2 September 2002 | Vol. 2, No. 3
Five years ago, my dad died. Now, don't go thinking I hate my dad. I don't. We just never had much in common. He always tried to make a hunter out of me, and it never worked. With the anniversary of his death creeping up on me, I figured I'd go up to that old cabin and settle the score. I wondered if bullet would cut through ghost. Would it rattle around inside, or pierce it like a balloon?
As I cleaned my rifle for the weekend hunt, the Channel 5 news announcer reported the latest arson figures from the other side of town where all the blacks lived—last week a kid got shot in the back by the cops. So far three people were dead. On TV, a group of hunters said they weren't going hunting now, that they would guard their homes with rifles, in case the riot spread. Not me.
Six o'clock. The riot subsided for a while; people had to go home and eat, then come back and riot some more. Channel 5 ran the sports and said this would be one fantastic deer-hunting season. Then they ran some more ads and the weather and footage of a shoe store on fire.
I watched it all and thought about how people run around shooting and burning and beating and kicking just like my dad went hunting: Something said do it, and they did it. I lacked that something. When my dad took me hunting, I used to stand there with a gun, gawking like a goddamn idiot. If I was on the other side of town, staring at a building with a gas can in my hand, I'd probably do the same damn thing. I'm no action hero. I'm the guy who watches action heroes.
Eight o'clock. Twelve fires burning.
Throughout my young life, the suburbs have edged ever outwards, white flight landing strips constantly transforming into cracking cement jungles, like abandoned airports where planes no longer fly overhead and kids play in the potholes. My non-burning side of town still looked like the burning side once did years ago, with neat tiny houses and young families letting their kids run all over the place. But sooner or later, the other side of town would consume this side of town.
Before long, we'll live on burning and non-burning planets. You'll see a burning space station and say, "I used to live there. It was different then." And meanwhile, you'll know if you were in that burning space station, you'd stand there with a laser gun in your hand and never do a goddamn thing. It was my dad's idea to move from the old neighborhood. We were the first to go. My mother used to call him a coward, but after a while he couldn't take her saying it. He yelled and screamed for two hours and after that she never said another word about it.
I hated the new house. My friends stayed on the old side of town for months and months. I'd go up north with dad and he'd nag and nag until I gave in and went hunting with him. But I never shot a thing. "Nothing makes you happy," he said. I remember thinking, "I should just shoot the son of a bitch," before I realized what I was thinking and made myself stop thinking it. But I still remember holding the gun, thinking it. These types of thoughts are good for ghosts, like vitamins.
Eventually my friends moved to my side of town. Soon I was in my teens and could get out of going hunting, so I silently forgave the old man. He left his hardware shop to me in the will and I didn't even have to work, just go in once in a while and keep people on their toes.
The mayor was on television now saying there was a curfew and everybody had to get off the streets by dark, which was an hour away.
I turned the television off and went into the bedroom and lied down. I tried to sleep for a while but as usual couldn't. I thought about my mom, who lived in Arizona now. I also thought about how my dad died of cancer. Since everything was going in a circle it was pretty clear to me that I would die of cancer too, in about twelve years, when I hit fifty. That sort of thing would keep anybody awake at night, but I was used to it. I had gotten tired of telling myself to think about something else. I tried to believe that laying down in the dark with my eyes closed was as restful as sleeping. But all the while I kept thinking that my dad died of cancer on purpose, somehow. He set it loose and now it was hunting me down, too. Sooner or later it was gonna get me good.
The next morning I was driving on the freeway about 10 miles west of the riot. The smoke smelled like dry leaves. The radio said they had suspended one of the cops involved in the shooting that led to the riot and before long things calmed down. The fire crews were putting out the last of the fires and schools would open the following Monday. Once the momentum ran out the riots died fast. Everybody forgot about them until the next one, although sometimes a new police chief was hired.
It took about four hours to get to the cabin but I enjoyed the drive. Once outside of town I took the two-lane highways because they were different from the interstate my dad took when I was a kid.
When I arrived, the cabin was cold. I got the heat started and put the food away, then took a look around to make sure everything was okay. Everything was okay, so I grabbed my rifle and headed into the woods.
There was a lot of land to roam around. It was quite a deal my dad got. The first year his store did really well was the same year real estate values up north plunged. He jumped on the opportunity.
The thing is, some people find wide-open spaces relaxing, but not me, especially here where I could feel his ghost and cancer chasing me around and around. I caught blue gills and would some day move my own kids away and then drop dead of cancer.
I took the trail to the far side of the property. There was a stream there I liked because some strange rocks at the bottom made it look as though it was filled with watercolor. I never saw fish in it, but I suppose if there were you could reach down and grab them.
When I reached the stream I paused a few minutes, then continued deeper into the woods. I was okay because the trees were dense and crowded me into myself. This was my place. My dad never came this way because it was too thick to get a good shot off, but the further I went the safer I felt. Ahead there was a small clearing. I held the rifle thinking how I shouldn't even bother bringing it with me. I rounded a puddle and ducked through some low-hanging branches and then stopped—damned if there wasn't a doe standing right there staring in the other direction. "I'm right behind you," I thought.
I lifted the rifle, still and steady, patient as I brought the deer within the sight. I pulled the trigger thinking, "You're going to leave me alone after this, pops."
The report was louder than I expected and seemed to come before I pulled the trigger—I didn't even remember deciding to pull it. But when I looked the doe was lying in its blood and I thought, "Son of a bitch."
I walked over, hoping it was dead. It was a clean shot through the neck. Now what was I going to do with it?
"Hold it, there."
A voice came from the other side of the clearing. For a second I thought I was seeing things, probably from lack of sleep, but then a thin black man about three inches taller than me walked out of the underbrush. He was holding a rifle.
"That's a nice doe you're standing over, but it's mine," he said.
I looked at my gun, finally realizing I had never felt it go off, but had only heard the report.
"You're on my property."
"Well I didn't see any 'no trespassing' signs." He lit a cigarette and approached the doe.
"Legally, I could shoot you," I said.
"I don't think that's the case, but if you did, I'd sue you."
"Not if you were dead."
"You'd go to jail for that."
"It's pretty conservative around here."
"Well, then," he said, kneeling to examine the wound, "go ahead and shoot me—I really don't give a shit."
There wasn't much to say to that. Besides, I was pretty sure I really couldn't legally shoot him. "I guess I don't care if you're on my property."
"I'll tell you one thing: I didn't see you standing there, that's for damned sure."
"I'm not much of a hunter."
"Me either. Mr. Magoo could have shot that deer from where I was standing."
"I mostly like to just walk out here."
"Yeah." He set his rifle beside the doe and stood up. "How much of this land is yours?"
"All the way back there," I said, pointing, "and around over there."
"That's a lot of good land."
"I haven't looked into it."
"I've been trying to buy some land up here, but I can't find any. I've asked around but everybody seems a little shaky about it."
"It's the riots, you know, that and-"
"Yeah, I figured."
"What the hell are you gonna do with that doe?" I asked.
"I don't know. I'm an hour and a half from my camp. I was just wandering, you know."
"How about I help you drag it to my truck, then I'll drive you back?"
"Yeah, all right."
Later, after we piled the doe into the truck, I asked him, "How much you looking to spend for land up here?"
"Whatever I can, I guess."
"I don't know what this place is worth."
"You're telling me you want to sell it?"
"I'll give it to you 10 percent less than market. But that's as-is. I'm not coming back."
We climbed into the truck. He sighed. "I don't know. Why you want to sell it?"
"Because somebody else doesn't want me to sell it. You want it?"
"Yeah, I'll take it."
When I handed him the keys, he thought I was doing him the favor. Soon after that, I began to quiet down inside, but the riots continued. Something said do it, and they did it.
About the author:
Paul A. Toth lives in Michigan. His fiction has appeared in the Barcelona Review, Exquisite Corpse, Pif, Eleven Bulls, Small Spiral Notebook and others. The American Journal of Print recently nominated his story "Crime Writers" for Best American Mystery Stories. A short film based on his novel Fizz and directed by special effects wiz John Tissavary (The Matrix) will be released soon. For more information, please see netpt.tv.