In rural Rockbridge County, Virginia, the kids I grew up with got excused from school to go deer hunting. At eight or nine, they weren’t scared of the kick of a 12-gauge shotgun. They said things like “double aught” that I pretended to understand. In our family, as far as I remember, we started out with only one gun, a .22 rifle. It was an antique, with an octagonal barrel that struck me as fancy; a gun for the gentleman’s farm—if by “farm,” you mean tomato patch, herb garden, barn, pony, and empty field.
Over at the Ayres’ real farm, they had cattle and chickens and every kind of firearm you could imagine, but the one I remember most vividly was just an air-pump BB rifle. At seven or eight, I was pointing it across the granary directly at my friend Bobby’s older brother James, who had been menacing us all day. He had a cast on his lower arm at the time, which I convinced myself I could hit, and the BB would just bounce off. But to be honest, I didn’t care what part of James I hit. With the gun in my hand and James tromping closer and closer, warning me of all the things that would happen if I shot him . . . all I wanted to do was shoot him. So I did.
Wherever the BB hit, it wasn’t the cast. He yelled in pain, and I dropped the gun and ran, out of the granary and down their long driveway. True to his word, James picked up the gun and stalked after me, pumping it all the way for more and more firepower. With the cast, the pumping was awkward, but he was determined, his fat frog-face dark with rage. I hid behind a tree, ran some more, and fell, and finally, he was standing over me, still pumping. He shot into my knee, point-blank, and then turned and walked away. I rolled around in pain for a while, then eventually limped back to their house, the BB embedded in my skin. At dinner, we glowered across the table at each other silently. A few years later, he tried to fuck me.
In August 1975, when I was 8, we had a sprawling barbecue for my father’s 40th birthday. I vaguely remember stealing beer with my brother Andy and listening to him vomit it up, but the guns are what stand out. Four shiny .22s, pressed against the thick, corduroy-covered shoulders of my father’s favorite former law students, all standing in a row at our white wooden fence and aiming into the open hillside across the road. These shaggy, strapping young men had slipped on jackets and ties just for this moment of the party, and the crowd gathered and tried to hush. One after another, they fired into the air. As the others fired, each reloaded, then fired again, over and over. At first, I wondered what they were trying to hit, then I gathered the shooting was ceremonial, and when it finally dawned on me that they were firing 40 shots for my father’s 40 years, I was beside myself. The whole ritual was a blend of tongue-in-cheek and reverent, which I would come to see as the law students’ patented stance on basically everything in this buttoned-up small southern college town. But at the time, I felt pure awe.
A few summers later, I came home from a month-long visit with my Michigan cousins, and when Andy bounded up to greet me in the Roanoke airport, I immediately spotted a big band-aid on his neck. I guessed it was something related to the recent firecracker mishap, wherein a whole cluster of lit Black Cats had exploded in his collar and caused a gruesome blistery swelling. But when I asked, his eyes darted to our mother, whose face was tight, then he responded: “I got shot.” Andy was two years older and prone to trickery, so I scoffed. He turned around and showed me another band-aid, on the back of his neck. “That’s the exit wound.”
On the hour-long drive home, I kept waiting for them to break character and give up the joke. But as the story trickled out, that seemed less and less likely. Andy and his friend Mike had been playing Russian roulette inside the pop-up camper outside Mike’s house with a Colt .45 pistol that they thought was unloaded. The gun, I think, belonged to Mike’s father, who as far as I knew did nothing but smoke and drink with his wife as they sat in a pair of black leather chairs in their cave of a living room. So it made sense they wouldn’t notice its absence. Mike aimed the gun at Andy and pulled the trigger, but instead of nothing, it was a bullet. Andy was hit, the parents were yelled for, they all rushed to the hospital, and Andy got stitches. Frustrated by the perfunctory retelling, I asked Andy to peel back the band-aids. “An eighth of an inch from the jugular,” my mother reported. I looked up at her again, through the rearview mirror that was actually two mirrors, angled slightly differently, putting her mouth inside her forehead. Most days I loved this effect, but not today. She was in some kind of agony I’d never seen before.
When we got home, there was no more talk of the shooting, so it kept on not feeling real. Even the little item about it in our local paper was written up like all the other news—dry and distant. A few days later, my Mom called me over to the dryer to show me the shirt that Andy had been wearing when he got shot. It was the T-shirt of his that I had coveted the most: thin, soft, pale-yellow cotton-poly blend, adorned with a Mad Magazine–style illustration of a crowded beach, presided over by a tanned, shirtless whistle-wielding hunk, who was hot even as a cartoon. That day, he didn’t even get a second of my attention. In the shirt’s neck were front-and-back bullet holes, surrounded by huge brown front-and-back stains. My brother’s dried blood: the proof I had needed to make it sink in. Then my mom, her penchant for quiet theatricality thankfully restored, pointed to the plump lettering underneath the illustration: “Lifeguard.”
This became all I could talk about for months, to whoever would listen: the lifeguard shirt had saved my brother’s life! Our family had experienced a Miracle! It was worse than that grating little tomboy in The Member of the Wedding with all her “I am I and you are you.” For the next many years, my brother kept the stained shirt, tucked into the bottom of his T-shirt drawer, and whenever anyone new came over, I would drag them in there and show it to them. Early in high school, I made the tasteless decision to actually wear it out to a party. At that point, it was super tight, and I felt badass for a few minutes, then just pathetic.
In the spring of 1980, my father hung up the phone and announced that Alva, our neighbor down the road, had shot herself. I had only one vivid memory of her to call on, from years earlier when she showed me around her and her husband Ed’s farm on a visit. Barn cats and feed bags were whipping around everywhere, but the tour’s “highlight” was a bare room off the kitchen packed with loud, uncaged chickens, vile smelling, a shellac of chicken shit coating the floors and walls. To mask my young horror, I peppered Alva with all kinds of inane questions: Was the chicken room warm enough, did the chickens have names, how many eggs did they lay, was the chicken room ever cleaned? She could tell I was a judgy little queen, and her answers were grim and impatient: the chickens were for eating; they had no names. In that place, I thought later, who wouldn’t shoot themselves?
Ed stayed with us for a few days, and I seem to remember some public suspicion that he had been the one that killed Alva. The next thing I knew, he was in some kind of crisis, and I was tagging along with my father into town, where Ed had since moved. It wasn’t exactly an apartment, but more of an office, above a new bank across from the KFC. The chicken connection did not occur to me then.
Waiting in the car, I watched my father carry armful after armful of guns out of Ed’s place. Shotguns, rifles, handguns, antique and brand new. And after that, all the ammo. Ed was in a bad way, my father tried to explain on the drive home, and with all these guns around him, who knows how much worse things could have gotten. I pictured Ed in that dim little space, with all the guns arranged around him, loaded and pointed at his skull. Alva times 20. But the thought of something worse—Ed aiming those guns at other people—didn’t even enter my mind.
At home, my father unloaded the guns and ammo from the car and into the closet of his study, securing the door with some kind of flimsy lock. A few months later, after an ill-fated adventure at prep school, my brother came home and invited his friend Greg (who’d been left to raise himself by his divorced and checked-out parents) to live with us. One afternoon after school, when we were all three home alone getting stoned and playing Atari, I mentioned the gun closet, which was apparently news to them, and within minutes, the lock was broken, Andy (undaunted by his own brush with firearm death) mocking me for not breaking in already. To compensate, I joined him and Greg in plundering the pile of weaponry like stoners raiding a fridge, which was also something we did.
Outside that afternoon, and for weeks to follow, we shot everything. Birds, squirrels, signs, bottles, and finally, when the fun began to ebb, I hauled a refrigerator box down from the attic and dumped out all of my old Fisher-Price toys. I adored these things and had played with them far longer than I should have; now was my chance to vanquish that embarrassment. We hurled a Fisher-Price barn into the air and blew its doors off. We clipped the wings of a Fisher-Price plane. We lined up a whole happy Fisher-Price family atop a fence and took them out, one by one. And we floated a Fisher-Price village and Fisher-Price castle out into the middle of our pond, their inhabitants perched atop like shipwreck survivors awaiting rescue, then opened fire all at once, splattering a maelstrom of splintered plastic into the air. We shot the pieces as they sank. My innocence was gone.
After a few weeks, the ritual of stoned blasting came to a sudden end when my father spotted a fresh gunshot hole in the wood floor of his study (to this day, no one can quite recall who was responsible), then noticed the broken lock on the closet door and put two and two together. Without a word, he shuttled the guns to a “safer” location away from home—the unlocked closet of his unlocked office at an unlocked law school—where they remained untouched until eventually, I think, going to auction.
Decades later, after hippie college and a comfortably left-wing New York City adulthood, I moved with my boyfriend to rural upstate New York, where gun culture has inevitably crept back into my life. On weekends, I chafe at the patter of semiautomatic target practice by a cadre of overweight suburban “sportsmen” who own land nearby. Around the time of Sandy Hook, our local assemblywoman, an otherwise reliable Democrat, headlined an NRA fundraiser hawking a “make your own AR-15” kit, and I was incensed enough to write a letter to our local paper. My boyfriend cringed when I told him what I’d done: “Everybody around here has guns,” he reminded me, “and we don’t.” Just like Congress, I caved out of fear, calling the paper to retract the letter before it was printed.
Every year, our straight friend Shane comes for a visit, bearing a “butch gift” for us all to play with. We tossed the fishing rod and baseball mitts in the shed and forgot about them, but the BB guns were a huge hit: one year, a Glock-looking semiautomatic pistol, and the next, a James Ayres–style pump-action rifle. Last summer, we introduced BB-fun to our friends Thom, a luxury magazine editor, and Maya, a wine authenticator, the unlikeliest pair of weekend rednecks you could imagine (also: both of them are literally French). All Sunday morning, we sat on the porch, dinging stacked-up chickpea cans and shattering old glass windows spray-painted with mock targets, like an angel or a bald eagle. Seven months pregnant, Maya was especially fond of one target dangling from the clothesline: a naked plastic baby doll whose hollow inner cavity we had filled with corn syrup and red food coloring. After 20 pumps, her BB finally punctured the baby’s forehead and a tiny crimson trickle oozed down its face, and we all roared.
Once his wounds healed, all my brother had were two little scars, which my eyes used to find whenever we went swimming. Over the years, I stopped looking for them, and I couldn’t tell you if they’re still there today. As I returned to his story for this article, it hit me just how superficial my understanding of his shooting still was. So I decided to interview him, but then I got nervous. It felt unseemly to just randomly bring up such a scarring and/or shameful memory. And also, he and his teenage daughters live (but don’t belong) in gun-crazy Florida, and this was right after Parkland. Then there’s the fact that Andy and I have never been very good with serious conversation. So late one night, I settled on approaching him via text. “No comment,” he shot back right away, then after some cursory pleas for cooperation: “I guess. For a fee.”
“I realize I never asked you how it felt to be shot. Or if I did, I don’t remember what you said.”
“It went numb and only hurt later. Was only a flesh wound.”
“Right away it went numb?”
“Yep. No pain whatsoever. Straight through. Clean hole. Only hit minor muscle and small blood vessels. I plugged the holes with my fingers. Had to use both hands.”
Then, after a pause, another text: “Details some other time.”
“Details”? There were more? Reeling, I flashed to my mother’s mouth in her forehead: “An eighth of an inch from the jugular.” And for only a second, I allowed myself to imagine what Andy had just written: a skinny boy in a yellow T-shirt, both hands at his neck, fingers pressed into bleeding flesh, trying to save his own life.
Then for the next few minutes, Andy remembered a few more bits before drifting off. “It was July 4th.” “I was 13.” “I lost that lifeguard shirt I was wearing.”
The next morning, I texted to apologize for texting so late the night before. He didn’t mind, he texted back. His older daughter had been working the late shift at the mini-golf, and he was waiting up to make sure she got home safe.