Denise Uyehara





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When I was sixteen I watched my mother fire a gun. My boyfriend at the time took my family and me to a firing range in Riverside. Standing on a wooden walkway that looked like someone's front porch in the South, we shot Springfields and Colt 45s for two hours. After I finished, I put down my shotgun on the shelf, looked to my right, and noticed my mother firing a handgun. Her feet were planted firmly on the ground and she looked straight ahead with her arms outstretched, gripping a black revolver with both hands. She pulled the trigger at steady intervals--bang, bang, bang. I wondered what she was thinking: was she thinking of killing or protecting someone. Or had they become the same thing.

I've only set foot in a firing range once since then. I signed up for an orientation class at the Beverly Hills Gun Club, taught by a retired cop. It was Memorial Day weekend and most gun lovers must have been out in the desert shooting at rabbits or coke cans because it was just me and another woman. Women, the cop said, often make better marksmen because they fire deliberately. They don't act like Rambo. They don't waste shots. He put a gun in front of each of us. It looked like a black sledgehammer. My palms got sweaty and my face warmed up like the time I had a crush on Mac Sterling in junior high. The barrel lay open and I could count the empty chambers.

He said You could pick it up, and that's when we realized we'd been standing there for an entire minute staring at our weapons without touching them. He said, You can tell whose going to be in the class by what they do when you lay a fire arm in front of them, most people immediately start playing with them and pointing at the lights and each other, and sometimes people say they wouldn't want a gun in their house because they are afraid it might 'go off', but the reality is a gun doesn't just spontaneously 'go off', so as long as you don't have kids or jokers around and you know what the hell you are doing and you know how to respect its power, it's not gonna 'go off', it's gonna serve you, and if anyone breaks into your house, you shoot to bring them down, that's what a gun is for.

And the deal was that since we had paid for the course we got to use our first firearm for free, plus we received unlimited ammo for the rest of the day. We fired Colts and Smith & Wesson semi-automatic LadySmiths, designed with a thinner grip for the female hand.

As I fired I thought of my mother.

Richard loved D & D, Dungeons & Dragons. I often passed by him at lunchtime while he rolled dice and hollered like an excited giant towering over Joshua Cummings, the boy with MS and a book bag on wheels. Pale boys, curly hair the color of snail shells, pimpled skin. Their white knuckles gripped the life out of cards--purple worms, wizards, elves. Richard waited at the same bus stop with me and the rest of the kids. One guy called him a fag and he chased him, yelling You butthead, while they pelted each other with blue horn shaped flowers that stained their clothing.

My mother told me this: I saw Richard Anderson at the bus stop this morning. It looked like he missed the bus so he was waiting for the next one. I was on my way to work, so I stopped and asked him if he needed a ride. And on the way, he told me what had happened this summer. Did you know this girl ran out in front of his car and he hit her and she died? It wasn't his fault, she just darted out.

You cannot erase the sequence: It was sunny as she crossed the street in front of you. You did not see her until she stepped off the curb, turned her head left, her eyes at her nine o'clock and yours at noon, straight ahead, it seemed as if you only tapped her body but the hood shook and she rose, her barrettes scratching the window. You stopped and got out, your skin sweating, you leaned over her, she looked up at the sky. You searched but found no signs of blood. You were sure she would get up, she must be playing a sick joke, but her stare passed through you and told you your future.

Once, an old geezer in his Cadillac hit me in my Mercury Montclair. We were two boats at war in a sea of automobiles in Goldenwest College parking lot. I was taking a summer school course in trig so I could get into calculus my senior year. We exchanged information. His license said he was born in 1910. He had lived through World War II and for all I knew served over seas. I was born in 1966 and watched the Korean War on M*A*S*H*.

Later, the geezer said it was my fault and I ended up taking him to small claims court. On the day of our hearing, I wore my dark blue dress, the one with pleats I had carefully ironed the night before. My mother sat next to me in court when the judge looked at the evidence. I offered photographs of the damage. As the geezer handed the judge diagrams he'd drawn with lines, measurements and the angles of our two cars. I wondered what his wife thought of him. Did he draw diagrams to explain a broken vase or dish in the kitchen?

The judge could tell the guy had hit me. When we got outside the courtroom, the old geezer sat down at a bench in the hallway and wrote a check and said Well, I guess this is a big gomen nasai and I said Ie, dame desu which was the only phrase I could think of from that semester of Japanese Conversation, a phrase my sensei used to say whenever we answered her incorrectly, a curt No, that's wrong. I could tell my mother was going to say something but instead she stopped herself and I realized she knew I needed to handle this on my own. I wondered for a split second if the guy thought she just couldn't speak English. We turned and left him, my heels clicking down the hallway while everything else remained silent, including my rage which was slowly rooting itself in a fertile soil of contempt. I deposited the check that same hour.

Half a year later I think I saw the old geezer at the Del Taco. I was eating with my friends and I remember this old man sat down alone at the table to my right, and Charlene Li, who had this perfect view of him, got really quiet and covered her eyes and said I can't look. But I did, and I think he was pushing a burrito into his face, and all the cheese and beans were gushing out. I didn't look directly because I knew in my bones it was him. I didn't want us to recognize each other under a different set of circumstances.

My mother tried on sunglasses that wrapped around her head and made her look like a bug. We climbed into my dad's T-Bird. She said her glasses were New Wave.

“I’m trying to be cool, she said, I was a 'nert' growing up.”

“I laughed. The word’s ‘nerd’, Mom.”

She adjusted her sunglasses with one hand, steering the car with the other. “Oh, well,” she said, “we didn't have that word when I was in school. We had 'Pachucos', 'Nihonjins', 'Hakujins', 'Jews' and 'Pointdexters'. And did you know, I was in a gang? “

“Come on, no way.”

“But a gang for good kids. Our parents encouraged us to be in this one, to keep us out of trouble. We called ourselves the Night Owls. We went to sock hops and basketball games, there were eleven of us. Stan was the only one with a car--that's why we let him in. Back then you could always walk or take a bus.”

She drove into the intersection while we talked and made a left hand turn in front of an oncoming pick-up truck. The truck screeched and she hit the brakes hard. We froze. The cars were two feet from each other. Then the driver sped off while he fired his horn. My mother finished making her turn and drove one more block, but her calm demeanor deteriorated quickly. She pulled over and stopped at the curb. She took off her sunglasses. We sat in silence.

“I can't see with these,” she finally said, wiping a tear from each eye.

We sat and listened to the sound of traffic rushing by. She started driving again, slowly at first, until she merged in with the other cars. Then she started humming a tune. After a while I couldn't hear it. And though I kept my eyes open, watching the oncoming traffic, I wanted to close them and dream that we were not all on the brink of disaster.

The bus was crowded; we sat together. Spit wads, chatter, bumps. Richard and I talked about physics, he drew me a triangle in my notebook, showed me how a fulcrum worked. My mind drifted back to that big grass field behind the school, the one that flooded into a knee-deep lake after a three-day storm, where the boys brought their Boogie Boards and glided across the water. Richard wrote out a formula for torques in his scrawled writing that looked like tiny black twigs on paper. We would compete for the top scores in physics that semester, but Joshua, dragging his book bag on wheels and slurring his words, would beat us all.

Daniel Vu's mother was a private eye. My mother and Mrs. Vu often shopped for clothes together in Little Saigon, then would stop to eat glazed kiwi fruit tarts and sip coffee at their favorite French Vietnamese cafe. Mrs. Vu owned a concealed weapon, my mother told me, which she carried in a holster under her taupe blazer. My mother said at first it made her a little nervous to dine with a friend who was armed, but after a while she grew accustomed to the idea. I asked her if she would ever carry a gun like that, and she said, after a moment’s thought, If I were a private detective I guess I would.

Richard told me it would have been poor form to attend the girl's funeral, so all that weekend he studied for the S.A.T. instead. He met the girl's parents a few months later, just before school started. They said they wanted to see him, and Richard and his mother met them at the church the parents attended, after service. He had never been inside a church.

He said they liked him, as much as parents could like a kid who kills their kid. They all shook hands, and the mothers cried. But even though Richard told them he was sorry, he felt someone was staring at him from several pews back.

It was weird in that place, he said, the altar had nothin' on it, so what do they sacrifice there, lambs?

Children put salt on slugs, they have a curiosity for how things work. This morning you woke up to realize that before you have kissed a girl, you've killed one. At breakfast your mother tells you that you have a gift for science, she suggests Why don't you try MIT or Berkeley? Your physics teacher knows you'd do well there, says you have a curiosity for how things work. Physics, torques, gravity. You understand the weight of water and air and their velocity as they fall from tall buildings. Walking to the bus stop, you decide if you could start your life over, then none of this would have happened. You would have new parents, your mother would drive a T-bird, you would go to a different school, join the band, learn to play the trumpet, maybe study engineering and music in college, and even put the two subjects together, and make them heavy with water and paper with musical notes falling off their edges, and you would run through the halls screaming Eureka! I've discovered it: Machines work like music.

I am driving up Goldenwest Hill in darkness. The road invades the tall dried grass, forging a pathway for me in the family Toyota. I roll the windows down, breathing in the scent of coyote piss and sage, cataloging the smells and images of my first drive alone at night, the drive that will make me more guy than girl, my secret evening that will launch me into new-found freedom. Like the cream from an icy pitcher, the fog fills the barren land before me: the dips in the road, the fields where giant metal drills, birds slowly lowering their long beaks into the ground, siphon up oil, and the dirt kicked up by rabbits as they scatter at the sound of the motor, their thin hind legs bucking in the headlights of my car.

Though the night is cold and the hill scares me, I am determined. I tighten my grip on the wheel. I hear my driving instructor in my head, Just remember, there are no such thing as car accidents, someone is always at fault, that's why we shall refer to the mistakes people make out there as car collisions. Do not assume anything. If you ASSUME you make an ASS outta U and ME.

Last summer my sister caused a small fender-bender at the bottom of this hill. She lost her brakes in the Mercury Montclair, and not yet having the experience to pump the brakes gently, she locked them instead, bumping a station wagon as it waited at the red light below. Inside sat a mother and two kids. Thank god I was just creeping along, my sister said, no one was hurt. As for my car, the Toyota, it has good breaks and plus I can always downshift to a stop.

I do not rest at the top of the hill, but ride over it gently, letting gravity carry me as it pleases, like a body surfer in the crest of a wave. My body goes downward but for a second my heart does not follow, clinging stubbornly to the safety it knew just before the fall, and that’s when I remember the last time I rode the bus. I was looking out the window when my mother pulled up next to us in the T-Bird, a white silk scarf wrapped around her head, tied under her chin in a neat bow. She had her dark sunglasses on, though now she seemed accustomed to how they interfered with her vision. And in a trick of the brain, I could have sworn I saw a black revolver resting on the seat next to her, as if it were her passenger. She waved to me and smiled, as radiant as a movie star, and Richard said, Hey isn't that your mom? and I slumped lower in my seat, I didn't want the other kids to notice my mother in her bug glasses, waving to me on the brink of disaster.

















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