I have my stories that I tell, about memories of lives I have lived in old places. I’m not old, but I’ve been an adult for long enough now that memories of my earliest years out on my own in the world are turning from long, detail rich narratives into calcified representative stories, with rhythms I recognize, beats drummed into the sentences that I’ve spoken aloud a dozen times. You tell a tale often enough, and it evolves. You cease remembering it as it was, and begin to remember it as you tell it, and eventually you play the telephone game with your own self, from decade to decade, each telling of the story a bead on a pearl necklace, widely spaced steps on a suspension bridge linking, and also separating, youth and age. I wonder, sometimes, how these stories will sound coming out of my 80 year old mouth, should I be so lucky as to survive to that venerable time of life. I suppose this record here serves to preserve them, fresh, and for that I am thankful.
In any case, that is neither here nor there, except that I was thinking of a story, one of those that I like to tell, and I couldn’t remember if I’d mentioned it here before, but anyway it’s about how this one time at my old job, I was called out to the parking lot along with everyone else working in the office in order that we may admire a severed deer head in the back of a pickup truck, one of the maintenance worker’s latest kills. I, you will be unsurprised to learn, declined to view the trophy. I like to tell this story with a wry smile, a shake of my head, a chuckle, to show that I am cool with hunting, it’s ok and all, it just isn’t my thing. Ah, but I do sometimes miss those coworkers, who taught me something about what it is to live a happily rural life.
After my husband tells me the news first thing Friday morning, I click around the net, like we all do, feeling ghoulish, curious, genuinely sad. At one point I catch a news clip that says nothing much, but in the background is a balding man in sunglasses, stalking aggressively around a parking lot. He walks toward the camera and shoves a piece of computer paper in it. It is a black and white picture, a young man’s face poorly printed on a plain piece of paper. ”This is my SON,” the man rudely shouts at us, who are watching him through the other side of the tv screen. ”Have you seen my SON?” He thrusts the question at us. He is desperate for a fight, for something to punch, so he punches the air with his picture, a white piece of paper with which he is rending the air. ”If you see him you CALL ME.” He is propelled by fury. He is propelled by agony. He stalks away. I do not want to watch anymore.
Back in the deer-head-in-a-pickup days, my boss took off a week every Thanksgiving in order to drive up to his home, in Wisconsin, and go hunting. His brothers generally met him. His wife would go along. A diminutive Israeli artist, she had no interest in the hunt, and would spend the week cooking and shopping and holing up with the other women of the family. My boss, Gary, looked forward to that week of family, eating, and hunting for the entirety of the year. He gave up his Christmas holidays entirely, so that he could spend his entire year’s vacation time on that Thanksgiving trip. Once when they returned from Wisconsin, Gary showed me a picture of his young niece standing next to a felled buck. Her first hunt with her dad, he said proudly. Dad shot the buck, but he taught his little girl how to clean it, to butcher it. They’d spent hours in the stand, quiet, there in the trees, together. Gary always brought home jerky made of venison, which I pretended to like, secretly spitting bites into Kleenex. Too salty.
Later I’m reading a totally unrelated article, and in a sidebar I see a picture of the balding angry man as part of a teaser for a story. He has been caught up into a group hug. He is crying with abandon. I do not click the link. I do not want to know.
I have a girlfriend, a friend from law school who is nine years younger than me. We managed to bridge the gulf between twenty four and thirty three, and had long talks about how her boyfriend, a man she’d planned to marry, instead hooked up with another law student and made her look a fool. We watched Pride and Prejudice, drank lite beer, bitched about law school. She showed me a picture once of the gun she keeps in her house – a tiny little handgun with a pink handle. It’s an elegant little thing, and she is proud of it. It is a symbol, for her, of independence, of womanly virtue, of self-reliance. Having a man around means you can always get a pickle jar open, it is true, but a gun equalizes the physical disadvantage that we women endure. A gun means she may need a man to open a stubborn pickle jar, but she will never need one to protect her.
Today I saw him again, and learned the truth I’d been avoiding. There was a still picture of him, taken from that video, mouth wide open, angry, and underneath a caption, naming him, and naming his son. It was a name I recognized as one of the dead, the young man who went to see Batman on his 27th birthday. His gravestone will read July 20th-July 20th. I thought of my sons, and threw a pillow at the bed. My futile act of fury in solidarity with a stranger’s unfathomable loss.
It is so fine, the line between life and death. The tenuous connection of molecules and atoms, the soft, water-filled tissues, the neurons, the loops and strings of veins and arteries that join fingers to liver to earlobes to ankles, that carry liters of the warm oxygen delivery device that is our salted red blood, pushed by the meaty purple red muscle of our amazing, wondrous, miraculous human hearts.
We have these really vital freedoms in this country. Freedom of speech, of the press, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, the protections for due process of the law, for the right to a trial by a jury of our peers, for the right to confront any accuser, the right not to incriminate ourselves, the right to family privacy. All of these freedoms come with costs, like having to listen to offensive speech, having to allow some criminals to go free because their right to be free from unreasonable search was violated, having to allow parents to make bad choices in the raising of our children.
And then we have the freedom to buy and own and carry and shoot guns. And the positives that come from that are these wonderful hunting expeditions, these family traditions, and also maybe a little feeling of personal security, and also maybe appreciation of a beautiful piece of machinery, coiled, elegant, powerful. But the costs of this right are our constant encounters with madmen who cause the deaths of 30,000 people per year in the United States. Because the Second Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States, does not protect the right of responsible, intelligent, incredibly careful Americans to bear arms. It protects the right of every damn fool in this country to purchase a semi automatic weapon, and the ammunition to load it. We protect free speech because of the exchange of ideas, we protect privacy because the intrusion of government could be limitless, but we are protecting ownership of guns purely for the sake of owning guns. And as I get older and older, more and more of the planks on my bridge o’ memories are “I remember where I was when . . .” I remember where I was when I found out about Columbine – I was packing for a trip abroad to England, and my college roommate was freaking out. I remember where I was when I found out about Virginia Tech – I was at work, and I couldn’t stop reading about the victims. I remember where I was when I found out about Gabby Giffords. I remember where I was when I found out about a shooting at Orange High School, two blocks from my home in North Carolina, where my sons would have attended had they been of high school age.
I remember where I was when I found out about Aurora.
We are shooting ourselves in the foot – pun intended – falsely intertwining the concepts of “freedom” and “gun owning,” and the collateral damage is there written in blood and body parts and pieces of people and ruined lives spattered all over a movie theater in Colorado. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but guns facilitate mass slaughter that no other (legal) weapon does, and making them legal means there are more of them which means there are more deaths by them. I know it’s easy for me to say because I don’t hunt and I don’t even want one for protection, but damned if I wouldn’t happily throw every single one of them in the world onto a pit of fire and watch it burn. People would still kill people, innocents would still die. But I’ll bet less than 30,000 of them would die from a gunshot wound, and when the only freedom we are protecting is the freedom to own guns whose sole purpose is to destroy life, then I think the calculus is obvious. Alas, to my everlasting incredulous dismay, in this country still it is not. I wonder if there could ever be a number of deaths high enough that would represent a cost too high for us to bear.