My Ma simply could point at it, or look at it even and I’d stop like a record that’d reached its end. I can still see that belt hanging off a shelf in the barn. Hell of a warning.
But when Ma heard I was spending a little too much time with Lucy, the neighbor’s daughter, I did get more than mere eye contact with the belt. I’d thought it was because Lucy was a different race. Cuffed me real good that night. Gets to you so bad you don’t wear no belt the next day.
I found out later it wasn’t the race thing, it was because Lucy was on the slow side and they had just put a man away for impregnating a retarded girl in Ypsilanti. Away for a long time. I wasn’t messing with her, though. I showed her the pockets in the river where the brook trout stay. We went and caught three fish, she helped me carry them back through the switchgrass and the hemlock, and up in the loft of her family’s barn, she listened to me teach her the names of all the knots I knew. I’m not going to say a kiss maybe didn’t cross my mind, but we didn’t do nothing except talk. There is a rare comfort to be found around the kind of people that don’t judge you. Sometimes I think more people ought to be retarded.
Lucy’s Ma helped make ends meet six nights a week at the burger joint and sometimes my Ma would give me money for a burger. My Ma had always looked out for Lucy, and when I wasn’t hunting or fishing or I’d go help out with their cattle. One night we caught a dozen fireflies in a jar and raced them over to her farm to fight off the bugs that killed corn.
School, though, wasn’t my thing. Ma would always ask me what I did in school and I’d always say the same thing. “Nothin.” She never really seemed to mind. My dad maybe knew there was no sense asking. He’d just give me an assignment on the weekend, and say, “G.C., here you go.”
Wondering what G.C. stands for? It’s my name. Gordon Clifford. Not something I’m proud of.
The work he gave me was always the same: read the front page of the newspaper and give him a summary. I preferred this to school, where I didn’t always do well, but where I was always familiar with the latest news.
I remember very well my main concern at the time (a short time, I admit) was my grades. It’s a common mistake to be most concerned about your grades after you’ve gotten them. I was thirteen at the time and hadn’t been doing well since elementary school ended. I’m twenty now and I may have peaked early. I remember my report card was due in the mail any day. At night in bed I’d fall asleep thinking about the secretaries licking the envelopes and how gently I’d have to peel it open when I found it in the mail box. Every day, I’d check the mailbox and bring in the mail but it hadn’t come yet. Any day it would.
Then one Friday a kid at school said he got his report card already. He said my least favorite phrase, too, most annoying thing in the dictionary. “Straight A’s.” I asked another kid, and another and everybody had gotten theirs. That was not good. I left school early and when I came home, I looked in the mailbox, but there wasn’t nothing there.
That night was memorable for quite a few reasons I will now enunciate. Dinner that night was my favorite: string beans, something we called bacon but other people didn’t, and fried potatoes with ketchup, filling but never too filling. It had thoroughly distracted me from my big stress. After dinner, I listened to the Tigers game on the radio. It was getting interesting, but I thought I heard my dad’s voice from the garage. I went outside and saw the light was on.
Our farm was small by Michigan standards, been in dad’s side of the family for a few generations now. We had no plan of selling out despite some times being tougher than others.
I was right—dad was lying on the bare ground under the truck. Everybody called him Red on account of his hair.
“G.C!” he yelled from under the truck. “What does this say? I don’t got my glasses.”
I read him the directions on the box the part came in and then he asked me to start her up. At thirteen, this was a minor thrill, the kind of activity, I’d say, that produces mature diligence in a boy. We had tried changing the battery and the starter, but the truck wouldn’t stay on for more than a second or two and the clutch wouldn’t engage. Drip after drip and you don’t know where it’s coming from, and finally it turned out to be the slave cylinder was the problem.
Ma came in the garage, paint and plaster on her clothes. I remember looking at her through the windshield as she said, “Won’t matter if we can drive all the way to Alaska these damn coyotes keep eatin our chickens.”
I tried starting the engine as if that would shut her up, prove her wrong. I didn’t want to be on the losing side, the side not doing nothing for no reason. I kept the ignition trying until my knuckles were numb and I heard my dad yell, “Enough! Enough!”
Ma went back in to finish fixing the ceiling leak from the last storm. Soon my dad said,
“Okay, try now.”
I started it up and it went good for a minute. I was giddy. Dad got out from under, cautiously optimistic and wiping his hands like it was bed time. We lowered the truck, put it in gear, and it went silent. Then a bolt trickled off and brake fluid came out fast. There are high-highs and low-lows when you get into fixing things. And it wasn’t the only time that night I’d go and make a bad thing worse.
Inside the house, I went to listen to the game again, but Ma wasn’t having it.
“Don’t you want to make yourself useful?” she said, not in a mean way, it was a pretty common refrain.
She was still sore about what she’d mentioned in the garage, that coyotes or something ate one of our chickens and a bunch of the neighbors’. Not the neighbors themselves, but their chickens. Lucy’s family, in fact, had got it bad, chickens torn up and unrecognizable. Tough season.
Ma started saying things I didn’t fully understand, too, things about cutworms, and diseases, and things I’d heard about but could not yet fully interpret the implications of. I did, though sense she was trying to tell me something. I don’t know if it’s just hindsight fooling me or I really got the impression she wanted me to get out there and fix the problem with the coyotes. We had one trap and one gun and like I always say, I much prefer fishing, but I loaded up and went off to the edge of the one hill nearby,
Near the bottom of the hill, I’d baited a coil spring with dog food. I put some chicken feathers in for good measure. I walked up to a decent vantage I knew of behind this big rock.
Ideal outcome, I’d catch one in the trap and I could shoot one more.
I passed the time, like I often did in the dark, by staring at the stars until one more popped up. It was a waning moon and it was a hard to make out any sounds other than the wind. I kept my eye out and eventually saw two ears poke up amongst the prairie grass. I hadn’t accounted for what I’d do if I saw a coyote before one got trapped. I was hardly breathing, but I couldn’t hear a thing. Tears on my face from not blinking, my plan was to trap one, wait for another, stun it with a flashlight, then fire. For some reason, I thought again of those secretaries thumbing the stamps on the envelopes. All I did was fail and fail and fail. What if I lost it because the trap didn’t work, or it smelled me and ran off? I thought of the expression a bird in the hand’s worth two in the bush. There she was, and I didn’t have long.
I held up the 12-gauge and looked through the scope for a clear shot. Cause it was so dark, I could see better with the naked eye. No more chickens for you, I thought. When I looked back up, though, I didn’t see any ears, no movement at the bottom of the hill. I tried to re-adjust my aim to what seemed best, then I saw something move. I steadied and I fired. The gun kicked so hard it must have jammed. The ears moved again and then they stopped and I didn’t know if I was seeing shadows or wind. I couldn’t pump the action or get another slug so I stood up quick, my legs numb under me, and the blood rushed and made me lightheaded. The shot would’ve scared anything alive anyway so I figured I’d go check the trap and my shot.
With the shotgun in my hand I ran down the hill to check. As I got closer it looked like something was in it. It was something that looked familiar, but when I got closer, I clicked on the flashlight and I knew I was not about to receive any medals bringing it home. A little cottontail.
Back at home, there was no way of hiding the fact of the gun. Dangerous, even, with three shells still in there. I needed tools and light and probably some help to figure it out. My dad was still under the truck, so with an unlucky rabbit and stuck gun, I took a deep breath and went to talk to my Ma.
She described in detail how I hadn’t oiled it correctly and I probably was too soft with the action, too, and what was practice good for if you weren’t going to use what you practiced. She said even, it’s embarrassing, what good was I around here except to eat, and pass gas, and screw around with the neighbor girl. The barn was so bright and my tired eyes weren’t taking too good to adjusting.
“I didn’t do that,” I said, referring to Lucy, but Ma grabbed the gun and her forearms rippled with muscle as she tried to unjam the stuck case. She worked and worked but if anything, it seemed to get more jammed.
“I can try,” I said. “Let me try.”
She asked if I loaded it in the dark, (I did, but I didn’t admit that) and she said I probably loaded a shell in reverse, could have gotten myself killed.
When my dad came in from the garage, I may have said, “Thank God” out loud.
“Donna,” he said. “Phone call.”
“What time is it?” my mom asked. My dad waved her over and before she left to take the call she told me I better fix the gun before bed and then tomorrow after school I ought to get whatever’s killing the chickens, string up more wire for the coop, too.
I was alone then with the gun and some hairballs of black flies, horseflies, and deerflies jockeying around.
I sat down, ready to begin, but then it hit me: what if it was the school calling? Saying didn’t you see his grades? I went to the garage to look for my dad, and checked under the truck, but he wasn’t there. I started sweating. I went to the kitchen to see if Ma was on the phone but she wasn’t there either.
From the window I thought I saw a horse out galloping, and when I went around the house, I saw one was missing. It was too late for them, I realized, to be summoned to my school, and they wouldn’t take a horse for that. They probably just needed something from the store.
I still had a funny feeling, though, and there’s times like that, you know better than to not do what you’re told. I went back in the barn on a mission to fix that gun.
Sitting down, I made sure to point the barrel away from me, off to the side. It was old but not as old as some. I flipped it upside down and put some pressure on the carrier. It just wouldn’t give, and I was always quick to give up on things, but I figured I ought to be patient. I pressed it lightly in slightly different places and finally it gave. I pumped the action thinking something might happen, then finally the shell hit me in the leg, it popped out I mean, good as new. I returned the gun back upright. Proud of my work, I shut one eye, looked through the scope, and said, “Ready for what you were made for now.”
Figured I’d wipe the lens clean while I was at it, but first I went back to have some food.
I ate greedily anything lying around, raisins, rye bread, cheese, more raisins, more cheese, juice and milk straight from the carton. I didn’t forget to wipe the lens neither.
After I returned the gun back on the shelf in the barn, I thought I heard the front door close. I heard voices. They were back. The stairs were creaking and I figured I’d head to bed, too, but then the barn door opened and my Ma, her hard face even harder, rushed in like a hurricane.
She said, “Gordon, you get your ass over here right now.” But she didn’t wait or turn around, she was coming right at me.
There was no time to think. She smacked me and grabbed me by the arm and I tried with all my might to wriggle out. I half-thought she was playing around, so I forced myself away a little harder than I wanted, and tried to explain myself.
“How do you know it was a coyote?” I asked. “It could be a raccoon or even I snake,” and I tried to say sorry but I was brought up short.
“It’s your grades,” she said. “Your grades came.”
I didn’t know what to say. They must have taken in the mail before I got home, but why wait to say anything?
She grabbed me and squeezed my arm so hard it stung my hands and my neck.
“You lied!” she roared. “You can’t be doing like this in school. Don’t you want to be something?”
I covered my face but she didn’t care, she just went for my arms. I fell on my ass and tried scooting away but she kept going.
“You want to bust your ass here forever? You want to learn nothing, nothing everyday? Colleges won’t take this shit!”
I said I was sorry, but she said I’d never understand.
She smacked me again and my face felt so hot I knew I was bleeding.
I said school wasn’t my thing, but that seemed to make it worse.
I scooted away until I hit the wall. I remembered the belt there above me, but I thought she was going to kill me.
My bowels jellied and my back was against the wall and I reached up and grabbed the shotgun. She stopped walking at me and was catching her breath. Her eyes were tired and red.
My Ma reached out at me with her hands. Her fingers looked so long there in front of me. She was beckoning me closer, or asking for the gun.
I lifted it square up at her, she yelled, and I pumped the action three times quick to release the remaining shells, then tossed the gun far as I could. I sprinted out the door so fast I could have ran through a wall.
I just ran into the dark. I would sleep at Lucy’s house. No one would find me there. I could hide for a day until things blew over. It was flat land and less than a mile there and I fell hard once but felt nothing. After a minute I could see some strange lights in the distance by Lucy’s place.
I kept running and my head was swollen already. I knew what I saw outside her house, but I didn’t know what it meant. I sped up and any pain that adrenaline had masked came back dizzyingly fast. Police cars were parked there, an ambulance was speeding off into darkness. No one was home and the police wouldn’t let me in. I thought of the fireflies and the brook trout that gave us some fight.
I found out later it was Lucy’s Ma who had called my Ma that night. There was an emergency and she needed help. She’d found her husband in their barn. They were out of money, worse that we knew, and he’d hanged himself. Lucy had rode home on horseback with my parents, to stay until they could figure things out, and to be sheltered for a time from the news.
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