When I pull the shotgun out of the case, the reality of my folly strikes me.
Although Willie and I have been next-door neighbors for 20 years, we only last week stumbled onto the fact we’d both loved hunting pheasants with our fathers when we were kids. I mentioned how sorry I was I let my father’s double-barreled Winchester 20-gauge be sold in an estate sale. Two days later Willie hands me a nearly identical Winchester, telling me he borrowed it from a friend who knows a farmer down in Iowa who’d let us hunt his just-picked cornfields. With a whirlwind of idyllic memories swirling through my head, here I am, shotgun in hand, Iowa farm fields all around.
I have not shot a gun in 50 years.
“You best zip that case back up and come with me, Arnie,” says Willie. “Got to first schmooze an old widower farmer like this one.”
I zip the tan cloth case back up. A part of me wishes the gun would stay zipped up. I’ve had no opportunity to shoot even a tin can, not with us living at the end of a city cul-de-sac where neighborhood children play. Although I’ve written extensively about the romance and horror of war, interviewing many soldiers, I’ve never owned a gun of my own. It surprised me to learn Willie owns several. I’ve never seen him in hunting garb, and I know he’s lived in the city his whole life.
As we walk from Willie’s Jeep toward a white two-story farmhouse, a weather-beaten face pops out its front door.
“So you’re the Minnesota boys who’d like to hunt some wild peasants,” says the gaunt old farmer, mispronouncing pheasants for humor’s sake. “And you must be Master Willenkoff,” he says to Willie.
The Master is humorous yet strange, like establishing alpha male superiority over a couple of fellow old men.
“I am indeed Master Willenkoff,” says Willie, his given name Martin — which I know only from getting his mail by mistake. “And this is my good neighbor, Master Carolman.”
“Where’s your dog?” the farmer asks.
“No dog,” says Willie. “We’ll just stomp around and see what we get up.”
The farmer spits tobacco juice on an evergreen bush that displays evidence of being a frequent target. “Hard to get birds with no dog. But there’s plenty here, fat as chickens. I ain’t let nobody hunt my land in four years. I’m too damn old for such stomping around. But I do miss eating a proper-cooked pheasant. You heard what I asked?”
“Yep,” says Willie. “You just want one bird. You mind if we bust some clay pigeons first?”
“No, but do it behind that barn over yonder. And don’t make like a shooting gallery. Every bird within a mile’ll be on high alert. Pheasants is hard to hunt with a dog.”
“I recall,” says Willie, “they prefer running to flying.”
“Oh, they’re good at hiding, too,” says the farmer. “They can hide in a little clump of weeds or cornstalks and watch you walk by, laughing at your old asses. And you’d best be good shots. You’ll never find a wounded bird without a dog. A young rooster can run a half mile when he’s three-quarters dead. You got a plan?”
“Oh, we figure it’ll come back to us,” says Willie. “We’ll be happy just to see some birds, feel the sun on us, and breathe some crisp country air. And with it already past noon and rain forecast, we best get started. Especially with Arnie here having to get back for church tonight on penalty of hell. Or so says his wife.”
All three of us chuckle at the wife joke.
“Any particular reason,” I ask, “you haven’t let anyone hunt for four years?”
“To be right honest, I let too many city folks like you two come out. Got buckshot in my vinyl siding one year. The next year some fool blew out my truck window. Then four years ago one hunter shot his hunting partner. Killed him.”
“Yeah, my friend mentioned that,” says Willie. “Sounds real tragic.”
“More like real suspicious,” says the farmer. “But the sheriff says it’s hard to make a case on a hunting accident. Especially when the shooter’s the only surviving witness. So you fellas be careful, okay? And don’t be shooting my neighbor’s cows.”
“Oh,” says Willie, “We’re not totally city folks. I hunted with my dad on an uncle’s farm when I was a kid. And Arnie here grew up on a farm and hunted. Crazy to live next door to each other for 20 years and not know that.”
The old farmer shrugs, gives the bush another coat, and scans the partly sunny sky.
“Well, have at it,” he says. “Get me a bird.”
Behind the barn, I snap open the Winchester’s side-by-side chambers. The smell of fresh gun oil again brings back memories of my father, just like when I’d cracked it open at the kitchen table over Deb’s protests. I’d sniffed the chambers’ mix of oil and gunpowder, drifting so far away Deb asked if she was finally losing me to a newer model. We both laughed, but I later caught her in a wild-eyed stare at the gun. She’d said be careful a dozen times this morning, always adding that I’d best be back in time for church. “And I don’t mean for your funeral,” she’d tacked on when I walked out the door.
After Willie tears open the box of clay pigeons, I grab one of the black flying disks. It feels so light and fragile, small enough I can hold it flat in my hand, fingertips curling around its edges. I practice with the hand thrower. My first try goes way left, almost hitting Master Willenkoff. Once I get the needed wrist snap down, Willie gets into hunting position, his 12-gauge Browning pump pointed down but ready.
“Pull,” he says.
I fling one out poorly, too low and too far right, but Willie snaps the gun to his shoulder and fires, the blast so close and loud I jump.
“Good shot,” I say, watching the shattered clay disk strafe the ground.
“You try,” Willie says. “I’m good. Had plenty of practice.”
“Plenty? I thought you hadn’t hunted in years.”
“True, but I shoot all the time at the range.”
Willie’s affable personality never suggested he liked guns. I knew he liked live theater and good wine, but guns too?
“You like the range?” I ask.
“Yep. Lets off steam, Arnie. And there’s plenty of steam to let off these days.”
“You definitely got that right.”
I keep my own raging anger to myself. I raged when I was young, but Deb domesticated me. My long-time interest in war and soldiers, Deb believes, is my attempt to overcome guilt at having not gone to Vietnam. Maybe she’s right. I told myself back then I’d go, but when I drew a high lottery number, I didn’t enlist. Now retired, the old rage has returned. I’ve gotten so steamed watching the news that Deb has often grabbed the remote and changed to one of those ubiquitous Andy Griffith reruns, those lullaby portals to simpler times that never really quite existed.
While Willie gets the thrower ready, I practice bringing the gun up fast, firmly against my shoulder. Yes, this could be a great way to let off steam.
Slipping in two brass-bottomed yellow shells, I snap the barrels shut like a door locking. I take the safety off.
Willie makes a beautiful throw, strong and fast, the flying disk rising to ten feet off the ground. I can’t get it lined up in the sights, but I pull the trigger anyway and miss. Even knowing it’s coming, the gun’s kick on my shoulder, like the lightning jab of a pro boxer, startles me. The acrid burnt gunpowder transports me back to hunts with my father, the scent a sort of manly perfume, the perfume of the power over life and death.
“Don’t try to sight in,” says Willie. “It’s all just point and shoot with birds. It’ll be the same with my pistol if I ever need it. I keep a loaded one in my nightstand. You know there was a house not two blocks from us broken into this summer. Any damn son-of-a-bitch best not break into mine.”
The pistol revelation shocks me. I’d toyed with having a gun in our house, too, but Deb wouldn’t hear of it, not with curious children — and now grandchildren — around.
Willie’s damn son-of-a-bitch is as much a surprise as the pistol. I’ve never known him to utter a single blue word. Like me, he goes to church, if not mine. Not that I think churchgoers don’t say bad words, but it seems there’s a touch of formality between churchgoing neighbors if the churchgoing is known. Willie and I have mainly talked of the weather, our houses, our cars, our lawns, and our kids — all grown and gone. Our wives, however, talk to each other somewhat more expansively. Deb says Willie’s wife, Lee Ann, has to take pills for anxiety — the dose upped since Willie retired from managing a big discount store.
Willie tosses another disk. I point, pull, and nick it — confirmed by a bit of black dust and a disk wobble. When I pull out the two spent shells to reload, the hot brass bases reveal the violence released when struck just so.
“One more,” says Willie. “Make it good.”
I practice snapping the gun to my shoulder, firm against it such that my right eye is automatically looking down the barrel.
I snap the gun up, point, pull, and blow the disk into a cloud of black fragments.
“Good hit,” says Willie. “Let’s get some birds.”
* * *
We walk through the nearest field of harvested corn. My brown winter coat is almost too warm when the sun peeks between the gray clouds, which are now squeezing together like an audience settling in for a show.
The wet fall delayed harvests so much it’s almost Thanksgiving. We see plenty of scattered kernels and fallen ears on the ground — great pheasant food — but no birds. The short stalks left behind look like rows of regimented stick soldiers. We stay ever ready for the sudden explosion of a pheasant taking flight, wings beating madly for its life. Hunting with a dog when I was a kid inflated the anticipation. I can still see my dad’s English setter regally frozen on point, eyes on the prey, one front paw raised, tail rigid — and my heart beating faster, waiting for the dog to spring forward and flush the bird into the air.
No birds, however, get up for Willie and me as we tramp to the end of the field, a cattail marsh beyond.
That’s when we see the signs. Our last steps make them appear to creep out from behind a clump of trees — gargantuan things standing in a distant neighbor’s front yard. Most people take their signs down by mid-November but these look year round. I note mud splatters on the signs in places, little sunburst marks. Someone — or ones — clearly doesn’t like the signs, the mud likely thrown from passing cars or pickups at night.
“So many idiots,” says Willie, nodding toward the signs.
“You got that right,” I say, feeling a bit relieved. In getting Willie’s mail by mistake, one political appeal made me wonder whether it was junk mail — or Willie was on the mailing list.
“And liars, too,” mutters Willie.
“You got that double right,” I say.
Willie looks directly at me. “I need to ask you something, Arnie. I’ve heard you wrote a book about war, but I haven’t been able to find it.”
“I have a pen name.”
“Well, Arnie Carolman always sounded wimpy to me.”
“So what’s your pen name?”
“Did you write other books?”
“No. I mainly did freelance stories for magazines.”
“What kind of stories?”
“Mostly ones on war. Or politics.”
I’ve learned to skirt this question. The magazines I wrote for have strong leanings.
“Various ones,” I say. “I just wrote factual pieces.”
Willie pulls out his phone. We all now have a library in our pocket. Tedrick Claymore’s list of publications is easy to find. Willie’s head slowly shakes, followed by a rainbowing eye roll.
“I’ll be honest,” he says. “I don’t see magazines like those knowing what a fact is. If it threatens their worldview, it’s not a fact.”
My stomach tells me the political appeal addressed to Martin Willenkoff was not junk. Willie clearly meant political signs like the neighbor’s are aimed at idiots — like those who threw the mud. I meant the signs are put up by idiots.
“I think,” I say, “we best hunt some pheasants before the sun gets lower.”
Willie’s eyes are now half closed, appraising me, lips tight and colorless. But then he relaxes, like Dad’s English setter going off a false point. “You’re right, Arnie. How about working back toward the barn down the far side of this field? But instead of next to each other, you go down the edge and I’ll be a couple dozen rows in.”
This sounds reasonable, but as I walk the edge I keep an eye on Willie. I consider kicking the occasional clumps of tangled stalks, like Willie does, but what if a hidden pheasant flew up directly between us? Neither of us bothered to wear any orange.
When I next glance over at Willie, his eyes are back on his phone, gun held by his armpit. He stops and stares at me.
“What I don’t understand, Carolman,” Willie shouts, “is exactly why your kind believes what it believes.”
“And just what do you mean by my kind?” I shout back.
“You know. Don’t pretend.”
“I just came here to hunt,” I say. “Didn’t you?”
“One thing that always gets me,” says Willie, “is how your kind thinks you’re all so secure, having what you consider the real weapons in your custody.”
I now wish we’d driven separately. I didn’t come here to argue. “Let’s focus on finding some pheasants, okay? Seems like we should’ve seen some if nobody’s hunted here in years.”
Willie shrugs — reluctantly it seems — and puts his phone away. “Maybe they’re hiding and we aren’t making enough noise or moving fast enough. I seem to recall a shotgun blast sometimes spooked up a bird or two.”
I seem to recall that, too, but only if the dog had been on point. “Worth a try I guess.”
We both start making gun sounds, marching faster, like two kids playing army men.
We soon see the old farmer strolling from his yard. He stands at the end of the field, hands on his hips, staring at us, waiting.
“You boys beat all!” he yells when we get close. “You’re making more noise than a threshing machine. And why’d you stop right when you was about to find birds?”
“Where was that?” Willie asks.
“Down at that cattail swamp. They love it there.”
“Well, we’ll go back,” says Willie.
“No, you’ve done put the whole swamp on high alert. And I want me a bird. So listen up. See that strip of dead weeds over yonder growing in that fencerow? The one running between the picked corn on the left and the plowed field on the right?”
We nod. The fence line stretches away from the farmer’s house toward land clearly belonging to the glimpsed neighbor. The farmer spits juice in that direction. “Pheasants love that fencerow. Good cover right next to food. So you two walk one on each side of the weeds. You’ll be downwind so that helps. And stop now and then, like dogs on point. Then start up fast like a dog flushing. Got it?”
“Just past the end of that fencerow, boys, there’s a stand of scattered brush flaring out like a wedge between the fields. If no birds have got up by then, they’ll be in that wedge. And there’s a pasture beyond, no cover at all.”
“Meaning,” says Willie, “they’ll likely fly out one side of the brush or the other.”
“Yep, but they’ll sit tight first. So wade into the weeds and brush. There’s a tall hickory on each side of the wedge, so both of you head for the hickory on your side and be ready. I want me a bird!”
Willie grins at me. “You take the cornfield side.”
I wonder why he wants me there. “No, you take it.”
“It’ll be easier walking on the cornfield side,” Willie says. “Plus they’re more likely to fly toward corn.”
Meaning I could end up between Willie and a fleeing pheasant.
“Sounds right, Willie. But you’re clearly the better shot. So you take the cornfield. Gives us a better chance.”
He shrugs. “Fine. Thanks.”
I chastise myself for letting paranoia cost me the best side.
Walking the plowed field side of the fence, at least, proves easy. The weeds at the very edge have been crushed by a tractor wheel. The freshly turned field of black soil releases a pungent aroma, one my father called the sweetest smell on earth.
I work in concert with Willie, stopping and starting, both of us anticipating the sound of madly beating wings. But we reach the end of the fence without getting a single bird up. Willie points into the brushy, weedy wedge. He then makes finger motions like feet running. He’s apparently seen a bird. I now note, right behind Willie, the neighbor’s signs. They seem like cartoon word balloons over Willie’s head. He arm-motions me to move toward the hickory tree on my side. I start walking, thinking he’ll walk toward the hickory on his side. But he stays put so I stop.
“You be the dog,” Willie explains in a raised whisper. “If nothing comes up when you reach the tree on your side, then walk toward my side.”
“So drive them out your side?”
“You said I’m the better shot. After you turn, then I’ll start forward. Okay?”
“No. How about you be the dog.”
Willie’s eyes become narrow slits. “Why should I be the dog?”
“You said they’re more likely to fly out that side.”
He closes one eye, looking at me like sighting in. “Okay, but you move forward, too.”
“Okay. We’ll both be dogs. But you be the lead dog.”
Willie’s one open eye lingers on me before he turns and moves forward, stopping and starting. I mirror him, if lagging a few steps behind. When he reaches the hickory on his side, no birds up, he waits for me to reach the hickory on my side. Both trees are about a foot thick, their high branches combining to creating a canopy over the scraggly brush in the wedge. When I’m a yard from my hickory, an explosion of wings and feathers bursts up between us. Willie snaps his gun up — aimed toward me.
I jump behind the tree just as the blast comes. I hear the bird’s wings still beating, fading into the distance, unharmed. Bits of dried leaves flutter down on me. I jerk my Winchester around the tree, pointing in Willie’s general direction.
He jumps behind his hickory. “What the hell are you doing, Arnie?”
“What the hell are you doing!” I shout. “You aimed right at me!”
“I did not! The bird flew up, way over your head and toward the pasture. I missed and couldn’t get a clean second shot.”
“I got rained on by leaves, Willie!”
“Sure — there’s branches with dried leaves everywhere and a breeze blowing in from the pasture. Okay, Carolman?”
“I bet you planned this whole thing, Willenkoff.”
Willie huffs. “You’re so dumb you’re dangerous, Arnie.”
“You’re the stupid, dangerous one.”
“Don’t call me stupid, Carolman.”
“Don’t call me dumb, Willenkoff.”
“Well, you’re sure dumb for getting yourself in a spot where I’ve got the advantage.”
“Yea, Carolman. Didn’t writing about war teach you anything? You’ll have to lean your lie-filled head out to shoot. And I’m already looking out. I bet you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn in this situation, anyway.”
“Oh? Try me.”
“So you’re threatening me? Okay, go ahead and shoot first. Then it’s self defense.”
I’m shaking now, swept into the horrifying reality of a shotgun standoff, like one of my safely interviewed soldiers has magically pulled me into battle. My Winchester, which sticks out from behind the tree, is a quivering advertisement of my fear. I can hear Deb’s horrified tears upon getting the news.
I peek out just enough to note Willie scrunching down on his knees, making him a smaller target. I drop to my knees, too.
“Listen,” I say, my voice shaking. “What are we doing? Our kids grew up and played together.”
“I wouldn’t have let my kids play with yours if I knew what I know now, Carolman.”
I groan, a long, lung-deflating breath. “Look, we’ve both overreacted. Let’s come to our senses, okay?”
“Fine. Eject your shells, show me the empty chambers, and toss your gun away. Do that and it’s over.”
“Yeah, my life’s over.”
“So you think I could plead self-defense with your gun unloaded and not near you?”
“Yeah — after you reload it and put it back in my dead hands.”
“Jesus, Arnie. What is wrong with you?”
“Don’t pretend I’m the one with the problem. Anybody who’d believe the crap your side believes is the one with the problem.”
I drop my gun barrel toward the ground in frustration, anger, and weariness. Willie instantly shifts positions so I snap my gun up, pointed toward him.
“You shoot,” he calls, a tremor in his voice, “and you will be a dead man.”
“You saw my barrel drop so you shifted positions, Willenkoff.”
“Yeah, because I’ve got to pee real bad. And I’m going to, okay? And if you make one stinking move I’ll shoot you even if it means pissing all over myself.”
I suck a deep breath down into my bone-dry throat. I take a sly sip from the bottle of spring water in my coat pocket so I won’t sound as scared as I am. “Look, Willie, I’ve got to pee, too. So how about we both set our guns down, pointed away, and each take a piss?”
“Guns within reach but visible?” he asks.
“If I didn’t have to piss so bad I wouldn’t trust a pissant like you, Carolman.”
“Pissant? Let me tell you something, Willenkoff. My bladder just goes numb as long as I don’t keep drinking. And I just took my first sip since we started. So take that back.”
“Take what back?”
“That I’m a pissant like you.”
“Like me? I take nothing back, Carolman.”
“Fine. Piss your pants, Willenkoff.”
I note my finger ever tensing on the trigger. If I accidentally shoot, he’ll kill me for sure.
“Listen, Carolman, I have to pee now or bust. But when I have to go and I’m tensed up it’s hard to get a stream started, okay? Damn prostate. So I’m going to be the man here and make the first move. I’ll put my gun down but keep my hand on it till you do the same. Then we both withdraw our hands and commence pissing. Okay?”
He slowly reaches his Browning out, half his face visible. I realize his pump holds several shells to my Winchester’s two. If he lures me into two bad shots it’s over. I extend my gun out slowly, mirroring him. When he withdraws his hand, I withdraw mine. Our stereo streams soon splash loudly off the hickories, each of us still on our knees.
I finish my business first. Just as I do, I see it — a few yards past his Browning.
A twitch of the rooster’s head gives him away, revealing the gold sclera in the eye, the red hood, the green neck, and the white stripe that gives ring-neck pheasant its full name. The rooster’s mottled brown-and-copper body, however, is hard to see even knowing it’s there.
When the sound of Willie’s last trickle dies, I nod my head toward the rooster. Willie’s eyes dart nervously back and forth from me to where my nod points. Then he sees it. He stealthily reaches out for his gun. I reach for mine. We pull them back slowly.
The rooster explodes up. My heart jumps, but the bird flies straight into the cornfield behind Willie, who turns and fires from his knees. The rooster falls, barrel rolling, some feathers hanging in the air. Upon hitting the earth, the bird pops up, hopping on one leg, one wing dragging. It stumbles and falls, rises and hops, stumbles and falls, over and over, showing the sheer will of life to live.
I realize Willie is pointing a finger my way. Another rooster is running straight toward me. Seeing me, the rooster bursts into the air, flying out over the plowed field. Staying behind the tree, I stand, turn, point, and pull. The shoulder punch produces a feather cloud around the rooster, which tumbles into the field, landing between plowed furrows, out of sight.
“Great shot!” Willie says with the same excitement my father always mustered.
“Yours was damn fine from your knees,” I say.
A strange beckoning comes over me. Willie said he’d be the man here and make the first move. I feel a sense of duty to do the same. I pop open the Winchester and toss the spent shell. Then I toss the good shell. Then I toss the gun, its arc like our pheasants’ last flights. It lands near the good shell. I move from behind the tree, standing and facing Willie. He just stares at me. Then he ejects his spent shell. The pumping motion, however, also loads a fresh shell. But Willie pumps again — and again — pumping out shells until no more come. He tosses his Browning in a high arc toward my gun. It lands nose down, the barrel punching deep into soft ground, making the gun useless without meticulous cleaning.
I can tell from the look in his eyes that he hadn’t planned for the shotgun to land that way.
Hands hanging at our sides, we stand like high noon at the O.K. Corral. His right hand jerks and I panic. He’s got a hidden pistol. But, no, he just points, first in the direction of his still hobbling bird, then toward my hidden bird.
“We best get ’em fast,” he says.
He turns and runs toward his bird. I run toward mine.
I stumble a bit over the deeply plowed furrows, but I find my bird quickly. One dead, open eye seems to stare up at a sky it will no longer know, an eye frozen in terror for all time.
Willie’s rooster, however, has hopped into the weeds. I grab my rooster and run to aid Willie’s search, joining just as Willie grabs his finally motionless bird by the neck.
We stand, looking at each other, both breathing hard.
“Time to get the guns,” says Willie.
He follows me, right on my heels. I reach the Winchester. Willie stands right over me as I lean down and pick it up. The good yellow shell is just a yard away. I know what I have to do. In a motion like bayoneting the earth, I jam both barrels deep into the ground.
I turn to Willie, whose head is bobbing in an appreciative nod.
“Well,” I say, “we owe the farmer a bird. Whose?”
Willie shrugs. “Let him have his pick. Maybe we can split the other somehow.”
“Yeah, maybe Lee Ann and Deb can cook it up. Maybe we can — you know — kind of all sit down together.”
“Yeah, they’d like that, Arnie. But we probably best — you know — keep this day to ourselves. We stomped around, missed one, got two. The end.”
I halfway feel like putting a hand on Willie’s shoulder, but we both turn and start walking toward the farmer’s house. I look up at the cloud-filled sky, one little jagged hole of blue still peeking through.
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