Presented by Jen Michalski, for PANK. For a description of this guest series, click here.
“On Selling the Past”
I’ve only stared down a rifle once. A Chinese model SKS, equipped with a fold out bayonet. Not that it mattered with the originally Soviet-designed weapon, but it looked clean enough. No doubt, when the trigger was pulled, the cycle of operations of firing would perform as intended, and my life would end.
Time stopped as I glanced into the black hole of the barrel: that warped darkness no one knows until they come upon it; the shadow area that’s unexplainable in the physical world; the place of the moment of no return.
I knew because I had armed it, the chamber of the assault rifle was locked and loaded, ready to go. Just one bullet. One shot, one kill. I tried to stare at the tip of the 7.62 mm bullet encased in the brass shell, but I couldn’t see down into the barrel that far. Still clutching the hand guards, I raised the weapon to point it directly at my skull. I wondered if I could use this killing instrument to blow out the images of the pain I didn’t want anymore. When I pulled the trigger with my toe, would they splatter behind me like scenes from a projector screen?
Would the vindictive scowl of the woman who shredded my heart smile onto the white wall of my apartment bedroom? Would the images of flag-draped coffins and the ghosts of my murdered friends salute the red and white stripes? Would the EMTs be able to watch the blackout memories of a year of self-destruction arrange themselves as rows of liquor bottles like Arlington headstones glistening against a scarlet sunset?
Or would my memories stick like putty, pasted in place only as globs of spongy brain matter with cascading blood leaking down to the carpet?
Would anyone care either way? No one, I guessed, would want to see the inside of my head.
But I pressed the cold metal against my forehead anyway.
A bunch of my friends and I all joined the Marine Corps after high school. Many of them have since become cops. Apparently it’s the only civilian job that equates to the experiences of military service. I’ve asked them and several other law enforcement officers in Maryland about the proper way to travel with a rifle, and none of them have seemed to know exactly what the law forbids. So I slammed my rifle – wrapped inside a fifty-five-gallon trash bag – into the large trunk of my overused and under-repaired Lincoln as I prepared to go.
It was a bright sunny day in July when I entered my vehicle and followed my GPS to Bel Air Gun Supply and Pawn off of Route 1 in northeastern Maryland. Before closing the trunk and leaving, I had walked the gun out in the oppressive daylight, in full view of a cul-de-sac of judgmental luxury townhomes (I was living cheaply in a friend’s basement). I was headed out to sell off the memento of my almost self-murder.
I could not afford to raise my fuel costs by using the AC, so I lowered all the windows as I sped along towards the shop. An unceasing whistle of wind that was being funneled into the trunk, screeched like a boiling teapot. I turned loud music even louder and nervously rolled my fingers along the steering wheel. Sweat pooled under my armpits and lower back. The digital thermometer on my dashboard read 108 degrees. No, that couldn’t be right.
I had gambled big this summer. With the semester over and the rest of my writing program living it up at a conference in Florence – a trip, despite its connections to my Italian heritage, I might never be able to afford – I had to find work. No school meant no student loans or G.I. Bill living stipends showing up in my mailbox as fat monthly checks. I had betted that I could make a living as an artist, prostituting my struggles, making art of the trauma of life after war, for a nonprofit website called Not Alone.
Yes, they said, we have been wanting to work with you more! What ideas do you have? Upon my suggestions, I made them a documentary and created a magazine for returning veteran college students. But the freelancing money wasn’t really enough. And it didn’t show up in time for my bills.
I had already sold my elliptical machine to pay for rent this month. And now the utilities were due.
So I drove ahead on my mission: on selling the past.
It was a random online photo of my ex, Lauren (a comment she left on a friend’s Myspace page that showed her new look), that had brought me to this moment. Damn her beauty. Firey red hair like the sun dipping into a sea. The face of a polish princess: digitally-enhanced in its beauty, a stunning attractiveness both devastating and unobtainable. Her image already haunted me everywhere I went, so I tried to banish her from my mind and not look at old photos. But this picture on my PC stood out like a muzzle flash in the dead of night. It called to me as the siren of my suicide. Damn my failures. Fuck my deficiencies. I locked the door as my roommate drank alone and numbed her mind with late-night cartoons in the living room, the TV screen flashing against her darkened form.
I had met Lauren at Chili’s in between my deployments to Iraq. Ours was an age-old restaurant tale: the hot young hostess and the edgy waiter.
Our romance sparked quickly. I would take her home from work sometimes and park my car along quiet forest-side roads. We’d hop in the backseat and grab and grope each other. She liked to bite my shoulders and claw my back. Against my sexual motions, she’d arch her back like some glorious roman monument, our wild breathing syncopating the passion. Concealed by a smokescreen of condensation, she’d curl into me when we’d finish. I would stare at her and she would stare at me and we would say nothing. With her head in my chest, rising with my pulse, my arms around her, I felt as blessed as the richest king.
When I went back to Iraq a few months after meeting her, she wrote me daily and drew me pictures. She scribbled hearts under her name and marked the envelopes with lipstick. I loved her then and she loved me. But when I returned home I became an ugly person – filled with rage and sorrow, prone to excessive self-medication. I had morphed into a manic man I couldn’t control. I scared her away, and she hated me for it still.
Lauren used to dye her hair red for me because I called her my cinnamon girl. Now, I believed, she had only changed her hair back to that color to spite me. She did it to show me how happy and confident she was. To brag about her beauty. To make me feel hideous. To cause me to feel chest-aching guilt and regret. To impress upon me the notion of self-murder.
Just quit, you pathetic motherfucker. You’re worthless.
If just a photo of her could ruin me, how could I ever hope to live for any future? I’d have more moments like this one: a content and daily self-destruction punctuated by moments of thundering despair. She’d appear again somehow. She always did. Usually in my dreams.
If I didn’t pull the trigger, I knew I would have to later.
Do it, you piece of shit. Do it.
I parked in front of the small shop on a narrow strip along the main road. Construction leftovers decorated the open area adjacent to the store: pallets of cinder blocks, wood scraps, and piles of thin gravel. I popped open the trunk and grabbed my rifle. The procedures for going inside were somewhat complicated: stand in front of the caged door and hold the buzzer – wait – then pull the door hard.
Upon entering, I observed the store’s selection out of curiosity. Because of the Corps, I’ll always have an affinity and fondness for things that can kill. Minus a small table of random football memorabilia – a signed helmet by Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis, and other football gear – it seemed like a typical gun store: deer heads and other taxidermied animals on the wood support beams; cardboard boxes overflowing with holsters and ammo belts; rows of rifles along the walls behind a long display case of hundreds of pistols. Dozens of bumper stickers stuck on a large gray cabinet. One was emblazoned with the Eagle Globe and Anchor of the United States Marines. In bold, black letters it declared: “To err is human. To forgive is divine. Neither is Marine Corps policy.”
“Can I help you?” asked a short blonde woman in her mid-forties behind the counter. She wore light jeans and a tight blue t-shirt, a pistol attached to a cartridge belt looped around her waist. She looked like the kind of girl who could out-drink you and, while still wasted, shoot a gnat’s ass from two hundred meters away.
I placed the trash bag on the counter. “Yes, please. I want to sell my rifle,” I replied, pulling it out of the plastic. “A Chinese SKS.”
“You don’t see many of those models; where’d you get it?”
I just wanted to get rid of the fucking thing. “Another store in Parkville. Long ago.”
“How much you want for it?”
“One hundred,” I replied quickly, as I had thought about that number for the entire trip.
“Give me a sec, hon,” she said, grabbing the rifle to inspect it. “I think we can do that.”
I waited for a long time. She broke down the rifle partially and shone a light through the barrel. And she traced a finger along the inside of the chamber.
“I haven’t taken care of it, but I know those things really don’t need to be clean,” I said anxiously as she methodically checked the weapon. Marine Corps lore is filled with stories of this same kind of rifle working without jamming in Vietnam after lying in the mud or being buried for years. We were taught to respect the enemy’s weapons.
“Eighty bucks,” she said suddenly.
I had hoped to have enough for a week or two of Taco Bell bargains. But, my share of the utilities was seventy-five dollars. “Done,” I replied, happy to get anything. I detached the tan-colored sling, which was the same one I used for my M16 rifle in Iraq.
“I got too many of these damn things,” she said about the type of rifle, “but I like the bayonet,” she finished. Unlike the easily found Yugoslavia models of SKS, the Chinese SKS was unique because of its triangle-shaped blade that causes a wound that is meant to be infectious and hard to patch up.
I wondered how many rifles she purchased that had been used in death, or were once primed for the moment of the kill.
I was at the bottom again, this time financially. But thankfully I could now sustain myself for one more month. I had at least one more month to try to reach my dreams.
I didn’t shoot because I had seen at my friend’s funeral a year earlier what a war death can do to a mom. I stared into her vacant eyes that were devoid of feeling and tried to express an appropriate sympathy for the passing of her son. But there was no comfort for her. And there was no comfort for me.
I thought about how my mother would look at my funeral. In the black hole of the end of my rifle’s barrel, all I could see was her face, wearing a darker torment I reasoned, than my broken heart and poor mental health. They say nothing is worse than burying your kids.
I didn’t shoot but that didn’t mean that I was well. I decided I still wanted to die, but I would let the war do it for me. Several months later, I was stricken with mono and strongly encouraged not to deploy a third time. I thought it was God making things clear for me.
Not uh, buddy. I still have work for you.
Though I would sell it too in pursuit of my dream if it had any value, I still keep the bullet. It’s stashed in a jar of objects that make up the story of my life. Inside it is a keepsake from every job I’ve ever worked, a note a girl gave me in high school, a volunteer wristband from every folk festival I’ve ever attended, a map of the Appalachian Trail, my old dog tags still wrapped in tape so they didn’t clink together while on patrol, other secret things. I want to show this jar to the woman I will marry one day.
I will want to show her how important my life is when measured against the bullet.
Dario DiBattista’s work has been featured in The Washingtonian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Connecticut Review, and many other places. Additionally, he’s been profiled in The New York Times and other places, and has been a commentator on National Public Radio. His editing projects include 20 Something Magazine, O-Dark-Thirty, and jmww. He’s seeking publication of his books Go Now, You Are Forgiven: A Memoir of Love, War, and Coming Home and The Contagion: A Novel.