Personal Essays

Giving Up the Guns

When your life is opened in front of you, all your old attachments shucked off, the task of finding a new ending can be as simple as handing over a bag of guns.

Paola Ferrario, Hand #5, 2012. Courtesy the artist.

How I got rid of the handguns was easy: I brought them in a bag, along with a couple dozen rounds of ammunition, down to the local police station. Just like that, you can turn in guns, no questions asked. A young officer took them from me, then stood dry-firing the .22 over and over.

Click. “Where’d you get this?” he asked, click, admiring it. Click. “Because I’ve been looking for one of these.” Click. He didn’t ask about the 9 mm.

“Oh,” I said, “I inherited it a long time ago.”

“Why don’t you want these anymore?” he asked.

“I’m not comfortable with them around,” I said. “I’ve got kids in the house.”

I didn’t say, I’m looking for the end to a story.

But there it was, when I drove home to a house that no longer had any guns: the end to a story I’ve been writing on, chewing on, thinking about, for years, and which has gone unfinished for a big reason that stories go unfinished: I hadn’t been able to find (or figure out) the right ending.

Endings are a pox on my writing house. For one thing, structure is a challenge, but endings, in particular, plague me. You might as well know now I have no idea how I’m going to end this piece. I will probably talk about Joe, the friend who gave me those guns, and the mismatch between how he said he wanted to die (a bullet, self-inflicted) and how he did (in a hospital bed, after battling cancer). I may boldly offer an equivalence between life and authorship that will be embarrassingly trite—but at least it will be an ending. If there’s any piece of writing I’m going to finish, it’s this one. Or maybe I won’t end with Joe, or death. But I want you to know that I’m going to think on it. Which may explain how I know so much about unfinished projects.

In 1995, I spent a summer in Alpine, Texas, on hiatus from grad school, looking to write something that mattered. I lived in a motor court called Cozy Court, a bunch of stone cottages (“deluxe cabins,” an old postcard calls them) that housed mostly Section 8 tenants: a former snake handler from a circus; a car dealer from Las Vegas who’d been shot in the back and rode around in a motorized cart; a young heroin addict and prostitute; some others, including a colorful, retired cop from Milwaukee named Joe. He became one of the touchstone figures in my life, a genuine guy, generous, heart-felt, funny, someone who taught me how to be one type of man at a point where I needed to learn that. Who offered lessons in the sort of man not to be, which I should have figured out by now, if I knew how to end the story about the summer I met Joe, which would have allowed me distance, analysis, and thematic closure.

Come to think of it, Joe didn’t do endings well, either. He lived long enough to see a few things he predicted about the world come true, though none of these was the end of the world, not the total collapse of the financial system, for instance, or the eruption of massive social chaos, which he desperately desired. He gave me two guns, along with some cash, because he was dying and figured he didn’t need them anymore, and because he cared enough to want me protected at the end of times.

I wrote and published some things about Joe; the most recent story, published in the Texas Observer, won a Houston Press Club award in 2008. Sometime in the late 1990s, I lumped these pieces into a single computer file, arranged them chronologically, then set about expanding them with journal entries about my other adventures that summer. Over the years, I started breaking down the published pieces and making them fit into longer stretches of narrative, but there was no meaningful way to wrap it up.

Chekhov’s dictate says a gun in the first act must be fired in the last, and here I have a gun in the first sentence.

One of my current fears: I’m going to die before I finish that story about Joe.

Would a plumber or an embroiderer or a programmer have any sympathy for what I’m talking about here? Maybe this is a writer thing, having pages and pages of stuff written that has not yet cohered into a completed arc, which, when you finish it, would be a laurel on which you could rest. And yet it’s a project that ends up shaming you. Its very existence says, if you can choose things to stake your ego on, of all the things you could choose, why one so massively unfinished? It would be easier to live without having ever started the project; it’s the sort of project that sucks the fun from the beach, because every wave marks another unit of time you’re not spending working on it. Let’s say you wake this project from its slumber on your computer to peek at it, and you think, God, that’s really good, let me squeeze in here and tinker for a few minutes. In which time you actually thump some sentences and shake the lint out of some phrases, and think, I should have her say this here. Thirty minutes of thumping and shaking later, you’re clawing at your throat going, Get me the fuck out of here, this is killing me, because it’s threatening to smother you—the insufficiency of your tinkering, and not only here. Your whole writing life, you realize, has not only been a series of drive-by tinkerings, which produces completed work of some value, oh, rarely, but has ruined other parts of your life. But I won’t continue in this vein. Geoff Dyer, who clearly works hard and enjoys his life, too, mined it in Out of Sheer Rage.

Chekhov’s dictate says a gun in the first act must be fired in the last, and here I have a gun in the first sentence. Joe himself was sort of a vigilante, trying to keep Cozy Court clean of drug dealers; his character, even as I’ve written it already, lended itself to some imagined vigilante intervention gone awry in some spectacular way. But the piece means too much to me to turn into fiction.

Driving south to Marathon, Texas, from Fort Stockton, 1995. Credit: Michael Erard.

I went to Alpine as the sort of person who wants to see the jail where Nelson Algren, tough guy Chicago writer, was held, and left as someone who was writing as if the ice had been chopped from the place where the writing comes from. Some attachments I could sacrifice, I realized, but the really heavy lifting involved in, say, turning a first-person into a third-person narrative is one of the things that sends me screaming from the cursor’s sinister wink. No one said I could write only one piece from the experience; it could seed all sorts of work. Still, for the moment, I had committed to non-fiction, and there were other candidate endings. The weakest option—which I actually wrote out—was a description of an atmospheric hike by myself in the desert, newly anointed as prepared with Joe’s gifts. But it was boring, the pacing was wrong, I discarded it.

A third option, this one also drawn from reality, came from after Joe’s funeral in Midland, Texas, in 2001. His daughter was taking some of Joe’s Alpine friends out to lunch, and I was telling her how I knew Joe and how much he’d meant to me, how he liked to talk about experiences, especially his work as a cop.

When it’s time for revisions, I’ll still be laughing, laughing, laughing, at my aggrandizements. You can do that, you know, with your whole life opened in front of you.

“A cop?” she said. “He wasn’t a cop.”

“He wasn’t?”

“He was a security guard at the state fair,” she said, fairly scoffing. “He was never a cop.”

The resulting fracas was too much for a tale that already bordered on the unbelievable. Dishonoring Joe wasn’t the problem. I’d already written about his clownishness, his paranoia, his political ideas, his safety deposit box full of Japanese yen, the .22 pistol he carried in a hollowed-out Bible on the dashboard of his car. But I didn’t want to overburden the reader, who would have already seen the desperateness to his character, and yet also recognized the truth of some things he said and did. Better to let him stay complicated than to simplify him with a single stroke.

Three options, all rejectable, so I’ve been rejecting them. Over time, I rarely thought about my Alpine story; I worked on other things. Drove by them, rather, and tried to tinker them to life.

Here’s the point to this story about the end of the story. As I said, I gave away the guns, which amounted to a sort of symbolic return to Alpine (a negation of the negation, Robert McKee fans might call it), and just like that, the Alpine story was over. Doing this made the most usable threads in what I’d already written visible. It didn’t take long to put the threads in their proper order, and the swiftness of this work confirmed, yes, I’m working with the correct material.

This piece is cooling off right now—I’m afraid to look at it, I finished it so quickly. I know this much about it: it’s barely 26,000 words long, which shocks me. That’s not long at all. That’s 57 pages of double-spaced, 12 point text—only 57 pages. This was the coiled thing that tortured me at the beach? This was the heavy foot on the brake of my life? It prints out in less than a minute.  

When it’s time for revisions, I’ll still be laughing, laughing, laughing, at my aggrandizements. You can do that, you know, with your whole life opened in front of you, your previous attachments shucked off like so much old skin, which is what happens when you’ve written something that could not end any other way (contra Chekhov) than with a pistol’s dry click.

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Erard lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son. His book about the science of polyglots, Babel No More, is now out in stores. More by Michael Erard