Her grandmother’s shotgun came to Ms. Hicks by way of her brothers, Tommy and Jack. They insisted she take the thing, she was pretty sure, because A) it was the one weapon of the family’s collection they least wanted and B) they were amused at the idea of her having to own it. They both showed up at her house to deliver it in its tattered canvas sheath. “How do you know I won’t sell it?” Hazel asked them. They shook their heads and grinned. Tommy said, “We just know.” Their smug faces made her seethe.
At this time they were all grown-up children, in their thirties. Their father had died some months ago. Now their mother was “downsizing,” as she called it. She was ruthlessly purging the house of everything she didn’t need. Hazel and her brothers were stunned by the energy and purpose their mother brought to the task. Hazel, the middle child, proposed that this purging was her mother’s way of grieving. Her brothers shook their heads at her. “No,” Jack said. Then Tommy said, “You’re wrong.”
Her brothers considered her a fruitcake. From early childhood they’d teased her beyond the limits of normal sibling conflict. They pushed her to the point of making her believe they’d always hated her. Hazel wasn’t a wuss, but her brothers could usually make her cry. When they brought tears to her eyes, they’d stop their meanness for a little while. They had a list of the qualities of her personality that made them call her that. Near the top was her contempt for what she called the “gun nuts.”
Ms. Hicks thought she’d sell the shotgun just to show them. So when they brought it into the house, she accepted it and served them coffee and chatted with them in her kitchen. When they left, she carried the weapon into her living room and took it out of its sheath. She couldn’t remember holding guns as a kid, but she must have. The weapon’s shape and weight required her to use both hands, and the feel of it was unnatural. Standing with the gun felt awkward, so she sat down on her sofa with it resting on her knees.
Another of Hazel’s weirdo qualities, in her brothers’ view, was her inclination to fall into reveries, which is what she did sitting on her living room sofa with the shotgun in her lap. The first thought that came to her was that a gun is so specifically designed to kill or harm that human hands register its purpose the instant they take hold of it. Her second thought seeped into her brain like swamp water rising in a sinkhole. This was a killing instrument, all right, but her palms and fingers were savoring it.
Tommy and Jack had explained to her that their grandfather had purchased the thing for their grandmother, and so it was the lightest and least powerful of all shotguns, probably advertised as “A Ladies’ Hunting Gun,” and their grandfather had probably bought it from a catalogue. Tommy and Jack speculated that their grandfather had surprised their grandmother with it and that the old lady had turned up her nose at such a present. “It’s in mint condition,” Jack said, and Tommy said, “You know how Grandmama was.”
In the minds of all three of them, their little grandmother was a woman of biblical stature. She was sharp-tongued, outspoken, and powerfully opinionated. She had a collection of hatreds—communists, Black people, Martin Luther King, the entire Kennedy family, along with certain families and individuals of the local area. At one time Grandaddy Hicks had made enough money to enable his wife to live in a grand style, to have a chauffeur, jewelry, and clothes she ordered from Chicago and Philadelphia.
In and around Fork Mountain not many people had money, and those who did pretended they didn’t. Ida Hicks was treated respectfully, even by people who despised her. Store clerks were so eager to please her that they seemed to lose their wits in her presence. Only when Hazel went to college did she begin to realize how the greater world might view her grandmother. When Hazel went to graduate school, she amused her teachers and friends by referring to the old lady as “my racist, flasher grandmother.”
Evidently the shotgun in Hazel’s lap was holding her in a state of meditating about her grandmother. Grandmama Hicks would love to see Hazel conjuring up such vivid memories. The old lady wore underclothing only when she went out in public, and even then a fancy slip was the only lingerie she could tolerate. Around the house or cutting roses out in her garden or walking around the property, Grandmama Hicks wore white cotton dresses so old and thin she might as well not have bothered with any clothing at all.
Tommy and Jack complained that Grandmama Hicks deliberately exposed her breasts and lady parts to them. Indeed, anyone who visited or who worked in the house would likely have had to view the old lady au naturel. Every day in the spare bedroom upstairs she lifted weights and did push-ups, chin-ups, and knee-bends without clothing. She braced herself against a wall and stood on her head for at least a minute. She was vain about her physical abilities and enjoyed doing her exercises in front of her grandchildren.
The shotgun in her lap held Hazel in its spell long enough for her to review her grandmother’s eccentricities in detail. When the old woman had her grandchildren to herself, she quizzed them about their bowel movements. She examined their ears and reamed them out with a washcloth if they did not pass inspection. There was, Hazel had to admit, an element of entertainment for her and her brothers when they visited Grandmama Hicks. But they also walked over to her house because seeing them pleased the old lady.
If she was alone, Hazel made herself say aloud—or at least whisper—when her grandmother came to mind: I loved you. Even in death the old lady was ravenous for love. Hazel knew her brothers would cackle and hoot if she ever told them about her exchanges with dead Grandmama Hicks. Yes, you loved me when you were a little girl and I bought you presents and gave you money for Christmas and your birthday. But now you’re a grownup. Do you still love me? Right this minute? I want to know. Do you love me now?
Hazel wished her brothers weren’t such jerks so that she could ask them if they loved Grandmama Hicks. Giving her this shotgun they knew she didn’t want was their idea of expressing familial affection. She looked down at the gun in her lap. There wasn’t enough room on the sofa to set it beside her, so she placed it carefully on the stacks of magazines on her coffee table. She snorted at how out of place the weapon looked in her living room. You never even fired the damn thing. Why did you let them give it to me?
When Hazel first read the acronym OCD, she looked it up and lingered over the definition: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: Excessive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). She realized the term applied to her, and she felt some disturbance from finding out that she had “a disorder.” But she also felt comforted by knowing that there were enough other people like her that she wasn’t the only OCD oddball on the planet. But here was the thing—she liked the OCD part of herself.
She was a step-counter, a clock-watcher, and a routine-repeater. She had a regular walk she took around town, a rectangle of three long blocks on the short side and six short blocks on the long side. The short-and-long of it amused her, and she’d counted the paces each side required of her. She also kept track of how many minutes and seconds it took her to walk each side of it. More than once she’d asked herself what difference these numbers made and who besides herself cared about them. None and no one.
She rose from bed every day at 5:30, and she turned out her bedside light at 10:00. On Wednesdays she cleaned her house, top to bottom. For each day of the week she had an excellent dinner-for-one that was easy to fix and that she ate at 6:00. She washed her dishes and set them in the drainer in a certain order. She paid her bills on the day they arrived. She turned off the shower to soap herself up after she’d applied shampoo and conditioner. She tried to be one minute early for every appointment and obligation.
Over the years Hazel refined the way she did things, and she thought it was important to do them exactly that way. She visualized the assembly of her daily habits as a kind of outsider art installation. She’d indulged and amused herself with the notion that anyone who could truly see it would consider her a genius. Now that she’d read the definition for OCD, she had to confront the idea that she was eccentric. None of it makes any difference and no one cares. And now there was this shotgun in her house.
Because she couldn’t make up her mind where to put it, Hazel carried it from one room to another. She got the hang of holding it balanced in one hand beside her thigh. She certainly wasn’t about to take up hunting, but she thought it might be pleasant to walk through the woods with the weapon beside her like this. In the kitchen she set it on the table where she ate her meals. She noticed a box of shells on the counter by the door. Just like her brothers to sneak the ammunition into her house and not tell her.
She ate both her lunch and her dinner with the shotgun on the table beside her with its butt-end beside her plate. That night when she went upstairs to bed, carrying the shotgun with her, the thought came to her that, at least through her first day of owning it, the gun had become a companion. That idea would stupefy her brothers with happiness. She set the thing on her bed lengthwise as if it were taking its rest; then she felt compelled to go back downstairs to fetch up the box of ammunition.
When she came back upstairs and saw the weapon on the bed, she had a wild notion that it was her grandmother’s ghost waiting for her. She thought the idea was crazy but also funny. She set the box of ammunition on her bedside table, sat down on the bed, picked up the gun to examine it, found the safety latch and the lever that locked the barrels in place. She pushed the lever, broke the gun open, raised it to look into its barrels. They were shiny and immaculate. Her bedside clock told her it was well past her bedtime.
As if they were under someone else’s control, her hands opened the box of ammunition, removed two rounds, rolled them in her palms, held them up to study. The shells were thin cylinders, compact and cunningly made. Her fingers slipped one into each loading chamber. Then she needed only a little strength to rejoin the barrels with the trigger assembly and the wooden stock. When the two halves of the weapon clicked into place, a jolt of satisfaction snapped through her body and left her slightly dizzy.
Hazel was excited by the procedure she’d just completed and horrified by the pleasure she’d taken from it. Yesterday her only thought about guns was that she didn’t want to be around them. Today she’d not only taken a gun into her house, she’d carried it around all day, and now she’d loaded it. Yesterday she was defenseless; right this minute she could shoot someone. She stood up, put the stock to her shoulder, and sighted down the barrels at the mirror across from her bed. She just touched the trigger.
Instead of selling her grandmother’s shotgun, she gave it a home in the corner of her bedroom closet. She’d removed the shells from the gun and put them back in the box. She stashed the box of ammunition in the back corner of a shelf, high enough that she could reach it but not without standing on tiptoe. When her brothers called her—as they did every couple of weeks—whichever one it was never failed to ask her about the shotgun. Hazel pretended she’d put it away and forgotten exactly where it was.
Days went by, then weeks, then a couple of months. She felt no need to take it out of the closet or even to check to see if it was still there. Already more than a hundred years old, it wouldn’t break, decay, or collect dust. The raggedy sheath was all it needed to stay clean and ready to use. When the gun came to mind, Hazel felt her mouth make a tight smile of acknowledgment that her life was different now. Yes, she was a single woman entering middle age, but she was also a person who could make a live person dead.
July and hot. When she returns from her walk, unlocks the back door, and steps into her cool house, she senses the thinnest current of an unfamiliar smell in the air. Hazel thinks maybe in a previous life she’d been a predator—she’s caught the scent of an intruder and instead of being afraid, she’s curious. Her pulse is up and so is her level of alertness. She closes the door behind her and makes no effort to be stealthy. She walks through her kitchen and through the dining room she rarely uses.
Ordinarily her living room is shadowy, but now the curtains have been opened, and a young man politely stands up in front of one of the wing chairs by the fireplace. “Hello,” he says, in such a familiar tone he might be greeting a family member or a roommate. Hazel stares hard at him. He holds a book in his right hand, with his index finger marking his place. “You left your front door unlocked,” the young man says. “I thought I should tell you that. So I came in and waited for you.” His voice is friendly.
Hazel nods and makes a little gesture toward the chair behind him. He smiles and sits down, still keeping his place in the book. It’s The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, a book she read forty years ago, and she knows the exact place in her bookcase from which he must have taken it. His khaki pants and T-shirt suggest he’s a student. He’s clean-shaven; his hair has been recently cut. Nothing about him suggests criminal inclinations—which does nothing to make her less suspicious of him.
“I’m Gerald York,” he says. “I know this is a little odd. But your door was not only unlocked, it wasn’t even latched. I just touched it with my finger, and there it was, open as if you’d been expecting me and left it that way.” Gerald York shrugs and flashes her a little what-could-I-do? grin. “I thought, Well, I’ll just step in and leave her a note, then I’ll be on my way. But when I looked for a pen and paper, there was your bookcase and I’m a fool for books. I had to see what was on these shelves.”
Gerald pauses, and Hazel lets the silence go on several moments. He murmurs, “I appreciate people who keep their books in alphabetical order.” She stays quiet. Then she says, “Excuse me just a minute. I’ll be right back.” She doesn’t exactly smile, but she puts on as polite a face as she’s able to muster. Upstairs, she quietly takes out the shotgun from her bedroom closet, unsheathes it, then stands on tip-toe to fetch down the box of shells. She will not call the police. With the gun in her hands she’ll be fine.
Hazel thinks Gerald York will probably leave while she’s up here. She knows he hasn’t told her the truth, but she also thinks he isn’t here to harm her. She feels pretty certain he hasn’t snooped around upstairs. If he wanted to steal something, the shotgun might be the most valuable thing she owns—at least from a thief’s perspective. She breaks the gun open, takes two shells out of the box, inserts them into the loading chambers, and locks it back in place. Then she stands up straight, holds her breath, and listens.
Standing between the closet and her bed, she catches sight of herself in the mirror across the room. Will I shoot him? she asks the woman. The mirror woman tells her, Yes, if you have to. She has a moment of wishing she didn’t own a gun. Over the years she’s imagined and dreamed scenarios in which an intruder has entered her house. With her old dreams she always woke up just as the intruder was about to assault her. In her dreams since she’s owned the gun, the intruder runs or else begs her not to shoot him.
She checks the safety to be sure it’s on. Then she goes downstairs, carrying the weapon in both hands. Gerald York is reading when she enters the room. The Second Sex falls from his lap, but he has the good sense not to say anything. She sits on the sofa opposite him, loosely holding the shotgun across her lap with both hands. They study each other. After a few moments he bends and picks up the book. Hazel sees that he’s afraid and that he’s trying to smile at her. “It’s loaded, isn’t it?” he asks.
Because his voice sounds only slightly fearful, Hazel respects him for keeping his wits about him. If she ever does shoot an intruder, it will be one of those blithering idiots who pees his pants and begs for his life. “Do you remember what page you were on?” she asks him. His face changes—he’s surprised by her question, and she’s glad of that because she is a little surprised by it herself. “I bought it and read it a long time ago,” she says. “It wasn’t as interesting as I thought it would be.”
Gerald eases himself back in the wing chair. A notion of shooting him flashes through Hazel’s mind. How ironic would that be, to do it just when he’s certain he’s safe? She wishes that thought hadn’t come to her. “But you read the whole book?” he asks. Hazel blinks at him and nods. Were they really going to talk about a book she’d meant to give away years ago? He leans slightly toward her. “I’ve read boring books,” he tells her. “It’s very restful. Like listening to New Age music. Or watching golf.”
Sunlight beams through her open windows. Her neighbors are conversing nearby on the sidewalk. Hazel can’t make out their words, but she can tell they’re just passing the time. She’s never had the patience for that kind of socializing. If you’re going to talk, then try to say something that matters. That’s her position. Even so, it pleases her to hear those familiar voices. Maybe that’s what Gerald means by New Age music—something you can appreciate without having to pay any attention to it.
“Why did you come to my door?” She tries not to sound threatening, but the words themselves generate hostility. Once she’s asked the question, she goads herself to be more assertive with this young man. Book reader though he may be, he’s also an intruder and a lawbreaker. Evidently her hands are in favor of getting tough with Gerald York: they’ve taken hold of the shotgun so that if she does have a reason to raise the thing and point it at him, they’ll be in the correct position to aim and fire. They’re ready.
“I do volunteer work for VPIRG,” he tells her softly. “We’re canvassing this neighborhood asking questions to help us find out how people’s everyday lives affect Lake Champlain.” He looks directly at her as he speaks, but she is determined not to be taken in by him. She asks him how he can prove to her that he’s telling the truth. Gerald smiles and points to a clipboard leaning against his chair leg, which makes Hazel feel all the more foolish, because she hasn’t noticed what has been in plain sight.
“All right,” she says—and she can hear in her voice the agitation she feels. “But that doesn’t explain why you walked in here. VPIRG can’t have people working for it who just barge into somebody’s house when they’re not at home.” She’s aware of her hands tightening their hold on the shotgun. It occurs to her that if the shotgun had its way, she’d already be pointing it at him. She wills herself to relax. Gerald York probably means her no harm. He’s just odd. Which explains why she wants to like him.
“VPIRG would send me packing if they knew I’d come in here. They’d be horrified.” He shakes his head. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything like this. But I’ve wanted to do it lots of times.” He leans forward again, putting his elbows on his knees and staring intently at her. “I’m a sociology major,” he says. “I thought sociology would be what I’ve always been interested in. How people live their lives. What their homes are like. The things they do when they’re alone.” He pauses and shakes his head.
“Ms. Hicks,” he says—and his using her name like this startles her. She hasn’t said her name aloud. “Ms. Hicks,” he says again as if he wants her to get used to his saying it, “When I was a little kid, preschool, maybe four or five years old, my mother used to take me with her visiting around the neighborhood. If she got to talking and didn’t keep an eye on me, I’d wander into other rooms and have a look around. I’d even go upstairs sometimes. Then she’d notice and have to apologize and go find me.
“My mother was embarrassed, of course. She’d try to get me to tell her why I did it. I told her I liked kitchens and bathrooms. That was sort of the truth. In our family it became my famous answer to her question. Kitchens and bathrooms. But I didn’t know. I was too little to know anything much, or to have the words for what I did know. Which was that it wasn’t just rooms I liked. It was being in them by myself. And without anybody knowing where I was. That’s what I just adored. But I can’t explain it.”
Hazel knows what he’s telling her without quite saying it. Gerald York is still the kitchens and bathrooms boy—which of course explains why he’d pushed her front door open and stepped inside. Her problem is that she understands all too well what moves grown-ups to replicate how they behaved as children. Hadn’t she counted steps and kept every stuffed animal and doll and piece of furniture in her dollhouse exactly in the same place until she went away to college? None of it makes any difference and no one cares.
The only explanation is childish. Going to bed at the same time every night makes Hazel feel good; not carrying out the ritual makes her feel bad. She can see Gerald studying her and probably figuring out that she understands him very well. But there is a difference between her secret acts and his. Her behavior doesn’t affect anyone. The kind of eccentric she is maybe irritates her brothers, but she does no harm. A thought startles her so that she speaks without thinking. “You’re a transgressor!” Gerald flinches.
Then he bows his head, and she immediately wishes she hadn’t spoken so loudly and with such obvious glee in her voice. It’s not polite or admirable of her to be pleased by the revelation that his behavior is wrongful and hers isn’t, even though they are similarly driven. She considers apologizing but stifles the inclination. She keeps quiet, and after some moments he raises his head and meets her eyes. Something is in his expression she hasn’t noticed before. “Isn’t that a loaded gun you’re holding?”
Gerald’s voice is soft, but his face tells her he’s just landed a counterpunch. And she’s felt it. “You’ve thought about shooting me, haven’t you?” She’d known this was what he would say—she’d have said it, too, if she were in his shoes. “You could shoot me, isn’t that right?” Hazel starts to shake her head, but she knows even that gesture won’t be the truth. She takes a moment to try to calm herself and sort through her thoughts. “You don’t know, do you?” he murmurs. “If you can shoot me.” Hazel nods.
She’s about to cry. Which she hasn’t done for years. And there is no reason for it now. They’re just talking. She wishes she could just make the shotgun disappear. She can tell him that thoughts shouldn’t count against anyone, but she only half believes that. And he could see perfectly well that he’s guessed the truth about her, that she’s ashamed of herself. She’s in such a state she nearly blurts out that her grandmother was a transgressor and a truly awful person, but she’d loved the old lady anyway.
Gerald catches her eye and begins talking in a low voice. She has to concentrate to catch up with what he’s telling her. It’s about a program he’s heard on NPR. “So there’s this therapist out in California who keeps knives in his desk drawer and invites his patients to hold them against his throat. These are people who are obsessed with the terrible thoughts they have. Like there was this man who couldn’t stop himself from thinking Murder my wife, murder my wife. The therapist was trying to treat him for it.
When Gerald pauses to see if she’s following him, she nods. “They had his wife on, and you might think she’d be upset to have her husband thinking about murdering her, but she wasn’t. Evidently her husband had become dysfunctional because he loved his wife, but all he could think about was murdering her. She wanted him to get over it. So the therapist handed the guy the knife he’d had in his desk drawer and told him to check to see that it was really sharp and then put it right up against his throat.”
“The therapist’s throat?” Hazel asks. Gerald nods and then continues. “The guy doesn’t want to, but the therapist persuades him by saying it will help him. It takes him a couple of weeks to work himself up to it, but then he does it. Holds the knife to the skin right over the therapist’s jugular, and it’s okay. The guy feels like he’s gotten somewhere. So the next step is he has to do the same thing with his wife. And it’s the wife who tells this part of the story. They’re in the kitchen, washing dishes.”
Gerald pauses again. Hazel wants him to keep telling the story, so she nods. Gerald clears his throat and goes on: “She’s washing dishes, he’s drying, so she hands him a knife. She knows about the therapy—she and her husband have been talking about it—so they both know the moment has arrived. She says, ‘Go ahead.’ He’s scared, and she’s scared, too. But he does it. Holds the blade against her throat. They stand there at the sink a long time. On the program they each tell what it felt like for them.”
When Gerald stops this time, Hazel knows he’s come to the end of what he has to tell her. “So he’s cured?” she asks. “The husband doesn’t think about murdering his wife anymore?” Gerald explains that it doesn’t happen instantly or even overnight but that yes, the husband is over it, and he becomes functional again. Hazel says, “So it’s kind of a fairy tale, isn’t it?” Gerald smiles and says he guesses it is. “A fairy tale with a therapist in it.” He nods. They sit quietly. Outside it’s turning to twilight.
Hazel tries to hold on to the comfortable mood they’ve settled into, but more and more she feels it slipping away. Gerald won’t speak first, he’s taken his turn, and now it’s up to her. “So you think. . . ?” The face he turns to her is raw with fear. She is pained to see it, feels a little sick. “I mean I guess we don’t have to,” she says. “I mean, it’s just a story you heard on the radio, right?” He doesn’t move or speak, but his face doesn’t change. He knows, and so does she. “Okay,” she says. And stands up.
It occurs to her that for both of them, this is their just punishment for living so long inside the cages of their lives. She feels clumsy holding the shotgun with both hands as she steps toward him. Gerald tilts his head to the right. So she moves to his left and asks, “Here?” He nods. She stands without moving. She’s just breathing. Which is probably all he’s doing, too. We don’t have to go any further than this is her thought. But when he glances up at her, she’s shocked by the terror in his face.
With tremendous effort she lifts the barrels of the shotgun so that they are pointed at his temple. No further! Her finger is on the first trigger. Surely that’s enough! Gerald makes a noise, maybe a word. She thinks hard about it, processes the sound she heard. Two syllables. Safety must have been what he said. All right, she finds the little latch with her thumb and moves it forward. It’s off. She knows she’s crying when she tastes salt on her lips. She knows he’s crying when she hears him sob.
Hazel wrenches her body sideways, screams, and flings the shotgun away from her as hard as she can. A millisecond later the thing hits the polished top of her dining room table and fires a blast that sounds like that whole half of the house has exploded. Gerald helps her up from where she’s fallen. In the stink and smoke they tiptoe past the weapon on the hallway floor into the dining room. Her grandmother’s sideboard has had its doors blasted away and its collection of silver salt and pepper cellars mutilated.
Investigating further, they find a hole in the sideboard’s back and another in the wall beyond. They’re half laughing and half crying the whole time. Hazel expects the police to arrive, but they don’t. Nor do the neighbors knock on her door. None and no one. Cloth napkins are stacked on the corner of the sideboard. She takes one to wipe her face and hands another to Gerald. She blows her nose. “Forgive me for this,” she tells him before she hugs him hard. Then she opens the door and lets him out.