My father collected antique rifles—long, thin barrels slick as supermodels’ legs. He would rub them down with beeswax polish every Sunday after church. Sitting on the back porch, he would run two fingers around the lip of the old tin of polish, the tiny white hairs on his knuckles lit up in the afternoon sun. I remember the smell, sweet like honey. Once, when he wasn’t looking, I stuck a finger into the tin and took a taste. The heavy wax was bland and disappointing, coating my tongue till it felt slippery, like a snake in my mouth.
He loved to hunt and made a habit of marking important occasions with trophies. When I was growing up, the walls of the den were covered: the head of a pronghorn for the day I was born, a dove mounted in flight for the end of the Vietnam War, a brightly feathered gallinule for my mother’s miscarriage, a pheasant for his wedding day, a coiled rattlesnake for the day he learned his heart condition made him ineligible to join the army. Every year he showed his rifles at the Austin gun show and the Fourth of July reenactment. He would rub their bodies tenderly, fingering the meticulous carvings at the butt of each rifle, carefully working the polish into every crevice.
He started naming them after my mother left. There were Sarah, Esther, and Hannah, Miriam, Naomi, and Delilah, Rachel, Rebecca, and Deborah, but Ruth was his favorite. It wasn’t until I was much older, and preparing to change my own name, that I realized all those names came from the Bible. But there is no Louiza in either testament. I knew The Ladies were valuable antiques, but to him they seemed to hold some worth that I did not.
Sundays were my favorite, sitting out on the porch. Still dressed in his church clothes, my father looked handsome. He never hit me on Sundays. Whistling whatever hymn we had sung in church that morning, he would balance the tan torso of a Lady on his lap. My mother left on a Sunday, the jagged pink scream of a fresh wound splitting her forehead like a fault line from the night before. He let her go, moistening his fingers in the soft wax while she packed. I knew he wouldn’t let me go with her.
The alligator head he brought home late that night sat on our kitchen table. It was not alligator hunting season. He coated the skin with glycerine, as he had done with the snake, but the wetland stink never faded. After a week, the tongue began to rot. My father didn’t seem to notice.
The large cardboard box is leaning against the refrigerator in the mudroom, the one Grace has reserved especially for ice cream and beer. It came on Saturday, holding ten antique rifles. My father died six months ago, but his will left The Ladies to Louiza Moesby. The requisite phone calls to the lawyer handling my father’s will, explaining that it’s David now, held up the passing of inheritance. After several conversations with a confused Mr. Lambert, and an email exchange with the court documents from my legal name change, they arrived.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, and Grace is at work. She offered to help me carry the box to the nursery, which I guess has become the storage room now, but yesterday I didn’t want to touch it. Today, alone in the empty house, I find myself fighting the packing tape, and then I’m using my teeth. The tape shrieks off, the box caves open, and there they are, each rifle meticulously packed in bubble wrap.
For a moment, I consider leaving them in their anonymous wrappings, then I reach inside and pull out Sarah, barren until blessed with Isaac, and Esther, born in exile, only to become queen of the greatest empire of her day. After he kicked me out, I tried to forget these stories. Now, I want them to give me answers, or tell me something about my father I didn’t know. As the closest relatives I have, I want them to explain him to me, tell me what he was thinking before he died, explain why he loved them so much and me so little.
The shiny butts protrude from the packaging, and I pass a finger over the engravings, searching. Ruth lies quietly along the bottom of the box, the gun my father used to kill himself. I recognize the ornate barbs at the end of her ramrod sticking up through crumpled newspaper. When I received a copy of his will, I couldn’t help wondering what he meant by leaving it to me. Though he had never taken me to the club, I knew The Ladies had many friends and admirers there. Men who, like my father, spent every afternoon and evening not with their families or at the bar, but at the shooting range. Surely one of them was the more logical recipient.
Ruth is the only one hastily wrapped in the Waco Tribune and shoved in upside down, the work of some harried cop or lawyer. The carelessness is jarring beside my father’s fastidious packaging. The Ladies must have shifted over the thousand-mile ride; as the last one packed, Ruth should have been laid on top, but instead, her thin barrel is pressed into the floor by the weight of the others. Freeing her from the pile, I pull off the newspaper and lift her to my nose. It’s that same honey smell, drifting through years of memory, the barrel warm as though my father’s fingers had just passed over her skin.
When he was alive, I wasn’t allowed to touch them. He spent hours cleaning and polishing The Ladies, while I sat on the porch and watched. He would hunt for whole days, and when I was older, entire weekends, leaving me at home with a frozen dinner and his copy of the Backcountry Hunting Bible. By the time I was seven, he had won every hunting competition within fifty miles of our house. He would return with trophies, a pewter cup, a beaded powder horn strap, and a few times he brought home cash prizes. He was even in a magazine once, smiling and holding an eight of spades that he had shot in half from six hundred feet.
Finally, the summer before high school, he promised to take me turkey hunting. With this plan in place, he finally started to teach me. Every other Thursday, he came home early from the club and pulled out his powder horn and practice targets. At first, I watched as he narrated with extreme precision—everything from his cradle hold on the rifle to the width of his stance. By June he let me hold Ruth, the first rifle I was ever allowed to touch, and by the middle of August we were shooting in the yard together. My father was not a gentle person, but there was something tender in the way he treated The Ladies, something almost loving in the way he settled Ruth a little more snugly against my cheek.
Turkey season didn’t start until November, and I spent the long, hot summer reading his books and practicing in secret while he was at work. Every day after breakfast I ran through the motions: gunpowder, musket ball, cloth, ramrod, powder in the pan, snap closed the frizzen. I practiced lifting Ruth up to my shoulder in one fluid motion. I tried to prepare my shoulder for the kick. I knew what would happen if he found out, but it seemed worth it when I imagined my father watching me deftly arm the muzzle loader. By early September, I was timing myself, the way my father did. It was the day before school started, and I was hurrying to beat my record. I shoved the ramrod into the thimbles, one eye on the stopwatch on the deck, when the wooden rod snapped. The sound cracked the quiet of the back yard. The splintered end lay in the tall strands of dead grass. I wiped my sweaty palm on my shorts and paused the stopwatch. I didn’t think about the hand or the belt, I thought about how my father would never take me hunting.
I left the ramrod on the table, knowing there was no point trying to hide or repair the antique shaft. My father’s voice was calm when he called me downstairs, as it always was for these events. Hands resting on his hips, he asked me to explain. Each step was methodical and practiced and the same every time. He never lost his temper. Neither of us spoke while it was happening. His strike was perfunctory, businesslike in its sting, as though no meaningful transaction were occurring between us. Afterward, it seemed sheer pragmatism that led him to bleach and wash the blood from my clothes. It did not hurt him to harm me. It didn’t seem to affect him at all. He did it because it had to be done. My mistakes growing up did not seem to intrude upon his life, they simply triggered a series of steps resulting in his reaching into his closet for some instrument or other. Growing up, the swelling, scarring, color changing, itching, peeling mechanisms of a healing body seemed almost seasonal—consistent, repetitive, and mundane.
He picked up the splintered rod, holding each end gingerly in his fingers, and inspected it, as I told him everything. He nodded. Without another word, I turned around. I could hear his pocket change shake as he unhooked his buckle, then the belt bit into my shoulder. He never yelled when he hit me, but in that moment I wished he would.
I did not cry, that was not part of the routine. As he continued, I stared at the kitchen table. Beside the salt shaker, the brown, rippling whorl of a knot marred the wood. To the left of my chair, another set of dark, oblong rings echoed out from the edge of the table. In the silence between the strokes of the leather, I heard him gasp, and a muffled noise choked out of his throat.
I wasn’t supposed to look at him. I glanced over my shoulder just long enough to see his face, now red and blotchy, as he dropped the belt. I had never seen my father cry. In front of me, the kitchen table blurred, and I thought for a moment that he too was crying for the lost hunting trip, for the fledgling thing between us that I had killed. In that moment, I thought I finally understood my father. When the splintered end of the ramrod sliced through the skin of my back, I realized he wasn’t crying about me.
In the darkness, Grace is a streak of pale limbs, forearm and thigh wrapped around my unsleeping body. When I get up at midnight, giving up on sleep, I feel her shift beside me. Sitting on the side of the bed, she runs her fingers through my hair. She knows I’m not ready to talk. When she pulls off her faded Blackhawks tee shirt and tugs at my boxers, I pull them off, too. Back under the covers, her skin brushes over mine and her hair falls into my eyes, the one thing she knows will put me to sleep. I trace my hands over her familiar shapes, finding the hill of a mole embossed on her shoulder. The alarm is set for five-thirty. Her slow movements quiet my mind, fingers and tongue and flesh a white noise. When she pulls away, I think it is to sleep, that this has been enough. When I feel her slipping the harness around my waist, the quiet in my mind fizzes into sound. She must have felt me tense beneath her, because she looks up at my face in the darkness and waits. I nod and finish buckling the leather straps myself, thankful for something else to look at. I know she did this for me, but I wish she hadn’t.
The dildo refuses to warm against my skin. I feel her flinch at the cold silicone. I forget to wait—for her to settle—or place her hands on my chest. I start moving too hard, too quickly. We haven’t used it since we went to the clinic over a year ago. Between my legs, the straps chafe and the rubber is dead. She is silent beneath my frenzy, so I roll over and pull her on top. I wrap my fingers around her hips and try to make her come quickly. I don’t want to look at her, but she leans forward, her face hovering over mine. Her small breasts sway, the brown of her nipples scratching against the expanse of my binder.
She rocks her hips forward, pressing the dildo in deeper, and looks into my eyes. The hair at her temples is wet with sweat. At the corner of her lashes, two wakes of shallow wrinkles splash across her face. As she shifts, a drop of sweat falls onto my cheek and burns down my face, then another, and another. I’m not sure when I realize it is not her sweat but my tears that are blurring my wife away. I don’t stop, and I don’t hear her come, but then she is beside me, wrapping her arms around my shaking torso. She pulls my face into her neck and we lie like that for a long time. I can feel her pulse beating against my cheek. I read somewhere that this is a way to soothe a crying baby. Mothering comes so easily to her. I watch the dove on the worn patchwork quilt rise and fall with my wife’s steady breathing, and I wonder how much of me is visible in the darkness.
In the dim light of the bathroom, I unbuckle the leather straps and rinse the dildo in the sink. There are many things I will never have, and for the most part, it’s okay. The thin outline of a beard that refuses to thicken is enough for me. My binder flattens my small breasts. I don’t mind this rubber dick. I’ve never felt I needed thirty thousand dollars’ worth of surgery to be a man. It’s the things I can’t give my wife that are hardest to let go.
Back in bed, the memory presents itself, firm and familiar in the fingers of my mind. Grace was in the living room, curled up on the couch, while I heated up veggie burgers. She must have logged onto the website we got from the clinic, because a minute later I heard her exclaiming, “A PhD in math, oooooohhh! Do you think the sperm comes wearing glasses and a pocket protector? Scuba diving, skiing, and fencing! Dang, those are some rich, white people sports.”
Her words swatted aside the ten thousand dollar quote from the clinic so easily.
“Is it on sale?” I called from the kitchen. “Because that’s the only type of sperm we can afford.” I cupped a hand around my mouth and called, “Clearance on aisle six!” As the burgers warmed on the stove, I walked into the living room and glanced at her screen.
“Is that a neck tattoo?”
“So? It’s not like tattoos are transmittable through sperm.”
“But HIV and Hep C are transmittable through sharing needles.”
“So because this guy has a tattoo, he’s also a drug user?”
“Look, are those really the genes you want our child to have? I’m just saying, you never know.”
“Actually, the clinic screens for STDs, so you do know. And this guy has a clean bill of health. Besides, I think he looks nice.”
“So you’re saying he’s your type? Should I have gotten a neck tattoo?” I knew the joke had gone sour, but I couldn’t help myself. Maybe I was trying to warn her. She shut the computer.
“I chose him because I think he looks like you. I thought it would be nice to have a kid that looked like both of us.” For a moment, I try to imagine Grace’s brown eyes and wavy hair on a small child. Maybe it would have my nose, or at least a nose that looked like mine. Maybe it would inherit my double blink, the nervous tic I couldn’t fully shake until I left my father’s house. I tried to imagine holding the swaddle of blankets. I tried to hear the tinny cry of a newborn and imagine I knew what it wanted. I couldn’t conjure anything beyond a bewildering wail and Grace saying, “Give her to me.” I nodded mutely and returned to the kitchen. A few minutes later, she stood in the doorway, her laptop balanced on one hand.
“You know we can do it at home?”
“The insemination. Look, you can buy these kits.” She started typing on her laptop.
“Like a turkey baster?” She ignored my joke.
“You use a catheter and inject it into the cervix.”
“The cervix… is that near the G spot?”
“I thought it would be nice if it could just be the two of us.”
“Yup, you, me, the turkey baster, and some stranger’s sperm!” I waved the spatula in the air. It was supposed to be funny, or maybe it was supposed to remind her that no one ever showed me how to be a parent. She closed her laptop and left the room. We’d talked about it before, of course, considered asking friends to donate. The woman at the clinic suggested we ask relatives, she said some people want to keep it in the family. I told her my dad wants to keep us out of the family. She didn’t laugh at the joke.
I was halfway through my second burger when she came back and sat beside me. She took the paper napkin from the table and wiped a smear of mustard off the corner of my mouth. I stood to fix her a plate—this, at least, I was capable of, this was something I couldn’t fuck up too badly. With the spatula soaking in the sink, I abandoned the instrument and burned my fingers scooping up the first burger. With the buns in the toaster, I pulled out the cheddar and the spicy mustard that she likes. I tried to see our child again, my imagination grasping for the curly hair, something so delicate in my clumsy hands. For a minute I thought I could see her, but it was just my hands holding the butter knife, the old scars peeking out from my fraying shirt sleeves, just my economical wedding band and burnt fingertips, not a hand that knew how to cradle the soft spot of an infant’s skull. I couldn’t turn around. I looked back into the skillet, preparing to grab the second patty, my fingertips still red from the first.
“You know we can’t afford it.”
Her chair scraped against the linoleum as she stood and walked out of the room.
As I unwrap the rest of the rifles in the nursery, something gray falls out of a fold of bubble wrap and skitters across the floor. Down the hall, Grace has just gotten out of the shower. I can hear the hum of the blow dryer from where I sit, eyeing the tarnished sphere rocking back and forth slowly in the concave spot where water damage warped the floorboards two summers ago. I let the musket ball rock itself into stillness before I rise to retrieve the cool lump of lead. According to the police report, my father packed and labeled all of his belongings before he killed himself. The ball rolls like mercury over my palm. I tear the half-empty box down a corner seam and a beat-up shopping bag emerges from between the bubble wrapped guns. I lift the bag by the handles, and the plastic bottom strains from the weight. It is against the law to pass on ammunition in cases in which the contents of the will are required to cross state lines, the lawyer told me that over the phone a month ago. My father, the lawbreaker.
My hands are shaking as I reach into the bag and feel the bulge of musket balls press against my fingertips. I try to take a deep breath, but it catches in my throat and my eyes sting. There is also a zip-lock bag full of gunpowder, and the tin of beeswax polish, things my father never let me touch.
It’s only when I hear the creak of our bedroom door that I set the shopping bag back into the box and bury the musket ball deep in my pocket. Grace’s smile is slow and sad when she sees me in the nursery, in my pajamas, two days’ worth of scruff collecting shadows across my face. She hasn’t set foot in this room for over a year, but now she crosses the threshold and wraps me in her arms. She is clean and ready for work, the back of her dress still warm from the iron.
“I can call in sick today.” The hollow of her neck is still damp. I breathe in her shampoo.
“No, really, I’m almost done here, then I’ll be off to work. You go, and I’ll see you for dinner.”
“Okay, are you sure?” She pulls back to meet my eyes.
“I’m sure.” I kiss her forehead. “I love you.”
She turns on her heel, trying to leave the room without seeing it. Overeager, we painted the walls before we went to the clinic. She closes the door behind her as she leaves.
I used to come in here often, when Grace wasn’t home. I looked through the sperm donors and found someone I liked, someone with good genes and perfect eyesight and a college degree. I combed through #4579’s profile, read his medical history and personal statement. There were so many days I could imagine myself being a father.
We tried to save up, for a while, but then the car broke down, and we had to replace the boiler. I talked about going back to school to get a better paying job, then Grace’s mom got sick, and our savings turned into trips to Florida. After a while, it hurt too much to keep trying. Four months ago, she spent what was left in our baby account on a flat-screen TV. After that, we didn’t talk about it.
When the lawyer called about The Ladies, Grace asked what they were worth. I thought about Ruth and Esther and Sarah and my father. I remembered him at the Austin gun show the summer after my mother left, spending the college savings account she had started for me the day I was born. I tried to imagine a child in our nursery whose growth wasn’t stunted by an onslaught of cortisol at age five. I tried to imagine holding her in my arms. I tried to imagine a version of myself running beside her, one hand on the bike seat, somehow knowing when to let go. I thought about telling my wife I had inherited twenty thousand dollars’ worth of antiques, enough for sperm banks and hormones and IVF. She was holding my hand in both of hers, soft fingers stroking the scar on my forearm, eyes quiet and waiting. I looked down at the pucker of stitches from the summer before high school. It was the only one my father ever apologized for, in the ER waiting room, after the ramrod and the hunting trip and so many other things that once connected us had broken.
“They aren’t worth much,” I said.
The ramrod feels brittle and tired as I pull it loose from the thimbles beneath the belly of the barrel. I could take the guns to the pawnshop on the corner of Bleeker. I know the owner, Jim, would give me a good price for them. My shift started half an hour ago. I should be at work right now. I run the ramrod through my fingers, feeling for sharp edges, but the ancient wood is worn smooth. The hunting was a kind of necessity for him, but it was the reenactments that he loved. I remember watching my father, dressed in the long blue coat and tricorn hat. Every summer, he would practice in the yard, sweating in his wool uniform, me in my usual spot on the back porch, watching. He marched and saluted and loaded his rifle, all the while explaining the historical significance of each action. My father, the only one of four brothers who didn’t fight in Vietnam, marching in the yard, his defective heart beating beneath the eighteenth-century coat. My father, the mechanic, who couldn’t afford college without the GI Bill, telling me his pants were called breeches. My father, in his skintight leather, telling me he didn't wear underwear because neither did the revolutionary soldiers, telling me the bunch of lace at his throat was called a jabot. He tried twice to enlist, but his heart condition never improved. Maybe if it had, things would have been different. When I got the call from his lawyer back in April, I knew he had finally choked on his own curdled potential.
“You gotta pull the plug out with your teeth,” he used to say, biting into the stopper of his powder horn. “See, they didn’t have time to use their hands back in the war.”
He would quiz me on the pieces of his ensemble, the dates and facts of famous battles from the Revolution. And on the rare occasion when the Saturday shoot at the range was canceled or his hunting buddy threw out his back, my father would sit next to me on the porch, telling me about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill, and Saratoga, as though they were memories from his childhood. He would pull out his history books and show me pictures until the shadows in the backyard grew long and dusk came like an ambush. As the evening chill crept into the yard, he didn’t seem to mind when I leaned into the warmth of his navy coat; this, he seemed willing to share.
I open the sandwich bag, and the memory of my father’s meticulous hands guides my own. I measure out a line of powder on a sheet of paper, and twist the paper into a funnel, sending the contents down the barrel. I reach into my pocket and find the musket ball, wrap it in a small swatch cut from an old tee shirt, and push it down the barrel with the ramrod. I replace the ramrod and stop short, unsure of what to do next. This is the part where my father would hoist the gun up to his shoulder, aim at some distant point on the horizon, and fire. I put the gun down and go get dressed for work.
I pull a pair of wrinkled khakis out of the laundry basket in the closet. The last time we spoke was the night before my wedding. As soon as I picked up the phone, I could tell he had been drinking. His words were muddled, and it took a minute for me to realize he was asking if he could give me away. I swallowed and said, “No, but you can dance with my bride at the reception.” He didn’t say anything after that, but I could hear his breathing over the crackling phone line for a long time. The reception was getting fuzzy when he said, “The porcupine is for you two.” Then he hung up. I sat by the figure eight of black cord and covered my burning face with my hands. I imagined the growing menagerie of memories in the den and wondered how many animals we needed to kill in order to forgive each other. I give up searching for my plastic name tag and walk back to the nursery.
On the highway leaving the city, I think about calling Grace. I let my thumb hover over her speed dial button on the ancient flip phone. It’s almost noon; the diner will be swamped, her voice will be harried. Beside me, diagonally, Ruth stretches the length of the car. Wrapped in a threadbare beach towel, the barrel noses its way between the two front seats. The towel trick was one I learned from my father—he was always so good at taking care of things, and so bad at taking care of people. After eleven years away from him, I’m not sure I’m any better at loving someone than he was. I think again about telling my wife what The Ladies are worth. I see the pawnshop on Bleeker, and #4579, and the baby girl we could have. Her face comes and goes. My imagination is as spotty as the cell service out here. In place of clarity, I find large gaps of silence.
It’s cold. The kind of cold where it hurts to breathe. The tips of my fingers have disappeared into numbness. It’s well past hunting season, and my car is the only one in the frozen lot. I could get arrested for being out here. This is how he always did it, not that he ever took me along. For a while I just walk. The woods are frozen under a thin layer of frost. Everything is still except for me. I spot a decaying tree trunk that looks like a promising spot and decide to set up. I lay Ruth down across the trunk, facing a slight thinning in the bare trees. I add a pinch of gunpowder to the pan and snap the frizzen closed. Kneeling on the dead leaves, I cock the flint hammer and wait.
I sit there for a long time, watching the gray sky. I wonder how long you are supposed to wait before you give up. We never went on a hunting trip. After I broke the ramrod, I didn’t touch another gun until The Ladies arrived in the mail. I can’t help wondering what advice my father would have whispered in this moment.
Because I don’t know what else to do, I wait. Then something moves in my field of vision. The turkey walks slowly, inspecting the ground with its beak. I can tell it’s a male by the shine and color of the feathers. With no females around, his plumage is slicked back into a mullet, not the fan of feathers on a Thanksgiving placemat. I shift Ruth in my stiff fingers and wait for the bird to come closer.
I was ten when my grandfather died. The whole family was already seated in the front pew, staring at the flag-covered casket, when we arrived at the church. We took our seats at the end of the row, and I craned my neck to examine the relatives I never saw. My grandmother wore a small hat with a black veil over her eyes. My three uncles sat beside her, stern-faced in identical navy suits with big bronze buttons and colorful patches over their left pockets. Each held a sharply angled hat in his lap. My father’s hands were empty, and he seemed not to know what to do with them. I looked at my dad in his too-tight sport coat and mismatched pants, and I thought maybe we should sit in a different pew.
The turkey keeps moving its head, picking at decaying leaves, probably looking for food. I realize I only have one shot. The musket takes a good two minutes to reload, enough time for every living thing to run away. I’ve never been this close to a wild turkey. The wrinkled paunch of red skin dangling from the beak trembles unevenly.
Sinking an inch, I line up the bird in my sights. I take a deep breath. He’s in range now. His head is down. His flank is exposed. I have a clean shot, but I still haven’t taken it. The turkey stands there, but my fingers don’t move. The bird ruffles his feathers.
I don’t have to shoot. For my father, it had always been a necessity, an irrepressible urge, the thing he had to have to make up for all the things he didn’t. He could never let go of the snake, the dove, the alligator, the belt, the rod, the war. I can let go of this turkey, if I want to.
I watch the bird and his tail feathers that I could pluck as a tribute to my father, or perhaps as a celebration of a future daughter. I watch his wrinkled face and the eruption of beard at his chest, and the whole thing is so simple and ugly and somehow, unexpectedly, full of the potential for flight.