Matt stood there, holding my hand, as I wrestled with ‘should’ and ‘might’ and ‘can’t’ and ‘want’ and he stared at me for a moment. Then he let go of my hand.
“You have to promise me you won’t tell anyone about this,” he said.
I couldn’t talk, so I just shook my head ‘no’. I was part of a conspiracy now. I didn’t know what the conspiracy was, but it was certainly far more exciting than sitting in my grandmother’s neighbour’s basement stitching “Gramma’s Kitchen” onto dishrags in red, blue, and yellow embroidery thread.
He walked over to the closet. It had no door, but was framed in a darkly stained wood trim. I glanced around the rest of the room. The bedstead and dresser were stained similarly dark, but the wood on these looked cheaper, lighter. The bedspread was frilly, with pink and mint green flowers that matched the lampshades on each of the bedside tables. A pair of dust-stained jeans lay piled in a heap beside the bed, and on the table above them was an ashtray full of pocket change, and a belt buckle with a deer head on it.
Matt reached up into the closet, under a bunch of blankets, and rummaged around. “Where is it?” he muttered. Then he grunted and seemed to grab hold of something, which he then lowered gingerly. It was an old shoe box. The square kind, that usually held cowboy boots, not satin pumps.
I better not be standing here having heart palpitations for a pair of snakeskin boots, I thought.
He knelt down on the ground and placed the box on the floor in front of him, then he glanced up at me. I knelt down beside him, facing the closet, like we were in some church of 70s fashion, worshipping at the altar of outdated checkered shirts with wide collars and salmon-coloured fortrel dresses. He drew the lid off the box.
I was holding my breath.
Inside the box were layers of tissue paper, which he peeled back like the skin of an onion. Within the tissue was a smaller box, this one dark brown. It looked like it was made of leather. Matt carefully took that box out of the first and placed it on his knees. The only sound in the entire house – maybe in the entire town – was the sound of Matt flipping the nickel-plated clasps up.
“Do you know what’s inside?” He asked softly.
I shook my head ‘no’, although I thought it might be a silver coronet.
The hinge on the box sighed slightly as he raised the lid.
Nestled inside the box was a gun. It lay inside the brown leather box in a bed of what looked like crushed velvet. Looking back now, it might have been foam and not velvet, but in my memory, it was cushioned on black crushed velvet in a little gun-shaped recess in the black leather box. Its barrel gleamed darkly in the yellow light; its grip was pearlescent – mother-of-pearl, maybe. Its cylinder had deep grooves, like the valleys carved by tiny glaciers. There were designs carved into the metal. It looked like the kind of six-shooter the Lone Ranger would have used.
We stared at that gun for a good long time. It was the most beautiful and the most terrible thing I’d ever seen. I’d taken hunter safety, and had shot rifles and pellet guns and compound bows, but I’d never even seen a handgun in real life before. It gave me, as Owen Meany would say, THE SHIVERS.
“It’s a Colt,” Matt said. His voice was a reverent whisper.
I figured that was impressive, since Colt was one of the names I’d heard associated with revolvers. Probably from watching Magnum, P.I..
“Single-action .38,” he said.
There was another period of reverent silence as we both watched the gun lying there in that box.
“It’s kind of illegal,” he said.
I didn’t know whether it was illegal or not, because I didn’t know much about gun laws and didn’t much care. I was fifteen, had been out shooting gophers, and that was about where my interest in hunting ended. I’d helped kill a deer once, and hated the feeling it left me. I’d been out with “the men” when they shot geese, and hated watching those birds plummet from their perfect, graceful flight, to an ignominious ‘thud’ on the cold, hard ground. I didn’t much want to think about what that single-action Colt .38 had left in a heap on the cold, hard ground.
“Want to hold it?” He asked. I glanced up at him. His eyes were shining, and he had a look on his face that made him seem about nine years old, but at the same time far older than he ought to have looked.
I didn’t know. “I don’t know,” I whispered. I thought if I held it, I would hear the voices of everyone that gun had fired at, whispering in my ears. I felt a cold draught in that hot room. I didn’t even know if it had ever been fired. I thought that if I held it, it would be like I was holding a part of him, the part of him that I really oughtn’t be holding in his parents’ bedroom.
“It’s my Dad’s. Well. My step-Dad’s. He showed it to me, and told me he wanted me to have it. You know, later, when he…when he’s not around,” he said.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “And terrible.”
He looked at me. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s the only nice thing my step-Dad has said to me in a long time.”
“I didn’t know you had a step-Dad,” I said. I don’t know where my mind was. Somewhere in the barrel of that gun, I suppose.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. Then he didn’t say anything for a long time.
I felt like a little kid, sitting there in Matt’s parents’ bedroom, staring at Matt’s step-Dad’s single-action Colt .38. We were doing something we weren’t supposed to do, but it wasn’t the kind of thing his parents would think we were doing that we weren’t supposed to do. We were looking at something dangerous. Something incredibly, inexorably grown up. The reality of the handgun in front of us could have been as innocent as a replica or a keepsake that had never been used for anything other than for show. It could have been just a trinket, a gewgaw, a shiny bauble. But it was a shiny bauble that had the potential to rip a man’s soul from his body.
We might have sat there staring at the thing all day; we might have started making out like fiends overtop the thing had the phone not begun to ring. It startled us both, made us jump, and Matt scrambled to close the box, replace it inside the tissue paper inside the shoe box and shove it back under the blankets in his parents’ closet. I leapt to my feet and scrambled back to the living room, reclaiming my place on the couch as he ran to answer the phone.
It was my grandmother, wondering where I was and why I wasn’t back at her house and could she speak to me. Matt handed me the receiver, and my grandmother was all blubbering and wailing and crying. She said I hadn’t told her where I was going (I had) and I hadn’t been home for dinner (it wasn’t yet dinner time) and she had called my father (dear God, are you *serious*?) and the police (oh Christ) and would I please come home right now?
I was horrified. “It’s 4:30, Gram,” I said. I could feel my face was bright crimson, and I couldn’t look around to see where Matt was, or whether he saw me.
But she’d been so worried and my father didn’t know where I was and she’d called the police, well not really the police, but Sergeant Nickleson, who was an RCMP, but she didn’t call the 9-1-1, she only called him at home to see what she should do and he’d told her not to worry and that I’d show up, that I’d probably just gone to the matinee and would be home for dinner, but when I didn’t show up for dinner, she thought maybe something had happened, and …
“It’s FOUR-THIRTY, Gram,” I repeated.
But I’d been gone since eleven and I hadn’t had anything to eat and if you don’t eat you die and was I with that boy, because if something happened to me when I was with that boy she’d just never forgive herself and my father hadn’t been at the farm when she’d called so she’d just told my mother to go out to the field to get him because she didn’t know where I was and could I please just come home RIGHT NOW?
“It’s FOUR. THIRTY,” I said again.
JUST COME HOME NOW! She screamed into the phone. I knew Matt had heard her, because out of the corner of my eye, I saw him whip his head around to stare at me.
“I’ll be home in an hour,” I said. “For dinner. Like I told you earlier. Goodbye.”
I hung up the phone and leaned my head against the cool plaster of the wall. I felt Matt’s hand on my shoulder. “Is everything all right?” he asked.
“My grandmother is insane,” I said. I was mortified. “I’m mortified,” I said. She called the cops,” I said.
“What for?” He asked.
I wanted to just enjoy the feeling of his hand on my shoulder. I wanted to turn around and let him hold me, if that’s what he would do. I wanted my grandmother to drop dead and the rest of the world to melt away so that Matt and I could talk about his step-father’s gun for the rest of the afternoon. I wanted to go walk with Matt across the train bridge, and stop in the middle, hundreds of feet above the river, and hold his hand and talk about the things we were scared of, there where fear was everything.
“Because she didn’t know where I was,” I said.
“But you told her you were coming over here,” he said. “I heard you.”
“I know,” I said. I felt hot tears coming to my eyes. Not now, I cried inwardly. For the love of all that’s holy, not *now*.
His hand was still on my shoulder. He moved toward me, raising his other arm. This would be the time, then, I thought. This would be the time when he would turn me toward him, and he would hold me, and then he would kiss me, and then I would find out if his lips were cool and…
And the phone rang. I groaned.
“Hello?” He said. His hand wasn’t on my shoulder anymore. “Yeah, sure,” he said, and handed me the phone. He wouldn’t look at me.
“Hello?” I asked. It was my Da. What the hell had I said to my grandmother? And why had she called him in tears? And what the HELL was going on over there? And where the hell had I been all day?
“Da,” I said. “I told Gram I was coming over to Matt’s house. I told her I’d be back for dinner. Then she just…she flipped out.”
You’d better just leave, my Da said. You’d better just go back to the house.
Just. Just go back to the house, Da said.
I hung up. “I have to go,” I said.
“Do you want me to walk you?” he asked.
I did. I wanted him to walk me. I wanted him to hold my hand as he walked me. I wanted to wrap my fingers in between his and stroll slowly through the sun-dappled shadows of leaves and branches. It was only three or four blocks, but I wanted that more than anything.
“Nah,” I said.
“Are you sure?” He asked. “Are you in trouble because of me?”
“I’m in trouble because my grandmother is insane,” I said. I finally looked up from my feet at him. “I’m sorry,” I said.
He stood there, holding the coke bottles he’d retrieved from the living room while I talked to my Da. I wanted so much to say, ‘you know what? Yeah, why don’t you walk me?’ But my mouth was dry and the tears were close and I couldn’t look at him much longer without losing it. “Thanks for inviting me over,” I mumbled, looking back down at my feet. “I’ll see you later, I guess.”
I stomped back to my grandmother’s house, hot hot tears ripping at my cheeks. My throat pulsed and throbbed. I hated her then. I hated her with the white-hot burning passion of a zealot. I knew if I saw her, I wouldn’t be able to speak. I knew something was going to happen, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. I was a single-action Colt .38. I was the bullet.
…oh, there’s still more…