The Photo and the Colt
When I was younger, I had a dream that I was standing next to a river. There were two telephone poles on either side of me, with lines strung between them. A big statue, maybe a stone angel, was hanging from the cables, upside down. I was shooting at its face with a handgun, and granite chips fell into the water, while the shots echoed off the trees. I remember feeling that this was something I needed to do, it was part of something.
Now, in my case, most dreams are like sculptures in wet clay. The more I try to remember them, handle them, the more formless and vague they become. But this one came out fired. I remembered it just fine.
A few years passed. I started drinking more, and my sister was unhappy with her new husband. Mom said sis married a liar, just like her mother had. I was inclined to agree. Everybody had their own lives to deal with, everybody got a little more distant every day. Life's natural course, seemed like.
Then, one autumn, Grandpa died. We all headed home to sort things out. Mom took care of the papers and the legal stuff, me and sissy did the running around.
The farm had been empty of animals and crops for several years now, and everything was starting to grow over. Blackberries had taken over the old paths, and the locust trees out front of the house looked like shit. But somebody was itching to buy the land, so we had to straighten the place out, make it presentable.
We would go through his stuff to see what we would want to keep, what we would sell, and what we would leave to the buyers. We started in the kitchen, working over every single object in every single drawer. It was a tedious, boring job, and I took frequent breaks to smoke a cigarette at the table and stare out the window, looking at the woods.
The woods were my favorite part of home. Endless trees, spread across climbable hills, with a small creek snaking at the bottom of every valley. If you got lost, go downhill, and head with the creek. It'll always lead you to the Kanawha, eventually. You could then walk up the Kanawha, and it met the Ohio, and then you'd know exactly where you were. I never had to do that, but I was glad to know it. That was one of the many, many things I learned from my grandfather when I went out hunting with him. I was never much of a shot, but I did get a rabbit once, with the shotgun. I remember spitting out pellets in the shot dish that night.
"Here we go! Jim Bean, all around," my sister said with a flourish, holding up a bottle from under the sink.
We passed it back and forth a few times. After about four swallows, I was done for the day. My sister had two, making a face and blowing out thick alcohol fumes after each pull. I stood up, feeling the liquor slosh around a little in my empty stomach, and braced myself for another round of throwing out my dead grandfather's accumulated life.
Jars of peppers went in the trash, ugly plates went in the give away, an antique meat grinder went in the sale, and the ceramic chicken couple went in the keep box. They were a rooster and a hen, probably made in China or somewhere like that. They had sat in the middle of the table for as long as we were alive, and were God awful ugly to boot, but we wanted to keep them.
"How long do you think it'll take us?" she said, throwing away a bag of corn meal that was swimming with tiny red beetles.
"Eh, probably rest of the day for the house, then like two days for the other buildings. I figure we can leave most of the shit in the barn and the shed to whoever buys."
"What do you wanna keep?"
I pursed my lips and puffed my cheeks, thinking. "I'll know it when I see it, I guess," I ventured. I probably wanted some of the old tools, the guns, and a few mementos, like the ceramic chickens.
"I want some of grandma's clothes, a couple of the paintings, the guns, and the pictures."
"Yeah, forgot about the pictures... Definitely gonna save those. Where did he keep them?"
"God knows. Grandpa was a pack rat to the end. I'm surprised he emptied his ashtrays."
I chuckled, remembering so many small fights with him as I helped him clean out the truck, or trying to reorganize his tools and trays of spare parts. Parts for the tractor, parts for the lawn mower, parts for the heater... Boxes and boxes of nearly unrecognizable bits of metal and plastic. The man wouldn't let anything go. There was always a use for something.
I started scooping big handfuls of plastic herb bottles into the trash can we had dragged in from the garage.
We finished the kitchen, and went to the back bedroom, Grandpa's room. Dead, dried wasps lay in the windowsill, and the horrible electric blanket he liked lay on the bed. We opened the closet, and I felt my eyes well up as his smell came out at us, Old Spice and cigarette smoke. Damn, but I missed him right then. It was the cigarettes that got him in the end, the cheap cigarettes he'd spend all day smoking. I figured they'd get me, too.
Old shirts and slacks on the rod, with box after box of pictures along the top shelf. A few rifles leaned in the back right corner, with a some pistol boxes on the floor. A five gallon bucket of shell boxes and loose rounds sat on the left. I reached up and cautiously pulled one of the cardboard picture boxes down.
Nothing was in order. It looked like whoever had looked at them last had spread the whole lot of them, thousands of photos, sloshed them around on the floor, then picked them up in handfuls and stuffed them back in the boxes. Face to face, back to back, Polaroids next to scalloped edged, three by fives with square black and whites. I took a handful and flipped through, watching face after face flicker in front of me. Some were familiar, some weren't.
A handsome man in a suit lay on a couch, with a drink on the coffee table in front of him. He was laughing, but his face had a sly look to it. An old woman with no teeth sat on a porch, a fox terrier at her feet. A car, half buried in a snow bank. My grandfather, holding a dead deer's head up by the antlers. My sister, so little, my mom giving her a bath in the sink.
We looked through a few handfuls, then I came across a big picture of our dad. I saw parts of my face staring back at me, from a cheap K-Mart portrait shot. My nose, but broken a few times. Sissy's upper lip, my lower. My sister's brows sat over my eyes. All three of us had the same light, grey eyes. Same dark brown hair, too.
I showed her the picture, and she sighed.
"How old were we? I think it was '84."
"'83," I said, looking at his face. He stared back.
"God, I dunno how Mom did it. We gave her so much fucking grief growin' up, on top of him leavin'... I never think about him anymore. I wonder if she does."
"I think she does," I said, duller this time. His eyes brought up memories, like water's reflection on a wall. Indistinct, partial things. Him leaning over me in bed one Christmas after they got divorced, and me asking about his rings. Him picking me up from school one grey, rainy afternoon, me showing him a drawing I had done that day. So few memories, but they meant a lot. They were really all I had of him, the few times I could remember about him personally. I had his features, but those weren't exactly mine. They were passed on to me, second hand. The memories were all mine, though.
When I was younger, I would talk to Mom about him. Sometimes she'd get wistful about him, saying how handsome and intelligent he was. She'd tell me how I held a coffee cup like him, and how my sister would smoke like he did. Sometimes she'd just get sad, look away, and ask to talk about something else.
Sissy took the picture from my hand, and stood brooding over it. I guessed she was looking for her own face in his, as well. She was a year and a half younger, and I thought she might have less memories of him than I did. I never asked her about it, though. For the most part, as far as we were concerned, Dad was gone, Dad was dead. Died in Arizona in '94, after having a few other kids with a few other wives. That was enough.
I bent down and put the lid on the picture box, and took it over to the bed. I figured we'd put all of them in the car and look through them later. Maybe Mom would organize them sometime. She loved photos, but I hoped she didn't run into too many of him. Might get her in a mood.
Taking some more of the boxes down, I saw a funny look on sis's face. He was giving her the same flat look he had favored me with. She started waiving the photo slightly, something she did when she was thinking.
"What?" I said.
"What season is it?"
I thought a second, then said "Turkey. Just started a few days ago." We had been hearing shots from the woods all day, drunk neighbors in hazard orange camo, happy to have an excuse to shoot something.
She bent over, and I could hear her shifting through the shell bucket, and then she took out one of the gun boxes. Inside was a .25, a Colt. Both of us had shot it a few times, when everyone was in high spirits. Nether of us were a crack shot or anything, that was Mom's job. Mom could cut the gumballs from the tree, while me and sissy could just hit a beer bottle. It was a little gun, what Grandpa called a 'purse gun'. From what I could gather, Grandma had actually carried it around with her in her handbag for a long, long time. Wasn't shit for accuracy, but then again, Grandma wasn't looking to pick off birds. She was more interested in bagging the first 'colored' that got too close.
She checked the chamber, took out the magazine, and nodded, satisfied. Out came a few rounds from a box, and then into the empty magazine with them. She stood up, and clicked the magazine into place. Gun in one hand, photo in the other, she smiled a bit.
"Let's shoot Dad."
I stared at her for a second, then looked at the picture in her hand. I thought about it, then said "Where, do y'think?"
"Side of the barn. Won't hit anything important, I'd guess."
I laughed at the veiled joke, and we walked out of the bedroom. I grabbed my hunting jacket from the back of a chair on the way out, wondering how sis had gotten this idea. I mean, it was funny, but something about it was... ritual. I looked over at her as we stepped off the porch, and she was lost in thought. I poked her in the shoulder, and she looked up, startled.
"Woolgatherin'?", I asked, smiling. Trying to make a joke. She smiled back, and went back to looking at the ground. I mean, obviously we had similar feelings about Dad, but then again, I never quite knew where sis was coming from, sometimes. She wasn't odd by anyones standards, pretty normal in fact. But in private, with me, or Mom, she could show some quirks.
Like shooting a photograph for the hell of it.
It was getting colder as the day went on. I shook off my jacket and gave it to sis. My sweater was enough, along with the Jim Bean. As we approached the barn, I thought less about where the idea had come from and more about the act itself. Dad could use a few holes. Part of me loved him, but part of me wanted to ventilate him myself, instead of that blood clot that got him in Arizona.
Grandpa hung the barbecue stuff on the outside of the barn, under the eave. It all was rusted to shit, but that was where he liked it. Every time we cooked outside, he took a steel brush and scrubbed the red flakes and dead, black grease off the grill. This time I didnt clean it though, just took it off the nail and let it drop into the high, yellowing grass. The rain washed wood that made up the barn wouldn't send a ricochet back at us, at least.
Sis stuck the picture on the nail. Dad looked at us as cooly as ever from it, in his western shirt and string tie. At least the bastard hadn't worn a cowboy hat or something equally ridiculous. The man had had a master's in English lit, for God's sake. She straightened him out, with the nail coming out from over the top of his head. She sighed, and stepped back.
She backed up, me with her. We crept up the hill a bit, and she chose her spot. I could feel my mouth going a little dry, my heart going a little faster. The longer this went on, it seemed less like one thing and more like another.
"Ready?" I said, low. My wind had started coming in short.
"Yeah," she said, squinting down the sight. I heard her take a breath, and I held mine too. I looked out at Dad.
The report was loud, louder than I remembered the gun being. Dad jumped a bit, and I saw paper flakes sift down to the ground. Some stuck to the grill. Powdered wood rose in a short plume from the wall. The sound of the shot swam the hills around us, like a thundercrack. A neat hole sat right above Dad's left eye. She got him.
My sister cried out, and fell to her knees, her ankles under her rear. The Colt tumbled from her fingers, and she put her face in her hands. Her hair spread out on the grass in front of her. Sobs shook her body, and I bent down beside her.
"Feel any better?" I asked, running my hand over her shoulders a few times. She shook like a wet dog.
"I don't know yet," she choked.
"It's okay," I said, pulling her hair back from the ground. I could feel hot shame and sorrow coming off her scalp and face.
I picked up the gun, and turned the safety. I walked down the shallow hill to the barn, and examined the hole. Dad still had that same cool look on his face. Mom told me once when he held his face naturally, he looked a little mean. Made people not like him at first, but he was a charmer, a king of liars. Could have any woman he wanted. Had a few while he was married to Mom, in fact. I took him down from the nail.
"She got you, Paw," I whispered. I thought I could hear a river somewhere, but the Kanawha was miles up the road.
I turned the picture upside down, and stuck it back on the nail. The spike came out of one of the buttons on his shirt now, and the whole picture lost it's sense, it's power. If I looked hard, I could tell it was Dad, but if I was just glancing over it, all I would have been able to tell was that was a picture of someone.
She was still crying, still holding her face in her hands. I knew I would have to help her up after my shot, she was probably gonna be shaky from sitting on her calves like that. I squatted down next to her, and rubbed my hand across her shoulders again. She moaned, then looked up at me with a red face and puffy, wet eyes. The sight of her hurt my heart.
"Ah God, I want to talk to him! Want to see him..."
"Me too. More'n anything," I croaked. I would have to take the shot soon, or I wouldn't be able to hit the side of a barn, ha-ha.
I stood up, and clicked the safety. I brought my arm level with the picture hanging on the nail, and lined it up, right into my father's upside down face.
I listened to my sister's grief a little more, took a breath, and pulled the trigger.
Dad jumped a bit more, and the report echoed off the trees.