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My Cousin Died an American Death

A shotgun, an accident, and a life that turned out so differently from mine

Nick Thompson
Oct 23, 2018 · 8 min read
Art by Jessica Siao/Getty

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It’s never truly silent in Ocala, Florida. Here, daytime commotion fades, and the light drains, but then a racket begins. The pulsing thrum of crickets. It just appears, quieter at first, then building into rapid-fire night song. Click, click, click.

By day, in a nearby forest, Navy pilots pinpoint targets and drop dummy payloads inside a 450-acre zone, practicing for the real thing. It’s all been planned out. Sometimes they drop real ones.

Nearby, men and women stockpile weapons in their houses to defend themselves against these 1,000-pound explosives to ensure the freeness of the state. That these firearms function as de facto defenses against the variables of the community is probably a bit closer to the truth. The guns are there, day and night, in case something were to happen.

And sometimes things really do happen. Sometimes the weapons fire.

“Tussle Over Shotgun in Ocala Ends in Woman’s Death,” Ocala Star-Banner, May 16, 2018

The scruffy brown-haired man with cuts and scrapes on his cheeks looks down the camera and away again. He’s being escorted by officers into a cop car. Through pained expressions on his broad, wan face, he answers a reporter’s questions about the particulars of the death earlier that day.

“This is my family,” he says, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

The man responsible has been dressed in an apricot-and-cream-striped jumpsuit that blurs into a soft orange pall. He gives the impression of someone sorrowful but lost. His actions resulted in my cousin’s death. I wasn’t close to my cousin or the life she led, but this man is postlapsarian flotsam, more an avatar of something else, a face to put to the dysfunction, than the real killer.

What happened in Ocala is cultural as much as it is criminal.

The headline reads as it should, fodder for that day’s news in Ocala, yet it concerns someone I know, a name I recognize. It seems cold, devoid of familial insight. The effect is a lifetime of struggle and ambitions distilled to the facts: Tussle ends in woman’s death. Wasn’t supposed to be like this.

I think about what her life was like for it to get here. What was the point at all, if this was all it was for? An orange apparition is driven away, fate to be decided. I think about my cousin.

I was transfixed by the landscape of this sleepy Floridian jungle town when I visited my grandma as a young child, sabal palms everywhere and fauna so brown that only the heat and sickly humidity of the Sunshine State could sustain it.

Inland and conservative, the town sits three miles outside Ocala National Forest, 607 square miles of rugged parkland. A few miles east, rivers spindle and straighten out past gigantic bald cypress. Piercing up through the wet prairies emerge bulrush and pickerelweed and American lotus flowers. Much of the area is scrub, sand hills, shrubland, and lakes, but some parts are so dense with trees that it can be difficult to see beyond 10 yards.

The peace is regularly broken, sometimes by wildfires that consume everything and sometimes when the Navy drops live explosives. When that happens, the ground shakes, the wildlife hides, and new craters are formed. Each hole represents an increment in the growing competence of an airman on his journey to salvation, to duty.

In and around Ocala, loud bangs ring out. And insects sing.

Click, click, click.

When a shotgun is fired, a spring hammers a pin into the cartridge that ferries the bullet; concurrently, an explosion is ignited in the primer, which lights the propellant, which generates gas — too much gas for the chamber — and in finite space, the high pressure catapults the bullet out through a brilliant orange flash into the light as compounds shatter into each other in the wake of blurred and spreading buckshot projectiles traveling at over 400 meters per second.

My cousin died an American death: killed this way, accidentally, by a shotgun outside her house.

Her young kids were away for the weekend, and she and her husband were on a drug-fueled stint. My cousin was a recovering or active addict. Her mom was also an addict before she passed some years earlier from a meth overdose.

The man responsible — labeled “aggressive” and the cousin of the husband — was well-known to the couple. He arrived unarmed a little before 2 a.m. on the night of the shooting and knocked loudly on the front door. He had already been there twice that week.

The man, the one who would wear orange, sat outside on the porch, waiting. He was upset because he thought the couple were helping his ex-girlfriend sell herself for drugs — referred to as “helping” in the news reports. He shouted to the husband through the door that he needed to stay the night, and the husband told him to leave, up to six times. And then, fearing the man’s rage, the husband pointed a bright-orange flare gun at him behind the glass, claims the orange man.

The police report details how the husband also had a shotgun, though it wasn’t pointed at anyone, but as he stepped outside the house with it, the orange man bear-hugged him and wrestled him to the ground. They fought for the barrel, both trying to pull it closer toward them.

As they struggled, the firearm discharged — apparently without the husband’s finger on the trigger — and my cousin was shot in the stomach. They didn’t know she had come outside. The husband applied pressure on the wound and recited a peroration as the orange man ran to alert neighbors, who wouldn’t open their doors, most likely spooked by the gunfire. The condemned man rang the police while the darkness circled and the bugs whirred in unison. Click, click, click.

“This was not supposed to happen like this.”

The husband told officers he had been holding a shotgun, and that the man in orange jumped on him outside the home, causing the shotgun to go off. As more officers arrived, the orange man walked as anonymously as he could through the house to the other side and fled.

Do guns like these in the home make an owner powerful or more weak — at greater risk of the very thing they are there to prevent? The stats read as if the answer was clear: According to the Journal of Trauma, every time a gun in an American home is used in self-defense, there are four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.

My cousin’s story would have been far less likely in the U.K., where I live, or virtually any comparable industrialized nation. From March 2016 to March 2017, there were 31 fatal shootings in England and Wales, which is home to about 57 million people. Through this lens — and considering the United States’ commitment to the Second Amendment — what happened in Ocala is cultural as much as it is criminal.

My cousin was taken by ambulance to Ocala Regional Medical Center, where she succumbed to her injuries and was pronounced dead later that night.

I wonder what she thought of in those moments, after buckshot splintered tissue and saturated the air with a metallic smell, leaving a bitter arsenic taste in the mouth as crickets hummed to mark the silence before the black wave rose and consumed her, if it was anger or love or fear, or if the pain was too great to think of much of anything at all.

Twenty years earlier, her dad had developed MS. As his health declined, her mom eventually left him, unable to cope with the kind man whose own body was mining the myelin in his spinal cord. She took their three kids out of Texas to Florida, where things began to unravel. She got in with circles of dealers and users, ragtag bunches of people addicted to filling the void. It was here where she was encouraged to sell herself under the watchful eye of an unsavory and dyspeptic partner.

Once it became clear that their mom wasn’t able to stay clean and had lost interest in motherhood, my cousin came under the wing of my great aunt, and her brother was sent to live with my grandma. I remember once, when I was eight, the brother forcibly kept my head underwater in the shared swimming pool of her Fort Lauderdale condo. He was expelled from school for setting fire to a girl’s hair. As a child, I lived inside a vivid introverted world, and to me he was a splenetic monster.

Their mom found drugs early on and serially chased states of altered consciousness as she got older. Maybe for her there was something about it being transgressive. Sketchy home environments perpetuate modes of thought that then inform modes of being. Her addictions engendered the wrong sort of norms and attracted people into my cousin’s orbit who shouldn’t have been part of her life.

My cousin’s knees, back, and neck ached from multiple accidents, and her bipolar brain concocted moods in her hippocampus that perturbed her from a young age. No invective could exorcise it. She and her brothers were there when their mom overdosed but, on meth themselves, didn’t call the ambulance — not until it was too late — addled by bugged-out groupthink.

The guilt of inaction clung on, dug in, and in the case of my cousin, turned to trauma that would strike in batches of painfully static cauterized memories, or PTSD. But there was also joy; she had wanted a baby boy her whole life, and 18 months earlier she finally had one. Her fourth child. Now motherless.

I understand now that they were a complex and troubled family living out the lot of poor white Americans — persistently mixing with melancholia, addiction, prison, and catastrophic disjunctures like poor white Americans often do. I can’t possibly know what it felt like, to see what she saw, to live that life, to become involved in an actual gunfight. As a kid, my life was a product of certainty, love, and care. My mom was the sensible one who then married a Brit and moved an ocean away, and she couldn’t understand her tearaway cousin.

Our lives are dictated and defined by who we spend it with, so I am lucky I was born where I was, and to whom I was. My parents were happy, and my nuclear family was mostly Day-Glo positive, especially on those vacations to the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s. I disliked that boy staying with my grandma — the one who’s now doing well with kids and a wife — not simply because he was capable of bad things, but because he represented uncertainty, something I hadn’t really known as a eight-year-old. And that’s how it ended: uncertain; horrible.

“This was an accident. This was not anything that was done on purpose or maliciously,” the orange man says. “This was not supposed to happen like this. I had a gun pulled on me, and I got scared.”

Some weeks after my cousin’s passing, F-18s pounded Ocala National Forest, displacing the creatures that normally spot the landscape there. As is the case across the United States, the machinery of a well-armed nation fritzes on, ready for anything. Click-click-click.

Nick Thompson

Written by

Freelance writer | Medium, Guardian, Vice etc.

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