Nearing total exhaustion from my janitorial labors, I plopped my 19-year-old bones down in the cushy leather office chair of Dr. Seymour Slick, Dean of Science. Had I been of a thoughtful nature, I might at that moment have reflected that the way of life I so desperately clung to no longer existed for me. I was now a student and a janitor at a university. That other life was gone. Vanished. Evaporated. Had being in denial existed back then, I would have been a classic case. I simply couldn’t believe that my former life had slipped away like a thief in the night, taking all the good silver.
Consider a day from my former life: I’m 17, a junior in high school. It’s 4 o’clock in the morning. Jim Russell, Norm Nelson and I are in Jim’s big old blue sedan heading out to hunt deer in a distant swamp. Three hours later we’re back at my house, a deer strapped to a fender. By 9:30 a.m. I’m in English class, wrestling with Julius Caesar, and losing. (It’s a wonderful life but, hey, nothing’s perfect.) That afternoon I get off the school bus, stroll into my house, pick up my shotgun, a box of shells, a brace of fresh cinnamon rolls and a few menacing gestures from my grandmother. Minutes later I’m on the creek hunting pheasants, grouse, quail, ducks, rabbits, and other ingredients of a mixed bag. It’s all so wonderful I never even suspect it won’t last. Then, suddenly, disaster strikes: I’m thrust into college!
Slumped in Dean Slick’s chair, my feet propped on his desk, I remain locked in the delusion that I am simply living a much more inconvenient extension of my old life. I pick up the phone and dial the president’s office.
“Yeah?” a voice yawns. It’s my old buddy Retch Sweeney, student janitor in the Administration Building.
“You ready?” I ask.
“Yup. Gotta dump the prez’s wastebaskets, then I’m oughtta here. See you at the truck.”
I hang up the phone and start to extract myself from the dean’s chair but the soft, creamy leather holds me like a magnet. So this is what it’s like to be rich, I think. The gleaming, if somewhat dusty, desk top has about the same square footage as my dorm room. It’s completely clear, except for two photographs, one of an attractive, silver-haired lady, his wife I suppose. The other photo, much larger, is of himself. He is crouched in snow, one hand holding a rifle, the other resting possessively on the massive rack of a spectacular mule deer. The dean appears typically stern. Possibly he hadn’t shot the deer at all but stopped it cold with one of his steely glares, then pierced its heart with a bolt of sarcasm.
Retch is gunning his pickup by the time I arrive. We clear the city limits well after 10. The mountains are over a hundred miles away, our camp much farther. Snow begins to fall.
“Starting to snow,” I said. “Good thing you got at least one good windshield wiper, Retch.”
“Yeah. But too bad it’s not on the driver’s side.”
“Did you find a spare tire?”
“Yeah, several, but they were moving too fast for me to get a lug wrench on.”
“This snow is good,” I said. “We’ll have some good tracking.” We had gone out every weekend for a month without seeing a buck. They wouldn’t be able to hide from us now, not with the snow. Hunters climb a mountain of expectation: the next time, the next turn, the next rise, and they never ever get to the top, although I was beginning to think I could see it.
We reached our campsite well after midnight. During the week we had imagined this moment: erecting the tent, its canvas straining tautly against its poles; building the campfire, feeding it fuzz sticks until the orange flames dance up and drive back the night. We would have a couple of forked sticks holding a spit over the fire, and we would heat up chili in a pot hanging from the spit, and roast some hot dogs to go with the chili, and we’d sit around the fire afterward and tell old stories and laugh ourselves sick.
“I’m beat,” Retch said. “Let’s just spread the tent on the ground and shove our stuff into it.”
“Okay,” I said. “Care for a cold wiener before we turn in?”
One of these times, I thought, maybe we’ll actually pitch the tent.
I have been trying to think of a single word that might describe these weekend hunts, but “ragged” is the only thing that comes to mind. They were thrown together out of scraps of time, energy, and longings for something already gone and never to return.
The next morning was bitter cold. As I lay in the flat tent staring at canvas an inch from my eyes, I suddenly realized that the zipper on my sleeping bag had frozen shut. Only heat from a roaring fire could possibly thaw it loose. Just as I started to cry out for help, I heard Retch stir.
“Get up and build a fire,” he grunted, “or I’ll have to shoot you.”
And he called that a threat. Ha!
Retch peeked out from under the frozen canvas to assess the degree of pain required to get up and build a fire. “Cripes!” he hissed.
“That bad?” I croaked.
“No,” he whispered. “There’s a gigantic buck standing right in camp. Hand me a rifle.”
I rummaged around until I found a rifle and some shells and gave them to Retch, even as I pondered why a deer would be standing in camp. Maybe he simply couldn’t believe what he saw.
“Dang,” Retch said. “He just stepped behind that spruce tree.” He slid out of the tent on his belly, wearing only his faded-red long johns. I peeked out. Retch was now up and tiptoeing barefoot through the snow, circling out around the tree, rifle already at his shoulder. I waited for the shot. That deer was as good as in the locker. But no! Now Retch was tiptoeing in behind the spruce. One button on his seat flap had come undone. Cripes, I thought, what is wrong with this picture? All my life I had created images in my head of The Perfect Hunt. This wasn’t one of them.
Minutes passed. No shot. I waited, tense with expectation. And waited. Finally Retch came stomping back through the snow. “He dropped down into the canyon,” he growled. “Didn’t even have the decency to give me a single shot. And not only did I freeze my feet, I froze my—!”
“Stop,” I said, “I don’t want to hear. But hey, as long as you’re up, you might as well build the fire.”
As our eyes sifted the carbon particles out of the smoke from our smoldering campfire, Retch and I sullenly consumed a breakfast of cowboy coffee (boil one cowboy), chili-warmed-in-the-can (our own recipe) and wieners flambé. Not once did we feel the urge to tell an old story or laugh ourselves silly.
We spent the morning hunting the mountaintop. We found plenty of tracks but all of them seemed to be headed off down into the steep and, with the snow, treacherous canyon.
As we stood staring down into the canyon, a rancher drove up. “That’s right boys,” he confirmed. “These deer hang out down by the river during the day. Then they start moving back up about an hour or so before dark.”
“I guess our best bet is to head off down into the canyon and see if we can take them by surprise,” I said.
“I reckon.” He pointed at our rifles. “Particularly with them peep sights. Most of the shooting done from the ridge here is at real long range. Now, that couple over there has got the right idea for hunting this country.”
He pointed back along the ridge road to a large white pickup. A tall, slender man and a silver-haired woman were setting up a table on the edge of
the ridge. “They come up here one afternoon every hunting season and set up their table. They build themselves a nice campfire and put a grill over it and a pot of coffee on. Then they sit at the table and play cards until each of them picks out a nice buck. They got custom-built rifles, their own handloaded ammo and scopes the size of salamis. After they make their picks, they fire off one shot apiece. The trajectories could skim dust off a chalk line for half a mile. I then take a couple packhorses down, field dress the deer, haul ’em out and load ’em on their pickup. While I’m doin’ that they throw three thick steaks on the grill. After I’m done tidying up, we sit around the fire, eat dinner and have a couple of drinks. Tell a few old stories, too. Laugh ourselves silly sometimes.”
“Slick!” I said.
“Dang tootin’, it’s slick,” the rancher said.
“No, I mean that’s Dr. Seymour Slick, Dean of Science.”
“Oh, right you are, son. By the way, before you head off down into the canyon, you better switch those tennis shoes for your boots. And put on some warmer clothes. It’ll be pretty cold by the time you get back up to the ridge.”
“Sure,” I said. There was no point explaining to him that we were already wearing our “boots” and all the clothes we owned.
The first step into the canyon was a long one but we somehow managed to skid to a stop before breaking the sound barrier. Then we inched down the rest of the way. We spent the rest of the afternoon irritating deer but never putting one of them at serious risk.
Along toward evening, we heard two shots, one right after the other. I peered up at the ridge. Two elongated dots stood next to the big white pickup. Several horses were headed down a trail.
It was dark before we made it out of the canyon. The pickup was still there. Sounds of laughter drifted over from around the campfire. Retch and I plodded up to say hello. The old rancher leaped out of a camp chair and came toward us, an iced drink in one hand.
“By golly, you fellas made quite a trek. Didn’t hear a shot, so I expect you didn’t get one. If you had, I’d have hauled it up for nothin’. Ain’t often I see a couple of hunters that dedicated.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Dr. Slick stepped forward. “Why, it’s none other than McManus and Sweeney! Sarah, come meet these young men. They’re the dots we watched all afternoon traipsing up and down the canyon. You know, fellas, when you waded up to your waists across that icy river, I said to myself, that’s a good move. It will surprise the deer because they’ll think a hunter would have to be crazy to wade that river. I have to tell you, I envied you two dots this afternoon. There was a time when I hunted that way myself, and it is truly the way to hunt. It’s not just shooting, it’s real hunting. It’s what I like to think of as the perfect hunt.”
“Gee, thanks, Dr. Slick,” Retch said. “You’re certainly welcome to hunt with us anytime.”
Dr. Slick’s face brightened at the thought, and he gave us a big grin.
“Not in a million years,” he said.
From KERPLUNK! by Patrick F. McManus. Copyright © 2007 by Patrick F. McManus. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.