Sure, it’s something you consider from time to time because it can happen, like getting struck by lightning can happen, but, still, it’s an odd thing.
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Two men sit in swivel camo chairs side by side in a hunter’s ground blind, their rifles propped against the wall in front of them. The younger man, of about twenty-two, Sam, looks to his father, Henry. “Do you have to breathe so loud?”
“What?” Dad grunts then straightens his vest as if to strengthen his protective armor to help him parry away his son’s verbal attack.
Sam puts his foot nonchalantly on a bucket being used as a table in front of him. “You’re breathing very loud. It’s unsettling.”
“Who taught you to say a word like that?”
“Which one, he says. Unsettling.”
“No one taught me. I read… books. You’re breathing like some kind of sick, wild animal. Is something wrong with you?”
“Unsettling is a college word, I guess.”
“You’re the one who wanted college for me so bad I didn’t realize going there was a choice. I thought it was just this inevitable thing I had to do.”
“That’s good parenting.”
“Now you complain about it.”
Henry stands up and takes a long swig from his beer can. “Do you know what toxic masculinity is?
“Where’d you come across that?”
“I read too, you know.”
“About that?” Sam crosses his leg like his therapist at school does and leans in a little too to indicate a good-listening posture. The therapist has really helped his anxiety by telling him to tell himself that it’s okay not to be able to sleep sometimes. Henry turns toward Sam, and Henry’s eyes grow a little distant like he has gone on a bit of a journey to a dark place, then they brighten some, and he’s back.
“Okay, fine. This is what happened. I was getting a coffee at work in the breakroom and I dropped my cup… and it broke and coffee was everywhere and I yelled goddamn it and then slammed the cupboard shut a little too hard… harder than I meant even. And then this woman, who happens to be an accountant, not that I judge her very much for that, but maybe a little, who was sitting at the table the whole time laughing at the entire thing, said that my behavior was an example of toxic masculinity.”
“Why do you think she said it was toxic masculinity?”
“She didn’t like that I slammed the cupboard. Said it was violent.”
“What did you say to her?”
“I apologized. She said that didn’t make it better. That men think they can do wrong and apologize and everything is fine. I asked her if she’d like me not to apologize then. She said I really didn’t get it. And she was right; I didn’t get it. Do you understand this shit at all?”
“Some men have behaved badly for so long; it’s like all men are getting taught a big lesson about it.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“Do you think slamming a cupboard is the right thing to do?”
“Don’t you ever get angry or scared and act stupid? Maybe it’s not great, but it’s not wrong either. Are they teaching you these sorts of things in school? What does everyone want from me? I cleaned up the coffee!”
“That’s exactly what they teach. It’s on a loop and they force us to listen to it. If we refuse, they take our balls!”
“Now, that’s… unsettling.“
Sam gazes a little quizzically into the woods and at the structure they’ve created together. “This is uneven.”
“Yeah, well, the whole world is cockeyed. I’ve been trying my whole life to get used to that, but it’s a tough thing to accept.”
“I need to take a walk or something.”
“You’ll get lost out here, college boy. I’ll get some air. That way you won’t have to hear me breathe.”
“I was just concerned.
“My generation never used that word either.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I never mean nothing by anything if it’s taken in a bad way. You know that, right? I’ll be back. Have another beer, Sammy.” Henry tosses Sam a can. Sam fumbles it but reels in the catch and recovers goofily by smiling and holding up the beer like he miraculously caught the winning touchdown pass at the big game. Henry grunts.
“Your pass was garbage.”
“I’m sure that’s it.”
Henry walks out. He has a limp, the sort that comes from regular life… a softball injury in his twenties and then thirty years of working on his feet. Sam takes a sip of beer; his face sours.
Henry walks into an open area in the field. He watches his breath dissipate in the air and wonders how much longer he has to live. His father died at sixty-two and he’s sixty-three now. He’s always had this idea that any life beyond the age of when his father died is borrowed time. He knows that’s mostly illogical but he believes it anyway. Henry hopes that he can be a better father than his father—not that his father was a bad father; only he was quiet and cold sometimes and often had unreasonable expectations. Yet his father being an unreasonable man was one of his better qualities because it made him extremely hard working with the ability to squeeze out from life the most possible from the relatively little he’d been given.
Henry always wanted Sam to go to college because he didn’t want Sam to have to work as hard as he did or his father before him. What Henry couldn’t anticipate is the distance expanding between them. Is that what education does? Henry wonders. Why couldn’t Sam continue his studies to become a schoolteacher? Henry’s been ruminating anxiously about Sam’s future after Sam told him he wanted to go to grad school to maybe teach in college one day instead of teaching at a public high school. Henry does not approve because he read in the paper that there are not many full-time jobs teaching in college anymore. Now, Henry recognizes that he is giving his son a hard time just like his father gave him a hard time when he chose not to take the job at the factory and instead wanted to go to a vocational college to study computer maintenance. He never went to the vocational school. Instead, he was hired at a sales job on a friend’s recommendation and that first job led him all the way to his current one, selling paper products to the law firms downtown, which he has done for nearly thirty years.
Back at the ground blind, Sam scrolls through his Instagram feed and clicks on random pictures of model/actors that live in the greater Los Angeles area that catch his eye because of their various seductive poses. Each of them contorts their bodies in ways that maximize their physical attributes yet promotes a vulnerable and invitational allure. Sam finds one skinny blonde woman he thinks he really could love because she does not look totally perfect in her photos even though she is trying pretty hard to seem that way, and it is clear that she lives in a very crappy apartment with all off-white walls and with no nice pictures or anything hanging on them. She seems like a pretty classy lady as she is not in very many bikini pics but instead has many retro pics modeling old-looking dresses from some era in the past which is mostly unclear to Sam as he does not know his eras for fashion at all.
Sam thinks he hears something outside and grabs his rifle. He looks out. There’s nothing there. He looks at more of the California girl’s pictures. Where is she really from because hardly anybody is from California, right? Sam sees she has a boyfriend. He looks like a loser in a ball cap turned backward. Sam wonders if he could be her boyfriend in California instead. They could be so in love they would never take Instagram pictures but would just make love and look each other in the eyes when doing so and when not doing so and always tell each other the truth and support each other’s dreams while also having kids that were nice kids and not assholes.
Henry spots a deer twenty yards away. His only thought is holy shit a big buck. He raises his rifle. Fires a shot. The deer stumbles and drops.
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Henry’s eyes narrow as he ponders taking a life. He’s done it before. He’ll do it again. It’s a part of life. Nature is cruel and we are nature too, he thinks. Henry walks toward his kill.
Sam looks as if he could cry. He feels so lonely. Is he capable of really letting someone in? Will he be alone until he dies? Probably, he thinks, because his parents never taught him right considering the dysfunction of their relationship. There were lots of screaming bouts between them during his formative years and threats to hit each other with large kitchen serving spoons and stuff. Like this ground blind, he knows he has tried to camouflage his heart so no one can find it and step on it with high heels. The only trouble is Sam’s become increasingly aware that he can’t hide his heart from himself. The heart always finds you, Sam thinks.
He looks outside as if something out there will show itself and provide him some sort of answer. A few snow flurries begin to fall so he takes that as a sign that everything is going to be okay and somehow he will figure out how to be a person and connect to someone else who will love him forever and he will honor their love with love forever too.
Henry bends down to inspect the deer before field dressing him.
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All of a sudden, the buck violently twitches, taking Henry by surprise. In awe, Henry watches the deer rise from the dead. He stumbles back like a non-believer suddenly experiencing a miracle who seeks more physical space between himself and the holy thing as a metaphor to achieve the intellectual space necessary to reconsider all of life. The Lazarus/Jesus deer charges him. On instinct, Henry braces himself and holds his arms out toward the deer like he is either going to wrestle it or give it a big hug. The deer draws his head back and then plunges his antlers right into Henry’s gut. Henry falls to the ground facedown as the deer runs off into the trees and disappears.
GET SAFE NOW STAY ALIVE SURVIVE RUN RUN RUN BREATHE BREATHE BREATHE
Henry moans and then rolls over clutching his belly. He looks at his hands and there is blood on his gloves. Henry says, “I can’t believe it. He got me. He really got me good.” And Henry laughs a laugh that is both morbid and appreciative of the absurd, and then he thinks maybe this is not so absurd after all because absurdity is reality. If everything was easy and orderly in life, he thinks, that would be really weird.
“Dad, Dad, are you okay,” says Sam as he rushes over to the heap sitting up in the snow that is his father.
“A buck gored me. Don’t worry, I’m not going to die. Help me up.”
Sam kneels by his father and wraps him in his arms and cradles him. Henry looks Sam in his eyes and sees his own eyes looking back at him. Sam kisses his father on the forehead. Henry’s lips tilt slightly upward into an almost grin.
Kevin Del Principe is a writer and film director. The son of a snowplow truck driver and a school nurse, Kevin grew up outside of Buffalo but now makes his home in Memphis. I Animal is Kevin’s debut novel, published by Tumbleweed Books. He directed and co-wrote the feature film UP ON THE GLASS, available in North America through Gravitas Ventures. Kevin earned his MFA in Writing for Screen and Television at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. https://kevindelprincipe.com/