“Hey, Dad. Grandpa’s got a gun!”
“What the fuck,” Cheryl mouthed to me. Our eyes locked, and I dropped the suitcases.
From where I was, I couldn’t see our seven-year-old son, Jack. We’d arrived at the cabin near dusk. Though we’d been delayed in the Friday traffic heading north from the city, Hank’s car was nowhere in sight. While Cheryl and I had been unloading the car’s trunk, Jack had dashed inside and straight upstairs to the bedrooms.
Guns had always been a part of my life. I’d grown up in a rural community. As a boy, we played army almost daily. Our fathers had served during the last war. Even though we were kids, we all expected that when the time came, we’d do our duty as well. In the evenings we watched TV on our old Dumont and the good guys always won. Cavalrymen defeated Indians, the Japanese were beaten by our soldiers, and in the shoot’em up Westerns, the lawmen always triumphed.
The one common denominator: guns.
The scales always tipped in favor of the good guys not just because they were the good guys, but because they were also good with their guns. Back then, the fact that the victors were always white never made an impression on me. Few people who looked like me appeared on TV in those days. We knew Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan actually lorded it over white actors in blackface.
Between all the kids in my neighborhood, we had everything we needed for our war games. Helmets, canteens, pistols, machine guns that made rat-tat-tat-tat-tat sounds, and air rifles. I liked the air rifles. You could shove their muzzles in the ground, then blast the compacted dirt out their barrels. Sometimes we’d have to temporarily halt our games to settle who shot and killed who first, but when we were called in for dinner, the living and the dead always arose and went home.
As a kid, I swore when my time came, I was going to be a Marine. They had the coolest uniforms. When my cousin, Tommy, joined up he’d went into the Marines. He was strong and tough. He carried himself with a swagger us younger kids envied and tried to imitate.
Through him, I met Roy. Roy was the local Marine Recruiter. He shared a recruitment office in the basement of our Post Office with a Navy recruiter named Sandy. A full-size cardboard cutout of Uncle Sam stood outside it with “I want you” emblazoned across his chest and his huge finger pointing at me. The words seemed less a request than an order.
Despite our patriotic leanings, when our turn actually came around, my friends and I wanted no part of it. There was a real war going on in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Many people sent far away returned dead. Others like my cousin Tommy, who survived seemingly intact, came back changed. Whether they were even alive and not the walking dead depended on your point of view and definition of living. That was when I learned that in the real world, being a good guy and good with a gun didn’t always ensure a favorable outcome.
As I walked to the base of the stairs only one thought went through my mind, Dear God, please don’t let that boy be holding that gun.
“Jack,” I called out. “Where are you?”
“In grandpa’s room,” he said.
“Well buddy, you need to get out of grandpa’s room. I’m not sure he’d want you in there. Why don’t you come down and help me bring the bags upstairs?”
“How come grandpa keeps a gun behind his door?” He came into view, half carrying, half dragging the gun.
I glanced at Cheryl. Her eyes were filled with terror.
My throat went dry as I moved closer to the stairs. I’d never imagined ever being on the wrong end of a gun.
“Jack,” I said. “You know we have rules about touching other people’s things without asking first.”
“Well, then you know that you shouldn’t be touching grandpa’s gun.” I swallowed deeply. “I want you to lay it on the floor very carefully. So you don’t break it. Because that would make grandpa sad.”
I held my breath.
Jack laid the gun down. Then he bounded down the steps and into the front room.
Cheryl grabbed him and held him tightly. She kissed the top of his head again and again.
I walked up the stairs, picked the gun up off the floor, and checked the safety. Then I pulled back the bolt and looked in the chamber. Nestled inside was a live round. I sat the butt of the gun on the floor, leaned it at an angle, and plucked the round out. Then I put the gun back in Hank’s room.
“Was it loaded?” asked Cheryl as I rejoined her and Jack in the front room.
“Goddammit.” She cursed more in the last few minutes than in all the year’s I’d known her. Anger poured out of her so fast I didn’t even try to keep up. Finally, she stopped and stood there with tears running down her face.
“It’s okay.” I wrapped my arms around her. “Everyone’s fine. No one got hurt and…”
The sound of a car door slamming made Cheryl charge from my arms and out the front door like she was on fire. Before Hank could straighten up she was on him. Though I couldn’t hear a word, from the way her arms were waving around, she was giving him hell.
Hank just stood there absorbing every blow. Finally, she swatted his arm, then steamed off down the path that led to the pond.
I opened the cabin door and Hank, his arms full of grocery bags, came in. He looked at Jack and me. Without saying a word, he sat the bags on the kitchen counter and emptied them. After placing the perishables in the refrigerator, he put the canned goods in the kitchen cabinets.
“Grandpa, where’d mom go?” Jack dragged a stool over to the kitchen counter. He climbed onto the stool as Hank continued putting away the groceries.
“Why’d she go for a walk now? Doesn’t she know we’re going to eat soon?”
Hank had grown up hunting. The prior year, he’d invited me to go deer hunting with him. I’d agreed to go. It’d been years since I’d had venison. Some folks didn’t care for its strong flavor, but I did.
Sitting on the beat up boards of the stand in a tree, our guns lying across our laps, there was nothing to do but wait. Deer hunting required silence and patience. You waited, listened, and hoped. In the days before, Hank had checked for tracks, droppings, and patches on tree trunks where deer had rubbed away the bark with their sprouting horns. Based on what he’d seen, he’d concluded that deer were passing beneath the stand on a regular basis. So, that was where we waited.
Hank and his four brothers had built the stand. The scrap wood steps they’d nailed to the side of the tree had been replaced many times over. Most recently around the year Jack had been born.
The first time Cheryl had said she wanted me to come home with her and meet her father, I’d shook my head and said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“I think that’s rather obvious,” I replied.
“Scientifically speaking, there’s no such thing as race,” she countered.
“Yeah,” I responded. “Well, this is America, not some science convention.”
She sighed, looked me in the eyes and said, “You don’t know my father.”
Damn right and I don’t want to, I thought, envisioning pitchforks and burning crosses materializing out of thin air if he were to lay eyes on me.
Seeing my raised eyebrows, Cheryl had laughed. “Don’t be such a wuss,” she said. “Everything will be fine.”
Despite my doubts, I ended up going home with her and was shocked to be proven wrong. From the moment I met Hank, he never displayed a single moment of concern or hesitation regarding Cheryl and me. His approach to raising her had been to try to equip her with the ability to make good decisions. Then he’d accepted the fact that it was up to her to make her own decisions. Nothing was more important to him than her happiness. That included me, and Hank’s attitude was that was fine with that.
The same had been true when Jack was born.
“I’ll be back,” I grabbed two jackets from the pegs near the cabin door and slipping one on.
As I walked along the path to the pond, I tried to think of what to say to Cheryl. She didn’t hunt. In fact, she hated guns. When we’d learned she was pregnant with Jack, one of the first things she made me promise was, no guns.
At the time that seemed easy enough. I was familiar with guns, but didn’t own any nor did I feel inclined to, but what I hadn’t realized was that when Cheryl had said no guns, she’d meant, no guns.
No water guns, no air rifles, no BB guns, no kind of toy or real gun, period. Even the game at the county fair where you shoot water into the mouth of the clown to see who can get their balloon to pop first and win a prize was banned. No guns meant, no guns.
Once Cheryl’s no guns policy had been established there were times when it had led to some awkward situations. Like when she was ready to return to work after Jack had been born and she wanted to place him in a home daycare. We’d be interviewing potential care providers and everything would seem perfect. Then she’d look at me and I’d know it was time to ask the deal breaker. “Are there any firearms on the premises?”
A yes answer immediately eliminated that care provider. Rationales, explanations, reassurances about safety – gun safes, locks, ammo kept separate from weapons, etc… were a worthless use of breath. Any guns, no Jack.
Cheryl had never mentioned she was a crack shot. It was Hank who told me. He’d said that when Cheryl was a little girl, he taught her how to handle a rifle. According to him, she was a natural. Her hands were steady, she was calm, and she breathed just right. She could zero the sight and barrel with such accuracy that hitting whatever she was targeting was a sure thing.
As Hank explained it, Cheryl never had any qualms when it came to guns until the summer she turned fifteen. That year he’d sent her away to spend time with her grandmother and the rest of her mother, Betty’s family. After Betty’s death, he’d moved the two of them back to the town where he’d grown up and he felt it was time she got to know them. Unfortunately, when a local boy pointed out Cheryl and said, “ain’t she the girl whose mother killed herself”, she learned the truth concerning her mother’s “accident.”
When Cheryl confronted Betty’s family they admitted she had placed the muzzle of a shotgun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Hank had arrived home from work that day and found his wife’s brains splattered on the dining room wall and a screaming infant girl. He’d then sold the house and moved back to his hometown.
Everyone had done their best to reassure Cheryl that what had happened had nothing to do with her. They explained that nowadays people called what Betty had had post postpartum depression. But back then, it had no name. Instead, people figured that sooner or later Betty would stop feeling blue and get back in the swing of things. Following that summer, Cheryl wouldn’t touch a gun.
I knew it was impossible for me to understand how Cheryl’s mother’s suicide had affected her, but sane or not, her mother had made her own choice. Hank then also made his. He’d done his best to raise a little girl on his own and shelter her from the horror of what had happened to her mother.
There was no way he could place the blame on a gun. Guns had been a part of his family’s way of life for generations. Every member of his family that I’d met had a deep respect for guns. They’d established inviolate rules about responsible ownership and passed them down from generation to generation.
To them, guns weren’t good or bad. They were simply tools in the hands of whoever held them. I respected Hank’s family, and I respected their guns, but in general, I struggled to understand white people’s obsession with guns.
In rural communities where people hunted deer, rabbits, and turkeys, having guns made complete sense to me. When I lived in the country, I’d killed my fair share of destructive varmints, woodchucks that wouldn’t accept the fact your garden was off limits, the same with foxes and your chickens, but Cheryl, Jack, and I lived in suburbia. Why did there seem to be more white gun owners and collectors there? Definitely more than I’d ever known while living in the country, blacks and whites combined. And so many of the weapons they owned were clearly designed for war.
Were some of these people consciously or subconsciously doing exactly that, preparing for war? Based on daily news reports, things were just as bad in cities. Young black men killing other black men, Latinos killing Latinos. There was nothing to hunt in suburbia or cities, they were just full of people.
As I came around the bend and into the clearing, I saw Cheryl sitting on the pond’s battered wooden dock. She was staring at the water. I walked up and placed the jacket I was carrying around her shoulders. Then I sat down beside her. Small circles formed on the water’s surface. Each steadily expanded outward like a smoke ring until it could no longer maintain its perfect form. Then it broke apart and disappeared.
“It was an accident,” I said.
“I know,” she replied, a painful sadness in her eyes. “I know Hank would never do anything to hurt Jack.”
“You ready to head back?” I got to my feet.
“Yeah.” She took my hand and standing up.
We walked back toward the cabin side-by-side in silence. At one point I squeezed Cheryl’s hand, and she squeezed mine in return. As we drew close to the cabin, there was a strong smell of smoke in the air. A fire was going in the burn pit. Its flickering flames lit both Jack and Hank’s faces and they were each holding a stick with a hot dog over the flames.
“We’re hungry,” said Jack. “We started cooking.” He smiled.
Cheryl walked over to the packages of hot dogs and buns on a plate near Hank and took out two hot dogs.
“There’s sharpened sticks over there,” said Hank keeping his eyes focused front.
She grabbed two sticks, shoved a hot dog on the end of each and handed one to me. I grabbed a bun and walked over to Jack.
“Hey, buddy. I think yours is done,” I said.
“But I like it burnt.”
“No, you don’t.” I took hold of his stick and pulled it from the fire. Then I slid his hot dog off the stick and into the bun. I handed it to him and he took a bite.
“Uh huh,” he said, bits of hot dog and bread falling from his mouth.
“Yours looks done.”
“So it is.” He pulled his hot dog out of the fire and blew on it. Then he took a bite taking care not to burn his lips or tongue.
Once we all had our fill, Jack’s being two, Hank pulled out a bag of marshmallows. He stuck a single marshmallow on the end of Jack’s stick, then his. Then he proceeded to show Jack how to roast marshmallows without charring them.
After Jack had eaten four or five marshmallows, Cheryl told him he’d had enough and it was time to start getting ready for bed. Jack opened his mouth to begin his nightly negotiations, but Hank stepped in.
“Mind your mother,” he said. “If you’re quick about it, there’s a couple of empty jars in the kitchen we can use to catch some fireflies.”
With that as an enticement, Jack was gone in a snap.
“Thanks,” said Cheryl to Hank. “Any more sugar and he’d be totally wired tonight.”
“Like his mother used to get.”
“Yeah,” replied Cheryl. “Like his mother used to get.”
Jack came charging back out the door. It slammed behind him.
“Whoa,” I said seeing his bare feet. “You need something on your feet.”
“Hey, where’s my jars?” Hank rose to his feet. “Come on.” He scooped up Jack in his arms. “We can get something for your feet and the jars.”
As Hank carried Jack back inside, I walked over to Cheryl and began massaging her neck and shoulders.
“You want to catch fireflies?”
“Then I guess we should leave them to it and tidy up things inside before bed,” I said.
Cheryl nodded. We wrapped an arm around each other’s waists and walked back to the cabin. Jack and Hank passed us heading in the other direction on their way to catch fireflies.
The next day, Saturday, passed without incident. In the early afternoon, we went swimming in the pond. Later, Jack and Hank went for a nature walk. While they were gone, Cheryl and I stayed behind and drove ourselves crazy working on a one-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle. That evening Cheryl made dinner and things seemed to have returned to normal.
On Sunday morning, I thought it’d be best to get an early start. That way we’d avoid the weekenders, who were also returning home. When I awakened I could smell coffee. In the kitchen, Hank and Jack had been busy making a mountain of waffles. With his eyes as big as platters, Jack had crammed so many waffles into his mouth, he looked like a chipmunk.
“You’d better slow down, buddy.” I rubbed his head as I slid onto a stool at the counter.
Hank handed me a cup of steaming hot coffee. “She alright?” He gestured with his head in the direction of the loft where Cheryl was still sleeping.
“Yeah,” I replied. “She’s fine. You know how she is about guns.”
“Yup. Sure do.” Hank took a sip of his cup of coffee. “We good?”
“Of course.” I picked up my cup, toasted him with it, then took a sip. “Good coffee.”
“You know I’d never want any harm to come to the boy.”
“Well, just as long as you know.”
“Dad, what are you and grandpa talking about?” asked Jack, reminding us of his presence.
“Nothing, buddy. You need to finish your breakfast.” I got up from the stool and headed back to the loft, coffee in hand.
Cheryl was awake but still wrapped in the bedsheets. When she saw me she sat up and scooted backward until her back was against the bed’s headboard. I handed her the cup of coffee.
“You make this?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “Your father did.”
“Good. You make lousy coffee.”
“Well good morning to you too,” I said.
She laid a hand on my wrist. “I take it he’s up.”
“Yeah. The kitchen’s waffle world.”
“I better go down there.” She handed me the coffee and leaped out from under the sheets. “He’ll let Jack eat as many waffles as he wants. The last thing we need is Jack getting car sick on the way home.”
While Jack, Hank, and Cheryl continued with breakfast, I began packing. I’d finished with Jack’s things and started in on mine when Cheryl returned and joined in.
“He seems okay this morning.” She balled up a sweatshirt and tossed it into her suitcase.
“Look, I know he didn’t mean for it to happen, but…”
“I know,” I said. “It’s okay. I understand.”
Cheryl resumed packing. I snapped the locks on my bag shut, then went and got Jack’s bag from the other room. Outside I skirted the edge of the burn pit, made my way to the wagon, and deposited the bag in the trunk. As I walked back to the cabin, I stopped at the burn pit for a moment, then continued on.
Cheryl had finished the packing and brought the last of our suitcases downstairs to the front room. I tucked one of the small bags under my arm and grabbed each suitcase with a free hand.
“Let me help.” She slipped the small bag out from under my arm. She grabbed the door, and I shuffled through. We placed the suitcases in the trunk, then headed back to collect Jack.
“Did you notice?” I nodded toward the burn pit.
Cheryl stopped and stared. Scratched in the pit’s ashes were the words, Jack & Grandpa.
“That’s nice,” she said.
“Look there.” I pointed at the large clump of ashes after the final “a” in grandpa.
Her eyes followed my finger, then stopped. Barely visible was what remained of the stock of the gun Jack had found when we’d arrived on Friday.
“He must have.”
Cheryl shook her head and we resumed walking.
“You all set?” asked Hank as we set foot back inside.
“Yup,” I replied. “We’ll be seeing you.” I waved, took Cheryl by the elbow and pretended to leave.
“What about me?”
“Me. Jack. You can’t leave without me.”
“Darn,” I said, smiling at my son. “I thought we were forgetting something.”
Cheryl took Jack by the hand and the four of us went outside to say final goodbyes. As Cheryl buckled Jack into his car seat, Hank went over to Jack’s open window, thrust in his hand, then quickly withdrew it.
“I’ve got your nose.” He held the tip of his thumb between his forefinger and middle finger.
“Give it back.” Jack squirmed in his seat.
“Alright.” Hank reached back in and touched Jack’s nose. “Only as long as you promise to come visit me again real soon.”
“Dad, I love you.” Cheryl, gave Hank a hug.
“I love you too, little girl.” He hugging her back.
“You take care.”
“You too. Look after my little girl and grandson,” he added as Cheryl and I got in the car.
I started up the wagon, stuck my arm out the window, and gave Hank a wave as we began making our way down the cinder driveway. In the rearview mirror, I could see Hank standing alone waving goodbye.
“You all stay safe,” he yelled. Then he turned away and headed back toward the cabin.
J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 30 magazines including: Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal, Rigorous, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
He currently lives outside of Boston.