“What you need to do, son, is to find something you really love.”
The boy gave the no-fire sign, and sprinted off into the field to setup the targets one more time. That morning, he’d tied a rope to the handle and dragged the box from their back porch through the woods and into the cornfield. It had started off full, but was now reduced to just a few sharp tin cans riddled with holes. The targets were a mix of metal cans and glass bottles, collected all year in a box under the basement stairs. They both had merits. The cans made a satisfying thud and could be reused, but the bottles exploded in a glorious spray of glass, especially if the sun caught them in the right way.
When he returned, his father was still sitting on the tree stump, smoke trailing from both nostrils. He didn’t hoist his gun up to his shoulder immediately, but looked to the horizon and said, “Do you know what I mean, son?” It was if no time at all had passed since he’d made that statement twenty minutes ago. He was onto something and wouldn’t let it go until he was satisfied.
“Huh? I don’t know what you mean, Pop.”
“I mean, life ain’t easy. You’ve had it easy, Spike, but I don’t want you to think it’s that way for everybody. You don’t want to spend your life doing things you hate, or being around people you hate. Find a good woman. Maybe not the prettiest one, or the richest one, but the nicest one and the girl who thinks you are the best boy around. You got that?”
He knew he wasn’t going to get away without agreeing, so he nodded. He wished to be a little bird, flying free. It was a crisp autumn day, perfect for shooting and he was eager to get back to it, but old man didn’t budge, just took a heavy pull on the cigarette hanging from his lips and looked square into the eyes of his younger, paler doppelgänger. Smoke rose from his nostrils in lazy braided ropes and caught in his eyelashes.
“Think you can hit that can from here, boy?” He nodded off in the direction of the middle bottle, upside down on a wooden post in the ground.
“Let’s see you do it then.”
The boy turned to adjust his stance, sight down the barrel, and aim, but the elder grunted, jerked his head impatiently, and flicked his cigarette butt off behind him.
“No, from here. Don’t move…don’t aim. Just shoot the can.””
“But, I was…”
“But, nothing. When I count to three you shoot, got it?” His voice had taken on a timber timbre that Spike heard many times before and he knew better than to try his luck. The last time he’d heard it, Uncle Trix had ended up in the emergency room.
The crack of the gun echoed into the afternoon. The bullet rushed off and landed somewhere in the sagging cornfield, never even approaching the target. Before the gun’s report had a chance to clear the air, Spike shrugged and began a litany of excuses regarding why the bullet hadn’t hit the mark.
“That wasn’t fair. You didn’t let me aim. There ain’t no way I can hit something without…”
His father cut him off sharply, grasping his arm and pulling him closer until he was half standing and half squatting. The boy had no idea what he wanted and couldn’t imagine how the day had taken such a turn. Wasn’t that always the way of it? Everything starts out sunbeams and sparkles, and then turns to shit when you blink.
“It’s the same with your life, boy. You can’t hit the mark if you don’t set yourself up right and aim properly. Girls are the same way. You think. Think, I’m telling you.”
Spike heard the words, they were clear enough, but he had no idea what was expected of him. Not really. Was he supposed to say something? The tone of Pop’s voice told him that this was important, but he’d be god damned if he could grasp why. He would remember this conversation years periodically over the years; the glowing afternoon, this advice which was surprisingly good considering it was the only time he ever remembered Pop trying to give him wise council. To be more accurate, it was the only time he remembered Pop possessing anything resembling wisdom. He’d also question the phrase – you’ve had it easy, Spike. He’d question that many times. Easy. Compared to what?
Still crouching, the boy glanced around to see if he could spy a jar of moonshine nearby. Pop loved moonshine; his family had been making it and running it for decades. Everyone in town had seen him stumbling, swearing, and making no sense at all. Collectively, they thought it best to stay away from him on those days if at all possible. He wasn’t making much sense now, but he wasn’t drunk.
He released the boy’s arm and lowered his head, fists braced against his forehead. Taking a step back, Spike straightened his jacket where it had been balled it up. He looked at his father, really looked for the first time in ages. He seemed worn out; he didn’t move, just sighed heavily. When he did raise his head, it was as if nothing had happened at all. He patted his sides for the pack of cigarettes he always carried, and removed them from his inside pocket.
“What you waiting on boy? Let’s get going. Today’s your birthday. I got something special. Meet us in the barn when the sun goes down.”
Glass crunched under his feet as he walked off through the field. Spike collected the cans, tossed them into the box, and began pulling it home.
The barn had been hand-built years ago and according to Owen family lore, it had been used to birth a human baby and a calf on the same rainy night in March. It had also been used to store many things, most importantly the family still, which was well- known in neighboring counties, but had been moved some years back to an undisclosed location in response to an upcoming raid by the authorities. The barn had been used to grow marijuana so many times that it was impossible to count. Once, it had been the home of Harold, an odd job man and family friend, until it became evident that he was simultaneously involved in two undesirable activities; he was romancing the youngest male cousin, who was thirteen at the time, and skimming money from the moonshine operation.
Harold Gunner was ousted and sent on his way with a black eye and a limp on his right side which would persist throughout the rest of his life, but he lived on in infamy because he had carved his name deeply in one of the upper rafters. Oodles of animals – goats, chickens, horses, and sheep - had lived in the shed, and at least two children, one of them Spike himself, had been conceived within the shelter of those four walls. Today, though, it was just the barn, and not nearly as exciting as the stories associated with it. They didn’t keep animals anymore, and hadn’t for as long as Spike could remember. For one thing, they couldn’t afford them. They were lucky not to starve themselves to death, so it didn’t make sense to add more living creatures to an already perilous situation.
The boys, known collectively as the Owens brothers - Pops, Trixie, Sonny, and Bones – plus a motley assortment of friends and associates which changed frequently, depending on who was in jail or owed one of the Owens’ money, had taken to the task of fixing up the barn with far more zeal than they had ever applied to any paying job.
Items were pilfered from god-knows-where and then carried out to the barn in the dark of the night. They built a table on hinges and affixed it to the south wall for euchre games. Last year, when Dody Wilson owed the brothers some money, electricity had been run out to the club and the debt was called even. This meant a radio, a refrigerator, and a dual fan/heater gadget had been liberated from their original owners and found their way to the club. Just yesterday, Trix had smuggled in a red lava lamp, still in working condition.
By the time Spike had trudged through the mud and arrived at the barn, they’d had been drinking and playing cards for hours. Seems several of them may have gotten started early, judging from their condition and the truth was, some of them never really stopped. He was standing in the door, the setting sun warming his back, when the gunshot sounded.