An installment of Harrison Scott Key's monthly humor column, Big Chief Tablet.
Let me start off by saying that I am not a gun nut.
But really, is it wrong to be nuts about guns? And can you tell if I have a gun in my pants right now? Because maybe I do, maybe I don’t. This is my right, as an American, to put or not put things in my pants.
I have often wondered where I fall in the gun debate. Gun People can seem a little apocalyptic, with their tactical vests and how they’re always using phrases like ballistics and wound trauma incapacitation at children’s birthday parties. But then, Non-Gun People can seem a little detached from reality, too, especially when talking about their dogs.
In my family, we were not so much Gun Nuts as Nuts With Guns. It wasn’t the guns we were nuts about, but rather the things they helped us acquire, such as food and decorative hat racks. When I was growing up, our guns lived in an unlocked display case in the family room, as though our home were a pawnshop, or the armory of a small European principality. Anybody visiting our home could see them, the 30-.06, the .30-30, the 12-gauge double-barrel and the pump and the automatic, the 20-gauge, the .22, the .300 magnum, all standing at attention in close proximity to the dining room table. These guns were the closest things we had to art, lined up all pretty. It was art with a message, and the message was, “This family might shoot you.”
It was rural Mississippi, and guns were life. You took them to school, because you were going hunting after sixth period. You took them to the baseball tournament, because you did not like the umpires.
“Don’t you boys mess with the guns, unless I say,” Pop said.
“Yes, sir,” we said.
Mom was from the city and voiced concern about this accessible armory, but Pop always explained that being accidentally shot in the face was just a part of growing up in the country.
For my tenth birthday, Pop presented me with a Remington 12-gauge pump-action. “This gun right here can kill a grown man,” he said, implying that we had been trying to kill grown men for many years without success.
Mom watched from around the corner, preparing herself mentally for the tiny casket at my funeral. The gun was for killing deer/ducks/turkeys/doves/squirrels/et cetera, and the et cetera sometimes included armadillos/possums/coyotes/crows/mockingbirds/sick dogs/drifters. I was given many different guns over the years, semiautomatic rifles and guns with magazines and scopes, and always did with them what I was told. If Pop had given me a sharpened pike and told me to impale a neighbor’s goat with it, I probably would have. I never really liked killing, but assumed this was simply a moral defect I’d inherited from my mother.
I sometimes wondered if I could kill a man, too. It’s something I’d thought a lot about, given my fear of a home invasion. Church didn’t help matters, where it was suggested that Jesus would return to Earth like a thief in the night. Son of God or not, I just didn’t like the idea of a man coming inside while we slept, and I wasn’t sure how my father would feel about having a Jew in the house. I made all sorts of plans for where to hide—the hamper, the toy box, the refrigerator’s crisping drawer—and often woke up to malfeasant sounds. Had nobody else heard? Should I get up? Was it our Lord and Savior? A criminal? I wished the guns were closer.
When I grew up, I didn’t so much renounce firearms as leave behind the life that required them. In graduate school, I found myself in all sorts of places where guns had no quarter: research libraries, cast parties, pagan meditation labyrinths, underground contemplation orbs. I felt it was wrong to bring a gun to an open-mic poetry night, even when people were reading Pablo Neruda.
In time, I married a woman who, like my mother, had been raised in a city. She did not grow up with guns and could not understand how people with guns in the house were not just lying around dead all the time.
“Guns in the house, it just doesn’t make sense,” said my wife. “It’s unsafe. And just weird.”
“That’s how we always felt about cats,” I said.
I tried to explain that we had no curiosity about how the guns worked, because we used them so often. They were dangerous, sure, but our world was full of danger. Snakebites, gorings, tramplings, beatings—these were a daily part of our world, and that was just at school.
But now, all grown up, my world and life had grown civil. I never saw animals anymore, and when I did, say, at the zoo, I no longer entertained lustful thoughts of their murder. And so when I took up housekeeping with my city wife, there was no talk of firearms. Instead, there was talk of spatulas, of obtaining as many bamboo-handled silicone spatulas as possible. Only once did I bring up guns. We lived in New Orleans at the time, a city known for its fun parades and murder, and after one of these murders, I wondered: Was it possible that someone might want to come into our home and take our spatulas?
“Maybe we should get a gun,” I said to my wife.
She reminded me that she would not feel safe with a gun in the house, and I didn’t argue with her. We were not Gun People, and I knew it. But soon enough we had children, and I wondered again: How will I protect them from thieves in the night? With prayer? With kitchenware?
When we moved to Savannah six or seven years ago, it did not take long for us to see that we had moved to a whole city of Gun People. Our first week in town, we noted with regret that the sound of gunfire followed us everywhere, even at the Walmart.
“Oh, that’s the gun club!” our new neighbor said, when we recounted the horror of our shopping trip. “Right there in back of the store.”
“That seems safe,” I said.
“It is!” he said. “They got a wall.”
“Like in Berlin.”
“And they got a bar, too.”
Our new friends were not so much Gun People as Let Me Show You My Gun People and What Kind Of Gun Do You Got People and My Wife Doesn’t Feel Safe At The Piggly Wiggly Unless She Can Stop A Charging Bull Elk In Rut People. At dinner parties, the subject often came up.
“Want to go in the back and see my guns?” a new friend would ask.
Twenty-five years ago, it would have seemed a perfectly normal thing to ask, but now it sounded queer, as though they’d asked me to step into their dungeon and see their collection of gilded maces and monkey skulls.
“Sure?” I’d say, before following him into the back.
Entering the master bedrooms of married people always made me uneasy. I was afraid I’d see things that cannot be unseen, such as tubs of Vaseline or some sort of agricultural harness. These nice people would invariably lead me to some private bedroom nook where they’d reveal between one and eighteen pistols and tactical rifles.
“Look at this puppy,” they’d say. “It’s called the Grand Raptor.”
I’d take the weapon and wave it around goodheartedly, so as not to suggest that I think it’s odd to own a $1,500 handgun named after a bird.
One night, I drank a beer with a compassionate and learned man who held many academic degrees, and he invited me out for a moonlit promenade on a beloved Lowcountry marsh near his home. Before leaving, he stuffed a .38 into his pants. We were in the country, with nothing to see on our walk but barred owls and fiddler crabs. Had there been much gang violence on this here marsh? I was confused.
“Are you expecting an attack?” I asked.
“You never know,” he said.
It all seemed very silly. What were these people afraid of? Being attacked by owls?
And then I found out.
There are many things I do not wish to see in my living room at 5:30 a.m., and they generally fall into the categories of Bears, Lava, and Open Windows. It was the latter I saw on a morning I shall not soon forget.
“Why is that window open?” I said to my wife.
She hates open windows more than I do, mostly because our neighborhood is home to many creatures my wife believes would like to lay eggs in her face.
“What window?” she said, sitting with the baby.
“That window,” I said, pointing.
She looked, and inhaled the sort of terrified gasp one makes when a child is about to fall into a pit of gorillas. She sat up.
We had been invaded.
It is difficult to describe the primeval dread of seeing that open window, the material evidence of malice in our little sanctuary. I have experienced this mix of terror and confusion only once or twice before, such as the day in college when I’d come home to find the scat of a chicken or some other large bird on my bed, or the morning after my bachelor party, when I woke to find that someone had used a magic marker to write strange messages on my scrotum. Who had brought live poultry into my house? Who had written these haiku on my sacred coin-purse? Who had come into my house in the night? Were they still there? Were they crouching just beyond the window, looking in?
The only weapons in my immediate reach were candles, a large baby, and several throw pillows. Could these pillows truly be thrown? And why did I suddenly feel naked? Was it because I was wearing no clothes? Or was there something else, too?
“The children,” I said.
Despite the dreadful closeness of their door to the open window, I found them in their room, asleep. It is a small house, with few hiding places. I checked the laundry room, the kitchen. I checked the oven. Was that silly? It didn’t seem silly. I’ve got nothing against midgets, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have something against me.
I put on some clothes.
“I’m going outside,” I said.
What I needed was a weapon, but all I had was a serrated breadknife, which might come in handy if I came across an angry Bundt cake. I extended my kitchen utensil into the dark and crept forward, around the house. The scooter, unmolested. The truck windows, unbroken. The shed, locked. The thieves had taken nothing. Back inside, there were no drawers open, no overturned chairs or muddy boot prints. It was quite possible that one of the children had opened the window, but then none of our children had ever voluntarily lifted anything that was not filled with cream. Why hadn’t our throats been slit, our children taken? What if one of them had gotten up in the night to use the toilet and seen the monster? Would one of them be dead now?
And then I knew.
“My briefcase,” I said.
Every day when I come home, I drop the fat green thing into the chair next to the window. That chair was now empty.
What was in it?
Nothing. Everything. Twenty thousand hours of work. Fifteen thousand documents. A play about a goose. A poem about a duck. My first book, my second book, my third and fourth and part of a fifth, all unpublished, all not worth the paper I had not thought to print them on.
“Oh, no,” my wife said. “Your stories.”
Listen, I get it. I did not lose a leg or a loved one. What I lost was a great deal of literature about waterfowl. I would tell you why it was not backed up, but it is a long, dull tale about institutional policy and sloth. Also in the briefcase: my wallet.
I called 911 while my wife called Wells Fargo and wept with a volume she typically reserved for childbirth, and I felt sorry for the nice lady who had to listen to her cry.
I waited for the police.
A small part of me believed that when the officer arrived, he would hand me a tactical shotgun. “Let’s ride,” he would say, and we would confront a gang of card-playing criminals in their smoky den of vice. “We’ve come for the poem about the duck,” the cop would say, as I pumped a shell into the chamber, like the vigilante poets of old.
But the officer was a short woman who did not appear capable of administering street justice. She was sweet, understanding, a ponytailed little gnome, like an aging Olympic gymnast who’d been attacked by a law enforcement accessories catalog. She took my statement, supplied a case number, and left. For compassion, I gave her the bronze. The sun rose.
“I’m going out,” I said.
My plan was to drive around and look for my briefcase in a gutter, perhaps soothe my rage by running over a few dogs. But as soon as I stepped off the porch, I saw it. There, in the yard, my empty briefcase. My wife came running, fell to her knees like Willem Dafoe in Platoon, and cried out. I held my bag like a hurt child. Then we saw her blue handbag in a neighbor’s azalea, and she lost it.
“Our things!” she said.
You know how when people in developing nations experience one of those tragedies that are always tragically happening to them, like a hole in the earth opens up and swallows a school of leprous toddlers, and their mothers are on the news wailing in a kind of sickening, bowel-loosening way, and it’s so sad that you kind of want to watch Wheel of Fortune instead? That was what it was like watching my wife cry in the dewy grass. Then the children woke up, came out, and cried with her, unsure of why they were crying. I stood in the middle of the road and watched the flesh of my flesh and fruit of my loins lying in a heap on the sod. A hole in the earth had opened, sort of.
I had failed.
“Don’t tell them,” I said.
I come from a long line of hunters and trappers and homesteaders, virile men who would horsewhip other men for no reason at all. When attacked, they did not just sit there. They got on their mules and rode to town and hit people in the head with hammers. It was justice, and that’s what I wanted. To open a good, old-fashioned can of Cold-Filtered Whoopass Ultra. But all I had in my pocket was a Leatherman Utility Tool, which was really more appropriate for opening a can of Campbell’s Chunky Soup. Why were all my weapons designed for the kitchen? It was embarrassing.
Maybe I was Gun People after all.
“I need some ammo,” I said to my neighbor. I had a feeling he would be the kind of man to have some extra munitions just lying around, because he spits a lot and watches television inside a shed in his backyard.
“You got a gun?” he said, surprised.
“Hell yes,” I said, trying to sound like a gun nut.
My father had brought my old shotgun to me a few years before in case a lost herd of mule deer ever wandered onto my property, and I’d shoved it under the bed. The gun sort of embarrassed me, like being presented with the tiny bra of the first girl I’d ever groped. I promised my wife I’d keep it locked, out of sight.
But things were different now. The morning of the invasion, I pulled out the weapon, pumped it nice and loud. The sound alone would be enough to strike fear into an intruder, alerting him that he was in imminent danger of seeing his own small intestine without the aid of medical imaging equipment. My ladies came running at the sound.
“Cool!” my six-year-old said.
“What is it?” my four-year-old said.
It was embarrassing that my child did not know what an actual gun looked like. Or was this a good thing? I no longer knew. They reached up, pet its stock like a new puppy. I thought of how close they’d come to being hurt, all of them, any one of them, my sweet little Hobbit children—it was enough to send the mind into a real Mirkwood of the soul. Did having the gun make us safer? And why did I suddenly desire to own many of them, perhaps one named after a bird?
“Do you know how to use it?” my wife said.
“There’s more redneck in me than meets the eye,” I said, and pumped it again so loudly that my tiny children ran screaming from the room. My plan was to stay up all night on the couch with the gun. I didn’t have the heart to tell my wife that our neighbor had given me a box of slugs designed for the killing of black bears. If I shot anything with it, I would also likely destroy furniture and loadbearing walls. The newspapers would tell the story.
“Suspected Burglar Dead, Head Missing”
“Man Gunned Down By Area Nut Who Feared Bear Invasion”
My wife kissed me on the forehead, went to bed. On the coffee table lay my tools: a headlamp, more ammo, car keys in case I needed to give chase to wounded enemies, and a copy of Absalom, Absalom! in case I had any lingering questions about human frailty. But my only real question was: Could I shoot a man?
Nobody came that night.
“What can we do?” a friend asked.
This was a family who wanted to help, and if I didn’t come up with something, I knew they’d take it upon themselves to invent their own solutions, sending over a team to surround my home with trained baboons and moats of boiling sulfur.
“I guess we could use some motion lights?” I said.
Before I knew it, a barrel-chested electrician was standing in my driveway, asking where I wanted the lights. “I can put them anywhere,” he said. “The corners, the trees, the roof.” He was wearing a serious man’s tool belt and appeared to be considering the installation of motion-sensor lighting on my forehead.
“Just put them all over?” I said.
This is exactly what he did.
When I drove home from work that night, it appeared from the end of the street that our house was on fire, and I was reminded of scripture: “And the light shineth in the darkness, and the wicked shall flee, for the 240-degree swiveling security lights doth illuminate the cul-de-sac in heavenly brightness.” Pulling into my driveway, I felt very blessed, like one of those people who get to meet Jesus, mostly because I was now blind.
“I love the lights,” I said to a cat in the flowerbed, mistaking it for a family member.
Other friends tried to help, bringing food and hugs. It was unnerving. Late one night, everyone asleep but me, I heard the crunch of gravel and prepared to shoot the maker of this sound, gun in hand, until I saw out the window that it was merely a friend who was attempting to place a bottle of shiraz on our porch.
“Oh, hi,” she said, when I came outside, without the gun.
I thanked her. Later, having drunk the wine, I slept.
The next morning, my wife announced another new change.
“We’re getting a dog,” she said.
In my family, having indoor pets was always a sign of moral decay, assumed to be the result of drug addiction and mental illness. Growing up, if you wanted to get an animal into our house, you had to tell my father that you intended to eat it. But less than forty-eight hours later, my family and I were at a large concrete building full of dogs.
“We’re getting a dog!” our children said.
They were looking for a cuddly one, while I looked for a pet that might possess the ability to remove a human hand.
“Which one do you think will protect us more?” my wife whispered.
“An alligator,” I said.
We narrowed it down to a black Lab and a docile German Shepherd with a strange growth on its anus. I liked the idea of the German Shepherd. These dogs have one look, and the look says, “Can I taste your genital region?”
“But everybody loves Labs,” my wife said.
Which is how, a week after the burglary, I had a hundred-pound black Lab named Gus sleeping on my couch, sitting in my chair, and watching me urinate.
“If someone tries to break in, are you sure he’ll bark?” I asked my wife.
So far, the only security he provided was filling the yard with heaps of his malodorous dung, which I considered using to build a wall around our house. He didn’t stay in the living room, where the invaders might enter. Instead, he watched me sleep. I would wake up to heavy breathing and find the dog staring at me with murder on his mind, like Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade.
I was angry. Angry that I had this dog, that some criminal was now using my laptop to watch YouTube videos of unsanctioned mixed martial arts tournaments, that his family had failed in nurturing within him a sense of rightness and hope and his father had left his mother and his mother had filled the boy with her sadness and he had never been disciplined as a youth and how I wished to hit him in the face with a brick. I was angry that I’d lost my library card, that it’s so much work to get a library card, that the people who give out library cards are in many ways the real criminals of this story, and that if they came into my house, I would ask my dog to eat them. But he won’t eat them. He won’t do anything but get real close and breathe his hobo breath on them until they stop loving every dog they’ve ever cared about.
I woke up. The big black dog was staring at me.
“At least you’re all okay,” friends would say.
But I was not okay.
"Which one do you think will protect us more?" by Katherine Sandoz
7" x 7", acrylic on index, May 2013
And then, a miracle.
I was reaching into my briefcase one night, this piece of luggage I’d found empty in the yard, this bag I’d cleaned like it was filled with radiation, and there it was, right there, just sitting there, in a pocket that I’d scoured a hundred times. My wallet.
Everything was in it.
What I felt was not so much elation as pure wonder. The discovery created a kind of euphoria, an empowering buzz that felt like righteousness and light. What was happening? Was this a gift, some eddy in space and time, a message? I put down the wallet and walked outside and looked up at the heavens. I paced. I prayed. I tripped the motion lights.
And I knew: I cannot live like this, patrolling my house at night with a loaded gun, fully dressed, preparing to shoot the people who bring us gifts. And so I took the slugs out, and I put it back under the bed, and I started sleeping naked again, and I got rid of the dog.
“Where did Gus go?” the children asked.
“To the gas chambers,” I said.
What we did was, we returned him. I’d kept the receipt.
Peace returned, the invasion over. And then I heard a noise. This was no midnight shiraz delivery noise. This was a thud, several thuds, at 4 a.m. I groped for the shotgun under the bed. “This is it,” I said. They had come back for the other computer, the TV, the Apple products, our very lives. We were all going to die. I found the slugs. I pressed them into the chamber, one, two, quiet as Little Tommy Tittlemouse. I crouched in the hallway. Looking down, I considered the tactical advantages of my nakedness. Usually, when I enter a room naked, my wife runs out screaming. Would it scare a burglar, too? Perhaps. Still, I worried. It would not play well with a jury of my peers.
“What was Mr. Key wearing when he shot you?” the prosecutor asks.
“Nothing but, but—” the defendant says, choking up.
“It’s okay, this is a safe place.”
“You must have feared for your life.”
I squinted and noted, also, that my eyeglasses were in the very living room that was quietly being ransacked.
“Naked, Blind Man Shoots Wife In Living Room,” the headline would read.
I inched forward, turned off the safety.
I pumped the gun, loudly, hoping to scare them back out the way they’d come, and then I heard more rustling, more knocking about, coming from a bedroom. My four-year-old opened her door, saw the gun, and started to cry. Cover blown, it was time to act. I ran into the living room, gun ready to blaze.
My wife woke, came out, turned on a light.
“What are you—” she said.
“I thought—” I said. I nodded to the four-year-old. “I guess she dropped a cup or something?” The four-year-old cried harder, and I looked in the enormous mirror that hangs on our living room wall and was shocked at what I saw: a real-live Angry White Man. In nothing but his socks. Holding a giant gun. Like some kind of nut.
I no longer patrol my house at night. But I have the gun, and it is loaded. If you come over for dinner, I will not ask you if you want to see it. If we go for a walk, I will not put it in my pants. It is too big, and would make walking unpleasurable.
I do still worry about the Gun Nuts and the Non-Gun Nuts. I’m not picking sides. I’ve always tried to avoid extremism of any kind, as it is my understanding that passionate beliefs can lead to excessive voting and the alienation of people whose cooking I enjoy.
We did move the girls. They are in a safer room. Any invaders who wish to hurt them will have to get through me first, which will be difficult because of the motion lights, which will sear their corneas. And as they stumble into our house, blinded and groping, there will be a new sound. Beep, beep, beep, the sound will say.
And I will get my gun.
Because I have no illusions about what this world is capable of doing to my children and my wife. If someone comes into my house at night without knocking, even if only to look at my lovely spatulas, I will do my best to ensure none of his organs will be usable by any hospitals. I will not stop to ask about how much love he needs or wants or never got, or if he likes my laptop and its superior functionality. I will shoot first and ask no questions. Or maybe one.
“Why?” I will say. Then I will shoot.
And if that guest is Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and if he is only coming to take us all to heaven, and if I accidentally unload into his diaphanous form, I am sure he will forgive me.
“I thought you were someone else,” I will say, and we will have some wine.