Cover image for Toy guns : stories
Toy guns : stories
Norris, Lisa, 1958-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Kansas City, MO : Helicon Nine Editions 2000.
Physical Description:
144 pages ; 23 cm
Trailer people -- American primitive -- Toy guns -- Wind across the breaks -- Interior country -- Prisoner of war -- Stray dogs -- Self-defense -- Swimmers -- Black ice.
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Trailer people -- American primitive -- Toy guns -- Wind across the breaks -- Interior country -- Prisoner of war -- Stray dogs -- Self-defense -- Swimmers -- Black ice.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Peculiar and terrible moments darken everyday places and events in this debut stick-'em-up collection of 10 short stories exploring America's eternal fascination with and fatal attraction to guns. Throughout Norris's disturbing book, winner of the 1999 Willa Cather Fiction Prize, there is an element not so much of surprise as of curiosity. What has happened? What will happen next? "Interior Country" is a raw shocker with the feel of a true-crime narrative. Cory has traveled a rocky road with the men in her life, but after she meets armed and dangerous Roxanne, a woman who judges all men as deserving the death penalty, Cory is not quite so prepared to pass sentence. Roxanne wants to go out in a blaze of glory, and it's Cory's job to bear witness. In "American Primitive," a little girl with an abusive father enjoys solitary visits to a small chapel in a military compound: "She liked going into the building alone. She always opened the door slowly, afraid she might interrupt someone who was praying, but most of the time the chapel was empty except for a feeling.... It was like being scared and happy at the same time." Norris's characters all know what it is to view the underside of things, and violence is always imminent. One cannot ignore the repeated military base settings, evocative of men at war and in control. Though criticism of brutality is implicit in Norris's tales, a strong hint of male bashing limits the general appeal of her otherwise fine writing. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Life is dangerous in Norris's first collection, which won the 1999 Willa Cather Fiction Prize. There's no safety even for the innocent, like Joe in "Prisoner of War," who ends up in the middle of some war games while hiking near his home, or Anna and Beth in "Black Ice," who take a ride in the mountains and get caught in an ice storm. In the title story, a toy gun leads to a confrontation; in "Stray Dogs," a young girl lies and steals after being followed by a stray dog; and in "Interior Country," a woman fleeing her abusive husband ends up witnessing a murder. In the ironic "Trailer People," a researcher receives consolation from the people being studied, and in "Swimming," an extra marital affair leads to disaster. Reminiscent of Raymond Carver, these ten stories have a powerful impact that keeps reverberating long after you finish reading them. Highly recommended.DJoshua Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One INTERIOR COUNTRY When they first walked in, the emptiness of the place made sense to Cory. After all, it was late September in Alaska. Winter could begin anytime. The lobby was dark, posters tacked to the log walls the only decoration: climbers heading for the summit of Mt. McKinley; a moose's roman-nosed, antlered head in profile; herds of caribou streaming across the tundra taken from high in the air. A high desk occupied one corner, but its surface was clean. No one stood behind it. On either side of the desk, long red-carpeted hallways opened to Cory's left and right. To the right of the desk, another corridor, marked To Hot Spring Pool sported an arrow leading toward a source of light.     Roxanne, the woman who'd picked her up on the road to the hot spring, nodded in the direction of the pool. She wore jeans and a Western shirt trimmed with embroidery. Her bleached hair was done like a country-western singer's, with curly bangs and long wavy strands to her shoulders. She was older than Cory, old enough that her make-up didn't quite mask the pouches under her eyes or the loose skin on her neck. One hand rested on a canvas bag that hung from her shoulder. She said, "Let's just see who's around."     The smell of chlorine grew stronger as they approached the pool. Through the glass doors Cory could see a man swimming; all around him, through the clouded glass walls of the enclosure, a dark line of trees began, trees that stretched toward the roadless north, dark limbs of conifers, white bark of birches, their leaves golden now in the last light. The man was swimming laps, his orange trunks low on his hips. He turned his head toward the door and looked at them, his expression surprised. Then Cory heard a sound like a firecracker. The man's body arced up from the water, arms outspread as if he'd risen at the crest of a butterfly stroke. The firecracker went off again. Cory turned in the direction of the sound. Roxanne was holding a pistol. The man's body fell forward then, arms limp.     Then Roxanne pushed Cory along, jabbing her with the pistol. It was as if Cory were dreaming, and in the dream, she understood they were returning to the lobby where there was still no one at the front desk. Roxanne opened a door Cory hadn't noticed before, and they stepped into a room that was dark except for windows joining the room to the hot spring pool. The dead man's body was no longer visible on the surface.     Roxanne flipped a light switch. At her direction Cory poured two shot glasses of peppermint schnapps. They sat at the mirrored bar, Roxanne resting her elbows on the nicked counter.     "I've been drinking this stuff since I was in junior high," Roxanne said. "You're not much older than that."     Cory looked at the drink in front of her.     Roxanne gestured with the pistol. "Try some," she said in a friendly way. "I don't like to drink alone."     Cory sipped her drink, but it burned her throat, and she gagged.     Roxanne slipped her pistol into her bag. "I'm not going to force you." She motioned toward the bar, the chipped polish on her nails reddening the air. "You can have something else."     Cory thought of ripping the bag from Roxanne's shoulder. Roxanne wasn't much bigger than Cory, but her stomach bulged slightly over her belt. The silver buckle was shaped like the head of a wide-nostrilled horse, its ear penetrating the folds of Roxanne's stomach.     "The thing is, you don't want anything else. Do you?" Roxanne asked.     Cory hesitated, putting her hands to her forehead, then pressing her fingers against her eyes as if to shut out the image of Roxanne. She tried to still the trembling of her hands, then thought of a cigarette. She said, "Can I smoke ?" When Roxanne nodded, Cory reached for the pack in the pocket of the blue work shirt she'd taken from Guy's drawer. After Cory lit up, Roxanne shook several cigarettes from the pack onto the counter and began to smoke one after another. She kept dipping her free hand inside the shoulder bag, Cory guessed to touch her pistol. The afternoon light slanted through the spruces on the other side of the pool. The temperature was dropping. If the sky remained clear, the Northern Lights might be visible during the night, a time Cory had planned to spend in a room here at the lodge, celebrating the fact that she'd gotten as far away from Guy as possible: Looking at the map as she marked her route, she had thought he'd never find her at the end of an unpaved road in Alaska's interior.     The night before, she'd been in an overpriced Fairbanks motel with dirty carpets and a pay television, using what was left of the money she'd taken from Guy's wallet. Through the papery walls she could hear a baby wailing, and it made her think about the sounds coming out of her own mouth when Guy slapped her. At first it hadn't been bad because they couldn't afford much liquor, but when the work picked up he was drunk all the time. In the end, he'd broken her nose, beating her face against the floor.     This morning's first light had felt good after the dinginess of the motel. It warmed the highway pavement as she walked out, looking for a ride. There was a sky so blue it seemed unreal, like the sky in a magazine ad. She took the weather as a sign of good luck. The woman in the black Buick pulled over right away--another piece of luck--and Cory ignored the woman's wild-eyed look because she was ready for things to change.     They talked about the feeling they got driving through the forests where the gravel road tunneled through the bush, nothing human around. Roxanne kept saying, "There's no getting further than this," and Cory assumed she was talking about the way the wilderness blocked them in on all sides, so thick with the sameness of trees and brush Cory wouldn't have trusted herself to hike a hundred yards without getting lost.     When Cory asked what brought Roxanne to Alaska, she tossed her lighted cigarette out the open window. "Let's just say I joined the fucking funeral."     That made Cory think of the highway to Alaska--nothing more, in some places, than a two-lane gravel road; just inside the Canadian border there'd been a long line of cars, stalled because a bridge was out. She'd stood under the overhang of McDevitt's Gulf Services, the only place within thirty miles to offer diesel, repairs, and a 24-seat licensed cafe, and watched as the drivers turned on their headlights and started their engines in the dusk. The man who picked her up then, an insurance broker from LA, said, "I'm just going up to Anchorage to be nosy."     He wanted to know where she was from and where she was headed, glancing at her in a way that meant trouble. Cory lit a cigarette and looked out the window.     "I'm not much of a talker," she said.     He put his arm on the seat behind her. "Maybe you're a doer."     Cory picked tobacco from her tongue, then tightened her jaws and giggled. For a few hours she could play this game, humor the man if it would get her from one place to another.     Two car salesmen from Anchorage had driven her toward Fairbanks in a black TransAm, rifles propped in the back. They tried to frighten her with talk of grizzlies, but she just looked out the window at the low, treed terrain, the distant Denali barely visible behind clouds.     "A guy got ate up in Tok this year," said the one in the passenger seat. He wore a red baseball cap and drank whiskey from a bottle in a paper bag.     "You could end up like that tourist from New York." The driver's gold ring caught the light so that its reflection spotted the ceiling, and he gave off the sweet lime scent of aftershave. "They found his tent all tore up and his boot down the trail."     "Yessir," said the baseball cap, leering at Cory. "This country ..." * * *     "Why did you shoot that man? What did he do to you?" Cory asked, her voice breaking.     Roxanne's face reddened. When she spoke, her voice was low. "I knew him as well as I know my own brother. I know all of them. I know what they want and I know what they dream about and I know what they think of us."     "But what did he do?"     "Who cares?" Roxanne swiveled to face Cory and leaned close. "I been knocked around all my life. I don't mean to be knocked around no more. All I want now," she said, putting a finger against Cory's chest, "is a witness. Somebody to say, `Roxanne did this,' or `Roxanne did that.'" She stood up and walked behind Cory, where she played with the end of Cory's braid. "I want all those sons-of-bitches to hear my name. I want them to think it could have been them. I want them to wonder, `Why was I spared?'" Her voice rose triumphantly.     The end of Roxanne's cigarette glowed red the way Guy's had when he held it to Cory's nipple. That last bad time, liquored up, he'd called her a whore. Maybe she was a whore. Her mother had said so, waving her painted nails and gazing out from beneath her plucked eyebrows in the trailer at the logging camp. After Cory's father died, her mother had gone to the Pentecostal Church and the revivals, looking for a man. She said Cory'd gotten too big for her britches ever since she started her period, Cory was really the only cross she had to bear.     For Cory, there'd been the preacher's son and the boy at the revival and then a man old enough to be her grandfather, one of the elders. It was flattering that they wanted her, and she liked the sex, but she didn't like the way they looked at her when they were finished, like they saw something that, once they were satisfied, they couldn't stand. She did get a kick out of watching their public confessions, though, knowing what was left out.     Guy had picked her up in his eighteen-wheeler when she was hitch-hiking. It was a relief to be around somebody who could joke and curse. At the beginning, he took her out in the woods for picnics and over to Riley's Barbeque for beers. When he heard her complain about her mother, he said the only way to get rid of her bad feelings was to get out of the situation that caused them.     For awhile after they moved in together, he drove the truck long hours and came home too tired to do anything more than eat and sleep. When she got bored and complained, the bad things began--a hard slap on her ass in front of his friends, a wrench of her neck with his hand wrapped in her long hair as they were making love. He'd come on sweet, kissing her, then his face would change and he'd start slapping, raising red welts on her skin.     "Try to get away and I'll kill you," he told her. "Wherever you go, I'll track you down." * * *     Roxanne pulled hard on Cory's braid, stretching her neck so far back that Cory could hardly speak. Finally Cory choked out the words, "All right." When Roxanne let go of her, Cory emptied the glass.     Roxanne nodded. "You do that. You celebrate. It isn't every day a person hands you a purpose in life." She straddled the stool at the counter. "Know why I picked you?'     Cory shook her head.     "I could see you wouldn't be the type to interfere. You'd just stand and watch, like in there." She waved a hand toward the pool. "There's nothing to you." She swiveled her stool so that she could lean back against the bar.     Cory started to pour herself another drink. On the road she'd refused liquor. The hitching itself kept her numb. Outside the windows of car after car, the land moved like a TV picture. Cory watched the high prairies of Alberta pushing up against the Canadian Rockies, the long unbroken stretches of forests in British Columbia darkening the foothills, the glaciers of the Yukon melting into muddy rivers that carried whole trees downstream. There was always a blur funneling past on either side of the closed windows.     She reached for the bottle, but Roxanne grabbed her wrist. "You had enough. You got to be able to tell the story." Roxanne looked at herself in the mirror, arranging her hair with her fingers. "Don't make me sound like some dog," she said. She raised her voice then as if Cory had been arguing with her. "There's been people to call me pretty. Of course if I'd been prettier, maybe I could have been famous another way." She gestured to the left of the bar where a 1929 calendar pictured a flapper who held a bottle of Royal Crown Cola as if it were a priceless object, her lips pursed.     "Or if I'd been smart ..." Roxanne directed her comments to the mirror. She shook her head. "Don't think I ever met anybody smart." She turned to Cory. "How about you?"     Cory thought of the dead man's round wire-rimmed glasses resting on the edge of the pool. She nodded toward his body. "Maybe he was."     Roxanne snorted. "He was there for me to shoot at. That wasn't smart."     Cory rested her forehead in her hand, and Roxanne leaned back against the counter. "At least I got a plan," she said. "What about you?"     Cory shuddered, fingering the broken hump of her nose.     Roxanne slapped a hand on the counter, loud as a pistol shot, so that Cory jumped. "You tell them to go fuck themselves!" She took the gun out of her bag and pointed it at Cory's heart. She closed one eye, aiming. "I can see the bull's eye."     Cory stiffened, panicking, before she remembered to look into the distance again, not to think. She saw the surface of the pool through the glass window and beyond it the clouded walls. It was dark outside. She could no longer make out the trees or the mountains. She inhaled deeply.     Roxanne lowered the pistol, grinning. "You're gonna tell them I was pretty, aren't you?"     Cory looked at Roxanne's stiffened hair, her thick mascara and caked-on rouge.     Roxanne's eyes turned bright and hard. "If you're pretty, you can kick ass, because men will do anything for you. But if you're a dumb-ass drooling drunk ..." She pointed the pistol toward Cory. "Bang, bang." She laughed softly.     Cory felt light-headed. She dug her fingernails into her palm to try to keep herself from passing out.     Roxanne leaned close, putting a hand on Cory's cheek. "You think I done a mean thing," she said. "You think my plan stinks, don't you?" She pointed toward the pool. "Why do you think that man was here all alone? How many people did he screw to get the place?" She stood up, waving the pistol, and pulled Cory from the stool by one arm. Then she pushed Cory ahead. "Go on. Let's go look at him again."     They went through the door to the pool as they had before, except that this time Roxanne had locked her arm in Cory's.     "From here I can't tell whether I done a mean thing or not," Roxanne said. She got the long-handled net from a place where it hung on the wall, and used the pole end to work the body closer to the edge of the pool, where she turned it over with her hands. When Cory glanced down, she saw that the man's eyes and mouth were open just as they'd been when she and Roxanne first entered, but now his face was expressionless, and it floated a few inches under the water. Cory looked away. The man had had no idea what was coming. But what if Roxanne was right, what if the man had screwed someone over, or what if he'd been like Guy, beating up someone like Cory, someone who'd be grateful he was dead? Cory's hands moved to her stomach. The liquor had left a strange taste in her mouth.     Roxanne looked up at her. "Well, he don't look unhappy to me. What do you think?"     The pool was lit from below. Ripples circled outward from the body, reflecting on the walls and ceiling. Roxanne's forehead shone, bur her eyes and mouth hollowed in the half-light. Suddenly she flipped the pistol in one hand and offered it, butt-first, to Cory.     Cory's throat burned and her arms felt heavy, too heavy to move.     Roxanne turned the pistol around again so that the barrel was pointed toward Cory. She cocked the hammer.     "Wait," Cory said, holding up her hands in front of her face.     "What for?" Roxanne waved her arms to indicate the dark line of trees beyond the glass room. "Don't you think this is where you belong? Weren't you heading for the end of the road?"     "No."     Roxanne twirled the pistol again and held it out. "You want to live, you have to kill me first. You got to the count of three."     Cory took the pistol. She felt for the hammer.     "One," Roxanne said.     Cory pulled back the hammer.     "Shoot me here." Roxanne pointed to her chest. "That way you won't mess up my face. Two."     Cory held the pistol with both hands, aiming for the place where Roxanne had pointed.     Roxanne slipped her belt from around her waist. "No use getting this messed up. Here." She flung it on the floor toward Cory. "The buckle ought to be worth something. It's real silver. That and the car are all I got. You can have the pistol, too, if you want it." She ducked her head. "You probably won't. Shit." She blinked rapidly.     For a moment there was nothing but the sound of lapping water. Then Roxanne said, "If you don't kill me by three I'll have to kill you. That was the way we set it up."     "We don't have to do it that way," Cory said faintly.     Roxanne closed her eyes, then opened them and looked at Cory with something like longing. "Soon as you took that pistol you grew tits. You should of been holding that pistol all your life. It almost makes me want to change the plan, seeing how good you look.     "When I was your age if somebody'd done for me what I'm doing for you I would of built a shrine to her. I would of put flowers on her grave everyday. Killing an asshole," she nodded toward the dead man, "and making the rest of them afraid."     "I didn't ask you to do anything," Cory said. "I didn't want you to kill anybody, and I don't want to kill you."     "You're doing me a favor," Roxanne said flatly. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "I been like you most of my life. Letting other people take me for a ride. Letting them leave me off wherever they felt like it. You were already tired of it or you wouldn't of been here."     Cory's arms ached from holding up the pistol. She began to lower it. "How do you know that?"     Roxanne watched the pistol. "I ain't said three yet, but when I do you better lift that thing back up."     Cory nodded.     "If you don't I'll put you in the water just like I put him." She nodded toward the pool. "You're either the right woman for the job or you ain't."     Cory said, "I'm the right woman. I mean--"     Roxanne laughed. "See? I'm watching you change, and I'm the one doing it. I'm making you into somebody." She laughed again, softly, then said, "Three."     Cory lifted the pistol as if she were aiming for Roxanne, but when she made a sudden, jerking motion, meaning to throw the pistol into the pool, Roxanne lunged, catching her arm. The pistol dropped to the tile floor. The two of them grappled, the pistol sliding between their hands as one reached out and the other knocked it loose, one grabbed for it and the other kicked it away. Roxanne was so close she was breathing on Cory's neck, and Cory could smell her hairspray and the tobacco and schnapps on her breath. The smells sickened her like the thick exhaust of cars heading north. Cory's throat felt tight, as if she were suffocating, as if the trees outside were pressing on the glass walls. Cory pushed Roxanne toward the pool. Roxanne came at her again, but Cory had the pistol now, and she aimed the muzzle toward Roxanne's chest. Roxanne walked right into it, then shoved Cory; she was shoving at Cory grinning--little pushes on Cory's shoulders that moved Cory backwards a step at a time until her back was pressed against the wall. Roxanne reached for the pistol with the same motion a grown-up uses to snatch a toy from a child, but Cory pulled the trigger, then kept firing into the air toward the place where Roxanne had been. Copyright © 2000 Lisa Norris. All rights reserved.