The first thing about quail hunting I hate is that it involves getting up at five in the morning. Mom’s hippie-redneck boyfriend bangs on my door and leaps into the room all full of enthusiasm. “Come on, little man, let’s go hunt some quail!” He shakes my shoulder as I lie defiantly unresponsive in bed, my eyes tightly closed. I want to tell hippie-redneck boyfriend that it’s bad enough he’s banging my mom, but now this?
But he’s a big, shaggy, irresistible puppy now. “Come on! It’s gonna be great! There’s gonna be guns and blood and beer! I’m gonna treat you just like a man, and we’re gonna bond, and then we’ll have our own separate connection that doesn’t go through your mother, and it will be part of this careful network of connections I’m building like a web around your mother, making it ever harder for her to extract herself!” He doesn’t say all of this, of course, because he doesn’t understand what he’s doing as well as I do. Mostly he just pants happily and pushes my shoulder. If I continue to stubbornly resist, he’ll probably end up licking my face.
No shower. I pull a baseball cap over my sleep-twisted hair, choose some clothes from the floor and dress haphazardly. Then I’m being herded out through the morning mist to hippie-redneck boyfriend’s rusty old pickup truck. It’s cold, and I can see my breath in the grey twilight. I’m thinking to myself that human breath is not meant to be seen. If a human can see his breath it’s a clear indication he’s doing something wrong. He’s in the wrong place, the wrong time, or both.
On the way through town, we stop at a house to pick up a couple of hippie-redneck-boyfriend friends. One is a guy almost as young as me, but leaner, longer, and pimply. Hippie-redneck boyfriend introduces us excitedly, hoping we’ll be friends and establish another connection. The new kid gives me a sadistic leer, enough to let me know if he gets me alone he’ll torture me for being younger and smaller than him.
Back on the road, the cold air blasting my feet through the holes in the floorboard, hippie-redneck boyfriend gives me a can of beer with the same self-satisfied smile Prometheus no doubt wore when he handed a fennel stalk of fire to man.
My frozen hand reaches through the frozen air to grasp the warm can of beer. How did he manage that? Hippie-redneck boyfriend’s incompetence knows no bounds.
“Don’t tell your mother,” he says seriously. What a strong connection we have now, we two conspirators. He chugs his warm beer happily.
We leave town and go to the place where the quail live. It’s a vineyard, ragged and overgrown, looted of its green pearls months before. I assume the quail live here peacefully, going about their quail business, living their quail lives, pursuing their quail dreams. We clearly don’t belong here, we towering, creaky humans, swaying above the rows of vines like walking smokestacks, polluting the chilled air with clouds of morning breath. Once far enough from the road, we spread out. I make sure I’m nowhere near the leering sadist.
I’m armed with a 20-gauge shotgun my grandpa bought me to mark my transition to a kind of provisional manhood. At a certain age, I’m given the shotgun to replace my little boy’s BB gun. A shotgun is like a BB gun, except that it is loaded with a plastic cylinder packed with hundreds of BBs and, instead of air pressure, the gun propels the BBs using an explosive chemical reaction discovered by some Chinese guy a long time ago who had way too much time on his hands. The plastic cylinder stays in the gun and the BBs begin spreading out as soon as they leave the barrel. Shotguns are for the hunting enthusiast who finds “aiming” detrimental to the enjoyment of the sport.
When you hunt quail you squat down and wait. This is different from hunting pheasants. When you hunt pheasants you go somewhere with tall grass, and you stomp through the tall, wet grass where the pheasants are hiding. The pheasants try to stay still and quiet so you’ll walk by without knowing they’re there, but if you get too close to one and he loses his nerve, he leaps into the air in a panic of pounding wings. Sometimes he’s with his mate, and they both explode from the wet grass at the same time. If you haven’t died of a heart attack, you have to collect your wits quickly enough to aim your weapon and fire before your prey is out of range.
But when hunting quail you just wait for them to come wandering by. Eventually they do, usually in a small group, chatting amongst themselves; oblivious, for some reason, to the invasion of gun-toting killer giants. But then, who expects gun-toting killer giants?
At first they don’t see me, squatting but still towering above them. It occurs to me that it makes no sense to try to hide from something smaller than me by squatting, but I’ll forget that in the ensuing excitement. For now, I freeze in anticipation. They see me, and they stop moving and go silent. They are elegantly attired in grey, black and pale blue feathers, but they wear silly hats. They are California Valley Quail, Callipepla californicus. They stare up at me.
I stare back.
There is a long awkward moment, and then finally one of them, assuming a leadership role, takes a step forward and says to me, “How’s it going?”
I am careful not to move anything except my mouth. “Good. How’s it going with you?”
The bird thinks a moment before answering. Maybe he was thinking during that moment about answering with something clever or substantive, but he’s cautious, and he chooses instead not to deviate from the casual formality. “We’re good.”
Then he looks down at the shotgun I’m cradling in my squat-lap.
I look down too, embarrassed. “Yeah. The gun. Well, you see…”
He cocks his head and waits expectantly. The others wait too. One of them begins to fidget.
What to say? Since I have to do what I have to do, there’s no point in prevaricating. “You see, the reason I’m here… with this gun… I’m going to shoot you.”
The quail look at each other and they all begin to fidget. The leader says, “Dude.”
I raise the gun and twist towards them. This is the other thing about quail hunting I hate.
“Dude, whoa! What are you doing?”
I lower the gun. “Look, it’s complicated. My mother’s divorced. She’s lonely. There are these guys … they want me to like them because she won’t like them unless I like them. So… I have to shoot you.”
The boom hurts my ears and the recoil hurts my shoulder. The leader explodes in a comical cloud of feathers. Dirt flies in all directions, stinging my face and hands. As the dirt and feathers settle, I see two of the other birds writhing on the ground. The rest have disappeared.
Panicked quail cries issue from all corners. “What the fuck? What the fuck?” Quail begin running back and forth among the vines. More gun blasts ring out. Expanding clouds of BBs whoosh through the air and I take cover by pressing close to a gnarled vine.
Six dead birds, two of them mine, are laid out on the hood of the pickup. The mangled corpses are caked with blood-mud and full of tooth-cracking BBs. I know there was a seventh, but nothing is left of him for us to pretend we’re going to eat.
We arrive back home with the two corpses I made. Hippie-redneck boyfriend failed to kill, but that doesn’t bother him. We’re not provident hunters returning from the savannah with nourishment for the tribe. This is all ritual. What’s important is that I was successful, and he is excited about that. The quail were never the point of the escapade, they were innocent bystanders, props in a purely human drama. Or, actually, I guess it’s a romantic comedy. I don’t know. I’m just the adorable moppet.
What matters is that he led me out into the world to kill things, and then brought me home safe. Now he can check that off the list and move on to something involving my little sister and a pony ride, or whatever. Everybody wins. Well, except for the birds, of course.
It is a part of my identity since I was very young that I am smarter than everybody else. It will be years before I question that belief. And even though I know as much about sex as I know about Swahili, the subjects of my observations are terrible actors who have all agreed to pretend they’re fooling each other. It’s easy, from backstage, to see what they have agreed not to see. I know that eventually my mother will shut the whole thing down by simply breaking the fourth wall.
In the meantime, for all my arrogance and attitude, it’s hard not to like the hippie-redneck boyfriends. They are all so smitten with my melancholy Mom, and so determined to make her happy. I can’t help but be moved by how these shaggy strays are so eager to make a place for themselves in our humble, forlorn, father-forsaken home. I can’t help but root for them, whatever the hell it is they think they’re doing.
The crater my father left is huge, and deep, and no hippie-redneck boyfriend could possibly fill it, although a couple will get big points for effort, and for the unexpected dignity they show when my mother finally sends them on their way. But most of the time they are gentle and kind and smile at me a lot, and that’s probably more helpful than I would admit.
My mother, who worries about everything, worries that I need a father-figure to replace my absent father-father. The strays are eager to prove they are up to the challenge. My nascent manhood becomes their project. They will teach me what it means to be a man, because that will prove something to my mother.
But my father has already taught me the most important lesson. The idea of manhood everybody is trying to sell me is a myth, a charade. It’s all talk. It’s a flattering story men tell themselves about themselves.
So while the hippie-redneck boyfriends show me guns and booze and tools and car engines – the fashion accessories of manhood – I watch and I think.
And I realize that they all believe that being a man means not being a woman. Being a man is all about vigilance against any hint of femininity, as if spontaneous invagination is a constant threat.
But early on I somehow arrive at the radical conclusion that being a man means not being a boy. It’s obviously not a conclusion shared by many men. They are all very busy not being women, and it seems to me that it is precisely when they think they are being most manly that they are behaving most like boys.
And it’s often when they feel emasculated that they seem to me most like men. When my mother shatters the illusion and tells them it’s over, for instance, and they have to deal with the undeniable emotions of that moment. When they manage that well, that’s when I am most proud of them. That’s when I experience the rare desire to be like them. I want the ability to rule my sadness and anger, not to deny it but to make deliberate choices about how it will affect my behavior and where it fits into my priorities. I see the anger and the hurt they feel at being rejected, but they know that they love us, or believe they do, and they manage to keep everything centered on that in the final, bitter moments. That’s when I finally love them in return, as they turn to leave quietly.
And I think that all these ideas are probably exactly what my mother is worried about.
But tonight hippie-redneck boyfriend is riding high. He knows his doom, but his life right now is all about pretending he has everything under control. He takes a beer from the fridge and winks at me as he passes, because we have the secret of the warm beer in the pickup.
He lights the fake campfire in the living room and it glows cold blue and speaks, telling us a funny story about two young women in Milwaukee, a city filled with beer and laughs. I take my seat on the floor in front of the fire and play my peripheral role in our domestic theater, pretending to watch the fire but thinking about the birds and why they had to die.
My mother has probably already thrown the dead birds in the garbage.