I gave this short story a much needed edit just now, it’s one that I wrote after returning a few weeks ago from my brother’s baby shower. So I thought I’d share it.
my brother Ryan and his dog
My cousin David shouldered and fired into the ice of the pond. It blew a hole, lifting a geyser of water and ice to the height of the spindly willows on the opposite bank. The daylight for good shooting was closing. I tried with my eyes to follow the rifle crack across my grandmother’s farm.
Harvested corn spanned all around us until the tree lines, the silence now broken and then an echo. The sky was pink over the Henry Thomas bottoms. Further than that, or on the tobacco farm across Stateline Road, the sound would be another distant rifle fire at dusk over Dukedom, TN, where the red asphalt becomes black at the border of Kentucky and that is all that happens.
David loosed the next 19 rounds into the ice. 19 cracks stuttered within seconds, you could feel them under your feet, they itched within your palms. Ice and water fell soundless beyond the charged air, lazy like the spray of waves crashing upon large rocks. David turned around, the jet-black receiver open and smoking. The wind across the field could make your eyes red and watery if you didn’t blink, and Ryan, my brother, said, “You look like a guy who put in his overtime this week.”
“I’m getting one of these,” David said. He rested the gun in the grass and stepped back into the row with us along the side of the pond. A moment earlier he’d been sore at the mud all over his truck from the deep ruts in the lane. He probably did have the best tires out of the three.
“Y’all’re bad for even wanting one,” my uncle said, speaking of the gun. “The police will give you $100 to turn one in, no questions asked.”
“You want to shoot it?” Ryan asked.
“No thanks, I can shoot mine anytime off the deck,” he said. “But save the brass. Not the steel, you can’t use it.”
I’d already picked up a handful of the brass casings, but also some of the gray steel ones.
“You got the steel right there,” my uncle said.
“Well I wasn’t going to litter,” I said.
We’d come to throw Ryan a baby shower. Men are invited to women’s baby showers only when there are games designed to make fun of us. It’s our role to play, as if repulsed while changing a doll’s diaper containing a melted candy bar. A better thing to do for a soon-to-be dad is to spend time with his hands free, as far away from the smell of fresh nursery paint as he can get. That’s my advice, as the older brother, and also as a new dad again just five weeks before. Ryan and I had painted his nursery all morning and were now free to go. His wife, Ashley, and my wife, a different Ashley, had both said so.
One day, of course, our boys will be out here with us squirrel hunting. We were squirrel hunting right now. Always it included stalking the duck pond, and then staying around to shoot ammunition not intended for squirrels. We could call David a squirrel hero this evening, for firing the assault rifle, scaring the squirrels into their nests, and letting the hunt end at the duck pond just a few steps from the trucks.
My cousin Lauren walked up next to practice with each of her .38 specials.
A couple of things I was certain to do, I had given it some thought. Dad and I were trying to get 1000 rounds of 9mm ammunition hand loaded before the impending zombie apocalypse. I’d brought a few along to see how they would do. Secondly, I carried a Smith and Wesson E series 1911 .45 ACP semi automatic pistol. Firing .45s into a frozen pond is an extravagant expenditure of ammo, yes I realize. But my brother was having a baby. Secondly, herds of the zombies will inevitably catch a .45 full metal jacket. My Dad has reloaded so much .45 ammo that the future will hold two types of people: friends of my dad, and zombies.
My dad and his dog
My grandmother recently gave us our grandfather’s guns. I was carrying his Colt Woodsman .22 pistol. I didn’t grow up far from this place but I don’t come home much. Not often enough. I have one big memory of a thousand days of childhood that happened right here. The pines that I remember the size of Christmas trees are now a forest thirty feet tall. A lane runs past them and beyond to where the turkey tree once stood, and I’ll never forget what it gave me to kick a four wheeler higher and higher into gear and keep trying even when there wasn’t another. My grandfather is still everywhere on this farm, mostly because I’ve not been here often in the years without him.
I walked up to the pond and pulled the slender Woodsman from its leather case. As a small boy I could be nervous of my grandfather, his cross moods when I was a nuisance. He was never mean; he was very particular, especially around equipment and tools, but he was magical the way he could become a small boy himself. You never knew when it would happen and even tried to instigate it yourself. But if you were wrong, like when you touched everything on his work bench, you might be sent inside to watch the afternoon soaps.
Assisting my grandfather was like watching something fix itself. He’d been a Buck Sergeant and aircraft mechanic in World War II, stationed in the Philippines to keep the B24 bombers in the skies. We talked about this while we worked on tractors or the Honda. Never any details about fighting and war, only the magnetos and pistons in each of the four engines and how difficult it might be to reach for the part you were getting at.
His hands were gigantic, big round knuckles and square nails twirling a wooden handle of a screwdriver that gleamed and smelled of WD40 and I stood barely taller than the Honda, holding extra screws in my hand, watching, but looking around the barn. Later we’d slide the enormous metal door closed and lock it over the red dirt and orange gravel that pretty soon became grass, although the short walk back to the house was worn to the dirt along the tire tracks.
Before we left I would say, “Touch the electric fence, Grandaddy.”
And he would always do it. The barn had open bays on each side with wires running along the surfaces, strung between little ceramic circles, each on a nail like you might see in an old house. The wires were to keep critters out and especially the cows whenever he’d had them. My grandfather, having been so serious about my mechanical lecture, would reach out and zap himself on a hot naked wire.
He’d say, “Wow!” and it would go “Zip!”
Or he would grab the wire and hold it, with a shuddering in his elbow, the crackling and popping, and then try to reach out and touch me.
“Come here, ha-ha. Hoo!” he’d say.
He got me this way the first time, but never again. Ryan was brave enough to touch the wire with a large screwdriver, and this my grandfather hilariously encouraged. He got Ryan that way, only that once. The only person who should be grabbing the electric fence was Grandaddy. And if you were holding his hand, you should let go before you got to the barn.
He married my grandmother and had a little welding shop after the war. One day he went to Fulton and bought the .22 Colt Woodsman.
My grandma says they lived in a house where you could see the chickens running under the cracks in the floor. She simply could not tolerate that he had gone to town and spent $40 on a pistol. The next day she went herself and bought a navy pantsuit at the Dotty Shop.
I was holding onto my grandfather on the back of the Honda, riding along the high wall of the duck pond when he told me that story. He handed me the Woodsman and I pretended to fire it at the head of a swimming turtle. He always loved the story of how the gun had cost him a pantsuit.
I never saw my grandfather fire the .22 or any gun for that matter, although he owned several. He liked to carry a gun but I suppose he didn’t possess the temperament or need to shoot anything. A lot of it probably had to do with thrift.
If they were married in 1947 then the gun must have been a Woodsman Series Two, with the Series One lasting until the end of World War II. Of course he might have bought it used, and I could look up the serial number to find exactly when the gun was made, but I probably won’t. Hemingway admired the Woodsman, and carried it himself. He once wrote of it:
“..and if he is really smart he will get a permit to carry one and then drop around to Abercrombie and Fitch and buy himself a .22 caliber Colt automatic pistol, Woodsman model.”
Hemingway, strolling around an Abercrombie and Fitch.
Ryan loaded the clip and walked up to the pond with the Woodsman. He didn’t fire it randomly into the blanket of ice but held it in both hands and aimed. It misfired a shell or two, as it had done for me. No one had lubricated the gun in well over a decade. Or maybe it was bad ammo, since .22 shells are the pocket lint of hunting jackets. My uncle said an old gun could be finicky about using the good cartridges.
It was near dark now, dark enough to see the flare from the end of the barrel. It was probably time to forsake my notions of nostalgia for the black menace of a high capacity assault rifle. A varmint gun, some people call it, and poor varmint who trespasses against the sportsman armed with what has historically opposed Communism.
I shot once. And then a burst. Another burst, and then the remainder of the clip flashing orange in the blue twilight.
“Were you even aiming?” Ryan asked.
“That’s what the first shot was for,” I said. “I hit the pond didn’t I?”
I felt a lot better. Our pipes at home had frozen and burst a few days before.
My cousin David still hadn’t said another word. I handed him the rifle, “One more time?”
He took it from me.
He was careful to select something out there, it was hard to tell what, and fired sporadically until he’d emptied the clip.
“Sorry about your dirty truck,” I said.
“Ah, I’m just gonna bear down good on the way out,” he said. David regularly operates a combine and drag races his Camaro on the weekends.
My uncle told him, “All the money you spend on car washes you can’t spend on a gun.”
“Oh I’ve made up my mind,” David said.
“Hanna won’t let you hang out with us again,” Ryan said.
“Just be ready,” I said. And I told him how the .22 Colt Woodsman had cost a navy pantsuit.