by Joseph Baran
‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Pete asked as I unpacked my camera gear from the back of my Defender. ‘This is no photo shoot.’
‘When you said…I thought I would just tag along…’
‘You thought wrong!’
Pete, a friend of mine, would always tell me how a wild turkey makes a better holiday dinner than the greased-up butterballs you buy at the supermarket. He reasoned that a wild turkey is lean and tender. Living in the woods, it was supposed to be so much better for your health, too. Perhaps there is some truth to his logic, but I don’t know if any of it applies to his wife’s cooking. It’s not a secret that cooking isn’t one of her gifts.
So one day I went turkey hunting with Pete. We parked our SUVs under a big oak by the roadside. The morning air was cool, the dew heavy, bending the branches as it glistened, coating the leaves, in the rising sun. The day looked promising. Until then.
‘Here, I have a shotgun for you.’ Pete held the gun in his arms, like it was my birthday gift. It was beautiful with engravings and highly polished gunstock.
‘But I don’t know how to use it. I’m not a hunter.’
‘Don’t be a schmuck.’ He laughed. ‘School kids have guns.’
‘It’s a twelve-gauge shotgun, see?’
‘Okay.’ I knew better than to argue with anyone holding a gun, let alone two.
‘It’s simple. Buckshot comes out of this end.’ He pointed to the steel barrel end. ‘Don’t point it at yourself or you’ll be sorry.’
‘It’s loaded. To fire it, take the safety off, like this.’
‘Point it only at a turkey, nothing else. You understand?’
‘You don’t have to aim. The buckshot pattern is extensive even at seventy yards.’
‘And gently squeeze the trigger. But never wrap your finger around the trigger unless you’re going to fire the gun. Get it?’
‘Yeah, sure.’ I nodded. ‘Why?’
‘So you won’t fire it accidentally, especially at something you didn’t want to.’
‘Once you fire it, you need to pump it to reload.’ He only simulated the action since he didn’t discharge the gun. ‘So you see, nothing to it.’
‘Right.’ I smiled, thinking that my Nikon with about a dozen buttons and knobs that you need to depress or rotate is far more complicated, and it only takes pictures, not lives.
‘Be careful. It’s an expensive weapon…’ He paused as his eyes, gleaming with appreciation and pride, ran up and down the shotgun. ‘With a single round, you can stop a Chevy in its tracks.’
That was the end of my quick lesson in gun handling. I believed Pete, every word he said. In my hands, the shotgun felt like an elephant gun.
We cut across a meadow, leaving crushed tall grass in our wake, getting our bottoms wet, at least I got mine. In the woods, we maintained total silence, not even whispering. Apparently, turkeys are smarter than they look. Pete made military hand gestures, to tell me the plan of our movements, half of which I didn’t understand, though I nodded like I had done this a thousand times. Then, I went one way and he went the other.
After stumbling around, looking for turkeys, or anything else, I ended up in what I thought was a bog. The ground was so soft and wet that in a couple of steps I quickly sank about a foot. My hi-tech waterproof hikers lost their ability to repel water once the mud got inside from the top. In my panic, I used the gun much like a crutch and was able to get out of there with considerable difficulty.
Cold and miserable, I wandered for an hour in what was by then heavy drizzle, before making my way out of the woods back to the meadow. I don’t know how I managed to get back on my own, but I remembered reading once that people who are lost walk in circles. So I guess that’s what I did.
I couldn’t believe my eyes as I approached the road. There it was, a turkey right by my Defender. I froze. It was huge. A beautiful bird in its majestic plumage, strutting around and feasting on the oak’s harvest on the ground. The turkey knew I was watching it, and yet it wasn’t concerned. Somehow my body posture, or the fact that the sorry end of the gun was pointing to the sky in the rain, told the turkey that I was amazed to see it, going about its business, as opposed to on the table, stuffed, with people drooling around it. I retrieved my cell phone and took cool snapshots of the bird, my 4 × 4 in the background.
The turkey had its fill and crossed the road, disappearing in the bushes. Seeing no one around, I knew I had to fire the gun. It was one of those things you know you have to do when you’re out hunting and find nothing. Otherwise it’s just a total waste of getting out of your warm bed at four on a chilly morning to get bone-cold in the autumn woods. I knew it was also the moment when boys become men and men become idiots when they shoot themselves in the leg. But as I lowered the gun to the ground, careful not to accidently hit my foot, water rushed out of the barrel like the water flowing out of a garden hose. That can’t be good, I thought, squeezing the trigger anyway. The gun didn’t fire.
‘What happened to you?’ my friend asked, coming back. ‘I was looking for you.’
‘I almost got one. Right here.’ I pointed wildly all around, huffing clouds of excitement in the cold breeze.
‘You spooked it away?’
‘The gun didn’t fire.’ I shrugged. ‘It must be constipated.’
‘Like how we are after eating your wife’s cooking.’
‘Let me see it!’ He snatched the gun out of my hands, unamused. ‘What the heck did you do to it!’ he screamed. ‘You got mud all over it.’
‘I fell into a bog,’ I said in my defense, to ease his anger. ‘I thought I wouldn’t get out of it.’
‘So you paddled your way back?’
‘No, not really. I just leaned on it…’ I gestured, trying to think of something to say.
‘You got it wet, too!’ he yelled, seeing his expensive gun barrel dripping water.
He did something to it and the gun discharged. ‘It’s an expensive weapon for crying out loud,’ he reminded me, just about crying himself. ‘You messed it up on both ends!’
‘I’m really sorry, man,’ I didn’t sound too convincing, having nothing else to add.
‘Here. Next time, just point and fire. Don’t do anything else.’ He gave me back the gun. ‘Which way did he go?’
‘No, the zebra.’
‘Into that bush across the road.’ I pointed in the opposite direction.
‘Come on. We may get a visual!’
‘Do we have to? I got mud in my hikers.’ I hoped we would quit.
Instead, Pete, rushing to cross the road, looked at me like I was the prize turkey he was looking for.
Crossing the road, I knew I had to redeem myself and make screwing up Pete’s expensive gun worth his time cleaning, keeping him from spending quality time with his wife. Running aimlessly in the brush again, I pointed the gun low and fired it. It felt like firing a bazooka, and it kicked harder than a mule.
‘What happened now?’ Pete rushed back.
‘Crap! I missed it,’ I yelled, knowing there was nothing in the bushes.
‘How could you miss?’
‘Maybe the gun is too small?’ I shrugged.
Pete looked at me funny. ‘Well, you tried. But try not to miss again!’
‘I’ll try!’ I shouted back, running through the buckshot-shredded greenery.
Well, we got nothing that day, except for my nasty cold. But it was a good thing in the end. I had an excuse not to eat the holiday dinner at my friend’s.
Joseph Baran is a writer and poet, industrial designer by profession, residing in New Jersey, USA. His work in progress is a Holocaust novel inspired by his family’s recollections. His writing has appeared online and in print in People Holding, Peacock Journal, and Jewish Fiction.net. Joseph enjoys running, cycling, photography and painting. He’s on Twitter @josephjoebaran and Facebook @JosephBaranWriter.