The Grid Road
This here’s where we sign-in, says Art, as we pull up to the shooting range, just off Vancouver Island’s Malahat highway. I’m relieved to turn the corner into the grounds of the Victoria Fish and Game Protective Association, because I was running out of small talk. Because I’m 23 and my nails are painted hot pink and I’m still a little hung-over from the party last night and Art’s teeth are stained yellow from chewing tobacco and that’s all I know about him — that and he knows how to shoot a gun.
He makes me nervous. While he isn’t the darkly ominous character I imagined him to be from the Craigslist ad; and while he probably doesn’t spend the majority of his free time holed up in a dingy basement with a swinging caged ceiling lamp the only light to see by for cleaning out the barrel of his rifle; there were still a few moments—while sitting cramped in the small cab of his old Mazda with the white-fur seat covers and truck bed loaded with all sorts of different shot guns, pistols and rifles—moments that I felt uneasy; nervous about the company I had sought out.
There was still something mysterious about Art and the way the deep crevassed wrinkles in his face splayed like overlapping roadways on a map felt more like frown lines than laugh lines; and the way that he kept talking about his daughter as if she no longer was his daughter, as if she didn’t exist anymore, if she ever did at all.
Art directs me to the binder requesting my name, member status, and the time of day. The fee for non-members is $20 dollars, but when I try to offer him money, he waves it away with a gruff, calloused hand.
I help him unload the truck, but he does most of the heavy lifting, carrying the long, black rifle and pistol cases with ease. Only the targets and ear protection are left for me to manage. There are four other men shooting on the range, set up in the far right corner. Amongst the rifles, testosterone, pistols, earplugs and chewing tobacco, I feel immensely out of place.
Range hot? barks Art brusquely at the other men. Already the jargon is over my head and Art seems annoyed by the fact that we don’t have the grounds to ourselves.
We set up our own shooting station at the opposite end, as far from the other shooters as possible. He requests no assistance unpacking the weapons from their sturdy black cases and so I spend the minutes side-stepping him, staying out of his way while still trying to show an interest in being part of the process. When all the rifles are stacked against the back wall, fitted into separate slots so that their barrels are pointed upwards, Art motions for me to grab the targets.
Cease fire! he hollers down to the far end, and the other men stop shooting. One of them installs a red flag on the pitch.
That red flag means it’s safe for us to go into the field, says Art. I follow him off the safety of the covered range and into the field; my boots crunching on myriad metal rounds glinting beneath my feet. We walk 100 yards out and set up our first set of targets. Neon painted animals on cardboard sheets. Art uses a staple gun to secure them to the pre-set posts. When we return back to the cover, Art removes the red flag from its holster.
Range is hot! he yells.
* * *
My father is a man’s man. The strong silent type. He likes to watch old western films, knows every word to every Alan Jackson song, and his dressiest pair of shoes are old python skin cowboy boots that he wears proudly beneath his Levi jeans. He’s stubborn in that he doesn’t believe in second marriages—since the divorce from my mother, romance takes a backseat to his bible—and so he lives alone in a four-bedroom house that has a crumbling foundation and a cracked ceiling that is sinking in. He can’t afford any renovations that he isn’t capable of doing himself. He decorates the living room with his glass-enclosed display cabinet for his guns; a bear-hide rug with the claws still intact and a snarling open mouth displaying rows of sharp glossy teeth—only garnered from the time he had to kill for self-defense; a wide, oak shelf he crafted himself that holds framed pictures of his kids, his parents, his siblings that have passed.
His basement is an unfinished, cement-floored dungeoness space in which he’s set up an ammo making station against the exposed-brick back wall. I remember playing with the empty red shotgun shells as a child, filling them with beads, or sand from the sandbox, or whatever would fit inside their stocky cylinders. While I had never gone shooting with my father, despite his asking me time and time again, or held any of his shotguns, despite my silent fear of them, I had also acquired a certain acceptance of guns. They are a part of who my father is.
* * *
Art picks the smallest rifle from the shelf and carries it nose up to the table where I’m sorting through bullets.
This is the .22 silhouette rifle, he says. Virtually no kickback, you’re going to hear it more than you’ll feel it. He pilfers through the bullets I’ve dumped out, and with long, yellowed, talon-like nails, he plucks a small copper flat-nose out and loads it into the hollow.
There y’are, he says, handing over the rifle to me, as if I know what to do with it. My palms are sweaty from nerves and I hold it awkwardly, extended out from my body like it’s a stinky garbage bag or something else that disgusts me. When I’m in place, he comes around beside me and shows me how to prop it in the crook of my armpit and line my eyes up through the scope, all the while careful not to touch me; I can tell he’s nervous too.
When you’re good and ready, just pull the back trigger to release the safety and pull the front trigger to shoot, he says. I stable myself, feet planted shoulder-width apart and I set my sights on the target through the scope. I pull the back trigger, half-expecting to have made a mistake; half-expecting for the gun to go off. I flinch at the click. Re-steady my feet. Reset my sight. Curl my pointer finger around the cold metal claw of the front trigger. And pull.
* * *
On his dresser is a framed photo of him and I from 20 years past. My father is squatting down beside me to match my 4-year-old height in an open prairie field. I’m wearing a bright pink onesie snowsuit, my white-blonde hair in pigtails, holding a bloody prairie pheasant proudly for the camera. The emerald and maroon of the feathers glow in the glare of the camera’s flash. My father has no facial hair; looks young and happy. My brother’s joke that he only took me hunting with him that day because he was in between bird-dogs.
I haven’t been hunting with him since. Not because he hasn’t asked me to. I’ve just never liked the idea of firing a gun; more than that, I’ve never had the courage to.
* * *
I’m not sure what I expected to feel. Different, somehow. Yet, even after the bullet burst from the barrel with a deafening bang; even after I felt the faint recoil of the rifle riff back against my arm; after the split second it took for the bullet to pierce the neon pink target pig; I still feel the same. Nothing has changed. I don’t feel stronger or more powerful as I’d so ignorantly expected. I don’t feel in control of anything at all, in fact, I feel as though the gun is in control of me. Like it knows something about me that I don’t.
You’re a natural! Says Art, peering through his binoculars to examine my shot.
Straight through the heart. I can sense the excitement in Art’s tone and feel pleased with myself that I’ve impressed him. He loads up the rifle four more times, and with each shot I manage to pierce the target, and with each shot Art warms to me more.
Y’know, I’d been saving this little rifle for my daughter, he says.
I was waiting for her to grow into it. The map lines on his face crinkle then soften and I know what he doesn’t have to tell me.
Seems to me you and this rifle were made for one another, he says, loading it up again for another round.
* * *
My father always asks the same questions when he calls me, once every couple of weeks.
What’s new? he asks.
How’s the weather? he asks.
When ya coming home? he asks.
We can talk about my week, my schoolwork and my job; we can talk about country music and did you see Alan Jackson sing on television last night? And I’ll tell him I love him before we hang up the phone, but all our chitchat now will never makeup for the years we lost together. We act like there’s no space between us, but in reality the gap is much more than two provinces on a map.
And he can be gristly and rough. And sometimes I can’t tell if he’s truly happy or feeling hysterically alone. He listens to radio shows in his office after hours about Jesus coming back and his face is like a map, except I know these roads. And probably the deep-set wrinkle dominant across his forehead is the dusty grid road between us.
* * *
After five hours of shooting, my fingers are cramping and my shoulder aches and Art and I, we have a system now, where we take turns loading the magazines and sorting through the bullets and we move fluidly around each other.
When it’s time to pack up, Art lets me assist him in returning the rifles to their rightful cases and he shows me how to lock the triggers in place, remove the magazines from the pistols, and make sure all the safeties are engaged.
Together, we carry the equipment back to his little silver Mazda and load it up.
On the drive home, when Art passes me his range membership to put back in the glove box, I find an old Alan Jackson cassette.
* * *
You’ll never guess what I did today, I tell my father over the phone.
I shot a gun! I’m not sure if I’m more excited to tell him or he’s more excited to be told, but we’re connecting. And he wants to know how and when and where and why and will I go shooting with him next time I’m home?
I’d love to, I say.
I’m kind of a natural, I say.
I could probably teach you a thing or two, I say.
Because maybe I’ve finally grown into that gun.
Born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, Reanne Derkson is a writer who works and lives in Vancouver, BC. In 2013, she graduated from the University of Victoria with a major in Creative Writing and minor in Professional Writing. She has previously been published by Live Young and Free Magazine, Elite Daily, The Martlet, and the anthology This Side of West: Deep and Meaningfuls. She also has a forthcoming publication in Penduline Press Literary Magazine. She is inspired by her travels, flâneurism, the clever absurdity of certain mundane situations, glamorous fashion, and most of all, by her family.