June. Cape May, N.J. Boardwalk in rain.
Rain coming harder. People hurrying. People jumping boardwalk puddles with bright sand-center. Avoiding the spume of passing cars. Intensifying the soft dunes with neon rain gear, all the slickers calm and isocelate, then scalene in wind. Now it’s more to watch, all the dodging and pitching. More, maybe, “fun.” Of interest. “Human interest,” because rain alters people in unexpected ways. And the unexpected makes people so human.
Out there on the boardwalk they’re absolutely dedicated to being human, and though not one of them has a choice, many variations come forth. All the ways are recognizable, but some are more rare, less often in play than others. These seem more precise in cast and tensity, saturation and value, and take patience to see and to name.
Outside’s thunderclap, its tonnage and stipple. The toilet in the room above’s flush. Extending, deepening thunder sounds. The picture window’s glaze. But for the mother with her hood cinched tight, a whole sporty family laughing, never minding the rain, carrying big, wet cups of coffee. A runner tendon-stretching, braced against a stop sign. An old-salt type in a long, yellow raincoat waving to someone, or directing the deluge. More cars than usual heading east to the parkway, as goes the decision through many heads at once to leave the shore earlier than planned. Methods of resignation abound: one on a gearless soft-seater pitches into the weather headfirst, a sack of oranges hooked on his arm. Four pedaling a surrey, committed to their rented hour. The sky brightens. The sky lifts. The cars slow and their numbers decrease. Runners come out, had they been hiding under eaves, had they delayed their runs. A retro, gaslamp style streetlight’s on. Then (how did I miss this?) the whole street’s full of lamps, all switched off, except this one near my window, which must have self-lit at the first hint of dark. Walkers wearing long sleeves and sweatshirts, who must have tested, head out a window, arm out a door, the temperature before emerging.
Various pitched rumbles, filling, ablating. A rough sound that otherwise might be silk tearing, but for now is tires parting puddles. All headlights on. Sky darkening again. Those choosing to be out here or having been caught, somewhere on those bodies in the noisy rain: shiny, cicatricial spots of damp. Wet shoulders where clothes are sticking. Abrasions on ankles where sockless shoes rub. Itchy tags. Sweat rings. Object-wise, sunglasses in bags or hooked at collars. Loose, jangling change. Newspapers rolled and stuffed in back pockets. Some lightening now, but candescent, glowy, not sky-ripping. Some darkness lifting at the horizon, baring a strip between sea and sky, like a hem rising over a sock.
Now the umbrellas, now that the walkers have figured it out: rainy not rain. Dark as any November day late in the afternoon. Blue turned to its compounds and alloys, its milkier elements, whitened and hardened. On asphalt the activity of tires increases: doppler rips. Gutters surging. Thunder yanked like special-effect sheets of aluminum, behind the scenes. A jogger who can’t economize movements, whose legs seem strapped on and lack propulsion, whose elbows angle too far from his body, seems wetter than others. Bending in wind, heavy with rain, some hardy beach roses suggest a boat tethered and scuffed against unseen pilings.
One species of sleeping person can sense rain and somehow knows to stay abed, undisturbed in their summer rentals, up and down the beach. An announcement such as this won’t jar them: May I have your attention, please. Lightning is on the beachfront. Lightning is on the beachfront. Clear the area for your safety. It sounds not at all canned: the voice of a real and excited someone, red-faced, soaked and bringing the news. At the horizon, ocean and sky roil and meet; a mist congests there and erases perspective. There’s nothing to see except the near air. Distinctions are gone between water and sky and even the sand darkened with rain is threshed, dilute, emulous. The sky darkens further. The sky turns, toward or into. The sky now. The sky is—what is the shade, gradient, hue, tint I’m seeing? The _________ sky. That sense of searching, fingertips tapping, calling forth terms. Sifting, anticipating: the something sky. Something. Something. It pushes in. It draws up to full height.
It blots out any other sky, gunmetal does.
How irksome. Gunmetal. What a cliché.
Strike me down if I use it again. If I don’t, right now, erase this method by which we impart, those of us who know nothing about guns, drama to a sky, pressure to a scene, hardness, know-how, coldness to a description, glad for its hint of treachery, its sidelong, thanatotic meanness.
Why erase, though? Why deny the relief of a shared, common phrase—novelistically charged, not the worst imaginable? You know gunmetal and I know gunmetal: why not meet there? Pretend it’s a bar of the same cool name, Gunmetal’s (brushed steel, shiny marble, little track lights), and relax, converse, affirm each other’s positions on many Big (or breezy and minor) Life Issues. Because I had nowhere else to go this evening and you were free and isn’t it, going out, better than staying home alone? Even if I know where the conversation’s headed? And really, you’re perfectly decent company, you aren’t at fault. But after an evening like this, I’m way more antsy and hardly refreshed, since I’m not at all changed or challenged or stretched. And neither are you.
And yes, the coldness of a gun pertains. And a gun is, when you first hold it, very cold, and heavier than you’d think—say a .22, hitched right up against the shoulder. At least the one I shot weighed more than I expected (I’m guessing at least five pounds), made of…I don’t know what. Gunmetal, I guess. I hardly have anyone to ask about this. One strictly seasonal pheasant-hunting friend, who will answer modestly and won’t say one thing beyond what he knows. One friend, Saeid, who fought in the Iran-Iraq war, and though that’s long ago now for him, I hesitate. Because maybe it’s not so long ago, the way rogue scenes slide in when you’re making a sandwich, washing your hair, touching your sleeping child’s face…Also, I’ve seen that tree, in the photo in his living room, the one he’s standing so uprightly next to (he in his uniform and both so thin they look related) and something came just before that frame and something happened just after it, to the side of the tree, or behind it—it’s that the tree’s starkness is a point of reference. There is, I think, a lot more he knows, for example, on the subject of grenades, that I don’t want to ask about either, there being no “grenade blue” I’m harrying here. Though there’s a sky for that, too. A misty tint, something to indicate a surprise detonation, or rain turned hail, very suddenly.
But I want to know what “gunmetal” means, and found the perfect guy to ask, Jim, a friend of a friend, a gunmaker who’s currently working on a matchlock from 1510 (“older than all my friends combined,” he writes).
My questions, of course, are embarrassingly basic.
And yes, I do need to start at the beginning.
He writes: Glocks are made of plastic with metal inserts in the receiver or frame (the part you hang on to), the slide and barrel are metal and the color is determined by the options you choose. (He’s seen pink as well as sky-blue ones.) The basic metal a .22 is made of varies but it is always shiny silver, what we in the trade call “in the white.” This reflects that it has not been colored or coated yet. The coloring (whether it be bluing, Frenching, coating or browning) is put there to keep the metal from corroding or oxidizing in an undesirable manner. “Gunmetal” as a color is usually a gray, more technically called “Frenching” or “French gray.” Think of the dark ash on charcoal only shiny.
The shiniest guns would be chrome or nickel plated, the blackest ones would be the black epoxy coated, black chrome is black beyond belief, but is shiny like a mirror. These coatings can be applied to any firearm. I have examples of almost anything you would like . . .
Almost anything I would like…As, too, this sky is variously compounded, concussive, concupiscent, and oh could be layered with names transfinitely: it’s the rivery color a silver spoon turns when held in a flame. It’s the color of a well-used plumber’s wrench. A perfectly battered railroad tie. I try on: A burnt-spoon sky. Below a sky where we sat down, under wrench-colored clouds. Before the sky opened and a rain as hard as railroad ties fell…It’s the color of a cataract (which very like “promontory” is not much in use, ever-nailed as both are to the nineteenth century, provenance of the Lake District poets). It’s a kinked intestine-gone-bloodless-pale sky. Translucent, unfeathered, fallen-chick silver. Powdered zinc. Stripped olive pit. Dirty-kid water in a porcelain tub. Colloidal and swirly as milk in tea. Farinaceous. Clayey. Grime in pressed tin. So why “gunmetal?” If it’s something about the act of smithing, why not things from the worlds of cooper, tinker, wainwright, glazier? The throwback quality’s engaging, authentic—the forging, the shine, the added bluing, the blacking, the browning—but mostly, I think, it’s rugged and hip to suggest you know something about guns; enough at least to toss a likeness around. You have to like a likeness to toss it (note kids running, jostling, outshouting each other as they reach a car, after school: I call shotgun!—not side saddle! not the seat next to my mom).
If you’re really set on naming a sky by way of armaments, try a breech-loading carbine’s pencilly softness, or another from the Civil War, a Harper’s Ferry musket whose mottling looks like winter rain. Try a cannon’s smooth-bore, or case shot, the spherical or precisely penile munitions, pocked, blackened, and smutted by all the ways they ruined a body, rolled, muddied, and were gathered up again for duty. Try the brass coat-buttons, buckles, and plates identifying cavalry, riflemen, musicians, artillery, infantry, engineers, and the tarnish spots—that color—where salt in the blood wore away the finely wrought horses, eagles, lyres. A mess cup’s the color of the potomac in winter. A bayonet’s black as a rasping crow. And that blood-dew-gunsmoke combination—rust, it turns out, is complicated.
“Battleship gray” is also a problem—that monstrous shovel-like snout of a ship, welded with rivets the size of plates, unyielding and lithic—does a sky intend to communicate this? To bear down, to invade? Can’t we come up with something other than a destroyer’s sticky, marshmallowy gray to signal a sky that hovers over us all with steady nerves, and hugeness? In Farsi, my friend Saied offered Ghamangeez, “a saddening sky.” “right?” (he checked with his wife). “Yes,” she said, and wrote it out: “a sky that brings on sadness.” Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere.
It’s also quick, gunmetal is. I’ll give it that. It speeds the scene. So you can get on to something else. It’s a term that makes you feel part of a team. A baton you hold firmly and pass down the line. The way a party ice-breaker works: let me introduce you to X. Now you’re friends. Now the two of you can have coffee together. Then you introduce. To one of your friends. They go for a drink (Bar you-know-what). Now so many of us have something in common. We’re cozy. We know what the other means.
Things change, thankfully, and grays complicate—unfurl, turn smoky, egressive, specular. A few hours later, the sky in Cape May has taken a turn that stymies. It stumps me. Car base coats, the flat ones, rally to help. Morandi knew, and applied to bottles and humble plates a range of whites and opacities, the soft, cool creams of unspeckled eggs, of under-tint blues, of froths and dunes. Ossaceous. Tobaccan. Dusty, white Neccos, whose flavor is cinnamon (surprising and spicy, almost atomic fireball hot, but muted and sweeter, so the shock spreads over the tongue with no ping, no ache, no tornadic pop-rock green apple, no glowing, gummi, sunset orange.) This gray sky approaches clamshell, oatmeal, ashed cigarette. It’s the color of shit in its calcified state, though this likeness is not much in use, alas, our palette’s not very broadly accepting, and shit is not aesthetically easy; it upends too queasily, slides too sneakily underfoot. Won’t stay domed. Won’t stay chapeled, as it is when left alone to form those earthy, limestone temples. Fat white gulls and snowy egrets disappear against this sky, which makes its color more erasure than presence. Ghosted. Palimpsistic.
Birds can’t sink into gunmetal skies.
“Gunmetal,” on the comportment family tree, is close to steely. Steely eyes. Steely wills. Ramrod posture. (And ramrods, of course, pack down charge in muzzle loading guns; thus the militaristic mien of a body fit to load munitions, push explosives, shoulder them in—so straight and stiff, it must have been trained to fight, to serve and never to yield, as mottos go. A body like that. A sky like that. Mission-bound. Singleminded.)
“Gunmetal,” deployed, delivers a payload of routine. And routine is a much sought after commodity. I get that. The best of us succumb at times. About McDonald’s, for instance, the Cape May guidebook confirms, “You can’t live on gourmet food alone. So it’s comforting to have Mickey D’s right here! There are few things in life more reliable or comforting than a Happy Meal. There is something to be said about knowing EXACTLY what you’re getting EVERY TIME. No worrying if your steak is going to be cooked enough, or if the clams are bad. The only thing to worry about at McDonald’s is whether to get your meal small, medium, or large.” “Gunmetal” as Happy Meal. It’s very compact, the phrase “gunmetal sky,” as reliable a delivery system as any Big Mac, with its two allbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun. (How cleverly that little jingle—I can still hear the tune— indicates both exactitude and overabundance.) and though I won’t go on with this point, research shows there are 380 seeds on each sesame seed bun, “give or take a few seeds.”
So when I say the word to myself, for a sky’s particular depth and hue, “gunmetal,” which precisely means “dark gray with blue or purple tinge” (but you knew that, didn’t you), a third, nictitating lid comes down and though I see the sky—more accurately, the real seeing stops. The lid fuzzes up. It’s like a direct and very clean shot to the little path meandering out, where I went hunting all this time for other colors the sky might be. It bombs the path. Detonates it, gunmetal does. I’m trying to locate it in my body (say at the spot where clavicle and shoulder meet, where the rifle kicked hard and knocked a week-long bruise into place) so I can say the word “gunmetal” and mean it. But I don’t feel it. I just join with. I fall in. I get phalanxed with the staters. Heads of Statement all start talking. All agreeing, nodding, yessing. Settling. I feel I’ve been given one of those ovoid bumper stickers, alerting all to my vacation spot—that mysterious “OBX” (Outer Banks Crossing, I learned at a stoplight, eye level with an SUV’s bumper). Or in Cape May it’s “Exit Zero.” Very in-clubbish. The longer I stay in a place, the more okay the decals seem. I’m hustled in with the locals and after awhile—we’ve been coming here for years—I begin to feel pretty local myself. Happy to be readable. Gunmetal: cool.
At luminous moments I have wanted to say “I have been so blessed”—but can’t. Who’d bless me? Why me? My problem is accepting a gift so weirdly, singularly bestowed: why not her, him, them? I’m better with gratitude abundant-but-diffuse: late afternoon in the middle of my life, cooking, the window open, sun releasing the scent of pine floors into a solitude stilled and light-scoured. I’m more at home with moments colloidal, beflecked with component goodness, than I am with the handed-down-from-on-high. Things like plumbing, clean hot water, rough/tart apples, sharp knives, tissues, best set my gratitude in motion. “Gunmetal” would make a believer of me; using it, I’d have to say a thing I’ve been taught to say. Believe a thing about the sky I’ve been given to believe. As I’d have to take “blessed” to mean: I have been chosen, marked, held right in the center of some kind, crosshaired sight. But doesn’t the universe also fix on falling sparrows, lend its attention to spectacular disaster, train its very steady eye on accidents, suffering, diminishment?
I want such a sky to quiet me (not “strike me dumb,” that’s a rod drawn up, enforcing awe, and one is “smote”). And I want, in that quiet, to search out my terms. And what I decide on, I want to be more than a firearm’s alloy. Harder come by. Stronger. Chromatic. I want to turn to oyster and mouse, underbelly, pool-of-brine, and then tank those and reconfigure if the gray they offer is not worthy, if associations gained are not enormity-bound. Distant and confounding. Intimately roomy.
Or drop the Name That Color Game altogether: goodbye to Keystone, Gauntlet, Cloak, Summit, Uncertain, Vast, and Repose (the neighborhood paint store’s current gray offerings) and take up geography and spatial-relations—how far, in what way, for how long did the sky lift away from sea, hunch in close, variegate.
Or activate good old “gray” as a suffix, hitch it to actions like torque-, welter-, and brim-. Coruscate-, grizzle-, rave-, tincture-, convulse-.
Or consider that which disappears into the sky—bottle-nosed dolphins that leap-because-they-can. Research shows that their play is both entirely useless and necessary, a kind of restorative practice-for. And very often, not practical at all. Dolphins leap because muscles want flexing, because the air, off the shore at Cape May in June, is warmer than water and the change is pleasing, the shift between elements tickles them. Research shows that dolphins mate up to eight times a day—even when not in heat.
To disappear into an endless, dolphin sky.
To sift and sift and sift words—and not find. And in the face of not-finding, to not-rely-on. To turn away usual corollaries. To maybe just sit before such a gray sky and give up, until strength returns and possibilities surprise. Or maybe just watching is enough. To unburden in that way. To unwind. Take it out of your pocket, your holster, that sky. Lay down your gunmetal. It’s the sky buy-back program. The sky amnesty plan. Turn it in, buddy. Hand it over, right now, while you can, and you won’t be charged with theft.
And now you’re free to find your own term.
Lia Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books), she has also received Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as five Pushcart Prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and other honors. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, AGNI, Emergence, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, where she is writer in residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has taught in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program, at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in The University of Iowa’s nonfiction MFA program, and at conferences, workshops, and graduate programs throughout the country. Her newest collection of poems is It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin), and her latest collection of essays is All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books). She is a contributing editor of AGNI. (updated 4/2017)
Purpura’s AGNI essay “Glaciology” won a Pushcart Prize and is reprinted in the 2006 anthology.