THE JUNCO AND THE BOY
Over the weekend I shot a bird. A deranged, obsessive junco
that had been banging against our window for weeks, fluttering
in and up again and again, hundreds of times a day, enraged
by its own reflection. You can’t reason with a bird, and this one
we couldn’t scare away, with flags or foil or glittering strips.
Nothing worked. After a while even Barb wanted me to kill it.
We woke up Saturday at five when it started hurling itself
at us again, for another day, and she said get a gun. So I went
to a friend of mine, our lawyer, a Republican, and he loaned me
a rifle, patiently demonstrating how to load the birdshot
and find the target, and I spent the afternoon stalking through
my own backyard, firing and missing, firing and missing.
It’s been forty years since I shot a gun—at scout camp
one summer, at the lake, when I got my shooting merit badge.
We were the sort of parents who never even let our kids
have toy guns, who wouldn’t let them make sticks into guns,
even though in the end our oldest son became a soldier
and went to Iraq and is on his way there now a second time,
an expert with an M-16 and a 50-caliber machine gun
they call the “saw.” My son. I’d never even been on
an army base until we went to Fort Benning to watch him
graduate from infantry training. We sat in the bleachers
like at a football game, and the loudspeakers started blaring
“Bad to the Bone,” and then these soldiers came out
of the woods firing blanks at the crowd through an orange
and yellow smoke screen. I was kind of impressed at first,
I have to admit, though Barb just wept. What bothered me
was that we couldn’t tell where he was in all the blocks
of marching soldiers, later, on the parade ground, all of them
sheared and pressed and squared, all of them the same. It was
the knob on the back of his head that gave him away, and
even then it was like he was older somehow, older and younger
at the same time, and in a kind of time warp, too. It was like
we were all somehow trapped inside a World War II movie.
Pearl Harbor had been bombed and we were striking back.
I couldn’t shake this feeling. When I finally hit the junco,
on something like my fifteenth try, I think—he had flown into
a magnolia, next to the deck, and maybe it was luck or maybe
I was getting the hang of it again, but I squeezed the trigger
and the rifle fired, and the bird twitched, then dropped,
straight down, into the backyard—when I finally hit it
I didn’t feel guilty exactly. I’m not sure what I felt. I know
I wanted to get rid of that bird. I know how frustrated I was
with the fluttering and the banging. I know how embarrassed
I’d been all afternoon, firing and missing, firing and missing.
Later I drove our four-year-old grandson into town, to the store.
I haven’t done this in a long time either. He’s our stepgrandson.
The woman John married before he left this weekend
has two little boys. So we have these new, instant grandsons
and I’m still adjusting. But it was good to know that I could
do this still. Strap a little boy into a car seat. Talk to him
on the way, looking into the rearview mirror. Bribe him
and pace him and manage him through the aisles of the store
as we got our cereal and butter and bread. All the way home,
driving through the fields, I had this feeling that the Honda
hardly weighed a thing, it was light as a feather, and so was
that little boy. His small, brown knees. His skinny,
brown arms. Everything was hollow. Everything was light.
I thought, when we get back home and I reach in to get him,
he’ll be no trouble at all. I’ll be able to lift him with one hand.
—from Rattle #34, Winter 2010