My old man was no gun nut. We had a .357 Magnum he kept under the seat of the car for out-of-town trips, my grandmother’s old .38 for my mother to use when he was away, an automatic 1100 Remington shotgun, his foster father’s 12-gauge Mossberg, two .22 squirrel rifles, and a lever-action thirty-thirty. That’s only 2.3 guns per household member.
He’d been a military policeman in Vietnam and a decorated marksman (“Listen, don’t write that, Johnny. Those people gave you a medal if you could pull the trigger”). If we went to the Brickyard and fired a bag of reloads at paper silhouettes, if we drove to Clay County and plinked cans off a log, he wound up telling the same stories—how his foster father could throw a tree branch into the middle of a pond and shoot it in half from the hip, how Joe Dale’s older brother had caught the trigger of his shotgun crawling under a barbed-wire fence and blown out his femoral artery and bled to death in the tall dry grass, how on flights into Danang nobody would get up to pee for fear of losing a safe seat and how they’d squatted on flak jackets to keep from getting shot in the groin.
My father knew lots of stories about life and death. He worked hard to send me to a private elementary school in the east end of Louisville, where I learned lots of stories about ties and blazers. Later, when my private-school scholarship ran out and I took the bus down to the housing projects at Jackson and Preston Streets, Latanya, Latisha, Latonya, Latricia, Lavonda, and Leterrious taught me some other stories. Now I live in Cambridge. All of those kids are somewhere else and I am here: expensively educated, white, buried under the snowstorm of my own dumb luck.
One time I held up an Italian fast-food restaurant with my dad’s old Dick Tracy cap-gun. I’d been carrying it around in my pocket so I could show it to kids in my psychology class. Wanna hear a Freud joke? I’d say. Then I’d take the gun out and put it on the desk. It said dick along its barrel in big letters. Most people were kind enough to snicker. I was sixteen years old. I had the cap-gun in my jacket pocket when I got high and went into this crappy little franchise. I’ll have the fettucine alfredo, I said, taking out the gun, and give me all of the money in the cash register.
This was at a time in my life when I still believed apologies had some power. I smiled and opened the toy gun to show the checkout girl the roll of caps inside. Then I sat down to eat my noodles out of a styrofoam box: that’s how stoned I was. It wasn’t until I heard the tires screeching in the parking lot that I realized what I’d gotten myself into. Here came the two cops banging through the double glass doors, one fat and one mustachioed, each with a service thirty-eight pointed right into my face. I stood with my open hands up and said, Don’t shoot, it’s all a mistake. They knocked me down. They were yelling, but after the mustached cop stuck his gun in my ear I couldn’t hear them. The fat one was on top of me with his handcuffs. His erection poked into my back. Perfect, I thought, here’s one more story no one will ever believe. Other diners scrambled away from us. Hands were all over me and in my jacket and jeans. The fat cop crawled off me, wheezing. Jesus Christ, he said to his partner, it’s a fucking cap-gun, oh my god, I’m going to be sick. The waitress brought him a glass of ginger ale.
The cops sat me on a table. Explain yourself, they said. I was too high and freaked out to invent a palatable lie. So I told the truth: the Freud joke, and so on. You men have heard of Freud, right? Holy shit, the cop with the mustache said, he’s a pervert, let’s take him downtown. Hang on, the fat one said. It’s too crazy, I want to hear it again. Ten minutes later, he was still sitting in the restaurant booth, scratching his head: Just tell me one more time how this Freud character says a gun is like a man’s penis. I told him one more time, and they took off the cuffs and let me go. The girl behind the counter said, See you in court, freak.
I sat in the parking lot of the Italian restaurant in the station wagon I’d borrowed for the night. My numbness was fading. I started to shake. Just a few miles away was a girl who wanted me to pick her up so we could park by the water tower and neck, but I had other plans, like sobbing and beating my fists on the dashboard for half an hour. There was also the small matter of what I would eventually have to tell my father, who was at home in his chair, honorable, hard-working, not playing jokes with guns, watching television by himself in the dark.
The next week, briefly sober, I wrote an apology to that girl who’d been standing at the cash register, and the owner agreed not to press charges. You need to get some help, he said. That man was a fucking visionary.
Fifteen years later, I tried to tell my friend Doug that I’d heard the wind down the barrel of that cop’s pistol, the way you can hear the ocean in a conch shell. We were drinking tall cans of Japanese lager in a bar across the street from the private college where we both had teaching fellowships. Doug wore a sweater with a knitted reindeer’s face on it. I don’t believe you, he said, you’re a liar.