My uncle just set the dinner table. A nine inch skinning knife, one silver-plated handgun, two German assault rifles—which I’m pretty sure aren’t even legal—, and a case of Coors Light are on the table.
Yep. God is good and alive in Texas tonight.
Guns with beer around make me a little nervous; but assault rifles and beer and my uncle around make me hold my breath. My uncle has a habit of delivering near-death experience when he’s drunk. Last summer, for example, he saddled me on a rodeo horse that bucked like it was personal. I held my breath that time too—tumbling ass-backwards from the saddle—and cracked my jaw after sticking to the proverbial advice about getting back on.
In fact, no visit ever seems complete without blunt force head trauma. I’ve been bucked off, knocked out, and talked into things I had no business doing. Tonight’s no different. I’ve agreed to drive out to the county line to hunt a Bengal tiger. That’s right: claws, stripes, fearful symmetry—the whole package. The tiger is a recent escapee from the now-defunct Wild Animal Resort & Zoo, thus demonstrating the ill-advised nature of building a zoo in Tornado Alley.
Tigers are apparently nocturnal hunters, so we’re drinking beer until the sun goes down. And while I’ve considered asking if it might be wiser to hunt the tiger while he’s not hunting us, I don’t bring it up.
My uncle scoops the silver-plated handgun from the table, releasing its magazine, and loads it. With a metallic pop, he secures the clip and offers it to me, smiling halfway. I say ‘half-way’ because gum cancer took the lower half of his face three years ago. I now stare at his face just to prove that it doesn’t bother me.
I accept the offered handgun and feign appreciation for it. The weight of the gun hangs back in my hand, sure of itself.
“And this thing,” says my uncle, raising one of the assault rifles to his shoulder, “this’ll go right through a bulletproof vest.”
Before he’s able to hand me the rifle, we’re interrupted by headlights on the driveway. I leave the handgun on the table and follow my uncle outside to the front porch. An old truck jounces up the driveway towards us, like a can kicked down the road. It lurches to a sudden stop and dust rises past its headlights and dissolves into the darkening trees. The driver eases out and ambles forward. He instantly strikes me as a man who would have his name sewn into his work shirts. He introduces himself as Billy Gamble; my uncle’s hunting buddy and sometimes indemnitor. Billy’s got a trash-compactor handshake that tells me it’s real good to meet me.
We drink more beer and watch the sky purple. Mosquitoes start biting. We pile into Billy’s twin cab with the guns and gear. My uncle’s dog, Dog, leaps into the bed with no one bothering to put the tailgate up—and we’re off.
Billy’s truck crashes through the night. It seems every bug in East Texas was created to do nothing else but splatter on our windshield. Billy wheels us down a dirt road and my teeth clap together as the shocks jump. I watch the assault rifles rattle on the backseat next to me. We’re rushing deeper into the country, past things I can’t see. Billy’s truck pitches along the road as we take another hard turn.
My uncle clears his throat and begins to tell a story about the concealed weapons class he teaches once a month where the old Dillard’s store used to be.
“I always tell my classes on day one,” says my uncle. “‘Boys, you never know when you might need your Magnum,’ and so I’ll draw out my .357 from my hip and put it on the table for them to look at.
“And then,” continues my uncle, wiping beer from his chin, “I tell ‘em, ‘You don’t know when you might need your revolvers,’ and so I’ll pull the twin girls from my shoulder holsters and put them next to the Magnum.”
Billy takes another tight turn and one of the assault rifles tilts menacingly towards me.
“And then I say: ‘Boys, you don’t know when you might need your Beretta,’ and so I’ll pull the Tomcat from my back holster and put it next to them other three guns.”
The road narrows. Tree branches whip against the windshield as Billy rolls up his window and nods in anticipation of the punch line.
“‘And you sure as fuck don’t know,’ I finally tell ‘em, ‘when you might could need your friend, Mr. AK-47.’ And I’ll go and reach for my boot, and they’ll all sit back in their chairs, like what the hell, and I smile and say, ‘You can’t carry no AK in your boots, boys. That’s lesson one.’”
We’ve finally run out of road. The truck pops and clinks in the dark as we sit beside a large pasture with a broken-down fence. A NO HUNTING NO FISHING sign, riddled with bullet holes, hangs on one of the lopsided gate posts. Dog whines at the glass behind me, but we just sit there. I can’t tell if we’re waiting for something or if something is waiting for us. My uncle slurps at his beer from the side of his mouth. I wonder if second thoughts are being considered.
“Do you smell that?” asks my uncle, alarmed.
I realize I’ve been holding my breath again.
Billy hops out with impressive alacrity.
“It was the damn dog, man, I’m tellin’ you,” says my uncle.
Billy pulls a lever and the front seat slams forward. His breath is sour in my face.
“You might wanna get out,” he tells me, chuckling in spacious amusement.
We allow the truck to air out before gathering our gear and weapons from the backseat. We then lay everything on the tailgate. Calibers are discussed; weapons assigned. I am entrusted with a high-powered floodlight but no gun.
Almost one of the guys.
We grab our stuff and walk into the pasture, where Billy finds a narrow trail winding towards a thicket of cane. There are woods beyond the cane and moonlight shines on the treetops. We cross the field slowly. I’m told to keep the floodlight off as Billy uses a small flashlight to scan the trail for tracks.
As we reach the cane, Dog signals that he smells something. The hunters stop and swing their assault rifles to their shoulders. We stand there and listen. Every muscle tense. Every muscle listening. Dog then bolts towards the cane, low to the ground, disappearing into the undergrowth. I can hear him barking deep within the thicket, thrashing and yipping. My uncle tells me to shine the flood, to turn it on, and light spills into the cane. Shadows are crashing. Cane cracks like bones. My uncle takes the first volley of shots and Billy quickly joins. The rifles spit gunfire. Each shot is hard and sharp in my teeth.
But then they stop. The floodlight plays against the cane and nothing else moves. No shadows. No noise. Only the sound of my uncle creaking in his leather holsters.
I begin to wonder if Dog is dead, if he took a bullet or the swipe of a paw. But to my surprise, he emerges with all his parts intact, mouth curved up in an easy dog-smile. He trots up to my uncle who pats him on the head and checks him over. I’m still beaming light into the cane, breathing hard.
“Do you think we got him?” I whisper. “Do you think he’s still in there?”
Billy grabs a beer from his pack and offers me one. “Who’s still in there?”
That’s when I see Billy shoot a look at my uncle, who’s smiling halfway.
Billy whispers back, “You think there’s tigers in Texas?”
I feel my face turn so red we probably don’t need the floodlight anymore.
“Them was just feral hogs,” continues Billy, slapping me on the back, “Wheee, you thought you was out here huntin’ tigers, man? I wasn’t seein’ it before, but this crazy fucker must be your uncle.”
Even Dog seems to get the joke.
That’s when things get interesting. We hunt hogs a little longer and hit nothing but beer cans. We follow the empties on the ground back to the truck and get in. Billy slurs the tires down the dirt road, and we’re off again.
By the time we reach the interstate, the beer’s nearly gone. But there are plenty of cartridges left, which gives my uncle an idea. This idea puts me with Dog in the pickup bed pointing my floodlight into the drainage ditch along the roadside; and it puts my uncle on the hood of the truck, twin revolvers drawn, looking for something to shoot while Billy drives.
As Billy eases his truck along the shoulder lane, my floodlight flashes a gotcha yellow into the darkness, lighting up a rabbit chewing vigorously beside the drainage ditch. My uncle takes aim with both revolvers and fires them. Bullets rip through the cricket-filled night, propelling the rabbit three feet into the air and landing him like a dropped shoe. My uncle whoops and stumbles off the hood, his boot heels clicking on the pavement. He staggers down the drainage ditch, locates the rabbit, and presents it the way you hold up a fish for a photo. The rabbit dangles in his hand, split from neck to collar bone. It’s dropped into a sack.
My uncle bags three more rabbits by 2 a.m. His aim actually appears to improve the drunker he gets. He even nabs one at ten yards out but is too drunk to find it.
Up until now the interstate’s been empty and dark, but headlights are beaming towards us in the opposite lane. Billy parks the truck on the shoulder, and I shut off the flood. The car slows to a crawl as it advances. It looks as if there’s a deer mounted on the car’s roof, but then the antlers burst into red and blue flashes. A man in a 10 gallon cowboy hat steps out of the car and approaches my uncle. But my uncle stays seated on the hood of Billy’s truck, slumped forward like a boxer in his corner, guns resting on both knees.
The man asks how we’re all doing tonight.
We all been drinking?
We all got permits?
He motions towards the twin revolvers in my uncle’s hands and says, “Mister, don’t you think you oughta empty those things for me?”
And my uncle looks at his revolvers and says, “Yessir, I believe you’re right.”
My uncle struggles to find the ground with his feet, and when he does, he turns to the drainage ditch, lifts his revolvers, and fires them—BAP, BAP, BAP, BAP, BAP—into the ground. Five rounds later, my uncle turns to the patrolman and says, “They’re empty now, sir.”
But now the patrolman has his gun drawn on my uncle. He orders my uncle to drop the revolvers, drop them. He does. The patrolman then turns his gun on me and Billy. We’re ordered to step out of the pickup truck, hands up, hands up. We do. We lay face-down on the asphalt.
I watch the patrolman handcuff and frisk my uncle. He finds the Beretta Tomcat in my uncle’s back holster; he finds the .357 Magnum on his hip. He’s leading him towards the patrol car when my uncle tells the patrolman that he ought to check his boots, too. And as the patrolman instructs him to kick off his boots—“real slow now”—my uncle turns the good side of his face towards me, the side that never saw cancer coming, and just briefly, we share a joke at someone else’s expense.
Philip Sciranka is a graduate student living in San Francisco.