G U N S
Some of the names have been changed in this piece with some sensitivity to those involved.
I’m 7 years old. My dad is standing behind me. His big arms are wrapped all the way around my tiny body helping me support the weight of the pistol in my hands. I can smell the ivory soap he used in the shower hours earlier. “Ready?” he says to me. I nod my head yes, but I am never ready for the boom. I feel his sturdy finger press mine into the trigger and my small arms do nothing to fight the recoil. “Getting better,” he says, “Just need more practice. Any daughter of mine is gonna know how to protect herself.”
14 years old. I am standing in the middle of a long clearing. The tall grass reaches up past my bare knees. I feel it swaying against my hot legs. High summer. “Look me in the eye, Carmen.” Dad says to me, his voice serious. The sun is pounding down through the trees. We rode the tractor up to the top of the hill. Dad gave me some guise about needing to check a fence. Bullshit. He’s been going on for 20 minutes about my part in his demise. “Carmen, you only did what your mother made you think you needed to do. I don’t blame you. I love you.” He says, still serious.
I look him straight in the eye, “I did what I thought needed done, Dad.” I say back to him, more certain and assured than he’s ever been. Serious. I stare him in the face and I watch in my periphery as he reaches down to his pistol. He brings it slowly up in front of him until his arm is spanning most of the distance between us. He is pointing the metal right at me.
“Do you trust me?” He says, his eyes deep sockets. The lines on his face are as rigid as the bed rock peaking up through the field below us. I stay silent except that I stare directly into his eyes, trying like hell not to be afraid, not to waver. “Good girl.” He says as he lowers the pistol. Odd praise. Breathe Carmen. Breathe. Giving some kind of odd praise for not backing down.
I’m 17. Standing on my mom’s back porch I hold the 30/30 to my shoulder. I’m thin and lanky but strong. My cheek rests against the thing and I look down the sights and shoot. I’ve had time to get to know this rifle. The water-filled soda bottle explodes when I hit it center-mass. The bang echoes down the valley, bouncing off the piles of freshly-cut, half-dried hay.
20 years old. It is dark outside. My brother, Josh’s graduation party. He and his friends are running around the yard being boys.
Dad is drunk and carrying around his guitar and playing it for anyone that will stand still long enough to listen. He had made a scene when he first got to the house. A formal salute for Josh. Something about not being supposed to salute non-military folks but my brother deserves it even so. A bit of honor bestowed from the drunk.
Dad takes big sloppy gulps from the bottle of cheap vodka. His pistol is holstered on his leg. Nothing new. I go in the house for a while to help mom with something or other. We are in the kitchen and I hear the bang. I run past mom out the back door and down the porch steps. “Josh. Josh! Josh!!” I yell his name several times, each time increasing in volume and panic. Our sad porch light does nothing for my vision and I hear Josh’s voice from the tree-shaded darkness down by the creek. He’s yelling, I hear deep anger in his voice. “Dad, you can’t do that, there are people all over the place!” I hear him say.
I walk with trepidation into the darkness. My eyes adjust and I see Dad. He is incoherent and mumbling, rolling around on the ground like a child who hasn’t quite figured out crawling. “What the fuck, Dad? What were you thinking?” I say. I grab him and pull him up but he can’t walk. He can barely stand and melts back into the grass. He sits there hateful and disoriented, cussing under his breath. Fuckin’ shitheads. Piece uh shit. I can’t tell who the words are aimed at. But it’s probably me and Josh and the whole damned world. And it’s probably Dad himself.
I’m 22 years old. “What’re drinkin darlin?” Tyler asks me. His blue eyes are bright, and his dimples are working. He is one of those guys you can’t help but love. He is talking about his lady. How much he loves her. How beautiful she is.
“You still with that loser?” He asks me.
“Yeah, but he’s really been doing a lot better.” I say back. I’m trying to convince myself more than I am trying to convince Tyler. We both work at a steakhouse chain. A corporate place cashing in on the country folk.
Tyler and I are both country folk. His hometown is only 20 miles away from mine. He is from the big town. It has a Walmart and an Applebee’s. Mom used to take us there to get groceries and to go to the movies.
“You could really do a lot better, Carmino.” He says to me in reference to the loser.
“Yeah, but I love him, man. I don’t know what else to say.” The loser doesn’t know I am out with Tyler. He knows about everyone else but he always makes a big fuss when Tyler is gonna be there. The loser is jealous. All the way jealous. I’ve not told the loser that Tyler’s house is shouting distance from his front door. I’ve not been telling the loser much lately. Not worth the fight.
I’m drinking whiskey sours like they are water. I leave the bright red cherries in the bottom of the glass under the ice. They sit there alone and sad until the bartender takes them away.
Tyler is talking to a friend holding up the barstool on the other side of him. I am talking to some girls who also work at the corporate steakhouse. They are crowded around us. Tyler buys everyone another round. The mood is good. Jovial. I have to work the next morning and I gift my last whiskey sour to another person in the group.
I say my goodbyes and I walk out the door of the bar. It is a crisp January night. The alcohol in my belly keeps me warm as I walk towards Westover. My car is parked on Monongahela Avenue in a sketchy spot but I only have to drive a mile or two down river on a back road to get to the loser’s house from that spot. I am mostly sober when I pull into the big gravel lot of the cheap, train track-adjacent apartment complex. I go upstairs and pass out.
The next morning, I wake up early to go home and get ready for work. When I walk into the place, the music is low and the lights are dim. It is oddly quiet and as I walk from the dining room into the kitchen, I start to realize that all of my coworkers are sobbing. Sobbing. I ask my friend Jane if she is ok. I ask her what’s wrong. And she says to me, “I’m sorry baby, I can’t tell you. I’m so sorry.”
My manager asks me to pick up a lot of tables. I take 6 or 7 at once. My mind is going crazy trying to figure out what the hell is going on that could make an entire restaurant of my coworkers equally upset. I am there for nearly an hour and half when I finally look at my boss and say, “Look, I don’t know what the hell is going on but you’re going to have to tell me something.” I look him in the eye.
And my manager, just like this, tells me what happened, “Tyler shot himself last night.” My ears ring and I start saying the words, “Oh fuck, oh fuck” over and over again. I can’t breathe for a moment and my other boss comes around the corner and says with a tinge of annoyance in their voice, “Who told Carmen?” And I am confused and I can’t understand why anyone would ever try to keep this from me. I start to get my breath back and I say, “Why wouldn’t you tell me?” Tears are starting to push their way down my cheek.
“The regional manager said we shouldn’t tell anyone else, we had to have some people who could work.” And then I am mad and heartbroken and I can’t get my head around what has happened. I was just with him. I was just with him and there was so much life in him. I was with him and he was happy. He was fine. He seemed great. I was just with him. How can a person have life in them one moment and then none?
My brain is reeling as I grab the drinks I just poured and walk into the dining room. “Did y’all have enough time to decide on your meals?” I ask the table where I drop the drinks. My insides are twisted all around and my face is red and puffy from tears. I get caught up and go to the bathroom and call the loser. I tell him what happened and he says, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset. You guys weren’t that close.” My heart is aching and I call my mom. She cries with me. I think she is crying more for the loss of young life than any connection she had with Tyler.
I work all day and then I drink all night. Jim Beam. Jim Beam for Tyler. We all drink. We go to Mutt’s and drink and drink. We spend 4 nights in a row at the bar we all frequent. The owner gives us whole bottles of Jim Beam. I work a lot. I don’t see the loser for nearly 2 weeks. We all go to Tyler’s hometown for the services. We stay in an ancient hotel and run the halls like no one else is staying there. Mitch plays guitar and we all sing along. He plays “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. We all sob.
We go to the viewing and it is desperately sad. I see Tyler’s lady and my heart just aches for her. And then Tyler’s mom embraces me and I bawl into her shoulder. “I’m so sorry” I say several times to her. “He was so wonderful.”
I cry a lot. I drive back to Morgantown and it takes me a long time to figure out how to think about it. I’m not sure I ever really figured it out. I learn that some things truly never make sense. I also learn that you can’t ever know how someone else is feeling. You can be there for them, you can do the best you can. But you can’t help them.
I also begin to see the unrealistic expectations put on men, stoic and stalwart creatures not meant to feel anything. But more than that, they mustn’t talk about feeling anything. Tough.
23 years old, that was Tyler's age when he shot himself. I never suspected and I am pretty sure no one else did.
Public Service Announcement. The stories I shared above are the most memorable moments in my personal life involving guns, they could have all gone differently if mental healthcare checks were a more socially accepted and expected practice. If men were expected to have feelings and to talk about having feelings.
The five deadliest mass shootings in US history have happened in the last fifteen years. All of the shooters were men. 4 of the 5 were in their twenties. Young. Do you think they were monsters? Do you think they knew what they were doing? I don’t know what I think.
But I do know this, a gun that I am not familiar with scares me. A gun in someone’s hands who seems unhinged scares me. A gun in a store does not scare me. The guns in my house do not scare me. The guns in my friend’s and family’s homes, for the most part, do not scare me. Unless that friend or relative is unhinged. People who seem unhinged scare me. The damage that can be done by someone who is unhinged who owns or holds guns scares me.
Here are a few of my thoughts on how to move forward. Urban and rural communities should not have the same policies regarding guns. Mental Health Awareness needs to be imbedded in our schools, in our places of work, in any public domain in our country. It should be mandatory the way lunch breaks are mandatory. It should be enforced as seriously as the 40-hour work week. There should be fines for people who haven’t checked in with their counselor this month. Government-funded studies about gun violence, mental health, and the link between the two should exist, and right now, they don’t. Requiring permits for gun-owners, similar to a driver’s license, could go a long way towards keeping guns out of the wrong hands. I know that would come with a flurry of policy but it is fucking worth it. We need to be open, honest, and informed citizens. The Facebook politician is our worst enemy. I know it is dry reading but go seek out multiple legitimate news sources. If you are curious about an issue and you see a particularly heated debate online, go find your own information, don’t just look at CNN or FOX, dig deeper. I know it is hard work to stay informed, but it is THE most important job we have as citizens.