When I was six years old, I shot a man.
People think I am joking when I say this, as I do occasionally, if prodded, in a group that wants to talk guns or hunting or the excesses of the rural South. It has been nearly twenty years since I discharged a firearm or spent any time in a deer stand or duck blind, yet I am considered an authority on such matters, since I live among people who are not.
Clearly my father was eager for me to be a hunter. Santa brought me a BB gun and a pair of insulated camouflage coveralls when I was four, in spite of the fact that my mother reviled guns and hunting. “Did you kill them all?” she used to ask when Dad would come in from duck hunting. “Did you rid the world of all those awful ducks?”
After breakfast that Christmas morning, I followed my father out to the garage, where he shaved several inches off the air rifle’s stock with his rickety mint-green jigsaw. An attorney, he is not mechanically inclined, and even at that age I sensed something hasty and inexact in the work. By the time we ate turkey that afternoon, I was adept at shooting the hearts out of Miller Lite empties. In those days the cans had dark ovals on their sides and made excellent targets.
In Mississippi, though, there is always a further extreme of roughness. My friend Kris Hough across the street, who was my age, received his own gun from Santa that year as well, but a real one, a .410 shotgun. My father did most of his deer hunting down near Vicksburg, where he and my mother had lived for several years, and he belonged to the club across the river in Arkansas where Kris and his father hunted. The four of us went over to Arkansas one early morning that Christmas holiday. It was my first time hunting.
Kris made it clear before I ever got to the woods that his gun was real and mine wasn’t, so initially the morning felt false in the way childhood often does. I was aware, as my father climbed down from the tree stand and arranged Miller Lite cans on the forest floor, then took photos of me shooting them, that this was not hunting.
Quickly the morning became real. Dad was back in the stand, and we heard a sound like thunder, only close by and more menacing. Seconds later a deer loped past and fell in a heap. Kris and his father appeared, following the same path as the deer, and I could hear Mr. Hough’s excitable baritone. They stood together over the motionless animal, and Kris raised his gun to his shoulder. He shot the deer point-blank in the ribs.
“Why did Kris shoot that deer after it was already dead?” I asked.
“Mr. Hough shot it,” Dad said, trying to be generous, I think, “but it was still alive. Kris had to put it out of its misery.”
We climbed down from the stand and joined them alongside the dead deer, a big-bodied yearling buck. As we approached I became fixated on a gaping hole in its white hind parts, inside of which cherry-pie filling seemed to heave. A miraculous sight, and yet no one else appeared to notice. The men were busy celebrating Kris, and Kris was busy basking.
It is hard to imagine that Kris’s .410 didn’t make my father feel at least slightly upstaged. It is also possible that my mother was behind his relative moderation, that she would relent only to the extent of a BB gun that first year and that Dad had wanted to get me a shotgun all along. At any rate I did not have to wait long: the following Christmas, Santa brought me a youth model 20-gauge. Now, at age five, I was upstaging Kris. A 20-gauge had actual stopping power. I didn’t need a deer to be taking its last breaths before I “killed” it.
We did not hunt at the Arkansas club anymore. I was now big enough to go to the real deer camp, Big Rack, the one near Vicksburg. The Arkansas club was real enough, of course, but in the sense of embodying what deer camps were in those days—places supporting a kind of season-long festival of backwoods manly decadence—Big Rack must rank with the great ones.
Certain rules, such as the one requiring that you pay a quarter if you were not wearing a hat at the mess hall table, worked like gleeful middle fingers raised to the world the men normally lived in. Now they strike me as ideals of harmless subversion. Others frightened me, namely the rule mandating that your shirttail be cut off with a hunting knife if you shot and missed a deer. I had been taught to value and protect all that was given to me, and my father’s hunting gear seemed the most prized of his possessions. It made no sense that a simple mistake should be met with such gratuitous destruction of property.
The harvested shirttails of years gone by covered the walls of a mess-hall anteroom, and on each piece of fabric, tacked flat to the plaster, some unkind scribe had detailed the circumstances of its wearer’s shame. My father showed the shirttails to me, and I inspected them closely. To my relief, I found that he was not responsible for any of the truly bewildering displays of poor marksmanship in camp history. He had not missed a deer eleven times, fourteen times, sixteen times, as others had done. (I find myself wondering what suicidal episodes might have resulted from such displays of ineptness, but then I imagine that this stuff would have been offloaded on wives and children.) Dad had lost his share of shirttails, though, all of them for between one and five misses. At least he had the good sense not to reload after emptying a whole clip into the undergrowth. On one of his old shirttails there was the alarming proclamation that he had been too drunk to see the deer he was attempting to kill.
I knew my father drank beer and smoked cigars and did not go to church often enough, but at deer camp, where men woke up drinking whiskey and went to sleep drinking whiskey, it emerged that he was an exemplary figure. I didn’t know what to do with such knowledge, so I just set it to the side. I now understand why I was sent to play with two older boys, Steve and Freddy, in a separate cabin while a group of men congregated in ours. At the time I assumed the men had important business to sort out.
It must have been January, that same hunting season, after my birthday. I was six now. At breakfast in the Big Rack mess hall, the men drew straws. Those whose sons were with them did not have to draw. When the losers were announced there was a riot of hooting, laughing, and sarcastic backslapping. Mr. Blue, a man with dark hair and a gentle face, drew one of the short straws.
“What do they have to do?” I asked my father.
At Big Rack and other hunting clubs of that era, packs of trained dogs were employed to sniff out deer and flush them into view. A morning’s hunt involved listening to the tidal approach and retreat of the pack’s frenzied yipping—they were beagles, mostly—and hoisting your gun whenever the sound grew loud. Most deer were shot on the run (hence the profusion of shirttails). But on this day, there were no dogs. So Mr. Blue and two or three other short-straw holders had to play their part.
We drove into the woods in the dark, as usual, in Dad’s tank-like, orange-and-white GMC Jimmy, known ignominiously at home as the Orange Truck. It was not simply that the Orange Truck often got dirty; it was that it had not been cleaned since leaving the new car lot half a decade ago. To my mother’s ongoing astonishment, my father, who also had a Mercedes, frequently drove the outrageous truck in town, with no concern for its downscale look or the martial whine of its giant tires. He turned off the main rutted road onto an overgrown logging trail, and we blitzed through saplings and cocklebur bushes. This was my favorite part of hunting, being sealed up and invincible inside the Orange Truck with him, warm and just waking up, as the wild outside yielded to us.
My father carried both guns as well as the bag full of our gear, and I followed his flashlight beam until we were at the stand. I went up the ladder first, and then he hauled everything up on his back. This was a box stand, essentially a roofless treehouse with a plank bench and a perimeter railing for a gun rest. Seated on the bench, I had to stretch to see over the railing. To get my gun up and onto it I had to stand. With his mini-flashlight in his mouth Dad loaded the guns and leaned them against the railing. Then he poured my hot chocolate and his coffee from two thermoses, and he killed the light. As the darkness gave way to a weak grayish yellow we began to hear the dog men bellowing.
“Hoop-nuh! Hoop-nuh! Hoop-nuh!”
“Get out of there! Get out now! Get on out of there!”
They did not sound like dogs, but their noises came and went like the dogs’, now louder and now fainter, never disappearing.
“I have to poop,” I said.
It came on me all of a sudden. It was non-negotiable.
“You can’t hold it?”
I shook my head, and my father dug through the gear.
“We don’t have any toilet paper,” he said.
I just looked at him.
He thought for a moment, and then he removed his hunting knife from his belt scabbard, took off his coat, unbuttoned his shirt, and pulled his undershirt out from his waistband. Holding the shirt taut in front of him, he ripped through the seam in two places with the knife and then, with his hands, tore away a square of it, maybe one-foot-by-one. As with the shirttails in the mess hall, there was a deeply subversive element in this, only now it was operating on my behalf. I felt important. Dad subdivided the square into strips, handed them to me, and told me to put them in my pocket while I climbed down.
“Where should I go?” I asked.
“Go right under the stand,” he said. “Try to hurry, and take your gun with you. I’ll tell you if I see a deer.”
I descended with the gun strap over my shoulder and the stock banging the ladder. I remember the unwelcome sense of exposure on my own down there. The stand occupied a small island between leaf-carpeted gullies, so there was at least a slight sense of separation from the dangers beyond. I stared at a looming gray thicket and wondered if I would be able to shoot an animal if it came charging out to attack me. I leaned my gun on the ladder and got directly under the stand, as Dad had told me to do. I unzipped my coveralls and pulled them down. They lay in a wide puddle around my boots.
“Hang them on the ladder steps,” Dad advised me. Then, “Shhh. Let’s don’t talk anymore.”
I had just finished, had just gotten my coveralls zipped up, when I heard, “Mark! Deer! Quick! Shoot it!”
I gripped my gun in both hands, ready to raise it to my shoulder. Where was the deer? I looked at the thicket again—nothing. The open ground below and in front of me—nothing.
Then I heard crashing limbs behind me, and I spun. A doe was upon me, angling away, maybe twenty yards out, definitely close enough to shoot. I shouldered the gun and fired once, but she didn’t break her stride, and then I couldn’t see her anymore.
I climbed back into the stand.
“I didn’t know we could shoot a doe,” I said.
“You shot at a doe?”
There was a long silence. My father said it was a small buck he meant for me to shoot. The buck came from the same direction as the doe but passed us on the other side. He and I had been looking in opposite directions.
No sooner had we clarified this than a groaning voice, weak but loud and unmistakably desperate, called out, “Errrr-naaaay!”
My father’s name is Ernie. I looked at him, aware that this was not good. He did not look at me.
“Who is that?” I asked.
“It’s Mr. Blue,” Dad said quietly, as though distracted.
“Stay right here,” he said. “Don’t move. I’ll be back in just a little while.”
For the first few minutes I heard voices, my father’s for sure but also Mr. Blue’s and then maybe someone else’s. He was gone for an excruciatingly long time. Plainly the situation was serious, and as I turned the possibilities over in my mind I realized what had happened: I had shot the Orange Truck.
I fired in that direction, where the truck was parked. Mr. Blue, pretending to be a dog, had heard my shot and then come upon the truck. Probably I’d blown a hole in the side of it and all the gas was gushing out, or I’d shot one of the wheels off. My father and I would be stuck out here for a long time if they didn’t repair the damage right away. This explained the urgency in Mr. Blue’s voice. No doubt they were working frantically on the truck right now.
When Dad returned, his shaky demeanor seemed consistent with this scenario. What worse thing could I have done than ruined the Orange Truck?
But he said, “Part of your shot hit Mr. Blue in the shoulder.” My shells were buckshot; at least I hadn’t hit him squarely. “We have to hurry. Dr. Vessell’s taking Mr. Blue into town.”
“Is he going to be okay?”
I don’t remember my father answering me, and all day after the incident, alone on the rutted dirt road that ran between the cabins and the mess hall, I didn’t know if Mr. Blue would be okay. I don’t know why I remained outside rather than going into the cabin. I walked back and forth on the road. I saw Steve and Freddy by the empty dog pens, and I thought they looked at me with mingled fascination and hate. I kicked the dirt, feeling hollow and fluttery one moment, leaden and nauseous the next.
My life was over. I was a criminal. The worst thing a person could do, I knew, was to shoot another person. This time now, this waiting at deer camp, was the part you never saw on TV. The police were probably on the way, or talking to my father about what had happened and what would happen next. The longer he was gone, the more certain I became that he would not return. He would have no choice but to turn me over to the police. I would leave deer camp in handcuffs. My parents and sisters would visit me in jail, but there was nothing they could do. They could not change the rules. You couldn’t shoot someone and not go to jail. Having shot someone, I felt, I no longer had any claim on their affection.
It is this state of mind, rather than Dad’s return, that I remember. Did he drive up in the Orange Truck, park in front of our cabin, and pack up our things? Did he talk to someone first, let people know how Mr. Blue was doing? Did he tell me that it wasn’t my fault, that it was going to be all right?
“Is Mr. Blue going to be all right?” I asked at some point.
“He lost a lot of blood,” Dad said, “but he’s going to be all right.”
Mr. Blue did not die. He almost bled to death, my mother later told me, but that was all I ever found out. Presumably my parents did not go out of their way to stay in touch with him in the years that followed.
For a while afterward I did not hunt. Then, when I was eight, my father joined another club, an upscale one where the deer were big and the men more domesticated than at Big Rack. There were no dogs, so woodcraft mattered, and I assembled a formidable battery of skills. I filled up the walls of my childhood room with antlers and shoulder-mounted trophies. It was one of the main things people knew about me—that I was a serious hunter. I stopped thinking of the accident as definitive. It was a terrible event for Mr. Blue, certainly, but it said little about me.
Years later, as a college senior in New Orleans, I ran into Freddy at a small debauched house party. He was in town visiting a mutual friend who had lately set himself up as a low-level cocaine dealer. Since we were renewing our acquaintance in front of an audience, and since cocaine induces megalomania, it seemed natural to tell the story of shooting Mr. Blue, and to tell it for laughs. When I finished, Freddy was not laughing, least of all at my rendering of Mr. Blue’s howl. I seemed to have angered him.
“People were up in arms about it,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“It was a big, big deal,” he said. “Mr. Blue almost died.”
“I know,” I said.
“No, I’m serious. The man barely survived. People were irate. Your dad basically got run out of the club.”
This came as a shock. Not so much the information that Mr. Blue almost bled to death—I knew that—or that leaving Big Rack was not my father’s choice. It was the fact that Freddy’s view of me was entirely determined, even now, more than fifteen years later, by my having shot Mr. Blue. I understood that there must be a number of people who felt this way, people who lived in Vicksburg and saw the events from Mr. Blue’s perspective rather than mine.
For the rest of that night I nodded and smiled at people, pretending I was one of them. But I would never be one of them. I was six again, convinced that at some level beyond language and the law, blood was on my hands. I would have to answer for it.
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