I have a gun.
It is a patient gun: quiet, unobtrusive, metal of brushed blue steel. It sleeps close to me when he’s gone. I never think to cuddle to it, like I do him, when he’s here. I can’t settle my belly against the cool metal of its barrel or feel a heartbeat beneath my palm, pressed to the grip.
I have a gun for company when he’s gone, not so I don’t feel so alone – I feel it, that’s why I have a gun. Each night I check the doors and flick the lights on and off to let anyone who might be watching know that I cannot be taken by surprise, I am listening for a fingernail testing glass, an eye at the window evaluating my possessions – or me. I load the gun each night before I slip beneath the covers, abruptly aware of the width in a bed that takes up half the room; a bed so reassuring in winter when we sleep in a ball, cocooned in a down comforter, reluctant to disentangle, stretch stiff limbs, and begin the day; or cloying in summer, our skin sticky with sweat as we lay in two separate pools, linked only by our fingers, discussing the pros and cons of central air in such a leaky old cottage.
So – I compulsively check the doors before I climb into my wide, empty bed and I have a gun. And I hate it. Or rather, I hate the fear the gun admits to. I hate the proof it offers of a perilous world outside my window and the suggestion, with every reading of the morning paper, that I might actually need that gun.
“Keep the bullets separate,” James told me. “Keep them away from the gun unless you’re in the house.”
It sounded at first like resisting temptation, though I wasn’t sure on whose part – as if some guns want to shoot.
But no, he assured me, it was to keep the gun from being used against me should I have the bad luck to arrive home and compound my potential loss – a reminder that the gun is not my friend.
There are valid reasons to not have a gun in the house. But he’s so often out of town.
It took some time to find the right gun.
I had a .22 Llama that I never shot, not once. My mother gave it to me when I moved from Albuquerque to Austin in 1990 but it lived a dull life in my underwear drawer.
James recommended that I at least fire the thing to see if it suited me. An unfamiliar gun, he warned, was almost worse than no gun at all.
But on a shooting trip to Northwest Texas, we learned that the Llama had a misfire issue when James tried to put down a doe damaged on the Jacksboro highway. He still liked the little .22 and dropped it off for repair with his gunsmith and I didn’t think about its absence until many weeks later, when a persistent knock brought me to my door at six-thirty in the morning. An Austin police officer wanted to check my back yard. A neighbor woke to find a stranger by her bed, his hand beneath her covers. The perpetrator ran when she screamed and the cop suspected it was a teenager who likely lived in the area; he wanted to walk around to make sure no one was hunkered down behind by my compost bin. No one was – but I was introduced to all the hiding places offered by my yard.
The next weekend we went to the shooting range, where James requested two lanes and ample ammunition for a small arsenal: a deer rifle with a new scope, a .45 auto, and two revolvers: a .38 Special and a .44 Magnum. The handguns were for me.
Boxes of ammunition were stacked on the counter along with two pairs of ear guards. James surrendered a credit card. I could hear muffled gunfire and occasionally, when someone exited the range, the noise punched into the room. But no one looked up.
James had asked for lanes farthest from other people: the concussive bursts, the noise, and the smoke of repeated gunfire unnerve him. He eyed the other shooters in their thin wooden bays.
Before he would hand me a gun we reviewed the basics. He stressed safety, always: a gun was for safety, and a gun needed to be approached, used, stored, and handled safely. Never forget, he lectured, that a gun made no distinction of who pulled the trigger. It was not in a gun’s nature to decide justice.
James corrected my posture, then shoved a clip into the .45 auto, chambered a round, and flipped the safety off.
“Remember: both hands, always,” he said. “Don’t close your eyes.”
The .45 was slim and light, a compact gun that seemed a little too eager for release. It pattered happily away, the muzzle rising like a dog’s quick bark to yap at the target, bullets spraying to the right where it pulled my hand as if to say, “this way, hurry!”
I set it down with a shudder.
“That one wants to take over,” I complained.
James nodded in his severe way, his eyes – the shape and warm brown of almonds – intent on my face. He picked up the .38 and exposed the barrel with easy grace.
“I load only five,” he explained, his fingers slipping the bullets smoothly into vacant chambers. They appeared slick, as if greased for insertion. Their metal jackets glowed under the florescent lights. “You should always only load five. Keep the top chamber empty, for safety.”
He extended the .44 and I took it carefully. I placed my hands as he had taught me: left to brace, right to cradle the handle, forefinger on the trigger. The gun felt heavy, heavier even than one expected metal to be. It was at the end of my arms, a burden in my suddenly small hands.
James suggested that I start with the hammer cocked for a few shots and then try to squeeze the trigger without cocking.
“Breathe in as you sight, out – slowly – as you pull the trigger. Don’t close your eyes.”
I set the hammer with my thumb and practiced breathing for a minute, my finger stroking the trigger instead of pulling it. A sense of calm purpose settled over me. I could see the target in the distance: square sheet of white with concentric circles of red looping smaller into the bull’s eye. I considered the distance the bullet would travel per second, the paper target offering no resistance (but also feeling no pain). I felt my lungs inflate and, as easily, deflate as I focused on the tiny metal pillars of the sight. The gun no longer seemed so heavy. I inhaled and felt myself align with it, full of the same purpose and control as when I achieved the proper balance in a yoga pose. I exhaled and pulled the trigger, aware of the dissonance in my thoughts and actions. That notion of Zen clarity seemed, for the purpose, a surreal sort of synchronicity.
But what of it? Violence had occasionally taken some artful forms in society. There could be a simple beauty in a thing executing so well what it was created to do. I thought of the powerful precision of a boxer’s glove meeting flesh. I considered the tangential mushrooming of atmospheric disturbance, the remote image of our power to obliterate a reminder that the burden of responsibility did not lay with the apparatus of destruction but with us.
And yet there was that .45 that seemed so eager…
“Some guns seem to want to cause harm,” James observed and recalled a gun he inherited but never felt comfortable with. Though he claimed it was a fine piece, he could not bring himself to sell it and send it out into the world. He broke it down and dropped the parts over the side of a boat, watching the metal pieces fall into the muddy water, feeling simultaneously sad and relieved.
It is a fine balance, he told me: finding a gun you feel comfortable with, but not too comfortable.
The .44 had a stiff trigger. If I cocked it I had no trouble but I struggled to double fire and my accuracy suffered. James loaded the .38 with “cowboy loads” (ammunition with reduced powder and less kick) and I found my gun. I still liked cocking the hammer: there was that Zen moment of breath in-breath out that leant me greater focus but the trigger was smooth and if pressed for time, or panicked, I could pull it with less effort than the .44.
While I practiced with the .38, James scoped his hunting rifle. There was a methodical explosion from his cubicle and I could feel the air dispersed around me, even with the partition that separated us.
I considered deer feeding, the slight movement of the breeze, their heads lifted on alert, eyes wide in the dim light of dusk or dawn.
Again purpose came to mind but I shuddered, thinking that these instruments were born to leak blood from some living thing. I would have to hate a lot, or be frightened enough, to ever use one, and I prayed – though I am not one to normally do so – that I never needed that much leverage.
– Kellie Salome