (who happened to be the contractor of our brand-new home – where we girls finally would have our own bedrooms, painted our own special colors) and moved us in with him, to a shabby little apartment the next town over, in a two-family building that sat on a crooked lump of a hill overlooking what passed for a main thoroughfare and was painted a drab and washed-out pea green.
(She had given us the option. In newfound, horrified hindsight, my adult self cannot help wondering whether her motive was a deep and wild hope we might choose my father. For as she would tell us time and again in our preadolescent (and later) years: she loved us kids, but if she had it to do all over again….)
My father had just dropped us off at the pea-green apartment from our biweekly, three-hour-to-the-minute visitation, which had become the standard schedule following my parents’ separation. And innocently in we walked. We soon surmised that the carpenter had been married previously, and probably still was, and that there was some kind of unsettled business: the kind of business wherein you enter the dark apartment and find your mother all scratched up, kind of bleeding (where the skin looks bloody from the scratches opening it up but there is no blood actually flowing), sitting on one side of the kitchen table next to the carpenter, across from whom sat the carpenter’s former wife and her brother, who held a shotgun on the aforementioned mom and carpenter. Candles burning (of all things). (Nothing spoken.) We intuited (or were told) that we were to go into the living room. And I don’t remember anything else about that night.
Except that they took the dog. Schatzie had been her name.
And then there was the time – after the trailer but before the lunatic – when the police came in the middle of the night and took the carpenter away in handcuffs. For dodging child support, I think was the story. Knowing the child involved was a young daughter, I had the feeling it was a bit more nefarious, the reason the cops carted his lying, handcuffed ass out of there. Unfortunately, they brought him back.
Finally, there is the handgun my mother keeps in a lock-box under her bed, which – after a drastic, life-changing illness that befell her in her early seventies, her consequent depression, and avowals that she wished to die – she asked for again and again. We had taken the precaution of hiding the handgun under the colossal piles of debris on the front porch (from which my mother had shot out the lunatic’s tires so many years ago). Considering the fact that both her father and brother had blown their brains out years earlier – with the same gun, in the same room of her father’s house – we weren’t inclined to give it to her.