The line appears after I have passed West Third, much before I expected. Instead of breaking at the intersection and continuing down Fulton Road, cars snake around the corner, starting on the street I was about to drive across. I make a right, then a U-turn, and pull up behind a dark blue SUV. How far am I from the front of the line? I have no idea.
Before backing out of my driveway this morning, I packed two rifles and a revolver into the rear of my car. Twenty-four hours earlier, I didn’t know what to call those guns, surprising since I’ve lived with firearms in my house for years.
I am waiting in line for an event I never imagined to be attending — a gun buyback, held by our local police department. The police will take firearms, no questions asked, including assault rifles, which are banned here in California. We will be paid two hundred dollars for each rifle and handgun, and three hundred for an assault rifle or ghost gun, for up to three guns.
I am here because my husband Richard, the gun collector in our house, is dying of cancer. For months, he has been selling his firearms at local gun shops. As of this morning, he’d gotten rid of all but four. When he heard about this event, he hoped to bring the guns himself. But now that the day has arrived, he’s not well enough even to ride along.
I first met Richard nearly thirty years ago, on a sunny, fog-free afternoon in late September, the sort of day that could make me weep over my luck to be living in San Francisco. I was attracted, pure and simple, to his looks. By that time in my early forties, I had dated way too much, struggling to find a guy who wouldn’t leave me. I was like an obsessive shopper, buying clothes I thought were perfect, but then bringing them home and finding they never looked right.
At least in the looks’ department, I knew the kind of guy who made heart quicken. He was of medium height and slender, could put clothes together well, and they looked made for him. My Mr. Right also had black hair, brown eyes and a warm smile.
So, here he was, sitting across from me on a restaurant deck, overlooking San Francisco Bay. I had never seen him before, only heard his voice, which I liked. We were meeting, thanks to a local weekly newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, where I’d placed a personal ad, seeking a man I now thought might be Richard.
I don’t recall him mentioning, as I toyed with my chicken salad, that he’d once been a cop. Neither had he said those words when we spoke on the phone. How that detail might have affected me early on, I can’t say. Physical attraction can be a dangerous drug, giving me permission to ignore qualities that would otherwise put me off. I might have swept that piece of Richard’s history under the proverbial rug.
On our first date, which lasted through lunch, past dinner, and almost into the next morning, I wasn’t aware that this sweet, soft-spoken Asian man probably had a Glock pistol stuffed into the back of his waistband. Of course, I’d never seen a Glock, so I couldn’t have picked one out of a lineup. Neither would have I have known that Richard rarely left the house without a loaded gun, kept one close at home, and in addition to self-protection, spent time shooting rounds at a local range, hitting targets with such precision, it would have made me tremble.
I must admit that I have never considered owning a gun. I will add, though, that I’m not naïve about crime, having lived in cities my entire adult life, often in sketchy neighborhoods, bordering on truly dangerous ones. Though fortunate to never have been a victim of violent crime, I’ve suffered petty theft, having my purse ripped off my shoulder a few blocks from home, and lived in several houses broken into and robbed, including when a would-be burglar held a pipe against my visiting friend Julie’s neck, only to quit and flee when my housemates, Berndt and Magritte, arrived home.
On every aspect of what the media calls the gun debate, I come down on the side of safety. If in our initial phone conversation Richard had said he loved shooting guns, I might have ended the call.
Thankfully, by the time I learned more about Richard, including that guns had factored into his life from childhood, I had gotten to know this good, kind and creative man, and liked him a lot. Five years later, I was thrilled to marry him.
When I pull up behind the last car on this clear, windy morning, I’m not aware that it will take two hours of intermittent inching forward to reach the gun buyback site. About one o’clock, I turn into the narrow drive leading to the church parking lot. A few minutes later, I finally pull up to a spot where uniformed officers are waiting to talk to drivers on each side.
Sunglasses balanced on the back of his head, a young local cop squats next to the passenger window of my car, apologizing for the long wait. I’ve needed to pee for the last half-hour, so feel grateful I am nearly done.
For a moment, I’m tempted to tell the cop that my husband, the owner of the two rifles and handgun resting in the back of the car, was also a police officer when he was young. As I’d heard Richard do numerous times, I have an urge to tell the story of a stifling August night and warn this nice-looking guy never to go out on the street without his bulletproof vest on, as it will save his life.
I don’t remember when Richard revealed that he had been a cop in, of all places, the city of Oakland, California, infamous for too much gun violence. As a result, I’m unable to dredge up how I felt. I only know that every year on the August date of what Richard always referred to as the shooting incident, he would relive it by telling the story, a part of healing, I came to understand.
Soon after we started dating, though, I began noticing the lingering aftereffects of Richard’s having been shot. He never forgot to turn on the alarm when he left home. In that same house, he didn’t just rely on good door and window locks. When inside, he slid metal contraptions against the front and back doors, and the sliding glass door to the patio. I would soon learn that he never stepped out of the house without slipping a weighty handgun into the back waistband of his pants.
Richard’s security measures extended to a sixth sense he had about danger. Before I noticed anyone nearby, Richard could pick up the vibes. One summer evening, out at an event in Portland, Oregon, which had drawn a big crowd, he suddenly pulled out his cell phone and pressed it to his ear. I had no idea who he was calling but would soon understand the call was just a ploy, when a moment later, he pointed out a guy scurrying away from us in the crowd. He’d sensed the guy was about to try and rip off the expensive camera Richard had hanging around his neck. After Richard gave him the stink-eye and picked up his phone, the would-be thief skedaddled.
The story my husband frequently told about the shooting incident included a repeated point. The man he’d been chasing after he broke into an elderly woman’s apartment did not want to go back to San Quentin. The suspect had several brothers, it turns out, and after Richard shot and killed him while defending himself, the brothers were out for revenge. My husband’s hospital room was defended at all hours by armed Oakland cops. After Richard was released from the hospital, though, he was on his own.
Decades later, the trauma, what’s now dubbed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, still manifested itself. Four or five times a week, he would wake up from a deep sleep, screaming from a nightmare. Even when the bad dream didn’t wake him, shaking from fright, he often related dreams to me, in which he was chasing or being chased by characters he called the bad guys.
In real life, Richard had been shot several times in the chest, only saved by his bulletproof vest, and in his forearms and left hand, which retained bullet fragments impossible to remove. Because he no longer had full use of that hand, the department wouldn’t allow him back out on the streets. For a time, he pushed paper around. But he hadn’t joined the police force to spend long, dull hours at a desk. A few years after the shooting, he retired from the force.
Retiring, however, didn’t rid him of the fear. Long after the shooting, the stress continued, taking a toll. After experiencing repeated stabbing chest pains on a steep uphill hike in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, he went in for tests and learned he had several blocked arteries. The heart surgeon, who performed double bypass surgery the day after an angiogram revealed the blockages, said he was surprised, since his patient had neither high blood pressure nor high cholesterol, two risk factors for heart disease. I couldn’t help but attribute the mysterious origins of his condition to that long-ago, hot August night.
Blocked arteries weren’t the only malady to strike my husband in the years after he retired from the police department. Two decades past the shooting, we learned he had stage four cancer. Ten months later, a second cancer appeared.
The treatments were harsh, with punishing side effects. My slender, usually calm, and often funny husband lived with the pain, and the digestive issues and fatigue, as uncomplaining and courageous as I had heard he’d been with the shooting injuries.
Month after month, he endured four-hour-long infusions, getting chemo drugs with unpronounceable names, that over time caused numbness in his hands and feet, and eventually hearing loss, adding to damage his hearing sustained the night he was shot. His optimism never wavered, always believing the tests would show good progress, which for over four years they did. The bravery he exhibited throughout this entire grueling ordeal gave me a window into the much younger police officer he’d been, the guy who chased a robbery suspect down an alley without backup, because the radio in his car was broken, and he couldn’t call for help. He kept on, even after the guy started shooting.
One way he kept going through his cancer treatment was to head out every few weeks to the range. He spent an hour or more each time, aiming one of his many guns at a paper target of the outline of a man, bringing the riddled sheet back home to show me how many times he’d hit the guy in the heart.
A few days before the buyback, Richard was still able to drive, though I worried with all the medication he was taking that he might not be safe anymore. As the date of the buyback approached, I decided he was too weak, and I would have to drive.
As I understood it, the plan was to turn over the three rifles and hold onto what Richard referred to as the revolver. That loaded gun lived in the top drawer of the nightstand, next to the bed, where he spent most of every day now sleeping. That gun was there, in case a would-be burglar broke into our house.
I understood that Richard would want to keep that gun until the end. As he told me more than once, I could turn that gun into the sheriff’s office, after he was gone.
But the day before the buyback, he changed his mind. Instead of me taking all three rifles, he wanted me to get rid of two rifles and the handgun. The only thing he said about his decision was that I could give his brother the remaining rifle.
I understood something else, though. Richard was no longer afraid to die.
Two hours after I pull into the line, I unlatch the back of my Honda Fit and two local police officers reach in and grab the guns. They ask me several times if I want the cases back in which I’ve brought the guns, and I say no. They probably aren’t the least bit interested but I would love to explain. I want to tell them all about Richard, what the guns meant to him, going back to his childhood when his dad aimed for targets, won competitions, and introduced his sons to the sport. I would like to explain how before he got too sick, he’d drive up the steep winding road to his brother’s rural property, and they would spend several hours together at the range, having fun like they did when they were young. I might also have told them that Richard and I both want much stronger gun safety laws enacted.
One week after the buyback, I lost my beloved husband. That night, I slept without him in the house for the first time. As I lay in bed, sad and afraid, I realized that I’d never before feared what might happen if someone broke in.
Certain politicians like to brandish weapons in ads, as if that makes them appear strong, or manly. No one knew but me when Richard was carrying a gun. Many people who’d come to know and love Richard weren’t aware that gun collecting and shooting were important parts of his life.
Anyone who knew him, though, was acutely aware of how bravely he had lived with cancer. A few of us got to see that his quiet brand of courage was still there, as he faced the death he’d fought off years earlier, on a hot August night he never could stop remembering.
Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing), was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays.
© 2023, Patty Somlo