The Bullet in My Arm

I grew up in a gun-loving town in Alabama. My grandfather’s store sells firearms.

by Elaina Plott

But only after I was shot did I begin to understand America’s complicated relationship with guns.

I was shot on a Sunday. It was late and it was hot and I was 21, on my way home from dinner during summer break. I’d rolled the windows down because the breeze felt good.

I pulled up to a red light, about half a mile from my home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Yeah!” by Usher was playing on the radio. A silver Toyota Tacoma turned the corner. As it passed me, I heard a pop. Then my left arm was on fire.

If you’d asked me before that night how I might react to being shot, I would have said: I would call 911. I would get myself to the hospital. In fact it never occurred to me to call 911, only to want my dad.

I pulled into the Circle K across the street to call him. I looked at the blood blooming across my blue dress. It was new, and I wondered whether the stain would come out. Then I looked over at a girl standing in the parking lot, talking with two boys. Her wavy blond hair shimmered beneath the fluorescent streetlights. I thought about how I wished I had wavy blond hair like hers.

The surgeon said the bullet was small, maybe a .22-caliber, and too deep in the muscle to take out, so it’s still in my arm. They never caught the shooter.

My dad said to stay put, that he’d come get me. I insisted on driving home, with my good arm. On the way, I apologized out loud to God for the things I’d done wrong in life. When I pulled into the driveway, my parents were standing outside.

I stroked my mother’s hair as she cried and drove me to the hospital. The surgeon said the bullet was small, maybe a .22-caliber, and too deep in the muscle to take out, so it’s still in my arm. They never caught the shooter, or came up with a motive.

Where I’m from, we like guns. They are as much a part of our story as Jesus, “Roll Tide,” and monograms. Even if you’ve never shot one, you appreciate the romance.

That appreciation begins when you’re young. Here is what I remember: November air, stadium lights, cut grass. We cheerleaders would stay after school to practice our halftime routine. On Friday nights, we’d crowd in front of the small bathroom mirrors to touch up our makeup—glitter eyeshadow if it was a big game—and emerge in a fog of hair spray.

The cheerleaders who were most envied were the ones who had their alarm clock set for 4 a.m. the next day. It meant they had a boyfriend who was taking them hunting, and that meant things were getting serious. When you were 15 or 16 or 17 years old, all you wanted to get was serious.

People in Tuscaloosa talked about gun violence as an unfortunate but explicable bit of collateral damage: Occasionally cars hit people, but we still drive.

Not every girl was excited about the hunting itself. The gear was bulky and heavy: rubber boots and a big camo jacket, which, if you were lucky and had a brother, you could just borrow from him. The boy would pick you up in his truck and drive you out to his family’s land. If he had money—and you’d be lying if you said you didn’t notice—there’d be a hunting cabin, all-weather, with a beer-stocked fridge. A high fence around the property, too: It trapped the deer so they bred inside.

You’d climb into the deer stand and wait. The boy would have his rifle ready—maybe a .30-06, a youth model that didn’t kick as hard—and when his prey finally emerged, he’d squeeze the trigger, and you’d jump because the sound cracked open the sky. A few horribly boring hours for you, but when his face flushed with delight, you’d remember why you came—because it was important to him, which meant it was important to you, too.

Those mornings weren’t about guns so much as they were about growing up, the pride of inclusion in a culture, the proximity to a masculine energy we all found intoxicating. If people in Tuscaloosa talked about gun violence at all—in the wake of a mass shooting, or after the rare hunting accident—it was as an unfortunate but explicable bit of collateral damage: Occasionally cars hit people, but we still drive.

When I was 14, my grandfather became a co-owner of an outdoors store. It was huge and beautiful, like a ski lodge fit for Jackson Hole. The store carried everything—firearms, fishing equipment, hiking and camping gear. On football weekends especially, the place would crawl with people from all over the Southeast. Sometimes my grandfather and I would walk the parking lot, counting the out-of-state plates. The boys at my school would wear T-shirts stamped with the store’s logo—they came in a lot of different colors—and that made me proud.

After I got shot, after I was able to sleep on my left side again, I started thinking about the gun section at the back of the store. Did the person who shot me buy the weapon there? How long did the sale take? I pictured him—he is faceless in my mind, but always a man—selecting a gun, and then tossing in a pack of Dentyne Ice, because it was right there by the cash register, and why not.

Wondering felt like a sort of betrayal. Probably I had parroted the unfortunate-but-justifiable-collateral bit before. That logic became muddied, though, when the collateral damage was me. But nobody talked about it like that, at least not out loud. So for a while, neither did I.