L&L: How did “Six Cents” take shape?
MDE: I think about my teenage years a lot—I relive various events in my head, and when I write, my memories flow from brain to pad of paper largely intact. The gun closet was right by my bedroom. I can feel the weight of the gun. During the Depression, my grandfather had 200 acres outside Oklahoma City. My father’s house was built in the Depression, when labor was cheap. They excavated the stone on the property itself. the material was there free. before I was born they added a wing, and the gun closet was there. So I remember that incident, the chamois cloth, the rifles and shotguns on their butts. I don’t think I ever shot [the pistol] after that. I wasn’t fully grown, and it was too heavy. I don’t know what ever happened to it; I thought a nephew of mine inherited it but he said no.
L&L: So, it’s definitely autobiographical.
MDE: For the most part. I grew up outside of Oklahoma City. I pulled up the memory of our place as I wrote Six Cents, to recreate in words the gate and the horse path, the embankment and the barn, the woods between our house and my grandmother’s house. The father in the story is based on my own: his suspenders, his concern with safety about firearms and his comments about Hollywood cowboys in snap-closure shirts of plaidpolyester, which he knew were not authentic. The one exception was Jack Palance’s shirt in the movie “Shane” (a filmhe adored): Thatshirt was genuine cowboy attire – white cotton with simple black stripes and buttons. And yes, acousin of mine did indeed urinate in the hole at the base of a tree near where the lesson on how to shoot occurred. I used to think of that incident wherever I passed that tree.
L&L: How often did you shoot after the time described in the story?
MDE: I don’t have another memory of shooting the pistol with my father, but when I was sixteen I got a shotgun for Christmas, a 20 gauge Parker, which is a really good shotgun. We used to go out the first of every September and shoot mourning doves. The first day of the season was a lively sporting event. We would take positions at different points around a pond on a family farm in Western Oklahoma. We would help each other out, pointing wildly and shouting out to each other, “Dove, dove, dove!” when a bird came within range of someone else. After sundown, would bring the birds home, he’d pluck them, he’d pop the breast up, and my mother braisedthem in wine and herbs, I guess sage. I also boughta rifle with money I earned selling milk from my goat and hunted once with it in the pasture whereI shot a rabbit. A man who worked for us skinned it before my very eyes, just made a few cuts with a knife and pulled the skin and fur off in one piece like a sweater. The whole thing revolted me so much I neverhunted rabbits again, but I shot doves for several years running.I even came back home after I was grown for dove season whenever I could.
L&L: The sensation you record in the story, though you only shot that particular pistol once, bring the gun to life.
MDE: I can smell the oil on the gun right now. I can feel the weight of the grip, the cylinder and the barrelin my hand. When my father was in college, my grandfather acquired over 200 acres northof Oklahoma City. My father’s house was built there during the Depression, when labor was cheap. They excavated the stone on the property itself, so the material was free. Before I was born, they added a wing, where my bedroom wasand the gun closet was right next to it. So I remember the opening incident very well, the chamois cloth, the rifles and shotguns on their butts. I never shot the pistol again because I was not fully grown when I first used it, so in my memory, it was just too heavy in my hand.
L&L: The protagonist, Sarah, is angry because they can’t shoot more bullets. They’re expensive, six cents apiece, and she finally works up courage and asks him why.
MDE: Both my brother and I were really annoyed. But I’m not sure if the last part of the story really happened the way I wrote it. Somehow it just fell from the sky into the story at the end. It is based on facts, however. My father used to nap with a bandanna over his eyes. And he did tell me more than once about his fears about my grandpa possibly jumping out the window during the Depression. One thing I am thankful for – he never told me what a cousin of mine shared with me after I published the story: This cousin’s father was on a business trip in New York with my grandfather during the Depression when, somewhere in the financial district, a man landed on the sidewalk right in front of them.
L&L: Sarah finally tries to touch her father, after his story about the Depression. Tell me about that.
MDE: The hand that reaches but does not touch; that part makes me cry. When my father was 90, we were waiting in the living room for the brother who is in the story to come go with us to a meeting about selling the property. My father was in his overcoat and hat, standing in the middle of the rug with me nearby. My brother, a procrastinator, was not arriving. Exasperated, my father burst into tears. I reached out and patted him gently on the back. When I was back in New York he wrote in a letter thanking me for that. So in the story I made the girl reach out but then pause. She senses her father has gotten it all off his chest. And also she pauses because she finally understands why he was stingy with the bullets.
And there was another hand in my mind as I wrote that part – one that also reaches but does not touch: It is the hand of Darius in the Roman mosaic of the Battle of Issus. I teach that mosaic to my freshmen at Pratt andI comment on that hand. It is very different, in that it is helpless, for Darius realizes he has lost his realm to Alexander who is bearing down on him. Nonetheless, like the hand of the girl in the story, it hangs in mid-air.
Mary D. Edwards has published short stories, including “Relativity”and “Instructions,” in The Paterson Literary Review, and produced her one-act plays in The Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival.A professor of Art History at Pratt Institute, she also publishes articles on art and architecture. With Elizabeth Bailey, she was co-editor of Gravity in Art: Essays on Weight and Weightlessness in Painting, Sculpture and Photography.