LEARNING TO SHOOT
Adam’s sister Cynthia drops the kid off a couple months after it’s born. The thing is sickly looking with a wrinkly body that borders on emaciation and a small head which cones upwards to a dull, fuzzy point. Even the hair seems stunted, as though it is growing back into the skin, crawling away from the crisp, postutero air.
Cynthia asks if they can watch it overnight. There’s baby formula under her arm. She iterates in spitfire that she has been good, that she just needs to let loose. The quick glance at her eyes makes Adam’s arteries wince. Beneath the grease of her brown bangs, they are circled darkly. She is bouncing on her feet.
Adam says yes.
Cynthia says she will be gone the night, Adam expects a few. Weeks pass. They buy more formula. No calls. Not from Cynthia, not from the police, not from the hospital. Adam’s mother asks him once over the phone whether they should file a missing person’s report. She clicks her tongue off of the top of her mouth when she finishes:
“Click. Click . . . ”
This is her habit when she’s nervous or when she imagines her question to have crosshairs and a recoil.
Adam’s silent for six long seconds and she gives the silence right back. Then he asks her about a noise her Volvo’s been making—the fan belt is probably about to give. But it could be the water pump.
Meanwhile, his wife Penny slips into a love neophyte with the kid.
There’s a family conference. Adam’s mother and father show up and offer support. Everyone keeps saying, “There’s no one else” while they look directly at Adam. It seems to Adam that the room is an inescapable panorama of eyes and mouths, blinking and talking, disembodying themselves from the faces that hold them, rising and circling over the horizonline of the doublewide’s fake, woodpaneled walls.
“There’s no one else, Adam, there is no one else, there’s no one else.”
Adam feels that the adoption is a bad idea. He knows that there will be eventual bitterness. He can’t articulate it, but he knows that his vague feeling is honest. One day disappointment will lend a hateful kind of resentment to a choice made in compromise. And compromise, he knows, ends in shit.
Adam and his father say little during the discussion. His mother and Penny dab back tears and hand out imploring looks, victims on display. Adam wonders what he should say. There’s nothing he wants to say.
After an hour, he says yes.
His father’s eyes tighten as he shifts his weight around to rise from his seat. It is through a surreal lens that Adam notices this. If Adam didn’t know better, he would almost call it a flinch. His standing father nods in approval and finality, crosses the span of grimy berber shag between them, and gives Adam a single pat on the shoulder. He says something in Adam’s ear, something that Adam will never know, because there is suddenly a thick silence that rolls and laps the insides of his skull.
Everyone is breathing deeply, each for a different reason. Penny sets the baby on Adam’s lap and steps backwards to watch them with probing eyes. Kyle squirms for a moment and then looks up at Adam. Nothing else happens; the infant just looks out through dark hazel eyes that seem too tiny for his head. Adam thinks they look like raisins. Then Kyle looks away.
Small towns have short avenues.
Adam’s father utilizes his position as a lifetime County Tax Assessor to talk to a coworker’s cousin who works at the local adoption agency. And like that they are introduced to Susan. Susan, a heavyset boisterous woman in purple heels and a bright teal dress that only a doll would fancy, takes Penny and Adam’s hands through the process.
Susan likes to say “Good.”
“It’s good that the child has already had residence here. It makes the process easier, yes? Good.”
On her final of many tedious visits, when the last of the paperwork is signed and notarized, Susan looks at the couple strangely, as if momentarily seeing them for the first time. As if they had suddenly become real.
“Good,” she says. “Good . . . ” and then she leaves.
The new family makes a change of neighborhoods. Adam’s dad fronts them the money from his 401k, at a precipitous loss, for the mortgage. The culdesac has an aura of clean pride to it when they move in. A step up from the trailer, Adam is certain, and he starts feeling less ample the first moment he walks inside. When he stretches his hands above his head he can’t touch the ceiling. There. Is. So. Much. Space.
Now Adam feels responsible, more grown, so he buys a used 4x4 Dodge that is new to him. He poses several nononsense facial expressions in the mirror and picks the one with the stoic mouth and slightly clenched brow to wear around. And they give him more hours at his old job, so it all barely works out good. His neighbors must be wellmeaning people—they keep to themselves, only emerging from their curtained, airconditioned caverns on their way to and from work.
His boy is a boy like any other, it seems. Kid goos and gnaws, eats and shits, shrieks and giggles, spitsup and drools downwards. And all these postures seem equally photoworthy. The digital camera is purchased by his mother. Adam buys an external hard drive just to hold all the memories.
There’s a strange hum of people around Kyle from the start, abounding with cheek pinches and chin tickles and salivating liptoforehead kisses. Adam can’t comprehend why. Give it the glass tit and the rest sort of takes care of itself. So he stays a nervous distance—feeling almost guilty for some unintentional and unnamed crime—especially when other people stop in to marvel over Kyle. Adam pulls twelvehour days and couldn’t be more content at it.
The boy shoots up fast and makes Adam proud. Kid falls down a lot. Cries rarely. The boy is always happy and energetic when Adam comes home. The humming is finally dying down and Adam is enjoying the languid settlement that is building around him. There is always an extended side job waiting for him: a halfgutted vehicle in his garage awaiting repair and reassembly underneath the fixed stare of a taxidermied elk head that Adam didn’t kill. He drinks every weekend with the boss’s son, Dayrl. They like to think of themselves as the real operaterators of Rocky’s Block and Concrete Plant, hating every Monday and relishing every Friday, just like they had in high school. They like to coimagine and predict the whole operation collapsing in on itself if they went absent.
Adam doesn’t quite understand where the strange rudder has come from, nor what hand possesses the handle, but behind him he can feel the gentle lilt of an unbalancing force.
One summer Adam watches his boy teeter around on the lawn. The kid is just three and has sprouted a chimneyred mass of curls. Adam is remembering proudly how someone had confided in him at the birthday party. It had been Penny’s good friend Marie. Marie Gappery. She had been real drunk and leaned in to whisper: “He looks so much like you . . . except for the hair, and not a bit like Penny. But I guess that figures.”
He didn’t respond, only inhaled. She smelled like musk and orange juice and vodka. Then Marie giggled to herself as she wandered off through the crowd and into the garage. Adam had made himself a strong screwdriver before he followed her.
Adam is rather fond of this moment. And he does think the boy looks an awful lot like him. Shaking off the memory, he suddenly realizes that he really likes how nice the sunshine looks on the grass of his lawn.
Kyle’s five and they start seeing the dog. The kid points to it one day.“Dag.”Kyle says “dag” because Penny refuses to stop talking in babyconsonants with the boy.
Instead of “okay,” it’s “o’day.” Instead of “the truck,” it’s “da druck.”Every morning when Adam starts his dented, forestgreen diesel he sees Dag across the culdesac. The dog’s eyes are painfully magnetic, as though it wants more proximity but knows that it will come with some form of hurt. Each day, by a single step, the mongrel gets closer, reaching the edge of the front sidewalk before Adam chases him off with a stick. The neighbors start dragging their trash to the crumbling curb moments ahead of the weekly pickup, as opposed to the night before because the dog is clever and topples the barrels.
It is inevitable.
The dog takes to living around back, eventually meriting yard space. Penny puts some old grey and blue flannels as bedding underneath the back steps. Adam makes offhand comments.
“We need’a get rid of that thing. Y’know?”
Every time he sees the mutt, he remembers how much he misses those shirts he never wore. He wants his own Rottweiler, something that he can pick out, have a choice in, but even at the informal kennels the price is something that the mortgage won’t absorb—not since his dad died of prostate cancer a year since.
The boy and the dog get on great from the start, causing the young couple to go through a messy, severalphase bathing process. Afterwards there’s a permanent water spot in the shape of a petri ameba on the pastelblue sheetrock that corners the tub. The family invests in cheap tags personalized with “Our Dag” at Walmart and uses the two glass salad bowls with poorly stenciled ocean creatures and palm trees locked in suspended animation for food and water receptacles. They even buy a bright yellow wire brush to unfurl Dag’s dishwaterbrown dreads. Over tequila shots, they admit that Adam’s mother’s stout, metal scissors are the only proper tool.
The boy is eight now and still hasn’t outgrown the dog. They make fairy stories happen in the splotchy, vacant fields that surround the rural housing tract of the poor city suburb. It’s their habit to return with a matching coat of dust and mud. Penny makes Kyle wait on the back porch and strip to his undies before he can come in. This makes Kyle giggle in guilty embarrassment. It’s a different kind of embarrassment than he felt when he started school and the other children made fun of him for the way he talked. They still call him a “d’upid d’uck” sometimes. Kyle has learned to be careful of words.
Adam’s truck is slipping gears, but he can’t afford the tranny rebuilt or a newer, used truck. He works Saturdays.
“The County Is In Its First Year Of A FourYear Drought,” the cover of the Saint George Sun reports in a news article, which is complete with an inverted bar graph that spans a century. Two summers later the county will have record rains. This summer Adam’s lawn is brown and ugly due to water restrictions.
Penny’s flighty optimism about finding a good job, one she “can be proud of,” crashlands her in the receptionist’s desk at The Green Room Floral Shop. The Green Room sells many roses. Penny cuts stems to uniformity and pulls back frayed petals to expose vestal blossoms. Her fingers take on a sheen of attar oil from the fragile flags that collect in multicolored piles at her feet. In ritual she wraps the renderings in combination bunches, ready to sell, and smells the tips of her thumb and index. The scent is intoxicating. It is fresh. It is sunshine and gentle raindrops. One day when no one is looking Penny sheepishly puts one of her fingertips into her mouth and swirls her tongue around it. The texture is powdery and the taste is salty. She frowns out of one side of her lips then goes back to work, humming something she never quite knew the words to.
She brings home the halfdead flowers that no one purchases rather than throw them out. Adam talks to her over his shoulder while he reclines in his oilstained LayZBoy and watches hockey on the sixty-twoinch plasma.
“Penny, love, we throw a heap’a those smelly things out every damn week. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the gesture, it’s just, well . . . there’s too many of them.”
Adam motions absently to the flowers that line every open surface of the house. Their heads bow downward around the edges of vases in quiet defeat. Drying flowers have been stemtied in bunches and hang from the ceiling fans, pullable lightchains in the closests, the backs of chairs, the edges of picture frames. There are brittle pieces of the flowers that hold fast in every corner and look like confetti.
Penny shovels out a compost pit in the back yard. She wears her green dish gloves to avoid blisters. Every other day, as though involved in a dirge, she walks slowly to the pit and gently deposits bundles of stale, handeddown flowers and an admixture of dinner and breakfast scraps. The decaying matter is something that Dag loves to rearrange and it makes the insular little neighborhood smell like sardines. There never is a followup with a garden, but Adam notices that she starts keeping a pint of 100 proof Peppermint Schnapps by the vegetable oil.
A year later Kyle runs up the back porch after school and a rotted red step gives under his weight and he falls through. He feels his muddy feet connect with something that is soft but has a brittle thin ridge in the center. He feels the ridge crunch. Something warm and wet clamps down on his leg and the tip of an oddly smooth surface punctures his calf. Kyle yells. “Mooooooooom.”
Dag makes lowbellied whines as Adam drags the old cotton dropcloth through the garage, around the disassembled brakes and rotors of Mr. Livingston’s grey Prius, and down to the street. Carefully, Adam picks up the blanket with the immobile dog hammocked in the fabric, sets it on the truck bed, and slides it gently towards the cab. Adam’s a foreman at the plant now, with a desk, and he feels a cool watery pain in his back, right above his left hip, after he is done lifting the dog.
The emergency room bills the family thirtytwo hundred dollars for the visit and the four stitches from where Dag bit Kyle. Adam will have to come up with a three-hundred-dollar copay. He knows he doesn’t have it. The kid is fine and has a sucker tucked into his cheek.
Later, the veterinarian tells the family that Dag’s spine has been fractured and that the dog is dehydrated. Dag wears a tealblue splint fastened with black straps around his back. It reminds Adam of one of those “comfort blankets” they sell on T.V. to get your dog to stop being afraid of thunder. The surgery will cost upwards of four thousand dollars. Adam takes the animal doctor aside.
“How much to put it down?“
The Doc gives him a puzzled look.“Surgery is almost a certainty that Dag will be just fine. Good as new, really.” Adam just stares at him. Doc sighs and unceremoniously digs at a booger or itch in his nare.“Euthanasia prices vary with weight because of how much pentobarbital we will have to use. Cremation also varies with weight, but luckily BlackMouthed Curs are smaller on average. It will be a hundred, hundred-fifty for both.”
He pauses here. “Minus seventyfive without cremation. And three hundred for the splint.”
Adam doesn’t want the splint. The veterinarian tells him it is nonrefundable. The price of the splint goes on Adam’s Visa card, the one he haphazardly personalized with a black and white picture of some steelworkers crowdedly sitting on the Ibeam of some gigantic bridge he has never seen, towering dizzily above a bay and some peripheral metropolitan city he has never been to. The workers look calm and jovial while they eat their lunches; falling isn’t on their minds. It’s a famous photograph, a canned template.
Kyle is angry on the ride home. He tries to choke back breaks in his voice while he tells his parents the same thing every few miles.
“Dag didn’t make a sound when I landed on him. He didn’t even cry.”
Kyle is at that age when a crack of emotion is a big thing to a boy. Adam knows this and thinks he does a fine job of coping. Adam wishes that Kyle had landed on the dog’s neck. Penny wishes the boy would cry and get it over.
They keep the dog housebound for a couple of weeks, but he starts puking up about half the food he eats, give or take a bowlful. The mess is too much for Penny to handle while she tries to balance a job, the bills, the boy.
Adam hasn’t really been home in the past year. He works two shifts at the plant each day and again on Saturday. He spends his Sundays in the garage. He was saving for a truck, now he doesn’t know where the mortgage will come from. At the strangest times he misses his dad’s handshakes. The man had a nervously loose, private kind of handshake. Sometimes Adam looks at his own bulging calluses and powerfully stubby fingers and wonders how he could possibly be his own father’s son.
They put the dog back outside on the old flannels which have lost all their color. Dag’s splint absorbs the color of the earth and Adam is pissed every time he sees it. He only remembers the quick sliding motion of the Visa in the vertical strip reader, the slanted faces of the steel workers in motion, smiling up at him, effortlessly holding on. Dag walks around the yard once every couple of days, dragging the lower half of his body behind him, leaving small canals in the arid earth and sparse tufts of dying grass. Adam notices that his neighbors have been furtively peeking through ajar curtains to watch the dog.
It’s the balding neighbor who calls animal control.
On Sunday, a team arrives in a pearlwhite van and combs over the situation. An obese sallow man in a plaid, thriftstore shirt that is a size too long and wide gives Adam a hundred dollar fine for not sheltering Dag and another thirtyfive dollar fine for not having proper food and water containers.
“We get another call you’ll be slapped with an animal cruelty charge. It’s law. You can’t keep an injured animal in these conditions. You have to rectify the situation. ”
“Rectify? You think rectify? Take it away, put it down. I don’t want the thing.”
“Sir, animal control is not a free euthanasia service. We only put down strays.” There is a rehearsed, robotic calmness to the man’s affect that drives up spittle from
Adam’s throat and makes his voice louder than he desires or is even aware of. “It is a stray. I never asked for it. That’s stray. The fucking thing showed up one day and my wife took a liking to it. Otherwise I would’a never had anything to do with it. Christ, my wife had’a beg me to keep it. I can’t barely afford to keep him fed.”
The plaid man’s gaze shifts slightly, taking on a dull glaze, so instead of looking at Adam it seems he is looking through him, towards some ethereal loft.
“An animal cruelty charge can be anything from a misdemeanor to a felony, sir. And it can come with court fees and added fines . . . And between you and me, people like you are the reason our department exists.”
“Fuck you,” Adam says.
The plaid man rips a yellow ticket off of his clipboard and hands it to Adam. Adam snatches it away and feels the parchment crumple in his hand.
Then the people leave.
Adam calls his mother. She has been living in Boise City with her younger sister Nancy since his dad died. The money Adam’s father took out of the 401k for the mortgage, along with the hospital bills and the funeral, bankrupted her retirement. Adam talks with her about the weather in her area before he apologizes for cutting the conversation short. His mother says she loves him, but it almost sounds like a question. Then.
Kyle cries when Adam puts the dog in the back of the truck.
Adam counts the telephone poles that line the dirt road. It’s a road that runs nowhere, eventually stopping at a ranch gate that is always locked. He’s been drunk down here many times.
Daryl and Adam don’t drink together since Adam became foreman and Daryl began “tossin’‘emback” at work. Daryl’s hands shake on the job, but his dad made a special trip down to the plant to talk to Adam.
“Look after him. Be a role model,” Daryl’s father had said.
Adam misses Daryl and wishes he were here now. Daryl would make a joke and laugh at the situation, pound a beer and toss the empty at the sign. Keep the world at bay with a burp and a grin. They weren’t equal anymore, in either’s eyes.
He lets Dag off at the ranch gate. It’s a large affair with steel bars that extend into the air fifteen feet before crossing over and holding the weight of a metal sign that shines almost incandescently in the beating sun: CLOVE HITCH RANCH.
He drives away slowly, letting the slipping idle of the Dodge do all the work. Adam’s eyes won’t allow him to look away and they stay fixed on the rearview. Dag follows and keeps moving the whole time he is in sight. Limping up and down like a buoy on an ocean, the mangy mass of yellow fur gimps farther than he has in the whole of the past month. The dog fades into the dusty distance and becomes a bobbing silhouette. Then, Dag is gone. Adam stops the truck and cries for a few moments before he gets a hold of himself. He repeats this ritual numerous times, stopping to breathe in between. Then he turns the truck around.
Adam pulls into the Home Depot on the way home. He puts a doghouse and a stainless steel water bowl on his credit card and then in the back of his truck. Dag rides in the front.
As they pull up to the sidewalk, Dag dryheaves several times and regurgitates all over the passenger’s seat. Adam tries to catch the flow with his cupped hands, but the bile teems over, sploshing a puree of dog food and table scraps and flower stems on the seat and floorboards. All Adam can do is look down in stagnant shock as the mess grows with each of Dag’s choking heaves. The smell of sardines permeates the cab.
Adam exits the vehicle and goes around to the passenger’s side. He grabs a loose mess of skin at the nape of the dog’s neck and yanks him down. Dag lets out a yelp as he hits the warm blacktop. The dog yelps again as Adam kicks him in the belly with black work boots whose surface is badly scuffed and delaminated around the shining steel toe. Adam lands several blows before Dag finds sanctuary beneath the Dodge.
Breathing quickly, Adam looks around with wide embarrassment. His neighbor’s window shade looks slightly askew, but he can’t be sure because of the sun’s glare on the pane. Adam goes inside and carefully washes his hands with mechanic’s citrus soap. He cleans his fingernails, the ragged cuticles. He changes his shirt. He retrieves his father’s old .22 revolver out of his bedroom drawer. The silver is well oiled and catches the light.
Adam pulls the Dodge forward and exposes Dag, who tries to crawl away but only convulses with the effort. His neighbor’s balding head watches him sheepishly through an open door and Kyle cries on the lawn. Adam points the pistol almost pointblank at Dag’s skull. He closes his eyes like he knows he shouldn’t and tries to ‘squeeze’ the trigger rather than pull it, just like his dad taught him.
He can't do it. His finger is constipated. There is no love; no hate. There are no tendons to motivate muscle. The sweaty hands rattle and shake.
Kyle stops crying and looks up at Adam with absent, absorbing eyes. The tiny orbs look malnourished in comparison to his head.
Adam drags Kyle towards Dag. Kyle moves with uncalculating numbness and doesn’t resist. Adam puts the gun in Kyle’s hands and covers them with his own. Their coupled fingers fit snuggly in the space between the guard and the trigger. Together, they squeeze.
Neither cry and their eyes are large.The neighbor closes his door, back to being wellmeaning.Penny fixes a silent breakfast.Afterwards they dig up the compost pit and set Dag within the earth.Penny puts flowers on Dag’s mound. Then she hoses off the red stain on the asphalt. Adam returns the doghouse and water bowl the next day.The following year in the manicured jungle, the grass grows thickly and wild and stands in all things perfect.