The man and the boy were traveling through the desert. They were both away from home. The boy was glad to be with the man, and the man was glad to call the van home while he was with his boy.
This is the thing men do with their boys; this dirt road adventure under a vast dome of sky, sun, and moon; this dinner of hunted desert prey; this drinking the bottles to empty; this pissing into the campfire; this endless road with five jerrycans of unleaded bouncing in the back but no maps in the glovebox; this freedom from the bossman’s hassles and crushing demands; this real-life schooling because don’t nobody learn about the real world from a classroom.
The man and the boy chose a campsite by merely stopping the van. The man stepped out and held four extended fingers sideways into the sunset, squinting toward the horizon. The boy climbed from the passenger seat and stood next to the van’s open side door. “See my fingers?” the man called to the boy. “Four fingers between the sun and the horizon and you’ve got a solid hour before sunset.”
The boy held four fingers sideways, squinting toward the horizon. “Sixty minutes,” he silently mouthed to himself, dropping his hand. The man and the boy began the rote motions of gathering firewood. They walked in different directions, returning with arms full. They made a haphazard pile, walked out again and again until the sun was low in the sky.
The boy held two fingers sideways, squinting toward the horizon. “Thirty minutes,” he silently mouthed to himself, dropping his hand.
It was time to shoot a jackrabbit, or there would be no dinner. The boy retrieved a small pistol from the van. It was always loaded because you never knew when you wouldn’t have time to load the guns and then you’d be in a fuckall’s worth of trouble.
The boy walked away from the van, pistol in hand. He took care not to step on twigs, and scanned the light of the golden hour for sudden movements in the scrub brush. He hoped for a jackrabbit; cottontails were barely a meal, and they were running low on canned baked beans.
There was a loud crack in the quiet, and a fierce, hot force of wind rushed past the boy’s ear. He jumped but did not drop his pistol. His gaze found a blur of mottled gray skidding through the desert sand before it came to rest beneath a twist of juniper. “There’s dinner, hoo boy, that’s a big one!” called the man, laughing as the boy turned. The man was standing two paces behind the boy, still aiming with arms outstretched. The boy froze in fear. This was not the first time the man had pointed a gun at him. “I’ll need more dinner, and you’re just the size I’m hungry for.”
The boy did not move because this too shall pass. He learned that from his mother. This too shall pass. The boy knew the man’s gun would fall away when he reached for the bottle tucked into his waistband. The boy knew you couldn’t unscrew a bottle and tilt your head back to drink from it while pointing a gun. The boy waited, slowly tucked his pistol into his belt.
The man broke the stillness with a bright peal of laughter. “I’m just joshin’ ya!” He smiled warmly and reached for the bottle. “Whatcha waiting for? Let’s go on and get that jackrabbit! We’re eating good tonight.”
The boy held one finger sideways, squinting toward the horizon. He watched as the man made a clean slit in the jackrabbit and left a wet pile in the dirt. The man made another cut in the fur. In one practiced motion, he peeled the pelt downwards, dropping it next to the entrails. The man and the boy moved noiselessly toward the campsite. The boy retrieved the blackened metal stakes and roasting spit from the van, and the man built a fire.
The man and the boy ate with their hands, sitting on opposite sides of the fire. The thighs of their jeans were stained with roasted dinners. “This is damn good eating,” the man spoke with his mouth full and took another swig from the almost empty bottle. He had been preaching fervently about how you should never hunt a fox, no matter how God damned hungry you were.
“Yeah,” responded the boy, glancing at the man. The man suddenly pointed his pistol at the boy, demanded to know if the boy had ever shot a fox. “No way, I know you’re not supposed to!”
The man stood, yelling. “Did you ever kill a fox?” He raised the pistol, shot five rounds into the air before pointing it at the boy. “Did you, boy?”
The boy did not freeze. He knew the man’s pistol was now empty. The boy reached into his belt and curled his small fingers around the rough grip of his pistol. The boy stood, met the man’s gaze, and aimed toward him. “I never killed a fox,” the boy spoke across the fire. The man lowered his empty pistol and reached toward the ground.
The boy watched as the man tossed something dark and rectangular into the fire. When the first shell popped and zinged into the darkness in a maddening arc, the boy realized it was the box of bullets. He ran toward the van as a cacophony of danger and chance began its deafening echo. The boy crouched behind a tire, hands shaking, breathing in barbed gasps.
He waited. Stillness. The fire crackled. He heard the faint sound of a cap being unscrewed from a glass bottle. There was a pause, a belch, quiet.
The boy exhaled, stood, and held one finger sideways toward the darkness of the horizon. “This too shall pass,” he silently mouthed to himself, dropping his hand. He moved toward the light of the campfire.