A Gun in the House

Chris tells the story like he is repeating a segment from a dream in which every detail remains brilliantly clear.

He can recall seeing a movement of the pale blue curtains in his bedroom that day and the patterns of light and shadow created by sunlight streaming through a window.

He remembers a trace of his wife's perfume in the air and the fact that their dog Oscar was barking in the distance. He remembers hearing a hammer pounding in the neighborhood.

Accidents happen on just those kinds of days. Ordinary days. Days of no expectations. Tuesday mornings or Thursday afternoons.

We talk about it, Chris and I, because this isn't a dream he's discussing.

He is telling me about an actual incident so chilling that it needs no surrounding drama to be etched in his mind.

It was the day Tessie found her daddy's gun.

Tessie's real name is Theresa, and she is one of those 3-year-olds who, like a hummingbird in flight, is never at rest.

You'll find her climbing up a tree or trying to get to an upper shelf in the closet or crawling into a barrel head first with her feet sticking out.

Tessie's mother, Della, left her alone for five minutes one day in their Santa Monica home while preparing for a party. She returned to the kitchen to discover that Tessie had painted the front of the refrigerator with clam dip and a basting brush.

You get the idea. Tessie, her mother says, is into everything. Including places where guns are hidden.

"It was only a moment that I didn't have my eye on her," Chris says, trying to assuage his immense feeling of guilt.

"I was taking a day off because I'd hurt my back. Della was out shopping, and Tessie was home with me. I was putting a videotape on so she could watch cartoons. How long can something like that take?"

Long enough for Tessie to scoot out of sight.

Chris went through the house calling her name, but you can call Tess forever and she'll ignore you. Some kids are like that.

"Why didn't you answer me?" you can ask.

"Because," they'll say. Just because.

"I knew she couldn't be far," Chris says. "I checked behind the couch where she likes to hide and in the bathroom where we keep the cat. Then I went into the master bedroom."

He found Tessie. She had his gun in her hands. It was loaded.

Chris sees it in freeze frame, a moment isolated in time while a message is flashed to the brain.

"Tessie!"

She had the snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver pointed toward her, looking into the barrel. A tiny thumb was on the trigger.

He would say later that the first thought that flashed through his head was How could this happen?

Chris was careful about the gun. He kept it locked in a cabinet next to his bed. He had the only key dangling from a bracelet on his wrist. Somehow he had failed to lock the cabinet.

"How could I do that?" he asks in an anguished tone. "I'm the kind of guy who double-checks the stove at night to make sure all the burners are out. How could that happen?"

"Tessie!"

It was a question never answered. He only knew at that terrifying moment that his daughter, an imp with short hair and a smile like a spring morning, danced on the brink of eternity.

Fourteen other kids danced on that same brink in the L.A. area during the past year. Fourteen times guns in the house were accidentally turned on them. Four of them died; one is in a coma; the others are maimed for life.

"Tessie!"

The freeze frame ended. Chris exploded into action. In less than the time it takes for a leaf to fall, he had the gun away from her and Tessie in his arms. And he was crying.

They were tears of relief.

By what caprice does Tessie live and another child die? Who decides? What sets the standards? Chris could only guess. Tessie was OK. That's what mattered.

There is no longer a gun in the house, and Chris wonders what he'd do if an intruder forced his way in.

"I don't know," he says. "I only know I'll never own another weapon."

We are in his back yard watching Tessie play in the sandbox. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, she makes a dash for a back fence and is halfway up before Chris can get her down.

He is shaking his head as he carries her back to the sandbox. Tessie is laughing. There is sunlight in her hair.

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