My dad says if you knew what a bullet did to a body after it entered the skin, you’d never pick up another gun.
When the men around him snort or ask him how’s he planning to protect himself, he tells them the story of how Carol Ann Joy’s kid got shot right here in the neighborhood, practically in our backyard, while he was pushing a plastic school bus around in the front yard of his own house. Carol Ann was gone, just her niece home with the boys – Cody and his barely older brother - and the niece lost it so completely that no one could understand what she was saying or get her to stop screaming, even after the boy’d been taken away by an ambulance. When Carol Ann got home, the niece was still siting there on the porch steps, clutching that bloody school bus to her chest. Someone shoulda thought to take that thing away from her, my dad says, cleaned her up. But someone had to get in the ambulance with the boy, and he claimed to be the boy’s father so they’d let him be the one to do it. He never tells the other men what happened in the hospital, or after. Except that the boy died. And that his name was Cody. Cody Joy.
Nearly every weekend, on our way back from the dump or the bread factory, we pass the drive-in theater. Last week they were showing Alien and all my friends went, but I’m never allowed to go because they sell guns at the concession stand. That’s America for you, says my dad, a Smith & Wesson with your popcorn and supersize soda. Actually, he kind of yells it. Sometimes, he rolls down the window and gives the Starlite the bird. He says he’ll take me to a movie theater where firearms aren’t readily available to drunk rednecks, but I say no thanks, because no one goes to the Starlite to watch the movies, anyways. Also, I say, you’re a redneck.
I guess Cody Joy couldn’t’ve been more than three when he was shot. And I guess I must have been about ten. I remember him, too – dark-haired with wet eyes and grubby fingers. There’s a clearing between the houses – part pavement, part grass and dirt –and he’d been out there playing with us since he was just crawling. I remember him running into Carol Ann’s arms when she called him. I remember her watching him when she smoked on the porch, laughing when he did something silly like lay down belly first on the basketball his older ball was trying to steal away. I remember one day his mom sitting him in her lap and tickling him behind the ears and Cody giggling like crazy and trying to wrench himself out of her arms, his shirt riding up and showing the white crescent of his belly. But as soon as she let go, he’d climb right back up and say, again. And then they’d start it all over. Must’ve gone on for an hour. Don’t you get tired of it, I asked her. And all she said was she didn’t know if tired was the right word for it.
What my dad never tells people is that it was Carol Ann’s older boy Grayson who was holding the gun that killed his brother. It was an accident, sure. But an accident like that is more than twisted metal and shattered glass, it’s more than the fire and gasoline that burned the Starlite down, more even than the blackened frame of the screen or the skeleton of the lawnmower that caused the fire in the first place. A gunshot like the one that Grayson caused when he pulled the trigger is a whole different kind of accident altogether, an accident that burrows deep and ripples wide.
After Cody died, Carol Ann took off and left everything behind – the furniture and most of her clothes and the gun that shot Cody. She left Grayson too, and I remember the morning his father came to pick him up, a man Grayson had never even seen before, and I remember the way Grayson got in the truck without even looking back at the house behind him, drove off without even saying goodbye. I think he was just three years older than Cody.
I don’t blame anyone at the Starlite for selling those guns, ‘cause the gun that shot Cody could’ve come from anywhere – probably Walmart, my dad says, probably Carol Ann tossed it in her cart along with a box of Chablis and a bag of apples - and I don’t blame my dads’ friends for owning them, either. But I’m seventeen now and I know better than to blame Grayson for Cody dying, the way I did when I was a kid, way back then. I pass the Starlite, though, and I remember the way the cars would wait in line to get in, idling in the road and blocking traffic, and I wonder who Carol Ann is supposed to blame. I wonder who all of us are supposed to blame.