Tough Love

by Paul Hansen

I was one of those kids that spent a lot of time on the internet. Chat rooms, message boards. ASL, S2R, and some gender tricks too. That stuff was normal in the Nineties. And it was all good clean fun until I fell in with some gun nuts when I was fifteen years old, the type of people that encrypt shit. Way down in the web. Amateur blacksmiths and whatnot. I got so into it I ended up putting together a makeshift muzzle loader out of Schedule 80 piping, cold American steel, something I saw on the blacksmithing forum. I tried it in the basement but it didn’t work so I got a slightly bigger ball bearing for ammunition, about the size of a marble. I took it to the backyard, propped it on some dunnage, put a flame to the fuse. And by god, it worked. There was this huge discharge, a cloud of smoke. It shot wildly though. Fucking hit my kid brother square in the leg. He was clear across the yard. Dad came running from the house. There was so much blood that none of it seemed real and after Dad stopped the bleeding he came at me and that’s the deepest fear I’ve ever felt.

     But that all happened fifteen years ago. I’m an adult now, turned thirty recently. Lacey’s my girlfriend these days. We met at a support group for those that’ve been injured by firearms: Tuesday night, St. Vincent de Paul, where I was the only one whose wound wasn’t visible. It’s like Lacey says: “Pretty baby’s hurt on the inside.” When she was ten years old she was making herself a necklace out of scrap—a little bit of twine, whatever else—then she found the perfect final piece, this shiny gold thing. All it needed was to be flattened. She grabbed a hammer and that was that. It was a live .22 round. Went off in her face. Took a half-dozen surgeries to put her back together. As a result she’s permanently blind in the right eye, with a spiderweb of ice covering the whole thing; little scars that don’t look like much until they’re pressed together.
     Her mom got it bad in the papers in the aftermath and she wasn’t even a gun owner. It was a lone round left behind by the previous tenant. Regardless, the older Lacey got, the more her mom apologized.
     “How was I supposed to feel with her saying sorry so much?”
     “I don’t know,” I say. “But I think you’re beautiful and I’d think that even if you had no eyes.”
     “Yeah, but you’re from the support group, too.” And she smiles.


I lost my own mom a few years before the firearm incident. I was twelve years old. She went to the hospital with chest pain. The cancer scan showed sickness in her lungs, like ink stains on paper. She didn’t make it through the month. The priest had to help me do my tie at her funeral. Dad’s hands were shaking too badly. Father looked me in the eye and said, “Everything’s going to be okay. She’s with God now.”


After I shot my brother, the Sheriff’s Department charged me with second-degree assault, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony. I spent a few hours in lockup, terrified. I was an honor roll student though and the high school English teacher eventually came to my aid, delivered a speech that was both prosaic and elegant, saying I was full of promise. As a result the charges were dropped and for the next two years that teacher had this quiet power over me. I don’t know if he always crossed the line but he came close when he’d touch me and I didn’t say no.


And Dad used to come at me but I was a bad kid so I put up with it and then I was a man. Sometimes my brother begged but it didn’t help. “If the kid wants to shoot guns, he can learn to use his sts.” The rst few were the worst. Dad with the dukes up, and I understood why but didn’t fully understand. Then I started imagining myself heavyweight champion of the world and nothing hurt anymore. I was Holyfield, Tyson, Foreman. Keep the hands up, son. Every punch became the same dull thud, over and over until it was over. The worst part was the waiting. Always waiting. Sitting on the bedroom oor. Still waiting. Those aren’t butterflies. They’re something worse.


Here’s the kicker:
     When I turned seventeen Dad got drunk and sat me down, confessed that there never were any charges. The sheriff was an old pal. The whole thing was a ruse meant to scare me straight.
     “Tough love,” he said. “A little unorthodox but it made you the man you are.”
     “Yeah,” I said, but even then I was shuddering.
     The worst part is, the teacher’s speech didn’t actually matter.


I went through some weird phases after that. Moved out at eighteen. Started masturbating a lot, disrespecting authority. Then I couldn’t get off at all so I started eating drugs, wearing a feather necklace and shit. By the time I turned twenty-one I was dressed like a pirate, out of my mind and drunk. Several years went that way. Can’t live like that forever though. Got to grow up, be well-adjusted. When I hit twenty-five I went back to the computer, found an online listing for the support group. I met Lacey at the first one I attended. We sat across the circle from each other. She could tell I was a mess but it didn’t matter and after a few meetings we got together. We haven’t been to group sessions since.
     I am getting better.
     Though Lacey says there’s a certain sadness about me that everyone can see I’m trying to hide.
     “I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
     “No more apologizing. I heard enough of that from Mom. And besides, I’m lucky. What happened to me can only happen once. It’s over and done.”
     She’s been through some shit and that’s why she’s helping me. The doctors wouldn’t let her see her face for six weeks after the accident. When they finally did she said she was the same person, only with a very messed-up face.
     “Everyone has looked at me with pity since then,” she says. “The one thing I never understood was how they decided I’d be ready to see myself. Was there a certain point where they thought I wouldn’t be terrified? I guess I shouldn’t worry about that anymore though. I should just be thankful that what happened to me can’t be passed down.”
     That hurts but I get it.
     I am not okay.
     Then she puts her hand on mine and has me say things like I’m with the psychiatrist. It’s one of our games.
“Pretty baby,” she says. “Tell me what happened.”
     I say I never thought my brother’s injury was as serious as they said. The sad thing is, I actually believe that.
“Keep saying that,” she says.
I tell her the English teacher was a big fan of Chaucer.
     “Canterbury Tales,” I say.
     “He used to put his fingernails on my neck, walk them around like little ants.”
     “It’s okay,” she says. “That’s good.”
     “I always hated the way I let it tickle.”
     She puts her own fingers on my neck, moves them the way he did.
     “Does that tickle?”
     “Not anymore.”
     The center of her dead eye drifts. It does this in emotional moments. Such a beautiful tell.
     “You see that?” she says.
     “You have no idea how much I hate the way they looked at me. I’m here for you.”
     Then she closes her eyes and I stare into the scars, like tree roots at the top of her cheek. They’re impossible to count. I tell her that. “It’s an optical illusion,” she says.
     “No, really. Look.”
     She leans forward.
     “See. They shift.”
     I see it.
     Then she puts her mouth against mine. That’s one of the best feelings.


I know Dad was just trying to make me a man. I can’t blame him. He was the savior of his high school football team. Two hundred receiving yards in the state championship game: Class A, Nebraska, 1986. He taught my brother and me to throw when we were kids. I always loved the way Dad got the ball to spiral. And after Mom died he had no interest in remarrying, claiming it’d be disrespectful. Lacey was raised by a single parent too. Her dad didn’t die, though. He just left. Went to California or Wisconsin or somewhere else. She doesn’t care anymore. Sometimes we wonder what it would’ve been like had our parents gotten together.
     “You think they’d have hit it off?” she says. “Your dad and my mom.” “Bad word choice,” I say. “But maybe.”
     “If they had kids do you think they’d look the way ours will?”
     But we won’t have kids. Not yet.


As for my brother, his leg healed up ne. We still see each other around the holidays. He likes showing off his scar at parties, everyone crowding around with cocktails, looking at it. Those are the moments I have to remember to breathe.
     And sometimes I still break down, open-mouthed and sobbing on the living room floor, knees tucked against my chest, with Lacey behind me saying she’ll do whatever I need but I just keep shaking my head and counting down from as many numbers as I know.
     I’m glad I’m not a kid anymore.
     With Lacey’s help I’ve managed to minimize the breakdowns, once every few months, I’d say.
     “This is it,” she says. “We’re on the homestretch.”
     I’m almost there.
     I dream of Spain and France and children and marriage. A couple barefoot kids, raised to be free.
What she doesn’t know is that the English teacher used to offer me ten dollars to get down to my underwear and I never said no. It wasn’t wrong though, what I did for him. I hated myself but everything else was fine.


We’ve been trying new therapy the last few months, Lacey and I. On Tuesday afternoons we go to this log cabin bar out by the river, where it’s cash only and David Allan Coe on the jukebox. The only people in there are the same ones that always are and they keep to themselves. This Tuesday’s no different. We go in and order a pitcher. No one bothers us. Before the last sip we shake hands, tell each other good luck. Then we walk down past the pool table, the pinball, all the way to where they’ve got Big Buck Hunter: safari edition. We’ve gotten quite good at it. Both of us hold top scores under fake names. I call myself ACE. Lacey thinks that’s stupid. Her alias is EYE. I say that’s obvious. Regardless, we own most of the top ten. She puts a five-dollar bill in the machine, hands me the gun. There’s a boyish thrill when I stare at the screen, only having to concentrate on what to kill.
     “Don’t hit any of them in the leg accidentally,” she says. “That’s just cruel.”
     That’s her attempt at rattling me. She’s competitive. It used to bother me. I block it out.
     “It’d be a flesh wound,” she says. “You’d never truly recover.”
     I don’t mind it. I did what I did.
     “The only reason you’re able to beat me at this,” I say, “is because going blind in one eye gave you supernatural strength in the other.” “Not a fair trade.”
     “How’d they look at you when they first saw you?”
     “Like the way your brother’s leg was.”
     I finish the round, hit 90 percent. I am getting better.
     “That’s good,” she says. “But I will beat that score.”
     I hand her the gun. She lets it dangle at her side. I used to be terrified of firearms. Not so much anymore.
     “Not yet,” she says.
     I slide my hands down the back of her pants. She does the same to me. We are smooth and warm and everything will be fine. The plastic rifle dangles at her side. The orange tip makes me feel safe. Nobody at the bar notices or if they do they don’t care. Lacey breathes into my ear, tells me to say something about it.
     I tell her Dad said what I did was the worst thing anyone could do. “Look into my eye and say that.”
“I deserved everything I got. He was just trying to make me a man.” “No, he wasn’t, but that’s okay because I’m here now.”
     I see our reflection on the screen, up against elephants and giraffes and other exotic things. We will kill them all. I press her against the game and say that Dad said no kid ever did anything as bad as what I did.
     “I want you,” she says. “Tell me everything.” We will have a child someday.
     “He got to me,” I say.
     She pulls me closer.
     “I hate how much my mom apologized,” she says. “You know I’d help you kill him if you wanted.”
     Everything on the screen dies. We push apart and play the rest of the credits. She wins but it’s close. Another Tuesday in the books. I wouldn’t call it a proclivity. “That was a good pretty baby,” she says on the way out. “You were good this time. I’m proud of you.”
     We sit in the car and stare at each other. Then we get back on the highway. It’s seventy degrees in the autumn: Nebraska at its best, when the leaves promise to make it a few more weeks. We tune the radio to the God–talk station, AM 1560, where Jesus people preach about how much evil there is in the world. I agree, I guess, though we will be fine. What happened to us won’t happen again. I believe in a better god than that. After a few miles Lacey looks at me and says, “You know what sounds good right now?”
     “What’s that?”
     “One of those ice cream drumstick things with chocolate and peanuts on top.” I love it when she’s full of surprise, dropping something I never knew about her. “What’re those called?” she says.
     “I think they’re just called drumsticks.”
     “Right. Those ice cream drumstick things with chocolate and peanuts on top.” She pulls into the next gas station. A little country store on the side of the highway. Propane and potato chips. We get out of the car. I can smell someone grilling in the distance.
     “I hope they have those things,” she says.
     I follow her inside. We go through the soda aisle, the beef jerky. I follow her to the back, where they’ve got the bait fridge and a few freezers.
     “I bet they’re in here,” I say, opening a freezer. Sure enough. I pull one out. “See. They’re just called drumsticks.”
     “Yeah,” she says. “They have them.”
     We get in line, touch our hands together. There are so many different types of tobacco behind the counter. There’s an old-timer in front of us. He turns around, looks at me, then at Lacey. His skin is the texture of denim.
     “My God, darling,” he says. “What happened to your eye?”
     This happens from time to time. Once a month I’d say. How she handles it depends on the situation. She pulls her hand away from mine.
     “So get this,” she says. “You’re not going to believe it but I was in a gang ght when I was a kid.”
     The man stares at her, doesn’t say anything.
     Lacey’s face shifts, the scars more visible. She blinks once and blinks again. “I’m just kidding,” she says. “It was an industrial accident.”
     The man won’t quit looking at her.
     “Wait,” I say. “I thought you said a wolf ripped it out.”
     “No, baby. I lied about that. What actually happened is I shot myself in the face.” The man shakes his head. He pays for his soda and leaves the store. Lacey takes my hand and holds it hard. We pay for the drumsticks and go back to the car. I drive.
     “I’m sorry that happened,” I say.
     “It’s not your fault,” she says.
     The scars are visible in the sunlight. She watches her reflection in the window. “At least we have ice cream now,” she says. “I’m going to let mine melt for a bit before eating it. That’s my favorite part.”
     Warm air hits my neck through the open window. By the time Lacey starts eating her drumstick, there’s ice cream all over her hand. She takes her rst bite and then says, “Maybe it’s time we buy a real gun. I think that might be the last step.”
     I picture our children, barefoot and free. The radio says Jesus Saves. “Okay,” I say. “What kind, though?”
She thinks for a minute.
     “A BB gun,” she says. “That’d be something good to start with.” “You’re right. That’ll be harmless.”


I trust her like I don’t trust anyone else, cradling me on the floor when I’m full of shame and hatred for “The Parson’s Prologue and Tale.” Fuck Chaucer. Show me a parlor trick instead. Dad meant to make me a man but every time the English teacher offered me ten dollars to get down to my underwear I didn’t decline so what kind of man does that make me?
     I let him take pictures a few times. Would stand there in front of my desk as he shook the print under his armpit, this playful smirk on his face.
     Lacey doesn’t know about that. There are certain things I keep to myself. Dad gave it to me bad. She knows that.
     Mom’s cancer came quickly. I never understood why she didn’t put up more of a fight.
     I always felt most ashamed of my chest in front of the English teacher, those puberty hairs coming in.
     I wish I could tell Lacey that.
     We go to the Walmart for a BB gun. They’ve got a whole aisle of them.
     Some are very tactical. We don’t need anything like that. We pick a classic one, wood-stock and pump as many times as you can. We go home and take it to the basement. There’s not much down there. It’s cinder block and concrete, exposed dirt where the furnace is. We’ll buy a nice house someday, x up the basement. She carries the gun over her shoulder, like the soldiers do. I open the canister and hand her a BB.
     “Wait,” she says. “You can only load one at a time? What fun is that?”
     “I’m sorry,” I say.
     “Enough of that.”
     She puts one in and pumps. I set an empty soda can at the other end of the basement.
     “This is my rifle,” she says, aiming. “There are many like it but this one is mine.”
     She fires, hits the target. It sounds dainty. The can slumps over.
     “Jesus,” she says. “That was underwhelming.”
     I grab the can.
     “It went through one side,” I say. “But it didn’t come out the other. There’s a BB in there.”
     “I’m surprised it went through at all.”
     I reset the can. She hands me the gun. It feels better than the muzzle loader.
     That thing was crazy. My hand trembles.
     “You saw how weak it was when I shot it,” she says. “You’ll be fine.”
     I take aim. Too bad Dad never saw me in my underwear for the teacher. Then he really would’ve beat the sissy out of me. I got all the way naked a few times, too. I’ll tell Lacey that someday. I know I will. I steady my finger and fire. I hate the way it feels. I miss the can entirely.
     “Damn,” I say. “I’d rather be playing the video game. I doubt this thing would even break skin.”
     “Well,” she says. “There’s a way to find out.” “Yeah?”
     “I’ll do it if you will.”
     “All right.”
     “But you’ve got to go first,” she says.
     “Fine,” I say, up to the challenge.
     “Can I shoot you in the leg?” she says.
     I picture a couple kids in the backyard. We’ll have a better basement by then, some laminate flooring and a wet bar. A home theater.
     “Now come on,” she says. “Pull the pants down.”
     I lower my pants. She stands a few feet from me. I am not ashamed. She aims.
     “Is this where you shot him?” I nod.
     There was so much blood I still don’t believe it was real.
     “Close your eyes,” she says. “Trust me.”
     I close my eyes.
     “Think of him,” she says. “Tell me what happened.”
     But I only want to think about her and the way she makes me feel.
     “Just think of your brother,” she says. “And what you did.”
     What I did was the worst thing any kid could do.
     “You don’t have to keep anything from me,” she says.
     The English teacher kept his classroom dimly lit. I remember standing naked, legs tucked together.
     “I’m so ashamed of myself,” I say.
     “Good, pretty baby,” she says. “That’s very good. Keep going. You know they used to look at me with pity. I wish they’d never looked at me at all.” I want to tell her everything but I can’t.
     I open my eyes. She’s got the gun pointed at me.
     “Keep them closed and tell me one more thing,” she says.
     I close them.
     “They made me hate who I was,” I say.
     She fires. I forgot I was even waiting for it. It’s a quick sting, a rubber band snap. A bit of blood comes.
     “Huh,” she says. “I wasn’t actually expecting it to draw blood.” Everything inside me shakes.
     “What’d it feel like?”
     I think of children and marriage and Spain and France.
     “Not much,” I say. “I couldn’t really feel it.”
     But I am terrified. The snap of the gun like the click of the Polaroid in English class, room 216. How I stood there memorizing Shakespeare’s earring in the poster on the wall as Mr. Stewart—“call me Walt”—put each picture into the top drawer of his desk. The one that locked.
     “My turn,” she says, handing me the gun.
     She lifts her shirt up to the bra. There are blonde hairs on her stomach, so tiny they’re barely there. I can’t take my eyes off her.
     “Why’re you just looking at me like that?” she says.
     There’s so much I want to say but I can’t so I just load a BB, slide it into the chamber.
     “I wish she wouldn’t have apologized so much,” she says. “Did I ever tell you I was making the necklace for her?”
     “I think so.”
     “You’d really help me kill him if I wanted?” “Yeah. But pump it a few more times first.” “All right. Close your eyes.”
     “No. Look me in the eye and don’t look away.”
     I steady the barrel and look at her. I don’t stop looking. There are certain things she’ll never know. Our child will be fine. I won’t look away. I fire. She doesn’t inch. A little bubble of blood forms, her dead eye begins to drift, and I can’t tell if she’s really looking at me anymore. I ask how it was.
     “Pretty baby,” she says. “You blinked.”

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