Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and lived in Rankin County, MS, until I lit out for the territories at twenty-one. I found myself in Waco, Texas, for four years, until I returned to the South proper–that is, North Carolina–for another six years. The South has been responsible for my life and education, in one way or another, for thirty years. And now I find myself in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is very nice but wintry. I think often about the textures of Southern experience in the undergraduate literature courses I teach. I’m not particularly anxious to prove my legitimacy as a Southerner because that aura is a given–it isn’t falsifiable. And so the South’s given to me, pretty clearly, and I’ve been given to it.
Children with Guns
I’m standing in a dark hallway. The house is almost empty, and it’s two or three in the morning. I’m looking into the hallway and I feel certain that my brother will walk out of his room.
And then he does. My brother walks into the hallway wearing thick wool socks. His pajamas are tucked into them, and his steps are silent. He walks to me, his ankles bulky, and there isn’t a sound in the house.
“Come on Lewis,” he whispers and then turns back down the hallway.
I follow him to the room where our parents sleep. He pushes open the door like he’s opening a gate. He waves me in.
The covers are bunched at the foot of their bed, and the window lets in a pale blue light that flickers with shadows from the snow falling outside. “Come and see,” he says. It’s just the two of us. There’s light coming from under the bathroom door, but we know no one’s there.
I know he’s calling me to see the handgun he’d found the day before. I don’t know if I knew when it all happened, but I always do when I have the dream.
The gun had been in a shoebox in the top of our daddy’s closet. He’d been waiting to tell me about it. There were two boxes of bullets and a small plastic bag of something that Jody said looked like grass.
But he doesn’t show me the shoebox. Just the handgun.
They’d left us with a babysitter for the evening, but they weren’t back yet. We were alone and supposed to be asleep. They’d only paid the babysitter until nine, even though they’d be gone for most of the night. The babysitter put us to bed, waited to make sure we stay asleep, and then locked the door on her way out. The next morning our parents would have been at the breakfast table. They’d smell sour and would be eating poached eggs.
“I woke up and Tillie was gone,” Jody says. Then he points at the bed where he’d placed the gun. “Look what I found.”
My daddy had taught us how to use them. “I don’t want you shooting your brother,” he’d said once, winking at us both. He didn’t want us to be anxious, but he also wanted us to take them seriously. He’d smiled the whole time I held the thing in my hands. Its weight and heft made me feel small.
“Look,” Jody says again. Now he’s holding it. “I knew daddy kept it in the house. I found it up there.” He points to the shelf in the closet.
We’ve been taught not to point it at people. Still, here’s Jody, pointing up at the closet with one hand and the gun in the other. It’s aimed in between our feet. My brother’s hand is swaying from its weight.
Jody looks at me. His face is blank, but I can tell he’s been thinking something over.
“I bet we could teach them a lesson,” he says. “Teach them not to leave us.”
He points the handgun at our mother’s mirror, and then he swings it toward daddy’s dresser where he keeps a snuffbox and silver dollars. Jody isn’t looking at me anymore. He’s looking at what belongs to our parents.
“Should we, Lewis?” he asks. “Should we teach them?”
There are some times when I wake up at this moment. I tell myself to wake, and I do. But usually I have to see the whole of it. I usually can’t wake myself up.
The next thing is that Jody says, “I know what we can do.” He’s watching me. He doesn’t point the gun my way, but his eyes are on me. Waiting for me to flinch.
Jody points the gun at our mother’s mirror. It’s like the air pops and then shatters. I feel it in my teeth, and the sound seems to drop the skirt off the night. The noise pushes into the house, fills up the rooms. It’s the feeling of the sound that always wakes me, like my body has become a vibrating cord.
We’d learn the next morning that the bullet lodged in the backside of the radiator mounted to the kitchen wall. It traveled through the mirror and two layers of drywall.
“We came home three sheets to the wind to find a pond in our kitchen,” daddy liked to say whenever he talked about it. Yet they both had enough presence of mind to stop the leak and mop out what they could. The water had run under the walls of the kitchen and outside into the garage.
We didn’t know about the radiator when Jody fired the shot. We had run to our beds and forced ourselves to pretend like we were sleeping until we finally drifted off.
Our parents were waiting in the kitchen the next morning when we woke up. I thought they’d have tanned us, but they didn’t. Daddy only placed his heavy hands on our shoulders and walked us to the radiator. “Look,” he said, crouching down and pointing with his thick finger to the bullet in one of the coils.
“Look at that,” he said.
We both watched him closely. He motioned for us to come closer, and Jody crouched down next to him.
But I wouldn’t get that close. I stood over the two of them as they huddled together. Daddy was trying to pry out the bullet from the coil, which didn’t seem like a good idea to me. “You boys will learn,” daddy said, straining from the effort.
He gave up and seemed to be picturing the bullet’s path. Jody had turned back to look at me, but I wouldn’t meet his eyes. Instead, I watched as daddy fingered the hole in the wall and whistled to himself in admiration.