Step Nine

Photo by Several Seconds
Step Nine by Michelle McGurk

Joe eases himself off his stool. He ruffles Buddy’s hair. “Safety first, OK?”

Joe unzips the case and takes out the shotgun.

“Wow, Grandpa, is that new? Can I hold it?”

“You know your mama’s going to have my hide.”

“I don’t have to tell her nothing—promise.”

Joe pats the empty stool next to him. “Get on up here.” He holds the gun pointed into the air and maneuvers himself into a position right behind his grandson’s stool. He fits the stock into the curve of Buddy’s shoulder joint, shows him where to place his hands. He keeps his own hands on either side of the boy’s, bearing the weight of the gun, and helps him line up the sight, peer at some distant birds.

It’s been a good fifteen years since he’s done this. The last time he took Danny hunting—no, it was the first time—he was about Buddy’s age. Maybe a few years older. So hard to remember the specifics. Joe had carried a flask in his pocket, a little nip improved the aim. Got home with the limit of mallards, a couple of canvasbacks, one cinnamon teal. Stood in the side yard over the metal garbage can, pulling the feathers out of the limp bodies, the undressed birds lying on the top of the retaining wall. Danny running around, goofing off. Hollering, “Get your ass over here.” (Why does the yelling come back to him, over and over, like a hiccupping record?) Holding up the bird by the slender neck. The hazy winter sun glinting off the iridescent head, such a beautiful green, purple-tinted and sleek.

One of the most beautiful things in creation. Joe said the words out loud with such reverence, and Danny started to cry. He stroked the soft wing. “I did this, Daddy.”

Joe leaned down, hands a mess, and kissed his head. “I’m proud of you, boy. Got one on your first try. Took me three trips before I ever hit a single duck, and I was older than you are now.” It was a lie, but it felt good telling it, felt good seeing the smile edge across the boy’s face.

If only everything had stopped there. Joe couldn’t remember the beers he’d had on top of whatever was in the flask. The boy had wanted to go inside, wanted to watch cartoons or some other useless shit, and Joe said no. Danny was crying again, and Joe told him to quit being a goddamn baby. Shoved the mallard in his small hands.

“You shot it, you clean it.”

Danny sniveled, tears and snot all mixed up on his upper lip, said no.

“No back talk. You can’t just go around shooting things without seeing it through.” Joe reached down and yanked a handful of feathers off the duck’s breast. “See, it’s not hard.”

They stood in the side yard until the light disappeared and their fingers turned stiff from the work. Joe wrapped his son’s hand around the knife, held his hand over the boy’s and guided him as he dressed the bird. There was a moment when Danny’s face went white, when he gagged and swallowed hard, and Joe squeezed his shoulder, proud of the kid for not puking.
Buddy tries to twist the gun left. “Let me do it, Grandpa. It’s not too heavy.”

Joe loosens his grip, keeps his hands in place in case the boy starts to drop it.

Buddy pretends to aim at a trio of mallards, says, “Bam, bam, bam,” as he squints one eye closed. “Are there bullets in here?”

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Michelle McGurk is a former reporter and now works in public policy in San Jose, California. She holds an MFA from Lesley University. This is her first fiction publication.