The extended cab was piled high with rifles. Brady stood back from the shine of his father’s grin. “Know what’s in here?” Russ asked, scooping up a plastic bucket by its lip. “Pistols. We can shoot as many as we want. Maybe you’ll find a favorite.”
His father balanced the bucket across the gun barrels and closed the door.
“We’ll fill up the cooler quick, and my buddy Herc should be over soon.”
Brady let his father disappear into the house before following. Inside, Aunt Trudy was holding court: The Friday Brunch & Book Club ringed the dinner table, as always, even though it was Thanksgiving weekend and many had spurned their families for their friends. The women giggled and swayed as Aunt Trudy’s gyrating arms narrated a story, their books closed beyond their plated desserts. In a pause for laughter, Aunt Trudy caught Brady’s slim frame trying to slip past into the living room. She slapped a meat hook down on the doily tablecloth.
“We can eat pie for breakfast!” she yelled in defense. The women squealed; morning dessert was a weekly routine, their naughty reprieve. For Brady, the pie was an exotic thing: cooking had quickly exhausted Aunt Trudy once she’d taken in Brady and his endless adolescent appetite, but she still scrounged up the energy when it was her turn to treat the Friday morning crowd. Despite the pretense of indulgence, the group practiced restraint: beyond Aunt Trudy’s bouldering slice, the women’s portions were small, mere slivers of a standard wedge. Plenty remained, but Aunt Trudy patted Brady’s tush and he wheeled on around the corner, beyond the cloud of expired perfume.
“He’s going through a cowboy phase,” he heard Aunt Trudy explain to the table. She was whispering, but the volume was relative: a megaphone swallowed somewhere in her past had done away with Aunt Trudy’s indoor voice. Brady took a seat at the piano bench and slumped over as she continued: “He thinks I don’t know anything. I offered to buy him a cowboy hat and he said he didn’t want to dress like that. I’ve never seen a Western, I guess. But I’ll be darned if he isn’t dressing just like a cowboy with no hat.”
“He’s such a cute boy,” one of the women said. “So soft-spoken.”
The rest of the table agreed. Brady propped his head on his hands and studied the beige-and-rust plaid pattern of his shirt, the Western yoke stitching that he fancied more than the pearl snaps. He blushed as the women admired his slender figure, his gentle eyes.
His skin flushed red. Then one of the women asked about his mother in a lowered voice, and he held his breath.
“I think that’s the reason for this cowboy bit,” Aunt Trudy broke in. “He’s a teenage boy, I suppose he wants to start feeling like a man. But the boy can’t grow a lick of hair below his eyebrows.”
Brady flung onto his feet and threw his hands out in silence. His skin flushed red. Then one of the women asked about his mother in a lowered voice, and he held his breath. The air buzzed with silence, and Brady pictured Aunt Trudy looking behind her to make sure he was out of sight.
“Still nothing,” she says. “They’ve sent letters but nothing.” Several tongues clicked and one of the women sighed. “She’ll cross paths with the police at some point,” she went on, “and when she does, they’ll know to bring her back.”
Down the near hallway a door was slammed, the echo rippling through the thin white sheetrock walls as his father strode into view.
“Herc’s on his way. Better get your shoes on. This is gonna be fun.” His dad smiled wide enough to expose the silver filling on his back molar—the one Brady only saw when his father was being sincere. Russ pulled open the front door and leaned toward the dining room. “We’re heading out, Trudy.”
There were no giggles, no clinking forks against plates. “Back by six, Russ. Don’t be late.”
“I won’t, Trudy,” he said.
“I’ll call you in,” she warned.
Russ frowned. “I know,” he said in a softer, colder voice. Then he ushered his son outside and shut the door behind them.
The ride to the firing range was long and straight. Brady’s legs burned from being flexed for so long, thighs respecting the space of both men while his knees kept clear of the stick shift. His father’s friend, Herc, had been polite upon their introduction, but their hands had come together in different ways, Herc’s loose grip curling over the top of Brady’s arrow-straight handshake. Brady corrected himself, fingers flexing nervously to mimic that casual phrasing of body language. Herc said few words after that, piling into the passenger side where he’d sat mostly silent, staring ahead and holding the tip of his cigarette out the narrow crack above the window. Toward the end of his second cigarette he pulled a Busch Light from the cooler on the floor.
“Herc here, we’ve been helping each other get back on track,” Russ said to Brady over the noise of the engine. “We’ve both seen some shit. Course he never saw nothing as bad as your mom.” Russ gave his son a playful nudge, and Brady did his best to smile. “Got out the same time, split a motel room for a few days. You can thank Herc for keeping your dad sane.”
Brady turned toward Herc, and before he said anything, Herc responded with, “Happy to help.” He had garlicky breath and shadowy eyes, and his soft voice had the same rasp his father had developed in recent years—a consequence, Aunt Trudy once explained, of inhaling things that aren’t meant to be inhaled. Underneath Herc’s plain black T-shirt he wore a turtleneck of fuzzy tattoos: fading skeletons, hands of prayer, unknown acronyms that Brady tried to ad-lib into meaning. The boy wondered if any of those tattoos matched with the stories Aunt Trudy said he wasn’t old enough to hear.
“Living with Aunt Trudy, must be an experience,” Russ said.
Brady snickered and nodded, glanced at his dad from the corner of his eye.
“She never was crazy about me,” Russ went on. “She’s always been a bit of a man-hater. You probably know that. Old maids be bitter.” He elbowed his son again, and Brady tipped over into Herc before stiffening quickly back into place. Russ propped his elbow next to the window and stretched out his body. “From the looks of her, I guess you’re eating well.”
Brady bounced his shoulders. “Yeah, it’s all right. She doesn’t cook much anymore.”
Russ jerked his head around, looked square at Brady for the first time that day. “She’s not feeding you that fast food garbage!”
Herc hissed a drag of smoke out the cracked window, checked the embers in his cigarette and mumbled some incoherence to himself.
“No, it’s fine. It’s just simple stuff, sometimes takeout.”
Russ bit down on his jaw and placed both hands on the wheel. The stereo was playing “Night Moves” from the same Bob Seger album that had been stuck in the cassette player for as long as Brady could remember.
“It’s just—Aunt Trudy, she can fill herself with whatever shit she wants, and she does,” Russ said. “But you’re a growing boy, you’re almost a man. Freshman in high school needs the right fuel.” Brady watched his father shake his head and remembered the last time his father had let his temper boil over: back when he was still locked up, during his weekly call home when Brady had told him that he and Aunt Trudy had been watching classic musicals—all of her favorites. Russ was initially outraged, spitting out expletives and calling Aunt Trudy a sing-songy old hag, but someone barked his name in the background and he’d quickly dialed back his rage. “Make sure you’re still catching a baseball game every now and then,” was the last thing he’d said. And Brady couldn’t remember ever watching once with Russ.
“You planning on playing any sports?” his father said now, pulling him into the present.
“I might go out for track in the spring. Maybe tennis.”
Russ nodded. “You need those good nutrients to build muscle. Not that Burger King crap, the good stuff. I’ll talk to Trudy.”
“No, Dad, it’s fine, really.”
“Yeah. Don’t worry about it.”
Russ looked disappointed, but he nodded. Brady joined him in staring out at the blur of harvested fields. He regretted telling Russ no; he was tired of the microwaved meals and days-long stretches of leftover pizza, and he wondered what it would be like to see his father stand up for him. But most of Russ’s confrontations carried bad consequences, and Brady had learned that avoidance ultimately caused the least damage.
His dad coming home at the same time every day and plopping down, exhausted and satisfied. Enough money to order pizza on impulse without first checking the bank balance.
“I’m gonna ask the judge for more visitation time at my next hearing,” Russ told Brady after a silence. “I’ve been doing good. Haven’t missed a meeting, and work at the packing plant is going well. You could even maybe start spending the night once in a while.”
Brady nodded with enthusiasm. “Yeah, that would be cool.” He pictured his dad’s apartment: nice, new furniture, a comfy couch for watching TV, his dad coming home at the same time every day and plopping down, exhausted and satisfied. Enough money to order pizza on impulse without first checking the bank balance. The kind of life Brady watched on TV, waiting for that better life to start. Maybe his mom would come home and see the nice furniture and decide to stay. She wouldn’t track mud onto the carpet because she’d forgotten she was wearing shoes, wouldn’t sell the couch and other furniture on a whim because it didn’t fit the room. And they would eat real meals, not frozen burgers and packages of ramen. They would drive a new car, buy clean furniture and maybe a new TV to watch the Royals miss the playoffs every year—always losing, always from the comfort of their home. His mother wouldn’t lay in bed all day filling the room with the smell of rotting eggs, and Russ would come home, look at his son and ask him if he wanted to throw a football.
“Well good. Yeah, I’ll ask about it,” Russ said. “They owe me one.” He smiled at Brady, and Herc snickered to himself and muttered, “Yeah, yeah. Fuckin’ right.”
Russ jutted his chin over Brady’s head.
“Hey Herc,” he called, summoning his friend’s attention through the enveloping haze, “Why don’t you show Brady what we got for today.”
Herc bobbed his head—slowly, like he was keeping the beat to a slow-jam rhythm—and reached into the back seat to pull out a backpack. He unzipped it on his lap and pulled out an action figure.
“Got some old G.I. Joe’s, some other toys, great targets,” Herc said, leaning in to Brady. He reached back into the bag and clinked some things together before pulling out an aerosol can.
“These,” he said, showing Brady a green can of spray paint, “these bitches are the bomb. One shot, whole can explodes, paint everywhere. Beautiful shit.”
“I got a box of clay pigeons, too, if you want a moving target,” Russ added. “Let you try a bunch of different types. You ever shot a gun before?”
“We shot some BB guns once,” Brady said. “You put a bunch of clay pigeons on a hill and we shot at them.”
Russ furrowed his brow. The truck was on a gravel road now, bumping and dipping past rows of corn stubble. “That right, huh? What were you, eight? Ten?”
“It was a couple years ago.”
Herc flicked a stub out the window and rolled it up. They were driving into the wind now, and the chill seemed to come straight through the windshield, sweeping out the cigarette stink. It was just the crunch of gravel and faint Seger for a while until Russ laughed.
“I don’t know why I don’t remember that,” he finally said.
Herc lowered the tailgate and started lining up pistols pulled from a bucket that used to hold drywall compound. The biting breeze brushed the guns clean of the chalky white dust they’d collected. Brady dug his hands into his pockets and eased onto a picnic table bench. He watched his father arrange boxes of bullets and a crate of pigeons onto the tabletop. From the bottom of the bucket he pulled a long, brown belt.
“Try that on,” he said, handing it over to his son. Brady saw that the belt was fixed with a gun holster. “That’s from when I was your age. Try it on.” Brady ran the leather through his hands and then wrapped it around his waist. He searched the belt for the smallest sizing and pushed the metal prong through the hole.
“Your Aunt Trudy told me you’re into cowboys.” Russ reached in to help his son adjust the holster on his hips, but it was too loose and slipped on down Brady’s legs. The boy bent down and slowly pulled the holster back up like a pair of pants four sizes too large.
Russ clicked his tongue. “I can bore you another hole, make it fit better,” he said. With his thumbs Brady explored the slack between the holster and his waistline, the considerable gap between his body and his father’s. He suspected he might never have the height nor breadth of his father. His mother’s average height and weight did not explain why Brady came out the runt of a one-pup litter.
“We’ll get that holster fixed. Then you just need some boots,” Russ said. “Maybe you can ask your mom.”
Brady’s eyes and brows stretched upward. He undid the buckle and handed the holster back to his dad. “Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe.” He pivoted on his back heel toward the tailgate and Herc.
“You heard much from her?” Russ’s voice quieted and hardened. It stirred in Brady old sensations, the impulse to hide twitching down his arms and up his neck.
“Nah,” he said, drawing out the vowel. The wind ran straight through him. “She hasn’t called or anything in a while. Aunt Trudy doesn’t know where she is.”
Russ exhaled out his nose. He shook his head. “She’ll go anywhere she can to keep it up. That’s the life of an addict. I know from experience.” He watched his son nod, a full-bodied wobble, like the truth was so immense that to conceive it was to fall into a trance. “Your Aunt Trudy still blame me?”
Brady lifted his shoulders. “She doesn’t talk about it.”
They stood together, hunched against the cold, linked by the same rounded shoulders and workman stance—feet shoulder-length apart, flat on the ground, toes slightly pigeoned. Russ reached out and gave the back of Brady’s neck an affectionate rub.
“We came out here to shoot, right?” He led his son back over to the truck.
Herc had already lined up the action figures on a wood railing at the far end of the shooting range. Now he was rattling an empty beer can. He lifted a long-barrelled pistol from his lap and took aim at the toys while shaking out the can’s last drops, making laser-gun sound effects and laughing to himself. Russ patted his arm, and Herc scooted out of the way as he reached for the stock end of a gun.
“.243 Winchester,” Russ said, groaning as he lifted the gun over his head, barrel pointed toward God, and pulled it down in front of his face. He looked over the muzzle at his son. “This is a classic,” he said with a widening expression. When Brady stepped forward and reached out his hands, Russ guided them to their proper places: left hand to the forestock, right hand onto the trigger. “Press the stock into the pocket of your shoulder. It’ll steady the gun.” He froze Brady for a moment and went around the gun explaining proper handling and shooting form. Then he flipped the safety on the gun. “All right. Try for that first Joe, on the left.”
Brady listened to his father crunch away over the mat of dead grass. He closed one eye, found the toy in the sight, breathed out and squeezed. The trigger had barely moved when the boom went off in Brady’s ear, and he stumbled backward on the strength of its recoil. The bullet disappeared into the sky over the hill.
He’d always had a laugh that trilled like a fire alarm; for many years it meant that Brady should steer clear of his father.
Russ strode over, smiling, and slapped his son on his back. “Powerful stuff, eh? You haven’t even tried the seven-millimeter. That’ll put you on your ass fast.” He took the gun and loaded it again. Brady tried to rub the echo of the shot from his ear before firing a few more rounds, his father waiting with a fresh bullet every time.
“Do you ever use earplugs?” Brady asked, pointing to his ear.
Herc wheezed in the background. “You don’t wanna do that to your manhood,” he said.
Russ twisted back toward the tailgate and wriggled his hand in the air at his friend.
“I might have some in the glove box,” he said, turning back to his son. “You want ‘em?”
“Nah. I was just wondering.”
“Wanna give pistols a try?” Before Brady answered Russ was back at the tailgate, replacing the rifle and picking out a shiny, silver model.
“Here we go,” he said, letting loose a cackle. He’d always had a laugh that trilled like a fire alarm; for many years it meant that Brady should steer clear of his father. “Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. Straight out of a Western movie.” He handed it over to Brady, who gripped the black rubber handle and ran a finger on the sleek, cold metal barrel.
“Go to town,” Russ said.
Brady took a few shots, connecting with one of the action figures on his third. He turned to celebrate and paused at the sight of Russ cracking open a Busch and clinking cans with Herc. He took a sip and gestured with the can toward his son.
“You into beer yet?” he asked. Brady shook his head.
“If you change your mind, help yourself.”
Brady hung in the wind for a moment while the two men lit cigarettes and kicked back against the tailgate. Then Herc leaned forward and started wrenching his hand.
“Turn that shit sideways,” he said to Brady. He made a gun with his fingers and turned it ninety degrees. “Sideways.”
Brady turned the gun and held it with one hand. He fired, and the gun flung his arm up into the air, wobbling as he tried to regain control. Herc doubled over.
“Maybe two hands for now,” Russ said, taking a long final drag to stifle his own laughter. He dropped the cigarette and crushed it under his work boot. “All right. Let’s lay some waste.”
Russ and Herc popped upright and grabbed a pistol each. They stood side-by-side, guns in one hand and Busch in the other, firing off halfhearted shots and laughing at the results. Brady watched them take a few shots each before joining in, glancing over on occasion and smiling in tandem. He listened as the shooting session changed his father’s speech: slurring, profane, nothing his case manager was likely to condone. Aunt Trudy would have said you can’t blame the beer: that’s just Russ being Russ.
Brady ambled back to the picnic table, sat down and placed the handgun on its side. His eardrums ached and the dry air had cracked the skin on his knuckles. There was no clock to say how much time they had left in the day. Brady slouched over, cradled his chin in his hand as the adults decimated the action figure lineup. When they were done, Russ plunked his gun back on the trunk and killed his beer. He sidled up to his son and sat on the table.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Brady nodded. “Pretty cool.”
“Your old man’s got a pretty good shot, huh?”
“Yeah, you really murdered those toys.”
“Well,” he said, cocking his head and looking into the clouds. He took his time forming his thought. “It’s a good skill to have,” he said.
Brady kicked his shoe into the dirt, scraping up dust that carried off in the breeze. “Have you ever shot somebody?”
The question caught Russ off guard. He chuckled—not his trademark fluttering laugh, but a nervous, leaking, throat-clearing turnover, a sputtering engine noise. The kind of laugh that means something isn’t funny. He licked his lips, and the corners of his eyes formed the same crow’s-feet that Brady had inherited.
“Why would you ask that?”
“Hey,” Herc said, interrupting from the other side of the truck. When he had their attention he burst into a sprint, coming around the tailgate and pointing the gun at Brady. “WHERE’S YOUR FUCKIN’ GUN?!” he yelled, coming to a stop six feet away. By the time Herc cracked a smile, Brady had already yelped and spun out of the line of fire. He stumbled back up after tripping onto the ground, his back pants pocket caught and torn on a nail protruding from the bench.
“What are you doing!” he yelled, his voice cracking. He looked to his dad, who reigned in his amusement.
“It’s okay, Brady,” Russ said, putting up a hand to stop his son’s backpedaling. “He’s just messin’.” And to Herc, “Take it easy, man. He’s not used to guns.”
Herc spread his arms. “I thought you were a cowboy?”
“I don’t point guns at people,” Brady said, pitching his voice low to account for the earlier break. He could feel blood flushing into his face and that made him more embarrassed, hot spines pricking him up and down his body. “That’s how people get killed.” His voice, but Aunt Trudy’s words, and shame swept through his heart. Russ placed a hand on Herc and turned his back to his son. Herc’s eyes slimmed in disappointment, but he seemed to agree with what Russ was saying. When Russ stepped back, Herc brought him in close again.
“Always be a pussy if you treat him like one.” The wind barely carried the words to the boy.
Shadows were coming out from their hiding places, and Brady looked back down the long gravel road they had taken to the range. Geese were headed south overhead, and with the wind picking up it seemed like winter might only be a few minutes away. Herc was back out by the wood railing replacing fallen soldiers with aerosol cans. Russ took a slow, arcing approach back to his son. He slipped his arm around the boy’s shoulders.
“He just means,” Russ started, but there was a long silence in which he held his son and thought through his explanation. “At your age, you need to be around grown men. There’s things men can teach you that your aunt and other women can’t. That’s what he means.”
“As for the shooting thing,” Russ went on. “You shouldn’t be thinking about that stuff. Sounds like a question your aunt put in your head. It’s not important. You know I’m not proud of how things turned out. But it’s also not as simple as she wants to believe.”
Again their attention was pulled away by Herc, who was now kneeled down at the top of a dirt pile at the end of the shooting range—a massive mound of soil and errant ammo. His hands were cupped around his mouth and he was waving one arm above his head, but the words were carried off in the cold front. Russ and Brady took a few steps forward, and Herc slalomed down the hill and ran toward the truck.
“Peacock!” he yelled when he reached the tailgate. He leaned in and pulled out a shotgun. “Fuckin’ peacock just flew up into a tree!” Russ and Brady followed him back to the hill, scrambled up the shifting earth and pulled their heads over the top. Beyond the shooting range was a scattering of trees before the ground rose sharply up toward the rim rocks. Herc pointed, and they all saw a peacock on a low branch maybe eight feet off the ground, about one hundred yards away.
“No way,” Russ said. “There’s a peacock farm about a mile down the road.”
“Can we shoot it?” Herc asked. Russ thought about it.
“It’s a shooting range,” he said.
Herc nudged Brady with his elbow. “Go for it.” He pushed the gun into the boy’s hands. “Ever play Big Game Hunter?”
Brady shook his head. Herc smiled.
“Here’s your chance.”
He’d been waiting for that thrill, that manly instinct, to kick in and lead him through the ritual, but when the moment arrived Brady was all alone, unaffected.
Brady positioned his hands on the gun, and his father helped him aim for the bird. They settled the barrel onto the hill to steady his aim.
“You got it,” Russ said, flashing a thumbs-up in front of his son’s face before hunkering down in anticipation. Brady had the peacock’s chest in his sights, but even with the encouragement flanking him he was filled with fear and guilt. He’d been waiting for that thrill, that manly instinct, to kick in and lead him through the ritual, but when the moment arrived Brady was all alone, unaffected. He put his finger on the trigger and turned his aim imperceptibly to the right, curled his finger and fired off a miss.
The explosion rocked him back and echoed in his ears. When he opened his eyes, the two men were clapping and pumping their fists. Brady rose back up over the hill and saw the peacock sprawled out on the ground. His father slapped his back.
“Nice work!” he yelled, then grabbed Brady’s hand and pulled him up to standing. “Perfect shot!”
They stumbled down the other side of the hill and chased down the dead bird. The trio circled the peacock, whose head, neck, and chest had been shredded into flesh and blood.
“Man,” Herc admired. “Can’t kill it much better.” Russ agreed.
“What are all the spots?” Brady asked. “Where’s the bullet?”
“Well, it’s a shotgun,” Russ said slowly, checking in with Herc, “so you shoot shells of lead shot, not bullets. The shot spreads out like a cloud, so it’s easier to hit birds when they’re flying.”
“Oh.” Brady pitched his tone upward to play it off.
Herc kneeled down with the bird and fanned out its bouquet of feathers. “Man, pristine,” he said, “Good work, Brady. Oughta make an Indian headdress with this thing. Wear that trophy around town.” He and Russ laughed, and Brady agreed and took a couple of steps back. Herc prodded the peacock with the toe of his boot and then gave it a kick, marveling at its size, saying he never knew peacocks grew that big. He lifted the head and turned it over to see its face before mutilation, whooping compliments and shaking his head. He looked up at Brady.
“Let’s get a picture of this.” He stepped to the side and motioned for Brady to take his place, which the boy did with some hesitation. He crouched down behind the peacock as Russ pulled a disposable camera from its foil wrapper.
“Hold up its head,” Russ said. “Make sure we can see it.”
Brady slid his hand under the bird’s neck, his fingers trembling, and bent his wrist to display the peacock, arching his palm to touch as little of the mangled meat as possible.
“No, no.” Herc shook his head and came over to Brady, crouching down and pinching the boy’s wrists. “You can’t be afraid.” Herc moved both of Brady’s hands around the peacock’s neck, then placed his own hands over the boy’s and squeezed hard until Brady thought his hands were going to break, until blood dripped onto the ground. Herc looked from his stained palms to the blood pooled between Brady’s fingers.
“There you go,” he said, and dabbed a long, dark finger into the blood collecting in his own hand. He pushed his fingertip into the corner of Brady’s eye, so close the boy squinted to keep the blood out. Herc rapped his knuckles on the boy’s chest, and when the boy’s eyes opened he saw an animal. He recognized how the blacks of Herc’s eyes were opened wide like a jaw, that look of hunger that always appeared around the times his father disappeared. Russ stood lamely behind him, watching as if the scene were playing on a screen and he had no way of crossing the divide.
“Now we all got some blood on our hands,” Herc said, standing up.
Everyone went back to their places, and Russ took the picture. Brady wondered if he would ever see the picture, if it would turn up in the pages of a sports almanac he’d discover when he’s called to his father’s home to clean up some mess, if the edges of the photo will be frayed from years of handling. Or if the film would go undeveloped, a negative that decomposes in a landfill. If the photo would ever be seen for what it was: a cowboy who hates guns killing a bird that can’t fly.
After taking the picture, Russ lowered the camera and cocked his head to the side.
“Never butchered a peacock, but we’ll treat it like a chicken and go from there,” he said.
Herc agreed and grabbed the bird by one of its feet. “Lead the way,” he said, and Russ started back along a path around the base of the hill. Herc filed in behind, the peacock’s mangled head and neck bumping and scraping along the coarse ground. Brady brought up the back, the evening sun casting Herc’s body as a silhouette leaning into the dark night ahead. Finally the boy looked back down and saw that the peacock’s eyes had never closed; they were wide open, watching, waiting.