Doug was exhausted. It was hot outside and he had just finished working for the day, digging fence post holes on his father’s ranch in Oregon. For a change of scenery more than anything else, he had come up from California to work and finish the last quarter of his junior year at a shitty little redneck high school in the small town of Dallas. His dad’s ranch was a dozen or so miles in the woods outside town.
Working wasn’t bad. It was hard, sure, but it was also what he had come up there to do. It was going to school during the week that really blew. The Dallas Dragons had gotten its name from some long ago time when the KKK were still roaming the hills burning crosses or whatever the hell they do for a good time. The ‘Dragon,’ so the story went, was not of the J.R.R. Tolkien variety but rather in honor of the high dragon of the local Klan chapter. It was even said that some of the older faculty were once members. Doug wasn’t sure if he believed this or not, but the fact that the nape of every neck he saw was burnt red made it at least plausible.
Not that it mattered much. He didn’t have any friends there and had no interest in making any. He would be back in Turlock by mid-summer, latest, just as soon as he finished his old man’s fence.
To fend off boredom during the week, every morning he would sneak whiskey from his dad’s bar into a thermos that he would sip throughout the day, shuffling his way from class to class in an ever increasing stupor.
On weekends, though, he was committed to nothing but work. He toiled not for cash but rather for a 1968 International Scout his old man had picked up somewhere. He was selling it to Doug for the bargain price of $500. At least, it seemed a bargain at the time. It was only later, after returning back home to California that Doug did the math, dividing the actual hours worked by the price of the vehicle that he arrived at the sobering conclusion he had been busting his ass for a little over two dollars an hour at a time when the minimum wage was $4.25.
But, that particular revelation came later. At the time, Doug thoughts strayed no further ahead than the next posthole, focusing all his energy on getting that damned fence up.
The hours were long and the work grueling, yet oddly rewarding. It was gratifying to see the actual fruits of his labor taking shape, one fence post at at time. At any rate, by Sunday afternoon, he was wiped out.
This particular Sunday was no exception. It was twilight, and he had just called it a day. He was sprawled out on the sofa, flipping through the channels, when he heard the hollow echo of a high powered rifle coming from somewhere outside in the large meadow adjacent to the house. He almost peeled his ass off the couch to investigate but thought better of it. It was likely just his dad obliterating some soda cans perched on a log or maybe taking pot shots at a rabbit or something. At any rate, Doug had no inclination to find out. It was getting dark and, as spring crept toward summer, the mosquitoes had lately become a menace. And, more importantly, he was wiped out.
Several minutes passed and he was close to drifting off when his father, out of breath with excitement, burst through the screen door and into the living room, planting himself squarely in front of the TV Doug was trying to watch.
“I shot a buck,” his father said, grinning. “An eight pointer.”
“I can’t see,” Doug said, nodding at the television.
His father cocked his head and frowned. This was clearly not the reaction he was anticipating. “Can’t see what?”
Doug, too lazy to actually get up off the couch, compromised by craning his neck in an attempt to see around the obstruction. Hopefully, that would answer his dad’s question.
His father looked at him for a moment before heaving a dramatic sigh. “Come on out to the meadow,” he said, promptly leaving the way he had come in. A moment later he was back, wedging the screen door open with his boot. “Oh, and grab a rifle from the safe,” he said. “But not the .22. Something bigger.” He drummed his fingers on the doorframe for a moment. “The 243 ought to do the trick.”
Before he could respond, his dad was gone again, the screen door clattering shut behind him.
Doug sat up. What on earth did he need a gun for? His dad had already bagged the thing. He’d heard the gunshot himself. Unless, of course…
Quite suddenly, he understood. His father had said only that he’d shot a deer. He didn’t say that it was dead.
His stomach turned as he realized what his old man was up to.
For as long as Doug could remember, his father had tried, unsuccessfully, to make a man of him. The local deli/gas station, which doubled as a gossip factory and rumor mill for the scattered population of old retirees living in the surrounding hills, had a cork board with over a hundred faded polaroids tacked onto it, pictures of fathers and grandfathers perched on the beds of pickup trucks, gripping the antlers of freshly killed deer, holding the bloodied heads up, directing the vacant glassy eyes at the camera. Supporting the weight on the other side would invariably be some young boy or teenager, proud heirs all, decked out in camo and staring at the lens with comically serious expressions. My father, the tough old retired cop from California, was conspicuously absent from the collection. He wanted his spot on the cork board with all the other old men and their young folk. He wanted his own god-damned Polaroid.
And this was how he aimed to get it.
Doug refused to grab the rifle but did venture outside, hoping his suspicions were unjustified. It didn’t take him long to see that they most certainly were not. His father was already a good way across the meadow. About twenty yards or so beyond him, Doug spotted a misshapen shape rising just above the tall yellow grass.
He caught up with his old man, who was now standing over the animal, rifle cradled loosely in his arms. He glanced at Doug and shook his head. “Where’s your firearm?” he demanded. “A hunter ought to use his own weapon.”
“I’m not a hunter,” Doug murmured, hardly listening. His attention was on the pathetic creature at his feet.
The deer’s stomach was rapidly rising and falling, each breath clearly an agony of effort. A clean wet hole had pierced its hide just below the heart, the bullet likely lodged in its lungs. Its huge brown eyes gazed up at the two human beings standing over it with what struck Doug as mingled fear and resignation. For a moment it struggled to get to its feet only to collapse again.
His father shrugged. “Well, what the hell, just use mine, nobody’ll know the difference.” He thrust the gun into his son’s limp arms.
Doug scarcely noticed. It seemed to him that the the world had gone mute. Even the crickets had stopped chirping. The only thing he could hear was the tortured breath of the dying animal. In the absence of all other sound, it was deafening
His father looked at him, eyes squinted from the low hanging sun, perhaps finally realizing that this moment was a proud one for him alone but nonetheless unwilling to surrender it. He grasped the barrel of the rifle still cradled in his son’s arms and gently raised it away from the ground and toward his prize buck.
“It’s suffering,” he said. “Put it out of its misery, son.”
Doug wanted to run away from that meadow, from his father’s ranch, from the entire state. He wanted to forget the fence, the truck, everything. He just wanted to go home. But, at least for now, all of those things were of no consequence. At this awful moment the only thing that mattered was the rapidly fading life paralyzed with fear and pain that was lying before him.
Doug snapped out of it. Any demons he could grapple with later. Right now something needed to be done, and quickly. He gripped the weapon firmly and shoved the stock hard against his shoulder as his dad had long ago taught him to do. Taking careful aim, he pulled the trigger.
The school year eventually ended and Doug finally planted his last fence post. By the beginning of summer, he was behind the wheel of his new truck heading south, toward home.
His father never did get his god-damned Polaroid.