Nonfiction by Ali J. Shaw
I pointed a gun at my dad once.
It was my first target practice, and I’d shot a dozen times in the general direction of a paper plate nailed to a tree. The camper loomed behind me, a dirty orange-and-white box of corrugated tin. I must have been eleven, because I remember the camper was full of Dad’s things instead of my brother’s stashed Playboys or my old troll dolls. That was the year Dad lived in the driveway, the divorce not yet in sight, though our lives had been careening toward it since before I was born.
This weekend, though, Dad had hauled the camper up a Rocky Mountain logging road and pulled the truck up on blocks to get it mostly level in an uninhabited part of the forest. It was our dad-daughter weekend, something I’d never had before and should have been excited about. Instead, I remember clinging to the warm knowledge that I would see Mom again on Sunday night.
The gun was just a pellet gun, a fraction of the weight of Dad’s others laid out on the camp table beside me, but still hefty in my hands. Dad was walking toward the tree where the plate hung. I knew that when he got back and it had only one or two holes in it, he’d give me a long lecture about proper position and aiming. He liked to hear himself talk. I knew proper position and aiming—he’d just taught them to me. I just needed practice, needed to get used to the weight of the barrel, the feel of the rubber grip too big for my hands, the slight kick that shimmied up my bony arms when I squeezed the trigger.
I trained my eyes on the paper plate, raised the gun, and lined up the sights just as Dad reached the plate, the back of his head pausing in my sight line. He pulled the plate down, turned around, and jolted, high-stepping to the side, his hat drifting to the ground behind him.
Embarrassed at my mistake, I carefully set the gun down on the table, barrel pointed into the empty woods. I hoped he could see my remorse, that I would never make that mistake again, but he leveled his eyes on me in the way he used to do to my brother. I wanted to shrink under the table. Then I got the real lecture, the a-gun-is-always-loaded and the never-point-unless-you-plan-to-shoot lecture. Don’t be so stupid. My cheeks burned. I missed Mom.
Later that year, the judge wanted to talk to me. “Neutral territory” were the words used to describe why she was coming to the school, but she assured me she would be in plain clothes so no one would know she was a judge.
She came during health class, when I was leafing through brochures on cocaine and heroin, trying to decide which one to write my report on. “There’s another one on crack up there,” the kid next to me said.
I shook my head. “No, I think I’m going to do mine on cocaine.”
He snickered. “Jeez, with your brother around, you’d think you’d know something about drugs.”
Stupid. I stood up to turn away, walking toward the brochure rack and wondering which drugs had sent my brother to the underage prison in Cottonwood.
“Hi, guys!” I heard from the doorway. A few of the kids looked up. One said, “Whoa, what’re you doing here, Darla?”
She wore jeans and a burgundy sweater with tan flecks, true to her promise to come in plain clothes, but it didn’t matter in such a small town.
“I just came to talk to my friend Ali.” She pointed.
In stretched-out seconds, I stuffed the brochures into my binder and pushed for the door. When the kids asked me later why the judge had come for me, I told them it was about my brother. “Heh,” one boy made a half laugh, not buying it.
Finally behind the closed door of the counselor’s office, Darla didn’t waste any time with how-are-yous or how’s-schools. “We need to work out the custody details, and you’re twelve now, so you’re old enough to choose.”
Her eye contact was too strong. I focused above it, on her flyaway hairs glowing in the slanted sunshine.
“Don’t worry about what anyone else wants or thinks.” She picked up the pen the counselor had left on the table and tapped machine-gun style on the wood. “This is just between you and me. Do you want to live with your mom or your dad?”
I felt cold despite the sunshine, and a shiver tremored my body. I squeezed my hands under my thighs.
“Or both?” She raised her eyebrows.
I’d seen my dad cry for the first time when this all began. He’d sat on our orange-and-brown couch with notes in his stiff handwriting on a creased yellow paper. He did this, sometimes, when he needed to remember things. I sat next to him, the upholstery scratching the backs of my elbows.
He’d started with “I want you to know that this is not about you.” Pause. Deep breath. “Your mom and I both love you very much, but your mom wants to get divorced.” Sniff. “I’ve tried so hard to keep our family together.” Cough. “I…I promise…” Here, I saw the tears well up in his eyes and heard the catch in his voice.
“It’s okay, Dad. I know.” I reached out but didn’t know where to touch him, my hand hovering over his forearm before I brought it back to my lap.
“I promise not to”—he didn’t hold back anymore as the words and the tears came pouring out of him—“not to drink around you anymore. And I promise to be there for you more.” He’d used his handkerchief to dry his face then, the flow stemmed. “You are my everything.” His voice was no longer shaking.
Now, I tried to count the flyaway hairs splaying out from Darla’s head, but she turned it ever so slightly every second or two, and they blurred together. No matter what she said, this wasn’t just between her and me. Whatever happened in this room today would determine if my dad would be happy or would keep drinking. I was all he had left now. Mom was strong—she had a job and friends and my brother’s calls and letters. My dad was all alone—fired, divorced, and pushed away. I promise not to drink around you anymore. I wondered what that would be like. But I missed my mom every moment I spent with my dad.
Darla tilted her head forward, her eye contact more intense than ever.
“Both,” I said. I knew some kids who moved between their parents every week. That was too much moving, but I thought I could do a few months at a time. “Three months on, three months off. Every other weekend for visiting.” I finally looked her in the eyes.
She squinted a little and then nodded. One final tap of the pen on the table, and the door was open, the rest of my youth decided.
In the coming years, I would remember that first target practice often. Without understanding why, I would think about my father’s instinctual reaction—the way his body jolted when he saw the gun and his sudden speed to get out of the way. This memory came up whenever his finger would slowly trace my collarbone and sweep my hair behind my shoulder, exposing my neck, where his eyes would linger. Whenever he’d kiss me on the lips slow and soft before I left for school. Whenever I’d wake to see him tiptoeing out of the shadows of my bedroom, beer on his breath.
I never knew if he was going to touch me when he loomed over my bed, less than an arm’s reach away. I never knew if the reason he didn’t was because he had never planned to or because I’d curled myself small enough to deter him. I never knew if he might change his mind the next night. I never knew if he already had and I’d dissociated. I still don’t know.
The guns were always present with my father. On his weekends, he drove me to little-known ranges in the woods, where I’d have to shoot a rifle and listen for the ping of the bullet on the metal targets. Once, after I’d taken a deep breath, exhaled halfway, and lined up the sights, slowly squeezing the trigger while doing my best not to let the heavy barrel wobble, he yelled, “Stop!” It came out so urgently, I worried my finger would trip the trigger out of reflex.
The ring finger of my left hand had wrapped around the barrel in line with the bullet chamber. If I’d fired, the knob on it would have shattered my knuckle.
There’s a memory I’ve held on to for years, replaying over and over like a dream you try to change the ending of. We were driving to Montana. Dad had gotten the summer months in the custody deal, and he liked to travel. “I gotta get away from these rich people,” he’d say and grunt in disgust at the tourists pouring into our small town. Mom had fumed when I told her I wanted to go away with Dad for the summer, giving up our half of the weekends for the whole season. I implored her to hear the volumes between my words, the dissonance I later learned comes with the difference between public self and private self. I couldn’t say I wanted to be saved, but I wanted her to hear it, anyway.
In the memory, Dad and I are in the truck, camper on the back, the Bitterroot Mountains looming on our right as Missoula recedes in the mirrors. A small car passes us and cuts into the lane so close, I think for sure the bumpers will smack. Then the driver slams on his brakes and swerves all over his lane, and I can see the woman in his passenger seat flopping from side to side. When we have no choice but to stop or pass, my dad passes. I stare through my reflection in the passenger’s side window to see the man waggle a gun at me.
Every time I replay the memory, nausea sets in. I want this version to be the truth so badly that I even tell the story to my friends sometimes. But that man didn’t start it, and he wasn’t the one with the gun.
My dad had been drinking Rainier, can after can, since we’d stopped for lunch. The empties were in a paper bag by my feet. He was driving well below the speed limit and having trouble staying in his lane. The part about the car passing and swerving was true—mild road rage from someone who didn’t know what he was messing with.
But after that, my dad pulled over into a gas station and walked around back to the camper. I could hear the tin and panel board creaking, groaning with his weight. When he came back with a pistol case, he methodically removed the gun and loaded it. He pressed his lips together, setting his jaw as he focused. I think it was a revolver. I only remember that I tried not to move.
He said something to me then. It might have been “You never know what people like that will do” or “Some people don’t deserve to live” or any of his other hateful refrains. His thick fingers fumbled to open the box of bullets and release the gun’s cylinder. He carefully picked up one brassy bullet and dropped it into a chamber, seemingly satisfied with himself. The next one slipped out of his grasp and slid under the seat while he cussed. Five more times, he focused, fumbled, and finally dropped each bullet into the chamber until it was full. By the time he snapped the cylinder back into place, minutes had passed, though I was sure he thought he was rushing in a state of emergency.
The car was long gone by the time we got back on the road, and relief washed over me in a way I’d never known it before—not even that day at the shooting range, when he’d yelled “Stop!” and saved my hand. That day, I’d felt true love for him, for a moment. Relief and gratitude had tingled in my belly and surged up, through my chest, my throat, my eyes. He only wants what’s best for you, a voice told me, and I wanted to drop the rifle and hug him. But before I could thank him, the whites of his eyes signaled his coming fury and scared me silent. Don’t be so stupid.
At any time, I could have found my father’s gun stash. But I never did. Even in my darkest moments, when I thought the only end to the dysfunction I seemed meant to endure was the end of life, it never crossed my mind to go for a gun. I imagined swan diving from the cliffs over Payette Lake, or breathing ocean water deep into my lungs in Chester Bay, or taking a bottle of pills and starting a never-ending walk into Forest Park. But never a gun.
Yet, more than twenty years later, part of me is still standing in the woods outside the camper and holding that gun. He’s feeble now, and I live two states away, but his hands still reach. You are my everything, his voice still curls inside my head. I promise not to drink around you anymore.
He’s been calling me for days. He wants me to be his caretaker—it’s a daughter’s duty.
The eleven-year-old in me refuses. She knows so much more than I ever gave her credit for.
The phone is ringing again, Dad on the caller ID. The little girl in me opens her mouth to scream. My heart hammers and my lungs collapse.
But that little girl, she surprises us all. She picks up the .45 from the table—much heftier than the pellet gun. She sets her feet and raises the barrel again.
When the phone stops ringing, I press Block Caller.
Ali J. Shaw has Rocky Mountain air in her blood, but she calls the Pacific Northwest home. She works with other people’s words for a living and tries to publish a few of her own words, here and there, as well. Her nonfiction has been featured in Hippocampus Magazine and DimeStories, among others, and was a finalist for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writer Prize. Ali collects typewriters and rescue dogs.