Shoot the Swans
LISA MONROE WOKE UP THAT SUNDAY MORNING WITH A POUNDING HEADACHE, A MOUTH COATED WITH THE PASTINESS OF CHEAP RED, AND HER FRIEND DANA'S STEP-DAD SLEEPING IN HER BED.
She tapped her forehead with the heel of her hand, sat up, and caught her reflection in the mirror across the room. She still had flowers pinned to the left side of her head, but what had been the up-do of her bride's maid hair now resembled that of someone in a scary movie involving bats. The smeared mascara under her eyes didn't help.
She looked over at Ted Davis - always the winner of the sexiest dad contest of their high-school tennis team sleepovers. Even though he wasn't really related, Dana always recoiled at the notion, saying "Knock it off, you guys. He bathed me when I was little for god's sake."
What would she say now?
Flashes from the night before blinked in Lisa's head like little bomb blasts. Dana's wedding reception, staged at the winery where they'd all worked as waitresses. The utility closet. Lisa standing next to it with an open bottle of ... something ... Chianti, judging by the taste in her mouth. "I'm a closet drinker," she quipped, when Ted Davis sidled by - tall, lean, built like a quick tight end, with a head of thick, wavy hair, graying artfully at the temples. During Dana's ceremony, Lisa could see him out of her peripheral vision, even caught his eye once, and when he winked at her, wondered how Dana's mother could have left him for that shrimpy urologist.
Lisa had been feeling more attractive lately. Losing 20 pounds gained her more attention from men. More attention from men emboldened her. So, when Mr. Davis smiled sheepishly, she opened the door to the closet and they stumbled into it laughing. In the darkness, he put his arm around her waist and pulled her close. When he kissed her, his lips tasted like red licorice. He lifted her up on the linoleum countertop next to an old utility sink, the perfect height. They laughed and panted through their first lovemaking. He fell asleep before they could complete a second time, in her bed, after a ride home she barely remembered.
"I'll call you," he said, gathering the pieces of his tux together, the cummerbund lying in one corner, the little black tie in the other, cufflinks dangerously splayed across the floor poised to stab tender feet.
She started feeling queasy. "Oh, Mister Davis. I don't think that's a good idea."
"Please, it's Ted. You can call me Ted."
Her head throbbed. "Fine, whatever. But you have to go. I have to scout for turkey today, and my date will be here almost any minute."
He stopped and looked at her with a furrowed, fatherly brow, but quickly shook it off, finished dressing, affixed a quick kiss to her forehead, and walked out of her bedroom.
* * *
During their first telephone conversation, she had asked the guy named Dub why someone would want to go scout for turkey.
"Well, you gots to find the turkey to hunt the turkey," he chuckled. "My daddy and me, we was out last weekend and found some tracks for him to hunt over at Crab Apple State Park. You know? South a here. Southern Illinois. Where I'm from. But, it's too far. I gots to find my own. Plus, it's a good excuse to go play in the woods."
His good looks compelled her to overlook his poor grammar when they'd met at the bar, during Dana's bachelorette party. Dub had asked Lisa to dance after fingering the penis-shaped pacifier around her neck -- one bride's maid's idea of a clever party-favor. She remembered thinking of his down-home voice as comforting, like a good piece of sweet summer corn or a soft cotton shirt. Later, though, she imagined introducing this guy named Dub to her friends. One by one, they had come back to St. Louis, from fancy universities out east, with some tall, snooty finance guy to marry. But with no prospects, Lisa wouldn't be following suit, not this year, anyway. Now, if she dated a guy with less than stellar grammar, would her friends label him a hayseed and slowly cut her out of their intelligent, urbane, privileged circle? Would they finally see her as the girl they wouldn't even know if she hadn't received a tennis scholarship to their exclusive high school? Did she need new friends?
"You know what you need to shoot?" she asked, pulling herself back into the conversation.
"You need to shoot swans. You know, the muted kind."
"Do we have them kind 'round here?"
"No. But just wait, we will. They breed like evangelicals. And, you know what?"
"They aren't nice to other waterfowl."
"You don't say."
"They hog all the food, and treat other ducks like shit."
"Well, I'll be. The nerve."
"I know. They need to die, I'm telling you."
"So, I'll pick you up at ten?"
Lisa hung up the phone marveling that she had not scared off this guy named Dub, whose real name was William.
She leaned against the open door of her closet, wishing now she hadn't discouraged Ted Davis from calling her. Maybe Dana wouldn't disown her. Maybe it could be something they could all laugh about years later, after Thanksgiving dinner, over a board game. Lore for the grandkids.
She shut, then opened her eyes, rubbed her now-wet hair and inspected her closet. It didn't surprise her that she had nothng to wear for this upcoming, and probably ill-advised, turkey-scouting excursion with a guy named Dub. Or could this be it? Could she be going on a first date with her future husband, the father of what were sure to be dull, Nintendo-headed children?
She sighed and buttoned up her father's workshirt, the green flannel he always wore raking leaves, the one she saved from her mother's bonfire.
"Oh, Dearest. Glad you're here," her mother said, looking up for the Volkswagen-sized pile of everything Lisa's father left behind when he died. Lisa happened to come by just as her mother was dousing the mound with gasoline.
"Run inside and get the shoebox on the kitchen table. Bring it out here, please." Her mother looked frail but fearless and determined.
Lisa did as she was asked, waiting until she was standing next to her mother to see what was in the box. She was surprised to find dozens of lavender-colored and perfumed envelopes with her father's name and office address, written in a loopy feminine script.
"What's all this?
"Love letters from Nancy Hayes."
"Love letters from Nancy Hayes," her mother said, slower and louder.
"I heard you, Mother. But what are you saying? Dad had an affair?"
"Yes, Pumpkin. Several of them over the years. Before Nancy, it was Dixie Shea. Before that, Marge Stummer. Here, give it to me."
"But, Mom, you just spent the last two years taking care of him, and you knew?"
"Yes, dear. And yes, I did take care of him. It's what a wife does."
Her mother put the box on the ground, and one-by-one began throwing the letters onto the mound. Lisa took one, ripped it into confetti, and threw it like rice at a wedding. Her mother laughed and followed suit. A light dusting of lavender colored snow spotted the pile. When they stood back to admired their work, Lisa spotted the shirt, tucked between other clothes and his favorite baseball caps. She wouldn't let her mother set the worldly goods of John P. Vance aflame until she rescued it.
"He might have been a cheat, but I know in my heart he never cheated when he wore this shirt," she said, as her mother rolled her eyes and shrugged.
"Like your shirt," Dub said when he came through her door, more handsome, rugged, and appealing than she had remembered from their first meeting. His looks actually made her nervous. She didn't have time to say thanks before he kissed her harder than she expected, stubble brushing her cheek. She thought of Ted Davis just then, and how he smelled of Old Spice. Dub just smelled like Dial. Newer.
He took her hand in a confident way and led her out to his white pickup.
"I thought we'd get some lunch after our walk," he said, holding her door.
"That'd be great. I'm starved."
They drove and drove. She wondered if his shocks were shot or if all pickups rode that way. She couldn't believe how straight she had to sit in the bench seat. She squirmed. She fiddled with the radio dial. To distract herself, she thought about the quaint little diner with the home-style menu they might be headed for right now. At least she'd be able to tell the bride's maids how this guy named Dub knew of a little place where charming locals served them green beans cooked in bacon grease and homemade blackberry pie. Dub kept his eyes on the road, a look of contentment on his face. She suddenly felt bitter, out of her element. She needed a latte.
"Much further?" she asked, when they pulled off onto a gravel road. Her voice rattled when she spoke. She'd been wondering if Dub would mind being called Will. Dub was a ridiculous nickname. It was the name of a guy who lived in a double-wide with the wind whistling through windows adorned with sad, stained, ruffled curtains from Walmart. She shivered. She couldn't date a guy named Dub. What was she doing here?
"We'ze here," he said throwing the gear shift into park.
"Where's here, exactly?"
"You'll see. He smiled broadly and patted her knee.
"Tell me something. Do we have to scale that ditch and climb up the side of that bluff to get to where we're going?"
"It ain't that bad. We want to get to that ridge." He pointed skyward.
She fell three times on the wet leaves. Each time, he helped her up with a chuckle, telling her to watch her footing and brushing her off, ever so gently. The word pleasant kept forming in her brain. This guy was pleasant . This guy lived an uncomplicated, pleasant life. Could she live an uncomplicated life? Would it be pleasant? Finally, they made it to the top of the ridge.
"It's just that I like for my feet to be able to stay under me when I walk."
"Shhhhh." He grabbed her wrist, and they both crouched down.
"What?" She whispered.
He put a finger to his lips, then pointed. "Tur-key," he mouthed.
"Where?" she mouthed back.
He pointed to the claw marks in the dirt and started making turkey calls. This alarmed her even more than the thought of Walmart curtains. One of the bride's maids and her new husband had just enrolled in an Italian conversation class together. What if she took Dub to a party, with them in one corner, Tuscan phrases rolling off their tongues, and Dub in the other calling turkeys? Lisa's mind went to the frothy little cappuccinos she liked. If this guy became her boyfriend, she'd have to give them up. She didn't know much, but she did know that this guy, even if he did change his name to Will, would never agree to a four-dollar cup of coffee, or ever want to plan a Tuscan vacation. She took a deep breath.
When the gobbling rendered nothing, he stood up and took her hand. They tiptoed on, trying to walk without breaking a stick, crunching a leaf or cracking an acorn under their feet. The effort of holding her weight up off each step softened her mind. She let him lead her deeper into a forest of giant oaks and delicate dogwoods that had voluntarily sprouted under the protective shade. Below them ran a casually running stream. They stopped. She turned to him. He folded her in his arms and kissed her neck. It felt confident, bordering on - no, rising to the level of -- romantic. He turned her around so she could face the stream. On the other side, a doe and two fawns lifted their heads. She leaned into him as his hands found their way under her shirt to her belly and then just inside her jeans. They stood that way and did not speak, did not move, just listened to the flowing water. Matthew and Dana were flying off to Greece while she was being felt up in the woods by a guy named Dub. She turned around and he pulled her closer. As he kissed her, she imagined turkeys watching them, their beady little eyes all a-blink.
On their way out of the woods, he started talking. He told her about his hometown, DuQuoin, where there's a real state fair, with prizes for the fattest hog, the biggest pickle, and the most colorful quilt. In those parts, he and his daddy and his brother Dale could hunt ducks in the fall and geese in the winter.
"You'll have to meet my dog, Duffy. He's a good little pointer pup."
Dub, the duck hunter from DuQuoin with a brother named Dale and a dog named Duffy. She felt dizzy.
They made it back to his truck, and as he opened the door for her, he patted her ass. In spite of herself, she liked it. The kisses they'd shared in the woods still tingled her lips.
"You hungry?" he asked.
"You bet. What's around here?" That homestyle menu she'd conjured up early started making her mouth water.
"Oh, I know just the place."
He got in behind the wheel, powered up the pickup, started driving and continued talking about things that mattered to him. The city, he said, was nice and exciting and all that. "But I don't know how people can live on top of each other their whole life. I got to have some room around me. Living in a house with another house just ten feet away ain't my idea of livin'" He talked of how he loved his parents' place for its wide open feel, how you need binoculars to see the end of the property, and how something surprising always pops into your line of vision - a twelve-point buck, a family of foxes, or the raccoon you thought you chased away months before. He talked of how distant neighbors were never really strangers because there was an unspoken understanding among them. Together, they all knew they were on borrowed time and that eventually their acreage would be developed into something suburban and lifeless.
"There's talk of a highway going through about 200 yards from my mama and daddy's back door."
While she let that image dissipate, he turned into an Amoco.
He came to a stop in front of the Food Mart sign and jumped out of the truck. "You're about to experience the best chicken livers in the world," he said through the driver's side window. "I had them before, and they was good. I tell you what."
Lisa's eyes glazed over the way they did when some ignorant know-nothing client with bad taste and a beer belly nitpicked at her design for his dumb brochure. At those times, she would lose eye contact and throw a fuzzy focus onto something over the client's shoulder, like a flaw in the room's drywall or the chipped gold gild of a picture frame, anything to escape the unpleasant present. At this moment, she dwelled on the spastically lit sign that announced to travelers of Highway K that Amoco had 20 oz.
Cokes on sale, only the word COKE was missing the e. So it read 20 oz. Coks on sale.
"Do you want some?"
"Oh, God no."
He shrugged. "Okay, but you said you was hungry."
"That's okay, really. Hunger, you know. It comes. It goes."
He hit the side of the truck twice and jogged off. A few minutes later, he presented her with a wax-paper container of chicken livers soaked in ketchup.
"Sure you don't want some? They'se so good."
"They are so good."
"I said, they are so good."
"Ye-up." He put the chicken livers on the seat between them and started up the truck. Once on the road, he reached over, grabbed and dipped a nugget, and popped it into his mouth. He smacked his lips and licked his fingers after each bite. Out of curiosity more than anything, she reached for a pungent nugget, put it to her nose, then took a bite.
"Hmm. These aren't bad."
Before she knew it, the container of chicken livers had been consumed and they were approaching the western edge of St. Louis.
"Do you mind if we go back to my house first. Just for a while. It's closer," he said.
She looked at him and his greasy fingers and remembered that moment in the woods when they touched.
"Got any beer?"
He lived in a ranch house with symmetrically planted bushes across the front. He parked his truck in a carport, right behind a john boat the color of mud. In it were camouflaged life jackets and duck decoys, the kind she thought people only used as doorstops. If she understood him correctly, he was getting ready to build a "duck blind" on the river using limbs from trees he'd trimmed and hauled out of his backyard. They were now lying inside the boat, too. Using anchors, he would build a shelter that he could pull the boat up under. From there, he would wait for the decoys he set out to attract unknowing mallards, passing through on their way south. You can't shoot them out of the air, he had told her. They must first land near you. Then, when they resume their journey, you can blast them as they take flight. This activity usually began around four o'clock in the morning. She shivered as she followed him past the boat to his back door, thinking of the cold, wet, bloody messiness of it all.
"Here we are."
"Where's your dog?" she asked, expecting a large Labrador to paw her.
"Oh she lives down home. I ain't here enough. Plus, Daddy takes her to field training."
She looked at him like she knew what he was talking about. Field training. Boot camp for dogs? She didn't want to ask.
A setting sun provided dim-orange light to the living room. She sat down on a nubby green couch. Everything in the room was green, and an obvious hand-me-down. It made her sad.
Dub grabbed two Pabst Blue Ribbons and came into the room, handed one to her and turned on the television. The National League playoffs were in full swing. She loved baseball, found it comforting.
"I hate baseball." He flipped the channel and settled on "This Old House" before walking down the hall, toward what she assumed were bedrooms. She took a seat, sipped her beer and watched Norm discuss the wiring of a home entertainment system with one of his subcontractors. She looked up and watched Dub walk into the room, carrying a long rifle.
"If you're going to shoot me, don't aim for my face. I want to look pretty in my casket."
He laughed. "Mind if I clean this?"
She frowned. "Is it loaded?"
He laughed again. "You make the funniest faces. Of course, it ain't loaded. You don't clean a loaded gun."
She watched him take the gun apart and wipe it with a cloth that smelled like pine trees. It occurred to her that she was sitting next to a guy named Dub, who she barely knew, who used poor grammar, had bad taste in food, and was cleaning a gun. He could kill me with that thing, she thought. At least it would be quick. She lay down with her head on the opposite arm of the couch and stretched her legs, kicking him gently. He lifted the gun part he was polishing. She slid her legs onto his lap crossing them at the ankles.
"You look like a girl who knows what she wants."
"Yeah, that's me." She smiled and closed her eyes.
Patti Smith-Jackson is completing a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and has been a working writer in St. Louis for 25 years. Patti has had numerous personal essays published. "Shoot the Swans" is her first fiction publication credit. She is currently working on a collection of short stories entitled Other People's Children.
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