CHARLOTTE, VERMONT — I close the fence so the cows grazing on this farm won’t escape and walk to the passenger window of the idling Honda Accord and ask my dad, as a rifle cracks, “How do you feel?” He looks at me. Another gun shot. Each one is loud, rolling across the lumpy pastureland here in northern Vermont and erupting into the bottomless sky. In my dad’s blue eyes I see conflict. He looks away and the car rolls toward Range 4 and my brother follows on his motorcycle as a rifle cracks down the hill and I follow on my mine.
A story I grew up with: When my dad was a boy, he shot a bird with a BB gun. Blew its head right off; blood all over the snow. He broke the Daisy over his leg and today reviles guns. My dad loves animals and is known to cry when hitting them in a car, and on most issues he is as liberal as the summer sun is long, often aggressively so. Once he told a devout man the Bible is the comic book of life. But in mid March, just as this thing was becoming real in the U.S.A., I got a text from him: “Is your shotgun a 12 gauge?”
My dad fears the collapse of society and I fear the anxiety will crush him and so, today, now into Month Three, we have come to this farm so that I may show him what an apocalypse fantasy entails. He steps out of the Accord with a face mask on and my old shotgun in his right hand and two boxes of shells in his left. “How does this make me feel?” he says as the three of us walk to the range, which we’ll be sharing with a nice-looking family having fun with two hand guns and a suppressed semi-automatic submachine gun that shudders with each bap-bap-bap. “Hypocritical. Frightened. Disillusioned. Uh. Sad. Unwanted. Embarrassed.”
It is an unsettling thing to fear for your father. My dad, and my mom, fought for me through public school then paid my way through college so that I may cut a linear trajectory into my future — like a bullet, you could say, if that’s not too on the nose — and as I have traveled they have watched, fearing, for my role is to be fearless, a privilege, I know, of class and age and race and gender. I have also known for some time now that one day our roles will reverse; the loop will close. A day far from now. But the other day, before this day on the farm with the gun shots and cows milling in the hillocks and my dad’s anxious eyes, I noticed his hair had grown longer and curlier than I can remember having seen. And when did it become so speckled white?
My dad is occupying an ambiguous space I learned about a decade ago when I moved to Alaska and bought the shotgun. I wanted protection from the bears when venturing into the backcountry, which, sincerely, felt like Jurassic Park. If you believe something is coming for you, would you not seek arms? A gun can be a blinding symbol, though, indulging fears so that you may live in fantasy. Nothing came for me in Alaska. I want to tell my dad that what he really fears is the space in between — in between knowing something is bad and not knowing what it will bring — but I do not know how to tell him that buckshot won’t abate his fears. We don’t talk easily about those things; each other’s feelings are like a baseball neither of us wants to throw. We are deeply internal, and when we express ourselves it is often with our eyes on another task.
“Oh my god.” Not an exultation. My dad pumps another shell into the chamber. Blast. A clap of dirt down range. Pump. “What am I trying to hit?” My brother: “The flag. The takeout container.” Range 4 is a dump. Blast. Pump. Blast. Pump. He empties the shotgun. “OK,” he says, holding it away from him as he sighs. The sound of fatigue. My brother takes the gun and begins loading the red shells. I look at the family across from us plinking a steel target suspended by chains — tink, tink, tink, tink — and yell through our earplugs, “I think that’s an MP5.” My dad closes his eyes.
“Is any of this appealing to you?” I say.
My brother fires.
“No, not at all,” my dad says. It’s not the act, he says; it’s the actors.
“But you don’t know them,” I say.
“I don’t know them,” but he can approximate. “I don’t share anything with the majority.” He pauses. My brother fires. “It, uh. You don’t get a warm fuzzy feeling.” My brother pumps. My dad ponders. “What are people afraid of?”
“Well,” I say, “what are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of the breakdown of society.”
“How is that different from people who conceal carry?”
“They’re more paranoid than I am,” more certain that society will collapse, which, for them, must be exhilarating; “I dread it.” My brother empties the gun and my dad continues. “Their fear is that the government will get them. My fear is that these morons” — he laughs to blunt the insult — “will come get me.”
He’s obviously talking about the family taking turns with the MP5 and two handguns. A patch of dirt divides us. My dad may call his bogeyman the libertarians and they may call theirs Big Government but what we all fear is, fundamentally, the same: the space in between.
After we blow through another box and collect the shells we walk back to the car and my dad seems lighter with the deed done. For a moment, he turns his sarcasm inward. “Well, that was interesting. Now I can defend mom.”
But the lesson does not stick, and as he closes the car door he says in the sing-songy voice of mockery, “A family that shoots together stays together.”