I don’t know what the deal is, and I doubt it would do me much good to ask, but I was the last to know. Again. I glanced up from my laptop to the screen of my muted television to see Papaw on the ten o’clock news, milling his arms in the air, his eyes wide, his mouth agape. It was a mode of expression I knew well. Papaw was telling a story. I reached for the remote.
“…and the next thing I knew my pickup come clean up off the ground, and this ain’t none of them little import trucks neither. No, this here is a three-quarter ton Ford with the four-wheel drive and about another five hundred pounds of feed in the bed to boot. Anyways, there I was, up in the air, surrounded by hundreds of flying chickens, no shit—can I say shit? How about –bleep-? No, huh? Well, anyways, you might expect that them chickens would just be a-tumbling through the air like all the rest of the trash and tin and boards and such, but oh, no. These here chickens had their wings a-stretched out just like a hawk or a turkey buzzard,” and at that point Papaw leaned forward at the waist and stretched his arms out and back, palms turned downward and spread fingertips flexed back like wingtip feathers, “and they was a-soaring round and round just like they knew what they was doing. Anyhow, that tornado spun me around in the air three times, carrying me twenty or thirty yards on down the road before it seemed to take an interest in that old trailer down by the lake and set me down so gentle my coffee didn’t even spill, right back on the road in the direction I was heading before, right after carrying me over the worst of them there potholes in the road down yonder.”
* * *
“This is why I want to move back here.” Tim thrust his shovel into the dirt like an explorer planting a flag.
“You like to dig?” I asked.
Tim and I hadn’t been home to visit Daddy at the same time in nearly a year, and if it hadn’t been for the tornado, there’s no telling how much longer it might have been. Somehow, Tim always seemed to get us roped into spending all day building a fence or in this case, digging a trench.
Tim mopped his brow with his sleeve and pushed his hair back, and I noticed some flecks of gray in his sandy brown hair. I’d never seen those before. Tim was eighteen months older than I was, but for the last five years, since my jet-black hair started going gray at twenty-four, people often assumed I was the older brother. Behind him, mammoth yellow earthmovers chugged and smoked back and forth across the not-yet-level land two hundred or so yards away where the new chicken houses were to be built. Beyond them, a swath of broken and splintered trees and scattered debris led down to the lake in a line that went straight toward a lone house on the far shore.
“I like it that neighbors help each other here,” Tim said. “People out here have values, tradition, a sense of community.” He bent down to pick up a handful of dirt clods, and he whipped one side arm at a chicken that was pecking at the blackberries in the nearby fencerow. “Git! I want to pick those later.”
The chicken cackled and flapped ineffectually as it ran off in a zigzag line toward the woods. Some of the handful of chickens that survived the destruction of the chicken houses had already reverted to a feral state, foraging for themselves and taking to the woods as though they had been born to them. Others wandered, listless, waiting to hear the sound of automatic feeders kicking on. The rest of the chickens were just gone, carried off like most of the tin and wood from the chicken houses themselves. They were all nearly full-grown. The tornado struck about a week before their scheduled pick-up by the poultry company. Daddy was planning a chicken hunt for Sunday morning, and he’d already invited half of Hampton County to come get some of the big pot of wild chicken gumbo he was going to make out of them at Duke Walker’s deer camp Sunday evening.
“Tradition and values, huh?” I started to whistle the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show as I heaved a spade-full of dirt to the side.
“Huh. And here I was almost sure you were going to say something about Green Acres. Smart ass.”
I paused. “They working for free too?” I asked, jerking a thumb toward the earthmovers.
Tim chucked a dirt clod at me.
I dodged. The dirt clod skipped past me and hit Uncle Jed, who was digging in silence just down the shallow trench.
“Huh?” he said, turning groggily and blinking in momentary confusion at us as though he had been digging in his sleep and the errant dirt clod had just awakened him.
“He did it,” Tim said, pointing at me.
Rather than acknowledging either the clod or Tim, Jed turned an expressionless gaze on us and launched into a narrative as though he’d been interrupted only a moment before.
“I was down by the lake, drinking whiskey and, you know, tripping a little, so at first, I didn’t believe it was real.” He spoke in a peculiar low and rasping tone that left me wavering between the urge to lean forward and the urge to back away. “I was looking up at the black, boiling sky, when a part of the black dropped down like a finger.” At this point, he held his hand up, palm down, at eye level and slowly drooped his index finger until it dangled below his hand. “It pointed at the chicken houses, and they just rose up off the ground, twisting like they was alive. Then all of a sudden it was like it was full of little white stars, like a section of night sky in the middle of the day. When I saw it going toward my house, I just started to run. I couldn’t think about anything but getting to my family.”
I leaned on my shovel, highway worker fashion, picturing Uncle Jed stumbling drunk and stoned up the wooded hill toward his house in the surreal terror of time-warped nightmare running, his short legs slipping in dead leaves on the steep slope. Nothing Mayberry about Jed. The year after I was born, he and Uncle Jake traveled by Volkswagen to Frisco to tune in, and both of them were summarily disowned by Papaw. Uncle Jake continues to live in exile to this day, somewhere out west I think. It’s hard to say since no one ever talks about him, but through some act of repentance, which I can never get anyone to talk about either, Jed was able to work his way back into the fold some fourteen or fifteen years back. The few times I’d tried to discuss the whole thing, Papaw or Daddy or whatever of my elders happened to be present, including Tim, would change the subject in a way that told me that the record on that matter was officially sealed and strictly off limits to the likes of me. Whatever state of atonement Jed had achieved and however he had accomplished it, twenty-seven years of living in Hampton County after his return had yet to wash away the stigma of his nineteen months as a California hippie, and he had the manner of being perpetually unsure of his status within the family. Looking at him just then, I saw more change in him since the last time I ‘d seen him eight months earlier than in all the years since he had been reinstated into the family. As he re-told his tale of the tornado, Jed’s round and bearded face became prophet-like, charged with the confident energy of an irrational belief that gains strength in direct proportion to its improbability. I think some might call that faith.
Jed pointed across the bare earth recently vacated by the chicken houses. “The thing came right through here and made a bee line for my house until it got to the point just across the lake from me. Then it just turned ninety degrees, wiped out the trailer house a few hundred yards down the shoreline, and went off to the east.” He looked at me with a directness that made me cringe. “What do you think that meant?”
A brief scene, like a clip from the Weather Channel, burst through my mind: a bone-shaking roar like a jet engine, a rust-spotted white trailer exploding in a whirling blackness, rending sheet metal, snapping two-by-fours, and shattering glass. I looked away from Jed to Tim, shaking my head. “Trailer houses, huh?”
He nodded. “Tornadoes hate trailer houses. Whose trailer was it, anyway?”
A new set of images and sounds crowded into my mind. It’s amazing how much detail can exist in a single involuntary flash. The inside of Papaw’s old boathouse, the broken rods, reels, tangled fishing line, discarded lures, cobwebs, mud dauber nests. Long, brassy-orange hair, darker and slicked back from swimming. The slight overbite she hid with one hand by playing with her hair as she talked, giggled, smiled. The burnt-orange freckles everywhere but her throat, the insides of her arms, her stomach, the insides of her thighs. The fish-tinged, musty odor of lake water. The clammy-cool dampness of skin just freed from dripping swimsuits. The teal-wing blue flash of eyes from under wet lashes. The slop-slop of waves under the aluminum boat.
“Well?” Tim said.
“You know whose trailer that was or not?”
“Oh. No. I don’t…I…” I paused as the slop-slop echoed again, and I could see her on the rickety front porch of the old white trailer, hitching her red hair back behind her ear and looking over her shoulder at me where I sat fishing in the lake in Papaw’s boat as she and her family loaded up to depart the lake for what turned out to be the last time. I never found out why. They just never came back. I remember her sister Becka, Jed’s first wife, was there too, and she glared out at me as though she thought I shouldn’t be using Papaw’s boat or something. She and Uncle Jed broke up not long after that. Again, I never found out why. “How should I know?” I said, when I noticed that Tim was still waiting for me to finish.
“You all right?”
“Maybe I’m feeling a little fatigued from doing your share of the digging.”
He whipped another dirt clod at me.
Our father, Jed’s brother, drove up in his pickup—not the shiny black Silverado he drove to town, but his farm truck, a decrepit, gray primered International Harvester that was older than I was. A group of the listless chickens drifted over toward the truck looking for automatic feeders, momentarily tricked by the mechanical whir of the idling engine. When Daddy killed the engine, they lost interest and wandered off, clucking absently to themselves.
“Hey, that trench ain’t going to dig itself.” Daddy got out, dragged several lengths of one-inch PVC pipe from the truck bed, and flopped them down beside the trench.
“Yeah, yeah,” Tim said. He went over to Daddy’s truck and began fishing around the cooler in the back.
“How exactly did a tornado break Duke’s waterline?” I poked tentatively at the loose dirt in the bottom of the trench with my shovel.
“It didn’t,” Daddy said. “They did.” He nodded toward earthmovers. They were long, low contraptions with one large wheel on each of their four corners. Within the broad bellies of the vehicles was a large bin, at the bottom of which was a scoop that could alternately scrape up or deposit dirt to level uneven ground. In the corner of the construction site stood the nerve center of the operation. Perched atop a five-foot yellow tripod, a cylindrical case shot a leveling laser beam from its red cyclopsian eye to sensors on the earthmovers, telling them whether to scoop up or deposit dirt. I had been avoiding looking directly at the thing under the vague suspicion that the laser might damage my eyes.
“So why aren’t they fixing it?” Tim said, returning from the truck with four beers. He handed one each to Daddy, Uncle Jed, and me.
“I forgot to tell them it was there. Hell, I didn’t remember it was there.” Daddy popped the top on his beer can and took a swig.
“It was God,” Jed said.
“What?” Daddy said, coughing.
“It was God that done it. Had to be.”
Daddy turned to Tim. “What the hell is he talking about?”
“The tornado,” Tim and I said in unison.
“The tornado was God?” Daddy asked.
“His will. The touch of that finger. He could’ve destroyed me, my home, my family. He was showing me.”
“Showing you what?” Daddy asked.
“It’s time, Gray.”
Daddy narrowed his eyes, and then took a long pull from his beer. “Yeah it’s time. Time we quit jacking around and get this trench dug.”
Jed looked at the unopened beer in his hand. Then he walked over to Daddy’s truck. He put the beer back in the cooler, moved a short distance down the taut nylon line that marked the intended course of the water line, and began to dig in unbroken ground.
“Huh,” Daddy said, casting a sidelong look at me. He downed the rest of his beer, walked over to his truck and tossed the empty into the bed. A moment later, a blue Chevy pickup pulled up, and a man got out to talk to Daddy. The man was dressed in typical redneck garb, straw hat, plaid western shirt, ropers, and a pair of Wranglers held up by a broad leather belt with Ezekiel stenciled on the back of it. Daddy and Ezekiel had a brief conversation, which the drone of the earthmovers effectively drowned out. Each of them pointed and gestured in broad sweeps of the arm toward the construction site, as though conjuring images of the completed project in the air. They shook hands, and Ezekiel went up to check on the laser device before getting back in his truck and driving down to the construction site.
Daddy returned from his truck with another beer.
“Who’s that guy?” Tim asked.
“Ezekiel. He’s the honcho for the contractors.”
“Yeah. Mennonites. Cheapest contractors in Hampton County.”
“Mennonites?” I said. “What kind of Mennonites use laser-guided earthmovers?”
“Pretty damned efficient ones.”
“Huh,” Tim said. “I thought the Mennonites that lived around here had barely advanced to the point of using automobiles. And what’s with the cowboy look? The Mennonites I remember from growing up all wore the same overalls and blue shirt, like the people in that Harrison Ford movie, you know, Kelly McGillis, little kid sees a murder.”
“You mean Witness?” Daddy said.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Amish,” I said.
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s Witness,” Daddy said.
“No, the people in Witness are Amish, not Mennonites.” I finished my beer, crushed the can, and pitched it toward the bed of Daddy’s truck. I missed.
Tim frowned. “Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say. The Mennonites I’m talking about dressed just like the Amish.”
“And that means what to me?” I asked, belching out the me for emphasis.
“I’m just saying these are some mighty progressive Mennonites.”
“Amen to that. They underbid Emmit Bartrand by fifteen percent,” Daddy said.
“Emmit bid on the job? And you went with the Mennonites?” Tim asked.
“I know, I know, but hell, son, the Federal Reserve’s been jacking around with interest rates again, and cattle prices have gone right down the shitter. Probably that damned NAFTA. I’ve got a pasture full of cattle out there that I couldn’t sell for near what they cost me, let alone a profit. I’ve got to save where I can if I’m going to keep this farm going.”
Tim squinted at the laser tripod for a moment. Then he shook his head and went back to digging.
After a few minutes, I guess Tim couldn’t stand the silence. He looked down the line at Uncle Jed, then said, “Hey Daddy, whose trailer was that that got wiped out down by the lake?”
“Some of Jed’s first wife, Becka’s family. They used to stay there when they came to the lake in the summer, but I don’t think they’ve been up here in fifteen years. Rusty old thing was an eyesore anyway.”
“Hell, I remember those kids now,” Tim said, nodding. “The youngest of them are around our age. An uglier batch of red-headed, buck-toothed hillbillies I’ve never seen in my life.”
“Yeah,” I said, looking down toward the lake, wondering how I could hear the slop-slopof the waves against the boat from that distance.
“Wasn’t there a girl, about Ken’s age?”
“Can’t say I recall,” Daddy said, eyeing Tim.
Tim snorted. “Whatever happened to them?”
Daddy shrugged. “Stopped coming round when Jed and Becka split up. Now leave it alone and get to work.”
Tim shook his head and looked down at the lake as though he hadn’t heard him. “Half of Hampton County used to come out to Papaw’s lake to fish and to swim at the beach in the summer.”
“Half of Hampton County ain’t what it used to be,” Daddy said.
“Aw, there must be some kids left living around here,” I said. “What about Jed’s kids?”
“I wouldn’t mention them to him if I was you,” Daddy said in a low tone, looking down the trench line to where Jed was digging to see if he had heard. “He brought your cousin, Jackie, up here six months ago to get her away from some punks she started running with in them city schools where her mama lives. Even out here, all she wants to do is watch MTV on the satellite and dress like a damned vampire or something. She got suspended last month for cutting classes to hang out with a bunch of Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osborne wannabes behind the Roadhouse out on Old Line Road.”
Tim and I looked at each other. We’d both been away for a while, but we knew the kind of stuff that used to go on behind the Roadhouse. Let it roll baby roll. Jackie was fourteen, born just a few months after Jed and Becka had split up.
“Are you sure they don’t want to be Marilyn Manson?” I said. Daddy and Tim both glared at me. “Sorry. I was just…never mind.”
Emmit Bartrand’s red flatbed GMC pulled up in a cloud of dust, and I couldn’t be sure whether the dust was being kicked up off the road or simply coming off the truck itself. It squeaked to a halt, and Emmit got out. He was wearing a worn khaki work shirt with “Emmit” stitched in red thread over the right breast pocket and a patch that read “Bartrand Construction” over the left. He took a long look at the earthmovers before walking over. “Howdy, Gray,” he said to Daddy.
The two men remained a couple of paces distant from each other, each with his hands thrust into his pockets. A few silent moments passed, and Daddy said, “Can I offer you a beer, Emmit?”
“No. No, thank you.” After another pause, he added, “I see you went with the Mennonites.”
“Your papa have anything to say about that, Gray?”
“Papa ain’t running the farm no more, Emmit. I am.”
Emmit nodded, far longer than necessary to acknowledge Daddy’s reply. Emmit turned his gaze from the earthmovers to the swath of destruction that led down to the lake, nodding.
“They were the lowest bid, Emmit, and not by a little either. I had no choice.”
Emmit was still nodding, his mouth clenched in a thoughtful frown, his jaw muscles working.
“Damn it Emmit, what the hell else was I supposed to do?”
Emmit turned, got into his truck and drove away without saying another word. Daddy watched him go in silence.
“Shit,” Tim said, turning back to his digging.
“What?” Daddy said.
Tim looked up. “Nothing.”
“Look, did it ever occur to you that there’s a reason why the Mennonites were able to underbid him so much, even with all this high-tech equipment? Did you see him looking at the tornado damage down toward the lake? A tornado comes through and wrecks my chicken houses, and he’s pissed off that he can’t make a buck off it when he had already figured on spending the money.”
Right then the droning diesel engine of one of the earthmovers bogged down with a deep farting sound. We all turned.
“Looks like one of them earthmovers is all earth and no move,” I said. One of the large yellow machines was sunk up to mid hub in the red-orange dirt it was supposed to be moving, and the dirt in its bin was flowing over the edges. As we watched it labor to free itself like a mastodon in a tar pit, the other earthmover maneuvered over to give its partner a push. Within moments, it too was hub-deep in the loose dirt. The trapped machines continued to rev and spin for a moment, until it became clear that they were only digging in deeper. They stopped, and the operators climbed out and traded shrugs.
“Those Mennonites haven’t adapted so well to the machine age after all,” I said.
“Hell, if they can’t drive ’em any better than that, they should hire someone who can,” Daddy grumbled.
“Then they wouldn’t be the cheapest contractors in Hampton County,” Tim said.
Daddy eyed him for a minute, but remained silent. Ezekiel’s blue Chevy pulled up next to the laser’s tripod, shooing away a feral rooster that had perched himself on top of the cylindrical case. Ezekiel got out and examined the device. He took a rag from his pocket and began wiping the laser. Finally he started banging on the side of it like Archie Bunker trying to tune his TV set. He turned away from it at last and came over to Daddy.
“What’s going on?” Daddy asked.
“It’s the laser. Those chickens keep perching on top of it and well, crapping all over it.” He looked around when he said crapping, like he was afraid someone might overhear him. “I think it’s seeping into the casing. Now it seems to be stuck or something. It just kept signaling the earthmovers to scoop up more and more dirt until they finally bogged down.”
“Uh huh. So what are you going to do about it?”
“We’ll have to replace the chip in the laser, and we’ll have to bring out a dozer to pull those things out.”
“And what’s that do to our schedule?”
“Well, we can get a dozer out here by the day after tomorrow, but the chip, I don’t know. I’ll have to call the sales rep and see.” Ezekiel was already moving back toward his truck as he spoke.
“Now wait just a damned minute…” Daddy began, but Ezekiel had already gotten in his truck and was pulling away, scattering chickens as he went.
As Daddy watched Ezekiel’s dust settle back to the roadside, Jed’s second wife, Penny, pulled up and leaned out the rolled-down window of her copper-colored Jeep pickup. As usual, she wore her salt and pepper hair pulled back into a ponytail so tight that Tim and I had dubbed it the poor man’s facelift. Jed looked up from his digging.
“It’s Jackie,” she said. Not a ripple disturbed the fixed blankness of her expression. A faint tinge of annoyance in her tone was the only hint about her feelings on her new role as stepmother to a problem child.
“Yeah?” Jed asked, his tone flat.
“Sheriff’s got her.”
Jed looked down at his feet for a moment. Daddy looked down at his feet too, and he nodded. Jed stabbed his shovel into the dirt, and he walked over to the Jeep and got in, never once looking up from a spot on the ground about three feet in front of him. His face was grim, but calm, and his lips moved in silent syllables as he walked. If I had to guess, I’d say he was either praying or cursing.
As they pulled away, Tim, Daddy and I watched without comment. When the Jeep was out of sight, Tim continued to watch the empty road where it had disappeared around the bend. For several minutes he didn’t move except to blink. I looked at Daddy, who could only look back at me with the same shrug and raised eyebrows I gave him.
As I walked over to Tim, Daddy shot me a look I knew well. It was the “don’t be a smart ass” look. For once, I was way ahead of him.
“I guess Daddy was right,” Tim said. “Half of Hampton County isn’t what it used to be.”
“Hell, Tim,” I said. “Half of it never was.”
He started nodding, like Emmit had nodded at Daddy. “Come on, damn it,” he said after about a minute. “That trench isn’t going to dig itself.”
* * *
The next day was Sunday, the day of the chicken hunt, and out of force of habit, I guess, Daddy handled the whole business the same as he would have handled the opening day of deer season. Everyone who had roused himself early enough to gather at Duke Walker’s deer camp in the pre-dawn darkness was assigned a specific position and firing zone in the hunt. It was a practice that had taken on special importance since a deer season seven years earlier, and anyone who questioned the practice would be given Daddy’s version of the story of how the rules had come to be so strictly enforced.
“One year when Tim and Ken was both in college down at Southern State, they skipped a night of beer drinking and their morning basket weaving classes to drive their imported Japanese 5/8ths scale model of a real pickup out to Duke Walker’s camp to drink whiskey and hunt like real men. Now, Tim and Ken both agreed to leave the woods at 10 o’clock so they could get back to school in time for their afternoon jazz dance classes, so at 9:45, Ken’s watch alarm woke him up, and, as usual, he completely forgot where he was and fell out of his deer stand. Ten minutes later, when he came to again, he got up and started staggering back to the pasture where he was supposed to meet Tim, who, because he had forgotten to set his watch alarm in the first place, was still sound asleep in his deer stand.
“Well, as Ken walked up the trail to the pasture, he kept hearing this banging sound going off in the distance, and at first he thought it was because he had just fell on his head. Even after he figured out it was gunfire, he didn’t worry too much, since, you know, gunfire is a normal enough sound in the woods during deer season, so he kept right on walking until the ping-twang of ricocheting bullets flying past his ear really got his attention, and then ol’ Ken dove for cover, landing on his head for the second time already that morning and permanently erasing an entire week’s worth of microwave cookery classes from his memory.
“After belly crawling the rest of the way up the trail, he got to the fence between the woods and the pasture, and there was his ol’ Papaw, about two hundred and fifty yards out in the middle of the pasture plugging away at him with his new 30.06. At first, Ken wondered what in the hell he could have done to piss off his Papaw that much. He hollered, “Damn it, Papaw, I filled that inside straight fair and square last night!” Of course, his Papaw was two hundred and fifty yards away, and he’d been shooting steady through at least three reloads and nearly a full box of ammunition, so he wasn’t going to be hearing anything for at least a day. Then Ken saw that his Papaw wasn’t shooting at him at all, but at a little old yearling doe that was about twenty yards away from Ken in a direct line between him and his Papaw. Now as you might imagine, that really scared old Ken, because as long as he thought that his Papaw was trying to hit him he felt relatively safe, but once he discovered that his Papaw was trying to hit something else, he figured that his odds of being shot were dramatically higher than he had previously believed. The deer, which was only a little more confused than Ken at that point, was running back and forth like a target in a shooting gallery, running ten yards in one direction, then turning and running back, then turning and running back again, bullets kicking up dirt all around her. A few yards in either direction would have got the idiot deer safely into the cover of the woods or across the dirt road along the back side of the pasture, which would’ve kept both her and Ken from ending up on his Papaw’s deer tag. Instead, Ken figured that its dizzy running back and forth was going to get at least one of them killed, and not willing to take a bullet for a deer he hardly knew, he decided to settle the matter another way. Ol’ Ken waited with his head down until his Papaw emptied his gun again, and while his Papaw was reloading, Ken jumped up and shot the deer himself. It’s the only case I ever heard of where anyone shot a yearling doe in self-defense.”
Whenever Daddy told that story I was forced to recall stepping out from that wood line and walking up to that yearling doe where she lay on the ground, chambering another round of buckshot in case she tried to get up and run. When she didn’t, I moved in close. I placed one hand on her side, felt her chest expand and fall with each breath, looked at her coat, a rich mosaic of red, brown, black, and tawny hairs that only from a distance coalesced into the grayish/reddish brown I always associate with white-tailed deer. All of these colors blended together before tapering to the cream-colored fur of the underbelly, the throat, the inner sides of the legs. Her wide eyes were a glassy reflection of the sky as her chest rose and fell slowly with each ragged breath. And then there just wasn’t another one. After years of sleeping on deer stands, dreaming of trophy kills, she was my first. No bragging rights there. I looked up to see Uncle Jed standing over me, looking down at her with an expression of regret. I didn’t have a doe tag that year, not that such regulations are strictly followed in rural areas, but the high volume of gunfire had attracted some attention, and as the green Dodge pickup of the Hampton County game warden came into view on the dirt road that bordered Papaw’s pasture, I remember that Uncle Jed took my shotgun from me and handed me his rifle.
* * *
I awoke with the 20-gauge pump I’d borrowed from Daddy laying across my lap. I’d taken up a position on the ground near the former site of the chicken houses, reclining against the jagged stump of a hundred-year-old oak that looked as though some giant grazing herbivore had bitten the trunk off some ten feet above the ground. I was betting that at least one of the feral chickens would return to the blackberry bushes in the fence row, since Tim had forgotten about his plan to go blackberry picking. The day was much lighter than when I’d nodded off, and when I glanced toward the sun to gauge how long I’d been napping, I saw that I was in the shadow of the laser tripod, on the top of which sat the biggest of the feral roosters, the alpha rooster, so to speak. Its combed and wattled head was cocked over to one side so it could look straight at me with at least one of its eyes. I froze instinctively. The muzzle of my shotgun was lying in the other direction, so I thought that there was no way I could bring the gun around in time to get a shot before the chicken disappeared into the brush. The only thing I could do was wait for the chicken to look away for a second so I could move without spooking him.
Before my chance to move came, the rooster launched itself from the laser, and what I would swear was at least two seconds later, the crashing boom of a shotgun blast split the morning air. The tripod toppled to the ground, and the chicken, unharmed, zigzagged and flapped its way into the blackberry bushes and disappeared.
“Cease fire, damn it!” I yelled.
When no more shots rang out, I looked around the tree and there was Papaw with his old double barrel 12-gauge at the ready.
“Damn it boy, what the hell are you doing behind that tree?”
“This is where I’m supposed to be. Didn’t you check the hunt diagram at the camp?”
Papaw scratched his head. “Well, I…” His hands trembled as he broke the chamber of the old gun open. The unspent shell ejected smoothly from the chamber and landed with a soft thud at Papaw’s feet.
“Damn it, Daddy. What the hell are you doing?” Daddy said to Papaw as he walked up to the stricken laser.
“There was a chicken on it.”
Tim walked up too, and he, Daddy and I gathered around to look at the laser. Papaw was still standing in the spot from which he’d fired, the ejected shell on the ground at his feet. He pulled the spent shell from the gun, and he held it in his hand.
Tim stared blankly down at the damage. Tim hadn’t said much since the day before, when Uncle Jed had gone to get Jackie from the sheriff. His slack, weary face was suddenly old, a window into some sad future he’d lost the will to fight.
“Should I go find Jed?” I asked.
Daddy’s head snapped around toward me, and he looked at me with disbelief that melted into grudged resignation. He looked back down at the laser and shook his head. “No.”
“How much you think an earthmover laser guidance system goes for?” I said.
“Nothing, not a damn thing. The piece of crap didn’t work anyway,” Daddy said.
“It sure isn’t going to work now,” I said.
“As far as we’re concerned, some drunk kids out shooting road signs last night did it, got it?”
I shrugged. “Sure, whatever. We still don’t have any chickens for the gumbo.” I looked over my shoulder. Papaw was shuffling slowly back to where he’d parked his pickup by the road. The spent and the unspent shotgun shells lay on the ground side by side where he’d been standing. When he reached the truck, he put his shotgun in the gun rack, climbed in, and started the engine. Then he folded his arms across the top of the steering wheel and put his head down against them.
Moments later, the group of listless chickens emerged from the underbrush on the other side of the road and drifted toward the mechanical whir of the idling engine.
“Now, why didn’t I think of that?” I said as I raised my gun to fire.
* * *
“So this news crew out of Texarkana shows up here like I’m supposed to know who they are.” Papaw laughed. “I didn’t have the heart to tell them we don’t get anything out here but what we can pick up on satellite. Whose draw is it anyway?” He nudged me with an elbow, and I realized that he was asking how many cards I wanted.
“One,” I said, discarding the jack of spades that was messing up my heart flush. At least the king of clubs I got back gave me two of a kind.
Tim took a couple of the cards from his hand and slapped them face down on the green felt surface of the small round table that served as the camp poker table. “Two.”
Papaw gave Daddy three cards for the ones he’d discarded. Then he took two cards himself. “Your bet, kiddo,” he said to me.
I tossed a nickel into the pot.
“I’m in for a nickel,” Daddy said as the bet went around.
Papaw raised a quarter.
“Too rich for me,” Daddy said, slapping his cards face down on the table.
“Wait your turn,” Papaw told him.
“I’m out too,” I said.
“Aw, come on. How am I supposed to pay for that laser at this rate?” Papaw said.
“I told you, it was drunk kids shooting signs,” Daddy said.
“Why the hell ain’t Jed playing? He’s easy to bluff,” Papaw said.
“You mean you’re bluffing?” I asked.
“Gotta pay to find out.” He winked at me as he raked in his winnings.
“He’s over there stirring my gumbo for me,” Daddy said. “Didn’t you see him when you came in?”
“Guess I never thought to look for him there,” Papaw said. “Hell, as long as all these women and kids have invaded our camp, it looks like one of them could stir the gumbo.”
Daddy had invited half of Hampton County for the wild chicken gumbo party, but the better halves had shown up with them and brought their kids too. Duke’s camp was in reality the old Hampton General Store, long ago put out of business by the convenience store two miles down the Hampton highway at the junction of state highway 42, but it was spacious and reasonably weather tight. It was normally a bastion of male bonding, and the only woman who could generally be found there was Jed’s wife Penny, who could hunt as well as any man in the county and who seemed to like the refuge of the deer camp as much as we did. She had taken some taxidermy classes at the vo-tech some years back, and she was busy stuffing and mounting one of the chickens we’d bagged. Since her interest in wild things tended to revolve around her ability to tame them, she had it posed something like the typical rooster on a weather vane, nothing like the wild cockiness of the elusive alpha rooster, nor, for that matter, like the tangled heap in which this listless rooster had landed after the shotgun blast had knocked it from its feet as it drifted toward the whir of Papaw’s idling engine.
The other women who had descended on the camp for the wild chicken gumbo were divided into three groups. The older ones gathered around the gumbo pot to give Jed pointers on stirring, the middle aged ones gathered around Etta Parker on the hand-me-down old sofa to hear the latest on her eldest daughter’s custody battle, and the young ones gathered around the TV watching The Real World on the satellite that Duke had installed so we could watch ESPN. The kids were divided into two groups. The first group chased each other around and around the pool table.
“If you kids are going to run around like a chicken with its head cut off, do it outside,” Mamaw hollered, shooing the unruly pack out the open front doors.
Jackie, who was sitting alone on one of the sleeping cots along the back wall listening to her Discman, comprised the entirety of the second group.
“Jed said he didn’t feel like playing anymore,” I said.
“Huh,” Papaw said. Then he convulsed so violently I thought he had sneezed. I started to say Gesundheit, but by that time he had grabbed the edge of the poker table and screwed his face into a mask of anguish. His entire body was rigid and shaking, and his breathing became quick and shallow.
“What the hell?” I said.
“Shit,” Daddy said. “He’s having another one of his spells.”
“Spells?” Tim said.
“He’s been having them for a couple of months now,” Daddy said.
“How come I never heard anything about this?” I asked.
“Yeah, no shit,” Tim said.
“He didn’t want anyone to know,” Daddy said. “Come on Papa, breathe. Breathe deep.”
The “spell” lasted only a matter of seconds before Papaw relaxed and his breathing became regular again. Mamaw looked over from the group around the gumbo pot, but Daddy held up a hand to reassure her. She sat down on one of the rickety kitchen chairs and looked away, her hand over her mouth.
“You okay, Papaw?” I asked.
“Just a little light headed,” he said. “Think I better go lay down a minute. Y’all keep playing. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Papaw got up, wobbling slightly before establishing his balance. Daddy tried to help him, but Papaw pushed him off and shuffled over toward the cot he slept on during deer season.
“What now?” I asked.
“We keep playing,” Daddy said.
“Gumbo’s ready,” Jed called from the stove.
“Wait. Don’t deal yet,” Daddy said. “We’ve got to get our gumbo first.”
When we were back with our bowls and spoons, I allowed myself my first bite. I swished it around like a wine taster, trying to unlock the rich subtleties of its complex combination of flavors. I couldn’t decide if it tasted more like Mamma’s gumbo or Mamaw’s. Truth to tell, if I had all three side by side in a taste test, I don’t know that I could tell which was which. They were all three made up of the same elements, same ingredients, same spices—all three variations on the same theme handed down so long that no one could say what the original tasted like anyway. For all I really knew, all three might taste exactly the same if I had the other two in front of me just then instead of having to rely on my memories of them. By Tim’s expression, I could see that he was mildly disappointed in it, but Daddy had such a self-satisfied look on his face that Tim kept his critique to himself. “So, what all is in it, Daddy?” I asked.
“Little of this, little of that.” He pitched a penny into the pot. “Now then, who’s in?”
Jackie came up to the table. The way she peeked out from behind the dark sweep of her hair made her look cautious, untamed. “Papaw told me to come over and play for him,” she said, fiddling with her hair in a way that allowed her to hide her braces with her hand as she spoke.
We all looked at each other. Daddy shrugged. “You know how to play poker?”
“Yeah, I learned at summer camp last year.”
“Okay,” Daddy said.
She sat down, folding one leg underneath her. “What’s the game?”
“Five card draw,” I said, shuffling the deck. “Jacks or better to open.”
She nodded, chewing her lower lip. “Anything wild?”
“Only us chickens.” I pushed the pack toward her. “Cut?”
She scooted her chair closer to mine, extended one dainty finger from the over-long sleeve of her black sweater, and tapped the top card with her black fingernail. She looked up with the one teal-blue eye I could see, and she twisted the visible side of her mouth into a crooked curve of dark lipstick.
“Okay,” I said, picking up the deck and smiling back. I cast a glance at Daddy, who had watched the exchange with raised eyebrows.
Tim seemed to revive somewhat after Jackie had smiled. “So,” he said, “what was it like when the tornado came through? I can’t seem to get any two stories around here to match.”
She pulled her dark lips into a pout, and shrugged. “Made a mess.”
I wondered if this were the same girl who as a child had followed me and Tim around at family gatherings, demanding story after story like a little Scheherazade in training.
I did an imitation of a game show buzzer and said, “I’m sorry, but the judges have ruled that you’ll have to be a bit more specific.”
She smiled again, and tilted her head to the side, causing the black curtain of hair to fall away from her face and revealing the light sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. “Well, I heard all this noise, even over my head phones, so I got up to look out the window, and I saw this column of black coming from the direction of the chicken houses, only the chicken houses were coming with it, and the whole thing was full of these tiny white specks, like one of those little globes you turn upside down to make it snow inside. The weird thing is that I have these recurring dreams about tornadoes, and in the dreams I always remember the previous dreams and think to myself, ‘Man, after all those dreams, I can’t believe it’s really happening.’ When I saw the tornado, I thought the same thing, and right when I thought that, I really didn’t know if I was dreaming or awake. I guess I still don’t, although if I was dreaming, I guess I still am.” She paused to glance my way and give a half smile. “Anyway, then the tornado dropped this pickup truck it was carrying, and it went over to trash this old trailer house by the lake.” She turned her palms up with a shrug to signal the end of her story.
“Better,” Daddy said, and Tim, smiling for the first time since the day before, nodded in agreement as I started to deal the hand. Before I could finish the first trip around the table, the pack of children that had been evicted minutes earlier galloped in through the open doors, accompanied by several of the old hounds that had been lounging around the front porch, all in hot pursuit of the feral alpha rooster. The chicken, in a flapping white blur of cackling feathers, launched itself over the back of the sofa where Etta Parker and her audience dove for cover as they instinctively shielded their hairdos. From there it skipped across the pool table to land squarely in the center of the poker table, scattering cards, coins, and feathers. Jackie still held the little pose that had punctuated her story, though her smile shifted to a smirk. She bit her lip and her shoulders began to tremble as she scooted closer to grab my arm and lay her head against my shoulder. A girlish giggle bubbled out for a moment before bursting forth into first a throaty, clucking laugh and then a high, wailing cackle. “Only us chickens!” she gasped as she convulsed against my shoulder.
Daddy made a lunge for the chicken, upending the table and Tim’s chair, and the chicken launched into motion once again, leaping to Aunt Penny’s workbench and toppling her taxidermy project as he flapped out through an open window in the back. By that time, the momentum of the pack of children and hounds, only temporarily blunted by the sofa, Etta Parker’s hairdo, and the pool table, crashed into Daddy and Tim as they struggled to extricate themselves from the wreckage of the poker table and Tim’s mangled chair.
“Only us chickens!” Jackie cried again as she buried her face against my chest and sobbed. I put my arm around her, and for lack of a better idea, I rocked her, back and forth and back and forth, clucking soft notes of encouragement as I wished with all my soul that just for once someone would tell me what the hell was going on. Tim’s face, younger now, much younger, beamed out from the rolling mass of giggling and barking bodies on the floor. Dogs and children yelped and scattered as Daddy swatted at all within reach, and outside, the ethereal crow of the alpha rooster drifted like a thousand feathered ghosts among the shattered trees.