Three Guns

The ones that scare us, the ones that take things away from us, and the ones that make us feel in control.

Manjula Martin’s work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review online, Nieman...

 

I.

In a small, unfurnished apartment in Tigard, a depressed suburban town in Oregon, I sat on Lupe’s boyfriend’s gun.

The apartment was almost bare. Several white men in shorts sat on a large, pleather couch watching television. Beer cans and green tinted bottles rested on the floor. From the kitchen door, a cement staircase led down to a beige carport, and beyond that, rows of mirror-image apartment blocks in that same beige. The air was made of cigarette smoke and weed.

Here’s what I knew about Tigard at the time: there might be some people there who‘d let us sleep on their floor. It was July 1994 and I was 17 years old, on a road trip through the Pacific Northwest with my friends, Anna and Jem. We drove Anna’s mom’s pickup truck, which had a camper shell on its back. We spent most of our nights in it, spooning each other, but it was summer, and we were sick of sleeping in each others’ sweat.

Anna’s oldest childhood friend, Lupe, lived in Tigard with her new boyfriend, who had one of those typical guy-names I can never remember. Andrew. Jason. Jeff. Somewhere on the I-5 into Portland, heading south from Seattle, our truck had overheated and needed professional attention. So Tigard it was, though we weren’t sure where exactly it was. Over a payphone, Lupe told Anna that it wasn’t too far south of Portland, and was also home to at least a couple of auto repair shops. These we saw, as well as endless strip malls, as we lurched through town in first gear on the tail of the evening rush hour traffic.

In the early 20th century, Tigard was probably like other small towns: a farming community that became a train-stop town that became nowhere in particular. As a city, Tigard lacked any character that would distinguish it in my 17-year-old mind, particularly as it came on the heels of a foggy sheen of Portland’s civic style: crowded coffee houses in old Victorian houses, front-porch jam sessions, outcroppings of roses bursting from every curb. Tigard was the ’burbs. To me, that was all.

When we arrived at the apartment, we walked through the already-open door with a half-knock. The men stared at us; we hovered near the coatrack and stared back. We were two girls and one boy wearing vintage cardigans, ripped jeans, and riot grrrl t-shirts. They were three men clutching beer cans, who looked an awful lot like the men I saw in Bud Light advertisements or on Cops, being handcuffed in their drawers while their wives stood by with black eyes. White baseball caps, ruddy white skin, baggy shorts, stubble, and McDonald’s guts. I had pegged Lupe’s boyfriend Jeff as a “hick” even before I crossed the threshold of their apartment.

I wasn’t a person who actually knew anyone I might consider a “hick.” I was raised in a college town in California among ex-hippies and professors. My friends’ parents protested nuclear power plants and led feminist yoga retreats. The road trip of that summer had shown me new landscapes: tiny ghost towns with friendly gas station attendants, Seattle rooftops dotted with 20-something brainiacs spinning out on heroin. The endless mix-tape miles of wide-open space between cities—where nobody and nothing cared about being cool—were beginning to spin me into a feeling that I was actually, for the first time, in America. America proper. The America of beer ads and football halftimes, truck stops and classic rock. But until I went to Tigard, I hadn’t actually talked with anyone from that real America yet, outside of a retail transaction. I hadn’t been in their homes. Once there, I immediately sought to place the inhabitants within the mental categories of humanity I knew of. They weren’t friends. They weren’t art geeks. They didn’t recycle. They weren’t even listening to us.

On the coffee table, I saw magazines about cars and naked women. I watched Jeff eye Jem’s tattoos and Anna’s flat chest without so much as pausing his video game. “LUPE!” he yelled at the wall behind him. Promptly, a round Latina with a California valley-girl accent emerged from the bedroom with a laundry basket in her hand.

They were three men clutching beer cans, who looked an awful lot like the men I saw in Bud Light advertisements or on Cops, being handcuffed in their drawers while their wives stood by with black eyes.

While Lupe greeted us, Jeff looked at her from behind, his expression a mix of possessiveness and surprise. Lupe and Anna hugged while Jem started looking through a stack of CDs on the kitchen table. I kept my eyes on Jeff. When he caught me watching him, his eyes flared from dark to light grey. Was he sizing up my body, as he had my friend’s? Was he jealous of our potential influence on his girlfriend; threatened by the discovery that Lupe had people, unknowns, in her past?

Unresolved, he went back to his shooting game and allowed his girlfriend to take on the hostess responsibilities. We went out for tacos.

“Do you want to leave?” Jem whispered to me at dinner. “These dudes are sketchy. We could find a campground.” As a scrawny comic-book-loving teen, Jem had some painful experiences with men who looked just like Jeff. Despite my flash judgment of Jeff and his friends, I wanted to think of myself as open-minded. Besides, I was on a road trip, which has certain rules, one of which is, “Just roll with it.” Maybe I could tell a story about this night later, back at home in the America that I recognized.

After dinner, I practiced opening my mind. I sat on the couch with the boys while they played video games and talked shit. Anna and Lupe were having girl-time in the next room. Jem had announced he was sleeping in the truck, “to make sure it’s safe.” I was nursing a can of something warm while trying to understand what Jeff and his friends were saying. Apparently, it was about cars. They bandied the names of auto parts and procedures with an expertise I recognized as not dissimilar to the way my theatre director mom and her friends discussed plays. To me, their talk about cars sounded so violent.

“Yeah dude, that shit was tight.”

“I just slicked ‘er up and revved it and I was like, yeeeah boy!”

“Fuck man. You gotta watch it with that, ain’t you got a warrant?”

I couldn’t pretend to understand car talk, but I tried to join the boys, uttering “whoa” and “nice” at what seemed like appropriate intervals in the game. I soon fell silent and occupied myself with trying to become smaller. Jeff leaned large over me every now and then when he executed a particularly tricky joystick move. His leg hair touched my shaved calf without hesitation. He took up the seat, the room, the apartment.

“He’s a teddy bear,” Lupe had insisted over dinner.

I sought refuge from the couch back in the bedroom with the girls. There, Anna and Lupe were retelling old stories from childhood, gossiping about their jobs and their junior college classes, looking at each others’ grownup hair in a full-length mirror on the bedroom wall.

We learned from Lupe that they were behind on the rent. They didn’t have a lot of money in the first place, and her boyfriend’s friends sometimes borrowed or spent what she and Jeff earned at odd jobs. It was going to be okay though, she said. Things were going to “break” (change, she meant) and she could feel it coming. He’s really just the sweetest guy.

The picture Lupe painted of her life with Jeff was one I could recognize, an American story that countered the violent images in the living room. I felt embarrassed. These weren’t bad people. They were just poor. A vision of a dustbowl family, a Dorothea Lange photograph, came to my mind. I could situate this poverty in my cultural repertoire. Not hicks. Not scary men. Just regular. Folk. I felt my cheeks grow warm, the way they always did when I realized I’d been too certain of my stance.

Lulled by real conversation with women who had known each other since childhood, I began to relax. I sat back next to Lupe’s laundry pile on a large and well-made bed, and leaned against the headboard. I shifted my weight on the silky pink throw pillows underneath me, and felt something hard under all that silk.

I lifted the corner of the fluffy pillow and peeked underneath. I saw a slender, strange glint of light on the mattress. I realized it was an object, and the object was silver. It was about the size of my foot, and it wasn’t shining so much as glowering. It could be a toy, or a tool, but it looked more adult than that: it was a gun. I pulled the pillow fully aside, uncertain of what I thought I’d just seen. In a fast moment I took it in.

A vision of a dustbowl family, a Dorothea Lange photograph, came to my mind. I could situate this poverty in my cultural repertoire. Not hicks. Not scary men. Just regular. Folk.

The only guns I had ever seen in real life were black and strapped to the hips of cops. From a young age, my mom had told me not to trust cops. My days of watching the L.A. riots on television had shown me the same thing. I remember thinking that this weapon, on which I had just placed my body, looked like a fictional version of a gun—the solid, confident barrel, the smooth curve of the trigger, the heaviness it appeared to conceal in its shiny surface.

I stood up. Jeff, Lupe, and their struggling suburb disintegrated.

“Is that a fucking gun I just sat on?” I asked Lupe.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, smiling. “Sorry!”

“What the fuck?”

“Oh, yeah, no it’s totally fine. It’s for protection, don’t worry.”

“Is it loaded?”

“Ummm, probably?”

I was astounded. Who would want to use, or have, a thing that like? Why was it in the bed?

“Oh, it just makes him feel safer,” Lupe said, turning again to the mirror where she tried on different versions of the same tight cotton tank top. “He’s, like, afraid of getting robbed by gangstas, or whatever. But he’d never use it.”

Anna, who was raised Buddhist, was still staring at the gun. She didn’t say anything.

As a child, one of the things I had learned while eavesdropping on my mom’s friends was Chekhov’s rule of dramatic narrative: a gun, if introduced in the first act, must go off by the third. Every element of a scenario has—and fulfills—its purpose. I looked at the gun as though it might stand of its own accord. I didn’t know what it might do. A wave of discomfort that was more physical than moral moved through my body.

“Dude, I’m sorry, but I just don’t want to be in the same room as that thing,” I said, and somewhat lamely left the room.

If I was going to have to spend the night in Real America, I chose the stationary danger of the boys over the combustible company of the gun. At least I knew how to handle boys. I returned to the living room and wedged myself into a small loveseat next to the television and facing the pleather couch. Across the coffee table from me were Jeff and his main man, Oliver (whose haircut made him look like he was fresh from boot camp), who both battled for control of some unnamed foreign province with their pixelated avatars. I lay, silent, terrified, and indignant. I closed my eyes.

The boys leaned across the coffee table as though reaching for me, crushing beer can after beer can, staring and pointing and sometimes yelling intently at the television screen. Through the bedroom wall, I heard the dim murmur of the girls talking about Lupe’s job prospects, and how easy it would be for them once she finished dental hygienist school.

The sound of muffled laughter and tinny digital gunfire escorted me into sleep.

II.

While being mugged in Honduras in 2010, I barely saw the gun at all. I saw the boy riding his bike toward us, noticed him fail to veer away, saw his wrist as it trembled a bit behind the gun. But I didn’t really see the gun. Later when my partner and I shared notes, I thought it was black while he thought it was silver. We couldn’t be sure; we had separately decided the best thing to do was not look directly at the preteen boy aiming a gun at us in an unfamiliar country. Not at the boy, and certainly not at the gun.

I remember the sand, maybe, at my feet, sand on concrete on a street that dead-ended into a dark beach.

Some streets in Tela were paved and some weren’t; some led to quieter streets filled with short cement homes, dogs, children, food carts. Some led to dusty parking lots full of ex-American school buses. All the ones that led to the beach ended this way: the concrete turning to an edge, beyond which lay the sand. Further beyond that, the Caribbean: palm trees mingled with storm-tossed piles of plastic bags, single flip-flops, lost toys, and other flotsam of coastal life.

Mostly, I noticed the way the boy’s hands felt as they reached inside my back pocket and yanked out my notebook.

“That’s my notebook,” I snapped at him in English. “You’re gonna take my fuckin’ notebook?! Fine, take it.” I waved him away, as though he wouldn’t have been able to end my life with a mere muscle spasm. He went after the other pocket roughly, and yanked out my small digital camera. My sharp inhale was inaudible to my partner from where he was standing next to me, looking down at the sandy street. Then the kid was gone.

We couldn’t be sure; we had separately decided the best thing to do was not look directly at the preteen boy aiming a gun at us in an unfamiliar country. Not at the boy, and certainly not at the gun.

Afterwards, we walked silently back toward the town square, hugging each other. I still had a 20-lempira bill squirreled away in the miniscule “change pocket” of my corduroy pants. “Mugger money,” I had joked when I tucked it in there two bus stations earlier. We used it to buy one baleada (“super,” meaning avocado and crema on top) and two sodas (Sprite for me, to ease my nervous stomach, and a Coca-Cola for him). We sat in plastic chairs on the main shop street watching the dregs of evening creep into town. We squeezed each others’ hands under the plastic table, trying to shake off the adrenaline and our warped sense of shame.

“It’s okay to be scared,” my partner said. I was still shaking.

“Should we call the cops?”

He shook his head. “What are the cops going to do to that kid if they find him? Messing with tourists in a tourism economy?” My partner and I shared a distrust of law enforcement.

“God, what typical gringos,” he laughed. “Second night in the country and we get mugged by a child. I wonder if that gun was even real. Ah well, it’s just money.”

“Yeah. But I really want my fucking camera back,” I said.

When the boy with the gun had taken my camera, he had also taken with it a memory card filled with the photographs I’d just spent the afternoon shooting: dozens of carefully composed shots of the ruins of the old United Fruit plant just on the outskirts of town.

In 1914, the United Fruit Company came to Tela to build a railroad that would conveniently run from its banana plantations directly into the Caribbean Sea, where ships would carry their golden fruit away to the United States and Europe. They also built a company town—“new Tela.” By that time, United Fruit was already well-practiced at keeping dark-skinned locals in poverty and fear. Payment was scarce and forced labor was common, sometimes as punishment for petty crimes in lieu of civil law and order. Torture was considered a valid retaliation against organizing for better conditions. A private police force carried out the company’s bidding well into the 20th century, sometimes with the help of American troops. It was brutal: a physical and economic war that redrew the borders and history of the entire region, with Tela as the invading corporation’s coast-side capital.

The Annual Report of the United Fruit Company from 1913, the year they built the railroad, lists only seven operations in the surgical summary, “gun-shot wounds of soft parts, operations for.” Those are the surgeries; the report doesn’t say how many gunshot wounds there were total, but at that time company security was more prone to controlling the masses with machetes than with guns.

We’d found the ruins of the plantation earlier that morning, a surprise while wandering across the tracks that led from town. Large palm trees still guarded it in orderly rows. In front of the old white stone buildings were rusting piles of black British bicycles, the same ones the street vendors in town used. Everything was in the process of crumbling into the jungle.

And so even before a boy had pointed a gun at me in Tela that night, I could smell the violence in the air. It lived in the columns and verandas of this building. It was bred into the lush palm trees and drilled into the wood ties of the railroad that dead-ended in the sea. These were the ruins, the histories, the endless ripple effects that the boy who pointed the gun at me had grown up playing in.

Perhaps because he was a child, or because I felt guilt at my country’s involvement in the decimation of his country, I experienced what is known in dramatic narrative structure as a second-act reversal. Unlike in Tigard, in Tela I found I no longer had any disgust to throw toward a person with a gun. I had empathy for the kid. I really couldn’t blame him. I felt grateful, too, that he hadn’t hurt us. I imagined the boy taking my camera home, playing with it and showing it off to his friends. I wondered what he thought of the pictures, what his father thought, and whether they had one of those old British bikes in their apartment. He lived here; I was just visiting.

The day after the mugging, we went to the bank and got more money. We made a series of vague pick-up truck connections to get from Tela to a tiny spit of sand between a lagoon and the Mediterranean. There, we learned that a big American developer was in the process of building a new resort further down the beach, between Tela and several of the neighboring Garifuna towns. Telemar, it was to be called—the nuevo Tela, restored to its former dichotomies. Soon, verandas and golf courses would spring from these rainy beaches and scraggly palms. “This place is just waiting to blow up,” one driver told us excitedly.

Those are the surgeries; the report doesn’t say how many gunshot wounds there were total, but at that time company security was more prone to controlling the masses with machetes than with guns.

His voice expressed a common theme in Honduras, an expectation of a better future—which, as I looked around and took in the silence and the stacks of sewer pipes lining the mud jungle roads, I could clearly see was not coming easily or soon.

We walked, alone, many miles out on the beach that was to become Telemar. We camped for two days. On that jungle beach, the gun’s blurry image evaporated from my memory. It was replaced by the hint of something lurking just beyond my peripheral view, not unlike the spooky, angry song of the howler monkey that circled our tent in the afternoons. The urgency of my mugging faded; beneath remained the palimpsest of violence I’d felt in the air at the plantation’s ruins, a persistent low frequency, an imbalance of power waiting to be revealed like a plot twist.

III.

It was large and hardly fit in my hands. It was long—almost a whole foot—and when I first handled it I couldn’t grasp the power it conveyed.

I was taking a self-defence class from a collective anarchist self-defence group, and I had marched into a gun club in San Leandro, California, with a group of queer and feminist women and transwomen like it was just some café in Oakland. The group was called the Girl Army: they were committed to dismantling the current power structures, and they seemed pretty okay with using violence to do it.

Before we learned how to load the gun, we learned how to unload it. But before we unloaded it, we sat in a circle on the martial arts classroom mats and talked about triggers. Not the gun kind, the kind that set us off emotionally—stories or images of violence, histories that tap into the hurt we’ve already been subjected to. “Shit that fucks you up,” the teacher said. “We want this to be a safe space for you, no matter your history.”

When I was 20, a cinema-major friend of mine made a film in which three bad-ass, radical women drive around holding big guns in a Jeep. They shoot the hipster douchebags who’ve fucked them and fucked them over, they rob a bank and bathe in the cash, they hold their guns like sex toys, and they are somehow still empowered. As we went around the circle, I kept thinking of this film. I didn’t mention being mugged when it was my turn; I didn’t think to mention it. It hadn’t felt like real violence to me—real terror and real pain—like the situations now being described by the women around me. Instead, I talked about how I grew up fearing guns, and being snobby toward people who owned guns, and how I’d never handled one before. I dutifully noted that my infrequent relationship with guns was its own kind of privilege. But mostly I felt eager. I heard the film’s long-ago soundtrack in my head as I waited my turn to touch the pistols.

At the shooting range, I put my body into the one-foot-forward stand we’d practiced and squinted one eye and braced my muscles. Everything about a gun should be forward, the teacher had reminded me. Lean in, reach straight, don’t back away from it. I didn’t lurch or shake or pull back. I held the gun firmly, as instructed, until my hand muscles verged on cramping. And yet I felt strangely dispassionate. The physical act of shooting seemed mundane compared to the metaphorical space it took up in my mind. Is this all it takes to kill? I thought. A grip no stronger than mine?

I shot well and sharply, only a bit low on my aim, which was unsurprising because, well, I’m short. A couple of bull’s-eyes. The men with rifles watched, amused at my beginner’s luck.

The sound of the bullet didn’t ricochet as I expected it to. It was flat, almost as flat as the metal-crunch of an overheard car crash. Without reverberation, yet unmistakable. Solid. Behind that muted tone, I could feel my wrists pulse, holding steady.

I tried again, this time, imagining the sound the bullet would make if it tore through flesh. What it would feel like invading my own flesh. I pictured it: the skin, the hole, the pain. It was only then I felt the rush, that intoxicating power that I had always suspected a gun gives its holder. And I believed then, for the first time, that this funny machine, this dispassionate metal thing, was unstoppable.

I shot well and sharply, only a bit low on my aim, which was unsurprising because, well, I’m short. A couple of bull’s-eyes. The men with rifles watched, amused at my beginner’s luck.

With a gun in my hands, I could suddenly understand things I’d never understood before, like how a person might feel safer behind its force, and the ways in which that might be wrong or right.

I shot, waited a few seconds, shot again, and repeated. I understood American movies and men without resources and people who think they need more than they have. I littered my inanimate target with holes. I understood video games and rough sex. I understood how these tools could have charmed nations, or entire generations. I handed the gun to my teacher and picked up another one, a smaller “purse” pistol with a tense trigger pull. I didn’t feel cocky, and I didn’t feel bad-ass. I felt easy and calm and chemically altered—not exactly like adrenaline, but more like the feeling after amazing sex. I felt sobered. I felt sore. I had life and death inside me and if I just leaned this way, just pushed this thing forward without trembling, it would shoot forth from my body into someone else’s. The gun felt intricate and mechanical, like a steam engine or a bank’s lock, and I never wanted to put it down.

After the gun class, I took the train home. To get there, I had to walk a four-block stretch next to a lake alone. It was December, so it was already dark at 4 p.m. I walked quickly, treading the familiar urban ground, taking frequent glances behind me to make sure no men were following me, and projecting a don’t-fuck-with-me swagger. I thought about the gun, back at the dojo in its tiny little suitcase. I felt terrified without it.

In dramatic narrative arcs, characters are all supposed to have motivations, things they want. Obstacles to overcome. But in Chekhov’s dramatic object lesson, in the third act, after the set-up and the false turnaround and the bang bang bang, do the characters actually get what they want? Can they?

Safely seated on the train, I recalled my mugging, and my gringo guilt at the colonialist history I had failed to separate it from. What had that kid wanted? Money, sure, but more what money represents: possibility. The flash and bling of a brand new camera, and the expansive world it can capture within.

I thought about the gut-instinct fear that had sent me running from Lupe’s pink master bedroom in Oregon more than a decade before. What did Jeff want? Protection, Lupe had said. Security. What had I been afraid of in that room? I’d been afraid of Jeff, of his maleness—of how a man’s desire to perceive himself as in control of his environment might lead him to do anything to another person, given the right equipment.

That night, in California, in the company of other women, in a so-called environment of self-empowerment, I had been the one with the gun. What did I want? I just wanted to find out for myself. I wanted the gun’s solid weight to overcome the unease that I had intuited during each of the previous moments I’d encountered a gun. I wanted to see what I’d been so afraid of, and perhaps gain power over that fear. After all, a gun is just an object, a tool. And tools are what make us human, and objects are our constant companions just as much as—or, lately, more than—other humans can be. How odd then, that this tool felt special to me. And that I loved how it felt. How funny, that I wasn’t immune.

On the train, I closed my eyes and smelled my hand. I was coated in the scent of metal and damp paper and smoke. I inhaled it, and immediately looked around the train, ashamed, to see if anyone had noticed. I know guns are bad. I was not a gun person, I reminded myself.

What does a gun want? It wants to be shot and to enter. It wants to be a secret you think will protect you. It wants you to take what someone else has. It is faithless and disloyal and blinds with temporary power any person who holds it. It wants whatever the hell you want.