Six months after the divorce my mother retired from love and headed north up the coast to a slumberous little village in Washington State. To contain herself in her old age she purchased a vinyl-siding house with cherry and Asian pear trees. She started growing kale in the fall, tomatoes and bush beans in the summer. Once a southern Californian housewife with platinum highlights and three rings on one hand, she suddenly let her hair go gray and bought a pair of pineapple earrings at the local thrift store. She attended irrigation festivals, lavender festivals, and even baked a batch of zucchini muffins for the county fair. Eventually she joined a squat church beside a highway. Among the congregation she formed relationships with locals who owned farms and livestock, who spent their days steering hulking machines across huge acreages, and whose closeness to the necessary violence of agricultural duty affected their lifestyles in very real and tangible ways. These new friends owned lambs, pigs, chickens, and cows. They docked tails, notched ears, slashed testicles, and sometimes skinned and disemboweled carcasses to supply meat for themselves and their community. In their recreational lives they worked on engines, went hunting, and fired guns to pass the time. Lots of guns.
My mother was sixty-five when she fired a gun for the first time. Her new church friend Donna, a llama farmer, brought her to the range and put a genuine six-shooter in her hand. It was the kind of gun that starred in cowboy flicks: long and silver with a polished wood grip and a little hammer that went click. The two spent an hour blasting the shit out of paper targets with silhouettes of turbaned militants holding machine guns. My mother speaks of it like a rite of purification. When the gun jerked and the first bullet passed through the barrel she felt, simultaneously, an ejection of every sick and toxic feeling she’d been carrying to that moment.
The next day Donna helped her fill out an NRA application. Then she accompanied my mother to a guns and ammo store with iron bars across the windows and helped her pick out her first firearm. My mother was amazed by the abundance of kill stuff that could fit into a single shop. There were big guns and little guns; guns with stumpy barrels and others with scopes and long glinting necks. There was a cavalry sword mounted over the entrance and just as many knives as firearms, some with brass knuckle handles. The owner wore a patch on one eye and a sleeveless leather vest, and from his stained alarm clock radio blared the rockabilly wailings of John Fogerty, prophesizing of a bad moon. It was the most American thing my mother had ever experienced.
The owner put several starter pistols in my mother’s hand and urged her to take her time, to wait for the piece that spoke to her. She discovered she had the same taste in firearms that she did in houseplants. She liked them small and modest—“unfussy” was the word she used. Then she wrapped her fingers around a snubnosed revolver and felt at once a sense of connection. The shop owner complimented her instincts. Short-range revolvers were good for newbies without marksmen ability.
By summer’s end my mother had joined a gun club, purchased a subscription to Guns & Ammo, and injected her wardrobe with camouflage vests and sweatshirts. Her vocabulary grew to include words like “caliber” and “cartridge” and minuscule units of measurement that carried heavy ballistic implication: 9 millimeter, .38 special. She traveled to gun shows and met more gun folk, who happily recommended different guns and accessories; she took those recommendations to heart and acquired a tactical duffle bag, a pair of tinted shooting glasses, and a Glock 43 as black and shiny as the pupil of an eye.
Among her gun club the best marksman was an off-grid Vietnam vet named Len. One morning at the range he moseyed over to my mother and spoke approvingly of her firing stance. Then he asked if he could show her a few things about her hand grip technique and stepped in her lane and put three rounds in the cranium of a paper terrorist, each bullet hole no more than an inch apart from the others. They shared a shooting lane the rest of the morning and when they were finished, he touted a low-country cafe with a nice salmon special and asked her to lunch. He said little as she ate her fish, mostly asking questions and nodding along as she revealed her life. He seemed to recognize her as one who had left an old space and was searching to grow into a new one. On their next date my mother asked all the questions, and he told her about his first marriage, his time in the Mekong Delta, and the poems he composed on the parchment skins of goats and sheep. He made the parchment himself in a timber frame lodge on six wooded acres outside of town. First he soaked the skins in lime, then he washed and scraped them ‘til they were thin and clean of fat. When the skins were dry, he scribed his poems and clipped the parchments to stretching frames. He even made his own ink out of gum Arabic and the tumors of oak apples filled with gall wasp eggs, my mother explained. Or something.
She’d kind of lost me at that point.
It was my mother who wanted to talk about it—or needed to talk about it—although she has never spoken about it again. “Your father wanted a newer woman,” she simply began. “Not younger or prettier. Just newer.”
She’d been out with friends for a mimosa brunch and had come home to find him seated at the kitchen table where serious family matters were always discussed. He asked her to sit with him, and in his tone she had sensed the presence of some awful news—that I had been killed in an accident or horribly injured; that her sister had been killed or horribly injured; that he had lost all their savings to some disastrous investment. And so she did not sit, but remained standing, bracing herself with the island counter. My father looked shaky and overwhelmed by the words he had to form. There was a disjointed, driveling preface. He rambled for several minutes about their life together, all the ways they had aged and changed. Then he paused, released the air from his chest, and said the words he needed to say.
“I don’t love you anymore.”
About the other woman he didn’t say much. Only that he’d found her online one lonesome, wakeful night long after my mother had gone to bed without him, as she’d been doing for decades. Normally self-satisfied with a touch of braggadocio, he acknowledged his own decline. He was going stone gray. He had a problem with gas. A year earlier he’d developed diabetes. There was little left to bait a hook, he said. With all that remained he had cast a line and gotten a bite, and that was all he knew how to explain about it. Someone was hungry for him again and he was hungry for her. He didn’t want to end his life without that feeling.
My mother stood there with the house and furniture watching her. Her first impulse was to slash his face with a steak knife lying on the counter. She asked why it had taken him thirty-seven years to find the boldness to confess his feelings. And as he formed another sickening, delicate explanation she couldn’t stomach, her face burst into a mess of snot and liquid, her voice rose and cracked in wrath, and she called him a coward and a liar and a thief of her youth. Then all the sound in the world fell off a cliff and she languished in the spell of shock and despair, heaving for breath, trying to stop his heart with the hate of her glare.
For a brutal eternity they waited in silence. Then my father rose from the table and disappeared into the garage to arrange his tools, and my mother turned and floated to the sink on feet that did not feel like they were touching the ground. Through the kitchen window she gazed upon her pretty suburban garden that had neither been planted nor maintained by her, but by a migrant landscaper who merely asked what colors she preferred and selected flowers accordingly. She fixed her eyes upon a bed of purple candle flame blossoms she’d always loved but couldn’t name and thought how pathetic that was. And she thought, too, about the rings on her hand and the mimosas she’d had for brunch and the faux French café where her friends, gussied and faded housewives, had brayed for hours about the cost of hair coloring—and it all felt so pathetic, all at once, and worth abandoning.
She could not remember how she endured the weeks that followed: the density of awkwardness that fell upon the house as they unstitched their shared lives. He would be the one to move out, he told her. Even then she did not ask about the other woman because it did not matter. It meant nothing to know about his life without her.
My mother told me this story from across a McDonald’s dining table, fountain Cokes and quarter-pounder meals between us. It was my first visit to her life after love. As a child it was only the rare occasion when she’d taken me to fast-food restaurants. She’d thought poorly of cafeteria-style dining, of eating from trays instead of plates. The low-wage workers in their greasy uniforms depressed her. Now she ordered fast-food several times a month and always came inside to eat. It was nice to sit by the windows and watch the parking lots. Cars pulling in, cars backing out. People coming and leaving, plain and complacent. She could idle there for an hour sometimes, watching everything and nothing, as we did that afternoon when her story was finished. The two of us chewing our cheap meat slowly, stirring our yellow fries in a plop of ketchup spread across her paper placemat.
I don’t know where I got the idea that you didn’t walk out on someone once you grew old with them. The assumption had always felt logical, I guess. Passion was what you got when you didn’t know somebody. Once you did get to know them you either jumped ship or settled in for the long haul, largely aware of what you were getting and relatively at peace with it.
But that is not the way it works, my mother says. Old age is not an appetite suppressant; it does not tame the hankerings of youth. You are never really at peace with what you haven’t gotten. Then one day you turn the corner and see it, she says—your mortality—and you panic. Panic leads to action. It is the death of procrastination. My parents were married for thirty-seven years, together for forty, and for most of that time it was only reluctance and irresolution, my father’s inability to initiate a depressing honesty, that had bound them.
Through family and friends, I’ve seen my share of bad marriages. I know from observation that divorce can be emancipating. When each reconciliation is followed by a new adversity life becomes a constant state of exhaustion and hopelessness. The separation that ensues, while procedurally dreary, often brings relief—a return to calm. With the end of the marriage comes a blessed end to the loss of respect that sickened the relationship to death.
Even now my father will not say that he “left” her. There is dishonor in the phrasing, and he will not feel ignoble. He speaks instead in pronouns of mutuality. Both of us felt the same. We needed something more. Our hearts had grown apart. These little parts of speech are essential comforts, and when he discusses events he lades them with emphasis, accentuating the necessity of annulment. But there was no mutuality in my mother’s explanation. Your father wanted a newer woman, she said. And in the stunning openness that followed I had understood that the grief of divorce depended, perhaps entirely, on how equally respect had been lost—that no couple could painlessly uncouple if one remained grateful for the other; or worse, in love. Scorn, anguish, guilt: the day my mother walked into that gun shop, these were the emotions at work within her, fresh and resounding. So, maybe you can understand my confusion—and, yes, my suspicion—when she boasts of her growing marksmanship over the phone. Informing me proudly of the ease and regularity in which she can now shoot a target through the heart.
I still live in Los Angeles, three freeway exits from where I grew up. A few times a year I make the odd journey to my mother’s new weaponized life. I hop a flight to Seattle, overpay for a rental, and drive west around the Puget Sound, up the evergreen edge of the Olympic Mountains. Two hours later I pass from one world to another, arriving at a village scattered across a tree-studded prairie, a place where human life remains devoted to grinding out subsistence, subjugating wilderness, and waving cordially to neighbors, familiar or not.
There is no denying the beauty of this place. Pressed against this settlement of modest farms and marginal planting is a splendor of habitat, all junction and contrast. To the north runs a handsome ocean channel lined with stony beaches and distressed piers; to the south rise heaps of forested mountains, their snowy pinnacles piercing the clouds. The wilds are haunted by bear and marmot; the rivers stuffed with wriggling salmon. The bright air above my mother’s yard rings with goose honk and eagle screech, and from her back deck, looking across the tops of her fruit trees, I am amazed by the breadth of space that now encloses this woman, by the strength and stature of a giant cedar standing alone, in ponderous silence, on neighboring acreage.
Yet my heart is touched by suspicion, thinking of this place. Values are conservative here, reactions are not. Among the mellow aspect of houses, barns and fields are expressions of severe religious and political fervor. Star-spangled lawn signs denounce regional MAT clinics, implore support of immigration bans, while church marquees proclaim Jesus’s contempt for abortion and reform in general. The specter of constitutional orthodoxy, militant and ornery, grinds against my urban programming, darkens my reception of this enchanting locale with misgivings of unhinged patriotism, of the great cult of the Second Amendment, by whom I have always been spooked and outspokenly repulsed.
On the fringes of village life, broad tracts of pastureland have been subdivided for development, giving hint that the area has been sniffed out by migrating outsiders, that more like my mother are on the way. They will come from California, no doubt, fleeing constant disaster and unspeakable cost. To the joy of contractors and horror of locals, they will sweep forth from immensely blended cities armed with progressive educations and ethics. Socialists Are Coming! cries a sign taped to the window of the local pancake house. I worry for my mother—worry she will be shunned like a public health hazard, disdained by her new community as an agent of outbreak: the unclean stranger spreading liberal contagion. Even more unsettling is the thought of her adaptation. My mother forsaking all that obstructs her from the pleasure of fitting in and in the process becoming someone with whom I am not familiar and can no longer relate.
Into the pancake house come three rough-skinned men in soiled jeans who look as though they just sawed down a forest with their teeth. Slumped in a row at the stool counter, heavy shoulders touching, they pack their bearded mouths with flapjacks and denounce a state councilman—an advocate of gun control—for treason. As they singe the room with heated threats my open-mindedness constricts like a fist, and I mentally lash out at my mother, wondering how many wild, dull, violent palookas toil and dwell in this other world she has chosen for herself.
Hardly a week goes by where she doesn’t do some gunning. Saturdays, she hits the range with Donna; Tuesdays, with Len; Thursdays, she goes by herself. With quiet relish she describes the pleasure of discharge: the sour-spicy smell of spent gunpowder; the taste of oxygen, acrid and metallic; the deep, steadying breath as she peers down the sight of her Glock 43, takes aim, and squeezes the trigger. And as she expresses the corporeal satisfactions, exerting a descriptive zeal I have never known of her, it is clear this “gun crush” is no mere amusement at all. She has found something explosive and menacing that inspires her, heals her, makes her happy.
When she first started shooting she would get bruises on the webbing of her thumb and forefinger, but not anymore. She holds up her hand to show me, to celebrate her progress. “Look,” she says in triumph, guiding my fingers to her callused palm. “Just look how far I’ve come.”
In the tight kitchen of Len’s timber lodge, we dine on elk steak and boiled red potatoes, the three of us together. There is no internet here, no mobile signal. The air is kept dry and warm by a wood-burning stove. Beside the stove sits a sloppy writing desk and built-in bookcase crammed with heretical seclusionists. Compilations of Whitman and Thoreau. The collected atavism of Jack London. So many men with heavy beards and problems with civilization.
I am not completely sure about Len, this warrior poet. While generally affable, at times I detect a harsh spirit suppressed beneath his quiet manners, and I am uncomfortable with my sense that this old soldier’s pleasantness may evaporate, perhaps aggressively, when things get rough. As we talk over dinner, he is occasionally abrupt with my mother when she speaks her mind. Nor is my attitude toward him improved by his lone-wolf righteousness and ascetic editorials, with their suggestion that all would be right in the world if it had the sense and self-reliance to live like him.
Then I try to relax, knowing I would not entirely accept any man who appeared at this point in my mother’s personal life. In Vietnam, Len was a decorated lieutenant, a capable officer who led others in a place of death and ruin, and I must remind myself that what seems severe in his behavior was likely quite necessary in another context, and may have saved lives. About his recluse nature, I have been told by my mother that he is an intensely private soul with an equally intense respect for the privacy of others. People are good in sporadic doses, and I suppose I agree. Still, I do not completely care for the man.
Dinner finished, my mother clears the table and urges Len to show me his workshop, where his parchment is made. She would like the two halves of her life to spend some time together—for Len to glimpse where she has been, for me to see where she is now.
The post frame workshop is twice the size of the lodge. As we obligingly share space, Len, too, displays little enthusiasm for the encounter. He lifts the lid of his meat cooler, identifying the frozen hunks of wild game within, from local whitetail to a badger he shot in Idaho. In addition to meat there are dozens of guns stored around the room. The smaller ones sit in pistol racks or holsters; the rifles stand upright in a steel cabinet. On an oily workbench the strewn anatomy of a shotgun, disassembled for cleaning. Seldom have I been close to a firearm and never have I been in the presence of an arsenal. My unease is exacerbated by the stockpile’s proximity to the flayed pelts of several animals, their membranes stretched flat and tight across large wooden frames. The sight of excoriated flesh is morbid to me, and creeped out by the medieval grimness, I can only feign appreciation for his craft. Sensing my false interest Len abstains from any discussion. He kills our last few minutes pointing out various pastes and solutions used for removing blood and hair from skin. In the forest twilight, his workshop is close to frigid, scarcely warmed by a radiant heater with two infrared rods inside a safety cage. The contraption is fitful, emphatically so; when its rods glow orange and hellish the cage rattles violently with energy, as though an animal is trapped inside.
From Len’s cabin a thin dirt road trickles three miles down a mountain forest, descending to a county highway. As we go jouncing over ruts, myself at the wheel, my mother sets her gaze upon the evergreen barrens that enclose us, engrossed and unblinking. It takes time to forget how to value someone, she says. The thought brings her comfort, a sense of relief. They simply do not have enough life remaining, her and Len, to lose all enthusiasm for one another. Perhaps their time together will be difficult, full of incompatibility. Perhaps it will be disappointing. Perhaps when they are finished and fading dully to death they will feel only a thread of the glad emotion they started with. But a thread is still something; she understands that now. It is still a binding fiber that tremors with sensitivity. And as the thought leaves her mouth a pained but victorious smile dawns upon her lips: “All you have to do to end up happily with someone is meet them near the finish.”
On our hands and knees in her summer garden, planting purple candle flames together, I do my best to understand what my mother confides, to grasp these immense developments that have arisen.
The months after my father left was a time of profound absence. No energy or exhilaration toward anything. She kept isolated most of the day, lost in a burning hum of memory and blame. Often, she did not eat; habitually she imagined violence. She felt mutilated and murderous, morning to night, with no control over the unwinding spiral of her life.
Then something shifted. Submerged in this languid pit a reversal of values gradually occurred, and that which had always seemed safe and worthwhile became worthless, and that which had always felt unsuitable became a source of hope and revival. Convenience, comfort, accumulation: the sophistications to which she and my father had devoted their adult energies had wrought a ruinous price on their emotion for one another. Matters of financing, ownership, upkeep—all the strenuous complications of urban modernity—these became their talking points, their lone connection, and it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.
The more she processed this truth the clearer it became that everything about her life would need to be remade. She could not remain where she was, as she was, marooned in fury. It was here, with the past effaced and the future vacant, where her heart began to reach for the Pacific Northwest, to embrace a tiny bright memory of a village swaddled by forest and sea, a place we’d scarcely passed through years earlier on a family road trip to Canada. She recollected the destination obsessively, reimagined it greedily, and by the time the divorce was finalized it had come to feel as necessary as breath.
Understanding is not a requisite for offering support, but it helps. I know I should be happy my mother has found new relationships, new adventure, a new hold on life. Here in this new domain she has emerged as if from a chrysalis, and when she relaxes from her gardening, rising on soil-stained knees to arch and stretch her back, it is true she is more like a butterfly than a lost bird, warming new wings in the sun’s quiet light.
All true, all true. And yet for most of my life I understood this woman differently, perceiving in her an unwavering commitment to every expectation of a suburban mother. In my teenage sanctimony her abiding nature had bored me, at times appalled me. But it had girded me, too, knowing there was a kind of “rock-ness” always nearby, something familiar to grab onto when life became too inchoate. Far too suddenly my most intelligible relationship has become the most cryptic, and rather than supportive elation I am possessed by critical, selfish incredulity. Suffer incoherence long enough, especially toward a loved one, and resentment will overtake you.
Now, in the warm, fragrant mud of her garden, my mother hums an amorphous tune, neither sad nor happy. Her ringless fingers are stained black with garden manure and there are flecks of cow shit in her gray, no-style hair. The blazing purple flowers we plant are the same from her garden in California. They are called celosia, she says, and she has always adored them. More so now because she knows what they are.
A few weeks ago, in the blue darkness of dawn, my mother rose from anxious sleep, dressed top to bottom in forest camouflage, and made the dark and jouncing drive out to Len’s cabin. Up until then she had never pointed a gun at a living creature. The thought of killing anything, even something that deserved it, had always unsettled her.
Len was wide awake when she pulled up. He greeted her at the door with a thermos of coffee and a seven-pound Mossberg. Thirty minutes after daylight was the best time to hunt, he said, and they set off on a private trail not far from the cabin, trekking through misty woods to a custom deer blind at the heart of his acreage.
The blind was a plywood shed built on the fringe of an alpine meadow, where the timber lost its continuity and wild grasses grew high and juicy. It was furnished with two steel folding chairs and had stood there so long that local blacktail had grown complacent to its presence, sometimes grazing no more than several yards away from it. In the meadow’s stillness, my mother and Len talked delicately of their lives, warming their stomachs with coffee and strips of venison bacon Len had cooked and wrapped in foil. From time to time he brandished his journal and disappeared in scribbling meditation, leaving my mother free to study the forest’s secret spectacle, to watch the flashing swallows swoop and call among the grasses. Somewhere distant there was a lull of river sound.
Around mid-morning a leery doe detached itself from the timberline and ventured into open ground, its wet nose twitching for scents. It was reddish-brown, molting and lean, about fifty yards from the blind. Over the next few minutes my mother saw precisely the kind of man Len had been in Vietnam. Calm and decisive, without conscience, he reached over and picked up his rifle. My mother stood rock-still, her breath thin as he wedged the gunstock against his shoulder and set the scope’s magnification. A moment later the rifle exploded; the air rippled with lethal echo. A nick of flesh flew off the doe and it bolted. Ten yards later, before it could reach the trees, it dropped.
Len didn’t trophy hunt. What he killed, he used, or gave or sold to others to use. As they tracked the meadow toward the spot where the animal had fallen, he readied my mother for what would happen next. A summer-fat blacktail could weigh north of a hundred pounds and carry twenty-plus pounds of useable lean meat. To preserve that usability, certain things had to be done in the field. Things that could seem gruesome to the uninitiated, even monstrous.
They found the doe in a radiance of purple lupine, its enormous dark eyes already beset by flies. It had died in little time, with little pain, the bullet passing ethically through its chest cavity as Len had aimed. Only a head shot, always ill-advised, was more humane.
Together at Len’s instruction they rolled the deer on its back and spread its hind legs as wide as possible. Then, saying nothing, Len unzipped his breast pocket and produced a three-inch folding knife with a gut hook blade. Kneeling at the carcass, he met my mother in the eye and explained how it would go. Starting at the tail he would cut a ring around the doe’s anus, then gut the belly from pelvis to breastbone. At the chest he would sever the diaphragm from the ribcage, cutting all the way to the spine to free the membrane. Reaching into the throat past the heart and lungs, he would grab the windpipe and cut that, too. Finally, with one strong pull of the torn pipe, he would expel the innards, bag the liver and heart for stew, and leave the rest of the vitalizing gut pile for birds and coyotes.
Alone, field dressing a mature deer was like wrestling a giant Slinky. Assistance was always appreciated. But it wasn’t a pretty job—there was sure to be sounds, stinks, and fluids—and he understood if she didn’t want to be there. However well-meaning, his consideration tested her sincerity toward every life change in which she had committed herself since the divorce. My mother stood her ground beside the carcass. She would help however needed.
And so they set to work, soaking the grasses with anatomy. My mother held the hind legs apart while Len cored the upturned anus, sliced into the pelvic canal, and split the molting white belly to the sternum. A wave of evisceration wrapped around her like a scarf, steamy and odorous. She looked on with silent exhilaration as Len clutched the slippery windpipe and yanked repeatedly, struggling to tear out the entrails. At last, he let go and slashed the connective tissues with his knife, conceding to dig out the organs one by one with his hands. And it was here my mother did something—well, something I never thought she had the spirit to do.
Dropping to her knees, she plunged her hands through the hide of that doe and started ripping out its guts. She used her bare fingers to wrench at its heart, lungs, liver, and bladder, its gastric network of stomachs and intestines. And you have to understand what I’m talking about here. I mean, you have to understand why I’m trying to explain any of this. Because where I grew up, where she grew up, this aspect of humanity is long gone. There is no soul for it among the people. So you have to imagine those same hands, the ones pulling out innards and fresh blood and digestive chambers filled with grass and berries or whatever the hell deer eat—you have to imagine those hands twinkling between the knuckles with designer rings, sweetly-scented with almond cuticle butter, splayed for primping beneath the LED lamps of wine-lounge nail salons. Because those are the hands I remember, the mother I remember.
And no, goddamn it, I don’t know what I’m trying to get at. Only that here is this woman who once fell in love deeper than she ever let anyone know, deeper than perhaps she even understood herself, and then that love ended before she was ready and something raw and savage shook off its dormancy and rose to life within her. It started with guns and arrived at a moment of primal decimation, emptying the insides of a quiet, beautiful thing.
That night my mother stayed over at Len’s cabin. In the evening, at Len’s encouragement, she sat at his desk beside the wood-burning stove and composed a poem in the light of the dancing flames—the first she’d ever written. She stayed awake with her thoughts long after Len had gone to bed without her, trying to make sense of what she’d done that day. The smell and stain of the deer lingered on her hands.
In time, her feelings formed into words, and she put those words to paper, sometimes shutting her eyes as they came into being. She was not impressed by what she wrote, she told me. Only amazed by what she saw reflected in the words. The next morning Len took the poem into his workshop, copied it onto parchment with his own black ink, and stretched my mother’s soul over a rack. I’ve yet to read it and likely won’t.
To be perfectly honest, she hasn’t asked me to.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.