The Stoics by Amy Evans
Amy Evans’s “The Stoics” is one of three winners of the 2021 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, judged by Ira Sukrungruang.
“The Stoics” is a marvel of an essay where the story builds and builds with every flip of the page, builds and builds with the strain that clenches this family, builds and builds like the father’s growing gun collection in his closet. All the while the shadow of a mother’s suicide haunts and hovers. “The Stoics” puts into question a family history one always shoulders, a history one can never shed. —Ira Sukrungruang
Content Warnings—death by suicide, gun violence
One morning a science teacher at the high school found the window of his lab smashed and a dead possum on the floor. In my memory, the teacher is all gray: gray pants and jacket, gray plaid shirt, gray beard streaked with white. The kids who vandalized his lab later spray-painted racial slurs on the school parking lot guardhouse before attempting to burn it down. With the guardhouse smoldering and the science teacher attacked all in one month, the principal decided a teachable moment was due and called for a schoolwide assembly on tolerance, an inadequate demand, but the most, it was decided, that could be asked of a thousand kids at once.
“Around one in ten people identify as gay in this country,” the science teacher began. He stood at the sideline of the basketball court and waited. Kids packed shoulder to shoulder in the bleachers yawned and pretended to stretch. Throats that didn’t need clearing were cleared.
“I see you’re looking for them,” the teacher said.
Ashley Voss was among the student speakers. She stood at the mic with her hands in the hip pockets of her jeans: “People know me because I have very outspoken views about sex,” she began, as if all of us knew her, and as if Has Outspoken Views about Sex was as much an identity as gay. I don’t remember what else she said because I was busy watching her body. Ashley had blue eyes, dimples, and blond hair so long I wondered if she ever sat on it by accident. I judged hers and all bodies against the bodies at the studio where I used to take ballet, where waists became hips and hips thighs with nothing to mark arrival in new territory, not a single bend or curve. Chests were flat, light shone through the crotches. I grew up coveting that light, trying to coax the light from between my thighs, but my flesh refused passage no matter what I did. If I pulled my stomach in and tilted my hips forward, I could create the illusion of a stick-straight body, like the bodies on either side of me at the barre, but it was a false body: breathe, and the illusion vanished. I was so used to white girls’ bodies like the ones at the studio that Ashley’s white girl body came as a shock. It was her hips. She had breathtaking hips. They seemed out of proportion to the rest of her, as if her tight torso were leading in one direction, and then her hips took a sharp turn and veered completely off the map of her body.
We had two classes together, AP English and Contemporary American History. In Contemporary American History, Mr. Yount arranged the desks in a giant square so all of us could see each other. During each lesson, he’d scrawl a timeline on the whiteboard, a grocery list of dates and major events, and spend the next fifty minutes filling in the empty spaces between “Military Industrial Complex,” “McCarthyism,” “Bay of Pigs,” and “March on Washington” with stories of warfare, political corruption, and creative resistance. His version of American history was fused with the left-wing passion of a southern minister’s son who dreamed of one day retiring to Montana. (He eventually did, only to get bored and return to North Carolina—so bored he came back to North Carolina.) Assignments had to have clear handwriting, no misspellings, and no grammar errors. Mr. Yount promised to dock a letter grade for any of the above and openly hoped for the chance to deliver on that promise. My final paper in his class was an explanation of how in 1980 American voters were duped into electing president a grinning Hollywood cowboy when the incumbent was, in spite of a few foreign policy missteps, kind, thoughtful, morally upstanding, and endearingly unsexy. Mr. Yount gave it an A+.
“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” might have been on the board that day, and that’s what started Ashley on stoicism in the middle of class. As outspoken about her passion for the Romans as she was about sex, Ashley happily leapt at any chance, no matter how slight, to expound on the Dionysian orgies that laid the foundation of modern democracy. When she did, my mind left the room and traveled to places that didn’t exist, a kitchen with polished wood cabinets, a round table with farmhouse chairs, Ashley’s family discussing sex and stoicism over mashed potatoes and peas served from floral crockery. Or maybe there was no table. Maybe dinner was alone in her room, cross-legged on her bed, a worn book about ancient Rome open on her lap, a sandwich on the bedside table.
The mention of suicide brought me back.
“The stoics didn’t believe in suicide,” Ashley was saying. “They thought suicide was an act of insolence. You had to be a coward to commit suicide.”
“I don’t know about that—” Mr. Yount said.
“You’re not facing up to hardship, you’re running away from it,” Ashley said. “The stoics would say that’s cowardly. And it is, it’s a cowardly act.”
Then she looked at me.
Ashley knew about Ma. Everyone did, just like everyone knew who was having sex and with whom, whose parents were getting divorced, who was getting high, who had gotten pregnant, who had gotten into which Ivy League school. Just like everyone knew that one of the kids who threw roadkill through the science teacher’s window and spray-painted racial slurs on the parking lot guardhouse before trying to burn it down was heir to one of Chapel Hill’s best-known and longest-standing family businesses. Any high school, public or private, rural or urban, is its own village of common knowledge, adolescent nonchalance blended with fascination about what everyone else is doing. Nothing could be more intriguing than what went on within those cinder block walls, walls I would one day be perfectly happy to see razed to the ground.
I wanted Ashley to shut up. I wanted to kick over her desk, spit at her dimpled cheeks, jam my fists into her buttocks, yank her yellow hair. I wanted to tell Ashley and all the rest of them that my mother was no coward, it takes guts to put a gun to your own heart and pull the trigger, it takes nerve to suppress your love for your children long enough to commit an act that will destroy them, and my Ma had enough nerve, enough hard-heartedness, enough unwavering resolve to bury Ashley and every last stoic a hundred feet deep in the Acropolis.
But more than anything, I wanted to put my head down on my desk and sleep.
“Let’s move on,” Mr. Yount said quietly.
And we did.
Ma gave us six months to recover from her death. Six months to get over finding her dead in the bathtub, six months to get back to school and back to work, six months for the machinery of our exceptional household to crank back into action. Six months to realize my mother was gone and that she would remain gone for the rest of my life; however long I lived would be time she didn’t live, and no matter what happened to me in that time, she would not be back; however big the earth and wherever on it I went, she would be nowhere; whatever I did or did not do, no matter how deep the injury or expansive the joy, she would witness none of it, know nothing of it, she would not be there to care. She would be absent forever, including the tiny portion of forever that was my life, no matter what my life turned out to be. That was her choice, no discussion.
Yes, six months should be plenty of time.
She paid up the bills, got the nursing home papers in order, sent a thank-you letter to the administrator who helped Florence move in. She made appointments with four different doctors and told them all she had insomnia. Each prescribed her sleeping pills, which she sealed in a freezer bag and hid in her purse. Take the pills, go to bed, never wake up again—that was the plan. But then she remembered the gun.
When my brother and I were small, Dad chased us through the house, roaring like a cartoon lion at our heels. Around the blue armchair and the coffee table in the family room and into the kitchen, we scrambled over each other, squealing, breathless, joyfully trying to escape.
And then he was gone.
At the kitchen table, Ma looked up from her sewing machine, shrugged, and went back to work. In the family room, the television flickered before an empty sofa. Once rushing to get ahead of each other, we now goaded each other on as we retraced our steps: You go first. No, you. At the hallway entrance, we huddled close. Seven doors, and he was hidden behind one of them, waiting for us to come closer so he could burst out of the shadows and send us screaming back into the family room, our hearts racing, our laughter loud, our voices trembling in our throats. And the whole game would start again.
To indulge the cliché about how and when this game changed makes me cringe. But of course, that’s where this story is going.
My father tended to leave things to the last minute. Maybe it was his belief that providence would align events in his favor, and he needed to test this belief every once in a while to make sure the charm was still alive. I heard him say more than once that he felt he was exceptional, one among few, just like his name, Slayton, a name I’ve heard a handful of times as a surname, but never a given name, unless given in my own family, where there have been three: my grandfather, my father, and my brother. Sadly, not me.
It wasn’t that Dad was arrogant, which he was, in that self-assured manner of academics who are certain there is no question they can’t answer, even if the answer is buried under a pile of papers at the bottom of a drawer, in which case they will delight all the more in sorting through their vast store of knowledge to locate it. He just never had reason to doubt he was extraordinary. For more than forty years, there had been no shortage of tests, from the projects in Mississippi to Tougaloo College to a chair professorship at the University of North Carolina. All the experiments and analyses and peer reviews came back showing the same result: he was brilliant, but also fortunate. Fortunate that he was brilliant, brilliant because he was fortunate, or both.
He had a habit of pushing every schedule so torturously close to the edge that I could only imagine his lateness was planned and coordinated. He would leave the house at 1:15 for a flight departing at 2:00. Traffic lights turned green as he approached, highway patrol looked the other way as he sped by, flight attendants held the airplane doors as he dashed through the terminal. I wondered was it the triumph of flopping down in his seat after averting another close call that kept him running late, if the rush of adrenaline was too addictive to give up. Or maybe it was the white folks looking up to see who’d been holding up the plane and gaping open-mouthed as he carried his briefcase down the aisle to his seat, the one they’d all been waiting for, not just for the last five minutes, but for their entire lives. They wondered who he was, this tall Black man, both charmed and charming, who had the audacity to travel by air in the first place and then, if that weren’t arrogant enough, hold up an entire flight without apology. I imagine he enjoyed the wonder on their faces too much to be on time: I’m the Holy One, he would say to them as he took his seat. Bow down.
It wasn’t unlikely. At home, we’d heard him say it often enough:
I am the Holy One!
Yeah, okay, Dad.
I am, though. Touch the hem of my sleeve. Feel the electricity?
Not really, Dad.
His inflated sense of self was only one implement in his grand arsenal of teasing. He joked about women he thought were attractive—CNN news anchors mostly—but only when my mother was around to hear and he could watch her wince with annoyance. Snake! he’d holler on the way to the car, pointing at a twig on the ground, and then laugh when I jumped and screamed. Whenever some small thing one of us was doing went wrong, a few peas tumbling from the serving spoon, a knife hitting a plate a bit too hard, a sprinkling of sugar landing on the table instead of in the coffee cup, he would pounce: Whatsamatterwichya? Whatchyashakinfuh? Each insignificant mishap was an opportunity to profess his love and assert his superiority at once, as if it was love itself that made him superior, and making fun of us was a celebration of just how unshakable, how unconditional, that love was. When we rolled our eyes, shrugged off the joke, or cackled along with him, it confirmed for him what he had always known: his family was made in his image. Infallible, exceptional, like him.
In the midsixties, the Klan would surround Tougaloo College and fire randomly in the direction of the campus. The campus was bordered by woods and marsh on one side and West County Line Road on the other, one place good for hiding, the other good for escaping. Early on a Saturday morning, Dad and a fellow player on the Tougaloo basketball team were racing each other to the overpass on West County Line Road when Dad felt a whisper of breath close to his ear. His friend shouted at him to run, so he did, and the gunshots followed, whistling past them, making the gravel jump at their feet. They ducked, zigzagged, and tore through the front gate of the college, clapping each other on the back for narrowly getting away. When he told these stories, Dad made it sound like an adventure on par with hazing rituals, and not the terror that it was. And I, listening wide-eyed and entranced, would be none the wiser until I became wiser and learned the many ways we lie to ourselves and to each other to stay our fear, our powerlessness, our rage.
For all his bragging and posturing, Dad knew he wasn’t invincible. To us, he was the Holy One and offered us the hem of his sleeve to touch so we could be charged with divine electricity. But in private, he feared for our safety, our survival, our dignity, our sanity. He feared for our futures and hoped they would defy the past the same way he’d defied the past, only at a lesser price than what he’d paid, or better, no price at all. Maybe ours would be handed to us, maybe he could pay the price for us in advance, maybe he could absorb our disappointment and digest our anger so we would be spared and carry on as if the world indeed was what we chose to make of it rather than what it chose to make of us.
Check to make sure the front door is locked and bolted. If it’s locked but not bolted, or bolted but not locked, don’t go inside. Go to a neighbor’s house, call me or Ma, and wait for one of us to come home.
When I was sixteen and Slayton was getting ready for college, Dad took me on a tour of the house I had grown up in, revealing to me all the places an intruder could hide. We started in the foyer, did a quick round through the family room, and then went down the hall, the true danger zone: three closets, three bedrooms, and a bathroom, seven doors total, and a stranger could be hiding behind any one of them, including the last door on the left, my bedroom, way in the back.
Step quietly on your way down the hall. Pause, listen. Use your peripheral vision. Don’t just rush to your room. If I did, I could end up trapped with a stranger with nowhere to go.
I listened and nodded and wondered if I was really going to do this every time I came home. I had no doubt that Dad expected me to or that he did it himself. In the family room on a Saturday night, as car chases and drug busts exploded in Dolby stereo, Dad would perk up like a periscope, scanning for the source of a sound that hadn’t come from the television, a sound that he alone had heard. Without a word, he would go to the back door and look outside. Once a raccoon was working the lid of the garbage cans at the end of the driveway; other times, it was nothing. Dad would settle back down on the piano stool, the seat closest to the kitchen, elbows on his knees, pretending to watch with us, but glancing every now and then in the direction of the back door.
Ma said she’d grab a knife from the kitchen if someone broke into the house. Dad told her all the reasons why that would never work. What if she couldn’t get to the kitchen? What if the intruder got to the kitchen first? And say she made it to the kitchen and managed to grab a knife, what if the intruder was stronger and got the knife away from Ma and then turned out to know how to use it?
Ma didn’t like it, but she had to admit a gun made more sense.
Dad said we should all go to the shooting range and learn how to shoot. My brother flat-out refused, which I wouldn’t have expected, since two of his greatest passions, TV and video games, seemed to feature nothing but shoot-outs and explosions. Anyone who claims that video games encourage gun violence in children should have come to our house in the late eighties and peeked in on my brother in his bedroom, shouting curses at a video monitor and taking out on joysticks a storm of rage fiery enough to rival North Carolina in mid-July. Or come on a Friday night for Miami Vice and watch my brother’s heart break when Caitlin Davies gets shot in the back and Sonny’s mission to take down the drug lords of south Florida gets personal. I would’ve thought my brother, fed a steady diet of fake firearms, would’ve jumped at the chance to try the real thing. But no, he liked his guns fake.
Ma agreed to go to the shooting range, but only to learn the basics.
I wholeheartedly said yes. As Dad did, so did I.
There are a lot of shooting ranges in the Triangle area, advertising outdoor archery ranges, swank corporate deals, conceal-and-carry classes, date nights. I’m not sure which range we went to, or if it even still exists. If it does, it very likely looks different from what I remember. What I remember was driving through the woods down a long two-lane highway, passing the red windmill for the Angus Barn steakhouse, then turning left into a parking lot next to a gray building, glass double doors, empty walls, few windows or none at all, the kind of place you go to get your license renewed or return your cable box, the kind of place that could become something else overnight.
Inside was a counter with a cash register and pistols under the glass. The clerk behind the counter recognized Dad, and, in my memory, the two of them are chatting while Dad unpacks his guns for inspection. The clerk is a hefty white guy, short-cropped hair, an all-American lack of affect to his face. “Hello, how you been?” he says to Dad, and, “Who you got with you today?” he says, smiling at me.
Dad rented earmuffs and goggles and led the way into the shooting gallery. I had expected the place to be loud and jarring, but it wasn’t. Dampened by the earmuffs, the shots sounded like raps on a snare drum played in jagged rhythms at a distance, then close, then distant again. Above us paper targets drifted along the ceiling. I took the lane next to Dad, and he showed me how to load the guns, release the safeties, aim, and shoot.
I was surprised when there was no kick at all, when flames didn’t flash out of the barrel, when the sound of the bullet wasn’t in stereo. My first shot went close to the bull’s-eye, a stroke of luck. Nothing else got as close for the rest of the afternoon, and the bigger the caliber, the worse my aim. I preferred the rifle, a .22 with a polished wooden stock and black barrel, given to Dad by my grandfather, the kind of weapon people hung on walls alongside a quilt or a piece of pottery. I hated the pistol, though the pistol was the whole reason we were there. The pistol was ugly. The metal looked like the dull side of aluminum foil, and it lacked affect, like the guy at the counter. It didn’t seem to weigh that much, but after an hour my arm was sore. Unlike the rifle, it hid what it was: it looked like a toy, but could kill.
After Ma died, when Dad wasn’t home, I would open the closet in his room and bury my face in Ma’s dresses. They still smelled like her. I took the smell as a sign that she hadn’t left, not completely. That she wasn’t coming back, that the world as I knew it had come to an end and another had taken its place, didn’t seem possible, yet there I was, breathing in the odor of rayon, sweat, and perfume, trying not to smell too much in one place in case I inhaled all that was left of her.
One afternoon in the closet I noticed the .22 rifle leaning in the corner. I hadn’t seen the rifle since Dad took me to the shooting range the year before. The pistol from that day I never saw again. The police had confiscated it: Protocol, they’d said. But now there were enough guns stacked in the closet to replace the pistol many times over—rifles, six-shooters, an antique Winchester, a World War II relic with engravings decorating the handle—all carefully packed in boxes and bags. I started counting and got to twelve before I stopped and put them back where I’d found them.
I didn’t visit the closet again.
Dad went to gun shows and antique fairs more and more frequently after Ma died. Issues of Guns & Ammo magazine started showing up in the mail and piling up on his bed. He bought boxes of bullets and stacked them on a bookshelf in his bedroom, and when he ran out of room on the shelves, he stacked the boxes on the floor. Sometimes he lucked out at a show and found someone selling old casings at a discount. Unable to resist a good bargain, he’d buy them up and clean them at home in a dome-shaped plastic contraption that I thought was a vacuum cleaner. It’s for polishing casings, he told me when I asked what it was, as if such a device was a perfectly normal thing to keep in your bedroom. The thing made a whirring sound as it spun the casings around in a substance that looked like sand. Weekends it would drone on all day and into the evening.
Dad liked collecting all sorts of things—stamps, coins, pottery, old rolling pins—not quite a hoarder, but more than a pack rat. Now with Ma gone, Slayton in college, and no one at home he thought would feel nervous around his guns, he collected them freely, an innocent flirtation that, with his wife out of the way, blossomed into a wild love affair. Or maybe it was his way of keeping Ma close, the same way I kept her close when I snuck into the closet to sniff her clothes. Maybe he was honoring her death by embracing the thing that had caused it. Guns don’t kill, people do, the American gun lobby will helpfully point out, and of course, they’d be right. Most, if not all, inanimate objects don’t kill without some form of human intervention. Guns, sleeping pills, razor blades and butcher knives, ropes, hoses, car engines, bottles of bleach and cyanide, crack cocaine, heroin, the Palisades, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the White Cliffs of Dover are all harmless in the absence of people. Nothing is lethal until you make it lethal, and then, once made lethal, some things are more lethal than others. Ma might have survived her despair, maybe even long enough to heal from it, if she hadn’t had a gun within easy reach. Sleeping pills might’ve worked, but they would’ve been sluggish and slow. The ugly little pistol didn’t waste a second.
I suppose Dad didn’t think the gun was significant in Ma’s death. Four bottles of prescription sleeping pills, each from a different doctor, were proof of her determination to die. If he had known the statistics, had any been available at the time, about how many more suicides are completed when there’s a gun around, maybe he wouldn’t have been so intent on buying a pistol and teaching Ma to use it. If he had known the statistics about how often people who have recently lost someone to suicide contemplate suicide themselves, maybe he would’ve thought differently about stockpiling ammunition in his bedroom, in plain sight of his children, both of whom, unlike him, no longer had a mother. But Dad wasn’t aware of the statistics. He never dreamed he’d have reason to be. That the biggest threat to his family would come from within it was a betrayal beyond anything he could have imagined—beyond anything any of us could have imagined, but I wasn’t the one peering out the back door at night or checking the hallway for signs of intrusion before heading to my room.
After Contemporary American History came Pre-Cal, then lunch. I sat cross-legged on the floor in the newly renovated wing of the high school, half a tuna sandwich in hand, my Pre-Cal textbook open on my lap. I didn’t love Pre-Cal, but I was good enough at it that I could find all the right answers in less than half an hour, and what wasn’t there to like about homework I never had to take home? I was cultivating then what would become a lifelong habit of pushing aside what I wanted most to do until I had finished up my chores, gotten everything tidy and correct, and my mind was at its most free. As soon as I was finished with Pre-Cal homework, school assemblies on tolerance, and racial slurs hidden in ashes; as soon as I was finished with the bodies at the ballet studio barre and the lack of light between my legs; as soon as I was finished with the gun at the shooting range, with how sexy I felt next to Dad, firing away like a badass bitch—not knowing that Ma was hatching a plan that would snatch the gun out of my hands and put my badass bitchness in the corner forever; as soon as I was finally finished with all that, my mind would be free enough to concentrate on making up stories and writing them down.
The newly renovated wing had bright lights and glossy paint on the cinder block walls. It made the old section look like a cave, I thought. From the far end of the cave, I saw Mr. Yount, a tall and lanky shadow, moving in my direction. I looked down at my homework and tried to pretend I hadn’t seen him coming. He crouched at my side, his face as inscrutable as always; whether it was a smile or a smirk on his lips depended on what came out of his mouth, and even then it was impossible to be sure.
“I’m sorry about what happened in class today,” Mr. Yount said. “I should’ve stopped it. I didn’t.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“No, it’s not okay. You say it’s okay because you’re a teenager, and you think you can handle anything, but you come to find out that there are some things too big for you to handle.”
I watched him walk off. Who had told him what I thought, and who was he to tell me what I could and couldn’t handle? Would I be sitting on the floor getting ahead on Pre-Cal homework if I couldn’t handle Ma’s death? Was his mother still alive, and even if she wasn’t, what did he know anyway? And now lunch was over, it was time to go back to class, and I hadn’t gotten ahead on homework because Mr. Yount had gotten in the way. Because of him, I had one more chore to bring home with me that afternoon, one more task to put distance between me and what I wanted most to do.
AMY EVANS is a writer and educator based in New York. Amy is an alumna of Hedgebrook Writers’ Residency, BRICLab Performing Arts Residency (2008 and 2015), 651 ARTS Artist Development Initiative, Kulturlabor Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Willapa Bay AiR Residency, Quest Writers’ Conference, and Interstate 73 Playwrights’ Group. Amy is currently developing a memoir, Protocol (working title), the title essay of which was joint winner of the 2020 Thornwillow Patrons’ Prize and published in October 2020. Find Amy on Instagram at @amyevans040924.
Featured image by nikohoshi courtesy of Unsplash