“We’ve always been hunters,” Pop declares as he bites off the remnant of fishing line from the knot he’s just tied. Pop has a large, robust physique, and is wearing his favorite reddish, thick flannel shirt with many pockets that’s tucked in at the waist behind his rubbery gray waders. His face is broad and ruddy with a full white beard that hides his mouth when he’s not speaking. When he does talk, it’s in short, fragmented bursts that force the listener to string the pieces together into something more meaningful. “It’s in our blood,” he adds in his gruff voice, his teeth flashing from behind his beard. “Don’t know why you don’t hunt anymore. Got too much of your mom in you, I guess,” he concludes as he measures me with his eyes. The hazel disks of his irises flicker through the slits of his puffy lids with each worried glance he gives me. “Remember, boy, the only heart you know is your own.”
Pop turns away and sets his sights across the stream to a spot where a giant aspen has hooked its gnarly roots into the rocky humus of the bank. There, beneath the tree, the stream settles in a deep pool. Pop favors spots like that where the placid and lucid waters reveal the shadowy depth below. It is there where he’ll lay his baited hook, deep among the debris of the bottom, and wait for a refracted fish to strike. It is there he can see the struggle of the fish, and the steely-eyed fish can see him. He steps into the sorrel sheen of the flowing water that swallows him up to his waist, leaving just a wavering reflection of his gloating grizzly old face and red-plaid torso that has always been too big for his head. I watch as he trudges across the whiskey-colored stream and fades into the shadows.
I leave him and head downstream to search for a different spot. It is a clear mountain stream that has glossy, tawny rocks and boulders scattered about its gravel bed. The submerged rocks and boulders seem to form cryptic messages that could to be decipherable, but for the turbulent flow of the water. The swift current of the rapids draws me farther along with it. The path goes up around a copse of tall shrubs that screens off all but the sparkle of the stream. I come to a clearing where a fallen, large decaying tree trunk spans the two banks. At the other end of the makeshift bridge is an enormous boulder that resembles a crouching waif. Beyond the span is a gravel-spit with its rippling waters ablaze in the afternoon sun. There comes a jarring screech from a nearby blue jay and I continue on my way.
The stream narrows and gurgles through a stony duct and then widen out again to make its run through a small meadow. There is a soothing rustle from a grove of birch trees that blends in with the soughing of the stream. In the center of the ocher meadow is a tall, slate-colored tree trunk, stripped and scarred by the elements, that stands erect like a totem pole. Atop the trunk sits a spotted white-breasted sparrow hawk, untidy and ruffled with its talons conspicuously spread out on its perch. The hawk scans its domain unperturbed by my presence and acknowledges me without actually glancing over. Off in the distance a group of buzzards circle effortlessly in a whirl above the earth.
The stream disappears into a gorge where I hear the muffled roar of cascading water. I leave the path and weave down through the bramble to a clearing where the stream is spilling down a long, rocky chasm. At the top of the falls is a large, smooth boulder shaped like a saber tooth. I careen across the rubble of granite rocks, climb to the top of the boulder and sit precariously on its crown. Below my feet is the deep stone basin seething with water and the shear height of the rock and the racing water below makes me squeamish and uneasy. I steady myself as I unhook my leader from the corky handle of my pole and lower the line, with its two red salmon eggs skewered on the hook, down into the basin. I feel nauseous as I watch the bait submerge into the frothy water. I remember when Pop and I used to roughhouse and he’d plant himself on top of me and not let me up no matter how hard I struggled and begged. I can still feel his stifling weight, squeezing the living daylight out of me. That’s the way I’ve been feeling lately, like I’m suffocating. Pop says a man goes fishing to untie all the knots he’s gotten himself in. Maybe there are some knots that can’t be untied, but I’m way too weary to think about all that now.
Pop would not like this spot. He has to see the fish strike. I like to feel the stream and the tug of the fish on the line. We’re different, he and I. He is an eccentric sort, not willing to compromise. He’s a bull in the china shop, raising alarm in everyone around him but never being alarmed himself. I remember he once stormed out of a movie theater simply because a woman had brought her infant. He gave her a real tongue-lashing for ruining his evening. It was embarrassing for us all. I have tried to be more reasonable, more cooperative in my dealings with others. After all the times call for it now. I could never really be myself around Pop, and be accepted in his world. Probably the only thing we have in common is Mom, but, then again, she’s probably at the heart of our differences.
It was the way he treated Mom that riles me the most. He was always off chasing those highfalutin adventures of his, leaving Mom alone to fend for herself. Mom would always stay busy in his absence and yet still get excited and full of high hopes with his returns. ‘This time it will be different,’ she would tell me as she combed my hair and straightened my belt buckle. There was a longing in her eyes for Pop that I couldn’t fathom though envied. His sojourns home would always start off grand enough, but, by the eve of his departure, it had deteriorated into a terrible row. The toast was too dark, the eggs runny, the paper delivered too late, the neighbors too nosy, and that I watched too much of that hideous TV. When Mom would interject some innocent remark like a man should be with his family, it would set him off like a cannon and he would reel back in a woeful howl and harangue her for coddling me too much, for her meek and timid ways, her insubordination toward him, her plain clothes, petty concerns, and meddling family. Then, in a fit of indignation, he would put his face up to hers and gasp in that grating voice of his that, by God; she would never get the better of him. And when he realized that his bluster was being met with Mom’s forbearance, he would find some precious keepsake of hers and shatter it out over the floor. It would always end that way, Mom hovering in the corner with a dazed, bewildered look and me standing in the shadows, helpless to go and comfort her.
There’s a slight tug on my line. It could be just the gamboling stream fooling with me, but it brings me to my senses. Another tug jolts my line and confirms my hunch. I ready myself for the next strike that comes and I yank my pole up and back. I feel the snagging of the fish and see my pole bend in a taut arc from its weight. I can feel the fish’s tremors as it struggles to escape. I reel in some line, riling the fish up more. I can feel its defiance beneath the water as it grapples with its fate. ‘Women are like fish,’ Pop would say, ‘when they get angry is when you know you’ve got them hooked’. I slowly raise the flapping silvery torso of the fish out from the foaming white waters. I cautiously reel it up and over to me then grab hold of its cold iridescent body. It is a large, plump trout. Its head and tail twitch in my grasp as its mouth and gills gasp for oxygen. I quickly strike its head against the rock to stun its struggle. The hook is snagged in its throat. As I dislodge it I feel the fading life of the fish as it suckles my finger with its jagged jaw. I stare at its grotesque look and its dull, lifeless eyes. I will fry it up tonight and eat it. I slide down the rock and hastily slit its belly open and pull its guts out and then rinse its cold iridescent body off in the stream. I place the fish into my creel and head back to camp.
There’s an incline to the path I had not noticed on the way down and the day has imperceptibly slipped into twilight. There’s serenity this time of day when the harsh sun dips below the mountaintops leaving only a soft, pinkish dome over the silhouetted contour of a jagged earth. I’m exhausted and parched from the day’s outing and look forward to eating the fish and resting tonight. Pop will be there.
I spook an antlered stag that bolts off from its hiding spot as I stroll up to the campsite. The campsite is pitched at the bottom of a crag. The site appears so frail against the vast backdrop of the wilderness. I remove my creel and lean my fishing pole up against a tree, then gather some pine needles and cones that I pile in the center of a stone-rimmed pit and, striking a match, set the whole clump ablaze. I stand and feel the spreading warmth of the fire as it radiates out into the chilly evening air. I stack some more wood on the fire and settle down on a tree stump to watch the flickering flames. An acute feeling of alienation comes over me and I shudder. It’s a scary feeling that the waxing moon and the shimmering white Venus in the sky will never feel or share.
I get up and place the grill atop the stone rim, then go over to the lantern that hangs from a nail in a tree. I prime the canister and strike a match and set the mantles aglow. I stand and watch as Pop rummages through the gear to fetch his favorite fixings for trout. I see him lay the fish out meticulously in the old cast- iron frying pan he carried with him everywhere. With the artificial illumination of the lantern, it is difficult to figure out where Pop ends and the shadows begin.
He’s an anachronistic soul, cut adrift by the times. I remember he once had the gall to go after my future father-in-law in front of a restaurant, accusing him of lining his pockets with the proceeds from a charity he headed up. Incredible! Pop got so enraged that he resorted to spitting in his face there in front of friends and neighbors. I suppose that outburst is the reason why no one stood up and spoke on my behalf at the divorce hearing and the reason for my alienation. Bah! I don’t want to think about it. I don’t give a shit what they think anymore. I’m tired of their schemes and ploys and their total nonsense. I’m tired of their pettiness and cockamamie notions. The truth is I never really bought into their hype and self-serving acclamations. I found it all absurd and contrived. I guess I just never really fitted in, that’s all.
The pan with fish is placed on the grill and I settle back against the tree trunk. I unscrew the cap of the whiskey bottle, releasing its pungent fumes, and pour some liquor into my metal cup. I take a sip of whiskey and swoosh it about my mouth as I gaze upward at the black sky. Twinkling stars that only belie the nothingness behind them perforate the vaulted night. I gulp the heated liquor down my gullet and brace myself for that grating voice that has haunted me all my life.
“It’s good you’re here, boy,” his voice sounds in a conciliatory tone. “You needed to get away. Get back to nature where you belong. I know we haven’t talked much. Been too busy, I guess. Been away a lot. But we can amend that now. I’m sure there’s much to talk about. Catch up on things. Remember that camping trip on your twelfth birthday? How you fell that mountain lion? How you stood your ground and calmly aimed your rifle. Firing a slug in its heart as it lunged at us. I was proud of you, boy. Don’t know why you don’t hunt anymore.”
“That was a long time ago, Pop.”
“You know why I don’t hunt anymore?” I offer up in a whisper simply out of tiredness. I’ve lost my way, Pop…my nerve. I’m so off balance now that I don’t even want a gun in the house and it scares me to be this way. I find myself at times wanting to lash out at everyone--let it just rip, so to speak. But I can’t just let it rip like you would without being overwhelmed by an incapacitating fear of being censured and chastised. There are times when I want to strip off my clothes and run naked through the streets, yelling at the top of my lungs just out of spite. Or just beat a helpless bum to within an inch of his life simply out of ferocity. It scares me. You see I just can’t let it rip. I can’t lose whatever semblance of control I have left and risk everything. After all, no matter what I do now would just be misinterpreted or misunderstood by everyone anyway. So I do nothing.
“There was a time when a gun was simply part of the household, like a broom or mop. A man is only answerable to himself, boy, and in there there’s no secrets or doubt. It isn’t the gun that scares you.”
A flame from the fire flares up through the grill, releasing a flicker of light that vanishes quickly into the darkness. I flip the fish over in the pan to let it cook on the other side. I take a fork and pull back the loose, scaly skin and spear a chunk of its meat that neatly slides off the needle-like bones and then plop the chunk into my mouth. The morsel is hot and sweet and the dead steely-eyed fish doesn’t seem to mind me eating it. I take another chunk and another, with each bite leading to the next and another.
“Put some lemon on it, boy, don’t you know how to eat?”
“So what do you want to talk about, Pop?” I angrily retort at Pop’s derision and stand and pace about the light and dark of the campsite with my hands stuffed in my pockets.
“Christ! Do you know how much of life goes unspoken? How about Mom, Pop? Want to talk about her and how you treated her? We got to get this out and in the open once and for all. We’ve got to confront it! It’s been plaguing me my whole life. Do you know what your boorish behavior did to her? It made her an outcast in her own community. Christ, they didn’t even let her join the Rose Club, Pop, and she had the best roses in town! I don’t know how Mom was able to put up with all the disparagement of the townspeople. She was just too timid to fight them all and she spent the last years of her life just accepting her place and waiting for your return. But you didn’t return. You know that mountain lion, Pop? Well, it was your heart I was aiming at. I wanted to sink a slug into your chest and tear it apart for what you did to us. Christ! You didn’t even make it to my wedding, Pop!”
“You know damn well why,” Pop hollers back, hoarse and pugnacious, “got buried in that avalanche in Alaska. No way could I have gotten out of there. But don’t lay this all at my feet, boy,” he counters angrily. “Your mom and I aren’t the cause of your woe.” Pop quiets and faces the fire and sulks as he pokes a stick about the burning wood. “I loved your mother,” he solemnly says. “I loved her more than you’ll know. You just got lost in it all, wrapped up in what other people thought and said. Got truth and hoopla all mixed up. Your mother was the dearest thing in the world to me,” Pop confides, lowering his voice even more as he tends to the fish. “She knew me better than anyone else and I love her for that. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. I’m buried with her in that grave. Perhaps it was her timidity that troubles you.”
You know nothing about me, Pop. The struggles and scrapes I had to go through to get out from your shadow and be an acceptable member of the community. How ingratiating I had to be? How hard I had to work? The humility I had to endure? Going about life with a smile on my face, curbing my tongue and always quivering in fear that I’d be found out. How could I ever gain the prominence…respectability when I had a father like you when…when everything I did was likened to you?
“Why in hell did you spit in Walt’s face?” I stop my pacing and abruptly ask. You must have known how influential, how very, well, very insidious he was. How could you have done that to me? I was always cursed by that act and doomed by it.
I find myself off in the dark alone with clenched fists and staring at the flickering light on the canvas of my tent. “I’m tired,” I say exhaustedly as I turn and settle back down by the fire, tired of it all.
“You need to be yourself, boy,” Pop confers consolingly, “and everything else will fall into place. Here, eat some more,” he motions as he chews on his fish. “You must be hungry. Remember those meals your Mom cooked?” Pop asks as he ruminates on his food. “Roast and potatoes smothered in gravy, home-baked bread, and steamed vegetables fresh from the garden served in that fancy porcelain bowl her mother had left her. Whatever happened to that bowl? Packed away somewhere or broken, I guess,” Pop concludes somewhat befuddled with a slight, wry grin as he pours some more whiskey into the cup. “Can’t change things, I suppose. Here, sit and eat.”
“No, I suppose not,” I lament. With Claire, though, I really believed I could change things. I really thought I had an entrée into fashionable society and I wanted in, be part of it all. And why not! It’s a world where you’re either in or you’re out and I understood all that the moment I saw Claire. Claire was stunning, beautiful and rich. I was dating Eleanor back then, working construction. Claire made it known right up front that Eleanor’s homespun, unpolished ways weren’t right for me…too plain and simple she insisted as though those things were simply bad. Claire was very persuasive in her subverted ways and always knew exactly what she wanted. She was going to take the world by storm and nothing was going to get in her way. She was the key I was looking for—my way in—stylish and influential and I wanted her and cocky enough to take her on.
We had a regal wedding, I suppose. It was a glamorous affair. Everybody who was anybody was there—all the shakers and makers. It was probably a little too glitzy for me, but Claire needed a glitzy ceremony and planned the whole thing right down to the color of the shoelaces and fingernail polish. It was typical Claire, meticulous and exacting. In fact, the only time she really was at a loss was at the rehearsal when she couldn’t decide where I’d stand when she came down the aisle. When Claire entered the church on our wedding day every eye turned toward her, her appearance was quite riveting, covered in snowy white from head to toe with satiny gloves and a full veil. I remember a young girl, trailing in Claire’s footsteps, attending the long train. I don’t know why I remember that little girl now. It’s funny, but I was in such complete awe of all that pomp and pageantry back then and now it all seems so pretentious.
Pop stares out into the dark as though in a trance and tells me: “Your mom and I eloped. Couldn’t afford a fancy wedding. We didn’t need all that fuss anyhow.” He takes a sip of liquor. “We had each other.” The profile of his head is ghastly pale and seems to hover there in the darkness.
The honeymoon in Fiji was at a ritzy, all-inclusive resort that her father arranged for us. It was a luxurious paradise with white-shirted servants catering to your every need. There was that one evening when I found Claire off by herself, sobbing beneath a tree. She was worried about the future and about our happiness together. I had never seen her that upset and my heart naturally went out to her. She made me promise then that I would always stand by her and support her, no matter what. I, of course, promised it all to her. She was so vulnerable and submissive during our honeymoon and I wanted so much to be there for her as I had promised Mom I would do.
When we got back, everyone was so eager to help and lend us a hand. It was unbelievable. Things were just coming easy for us, and I figured why not, I was a smart, scrappy sort of guy and Claire could charm the pants off anyone. We made a sensational couple with a lot of friends. Claire’s father gave us jobs in his business. Claire became CFO and I went into sales. I was good at it and quickly became V.P. of Sales after Sky Gallagher left. Sky stormed out of the office one day, just got up and quit. The scuttlebutt was he’d been padding his expense account, but I don’t really believe that. He probably was canned to make room for me. I hope not. I liked Sky. But things took off after that. I joined the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce and the Westfield Golf Club. We had a house in Landmark Terrace, an au pair for Andrew, and a full social calendar. Life was good. We were the epitome of success. Claire’s father took me under his wing and introduced me to some influential people in both business and politics. He was like a father to me back then. I remember he took me aside once and told me there were no grudges and if I ever needed help, just to ask. He swore he would always be there, no matter what. For some reason back then that was important to me and I felt good about it. Even during my whole sordid divorce, he would call to see how I was doing and let me know that he wasn’t happy with the way Claire was behaving. I see the ruse in all that now.
“A man doesn’t need all those trappings”, Pop grumbles with a frown, “they’re just traps. Fresh air, a place to sleep and food in his belly is all he needs.”
Social standing was important back then and everything seemed so right for a while. Life was perfect and I was in the center of it all. In the evenings we would gather at the Babylon, a very upscale oyster bar and grill on Fourth. It was always crowded with beaming faces and loud chatter about the latest news and gossip. There’s always wheeling and dealing going on and an abundance of glad-handing and showboating. Everyone was well groomed and dressed and smug in a belief that looking good meant being good. By the end of the evening everyone was all jazzed up and singing their favorites songs in a loud chorus so the whole world could hear. We were a bunch of sophisticates spinning the same tale who, thinking back now, were probably too smart for our own good. I suppose I’m persona non grata there now. So be it.
There was one night, after we got home from the Babylon, when I asked Claire why she hadn’t acknowledged her cousin Jane that evening. I had seen Jane come in with an escort, probably just to check it out because they didn’t stay long. I had pointed her out to Claire and Claire stared at her awhile then curtly said ‘Nope, not her.’ I couldn’t figure it out. Claire used to rave about how she’d stay at Jane’s farm in the summers and the great times they had. When I pressed her more about the snub she got very cross with me and told me she didn’t want to talk about it. When I told her she should have at least acknowledge Jane out of politeness she grumbled ‘She didn’t belong there,’ and turned her face away on her pillow and feigned sleep. I remember lying there in bed unable to sleep. The woman I wanted to worship and cherish was becoming…well, becoming specious and haughty and her pleasant glibness was turning operatic and that sweet vanity of hers, turning to a mean conceit. I remember that night, lying in the dark, listening to her breathing, feeling completely detached and alone next to her and not really knowing what to think.
The night is growing chilly and I take the blade of my hatchet and wedge it in the grill and remove it from the fire pit and stack on some wood for more heat. There are faint hoots from a solitary owl drifting down the canyon.
I remember once Claire was able, through some shenanigans, to get Andrew the lead in the school’s holiday pageant. It seems that Andrew’s rival for the part was a slow learner on medication. Claire made sure that the word got out that the other kid was unfit for the role, made him seem almost contagious, from the way she told it. Well, Andrew got the lead and Claire ended up as Chairperson for the PTA. Then there was an awkward encounter I had with a Timmy Sandler, who I really didn’t know, a kid who lived across town. The complaint was he had made an obscene slur about Claire and needed to be put in his place. So I called and lectured him over the phone. He told me he said it because Claire had told someone that his mother wasn’t fit to lick Claire’s shoes. I found myself at a loss for words, as though I had fallen into a pit of unsettling pathos. I understood exactly where he was coming from, but I ended up telling the kid he should learn respect and not to let it happen again. Last I heard, Sandler had been expelled from school and had drifted off somewhere.
What’s left of the fish is unpalatable, with its torso stripped to the bones leaving only the dried-out tail fin and head intact. Overhead, bats flap about the branches, and, in the distance, the soft shushing of the stream.
I suppose it was the Robert’s episode that started my undoing. Tom Robert was an old friend of mine, a high school chum, but a time came when Walt needed me to use my position on the Planning Commission to screw Tom out of his property. He wanted me to swindle a friend so he could gain a parcel of land. I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t right. Claire and I fought over it for quite awhile and I had hoped Claire would come around and see it my way. I was wrong. I had never seen Claire so adamant. She scolded and derided me for being unappreciative and being disrespectful toward her wishes all for the sake of a country bumpkin. She chided me on how fairness had nothing to do with it and then threatened to let my drinking problem be known if I don’t seek help. Then she began sobbing and moaned and wailed about how I had promised her there on our honeymoon. I told her I’d see what I could do and ended up doing nothing.
I figured Robert wouldn’t sell anyhow. His mom had left him the place and he wouldn’t give it up without a fight. It was a shocker to me when the District Attorney came out and filed criminal charges against Robert for operating an illegal puppy mill on his premise. I knew Robert and he loved his dogs and took care of them. It was when those sordid photos came out in the newspaper that the whole thing turned ugly. They were pictures of abused, scrawny puppies with sores and lesions all over them that the newspaper included along with their stories on the Robert’s case. I learned later, that the photos were of a puppy mill in Bolivia and had nothing to do with Robert, but the allegations devastated him. His defense costs led to bankruptcy and he couldn’t handle the slanderous public onslaught so they found him one day hanged from a rafter in his barn.
After that, Claire and I began to quarrel over everything; money, rearing Andrew, people we met, our calendar, her father’s influence and the Robert matter. She grew more and more distressed over the notion that I was somehow intentionally trying to sabotage everything she wanted, that I was becoming uncontrollable and that frightened her. She was constantly trying to put me in my place by reminding me of my roguish upbringing and by demeaning whatever initiatives I had. I began railing against the whole sham, the unmitigated arrogance of it all. I went days without shaving or changing my cloths or not showering, just to rub her priggish friends the wrong way. One night, I did try reaching out to Claire one more time for some tenderness and reconciliation, but she recoiled convulsively from my advances and ended up into a corner with that dazed, bewildered look. I could see in her eyes all the horrid suspicions she had of me were coming true. I had become that abominable barbarian I so desperately tried to conceal. I had become you, Pop. Shortly thereafter, Claire filed for divorce and I moved out.”
“Women are temporal beings with fickle hearts,” Pop cuts in. “Motherhood is their only calling, where searching is ours.”
Our whole separation dragged on interminably. But, finally, our day in court came. As I recall, a witness in a red cardigan sweater said I was indeed acting irrationally. Another witness in horn-rimmed glasses said I approached her in a threatening manner. Then another witness with a hairpiece confirmed that I had a reputation for being irascible. Claire’s attorney certainly made the most of you, Pop. Like father, like son, she contended. I was the son of a temerarious rogue that gallivanted around the world sticking oil wells in the ground. I was a brute, a beast and incapable of a loving relationship quite unlike everyone else in the courtroom. I sat there throughout and thought how I must be at the wrong hearing, the wrong courtroom. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my divorce, but something else, some misunderstanding being offered by witnesses who were just as guilty in their own misrepresentations as I was in my indignation and contempt. And as the magistrate laid down his edict, I saw it all as it really was, a primitive ritual ostracizing me from the tribe. As for Claire, she sat there throughout with that hurt victim look on her face. Her father sat in the back of the room silently condoning everything that was going on.”
“You can never be divorced from this world, boy. It’s those women bonds that keep us here.”
After, outside the courthouse, a crowd huddled around Claire consoling and congratulating her as I stood off by myself. I watched as they reveled in their self-righteousness. I wanted to take a gun and shoot each and every one of them, to spit in their faces. It was then that it hit me…that it was all over. I was out. They had banished me as easily as they had embraced me without batting an eye. I remember it took everything inside of me to walk down those steps with my chin up. At the bottom of the steps I felt flustered and didn’t know which way to turn or whether I should stay or leave.
There’s no love there, Pop, I profoundly conclude after a long pause—just the enticement of being part of something bigger than oneself. I always felt that Claire married me simply to put her father at bay. She just needed to intimidate him into believing she’d go berserk if she didn’t get her way. As I figured it, I had just enough of the renegade in me to give her threat some real clout. As for me, I just wanted out from the shame and humiliation and to be part of society. But I lost sight of who I am and sat by while they destroyed a friend for a little bit of land. You at least joined that rescue team, Pop, foolish as it was. But I did nothing because I was afraid. Afraid of what people would think, petrified they’d turn on me, of losing everything. It kept me from doing what was I should have done. I ended up losing everything anyhow. So now I left with just a tormenting regret, an agony that wealth or status can’t cure. Sometimes, when I lay awake in the early morning, I think that perhaps drowning in a sea of oblivion would be better than facing that condemnation alone.
“Don’t be foolish, boy,” Pop solemnly interjects with a grimace and stands and paces about the site. “A man is his only savior. Your destiny is your own, boy, and doesn’t belong to them.”
Off in the distance, a twig cracks and a black shadow of an intruder startles me before it quickly fades into the tree trunks, leaving nothing, nothing at all. I put that old rawhide jacket of Pop’s over my shoulders to cut the chill some.
“You need to get back to hunting,” Pop exhorts from somewhere off in the night, “and clear your head. When was the last time you got your boots dirty flushing pheasant? Remember the thrill of scurrying birds fleeing their lair? That brief second when it all depends on you to make the shot? Success or failure is always at hand. A man needs to know that thrill, know he’s alive. And you’re never alone when you’re hunting. There is always game to find. Just need the sense to find it, track it, and bag it. The world is full of such things. Might not be as fanciful, as sophisticated, but it’s real.” As I listen to Pop’s gruff utterances I can feel him moving among the dark shadows behind me. “You got too much of your mom in you. Worrying about what other people think. Substituting the real for their unreal. You need to get back to hunting, learn the lay of the land and how to cross it on your own terms. Get your bow and hunt white tail. You were good at that. Alaska is a wilderness you need to see. Take Andrew. Teach him to hunt, to live in the present. Show him the great outdoors, a world without regret. And all that dread of loneliness. It’s just the howling of the wind, boy. You got to kill it like that mountain lion. Destroy its ferocious face before it devours you.” Pop bellows his admonition as he rests his hands on the back of my shoulders.
“Get off my back, Pop!” I utter aloud as I stand and toss the remaining whiskey from my cup into the fire. “You’ve been dead now ten years.” I stand here, listening to the nocturne of a distant stream and the stirring of windblown treetops swaying overhead. The black night envelops a campsite lit by the crackling fire and the glow of the hissing lantern.