POLLY GETS ON A SINGLE TOO QUICKLY, hits it before the pattern spreads, the bird ruined for eating unless you like them cubed. She’s far enough away that I see her blond ponytail swish before I hear the shot. At supper Clyde, the former jet jockey, will say the bird was traveling at about 40 miles an hour when it accelerated from its feathers at twice that speed, Mach something or other. It’s not Polly’s gender that intimidates me. I’ve got two daughters who can outshoot me when they put their minds to it. Truth is I don’t like anybody shooting better than I do, and almost everybody I know does. After Uncle Thad died, I developed every shooting flaw that thinking about it causes.
What does it mean when you’re too old to keep up with the dogs, and your friends and children exceed you in every way? It means you’ve got better friends and children than you deserve, that you should reconsider the blessings of friendship and paternity, that you are lucky to have more living friends than dead. I’d turn green with jealousy if I didn’t love these people so much.
Karen doesn’t believe I’m quitting.
“You’ll be right here next year,” she says.
“No hell I won’t.”
Eventually we find Ike pointed, low down and sleazy, in the scrub fringe between the road and the cypress swamp, his nose nudging a tuft of wiregrass.
Seems like I could appreciate what all I’ve got. A good rain came through last night. This morning was windy, but the wind lay back at dinnertime, and now it’s a bluebird afternoon, the ground damp enough for the dogs to smell, a chill in the air. I’m a guest on the prettiest quail plantation in Dixie, riding shotgun in a truck the size of a Hummer, closer to the action than I’d be without it. We declined Catherine’s offer to hitch up the mules. The last time I rode the wagon, I had a heart attack on a covey rise, crippled a bird, and had to be taken to the ER in briar britches. Anybody with a brain would’ve quit then.
Karen pulls up behind the hunters, splashes of Day-Glo orange on a drab knoll. Jake, the setter, points. Ike backs. I haul myself out the door to chiming bells, load two shells, mostly for the hell of it.
I’m leaning against the fender when the flushed covey swarms from the hillside. A single sails back my way over the treetops. The little 20 gauge goes up and fires a Hail Mary farewell, shunting all the bad habits learned by the adult brain. While I’m pumping for a second shot, a rotator cuff wimps out, leaving the slide at half-mast. Miraculously, the bird tumbles, falling in the firebreak with a slight bounce. Karen must’ve seen it if she wasn’t texting. No use confessing I’d lost sight of the bird when the gun went off.
When I galumph back to the truck, she’s reading her smartphone. The smell of powder must’ve set a happy endorphin dancing. My backache’s temporarily vanished. I’ve noticed that with friends around I’m sometimes not so crippled. For the moment I’ve forgotten all about a ruptured disk together with my occluded and multi-stinted heart. Now I can quit on a better note, an acceptable closure.
“Clyde sent you a text,” Karen says.
“‘Nice shot, Uncle Thad.’”
AT SUPPER, to seem polite, they’ll ask about my work in progress. A lot of my work is in perpetual progress. I have trouble ending things. Clyde will ask if I shot that bird out of the tree, and I’ll look to Karen to back me up. She must’ve seen the bird fall through the rearview mirror or maybe reflected in all that generous chrome.
“I was texting,” she’ll say, keeping neutral.
Uncle Thad chose the first quail for me. We’d followed horseback hunters in the dog wagon, watching on. Near sundown, the muscular English pointer, a liver-spot with yellow, rattlesnake eyes, flowed like a wave down a fence row. Nearly overrunning the single, it suddenly froze into a rigid S—sure and shivering, head cocked, nose nudging a tuft of broom sedge. Thad sent me up. Don’t aim, he said. When your bird levels off, kill it with your eye.
All three hunters raise their cell phones to snap the point, the dogs poised in a golden touch of a low sun on wiregrass and broom sedge, the lavender bark of longleaf pine, the silver splash of needles. Ike, who can’t distinguish between the shock transmitter and a smartphone, tucks in his bob tail and scats. Smartphones are making a neurotic mess of Ike, just like dry-firing in the living room made a mess of my pretty mother.
They want us to find Ike, Karen reads from her phone. We splash through deep puddles on the trail, dappling the fenders of Clyde’s new truck with muddy water. Eventually we find Ike pointed, low down and sleazy, in the scrub fringe between the road and the cypress swamp, his nose nudging a tuft of wiregrass.
“Here’s y’all’s dog!” I holler through the open window.
“What?” yells Polly.
“Text them Ike’s pointed.”
“You take it,” Karen says.
“They texted you take it.”
“They’re hoping I’ll miss.”
“Well, don’t then.” She smiles.
THE PRESSURE’S ON. Friends with cell phones raised like crab claws, watching from the hill, Karen looking through the windshield. My chance to end things without a whimper. A second parting shot with the same haunted gun I started with 60 years ago.
I march through the briars like there aren’t any, brace up behind the little Brittany. The lay is more than déjà vu. It’s exactly the same, a tuft of grass, oak scrub, a cypress swamp beyond. It’s the exact same point with a different dog, Ike down low, eyes rolling around looking back for a smartphone, the faint ghost of that old liver-spot backing.
The single shatters gravity with a flatulent rattle, floating like a toy balloon, a family portrait on the wall. I’ve got plenty of time, just like that first quail all those years ago. Just fix it with your mind and let the gun go off when the stock is snug against your cheek. I know there ain’t no way I’ll miss the bird I’ve been killing all my life. But, what the hell, with my dead eye on the bird my arms and shoulders merely spasm, will dampened by reverie. Some frayed neuron between resolve and action shorts the system. Some pinched or worn-out nerve can’t bridge the gap. The model 12 spasms at port arms and then discharges—Poom! Live oak leaves above my head rain down. My last quail sails happily into the dark yawn of cypress swamp, Uncle Thad lifting his hat in good-bye.
Back at supper nobody mentions my parting shot, a safe silence. I’ll let them think I departed venery with a noble gesture, sparing one immortal bird to get away forever. Margie brings the puppies down again. This time I pick one up, scrub its head.
“How much y’all want for this pup?”
O. Victor Miller is a retired English professor whose penchant for wild adventure has taken him around the globe. His Caribbean revels having ended with a scuttled ship and pirates’ plunder, Miller now assails the seasons from an Airstream on the riverbank of his family home in Georgia, reviewing childhood haunts and tending an unruly Boykin while winding up the perpetual hubris of his youth.