I’ve only ever held a gun once. I was ten years old when it happened. The gun was cold in my hands. It was heavy. I thought it would sink through the earth and carry me with it. Daddy and me, we were living in Murdic Branham’s trailer park, one of the several trailer parks I grew up in. Like all such trailer parks, it was named after its owner, Murdic Branham, and Daddy had borrowed the gun from him.
To this day, you can find Murdic Branham’s trailer park right where it has always been: along an unpaved driveway on the south side of Longtown Road, a two lane road with stop lights few and far between. It’s an east-west road. You turned onto Longtown Road in Lugoff, South Carolina and headed west through the farms and the fields, through the cow pastures and the country stores, and through the acres and acres of pine timberlands. Lugoff, it was a small rural southern town then and it’s a small rural southern town now. I should know–I grew up there, left as soon as I could, and haven’t looked back.
And I blame that on the meme.
I was writing from the home office of my two-bedroom apartment in Miami, Florida, far removed in time and space from where I began when the memory of the gun came. The writing was slow-going, so I did what all good writers do: I picked up my phone and started to scroll down my Facebook feed. That’s when I saw it: the image of raw hamburger meat laced with Eagle Claw fish hooks. “Dog Park Danger!” the meme read. The incident had occurred in Volusia County, Florida, and fortunately no dogs had been harmed. My response to the meme was visceral, a surprise. My chest grew heavy and my throat drew in on itself. I couldn’t will my thumb to scroll past it. “That’s fucked up,” I thought. “Only someone uniquely cruel would think to harm animals in such a way.” I felt anger, fear, contempt. Blood got trapped in the tips of my fingers as I clenched the phone. “Or maybe just someone like my father.” The meme had shaken the trees, shaken them good, and jarred loose a memory I didn’t know I had.
“Tell it, Willie!” Daddy cheered. “Tell it.” He was sitting on the edge of a kitchen chair in front of the stereo, leaning forward into the sound of the speakers. He seemed to have been born a Willie Nelson fan, so much so that they were on a first name basis and could talk to each other through radio waves. “That’s right, Willie, sing it!” Daddy raised two thumbs to the song, “Always on my Mind,” and every so often attempted to sing along.
Music wasn’t the only thing Daddy was passionate about. He was also the proud owner of one male cat, whom he named Tom Cat, or Tom for short. Daddy would pet and hold the cat, coo over it, and repeat the cat’s name as if he were speaking to a newborn baby. “Tom, Tom. Tom, Tom.”
Tom was a full grown Siamese with a graceful, mysterious coat. An indoor/outdoor cat, he came and went as he pleased, using a screenless window cracked open just enough for him to pass to and from. When he was not in Daddy’s lap, he was hunting mice and birds, which he preferred to capture alive rather than kill. A proud hunter, Tom Cat would always return home with his prey to show Daddy. Tom Cat would drop a mouse on the floor and wait for it to run. then he would pounce, take the mouse in his jaw, and launch it across the room. Again, Tom would crouch and wait, hoping the mouse would move again, daring it to live. Daddy would grin and cheer Tom on, “Get it, Tom. Get it.”
Daddy, he was the foreman to a five man construction crew, a crew mainly engaged in laying water, sewer, and storm drain pipe in new subdivisions. He read blueprints and operated a John Deere excavator, carving out the earth for miles and miles to make room for pipelines. His work was not easy, particularly in summer month, and he always returned home haggard, and always with a bottle of Jim Beam cradled in his arm like a baby. He talked to Jim, too. He would fall or hurt himself, or lean too far back in his easy chair and tumble onto the floor, with nothing to say about it except, “Jim threw me again.”
One day, aside from the bottle of booze, he walked through the door holding a white five-gallon bucket in his free hand. Inside the bucket was a hairless baby squirrel, its eyes not yet open, lying on a bed of pine straw. Tom Cat was curious to say the least, and lifted himself up onto the side of the bucket to take a look. “No, Tom!” Daddy said. He swaddled the squirrel in a towel and attempted to nurse it with an eye dropper full of warm milk, which he had heated over the stove. He made a nest of pine straw for the squirrel in a wire fruit basket that hung in the corner of the kitchen. The next day the squirrel was dead, and Daddy mourned with Jim Beam and Willie Nelson ballads. “Poor little squirrel,” he said. “Poor little thing,” and “Sing it, Willie!”
The barking, late one night, woke me from my dreams. I could tell from the noise that it was more than one dog running around outside. There had been stories of stray dogs running around the trailer park, but I had never seen or heard them until that night. Eventually, they quieted down enough for me to fall back to sleep. I didn’t think anything of it, until the next morning, when I saw Daddy in the doorway holding Tom’s limp body in his hands. I saw in Daddy’s eyes then everything that was best and worst about him. I wanted to turn away. I wanted to hide.
“I’m gonna get them goddamned dogs,” he said, and I didn’t doubt it.
For three nights, Daddy studied the dogs. He learned their patterns and their numbers. He determined that the pack consisted of three dogs, and that they seemed to follow a specific path and schedule. On the fourth night, around the dogs’ accustomed time of arrival, he packed crushed glass, not fish hooks, into raw hamburger meat and placed it in the front yard. He cracked the front door just enough to watch his trap, and waited. I waited with him.
I don’t remember if I felt sorrier for the dogs or for Daddy. I knew he loved the cat, but I hadn’t been as attached. Besides, the dogs seemed to be behaving as dogs behaved when they were not owned or kept. And hadn’t Daddy condemned the dogs for the same behavior he had praised in Tom Cat? I doubt whether Daddy ever posed these questions to himself.
But when he had pounded a glass Jim Beam bottle into shards with a cinder block, his position on animal cruelty seemed to become clear, despite his behavior toward the squirrel. I knew Daddy was hurting, but grief was not the emotion that he honored. Instead, it was all about rage, vengeance, and maybe power. I don’t think he was ever self-aware enough, or introspective enough, to consider the implications of his behavior; I’ve always done that on his behalf, always trying to figure him out, always asking myself: Why was Daddy the way he was? Why did he do the things he did? Or: How can I forgive him? It made no sense to me that he could show an uncommon tenderness toward a squirrel, toward a cat, toward me–but then attempt to murder dogs with broken glass or more than once beat my mother to within an inch of her life.
Daddy turned off the lights in the trailer; he turned down the Willie Nelson music. The house was dark; it was quiet. His bloodshot eyes glistened with anticipation, as we both stared out of the narrow crack in the doorway. And then they came. “That’s right,” Daddy whispered, “Take it.” But the dogs were suspicious. They looked up from the meat, as if they knew Daddy’s plan, and seemed to understand. They meandered away without eating.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “This ain’t gonna be as easy as I thought.”
“How’d they know, Daddy?”
“Dogs are smart, kid.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“You’ll see,” he said, before going off to bed.
The next night, Daddy threw a pound of hamburger meat into a pan and browned it. To that he added a few slices of cheddar cheese.
“See if they can say no this time.”
At the accustomed time, I watched Daddy place the pot of meat in the yard, but he had skipped the step of adding broken glass, which I understood to be essential to his goal. Still, I did not speak up. Some part of me, if not all of me, was rooting for the dogs to live.
Daddy took a swig of his cocktail, placed it on the kitchen table, and walked to his bedroom. Upon returning to our lookout spot behind the crack of the door, he held in his hands a shotgun. Now, I’d heard about shotguns before. I’d seen them in the movies that Daddy watched, and I’d even heard them fired off in the distance, but it was the first time I’d ever seen a gun in person. My chest grew heavy and my throat tightened.
“Do you want to hold it, kid?”
I looked down at his feet, away from him, away from the gun. Unable to speak, I shook my head No.
“Hold it, kid. Go on, do it. A man has to know how to handle a gun.”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. I looked around the room for something to focus on, to stare at, something to ground me, hold me in the world. I felt untethered, like I might dissolve into ashes, into mist. Now he was standing behind me, putting the gun in my arms. Now he was guiding my hands, one hand to the barrel, the other to the trigger. He acted as the teacher, patient and gentle. He mumbled instructions, names of parts, but his words entered me as murmurs from a dream. The stubble on his face grazed my cheek. His breath, warm and sour, wafted across my nose. I was caught between him and his gun. I wanted to run, to flee, to get away, but all I could do was stay perfectly still and wait.
“It’s not loaded, kid,” he said and reached for the box of shells.
The identity of the person who rolled fish hooks into meat in Volusia County, Florida, and then placed it inside a dog park will likely never be known. But when he decided to be cruel, I wonder: was his son there by his side, watching?
You feel cheated don’t you? Like I’ve fluffed you up and left you hanging. You want to know what happened next. What happened to the dogs? Did Daddy fire the gun? Did he miss? Or was his aim true? I took a playwriting course once in college and was given Chekov’s advice that most every writer has heard: If you introduce a gun in Act I you’d better use it in Act II. Okay, then, but we all know that life is not like that, and the sad truth is that life is messy, indeterminate, and too many things get left unresolved or unfinished all the way to the end. Life is anticlimactic isn’t it? The loose ends stay loose. Why does it matter to you what happened next? Why do you want to know? I sure didn’t want to know, but Facebook put a stop to that.
Daddy shot the dogs. Daddy didn’t shoot the dogs. Or he killed one but the others got away. Or he killed them all. Or he only wounded them and they went limping and yelping into the summer night to bleed in the woods. Or all of them survived and Daddy gave up or he kept at it. Or Daddy never pulled the trigger at all. Maybe I talked him out of it. Maybe I convinced him to spare the dogs. Don’t do it Daddy, I might have said. Please, Daddy. Or maybe he let me hold the gun for a little too long and taught me a little too well, so I turned it on him and pressed the trigger. Right. That I intervened, for sure, that I found agency small or large as a ten-year-old boy, is the most implausible outcome of all. Here’s the truth: The truth is I do remember the sound of the shotgun, so he must have pulled the trigger. It was like a bomb, so loud it was quiet, and it obliterated all memory of what came next.