The Family Galaxy
Ruby Bronstein was nine years old the winter she found a gun. It was a Tuesday in December; she and her family were on vacation in Maine.
That morning, after breakfast, Ruby stood by the window of the closed-in side porch, watching her brothers. They were far out on the beach, moving across the expanse in front of the house and then stopping: a cluster of dark, stop-and-go bodies like raised, mobile moles on the pure flat of low tide.
It was always strange, she thought, to watch people moving outdoors when you were in. A window of cold, you saw faces huddled into collars and hands in pockets, and you understood it, you believed it, and sometimes, you became unaware of the warmth of your own body and more present in the sight you were witnessing, so that an exposed patch of skin was alarming, dry and bitterly frigid. She watched her three brothers move: she saw them laugh, Aaron throwing back his head, and with a gloved fist, reaching out to punch Nathan on the arm; she saw Abe point out to the distant mouth of the inlet, where the few boats moored in the harbor were just white dots on the dark water. Despite how far they were, she felt as if she were watching them from a few feet away.
Behind her, in the kitchen, her mother was washing the dishes. "Rube, why don't you go join them?"
The sound of her mother's voice made Ruby aware of how intently she was watching her brothers. Her mother's voice cut through the air and, like a lasso, pulled Ruby back from the beach. She was warm; she was standing at the window.
And she did want to join them, she did, despite having earlier given in to the feeling of being left out. When her brothers had moved to go out to the beach, when Aaron had said, "Let's go outside," and the three of them had gone into the closet by the porch, rummaging underneath the coatrack for hats and rubber boots, Ruby had sat at the table pretending to read Bridge to Terabithia.
But now, with a decisive movement, she turned from the window and moved from the porch, past her mother in the kitchen, past her father, reading a Hebrew book in the living room their dog, Wally, lying awkwardly in his lap and up the stairs to her bedroom to dress. In the closet off the porch she slipped her feet into a pair of too-big rubber boots; grabbed a coat, hat, and mittens; and moved to the back door. She stepped into the swirl of cold air outside as into the darkness of the house at night when, after getting up to pee, she had to make her way, blind, back up to her room, holding her arms out to feel for walls.
Ruby's brothers often moved as a unit when they were in Maine, with nowhere else for them to go, no other friends for them to escape to, and no way for them to distinguish their three separate worlds. At home in Massachusetts they were wildly different boys. Abe, nineteen and a college freshman, was tall and serious, with thick eyebrows that nearly touched at the bridge of his nose. He was the one with the "brains," as their parents put it, a virtuoso violinist by the age of six, the favorite of all his teachers, the one who excelled at everything he tried without much effort. He used to be obsessed with his appearance, taking multiple showers a day (prompting the nickname Mr. Clean from Nathan), but in the past few years he had developed terrible acne and grown his hair long. Aaron was skinny and precocious and covered in freckles; he was the most active of the three; already, at seventeen, he'd been to the emergency room four times for stitches and once to remove a fishing hook from his earlobe. Nathan was fourteen, with a thick body and a head of blondish curls. He was a cellist and guitarist, a lover of music, completely uninterested in school. Constantly calm, rarely angry or tense, he found humor in the subtlest details words, facial inflections, body language. He created all the family nicknames and was the one Ruby felt closest to; her eldest brothers were present but much more distant stars, Nathan the telescope she could hold and look through at the whole family galaxy.
At home, it was easier to ignore, but in Maine, the division between Ruby and her brothers was more pronounced. The boys came together as if they were not three stars but a planet, and when Ruby was with them, she was a satellite moving in their gravitational pull. She could never completely be with them as they were with one another she was the girl, the little one, the one they used as a prop in their games (a favorite a few years ago was "Blintz," where they'd roll her up in a thick blanket and then push her down the stairs). Yet to be with them was intoxicating, no matter what it entailed (tears, Indian sunburns, bruises); to be with them made her part of an undefeatable team.
Ruby's brothers, after all, were most of the reason she was who she was. They were the reason she raced all the boys at school during recess, letting her curls puff up wildly with the dust of the playground while the other girls stood around and watched; they were the reason she liked the Grateful Dead more than she liked the New Kids on the Block. They were the reason she loved video games, and basketball, and playing the violin, which Abe had played before her; they were the reason her best friend, Oscar, was a boy, and why she never got that into Cabbage Patch Kids.
Outside, she stood on the wooden landing and looked around her. Her brothers seemed farther away now than they had when she was inside. The smaller house next to theirs sat still, the window boxes filled with dried and cracking dirt coated with a layer of frost. The curtains in all the windows were drawn.
Ruby's parents rented the smaller house to a mother and son, the Kanes, whom the Bronsteins hardly ever saw. A few times, Ruby and Nathan had tried to spy under the curtains crawling on hands and knees around the Kane house, the grass prickling their skin, creeping up the sides of the house to the windowsills. These missions always ended in fits of giggles, or with Nathan saying "Run!" in a hoarse whisper, the two of them diving frantically across the lawn and into the safety of their own house. Ruby imagined now that she was being watched, tried to see movement in the curtains, a glimpse of eyes or hands. She saw nothing, but raised her hand to her forehead anyway in a salute the way Abe's friend Dan, who had joined the navy, had taught her.
In front of Ruby, on the Kanes' lawn, was a wooden dinghy, resting just where the land began to slope toward the beach. The boat looked out of place, she thought, on the frosted winter grass, like something from another planet. She imagined, briefly, the boat falling from the sky and landing there whooomp! intact on the lawn. The earth was so still it was hard to imagine that anyone would be disturbed by things, even boats, falling from the sky.
Ruby moved carefully down the wooden steps the boots awkward on her feet and across the lawn to where the beach began. This was always a place for careful footing; at the edge of the grass the ground grew deceptive, promising solidity where there was none, small peninsulas of earth flopping over the mud boundary at the top of the beach. She moved off the grass onto the slope of tiny rocks that began the beach, willing herself not to look for skipping stones, and with one tentative boot she stepped off the rocks onto the low-tide flat, testing the mud as she would test the temperature of a swimming pool.
The land the Bronsteins' houses sat on was private; the only other houses within sight were along the bank across the water maybe two hundred yards away. In front of the houses was a wide inlet, like a lake with mouths on either end, one mouth leading out to the ocean and the harbor they could see boats moored there in all seasons and the other leading around McKhekan and Hutches, the lumber company, to a less familiar area where the water rushed under a bridge and out to a marsh. The beach out beyond the lumberyard was where they once found a giant jellyfish that Ruby's brothers made her poke with a long piece of driftwood. She braced herself for the shock, vaguely proud to be the one to take the hit, but when she poked the stick into the jelly, nothing happened.
The open water in front of the property was wide, and when the tide was out, the inlet drained, the edge of the ocean moving back, back, exposing the water's muddy undersides its secret rocks, its pockets and pools and vulnerabilities to the world. The ocean drained like a bathtub and showed its insides, its seaweed and mussels and clams and creatures, exposing all the subtle movement and life of its body beneath its skin, inviting exploration of even its most private places. Ruby thought of their frequent exploration of the muddy low-tide flat as a violation of the ocean's privacy; she thought of the harshness of their booted feet sinking into its mud like hands plunging into an open wound, and when they pulled their boots out, when they sometimes had to reach down to hold on to their boots as they yanked so they didn't pull their feet clean out of them, Ruby felt the violence in this pulling, the fight between mud and human, and how humans always won. They pulled their feet and the mud made a farting sound as it tried to hold on but had to let go, and then they plunged them in again.
This was how she made her way then, across the flat toward her brothers, who had split their cluster and were walking at small distances from one another. She kept her head buried in the collar of her coat, her hands in her pockets, concentrating on each step. The mud was not sucking now, perhaps because it was too cold. She didn't understand why the water didn't freeze; she thought the temperature must be way below freezing. Was it because there was so much of it, or did it have something to do with the salt? Did salt water ever freeze? She thought she should remember to ask someone: maybe Abe knew.
Her brothers had their backs to her and their heads down, Abe and Aaron in thick dark coats, Nathan's an army green, ripped in two places, she knew, and then sewn. Suddenly, looking up at them, she felt a swoop, as if she had become for an instant a large bird, gliding over the expanse, looking down at her brothers and herself. How tiny she was, down there, bundled inside that puffy red coat! In a flash she felt the inlet as small, she saw the water pouring into the ocean just beyond the far mouth, she swooped out to the ocean that went on and on, and there were whales out there and whole islands and boats that were lost and would never be found, and that ocean didn't even know about this part of it, this part wasn't even a fingernail of that ocean's body, not even a fingernail. Then she swooped back and there she was, standing in the tiny inlet in front of her family's house, behind her brothers, who were themselves small. For an instant she was dizzy with it, and then it passed.
At her feet, wedged in the mud, she saw the intact carcass of a crab, legs and all, which she did not bend to pick up. Then she heard Abe's voice through the wind: "Hey Rube!"
She looked up at him. There was a strip of his face visible between his hat and the zipped-up collar of his coat. Aaron and Nathan raised their heads and turned, stiff like mummies, scanning the landscape until they found her, and she waved to them, a little wave with her hand at her side. Her arrival did not disturb or surprise them. Abe waved back to her.
It was then, just as Ruby began to cross the remaining distance to her brothers, who were now, she felt sure, beginning to be bored and therefore close to heading back to the house, that she caught sight of something sticking up from the ground: a small, roundish shape, a stark reddish orange against the dark brown of the mud. She bent to get a closer look; whatever it was, it was heavily rusted, and the shape of it protruding from the mud made her think of the round rubber triangle that Dr. Robb used to check her reflexes, hitting the pointiest edge against the soft pocket beneath her kneecap. She used her foot to try to dislodge the thing, digging her boot into the mud and lifting, and the top of it moved; she saw that the body of it was longer than Dr. Robb's triangle, it was attached to something that wouldn't pull free.
She took off her mittens and bent, taking hold of the triangle with her fingers and wiggling it. As soon as her fingers were exposed to the air they were painfully cold, cramped against the metal; she thought they might crack off if she didn't get the thing loose. She put her left hand in the pocket of her coat and felt it warming as she used her right one to pull. The mud was loosening, loosening, slowly letting go of its hold, she could see the thing emerging in a clump of mud, and she switched hands, using her left one to work on it. She was crouching now, all of her concentration focused, she wiggled it and pulled, and then with a sucking sound the mud offered it up in a big clump and it was free.
She felt a quickening in her chest as she looked down at it. For a moment she put both hands into her pockets, warming them. Her breath came out in a white cloud. She puckered her lips and blew it out like smoke.
"What you got, Rube?" she heard Abe call from a short distance away, his voice slightly muffled beneath his coat.
She didn't want her brothers to come over, not yet, not until she was sure what she had found. "Not sure yet," she called back.
Swiftly, then, she moved her fingers into the cold mud, which dropped away in wet clumps. There could be no more doubt as to what she had, but still she couldn't quite believe it, even as it was there, in her nearly frozen hands: a gun. A gun, rusted over and defeated but unmistakable. She held it; she forgot, for a moment, her freezing fingers, the ache in her knees, the cloud of her breath, the itch of her wool hat against her forehead. The gun sat in the bowl of her palms. It was hefty and real and she was holding it.
She thought of her father, whose aversion to guns was intense. He reacted to them on television shows, in movies, and in any way they appeared in their home the cap guns her brothers had been obsessed with a few years back, the BB gun they'd kept hidden from him until he caught them with it outdoors shooting squirrels (grounded for two weeks). He told them over and over again never to point guns at each other, even fake guns, even in jest, even if it was just their fingers in the shape of a gun. He always looked so serious when he said it, he always looked at them each so sternly when he said "never," and when they asked him why, what was the big deal, he always said "Guns are not a joke" and "Don't ask me why, just don't do it."
Now, with her brothers coming toward her, Ruby knew her find would be discovered, and she raised the gun with a rush of energy and pride and defiance. Still covered with mud, it was barely recognizable, but its shape was clear. With both hands, she pointed it in the direction of her brothers. "Get 'em up!" she squealed, standing.
They stopped, feet from her; Ruby saw the surprise in their bodies, the hesitation, as if a guard dog had leapt at them. It was just an instant, but the control thrilled her, and sent a warm shiver through her body. Then they relaxed, and Abe stepped in front of her.
"Jesus, Ruby," he said.
"What is that?" Nathan asked. He reached out to take it from her, and she gave it to him. Though she had forgotten how cold her hands were, when the gun left them they came back to her in searing pain. She put her hands into her mittens, mud and all, and shoved them into her pockets to thaw.
"Holy shit." Nathan put his face down into his scarf while he moved his gloved fingers over the gun, cleaning more of the mud off the rusted metal.
"Is that a gun?" said Aaron, next to them now, speaking through his cinched hood. His voice was muffled but insistent. "No way! Is that real?"
"It's real," said Ruby. "I just found it! It was just sticking up in the mud!" She was happy, now, to be sharing it with them.
"Oh, my God." Abe reached out his hand. "Nate, let me see that."
Nathan paused, then shrugged one shoulder and passed the gun across to Abe's waiting hand. Abe held it, bobbled it to feel its weight, and turned it over. He had exposed his face, his collar under his chin. The scars from his acne looked raw, red mounds on the landscape of his face.
"Wow," he said. "This thing must have been buried here for years. Look" he held the gun up to Aaron's eye level "it has barnacles on it."
"Yeah." Aaron peered closely at it, the front half of his body angled over toward Abe. He was hungry for the gun, Ruby could tell. "Can I see it?"
Abe pulled the gun back and turned it over again. Aaron held out his hands. "Come on, man, let me see it." Abe passed him the gun, looking at it as he let it go.
Aaron held it up close to his face and peered at it. Eagle Eye, Ruby thought, which was the nickname their father gave Aaron for his gift of observation. His eyes were quick and always focused he could spot a crab in a tide pool from fifteen feet away. Whenever their family stayed in a hotel, their father enlisted Aaron to sweep the room before they left to make sure they didn't forget anything. "Eagle Eye," he would say, "inspect, please."
Aaron inspected the gun as if he had created it, as if it was one of his sculptures from the class he used to take at the art school near their house. He held it up in front of his eyes and turned it over. "Wow. I can't believe this. Right here in the freaking mud." He grinned, his hood showing a round oval of his face. "Good find, Ruby! How did I miss this?"
Ruby shrugged, grinning too.
"How do you think it got here?" asked Nathan, his hands back in his pockets.
"Someone was trying to get rid of the evidence," said Aaron. "That's the only explanation."
They were silent for a minute, imagining this. Ruby saw a man in a rowboat, holding the gun in his lap and then dropping it into the water, peering over the side of the boat as it sank. What did it look like, the metal falling through the murky water, like a fish? A few summers ago Aaron had caught a shark off the side of their father's boat it was a little one, but still about half Ruby's size at the time. She was leaning over the side of the boat when he reeled it in, and she saw it slowly materialize from the depths, at first just a vague flash of color, then a strange twisting shape, and then slowly, a fish, growing larger and larger, rising headfirst toward the surface. Nathan, leaning over the side with Ruby, yelled, "It's a shark! It's a shark!" and Abe, who was lying back in the rubber dinghy, tied to the boat and trailing behind it, shot up immediately and yelled, "Pull me in! Pull me in!" When the shark came up from the water, and Aaron was holding the line high so the slick body flopped helplessly, their father laughed at Abe, saying, "Look, he's just a little baby shark." But Ruby had agreed with Abe, there was danger about the shark, even after Aaron laid it out on the deck and took the line from its mouth. She never took her eyes off of it, and when Aaron leaned over the side to release it, Ruby leaned out too. As she watched the shark disappear into the depths, becoming once more just a wave of color and then nothing, she felt a sense of relief and of sadness.
Now, each of them was looking at the gun in Aaron's hands.
"Oh, this is so cool," said Aaron. He raised it toward the opposite shore, aiming it as if he might be able to spot a target, a tin can to shoot at all the way from here. "Wow" he wriggled his face free from the hood "it's so heavy when you hold it up like this."
"Let me try," Nathan demanded, but Aaron said, "Hold on." Ruby could see his face forming into its concentration pose.
Ruby heard her father's words, not even in jest. "Aaron!" she said, and the sound of her voice surprised her, high-pitched and whiny, a tone she hated.
"What?" He lowered the gun and passed it to Nathan.
Nathan raised his arm to aim, and it made Ruby even more uneasy: gentle Nathan pointing a gun. This was wrong, she felt suddenly with certainty; she should not have pried this thing from the ground. Nathan was smiling. "Cool."
She tried to make her voice low and strong. "Come on, you guys, just...just give it back."
"What are you going to do with it?" said Aaron.
"I found it," she said, and then couldn't stop the next words from rushing out. "It's mine."
They all looked at her. Nathan lowered the gun. Aaron shook his head, then reached out and took it back from him. He raised it again and aimed at the horizon as he spoke, his back to her. "Sorry, Rube, you're just too little to have a gun."
He gave a quick glance back to the house, swiveling the top half of his body. "I hope Mom and Dad aren't watching."
At this, Abe stiffened. He turned back to the house. "Yeah, maybe we should just bring it in."
Just before Abe had graduated from high school, almost a year earlier, he had been picked up in a police car because he was walking out on the main road by their house holding a cap gun. With his long hair and denim trench coat, the cops said, they didn't know, how should they have known the gun was fake? Abe was shaken. The cops had pulled up, and one of them had pointed his own gun at Abe over the door of the car. "He just said 'Drop it,'" Abe recounted at the kitchen table after the cops had gone, "like I was some kind of murderer or something." Their parents agreed, he shouldn't have been carrying the gun, but the policeman's reaction was exaggerated. It was because it was such a busy street, they said, the police couldn't take chances, and anyway why was he walking on that street carrying that gun? Their father was particularly upset at the policemen ("treating a young person like that") and at Abe as well ("what would possess you to do such a thing?"). He had stayed up late talking to their mother about it, but then, as far as Ruby could tell, had let it go.
Ruby wondered if Abe was remembering this too. He turned back to them and pulled his hands from his pockets. "Come on, guys, let's bring it in."
"To Mom and Dad?" Aaron said. "Why?"
"I think we should. I think we have to."
Aaron shook his head. "No way. They'll never let us have it."
"Probably not," said Abe. "But what do you want with it, anyway? It's a gun, Aaron."
"I know it's a gun, Abe," Aaron said slowly, holding the gun. He gazed at it, almost lovingly, as if it were a pet. "I don't know, we could at least fix it up or something."
"Do you think it still works?" said Nathan. He pulled his gloved hands to his mouth, cupping one inside the other, and breathed on them.
"No way," said Abe.
"I think we should tell Mom and Dad," said Ruby.
Aaron looked at her. "Of course you do."
"Come on, Aaron, don't be mean. She found it," Abe said.
"I know, but what does she know?"
Abe turned to Nathan. "What do you think, Nate?"
Nathan looked at the gun. "I think we should keep it. At least for a few days, clean it up, see if we can find anything out about it. Then we'll decide."
Abe nodded. "Fine. But if either of them asks about it, I'm not lying."
They made their way back toward the house, waiting for them on the edge of the land. From this distance, their house looked as small as it was an old farmhouse with weathered shingles, the second story really an attic, the cottage next door barely more than what would be a garage at home in Massachusetts. Abe carried the gun and led the way, making a determined line through the mud and toward the lawn. Nathan and Aaron traded scenarios, lifting their voices from beneath their pulled-down hats and cinched hoods. Ruby's hands, though now warm inside her pockets, felt as if they were burning. She clenched her fingers together and held them still.
"Maybe it was the Kanes!" offered Nathan. "There's no dad, right?"
"That's true..." said Aaron.
"Maybe that's why he went away. Maybe he killed someone, stashed the gun, and took off."
"Yeah, maybe that's why they never go outside. The mom is hiding the kid so he won't tell anyone what happened."
"Right." Nathan gestured with his gloved hands. "Maybe it was a friend of theirs, someone they knew, and he killed him right in the house in front of them!"
They laughed, and Abe whipped around to face them. "Cut it out, you guys," he said, his voice elevated above the wind. He was holding the gun delicately across his two gloved palms like it was a bird's nest. "We have no way of knowing who it was, so quit making stuff up! It could have fallen off a boat and never even been used for all we know." He paused, collecting himself, then added in a gentler voice, looking at Ruby, "Anyway, you're going to give Ruby nightmares."
He turned around and started walking again. Aaron and Nathan looked at each other, and Aaron pursed his lips together, raising his eyebrows as if to say, What's with him? Nathan shrugged.
As they approached the house, Ruby wondered how it would go and felt a subtle resentment that it was beyond her control. There was never any possibility that she would hold on to the gun, despite the fact that it was she who had removed it from its hiding place, despite the burning of her hands. Still, there was this mystery that they were bringing into the house together (the door made its swishing sound, and Abe was inside). She tried not to feel ownership over the gun; it was not hers, she didn't even want it, and this was one of the rare times that they were all equal and united. On the other hand, this was what always happened: little Ruby at the back of the line, little Ruby so little and so without claim.
She was in, and she shut the door behind her. The boys were taking off their coats and bending to remove their boots, and they were exclaiming at the warmth, and Ruby felt it too, the warmth was a shock, the warmth sent shivers through her body. They heard piano music from the other room but no voices.
Abe stood by the kitchen door, waiting for the rest of them to finish taking off their boots and coats. "Kids?" their mother called. "You back?"
"Yeah!" Abe called toward the living room. He handed the gun to Aaron. "Here, you take it," he said.
Aaron took the gun and looked down at himself for a place to hide it.
They could hear movement in the other room. "Quick!" said Nathan in a strained whisper. Aaron looked around frantically, then tucked the gun under his sweater. It bulged beneath the wool.
"How was it?" their mother said, appearing in the doorway, an expectant look on her face.
They were doomed. As soon as she saw her mother, Ruby knew it. This was the woman who could detect lies as if they were curls of smoke; there was no way they could get something like this by her. Aaron tried. "Fine," he said, his hand curled under his sweater hem, his freckled cheeks flushed. "Really cold though." He tried to move his hand farther back, pulling the gun along the inside of his sweater.
"What's that you've got there, Aaron?" their mother asked, nodding her head toward the bulge, one hand on her hip.
As soon as her mother discovered the gun, Ruby knew they had lost it. In the hallway, as Aaron slowly pulled the gun from beneath his sweater and reluctantly held it up, she could already feel the loss of it; it was in this very gesture, this offering up, and she saw the way that Nathan, Abe, and Aaron all watched the gun as it passed from Aaron's hands to her mother's, as if they were watching coins roll irreparably down a drain.
In the living room, her father received the gun calmly in the chair where he was still sitting with his book, massaging his gums with his massager, the tiny golden handle so small in his big hand. Wally was lying now on the floor by the woodstove; her chain jangled as she looked up at them with curious eyes. Their father immediately set about the gun's removal from the house getting up, stepping into his slippers, and facing his children before he went into his bedroom to get ready to go out with it into the sunlight.
Only Aaron really fought. Abe and Nathan, their exuberance gone, were more resigned. After a few minutes, Abe sat down on the couch and barely looked up again.
"What are you going to do with it, Dad?" Aaron asked, facing him, his chest squared. He was as tall as their father now, though far narrower.
"I'm going to take it to the authorities," their father said. He was calm, but it was clear that if tested he wouldn't stay that way.
"Because that's where it belongs."
From just behind Aaron, Nathan piped up. "But we just found it! Can't we just keep it for a little while?"
"Who found it?" said their father, his voice raising slightly. "Who?"
"I did," said Ruby. She was crouched on the floor by the stove next to Wally, holding her hands toward the warmth. Wally's nose was reaching out, sniffing at the air by her hands.
"Ruby!" her father said, raising his free hand toward the ceiling, as if this detail alone provided evidence for his response. He was holding the gun in his other hand. The look of it, her rusty, barnacled discovery in her father's familiar hand, his irregular pointer finger (the tip of which he'd sliced off when he was young, on the kibbutz, trying to fix a tractor) resting near the end of it, was unreal. "Ruby found it!"
He raised his eyes to the ceiling, sighing. He looked at the boys one after another. "Do you want your sister to have a gun for a toy? Do you, really?"
All of the boys looked at the floor. Ruby could see Aaron's fists clenched at his sides, his jaw set in a frustrated lock. "I know you don't," their father said. Ruby was the only one who met his eyes, but she knew he wasn't really speaking to her. She smoothed down Wally's ears, which popped back up after her hand passed over them.
"I'm sorry," he said, as a final punctuation mark on the topic, "but a rule is a rule. There will be no guns in this house. When you live in your own houses you can do what you want, but as long as you live under my roof I make the rules."
"As long as you live under my roof" was one of their father's favorite catchphrases, one of a series that came out when there was no use in arguing. There was "Do what you're told" and "You'll do as I say," all as definitive as the click at the end of a phone call when they heard these, they knew they wouldn't get their way. He also used "Honor thy father and thy mother," his favorite of the Ten Commandments, and "Children should be seen and not heard," one that Ruby was particularly sensitive to.
He was often an unmovable man, wanting what he wanted and believing what he believed without compromise. It was because of how he was raised, Ruby knew essentially without parents, in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia and then in Israel, in a world far harder than and very different from hers but no matter how she felt she understood it, it didn't make his determination, when it came, easier to take. He was often warm, lighthearted, and fun, and could be lenient at the most unpredictable times, but when he was sure of something, it was as if he never even heard anyone else. This was the most difficult part: the way he dismissed, the way he would not discuss.
He went into his bedroom to change his clothes, and the rest of them sat in the living room. Aaron said, "But it doesn't even work!" loud enough that their father could hear. Their mother regarded him with a pursed mouth but said nothing; it was not her fight.
Without another word their father was gone, and so was the gun. It was as if a window had been opened briefly and then violently closed; this new object had come into their lives, had briefly united them in discovery and then, just as suddenly, it was gone, never to be explained, never to be seen again. It was unfair; it was confusing; it was beyond their control. Who was there to be angry with?
They sat with their mother in the living room. They heard the car turn on and disappear down the driveway, the tires crunching the gravel, and then nothing. It was as if their father had taken their energy out with him and driven away with it.
Their mother, sitting at the table, crossed her legs and angled her head toward the window behind her, one half of her hair, a dark gray thinly streaked with the remaining black, hanging over her shoulder. The room was warm, the flame in the stove glowing through its small dirty window. Ruby, still sitting on the floor by the stove, held her hands together; they had returned to their regular temperature. Next to her, Wally's eyes were closed, her head resting between her paws.
"Kids," their mother said finally, "you know your father has real reasons for not liking guns."
Aaron nodded his head, like he was waiting for her to say this. "Right," he said, "the war."
She looked at him severely; he met her eyes and didn't look away. "Yes, Aaron, the war," she said. "And Israel, and the army. He was around soldiers and guns when he was very young and it profoundly affected him."
"Did he tell you that?" asked Nathan gently.
She shook her head. "No, but to me it's pretty clear. He doesn't have to tell me. He has a strong reaction to guns and that's all I need to know."
"But why doesn't he ever tell us that?" Nathan asked. He seemed genuinely curious. "He's never once told us about that."
She nodded. "I don't think he thinks you need to know why. I think in his mind it is enough to tell you not to play with guns, and he's your father so you should just do as he says."
"But, Mom," said Aaron, "it's not like we're going to shoot anyone! There's no way that gun even works!"
"I know, Aaron." She spoke slowly and carefully. Ruby could see she was trying very hard not to get angry. "But that's not the point. It's the principle of guns that your father is against all guns, and what they represent in the world." She uncrossed her legs and crossed them the other way, resting her hands on her thighs.
"Do you remember, Aaron," she said, "that time we were here and you were out fishing in the marsh by the school and that kid took a shot at you?"
Aaron nodded, and Nathan looked surprised. Abe kept his eyes on the carpet. "What happened?" Nathan asked.
"This kid who lived in that house across from the school took a shot at Aaron," she said. "He missed, of course, and who knows why he did it, but it was scary, wasn't it Aaron?"
He nodded reluctantly. Ruby thought he looked younger than he really was.
"With a real gun?" said Abe. His eyes were wide, still focused on the floor.
"Yes. And Aaron came home and told your father, and he immediately turned around and marched him right over to that house and rang the doorbell."
"And what happened?"
"Well, the kid's older brother answered the door, and Dad told him what happened, and I guess the brother gave the kid hell because it never happened again." She paused. "You didn't think guns were so great that day, I remember," she said to Aaron, with a slight smile.
"I just hate the way we all have to tiptoe around Dad sometimes," Aaron said, quieter now. "Like we all just sit in here talking about his 'past' like it's this big secret, but he doesn't even remember enough to even tell us anything for sure!" His voice rose and he threw his arm out. "I mean, we were out there on the beach talking about how there was no way he'd let us keep it we knew!"
"Aaron," their mother said, her voice more impatient, "there's nothing you need to know beyond what you see. You know your father doesn't remember much about what happened to him. He hates guns, and he doesn't want any in his house that's it. If you choose to interpret why this is, that's fine, but he doesn't owe you any explanations. The gun is gone. That's the end of it."
With a quick grunt, Aaron rose from the couch and disappeared up the stairs. Their mother gave them all a weak smile. "I'm sorry, kids," she said then, "really. Do you want to tell me about how you found it?"
For all of Ruby's life her father's past was like an envelope, tightly sealed, that she carried but could not open. Every year, in Hebrew school, when Holocaust Week rolled around, she'd hear herself say the words: "My father is a survivor," but when her teacher and the other students looked to her for the next sentence, their eyebrows raised (in what she sometimes thought of as impressed surprise, sometimes pity), she would close off like a faucet. She felt a great swell inside her when the word survivor was mentioned, a balloon filling with air. She wanted the five words my father is a survivor to be enough, because they were all she had.
Her father was one of the lucky few, she told herself, as her mother had told her, who had blocked out the memories; it was the only way he could be at peace. Her teachers would ask her if he wanted to come in and speak, maybe share some stories with the class. "I'm sure he would," she'd say, "but he doesn't remember very much. He was just a child, he blocked it all out." She'd say this, and then her teachers would nod, very slowly, with their eyes closed.
He was a stocky man, a couple of inches shorter than her mother but so commanding that for years into their marriage she had believed he was what he told her: one inch taller than she. He had gone with Ruby once to Hebrew school, on a bright Sunday morning last April, and she was proud walking into school with him proud of his accent, proud of the secrets that he held inside him, horrible, sad secrets, survival turned into success, proud of his hand that released hers at the classroom door. He had insisted on dressing nicely, and wore suit pants and a button-down shirt, and was clean-shaven and soft, to Ruby, even his hand was soft. That morning, before they left, Ruby had performed the job for which he sometimes paid her fifty cents: pairing up his mountain of dark socks, fresh from the laundry, picking one from the top and then searching through the pile for its mate. It was a task that he couldn't stand but that she loved standing by the side of the bed before the pile, searching for the sock with the blue line across the toe, the one with the thick elastic at the top, the thin one that was wearing out. Slowly, the pairs came together and the mountain shrank. That morning, she had laid aside a pair for him to wear before stuffing the rest into his dresser drawer.
Ruby's teacher shook his hand with respect and sat him on a white chair in front of the class, where he answered the most basic of everyone's questions, just as he had always answered hers. The hands shot up, and her father nodded at her classmates and said "Yes?" and Ruby felt an excitement that this enigma was a man who shared her home, that this was the man who would take her hand after class and drive her home in his car. They were questions she had memorized. How old were you? Seven. What camp were you in? Terezin. How long were you there for? Four years. But when it came to the details Did you go by train? What did you eat? his answers were always the same. "I don't remember," he'd say, and the questions fell like sandbags.
Her father was a mystery Ruby sometimes felt she could solve, as a cloud can seem just close enough to touch. When she was very young, he taught her to eat the whole apple, even the core. After the war, he explained, he and the other children were sent to a Red Cross camp to be fattened up. The nurses rationed their food so they wouldn't get sick, even though they were so hungry they wanted to eat everything they saw. An apple, he said, holding hers up half-eaten before him, was the most delicious delicacy they could imagine. Ruby almost never left the core of an apple uneaten again.
She tried to trace the journey that had led her father first a boy, then a man over continents, to her mother, and then to her. But much as she tried, she could not transport herself back in time to his childhood; she could not make herself be her father or for that matter her mother, who had her own fascinating past, educated by nuns in a poor Irish neighborhood in the Bronx although that was the only way, Ruby was convinced, that she could ever understand either of them. Last winter, she'd found a photograph in the back of a drawer in his study unmistakably her father, young, with his arm around a woman she did not recognize. When she asked him about it, holding it up to where he sat at his desk, he told her he had been married before. It was after the war, after Israel, after the army, when he went to Australia to work in his uncle David's camera store. She was also a survivor, and he was young and confused. They had no children, and they had divorced soon after they came to America; a long time had passed before he met Ruby's mother.
And it wasn't surprising. Among all the unaccounted-for years that were Ruby's understanding of her father's past, the addition of another woman was no less shocking than if he had declared he had spent a brief period of time under the tutelage of a priest. He sat at his desk in his cable-knit sweater and his soft, pale jeans, looking down at her, explaining this piece of his past in a calm, even tone. He looked the same, but somehow the explanation only made him seem more distant, as if he were drifting from her, slowly, like a retreating train.
After dinner that evening, Nathan washed the dishes while Ruby dried. At the sink, in the dim light of the narrow kitchen, Nathan drowned the plates in the soapy water and called out "Help! Help me!" in a high-pitched, whining voice, gasping for air, and then he swooped in the blue glasses as if they were eagles, saying, "Don't worry, we'll save you," in a calm, steady voice. He narrated, "It's a dark day for the silverware, oh, what a dark day, there is just no hope for them, no hope," while he searched in the soapy water for the knives and forks, his sleeves rolled up and his hands plunged in to his elbows. Their mother, circling, cleaning the table and giving them the remainder of the dishes, said, "Nate, can you just do the job please?" and Nathan picked up a pot and stood it at attention on the edge of the sink. "Certainly, ma'am, I'll do the job right away, right away, I'll rescue them all, right away ma'am."
Drying the dishes while Nathan washed was a routine that Ruby loved, a time when she got to be with him alone and had his undivided attention. Whenever it was his turn to wash, she volunteered to dry. Slowly they made their way through the dishes behind them in the rest of the house there were voices, but they were not listening and when they were through, Nathan felt around in the water, now full of floating bits of food, scrunching up his nose and saying "Eeeuwww," and then he said, "I think that's it." He turned to Ruby with his hand on the side of the bin "Ready?" and then he tipped the bin up and poured the water over the side, and they both watched a wave of rushing water roll up and over the lip and disappear down the drain. Nathan held his hand to his ear and bent toward the sink, and there was the deep gurgling sound that he had once told her was a giant fish creature with legs that lived under the sink and swallowed all the water. She knew it wasn't true, but she imagined it anyway, standing down there in the dark with its giant fish mouth open, all the water pouring into it, and the scaly Adam's apple in the middle of its exposed throat moving up and down with each glug.
When they were done, they went upstairs, and Ruby went to her room to put on lighter clothes. She could hear Aaron's and Nathan's voices through the permanent crack in her latched door. Dressed, she crossed to their room. Her brothers looked up at her and stopped talking. The round fluorescent light in the center of the ceiling was on, casting a bluish glow through the evening light. She stopped just inside the door. "What's up?" she asked shyly.
They didn't respond, but she didn't want to go downstairs alone, so she went and sat next to Nathan on his bed.
"We were talking about staging a rescue mission for the gun," said Aaron, with a wild grin. "Maybe going to the police station to try and get it back."
Ruby looked at him, and then to Nathan. She was amazed; her brothers had an endless capacity for surprising her. "Seriously?"
"Well, not really. I don't know. Nate's not into the plan."
Nathan smiled. "I like your enthusiasm, though."
Aaron turned and looked out the window. Ruby imagined the three of them in black, wearing ski masks that pulled down over their faces, crawling through the police station on their hands and knees.
"Yeah." He sighed finally, nodding. "Man, it sucks, though. I bet we could have gotten a lot of money for that thing."
Aaron's baseball card collection, on a shelf in his closet at home, was four shoe boxes full of cards he had spent years cultivating and cataloging, using little index cards on which he wrote in tiny, careful handwriting. He had of course forbidden Ruby to touch them, but sometimes when he wasn't home she went into his closet and ran her fingers over the tops of them, pulling some out at random like cards in the card catalog drawers at the library. Once she had sat on the floor with him while he was looking through the book that told him how much each card was worth, sliding the valuable ones carefully in and out of their plastic sheaths, and he had explained them to her with his voice full of pride. She always wanted them to fill her with more awe when she snuck looks at them, but they never seemed more to her than pictures of men holding bats and balls.
When their father had come home from the police station, a few hours before dinner, he'd slipped back into the house and disappeared into his bedroom without saying a word. Wally had trotted out just before he shut the door and come to Ruby in the living room. There had been no more words about the gun.
Now, Ruby thought of the gun sitting on someone's desk, so far from where it had grown comfortable, in the mud, beneath the water. She thought of the police station that they passed every time they went anywhere while in Maine, the building that she had always vaguely noticed but had never truly thought about as a real place with people inside and with desks on which to lay rusted, old guns. Now, she knew, every time they passed it would be different for her, a place that was somehow connected to them, a place that had a new role to play in her life. That police station could never again be anonymous, could never again be the same; she would think of it from now on as the gun's new home.
Copyright © 2008 by Nellie Hermann