Bang Bang Chicken Salad
My wife calls to me from the kitchen. She’s making lunch, a new recipe from an Asian cookbook that I gave her for her last birthday. I’m sitting on our sofa. I have the gun barrel in my mouth. I withdraw it so I can answer her question clearly. She’s preparing something called Bang Bang Chicken Salad. The recipe calls for unsalted cashews. She wants to know if I prefer walnuts. I tell her it doesn’t matter. It’s her first time making this salad, and I say that I think it’s probably wiser to stick to the recipe in the book this time around. Later on, she can try variations. She agrees that that’s probably the best idea. I stick the gun barrel back into my mouth.
There’s a faint smell of oil. I recently cleaned the gun. I bought it two years ago, after our house was broken into. The work of some kids, purely amateurs. They didn’t get away with much. The television, my wife’s laptop, a bottle of vodka and a bottle of brandy, some Valium from our medicine cabinet. They were eventually caught by the police. My wife even got her laptop back. All the same, she was very upset. She insisted that we put in an expensive security system. Instead, I bought this gun. A Smith & Wesson 39. She hated having a gun in the house. I told her it was a temporary measure until we had the security system put in. Security systems are expensive, and I reasoned that we would have to shop around. In the meantime, we would feel safer with a gun in the house.
The gun’s front sight—that protruding piece of metal at the end of the barrel—is digging slightly into my soft palate. I have both hands around the grip. I think I can easily reach the trigger with my thumb. Squeezing the trigger would be easier with my thumb. I’m slowly becoming accustomed to the barrel’s metallic tang on my taste buds when my wife calls out to me again. She has two different kinds of noodles. There are thin egg noodles, which she often uses in stir-fries. She also has flat rice noodles, which she uses solely in Pad Thai. Do I have a preference? Again, I suggest that she stick to the recipe in the book. She says the recipe doesn’t call for any particular kind of noodle. I ask her what part of Asia the salad comes from. She says it’s a Chinese salad, but she can’t see why that matters. I don’t know either, but it seems like a logical question. She thinks the thin egg noodles are probably more appropriate for a salad, since she’s going to be julienning vegetables. I have to agree.
I don’t immediately return the gun to my mouth. I hold it in both my hands, the better to feel its weight. It has an anodized aluminum frame, a carbon steel slide, and a walnut grip. I estimate that it weighs close to two pounds. The barrel is around four inches. I’m able to fit a little more than a quarter of it into my mouth. There’s a full clip holding eight rounds. This gives me a strange feeling of contentment. Although, in all honesty, my wife’s choice of thin egg noodles in the Bang Bang Chicken Salad gives me a similar satisfaction. I trust her judgement. We never did have a security system installed. After all, my wife got her laptop back. The television was never recovered, but our insurance paid for a new one, a better one. A 43-inch Toshiba flat-screen. I went to the liquor store for more vodka and brandy. My wife got another prescription for Valium. But the gun stayed. Locked in a strongbox in the basement. I’m pretty sure my wife forgot about it. I didn’t.
In many crime-drama films or TV shows, when a policeman commits suicide, they say he ate his gun. That’s the police lingo for suicide. I don’t know if that’s what they say in real life, but it’s what you hear in cop shows all the time. He ate his gun. My wife wants to know if I mind if she puts sesame oil in the salad. I ask her if the recipe calls for sesame oil. It does, but she seems to remember that I had some kind of bad reaction to sesame oil at one time. I don’t know what she’s talking about. Then I remember it was chili oil that I had a reaction to. Or that’s what I told her. It was in a Szechuan restaurant, last New Year’s Eve. I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I was having heart palpitations. After a few minutes, it passed. I told her that it was a reaction to the chili oil in our Kung Pao Shrimp. I didn’t want to worry her. I tell her that sesame oil won’t be a problem. I tell her to just make the Bang Bang Chicken Salad the way the recipe says to. I stick the barrel of the Smith & Wesson 39 in my mouth. I breathe through my nose evenly, calmly. I slowly stretch one thumb toward the trigger, just to make sure it will reach. It does. I let my thumb rest against the trigger.
For one brief moment, I consider calling my wife into the living room. Not seriously, of course, but for a fleeting second it crosses my mind. I would never do anything in the world to upset that woman in any way, shape, or form. So of course I don’t call her. I want to protect her. That’s why the gun is in the house. For protection. Even though she’s forgotten about it. All along, while it was sitting in darkness in a strongbox in our basement, it was protecting this household. Our lives. I never forgot it was there. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could always see it. Stored in a strongbox with all our papers, insurance forms, savings bonds, our wills. The sound of rapid chopping comes from the kitchen. Vegetables being julienned. My wife does everything by hand. She has impeccable technique in the kitchen. When she was younger, she trained in a culinary school. She was a brilliant student. Then she met me. We married after less than a year. Had a couple of kids, both grown up now. Living lives of their own. I’ve often told my wife that it’s not too late to go back to culinary school. She always smiles when I say that. I’m trying to swallow the saliva that keeps pooling under my tongue. Not an easy thing to do with a gun barrel in your mouth.
Since last New Year’s Eve, I’ve had a few bouts of shortness of breath and heart palpitations. They have never lasted long—about the same as the first one. By some stroke of luck, they have all happened while I was alone. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t scared, but my wife was not with me. I didn’t have to explain them to her. I didn’t have to lie and say it was because of a reaction to chili oil. I did see my doctor, who gave me a thorough physical examination and concluded that these were panic attacks. He prescribed Xanax and wrote me a prescription, which I never filled. I think the reason I briefly toyed with the idea of calling my wife into the living room with a gun barrel in my mouth—although I must stress that I had no serious intention of doing that—was to share something with her. I want to share the precariousness of our situation. Not our situation personally, but the situation of us as a species. I want her to understand the subtle balance of our existence. The nurturing side of our existence and the destructive side. I want her to know that I understand the importance of this balance, that she is doing her part, and I am doing my part. Of course, if she comes into the living room and sees me like this, it will throw off the balance of everything. If she steps in here and screams and gets all upset and starts crying (although she is not by nature an emotional person), then the nurturing half of existence will cease to exist. It will have been replaced by a hysterical imbalance.
At first, I did intend to go to the pharmacy and fill my doctor’s prescription for Xanax. For one reason or another, I kept putting it off. Then I discovered something when my next attack of shortness of breath and heart palpitations occurred. I was in the basement, trying desperately to catch my breath. For some reason, the image of the Smith & Wesson 39 sitting in our strongbox appeared in my mind. I could see the outline of the gun very clearly. I could see the oval contour of the trigger guard, the grip’s waffle, criss-cross pattern, the perfect O of the muzzle. Slowly, I was able to get my breath back, and my heart rate slowed down to normal. I would have left it at that, but eventually I was compelled to take the gun out of the strongbox. Merely holding it in my hand had a calming effect. After a while, I began to point it at myself, pressing the muzzle against my temple or my heart, which soon led to sticking the barrel in my mouth. I tried holding the gun in different positions while the barrel was in my mouth, holding it sideways or upside-down, seeing which position felt most natural, until deciding on right-side-up with both hands on the grip. A weird serenity came over me. All this time, I was careful to make sure the safety catch was on. Then, I had to remove that barrier too. These sessions always happened in the basement, where I was sure to be alone. If I heard my wife’s footsteps coming down the stairs—and that did happen a couple of times—I was able to quickly hide the gun. The final barrier to perfect symmetry was lifted when I moved these sessions of sticking the gun barrel in my mouth to the living room, while my wife was doing something in another room. It has to be something domestic, like cleaning or cooking. There always has to be the possibility of her walking in.
The sizzle and aroma of stir-frying chicken wafts through the kitchen door. My wife calls out to say that lunch will be ready in fifteen minutes. I remove the gun barrel from my mouth to tell her that I’m going to wash my hands. I slide the safety catch back in place. Surely, one day, she will come into the living room and find me with the barrel of the Smith & Wesson 39 in my mouth. I don’t know what will happen on that day. I try not to think about it. I try to put my faith in the fact that the balance is being tested, that it is necessary for all barriers to be removed so that we can continue as we always have. I think of how lucky I am to have this woman in my life. I don’t know where I would be without her. She teaches ESL to adult students, part-time in the evenings at our local high school. She volunteers at a soup kitchen in town, three afternoons a week. She makes a happy and comfortable home for the two of us. But I’m the one who keeps us safe.
Steven Mayoff was born and raised in Montreal and moved to Prince Edward Island, Canada in 2001. His fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals across Canada and the U.S. as well as in Ireland, Algeria, France, Wales. England and Croatia. His two books of fiction are the story collection Fatted Calf Blues (Turnstone Press, 2009) and the novel Our Lady Of Steerage (Bunim & Bannigan, 2015). Upcoming is a poetry chapbook Leonard’s Flat to be published by Grey Borders Books this year and a full-length poetry collection Swinging Between Water and Stone to be published by Guernica Editions in 2019.