I don’t care about duck hunting but I like magazine subscriptions. I like organizing them on the bookshelf. Puddles, the kids magazine delivered once a month to my dad’s work address, fits between National Geographic and Sports Illustrated. The $35 a year my dad spends to make me a junior Greenwing member of Ducks Unlimited also comes with a decal for his Bronco and an invitation to the Siskiyou County chapter’s annual raffle and auction dinner.
I have to forfeit the bottom bunk to Ander, who drives over from the Trinity Mountains in his rust red van for the dinner and to go duck hunting the following morning. My stepmother’s father is old even then and can’t navigate the bunk bed ladder. The bunk is the only evidence beside the clothes in my dresser and the magazines on the bookshelf that my bedroom belongs to a child. On the weekdays when I stay at my mother’s, my dad uses the bedroom as his home office. He encourages me to make it mine, to consider his house just as much home as my mother’s, but every Thursday evening I have to clear his papers off my bed.
My stepmother’s parrots live on a shelf in the bathroom above the washer dryer. Once a week I replace the newspaper on the bottom of the cage, and once a month I carry the cages outside and spray them down with the garden hose and scrub crusted bird poop off the little bars with a wire brush and a bleach rag. The parrots wait in the living room for the cage, gripping the dowels beneath the two wooden television trays that serve our meals.
The first time I met my stepmother, I couldn’t stop staring at her mouth. We were in the Bronco driving to lunch and they were arguing. I had never seen a woman wear lipstick like that before, like in the movies. She tells me later that I defended her, that I said, “You can’t yell at her, Dad. She’s too pretty.” I can’t imagine that I contradicted my dad in front of a stranger, even if it’s true that I confused makeup with beauty then and for a considerable time after.
She wears bright pink lipstick that she rubs into her cheeks to contour her formidable cheekbones. Raven black hair teased out like a backup dancer in a music video. Her olive skin under her heavy black mascara and eyeshadow looks bruised, sallow, even when she isn’t healing from a black eye.
* * *
One weekend afternoon I’m watching television, my dad in his recliner behind me. We’re enjoying whatever it is we’re watching, some war movie or maybe a Spaghetti Western, when she comes out of the bathroom wearing overalls over a thin, tiny tank top. Pink lipstick. She sits on the edge of the recliner and they start whispering, and then my dad tells me to go play outside.
“But I’m watching this,” I say. We’re just getting to the good part. My dad yells at me plenty but never without cause, or if without cause never so suddenly without provocation, startling like a gunshot when you didn’t even see a gun. Whenever he yells it triggers the birds to squawking, and I can hear Rose especially loud out the open bathroom window as I run outside crying, followed shortly after by my stepmother. She kneels down, cleavage at eye level. “I’m sorry you had to see that,” she says. “That wasn’t about you.”
“Why’d he yell at me like that?” I cry. “I didn’t even do anything!”
“Your dad wants to have sex,” she says. “Sometimes that makes men mean.”
She needs him to be a man so she can be a woman. He does his best. She’s quick to call him a pussy and mocks him for not changing his own oil in the Bronco, not knowing how to replace a fuse in the breaker box. When he bakes us beer bread she pounds the extra five cans and asks him where his little apron is. I don’t understand it at the time, screaming at them to stop, my allegiance torn between them while Rose beats her wings against the cage.
* * *
Parrots can live up to fifty years. Not all of them can, but some of them. Some of them, you can buy as a little chick when you’re ten years old and they’ll kick the bucket right around the time you’re cashing in your 401(k). There’s as much of a burden in never grieving your pet as there is in outliving it. Most male and female parrots are virtually indistinguishable, except for some like the eclectus parrot of the Solomon Islands, which present as negatives of each other. Most parrots can talk, but the scientific community is divided over whether parrots are capable of actual language cognition or if their talking is merely operant conditioning, ie: mimicry reinforced by either reward or punishment.
Parrot feet are zygodactyl, which is kind of like having a hand made of thumbs.
* * *
Ander is dressed in his idea of cocktail attire: his finest plaid Pendleton over suspenders and a white V-neck undershirt, Pendleton buttoned all the way to the top. He calls over one of the raffle girls and has her count out a hundred dollars’ worth of tickets, pays her from the wallet he has stuffed in his breast pocket, bulging with receipts. He hands me the tickets to keep track of. The roll is as big as my fist.
My dad is always encouraging me to submit a drawing to the Federal Junior Duck Stamp Contest. My mom’s a painter and he’s convinced I’ve inherited her talent. Nights I spend in front of the television trying to copy a photograph of two wood ducks in a marsh with colored pencil on the television tray that’s too small for the paper, the photograph, the colored pencils that always roll off the edges. I can’t draw feathers. My pencil refuses to accurately trace the shape of a beak.
Everyone is gathered around the twelve-gauge shotgun up for raffle, admiring the action and the Ducks Unlimited logo inlayed on the stock, but I have my eye on the stamp. Two pintails captured mid-flight over a marsh while the sun sets in the background. In the foreground you can see cattails. The official stamp is framed beneath a print of the painting featured on the stamp, the pintails and the cattails, which the artist has signed and numbered: 74/500. I like that the print is limited. That makes it special.
* * *
My dad has a temper that’s formidable. I’ve seen evidence of Ander’s temper as well, and the idea of spending the morning with the both of them in a remote marsh in close proximity to firearms makes me nervous. If they turn their guns on each other and my dad doesn’t survive, I don’t trust Ander to spare any witnesses. Also I’m not thrilled about waking up so early in the morning. It’s a two-hour drive to Tule Lake and if we don’t get there before dawn we miss out on all the good hunting, says Ander. Also I don’t want to kill a duck.
I don’t want to kill a duck but I also have a predisposition to violence, if only in my thoughts. In my thoughts, in the duck blind when Ander’s dog rousts the fowl from the cattails I lead with my shotgun like Ander taught me, take into account the difference in distance, their speed of flight, scan the horizon by the end of the barrel. I imagine pulling the trigger prematurely, forget to keep the butt of the shotgun firm against my shoulder.
* * *
Dinner is roast beef and a baked potato wrapped in tin foil and I eat too much and now I feel sick. Ander elbows me hard in the side, in the softness under my rib where I’m already self-conscious of my love handles. I look up to see his eyes following the girl who sold him our tickets, her arms overflowing with two wooden Mallard decoys that she sets down in front of me next to my empty plate. I grin stupidly but she doesn’t smile back. I know her peripherally from school, Tina. She’s only a couple of years older than me but the age when a couple of years make all the difference.
Feedback from the mic echoes through the hall and Ander elbows me again. We’re winning! The other dinner attendants are all watching me with a mix of pride, excitement and a little envy, like I’m a lucky, lucky boy who will remember this night for years. It’s the second number of ours they’ve called in a row and it feels a little like Christmas. Gifts presented to me that I don’t want and have no interest in, that I must receive with grace as my benefactors watch for evidence of insincerity.
It’s fun to win things, just like sometimes it’s fun to shoot things. Not because you want to see something die or someone else lose, but for the same reason having the 74/500 stamp print is better than just having a stamp print. It makes you special. Just for a moment sometimes, before you have time to really think about it. Even though I don’t want to win the gun I feel triumphant when the emcee calls my number. My audience groans in disappointment. They would have liked to win the gun for themselves. I imagine many of them attended the dinner with the sole hope of bringing home my shiny new firearm.
* * *
Before duck calls there were call ducks. As early as the seventeenth century, hunters would tether these small, white ducks near their hunting grounds and the ducks’ high-pitched distinctive call would summon the wild mallards within range of the hunters and their fate. In 1935, the use of call ducks in hunting was permanently banned in the United States in an effort to better align with prevailing conservation efforts. Now call ducks are popular exhibition birds, winning more duck championships than any other breed.
Female ducks have been known to change genders if the ratio of their flock is overwhelmingly imbalanced.
* * *
In back of Ander’s van, I try to sleep on the carpeted floor. Keeping me company is Ander’s bird dog and two racks of firearms mounted on the walls. It’s still dark. They stop at a gas station off the freeway to get coffee and gas, and when my dad opens the back door to hand me a hot chocolate, I quickly hide my hand behind my back. Mercifully he doesn’t notice, or if he does maybe he thinks I’m just hiding a quarter or a bullet I found buried in the carpeting.
Aside from destination duck hunting, Tule Lake is probably best known for its Japanese internment camps during World War II. At its height, nearly 120,000 Japanese-Americans lived in barracks to the east of the lake. Later in the blind my dad describes to me the “Loyalty Questionnaire” all Japanese-American men were required to answer, the wives and children of enlisted men relocated to the camp while their husbands and fathers fought overseas. My dad is a scholar of history’s wrongs, collecting evidence of injustices and mapping their geography the way other people collect license plates or folk songs. All that’s left of the barracks now are cement posts. Grouse run across the road, in between the headlights, and vanish into the marsh.
Outside it’s cold. Inside it smells like wet wool and motor oil. In the front cab my dad and Ander are talking about the law. Since the wedding Ander has used my dad as his de facto attorney ranging in issues civil to criminal. It’s one of the reasons for the late night arguments, a wild card up their respective sleeves to play when they feel the urge to double down, get nasty. Usually after she’s been drinking. Usually after he’s been watching her drink. From what I can overhear from the bedroom, Ander owes my dad money, owes money to a lot of people, which is one of the reasons for his need for legal advice. My dad keeps taking the calls because he’s afraid of Ander, we all are, but when it’s just he and I alone in the Bronco he tells me apropos of nothing, “Don’t ever do anyone any favors.”
We unloaded everything in the living room for my stepmother to see. She was passably sober for her father, himself aglow with three Jack and cokes. My dad, away from her, had chanced a beer. Ice cold! Refreshing! Even after the shotgun we kept winning. A hand-whittled duck call. A pair of binoculars. The emcee said he’d never seen anything like it. I wished this run of luck had manifested in just about anything else until the limited edition stamp print came up. “Unbelievable,” said the emcee.
My stepmother wanted to know how much it was all worth, what kind of return we’d received on our investment. “I’d say thirteen or fourteen hundred dollars,” guessed my dad, to which she whistled. Ander rocked back and forth in my dad’s Barcalounger with a sly grin like he’d rigged the whole thing. He’d take the decoys and the duck call, he said, but I could have the binoculars. And the shotgun, which my dad would lock up in the gun cabinet until I was old enough to wield a 12-gauge. It could wait next to the deer rifle he bought for me when I was ten.
Ander had no use for art and said we could take the stamp print, sell it, whatever. My dad had a photograph in his office of my stepmother, a blown-up photo of her years before he knew her. She’s in silhouette on a bluff with her red-tailed hawk perched on her outstretched arm, jess hanging from its ankle, leather hood over its eyes. My stepmom looks more Laurel Canyon in her hair and dress than her present Detroit Rock City. Some nights when there’s nothing else to cry about, she’ll rhapsodize over her former hawk and discover a new kind of drunk altogether. The stamp print will go right next to it. It’s just the right place.
“All these birds!” exclaimed by dad. “Clients will think I’m some kind of bird attorney!”
* * *
When a male red-tailed hawk is courting a female, he likes to put on a show. He soars up high in wide, arcing circles and then dives steeply, climbing and diving, diving and climbing. After several swoops he approaches the female from above, extends his legs, touches her briefly. Sometimes the pair clasp their talons together and plummet in spirals toward the ground before finally pulling away.
Red-tailed hawks do most of their hunting from high perches, where they can see up to eight times better than humans. They wait and sit and watch until they spy a rabbit or a rat, a squirrel or a frog or a snake, and then they swoop down at speeds up to 120 miles per hour, grab the prey in its talons and return it to its perch to feed. Sometimes they even hunt other birds: pheasants. Chickens. Ducks.
* * *
Ander and my dad are already dressed and nearly ready to go by the time they wake me up. My stepmother is still sleeping but Ander doesn’t bother keeping his voice down, eating eggs and toast and sausage in my dad’s recliner. My dad whispers to get dressed. Ander hollers behind him, “Time to shit, shine and shave!”
All the clothes I leave at my dad’s house are the second-rate clothes, shoved unceremoniously in the warped particle board dresser that doesn’t close properly. Clothes either they bought for me or I’ve outgrown: knockoff Bart Simpson T-shirt with the stretched-out collar (“Don’t have a cow, man!”), itchy Pendleton shirt Ander bought me two Christmases ago. Maybe it’s the detergent they use or the high alkaline well water that tastes like iron, but clothes change here. They find a new shape and they stay it, like they’ve been washed in starch. Maybe someone pulled your shirt collar, a beak bit your sleeve, the shape of your knees in your shirt front how you hugged them. It doesn’t matter how many times they’re washed.
I gather my clothes to get dressed in the bathroom. Long underwear, wool socks. The parrots are still sleeping above the washer dryer. In the top drawer of the bathroom sink in a canvas ditty bag my stepmother keeps all her makeup. Eye shadow. Mascara. Tubes of lipstick with different applicators. It’s a prohibited drawer for me to rummage through, but it’s the first drawer I rummage through when I come over, even before the fridge and for the same reasons, to see what’s changed since the last time I was here.
Nothing has changed in the drawer since the last time I rummaged through it because that was just last night before I went to bed, after brushing my teeth. “Two minutes!” my stepmother commanded re: my teeth brushing. “Not just side-to-side but up and down!” I feel a tightening in my chest as I open the drawer, slowly, slowly, so I don’t make a sound, because even if I’m just opening a drawer in the bathroom we all in this house have stood outside the bathroom, holding our breath, trying to hear what contraband its occupant was consuming. The ditty bag is zipped closed, just as I zipped it closed last night to mirror the way I’d found it, zipped closed. The efforts I go to for my actions to remain undetected far exceed her abilities of detection.
Winter Plum is my favorite color. Pink with just a hint of blue. It’s not the color of a plum but it evokes winter, I guess, icy, like moon glow off a field of snow. It’s number 72 in the Revlon line. I uncap the lipstick and bring it to my nose, inhale deeply. It smells like girls and big, oversized sweatshirts with the sleeves rolled up. It smells like warmth and glamour and comfort. My dad knocks on the door. “Let’s go, Jake!” he whisper shouts. “We gotta get moving!” I hold my breath until I hear him walk away. Then I apply the lipstick to my hand, in the hollow of my right hand between my thumb and index finger, generously so it’ll last. Then I finish getting dressed to go hunt some ducks.
* * *
Jacob Aiello’s ancestry can be traced back to rabbis and horse thieves. In 2018 he received the Oregon Arts Commission Fellowship in Literary Nonfiction from Literary Arts. His stories and essays have been published in or are forthcoming from The Sun, The Rupture (formerly The Collagist), Carve Magazine, Ninth Letter, december, Big Lucks, Menacing Hedge, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Storychord, among others. He lives in Milwaukie, Oregon with his wife, two dogs and three cats.