10 Ways to Pull a Trigger
With your lips. Promises or lies or vows. Sometimes the way you think your life will go includes a kiss. Or kisses every night. And then the kisses leave. The way she left him and he kept a real gun in his closet in place of her suits and dresses arranged by color. Now I know it was actually two guns. How often did he clean them? How often did the shine of the triggers catch his eye? And how often had they dulled with dust or gun powder?
The word “bullet” starts with the full body of bull and ends in the tangible closure of it. The full stop of the tongue is the implication of an end. The way it stands in for the way a body falls to the ground. The muscular gestures that accompany speech often mimic meaning in this way. Phonaesthestic ones. Sound is a form of energy, first potential, then kinetic. Fear is the same. It builds just beneath the surface in a holding pattern, waiting for a trigger. Like lips held tight against tension finally exhaled.
Sound begins as vibration against matter, changes in pressure are then translated by the ears into a language the brain understands. Even atoms make sound as they shift against other atoms in the atmosphere.
A shot breaks from silence and ends in silence. In the intermediate moment, depending on the type of gun, shooter, and bullet, there is the release of air, the crack of explosion, the force of impact, and the resulting calm or chaos. Every conversation begins in silence, but the way it ends –
Triggers can be found everywhere. Guns can be disguised as everyday items. Lipstick, cigarettes, pens. Guns in the form of a walking cane. Guns that weigh less than a loaf of bread. Less than a glass of wine. Less than a book. Less than a drowsy child’s hand in your own.
Guns are everywhere: tucked in the sock of a man on the bus; in a box of weed in my friend’s closet; in the glove compartment of my dad’s truck; on my brother’s kitchen counter; on the hip of a policeman in line at Starbucks; in the pocketed hand of a boy in Seattle.
And always, in waistbands. I can imagine the comfort in that weight. The metal absorbing my heat, a reminder of the security I possess. There is safety in warmth. The way a baby sleeps heavy on your chest or a cat curls against your leg while you read. We seek to absorb any weight and warmth from the world we can. A small respite from the coldness of being singular.
More triggers. A research lab in Minnesota mutes 99.99% of all sound. It is the quietest place on earth, but it is not peaceful. In such silence, the human brain snaps, the ear begs to hear, subjects in the room begin to hallucinate. In the silent room, you begin to hear your own heartbeat, louder than through a stethoscope.
Pause. Stand with a finger on the trigger, target straight ahead, between heartbeats and breaths: pull. The important part is thought. I could pull the trigger. Or you could. All of us can pull a trigger. It’s as simple as pulling back, releasing. Potential energy is the same for everyone. Babies close and open their fists while they sleep or feed. The impulse to pull a trigger is as simple as a baby’s instinct to open and close her fist.
Flannery O’Connor was a woman of great suffering and intellect. She lived a sheltered life and still, she found her way into the world of the despicable and violent, to the place where the barrel lives against the temple of a person and the trigger was beneath her finger. If only in language.
Fear is anticipatory. We lie in wait. Fear lies in wait. In wait to pierce, with pain. Sometimes the pain is hidden beneath warmth. People who have been shot and survived report that at first they felt immense warmth. There is a moment, or moments, between warmth and perceived pain. And then the fear that accompanies and amplifies pain. Children are often fine with a fall. Until they see the blood and fear rushes in.
He must have paused. He must have. I don’t remember seeing him pause. Maybe he paused at home while he loaded his gun, guns, and tried to figure out what route to take to her. She was screaming and then saying “no” over and over, to me it sounded like a chant, and then there was quiet. Nononononono. Then quiet. And then the sound of shots. Which sounded like firecrackers. It is strange to link firecrackers, the things my brothers and I used to light in the backyard, with two bodies on the ground and a gun right there. I rushed from the window, out the front door, down three flights of stairs, barefoot, not thinking. I echoed her Nonononono, to nobody. There was nobody there, just the bodies and the gun. The gun was the same color as the asphalt. One thing can come to seem like another so quickly.
A baby can hear at 18 weeks in utero. A mere five and a half inches long and seven ounces and they can hear the thrum of life, the ebb and flow of their mother’s day, the whirl of their fluid home. We witness the world first by sound.
My friend keeps a bullet casing on her key chain, it is gold and from her husband’s time in Iraq. Her baby plays with the keys, as all babies play with keys. The keys jingle in a familiar way in her small hands. The heavy casing of the bullet clanks hard against the tinny keys. It’s right there amongst the house key and car key, right there at the edge of her drooly mouth, and then scraping against her two new teeth.
This scraping works its way in. The tinny sound follows the hall of my ear to the tympanic membrane, the eardrum. As it crosses from outside to in, the sound energy sets the tiny bones of middle ear to vibration – it shakes parts of me. Sound moves so quickly from source to brain and there is little we can do except attach it to meaning.
Let’s say it starts with an internal conflict or even no conflict at all, just thoughts that won’t still. Words and sounds and images overloading.
Blood does not pool and settle in the rain. It runs and runs and runs.
After Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit killed a woman, he said: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
But she was a good woman. This woman on the asphalt next to the gun was a lawyer who represented low-income women in domestic violence cases. And she had someone there to shoot her. Her husband. The gun did not make her good, fear did not make her good. In those moments she might have been willing to go back to him if he would just not pull the trigger, if he would just tuck that gun into his waistband and take her hand.
Crime scene cleaning people come to scrub the parking lot. The area is brighter than the rest of the lot. I never park there again. I walk out, barefoot, with the cops and return only to pack up to move with my husband. Because facing fear does not make one “good.”
Remember, your parents house, years after you’d moved out: the gun on the nightstand was silver and looked cold. I couldn't bring myself to touch it, but I looked it up. It was a, is a .357 Magnum. Stainless steel, not silver. Made by Smith &Wesson, of course. This is not one of the guns I’ve mentioned before, but if you assumed it was, that’s fine, it’s all the same. It doesn't change the way a trigger looks or becomes locked in the mind before I sleep in the room directly above this exposed, silver gun.
Memory is slippery. Once I thought the gun was black, but now it is certainly silver. And it has to be silver because that implies coldness and a sense of the gun’s importance in a way that black plastic or paint cannot.
To help myself sleep in that room above the gun, or guns, I imagine spray-painting it pink. The fuchsia pink of the skirts of my youth. I sleep above that flashy pink gun that I’ve made into a dream object. I can attach fear to the black or silver gun until I remember it is pink, then I laugh and fear dissipates.
I’m obsessed with the way sound slides through the air and latches on to a memory. In a sense, pulls the wrong trigger. A gunshot sounds like firecrackers, a car backfiring sounds like a gunshot. In my memory, a woman sobbing sounds just like the echo of her body hitting the asphalt moments later. It doesn’t make sense, but her cry is a thud that won’t stop.
It doesn’t matter if you hide your eyes, firecrackers can cause the bodies to fall. Sound wants to attach to meaning. It doesn’t matter if you only hear the sound of rain on asphalt and your own hard breathing. And by “you”, I almost always mean me.
If both gun and shooter are at rest, the force on the bullet is equal to the force on the shooter. The bullet’s energy decays throughout its journey. But sometimes the journey is so short it doesn’t matter, it’s as if it’s just inches between bodies. A bullet can bridge the gap. Before the trigger is pulled, everyone is alive. When the bullet is bridging, the person being shot is alive, but also, dead. Since the energy of the bullet declines and there is hope – in the moments between pulled trigger and bullet lodged, anything can happen.
It was just inches. He must have thought it was miles, but 9 shots later she was crumpled on the ground. He must have felt the proximity then. To further himself from her, one shot to his own head. The last thing in his head, the sound of a bullet. Was it the sound of the trigger before the bullet? Or the release of the bullet from the barrel? Or the impact against skin or bone or fat or brain? Or the fragmentation of bullet as it expands in the mind that he heard. Perhaps he heard his own heartbeat fade or his pulse tremble. Maybe he heard atoms rushing away from him, smashing into each other.
At the farm across the road, someone shoots a rifle. I know its sound because I heard it first at my grandfather’s house and now my father’s and brother’s houses. That echo has sent me reeling into a dark world of thought where every bullet is lodged in me.
When I was 10 we camped alongside my grandfather’s pond, coyotes howling on the hill, and my grandfather sitting on his porch waiting with his rifle for the raccoon who’d been breaking into the house. As he saw it and began to shoot, he realized he was shooting toward his truck and quickly yanked the gun away toward the pond, toward us, his camping grandchildren. He screamed and swore and I stopped sleeping through the night.
Neurons fire. My personal triggers aren’t that important here, the things that set me off: Being shushed. Fork tines against teeth. The deep sigh that accompanies disappointment. Our smoke detectors when I burn toast. Trucks driving over loose manholes. And now, firecrackers and guns.
Firearm does not sound right. That is not a gun. I cannot reconcile fire and arms into a word that means an end to something. Both fire and arm are warm, encircling words.
All along I thought the sound of the shot was where fear resided for me. But fear was in what follows the bullet.
We don’t flinch at what has happened, but what comes next.
Triggers are everywhere. In a man married to a woman who defends those broken by people they love. In a town where there hasn’t been a murder for 5 years. In a man leaning against the apartment complex dumpster as I pass him on my way home from running through hills where I only hear my feet against brush and my own hard breathing. In watching a man shoot his wife 9 times, himself once.
Think of all the ways you can cause pain. Now that I’ve put the gun on a shelf in my mind, it is always there. I can pick it up, hold its weight in my hand. Pull just a little on the trigger. I can spin it on the table in front of me. I can take it out whenever I please. And sometimes it just drops into my hands.
A sound. This is the easiest way to cause pain. One word is enough most of the time; words that name specific violence: smack, push, yell, rape, murder. Or the noise of something that holds fear for another person: a scraping in middle-of-the-night dark, breaking glass, a child’s scream. I could pull a trigger without even knowing it. There is fear even in that thought.
I could do the same, I could pull the trigger. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov knew this as he contemplated murder: Man has it all in his hands, and it all slips through his fingers from sheer cowardice … That is an axiom…I wonder, what are people most afraid of? A new step, their own new word….
The man who held the gun was afraid. He was afraid of a new step – living without her. He was afraid of his new word – alone. Perhaps he was afraid that someone could live without him. Fear was not the woman’s alone. It belonged to the man as well. That is the most terrifying thought. He shot her not just out of anger or sadness, but out of fear. How can one word encompass both the shooter and the to-be-shot in that moment?
Dead silence doesn’t make sense to me. Is silence dead? Or is the silence like death? But death is not silent. Nothing really is. Not even the lab in Minnesota. It’s silent until you are in there, then you hear things deeper than you’ve ever heard – your own heart, your nerves snapping, the hairs on your arms as they rise.
Just as we begin our life hearing, we end it the same way. Scientists say hearing is the last sense to go. Perhaps we’ve made this up to calm our fear of death. Maybe we believe that hearing is that last sense to go so that we believe the person we are talking to hears us right up to the moment they die. Or maybe it’s true, maybe sound ushers us out. Maybe the last sound we hear is the last beat of our heart and the final, uneven exhale.
Mozart’s final words: I already have the taste of death on my tongue. That taste turns to sound and lands in an ear, like a fly on a sill.
Now that the gun’s here and the trigger is here – it is so easy to pull. Easier than a fly landing on a sill. The trigger between us is as thin as a fly’s wing. Either of us could pull it, setting fear in motion. Even our finger against the metal trips fear. To pull it would set loneliness in motion, one of us here and one of us gone.