We found a gun in the woods, me and Brownie, two of us walking home from school one day, twelve years old, and there on the ground in the leaves was a pistol. Almost didn’t even notice. Almost passed completely by. Had to be the last thing we expected, gun all black and dull at our feet, Brownie almost kicking it aside like an empty bottle or little-kid toy.
But then we saw what it was for real and got those shit-eating grins on our faces. We looked back to make sure no one else was coming. Nothing but skinny trees and muddy trail in either direction. Not even a bird chirping that we could hear. We held our breath to listen, everything so quiet we felt the world teetering.
Late winter, early spring, and we picked whatever leaves and twigs from around the gun. We made a little nest for the thing, neither of us saying a word. No shine to the metal at all. No trace of kindness anywhere in this object. Just sharp lines and hard edges.
Soon we’d be poking it with sticks. We’d hunch close to read the stamp on the barrel—colt, government, automatic, caliber .45—like we had any idea what any of it meant. Like we had any clue at all, really. We were just kids, Brownie this big romp of a boy with straight-across bangs and face full of freckles, and this Mouse character—me—I stood alongside with my ears and toothy smirk, the two of us there in the middle of the woods with a gun.
What could go wrong? I mean, Brownie pulled his hand into his sleeve and slowly lifted the pistol as if from out of a fire. It seemed to absorb the light in a way that made me feel bad for us, Brownie dangling this thing by the handle.
“This,” said Brownie, “is seriously real.”
And still those grins to each other—him and me in total cahoots—as if already we were permanently linked by whatever this was going to be. We must have liked the idea of danger and fear in our lives. We must have wanted to make the gun a story we could tell about ourselves. Good or evil, great or small, even as early as here it seemed like a spell we were under, Brownie going back and forth with the pistol under my nose.
“Let me see it,” I told him, Brownie teasing me with the gun, him holding the pistol delicate and careful, and me following as he moved it close and far and close again. I stood with my hand open until he finally just stopped. We looked at each other, and he lowered the gun to me. My arm tugged down with the weight, that solidness so much more satisfying than anyone could have explained. The diamond ridges of the grip, how balanced the pistol was, how perfect it fit in the hand.
We were doomed.
We didn’t stand a chance.
I pointed the gun at him—at his chest, my finger curling over the trigger—and Brownie put up his hands.
“Don’t shoot!” he said. “I’m innocent!”
“Give me the cash,” I told him.
“Okay, okay,” he said and made like he was counting out money for me. I waved for him to hurry along. Should have been funny, the old bank robber routine, the flustered clerk, jab of gunpoint, seen it a hundred times.
Years from this place—a lifetime away from those boys—and still I can’t help but wish I could reach down and somehow lift the gun away from these two little idiots. Could give them baseball practice or trumpet lessons. Just linger them back to the playground after school with friends. Wish I could make a nice little train set of their town: Cargill Falls, Connecticut, circa 1980, its old mills and little worker houses, its churches and sidewalks and cemeteries, the grocery and package stores, the constant hint of potato chips in the air from the Frito-Lay plant in the next town over. I’d put these boys anywhere but the woods that day if I could. I’d set them out by the train station, figurines throwing rocks at freight cars going by. I’d get them out near the river where the carp pucker the weeds above the falls. I’d wander them home through a kind of Busytown, give them bikes to ride, whisper down for them to get out of here already. That’d be me rustling the maple and oak leaves, just enough of a message to spook these kids away from all of this.
Not like they’d have listened, of course. Not like they’d have been able to hear a single word. All the iron filings would line up on that magnet of gun for them, and yet still there were so many things a pair of boys like us might have done different at this point. We could have gone straight to the police. We could have swaddled the pistol and left it on the steps of the fire station. We could have called my mother at the department store where she worked. She’d be in PETS or TOYS or CUSTOMER SERVICE near the back—and they’d have to page her over the intercom—and she’d make her way past the registers with this fear growing in her that the worst had happened. We could have turned that fear of hers into something tangible, something more than just credit for not being the hospital calling, something equal in value to the relief she’d feel when we were safe.
Mrs. Brownell worked at the front desk of the middle school. Every day she dealt with kids in trouble. She’d know just by the looks on our faces that something was wrong. Yet that raw weight and power in our hands like this, and suddenly we no longer wished to be smart or nice anymore. We wanted to use the gun. We must have needed to do what no one would want us to do, otherwise we would have figured out already how to save ourselves. We would have long since started for Brownie’s father at CL&P—Connecticut Light and Power—the two of us should have gone to find the man up to his elbows in some kind of engine or generator in one of the big maintenance stations.
Some half-dim cathedral of machinery, and we could have approached all timid and shy, his father annoyed at first, interrupted at work, but then his father so proud when we showed what we found, when he realized what we’d done by coming to him. Such an obvious triumph it could have been for us. But we must not have wanted to shine like this, because we never went to his work, never went looking for him down at the Elks or the Knights of Columbus or wherever else it was he wound up this time of day. We should have, but we didn’t sit and wait at the top of Addison Street. Brownie’s father would have arrived to us sooner or later, that rattle of utility truck in the dusk, coming home, pulling up to the curb, and saying, “What are you two numbnuts doing out here?”
Brownie was large and loud and funny, whereas I was small and quiet and hardly ever funny at all. Nothing humorous about a Mouse—fair enough—but still Brownie laughed when I aimed the gun at him. I went big for a moment and asked what was so hilarious and raised the pistol from his chest to his face to help him hear the question better. He didn’t think I’d do anything in the end and smiled and shook his head sadly at me. He slid himself off-line from where a bullet would go.
I hated him standing there all sane and sensible in front of me, though I also loved him all realistic and mature. If Brownie stayed calm and responsible, then I had every permission in the world to be stupid and crazy. We had this balance-of-the-universe thing between us. If Brownie went high-road, then it was up to me to take us as low as possible, him asking if I could just please move my finger off the trigger, me saying we should go find something to shoot.
Clearly there were rules to all this. Finding the gun meant we could not go home until we fired a bullet. It was my turn to try pulling the slide the way I’d seen on television. I tried not to show how scared I was. I tried turning the handle, pressing the front sight, the rear sight. Looking down the hole of the muzzle was like leaning over the edge of a well. The same lurch of stomach. The cold metal of the gun crawled up my arm, the malice of it seeping into me. And from the woods we could hear the late buses coming down that long slalom of driveway back to school. I put the gun back down in its little cradle of leaves, just tucking it in for the night, rubbing my hands together as I stood waiting, blowing warm air into my fists.
“We can’t just leave it like that,” said Brownie—such patience he had for me sometimes—as if I was a toddler in the woods compared to him. He poked the handle with the toe of his shoe. “I mean, what if somebody comes along and finds it?”
“We can cover it with leaves,” I told him. And I tried saying how no one would find anything after we were done, and already I heard my voice so desperate and weak and thin. It was the voice of a weasel.
I could tell he needed me to be a little more rational here, Brownie quietly trying to explain. “What if some little kids come along?” he said. “What if they end up hurting themselves? How would you feel then?”
I told him I wouldn’t care at all. I said that I meant it, too, from the bottom of my stupid heart. He said we couldn’t leave it now, but he also gave up trying to reason with me. He looked back along the trail, as if it’d be embarrassing to have someone see us standing all brainless in the middle of nowhere.
“Besides,” said Brownie, “it’s got your fingerprints all on it now.”
“We can wipe them off,” I told him, and I took the gun from the leaves and started rubbing the handle along the front of my coat. Brownie edged away a little more, saying it’d be pretty dumb to shoot ourselves by accident. I was with him on that—and I told him as much—and for a moment we might as well have been watching the two of us from above. At least that was how I’d feel, as if we were other kids down there, the little one pushing the barrel on the length of his thigh, as if trying to conjure a genie, and the big one saying, “Can’t you just cool it with that thing?”
I stopped and looked at him, a cold second, his skin a skim-milk blue, Brownie clenching himself against the cold damp of afternoon. I asked with a nod what was wrong, and he just shook his head, as if saying this was all completely hopeless. And already that thread of tedium, like I wanted to be done with this, me turning the gun so that the muzzle touched my chest, Brownie telling me the heart was a little more to the left, if that was what I wanted to hit.
Brownie watched a moment and then slowly moved forward. He gently lifted the gun out of my hand, and I felt myself drift away almost. Such lightness without the pistol. Meanwhile Brownie was back to being Brownie. “Stand back, little fella,” he said, “and watch how it’s done.”
I waited for whatever would come next to this. Nothing to worry about as long as we stuck to the script, stayed true to who we were supposed to be in the world. But still sometimes it wasn’t very pretty, being Mouse, forever nervous and nibbling at the edges of things, always scavenging little bits and scraps. In Little League, Mouse would be exiled to right field, where they sent boys to go daydream and be all timid and wishy-washy. The complete antithesis would be catcher, where you had to be rugged and smart. It helped to have a cannon for an arm, like Brownie had, him always behind the plate, of course, hitting cleanup. He slouched in his muscles, Brownie pudgy yet tough and gritty, a bit of a scamp, not scared to get hit by a pitch, whereas Mouse would bat near the end of the lineup, his knees shaking in the box. Mouse had no arm to speak of, no glove skills, no father, no little brother, no paper route, not even a dog waiting at home for him. He had no sly glance to melt anyone’s heart, no foolproof little giggle, no youth hockey on weekends, no cottage on a lake a few towns over, no motorboat, no water skiing.
Mouse might have been wrong about the person he was—or only pretending to be small—because sometimes, if he was honest, this Mouse kid would have to admit how he saw himself better, stronger, smarter, more likely to come out on top in the end. He could play the Mouse, but deep down he never believed a word of it. Yet still the inevitable was Brownie ending up with the gun that day. Even his hands seemed more suited for the job, his fingers thick and scabbed from cutting wood with his father, callouses and grease worked into the knuckles and fingernails. The hands of Mouse were soft and pale. Like he was afraid to touch things in the world, like he was saving himself for something.
And inside the quiet of woods, a strange hush of leaves closed in on us, branches and trunks tightening, trees creaking and stretching like ropes. Brownie and I looked at each other. Were those voices? Were we starting to hear things now?
We heard a girl laughing—little gusts of music, it seemed—and then the steady splashing of feet through the leaves, the gradual shush, shush, shush of someone marching toward us.
Brownie put his hands into his jacket pockets slow and lawful, woods all tense and brittle around us, ribbons of voices and laughter carrying past where we stood. I looked down to make sure I wasn’t holding anything. I literally raised my hands to my eyes like a crazy person, like I didn’t trust my own fingers to be empty. Nothing but naked palms and fortune teller lines in front of me, and those footsteps approaching, Brownie turning to watch where the path lined up, the two of us waiting for our first victims to appear.
Two guys, two girls on the path in front of us. High school kids. One had a cigarette, smoke trailing behind like a veil. They were older, talking and laughing, so disrespectful to the place, the trees, the path. And maybe Brownie and I blended into the woods so well that we weren’t even there anymore. Anything seemed possible, none of them noticing us waiting completely still, me with my knees shivering from the cold, Brownie with a gun in his pocket.
They were fifty, forty, twenty feet away, a crescendo of footsteps and leaves and voices closing in, the four of them so oblivious it seemed almost supernatural, until all at once Brownie stepped forward, the two of us materializing right in front of their eyes. Just like that, me and Brownie looming like guardians of the forest.
We must have looked ridiculous, the way they laughed so easy and automatic at us. We didn’t move a muscle, didn’t give an inch as they approached—nice little air pocket of awkward in the woods—two of us hanging spooky and weird in front of them. They searched around our feet, as if something would be there to explain such behavior as ours, grins coming in and out on their faces, the one girl dropping her cigarette, twisting her toe over it in the leaves. The prettier of the two tried to hike that smile back onto her face.
What a wonderful thing for a pair of boys to learn: the less we moved, the more insolent and sarcastic and menacing we seemed to become. The less we seemed to care, the more power we had over them. A kind of strength in our quiet. Maybe we shrugged our shoulders, maybe we shifted our feet, but that was all we were going to give them. Something in us must have loved them tight and nervous. Their skin not so good close-up. The pretty girl with her smile slipping again.
“Creepy little kids,” she said. “Gotta love ‘em.”
That swerve of her voice pulled me forward slightly—some faint scent that I wanted to hold, cigarettes and peppermint—and then the other guy called us homos. Out here cornholing each other, he said, and he leered in at me and made kissy faggot sounds in my face, his breath warm and sour, all teeth and tonsils. It’d be his fault now, this fine young man’s mistake, if anything bad happened to them or their girlfriends. His mistake for not sensing something a little off with me and Brownie. They should have had some foreboding about us, some inkling of the harm hovering a foot or two away, powerful demons disguised as two scrawny kids.
Instead they stayed so predictable—on their way to go fornicate one minute, and then blocked by two fuckhead twerps the next—and the guy closest started taking these flicks at my ears. He had one of those cowboy shirts with snaps instead of buttons, and he poked my chest like I was made of tissue paper and balsa wood. Like maybe his finger would push right through.
Brownie slid this look over to me, hands in his jacket pockets, and I forwarded the message, silent to one couple, then silent to the other. They had to recognize the fact that we weren’t scared, that we had these depths, that they should be wary. But still this douchebag placed his hand on my chest, the girls giggling nervously as he shoved me back.
I went like a boat being launched into the woods—whip of saplings, crash of leaves—and Brownie barely even moved as I got up from the ground and pulled the wet seat of my pants from my skin. Such restraint, such patience and power, Brownie waiting for me to step back to my place next to him, everyone holding wordless and dumb.
“Weebles wobble,” said the pretty girl.
And this seemed the funniest thing in the world to them. Maybe they were high. Maybe they were drinking. All I knew was that one guy leaning up to launch me again, his hand big and hoofy on my chest, Brownie stepping forward, that single crunch of leaves under his shoe.
“Don’t touch him,” he said—and no one moved at all. He could have been dipped in bronze, this beautiful statue of a boy, Brownie saying, “Go around us.”
And how lucky for these people that it was Brownie who had the gun. If it was me, I’d have long since had them cowering on the ground. Eat those leaves! Bark like a dog! I’d have stabbed the pistol into their ribs—look who’s all neutered and nutless now!—but Brownie had a much bigger heart than I would ever have. That much was true. Maybe that would be his downfall. Maybe he should have been more selfish and petty (like me), more wounded and resentful and quick to think the worst (like me), less forgiving and calm and strong (like he was).
The prettier of the girls pulled at her boyfriend. “C’mon, Jimmy,” she said, “let’s get out of here.”
Our old pal Jimmy called us shitbirds and started past, the other couple falling in behind. Brownie clucked his tongue as they went, which was what his father would do, the man making that sound whenever he arrived at some prime number truth of the world. Our inability to stack a woodpile, for instance. Our uselessness in the face of any sort of real work, for another.
We watched them go along the path, Jimmy with his hand in the back pocket of the pretty girl’s jeans, a detail which made me want to harm him even more. Such an urge I had to find a rock to throw. I kicked one loose from the path and picked it up, stone heavy and cold. I needed to teach him a lesson, and then have him chase me, and then get him lured into some trap of Brownie’s and mine.
They vanished at the bend, and still there seemed something hateful and mean in the woods. The bare trees, the gray sky, the sinking cold.
“Want to scare them for real?” I asked.
“Let’s make them suffer,” I said and took a stick and swung at the trees. I made kissy sounds and called for Jimmy, and Brownie went along for a while, though I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. He was already somewhere else in his mind. He was onto the next problem—where to go? what to do?—and all my nonsense only added to the weight of the gun for him.
Worse things would happen in our lives. We would think worse and say worse and do worse and be worse in months and years to come, but the pistol was our first worst thing. Other kids had mothers who were worse. They had worse fathers, worse accidents happening all the time. Even small mill towns like ours had tragedies more worthy than a simple gun in the woods. Rodney Sellers had a babysitter put him in a clothes dryer as a punishment. The skin on his arms and backs of his hands like melted wax. The Garcia girls drowned together in Alexander’s Lake. Cathy Deary died in the winter of leukemia. People wedged coins into the letters of her name and dates in the cemetery.
The gun was nothing compared to what other kids had to deal with, but still it was ours. It was in our possession. And there was nothing that could have come close to equaling a pistol for us. A dead body, a suitcase full of money, a stash of booze or girlie magazines. Pound for pound, our gun was the perfect thing to find—scary like an animal, scary like an urge—and we carried it back to the school with us. We peeled away from the trail, let the couples escape our wrath, and we ended up on the hill looking down at the big humped roof of the elementary school, that familiar brickwork of cafeteria and gymnasium, Brownie circling us toward the parking lot in front.
We were here to check for his mother’s car. Her gray Cutlass meaning she was still at the front desk, which would mean his younger brother Tommy was still in the library at Little Friends, which would mean Brownie and I still had this window of time between school and dinner to survive.
We started around toward the playground and library, clouds moving slow and low, and that blanket of stillness over everything. No one on the ballfields or basketball courts, which meant no getting Dave or Chubs or Moon in on this.
Nobody there, no kids playing, no teachers leaving. Somebody had clapped erasers against the wall down near the library doors. Either by chance or design, they’d made a phantom of chalk dust, face gazing pale and misty from the bricks—sockets, mouth—and it was just that empty desolation of brown fields and gray asphalt.
When I turned to Brownie again, his face seemed bruised in the light, his bones made of pewter under the skin. And if even Brownie looked scared and cold to me, if even he wasn’t equal to this, then what on earth must I have looked like to him?
He was the strong one, Papa Smurf taking care of all the little ones. No wonder we were so quiet—hard to imagine risking a word here—and we turned from the school as if to start over again through the woods, but then that stutter step where we’d found the gun in the leaves. On the path we could see our past selves standing there, wispy little kids hovering in front of us, the stonewalls and little brook, the public spring at the base of Wicker Street.
The spring was an iron pipe. We drank the water, crisp and sweet as corn. The final buses rode back empty to school, children all safely home, crossing guard gone from the intersection, Providence Street and the cemetery, my house hidden beyond the far wall. We scuffed along the streets, in and out of the gutters, looking back for any hint of car approaching, that silver of Cutlass always just about to appear.
A little ways more and we could see my house—square white box, aluminum siding, pink roof, willow trees. No Chevelle in the driveway meant no mother home early from work, meaning no reason for us to stop, gun pulling us through the cemetery toward the pond. We passed statues and headstones, passed Cathy under the grass with her coins, passed the brick tool shed near the end of graves, and then the gravel banks, the piles of old brush and trash out where no one could see, plastic wreaths and flowers, mounds of dirt, broken concrete and curbstone and scrub trees and vines, old tires, a refrigerator dumped like a coffin.
There were signs nailed to trees—NO TRESPASSING, NO DUMPING, NO HUNTING—not that we’d have paid any attention to such things. Nothing could stop us. We kept going and caught the first glimpse of water all dark and glossy below.
We skated the pond in winter, and we fished it in summer, and here at the spillway we took out the gun. Still a surprise to have it—Brownie holding this thing between us—web of his thumb around that beak-curve of handle, trigger a quarter-moon under his finger.
“Now what?” I asked.
It was a dumb question—and he rightly ignored me—because anyone with half a brain could see what had to happen next. Everything commenced from this edge of pond, this one afternoon after school. Pines feathering the bowl of pond, curve of water pouring constant over the dam, like a sheet of glass bending smooth and green, crashing on the rocks below. Just another day mixed in with all the other tragedies of our quiet corner of the world, Brownie knocking the crown of the grip on the heel of his hand, muffled clink of metal as he hit, little pieces of dried earth collecting in his palm. He sprinkled them over the leaves.
One of us would take his own life in a motel room in Killingly some thirty years later, while the other would end up doing what, exactly? Am I here to honor these kids? Am I trying to betray them even more somehow? Make amends?
Hard to say, but I’m riding home on a train—Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Penn Station to Providence—hours of Pennsylvania farms and forests and little towns, an occasional barn or tree holding the eye, and all I can think is this gun we found as kids, as if that alone could explain everything that followed for us, including his wife Brenda calling with the news, saying there’d be a service at the Elks, asking if I could be there to say something for Brownie.
Ahead are my old friends. They’ll be waiting upstairs in the banquet hall of the Elks. Dave and Chubs and Moon, the usual gang at a table near the windows. A person can know everything that will happen, but still never be sure what it means. All these past lives to face in that room. Brownie’s mother and father at the door. His brother Tommy with wife and kids. Brownie in a small wooden box, just ashes, and photos of him as a boy, and as a baseball player, and as a young man.
Going home will be like this—a reckoning—and that young Mouse will be there waiting for me as well. I’ll have to go to the pond to look for him and Brownie. I’ll need to make that pilgrimage.
I once had a dream. I’m hiking along some archetype of country road. One of those grand-tour type journeys. Rolling pastures and hills, stone houses off in the distance, cows and sheep and haystacks. All of a sudden in the dream I have to stop. I can’t seem to go any farther. Maybe a storm is coming. Maybe I sense some danger waiting down the hill. Who knows, but I’m off to the side of the road. I see myself huddled along the edge of ravine. Loose rocks and lovely vistas all around, but I’m hunched over some kind of work with great concentration and urgency.
In the dream there’s nothing ludicrous to this task, nothing unreasonable about how serious I am. It’s clearly life or death for me, whatever this is. My wife is standing off to the side. I’d not known she was there, yet in the dream I’m not a bit surprised when Betty asks what I am doing. Without so much as glancing up to her—can’t spare a moment away from this very important work of mine—I’m bent over my efforts, telling her that I am writing to God for forgiveness.
So maybe that’s what I’m doing here.
Seems futile enough.
My best friend from childhood kills himself, and I’m dialing us back to some magic spot where we started to go wrong, the place where we started becoming the people we would be. Even Brownie would scoff this aside. He’d have no patience for this nonsense of mine.
Still, it’s true what happened that afternoon. And it feels significant in ways I still can’t explain. Never once did we tell anyone about the gun. Maybe it was out of shame. Maybe it was out of fear, or stupidity, or just some basic flaw in who we were as people or friends to each other. Whatever the reason, the gun was a secret we kept all the way to the end. It was like a curse over us, me and Brownie marooned at that edge of pond, unable to move.
So, back to the pond we go. Back to our feet cold and fingers stiff. Back to the two of us engulfed in unease, feeling always just on the verge of seeing everything clear. But then none of it would make any sense, starting with the gun we found as kids in the woods, and ending in The Comfort Inn and Suites at Killingly, off Attawaugan Crossing, near Frito-Lay, one of those rooms that could have been anywhere, except for the smell of potato chips, and except for the room being close enough for my friend to walk home to his wife and daughter in one direction, and close enough for him to walk to his mother and father in his boyhood house in the other. But he had his pill crusher with him—his whole package there in a grocery box—vodka bottle, limes, Chinese take-out, six-pack of beer, Brownie’s body all bloated on those cold white tiles, his arms stiff, hands swollen and cramped, rigor mortis.
Even the town where it happened, the nicely named Killingly, that smell of potato chips. There has to be some meaning in all of this, if only someone can get to it. All a person might really want is to be free of them—those two little knuckleheads with their gun—and yet all he might seem to do is circle back to this one stupid day they had together as kids. Like we’d have any idea what it meant. As if one little three-hour blip can explain anything that comes later.
I am a ghost sifting for something solid in the ashes.
Photo courtesy of Jesse Douglas; view more of his work on Flickr