Gay Writer Justin Quarry struggles to understand the meaning of 9mm Browning High Power clone left to him by his proletarian hunter father. An interesting variant on the deracinated-member-of-the-urban-community-of-fashion-meets-firearm genre.
When my father died in the winter of 2000, back when I was newly 19, the single thing he left me was a nine-millimeter pistol. The day after his funeral, my grandfather simply told me my father wanted me to have it, handing it to me in its ragged original packaging â€” spare bullets, along with the pistol, spilling from the Styrofoam encasement as I opened the discolored box.
This inheritance both surprised and confused me. For one thing, though Iâ€™d spent my early childhood with rifles and shotguns racked against the walls of our home and the rear window of my fatherâ€™s Jeep, with countless taxidermied deer heads gazing down at me apathetically, Iâ€™d never known my father to own a handgun. For another, unlike all the other men in my family, Iâ€™d never spent a second in a tree stand, didnâ€™t even recall playing with toy guns; rather than pretending to shoot deer or Iraqi soldiers, for instance, one Christmas I requested and received a custom-made deer costume for my Cabbage Patch doll, Casey.
The pistol also puzzled me because I hadnâ€™t necessarily expected to inherit anything at all from my father. …
The pistol haunted me, even as it burrowed in my boyhood bedroom closet where I left it after my grandfather gave it to me, with my comic books and Magic: the Gathering cards, hundreds of miles away in the Mississippi Delta. It became an almost magical object to me because of its peculiarity in the context of my life, because of its singularity in what my father had bequeathed me. I struggled to decipher this talisman, the idea of it, as I simultaneously struggled to decipher myself.
The day after my fatherâ€™s funeral, my grandfather simply told me my father wanted me to have his gun, handing it to me in its ragged original packaging.
In college, apart from my family, I discovered I had little identity without them, so entangled had I been throughout my childhood in my parentsâ€™ battles and crises. Even more, I was the first person in my family to go to college and one of very few of us to leave the flatlands of Arkansas. Once I went to Vanderbilt I was an alien, or a more apparent one, whenever I came home. However, being one of very few first-generation college students on campus, I was even more an alien at Vanderbilt. It was only when I began writing that I discovered how to create meaning for myself. …
The great thing about having a dead parent, Iâ€™ve heard, is that when you come out of the closet, you have one less person to disappoint. For me coming out didnâ€™t just entail my sexuality but, moreover, my creativity as I declared myself a writer â€” the pressure all the higher as a first-generation college student, if only in my mind, to take a safer, more practical route However, as I sat so close to my father that day, with my hair dyed red and a Sarah McLachlan pendant on a choker around my neck, I imagined he might have seen â€” even before I did, even before I had an inkling I was an artist â€” that Iâ€™m gay.
Still, I wonder what story he might have imagined about me that would lead him to leave me the pistol.
I wonder, what else might he have seen about me that day, that at age 19 I wasnâ€™t able, that even now I may not be able, to see about myself?
A decade later, I returned to Nashville to teach at my alma mater, and though Iâ€™d had luck in publishing shorter work, in reinventing myself through writing, I continued to toil over a novel-length manuscript Iâ€™d been trying to wrangle for years. Then one May I retreated to rural Minnesota where I could write in solitude for entire days and, in theory, with such intense focus, make major headway in crafting my book. However, that month, as I more and more slowly plodded on the page, I looked out the windows of my studio to the cold, gray spring, and even more slowly plodded until I at last gave in to the confusion of that world I struggled to order. Until I at last crumpled under its weight.
I felt not only that I had failed at writing but also that writing had failed me. I saw how isolated I was â€” not just in Minnesota but also in my life. I lived alone and devoted almost every available hour to writing, often rejecting invitations for the possibility that I might write at the given time, or the risk that going out might leave me unable to write the next morning. …
Two weeks later after I returned from my writing retreat, I visited my mother, with whom Iâ€™d skipped Motherâ€™s Day to be in Minnesota. But I hadnâ€™t only gone to Arkansas to see her and to make up for the missed holiday. Iâ€™d also gone to retrieve my fatherâ€™s pistol. My pistol.
Before, every time I pondered finally taking the pistol into my possession, simply as a novelty, yet another mass shooting would occur somewhere in America, sparking yet another debate over the Second Amendment, making merely owning a gun feel like a political act, and in turn repelling me from it. But now Iâ€™d decided to use the gun as a means of taking myself as far outside my current experience, as far from my writing, as I could. Iâ€™d decided to get professionally trained on it. I wanted to try on the identity my father had perhaps imagined for me in his giving me the gun, and maybe even in his fathering me.
Roughly 60 years ago, the humorist Corey Ford used to publish a monthly feature in Field & Stream magazine called The Lower Forty, a chronicle of the adventures of a fictional informal club of small-town New England sportsmen formally titled â€œThe Lower Forty Hunting, Shooting and Inside Straight Club.â€ The clubâ€™s leader and role model was Judge Parker (a fictional version of a friend of Fordâ€™s named Parker Merrow).
Around 1960 or 1961, Parker Merrow received by telegram the news that his son, at the time serving as an Air Force officer in Japan, had fathered a baby boy. Judge Parker sat right down and wrote a â€œLetter to a Grandson,â€ which he shared with Corey Ford, who quoted it in full in one of the most moving and memorable of the Lower Forty stories.
“Letter to a Grandson” does a pretty good job of explaining to Justin Quarry what his Maytag-repairman father was trying to leave him.
TO MY GRANDSON:
This letter will be yours on your 16th birthday. If I am alive then, I will read it to you. If I have checked out before that date, please go off by yourself, alone, and read it aloud.
Three hours ago your father cabled me that you were in this world, that you and your mother were doing well, and that you will bear my father’s name.
So for three hours I have been celebrating your birth in an orderly and thorough manner. I have given your grandmother a couple of tranquilizer pills to calm her hysterics at the good news. I have notified all your father’s friends in town as he requested, so they can celebrate also. I have stopped at the bank and arranged a modest trust fund which should see you through college. I have had several drinks, and now I am writing a letter to you to open 16 years later.
I will waste neither your time nor mine in giving you advice. If by the time you are of age you do not know the meaning and practice of truth and loyalty and courage and honesty, and the deep satisfaction of doing hard work both physical and mental, then your great-grandfather did a hell of a poor job raising me, and I did a hell of a poor job raising your father.
I am leaving you a few things.
First I leave you your great-grandfather’s weapons. He taught me how to shoot a pistol with his .38 Colt Army. I have not fired it since the day he died. I will give it a real good cleaning, and put the neat’s-foot oil to the holster, and leave it with the same loads that he put in the cylinder himself the last time he dropped the hammer. Also you will receive his .30/30 carbine and his 12-gauge Greener. No buck ever went very far that caught one of my dad’s .30/30s behind the foreshoulder. No goose kept flying very long that he centered with a load of 4s..
Next I leave you my old Browning five-shot 12-bore. I have used that gun so much it has been reblued and rebuilt twice. Also my scope-sighted Model 70 Winchester .30/06. Also my house gun, a .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson snub nose. A man who is not ready and able to defend his home does not belong in our family.
Also I leave you my 81/2-foot, 4-ounce Leonard rod, which is as good as the day it was built, and they do not build them any more. I leave you my 9-foot, 61/2-ounce Orvis light salmon rod, which has killed some good fish in Canada and Alaska and Ireland. You may fish some of the same pools with it. I leave you my favorite 8-foot, 31/2-ounce fly rod which Walt Powell made for me, and which can lay a No. 12 Spentwing Coachman on the water slicker than a schoolmarm’s leg. All these rods and guns will be cleaned and cased and tagged with your name for presentation with this letter.
More important, I am leaving you some memories. I hope that through the years they will be your memories, as they have been mine, as they are now your father’s, as they were your great-grandfather’s once.
I leave you the cold gray dawn and the marshes and the wind and the slap of wavelets and whistle of wings and the recoil of your gun against your shoulder.
The creak of packstraps in the dark and the thud of moccasins on the steep trail and the deep breathing as you and your hunting partner pack out your deer.
The easy grating of your canoe over a gravel bar and the shaking out of your line in the last long dusk and the sudden staccato scream of your reel.
The flutter and thump of a turkey gobbler coming down from his roost in that first light when you can count the eyelets of your boots.
The taste of a cold mountain spring as you lie on your belly with your mouth spitting cotton.
The smells that men like to remember-pipe smoke and boot dubbing and Hoppe’s No. 9, and fly dope on a red bandanna handkerchief, and the smell of leather that is more like a taste, and the before-breakfast smell of coffee and bacon frying, and the smell of a cottonmouth, the smell of fear, and the fall smells of sweet-fern and rotting apples and burnt powder in the frosty air.
I leave you a windy spring night and the shrill of peepers like sleigh bells and the far-off baying of geese heading north in the empty sky.
Swimming stripped in a clear lake under an August moon and then standing on the shore with a cigarette while the night wind dries your body and the loons call.
An afternoon in October and a bird-dog puppy staunch on his first point with one foreleg drawn up and his brown eyes fixed and his whole skinny body shivering with the strange new excitement of grouse.
A winter evening with the sleet against the window and a log blazing and a highball and some friends you have hunted and fished with to share your memories with you.
All these and more I leave to you, my beloved grandson. Perhaps I will live long enough to be at your side when they become your memories too. But if I do not, I raise my glass to you across the years.