The woods were very still. I had expected, at the very least, to hear birds chirping; I had expected the scuttling sound of squirrels, maybe even a raccoon, rustling through the dry leaves. I was fully prepared for the sizzling terror of a rattlesnake, disturbed in its nest, frazzled and sleep-worn but still ready to pounce. Instead, because it was the dead of winter, because it was Christmas Day at 9 o’clock in the morning, and because it was Christmas Day in the dead, lifeless center of Alabama, the woods were quiet.
In actuality, there were no leaves to rustle. There was only pine straw, three inches deep and still damp from the autumn rains. The pine trees and the cedar trees blended into one another, keeping the woods dark, making it impossible for anything to go dry. The bottoms of the tree trunks and the rocks in the creek bed were covered with moss. Toadstools poked up everywhere.
As far as I knew, the woods were always that way. I did not spend a lot of time in the woods. I did not even spend a lot of time in the yard. I had no particular desire to be in the woods at that particular moment. I wanted, instead, to be in front of the television set, watching Roberta Peters singing Christmas carols on the Today show. I wanted to be playing with my new Monopoly game. I wanted to be reading my new Kobbé Book of the Opera. I wanted to be left alone so I could plan my own production of La Traviata.
I did not want to be sitting on a damp stump in the Alabama woods, holding a new BB gun. I had not even asked for a damn BB gun. I had asked for a complete recording of Tosca instead. When my mother had told me, ”Well, your father’s going to pick out some of your Christmas gifts this year,“ I had known I was in for trouble. Nevertheless, I had not expected this.
When I had unwrapped the BB gun, I had stared at it, stunned, thinking that, maybe if I stared at it long enough, it would turn into something elsea set of paintbrushes, a dictionary of the Bible, a three-pack of new underwearanything except this thing that only boys like my brother wanted. But I could not even thrust the BB gun at my brother and say, ”Here. I don’t want this thing. Why don’t you take it?“
My brother was way beyond BB guns. He had got what he wanted that Christmasa new .22. My mother and father had even let him pick it out. I looked at the BB gun, still in its box, sitting, incongruously, on my lap. I knew that my parents would never have tried to pull this sort of crap on my brother. They would never have tried to trick him by tying his name tag on a copy of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and slipping it under the tree, just because they thought he needed it, just because somebody else in the housesomebody like methought it was something every 15-year-old boy should have.
My father had just finished dolefully taking the cardboard out of yet another new white cotton-blend dress shirt, when he turned to me and said, ”Well, aren’t you even going to open it?“
I thought to myself, ”I get it now. This is the game that they’re playing. It’s the old red herring, the old surprise party, the old bait and switch. They figure it’ll be just like Candid Camerame thinking they’ve lost their senses and given me a BB gun, until I open the package and discover they’ve given me something really useful, something like a pair of fire batons.“
I opened the package. There was a BB gun inside.
My father said, ”All right, boys, let’s go shoot us some squirrel.“
I looked at my mother in total confusion. She said, ”You can wear one of your father’s hunting jackets.“
I said, ”You mean, we’re going down into the woods?“
My father said, ”Best I know, that’s where most of the squirrels live.“
My mother said, ”You be careful. Neither one of these boys has had much practice shooting at things.“
My father said, ”I’m going to be with them, Margaret.“
My mother said, ”And you, Auston Bridges, work six days a week at a used-car lot.“
My father was zipping up his hunting jacket and slipping shells into the cargo pockets. He said, ”You just get ready. When we get back, we’re having us some fried squirrel for breakfast.“
My mother said, ”I’m gonna go thaw out some ham.“
I was sitting in the woods now, holding the BB gun in my hands and feeling the damp of the Alabama woods creeping up through my socks. My father had lined up three rusted tin cans along the trunk of a fallen cedar. ”Your brother and I are going over to the other side of the creekbed,“ he told me. ”You stay here and get in some target practice.“
I did not even open a package of BBs. Instead, I watched a couple of squirrels scampering along a limb of a pine tree. I hummed to myself the fourth-act quartet from Rigoletto. After awhile, I got up and took a pee.
I peed in the creekbed. I looked further upstream and saw a beaver, lifting his slick, greasy-looking head out of the water. The beaver had built a dam out of the limbs of fallen cedars. I figured that was why there was only a dribble of water at my end of the creek.
I looked up to check the sun. My father had told my mother we would only be gone for an hour. I knew that, if you knew about the sun, it could tell you when time had passed. But I had missed Cub Scouts; I was not even a member of the 4-H.
I was, however, very hungry, and through the woods I could hear my brother saying, ”Daddy, it’s gotta be 10 o’clock now. Let’s go get us something to eat.“
My father came into the clearing. He was taking the shells out of his .22 and slipping them back into his pockets. ”I could have swore,“ he said, ”this was gonna be a good day for squirrels.“
I said, ”Did y’all get to kill anything?“
My father said, ”You get your bottoms up to the house.“
In the kitchen, my mother was already frying ham and scrambling eggs. She already had a batch of biscuits set out in a pan.
My father said, ”Didn’t see squirrel one. Just doesn’t make sense.“
My mother said, ”Go wash your hands. I’m getting ready to put the biscuits in.“
At breakfast, my father talked about what a good thing it was for a boy to know how to shoot a gun, even if he never got to shoot any squirrels. I said, ”I saw a couple of squirrels while I was sitting on the tree stump.“ I said, ”I saw a beaver too. I saw him while I was taking a pee in the creek.“
For a second, there was nothing but the sound of the coffee pot, making a blurping sound on a rear eye of the stove. My father put down his forkful of grits and said, ”What’d you do with your BB gun?“
Remembering a thing I had not even cared to forget about, I said, ”I don’t know, Daddy.“
My father said, ”Did you leave that BB gun down in the woods?“
I said, ”I don’t know. I guess so.“
My father said, ”Well, young man, you get up right now and go bring it back.“
I looked at my mother. She said, ”That BB gun can wait until we’ve finished our breakfast.“
My father said, ”A boy’s got to learn to take care of his property. You’d think he’d be a little grateful when his parents spend their hard-earned money to buy him a presentsomething any other little boy in Alabama would want.“
I said, ”I’m sorry, Daddy. I’ll go back and get it after breakfast.“
But I lied. That afternoon, my mother served turkey and dressing for Christmas. Then my brother went down the road to play football with his best friend, Larry, and I watched an old Mitzi Gaynor movie on television.
I never went back to the woods.
I have enjoyed writing this column for the last nine-and-a-half years. Thank you for reading.J.B.