The Memoirist

I like to think I have it all figured out.

Take the rifle.

As long as I can remember, the gun was there, resting next to the exercise bike in our house in New York. My father probably assumed he’d hid it well, draping it under several terry cloth robes. But I knew.

Perhaps my older sister pointed it out to me, gently lifting up the robes with one hand while twirling her dirty blonde hair into knots with the other.  “That’s a gun,” she may have said.

Or maybe my mother told me.

“That’s a gun. Don’t touch it.”

I actually held a rifle once, at sleepaway camp. I remember laying my body on the grass and pulling cold, shiny bullets out of a cardboard box. I remember carefully placing those bullets in what our instructor called the chamber, then snapping it closed. I remember the slight jerk of my arm when I fired and the powerful feeling when my bullet actually hit the target. What a strange thing, come to think of it; little girls shooting guns.  If I had grown up in Israel, it may have seemed completely normal.  But my father, mother and eldest sister left there for America in 1960, eight years before my birth, and life took a different course.

I’ve often wondered where my father’s gun came from and, with no clear answer, as an adult, I create one.

He never told me about killing anyone, of course, as he was a quiet man. A man of secrets.  But I was a daughter of hypotheses (a regular Nancy Drew, my father once said) and I had carried this one in my head so long it now blurred into near-fact.

It came from Israel.

It was the gun he’d carried as a teenager fighting in the war of 1948. The gun he’d killed people with. He never told me about killing anyone, of course, as he was a quiet man. A man of secrets.  But I was a daughter of hypotheses (a regular Nancy Drew, my father once said) and I had carried this one in my head so long it now blurred into near-fact.

 

I saw my father about a month ago, in what’s now become our annual weekend reunion. We met at the hotel in New York where we meet every year. He and Terri, his second wife, flew up from North Carolina; I drove down from Boston with my husband and two boys.

When we arrived, I found my dad sitting on a couch in the hotel lobby. He wore the usual – a leisure shirt with plenty of pockets. Khaki slacks. Clip-on sunglasses. For the first time however, he no longer looked well preserved, but his actual age: 82. His eyebrows were the most unkempt I’d ever seen them, like two plump, hairy centipedes nestling across his lower forehead. His face was drawn in around the mouth, as though the recent loss of his original teeth had caused the flesh in his cheeks to slump in mourning.

“Hi Dad,” I said, leaning over to give him a hug. He returned the gesture with his style of hug – no real embrace, just a light tap on the back and a quick retreat.

“You look good,” I said.

He nodded and almost smiled.

Later that afternoon, my father and I sat snugly on a small outdoor wicker couch by the pool. He lit his pipe.

I told him how I had driven by our old house and how almost nothing had changed. The odd collection of signs my father had created announcing “196” (our address) for his psychiatric patients still bordered the driveway. Even Buddy’s run remained, including the dilapidated doghouse, all of it looking like an ancient doggie graveyard.

“Really?” he said. He was looking ahead and not at me. He was always uncomfortable looking at me.

“Yeah,” I said. “And there was a man outside. Right near the dog run. Must have been the father. He was gardening or something.”

My dad sucked on his pipe, then laughed. “I wonder if he found the bullets yet.”

He was referring to the bullets he’d buried in the front yard right before the move—shortly after Terri had sold my father’s rifle in a garage sale.

“Did you really bury them there?” I asked. When he originally told me this, I was horrified. As though they were live grenades. I suppose buried bullets could do little harm, but I wasn’t sure.

“Yeah,” he said. “The guy was such a pain in the ass when we were selling him the house. One problem, one complaint after another. First he wanted the house, then he didn’t. So I left him the bullets as a little present.”

An uncomfortable silence followed. Then I nonchalantly asked him: “So where did you get that rifle anyway?”

Here it comes, I thought. All those horrible stories of death and destruction and the people he’d killed, tumbling out like items from a closet finally opened after six long decades.

 “It came from one of my patients,” he said. “A woman whose husband had threatened her with it.”

Damn.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” he said. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” I said. I changed the subject.  “Is it even legal to sell a gun in a yard sale?”

He shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”

We sat in silence for a moment. I tried a technique I’d learned years ago in a counseling psychology class in graduate school.

Keep quiet and eventually they will talk. The truth, the really meaty stuff, will come out.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” my father said, then walked away.

I waved at the cloud of pipe smoke hovering in front of my face until I could see clearly again.

Such is the sorrow of the memoirist, I suppose. Discovering not everything is loaded.

Amy Yelin’s essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Literary Mama, The Drum and the anthologies Mamas and Papas and Tarnished: True Tales of Innocence Lost. “Torn” (originally in The Baltimore Review), received a notable essay recognition in the Best American Essays 2007. She holds an MFA from Lesley University.