This week, I’m serializing the beginning of my completed, unpublished memoir, Raised by a Dead Man: A Coming-of-Age Story Between Two Shootings. Links to previous chapters can be found at the bottom of this blog.
Previously: My father was shot in an armed robbery and left for dead. He called 911 for himself. Convinced he was going to die, he pleaded with the arriving paramedics to call his wife to tell her he loved her.
* * *
Dad usually walked through the door just after dark, but it had been dark for a while. Mom read a magazine at the dining room table and counted the minutes that had passed since the time he should have been home. He was half an hour late. The later it got, the more alone and more nervous she felt. True, she had her four boys. But we were dancing.
We twirled, stomped, and leapt off the couch, crashing to the living room floor and popping back up again to do pirouettes until we toppled over and slapped the floor like clumsy sea lions hitting hard rocks. Little attention was paid to the beat of the bubblegum pop music blasting from the stereo. We much preferred our anti-rhythmic lurching to whatever the thumping bass told us to do.
I lay the blame squarely at my own feet. It was my duty as the oldest to lead the way in all things masculine when Dad wasn’t around, but I was horrible at it. I couldn’t figure it out. Nothing about being a man appealed to me. Sports weren’t my thing and my humor was more of the triple syllable words variety than the fart brand. Wrestling? Stupid. Wrestling on television? Stupider. I aspired to something higher. Like not knocking over the lamp on the coffee table as I flew through the air.
The ringing telephone could hardly be heard over all the noise. Because Mom cherished her time to watch us frolic about the house, a call from anyone other than Dad would not be tolerated. She wanted daughters desperately, but never got any. When she finally did hear the phone, she picked it up with both hope and irritation.
In between jumping over my younger brothers and putting dents in the walls, I caught half glimpses of Mom in the chair just below the phone mount in the kitchen. The cord had been tangled so badly from overuse and children under foot that it couldn’t stretch far enough away from the wall to allow her to sit back down comfortably at the table. She spoke in that sing-song voice she reserved only for the phone, but there was an edge to it that served as a clear signal to whoever was on the other end that their conversation would be short. Judging by how irritated she looked, it wasn’t Dad.
Woman on Phone: Hi. Is this Jill Heasley?
Mom: Yes. Who is this?
Woman: I’m…a paramedic. I just brought your husband, Bill, to the emergency room at Valley Medical Center.
Mom: Did he have a car accident?
Woman: Oh no, no. Not a car accident.
Mom: W-was he shot?
Woman: Bill wants me to tell you that he loves you and to tell the kids that he loves them too. I have to go now, I’m sorry.
Mom: Wait—wait a minute. Could you please just tell me what happened?
Woman: No, I’m sorry. I can’t. I just needed to tell you that Bill loves you. And the kids. And that they should be good.
Mom: O-oh. All right. Uh…Thank you.
Woman: You’re welcome. Goodbye.
The stereo still blared. By the time Mom hung up the phone the edge in her voice was gone. I wandered over to see what was going on. The concern that washed over her face changed the temperature in the room.
* * *
My family’s life navigated and revolved around firearms. Black, shiny, sculpted metal death that feels oh so good in the hands. Three of even my tiny fingers could wrap perfectly around the hilt, with the thumb going around the back and the index finger sliding forward to its place hovering just over the trigger. Holding a gun was like shaking a thick, cold hand that doesn’t crush your fingers, but instead gives them security and comfort, creating a very different kind of warmth. Squeezing the trigger, even when it wasn’t loaded, was immensely satisfying. Even just pretending at the power that could come from such little effort had an accompanying intoxication. They haven’t invented a joystick yet that lets you feel that kind of control.
A lot of my friends had never seen a gun, much less touched one. An undercover cop lived in our neighborhood. He was my best friend’s dad and he had a gun. But my dad had guns. They were cool, powerful and you could kill people with them.
It was Halloween Night. Dad came home late then, too. My brothers and I dealt with the elongated anticipation as best we could by putting on and patching up our homemade cardboard robot costumes while keeping a collective eye on the driveway. Where, at any minute, Dad would pull up with the candy. We never had to worry about whether or not we would be handing out the good stuff. Dad owned his own store—we called it The Shop. He guaranteed our unadorned, otherwise unremarkable door was the most popular one on the block each and every year.
Halloween was all about the candy. Nothing else mattered. Our costumes and the knocking on the doors were just the currency we used to pay for it. Mom and Dad always inspected the haul first, tossing out any pieces that were obviously housing needles and, therefore, the AIDS virus. Then we were given a choice.
“Okay, boys,” Dad would say by way of ritual. “You can go ahead and eat all that candy if you want to. You dressed up and you earned it and your mother and I won’t stop you. Or, if you’d like, you could sell it to me.”
Each piece had its own value. Miniature candy bars were worth the most and pulled down the big coins. M&M’s and Skittles were up there as well, followed by Tootsie Pops. Tootsie Rolls were common and weren’t worth much at all. Nobody wanted Pixie Stix, but Dad bought them anyway. We were glad to sell it all to him. Mostly because we knew a good portion of the candy would make its way into our mouths eventually.
The value of candy was never undersold in my father’s house, if not my mother’s. He loved it as much as we did. Each November, a big, brown paper bag full of our sold off wares was a prominent fixture on top of the refrigerator. That way, Dad could retrieve his purchases at any moment of the day for his own, personal consumption. At least, that was the idea. More often than not, as we’d sit together entranced by Star Trek: The Next Generation or watching (enduring, in my case) the game on TV, a piece of the candy would come flying and smack my brothers and me in the backs of our heads. After scrambling frantically to scoop it up from wherever it had bounced to, we would quickly shout back an enthusiastic “Thanks, Dad!” and unwrap and munch and wait for the next one to come sailing through the air.
On that Halloween Night, when I saw the familiar, silver Toyota mini-van pull into the driveway, I couldn’t help myself. I burst out of the house and ran as fast as I could to see what potential leftovers would be there for us. Sure, we’d have our own bags full later that night, but an early snack before heading out wasn’t out of the question.
Two of my little brothers, Logan and McKay, were right behind me. From the front door of the house to the side door of the van, they stayed hot on my trail. Only the speed and distance I got from my longer legs prevented them from pushing me into the van as I came to a dead stop and reached for the handle to slide the big door back. With thoughts of darkened streets, grotesque figures and a heavy bag of sugar in my hand commanding me, I was oblivious to all else in the world.
“Brock! Wait, Son! Stop! Don’t open the–”
I threw open the door. I had barely a split-second to register the fact that one of Dad’s .45s was falling out and onto the ground. The L-shaped hunk of metal met the concrete right at the point of the handle.
The shot rang out and for a brief moment all other sounds were sucked into it. My mother gasped, afraid of what might happen next. The barrel of the gun finally joined the handle on the concrete with a small, tinny rattle. I fell next, down and backwards.
In the roof of the van was now a bullet-sized hole. A hair dryer that had been inexplicably left on the floor under the backseat had been shot clean through. I was completely unharmed. My brothers standing right behind me stared in amazement. Everyone was fine. We were all rushed inside quickly.
“Son, you need to listen! When I tell you to not open the door–YOU DON’T OPEN THE DOOR. If that gun had landed pointed any other way…”
“Sorry! I’m sorry, Dad! I’m sorry!”
I shook hard with shame and regret. ‘If that gun had landed pointed any other way…’ My parents threw away the hair dryer and made us all promise never to speak of the incident again. We were lucky it was just before sundown and no one with fast fingers and Child Protective Services on speed-dial had been outside to notice what had happened.
Thankfully (for me anyway), I wasn’t the one in trouble. Mom really let Dad have it. Guns were the friends of my father she disapproved of but had to let in the door anyway. So long as they stayed away from the children, she could begrudgingly accept them as the basis for whatever meager fortune we had. Now, Dad was pushing right up against the upper limits of her tolerance.
“I can’t—I’m trying to imagine why you had a loaded gun in the van in the first place, Bill! Why would you need it to be loaded? Or did you just forget that it was? Either way…”
“It slid into the back as I was coming down the off ramp,” Dad explained. “I didn’t—I knew it was loaded but I didn’t mean for Brock to—it’s not going to happen again. The boys know to respect the weapon. This was my fault. It won’t happen again, I promise you.”
Dad’s reassurances meant little. Now there was a new rule—no loaded guns in the house or in the cars. It was a change Dad was reluctant to make. Despite whatever else could happen accidentally with a loaded gun around, he was quite certain that not having one would be far worse should someone decide that our modest home housed things far more valuable than its orange-stuccoed exterior otherwise suggested. He didn’t need my mother to remind him of how dangerous guns were and how dangerous it was to sell them. That was precisely the reason he needed one.
The Shop was under constant threat of burglary and there were many mornings I would wake up to find he had left during the middle of the night because the silent alarm had gone off and someone was helping themselves to the inventory. Whether it happened at bedtime or at three-in-the-morning, Dad had to go secure the store and scare away anyone who might still be there.
But nothing like that had ever happened while he was actually inside.
* * *
“Brock,” Mom said as she searched for her keys. “Get your shoes on. We’re going to the hospital.”
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