The first thing Pop said he ever shot was an injured deer. He was just seven years old when Granddaddy Butler took him hunting on his property in Natchez, Mississippi.
Now, there’s a difference as big as my head between the way he told the story to me at eleven years old, sitting on my mother’s Jersey City brownstone stoop, and the way he tells it in a crowd of his beer-guzzling buddies. What he told me was wrapped in fright and unprocessed pain. The tale he tells his hushed friends? You’d think he was recounting a wartime conquest.
“I was scared as I don’t know what, Dee-Baby. I could near ‘bout feel my heart beatin’ right through my neck. And my daddy was whisperin’, “Steady now, boy. Steady.”
I looked up at my dad. His voice had trailed off. His gaze stretched across the street like he could see the hurt deer and hear his father’s voice right that second.
He picked up his glass of iced tea I had brought out to him and slowly lifted it to his lips but then lowered it.
“The thing looked like it got hit by a car and limped back into the woods. By the time me and my daddy saw it, it was just… a bloody, flailin’ mess. It couldn’t get upright to save its life.”
I was picturing that deer the way I imagine I looked when Pop was teaching me to swim. None of my limbs could find a rhythm. My heart was racing with a panic only the threat of death could create but Pop just shouted, “Steady, Dee-Baby! You’re doin’ good!”
I didn’t want to hear any more. Inside, I was squirming trying to break free and run but I stayed still because for some reason it just felt like Pop really needed to get this out. A police siren screamed somewhere on the other side of the city.
“I froze,” he continued after a sip of iced tea.
“It looked like it was having convulsions. I couldn’t move but I wanted to run. I wanted to run ‘til I couldn’t breathe, right back to the house. I wanted to slide up under the kitchen table and finish reading the comic book I started readin’ the night before. I wanted to bust into your Uncle Tick’s room and go steal the towels off mama’s line together. We used to pin ‘em to our shirts and jump off the roof of the shed, playin’ Batman and Robin. I wanted to get in trouble for it all and get sent to bed wit’ a whuppin’ and no supper. But I couldn’t because I was standing in front of that dyin’ deer with my daddy’s rifle in my hand and his voice in my ear tellin’ me to shoot.”
My eleven-year-old brain was working overtime, with my Pop’s arm wrapped around my shoulder. I wanted something full of solace to roll off my tongue especially since Pop and I didn’t have many...or any intimate moments like this. Mommy didn’t really allow it. Said that Pop was no good and didn’t try hard enough. I wasn’t sure what that meant. He tried plenty hard to me. He was always working. This was the first time since he came home from prison that he had ever come to our house. He usually just let me come visit him at work or his apartment after school. He was trying plenty hard and I wanted to tell him something sweet and reassuring.
“Dang, Pop,” was all I could manage. I wanted to punch myself in the face for not thinking of anything better to say. To redeem myself, I drew my arm in around his waist a little closer. His navy blue work shirt smelled of car engine oil. I loved that smell. It was stiff and made me feel protected. I didn’t want him to stop hugging me and talking. I just wished he would pick another story.
He reached down and scratched his ankle. A black thing with a little red light was blinking fast just above his sock.
“Hey, what’s that, Pop?” I reached down to pull up his pant leg a little.
He gently but firmly tapped me on my back and simply said, “No, no.” I sat up straight, vaguely recognizing the sternness in his tone. Pop was never stern with me. Ever. Except that time he caught me talking to a boy just outside his shop. What was that light and why was it on his leg?
“You know Dee-Baby, there’s always things in life we don’t want to do. You know that, don’t you?” He looked down at me. I looked up at him. There were tears in his eyes but a smile on his face.
“Yeah, Daddy, I know,” I said in a voice equal parts confused and (hopefully) reassuring. Whatever he wanted me to know, to understand, I wanted him to be assured that I did. I wanted his tears to dry up but then again, it was amazing having this rare, gentle moment with him. Crying or not, I didn’t know when the next time would be that I’d have my daddy all to myself, hugging my shoulder, sipping iced tea that I had brought him on my front porch. I wanted to keep him there, sitting right there, all night.
“You lose the things most important to you when you give in and do things you don’t want to do.” He kissed me on the top of my head and held me close.
I was freaking out inside with glee because of his kiss that seemed to drizzle down my arms and legs, like falling stars, and confusion because of the sadness that seemed to fall down on the both of us. Not as magically, though.
“You got me, Pop. You won’t lose me.” I didn’t understand why he was so sad. The sirens were getting louder and annoying.
He reached behind him, lifted his shirt and pulled out a wrinkled envelope. It was wide with money. He nudged me and handed it to me behind my back.
“Dee-Baby, go take this inside to your mother, will you, baby?”
I took the envelope and smiled at him. Anything he asked me to do, I’d do it because it made him smile so wide I could see all his white teeth. My Pop had perfect white teeth. And perfect brown skin like the soil my Granddaddy Butler used to call “rich” when we’d go visit him in Mississippi. I used to dig and dig looking for gold coins or diamonds. I never found any.
I wanted to race upstairs as fast as I could so I could come back down to my daddy as fast as I could. I pushed the envelope into the back of my shorts and covered it with my tank top like Pop had taught me. Then, I moved to stand up but he stopped me.
“Uh uh. Where’s my kiss?” He stuck out his cheek.
I laughed, pecked him on the cheek, and ran into the brownstone and up the three flights of stairs to Mom. The police sirens sounded like they were almost inside our house. I couldn’t wait until we finally had enough money to move. Pop had said earlier that he had figured out a way.
“Pop’s here. He told me to give you this.” I stood at my mother’s desk and pushed the envelope to her across the nicked and dusty oak.
She looked at the envelope and then at me.
“He’s here? Why is he here?” She looked terrified and I couldn’t understand why.
“Yeah, he came to see me. He probably wants to see you too. Come down, he’s got some news.” I smiled devilishly and headed for the stairs.
My mother stood up so fast, her chair fell backwards. She tripped over to look out the window. Her eyes grew big and round and her bottom jaw jutted out as she gasped.
“Denise, you go put that money in your bookbag and stay here, you hear me?” She kicked the chair out of the way and flew down the stairs.
I stood frozen for what felt like a century. I nodded and breathed, “Ok,” as I heard the front door open and my mother scream.
A part of me didn’t have to question what she saw. The part of me that had seen things and been a part of things that no eleven-year-old should. The red and blue lights were invading the bedroom. Painting the walls. I remembered the first time they did that as I stepped to the window and pushed the curtains completely open and looked down.
My mother was crying. Hard. She stood between Pop and Officer Mike. He used to always come over to play cards with Pop and his drinking buddies when we lived in Newark. They had gone to highschool together.
“You wait, Mike! Just wait! Give me a minute!” My mother turned to my father. She cupped his face with her hands. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other but it was the closest they had been in months.
I felt like one of those water balloons we used to fill at the fire hydrant during the summer was filling up in my throat. I knelt on the window seat and let hot tears roll down my face like I’d seen kids do in the movies when someone was being hauled off to jail or their parent decided to up and leave. This had happened before so I didn’t understand why this time felt so...final.
I looked down and realized I still had the crumpled envelope in my hand. I don’t know what made me do it but I reached in and pulled the money out. It was more than any of the other envelopes my daddy had given me before.
A slip of white paper fell on the floor that said “TO DEE” on one side. I put the money back in the envelope, sat cross-legged on the floor and flipped the paper over.
Use this to go to college and be something great. Make Pop proud.
I love you.