It is Sunday afternoon, and I am waiting for my grandmother to take me with her to the mall—which she calls the plaza—so that then she will take me home. The first weekend of every month I stay with my grandparents. Who knows what my parents do the first weekend of every month, but it must be better than watching America’s Funniest Videos next to Grandma in the living room while my grandfather reads spy novels in his office.
My grandfather’s office is the only interesting place in the house. It was my father’s bedroom until he went away to college, at which point my grandfather converted it by throwing away all of my dad’s Dan Marino posters and bringing in an enormous desk. The desk is mahogany, six feet across and four feet deep with his old nameplate—Captain James Lanning—sitting at the front edge. The top is covered with a sheet of glass cut to size and rounded at the corners. All of the drawers are securely locked. I know because I am methodically trying to jimmy open each one with my grandfather’s USS Defiant letter opener.
“Look alive, sailor!”
I jump to attention and hide the letter opener behind my back as my grandfather enters the room. “At ease,” he says, and I slump into a position that looks like it might feel easy. Foolishly, I keep my hands behind my back. He leans forward, placing his hands on the desk and supporting his weight on his arched fingers. I have watched him squeeze a tennis ball for forty minutes straight while he reads, his eyebrows scrunched in concentration. Now he looks mildly amused, either by something he thinks I am doing or something he is about to do. I can’t ever be sure with him.
“What is the purpose of this man’s navy, mister?” he barks at me.
“To protect the freedoms that all Americans enjoy, sir,” I say. It is a routine I know well, and that my grandfather is initiating it means he is in a good mood.
“And what does the word ‘freedom’ mean?”
“Warm beds and cold drinks, Grandpa,” I say.
“Warm what and cold who was that?” he barks.
“Warm beds and cold drinks Grandpa, sir!” I bark back, and he smiles. He walks behind the desk and has a seat in his leather chair. His eyes are level with mine.
“And what does a sailor put up with for freedom?” he says quietly.
“Cold beds and warm drinks, sir,” I say.
“That’ll have to do,” he says, as he jingles his keys and moves to unlock the top right-hand drawer of his desk. Suddenly, he stops. He leans forward, rubbing the pad of his thumb along the ragged, bright gouges I have made around the lock with his letter opener. My throat feels like a tennis ball my pulse is squeezing. My grandfather grunts and unlocks the drawer to remove his familiar flask. He unscrews the top, takes a long swig whose sweep and duration I know are for my benefit, wipes the back of his hand and offers it to me. I offer the customary response.
“Thank you but no thank you, sir. I’m on watch,” I say.
“Suit yourself,” he says, and puts the flask back in the drawer. Then, instead of locking it and saluting me and taking down another spy novel from his bookshelf, he opens the drawer a little further. He reaches towards the back of it, turning his head in the other direction as he stretches out his arm in reach of something. After much rummaging, he puts an object on the desktop that I have never seen before.
It’s a gun. I’ve seen guns before, on television and in the hands of almost every toy I have ever wanted, but I have not seen this gun. The barrel is much shorter than I think it should be, polished and dwarfed in size by the chrome trigger guard and tarnished handle. Do you see that? my grandfather says so quietly that I am not sure he is talking to me.
“Do you know what this is?” he says, louder.
“That’s a gun,” I say.
“That’s a weapon,” my grandfather says quickly. “A street gang carries guns. The sailors in this man’s navy carry weapons.”
“That’s a weapon,” I say. My mouth is dry. I want to ask if it’s loaded—I seem to remember being told that whenever I see a gun I should check to see if it’s loaded—but I also remember being told never, ever to touch one.
“That is a Colt M1911A1 standard issue pistol,” he says. He says the first set of numbers like the year and the second with relish—Ay-one—as if I already knew the Colt M1911 series and would appreciate that this one was the best of its kind. “Do you know what it’s for?”
“Jim, are you frightening the boy?” my grandmother shouts from downstairs.
“Lucy,” he shouts back, “this is a command meeting and we do not require the input of the galley crew!”
“Ask him if he wants a Crystal Light,” she says. I can tell she is shouting but her voice is muffled by the floor and thick carpet between us. She sounds loud and soft at the same time, as if she were speaking through an intercom. My grandfather glances at me, and I realize he has been looking at something else—the glass cover on his desk or his hands, maybe—this whole time.
“Do you want a Crystal Light?” he says quietly. I nod. “That’s an affirmative, sailor!” he shouts. Jim, my grandmother says with irritation, and then says no more. I am quiet. I do not want to go to the mall. I want to go home, but I want to stay here, digging my toes into the carpet of my grandfather’s office.
“It’s for enforcing the law,” my grandfather says, slipping the clip out of the pistol, peering into it and then slapping it back into place. “What is the law of war?”
This part I know. “There is no law in war, sir,” I reply.
“No law at all,” my grandfather says. “A man must make his own law. Who makes the law on a ship?”
“The captain makes the law, sir,” I say.
“And does everyone obey the law?” my grandfather asks quietly. My scalp feels hot. Now I want to go to the mall.
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“Everyone?” my grandfather says. “All the time?”
He leans forward in his chair, and for a moment I feel like I am in one of those interrogation rooms I’ve see in movies—bare and windowless, with a single chair in the center of the room and a flickering light dangling from the ceiling.
“Why do we have jails, then?” He asks.
“Not everyone obeys the law all the time,” I say quietly. “But on a boat, everyone obeys the law.”
“On a what?” he says sharply.
“On a ship,” I say. “On a ship, everyone obeys the law. That’s why there’s no jail.”
My grandfather smiles. Then, to my horror, his upper lip begins to quiver. He looks like he is about to sneeze, and in waiting for him to sneeze I lean forward a little myself, involuntarily moving my mouth like his. We lean toward each other like this for a second. It is so quiet I can hear him breathing, quickly in little sharp gasps. In my mind I entertain the possibility that there is something he isn’t telling me, but I know better than to ask. When he looks up and notices my eyes on him, he shakes his head, looks into my eyes and laughs. I can feel my relief as he sweeps the gun off the desktop and snaps the drawer shut again, locking it with a jingle of his keys.
“That’s right,” he says. “That’s why we don’t need a jail. Dismissed, sailor.”
He stands and salutes me, and I run downstairs and drink Crystal Light as fast as I can. It is green, the worst flavor, and so cold that it makes my head ache, but I drink and drink anyway.
Age 16, Grade 11