"Now, you leave that boy alone. He don't know any better." My grandmother came out of the dining room, laboriously, pulling herself forward with her feet. She had never been able to pick up the skill of pushing the big wheels with her hands.
"Not too much eatin on one squirrel." Pap was staring at the fire.
"Let me see." Grandma pushed her glasses back on her nose and looked at me, grinning. I pulled the dead squirrel out of my pocket and held it up.
"Why, that's a fine big squirrel. Look, Clyde."
"It'd better be big and fine if it's gonna make a meal for all of us."
"And it's not all shot to pieces the way yours were."
I carried the squirrel outside onto the porch before I heard the old man reply. I went around to the kitchen door, stepped inside and got a pan and some old newspapers, and came back around to the front porch. Grandma had the front door propped open with her wheelchair and was peering out, squinting behind her thick glasses.
"Why, it's nice out here."
"Too damn cold," I heard from inside.
I sat on the porch floor and began to clean my lonely squirrel. Grandma was watching me closely. When I was a boy she had bathed me--"Skin a cat!" she'd say, stripping me, "Skin a squirrel!"
"Yes, your ol' Pap, there, he used to bring home squirrels that was all shot up to pieces. And the ones that were in good shape, your Mommy'd run off with."
I had heard this story many times, both from my mother and my grandmother. Still, I asked, "What for?"
"Oh, to play with. She'd take those squirrels, wrap them up, carry them around for doll-babies. I had a time getting them back from her, too."
My grandmother eventually borrowed--stole--some change from my Grandfather's whiskey money--he drank in those days--and bought my mother a doll.
My mother went on to be a math professor at a big university.
She bore me, and I went on to become--a failure.
In the morning I was up before light. I could hear Pap messing around in the kitchen, making his coffee, but I did not stop to talk to him. I put on my jacket and took the shotgun and went on out the door. The air was cool and sharp, and the moon, shrinking to last quarter, was still and bright. The creek sounded loud in the darkness. I went on down the steep, sloping lawn and splashed across the creek and went up the other bank. There was an overgrown meadow there, and a collapsing barn, a dark shape in what light there was, and I went past it and on up the hill. When I was small, my grandfather still ran cattle on the hill, and I have photos of me as a child standing on a large rock in the middle of the steep, close-cropped pasture. But now the cattle were long gone and everything was all grown up--tight thickets of blackberry and multiflora rose came in first, and now trees--maples, hickory, locust. I had looked at the hillside when I had gotten home the day before and thought, damn, in a few years I can squirrel hunt right there.
If I ever come back.
I paused time and again for my city knees--flabby city thighs, scarred city lungs--to catch up to the hill. It was still very dark, and even far up on the hillside the creek sounded loud. I began climbing again and passed under the branches of an enormous oak, the first tree at the edge of the forest, a tree so large that it had fascinated me as a child--so big, so old--and reassured me as an adult--so big, so old. I went on into the dark woods.
Telling a story like this, on paper, I can be more honest than I might otherwise be. My family knew that I had lost my job, that I was broke, that I had split up with Donna, that I was headed to California or Texas or some place out West to start over. They did not know that I was a crack addict--that is, that I had been a crack addict. I don't have a problem with writing it down like this, telling this part of the story to strangers, giving it away to anyone who has the patience to listen or read; but I have had a hard time indeed telling it to family and friends--to people I love, or at least ought to love.
The story is familiar enough, and very simple: man meets pipe, man has lots and lots of fun, man loses everything. As with most crack addicts, I think, the beginning really was fun--a blast of pure adrenaline-fired fun that went on and on and on too long, then shooting straight straight straight on down forever until the money was gone--gone. I don't think there's any need to detail all the lies I told, all the fights I had with Donna, or tell about the new friends I made, some of them quite noble--drug buddies, crack girls, people struggling to make a life with rocks, in spite of rocks, in the wake of rocks. Just know that between the beginning and the end I had some fun, and then I lost my wife, my job--the vital things--and lost too my IRA, my mutual funds, my few pitiful possessions. My car I signed over to some drug dealers to whom I apparently owed some vast amount of money; my books went by the boxfull to the used book store for food money; everything else was pawned--my computer, my television, my fly rods, my deer rifle, my shotguns--one by one by one I took them all down to the pawn shop to get money for rocks. For a time while I was quitting the pipe I worked day labor, trying unsuccessfully to convince Donna that I was sane while juggling the payments on the pawn tickets--and then dropping them, one by one by one, until everything, finally, was lost.
Everything except my last shotgun.
It was an old single shot 12-gauge Winchester. It had been used--hard--for years, and the finish was rubbed off in places and the stock was scarred, and the pimply, sneering pawnbroker would only give me twenty dollars for it. Twenty dollars--the price of a single rock, the low amount the only thing that kept it from falling out of pawn. Everything else was lost, but I somehow always found a way to make the interest on a twenty dollar pawn ticket.
My grandfather had bought the gun new--years before, now that I think of it, Jesus, seventy years before at least. A lifetime. He had been an older man, a widower with no children, when he married my grandmother. He had been old for a father when my mother was a girl. He had used this shotgun for a lifetime and then given it to me when he was too old to walk the hills. It was his squirrel gun. The squirrels he had shot to pieces had been shot with this gun. The squirrels my mother had played with as a little girl had been shot with this gun. And now I stood with it in my hands, in the dark, at the top of a hill, the only solid link I had to my past. Everything else was memory--transitory, disposable, crack smoke, lost.
The top of the hill flattened out into a wide ridge running off to the northwest. At one time there had been a peach orchard there, but the peach trees were long dead--raggedy skeleton-rows of trunks and branches sticking up from blackberry thickets and tall grass, the remains of a meadow. At the edges of the old meadow, plunging downhill into Schoolhouse Holler, the hardwood forest began--dark, dim--and there were many hickory trees.
I placed myself beneath a dead peach tree and sat and waited for the light. The day before, Friday, I had only arrived up home late, and it had been later still by the time I had said hello to everyone and changed clothes and finally made it onto the hill--and then I hadn't gotten any farther along than where I was now, the peach orchard. I had luckily seen one squirrel bounding up out of the woods and across the open. He had jumped up to the lower trunk of a young hickory, and I had snapped off my shot. All the other squirrels--if there had been other squirrels--had remained mysterious rustlings in the leaves. I had sat listening, soaking in the October woods, trying to think calm thoughts--calm, calm. It had been enough. But today I was more ambitious. The plan for today was to start at the peach orchard and then work my way up the ridge and over the very top of the hill, over onto the Bailey farm--the ridges around Painter Holler--and see what was there. Squirrels, I hoped.
I sat in the dark. I was comfortable--as the day before, my mind, once in the woods, was at ease and free from shame and loathing. Calm. I opened the shotgun, inserted a shell, and closed it. I held another shell in my left hand. I waited for light.
The first squirrel was just suddenly there. I saw him directly across from me in one of the hickory trees, silhouetted against the graying sky, cutting on a nut. Pap always said I shot too soon, I shot when the squirrels were too far away--but, but--I raised the shotgun slowly, and fired. So sudden--blastkick--and then, almost in slow motion, the squirrel tumbled out of the tree. I opened the gun--the empty shell popped out with a wisp of smoke--and reloaded. I fished another shell from my pocket with my left hand. The woods were silent. My ears rang.
I kept to that area--the hickories, the dead peach trees--and took three more squirrels. It could be that I was there a long time--I don't know. I sat with my mind wonderfully empty, empty and yet focused--concentrated on the world around me--a slight cool breeze in my face, leaves drifting off the trees, buzzards circling past me and diving into the valley below. I didn't even think about crack. And, after a time, I would hear a scurried rustling through the grounded leaves--crunch, then silence--a local, nearby silence, since I could still hear, for example, log trucks on the road going past our house, or even a car door slam so far away--crunch, rustle in the leaves getting closer, my heart beating, and then--a squirrel. Slowly I would raise the shotgun and fire--quick blast jarring the world, brief sharp smell of the smoke, then silence again.
After the fourth squirrel I felt restless. It was getting along toward midmorning and the sun was very bright, shining in my face. I turned my back to it and went on up through the dead orchard, and up--up--and over the top of the hill, to Bailey's place. There was a new barbed-wire fence strung up between his place and ours, and I climbed over it.
Bailey was one of the few men in our country who still ran cattle, and his ridge top was clear pasture. But the steep sides of the hill, leading down into Painter Holler, were thickly wooded. I sat on a rock at the edge of the grass in the sunlight, looking down into the dark holler. The sun on my shoulders felt good. There were the usual rustlings in the leaves--chipmunks--scurryrustlethrash--that sounded so loud at times that if I hadn't known any better I might have thought that maybe a moose or a bear might be sneaking up on me. And then there was more rustling--something was out there, my heart thudded--rustling, and a huge groundhog came out from around an oak tree. I've never seen a bigger groundhog. It came up the hill toward me, fat and slick, and stopped a few feet away and nibbled at some grass. I quickly thought about shooting it, but just as quickly decided not to--there was no reason to, really. Once years before I had sat over by the peach orchard waiting for squirrels and a gray fox came over the hill and trotted towards me. I couldn't believe that the fox did not know I was there. But it kept coming. Finally, when it was so close I could have clubbed it with the shotgun--four feet or so away--I moved my foot in the leaves, rustling myself, and the fox stood stock still for a moment, looking at me. "Hello, little fox," I said, like I was in one of the Castaneda books. But the fox did not reply, it only looked at me curiously, and after a moment it turned and went back the way it came, trotting but in no apparent panic. "Probably rabid," Pap said when I told him about it. "I'd a-shot the son of a bitch." But I had not shot the fox then, and I did not shoot the fat groundhog now.
Instead I sat still. The groundhog piddled around, nibbling grass, and then turned and went back down the hill into the holler. He probably had himself a safe, warm hole deep in the roots of some tree, and I envied him. Suddenly restless--I stood up and made my way back up the slope to the trail. I headed around the top of the ridge--and then there was a squirrel sitting on a lichen-covered rock not 20 feet away, looking straight back at me--I snapped the gun up and fired--blastkick--and the squirrel was no longer there. I went forward, reloading, and then I saw another squirrel--maybe the same one--on a fencepost and I raised and fired again and I saw that one drop for sure. I reloaded and came slowly up the hill. I looked behind the lichen-covered rock and found the first one--Squirrel Five, that is, and then went over to the fencepost and retrieved Squirrel Six. My limit. Not even noon.
The squirrels felt fine and heavy in the pockets of my fatigue jacket. There was a small spot of blood on the right pocket but that was okay. I headed back up the hill and climbed over the silvery new fence, crossing back onto our property. I stood for a moment looking out from the top of the hill--it was a wonderful, clear day, and I could see for miles, hill after hill, the leaves turning yellow and red, a far-off ancient oil derrick the only sign of humanity. I went on down the hill as if in a dream, out of the woods and into the old pasture--and I finally took a big breath, a sigh, and sank down to the ground--happy. Happy. I put my shotgun carefully to the side and lay back in the sweet-smelling grass, leaves scattering around me. I disappeared into the sky.
But life is not always lovely or simple, and the sublime is sadly ephemeral. Crack smoking teaches you that. I went home because I wanted sit in the woods on a clear October day--I wanted it, I needed it; but I dreaded it, too, dreaded having to come home and talk to people--not just to my grandparents but to everyone I knew, the postmistress, for example, or the people at the general store--I dreaded having to explain my failure. I had enough trouble explaining it to myself. I will perhaps always be stuck this way.
When I got up the next morning I found my grandfather parked in the front of the fire, gazing dully across the room at "Meet the Press" on the television. My grandmother was in the dining room, on the phone. She looked up when I walked in. "Here's the Little One," she said into the phone--to Mrs. Bradshaw, probably, a neighbor down the road. I was 32 years old and still "the Little One," which pleased me in a strange way. "He's gonna fry us up those squirrels for dinner. I think he is. But I can't get in there to see."
The way my grandmother had fixed squirrel, the way I learned to fix squirrel, was simple: cook the squirrels down until they are tender, then roll them in flour and brown them in margarine. Then take the drippings and make gravy, and serve it all with mashed potatoes, pickled beans, beets, and cornbread.
"Yes-yes-yes," I said. "We are indeed going to have those squirrels."
"Well, he says he's gonna fix the squirrels," she said into the phone. She sounded doubtful.
The squirrels had been soaking in a pan of salt water overnight, and I took the pan out of the refrigerator and into the kitchen. I poured off the water and quickly quartered the squirrels and plopped them into a big pot, which I set on the stove to simmer. It would take a while for them to cook down to tender.
I went back through the dining room to the front room. Pap was still sitting staring at the television. I turned on a lamp and sat back on the couch. Pap waited until a commercial, then wheeled his chair around to face me.
"Where'd you get that car a yours?"
I looked at him, startled. "I bought it," I said. A roommate from college had in fact loaned me the money for it, after chewing me out--calling me a fool for becoming a drug addict, an idiot for ruining my life. I was living in a homeless shelter then, working day labor, trying to save money, and the money Todd had loaned me--let's be honest, gave me--had put me over the top and sent me on my way west.
"What happened to that other car?"
"I had to sell it to pay some bills."
"Shit." He turned back towards the television.
What was I supposed to do, tell the whole story? I had owed something like $12,000 to a drug dealer named Adrian, who in turn owed most of that money to Someone Else. The Someone Else showed up with a pistol and two large friends and took the car and the title. There wasn't a whole lot I could do about it.
"You don't know nothing." Pap was still looking at the television. "You couldn't keep your job, you couldn't keep your woman, you couldn't even pay your goddamn bills." He wheeled his chair around a little and glared at me--he always did have the coldest blue eyes in the world. "We tried," he said, "we tried--everybody's tried--to show you how to do things right and you just never did listen. You don't know a goddamn thing."
I looked at him for a moment and got up and went back to the kitchen. The squirrels were coming along, boiling slow, and the kitchen windows were covered with steam. I opened the back door to let in some cool air and I stood there, looking out. A battered red pickup truck went slowly down the road, an old woman behind the wheel. I felt a bad tightness in my chest. The son of a bitch. Pap didn't know what the hell he was talking about, and yet there was no hiding the facts of my failure. Lord God, how many nights had I laid awake wishing that I would--wake up--and find that all this shit I was going through was a bad dream, that I would wake up and find it all drifting away--crack smoke, crack smoke, gone--and that everything was right and good again.
I tried to busy myself with the meal, tried to push my life away with some activity. I got to work on the mashed potatoes--from a mix, I'm afraid--stirring the hot water, milk, potato flakes--and I heard a thump and looked up. My grandfather leaning forward in his wheelchair.
"By God," Pap said, "I always had a job--I had a job all the way through the depression." He pronounced it de-pression. "Nobody ever fired me."
I tried to explain that, yeah, he'd always had a job, and that, yeah, my parents had tenure, and that it was great to have that kind of stability, but that in the New Economy people got fired all the time--all the time. All the time. But he wasn't listening. He was staring past me out the kitchen window--out to where my old Buick was parked under a dying maple.
"You really think you're gonna make it all the way to California in that car?" he suddenly asked.
"There's nothing wrong with my car," I said. I hoped. It was fifteen years old and had 142,000 miles on it. Nothing I could do about that.
"By God, I wouldn't go on a trip like that unless I had enough money in my pocket to buy a new car if the one I had broke down." He looked at me. "You're a damn fool."
He turned his wheelchair and rolled away.
"Go to hell," I said quietly. I shook my head, staring at the mashed potatoes. My eyes were tearing. "Go to hell."
After a few moments there was a scuffing sound, and I looked up to see my grandmother came around the corner, pulling her chair along.
"Now, you just hold still," she said quietly. "He's going to give you some money before you leave."
"I don't want his damn money."
"You take it!" My grandma's whisper was almost a snake's hiss. "You take it!"
I slammed the big spoon down on the counter and went out the kitchen door and down the yard, past the garage, below the barn. There was a basketball hoop on the barn wall I had bolted up years before--but no, I realized, not me, someone with my name, perhaps, someone who resembled me, perhaps, but not me. Whoever had bolted the hoop to the wall was someone else, and was gone. I looked at it for a moment, rusting in the warm October light--warm golden light, the trees turning, the creek burbling, sky blue, darkening, darkening, darkening. Is there any way to explain the smothering, oppressive guilt I felt? The sadness? No. No. No. The only thing left for me to do was what I was going to do anyway: eat, and leave. Let the tail go with the hide.
I blinked away the tears and walked slowly back up to the house for my squirrel dinner.
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