The addicted and the mentally ill congregated in front of the social service agency in the middle of the block in the middle of my hometown’s downtown. They hung out there or at the bus stops on High Street, moving up and down the otherwise empty sidewalks in one of those American places yet to recover from the loss of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s. Disheveled, pacing, and chain-smoking, their jangled circuitry was evident even from my second-story perch across the street. It was a Saturday morning in the spring of 2010, and I was in a community art school, awaiting the arrival of a handful of seventh-grade students in the fledgling PILOT program—Pottstown Influential Leaders of Tomorrow. The program offered enrichment experiences that exposed the students to art, culture, and the wider world beyond the one they knew, the place that gave the world Mrs. Smith’s Pies and steel for the Golden Gate Bridge. For five consecutive Saturday mornings, I was leading the group in reading and writing flash fiction and essays. I’d taught a shorter version of the program the summer before at the public library, my first foray into volunteering in my Pennsylvania hometown since my own escape to New Jersey and Princeton University almost thirty years earlier.
When I saw a couple of the kids getting out of cars below, I turned back to the studio. Student work covered the walls. Mismatched chairs were arrayed around long, paint-spattered tables. It was a safe place to experiment and express oneself, where there were no mistakes, and accidents could be fortuitous, perfect for a writing workshop. My class ran from ten until noon, a notoriously difficult time for teens. As it turned out, they never arrived all at once, or on time, or even every week. While the PILOT program had about twenty participants, only a fraction of them had committed to the writing workshop. Six kids regularly attended the class, in which we read, talked about the elements of story, and did some writing exercises, which would culminate in the writing of their own flash stories.
Within a couple of weeks, I’d grown at ease with them, and they seemed to be comfortable with me, warming up each Saturday as, one-by-one, the others arrived. Whenever they got the chance, they broke into animated chatter about things that had happened at school during the previous week. When Jess, a petite and fair girl with luminescent blue eyes and a dash of make-up, didn’t show up one week, a quick poll determined that no one knew if she was even coming that day. And so we began taking turns reading a short story aloud, which was how I liked to start each class, letting them travel away from the studio, away from Pottstown, to settle in someone else’s world for a while. This one was called “Night” by Bret Lott. It’s about a father who wakes up every night, hears the breathing of his deceased child and goes down the hall to the child’s bedroom to check. Of course, the child is not there. It’s a one-page story of an enormous ache.
Just as we were finishing it, Jess arrived and headed to the far end of the table. She wore colorful clothing and sneakers that she had drawn all over with markers. I wasn’t concerned about her tardiness. I didn’t know what these kids’ lives were like outside of the workshop, and I considered it a minor miracle—and was enormously grateful—when any of them showed up.
“You’re late,” snapped Jenine, a girl who radiated self-confidence and often made bold pronouncements that didn’t seem to faze her friends. “Where were you?”
Jess flopped sideways onto a folding chair, directly opposite me at the other end of the long table.
“I was gun-sitting,” she said nonchalantly.
All heads pivoted toward her.
I felt myself stiffen. I was holding a paperback from which we’d been reading, and for a long moment the book hovered there, a few inches off the table, pinched tight between my fingers. If I were a dog, everyone would have seen the hair standing up on the back of my neck, snout aquiver, ears pricked up.
“What did you say?” I asked, breaking the silence.
Jess straightened herself in the chair, fully facing me.
“I was gun-sitting.”
“Okay,” I said, gently putting down the book. “There’s a story here.” From our first class, I had been trying to impress upon the kids that people were telling stories all the time. “That’s a great opening line. So, what exactly happened, if you don’t mind talking about it?”
“My stepfather came back from hunting this morning,” she said, “and he wanted me to keep my brothers and sisters away from his gun while he took a shower.”
“What about a locked gun case?” I asked. “And a separate place to store the ammo?”
My mind moves swiftly when I hear things like this, and I couldn’t resist going down my own internal safety list. At the time I had two teenagers of my own, and I had thought a lot about guns in the home—even in the vicinity of homes—for nearly thirty-five years. My father, a gunsmith, had unintentionally shot someone, a neighbor, back in 1975 when I myself was in middle school.
“The gun case is in the baby’s room.” She shrugged. “He was in a hurry to take a shower.”
“But why’d you have to watch it?” I asked. Then it dawned on me. Oh my god. “Was it loaded?”
“I guess.” She shrugged again. “I guess he trusted me because I’ve done target practice.”
I started to sputter. I had lots of questions that wanted to get out, to find expression, to keep my own anxiety at bay. Several years earlier, after decades of suppressed thoughts and conversation about the shooting of our neighbor, I’d become obsessed with online news accounts about other people’s shooting accidents. By the time I’d read ten or twenty or a hundred of them, I realized that there are as many ways for guns to go off “accidentally” as there are imperfect humans on the planet, which is to say, all of them. Many of these tragic stories involved children picking up a loaded gun left on a table or in a closet or under a bed in their own home, or in the home of a friend where they were playing, and shooting a sibling or friend.
So, was the stepfather’s gun loaded? I wanted all the details, all at once, and now the kids were chiming in with their own questions. Jess – so matter-of-fact – understood that she owed us more than just the teaser. We needed the story.
“Okay, so there’s this couch in our kitchen,” she said. “And when my stepfather came in, he put his gun on the couch and said, ‘Don’t you touch it, and make sure no one else touches it. No one.’ Then he went downstairs to take a shower. Maybe he had ticks on him or something and didn’t have time to unload it.”
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I asked.
“The twins are two, and there’s the four-year-old.”
“Were they trying to get at it?” asked Jenine.
“Yeah, but I know how to distract them.”
“Like how?” piped up Aaron, the only boy in the class, and a bit shy, maybe owing to slightly pudgy cheeks and a mouth full of braces.
“Like taking a Twizzler and throwing it on the other side of the kitchen.” Jess made a throwing motion as she spoke.
A few jokes about dogs and fetching rippled around the table.
Jess was smiling now. She was loose and gaining confidence. She had found her voice. There was even a hint of pride for doing what her stepfather had asked of her, which, I was thinking, was nuts. How could he – the authority figure – put her in that position, especially if the gun was loaded? He was the dad. He was supposed to be protecting those kids, not putting them in harm’s way.
“This is just so crazy,” I blurted out. “It’s such a coincidence that you’re telling us this because my dad is a gunsmith, and I’m writing a story about an accident that happened a long time ago where a gun he was fixing went off accidentally and killed our neighbor.”
Now the kids turned toward me.
“In our backyard. Out in the North End. Where I grew up.” My voice trailed off.
The kids went serious, and in a heartbeat I realized I had made a huge leap inside my own head that they had not been privy to, from Jess’s experience to my own, and I was completely unprepared for what came next, for the very next line. I did not want to say anything more about it, not there, not where it might get back to their parents and then, possibly, to my father, who seemed to know everyone in town and, at 80, was still a gunsmith and federal firearms dealer. The impulse to keep this a secret, to tiptoe around it and to protect my father, thirty-five years later, almost to the day, was still strong in me. I’d left Pottstown and that story behind a long time ago, or that’s what I still wanted to believe.
“So, Jess, you did a good job,” I said quickly. “You kept the little kids away. You’re all safe, and your stepfather was right that he could trust you.”
I picked up my book and started looking for where we’d left off. The kids remained quiet. I suspected that they suspected there was a cover-up in progress. Kids that age have an ear for false notes and willful silences. I had been twelve and in the seventh grade, the same as these kids in front of me, when my father’s accident occurred, and I remembered. I remembered what it was like to try to put the pieces of a story in the right order and realize that big chunks of it were missing, lost in the silence of shame, depression, and denial.
I glanced up and said, “But that’s a great opening line: ‘I was gun-sitting.’”
“It really grabs your attention,” said Aaron.
“It sure does,” I said.
* * *
Jess’s story stayed with me – vivid – on my drive back to New Jersey later that afternoon. I didn’t turn on the radio. Something was bugging me. Although the sun was still shining, clouds had begun to take over the sky. The wind picked up, periodically shaking my car as I barreled along the turnpike. The jostling felt a little like a rousing from a deep sleep.
I realized I hadn’t asked Jess: “Where was your mother?” Literally. That morning. Did she know that her husband was leaving his loaded gun with her children? And then, I thought more generally: In these narratives, where were the mothers? Should they not keep their men in line?
In the story that always ran in my head, my mother was the linchpin that held together all the moving parts of daily life as my father sank into depression after our neighbor, Mr. Randall, died. This was a continuation of the nurturing role she had always played. Besides, she was a saint – preternaturally calm, helping with homework, keeping us fed. But maybe my own mother’s acceptance of the illegal operation of a gun shop and test-firing of weapons out of our garage in a residential neighborhood warranted examination as well. After all, my brothers, sisters, friends, and I were all running around outside. It could have been any one of us, rather than Mr. Randall, who took the errant bullet that ejected unexpectedly from a German Mauser my father was working on, traveling through a window and across a driveway before passing through his abdomen.
But in that time and place, where my father was the breadwinner, the disciplinarian, and the clear head of the household, and my mother was the soft-spoken and firm but gentle manager of that household, there was no brooking my father’s version of our lives. He was a full-time high school German teacher, a part-time gunsmith, and a trumpeter in various bands on the weekends to stitch together enough income to support a wife and six children. Prior to building a “garage,” which was never used as such and was always known to us as “the shop,” he had worked since the age of twelve at Van Buskirk’s Hardware, about a block from the gallery where I was then teaching. It was at Van Buskirk’s that he worked his way up from a stock boy to handling guns that were for sale or brought in for repairs. He had his own collection by the time he was fifteen. Guns were an extension of his very self. My mother knew all this when she married him, not when she first fell in love with him, but later when she would come to know that he carried a weapon on his person or tucked a handgun under the front seat of the car as a matter of course, his demons unacknowledged even to himself. More years would pass from the time I taught this class to his telling me about the time that he, as a teenager, pointed a loaded gun at his own father, known as Pop-Pop to us grandchildren. As Pop-Pop ascended the stairs to my father’s attic bedroom after another bout of hard drinking, my father loaded his .22 and pointed it downward from his position at the top of the steps. Not only did his father back down, he ran out of the house and my father gave chase, along the railroad tracks, following Pop-Pop around the corner and into the Good Will Steam Fire Engine Company #1 on South Hanover Street, where Pop-Pop had just returned from drinking. There, a friend of Pop-Pop intercepted my father, calmed him down, and eased the rifle out of his hands. There were other moments like this, when my father finally felt some kind of power over his Pop, and it seemed the real lesson was that “might makes right.”
Now I recognized how vigilant I had become as a parent, as a mother, because I had seen up close what my father’s kind of vigilance could bring: death, depression, shame, and a sorrow that never ended, would never end, for Mr. Randall’s family, for my father, for me, for our family, too. One of our own had let his guard down, had been negligent, and in the moments that followed, life changed irrevocably for two families and, to an extent that I am unaware of and could never calculate, for all those who knew any of us or would come to know us and our injured, stunted, half-aware selves.
Whenever I read about gun “accidents,” I knew that there were entire communities reeling from the news, trying to process how such a thing could happen, each incident chipping away at any remaining communal sense of safety, of trust in our fellow citizens. Was I my brother’s keeper or not? If we are prepared to live among guns, this was the risk we assumed. If we are prepared to live among lots and lots of guns, this was the exponential risk we assumed, for there is no degree of vigilance that will negate the risk of “accidents.”
I realized that I had cut short the conversation in the writing workshop and that I had been dishonest when I stuck up for Jess’s stepfather. I regretted it all now. Because I was conflicted still about my own story, I’d prevented my students not just from putting me on the spot, but from possibly raising their own questions about the whole scenario in Jess’s kitchen. There were so many aspects of that scenario that demanded accountability. I could have let them spin it out a little further, let them wrestle with it, and seen where they went with it. That’s what good teachers did – let the conversation go where it wanted to go, let the students figure some things out on their own. That’s what good writers did, too – let the story go where it wanted to go. But I, too, had been sitting with my father’s gun, sitting a long time without questioning the incremental decisions, actions, and inactions that led to that moment on a Sunday night in May, 1975, when Mr. Randall went down and, soon after, my father cradled him, crying for help, while my brothers and sisters and I looked on.
I recalled again some of those stories that I’d read online, the ones involving children and guns. Of course, they didn’t resemble the circumstances of the shooting of my neighbor, but reading those stories as an adult put me face-to-face with memories that I had avoided for decades. Each account left me feeling slightly hollow and breathless, like the echoes from a closed fist to the solar plexus – when I got to the part where one child has picked up the gun, that moment before the shot goes off, before everything will change, or when I got to the part where it said the victim and the shooter were siblings or cousins or best friends or neighbors. I imagined the survivors of these other accidents waking up the next day and, as consciousness kicked in, remembering that their loved one was injured or dead, or that they were in some way responsible, or that the story would be on the front page of the paper and the entire community would now know what their relative had done, even unintentionally. In the weeks that followed that Sunday evening, I could not look any of my neighbors in the eye. I kept my head down.
Afterward, inside our house I saw a man in my parents’ bed, turned on his side, facing away from the door. I didn’t recognize him as my father, the man with the bulging biceps, the storyteller who moved easily through the larger world, the man who was in charge and was supposed to keep me safe. That was a broken man, somebody else. But not quite somebody else. I loved him. And I was ashamed of him.
I no longer compulsively seek out the stories of other people’s gun tragedies. At the time, though, as I began to let the past properly haunt me, to confront my worst nightmares, they provided a perverse kind of comfort. I was not alone. By casting my glance outward and taking in those stories, I learned that what had happened to our neighbor and my father and both of our families had also happened to lots of other people and continues to happen, steadily enlarging this mostly American society of the grief-stricken, sorrowful, and ashamed. I thought back to Aaron, Jess, Jenine, and the other kids leaving class that day, joking, skipping on to whatever a Saturday afternoon in May would bring, living their lives in the blessed “before,” and I wished for them that it would always be so.