“I’m gonna buy a gun.”
There were few worse sentences John could have slurred into the phone, his voice broken down into bits and pinging across six hundred miles worth of cell towers before reassembling itself in my horrified ear.
“No, you’re not.”
There were few sure things in that moment, with the physical miles separating us suddenly the shortest distance between us, but that was one thing. My previously calm Maine evening had been taken hostage by unbidden images of piles of unfortunate, unsuspecting, and quite dead delivery people at our doorstep, not to mention the thought of my own bespattered demise on attempting to rouse him from a signature catatonic state at just the wrong time.
He absolutely was not going to bring a gun into our house.
I was on my third solo trip to Maine in five months, this time to help Mom during and after eye surgery, but still a pretty good outward indicator of the state of my marriage. I assume now, for efficiency’s sake, that John’s next stop after dropping me off at the airport was the liquor store.
Back then, I hadn’t yet learned to assume that.
It started small enough, as massive things often do. He texted me on Monday morning that his phone had been hacked, and that somebody was demanding money. They may have hacked you, too. Some sort of stripper scam. They got photos from my phone. Anyway, just a heads-up.
We talked on the phone that night, and he seemed more irritated than genuinely concerned. I told him that the pictures he was describing were ones he’d posted to Twitter, by way of a possible explanation. It was clearly just a scam, best ignored.
Tuesday afternoon, he texted, Have you gotten any texts or emails from strangers? If you do, block asap. I told Dean about it so he is keeping an eye out. I haven’t heard from them since last night but I blocked the numbers and cleaned my phone.
Dean, our next-door neighbor, is a cop: an unexpected escalation.
John and I talked on the phone that night. He said he’d responded to the text demanding money, refusing, and that they came back with a threat to kill him. I couldn’t imagine why he’d bothered to reply in the first place, since the day before we’d almost laughingly agreed to ignore it. He said he wasn’t worried, though, because he had his swords at the ready…and besides, this was obviously a scam.
I didn’t hear from him all day Wednesday, and was a bit distracted as Dad and I went out for a late lunch and a movie. We talked about the texts and conversations I’d had with John, and over our Olive Garden breadsticks and salads, I jokingly said, “At least he hasn’t got any guns.”
(Damn, though, have I learned not to start any sentences with those two little words. “At least he hasn’t got any guns…” “At least he’s not drinking…” “At least we’re together…” At least: a dog whistle for the Fates.)
I called John that night. He was slow to answer, and when he did, he murmured and slurred as if he’d had a stroke. My stomach clenched unexpectedly. I asked him if he was drinking. (I have no other questions when my stomach feels like this.) He informed me, with exasperated effort apparent even over the phone, that he was just tired. My stomach did not untangle.
He then said that M13 had been in touch again.
M13? Again? I’ve got a degree in astronomy, so my uneasy mind wandered to the lovely Great Cluster of stars in Hercules, Item Number 13 in the Messier Catalogue, delicate and privileged creature that I am.
That was not the M13 he meant.
He said they wanted two thousand dollars in bitcoin not to kill him. He’d tried in vain, but didn’t know how to effect such a transaction. (Thank God). Trying to collect myself from six hundred miles away, I told him it was hard to imagine Salvadoran street gangs diversifying their investment portfolios with cryptocurrency. (Not a sentence you expect ever to have to utter.)
That’s when he pulled out the gun, at least in terms of intention.
He was absolutely dumbfounded at my refusal.
“I am,” his inner five-year-old, now front and center and in complete chaotic charge, asserted.
“No, John. No, you’re really not going to get a gun. You sound like you haven’t slept in three days.”
“I talked to Dean about it. He said it sounded like a good idea.”
“No. Fucking. Guns.”
The conversation proceeded in this binary vein for roughly the next one hundred years, which somehow only seemed to register ten minutes on earthly clocks. By then, we’d finally achieved a surly détente:
“Fine, I won’t get a gun, but it’ll be your fault when they come for me and I can’t defend myself.”
“Honey, I absolutely swear, M13 is not coming to kill you.” (Another sentence for the ages.)
I hung up, and turned to Mom, who’d been beside me during the call. I told her what was already clear, even from only one half of the exchange.
She thought for a moment, then said, “Call Dean.”
Dean said, “Oh my God, he’s there? I thought he’d taken off too. There haven’t been any lights on for the last two days and there are packages on the front porch.”
I assured him that John was very much home, at least physically, and gave him the details of the phone call.
“That’s so weird. He seemed fine when I was talking to him on Monday.”
I told him, “No guns.” He agreed, almost sheepish.
I asked if he could go over and check on him.
“Am I going over in my professional capacity?”
That seemed like such a scary question, from so far away. “Can you go as a friend?”
He agreed that he would.
“Barbara, I think he’s hallucinating.” It was the first thing Dean said after he’d seen John.
He told me that John seemed so glad to see him, but was definitely agitated and paranoid, and likely recovering from a panic attack. He’d recommend a 72-hour psychiatric observation, as a friend, which of course John politely declined, as a friend.
When Dean asked to see the texts, John said he’d deleted them.
He’d then asked if things were worse being alone, and seemed happy to report that John had told him, “Yeah, I miss Barbara.”
(At least he misses you.)
Dean believed him.
He said he’d been able to talk John down, to get him to agree that no one was coming for him, to assure him that he was fine, and would be fine: despite the fact that he’d been sleeping in the basement as if it were a bunker, with two Chihuahua mixes and his whole collection of hand-wrought blades: knives, swords, and axes.
“And, just so you know, he’s been drinking. The bag from the liquor store was on the counter. I grabbed it and told him ‘I’d better take this, you don’t want Barbara to see it.’ I wasn’t even going to tell you but Chelsea said you needed to know.”
He was my first outside witness.
Still I felt the world tilt on its axis, even though no one else seemed to notice. Things weren’t sliding off the counter at my elbow, Mom was sitting stationary beside me, quite upright and looking at me with decided worry, gravity apparently still a downward force. Even as I hung on to the counter to prevent my personal, rebellious field from dumping me against a wall or spilling me on the ceiling, I registered Dean’s admission that he wasn’t going to tell me, and I thought to myself…
Bros before hoes. God, classic.
Coda: M13 did not, in fact, come to kill John. The night they were due, a storm arose from nowhere that spawned five different tornados in our Mid-Atlantic area: an unusual occurrence. The atypical twisters managed not to kill anybody either, and there was minimal damage. (Sound and fury, signifying nothing.) John never brought a firearm into the house, not that I am aware. But in one of my many booze pursuits, undertaken with him passed out on the basement couch, I found in his closet, next to several empty fifths of Tito’s vodka, an air rifle and pellets. They were still in their original packaging. I imagined that the effort to open them had become a bridge too far. I left them where they were, and began locking my bedroom door.
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