"The Climate in Florida"
Her first week in Orlando, Marianne Corey read an item in the Sentinel about a thirty-year-old woman who accidentally shot herself with her own handgun. The story said the gun was a pearl-handled .25-caliber revolver, and the woman "forgot" she was carrying it. She'd gone to the ladies' room in a restaurant near Fashion Square, and when she lowered her pantyhose in the stall the gun fell onto the floor and discharged. The bullet hit her in the right calf. It was Marianne's introduction to the Florida law that allowed ordinary people to carry concealed weapons, and she used the newspaper clipping to ridicule the law in front of one of her evening classes at Orange Community College.
"Accidental shootings must be the state pastime," she told them. "Every day in the papers there's a new one--little brothers killing little sisters with Daddy's gun, kids getting shot in their schoolyards. At least this story was funny, and the woman didn't die."
She was testing the boundaries. The first day she walked into the classroom, Marianne had been tentative, uneasy about the students in front of her--older, "non-traditional"--sizing her up and rolling their eyes when they heard her accent; about teaching a course called The Business Letter, for heaven's sake; even about being in the South. Now, two weeks into the semester, she felt easier--easy enough to assert herself, to express her opinions even though they might not always fit the course syllabus.
When she finished her gun tirade, nobody said anything. No disagreement. No support. But when the difficulties of the complimentary close had been ironed out and the class was over, a couple of students stopped at her desk. One was a frowzy blond girl with unreal eyebrows and mascara as thick as brownie mix.
"I don't bring my gun to school," she told Marianne, "but I keep it in the glove compartment of my car. I wouldn't not have one, Miz Corey. One day I was driving home from the beach and these two boys in a blue pickup were harassing me --you know: pulling alongside, and dropping back, and then pulling alongside again. Laughing and joking and talking trash. I was getting scared, being alone and all. So finally I reached over and got my gun--it's actually my daddy's .45, a semi-automatic--and the next time these boys came alongside I just showed them it. Held it up in the window so's they could see what it was. They took right off; passed me and drove away just as fast as they knew how." The girl gave Marianne a long, solemn look. "I believe before you criticize the law, you should consider that there are times a woman needs protection," she said.
And right behind this girl was a man she'd already noticed because in every meeting of the class he seemed to be studying her, cataloguing her words and gestures, never taking his eyes off her. A good-looking man, fortyish--she'd noticed that too.
"It seems to me," he said now, "that an attractive person like yourself shouldn't make fun of a law that might be helpful, especially you teaching a night class, and even more especially as the days get shorter."
"That almost sounds threatening," she told him.
He looked sheepish. "Not intended," was all he said.
Evan Giles. She looked him up on her seating chart before she packed her briefcase to leave.
Evan would say, later on, after she'd slept with him and they confessed their first impressions of each other, "They all figured you for some kind of snowbird, taking on a business class for the winter so you didn't have to freeze off your tits up in Michigan or Montana someplace." "But not you?" she had said to that, and he shook his head. "Hell, no," he'd smirked, "I knew what you were: a little Yankee sexpot, ripe for the dipping-in."
Uh-huh, ripe, she would think, remembering she'd had three weeks of finding a lakeside apartment, replacing her Massachusetts driver's and auto licenses, driving in the Orlando traffic where she'd learned to count three when the light went green so she wouldn't get broadsided by cross-traffic running the yellow after it had already turned red. Florida. If it weren't for the climate, she wrote her mother, this would be Hell.
That was before she and Evan got close. He'd made a habit of walking with her to her car--the red Mustang she'd driven from Boston with only one flat tire the whole way--starting with the night she'd criticized the gun laws. One thing happened, and then another. Before she realized how fast he was working, she was drinking with him at a blue-collar lounge near the campus, and one night just before Thanksgiving she stayed the night at his trailer, in a bed whose linens smelled of stale beer and sweat.
That first morning, she was awake before him, knowing exactly what she had done and telling herself she had no regrets in spite of past bad experience. She'd showered while Evan slept on, wedging herself into the stall, keeping her elbows close to her sides while she soaped and shampooed and tried to rinse her hair properly under the weak water pressure. Then she'd made instant coffee and stood at the door of the trailer, drinking the bland liquid and surveying the trailer park. It was a world of clothes poles and Hot Wheels tricycles and sandboxes willy-nilly on concrete aprons between the rows of shabby trailers--"manufactured homes" they were called now. She'd never seen trailers this close up, had never much noticed them except on the television news after high winds. Even in benign sunlight a trailer park looked like a disaster scene.
She didn't give up her apartment on the lake, but she spent more and more of her time at Evan's, driving out Alafaya Trail to spend weekends. Sometimes, a matter of self-preservation, she did his laundry. Usually the two of them sat around watching football games and drinking. The ethics of the relationship--sleeping with her student!--she pushed to a back closet of her mind. It was all so casual and irresponsible, it made the question of morality trivial.
"So what do you do for a living?" she'd asked that first time. "What's your job?"
"I'm in swimming pools. Maintenance. Cleaning.
Sometimes I hire out, pitch solar heating. You know: swim all winter." He fished into his shirt pocket and handed her a business card. Evan-Lee Pool Service.
"You must do all right," she said. "Everybody in Florida seems to own a pool."
"It's a living," he said.
"Why the name? I mean, where's the Lee come from?"
"Ex-wife, Betsy Lee Hargraves. We argued about the name. Matter of fact, we argued about practically everything. I said Evan-Lee sounded serious, like we really meant to do good work. 'Heavenly Pool Service.' You get it?"
"I got it," Marianne said.
"It's okay work," he said. "Guy calls up, says come put a leaf trap on my Kreepy Krauly--that's a pool vac--and I say okay. He pays fifty bucks, I get fifteen of that plus the twenty for the call. I make my own hours, show up when I can."
"That's Florida," she said.
"Showing up when you can. Somebody says they'll stop by on Friday to fix something. Then they show up the following Wednesday. I've learned that much about Florida."
He grinned at her. "Sometimes things come up," he said. "Sometimes you just want to loaf, look at the pictures in Playboy, lie around and jerk off."
"That would explain it," she said.
"Sometimes you get the urge to go fishing."
"You made your point."
"Sometimes you even got to do your homework, so your teacher doesn't keep you in, after." He stood up, tucked in his shirttail. "You want another beer?"
She hefted the can in her hand.
"Sure," she said. "Why not?"
She drained the last of her beer, handed Evan the can. He carried it out to the kitchen and tossed it into a wastebasket under the sink. She watched him finish off his own beer, standing at the counter with the evening sun lighting him from the waist up. Flat stomach, firm ass. Tall. Nice ordinary profile. She knew what she was doing with this man in his shabby trailer halfway down the highway to nowhere.
"You want a splash of Beam in your beer?" he said. "A little boilermaker action?"
She watched him pop open two cans, take a couple of swallows from one of them and top it up with the bourbon. All the while he was humming a tune she thought she recognized. An old tune she might have learned a dozen years ago when she was playing flute in the high school band.
When he came back into the room and handed her the fresh beer, she had to ask him.
"What's that song you're humming?"
He shrugged. "Just a riff," he said.
"No, but it sounds familiar."
She waited. She knew he could see he'd have to tell her what it was, or she'd keep on asking.
"It's a thing we used to sing in middle school," he said. "'Don't let your dingle-dangle dangle in the dirt. Pick it up and wrap it in your shirt.'"
"Oh," she said.
He sat back on the couch and rolled the side of the beer can across his forehead.
"You asked," he said.
All right, he was coarse. Was that such a bad thing? She had come to Florida at the end of a crashed relationship with a married man--not that the man had deceived her; nothing so trite. All along she had known about the wife, had sneaked around to motel rooms until he moved out, had lived and traveled with him while the divorce proceedings dragged on. Then, when the decree was final, he changed. One night he was her guilty lover, and the next he was using fists and feet to show her who was master. No wonder the wife let him go.
Only a day or two before setting out for Florida, Marianne had a letter from the man. In it he told her how much he regretted what he had done to her--how he missed her wit, "the happy times over dinner," the nights they danced away. He described the two of them as if they had lived in a sentimental motion picture, and all they had to do now was hold hands and wait for the next reel to be loaded into the projector. Her last evening in Boston, while she was packing the Mustang, he had phoned her. "I don't suppose--" he began. "That's right," Marianne said. "You don't." "It's all right," he said. "I'll find you." Was it a promise or a threat?
And now she was with Evan, who drank too much beer laced with whiskey, fell asleep in front of television, and sang songs with lyrics like "Marianne's a friend of mine, she will do it any time." Evan. A man who worked when he felt like it, stayed in school because he was screwing his teacher, and himself carried a concealed weapon--something she discovered one afternoon in the passionate act of undressing him after they'd been out at a sports bar on University Boulevard, the gun clunking to the floor as she tugged at the belt of his trousers.
In the excitement of the moment she noticed only that it was a revolver, the barrel dark blue metal, the handle pale brown and cross-hatched, and she winced when it struck the floor, as if it might have gone off. She said nothing to Evan until the lovemaking was done and he'd opened a beer.
"What about the gun?" she said. "I might have killed us, you or me."
"Not likely," he said. "The safety was on. Anyway, it's not a hair-trigger. You got to squeeze it like you mean it."
"Why do you need a gun?"
"It's not a question of needing it," he said. "Not now anyway." He finished his beer and crushed the aluminum can out of shape. "A long time ago I worked at the Kennel Club, and sometimes I had to carry cash to a bank downtown. That was when I needed a gun."
"You worked for a vet?" she said.
"I worked at the Kennel Club. You don't know what that is? It's the dog track, over in Sanford. The cash was betting money. I'd have forty, fifty, maybe sometimes a hundred thousand dollars needed to be deposited. Keep it in the track's safe overnight, bank it in the morning."
"Like they say: I was a very attractive target. Potentially." He grinned at her, a sly, sidelong grin. "So I'd got a special permit to carry a weapon for self-defense. When I quit the job I had to give it up."
He tossed the deformed beer can into a corner of the bedroom.
"Those days, I carried a nine-millimeter that belonged to the track. Now I carry a .38-calibre S-and-W. You know what S-and-W means?"
He laughed and put his arms around her. He hugged her hard, his cheek against hers and his beard harsh on her skin.
"I love how ignorant you are," he said. "It's the initials for Smith & Wesson, who don't so far as I know stick their nose in people's bedrooms."
"So do you carry large sums of money now? Now that you don't work for the dog track?"
"It was a little while back," he said. "When the state of Florida passed its gun law, it minded me how much I missed carrying one. There's something about it, you know?"
"A sense of power." Marianne said.
"Different from that," Evan said. "More like a sense of security, you know? You tell me go do a thing, I know I can do it--no doubts, no hesitating."
"Security, power--it's the same thing. You're playing word games."
"No," he said, "not the same. 'Power' is tough. 'Security' is cool and confident. I reach back to touch the .38 in my belt, I feel easy, on top of things, nobody's going to shake me up."
"Except me," she said. "I hope."
"Anyway," he said, "when the new law came in I applied for a permit and bought the .38."
"And got your strength back," Marianne said, knowing she was being sarcastic. "Like Samson."
"If that's what you want to think," he said. "Then maybe you'll be what's-her-name. Delilah."
She brooded about the revolver--how she thought it might have fired from the shock of hitting the bedroom floor --and the next day she reminded him about the woman who'd accidentally shot herself when she went to the bathroom.
"Just because one person is an idiot," Evan said, "that don't mean the law's no good. This was a stupid woman. And sticking the gun inside her underpants or wherever, I doubt she'd have been able to get to it if she needed it. She'd be better off to carry it in her purse."
"Then you never looked inside a woman's purse."
"You mean how cluttered it is? How much stuff is in there? Sure I have." He reached over to take Marianne's purse off the end of the couch. "I don't mean an ordinary bag like this one," he said. "I mean one designed special."
He showed her, holding the purse so one end faced her.
"If this bag was made to carry a handgun, just for example, one end would be open--like a sleeve, say--and the gun would slip right inside."
"And it would slip right out again."
Evan shook his head. "Velcro," he said. "The sleeve has this Velcro closure. When you need the weapon, you spread the sides apart and reach in." He grinned. "Make you think of anything?"
Never mind his references to sex, she was impressed by Evan's intensity--the way he'd given his energy to describing the special purse. It was what she liked about him in the classroom: an enthusiasm that galvanized the other students, pulled them into discussions about tech-writing matters--passive versus active, comma splices, concrete and abstract detail--that would otherwise be boring, even for her.
"Another thing she was dumb about--that woman who shot herself in the leg--was what she was carrying. A .25-caliber piece is foolish; it's got no stopping power. You shoot somebody with that, you've got no guarantee the guy won't keep on coming. You ought to have at least a .32--or maybe a .357 magnum."
"Not me," Marianne said.
"Folks in general," he said.
February came--the second semester at OCC--and Evan was no longer one of her students. After class Marianne walked to her car alone. Most nights she drove home, graded papers, made notes from the new rhetoric book she was using. Sometimes she drove to Evan's, wondering what his mood might be. The pool business was slow in winter; he puttered around the trailer: repairing a broken window screen, taking the propane tank to Home Depot for refilling. Mornings he watched soap operas, drank boilermakers, made a pile of empty beer cans in the corner under the television set. He was happy to see her, made love with her when he was not too drunk, but life was different. She thought that because she was no longer Evan's teacher, she had given up some kind of advantage.
One night when she left the classroom building and approached her car, she could see that someone--a man--was sitting in the passenger seat, silhouetted against the rose-colored floodlighting. She froze, was deciding if she should run back to the building and phone the security people, when the Mustang's dome light came on and Evan stepped out to meet her. She breathed again; at the same time she felt a happy "lift"--as if time had reversed itself and Evan had come back from a distant place where she hadn't been allowed to follow. He opened his arms to her, took her against him and kissed her.
"The best hello I've had since last semester," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Nothing special," he said. "Just thinking about you."
"But now we've got two cars on campus. I'll still have to drive home alone."
"No, no," he said. "Bruno stopped by for a beer, and I asked him if he'd drop me off."
"All right," she said. "You want me to drive?"
"Better let me," Evan said. "I know where we're going."
She got in on the passenger side. On the backseat was a brown paper bag she didn't recognize.
"How'd you get into the car?" she said.
"I took your spare key. I got here about twenty minutes ago."
"What's in the bag?"
He drove north on Semoran to Winter Park, then turned east on Aloma. After a mile or so he pulled into a parking lot between a travel agency and a sports store.
"What in the world?" Marianne said.
"You can open the bag now," Evan told her.
She reached into the back seat and brought the bag to the front. Evan was fumbling over her head at the dome light, and as the bag rattled open, the light came on. Out of the bag she slid a concealed thing, heavy for its size. Whatever it was, it was covered in bubble wrap--a pink plastic sheeting wound around and around it, the plastic secured by cellophane tape.
"Open it," Evan said.
She peeled off the tape and pulled open the bubble wrap. The thing slid into her hand: a revolver, pearl-handled, its chrome barrel rainbowed under a thin patina of oil.
"Oh, my," she said.
"What do you think?" he said. "It's a .32. I got a deal on it."
"Why now?" she asked. "Why tonight?"
"D'you like it?"
"I don't know. I didn't expect it." She pushed the pink wrapping onto the floor of the car.
He put his hand under her chin and drew her face to his for a kiss. "I wanted you to have it. Me not being in your class to walk with you."
She held the gun in both her hands. "It weighs a ton," she said. "Will you teach me?"
"You bet." He kissed her again. "We'll go to the range together. It'll be like a date --like the movies only sexier."
"Shooting is sexy?"
He switched off the dome light. "Wait and see," he said. And then, because the place where they'd parked was isolated and the stores were closed, he made love to her--as if the confined discomfort of the Mustang were the most natural setting in the world for it.
Afterward, when she had put herself together and brushed her hair, she took up the gift revolver and cradled it in both hands.
"You don't honestly believe I could shoot somebody, do you?" she said.
"Sometimes it's enough that they know you're packing."
"That you're armed," he said.
"Armed and dangerous," she said. "It has a ring to it."
It was almost midnight when she arrived at her apartment after leaving Evan at his trailer. The courtyard grass was damp with dew that shone silver under a nearly-full moon. As she climbed the narrow steps to her door she could hear the telephone ringing inside, but by the time she'd turned the key in the two locks and gotten the door open, the ringing had stopped. Probably it was Evan, making sure she was safely home.
She put the bubble-wrapped handgun on the kitchen counter and set her purse beside it. In the living room, the light was flashing on the answering machine.
But it wasn't Evan she heard when she pushed the red button. It was her married man from Boston. "I've found you," he said. Just that. I've found you, three little words, and the sound of his voice brought everything back to her: the guilty sex, the gleaming black Jag idling in the dark outside her apartment, the man's unfair power.
The last time he hit her, he'd been on a business trip; he said his flight was late, that it didn't arrive at Logan until after midnight, but Marianne knew better. Even so, she'd been worried for him, and she said as much.
"You're not my keeper," he told her.
He had spoken mildly, but he closed his right hand into a fist and Marianne knew by then what was going to happen. She'd braced herself for the hurt--the flat of the hand, the back of it where his ring might leave a gemstone cut, the corrugation of knuckles. What she hadn't anticipated was where he struck her--not in the face or on the arms she raised to protect herself, but squarely and with enormous force in her stomach. It doubled her over with pain.
My God, he's killed me, was what she'd thought. Her breath was gone; probably her heart stopped--just for that instant of impact--then started beating again. She dropped to her knees, suffocating, her lungs clutching at any air, her vision misted by tears: his shoes, the Florsheims she had bought him for his birthday. His far-off words: "I'm going to bed. You work it out."
How had he found her? Her mother, she imagined. Mothers liked men who had money, who drove expensive cars, who were in charge of their lives.
She went back to the kitchen and stuffed the bubble wrap into the wastebasket under the sink. When she picked up the uncovered .32 it was even heavier than she remembered, and it lay cold in her hand. She held the gun by its handle, put a finger lightly on the trigger and pointed it at the coffee carafe at the end of the counter. What next? she asked herself.
It was as if by making her a gift of this shiny gun, Evan had conjured her old, abusive lover out of the thin air that lay between Orlando and Boston. She had not thought about him since Evan came into her life, had half forgotten standing before the mirror in his bathroom. But there had been nothing to see--no cut, no bruise, no evidence she'd been struck. How smart he was. His poor wife had taught him something.
The pistol range was in the basement of the gun shop, down a short flight of wooden stairs. It was brightly lighted and smelled of damp earth and what she supposed was burnt gunpowder. Two men were in the room ahead of her, standing at a narrow wooden barrier whose top formed a kind of counter where she could see the man nearest her had laid his cigarettes and a silver lighter alongside a yellow ammunition box. Both men were firing; when each gun went off, it gave a little hop at the end of the arm holding it.
It was the noise of the firing that surprised her: not the bang, bang of the comics, or the pow! of boys' games, but a sort of overloud pop that left almost no echo in the cave of the range.
Evan came down the stairs behind her. "Not what you expected?" he said.
"I didn't know what to expect." She looked at him over her shoulder. "It smells," she said.
He took her elbow and steered her along the barrier. "This is us," he said. "Four and five. You're five."
"All right," she said.
"And that's the target you're aiming at." He pointed down range. The target was about fifty feet away, concentric circles imposed over the frontal silhouette of a man. "Number five," Evan said. "You hit a different target, you're boosting somebody else's score."
He balanced his gym bag on the edge of the counter and arranged weapons and ammunition; he handed Marianne a headset.
"Everybody wears this," he said. "So the noise doesn't bust your eardrums, O.K.?"
"Now you load your weapon." He took the revolver from her and slapped it against his hand. The cylinder flopped open. "Here," he said.
She opened the box of bullets, their tips jewelry-gold. She pushed them clumsily into the cylinder.
"If you were in the military," Evan said, "there'd be a whole ritual to this. The range officer would say, 'Ball ammunition, lock and load' and you'd do what you're doing now, and then he'd say, 'Ready on the right' and 'Ready on the left' and then 'Ready on the firing line.' Finally he'd say, 'Commence firing,' and you'd start shooting at your target."
"How do you know all that?"
"I was in the army. What did you think?"
"About twenty years ago. When I was a kid."
"That's why you like guns," Marianne said. "Not because you worked at the dog track."
"Just put on your headset," he told her. "Leave one ear uncovered so we can talk."
She pressed the cylinder into place and held the revolver in front of her with both hands.
"If you need to," Evan said, "you can support your gun-hand wrist with your free hand."
"I squint through one eye," she said. "Isn't that how people aim?"
"You sight down the length of the barrel. You line up this little tab against what you're aiming at."
"Which eye do I use?"
"I don't know. Are you right-eyed or left-eyed?"
"Don't be funny," she said. "Just tell me which one."
He backed away from her. "Here," he said. "Put your hands together and make a triangle out of your thumbs and first fingers." He demonstrated. "Make the triangle real small."
Marianne laid the revolver down and frowned at her hands; she made a triangle about two inches on a side.
"Now pretend you're looking through a keyhole," Evan said. "Look through it at my face."
She framed his face. "Bang, bang," she said.
"You've got your left eye over the keyhole," Evan said. "So you're left-eyed. That's the eye you aim with."
Marianne dropped her hands to her side. "If I'm left-eyed, do I hold the gun in my left hand?"
"Not if you're right-handed."
She pursed her lips. "It lacks symmetry," she said.
"Just do it." He stood behind her and encircled her with his arms. He held her right wrist--her gun-hand wrist--and lifted it in line with her target. "You start your aim above the target," he told her, "and you bring your weapon down to it, smoothly, very smoothly. You've got your index finger on the trigger. You're bringing the weapon down, down, always smoothly, no herky-jerky, and when your sights are on the target you squeeze the trigger. You don't pull the trigger. When somebody talks about 'pulling the trigger,' that's not what they mean. If you really pulled the trigger you'd probably also pull your sights off target and you'd miss. Got it?"
"Squeeze," she said.
"Now your aim might wobble. You might be on the target, then off, then on again. So you're squeezing and you increase the pressure of your finger on the trigger whenever your sights are on target. You don't know exactly when your weapon is going to fire. What you do know is: when it fires, your sights will be on the target."
There was Evan's intensity again, the concentration she had admired from the beginning. Nothing distracted him from a point he wanted to make; it was only reasonable, since he had conjured her married man, that Evan be the one to explain the rules for making him vanish.
While he talked, he guided her hand down and over the target. Now he released her and dropped his hands to her waist. "Got all that?" he said.
"Then slide the safety off and go to it."
"You're supposed to say, 'Commence firing.'"
"No. In this situation the range officer would say, 'Fire at will.'"
He slipped the headset in place on her right ear and bent to kiss her gently on the neck.
"Your hair smells good," he said.
She uncovered the ear. "What?"
"I said your hair smells good."
She replaced the headset. "Watermelon," she said.
The target was so near--this was a pistol range, Evan had reminded her, not a rifle range--Marianne couldn't imagine not hitting it. But when she brought the sights of the .32 down over the bull's-eye and squeezed the trigger, the revolver leaped in her hand with a force both upward and backward that upset her balance.
Evan caught her with one arm across her shoulders. "Whoa, Nellie," he said. He was laughing.
She slipped the headset off and let it hang around her neck. "I didn't expect that," she said.
"You best use both hands," he told her.
"What did I hit?"
"I don't see anybody down," he said. "I guess you hit nothing."
"I missed the target?"
"By a mile. Try again."
They stayed at the range another half-hour, Evan with the blue-barreled .38 clustering his shots in the chest of his imaginary enemy, Marianne with her silver .32, gripping her right wrist with all her strength as the revolver pulsed and jumped and flew with her, her bullets making a scatter of holes that covered the target unpredictably, sometimes hitting the man's outline, but usually not.
Then she began to get the hang of it. Perhaps her wrist and arm and shoulder were numbed, or she'd found a rhythm that gave the gun a will of its own. When she had reloaded for the last time--Evan impatient to catch the FSU game on the tube--she felt relaxed and focused and smooth. The outline on the target had become real. She could read the monogram on the pocket of the married man's dress shirt with its false french cuffs, she could see him standing beside a car--was it the Jaguar?--at the far end of the Shooters Haven lot.
She fired a round and saw it catch the man in the left shoulder. My God, she thought. She heard him beg, clutching the wound, blood pulsing under his hand, and she squeezed the trigger again. A hole appeared in the center of his forehead, and he fell to his knees and stopped begging. She fired once, twice, three times. A triangle of black dots marked where his heart was. Each time she fired, her eyes teared and her mouth made the words: My God. My God.
"That's it," Evan shouted to her. "That's it."
My God. She realized she'd been saying the words out loud. Had Evan heard them? She wondered if they were like a prayer, and if they were, what did Evan imagine she was praying for?
From Who Will Hear Your Secrets? (Johns Hopkins, 2012); first published in The Sewanee Review. Copyright © 2012 Blue Garage Co.