You might think you’re just going to walk the dogs earlier than usual this morning, but you wind up on a mental incline. Before you’re at the end of your driveway, you see a car run through the stop sign at the end of the block and make a fast U-turn, and you imagine it would be important later that you noticed it was a black, two-door, late-model car with what looked like Maryland plates. You tell yourself that the driver realizes turning left leads to a dead end, and that he is merely lost. As you walk along your fence line to the road, you might notice that one of the pumpkins is gone from the string of pumpkin lights on your front railing, or that the weeds have grown again with all the rain and cool weather. Maybe you’ll wrap your hand around the gun hidden in the pocket of your flannel jacket and think how it might seem odd or dangerous, maybe scary, to someone who accidentally noticed you had it there. But who would you meet on the road at this ungodly hour? No one but you should be along here at dawn. How would they notice it, anyway?
You reach the corner stop sign and turn down the dead-end street along the forest. You wonder why some streets like this are labeled “no outlet” and others “dead end.” You find that disturbing. Who makes the choice? you wonder. The gloom of the early hour and the cloudy sky make you grateful to have the new, burnished object in your pocket. It feels comforting. Weighty.
You’ve only looked down for a moment to untangle the leashes and suddenly there is another car — it’s your neighbor Tom, who’s on his way driving to somewhere. You don’t think Tom’s going to a job, because you see him motoring past your house at odd times of day. He stops and rolls down his window to say, “Hey, there, Linda Lou. Walkin’ the dogs?” “Yes,” you say, “someone’s gotta do it.” “Where’s Charlie?” he asks. “Out of town,” you say. “Good meeting Tuesday,” he says, referring to the community gathering three days ago, that you arrived late to. “Yeah. Good. What did you think about the traffic stuff that was reported on?” you ask. He answers something you don’t listen to. Instead, you wonder what there is in the refrigerator for breakfast. You badly want him to stop talking because you must, simply must, have a cup of coffee soon.
You might think this is an ordinary morning, except for the LadySmith snub-nosed, hammerless .38 and except for being glad you have jacket pockets deep enough to conceal it from friendly neighbor Tom.
As he drives away with you waving goodbye, you notice the white van parked in your next-door neighbor’s driveway and think that the police have been looking for a white van with a ladder rack on top in the series of sniper shootings in the area. You think about the last 21 days of dread: the amount of time that some monstrous marksman has been at large. You notice there is a ladder rack on top of your neighbor’s white van. You move quickly past and then double back at the end of the road, since there’s no outlet. You feel compelled to hurry the dogs back to your house, maybe at a jog. In your pocket, the gun flaps at your side. On the other side of the buffer of forest along the road, you can hear the interminable drone of the highway.
You go inside and warm up old coffee on the stove and start to resent that the national news on TV has been incessantly interrupted by local news on the sniper shootings. That’s what woke you up so early in the first place: the news late last night that the police would have another announcement to make but they didn’t know when, so you went to sleep, anyway, thinking you’d get going really early, walk the dogs and then catch the news.
Waking up in the dark is against every fiber of your being — that could be the way you are. You might hate getting up in the pre-dawn darkness because it reminds you of a cold house on childhood Sunday mornings and being awakened from a sound sleep to go to six o’clock mass because your mother wanted to stay hidden, be protected by the dim church.
With the latest news report that they’ve been repeating now for over an hour, you realize the feeling in the air has finally changed. There is relief. Two men have been caught, identified as the snipers, taken into custody. The police have them — a man and his stepson — and a car has revealed its role as a human duck blind. It wasn’t even a white van after all, but, rather a dark Chevy. Tens of thousands of tips had been called in about white box vans, yours was one of them. There had been 13 shootings and ten murders, and there was fear in every ordinary citizen trying to make it through the routine of every ordinary day. You’d like to think that you weren’t one of the nameless citizens too frightened to take a chance at being a target. But you didn’t stop for the specialty brand dog food Wednesday night on the way home from work because the pet store is next to the kind of wide-open flatland of a shopping center like the ones where two people were killed. Shot dead from a distance, by an unknown person, likely a man, they said, whose mental turnings had sharpened his rationale for the randomness of his destruction. Now, finally, you can stop eating canned soup and tuna. You can go out to a grocery store — any grocery store — to buy food and to the gas station to fill the car. You hadn’t wanted to do that for the last three weeks because people had been getting shot dead while doing those common tasks — two while pumping gas, others while standing in parking lots, another while sitting on a bus bench reading a book.
What little good your gun would have done you, you now think, against a man hunkered down among the trees somewhere with a high-powered rifle aimed at your head. You felt safer, less defenseless with it in your pocket, however. You think your mother, were she alive to know about these killings, would be terrified for you. Actually, you think she would tell you that in spite of its freight and danger, a gun is a good idea. You can imagine her being comforted by knowing you had a gun. Can’t you?
And, maybe tonight, your sister-in-law will call to tell you a story that will make you want to carry the gun again tomorrow. “I was out walking Baron last night,” she will say. “And just as I was turning to go into the house, Baron barked, God bless him or I would’ve been killed — a man jumped out of the bushes and ran toward me. But just as Baron barked I ran with him to the house and got in just as the man got nearer. He had something in his hand. I think it was gun. Or a knife.”
You want to believe this and not believe this. She takes a lot of medication for depression and schizophrenia and weight loss and sleeplessness and a thyroid condition. You try to believe this really happened to her. But, then again, you don’t want to believe it because this is one more thing to worry about and you just got done worrying. But, then again, it’s one more reason that a gun in your pocket, when you’re walking alone, seems like a good idea. As safe as a prayer. If you prayed, that is.
It’s a little addictive, isn’t it? Carrying a gun.
Marylander PRISCILLA NEMETH is a poet, and fiction and nonfiction writer. She is the author of “Three Hundred Dollars,” a short story published in Amazing Graces, Paycock Press. Her poetry collection, “Until the Sparks Fly,” was a runner-up in the 2012 Dogfish Head poetry chapbook contest. She is also author of hundreds of nonfiction articles written as a reporter for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as an AP stringer and freelance writer.