My Father’s Guns (part 3)

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye

My Father’s Guns


Stewart’s Gun Shop in Bloomington is on South Walnut, a side street perpendicular to central downtown.  I’d been there several times before my trip back, but I had never thought of it as a gun store, never noticed—or at least remembered—the middle word of the shop’s name.  For us it was simply “Stewart’s,” the eclectic store where Dad bought African art, masks and statues, not guns.

My father was an inveterate collector.  He passed through phases, objects marking a series of years, as did relationships.  The collections sometimes came wedded to a woman, other times independent from her.  Dad studied up, honed an expertise on contemporary art, on Oriental rugs, on jade, on Chinese porcelain, before I was born.  Crystal was briefly in favor during my childhood, followed by Italian leather masks and Spanish ceramics.  Looking back, I see this must have been a domestic phase—children dominant, and only one or two serious women.  African art, carved masks and wood statues, filled the longest period in my memory—most of my teen years, until close to the end.

But I wanted to find out about the guns: were the “antique” revolvers from 1979 long gone? had they been sold? or was one of them the revolver he had used on July 4th?  Were these the same guns he might have purchased decades earlier, in 1959?  There should have been both a shotgun and a rifle from the years at the farm in the early seventies; we had found only the rifle.  Stewart’s bought and sold guns, an old friend had reminded me the day before.  I then recalled the rifles and shotguns lined against a wall, almost blending into invisibility.

I nervously parked my rental car on South Walnut, the street eerily familiar from another life.  I had been there perhaps six years before with my father, the hugeness of his presence—his deep voice, his confident tread, the lines of his face, both thoughtful and fierce, playful and serious—leaving a vast absence in his stead as I approached the door alone.  The front of the shop was filled with oddities and remnants crowded together: piles of old record albums, Native American rugs, knick-knacks, pipes in a display case, a life-size wooden statue of an Indian in full head-dress.  An unobtrusive doorway behind the counter offered access to a much larger back room.  This hidden storage area, including an open second floor, overflowed with African art, my father’s new passion during my high school and college years: this was the reason we came to Stewart’s, to haggle over prices for items in the back, my father coveting more than he could realistically fit into his gradually bloating house, and spending more than he could easily afford.  But he was meticulous about keeping accounts, making sure he stayed above water.

Bob Stewart and his wife, Joanne, were friendly, their faces well-worn, open and reassuring.  They had no problem remembering my father, and they even recalled his visits with Adriane and me.  But Stewart didn’t recollect any transaction with Lawrence that involved a gun.  He thought for a minute and then called over his wife, who handles most of the gun sales.  I glanced down and saw that the glass counter between us held an array of previously invisible pistols, revolvers, handguns.

Joanne thought they might have bought a gun from my father, or perhaps sold one to him, but, like her husband, she remembered nothing concrete.  She offered to go through her ledgers, saying then we’d know for sure.

“The more I look, the more I think I have seen his name in this book,” Joanne tells me when we speak on the phone a couple of days later.  The rhyme is not lost to me as I jot down what she says, though my limbs and brain feel tingly from numbness colliding with adrenaline.  She calls me “babe” and “honey” and I feel better, strangely comforted by her southern Indiana accent and motherly tone, though she is looking for concrete evidence of exchange of a weapon that I loathe, that fills me with incongruous emotions of sadness, rage, bleak and gory terror, and some primordial, intense need for knowledge.

She isn’t done going through the ledgers yet, she tells me, but she’s beginning to feel like she has some recollection of a “snub nose”—of selling one to him.  I don’t know what she means and she explains that a “snub nose” is a .38 revolver, and that it takes a cylinder not a clip.  “.38” and “cylinder” are words that have been incorporated into my post-suicide vocabulary, and I understand that, if she is right, this could have been the gun.

I waited more than a year to follow up with Stewart’s again.  I can’t really say why, except that I procrastinated, and then I procrastinated some more, and then it began to feel like calling the moon: something so distant, so impossible that I couldn’t activate the simple motions of pulling out their card from my date book and dialing the number.  Because then I would have to explain again about my strange—even morbid—need to know when and how the guns moved around, whether one or two had been sold, later replaced, whether there were always guns in my father’s study or his bedroom, lurking behind cupboards and closed doors.  But New York and Bloomington are not as distant as they had come to feel, just a phone call away, though my life in the present—living alone in my East Village studio, friends scattered throughout the city—felt light years away from a world where people keep guns in the closets or dressers of their homes.  I know this dichotomy is false, yet I don’t feel like a woman with a father—a professor, a collector of art—who bought guns.

“It seemed to me like once I bought something from him,” Joanne says when I finally renew contact late in the summer of 1999.  But she still can’t find concrete evidence of a purchase in her ledgers or among her piles of receipts, nothing more solid than inchoate memories without tangible evidence or proof.  “Indiana hasn’t had registration for a good long while,” she tells me, so state records would be of no help.

When her search continues to come up empty, she suggests getting in touch with the BATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.  “They’re not there to harm people,” she assures me, “they’re sure not.”

The BATF won’t have anything current from Indiana, Joanne explains, but if anyone were still to have a record of a purchase as far back as 1959, it would be them.  And so I proceed, by phone, through a number of offices, bouncing around the country, contacting Atlanta, D.C., Texas, and then the ATF National Tracing Center.  The state of Texas has no records that far back; Atlanta will send me a form for “Request for Information Concerning a Firearm”; and then the National Tracing Center offers to look into the unlikely possibility that records exist for a gun purchased in Texas forty years ago, a purchase that may not even have taken place.

Eudora at the National Tracing Center says they do not maintain records for Indiana, except sometimes, by Federal law, if the store has gone out of business.  They do not keep any comprehensive listing by name of purchasers; but she can have someone check to see if there are listings for any “Chuck’s Gun Shop” in Austin, in which case I can fill out the “Information” form and return it with $37.50 for a full record.

Who is this young woman—me?—requesting gun records from the BATF?  I am mutating, my urges growing unrecognizable.  My maternal ancestors are Mennonites, pacifists who would not fight in wars, their values in conflict with the object of my growing obsession, the same obsession with which I risk betraying my father.  And yet, he wished for greater inquisitiveness in me, a honing of insight and inquiry.  I have grown more attentive to him in death than in life.

There were in fact three stores in Austin named “Chuck’s Gun Shop,” though not one is listed with current directory information.  One has no records on file, and the other two do not have records going back as far as 1959.  The BATF, a bevy of normal people speaking to me on the phone, has been very helpful.  But they cannot help me at all.

There may have been a gun in 1959; there were two revolvers in 1979; there was one revolver fifteen years later.  The numbers do not add up, they do not subtract, they become an equation with indefinite variables, only one solid numerical certainty: one revolver, existing outside of time—transgressing—of undefined origin, of uncertain paternity.

I have never seen this gun my father placed against his right temple.  The police took it as evidence, and Adriane and I declined to have it returned.  I have seen very few guns.  I have never touched a gun.  But now I watch them, wanting to turn away, but often unable, riveted by these instruments: so decimating, yet so compact.  I study them, watching surreptitiously as though they, or someone else, might notice: as though my father’s gun could brand me as a gun-lover, or a gun-hater.  I don’t trust them, the guns, they are more powerful than I understand; and they make people more malevolent than I otherwise want to believe.

My father’s finger on the trigger, the barrel pressed against the side of his head, and then the revolver’s cylinder rotates, so quickly it defies human movement.  The bullet, no wider than my fingernail, enters human flesh, tears through his brain, and exits, creating a wound three times the size of the bullet, spilling blood.  Ending a life.

~  Part 4 coming soon.  ~

~  Click for Part 1 or Part 2 or Part 4.  ~

~ If you are new to the site, check out “Remembering—who we are” and “Hollywood and the army base, and bipolar realities” for other perspectives on some of the same material….  ~

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye

*Several names (of people not related to my father by blood or marriage) and some physical details have been changed.

About Kara Krauze Kara Krauze is a writer, consultant, and educator. Kara has worked in publishing, financial services, the mental health field, and community organizing. Her essays have been published in Quarterly West, Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Highbrow Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. from Vassar College in International Studies and a M.A. in Literary Cultures from New York University. She has participated in workshops in New York City, Prague, and France, studied in Moscow and lived in London. Her writing, including a memoir and novels, engages with the subjects of war, loss, and memory. She grew up in Ohio and currently lives in New York City. Kara founded Voices From War, offering writing workshops for veterans, in 2013.
This entry was posted in EXIT WOUND: Suicide is Not a Love Story, Memoir, Memory, Suicide and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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