Celeste couldn’t understand why Malcolm had to go to Arizona to see a childhood friend he barely knew anymore, and Malcolm couldn’t explain it to her, because he wasn’t entirely sure himself. “He’s in distress,” Malcolm said. Celeste stared at him and he knew she wanted to say something like, “Lots of people are in distress. Why him?” but she said nothing and stood silent, watching while he packed a suitcase. She gave him a hug and a quick kiss before he got in the taxi to the airport.
Billy’s father’s house was a small adobe, one storey, with similar houses nearby and a square of something that might once have been a lawn in front of it. As Malcolm pulled into the driveway in the grey Mercedes he had rented, he saw Billy standing in front of the door, smoking a cigarette and drinking a can of cheap beer. Billy looked more emaciated than he did at their high school reunion two years ago. His eyes seemed to be sinking into his skull.
“Nice ride!” Billy said. “Didn’t know they paid professors so well!”
“Celeste has a discount through work.”
Billy hugged him, covering him with the stench of tobacco, alcohol, and something else, something briny, perhaps urine.
“So,” Malcolm said, “you really are giving up on recovery.”
“I’m so so so so sorry about last night. I honestly, scout’s honor, haven’t been that shitfaced in years. Years.”
Malcolm nodded at the beer can in Billy’s hand. “What’s this then?”
“Maintenance. I could barely move when I woke up. Didn’t want to be a complete zombie when you got here.”
“Okay. Well. I’m here.”
The stench in the house nauseated Malcolm: urine, vomit, alcohol, stale air, old man, sickness, sadness, death.
“When was the last time you opened a window, Billy? Last century?”
Billy chuckled, then pushed a window open, let in a bit of light, a bit of air.
“Got any plans?” Malcolm said. “You going to sell the house?”
“Definitely. I’d like to burn it to the ground, but it’s actually worth something, so I’ll sell it.”
“Dunno. Trip off to the light fantastic.”
“You like Arizona?”
“Hell no. Hot as shit. I’m still a New England boy at heart. Not made for this weather.”
“Why’d you come down here, then?”
“I was broke and Dad seemed like he could use some help. He offered, actually. Said it would be good to have me around.”
In the little living room, a pile of guns, thirty or forty of them, pistols and rifles both, sat in front of an orange couch. On the phone, Billy had said something about pissing on his father’s guns. It seemed he had.
“What’s up with the guns?”
“As I said. I was shitfaced.”
“Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I found a bottle of Cuervo and a bottle of some rotgut vodka. They were in a cabinet under the sink. Literally had dust on them. They were nasty, but I was bored. Lonely. Low. I dunno. Fuck it. Whatever. I hadn’t had the real stuff for a long time, just been drinking beer these days, whatever watery shit I can find, trying to get off it all, you know. Wean. Did it before. I was sober for three years. Three years. I’ll get back to it. This is my chance, right? A new life, starting over.”
“Did it before, I can do it again.”
“Okay.” Malcolm wanted to say something more, but he didn’t know what. He put his hands in his pockets, then took them out again and held them at his side.
Billy said, “Why’d you come out here, Mal?”
“You seemed distressed.”
“I’ve been distressed for twenty years.”
“You called me in the middle of the night.”
“Yeah. Sorry. I’m pretty damn used to being ashamed of shit, but I really am truly and honestly ashamed, I mean, you came all the way out here, it’s kind of nuts.”
Malcolm opened a window at the back of the house. The window looked out on flat, brown land.
“I want,” Malcolm said, “to see the guns.”
“Well, there they are.”
“Not the ones you pissed on. The suicide guns.”
Billy scowled and looked away.
Malcolm said, “He would never show us. When we were kids. You told me about them and I wanted to see them but we never could.”
“It’s sick, Mal. He was sick. It was some compulsion, some, I dunno, thing.”
“But it’s real? The collection?”
Billy sighed. He sat down on the orange couch. “He kept the trunk in his bedroom.”
“Have you opened it?”
“You came out here for that? The suicide guns?”
“I want to see them.”
“I don’t know.”
“Jesus. Fuck. Can we just — here, let me take you out to brunch, there’s this good place just a couple miles away, we can go, we can catch up, then maybe you can go do, I dunno, some tourist thing and I’ll clean up here and then maybe…”
“I don’t mean to be pushy. I just have always wanted to see the collection.”
Billy lit a cigarette.
It made sense that Billy liked the diner he took Malcolm to: they served scrambled eggs in a big bowl, and clearly understood that a side-order of bacon ought to be as greasy as possible. Malcolm ordered a breakfast burrito.
“Do you remember,” Billy said, “how when we were kids everybody always wanted to come over and play at my house because they wanted to go down the road to the shop and see the guns? At first, I didn’t know what was going on, but once I stopped taking people down to the shop, that’s when nobody wanted to hang out with me anymore. Like, to everybody else, even kids whose parents had plenty of guns, to everybody, seeing the shop was something special, exotic. But to me it never was. To me it was just where my father spent most of his time. I never liked the smell of the gun oil that filled the place, I never liked how cramped it was, I tried to never pay attention to any of it. The guns were just objects that were around and in the way, they were these things my father loved. Sometimes I thought they were the only things he loved, the only things anybody loved. So I was just the weird kid from the gun shop. That’s all.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Malcolm said.
“You didn’t live through it day after day after day.”
“You think you didn’t have any real friends when we were kids?”
“I didn’t say that.”
A waitress refilled Billy’s cup of coffee for the third time. Malcolm’s remained full.
Billy said, “We would get off the schoolbus, we’d go to my house, and whoever it was, they always asked: Can we go to the shop?”
“That seems natural.”
“I know, I get it, but it’s fucking shitty when you’re a kid and everybody’s more interested in the stuff your father sells and spends all his time with than they are interested in you.”
“I get that. It’s self-pitying, but I get it.”
“Sure you don’t want some bacon?” Billy asked.
“All yours. What you’re saying is that my interest in the collection is a repetition of what you experienced as a kid.”
“I’m not saying that. Not at all. It’s just, suddenly I remembered all those days in childhood when it felt like nobody on the fucking planet was interested in me as much as they were interested in the guns.”
“Okay. I’m sorry. I do care about you. I wouldn’t have come all this way if I didn’t care about you.”
“I’m here for you.”
“Right. But you still want to see the guns.”
Billy said he would show Malcolm the collection, he would, he just needed a bit of time, needed to clean up the house, get some things in order, because in a few days somebody from a local gun shop was going to come by and take all of the guns away on consignment, and he didn’t want the house to be quite so much of a shithole when they arrived.
Billy cleaned the kitchen while Malcolm did what he could to straighten up and air out the living room. He didn’t touch the guns piled on the floor, though he caught himself glancing at them again and again. He imagined holding one, a pistol, imagined standing in the entryway of his townhouse, Celeste upstairs screaming, a man pushing his way through the door, and then the gun fires and the man falls to the floor and Celeste comes running down the stairs to embrace him, protected, safe. He told himself it was a ridiculous vision, melodramatic. His hands quivered. He turned away from the guns. Finally, he went to the kitchen to help Billy, who washed dishes in the sink while Malcolm used a bristled sponge to scrub down counters encased in grime.
“How’s your wife?” Billy asked.
“She’s doing well.”
“Corporate lawyer, right?”
“Celeste, right. And you the professor of music.”
“Music theory. I’m less a musician than a theorist.”
“Theorist,” he said, as if trying the word out to see how it worked. “Music theory.” He set plates into the rack beside the sink. “You having kids anytime soon?”
“Everybody asks that,” Malcolm said.
“Don’t you want to do your duty and procreate the species?”
“Not especially,” Malcolm said. “And Celeste says she has no mothering instinct. What about you?”
“No, I don’t have a mothering instinct either.”
“I meant your life. Your love life. Anybody?”
“Random guys from the internet now and then. I don’t seem to be any good at longevity. Men, jobs, everything.”
“What’s the longest relationship you’ve had?’
“Four months,” Billy said.
“Okay. You aren’t any good at longevity.”
“My problem is I’m a romantic. Nobody ever lives up to the beautiful boy I fell in love with when I was twenty.”
“Oh? I’ve forgotten. Did I know him?”
“You were in college,” Billy said, scrubbing an iron skillet. “I was working for Alex Michaud painting houses. It was spring break for you and you came home for some reason rather than go to Florida or wherever college boys go, and we hung out, reminisced about the good old days of high school, and there was a night after we went to a movie — a Jim Carrey movie, I think Liar Liar — after the movie we went back to your parents’ house on the lake and we shared a bottle of vodka and listened to Nirvana and then Patti Smith and then, once we were really wasted, ABBA. And then while ‘Fernando’ was playing you let me unbutton your jeans … unzip your fly…”
Malcolm squirted a spray-bottle of bleach at the counter. “That was a long time ago,” he said.
“Yes,” Billy said. “When I saw you at reunion, I asked you if you remembered that night, one of the last times we’d been together, and you said no, you just remembered we were really drunk, and you didn’t remember anything else. That’s what you said. And I saw in your eyes terrible fear, horror, maybe revulsion, but mostly fear, a fear that I would say something, or do something, touch you too fondly. Kiss you. I saw you were terrified of that, terrified of me, because of course despite what you said I knew you remembered, and you were scared of what I might do, what I might say, because somehow you were ashamed of your feelings, ashamed of me and the memory, our memory — I still think how beautiful it is that of all the people in the world, we, us, together, alone share that memory. That was our night. And yet I saw in that moment that for years and years you carried shame and fear with you, while for me our memory was completely different. It was the memory that kept me alive even when everything was awful. So when I heard you were going to be at our reunion, I was so excited, because I was sure you couldn’t forget, and I was sure you would remember that night as I did, with tenderness, fondness, regardless of whatever feelings you may have now, regardless of your wife and your commitment to dull straight sex, regardless, I thought: He will remember how tender we were to each other, how special we were together, how perfectly we fit into each other’s arms. But no.”
Malcolm continued to scrub the counter even though it was clean. “I wasn’t ashamed,” he said quietly. Bleach fumes scorched his nostrils.
Billy dried the last of the dishes with a washcloth.
Later, they stood together and looked at the living room. Billy said, “Maybe we could take down the curtains.”
“And burn them.”
“What do we do with the guns?” Malcolm said.
“We clean them.”
“I’ve got a box of my father’s gun cleaners and oils, and probably like five thousand cloths. It’s easy enough.”
“Aside from the fact that they’re covered in urine.”
“Sprinkled in urine,” Billy said, smiling mischievously.
Malcolm took the curtains down while Billy carried the guns out to the kitchen table. They moved the furniture to the center of the room and swept dust and dirt from the corners, then moved the furniture to the walls and swept the center. They argued about where to put the couch, which was too big for the room. Malcolm wanted to get rid of the old recliner that didn’t recline anymore, but Billy said it was his favorite chair. Malcolm said it wouldn’t be too hard to sand down the top of the coffee table and revarnish it, and it might be better just to throw it out and buy a new one, given how stained and worn it was.
“I’m not you, Mal,” Billy said. “I can’t just toss everything out and get new stuff whenever I feel like it.”
“You can get a new coffee table. You can get a new recliner. Hell, I’ll pay for them.”
“I don’t need your money.”
“Well, okay. I offered.”
“I’m not going to be living here long. It doesn’t matter.”
In the kitchen, Malcolm looked through the refrigerator and cupboards, trying to find something with which to make a meal. Rice, eggs, butter, peanut butter, grape jelly, bread. Not much else. Milk, lemonade, rows and rows of beer. “You should buy food,” Malcolm said.
“There’s a good Thai place down the street, also a pizza place, some Tex-Mex. No need to cook.”
“It’s cheaper in the long run, cooking.”
“I’m not here for the long run. Want a beer?”
They drank beers together while Malcolm cooked rice and fried eggs and Billy made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “We’re gourmet kings,” Billy said as they sat down in the living room to eat.
“So what’s next for you?” Malcolm asked. “After you sell the house?”
“See the world. I guess.”
“Where do you want to go? Europe?”
“Nah. I’m not a traveler. I mean, I get around, but I don’t want to be all touristy and everything. Probably go up to Oregon. I’ve got friends not far from Portland. It’s nice there. Not too sunny, not too hot, not too dry. Here the sun is just fucking evil. I don’t know how my father stood it. He said he liked it after all those New Hampshire winters. He had a girlfriend down here, too. That’s why he moved here. He followed her. I met her a few times, had dinner with them. She was into crystals, New Age bullshit. He was like the opposite of an atheist: he wanted to believe every religion, so New Agers really attracted him. His girlfriend held out this crystal on a string and then she had me hold it by the string and watch for movement or spinning or something she said was caused by the energy we radiated, and I was like, ‘It’s not doing anything,’ and she said it only works if you believe in it and I was like, ‘Well, that’s convenient.’ After he died she came by the house, wanted to do a funeral and shit. I said no. I didn’t want a funeral for him. Nothing. She cried. I told her to fuck off.”
“Her relationship with my father was her own, mine was my own. And both over now.” He lit a cigarette. “I don’t want to be part of her relationship with him, and I have no desire for anybody to be part of my relationship with him. She can remember him however she wants. I don’t have to share that. She wanted me to keep his memory alive for her. I don’t want his memory to be alive. I want him to be fucking forgotten.”
In the kitchen, Malcolm stared at the guns piled on the table and on the floor beneath it. Billy brought a cardboard box from the bedroom and set it down on one of the kitchen counters. “Tools, oils, cleaners,” he said.
“So how many guns did your father own?”
“Once upon a time, hundreds. At least a hundred just in his personal collection. A hundred fifty, two hundred at the shop. He only brought the best ones out here with him when he retired. Just a few. Relatively speaking. All twentieth century, up through World War Two, that’s what he loved. So there’s a broomhandle Mauser, a couple Lugers, lots of Walther pistols, various 1911s, an M1 Garand, then just ordinary stuff, the .38 snubnose revolver that he carried, a 9mm Sig Sauer he said was his favorite pistol, back before Sig’s quality went down, then a couple Glocks, which is funny because he used to hate Glock, but I guess the more recent designs he liked.”
“You sound like an expert.”
“Hardly. But I lived with this stuff. He talked about it all the time. A few years after my mother died and things had sort of fallen apart in his personal life, he’d lost a lot of friends, lost a lot of money, he got really obsessive. He literally couldn’t talk about anything else. There was nothing else in his life, just him and his guns.”
Billy showed Malcolm how to wipe the guns down, how to oil them, how to scrub their barrels. “It doesn’t need to be perfect. The guys who pick them up will do their own cleaning.”
“Good to get rid of the piss, though.”
“Yeah,” Billy said. “Better to have them smelling like guns and not like a public bathroom.”
Billy drank beer while cleaning and before Malcolm quite realized it, he had himself drunk four cans. The beer combined with the sharp scent of the cleaner and the thick, sweet aroma of the oil made him lightheaded. He enjoyed the work. The guns sat solid in his hands, and once he had cleaned the urine off of them, they began to shine. The black metal especially drew his fascination; he could look into its depths and begin to lose all sense of time and lose all sense of himself. The shimmering, oily darkness reflected his eye, or the inverse of his eye, the sight of all he could not see. What was reflected there, he thought, was a universe, like the animalcule universe in a drop of water under a microscope, yet this was a universe of timeless night, everlasting, a universe of shale and obsidian, of smoke and slag.
After finishing all the rifles and a few of the pistols, they ordered pizza to be delivered. Billy pulled a bottle of Jack Daniels from under the sink. “Forgot I had this,” he said, snickering. “Or maybe I didn’t.” He placed two glasses on the table and dashed the liquor into them. “Here, have a shot.”
The pizza arrived and Malcolm paid the delivery guy. He and Billy ate the pizza and cleaned the guns and drank Jack Daniels. As they finished working and eating, Malcolm noticed that Billy was sitting closer to him, and more and more Billy’s arm brushed against Malcolm’s arm or, now and then, slid across Malcolm’s knee; and more and more Billy’s shoulder touched Malcolm’s shoulder; and then Billy rested his head briefly against Malcolm’s head and Malcolm could smell Billy’s breath, a breath of whiskey, cigarettes, pizza, Arizona air.
“And now,” Malcolm said, “the other guns?”
Billy smiled lopsidedly. His hand drifted to Malcolm’s crotch.
“The collection,” Malcolm said, removing Billy’s hand. “The suicide guns.”
Billy splashed the remainder of the Jack Daniels, about a quarter of the bottle, into their glasses. He swallowed his in one gulp.
The guns lay in an old Army trunk in the closet of Billy’s father’s bedroom. Billy took Malcolm’s hand and led him to the room, where they pulled the trunk out together and Billy opened it. “The collection,” Billy announced.
Handguns, each wrapped in oiled cloth. Malcolm took one from the trunk and unwrapped it, a silver revolver. A tag dangled from a string tied to the trigger. Written with black ballpoint pen in neat, squarely-printed handwriting: Arthur Foote 12/23/89.
“Who was Arthur Foote?” Malcolm said.
“A guy who shot himself,” Billy said. “A dead man. A doornail.”
“You didn’t know him? Do you think your father did?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Probably not. He got the guns from all over. Only a couple were his customers. The people, not the guns.” Billy chuckled.
A black semi-automatic pistol with brown grips. Diana Karaniuk 5/2/95. “A big gun for a woman,” Malcolm said. Billy shrugged. Malcolm said, “I would’ve expected something petite.”
Billy said, “Expectations are shit.”
Billy left the room and Malcolm continued to take guns from the trunk, unwrapping them one at a time, looking at the tag, then setting the gun next to the little bed. Robert Connell 9/12/84. Philip Allen Tewksbury 5/20/87. Brian Hull 2/19/91. Albert Baker 10/5/88. Cynthia Farrell 8/29/93. Stephen McGee 5/9/89. Joseph Tasker 1/1/97.
Billy brought Malcolm a beer. He put the rest of a six pack on the bed and opened a can for himself. Malcolm left his own can unopened on the floor beside the trunk. Mary Fuller 6/10/96. Everett Robie 12/19/94. Samuel Conway 3/15/90. Kim Place 5/2/93. Dennis Randolph Stickney 10/24/89. Kelly Ellis 4/14/86. Bruce Zylak 7/4/92.
“My mother’s in there,” Billy said softly.
Three more guns and there she was, a black revolver. The only tag without a name. The handwriting seemed slightly less steady, more tentative: 9/2/83.
“I didn’t realize…” Malcolm said. “You only ever said she died when you were young. I assumed cancer.”
Billy sat down next to Malcolm on the floor and rested his head in Malcolm’s lap. After a moment, Malcolm ran a hand through Billy’s hair. Billy smiled. He kissed Malcolm’s hand. Malcolm let one of his fingers slide across Billy’s lips, allowed one finger to slip into Billy’s mouth.
“You taste like gun oil,” Billy said.
Billy sat up a bit unsteadily. He kissed Malcolm and Malcolm let him. Carefully, with unsteady fingers, Billy unbuttoned Malcolm’s pants, unzipped his fly, unbuttoned his boxers. Malcolm ran his hand through Billy’s hair.
Later, they undressed each other and moved to Billy’s father’s bed.
Malcolm woke with dawn. (He hadn’t slept deeply. Billy passed out half an hour after they got into bed together.) He dressed and then looked around for a piece of paper and something to write with. In the kitchen, he found a pencil and an empty envelope from the electric company. Billy— I’m sorry for leaving. I fear I led you on. Please get the hell out of here and go someplace where you can have fun. Be free. You deserve it. Mal. He left the note on the kitchen table.
He had intended to drive straight to the airport and take the first flight home, but as he drove through Phoenix his resolve wavered and he found himself sitting in the parking lot of a small hotel. The hotel had vacancies, and he booked a room. “How many nights?” the clerk asked, and without any thought Malcolm said, “Four.” He gave the clerk his credit card. The room would be ready in a few hours.
He walked around the city, but the heat soon made him feel tired and hungover, his head throbbing. He stepped into a restaurant and ordered eggs, bacon, and coffee. He nearly fell asleep at the table.
When he returned to the hotel, his room was ready. He didn’t bother to bring his suitcase in from the car, nor did he pulls the bed’s covers down before lying on it. Soon, he was asleep.
“It’ll be a few more days,” he said to Celeste when he called that night. “Things are going well. All is well. Billy’s much better. I’ll be home when I can.”
He spent his days wandering the city, trying not to think about anything, trying not to remember or daydream, trying only to live, to let time pass over him, through him. He ate meals in restaurants, he visited museums, he walked across a university campus, he stood in stores and played the role of a customer, and if people smiled at him then he smiled back and if people asked him questions he gave the vaguest, least committed answer that he could, said he was just looking, just browsing, just killing some time, and all the while he tried not to look into their faces, their eyes savage with innocence.
At night, after dinner in the small hotel’s small restaurant, he returned to his room and listened to the sounds outside and the sounds from other rooms while drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels until he fell asleep. He dreamed each night of faces swollen in death, detached from limbless bodies, floating down dried up rivers all around him.
On the fourth day, he called the gun shop that Billy said he was selling his father’s stuff to. He asked if they had bought a collection of guns, a collection in an Army trunk. Yes, they said, they’d just taken possession of them yesterday. The guns weren’t inventoried yet, but he was welcome to come over and have a look. He said he was from out of state and expected to buy at least one of the guns but he didn’t know how to get it across the country legally. They said they could take care of all that, he just needed a dealer willing to accept them back home. He asked if most dealers will do that and they said yes, all the dealers they’ve known, and he thanked them and said he would be over in the afternoon.
With his phone, he searched for gun dealers near his and Celeste’s farmhouse in Vermont. There were four. The first he called said yes, certainly, he’d be happy to do the transfer, though he did charge a $25 fee. That was fine, Malcolm said, that was just fine.
He drove to the gun shop immediately. It was only a few miles from the hotel; a large, colorful sign proclaimed its location. Inside, it felt like any other store: brightly lit, spacious, airy, the floor peppered with displays of accessories (holsters, grips, cleaning kits, books and magazines, bumper stickers, camouflage jackets and camouflage hats and camouflage gloves). Toward the back, a glass-covered counter in a square U shape held hundreds of handguns, while rifles of every variety stood in racks along the walls behind the counter. Men wearing identical green t-shirts walked between the counter and the walls. Each, Malcolm saw, wore a pistol in a holster on his hip.
“I called earlier today,” he said to one of the men, “about some guns you bought, a collection in an old Army trunk.”
“Sure,” the man said. “We’ve got it out back. What are you looking for?”
“A black revolver,” he said. “Maybe a .22, a .38, I’m not sure. With black grips. It’s all black, the whole thing. And the tag just has a date on it, no name.”
“I think the tags got tossed,” the man said, “but I’ll check.”
The man walked through a door in the center of the back wall, then returned a few minutes later, three revolvers in his hands. He laid them on a cushioned mat on the counter. “One of these?” the man asked.
Malcolm pointed to the one he wanted. All black. “No tag?” he said.
“No, we threw them out yesterday when we unpacked.”
“The previous owner, the collector, he made the tags. There was a … a lovingness to them. A love.”
“Ah. Well. Okay. Sorry. To be honest, these aren’t really collectible guns. The others we got from him, they’re a lot better. There’s a Luger, a Mauser, good stuff. Sure you wouldn’t rather something like that? These revolvers here, the guns from the trunk, they’re just ordinary, everyday weapons. Not expensive, but they’re never going to really accumulate value.”
“That’s fine. I know what they are. I’ll take this one.”
He was tempted to ask for them all, to buy the entire trunk. But that would have been pointless. He only needed one, and it might as well be this one, the most meaningful of the guns. He gave the man the information about the dealer in Vermont, he filled out a form about his criminal history, he waited for the background check to confirm that he was not a criminal, and he gave the man his credit card. The gun would arrive in Vermont a day or two after he got home.
He did not tell Celeste about the gun. He did not tell her when, soon after getting back from Phoenix, he drove to Vermont to pick up the gun and stash it in the attic of the farmhouse they had bought a few years ago and which she hated. (“We should live more humbly,” she said, and he said, “We can afford the house, it’s not a problem,” and she said, “That’s not what I mean,” and they almost had a fight, but he hadn’t wanted to keep talking, nor had she.) He had paid more money than he intended for someone to come up from Boston and install a full audio system for the house, putting speakers in every room, so that if he wanted to, he could put a Pablo Casals 78 of one of Bach’s cello suites on his Technics turntable and pipe the sound throughout the house. When he first did this, testing the new system, he called Celeste at work and left an excited voicemail. She called back an hour later. “Are you having a midlife crisis?” she asked. “Should I be concerned?”
He could not tell her about the gun. It would make everything worse. They had been doing well, not getting snippy with each other, and they had even discussed selling the farmhouse and getting a timeshare in Hawaii, or maybe Costa Rica. Her parents in Rhode Island were elderly, though, and she didn’t want to be more than an hour or two away from them, and Malcolm didn’t particularly want to abandon his mother, even though he visited her only a couple times a year and she seemed happy and plenty busy at the retirement community in Portsmouth where he’d bought her a condominium. Still, though he rarely saw her, it would feel strange to be far away.
He must not tell Celeste about the gun. She hated guns. It wasn’t until he saw the suicide guns that he knew for sure himself that he didn’t share her feelings. Before, he had only had suspicion, a yearning, a hunger, and the hunger was deepest for the suicide guns, which he had spent decades imagining, even dreaming about them, wondering what they felt like in the hand, wondering if they bore witness to their history, if their barrels still held bits of blood, flesh, and bone. His imagination failed him when he thought about what they might look like or feel like, the vision was not vivid, the lines were blurred. He yearned like a worshipper dreaming of religious relics, sure that they would emit an aura, that they would impart wisdom or grace, but when he finally reached into the trunk and took one of the guns in his hand, there had been no aura, no wisdom, no grace — the guns felt simply like what they were: hunks of metal. And yet the more he touched them, the more he felt that the metal had a power different from the power of the other guns, the ones he and Billy had cleaned in the kitchen. As he looked at name after name, he began to imagine people, people who were distraught and desperate, he imagined their hands holding the guns, their fingers on the triggers, the barrel pressed to their chest or temple or held in their mouth, he imagined the metal warming in their mouth, he imagined the taste of the metal, he imagined the great strain and effort needed to force yourself to squeeze the trigger, to ease it back such a tiny distance, and then — what? Nothing. The sound of the explosion would travel slower than the bullet. The bullet would do its work before the ears heard anything at all. A silent death amidst great noise.
He did not tell Celeste about the gun, nor did he tell her about the other guns he bought. He had wanted to learn to shoot, but he did not want to shoot the gun from Arizona, so he needed to buy another. He told the dealer that he needed something small but powerful, something for home protection. “A .45 is best,” the dealer said, “because you’ll be able to stop just about anything smaller than a moose. But you might prefer something a bit lighter, maybe a .38,” and the dealer showed him a small revolver much like one that he had cleaned with Billy. He bought it, three boxes of ammunition, protective ear muffs, and some cleaning supplies. The nearest neighbors to the farmhouse were half a mile down the road, and over the last two years he’d heard plenty of distant gunshots from people target shooting or hunting, so he felt no embarrassment or fear when he took the revolver out behind the farmhouse and started shooting at trees. The force and recoil surprised him. Even through the ear protectors that gripped his skull, the sound was exhilarating. He paused after the first shot, then emptied the rest of the cylinder quickly. He went through two boxes of ammunition that first day.
As the new school year approached, Malcolm bought more guns: a used Colt AR-15 from the 1980s (“The last time they really knew how to make them good,” the dealer said), a Glock .45, a Colt 1911 from World War II, a Desert Eagle .357 Magnum, a pistol-grip shotgun. He only bought one at a time, and he rarely shot them, instead spending hours researching their history and technology. He mused on writing music that was nothing but the sound of the weapons’ mechanics, of cocking and sliding, of hammers falling, of powder exploding in cartridges and bullets shooting through barrels, of bullets hitting paper and wood, ricocheting off of metal. He wished then that he had bought the whole trunk from the dealer in Arizona. He could have written a chamber piece for suicide guns.
“Are you renovating the farmhouse or something?” Celeste said as they had dinner together at home.
“No,” Malcolm said. “Why?”
“You’re up there an awful lot these days.”
“I’m relaxing. It gets rid of stress, being there.”
“Billy keeps calling, trying to get hold of you. He said you don’t answer your cell phone.”
“Reception sucks at the farmhouse.”
“You should call him. He sounds … unsettled.”
“I will,” Malcolm said.
“Are you having an affair?” Celeste said.
“What? No no, I’m, what, I — no—”
“Jesus, I was joking. I figured maybe you’ve got a hot young babe in Vermont.”
“We haven’t really had sex this summer. Not much. I feel like I’m imposing on you when we do.”
“No, I’m just, I’m distracted. Stressed.”
“Men aren’t supposed to lose their libido too much as they get older, are they? Or are they?”
“I haven’t lost my libido.”
“Okay. Well. Neither have I.”
He cherished his nights at the farmhouse, swaddled in dense darkness. The world grew quiet except for the occasional call of an owl or the bark of coyotes. The city repulsed him now, its cacophony, and it was harder and harder, too, to listen to his students and his colleagues. Their voices clawed at him. He suspected that they talked about him when he was not there. He was sure of it. He could see it in their eyes and faces. They didn’t know how much they gave away, how transparent were their feelings and ideas, or perhaps they did and simply didn’t care, didn’t see any need for disguise. He used to think they envied him, and he was sure many of them did, envied him his beautiful wife and her lucrative job, their townhouse and ability to travel. Yes, some of his students and colleagues envied him, they’d made that clear many times, but there was something else now, something more menacing, an envy that had hardened into malice. If he were to be run over by a truck, they would not hide their celebration, no. If someone broke the windows of his townhouse or smashed in the door and made their way through the halls and grabbed his wife, held her down, tore her clothes, violated her while forcing him to watch (him, the weak and impotent man tied to a chair or left whimpering on the floor with broken legs), he knew this would not bother his colleagues and students, they would smile and mutter about justice and argue over who would get that nice corner office now and what would become of that rather excellent collection of old records, and though they might feel some sympathy for his wife, they would feel none for him, nor would he want them to. Their malice might, he thought, become active, they could take steps, they could do more than jeer and insinuate, they could reach out their hands surreptitiously, they could push him in front of the truck, they could break his windows and smash his door, they could wander hallways he wandered, they could seek him, seek to destroy him. Few of his colleagues were likely to act, but his students were more energetic, more fanatical, less predictable, likely disturbed. Capable of anything. Which was why he now slipped away more and more often to the farmhouse during the week, despite the long drive. He told Celeste he was going to conferences, or giving guest lectures at universities just far enough away that he needed to stay the night. She was busy with work and never questioned him. He had a talent for convincing her. She could probably see he was lying, though. He feared what she might ask. How could he tell her about his colleagues and students, how could he describe their faces and eyes, their voices, and how could he tell her that it was the way the voices near him coupled with the sounds of the city (the car horns and alarms, the shouting and laughter and voices, everywhere voices) that made it impossible for him to sleep or relax. She had already commented on his gritting his teeth at night, which woke her up, and his thrashing around while dreaming, which scared her. She knew he got up from bed again and again to roam the house, and she knew about the new locks he had put on the front and back doors, because he had given her keys, but she said less and less, which puzzled him but also left him relieved.
He was meeting with a student in his office when Celeste called him on her way back from a corporate event in Montreal. He let the call go to voicemail, then got busy working on the agenda for the upcoming curriculum committee meeting, for which he was chair. His students were particularly bothersome this year, each of them, he was certain, convinced that Malcolm was an old idiot who knew nothing about whatever a person was supposed to know things about, and the curriculum committee wasn’t much better, with even Malcolm’s longtime colleagues seeming to think every opinion he offered to be barely worth a response. He returned to his office afterward, closed the door, and began listening to a CD of Louis Couperin’s suite in C major played on harpsichord.
Celeste called again. He remembered that she had called earlier and he had not listened to his voicemail.
“What’s up?” he said.
“Explain it to me,” she said.
“I’m standing here right now in the farmhouse.”
Everything in him collapsed, his esophagus and lungs and heart and stomach all dissolved, his legs began to shiver, and there was no air anywhere in the room.
“Why,” he whispered, “are you there?”
“I called you. Didn’t you listen to your goddamn phone? I decided to come home this way. I wanted to see the farmhouse, see why you’ve been so besotted with it, maybe get some goddamned clue as to why you’ve been behaving the way you have, and so I did, I came here, I am here, standing here, and what I see in front of me, Malcolm, what I see is a goddamn fucking arsenal.”
He knew he shouldn’t have left everything out. But there was no good place to store it all. The attic was too hot and humid in the summer, too cold in the winter. He had installed a gun safe in the closet of the master bedroom, hidden it in a crawlspace behind the wall, but it wasn’t nearly big enough to hold all he had. And he had been in a hurry last time, late to something or other, needing to get back, so he had left the AR-15 and the shotgun on the couch in the living room and some of the pistols on the coffee table beside a few military instruction manuals he’d been reading. Everything else was hidden away. It was hardly, he said to himself, an arsenal.
“It’s just, it’s a project, that’s all, something I’ve been working on. No big deal.”
“I’m going to stop for dinner and then I’m heading home. I don’t care how late it is when I get there. We need to talk.”
“Right. Sure. Yes. Of course. I love you.” She hung up.
By the time she got home, he had worked out a good story for her, a story of avant-garde music and social critique, a story in which he was writing a musical piece for five firearms and working to find exactly the right sounds, a story of himself, not just a professor but an artist, one who stood a real chance this time of getting some good grant money and the attention of the world. A story of a man who would make her proud. He told the story well, and though she knew it was a story, she believed it. They held each other gently that night, and she said, “You’d tell me if there was anything wrong, wouldn’t you?” and he said, “Yes, of course, always.” He was happy to reassure her.
In the morning, he made breakfast for her before she left for work, scrambled eggs and french toast. He said he would be home late, not to wait up for him, he had a student recital he had to attend, then drinks with colleagues afterward, nobody special, people he could barely stand being around, but he needed their support, so he couldn’t exactly ignore the event. She nodded vaguely, then kissed him. “We’re okay, right?” she said.
“We’re great,” he said, smiling.
She didn’t believe his story, he was sure of that. Something was going on. She had made some decision in Montreal, some decision about him. He needed to know. For months, he had thought about getting cameras, wiretaps, bugs, but he had only looked into it briefly. He should have followed through, should have trusted his instincts. He needed to see what she did when she was alone, and who she talked to at work, what she said. Now it was too late. There should be safety in their home together, but there was not. He could not protect anything here.
He called his department secretary and told her he had the flu, he wouldn’t be in today, he needed to cancel his classes and meetings. She told him not to worry about it, she’d take care of everything, though he was certain he heard something else in her voice, some suspicion. But she was the least of his concerns.
There must be some way to get into Celeste’s building and see who she talked to, yet every idea he came up with was impractical, a fantasy, like something out of a bad action movie: stealing a mailman’s uniform, setting off firecrackers in the lobby to distract the guards while he dashed to the elevator, pickpocketting someone’s ID and slithering through the halls and hiding in Celeste’s office, maybe in her closet, maybe under her giant desk… No, no. He needed to be something other than who, or what, he was. He needed to be an insect in a rocky desert, carapaced and thorny, a creature of endurance, armed with pincers and poison, ready for what was coming, because something was going to happen, it had been building up for a long time, imperceptible structures were in place, and now, as his thoughts solidified, he realized the threat was not Celeste, nor was the threat to Celeste, she was a small part of a large system, and though he could not identify the threat, he knew she was neither it nor its target. She was vulnerable too. But not nearly as vulnerable as he. The system was a storm front bearing down on the little web of life they had built together, but she would be fine, she was resilient, unlike him, and that’s what she must have realized, how exposed he was, pregnable, how likely he was to melt away at the first rain.
On the street outside the townhouse, he was certain that everyone saw how weak he was, and he began to suspect that among the pedestrians making their way along the sidewalks mingled agents of the storm, perhaps even agents of Celeste, for she had always been ahead of him, always known more of the world, and it would be just like her to have prepared already, to have her own cameras and microphones and spyglasses, her own confederates reporting back that Malcolm was outside now in the sun, exposed, and they would speculate about his thoughts, his actions and purpose, they would read him and then write their readings in reports that they would give to Celeste to analyze for portents. Her concern gratified him, but he couldn’t let her be his guardian. He had his own resources. As he walked, he told himself that he must not behave any differently than he would have behaved before. He must not let his face give him away. He looked no-one in the eyes. He walked down into the garage underneath their building just as he had walked countless times before, he walked to the car slowly and carefully, then drove slowly and carefully through streets he drove every day, though he hoped not too slowly and carefully, not giving anything away of himself, and when he looked in the rearview mirror to see if any of the cars behind him seemed to follow, he tried not to let his glance linger any longer than he would have on any other day.
By the time he made his way out of the city, he was sure he was not being followed. He laughed lightly at his concern, but it did not lessen the concern. The person he was a year ago would not have been able to imagine the person he was today. It seemed wondrous to him that he had survived as long as he had. He hadn’t known how precarious everything was in his life. Too much was too clear now. Blissful ignorance had kept him lucky, unknowingly skipping over cracks and chasms that now seethed lava all around. It was a good thing he had gone to Arizona. Without either of them knowing it, Billy had saved him from certain doom.
When he got to the farmhouse, he checked each door and window, spent hours in the attic searching crevices, checked the little pieces of thread he’d set in each room to reveal disturbance. Nothing screamed out warnings. The only room with any trace of upset was the living room where Celeste had seen his carelessness, his exposure. She seemed, though, to have gone away without leaving any surveillance of her own. If she had set traps, their cunning was beyond his ability to see. No other forces of the systems had invaded, not visibly. He locked the front door. He cursed himself for not getting an alarm put in. All his attention had been on the townhouse. He could have had security here, but he hadn’t known how quickly necessary it would be.
He investigated the bedroom closet carefully. Everything was as he had left it. She had not snooped here, there were no signs of entry or subterfuge. He pulled back the false panel in the back wall to reveal the gun safe, typed the code into the lock’s keypad, and removed his latest purchase: ceramic-plated body armor. He put it on over his clothes, then squeezed his head into the military helmet with night goggles attached. He wouldn’t need the goggles for a little while yet, though the days were getting shorter now. The Desert Eagle was loaded and sat in a holster on a belt, which he wrapped around his waist and buckled. This was better. He could begin to breathe again. He took the black revolver out of the safe. It was not loaded; he had never loaded it and never would. He squeezed it inside his armor, against his chest. It pressed against him, against his bones.
He grabbed two of the thirty-round magazines for the AR-15 and brought them downstairs, replacing the empty magazine in the rifle and putting the spares, loaded and empty, into pockets in his armored vest. He would load the rest of the guns before dark, but for now this was enough.
His phone rang. He looked at it: Billy. No, he would not answer. Not now. Soon, though. He would talk with Billy, catch up on all that had happened, hear what Billy was doing with his life, and he would tell Billy that he had saved Billy’s mother’s gun, that it was safe now, here, with him, and he himself was safe, too, and if he was brave he would tell Billy that he knew Billy needed him, and he was ready to protect Billy, he knew he could do that, he was ready, he was prepared, he had learned — and he would say that he hoped Billy would trust him and forgive him and make his way to him now, because he had saved what most needed to be saved, he had protected himself, he had found refuge, and he could make them safe.
But not yet. He needs to stand here a few minutes longer. He needs to watch the sun sink down below the mountains beyond the forest, he needs the night to come, and he will see through it, he will see all movement and every threat. He is sure that Billy will call back, and he will tell Billy the plan and warn Billy of dangers so that Billy will make his way past every threat and his way will lead here.
It is dark now.
He flips the safeties off on the AR-15 and the Desert Eagle.
Billy will call at any moment.
He lowers his goggles and turns them on.
The night glows alive, he holds the rifle in both hands, and he looks out at the invisible world surging toward him.