The thing about a man with a gun is that now he has aims, now he has something he’s pointed at, which makes him sharp, now he’s more than just a ball rolling around bouncing off other balls. So it makes sense that when writers have sat down to write, they’ve often worked with a man who has a gun. It makes sense that they’ve needed him to be sharp. This sharpness is often the thing that lets them find the story.
I wanted to write about a man who was just as sharp without guns, but I didn’t know how. I had just come to San Francisco and I was working at a school as a playground monitor. Every recess was fascinating because I could just watch people and see who they were. One thing I saw was that boys wanted to be sharp just as much as men. I could sometimes feel just as lonely among them in my looking for a new way to be sharp myself. But not for very long because they were kids and so they were wonderful.
Among the third-grade boys there were two schools of thought when it came to their playing gun games: the boys in Mrs. Hampton’s class were not allowed to play gun games and the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class were. This did not make the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class go after the boys in Mrs. Hampton’s class. There was no fun in shooting somebody who couldn’t play. But sometimes I would see the boys in Mrs. Hampton’s class watching the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class, watching the sharpness with which they could duck around a corner and turn and fire one last shot, the way they could close one eye and aim their finger at someone across the play structure, and the boys in Mrs. Hampton’s class would look a little hopeless like they were never going to know what it was to feel as clean and pointed as a gun, like they were going to stay unsure and shapeless forever.
I was glad to see it because I always felt hopeful to see that boys and men were in the same struggle together. It was better than thinking there was a clear dividing line between them. That was there too, but it didn’t tell the whole story.
My first attempt at getting the boys in Mrs. Hampton’s class to do something other than watch the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class was touch football. There was something very clean and pointed about a ball being thrown just past a defender’s hands and being caught for a touchdown pass. But there were kids who could play and kids who couldn’t. They didn’t say it, but they knew there was something egalitarian about gun games. Anybody had a chance of shooting anybody. The football games turned into two-on-two, and then pretty soon that petered out as well.
One day I was sitting on the bench next to Devon, who was in Mrs. Hampton’s class.
“I wish we could play shooting games,” he said.
“Mrs. Hampton has that rule for a reason,” I said.
“What is the reason?”
“You should ask her.”
At home in the evenings I was writing different stories, trying to find the man who was just as sharp without guns. At first I thought he drew his sharpness from how distant he felt from the world, but I wasn’t so sure. There was a man I would see walking home who stood asking for change and he would smile at me beautifully when I gave him a quarter. His smile was closer to what I was looking for.
Where I lived there were boys with guns. I knew because one had pointed his at me. For about two or three days afterwards, it had been difficult to watch the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class playing with their fingers for guns, and then it felt like it had before. But I agreed with Mrs. Hampton’s rule. There was something about boys playing gun games in a world where boys had guns. It did not seem right.
A couple days after we talked, Devon told me he’d talked with Mrs. Hampton about the rule.
“What was her reason?” I said.
“Well, I didn’t actually ask her why she has the rule.”
“What did you ask her?”
“I asked her if instead of shooting bullets, we could shoot lasers from our guns. She said no. Then I asked her if we could just shoot whipped cream from them.”
“Yes. Then the person we shot at would just get whipped cream all over them.”
“What did she say?”
“She said no.”
“Why didn’t you ask her her reason for the rule?”
He looked off to the side. “Because I know it’s a good rule. I just don’t think it’s fair that the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class get to play those games and we don’t.”
“I understand that. You think it should be the same rule for everybody.”
“Did you tell Mrs. Hampton that?”
“No, because if she talks to Mr. Verdi about it, and he tells the boys in his class that they can’t play it any more, they might get mad at me.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll talk to her about it.”
At the end of the day I told Mrs. Hampton about it and she agreed that the rule ought to be consistent. On the way home I thought about the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class. They were going to have to find something new. Well, it would be a good practice for them for finding who they were without guns. If any of them grew up to be writers who wanted to write like that when they got older, they’d have had a little experience.
If a man wanted to write like that, he couldn’t be halfway about it. That’s what I was learning in those days. I couldn’t go home and watch a television program in which the characters expressed their sharpness through gunfire. It was nothing against those programs or those characters; I just felt further away from understanding what guns really were when I watched them. I felt further away from knowing how to write without them. And I realized that the key to watching those programs was identifying with the shooter. But there was nothing to stop me from identifying with the man who got shot. They usually accounted for this by making the man who got shot a villain. But there was no getting around the fact that the man who got shot had once been a boy.
I had a friend or two tell me that I was over-thinking it, but when I walked home and saw the smile of the man asking for change and the corner where the boy had pointed a gun at me, I didn’t think I was.
There was no getting around the fact that a writer had to know who he was in relation to guns. He had to pick them up or not pick them up, but if he was going to not pick them up, he had to all the way not pick them up. He had to not pick them up with the same decisiveness as men who had picked them up.
By the end of the week the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class were not allowed to play gun games any more. They moved around lazily and uncertainly in the schoolyard, but it opened up a world to the boys in Mrs. Hampton’s class. They didn’t have to sit and watch to see the sharpness they wanted to see enacted any more. They had running races and they played handball and four square, and they even organized games of football for themselves. It was good to see, and I knew the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class would come around. They didn’t have anybody that they could watch and see possessing that special thing just by a move with their fingers. There was only the slow way.
The boy who had pointed a gun at me didn’t have a chance for the slow way, didn’t have as much of a chance as the boys I knew, at least. When I tried to hate him, there were so many feelings that came before hating him that hating him would get lost. Hating him was a gun, and all the other feelings were all the other games that I watched the boys in Mrs. Hampton’s class play. That was how I’d thought about it the next day—how I’d almost lost the chance of ever watching those kids play again.
I’ll take the slow way, I thought. I’ll take the slow way with writing and watching over kids and everything. I’ll take the slow way because the slow way lets you see how much is right in front of you, and I wouldn’t trade that for any kind of fast way. I was learning from the playground how much was right in front of me, and I felt like if I could do that in writing, I’d be in business.
The boys in Mrs. Hampton’s class brought the boys in Mr. Verdi’s class into their games, and pretty soon I was sitting on the bench by myself, which was fine. It was easy to think when a man sat down to write that his best subject matter was men who had been decisive in picking up a gun, but I didn’t believe it. His best subject matter was life, and it took whatever form it took in front of him. If he was lucky enough to see it take the form of boys playing, it didn’t do anybody any good to say that that was less important than men and guns.
Just before the bell rang, Devon walked up to me and asked me to spin a basketball on my finger and then slide it to his finger. It was his way of saying thanks for me talking with Mrs. Hampton.
“You know that I didn’t want to do the shooting games because I wanted to kill anybody, right?” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “Why did you want to do it?”
“It just looked fun. It looked fun to run and hide behind something and aim.”
“It wasn’t because I wanted to hurt anybody.”
“Yes. I remember you said you thought it was a good rule.”
He smiled to see his own consistency.
“Why do you think it’s a good rule?”
“Well, guns are bad, I know that. But there’s something you can be with them that you can’t be the rest of the time.”
“I’m hoping to find a way to be that the rest of the time.”
“How are you going to do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Love?”
He looked at me. “That might work.”
“It’s worth a try, don’t you think?”
He nodded. “That really might work, Paymon.”
It was breathtaking to see in his face that those were the two options before me. It was better than any television program.
Rumpus original art by Sylvia Nguyen.