For five days running now, ever since I gave Tanner a 30-30 Winchester for his eighth birthday, my wife, Fleur, has been acting furious with me. I explained to her that all the Derochers got their first rifle when they turned eight, going back to when we lived in Perrier, France. Lately, because of the expensive water, usually when I mention Perrier, Fleur pretends to polish her nails on her lapel, and when I tell her that’s cheesy, she says it’s cheesy on purpose, which makes it not cheesy but “ironical.” This makes no sense to me. “Ironical” is a word she uses a lot, now that she’s taken Expository Writing at Bowditch Community.
She said, “It’s ironical that you choose to celebrate the birth of your son with a gun.”
“I’ll tell you what’s ironical,” I said. “That first night you and me really got down to it? Do you not recall that also just happened to be the first time I told you I’m a hunter?”
This turned out to be a big mistake. For starters, Tanner was listening in the hallway and decided to make his presence known by booming out the theme song to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also, Fleur is now writing a column for the Seneca Weekly—“Parent to Parent”—and so is all of a sudden quite the expert on all matters relating to our son, and I had to listen to how, in this day and age, we have to protect children from violence in every way, shape, and form, and on and on. And then, total silence.
Last night when I got home, she couldn’t hear the truck pull up because it was snowing, so I sat and watched her through the kitchen window fixing dinner at the sink, laughing on the phone. Now, the way that phone was propped on her shoulder made her look like she has a double chin. This got me going in two directions at once because that little double chin struck me as sexy. Most people wouldn’t see that, but one thing about Fleur is the way the flesh sticks to her body, well, like she says, there’s just more to love. Still, I wanted to scare the hell out of her, go bang on the window and let her know I’ve seen her, and that she couldn’t possibly be so very brokenhearted as she makes out. Instead, I slammed the truck door. She looked up, and there it was, the ol’ sourpuss. So I went in the front.
Tanner was in the den lying on the carpet. The map I’d made of the trails starting from the Jerome Bridge was all spread out. He’d pulled the lamp over so that the room was dim, and someone could trip on that cord, which if Fleur saw would somehow be my fault.
Tanner’s hair is straight like hers, but it sprouts up cockeyed, and he has no idea how goofy he looks standing there all serious, explaining everything under the sun. And especially now that he’s got these enormous new choppers, it’s just about impossible to keep a straight face, and he has been getting away with murder.
I am moving the lamp when he pops up and throws his arms around me so that I lose my balance, and I’m a big man too. Fleur makes a potato onion pie on Fridays, her grandma’s recipe, and when I can’t help but polish it off, she gives me a pinch and that wicked little smile, and I remind her that she has only herself to blame. But Tanner, not an ounce on him. It’s like he’s on springs, always flying off in a direction you don’t expect, so that you’re constantly worried about an accident.
The night before my first time hunting I’d hardly slept, so I’d stopped at the Video Hut to get something distracting for him. Bambi first came out when I was a kid, and it made me all confused. Around here, most of the guys my age with kids have the sense not to let that one in the house, so I doubt Tanner has seen it. I’ve been tempted to ask him, but then again he came out smarter than me and Fleur put together, so maybe he wouldn’t have the same reaction and I’m worried for nothing. After I’d won the debate over whether 2001: A Space Odyssey was “age-appropriate” for him, I was the one wound up with the nightmares. That black sky, like an abyss, and the air supply snipped off like an umbilical cord, and you float away. I still can’t shake it, which Fleur and Tanner think is pretty damn funny. Anyway, I picked Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but he fell asleep by the time they jumped off that cliff together.
Me, I hardly sleep the whole night it seems, for thinking about how on our way up to the camp, we used to stop at the Bridge Bakery for blueberry muffins, still hot, with two pats of butter. Tanner would have gone for that, and I am either wishing that bakery still existed, or I’m worrying that the camp will seem like nothing but a smelly old shack. But then again there is that whole mile of dirt road after the Jerome Bridge leading up to it, and any boy would love that, all twists and turns. It is one wild ride.
When it’s time to get him up, I can see him by the light in the hallway with his covers kicked off like he fell dead asleep in the middle of his jumping around. My mama always liked to tell about how my first time, I’d gotten up in the night and put on my checkered jacket. It had belonged to my cousin, Petey Latangue, and already smelled like the woods. When they pulled back the covers, there I was, all ready to go, right down to the rubber boots.
I don’t want to snap the light on—it has a loud snap to it—and I remember not waking up until Grandpa was carrying me to the truck, holding me face-up like you’d hold a baby, and that when I opened my eyes the sky was full of stars, swarming with them, hardly room for one more. This I will not forget until my dying day.
Tanner is in his PJs, of course. He senses me looking at him, jumps up, and snaps the light on himself. He’s getting dressed so fast, whipping the clothes out of my hand, wriggling away so that I can’t help him. He says nothing. I say, “Hey, buddy, where’s the fire?” and try to grab him but he’s in no mood, and is out the door before I can finish my coffee.
In the truck he sits forward in the seat, his eyes fixed on the yellow stripes like he’s hypnotized. This goes on till we’re 20 miles north of Montpelier, and it’s nice and quiet. Usually he’s going a mile a minute, until it’s hard not to want to shush him up. But now he seems not asleep exactly, but not awake either. There, and not there. When I ask him if he’s OK he says, “Huh?” and then nothing till I’m getting almost spooked and start wondering where in the hell his thoughts have gone to. Finally he comes out with, “The only reason deers don’t usually bite you is that it’s so much easier to stick you with their antlers, and what Mom doesn’t get is, that’s no fair, and that’s why we need to have a rifle. Right, Dad?”
I say, “I’ve never heard of anyone getting bit by a deer, Tanner,” which does not register at all.
Sorely tried, he says, “We have no antlers, but if we had some—well, not antlers, but spikes, built in—we wouldn’t have to shoot them.”
“I never said we have to shoot them.”
“Well, they run a whole lot faster, if you hadn’t noticed.” He’s in a sarcastic stage, giving me all kinds of lip. It’s natural, I guess. “He’s testing,” says Fleur. “Keep your shirt on.” I’d have got a good smack in the mouth from my mother. Then she’d go stand over at the sideboard, dangling her rosary over my photo to cast out the spell.
What I’m really worried about is the way Tanner rolls his eyes at me and pushes out his upper lip like a dunce. When he does that, he’s a dead ringer for Fleur when she’s had a few and decided that pretty much everything I have to contribute to any given conversation is beyond the pale stupid.
“How long?” he says, like all of a sudden he’s being tortured.
“Figure it out for yourself, why don’t you. The map’s in the side pocket, and I put fresh batteries in the flashlight.”
“‘Fresh batteries,’” he says quietly, in the voice of a soap commercial.
“I thought you liked maps.”
He looks at me and decides to be nice. “I just want to get there.” He drags the flashlight out of the glove compartment, holding it like it’s so very heavy, and slumps back with his face turned toward his window. His neck, lit up by lights of the dash, looks so small and round.
“You’re not worried about that ol’ deer,” I say.
“What ol’ deer?”
“The one we’re gonna get!”
“Dad,” he says, holding his hand out, palm up, “do I look worried?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see you in here.”
He puts the flashlight on under his chin and makes a scary noise, flashes it at me to make sure I’m smiling, then wiggles it around so that the light jumps like a wild thing.
Like a dope I say, “It’s Tinkerbell!” Exactly the kind of babyish stuff to set him off. I’m braced, but he just makes the light jump faster and in a high-pitched, terrified voice says, “Tinkerbell! Tinkerbell!” and keeps this up until I say to put that thing down, it’s dangerous.
“Dangerous? You call this ‘dangerous?’” He’s snapping it on and off. “This is boring!” he says, and kicks the dashboard.
I want to smack him, but instead I grab the flashlight and throw it in the backseat. He just looks at his empty hand. No protest, no nothing. I accelerate and he has the sense to keep quiet.
We’re three miles now from the Jerome Bridge, and I can’t help thinking about how I’d planned to tell him about the time we got a flat tire right in the middle, and now I don’t even trust my voice. The sun is coming up, which I thought he’d like, but he has that blind look again. After awhile I think of him saying, “spikes, built in,” and smile.
“Look at that,” I say, pointing out the window. “Sunrise. You’ve got the sun and the moon both.”
Tanner squints at me, gauging me for sappiness. I raise my eyebrows at him as if to say, “I’m clean, kid. It was a statement of fact.”
He cranes around, then sighs. “I hate to tell ya, Dad, but it’s the same as the sunset.”
Then he yells, “Hey! It’s the opposite and the same!” He puts out one hand—“Opposite,” and the other hand—“Same! There is no other thing that’s opposite and same, is there, Dad?”
“Uh, let’s see…”
He holds still, like he’s wracking his brains, then comes out with, “I gotta pee.”
“Well, how’s about we pee off a bridge?”
He tips back his head and lets out his laugh. “Really?” he squeaks.
“You gotta pee?”
He glances over his shoulder like someone might see us being naughty.
The Jerome Bridge is wooden, one of the oldest in Vermont, nothing but a hundred yards, but it spans a gulch maybe thirty feet deep over where Whitetail Creek falls. Couldn’t be prettier. I pull over and I can tell Tanner’s racing me. He gets his little squirter out first and lets fly with a whoop. I’m right behind him.
“The Golden Arches,” I say, but he’s distracted by the steam from our pee.
“Smoke! Hey, smoke!” He waggles his butt and wails out the refrain from that song, “Oo-oo-oo, I’m on fire!”
This hits me wrong, all wrong, and I tell him to settle down, at which he jumps into a Rambo stance and sprays his piss around, making like he’s a machine gun, and I really yell and he just zips up, and cool as you please says, “Well, what’s the point of bringing a kid out hunting and yelling at him to settle down?” He squints up at me sideways and saunters back to the truck, muttering, “I mean, what did you expect?”
I stand there, with the sun turning everything gold and pink, and the water sparkling like in a fairytale, and I’m holding onto the railing and I’ll be damned if it isn’t all I can do to keep from bawling. I start thinking about standing here, how we always stopped to eat those muffins on the bridge because somehow it reminded Grandpa of Perrier, and I’m remembering watching him change the tire that time, watching his stumpy hands which were so cold and brown and hairy on the back. And the face he made while he twisted off the lug nuts, struggling, a wild face all full of rage, and I’d wanted to yell, “Stop!”
But suddenly he looked up at me and smiled. “She’s a bastard!” he said.
Tanner honks the horn, and my heart about pops. He ducks, smiling probably, probably scared. I walk back to the truck, moving slow to catch my breath. I get in, but just need to sit there. He’s fiddling with his door handle. When he speaks, his voice is like a caress so sweet I was already wishing I hadn’t felt it. “Don’t worry, Dad,” he says. “I won’t tell her.”
Now, he makes that dunce face. “Peeing off the bridge?” he says, like I’m demented.
“Whoa,” I say. “We’ve got no secrets in this family, Tanner.”
Tanner dusts his knee and, as though speaking into a walkie-talkie attached to his left shoulder says, “If you say so.” Then he gazes at the wind shield, his jaw hanging down. I am afraid to move.
“Can we go?” he says in a soft voice, but also plenty whiny. I turn the key. The rumble of the engine eases my pulse. When we hit that dirt road, I take it slow. Out of the corner of my eye I see his little head, looking big on his little neck, bobbing along, and remember how I thought he’d be all gleeful, and then I imagine him bouncing so hard he smashes his face on the dashboard, over and over. By the time we pull up to the camp I feel like a crazy man. I cut the engine and ask him, “Are you all right?”
“Yep,” he chirps.
Still, we just sit. He sighs.
“What it is, Tanner?”
He holds up a finger. “I do have one thing.”
There’s this rack over the door to the camp. I keep my eyes on it. It is one gorgeous rack.
“And what is that?” I ask.
“Well, it’s just that, in case you’re thinking that you have to get ’im instead of me because you don’t want Mamma knowing that it was me killing a living creature.”
I can’t quite make out what he’s saying. His eyes have gone so big and gentle that I can’t quite see him, either. But I can feel my face, swelling, and as I’m wondering if he’s able to detect that I hear, “I’m not saying you are thinking that, but in case you are—well, let’s face it. She’s gonna think you’re a wimp.”
Tanner squirms, turning red. “Yeah! Dad, come on!” He slaps both hands on the seat and freezes. “OK,” he says, and slides his eyes up at me like now she’s beyond the pale. “A bigger wimp.” Shaking his head oh so sorrowfully, he says, “And then it’ll be, ya know, the ol’ story ’bout Tanner’s first time, and how you wouldn’t even let me pull the trigger!” He kind of chuckles, waggling his head. Then he turns to his door handle and says, “Dad?” “Dad?” he says again, not to me but to the handle, and nestling his little fingers around its crook, “Are you gonna let me?”