Other People’s Weapons

“I’ll tell you what, I don’t know how you do it. This road is a wreck. How do you manage in winter?” says Dave, a native of Fork Mountain whom I’ve invited up the road to get an estimate on mowing the lower field and regarding the gravel. He turns his head to look up the steepest part of the driveway and laughs in disbelief.

“I hike up in the winter,” I say. “It’s not bad, just half a mile from end to end.”

“I’ll tell you what else. There’s coyotes up here.” He waves his hand in the direction of the mountain, swooping it from left to right, tracing the distant ridgeline. “I was born and raised in these woods. There’s not a piece of this property I haven’t seen at one time or another. You oughtta get yourself a pistol” he said. “Or a shotgun.”

“They’re not much good if you don’t know how to use them,” I say.

“Well you should learn, I tell you. I’ve got mine right here and there’s not a time I can think of when I wished I didn’t have it.” He reaches around his waist and in one quick second has unsnapped a leather case attached to his belt and rested a small pistol in the palm of his hand.

“Oh,” I say.

“You’re up here all alone, then?” he says.

Oh, why that question? Always that question. And such poor timing—I mean, really! “Yes, sir,” I say. “Not a problem at all.” I envision a right snap kick, a left lead punch. Then I could hightail it down the mountain—he’s the one in cowboy boots, after all.

“And you don’t know how to use a gun?” He’s still holding the pistol out and I think there are three things he can do: Use it, put it back on, or toss it in his truck. I shift my weight from one foot to the other. Grip my toes toward the earth, find my center.

“No, Sir,” I say. “I’m not too worried about coyotes, to be honest.” I want to tell him that it’s human beings that are most unpredictable, but I stay quiet.

He tosses the gun into his truck, freeing his hand so he can shake mine and nod his head. “Well then, I’ll be back on Friday to work the road. Forty bucks an hour. I can’t believe you’ve been doing it by hand. Now that’s something else, I’ll tell you. Gotta be fool crazy to put those kind of hours in.”

“I won’t argue with that,” I say, stepping out of his way so he can pull out, head back down the mountain.

That was part one of my two-part mission to keep myself and my car from barreling down the side of Fork Mountain this summer, as the heavy afternoon thunderstorms carve new gullies into the road each day. Part two involves talking to the neighbors, whose portion of the road is the worst because it is at the bottom, where water that’s been streaming downhill for half a mile finally breaks up, cuts away, and dissipates down to the creek or further down onto the edge of the pavement.

The neighbors. I haven’t spoken to them since their foster child trespassed, came into the house, and stole my digital camera. I knock on their door and step back a few feet. The handle and blinds shake and rattle from clawing dogs on the other side of the door. These are the dogs that bark like they want to kill me every time I drive by. Their names are—ready for this?—Lady and Princess.

After about a minute, Bill comes to the door without his shirt on. This is the man whom I have never seen in the 15 months that I have lived here. I ask him if he has a moment to talk about the road.

“Sure, just let me get a shirt on and I’ll invite you in.”

Another minute later he returns, the dogs safely locked away somewhere, and opens the door. I am shocked that he wants me to come inside but pleased at his honest smile and his hospitality. Plus, it’s pouring outside so I accept the offer and follow him into the living room.

We talk the business of gravel—white stone, grayrock, local versus city, waterbars versus catch troughs—all of which is fine and dandy but what I can’t help but notice is the number of weapons in this house. From where I sit, I can see three samuri swords, fully encased and mounted above the fireplace. A mahogany table serves as a pedestal for two more swords, each with blades wider then my forearm and brass (gold?) cases polished to perfection. My instinct is to turn my head, check out what else I’m in for (How many ways shall I be killed, today?), but I realize I’m gaping and instead turn my attention back to Bill.

He’s going on and on, almost nervously, telling me about hauling rock from OtherCity, TN and BigCity, NC and that’s when I notice how unfathomably wide his shoulders are. In all, he’s probably about 6’2” and three feet across up top. I notice, also, that he’s wearing an Everlast tank top. One of his palms could probably fit around my neck and it occurs to me that most people who are comfortable with weapons don’t actually display their most efficient, effective, and useful weapons. No, those weapons are hidden under pillows or near bedsides. In closest or under driver’s seats. In other words, if there are five weapons that I can see from where I am sitting now, without even turning my head, how many others are there in this house and of what variety?

Bill, it turns out, likes to talk. Eventually, I have to cut him off in order to make it to work on time. Besides, it’s taking all the energy I can muster not to turn my head and stare around his house, scoping it out for other weapons. We shake on a deal to share the costs of fixing the road, and I take my leave, part two of the mission accomplished.

Later on, I go to karate class. I make it 45 minutes and my knees are killing me. I bow off the mat and stifle tears, so utterly heartbroken about my body’s unexpected limitations. Forty-five minutes. I can kick and punch at the air for 45 minutes and my joints are shot. When I sit down that night to write, alone on Fork Mountain and all the darkness of the forest just one pane of glass away, I think about safety. About wildness. About self-preservation and the cultivation of fear.

I sit and I think and I am not scared. A four-inch cecropia moth flirts with its reflection in in the window, confused by my desk light. Except for the overflow from the spring splashing down the rocks, all is quiet. Then a loud, visceral shriek resounds across the mountain, followed by two rapid, high-pitched calls. A pause. Return to silence, the spring water. Then four calls in sets of two—the barred owl of Fork Mountain makes his killing.

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