For a moment I wonder if the connection is broken, and then I hear the cigarette lighter click, pause, and a long, ragged exhale.
“I mean he didn’t go inside, so . . . ” My younger sister, Tanya, trails off. Her husband does not smoke—hates to see her smoke—so she is hunkered outside the kitchen beneath the deck, balancing a cell phone, cigarette, and wine glass.
He didn’t see anything. Her language is hazy, peppered with euphemisms and metaphors. Because she cannot say it out loud. How can she say it out loud? She does not think he saw their bodies. The ruined bodies of so many children.
There is a hard glassiness to her voice, her second-glass-of-wine voice as we talk about the weirdness of seeing Sandy Hook—a town so small it is not even a town, but an appendage of a town—on the BBC World News. Sandy Hook is a village in Newtown where Tanya’s husband, Steve, has worked as a cop for over twenty years. She is a social worker in Danbury. They were both heading to work when the call came in. She said she knew it was bad--something about a gunman on a roof—by the look on Steve’s face as he tore out of the driveway.
There is a time lag, and we keep stepping on each other’s words. By the time she called into work, the networks were already reporting it. She tells me she watched the news while waiting by the phone, that she was sweating bullets. We stop abruptly and snort—an audio eye roll for a terrible metaphor—before she continues.
“I was so relieved there was no gunman on the roof at first,” she says. “And then when I heard about all those kids, all I kept thinking was please don’t go in there, don’t go in there.” I hear her take another long pull on her cigarette. “That makes me sound awful, I know. But you can’t see that sort of thing and ever come back from it, can you?”
English—particularly American English—is riddled with gunfire idioms and metaphors. I learned the literal root of riding shotgun only three years ago from a Lebanese Arabic professor in Abu Dhabi. He told me how nineteenth-century American stagecoaches carrying valuable cargo—usually silver—would hire an armed guard to sit beside the “driver” to thwart robberies during westward expansion. The professor loved stories of America’s Wild West and hoped to visit the town of Deadwood one day. I remember a fleeting moment of stupid pride, and then nostalgia for the idea of this wild place of fast horses, sawed-off shotguns, and mercenaries paid to blast ragged holes in greedy men.
I love using English-language idioms—especially American ones—to teach cultural context to my Emirati students. The sheer volume of gun metaphors and idioms has long fascinated me. Perhaps it’s because my mother is British and still treats American gun culture with a wary fascination, even after living in Connecticut for almost fifty years. I suspect it might be rooted more in the growing time—seven years—I’ve spent away from the U.S., a place that no longer feels like home. Whatever home means.
According to Oxford English Dictionary, riddled with means “to fill with holes, like those in a riddle; to make holes throughout, especially by means of bullets or other ammunition,” or figuratively “to inundate, overwhelm; to pervade, permeate, especially with something undesirable.”
“It was so strange, Heather—all this silence and shuffling around and creaking carts—like a dance with no music. They took the Christmas lights down too.”
Five days have passed since the shootings. My mother is telling me about her trip to the supermarket. She has a knack for the weirdly eloquent. Even after all these years, there is still a trace of her British accent. I’m not sure if it’s the accent or the thoughtful, gentle cadence of her speech, but I swear I could feel and see her words since I was little. She’d say the word “horse,” and I could smell that glorious musk of oil and sun on its summer coat. And now I can feel the kind of “quiet” she means. It is the noiseless roar of a monsoon rain sweeping across tarmac from behind the airport’s glass.
I catch Tanya the next day—her morning, my night. She is tired of late nights at a local bar and tavern. It is where her husband and other local police have been going almost nightly since the shootings. Again, she mentions the quiet. She cannot believe a bar full of men can be so quiet. Last night a man wept openly at the bar. It is a terrible noise, she says, worse than the silence.
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HEATHER CORRIGAN PHILLIPS is a second-year PhD candidate in English at the University of South Dakota. She has published essays in North American Review, Southeast Review, Ascent, Connecticut Review, Louisville Review, Oyez Review, and Litro Magazine.