Justin Quarry | Longreads | January 2018 | 22 minutes (5,444 words)
When my father died in the winter of 2000, back when I was newly 19, the single thing he left me was a nine-millimeter pistol. The day after his funeral, my grandfather simply told me my father wanted me to have it, handing it to me in its ragged original packaging — spare bullets, along with the pistol, spilling from the Styrofoam encasement as I opened the discolored box.
This inheritance both surprised and confused me. For one thing, though I’d spent my early childhood with rifles and shotguns racked against the walls of our home and the rear window of my father’s Jeep, with countless taxidermied deer heads gazing down at me apathetically, I’d never known my father to own a handgun. For another, unlike all the other men in my family, I’d never spent a second in a tree stand, didn’t even recall playing with toy guns; rather than pretending to shoot deer or Iraqi soldiers, for instance, one Christmas I requested and received a custom-made deer costume for my Cabbage Patch doll, Casey.
The pistol also puzzled me because I hadn’t necessarily expected to inherit anything at all from my father. Over the prior 10 years, my mother had to fight for nearly all the child support she’d received, and it was an open secret that, when my mother had divorced him, he’d spent the $20,000 my great-grandmother had given him to split between my older brother and me, once we were of age, on a revenge Grand Prix. My mother had pined for a Grand Prix in the months before she left him, and so he bought one for himself, kept it immaculate, and always left it in the furthest reaches of parking lots, where it was least likely to get dinged.
Two weeks before I’d gotten the gun, and hardly a month into my second semester at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, my father’s family called me back home to Northeast Arkansas to visit him for the last time I would see him conscious. Only a week after that, they called me home again to see him, then in a coma, die.
That day, when we all knew his body was finally going to expire as we listened to its death rattle, none of the other men in my family, which is to say none of the people closest to him, could bear to be with him. My brother, who was six years older than me and had lived with my father after our parents divorced, was too afraid. My grandfather, who was also my father’s best friend, my father his namesake, was too emotionally unstable, sleepless for weeks, having had a dream in which my father was lost on a hunt at night, and as he called for my grandfather, no matter which way my grandfather pointed his light, no matter which way he stumbled in the woods, my grandfather couldn’t find his son. And so there I was at my father’s bedside with the women of the family — with the women, where I usually was. I thought that as one of his three closest living relations, even though he and I weren’t at all intimate, it was my place to be with him when he died.
More than anything after my father died, I was grateful that my parent who died wasn’t my mother. I loved my father — in the way one loves, or hates, anything one can’t escape — but his disappearance from my life simplified it. No longer did we have to try to figure out what to say to one another, how to treat one another, when and where to invite each other. No longer did we have to attempt and attempt to determine how we fit together.
But the pistol. The pistol haunted me, even as it burrowed in my boyhood bedroom closet where I left it after my grandfather gave it to me, with my comic books and Magic: the Gathering cards, hundreds of miles away in the Mississippi Delta. It became an almost magical object to me because of its peculiarity in the context of my life, because of its singularity in what my father had bequeathed me. I struggled to decipher this talisman, the idea of it, as I simultaneously struggled to decipher myself.
The day after my father’s funeral, my grandfather simply told me my father wanted me to have his gun, handing it to me in its ragged original packaging.
In college, apart from my family, I discovered I had little identity without them, so entangled had I been throughout my childhood in my parents’ battles and crises. Even more, I was the first person in my family to go to college and one of very few of us to leave the flatlands of Arkansas. Once I went to Vanderbilt I was an alien, or a more apparent one, whenever I came home. However, being one of very few first-generation college students on campus, I was even more an alien at Vanderbilt. It was only when I began writing that I discovered how to create meaning for myself.
But the pistol. Still whenever I thought of the pistol, I remembered the day I last saw my father conscious. He lay atrophied in a rented hospital bed in his living room, deer heads lining all four walls around us, staring and expressionless, as if themselves keeping vigil. My father watched me across the room and asked me to pull my chair closer to him. Closer. No, closer, he said until I likely was sitting closer to him than I had since the last time I was in his lap. Then he looked at me and looked at me, without saying anything, in a way I’d never felt looked at before. Looked at me, I realized even as he did it, in a way only the dying look at the world. He was memorizing me. However, it was only after I left his bedside that I began to feel that I hadn’t just been deeply, unforgettably seen, but also — his mortality maybe having pushed him to look at me for the first time without flinching — exposed.
The great thing about having a dead parent, I’ve heard, is that when you come out of the closet, you have one less person to disappoint. For me coming out didn’t just entail my sexuality but, moreover, my creativity as I declared myself a writer — the pressure all the higher as a first-generation college student, if only in my mind, to take a safer, more practical route However, as I sat so close to my father that day, with my hair dyed red and a Sarah McLachlan pendant on a choker around my neck, I imagined he might have seen — even before I did, even before I had an inkling I was an artist — that I’m gay.
Still, I wonder what story he might have imagined about me that would lead him to leave me the pistol.
I wonder, what else might he have seen about me that day, that at age 19 I wasn’t able, that even now I may not be able, to see about myself?
A decade later, I returned to Nashville to teach at my alma mater, and though I’d had luck in publishing shorter work, in reinventing myself through writing, I continued to toil over a novel-length manuscript I’d been trying to wrangle for years. Then one May I retreated to rural Minnesota where I could write in solitude for entire days and, in theory, with such intense focus, make major headway in crafting my book. However, that month, as I more and more slowly plodded on the page, I looked out the windows of my studio to the cold, gray spring, and even more slowly plodded until I at last gave in to the confusion of that world I struggled to order. Until I at last crumpled under its weight.
I felt not only that I had failed at writing but also that writing had failed me. I saw how isolated I was — not just in Minnesota but also in my life. I lived alone and devoted almost every available hour to writing, often rejecting invitations for the possibility that I might write at the given time, or the risk that going out might leave me unable to write the next morning.
I’d used the invention of story to make sense of myself and the world around me — but had I also used writing to further alienate myself? To forsake living? Had I in fact used it, the strangeness of making art, not just to distinguish myself from my family but moreover to build yet another wall between myself and them — to reject them before I’d even given them the chance to reject me?
Because I could no longer write, I hiked. Living in the Blue Ridge Mountains years before, I’d come to understand the appeal of the woods to the men in my family — come to consider hiking the pacifist parallel to hunting.
I loved my father — in the way one loves, or hates, anything one can’t escape — but his disappearance from my life simplified it.
On one hike in Minnesota, after two failed attempts at locating the trailhead, I followed descriptive directions to it found on the internet. I lost cell reception before I’d even parked my car but thought nothing of it. After all, I’d gone into the woods without a phone before, it was an unusually sunny and warm day, and the path appeared well-marked.
The trail, just as it had looked at the outset, was indeed well-marked, and so I sped over it — until two hours into the hike when the path simply, inexplicably disappeared in front of me and, when I turned around, behind me. I couldn’t relocate it when I walked this way or that, only disorienting myself in the process. I tentatively, less tentatively, and then unabashedly shouted for help. An hour later, the sun rapidly setting, I accepted that I would be spending the night in the woods. I remembered a recent news item about two 50-something sisters who’d gotten lost in the woods for a week and survived on nothing but Girl Scout cookies; I didn’t have any Girl Scout cookies, I kept thinking.
But soon I couldn’t focus on anything but my insignificance: my miniscule breath, my mere heartbeat, the crisp snaps under my feet against a seeming infinity of towering trees. Lost in the wild, all the signposts marking my life — my name, my words, my history — seemed to disappear now just as the arrows marking the trail had vanished. My life, everything but this very moment, was only a story. For the first time, I understood what seizing the day felt like, even if it was the day that had seized me. For the first time, the parent I desperately wanted wasn’t my mother but, here in his domain, my father. I wanted the hunter, with his compass and gun, to save me from being the hunted.
Unlike all the other men in my family, I’d never spent a second in a tree stand, didn’t even recall playing with toy guns.
Then, by miracle, I wandered into a pocket of cell reception. I first called a saloon I’d passed on the way to the trailhead, which doubled as a campground office. The answering waitress told me I’d probably gotten lost because there had been a horse event on the trail earlier and perhaps some signs had gotten switched. Another waitress spread out a map on the bar and, while taking orders and serving drinks, tried to direct me out of the woods based on the position of the sun over my right shoulder. However, our connection breaking up and the sun sinking, I lost confidence in this strategy and dialed 911. Disappointingly, I wasn’t rescued by horseback, a possibility the first waitress floated. Instead, the local sheriff’s department traced my signal, and following a short search, a deputy drove into a field adjacent to my position and left his siren running for me to follow out of the forest. Now certain that I wasn’t going to be eaten, my terror turned to thrill, and I rode away from the edge of the woods at dusk, in the backseat of a police cruiser for the first time, scraped and decorated with burrs.
Later, even if I was unable to correlate events on the page, it was impossible not to see the connection between my predicament in the woods and where I now found myself in my creative and personal lives: lost with no sight of safety, nor promise of rescue. I felt as hopeless and insignificant without my writing, the guiding principle of my life, as I had among the trees and trees in every direction.
Now I remembered my grandfather’s recurring dream before my father died, of my father lost in the woods at night, calling and calling for my grandfather. Now I saw the link between my writing and my father’s hunting.
Hunting wasn’t the only reason my parents divorced, but it was a contributing factor. My father worked as a Maytag man in our small town, where many considered him to be the best appliance repairman in the county. If he wanted to, as my mother had encouraged him, he could have opened his own appliance repair service and made twice the money. However, he refused, knowing that the responsibility of a business would leave him with less time to hunt. The more my mother grew and changed, the more he entrenched himself in their norm, and the more he retreated to the woods, leaving the rest of us to our own devices. Sometimes my older brother went to the woods with him, but only when my brother was willing to hunt all day; there was no coming home early for my father unless he had a kill in tow, and even then he most often went straight back to the woods after he’d dressed the carcass. Hunting was a most serious and demanding enterprise for him. Hunting, more than his family, was his priority. He built his life around it, isolated himself for it — just as I’d built my life around and isolated myself for writing.
Hunting, shooting, guns — they were my father’s art.
Two weeks later after I returned from my writing retreat, I visited my mother, with whom I’d skipped Mother’s Day to be in Minnesota. But I hadn’t only gone to Arkansas to see her and to make up for the missed holiday. I’d also gone to retrieve my father’s pistol. My pistol.
Before, every time I pondered finally taking the pistol into my possession, simply as a novelty, yet another mass shooting would occur somewhere in America, sparking yet another debate over the Second Amendment, making merely owning a gun feel like a political act, and in turn repelling me from it. But now I’d decided to use the gun as a means of taking myself as far outside my current experience, as far from my writing, as I could. I’d decided to get professionally trained on it. I wanted to try on the identity my father had perhaps imagined for me in his giving me the gun, and maybe even in his fathering me. In Minnesota I’d resolved never to write again until I missed it, truly missed it. I thought handgun training, with this particular gun might be my way of forging a new relationship with writing now that I knew I didn’t need it to protect me, now that I couldn’t let it utterly define me. Training in my father’s art, I thought, was the path to return to my beginning.
At the Nashville Armory, the first thing the front desk attendant asked me to do was waive both my rights, and my heirs’, to sue the facility if I were injured or killed on the property, which I did, somewhat reluctantly, under a sign that advertised machine gun rentals. My trainer, Ken, was a grandfather and retired crime scene investigator who told me he had 14 guns at home, but those were just the ones his wife knew about, ha ha. The two of us met in an empty classroom and sat across a skinny table from one another, on which he’d already had laid out on a towel a revolver and three semiautomatic pistols, one of them a Glock. That day I left my own pistol on the floor, in the Pier 1 shopping bag in which I’d transported it, as we discussed the differences among these four, in addition to the “Father of Handgun Shooting” Jeff Cooper’s four principles of firing a handgun — for instance, principle number two, “Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy.”
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But even professionals forget the principles, Ken explained as he highlighted the importance of another rule, principle number one: “Treat all guns as if they are always loaded.” While cleaning their guns, he said, cops often watch cop shows, and when they’re done cleaning, they sometimes forget that they’ve already reloaded their guns, and take aim at bad guys onscreen, pulling their triggers playfully but inadvertently destroying their televisions. On Ken’s police squad, this had been referred to as “pulling a Patterson,” for their colleague whose flat-screen had suffered such a fate.
Within 20 minutes, we were practicing shooting: determining my dominant eye, perfecting my grip, comparing isosceles and Weaver stances, memorizing the stop drill (two shots in the chest, one in the head). Ken had taped a target of a silhouette on the classroom wall. After seeing the assortment of target options behind the front desk — zombies, Osama bin Laden, a menagerie of animals both native and exotic — this standard featureless silhouette seemed inscrutable. Was it modeled after an actual person? Was it based on the measurements of the average-sized man? “Not a clue,” Ken answered indifferently.
As I sat so close to my father that day, with my hair dyed red and a Sarah McLachlan pendant on a choker around my neck, I imagined he might have seen — even before I did, even before I had an inkling I was an artist — that I’m gay.
In the indoor range, protected by an armored door and bulletproof windows looking into the store, Ken had me begin shooting, actually shooting, with a Glock because it was the easiest handgun to train on, as it entailed fewer steps to firing and only a five-pound trigger pull. Still, even with the target only 10 feet away, my accuracy was pitiful. However, Ken quickly identified the problem: anticipating the recoil of the gun, I was instinctively pointing the gun slightly downward just before I fired. When he reloaded the gun and secretly included blanks in the round, I could see myself do that, and feel it, when I fired the blanks, myself. It was a common problem, Ken said, his voice stifled through my earmuffs, and it had a simple solution: align your sights and pull the trigger slowly, counting Mississippis, so you surprise yourself, so you don’t know when the gun will fire. Applying this technique, I scored a 92 percent in the stop drill, the silhouette with a respectable cavity in the center of its chest when we recalled it on the conveyor to our booth.
Ken forgot our next appointment, the following week, for which the manager of the Armory gave me two free hours of solo shooting in the range, even though I thought it could, and should, be weeks before I shot by myself. When Ken and I finally met again two days later — his apologies profuse — he reported what he’d found out about my pistol, which didn’t look familiar to him when I’d shown it to him during our first session, and whose maker, Kasnar, failed to ring any bells. As Ken had discovered on the internet, the gun was a Hungarian copy of the American Browning Hi-Power, a single-action nine-millimeter. Upon learning that, I was both puzzled as to how my father had ended up with a Hungarian gun — other than that he trolled pawnshops for guns, which seemed the most likely explanation — as well as why I hadn’t thought to investigate the gun on the internet myself.
After we went over how to take apart my pistol and clean it — all of which I could have ascertained from a YouTube tutorial, as Ken had the night before — we once again put on earmuffs and protective glasses for the range so we could fire it. Indeed my pistol — with its much higher trigger-pull weight and additional step of cocking its hammer between shots — was harder to fire than the Glock I’d first trained on, and as a result my accuracy suffered. Also a pin kept sliding out the side of the gun as I shot, distracting me, but Ken said I could get that fixed easily enough by Gunsmith Bob, who worked at the Armory on Saturdays, and to improve my accuracy, all I needed to do was keep counting Mississippis.
At the end of the session I tried to schedule our third one-on-one, and Ken looked at me dumbfounded. He’d meet with me again if I wanted to, but in his opinion it would be a waste of my money. At that point I returned his bewildered expression. Though I now knew I could rely on YouTube to reinforce everything Ken had taught me, it seemed absurd that after a grand total of less than an hour firing handguns, I was prepared to be left alone with my pistol loaded. Therefore I asked him which class, of the many the Armory offered, I should take in working my way toward earning a permit to carry — simply as a benchmark in my experiment — sometime at the end of the summer.
But people who’ve never even fired a gun take the class all the time and earn their permits, Ken told me. I was ready to get my permit if that was my goal. I was more than ready.
Though the Armory typically organized permit-to-carry classes in two four-hour sessions, it had scheduled Ken to teach a marathon eight-hour class that Friday at five o’clock in the afternoon. I enrolled, eager to study with him for consistency. However it hadn’t been lost on me that he was the same age as my father would have been, his name in fact was an abbreviation of the shared name of my father and grandfather — my father went by “Junior” — and that Ken and I had practiced the rules of the “Father of Handgun Shooting.”
To begin the course, Ken asked each of the 15 of us why we were there. A young woman wearing her sorority letters on multiple articles of clothing said she often worked until late at night, after which she had to make a bank deposit alone. One of two black men in the class answered Ken, “Just watch the news,” and the other man nodded his head. They referred to the most recent mass shooting in America, the biggest headline of the past week: a white supremacist had gone into a black church in Charleston and after praying for an hour with some of its congregants, stood up and shot nine of them dead.
I remembered my grandfather’s recurring dream before my father died, of my father lost in the woods at night, calling and calling for my grandfather. Now I saw the link between my writing and my father’s hunting.
It was the same question Ken had asked me when we’d initially met: why was I there? I’d wanted my training to be impersonal, but not anticipating the question, I didn’t have anything prepared to offer him but the truth. By then I’d grown tired of explaining to strangers, when I told them my father died, why the experience didn’t impact my life in the way they might think, and so I often let them assume whatever they wanted. By then, I’d come to understand this tendency we all have to project our own fears and desires onto others. Both times I’d parted ways with the men I’d loved romantically, for instance, I later realized it wasn’t the man himself I’d loved. I’d loved the man I imagined each to be, someone who only ever existed inside of me.
“I inherited a pistol,” I told the class now, taking this second chance to simplify my answer to Ken’s question. “And I want to learn more about it.”
As Ken had told me when he insisted my next step in training was to get a permit to carry, much of what the lecture entailed were topics he and I had already covered. Still I found it remarkable how much of the course was actually devoted to when not to shoot rather than its opposite. But gun owners are held to a very high standard, Ken cautioned us. The permit we might receive was to carry a gun only, and if any of us shot, or even shot at, an alleged criminal, we would be scrutinized and probably sued, even if we were justified in firing, perhaps leaving us financially ruined and ostracized from our communities.
To justify using lethal force, you must be faced with a perpetrator who has or poses AOJ — Ability, Opportunity, Jeopardy — and when deciding whether or not to use that force we should always ask ourselves: would another person with the same training and at the same experience level as us make the same decision?
If I were ever in a situation when I might need a gun for protection, I knew, I’d be long dead before I could remember that mnemonic and conjure an answer to that philosophical question.
A 20-something tattooed truck driver who sat directly in front of me told the class that once, in Indiana, he’d stabbed a man dating the same woman as him, after the man kicked him, and he’d gotten away with it. The reason being, he claimed, that in Indiana if one is kicked above the knee, a foot is considered a deadly weapon.
The key to this all, a lawyer behind me explained, was if you shot someone, make clear in your police statement, and on the witness stand, that you only meant to stop the alleged threat, not necessarily kill him. Stop, not kill.
Luckily, while we all had our pistols on our persons — laid on tables, slipped in holsters, one nestled on top of the matted tissue paper from a Pier 1 bag — we’d locked all our ammo, in accordance with Armory policy, in a closet at the back of the room while the lecture was in session. Otherwise every single one of us, including Ken, would’ve possessed both Ability and Opportunity, and how easy it might be for one of the more trigger-happy to misinterpret some suspicious move or another — a wayward foot, for example — as Jeopardy, potentially igniting a 16-way crossfire.
Once everyone else had gone, the instructor said exactly what he knew he was supposed to say in this moment: “your dad would be proud of you.” Whether or not that was true, I already knew I would never know.
As the twilight hours approached, we took a meal break to caffeinate ourselves in the Armory’s Shooters’ Lounge, and then Ken gave us “hints” as to what questions would be on the written exam. He devoted the last hour of lecture to 20-year-old videos produced by the State of Tennessee. As these videos full of Second Amendment platitudes played, images of hairstyles and technology from a bygone time transported me back to when my father was alive, and made me begin to realize that this experience, handgun training, in fact was having the opposite effect I had anticipated. It wasn’t making me feel closer to him — it was making me feel even more distant. Though the allure of the gun, and the possibility of a different life, was still there, that life’s polar opposition to the one I had lived was starting to repel me — if not back to myself then at least somewhere apart from the gun and what it, to me, represented. It was the possibility of another life indeed, one that may or may not have been imagined for me in my inheritance of the gun, but it was yet another life I couldn’t live. A life requiring what seemed to me unrelenting suspicion and cynicism and paranoia — and beyond that, even if I were equipped with a gun, to forever keep my finger on the its trigger, ready to shoot, if I were to have any hope of saving myself from a surprise threat.
However, this training had at least pulled me close enough, long enough, to get a less obscured view of my father, and in turn, a less obscured view of myself. He may have been a distant partner and parent, but there was no denying — I saw it at his church, I saw it at the Maytag store, I saw it in his funeral procession — that he was a devoted friend. He was a devoted friend, he was a hard worker, and he was dedicated to his craft, hunting, above all else. Those were the few things I knew to be absolutely true about him — and some of the only things I knew to be absolutely true about myself.
The range could only accommodate half of our class, and so Ken administered our shooting tests in two shifts. While one group shot, the other could watch through the store windows looking into the range, or study for the written exam. Being in the second group of shooters, I read over my notes before observing half my class from behind the bullet-proof glass. While Ken had told me that people who’d never shot a gun often took and passed this course, so far at least, there didn’t appear to be any amateurs at the Armory that night. Two men managed near perfect scores with ease, their firing as steady as metronomes. When the first wave of shooters emerged, one said he no doubt would have had a perfect score if his safety glasses hadn’t fogged up. In fact all of their glasses, for reasons Ken couldn’t explain, had fogged up.
Someone joked that maybe the range was haunted.
Even as I unpacked in my lane, my own glasses began to cloud over. Before Ken called for us to shoot, he reminded me of my proper shooting grip: right shooting hand braced with my left, both thumbs on the left side of the pistol pointing forward. Together, my group then fired two rounds of 50 shots, the higher score for which Ken would log for each of our shooting test grades. Fogging glasses aside, there was the problem of my gun itself, which I was still adapting to, as well as the fact that I hadn’t yet visited Gunsmith Bob, and so the loose pin sprouted further and further from the side of the pistol with each shot. Pausing to push it back in and to wipe my glasses meant that I had to keep reclutching the grip and realigning the sights, instead of locking on my target and firing until my magazine was empty. Counting Mississippis, I scored my lowest number in all of my training, which was still more than enough for me to pass.
After we then breezed through the written test, nearing 1:30, we lined up for Ken to issue us certificates of course completion, which we then could take to the DMV anytime in the next 90 days to buy permits. When I reached the front, I discovered that because I still had an Arkansas driver’s license, the documentation of my completion would require a separate form that Ken would have to retrieve after he’d graduated everyone else.
Once Ken did this, everyone else gone, he said exactly what he knew he was supposed to say in this moment: “your dad would be proud of you.” Whether or not that was true, I already knew I would never know. But not just because my father was dead. In truth, how can any of us know the whole story of anybody except the one we make up for him? How can we hope to completely know anybody but ourselves when even that, knowing oneself, is a struggle? When even in one’s total knowledge of oneself, change in the self is inevitable as one accumulates experience. We are all, when we are paying attention, always trying to figure out who we are from one era in our lives, one moment even, to the next.
I thought about these things as, the week following that night class, I redeemed my passes for two free hours in the range solo. I clipped targets on the conveyor in my lane and sent them out 10, 15, 20 feet. Then set my sights each time on the unknowable black silhouette — the silhouette because, as I found out, zombies and Osamas costed extra.
“Who’s that supposed to be?” I had asked my shooting group of the silhouette the night of the class as we watched the other group fire.
Like Ken, nobody seemed to have an answer. Then the knife-fighting truck driver had spoken up: “It’s whoever you want it to be.”
Alone on the range I counted Mississippis, filling imaginary men with holes, before calling them back, back, back to me.
* * *
Justin Quarry’s work has appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, New England Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Normal School, among other publications. He teaches English and creative writing at Vanderbilt University, and is working on a novel.
Editor: Sari Botton