You Never Know
by Amy Kiger-Williams
My dad keeps a rifle in the coat closet in the laundry room. I don’t know why he has it. He doesn’t like hunting or fishing like his father does. He likes Captain Beefheart and Mad Magazine and British racing cars and Monty Python and wearing aviator sunglasses and playing with chemicals in his photographic darkroom in the basement. I cannot imagine a time when my father has ever fired this gun, and I never ask him why it’s there or what he’s done with it. But I take it out of the closet when my parents aren’t home. I take it out of the closet and inspect it, its simple design, the metal barrel, the length of it. I am afraid to touch the barrel, but I do, I touch it with my finger tip, just tapping it lightly as if it’s on fire.
I’m never supposed to touch the rifle, but this is one of any number of ways that I’ve disobeyed my father.
My uncle Bob died of a gunshot wound. The coroner’s report says suicide, but my mother, his sister, is convinced he was murdered. My uncle was an insurance agent, and my mother tells me that she’s sure that it had something to do with his job. The angle of the gunshot wound, the trajectory the bullet took, was inconsistent with suicide, my mother tells me. Someone was out to get him.
I don’t know what happened to my uncle Bob for sure, and I’m not sure anyone really does. I was a very young child, so I never asked many questions. Anyway, my mother is prone to think in terms of conspiracy, like the doctor who orders extra scans on her aging body so that he can get more money out of her dwindling bank account, or every cheating, thieving contractor who comes to the house to give her an estimate to do work on her crumbling house.
The only truth that I know is that he was shot with a gun, and now he is dead.
My grandfather, the hunter, the fisherman, the man with the metal detector that he used once to find my dad’s class ring that he lost at the bottom of a lake in 1958, the man who wore a fedora with a feather in it, the man with the popup camper and a wooden pipe for smoking tobacco, died of a heart attack as he was on his way to a chemotherapy appointment. He pulled over to the side of the road in his big silver Cadillac and died.
His hobby was building guns. He made them from kits, and he stored them, locked in a cabinet, one of his many collections, the only one that was not on display. I rarely saw these guns that he made, and I can scarcely remember what they looked like, but in my mind’s eye, I imagine that they were rustic, hand-hewn, slightly reminiscent of those that a colonial settler or a pioneer might have owned. Grandpa had a cabinet full of gold rings, broken watches, single earrings, Indian head nickels, all treasures that he found with his metal detector. He had fishing lures and colorful fishing floats in tackle boxes that he left by the front door. He had a collection of hats, other fedoras, baseball caps, even a fez, which helped protect his bald head from sunburn, not only in his life as an outdoorsman, but also at his job working for the water department, his job after retiring from the police force of his small Indiana town.
Years after my grandfather died, I wondered what happened to all of his guns.
“We sold them,” my father said, and I imagined all of my grandfather’s guns, out in the universe instead of locked away in the cabinet. Who was shooting them? Were they being used at all? Were they treated as handcrafted specimens to be tucked away, museum-like, or were they used to defend someone’s home? Or had they fallen into criminal hands?
I felt uneasy. I didn’t want the guns, but I didn’t want them out in the world. This was not my choice, though. They were in the world already, whether liked it or not.
Years later, I work as a schoolteacher. I teach English and creative writing at a large urban high school. I love my job: I identify deeply with the teenagers who I teach, even though their circumstances growing up are very different than mine. I had no iPhones or sophisticated video games. The guns in their world are much more available, and they are much more lethal. We do lockdown drills, and sometimes I’m not sure whether the threat is real or not. My school does random locker searches, wands students front and back for weapons, and sometimes makes kids pass through metal detectors. When we are in a lockdown, I pull the shades down, tell my students to huddle in the corner away from the door and windows, and make sure no one says a word. We listen for sounds in the hallways. A knock on the door makes us jump. My students ask me what’s going on. I usually know no more than they do, and I tell them that it’s just a precaution to keep them safe, which, thankfully, it always has been.
Even though the threat of shootings is real, I feel safer in my primarily Latinx school than I did in the white suburban districts where I worked previously. I look at the internet, see all the stories about mass shooters, and every story is accompanied by a picture of a white man, angry, frustrated, scorned.
But you never know. There is no logic to violence. It is heated passion, anger, rage, volcanic, tormented, frightening. And if not at school, at the mall, at the grocery store, at the train station.
You never know. That’s what’s so frightening about it.
My family often vacations in Georgia. You can open carry with a Georgia permit, and you can carry a concealed weapon with a permit from any state. There is no permit, registration, or background check necessary in the state of Georgia when you purchase a gun from a private individual. I can buy a gun out of the trunk of a car if I want to in the state of Georgia.
When I walk into Whole Foods while I’m on vacation and read the sign that says “No Firearms Allowed,” all I can do is think about how anyone can walk in here with a gun hidden in their waistband or their purse, and no one would know, and then I think about how ineffectual and kneecapped gun laws are here in the United States.
Truth be told, nobody except a collector probably wants my grandfather’s old guns. And when my mother tells me that she has two more guns left in the house, the rifle that my father kept in the laundry room coat closet and my grandfather’s service revolver from his time in the police force, and that she’d like me to figure out how to get rid of them, I feel an immediate need to purge them from my mother’s house. Even though they are old and perhaps unserviceable, I feel threatened by their presence. They are a danger to my mother; I must remove them from her home.
Did Dad have a permit for these? I ask my mother.
She shrugs her shoulders. How should I know? she says.
My father drove without a valid driver’s license for years. I realize that there would be no permit for these guns.
I phone the local police, explain my situation. There are old, unpermitted guns in my mother’s house, how do I get rid of them?
You should get them to a dealer, the dispatcher advises. They might be worth some money.
I don’t want the money, I explain. I want you to take these guns and do something with them. Don’t you have a buyback program? I’ll just give them to you. You can just cut them up and break them apart. You can melt down the metal and make something else out of them.
No, we don’t have a buyback program, he explains, and of course he doesn’t. My mother lives in a rural community where Amish people make up a large portion of the population, and their peace-loving Anabaptist ways generally prohibit firearms. The officer tells me that the best way to get rid of them is to sell them to a dealer, and that he cannot accept my firearms.
But I don’t want these guns getting out on the streets, I tell the officer, and later, I am sure he is laughing at my naivete.
You could probably get at least a hundred for that revolver, he says. You should try it.
I don’t want any money for these guns, I say. I just want them to not exist.
I don’t think I can help you there, and he concludes the call, wishing me luck.
I can get some money for those guns? My mother has been listening to the call.
No, it’s not as easy as that, I tell her. I decide to leave the guns mouldering in a closet for now, until I can figure out what to do with them.
I’m not sure I’ll ever know what to do with them.
Sometimes I think of the world of my grandfather, the simple act of putting together a gun from a kit in the same way one might create a model airplane or a hook rug. His guns seemed so basic, so simple, and yet I’ve always feared them. I think of the unknowing danger that we Americans find ourselves in, every single day, just sitting in class, or going to the airport, or passing through crowds in Times Square, in this world where guns can be bought as easily as a bottle of red wine at a Whole Foods, or sometimes even more easily than that.
This world. You never know. And that’s the only truth that anyone can possibly know, this unknowing. It’s terrifying.
Amy Kiger-Williams holds an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers-Newark. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Yale Review Online, South Carolina Review, Cotton Xenomorph, JMWW, Gone Lawn, and Cleaver, among others. She is at work on a novel and a short story collection. You can read more of her work at amykigerwilliams.com and follow her on Twitter at @amykw.
Image source: Jay Rembert/Unsplash