Oiling the Gun

by Jolene McIlwain


Ashes dangled on the end of Gwen’s dad’s cigarette. He squinted his eye as smoke drifted up. Tips of his fingers were slick with oil. The rifle lay on a bath-towel on the shag green living-room carpet where one night before Gwen’s cousins slithered disco moves to the Bee Gees “Night Fever.” This late afternoon, no music. News yammered low. That story again about President Carter’s daughter Amy and the elephant.

A year before, Gwen had been so envious of the girl and the baby elephant named Shanti she’d received “on behalf of the children of America.” Gwen would never touch that elephant. She’d begged to visit their local zoo, but her dad said zoos were horrible places. “Keep beasts too far from their own ways of being in the world. Makes them all kinds of crazy.”

The news now explained the story of Amy Carter and a “runaway elephant,” spooked at Ethel Kennedy’s home by a barking dog. Almost stampeded Amy. The secret service saved her.

Gwen’s dad turned around quick to see the screen. He shook his head. He’d loved JFK. Hated Carter. He snapped his fingers to get Gwen’s attention, threaded a cloth patch through the cleaning rod, slid the rod up through the barrel. The fawn chamois across his knees was stained with black hashes. She pushed closer so her knees were inches from the towel.

Tomatoes cooking down in a bath of basil, oregano, garlic, bubbled in from the kitchen. Gwen’s mom’s scraping the pan’s sides cut scratches in the sound of her humming gossip to Aunt Ramey. She peeked in to see Gwen was far enough from the gun, stretching the phone cord until loops were near straight.

Gwen’s dad was chatty, as always after a hunt. Three purpled squirrel bodies that had been soaking in the sink simmered in the sauce. They’d have spaghetti. She’d pretend again she wasn’t hungry.

He explained the rifling, how careful one had to be with that rifling when cleaning the gun. His cigarette danced. He set it on the ashtray by his knees, picked up the gun, stared into the muzzle end of the barrel. Gwen gasped a little—eyes wide, a grin pushing at her dimples. Her gut dizzied.

“Don’t hurt to look down it when it’s empty,” he said, “but you never should.”

She bit the inside of her cheek. She didn’t want to hope the gun would go off, a bullet forgotten in the chamber. She didn’t want to wonder what the house would sound like without him, if they’d sing louder, with more harmony, or if singing would stop altogether—after all, he was the best wailer of Hank Williams’s “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” She didn’t want to wonder if her brother would finally sleep sound instead of waking in the night, sleepwalking outside to check the beagles. He’d always made sure their dad hadn’t beaten them for barking, for waking people who’d had the early shift. Would her brother be less or more skittish as the sole man left in the house?

She needed to get away from the gun, from all the possible worlds it offered. She tried to push her mind away from her house in The Slip, to think about only nice elephants, about strong arms of the secret service who could lift you from any danger, about girls with fathers who had more choices than her dad could ever have. She got up, walked to the kitchen. Sniffed at the sauce. Poked at the meat with the spoon. Watched it come loose from the bone.


Jolene McIlwain’s writing appears online at New Orleans Review, Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, River Teeth, Prime Number Magazine, and elsewhere, and was recently selected for 2019’s Best Small Fictions anthology. Her work has been nominated for Pushcarts and named finalist by Sundress Publications for their 2018 Best of the Net anthology, Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s Award, and Arts & Letters Unclassifiables contest, as well as semifinalist in Nimrod’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize and both American Short Fiction’s Short and Short(er) Fiction contests.


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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Oiling the Gun”?

The origin of this story was prompted in Kathy Fish’s Fast Flash© class: Recall a vivid memory from childhood, perhaps triggered by a scent. Mine was simple: gun oil. My memory: watching my dad clean his rifle, something I loved. The President Carter reference was there from the first draft, but Amy was not. Several drafts in, I double-checked the dates and specifics in the New York Times’s articles from April 1977 (“Amy Carter to Accept Elephant”) and May 1978 (“President’s Daughter Saved From Elephant”), and added Amy and the elephant news.

I strive to compose intimate portraits of characters similar to those who’ve raised me—family, neighbors, friends, strangers from my small town—in order to complicate the stereotypes that dog them. Gwen’s father is not my dad, but they have much in common. A child of immigrants, my dad was an avid hunter, an amazing singer. He also loved JFK and he could be mercurial. I never understood his desperation and anger and its true targets until I started looking more closely at the limits imposed against him and those in his working-class upbringing. His seasonal work as a Teamster was tied to the steel and construction industries and not sufficient to boost our family out of the working-poor class, so in lean times he hunted to supplement our meals. He took great care of his guns; he couldn’t afford to replace them. He hated that I could not stomach the groundhog, pheasant, squirrel, rabbit, and venison he provided. I didn’t understand why he killed animals. I didn’t understand so much about him until I began writing fictional characters who share his most complex traits.


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