A Writer’s Notebook: literary retrospective

This week, another post based on a tutee’s assignment — this time for a high school student writing a final term paper. I’ll explain the assignment below (it’s an awesome one — this tutee of mine has a very cool high school English teacher!), but I ought to explain up front that I’m short-cutting my own work, because this is an updated excerpt from an essay I wrote back in grad school. It’s still a hot mess, though, so I’ll call it a work in progress and pretend it’s a writing exercise (I did revise the thing, after all).

In Tom Franklin’s “The Hunting Years,” which serves as the introduction to his story collection Poachers, he writes about his childhood as an unenthusiastic hunter. “For some reason, I never wanted to kill things,” he writes, “but I was never bold enough to say so. Instead, I did the expected: went to church on Sundays and on Wednesday nights, said ‘Yes ma’am’ and ‘No sir’ to my elders. And I hunted.” He was a miserable shot at first, got better only because the social structure of his South demanded it, and abandoned hunting as soon as his South let him, after he had earned his badge as a Man. But when I met him about a decade ago, he was talking about hunting in new words, with new breaths of excitement. He wanted to go out into the wilderness again, site down the barrel of a rifle, and fire. Kill. Win. Be right with the world again. Some men are like that. They can see the world quartered by crosshairs, organized into hit or miss. These men wrinkle their brows when they hear I’m a vegetarian, unsure how I can readily abandon my manly right to meat. My sights are out of line; I’m not seeing the crosshairs. But I have sighted down the barrel at the living world, and I have pulled the trigger. Not, perhaps, in the ways these men would prefer, or with the weapons they might choose, but I haven’t always been a vegetarian, and I haven’t always shunned the thought of killing.

When I was twelve, my father did something a lot of fathers do sooner or later: he bought me an air rifle. It was a simple single-pump, but it looked like a M-16, black, with a magazine for spare bbs and a grip along the top. I thought it was the coolest air rifle ever made. I shot everything. I shot soda cans in my bedroom. I shot those black steel wildlife targets that pinged as they fell from the back deck railing into the weeds of our backyard. I shot paper targets and cardboard boxes and — thanks to a very cool adaptation for air darts — I shot corkboard and dart boards and bulletin boards, too.

And once, I shot a bird.

The people who made this particular air rifle wanted something versatile, so they made this rifle so it could fire all sorts of ammunition. In addition to bbs and air darts, the rifle could take a thin plastic four-shot clip with little lead pellets. When we got the gun, my dad bought me all the ammo: brass bbs, tiny darts with a rainbow of furry tails, and a big box full of flat-headed lead target pellets.

The darts were, of course, my favorites. Not only did they stick nicely in dartboards (and cardboard and corkboard and my bedroom walls), but they were easy to trace and they were reusable. I lost most of the bbs I shot, usually in the backyard but sometimes in my closet or under the kitchen stove or in the fireplace. The pellets, being flat-headed and lead, stopped quickly and stayed fairly close to where they hit, but once I found them, I could never reuse them — they wound up misshapen from the impact. So the bbs and pellets soon depleted.

The darts were my dad’s favorite, too: all fathers, on buying their sons air rifles, quickly revert to childhood. He didn’t mind the bbs, because when lost, they didn’t often get found. But the pellets he had issues with. At first he liked them from a scientific point of view. It was interesting to see how the lead flattened and warped when it hit things. And when shot at things not usually marked as targets, the lead often left a little gray smear as evidence of the hit. My father particularly enjoyed firing the pellets at old tires on the side of our house, because afterward we could inspect the marks and deduce what direction the pellets had ricocheted.

But soon my father discovered that pellets fired — and then lost — in the house got found quite often. They usually turned up on the kitchen tile in the middle of the night, when my father was barefoot and crabby. So pellets, I learned early on, were not the best thing to shoot out of my air rifle. Which is precisely why I bought a new box as soon as I had the money.

Being twelve, I wasn’t prone to reading labels or thinking things through, so I didn’t notice until I’d got home that my new box of pellets was different from the last. But I did notice when I opened the box and drew out a single pellet, ready to load my four-shot clip. This pellet was not flat; it was pointed.

So then I read the box. The label was copper and black, not gunmetal and black as the last had been, and instead of “Target Pellets” written in small white print across the middle, it read, “Gaming Pellets.” There was a picture of a small bird.

My father grew up a Boy Scout. Worked for them after college, too. He has a degree in forestry and a healthy respect for nature. But we both had grown up in Texas, and in Texas, when you see “Gaming” and a picture of a bird, you are reminded that Texas expects its men to hunt. If you don’t hunt, you at least ought to have hunted once, and you ought to admire the sport. My dad didn’t hunt, I think on account of his hearing aids, but he’d been out a time or two in his youth. He still keeps an old Stevens model 95 shotgun in his bedroom. So my father was all right, a man in good standing in the state of Texas. Me — I’d never been hunting. So I knew what I had to do. The pellet box had told me.

I loaded the pellet clip. I pumped the air rifle, cocked it, hefted it by its M-16-like black handle. I sneaked out the back door, around the house, and into the small wooded lot across the street. I watched for birds.

The first bird I saw was small. It perched in the upper branches of a scraggly little live oak, surrounded by juniper brush and one lonely yucca stalk. Despite my father’s and grandfather’s careful tutoring, I’d never mastered the art of bird watching, so I didn’t know what kind of bird this was. I only knew it was small. And alone. And unaware of me.

I was a good shot by then — I could hit those steel targets almost every time from some fairly impressive distances. But the bird was not steel. When I raised the rifle, I had to breathe slowly; the rifle made minute bobs with the pounding of my heart. My temples throbbed. Sweat dripped into my eyes, but I couldn’t blink. I inhaled, held the breath, and squeezed the trigger. The rifle popped. The bird simply vanished.

I stared at the tree, then at the ground, for several long breaths. I circled the tree, poking at the brush with the guilty muzzle of my air rifle. I walked in a spiral away from the tree, sweeping my head from side to side. I even whistled a few times, my lungs still jumpy and my heart still pounding. I looked in other trees, I scanned the horizon. Nothing.

Not long after, I took up a new weapon, a straight bow made of banana-colored fiberglass. I’d discovered in my middle-school gym class that I had a knack for archery, so when I saw this old bow for fifty cents at a garage sale, I couldn’t reach into my jams pocket fast enough. Like the air rifle, this was nothing intentionally dangerous — the only arrows I bought were from Walmart and had impossibly dull tips (a few even bounced off the cardboard box I hauled into the wooded ravine behind my house). But I took the target shooting seriously — even bought a camouflaged padded wrist guard — and spent hours down in the woods, firing into the box for long afternoons, sometimes until dusk. One fall afternoon, an armadillo came scurrying through the hilly brush across the creekbed from me, and for the hell of it, I decided to try and hit a moving target.

I wasn’t thinking about killing the armadillo, really. I barely thought of it as a living creature. Armadillos in Texas have the status of something equivalent to mud pies — they’re disgusting but make-believe. In college, I had a friend who would stop his truck next to an armadillo trying to cross the road so he could reach out the door to pick the thing up and then drive down the street with the armadillo kicking its tiny gray legs until he lobbed it like a football into the ditch. I wasn’t thinking of this armadillo as a living creature — I just saw something new to shoot at, something only slightly less dull than my sagging cardboard box. So I pivoted there in the dirt, my feet planted but my torso following the target; I notched an arrow, drew back, and let it fly into the brush. Amazingly, I hit it, and in what must have been a karmic miracle designed to teach me a lesson, my dull Walmart target arrow wedged itself into a convenient spot where two of the armadillo’s armor plates met. I don’t think I actually pierced the armadillo’s hide, because the damned thing jumped and went scurrying through the woods until it found its hole to disappear into, and outside the hole, I found my arrow, dirty but unbloodied. But I felt sick all the rest of that day, sick and guilty, much the same way I’d felt when, only a few months before, I’d shot at the bird with my pellet rifle.

I’m sure I didn’t injure the armadillo beyond a nasty bruise and a serious case of the nerves. A few years later, I found another and, unarmed and with my younger sister and brother in tow, I followed it to its hole and watched it crawl quietly into the earth. I sat outside the hole for a long time, satisfied that this one, too, had gotten away.

I still don’t know what happened to that bird. I have no idea whether I hit it, or winged it, or missed altogether and just scared it off. I sometimes wonder if it was even there to begin with. But I haven’t aimed a weapon at living thing since high school, when I loaded a single Black Cat firecracker into the barrel of that air rifle and asked my girlfriend to light it so I could fire the little explosion into the New Year’s night air. The fuse fizzled, but when I moved the barrel to check it, the firecracker exploded in my girlfriend’s face. She was fine, but I decided that night I’d had enough of nearly killing things.

So, here’s the assignment my tutee is working on: She’s been reading a whole slew of heavy texts this year (Life of Pi, 1984, Henderson the Rain King, Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Grendel, with healthy doses of Frankl, Sartre, and Camus), and her teacher has asked each student to write a retrospective memoir in which she connects pivotal moments in her life with thematic elements in the works they’ve read for class. It’s a weighty assignment, but it’s a cool assignment, and my tutee is working on a killer essay (we outlined it yesterday).

I wanted to write a piece today about Raymond Carver, because it’s his birthday (he would have been 74 today), but every approach I tried wound up being more about Raymond Carver than about pivotal moments in my own life. So I started thinking about other writers I love and admire, and when I started working over Tom Franklin, I remembered this essay I started back in grad school. So here we are.

Want a better example? In helping my tutee work on her essay, I remembered a really excellent example of precisely this sort of assignment, so I linked her to a blog post by my friend Michael Levan, who read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road while his infant son slept on Michael’s chest.

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