Sunday, January 14th, 2007
Jennifer Shreve is a fiction and nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in Seed, Adbusters, Slate, Wired, and elsewhere. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Here she writes about her family history, a seeing her aging father after many years, and the guns that move in and out of her life.
In my recurring daydream, he would arrive during a humdrum afternoon at the office. I’d be in my cube, tapping away on my keyboard, the inkjet printer sputtering softly beside me, the angry shrieks of midday traffic rising up from San Francisco’s Mission Street, a siren wailing in the distance–when suddenly a disturbance erupts from the reception area. In bursts my father, toting a large semi-automatic rifle and demanding his one and only hostage. I rise from my seat and walk calmly towards it him. “You don’t want to do this. There are better ways,” I tell him, my voice soft and milky. Sometimes we scuffle; other times it is my wit and reason that save the day. But once I have the gun in hand, there is no question what happens next: I press the butt firmly into my shoulder, slide my finger over the trigger, squint and jerk my chin like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, and blow that no good son of a bitch away. When it’s over I am lauded a hero. Of course, I get the long-overdue promotion and raise. And everyone around me is filled with admiration for how gracefully I’d managed to carry on in spite of the explosive secret sitting inside me, waiting, burdening me for all those years.
So it is strange to find myself standing at the edge of a cliff in the vast, surprisingly beautiful wilderness outside of Amarillo, Texas, with a loaded rifle in my hands. No struggle. No threats of death. My father has handed me the weapon and suggested that I shoot something, anything. I search the landscape. The sky is white with clouds and the air is damp with freshly fallen rain. The tawny sand of the playa, dotted with fragrant green desert shrubs, stretches out to the horizon. And this wide breach, the rust-colored river, cuts the land in two. There is nothing out here but targets. Of course the wicked thought occurs to me. How could it not? But like the desire to leap that flits across my mind every time I find myself at a dangerous height, shooting my father is not a serious consideration. I spot a thick tree branch bobbing in the river, take aim, and fire.
A therapist once told me that all my stories ended in violence. This isn’t one of those stories.
I used to watch all those daytime talk shows, the ones in which parent and child are reunited after decades apart. The last time I’d seen my father he was being shoved into the back seat of a police car. In the other direction was our three-bedroom house, partially engulfed in flames. A pillar of smoke rose into the night sky, blotting out the stars, polluting heaven with our wretchedness. My world was ending. I was five.
As an adult, watching those shows, I often wondered whether I might one day get a call inviting me to participate in such a spectacle. Our story had all the right ingredients: violence, separation, contrition, forgiveness. I’d refuse, of course. How could anyone place such a private and emotional moment in the hands of callous producers for the gratification of a fickle television audience? And yet how could I not feel the tug? All that hugging, the leaping up and down, the unrestrained sobs of relief and regret, the soothing platitudes of the best-selling psychologist, the outbursts of indignation from the audience–I wouldn’t make it to the detergent commercial without tearing up. Cue applause, cue tears. Or would my father arrive on the set armed to the hilt and blow me away while all my family and friends watched in helpless horror from their living rooms?
In real life, my father ends his long absence with a letter, sent to my brother’s address in early October 2001. A month before, I had been scheduled to get on a plane and fly from San Francisco to Phoenix. Instead I spent that day, like millions of other people, in stunned silence–my worst memory amplified thousands of times, only, I must remind myself, so very different. When my brother’s email arrives, I am at my in-laws home in Phoenix, on the rescheduled trip, watching the evening news. He explains that he’s just received a letter from our father, and then types out its content verbatim. No machine guns or studio audiences, no screaming confrontations or tears of joy. Just a few simple words of regret and apology. And yet the news hits me with brutal force, warm pain spreading. Trembling. Euphoria. My laptop screen goes blurry. Tears spill down my cheeks. My father-in-law looks up and asks if I’m okay. My lips move but no recognizable sound comes out. Finally, I begin to sputter. “My father”–the word unfamiliar and awkward, like a piece of gristle on my tongue. I spit it out. “Father–has–sent us–letter.”
On October 11, the morning I’m supposed to fly home from Phoenix, the FAA sends out a warning that more terrorist attacks using airplanes as weapons are imminent. Giant silver bullets fired by madmen, I think. Passengers are encouraged not to change their plans. A couple I know, scheduled to fly from New York that day, email their friends and family to say “goodbye,” just in case. Fuck that.
I skip my flight and rent a car. As I head west along Highway 10, Phoenix suburbs give way to a serene desert landscape, dotted with tumbleweeds and trailer parks. I pass through the green oasis of Palm Springs, stopping at a roadside stand to buy a date shake, then nurse it as I make the final stretch to L.A. The next morning it’s up Highway 5, over the grapevine, past farmlands and truck stops, slaughterhouses and subdivisions.
I drive barefoot with the windows rolled down and the radio turned up. I eat Pria bars, which taste like chocolate-covered cardboard, drink Red Bulls, and smoke one Camel Light after another. I stop only to pee and stretch my legs. I sing along to ’80s pop songs on the radio at the top of my lungs. She’s an uptown girl! I cry loudly, dramatically, as the mood strikes. She’s been living in her white bread world! A continuous, ever-changing landscape of thoughts, feelings, images, and song lyrics pass through my head. He’s in AA. He’s sorry for what he’s done. He wants to make it up to us. And now she’s looking for a downtown man! He can never make it up to us. He’s a bastard. He doesn’t deserve it, but I forgive him. That’s what I am. By the time I pull in front of my apartment in Oakland, I feel spent but alive, ready to face this strange and terrifying new world.
My father’s face is dry and cracked like an old leather saddle. Burst capillaries give his cheeks, round and high like my own, a permanently flushed color. His hair is gray and receding from his forehead. His lids droop like two full hammocks slung across his eyes. A lit cigarette perpetually dangles from his thin lips. A jagged scar juts from the left side of his chin, curves sharply, and stretches across his cheekbone. My mother has told me about the scar. When he was 18, she says he took a loaded gun, pressed it to his chin, and pulled the trigger. The bullet is still in there, lodged in the folds of his gray matter. The stove caught his fall and his face hit a burner. It must’ve cooked there a good while before he finally landed on the floor.
The bullet is also the reason for the seizures, for which he was prescribed the medicine that, he says, made him go crazy and hit my mother and me. It’s an explanation that feels incomplete; not everyone taking this medicine does what he did. But I can see how it might comfort him to think so.
Having shot enough holes in the landscape for one afternoon, we pile into the burgundy rental car. We pass through a cattle gate fitted with a piece of bark, the words “Beware of Everything” burnt into it. As we drive back towards Amarillo, my father tells me I’m a good shot, just like my grandmother. I cock an eyebrow. Oh yeah? My father’s laugh is low and phlegmy, more heh than ha or hee, in the Texas fashion that’s become a signature of George W. Bush. Turns out my grandmother shot and killed one of her husbands. “Shot at a few, only killed one,” my father clarifies with a staccato heh heh heh. This is a story I have not heard before. I press for details, but all I learn is: A real bastard, he had it coming. Used to beat her and burn her with cigarettes. She shot him when he was in the bathtub and still it was deemed self-defense. Something about this story isn’t adding up, either. The details are too sketchy, the explanations too flimsy. I suggest we take my grandmother out to her favorite restaurant, an all-you-can-eat, country-style buffet just off the highway. I need to know more.
At the age of 86, my grandmother has been sober fewer years than there are fingers on her hands. As we head to the restaurant, it becomes clear she shouldn’t be driving. We bob and weave at 45 miles per hour down the Interstate. She can’t remember where we’re going. Somehow this is the exit’s fault.
During dinner, I notice she’s wrapping all-you-can-eat pork chops into napkins and tucking them neatly into her purse. Hesitantly, I raise the question. “I hear you, uh, killed someone?” I am touched by the gentleness of her refusal, so unlike a hard-drinking, gun-toting Texas grandma. “Oh, let’s not talk about that. Those were terrible, terrible times.”
Although I am a journalist by trade, I have never been one to prod where prodding isn’t wanted. Each of us here–my brother, my father, my grandmother, and me, slouching in uncomfortable molded-plastic chairs over rapidly cooling heaps of mashed potatoes, carved turkey breast, and boiled veggies–each of us has our dark places, the ones we don’t like to visit. When we do go there, we understand it is better to travel alone. And yet, this lack of a past has left me full of great gaping holes. Amazing in retrospect, my certainty that answers would somehow make me whole.
From the back seat he directs me to the house. Red bricks along the base, wood painted gray up top. A red SUV is parked in the wrap-around driveway. There’s the lawn where we stood, my mother holding my brother, barely two, as they took my father away. Now, a dried wreath hangs on the front door. There are no firemen running in and out, no police lights casting shadows across the lawn. My god, I can remember every detail of what’s inside: the red and gold canopy bed where he used to whip me with his belt; the cantaloupes that grew by the fence in back, upsetting the neighbors when their roots reached into their yard; the living room where he screamed and turned off the TV; the kitchen where he threw dishes at my mother while I cowered behind the counter; the bedroom window he climbed in through to smash her prized electric typewriter before setting her closet on fire while my brother and I slept. And he says, as we idle in front of this ordinary three-bedroom house, that this was his dream. All he ever wanted was a house, a wife and kids, a normal life. And then he tells me another story I haven’t heard, about the last time my mother left him. He bought a shotgun and found out where she was hiding. But when he got there, he chickened out and took the weapon back home. A fat, weathered hand lands on my rigid shoulder. “Don’t worry. If I had wanted to kill your mother, I would have done it.” He tells me it would’ve been easy.
How is this house still standing, so accurate to my memory that I can tell what’s inside it from the street? Did they use paint to cover the smoke stains, or were walls torn down and rebuilt? Has the garden been dug out and replaced by a pool? Is there any remnant of seed or root from the garden we grew buried deep in the soil?
The airline allowed a maximum of six suitcases, two per passenger. It was all we had left. When we pried them open at my maternal grandparents’ home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Carmel, each smelled sulfurous, like a discharged gun. That scent told of melted polyester pant suits and carpet fibers, of broken glass and loose typewriter keys, of Raggedy Anne and Andy dolls with blackened faces, of unlucky cockroaches cooked to a crisp, of peeling paint, metal picture frames smoked over so you could no longer read the Bible verses they held, written neatly on yellow lined paper–all gone in a flick of a match. It soaked into our clothing, the curled edges of our surviving photo albums, even, I imagined, our skin.
A bullet dodged? My mother’s black eyes and the necklace of bruises did fade. The terrors that shook me in the middle of the night eventually loosened their grip, if never let go entirely. My brother’s memory of these events, if he had any at all, have faded and disappeared. Twenty years would pass before we saw our father again, a contrite, withered shell of the monster he’d once been. There were birthday parties, weddings, divorces, graduations, holidays, all the rituals of ordinary family life.
A bullet dodged. But not completely.