Safety or You Can’t Love Everyone
Carroll’s father had made up a little bed for him in the back of the van, but it was cold and the road was bumpy and Carroll only pretended to sleep as his father drove to the marsh. In the front seat his father was talking to Alfred. It was Alfred’s van, and the three shotguns on the rack above Carroll’s head were also Alfred’s—one for each of them, though Carroll had no intention whatsoever of shooting his. This was the first weekend he had seen his father in nearly four years, which was how Alfred had managed to convince the both of them to go duck hunting.
The night before, Carroll and his father been watching a movie on television, an old Western from his father’s childhood, and his father kept pointing out the different actors and what other movies they’d been in. Carroll didn’t know any of them from Adam. After the movie had finished, his father had turned off the television and they’d sat there for a couple of minutes in the simmering silence before finally his father had said, “Is there anything you’d like to ask me, Carroll?”
Carroll’s mind was a blank. Of course there were things he wanted to ask him, so many things, more things than he could even count, and they’d come to him tomorrow as they’d been there the day before, but right now there was only one thing he could think of.
“Why’d you name me Carroll?” he asked.
His father nodded. “That was your mother’s idea,” he said. “I wanted to call you Jack, but she said she thought Carroll sounded very debonair, very sophisticated and east coast. We argued about it for months. Your grandfather’s name was Jack, Jack’s my middle name, but she said I was being patriarchal. In the end of course I gave in, just like with everything.” He rocked back and forth in his chair as if waiting to see if that last sentence would take or if it required more explanation. “Is there anything else you’d like to ask me? Anything at all?”
Carroll shook his head.
“Well we should turn in then. We’ve got an early morning ahead of us.”
It had still been dark when they’d left. Carroll had rolled out of his bed and stumbled, still in his long johns, to the back of the van, where there was an old wool blanket Carroll’s father had laid over the bare floor with an Army surplus sleeping bag on top. But as soon as the van started moving, Carroll was awake. Jack, he kept thinking. Jack. The more he repeated it to himself the less he could imagine ever answering to it. The sound of it in his mind, in his mouth—its form—made him feel more than ever that he was a Carroll, not a Jack or a Michael or a Simon or a Tom but a Carroll, and he hated the name now more than ever for how it fit him.
His mother had warned him about his father. She’d said his father cultivated son of a bitch like ballet dancers cultivate grace, like the Spartans cultivated brawn. Carroll understood his mother wasn’t lying or trying to turn him against his father exactly, it was just that that had been her experience of him—her hurt talking. Carroll had tried to explain to her that his own expectations could be just as valid as her disappointment—even after all these years—that “ex” really didn’t enter into it for him, but he was ten years old and he just didn’t know the words yet.
From the back of the van Carroll could just make out some of the conversation between Alfred and his father. Alfred was asking how his father was doing. “Have you told him yet?” Alfred was asking. “Have you found what you were looking for?” Carroll could just see over the console Alfred’s hand resting on his father’s lap.
“Not yet,” said his father. “I’m not sure he’ll understand just yet.”
They were nearby now and his father stopped at a gas station to fill up and ask for directions. Not ready to wake up for real just yet, Carroll pulled the sleeping bag over his head as he heard his father roll down the window to greet the gas attendant.
“What’re you gaming for?” asked the attendant.
“What’re you looking to hunt? Pheasant? Mallard?”
“Oh,” said Carroll’s father. “Ducks. Mallard, I guess.”
The attendant nodded. “It’s a good morning for it,” he said. “Wish I was going out there with you, as a matter of fact. You want to find a nice spot of land, you’ll head on down this road another good two or three miles, then take a right at the second dirt road you come across. Go on down about another quarter of a mile and park and you’ll find there just about the best duck hunting this side of the Mississippi.” He topped off the tank and came back with the change. “If you don’t mind my asking, what are you shooting there?”
“Shotguns,” said Carroll’s father.
The attendant grinned and bit his lip. “You don’t say?”
“Twelve gauge,” Alfred interjected, leaning over from the passenger seat. “Over and under.”
“Nice,” nodded the attendant. “Remington?”
“Browning,” said Alfred.
“Nice.” He patted the top of the van. “Well y’all have a nice time out there,” he grinned. “And save some for the rest of us, now.”
Carroll’s father had never been much of a man for mechanical prowess, which was strange because he so looked the part. For one thing he was an enormous man, big in the sense of Shakespeare, whom he read voraciously, or Thoreau, whom he did not. With dark curly hair and a full beard, he seemed to carry the posture and countenance of a bear retreating from its den, and that’s just what he was—a teddy bear. He had never changed the oil, never fixed a leak or set a lure, and never, so far as Carroll was aware, handled or operated a gun.
As soon as the van stopped Carroll was ready to go back to sleep. It was almost seven o’clock but the air was still heavy with frost. The tules crackled reedily underfoot, unwilling to give, snapping back against his cold hands. Carroll leaned his gun against his shoulder while he walked and wondered why he’d even needed to bring it along if he wasn’t going to use it, but then this moment, the gun heavy in his arms, the three of them heading out to the blinds early on a winter morning—none of it had anything to do with utility. It had everything to do with necessity.
The cold air stung his exposed skin and the water had begun seeping in through his gaiters, but none of that would last very long—and that was his consolation and his cross to bear: it had been his choice. “Which one?”` they’d asked him, and he’d chosen her, and the next day his father was going to bring him to the train station and they’d both pretend that neither of them had any choice in the matter, as if their relationship had been predetermined to have this severance inherent in every encounter.
And so their reality was suffused with a disproportionate significance in everything they did together; every meal was their last meal, every argument became dampened with an undercurrent of guilt and regret, no moment was spared to show how much they cared about each other, and this was no exception. You can’t love everyone. There are just too many people and there’s only so much love in one person; your parents, your children—you love them almost by default, you love them almost because you don’t know any better. But what if you do know better? What if you think you do? It’s always important to keep in mind the inherent danger when choosing whom to love.
Carroll’s father was having some trouble with his shotgun. He had the stock up against the inside of his thigh and he was trying to load the shells, but the way he was holding the barrel, the breach kept slipping back down and obscuring the chamber whenever he’d let go with his other hand to insert the shells. Over and over he kept trying to load the gun, and then the action would slip and he’d jerk to catch it, in the process dropping the shells into the water with a plop, plop. Carroll had to suppress his laughter.
Eventually Alfred came over and demonstrated how to hold it from underneath with one hand while loading the shells with the other, and after they were done loading his gun, Carroll’s father came over to help Carroll with his own using the method Alfred had taught him. As they fed the chamber they each fumbled with the action and the shells, and there was no escaping not only that he was Carroll’s father, but that he was Carroll’s father.
The barrels of their shotguns jutted out into the morning sky like bugles. Alfred put the duck call to his lips and blew, five short quacks, and then there it was, a flock heading toward them from the east. Carroll and his father followed the ducks with their shotguns. Alfred fired and the lead duck dropped from the sky—plop—into the water. Carroll and his father held their ground, and then at the same time, they pulled the trigger.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED