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Also by Lisa Chavez:
The White Professor Holds Forth on Indians | Surrender | Guns

Guns

The first one was domestic. Small and apparently innocuous, it nestled under my mother's pillow like the mice we found often and unexpectedly in that house. Black with brown plastic grips, I now recognize it as a small caliber semi-automatic, a .25 say, or a .22. I was about eight and had stayed home from school, taking advantage of my mother's absence to play in her room. I'd been jumping on the bed, pretending it was a trampoline, a feat I could only accomplish in her room, because my bed had a canopy on it that made jumping hazardous. Exhausted, I collapsed into the pillows, breathing in my mother's scent: Aqua Net hair spray, floral perfume. Shifting the pillow, I uncovered the gun. I remember being afraid, but curiosity got the best of me and I picked it up. It was heavy, heavier than its size warranted. I knew I wasn't supposed to play with it, even though I don't remember my mother telling me that, or ever mentioning guns at all. I was careful not to get my finger near the trigger, though how I knew to avoid it is a mystery to me. Finally, I put the pistol down, placed the pillow back over it as carefully as I would have covered a nest of baby mice. I backed out of the room, as if it was necessary for me to keep my eye on this thing.

Why did my mother have a gun? For the same reason other people have them, I suppose. It made her feel safe. She was a single woman with a small child in the late 60's southern California. The Manson murders splashed across headlines, and even I remember how everyone seemed to be talking about them. The pall of fear that hung over southern California was thicker than smog. My mother had her own reasons to be fearful. Our former house in Carson had been broken into several times; more frightening than the burglary was that my mother's lingerie was the only thing stolen. Once we had been in the house when the burglar—who turned out to be a teenager who lived across the street—tried to break in. I was very young then, and I remember huddling on the bedroom floor with my mother as she phoned the police; from the living room came the sound of someone trying to force open the sliding-glass door. This new house was quiet, but though I loved its location—across from an abandoned factory, the source of our mouse infestation—I know it must have made my mother it feel unsafe.

For a long time I was afraid to get back on my mother's bed. With good reason. I know now my mother always keeps her guns loaded, bullet chambered, ready to roll.

 

The second one was official, but unseen. My mother's lover at that time was a cop, a lieutenant in the Torrance Police Department. I don't remember ever seeing him in uniform; I don't remember ever seeing him armed. But my mother tells me he carried his service revolver with him at all times. The time I am speaking of is hazy, vague, the details supplied by my mother's stories. I only remember fear.

We went to see a movie at the drive-in, and as usual, I fell asleep in the backseat. Lee walked to the concession stand to get popcorn, soda. Something happened. Even my mother isn't sure how it started, though she thinks the three young men who approached the car were flirting with her—a young blonde woman apparently alone in a flashy car, an orange Camaro. Three young black men, one leaning on the car to talk to my mother. I try to imagine the scene. Was she afraid—conditioned by prejudice to fear these men's color? Maybe they were aggressive in the way young men can be, and she became frightened. Maybe she flirted back? My mother prided herself on not being racist, though other than my Chicano father, she'd never dated a man who wasn't white. She was young, maybe 25. When she tells the story, she always insists the men were not threatening, merely young like her. And Black. She doesn't remember what started it. What she remembers is Lee's fury when he returned to the car. As he got in the car, he called the young men niggers. Other insults rocketed through the air. Lee lifted his revolver from wherever it had been stashed, and he flashed it at the men. A tense moment. My mother's voice turning shrill. The young men left, and we did too—my mother convinced they'd come back—either with a gun of their own or the police, and she didn't know which would be worse.

What I remember is waking to shouts that weren't from the movie, waking to the sound of my mother's fear. What I remember is my mother trying to block something from my view, the gun I guess. What I remember is the drive home, my mother shouting at Lee, and him silent, jaw line stiff.

Yet I hardly remember the incident except filtered through my mother's voice. Only later did this incident become a focal point of relief for me: my mother wanted to marry this man; I was thankful she did not. This act was not out of character for him, him with his tirades on niggers, wops, spics. Nor were my mother's protests, her pleading for him not to speak his hate in front of me. What was I to him? An inconvenience, a reminder that the woman he was dating had been married to a Mexican man. He barely tolerated me.

 

Number three was my best friend's brother's gun. It was a toy—a weighty replica of a semi-automatic pistol made in Japan and purchased in Tokyo. It was made of bright chrome, which my friend Sachiko said was so that people could tell by looking at it that it was just a toy, but I suppose only in Japan would anyone understand the significance of its color. It seemed real enough to us. We used to play a game with it. We'd go out at night, to the verge of the busy street where Sachiko lived. Then we took turns shooting one another and dying dramatically in the light of the passing cars. We thought someone would see us—kids playing with a gun at night—and stop and call the police, or at least stop and find out if it was a real gun. No one ever did. But Sachiko's mother discovered our game one evening, and she took the gun away for good.

 

Number four was my introduction to a new life in Alaska. My first long gun—a shotgun shoved into my twelve-year-old face in a lodge in Manley Hot Springs. Shoved into my face because it showed my Indian ancestry. But I've already written about that one.

 

There was the one I didn't have, the gun my mother wanted to buy me. I was 14, and my mother was thinking about buying a house just north of Fairbanks. The real-estate agent told my mother I'd have to walk about a half mile to the bus stop, down a long gravel road that was shared by only one other house.

"I'd worry about her in the winter, when it's dark," my mother said. There are no street lights out of town, and in midwinter the sun rises at ten and sets at two.

"Maybe I could get her a gun," my mother speculated. "A little derringer or something she could carry in her pocket."

The real-estate agent, a young bearded man, shrugged, betraying no surprise. "Sure, you could do that," he said.

This was the mid-seventies, before school shootings and metal detectors in schools. Still, I knew even then this wasn't a good idea, though later, in high school, I carried a buck knife to school every day.

 

The next ones weren't mine. There was the boyfriend who let me shoot his father's .44. I sat down when I did it, legs dangling off the deck of his family's cabin. Jimmy gave me foam earplugs, the kind that fit into your ears. He showed me how to brace my arms, how to sight down the barrel. I didn't really want to shoot it, didn't like the loud noise, was slightly afraid of the power. But I was 19 then, a time to seem tough. So I took the pistol, startled again by its weight. Long barreled and heavy, it was hard for me to hold steady. I tried to brace my arms like I'd seen on cop shows on T.V. Squeezed the trigger. Then I was knocked backwards on the deck, ears ringing. Jimmy laughed. I handed the gun back—I'll never shoot that again, I said.

Later, he offered to let me shoot another one of his dad's guns, a .45-70, an elephant gun, he claimed. His father used it for moose hunting in the odd years they bothered to go. We stood in the yard of his father's house off Johnson Road, sun glinting off the chrome of the junked cars that languished on a weedy plot near the house. There must have 20 or 30 cars out there—a private junkyard upon which Jimmy had honed his mechanical skills. Usually, I loved the salvaged cars, loved to lay in the sun across one of the long hoods and read while he fiddled with this or that. A peaceful place. Not today. From a distance, hands over my ears in which I'd already placed the foam plugs, I watched the young men line up near an old Datsun pickup to shoot the big gun. Saw how it knocked even the strongest of them back.

"No way," I said. "I'm not shooting that thing." I took out the earplugs and went into the house, but the sound of the blasts—one, pause, two, pause—echoed even inside.

 

There were the guns owned by my first husband, John. Another .44, also long barreled, a firearm of choice among Alaskan men. The eternal Alaskan debate: what will best stop a charging grizzly? Some say a short-barreled shotgun with bear slugs. Others say the .44. You need something you can maneuver, and anything smaller in caliber will just piss the bear off. Or so they say. I don't really know anyone who has ever had to shoot a bear like that. But every hike in the woods, every camping trip, that .44 accompanied us, strapped in its holster on John's thigh. It made me feel safer, no doubt about it; I have a phobia about bears. And while I've never encountered one up close, it is a not unwarranted fear; people are mauled by bears in Alaska every year.

John was a military brat, the son of an Air Force man who had reached marksman status. He'd been trained by his father to handle weapons carefully and competently. His guns were well-oiled and clean, and he taught me how to load and unload them, though I would not shoot the .44. For years, it rested in its place near the bed, loaded, but with one firing chamber empty, because while John believed the only useful gun was a loaded one, he also wasn't crazy. He rarely shot it, though it served its purpose—more for home protection than for bears. Once, just falling asleep in the early morning hours, I heard a car door slam nearby—at our house or the neighbors? I couldn't tell. The houses in that little suburban neighborhood crowded so close together that a car in our neighbor's drive couldn't be distinguished from one in ours. I thought I heard steps, but I didn't hear any voices. Then a furtive footfall, as if someone were trying to step very quietly into the arctic entryway of our house. Alaskan houses are double-doored to keep out the cold; the outside storm door leads to a tiny porch-like room—the arctic entryway—that people pass through to reach the front door. Our bedroom was adjacent to that entry; I thought I'd heard someone open the outer door, step inside. I nudged John into wakefulness and he got up quietly, fumbling for his pants. We heard rustling in the entryway, then heard someone try the doorknob of the front door. John grabbed the gun, but he still hadn't found his jeans.

"Give me the .44," he said, very loudly, knowing his words would carry in that tiny house.

The sound at the door stopped, then footfalls receded fast. I heard the outer storm-door swing open and closed. A car door slammed, and we heard a car pull away. I looked out the window, but it was opaque with frost, and I could see nothing.

We never found out more, and when we told our friends about it, reactions were mixed. Long-time Alaskans nodded, seeing the wisdom of firearms as deterrents. Others weren't so sure.

"You don't even know who it was," one friend said. "You could have shot an innocent person."

"Trying to get into our house at 2 a.m.?" John countered. "How innocent could that be?"

The truth is we didn't even need the gun—the threat of it worked just as well.

 

There were the guns I've bought. Never for me. A good Alaskan woman, I bought guns for men. I've bought handguns and rifles, mostly used. The first was new though, and my mother actually paid for it, a Christmas gift for Jimmy, the mechanic boyfriend. A Ruger .22, with a beautiful hardwood stock—the wood was the color of maple syrup, the pattern of the grain mimicking tiger stripes. I used to like to run my hands across the satiny finish, but I only shot it a few times.

The first one I bought myself was years later, for John. I'd thought about the .44, its heft and its power, and knew I could never comfortably shoot it. So I decided to buy him a smaller caliber handgun for Christmas. It was just one of a series of presents I bought for him that were really for me: the 9 mm, the mountain bike, but as long as the presents were interesting and expensive enough, he didn't seem to mind.

Early December, and my mother and I went downtown, to Second Ave, a block of cheap bars that the city has since cleaned up. We were going to Caribou Loan, a pawn shop run by Judd, a man who used to date my mother. Firearms were its bread and butter. Like modern day trading post, pawn shops in Alaska are stocked with furs and walrus ivory, with guns and gold-nugget wedding rings.

A middle-aged woman appeared out of the shadows of the shop. Her dyed black hair was teased into a beehive, a style more than 20 years out of date, and her scarlet lipstick glowed like a garnet in the dim recesses of the shop. She was Judd's current girlfriend.

"I want to buy a pistol," I told her. "Something light enough that it won't knock me down if I try to shoot it."

The woman led me over to a display counter of handguns. "How about a .32?" she asked. "A nice lady's gun—you can tuck it right into your purse." She pulled out a small silver pistol.

I never carried a purse. "It's actually for my husband," I said, "but I'd like to be able to shoot it too."

Judd appeared, ducking under a curtain that separated the shop from the living quarters. A tall man, his long gray hair and beard gave him the look of a frontiersman. We all exchanged pleasantries—it had been many years since he and my mother broke up. I told him what I was looking for, and he nodded, leading me to yet another display case.

"What you want is a 9 mm," he said. He pulled one of out the case—it was as shiny silver as a the toy gun of my childhood. Judd removed the clip and extended the slide so I could see that it was unloaded. He put it down on a jeweler's pad, barrel pointing away from me. I picked it up, and though it had the unexpected weight of every gun I have ever held, I could see right away that this would not be too heavy for me to handle. I extended my arms, sighted down the barrel to an 8-track player collecting dust in an unoccupied part of the store. I imagined squeezing the trigger, though my finger rested safely on the trigger guard. I put it down.

"That's the Miami Vice model—just like the one Don Johnson carries on the show," Judd said with obvious admiration. He showed me how smoothly the slide worked. "This one hasn't been fired much at all."

But I didn't buy that one. It was too flashy and too expensive. I bought a dull black Smith and Wesson that Judd said had not been too heavily used. My mother and I trusted him; he'd served in the military, been a hunting guide for years.

So I bought the cheaper model, which, unfortunately, had a tendency to jam. Not that it mattered much. John rarely shot it. He was too busy, studying engineering.

That 9 mm semi-auto is the gun I know most intimately. I kept it after John and I split up. I've held it in my hand, loaded and unloaded it. Fired it many times, with decent if not spectacular accuracy. Rested it, briefly, in my mouth. But I'm not ready to tell that story yet.

 

Another was purchased by Steve, my second husband. He got it at the same pawn shop I'd bought John's 9 mm, years before. Steve knows firearms too, perhaps even better than John, and because he is a cautious and responsible man, he keeps his clean but unloaded, trigger locks in place. But the weapon I am speaking of was years ago, when we still lived in Alaska. We'd had a hard winter, and very little money. We'd lived through a house fire, through crappy jobs, through Steve's depression. And so that summer, when he got paid from his job at a city park, he wanted to get himself a little treat.

He bought a .22, virtually new, a target revolver of the type I was familiar with from my pistol marksmanship class. I was a decent shot with them too, though I preferred the semi-auto model to the revolver. Steve was quite a good shot, especially with the little lightweight .22. When we left Alaska, we gave that gun away.

What I remember mostly about it was this. Steve bought it from Caribou Loan. He paid $125 in cash, showed Judd his driver's license, and carried it away that afternoon, in a paper grocery bag. When he got home, he found a something else in the bag along with his gun: a receipt for a half-gallon of cheap vodka.

 

There were the guns that could have done damage. The ones that made me angry—carelessly carried or stored: the way my mother's husband, drunk as usual, carried a loaded rifle over his shoulder, tripping awkwardly as he walked on the wooded trail ahead of me. There was the gun I found in a backpack in my mother's closet; I'd tossed the pack on the floor, wondering why it was so heavy. Of course the gun was loaded, bullet chambered.

There was that 9 mm. It lurked through my bad winter, the winter I left John and lived alone in a drafty cabin on Chena Ridge. It was there the night a boyfriend visited, drunk. That cabin had no storage space, just a few shelves, and he spied the gun on one of them and picked it up. Unlike other men I'd known, he had no idea how to handle it; careless, he spun around the room with it in his hand. I refused to give him the clip. Still, he raised it up, sighting down the barrel, then swiveled drunkenly towards me. From the corner where she made her bed, my Akita exploded into action, catapulting into the air and biting his extended arm. He dropped the gun; we both stood, shocked, watching the growling dog bristle between him and me.

Her bite hadn't broken the skin, though it did leave bruises. I didn't punish her; I told her she was a good dog, because she'd been protecting me, and even the boyfriend, sobered up some by the event, admitted the dog had been right to bite him. I don't know how she knew to do that, except perhaps because the people I'd gotten her from as a pup had been biker types, who said they'd trade their dogs—Akitas or Dobermans—for guns.

The dog never forgot. Whenever that boyfriend visited again, she'd watch him from her corner, growling low and steady.

 

The truth is that last story doesn't belong in here. For this is about guns, and though I've told this story many times, though I thought I remembered the details correctly, remembered the extended arm and the unloaded gun, it didn't really happen like this at all. This occurred nearly 10 years ago. I found a journal from that time, and there, I recount the tale. Most of my details are the same. The dog rocketing across the room. My own nervousness with the boyfriend's carelessness—I didn't know him well, didn't trust him. My relief and surprise at the dog's fierceness. How I petted her and praised her. But here's the crucial detail. It wasn't a gun. I'd already hid the 9 away because I was worried—with reason—that he'd be careless with a pistol when drunk. It wasn't a gun at all; it was knife. A hunting knife that I don't even remember why I had or where it came from. The story works so much better with a gun.

 

Later that same winter. October/November 1990, bleak months as Fairbanks enters the long, dark tunnel of winter. My little cabin on Chena Ridge was so cold the dog's water froze on the floor overnight. So drafty, a pine marten once popped in through a hole in the wall—both the dog and I startled into stillness, too surprised to give chase. Late October, darkness, chill and silence. The 9 mm on a shelf by the bed, full magazine next to it.

I don't succumb easily to depression. I can't. For years, my mother's depression forced me to be strong, to be an adult years before I was one in age, so I could care for her. Later, I would continue to be strong, to support Steve through his own years of depression. When others talked of seasonal blues, of depression that settled in with the fading of the light, I shrugged. I'd never felt it, I said. And though I too hated the oncoming winter, felt sadness settle over me as the leaves were stripped from the trees, as the ground grew hard and unyielding as concrete, as darkness came and the first snows fell—though I too felt that, I never thought of it as depression. But that winter bruised. I had left my husband. I had a lousy job as an adjunct at the University. And I had this off-again, on-again boyfriend who I didn't trust, but couldn't seem to resist.

I don't know if those are reasons. Maybe I didn't need any reasons. I can't explain what happened, because I have never felt that way in my life before or since. Some nights I sat in my cabin, playing sad songs on a beat-up tape player over and over again. Alone, getting quietly drunk. What did I think of? Some things I know. I was angry at the boyfriend who had rejected me. Not so much because I wanted a relationship with him, because while I wanted him sexually, I certainly didn't love him—that would come much later, when much between us had changed. I was angry mostly because he'd dumped me before I could dump him; I was angry that I had no control over the relationship or my desire for him, and because he scared me with his drunkenness and repressed anger. I was angry at my mother, for her years of depression and suicide attempts. I was angry at myself—for truthfully I'd been depressed for months, had even seen a therapist but refused the antidepressants she had suggested, and I was angry that my depression didn't lift when I left my husband. In those days I saw depression as a sign of weakness, and refused to recognize it in myself.

Still, I don't think I thought much at all. Mostly I just felt. I let my pain build, fueled by music and alcohol. Then I found myself thinking about suicide. Thinking about my mother's attempts, and how if I ever did it, it wouldn't be an attempt. I knew I'd be able to do the job. And one night, sitting there with my dog sighing breathily at my feet, I found the pistol in my lap, its weight somehow comforting on my thigh. I slid out the magazine, checked the chamber. There was something beautiful about it, the smooth action of the slide, the bluish sheen of metal. I wondered, idly, what happened when a person died. Because I didn't—don't—believe in God, in a Christian afterlife. But of course I couldn't conceive of my consciousness ending—who could? Was it like sleeping, I wondered, and would I dream? Sleeping was a favorite pastime of mine that winter. I knew that death would not be like sleeping, nor would I dream, brain slammed to mush by a bullet. Still, in what I thought of as a moment of intellectual curiosity, I put the barrel of the gun in my mouth. Nudged it under my tongue. Tasted the metal, cold flavor of blood. Placed my finger on the trigger guard.

It was unloaded. I think. Truthfully, I don't remember now, don't remember how close I came to my own oblivion. I remember the taste. I remember sitting there with the gun in my lap. I remember that I did this more than one night. The gun held a sort of fascination for me; my eyes caressed it often in the hours before I let myself succumb to this ritual. I remember I had worries: what if I did it wrong? What if I regretted it the minute I squeezed the trigger? I often thought of a dream I'd had the previous spring when I was thinking of getting a divorce. In the dream, I was arguing with my husband John, and I put a gun to my head. I thought he'd stop me from pulling the trigger, but he didn't. In my dream, I heard the shot , felt a sharp blow to my head, and I was instantly transported to a small hot room where cartoon devils began painfully poking and prodding me. The overwhelming feeling of that dream was shock and regret; I didn't really mean to do it—I'd expected John to stop me. Mulling over that dream didn't stop me from sitting in a chair with a pistol in my lap. I didn't feel particularly suicidal. I didn't feel sad. I just felt numb, and I liked to play with the gun, to feel it in my hand and mouth.

I don't know how many times I did this. Not a lot, but more than once. But finally it frightened me, and so I called my best friend at the time and told her I was afraid, asked her if I could store the gun at her house. Her response didn't help. She laughed, dismissed my fears, told me I was fine. When I got off the phone, the pistol was still there, beseeching me to pick it up, to test its weight.

I did not shoot myself. I took the pistol to the house of a different friend, but this time I lied, told her I just didn't want to leave it around the house. And while I didn't shake my depression easily that year, I never edged so close to danger again. Later that winter, I got the pistol back and took a marksmanship course for women at a local range. By spring, the 9 mm was demystified. I handled it smoothly and confidently by the end of the course, but that was all, and when I went overseas that summer I gave it back to my ex without regrets.

For years Steve and I owned no guns. We moved back and forth between the United States and overseas—there was simply no place for them, no need for them. When I left Alaska for good with Steve, I entered a different world, and in the urban academic environments we moved through people didn't hunt or own guns, and they thought only reactionaries did. I didn't particularly miss them, though there were nights, like in the decaying neighborhood we lived in in Rochester, New York, when distant sirens and shouts in the streets closer to home made me nervous, made me wish we had a handgun. I do think they can be useful protection; there have been times in my life when guns saved me or could have. I know I could use one if I had to. But for me they are a talisman of sorts, a protective device, a giver of power. I think of the times I had no power, when a man's fist smashed into my mouth, when his fingers tightened around my throat. When another man held down the 17-year-old that I was and raped me. Those scars linger. And I suppose owning a gun is a way of making sure I am never that powerless again.

It is not logical, my fascination with firearms. It does not match my political convictions. I believe this country would be a better place with strict gun control; the roll call of the victims of violence makes me despair. I know that even in my own situations, the weapon might not have protected me. And I know how dangerous firearms can be, how many are hurt or killed accidentally or in a moment of crazy depression. And yet. And yet sometimes I have dreams about guns. Dreams in which I am being pursued or threatened, and in those dreams I revert to the fearful victim of my youth, when I was terrified and angry but could not protect myself. But I am able to take control of these dreams. I find myself holding a pistol, and I turn on my attacker. Sometimes I don't even have a gun—I simply point my finger like a child playing cops and robbers. In my dreams, that is enough—my attacker is vanquished and I feel the adrenalin rush of victory and relief as I wake up. it is odd to me that now, when I am at my most powerful, safe and in control of my own life, I still have those dreams of guns, as if my safety depended on something external. That talisman. And yet I do.

 

I bought my husband a gun for Christmas. Or more accurately, I bought him a gift certificate to a sporting goods store that sells guns. In Michigan, where gun laws veer between being sensibly strict and ridiculously open; one goes through a police check before getting a permit to purchase a handgun, but through a new law virtually anyone can carry a concealed weapon. Steve bought a .22 semi-auto, a target pistol. Sensibly, it is stored in a case in the closet, unloaded, trigger-locked, taken out only on the rare occasions Steve is willing to brave militia members and other gun nuts at the shooting range. It sits in our closet, a contradiction, a puzzle, a deadly weapon in the house of the otherwise sane. I haven't shot it yet, but I imagine I will enjoy it when I do.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of CLR

Lisa Chavez

Lisa D. Chavez is a Chicana Mestiza born in Los Angeles on the winter solstice, and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Her first book of poetry, Destruction Bay, was published by West End Press, and her second, In An Angry Season, was published by the University of Arizona Press (Camino del Sol). She's had poems published in The Americas Review, The Colorado Review, Blue Mesa Review and Prairie Schooner among other places, and had poems included in the anthologies Floricanto Si! A Collection of Latina Poetry (Penguin), The Floating Borderlands: 25 Years of U.S. Hispanic Literature (University of Washington Press), and American Poetry: The Next Generation (Carnegie Mellon Press). Her creative nonfiction—part of a longer memoir-in-progress—has appeared in Fourth Genre, The Clackamas Literary Review and other places.

She teaches at the University of New Mexico Albuquerque.

You can find Lisa Chavez on the web at:
—  Albion College
—  Heartland Magazine
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble


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