They said they would be at my house at 4:30 a.m. and they were. I saw their cigarettes glowing in the pick-up cab as I stepped off my porch into the headlights. Mack opened the passenger door and pulled the seat-back forward so I could stow my shotgun behind it.
“You’re in the middle,” he said. Mack liked ordering people around. He was also bigger than me, so I figured it would be easier for Bubba to drive if I sat next to him. That’s the logic I used for not telling Mack to stuff it, anyway.
Bubba drove north on Cherry St. while I poured myself some coffee. McDonald’s was not open 24-hours yet and Starbucks was still just a gleam in the eye of a man in Seattle, so I had brought my own coffee in a thermos.
Mack said, “I’ll take some.” He has a way of asking that’s more like telling. I filled his cup, but only after giving him a ration of shit for not bringing enough of his own.
We drove through the still-sleeping town, past the college and the farm machinery dealers, over the river bridge and out the old highway to Memphis. A Hunter’s Moon lit the farms on the river bottoms that were just beginning to stir.
Bubba stopped first at his grandmother’s house, being careful not to run over her guinea hens when he pulled into the drive. Mrs. Ford was a widow now, but her house was still the hub of the family farm, as it had been since before the second Mr. Roosevelt went to Washington. It was a sturdy house of wood-frame architecture and she kept it painted white so she wouldn’t appear too showy. She was up and dressed when we got there, and she invited us in like always, but we stayed only long enough to pick up boots and Bubba’s dog, a good-hearted Labrador named Belle.
Belle gave everyone a chance to rub her head at least once, then she jumped up in the truck bed and we made the short drive over to the hunting grounds. We parked near a canebrake to hide the truck as best we could. Bubba didn’t give ducks much credit for brains but he had a high opinion of their eyesight.
We finished our coffee and cigarettes, then we pulled on our boots and started across the flooded field. Belle bounded off ahead and was quickly absorbed in the dark. The walk to the duck blind was only about fifty yards, but you won’t find a harder fifty yards in the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl. Every step of the way, thick, sucking mud pulled at my boots, like hands of the damned trying to drag me into hell. It was a tough slog, punctuated with near falls and profane outbursts, but I managed to reach the blind without dunking my shotgun or my cigarettes.
We got ourselves settled in and closed the blind door, such as it was. We sat on a wooden bench that reminded me of the locker room in junior high school. I had a flashback where I was bent over one just like it so my sadistic football coach could whack me with his paddle.
I sat in the middle again while we waited for the sky to lighten. We could hear ducks quacking but it was still too dark to see them. Since we had nothing to do but wait, I fished around in my pocket and found the half-pint of Jack Daniels I had brought. I thought it might help keep the chill off, but when Bubba saw it he got all bent out of shape and he said we couldn’t drink while we hunted. I wondered if he thought we would get liquored up and shoot each other, and I will concede that mixing alcohol and shotguns was not the smartest idea I ever had, but hell, there wasn’t enough whiskey in that little bottle to make even one of us dangerous, much less all three. I thought because we were manly men doing a manly thing that some manly passing around of a whiskey bottle was appropriate for the occasion. I didn’t understand, but I was company, so I put it away.
We sat on the bench and talked in low voices and the sky did lighten and eventually the time for shooting hours came. And then we waited some more. Duck hunting is a lot like watching a baseball game. You sit for long stretches waiting for something exciting to happen, never completely certain that it will, and then all of a sudden people are jumping up and there is furious activity and adrenaline is pumping and there is deafening noise and then, as quickly as it began, it is over until the next time.
While we waited for the next time, I rubbed specks of mud off my gun with my coat sleeve. I hunted with a double-barreled 20-gauge Springfield that my great-grandfather gave to his son, who gave it to his son, who gave it to his, who is me. It is a hundred years old if it is a day, and while it is an irreplaceable heirloom, it was no match for the firepower my companions unleashed with their 12-gauge automatics. Whenever we all stood and fired together, I never knew for certain if I had hit my target. It is entirely possible that in my entire body of duck hunting work, encompassing maybe a dozen hunts altogether, I never killed a single duck.
It was not just me that noticed this. It had been a topic of conversation between us a few times before. I blamed the inadequate range of my antique weapon. They had a multitude of other opinions, none of them flattering. So in order to put the thing to rest, I made a radical suggestion. Today I would go solo. When the first opportunity came, I would take the shot by myself. This way there would be no doubt. It was risky. It was desperate. It was the hunting equivalent of going naked. My friends were reluctant at first, but in the end they agreed.
As the morning wore on there was no shortage of birds in the sky, but so far none had shown us any interest. Bubba blew on the duck call until his cheeks hurt. Finally, off in the distance, we saw a single, flying fast, like he had someplace else he needed to be. Bubba worked the call like crazy, and when the duck turned he said, “I got him.” The duck circled back, still high above us, and then he began to spiral down, like water circling a drain. Mack said, “Get ready.”
We stayed low and watched him though gaps in the cane. He zeroed in on our decoys and then went into his landing glide, his wings spread full and slightly cupped. It was a beautiful thing to watch. He came straight at us, descending so slowly it created the illusion he was not moving at all, as if he was already shot, stuffed and hung over the water on a string. When he got within range Bubba said, “NOW!”
I jumped up, sighted down my barrels and pulled the first trigger. I missed. Panic-stricken, the duck tried to backpedal, but his momentum carried him forward. I re-aimed and pulled the second trigger. I missed again. A split-second later, before the sound of my second shot had died, I saw a muzzle flash over my right shoulder and heard an ear-splitting boom right next to my head. I watched as the duck, my duck, folded his wings against his body and fell head-first among the decoys. As soon as he hit the water Belle went splashing across the field to fetch him. Mack lowered his shotgun and said, “Nice shootin there, Joby,” rubbing salt in the wound with the childhood nickname he knew I despised. I can still see the grin spread across his face.
Looking back on it, that may have been the moment I decided duck hunting was not my thing. I moved to Kansas not long afterward, and I never went hunting again. I haven’t missed it. After much thought and introspection, I eventually admitted to myself that I could not have a hunter’s heart if my favorite part was the nap I took after I got home. The reason I was willing to wake up at an ungodly hour and tolerate the cold and the mud and the blood was so I could spend time and share a bond with people I liked. The way we chose to spend the time was not important. It could have been fishing or golf or rat-batting, for all that it mattered. We chose duck hunting, and on cold November days like today, I wish I could be back in that muddy Arkansas rice field just one more time.