By Claudia Schatz
Image: “The Little Owl,” by Albrecht Durer, 1506.
We can’t change the channel. “This is why they used to put buttons on TVs,” Dad said, studying the reporters on screen. They chattered over him, gesturing.
“What did you say?” I said.
He shook his head. “Darn remote. Well, it’ll show up.”
It wasn’t so bad at first. Our TV is always on anyway, but it’s not usually stuck on the news. After a few hours it starts to bug me. No matter where I stand in the house, I can hear it. It never stops talking.
* * *
I took the first gun today. I found the key in the top left drawer of Dad’s dresser and unlocked the tall wooden cabinet and picked it up, holding my breath–well, not exactly holding my breath, but I don’t know, I couldn’t breathe that well. I walked through the house to the back door, out across the yard covered with old grey snow, into the woods behind the house. The sound of the TV faded behind me–the first silence I’d heard all day.
I knew Dad would be home soon. We had planned that morning to make Mom’s sauce for dinner, the one with sausage and oregano. Then we’d turn on the radio and see if we could beat our record for emptying the dishwasher: three minutes and forty-one seconds. I would have to do my math homework while Dad fiddled with the stereo, making up words to the songs he doesn’t know. “That’s how it goes, right?” he always teases.
“That music doesn’t go so well with isosceles triangles, Dad,” I say, tapping my paper.
“Triangles?” Dad would switch off the radio and sit down at the table with me. “Well, what acute angle we have here.”
“Dad, no,” I moan. “No puns.”
He laughs. “All right, big guy, let’s show these triangles who’s boss.”
Dad was not home yet, though, and the sun had sunk so low that only the tops of the trees were still golden. I walked fast, my fingers freezing on the metal, until I found a good spot. I carved out a hollow with my pocketknife and left the gun in the earth and pushed the dirt back over it, then the snow, then a layer of pine needles. Safer already.
* * *
Every year on Mom’s birthday, we visit her grave in the cemetery. We spend a day telling this rock a bunch of stories over a picnic lunch on the frozen ground. If there’s one thing Mom’s good at, it’s listening.
On that day, Dad and I talk, but not to each other. I talk about sledding at the golf course and learning the trombone and visiting her parents over the weekend. Dad talks about work and how her garden is ready to burst into life, even though of course there are always still weeks of frost to come. He pokes my shoulder and tells her how proud he is of me, how beautiful the day is. I think winter is gross, but Dad loves the white skies and blue-black cold.
We sit in the cemetery all day, shivering through the chilly afternoon and into evening. Sometimes I can hear the icicles cracking like gunshots. March is mountain lion and wolf season: no more than one per hunter. Last year when I was thirteen, I knew a bunch of guys learning how to hunt big game. Meanwhile, I was in the cemetery, talking to rocks.
It is just a rock, really. I know they’re supposed to put bodies in the ground under graves, but when I’m there it doesn’t feel like it. It makes me think of how much fun people have until their dumb kids come along and make them fat and wrinkly, weigh them down. A kid is weight on your arm, in your shopping cart, on your grave. I look at the stone and feel heavy, too heavy to stand on top of a hollow in the earth. The ground could cave right in. Nothing is there.
* * *
I was five when Dad decided it was time for me to learn to shoot. Most kids my age already had, anyway. We drove to the range, and he unstrapped me from my booster seat, wrapped his gloved hand around mine. Just two guys out for some fun.
I remember watching him and putting my mittens in my mouth. They tasted like used Kleenex, like everything kids touch. I didn’t see him take out the gun but suddenly it was there. He raised it to his shoulder and pulled the trigger. Boom.
I threw up. I hadn’t even realized I felt sick but there it was, yellow chunks that tasted like metal. It’s funny, isn’t it? Some kid puking his guts out for no reason, crying all over the place, screaming, the works.
I remember that when I opened my eyes Dad was holding me, curled beneath the trees. The winter branches were black on white and slanted like cursive.
“Pauly-Paul,” Dad said to me, over and over. He always called me that. He still does, even though the name never suited me. “Paul, little man, it’s okay.”
I didn’t learn to shoot that day. I didn’t learn to shoot any day after, either.
* * *
Dad doesn’t sing along to the radio outside the house. That’s only between the two of us. He’s quiet in a way that people appreciate. You’ve probably heard him say, “Good morning,” and not much else. He’s very popular at work.
He goes out to shoot every weekend or so. His dad taught him, and his dad’s dad taught him and his dad’s dad’s dad taught him. When he gets back on those days, he’s different: singing and smiling all afternoon, and talking to my mother when he thinks I can’t hear. It’s like he brings her back with him.
We love our guns, that’s what people in Idaho say. As for me, they’re not exactly my thing. I’ve got nothing against them–I’m careful, that’s all. I stay home sick every year on the day the National Parks ranger comes in to talk about the science of thinning herds, flashing his badges and gun. I yawn when people talk about it, like it’s the most boring story I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I have to shut my eyes during crime movies, and I don’t go near the cabinet in the living room unless I have to. The glass panel looks like a smiling mouth with a whole bunch of teeth. Obviously it’s not, but it looks like it, that’s all I’m saying.
* * *
A robin once fell from our beech tree and floundered around the yard with one wing bent beneath her. I was seven and thought it was a game. When I gave chase, giggling, the bird thrashed along the ground, heaving against the weight of her wing. She screamed in terror, tiny claws scrabbling at the dirt.
At the sound, Dad rushed outside and pulled me away. “The bird doesn’t want to play right now, Paul. Her wing hurts. Go inside, okay?”
I watched from the window as he carried a bowl of water outside and sat in the grass. He hummed softly, and the bird’s panicked squeals grew softer and softer as the afternoon passed. He didn’t move for hours.
When he shut the door behind him, clearing his throat, the robin was gone.
“Did you fix her wing?” I asked.
He turned to the sink. “She’ll be fine.”
He rolled up his sleeves and swirled water around the bowl, warm soapsuds on the backs of his hands. I knew, then, that he could do anything.
* * *
I took the second gun today. I found the key in Dad’s bottom dresser drawer under his sweaters–he’d moved it. The TV talked at me while I fumbled with the lock. The gun was heavier, or maybe the weight was sitting at the bottom of my stomach. My hands were sweaty and gross.
When Dad got home yesterday, he didn’t notice that the first one was missing until after I was in bed. Actually, I wasn’t in bed–I was at the top of the stairs, listening for him to take the key from his dresser and unlock the cabinet and clean them as he often does at night when the house is quiet. My mom used to do it. She was the expert, Dad always says.
He was humming to himself as he cleaned the first one. Then he stopped humming. I heard him put the gun down softly, close the cabinet, then open it again. He felt around once, then twice, in all the back corners. He cleared his throat. He began to open drawers around the living room, then the kitchen, then grabbed his keys from the counter and marched outside. Watching from the window upstairs, I saw him open all the car doors, then the garage, and disappear into his search. He came inside empty-handed, of course, and as he turned towards the front porch I saw the sick, worried look on his face.
This morning, Dad didn’t say anything about it. He stared at the paper while I made my own sandwich and put on my coat.
“Aren’t you going to say goodbye?” I stood in my boots and folded my arms.
He looked up. “Leaving, big guy? Not without a hug!”
“Come on, Dad,” I moaned. He pulled me close, pressing my face against his shoulder, which smelled like clean shower water and coffee. He gives me the most annoying hugs. It’s sort of okay if it’s not in front of my friends, though. “Love you,” I muttered.
“Hey, what do I keep telling you about wearing those boots in here? Put them on at the door. See all that dirt?”
I glanced down. “Sorry. I can sweep it–”
“Don’t worry about it this time.” He tugged a zipper on my backpack closed. “You monkey. Run for the bus, okay? I’ll see you at five.”
I pulled away. “I thought four. Are you working late?”
“I’ve got to swing by Sam’s to check something.”
“Oh.” My breakfast flipped in my stomach.
Sam’s Gun Shop is my least favorite store in town, even worse than Boyd’s Custom Tailor where the salesman pinches me and the suits remind me of funerals. I ran for the door, the TV babbling behind me.
* * *
Dad is tearing apart the living room. He said he’s looking for the remote, but maybe he found the second gap in the cabinet’s teeth. The TV talks over him. A commercial for a mop, traffic, shooting, death.
I watch from the top of the stairs as Dad pulls the couch away from the wall and dumps all the cushions on the floor. Then he flips them over one by one, like the remote miraculously strapped itself to their undersides. He throws open all the drawers on the television stand. He picks up the rug and shakes it out. I’d think he were crazy if I looked in the window. But the noise from the TV is making my face ache. I press my palms against my head.
Dad unfolds every blanket and overturns the coffee table. He shakes out the curtains and pushes the couch back into place. I watch as he turns towards the cabinet. He kneels beside it to look underneath–then pauses, as if he’s noticed something on the floor. I see it the same moment he does.
Dirt. Dried winter mud from the bottoms of my snowboots.
He looks at it. Then he peers under the cabinet, pulls out the remote, and turns off the television. Silence glides into the house. Everything is still.
Dad knows I don’t touch that cabinet. And he’s looking right at the tracks on the floor.
“Paul,” he says. “Can you come here a minute?”
* * *
After my mother died, the TV was always on.
“How about a little noise in here, huh?” Dad would say, reaching for the remote. I was four and played with styrofoam puzzle pieces on the living room carpet while he watched the news. He would lean forward from the couch, elbows on his knees, and shake his head. “Paul, we’ve got to be safe, you and me,” he’d say.
He started calling me big guy. He bought more guns. He filled the cabinet with teeth.
* * *
“I found the remote!” He holds it up to show me as I trudge downstairs.
“Oh, good. We can get a break from the news.”
“Mhm.” He tosses the remote onto the coffee table and looks at me. “Have you been moving the guns around?”
“Guns are missing. That’s not safe.”
“Safe!” I laugh. “Well, they’re not safe in here!”
“What do you mean?” He crosses his arms. “We keep the cabinet locked, and they’ve all got the safeties on.” Here’s the thing about my dad: he means every single thing he says. It’s impossible to argue with him.
He steps forward. “Where are they, big guy?”
“Who are you even talking to? Who is ‘big guy’?”
“I’m trying to ask nicely.”
“Ask someone else.”
Dad sighs. “Oh, Paul.” He gazes at me, weighing my expression. His voice softens. “That’s your mother’s spark in you. So stubborn.”
“Nice one, Dad. Really convincing right now.”
He throws his hands up. “Come on! You know she wouldn’t want this for us. Fighting and hiding and–”
“How should I know what she wants?” I stare out the window.
“Look at me!” he barks. “You can’t steal guns, Paul.” His fists clench around empty air. “Do you–can you even fathom how dangerous–”
“I get it. You don’t want to lose your precious guns.”
“No, I don’t!” he shouts. “And you shouldn’t want to either. It’s not safe for you to have them.”
“It’s not safe for you to have them,” I retort.
“Will you stop being such a kid?”
“I am a kid!” I lean into his face. “You miss your guns so much, huh? Would you even notice if I were missing?”
He stares at me, agape. I turn away, but he seizes my shoulder and spins me around.
“You don’t know anything.” His face is inches from mine, shaking. His fingers dig into my skin. “Not about guns, or being safe, or missing people. You hear me? Nothing.”
“Who’s going to tell me?” I say softly. “Is it on the news?”
He stumbles back. I lean against the wall, heavy. We are silent for a long time: the cabinet, the TV, the two of us, breathing.
At last he says, “Show me where they are.”
Through the house to the back door, then out across the yard covered with old grey snow, into the woods behind the house. We walk all the way to the spot where I reach for my pocketknife and dig up the pine needles, the snow, the dirt.
Dad nods. He clears his throat and looks up, like he’s about to speak–not to me, but to someone. He passes a hand over his face once, then twice.
Here, the earth is full. I’m not afraid of how heavy our feet are.
Read interview with Claudia Schatz here.