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Dentistry for Guns

Illustration by Ronald KurniawanToday, June 23, is the four-year anniversary of my father’s shotgun suicide. Father’s Day, always occurring about the same time, was the last day I spoke to him. He asked me if I was getting the oil changed regularly in the car. He was distracted and rushed me off the phone. I remember when he taught me how to shoot a gun: I wandered barefoot into our backyard in rural Michigan, my hair wet from a bath, hanging in long points that dripped down my back onto my favorite nightie. The nightie was long, past my knees, and white and girly, with pink roses and long stripes of leafy green vines. The sleeves came down just past my elbows and gathered in a princesslike puff. There was an edge of lace along the bottom and at the top around my neck. I wore it all the time, day and night, and this night, in my long shadow from the late-summer sunset, I appeared much taller — and older — than my seven years. This made me very, very happy. My father wore red earmuffs. He was standing with a gun at a worktable he had built underneath a row of hundred-year-old pine trees just behind the toolshed. An old farm, the 15 acres I grew up on had fantastic buildings for play: two toolsheds, a pump house, a large barn, a small barn, a garage, and a chicken coop that remained off-limits, without protest from any of us kids, due to a frightening infestation of bees. He smiled as if he were going to tell me a secret. But this was how we always communicated. He knew I knew, and I knew he knew; the subject never mattered. Our silent exchanges were a constant throughout the years. There were glances about his depression, my antics with high school boyfriends, his taste for alcohol and Vicodin, the disdain I had for my mother’s Catholicism and her finger-wagging enforcement. This new gun he was shooting was an antique, he told me. It was English, I think, and he’d traded something else to buy it. An obsessed collector, he owned all sorts of rare and finely crafted firearms, from a J. Purdey rifle with a hunting scene engraved on the barrel to a cannon that was handmade in India and came in a crocodile case lined with hot-pink silk. He was a dentist. Gun collecting was a hobby. He kept all sorts of strange tools in the toolshed, and he enjoyed working on his finds, refinishing their woodwork, sharpening their engraving. He loved the artistry and precision; it was dentistry for guns. “It’s got a good kick, so be prepared,” he said. He showed me how to look down the sight while holding the gun, cold and heavy. It smelled like metal and smoke. I could see the targets way down by the barn, over the field and in a clearing where the landscape rolled perfectly like a backdrop. I knew I could hit them. I knew I could do it. But I had to hold it steadily and tightly against my shoulder so I wouldn’t lose my aim. The kick was a lot greater than I could have imagined. I was knocked to the ground by the force of the recoil, stunned and wowed by its power. I sat on a patch of dirt worn by his frequent shooting, with pinecones to one side and my father’s paint-splattered boots on the other. The gun fell to my lap, my shoulder was too newly hurt to feel, and the grass around me smelled like shade. A few weeks ago, at a cocktail party, I met a very sexy man who wears a gold crown better than anyone I’ve ever known. It’s on a lower molar, number 31 in dentist-speak. He tells great stories and has a wide smile, and I was delighted to catch glimpses of his crown as frequently as I did. I wanted to tell him — I bet he doesn’t know — that if he decides to be cremated, his ashes might be searched for that gold. My father told me that when I was 12, right after his mother died. Morbid and curious as always, he had called the cremation facility to ask them what they did with the remaining metal, knowing that my grandmother had a prosthetic kneecap and several gold crowns. He was told that the workers keep the gold and resell it; they consider it a perk. Surprised at the easy confession, he told everyone, snickering at the audacity. I knew when I was 4 years old that my father was going to kill himself. It was 1980, and he decided to leave dentistry for a while. He always complained that it was so difficult: You inflict pain on other people; children kick you; no one wants to visit you; you’re the last to get paid; you work in a space this big (making an “O” with his fingers and thumb). To anyone who hates your dentist, I think I can wisely say: Your dentist hates you, too. I don’t know how I knew. I don’t think I overheard anything. It was just one of those silent exchanges, although this one lasted 21 years. I’m told that the gun glinted in the morning sunlight. I’m told he closed his eyes for us, so that when he was found, they wouldn’t be wide-open. I’m told he left his watch in the drawer that morning, so that it wouldn’t be taken away on his body. I’m told that he looked like he was sleeping, but with the gold cap of the shell protruding from the side of his head. My English-born mother says he was “thickheaded,” so of course that shell didn’t make it far. “That big turkey!” she said. “Yeah, right,” I said. “Turkey with a shotgun.” I don’t know if I believe any of it. Could it really have gone down that neatly? Did she really see what she says she saw? It took me 12 hours to get there from Los Angeles, and I arrived home close to midnight. The next morning, I went out to see for myself. He killed himself just steps away from where he used to shoot targets, steps away from where I was knocked down once before. It’s the most beautiful northern view of the countryside, with corn rising in the distant field, a massive maple tree in the foreground with hundreds of young saplings growing underneath, and the light as beautiful at dawn as it is at sunset. The old barn and the chicken coop always look the same. My uncle had mowed the lawn. Maybe there was an impression in the grass, but I’m not sure I didn’t make that up. I don’t look like the kind of girl who’s knelt on the lawn looking for blood, but I have. I sure didn’t find anything.


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