Just after Easter, Roy gives Jack a present: a Winchester .22 rifle. Roy had carried it as a boy, and he now passes it on to Jack, who has had his heart set on it for months; Jack believes a weapon is the “first condition” of the Western self-sufficiency and grit he longs to espouse. Rosemary protests, insisting the gun is not an appropriate present, but after a few days of Roy’s whining, she relents. She tells Jack he can only have the rifle if he promises never to take it out or even touch it except under her or Roy’s supervision. Jack agrees to this condition, but after just a week, he decides to take it out and clean it while he’s home alone in the apartment one afternoon.
In this passage, as Roy gives Jack a highly inappropriate and potentially dangerous Easter gift, Wolff employs the rifle as a physical symbol of the trauma, violent thinking, and perversion that Roy is passing down to Jack both consciously and subconsciously.
Jack cleans the rifle, then puts it together and marches around the apartment with it, then dons one of Roy’s old army coats and poses in the mirror with the gun. The coat makes him feel like an army sniper—and soon he begins to act like one. He sets up a “nest” on the couch by the front window, and follows people on the street in his sights.
Jack knows he isn’t supposed to play with the rifle, but the allure of escaping into a fantasy story and an alternate identity is just too strong.
Jack loads the gun with ammo—he knows where Roy’s hiding place is—and continues playing sniper at the front window. He is in “ecstasy” over his power over other people, and their “absurd and innocent” beliefs that they are walking safely down the street. Jack plays this game day after day, and soon the innocence of the people he’s aiming at begins to annoy him.
Jack enjoys the feeling of power over others. The gun, a symbol of the traits Roy is passing down to Jack, mirrors Roy’s methods of control over Rosemary: as Jack considers sheer, unadulterated power, he can’t know that Roy must feel the same thing whenever he stalks or threatens Rosemary.
One afternoon, aiming out the open window, Jack, shoots at a squirrel and kills it. Jack hurriedly puts his gun away, and when his mother comes home, he tells her that there is a dead squirrel into the street. Together, they go out and gather it up in a plastic bag, then bury it behind their building under a cross made from popsicle sticks. Jack cries the whole time, and continues crying that night in bed.
Jack, tempted by violence, fires the rifle and takes a life—symbolically engaging the legacy of violence Roy is trying to pass onto him. The experience doesn’t make Jack feel powerful, though; it makes him feel miserable.
For several days, Jack stays away from the apartment at times he knows he would be home alone. Even as he occupies himself by playing with his friends, he cannot “shake the idea” that sooner or later he will get the rifle out again. All his images of himself as he wishes to be are armed. Because he does not know yet who he is, any image he conjures of himself has a “power” over him.
Jack doesn’t know who he is yet—he keeps constructing images of who he should be or what he could be, but these images prove too powerful; they overwhelm Jack and lead him to make poor decisions.
As the days go by, Jack begins taking out the rifle, cleaning it, and playing with it again without loading it. One afternoon, playing with his unloaded gun, he sees a car approaching the building—it stops at the front, and Sister James gets out. She has an envelope in her hand. She knocks on the door of the apartment, waits for an answer, and knocks again. Jack stays still and silent, frozen, with his rifle in his hand; he is dressed in a fur hat and Roy’s uniform. He wonders what Sister James would think of him if she discovered him dressed in such a “ludicrous” getup.
Jack knows that Sister James is one of the few people who has shown him kindness. This makes him feel vulnerable, though, and when Sister James gave him the chance to redeem himself, he exploited her openness. Now, Jack wonders what Sister James would think if she could see him continuing to play at false identities, desperately trying to convince himself of his power over others—and himself.
After a few moments, Sister James gives up and slides an envelope under the door. Jack hears her go back to her car and start it up; he peeks out the window and sees her in the driver’s seat. This is the last glimpse he will ever get of her, though he doesn’t know it. Once she’s gone, he goes over and retrieves the envelope. He reads the note inside; it is addressed to Rosemary, and asks for her to give Sister James a call. Jack burns the letter and envelope in the sink and washes the ashes down the drain.
Jack doesn’t want Sister James to get any closer to him or discover the truth about him—he burns her letter in an effort to cut off all communication with her, and hide himself away from her knowing eyes for a while longer.