Sport 41: 2013
Megan Doyle Corcoran — A Crawl to Arms
Traffic on the 5 stopped dead. The radio said sluggish through Glendale. Add an extra 42 minutes. Claire would crawl home. Her old car shuddered and she gave it a little gas. If she stalled in the middle lane, she would stare down the threats, meet menace with menace. On either side, glossy sedans tried to muscle past. We all have 10 feet, Claire thought. Everyone stay calm.
Claire stared into the heat and exhaust rising off the scorched, lined concrete. Twenty-two miles from Norwalk to Hollywood. In 20 damn minutes, she’d gone four fucking miles. The tar pits boiled beneath her. Someday, she thought, the bubbling asphalt will claim us all. It’ll melt every ribbon of road and seal every matchstick subdivision. It’ll clog the pores of living souls who thought they had their oil under control.
When Claire was 14, her mom put the car in park in the same LA traffic. Go put your feet on the freeway, she said. She was trying hard in those days and Claire was receptive as a snake. Once around the car, her mom said. Fast. Claire abhorred her mom just then. Hormones, their counselor had whispered, trying not to stir them up. Fuck off, Claire had responded before and one more time after her mother reached across the pleather couch to slap her thigh. Claire’s chemicals contrived to keep her ready to strike for another few years. On that day in traffic, Claire dragged her feet over the reflectors and concrete. She only completed the lap of her mom’s car as traffic started to roll around her. She squinted at the flecks of glass and sparkle on the road’s surface. She glared at drivers honking their horns. She climbed back into her seat and resumed her bored unhappiness. Her mom sighed. She said, one small step for Claire, one giant step on the freeway. Claire said, shut up.
Lately, Claire was doing a lot of thinking about guns. She thought guns might deserve a revival among her kind. Her kind was moderately page 100 subversive, tolerably intelligent and remotely engaged with politics of the day. Her kind might be married or not—partnership was almost irrelevant because her kind said things like, I need to live how I want. Claire herself was unmarried but she’d come close to nuptials at least twice. The most recent attempt failed because she half believed she didn’t want society’s—or anyone else’s, thank you—blessing. I’ll be the one on my back as his stomach looms larger, she thought. Just me. The other half of her beliefs warned against ironic commitments. The man grows fat with someone else.
Claire’s kind did yoga and thought about meditation when horrors like mortality and a dearth of love in daily life popped up like pimples on wrinkling skin. They definitely didn’t subscribe to violence, and guns, as a rule, were anathema to strong, stable souls. This is how her kind thought. But Claire thought, lately, maybe guns had a place in some hole in her life. Some hole that kept growing—widening and deepening, empty as a vacuum.
Claire was thinking that a gun slung on a belt kept people away. And maybe away—distant, separate, impalpable—was where they belonged. Before Eden fell, or grain grew, or whatever prompted this awful chunk of civilisation to coalesce like cancer over dinosaur bones, didn’t everyone wander in the wilderness? Are we our own punishment? A heavy gun outline stretching a pocket clears paths. It’s powerful to have space, thought Claire, and her car shivered. She tapped on the gas again and rolled a few inches closer to the car ahead. There’s brawn and there’s beauty, maybe, in something made only to harm. The gun might be the most honest thing in all of LA. The gun makes space where space is limited. Claire thought the rest of the world should take note. If not for the blood then for the threat.
And why not, thought Claire. If we adapt by our tools, then maybe evolution wants us armed. She examined her knuckles on the steering wheel.
Three miles and 18 minutes later, the car heaved onto the 101. Claire’s feet felt the heat of the engine and she tried to remember if the needle of the temperature gauge was always a little above the middle. Traffic merged like a broken zipper. Some horns blared and others coughed discreetly. Some hands waved and others asked for a fight.
Claire was thinking about guns in the hands of women who didn’t page 101 exist anymore. Maybe they did, but it seemed to Claire that they’d gone extinct. Drowned in self-absorption, maybe, like mastodons and sabre-toothed cats in the pits. Where were women like Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane and even sweet blonde Bonnie—women whose wiles included locking and loading? Where were the women who meant things when they pointed their guns, women who let their waving guns captivate the crowd? Claire was thinking about women who felt the points of their anger so keenly that they chose obliteration to smooth the edges. These women used to live and drive the same stretch of freeway where Claire savoured that cruel distaste for her mother. Where Claire and her car crept, goaded by the pressure of the same enormous population. Claire wanted friends like those warrior women. Women from past generations who were not afraid to spit then shoot at the smug faces of those who irked or dominated them.
No, no, Claire thought. Damn it. That’s not it. But still.
Claire wondered what malignancy had wiped them out so thoroughly. She had an idea or two. She knew deep inside that she was most likely a part of the problem; she liked the idea that she could trigger a solution.
She was always in the wrong lane. Whatever lane she left moved faster. She gripped her steering wheel and wondered if her hands looked old. She wondered whether things like this mattered.
I guess women still have guns, thought Claire. But not the right kinds of women. Claire reviewed the shape and form of women who openly, proudly packed their heat. Women in this country, she clarified to herself, because surely, she thought, keenly feeling a necessary guilt, there are female combatants—women in dusty clothes and tight braids—fighting for all the right reasons somewhere in all the corners of the world. But not here. Here, women with guns are pressed-bob blondes in belted jeans, she thought. Or they’re older, deceptively soft. They keep their weapons in leather fanny packs because damn the feminine mystique—they have guns. These were women, Claire thought, who might kill an abortion doctor. Or women who, maybe, would shoot the flower delivery man and ask questions later. These women were nuts, ideologically. Or, Claire thought, the cherished right to carry had been too completely usurped by all the wrong people.
In Claire’s docile world, women didn’t often tuck in their shirts page 102 and they didn’t have guns. Different women occupied Claire’s world. The women I know use other weapons, thought Claire. They use weapons like water balloon breasts and careful hairlessness to keep their positions. Sexual positions. Work positions. Both. My friends, thought Claire, don’t—can’t—raise their brow at the ways they’ve plundered the privilege of existence. And all of us not yet 40. Anger is out of the question. Or maybe extraneous. Claire only knew women who pretended that anger—the expression of it, anyway—was a clear indicator of a slack yoga practice or the ingestion of poor-people meat. A woman capable of an outburst probably wasn’t eating organic.
The women Claire knew talked in sad tones about their children. They said things like, these times are hostile, you know, you can’t trust anyone, it’s sad, I just can’t think too much about any of it because then I won’t be present for my babies. Present, thought Claire, is always pronounced with a clench of the fists. Claire wondered if their chattering tow-headed offspring might like a reprieve from their mothers’ vigilance. These were small monsters contorting the generous love/hate cycles of childhood to fit into their mother’s moulds. They knew words like calorie content and gestures like rolling their eyes at McDonald’s and neighbours who keep lawns. They didn’t know about living in rentals or walking to school. Would they enjoy a solo trip to the corner store or would they cower behind the mailbox because their moms kept telling that same story about wild-eyed men who shoot up movie theatres, schools, grocery stores, temples? They’ve heard that one so many times. Those wild-eyed men are coming for them someday but first they’ll hide in their closets and under their beds and come out in their dreams.
Claire’s friends thought the world was falling into a dark pool at the bottom of a slippery abyss. The only thing slowing the world’s cannonball was Claire’s friends’ efforts to stall it. Manicured fingers up. Toned arms braced. Claire thought her friends were nothing but trim, poorly trained lifeguards with well-tended eyebrows who worked their cores to catch the world from falling.
But what if they didn’t have the buffer of their husbands’ lucrative jobs? If the husbands walked away for younger and prettier lifeguards? Would her friends join Claire’s posse or would they simply take the page 103 kids, halve the house and turn carnivorously cougar for younger men? Claire’s friends shook their heads at news stories about boys with bully stares and peach fuzz who shot at other boys. They said things like, this just never used to happen. They said, you never know when they’ll come for us. They forgot or never knew that boys have been slaughtering each other for generations for the same damn reasons as ever. The boys take up guns because they want a little more space.
Claire switched her feet so her left foot controlled her stopping and going. She thought a woman in the car behind her might be crying. The car behind her was in worse condition than her own. Rust speckled the hood and a crack in the windshield went from here to there. Claire didn’t have any cracks in the glass. Her view was unimpeded. The woman found Claire’s eyes so Claire dropped them from the rearview to the vapour pluming out of the exhaust pipe in front of her.
Claire was thinking about those boys on the news. It was always boys on the news. Young black boys in crisp T-shirts that hung to their knees and young Mexican boys wearing ball caps with tags attached and young Asian boys wearing both and bandanas that covered their eyebrows. Claire knew better than to wonder where the white boys were in all this. The white boys wore the same clothes in different neighbourhoods and their mistakes weren’t newsworthy. Not until they wore trench coats and stormed the halls of their high school. Then the white boys made the news too. And when it wasn’t boys, it was single men with exploding pupils and puffy cheeks because the medication shows in the cheeks even if it doesn’t tame the eyes. Single men who lived alone pursuing lives made to look cryptic, but they were really just alone and lonely, with no one near enough, dear enough to wag a finger at their tantrums.
Claire wanted to see a report about a woman who stayed in her stretch pants after Pilates to fire at will into the hustle of morning mall walkers. Or a pack of teenage girls who, feeling disenfranchised by the time required to look broadcast beautiful, opted to shoot the popular girls. Was it because women could kill without bullets that they didn’t resort to them? Claire would prefer to be a woman less brutish than the rest. She’d prefer all women to be a little kinder actually. Guns, in so many ways, keep brutality out of it. Strong, concise statements are delivered in rapid fire. Guns are never long-winded.page 104
Shit, thought Claire, I can’t help it. This is just what I’m thinking about.
Claire drove the same stretch of freeway every day and every day she leaned her head against her hand and moved her foot from the brake to the gas to the brake. When Claire put her right foot back on the gas, she pulled her left foot up on the seat so her knee rested against the door. When Claire was learning to drive, her mother thought this kind of comfort behind the wheel was inappropriate. She told Claire, an accident will displace your femur from your hip, you know, just imagine that. Claire said, like always, shut up, Mom. Claire decided that she’d rather not think of the million ways her body could be disassembled if the metal box around her were to buckle and collapse. She decided, I have worse things to worry about.
Every day, on her way to and from work, Claire drove her car over inches, feet and miles in the small gap left between other cars travelling the same inches, feet, miles. When she wasn’t staring at the dotted line of traffic that reached into her future, she stared at oleander that rose from the median like post-apocalyptic survivors. She spotted bent hubcaps, the manipulation of sagging skin in mirrors, the trash that skittered across the lanes and rose to sail away. Her eyes scanned for things more compelling than powder-coated steel and concrete. Claire liked the vanity plates of self-important assholes and bumper stickers of ideological dullards or proud parents with children who, despite the sticker’s promise, would become nothing better than mediocre. My child is an Honor Student at Taft, she read. At best, your child is reducing the resale value of your minivan, she thought. At worst, he’ll become president. I would shoot you in the neck, thought Claire, but the asshole in the next lane won’t let me over to pass.
Even if times had always been shit, it didn’t change the fact that they were still shit. The present, thought Claire, sucks as bad as it ever did in those dead moments of the past. Like all those times when her life was wasted, like in traffic, and there was nothing to show for it at all. Like how she was slowly expiring among the expired breath of millions. And this, if anything, she thought, was a call to arms. No more, she thought. How much more can we take?
Claire owed more money for college than she made in a year. She lived in a Hollywood bungalow that looked fine from the street, but page 105 almost two-thirds of her salary went to rent and she still had to pay trash and water. Then there was the lawyer who got the restraining orders against Doug. After two years and an engagement, Doug had announced that he was bisexual and acting on it and Claire couldn’t get the image from her head when he tried to quote play nice with her which was his euphemism for fucking. And then there was the worry that followed. Claire could end up splotched and dying of AIDS, which should be impossible for a straight 35-year-old non-IV-drug-using female but suddenly wasn’t. Still, Doug sometimes forgot about her vivid imagination. He thought it was fun to pop by in the mornings, step on the gas meter under the bathroom window, and wish her a good day while she showered. The restraining order would need to be extended, Claire thought. She’d have to pay again to keep Doug on his side of the line.
Hanging off the overpass about a quarter mile ahead was a sign that said Peace. It was tied to the tight chain links that kept people from throwing rocks or themselves into the rising tide of cars. Two brown boys pressed themselves against the fence and, as Claire inched closer, she could see their fingers clawing through the metal. These boys, she thought, deserve a better view.
Her friends, Claire knew, weren’t doing so great either. Plenty appeared at evening yoga flow with ringed, jumpy eyes that told Claire that fights and strife and suffering were racing through the cleaner streets of Hancock Park, Los Feliz, even Westwood and crashing into the houses of gentle women. Those darting eyes told Claire that the domestic wars were too hard to look at. Claire’s friends targeted the enemies outside. To save the world from the brink, they depleted their resources in other battles. Boycott the neighborhood cafe until the menu is revised to remove gluten. Withhold the auction proceeds from the school until the janitor with a drunk driving conviction is fired. Shame the neighbour for those chaotic wind chimes he brought back from Bali. It’s not anger, they would say, that drives our campaigns. It’s vision—a world view to improve everyone’s lot. My friends, Claire thought, don’t have their priorities in order. Where do I find new friends, she wondered.
From where Claire sat, lodged in a sludge of cars under a microclimate of exhaust, it would be no big deal to use a gun. Or, it would page 106 be no big deal to spot her targets. Claire had been doing some research. When Patty Hearst entered the bank with her semi-automatic, she made it look good. No shots fired but damn, Claire thought, she probably felt exceptional in those jeans as she made her demands. And when Sara Jane got a shot off at Ford, a few days after Squeaky, she cleared the road for herself. Thirty years off from tending to crops of crap and then parole but still, she vented her discontent. How good that would feel. These women charged the barricades, guns above graceful wrists. Women used to get mad in ways that didn’t seem completely laughable.
Like my mother, thought Claire. She waved a baseball bat at Claire’s father to get him off the couch and out of the house after he held the hair at the top of her head and shook it to state his distaste for a casserole. The bat alone didn’t wake him from a drunken stupor but when Claire took the bat and swung it to his kidney it did. Claire’s father had taken his guns with him when he left Claire and her mother, and once a month Claire was made to sleep in the room where he’d stacked them. There were a .22 and a shotgun and two others that Claire didn’t know what to call crisscrossed on the top shelf of the closet. Claire climbed a chair to cover them gingerly with a pillow and sometimes she found the pillow back on the bed when she arrived on a Friday and had to do it all again.
Claire opened her mouth, stretched her jaw, and made a noise just for something to do. The strip of 101 through downtown winds through concrete walls. The murals celebrated the ’84 Games when Claire’s friends thought the world had been a better place. It’s all faded under the dirt of time, like LA’s ancient blue sky is lost to smog. In the downtown maze, cars that were close before were closer. Claire tapped the brakes and let them go, tapped the brakes and let them go, just to lurch the car. Just for something to feel.
She observed her freeway cohort. Claire thought she might aim first at salt-and-pepper to her left. He’s on the phone, the fucking bastard. His cotton polo told her he was an executive with enough in the game to take it easy on a Friday. A lawyer, she thought. He argued at the cars around him and made eyes at Claire. Aim for the ear, she thought. She imagined him juggling the phone and the wheel when his blood erupted on the leather interior. And then, Claire thought, I’d take a page 107 look at urban cowboy in the truck with novelty testicles dangling from the undercarriage. Claire had seen these before on her way to that conference in Dallas. Maybe, thought Claire, I’d get the cowboy first.
It was Friday afternoon which meant that Claire would be unable to flee the scene. Claire would have to think carefully on a kill, balance it against the congestion on the road, weigh the value of getting home to her empty house against the inconvenience of a trial, incarceration and sodium pentobarbital. Or is that only what they use for dogs, she wondered. If she got that far, they should have her shoot herself. Show the system really working. That would put a fine point on it. Or, she thought, let everyone who wants me dead step up to the task. She’d want it to be people who had some investment in it. Not the vigilantes aching to serve justice or the sociopaths aching for a freebie. Let it be the cowgirl wife of the man with the truck nuts. Claire wanted to look her in the eye in the moment before she pulled the trigger and ask, He was insecure as a man, right? Claire also wanted any other friends and family members to join the firing squad. She wouldn’t care to talk to the lawyer’s wife. She’d be a mess of mascara despite the generous life insurance policy.
Lady Killer on the Road, the headline would read. She’d be news for sure. But that wasn’t important. What would be interesting would be waiting to see if other women heard the rally cry. If they heard the shots fired, would they search for that satisfaction too? Her friends, she thought, were good with trends. They might one day become women like her. If the angles were right, if she looked good. Plus, it was the founders who said we should be armed. Why keep guns at all if we aren’t going to wield them?
The day might come, thought Claire, when I’ll finally get that pink slip the school keeps threatening. And then it will be irrelevant what day it is when I point a gun into traffic to clear the road. Claire taught aching, pubescent monsters to diagram sentences and record their thoughts in journals. The boys waxed poetic about violence before they settled into standard insecurities and fears. The girls pretended love but the subtext was never peaceful. Not that this excuses me, Claire thought.
Just last week, Josh had accused her of hysteria before he slammed the door on his way out. Josh didn’t want to try any longer because page 108 of it. It was only their sixth month together but he said she had daddy issues. Or something, he added. Claire thought this was a decent observation but she still didn’t think the moment was right to disclose the fact that her dad died lazily of beer when she was 19 and life had continued just about the same as it ever had except that Claire transferred his .22 to her closet and acquired a taste for martinis. Josh said he doubted Claire would ever be whole if she couldn’t tell him about her past and he wanted a whole woman, sorry.
Hysteria, Claire knew, was a landmark in women’s territory that men did not like to visit. Hysteria should be experienced alone and warning signs should be posted to warn misguided male travelers. Men, on the other hand, turn testy and the world indulges their irritation. We justify, thought Claire, their use of force. We kneel before their missiles. Well, that’s a vivid metaphor, thought Claire, but I can admit that I’ve surrendered a few times just because it seemed easiest to make Doug or Josh or a few handfuls of other men feel a little better in the short term. Claire thought she should have used the gun.
No, no, thought Claire. That’s not right. But I can’t help thinking.
It was high time a woman took a respectable stand and carried guns for the sake of her sisters. For the honour of hysteria. Yeah, thought Claire. I can totally be the one. Why not me? It’s been too long since Annie got her gun. Since Bonnie chewed her stogie with a gun on her hip.
The brake lights started to glow in the dark and Claire’s exit was only a mile away. She had to get over so she put the guns away. She put on her blinker and waved at the car behind her. A woman still wearing her sunglasses flipped her off and narrowed the gap. Claire waited, thinking that she could put the car in park, climb onto the concrete and walk across the lanes to get home. A yellow and primer jumble of parts with a spoiler buzzed beside her. Claire caught the kid’s eye and he gave her space. He smiled. Claire smiled too and thought, fuck. She said it. Fuck. And she laughed.
She turned onto Melrose.
Her house was dark and her mailbox was full of junk mail. A flyer on her door told her that neighbourhood watch was looking for the kids tagging up the fences. Yeah, she thought. I’m well aware of the fucking situation. She went inside.