When Sletten had finally made the decision to take his own life, he felt such deep calm that he wondered why he hadn’t decided long before. That profound serenity abided with him until his ex-father-in-law called, about five minutes later.
“How are the birds this year?” he asked as if it mattered to Sletten.
“Yesterday, I saw one sitting on my back fence wishing he were dead.”
“Well, did you help him out?”
“No. He looked so contented there, I didn’t have the heart to bring him out of it.”
“We’ll be there in four hours.”
“Me and Byron.” Byron was Sletten’s ex-brother-in-law.
Sletten felt miserable. He walked through his house that just minutes ago had acquired the grandeur of a mausoleum but had since slipped back into the squalid dwelling of a man who hadn’t quite–and certainly never would–find his proper dimension. Clothes festooned the furniture. All flat surfaces had parts of newspapers lying open or refolded so that none of the edges matched leaving tunnels like a kid’s badly rolled spyglass. In the kitchen, empty boxes of grocery store pizzas and TV dinners, too large for the garbage can, took dominion over everything–over the coffee stains on the counter and the fuscous brown linoleum floor, uniform except where he had made a traffic pattern shuffling his boots.
When Ellen, his wife, had left him, Sletten assumed that he was divorcing her family, too. In fact, her dad and brother, if anything, found new respect for him after the split–like he had finally wised up. So he didn’t know if he should feel exonerated or insulted. He chose both. Dissatisfied with the level of filth in the place, he poured the remains of a box of Trix on the floor and stomped around the kitchen, taking solemn pleasure in realizing that the first cold snap of the fall was in the forecast, and the furnace showed no evidence whatsoever of kicking in.
He dug around in the hall closet and found his old Mossberg 20-gauge with three-shell clip and poly choke. Unused for at least fifteen years, it could malfunction, explode and kill him, if the world cared about such justice. The hunter bags himself. That reminded him. He had no hunting license. He laughed. Then he laughed some more. When he came out of it, he opened the front door and looked between the houses across the street where a bank of gray-black cloud approached like doom from the west. He wanted to work up another fit of laughter there on the front porch, but he couldn’t quite pull it off. Maybe he should do it now so that Vince and Byron would find his carcass. He imagined them ringing the doorbell, knocking, peeking through the picture window, seeing his exploded flesh decorating the living room. It’s a long rainbow to drive for that pot of gold. No. A weekend with his ex in laws would make his obliteration all the sweeter when they left.
It was a Saturday morning in late November after a long, beautiful fall–beautiful if there were anything else in his life that remotely fit that adjective. Sletten had been through all that. There was nothing. He started to oil the shotgun, wipe away fifteen years of dust, but that too he stopped. What the hell for? That, he decided, was the best answer for every question he could think of: what the hell for? It was a kernel of wisdom that he carried around with him as he located his long underwear, wool socks and fleece-lined jacket. And when he got sick of that one, he tried, “Why the hell not?” He wasn’t sure why he didn’t like that one quite so well, but he suspected that it had a sneaky optimism about it, and he was in no mood for that.
Sletten reflected back on other outdoor adventures, trips that he had planned and executed by himself or with Ellen. Fishing trips to swollen springtime rivers, when he held a stupid notion that he was following some ancient manly ritual, answering a primeval calling to engage with the natural world. Yet he never once caught a fish big enough to keep, and it was a great day if he didn’t fall in or at least if he didn’t achieve total immersion–which he nearly always did. He would climb into the car, soaking wet, turn the heater all the way up and shiver so badly he could hardly stay on the road. Once he thought he had discovered a hole of huge rainbow trout. He could see them swimming around beneath him, but for three hours he tried every fly, every lure he had and never got a nibble. The next day he came down with poison ivy. So why was he now going out into that outdoor world that had been the source of so much misery–and to go hunting, of all things? Why the hell not?
By the time Vince and Byron got there, it was noon and the sky looked like the inside of a mailbox.
“Great day for it,” Vince said. “Won’t be much competition.” Vince was in his fifties and had a face that looked like it had been constructed out of old pieces of sidewalk. He had been a dentist but one day gave it up, said it was too dull. He hunted and fished for a few months and then took a job as a stevedore. His wife tried to have him committed, and when that didn’t work she left him for a general practitioner, who bought her a Volvo. In the meantime, Vince worked his way up to foreman, and now he was practically the commissioner down at the dock and was having a hell of a time talking to people who could talk back.
Byron was a man without a purpose. He had several degrees in subjects that Sletten couldn’t remember or pronounce. He wrote articles for a weekly newspaper about sanitation–though when he read one, Sletten knew it was all a sham. Byron didn’t really believe what he was saying. It was just something to do while he waited for his life’s true calling. What horseshit! What it did for him, though, was to keep him in a perpetual readiness for that epiphany, that rapture. He always seemed to expect that the next thing could be the best thing, and he wanted to be ready. Byron was in a way the complete opposite of Sletten, who expected the next thing to be the worst yet, and he was seldom disappointed.
He set his shotgun in Vince’s truck canopy and met Byron’s young Springer spaniel. Liver and white spotted, with eyes sadder than a Bassett’s, he had obviously been whelped yesterday. “This is his first hunt,” Byron said, “but he’s got good bloodlines. I got a great deal on him.”
Snow started to fall as they drove out of town toward a waste way that Vince had hunted years ago. Byron sat in the middle, his gangly body slightly stooped, his eyes scanning the countryside for miracles. Vince was telling a story about hunting out here with a friend years ago and their Ford wagon broke down. So they hunted their way back to town and eventually walked into a parts store with three pheasant roosters and a chukar. They bought a water pump, left the birds as collateral for some borrowed tools, walked back to the Ford, installed the pump and drove back for the birds. Meanwhile, the clerk at the store had called his wife to come and get the birds and cook them up because there was no way the hunters would come back for them. He’d write off the tools. When the clerk saw them walk in he felt so bad he invited them home to supper.
“We stayed in contact for years after that,” Vince said. “Then he and his wife got divorced and she came over to Seattle. She called me one night. Must have been real lonely. Of course, I’ve always been true to Byron’s mother.”
“Dad, you’ve been divorced for years,” Byron said.
Vince chuckled. “I send her a package of game every year just to remind her of what she’s missing and to say no hard feelings. She can’t stand hunting. Wonder what she does with the meat.” He glanced at Byron for an answer, but he just shrugged his shoulders. “Once I sent her some jackrabbit. G.P. called me and told me to quit harassing his wife. I said, ‘Harassing, hell, it’s a gift!” He said, ‘We both know what it is, and I’m warning you to stop it.’ I said, ‘Well, what are you gonna do, give me an injection, you wimp?'” He chuckled again. “You see,” he said. “Even unrequited love can have some levity.”
Snow was falling harder, and the wind had picked up. By the time they pulled in by the waste way, flakes were blowing horizontal to the ground and stung like birdshot. They got their guns out of the back and loaded up. The Springer jumped down, circled around the place for a few seconds and returned to the truck, looking up longingly at the canopy and whining. The hunters spread out about twenty-five feet apart and started combing the brush. Byron took the side nearest the water where the going was the hardest. He had to wind around small stands of scrub willows, red osier dogwoods and occasionally some Russian olive. So the going was slow. Every snowflake pinged off of Sletten’s face, and he was beginning to regret that he hadn’t stuck to his original plan and ended it all that morning. The Springer hung close to Byron and reminded Sletten of the cartoon character that flits from tree to tree being mock sneaky. It would find the thickest tree and stand behind it downwind until Byron passed by. Then it would sprint to the next tree. If the dog had any nose for game birds, it disguised that instinct very well. Bundled up as he was, with ski gloves on his hands, lifting his old work boots over the clumps of grass and sagebrush, Sletten felt as if he were toting an anvil. It occurred to him that if they did flush anything, they could save their shells and just let the wind do the killing.
While he was occupied feeling sorry for himself, Sletten got too far ahead of Byron, and when a bird flushed off to his right, he was the only one who had a shot at it. He got the safety off on the second try and blasted away in what most would agree was the general direction of the bird. But the pheasant was flying with the wind, and even if Sletten’s aim had been true, he doubted that the BBs could have caught up with the quarry. In any case, his shot was not entirely wasted, as he had brought down the top branch of a Russian olive. “Hen,” Vince said.
Their plan was to hunt down one side of the waste way until they came to a road over the canal, then hunt back up the other side. It was a good plan in theory, but by the time they got back to the truck, Sletten’s clothes were so frozen he couldn’t have raised his gun to fire if a pheasant had charged him. Meanwhile, Vince had brought down two roosters and Byron one. Sletten suspected that they were using heat-seeking ammo because the wind, the snow, and the poor visibility made accuracy impossible. The other answer was luck, so he went with that. The only mammal happier than Sletten to get back to the truck was the Springer. Byron fished a couple of dog biscuits out of a bag and gave them to the dog, in what Sletten considered a clear case of rewarding incompetence.
When they got back to the house, they discovered that if they discounted the wind chill, it was about the same temperature inside as out. Byron, the professor of sanitation, stepped inside the back door, made a quick survey of the kitchen floor and adjacent furnishings and said, “Quaint.” Vince marched directly over to the furnace, opened a door to some controls and asked, “Got a match?” Sletten found a book over by a stack of old phone books that he had once intended to use to burn the place down. Vince struck a match, fiddled with one of the knobs and created a little blue flame. Then he closed the door to the furnace and said, “In about an hour this place will be too hot for blizzard hunters like us.” Sletten didn’t know what to say to a man who could so blithely disturb someone else’s well-earned suffering.
Byron carried in a cooler from the truck and took out of it three large steaks, several potatoes and two bottles of red wine. Vince tested the oven to see if the broiler worked while Byron fed the Springer in the mudroom. Vince scrubbed off three of the spuds and set them on a plate in the microwave. When the broiler was heated up, he set steaks on a broiler pan while Byron uncorked one of the bottles. Sletten hadn’t seen that kind of kitchen coordination since the church Ladies Aid had fixed lunch at the funeral of his Aunt Mavis, whom everyone had hated and whose passing was a cause of general good will for several weeks. Byron handed him a very drinkable slug of Merlot in a water glass. “To blizzard hunting,” he said. Sletten didn’t like the direction all of this was going in, but he took one sip and soon another, and by the time the steaks were done, he was, if not cheery, at least amiable.
When the second bottle was half gone, the temperature was in the sixties and the three had their feet up and were watching the weather forecast for more wind and snow for tomorrow. “Great!” Vince shouted. “We’ll have the countryside to ourselves again.” And he apparently meant it.
Vince half turned toward Sletten and said, “You didn’t want to go hunting with us today. You probably would have preferred to stay here and freeze to death. But you didn’t. Good for you. You were our good luck today.” Vince had a set of eyebrows that hung over his ice blue eyes like a couple of lead pipes, and he raised them as if surprised by his own words, and then uttered his signature throaty laugh, the kind that you have to go along with even when you don’t get the joke. Meanwhile, Byron had fixed on something on the kitchen floor, almost tip-toed over to it, bent down, peering, and then took out his jack knife, opened a blade and scraped something onto a scrap of newspaper. Byron folded up the paper with a piece of the kitchen floor and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
Vince, apparently finding his son’s behavior entirely normal, said, “Did you know that there is no patron saint of stevedores?” Sletten’s jaw dropped, either in disbelief or bewilderment or because of gravity. “That’s right,” Vince continued. “Dentists have a patron saint. She refused to acknowledge the pagan deities and had her teeth knocked out. I don’t quite see how that qualifies her to represent dentists, but at least they have one. But stevedores? No sir. A stevedore is on his own with God. Now hunters have a saint. If I could remember his name, we could invoke him right now for a good hunt tomorrow.” He laughed and Sletten—or the merlot—joined in. “Who’s the patron saint of divorces?” Sletten asked. “Ah!” Vince raised his glass. “That would be Saint Henry the Eighth.” Both laughed again, but this time Vince’s laugh was cut off by a sudden groan and his entire body shook with a spasm. He grabbed at his leg but couldn’t quite reach the right place and his stiffened body slid off the front of the chair. Byron was there in an instant, and he felt the leg where Vince was pointing. “Charley horse,” he said. “Get him comfortable.” Sletten helped Vince onto the floor and placed a throw pillow under his head while Byron kneaded the knot in his dad’s thigh. Gradually, the anguished expression on Vince’s face faded and he began to relax.
“Whew! Must not be drinking enough water,” Vince said, wiping the sweat from his face. “It’s all that talk about saints,” Byron said. They helped him back into the chair and he winced again. The knot had reduced, but the leg was still sore and would be for a while.
“Hate to say it, but it looks like my hunting is done for the weekend.”
No doubt his disappointment was genuine, as was Sletten’s relief. “Well, all for one and one for all,” he said. “Byron and I wouldn’t dream of going without you tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?” Byron asked, shooting a traitorous glare. Obviously, true hunters have no such loyalties.
“No. You two go on without me,” Vince said. Then he smiled at Sletten. “You can use my Winchester. That pop gun of your is hardly worth a tickle.” Sletten knew how precious that Winchester was to him, rating only behind his children and maybe his ex-wife in importance. The responsibility lay so heavily on Sletten that he didn’t sleep a wink that night and was the perfect audience for the Springer yodeling non-stop in the mudroom.
By morning, the snow was a foot deep and still falling. They ate a hearty breakfast of fried potatoes and Trix. Byron and Sletten loaded the guns and the Springer in the truck, put it in 4-wheel drive, and as far as Sletten could predict, drove off to freeze to death. Byron drove north until they found a place with lots of cover–mostly snow. As they were loading their shotguns, the Springer flushed four birds within thirty feet of the truck. Byron cursed and said they were roosters, too–though he must have determined that from their sound because they couldn’t see past the ends of their guns.
They started across the scrub after them. Byron was off to the left somewhere calling for his Springer. Sletten wore an old pair of work boots with soles like a foosball table. As he started up a knoll, he learned that the snow covered a lot of slippery, flat rocks. With nearly every other step he had to perform vaudeville dances trying to maintain his balance, all the while holding Vince’s precious Winchester aloft. Near the top, perhaps from premature celebration, both his feet rocketed to the rear, and with his arms extended above his head dealt one slick rock a punishing blow with his diaphragm. He lay for several minutes until his breath came back and the pain was tolerable then decided that he’d best travel on all threes until he reached level ground. He crawled that way over the crest of the hill, his right hand holding the Winchester above the snow, the rest of him lurching along with a severely pronounced hitch. It would be hard to say who was most surprised when he came upon it, him or the rooster. But there it sat on the downwind side of some sagebrush. Both of them froze.
It was a predicament. In those gloves he needed both hands to flick the safety, but that movement would flush the bird, and it would be gone before he could get a shot off. It seemed almost a better bet to throw the gun at it, and had it been his old Mossberg, he would have done it. But not with Vince’s beloved Winchester. It didn’t take too long for the oddity of the situation to fade and for Sletten to choose his course of action. He would scare the bird, maybe fire a blind shot into the arctic air and call it another big one that got away. But he was Sletten the fool, and for him nothing was ever that easy. Before he could flinch, Byron, still looking for his useless dog, said, “What’s the matter, you on point?” The pheasant exploded from the sage and flashed downwind through a grove of swamp willows. Three snap shots from Byron’s automatic riddled some trophy snowflakes. The misses didn’t seem to bother him at all. He said nothing, but Sletten didn’t like his grin.
Sletten stood up and Byron helped to brush the snow from him. “Had enough?” he asked. Sletten rolled his eyes. “Yeah, me too,” Byron said. “He shook his head, chuckled and wandered back in the general direction of the truck, calling for the Springer. He needn’t have worried about his dog. It was right where they should have expected him to be–curled up beneath the warm engine of the truck, whimpering. Byron opened up the tailgate and hatch of the canopy. As the dog bounded in, Byron reached into the bag, pulled out a sandstone-looking dog biscuit and offered it to Sletten. “Here,” he said. “You’ve earned this.” Then he gave him a genial slap on the shoulder and said, “Well, let’s not stand around all day. I’m freezing my ass off out here.”
On the way back to town, the truck moved as if by feel. They could see very little beyond the hood and crawled along turning away from the tilt as it headed toward a ditch. But it was a straight road and nobody else was dumb enough to be out there. “What about Ellen?” Sletten asked.
“You haven’t heard?” He paused. “She’s engaged to an investment broker. Owns a condo on Lake Union.” He glanced over at Sletten, who was staring at the snow. “I guess that’s what I lacked,” Sletten said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work,” Byron said. “Nobody’s to blame. People change. We’re all changing. There aren’t many roadmaps. We mostly get through by feel. Hope we don’t hit the ditch.” Sletten guessed that he was supposed to feel better hearing that, but he didn’t. He was pissed. Not at losing the woman he had loved, but for feeling miserable about it. Now that he thought about it, he realized that he had always been somebody’s dog.
A glow appeared ahead of them–the streetlights at the outskirts of town. From the tight little ball of light in the center, it diffused outward until it blended in with the blowing snow and he couldn’t tell what was light and what was dark. And then they came to another light, and it faded and was replaced by another and so on until that string of lights, invisibly connected, led them home. The streets, sidewalks and lawns were all blanketed by white. They drove down the broadest patches, hoping they were streets. Byron pulled into the driveway and parked behind Sletten’s old Dodge Neon under the carport he had built himself before Ellen had scrammed. Snow was building up on the roof. He would have to come out with a ladder and broom and push some of it off or the roof would collapse. Approaching the back door, he saw that moisture had seeped between the panes of the kitchen window, its seal broken.
Vince had everything ready to go and was waiting in the doorway. “We’d better head out before the pass closes,” he said. They threw it all in the back of the truck.
“It’s about time you guys cleared out,” Sletten said. “I had a perfectly fine weekend planned, including watching the Army-Navy game, when you showed up. Now I’m probably going to get pneumonia, and at least one of my ribs is cracked. Thanks for the miseries.” Vince closed the hatch to the canopy and walked around to the driver’s side door. He reached out his hand and Sletten took it. “And for God’s sake call me when you get home so I know you got there in one piece.” Vince smiled, winked and crawled behind the wheel. Sletten walked around to the other side of the truck and shook hands with Byron. “Tell your mother that I’m glad she found somebody who can provide for her needs. And tell your sister that when her sugar daddy dumps her she can’t come back here. I’m done with her.” Byron nodded and opened the door. “And one more thing,” Sletten said. “I saw you scraping something off my kitchen floor last night.” He pointed at Byron’s shirt pocket. “Don’t think you can sic the Health Department on me because I won’t stand for it. I won’t even let them in the door. I’ll burn the place down first.”
Byron grinned. “Relax,” he said. “You have some interesting growth in there. I want to look at it under the microscope. Could be some new life form.”
The truck pulled out onto the street, its exhaust swirling, circling above the cab as it eased away before fading into the storm. The wind had let up a little, but snow was still building up a layer of white on the west side of everything, as if half of the world were whiting out and starting over.
He opened the door to the shed attached to the carport, took out the push broom and a ladder. He climbed up a few rungs and started clearing the snow off the corrugated tin on top of the carport. He reached the broom out as far as he could and pulled the snow back toward him where it would fall into a bank beside the carport. He was careful not to lean on the structure. Pulling the snow, he felt the posts lean and give. Probably should have sunk them in cement, he thought. Then he moved the ladder and repeated the motion, pulling more snow toward him. Reaching and pulling. Reaching and pulling. Each time he pulled he felt a stab of pain in his chest from his earlier fall. Thinking back to yesterday, he wondered, “Would I have done it? Could I have sold the farm, blown myself to smithereens?” Not a chance, he decided. He would have screwed it up. Blown off one of his ears. Mangled the boyish face that Ellen had once loved.
Sletten stepped down from the ladder and moved it around to the west side of the carport so he could broom off what he hadn’t been able to reach. The snow on the rungs had compacted, and as he stepped up with the broom and reached forward, his bald-soled boots slipped off the rung throwing all of his weight on the port. At first, he thought it might hold and that he would just roll off the roof and light in some cushy snow. But as he was trying to roll off, he heard the post creak, and then the tin sagged and the only cross support wavered, and like a bad kids’ rock band the sound just got louder until he and pretty much the whole kaboodle collapsed onto the Neon. His first impulse was to pick up a sheet of the corrugated tin, combine it with his favorite curse and frisbee it into the street. His ribs had other plans, so he lay there beside his innocent, assaulted car, snow snapping at his face.
He lay there half in snow and half out of it until something started about at his pitiful ribs and worked its way up and out. For a moment he thought it was more pain, worse pain, but as it rose it bubbled forth in acute bursts, like shockwaves. And then he was laughing. Holding his chest, he laughed and grimaced and laughed some more until the pain couldn’t keep up and the laughter kept coming. He closed his eyes and laughed. Then he opened his eyes and squinted through the blinding snow and laughed again. As if from somewhere else–maybe from across the street or across the mountains–he imagined watching himself there amid the wreckage of his carport and his marriage. God’s own fool. He laughed and laughed, and when he thought he was finished, he began again and laughed until the tears ran down his frosty cheeks. He laughed until he thought he would die laughing.
Loren Sundlee’s stories have appeared in Raven Chronicles, Crab Creek Review, StringTown and other publications. He lives with his wife and two children in Yakima County, Washington.