A gun dog, you called her. A liver-spotted Brittany Spaniel with cobalt eyes. To go with your new Antonio Zolli, over-under, double barrel, 12 gauge. The pistol grip stock, scroll engraving and full action. You said you would show me how to load it. The colorful shells. That I was old enough. Mom frowning at the suggestion.
You took up hunting and started wearing a tan felt Stetson. Your mid-thirties Urban Cowboy phase. Another new identity. Another costume. Wearing snakeskin cowboy boots to my baseball games. The other fathers wearing sneakers. Smoking those Backwoods cigars that came in a paper pouch, and a book of matches you’d pull from the back pocket of your Wrangler jeans. Cupping your hands around the flame like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, the white sulfur flash lighting your face. Willie Nelson’s Stardust playing on the maple Magnavox console in the family room. Jack Daniels in your glass. Or driving around in your Celica GT five speed with the windows down, Jackson Brown’s Running On Empty on the eight track you’d installed under the glovebox.
She arrived as a puppy on Christmas morning. Attacking the wrapping paper, her head thrashing madly back and forth. Bounding around the room, biting holes in my socks. You said Santa had carried her down the chimney for us. You winked at me when you said it. My sister still young enough to believe. Mom rolling her eyes. A dog wasn’t on our Christmas lists.
You said the dog was pure bred. A pointer. And she never stopped moving. Racing around the house from room to room. It went on all night and we wondered if she would ever sleep. I laid in my bed and watched the snow outside still coming down under the moon. Wood the two of us had stacked in the fall now hissing downstairs in the fireplace, the moisture escaping. The new noises of a puppy echoing from down the hall, growling at some shadow or something. And I wondered what we were becoming now. You and me. The family. What calamity might await, hovering and looming.
I was bringing home report cards you said made you ashamed. Fighting in the school hallways. Taking on anyone who made fun of the mottled burn scars across my neck. Especially the older, bigger kids. Relishing the crash of bodies against the metal lockers. Skipping school and riding my bike to the mall to get chased around by the truant officers, red faced and sweating in their brown, polyester suits. My mother at her wits’ end, out of her depth. You, traveling for work and some other world away, warning me over the phone at night, “Just wait until I get home, mister.”
By June the dog was bleeding all over the house. Humping my leg. Summer came and you started traveling more for work, away even longer than before. You told us to lock her in the downstairs bathroom until you got back but you were gone for days. She wailed and scratched the finish off the door and when you got home you sent me down there with a bottle of ammonia and a bucket to clean up the shit and the blood and the urine. I opened the door and she knocked me down and barreled up the stairs, wild like a demon, breaking through the screen door and sprinting off into the neighborhood somewhere to get rid of all the pent up wildness.
You said we needed to get her into the fields and streams. That’s where she was meant to be. That would help. You had some idea where there was good birding territory, outside of town. Dairy farms, you said, with corn and sunflower and sorghum. In the fall we’d drive out and ask the farmer for permission to hunt on his land. Bring him something to sweeten the deal. What was sorghum, I asked. “Cover,” you said. “Places to hide.”
Mom said, “Just get her out of this house.” She was terrorizing my sister. Eating her crayons and shitting rainbows all over the carpet. Chewing her stuffed animals to pieces. One day, my sister let out a scream and I rushed to the foyer where she was standing crying and pointing out the open front door. The dog was standing at the foot of our driveway in the rain with Rocky Racoon in her mouth, my sister’s favorite toy, a plush hand puppet. “Get back here now,” I said, as low and mean as I could over the sound of the rain on the pavement. But she didn’t move, and when I finally went out after her, she turned and sauntered away, disappearing into the fog.
People would show up at our house red faced, seething. She’d swiped their steaks from their grills. Dug up their flowers. Chased their children, growling and barking. “This dog needs to get laid or spayed,” one man said standing on our front step, holding the dog up by her collar, the brown blood staining the white fur of her haunches and hind legs, the dog snuffing and choking. You apologized and took hold of the collar, pulled her inside and locked her in the downstairs bathroom again, and came back out with cash for the hamburgers and homemade macaroni salad she ate off his picnic table.
At the edge of our backyard you built a kennel. Two by fours, and four by four pilons. Six feet high with chicken wire. Thirty feet long. A spring-loaded gate. Room enough for her to move around. And then built a doghouse of plywood and roofing shingles. But autumn was coming, the temperature dropping, so you ran electricity and installed sockets for three lightbulbs under the floor. You said that would generate enough warmth.
Ten minutes after we put her inside she took a running start from the back and soared over the top, ran away again somewhere into the neighborhood. So you raised the walls, built them ten feet high. But she climbed the chicken wire like a spider, dropped over the other side. You ran more chicken wire to create a ceiling. She dug a hole under the two by four braces and vanished again.
Finally you installed the chicken wire end-to-end for flooring and she was locked inside. Except now her shit caught in the gap between the ground and the chicken wire and when you sent me out there to clean it up I couldn’t get it out. In the rain it mixed with the dirt into a thick mud and the smell became too much. Friends said our yard smelled like a farm and stopped coming over.
At night you would go to the back window and turn on the spotlight and she’d be suspended halfway up like a spider again, gnawing at the wire and the wood, still looking for a way out, her gums and lips bleeding, those crazy eyes glistening iridescent, showing the depths of animal insanity. Mom stood in her robe looking out with her arms folded, shaking her head. “That animal is ruining this family.”
Watching her suspended like that in the halogen light I thought of what was wrong with the dog, too. Was it just bad luck? A bad pick of the litter. Or was it something like a voodoo curse that followed us around and the dog was part of it. But I also wondered if it wasn’t a curse or a bad luck of the draw, that actually it had to do with the things that were wrong with us, or with me, and rubbed off and infected the dog like a virus. That maybe it wasn’t the dog at all. Maybe it was me and you. Something besides the smell and the blood and the whining and the upset neighbors. Mom, crying at night while she washed dishes at the sink, the dog out there trying to break free from its cage, you away again and with who we didn’t know.
In the back of one of your hunting magazines you saw a classified ad by someone who raised pigeons in the Hudson Valley, south of Catskill. You drove our tan Chevy station wagon down there, came back with a cage full of them. They cooed and fussed and molted when you carried them into the yard. I watched you take them out one by one and bring them into the woods, tying some fishing line to one of their legs, the other end to a tree. With the cage empty and the birds scattered about, tethered to trees, you stood and surveyed your work, scared noises coming back to us like a symphony. The pigeons jumped in their various places, trying to take flight, but anchored down. Satisfied, you went opened the back door and brought her out.
She walked into the yard and paused and put her nose in the air, lifted a front leg and her eyes got wide as it all began to register. “Look at that,” you said, smiling. You thought she would move around the yard and point, obey your commands. But she ran into the woods and took one of the pigeons in her mouth and thrashed her head back and forth like that Christmas morning with the wrapping paper. You yelled and went after her but she was too fast and was already onto the next one, and then the next. Before you could stop her she’d killed them all.
September arrived and we put her in the back of the station wagon to drive her out to the edge of town. I was back in school and promised myself eighth grade would be different. I wouldn’t fall behind. You were threatening catholic military school where I heard they hit the students. There was no detention like public school. A hard palm across the face instead.
You had the shotgun laid across the back seat. The sun was just up under gray skies. You wore a red flannel shirt and brown corduroys and rolled the window down for her and she put her head into the breeze, and squinted her eyes, her nose twitching. For once she seemed content and I turned and watched her back there as you drove us out of the neighborhood and turned onto a main road. The car accelerated and then in one quick motion, without any warning, she leapt out of the window.
I sat up and watched her roll and tumble in cartwheels down the road. You didn’t know she’d jumped out. It happened so quickly, quietly. I looked at you but you were staring straight ahead, your hands on the wheel, off somewhere in your mind again, so I said nothing. Just watched her back there in the road. She was still, unmoving, and as we got farther away I knew she was dead and felt a tremendous rush of happiness and relief. Like a spell had suddenly been lifted. We could leave her there along with our past. The costumes, your secrets. Whatever you were doing in New York City that Mom questioned you about. Whoever you were with. Trade the madness for calm. You could stay at home and not disappear. Mom could stop her crying at night. And I would stop making mistakes that made you angry.
But then the dog stood up. Shook her head to clear the cobwebs and launched into a dead sprint trying to chase us down. Running at full tilt, she gained speed, faster than I’d ever seen before, unfazed, the crazy eyes again, tongue lolling, trying to catch us.
“She jumped out of the car.”
You like to say we’re cut from the same cloth. That because we’re so much alike we don’t get along.
You have a few drinks and you call me over to your side of the dinner table. Ready? Tighten up those muscles. And then you hit me in the stomach. Not so hard at first but then with steadily increasing force until I’m falling backward and have to step forward again for you to hit me again. How tough are you? Come here. I tell you I can take it and you smile and I smile and fall back again and it gets harder, more forceful, and I lose my breath, the air shallower and shallower but I tell you it’s okay, it’s good, waiting for you to be satisfied, for you to decide it’s enough.
If we’re alike, it’s my inability to see the risk in things. To see or sense the boundaries. Or maybe I know that they are there and want to push past. I would never tell you to stop at the dinner table. I will always wait for you to get tired. The strongest part of me that is you is my recklessness. The scars I’ve accumulated. I do things other kids won’t dare and I don’t know why.
When my friends and I rode our bikes to the Crescent Bridget I was the one to dive off first and test the depths of the Mohawk, cutting my head on the rocky bottom, the dull sound and little stars in my vision, losing consciousness for a moment down there on the murky bottom.
At the abandoned drive-in moving theatre I climbed to the top of the screen. So high I could see the cars passing on the highway a half mile in the distance.
When we discovered the broken window at the Electric City comic book store I was the one who broke in to steal the Silver Surfer Buscema number five, and the 1973 Ghost Rider Son of Satan, slicing my arm on the glass.
And then sneaking out of the house at midnight with a bottle of your Wild Turkey and falling asleep at the neighborhood baseball fields, waking in the predawn in the sandy dugout to run home before Mom discovered me gone.
I wait in the car with the dog while you go up to the farmer’s house. You stand on the front porch, knock on the front door, cradling a bottle of expensive scotch in your arm, wrapped in a brown paper bag.
The weathered red barns in the distance are faded and sagging, the roof showing dark holes where the roof has fallen in. Only a few slow moving cows drift about in the deep, furrowed mud. This is no longer a working farm, and as I look around I know that eventually, like others in recent years, the farmer or his children when he dies will sell the property to a builder, and the barns and outcroppings will be bulldozed for roads and sewers and houses with colorful, plastic aluminum siding.
When the door opens you smile and talk to the farmer and gesture back to me and he looks over and I wave but he doesn’t wave back. He stands crooked and unshaven. Thin white hair, deep hollowed eyes. Overalls and house slippers. You hand him the bag and he looks inside and then back at you and there’s more talking until eventually he points over your shoulder. You turn and look that way with him and nod and squint and then shake his hand and he goes back inside and you come back to the car with a smile on your face and a spring in your step and the dog starts to whimper anxiously.
We drive up a rutted cattle path better suited for a tractor than our long station wagon with no clearance. The car bounces around as we go, the struts squeaking like they’re going to drop out. I watch leafless trees go slowly by, dark against the muted sky and the corn stubble. The dog is whining louder now because she sees what we’re seeing and she keeps jumping over the seats and then back again. And finally, after a while, you stop and park and we look around, the engine idling. “This looks good, doesn’t it?” But I don’t say anything back because I don’t know any difference and you cut the engine and we get out, the air cold and damp.
You go around to the back of the station wagon and take out the gun, stuffing the dog back inside when she tries to get out. “Farmer says there’s grouse, pheasants. Maybe some woodcock. We’ll try that draw there.” You point and look to where you want to go and I stand in the cold, watch my breath in the air.
“I don’t know what those things are.”
“Game birds,” you say, while you pull on your beige canvas vest with these loops stitched into the front. You fill them with brass-capped, plastic red and green shells and say, “You’ll see,” and then place two more shells in the chamber of the shotgun and look at me and tell me to stay behind you. “Now listen. When I let her out of this car she’s going to go right up into that draw there and it’s going to be something.”
I nod and you place pieces of yellow foam into your ears and open the rear hatch of the station wagon and just like you said, she jumps out and darts and runs up into the scratchy, weathered stubble, diving in and out of waist-high tangles of knotty brush that have grown up along the edges.
After not too long a bird shrieks and explodes out of the opposite side of where the dog went in and takes flight in a flash of green and brown and red, these frantic pulses of the wings, neck outstretched against the clouds, low and still, and you raise the shotgun and fire. I watch the recoil throw your body back in one large and sudden tremor. Your arm jumps at the shoulder and it looks like you should be knocked down but somehow you absorb it all and the sound is the loudest thing I think I’ve ever heard. But the bird keeps ascending so you adjust your sighting and fire again and then there’s a puff of feathers and the bird is halted in midflight and then drops to the ground.
The dog isn’t fazed by the noise of the gun blasts. It’s like she didn’t hear them. She doesn’t pause or even turn to see what it is and my mind goes back to what you said that one time: a gun dog. She’s already onto something else in some other tangle of brush but you have to reload, so you break the shotgun and take out the two empty casings and drop them into the dirt and take a couple more shells from your vest and place them in the chambers and then you’re firing again at the birds she’s flushed from where they were hiding in a wilted clump of corn.
The shotgun blasts echo across the fields and after a while my ears ring some but I keep walking behind you as we go, just like you said, and watch as you follow the dog and she flushes the birds, and I see now that she’s exactly where she is meant to be. She’s working, focused. There’s a peace and a calm in her face and eyes I haven’t seen before. A contentment in her found purpose. Her body moving just as it was designed to, in the very place it was intended to be and it’s a beautiful thing in ways I couldn’t have imagined and didn’t understand before. You keep firing the gun and she keeps running in and out of these places and the smell of cordite is everywhere and I plod along and watch the same sequence play out like a dance: the dog, the bird, then you and the gun. Interrupted only for those moments where you bend down to pick up the birds from the hard ground where they’ve fallen.
When the shells are gone we walk back to the car and the dog lays down in the hardpack of the herd path, panting but calm and still. You break the gun and take off your vest and pull the birds out of the large game pockets in your coat where some blood has soaked through the canvas. You lay them out on the hood, their necks loose and eyes waxy, and take them one by one and step on their wings and pull at the legs to dress them. Everything comes out in a sound like husking corn and you dump the rest on the ground by the car tires. Then you take your knife and poke around at each breast, and eventually make a little pile of hearts on the hood, like red gumballs.
“They’re actually sweet,” you say, and take one and pop it in your mouth, chew. I make a face and feel something in my stomach and you smile and go back to cleaning the birds. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you try one.”
There’s a long time before either of us say anything else and I watch the dog being relaxed, think about the farmer and wonder whether he’s drinking his scotch already. What he thinks when he hears someone else’s shotgun echo across his open spaces he used to farm. And after a while of standing around I get cold.
“Can we go now?”
“Sure. But first, there’s another box of shells in the back. Grab a couple and bring them over.” While I’m getting the shells you get the gun and walk around in circles in the tall grass with your head down and then you lean down and come up with a Miller High Life can, dented and sun-faded and bring it over to a crooked fence post the farmer’s father probably set a hundred years ago with some rusted cattle wire still nailed into it.
You place the can on top of the post and I bring you the shells and you look at me and hold one up in between us. “Before this goes in the chamber you make sure the safety is on. Go ahead, push it on yourself. Good, now this slides in here and then you close the action, like this. You sight it here. See? Now you’re going to aim at that can over there. And you’re probably going to miss but that’s okay. Just get the feel of the gun in your hands. Hold it up. It’s heavy. Don’t let it drift.”
The gun goes into my hands and it’s heavier than I thought and it takes more effort to keep the barrels up than I expected. I get my feet set, stand and face down the post with the can on it and you come around behind me. “Keep the stock in the crook of your arm like this, hold that barrel up, and squeeze that trigger nice and slow when you’re ready. It doesn’t take much, okay? I’m going to take the safety off now.”
I hear it click and then hear you step away and I try to keep the site on the beer can on the post and feel the trigger on my finger and the cold heaviness of the barrels in my other hand. Dark clouds full of muscles march across the sky out there and the empty tree branches look like so many fingers grabbing for something. The colors of the hills and the grass and mud are this pastel of winter where everything has given up and all of a sudden I think I feel the first hint of snow, the taste of metal in my mouth, like blood, and I’m upside down, those clouds again, my feet kicking at them, but my hearing is gone, a ringing, and things are twisting and I come to understand I wasn’t strong enough before I feel the cold hardpack again of the ground on my back, the sharp pain.
I couldn’t keep that stock where you told me, I realize. There is a drowning sensation, and it takes a while to get a breath, like when you hit me at the dinner table. And I think of that time when a dream I’d had in the middle of the night woke me up and I wandered out to look for you in your bed but you were gone. Just Mom there sleeping quietly in the blue blur of dawn and that sound of the dog in the downstairs bathroom clawing a hole in the door.
All of this happened before my little brother was born. Before my bedroom became the nursery and you moved me into the basement, built a new bedroom with brown tongue and groove wood paneling, a drop ceiling and rug over the cement floor. Before you started being gone for weeks at a time instead of nights at a time. Before the farmer’s kids finally sold the land and they bulldozed it all and built the first mall with an arcade, and a movie theatre, a J.C. Penny and the record store.
Before I started sneaking your booze, and buying weed at that mall from the guy in the Pinto that parked in the parking lot by the runoff swamp and the water tower we eventually spray painted with graffiti.
Before you got that new job, the one you said would solve our money problems and get you out of debt. When you traded in your Stetson and your Urban Cowboy identity for the Corporate Executive identity. Reinvented yourself again. Chalk stripe blue suits, and spit-shined black shoes. Cufflinks and tie clips.
Before the dog got pregnant and one morning I looked outside and saw her in the kennel licking one of her puppies that was lying in the snow. I was sure it was dead and pulled on your coat from the foyer closet and ran out there while everyone was still asleep and saw there were others, cold and blind and shivering, and snatched them up, helpless and squealing.
I was swallowed up in your coat. The sleeves too long, the bottom of it dragging behind me and I put the puppies into your pockets and they dropped down deep inside. I didn’t run back with them. I thought they would break, and so I walked back instead very carefully, talking to them, saying it was going to be okay, stepping into the tracks I left in the deep snow on my way out.
You said they were mutts, that no one would want them and for the first week or so you kept saying the smallest one, the runt of the litter, would probably die. That I should expect it.
We put them in the basement with their mother in a big overturned carboard box with pillows and blankets. And you didn’t know it then, but I would slip out of my bed in the morning before dawn and take the others away so the runt could have his mother to himself. His eyes were the last to open and he was the slowest to stand up but the runt didn’t die. And I found him a family. Went around the neighborhood tacking signs to the sticky creosote utility poles: Free Puppies! Eventually people in the neighborhood came around and we pawned them all off. Even the runt, which had liver spots just like his mom.
Maybe we should have known it then. That this last identity would be your permanent disguise. The one you would choose over all the others: the seafarer, the folk singer, the carpenter. The one you would never take off. The suit and tie. Stock pages in the morning paper.
But I didn’t want to let go of the you that came before. The version of the man still looking for his place. Unsure of himself. Firing away into a muted sky. Afraid but moving through the universe anyway. That was the you I felt I knew best. The you that was searching. Lost and looking for something to call the truth. The beating heart.