Bullet was angry. He crashed his supper plate and milk glass down beside the sink and walked out of the kitchen.
Where did the old man think he got off?
On the back porch he pulled off the oxford shirt and khakis he’d put on for dinner, stripping down to the shorts and T-shirt he wore underneath. He was angry, good and angry. He was mad, good and mad. Bad and mad, bad mad . . . His feet picked up the rhythm of his anger.
He pounded down the path through the vegetable garden, heading for the water. He was PO’d, pissed off, he was royally pissed off, and he didn’t care what they thought. He didn’t give a royal fart for the two of them sitting at that table back in the kitchen. Bullet made his hands into fists, brought his knees up high and stomped his feet into the dirt of the path. The way the old man talked to him, it made him mad.
Where did he think he got off talking to him like that—as if he still thought he could make Bullet do anything. The guy was book smart but life stupid, trying to box Bullet in with— As if he could make him do anything.
If it came to a fight he knew he could whip the old man with one hand, with no hands the way he felt now, just hitting at the old guy with his head and kicking—and his teeth too. Bullet was seventeen, even if he didn’t have the license to prove it, because he
wasn’t allowed to get a license; seventeen and he’d wear his hair any damned way he wanted to. Angry enough to rip tendons out of the old man’s arms with his teeth if all of his other weapons were lost. And he could do it too. Only he couldn’t, because there never was a real fight between them. Just these petty boxing-in orders. Well, he picked and chose what orders he’d follow, he’d learned a while back how to do that. It wasn’t easy, that learning, but nobody said growing up wasn’t going to hurt.
He came to the dock and stopped. His chest was heaving: he’d taken the quarter mile at a full run and that was stupid. Bad enough that he had to do his running on a full stomach—because his father wanted dinner at 5:30 exactly, and everybody he was feeding at the table to eat. Bullet couldn’t do anything about that, but he knew better than to start out at full force. You were supposed to loosen up slowly, and now he’d have to rest before he started his evening run. This was his third year running cross-country, he shouldn’t be making that kind of mistake. He stood at the end of the dock, listening to his heartbeat slow, letting his muscles ease down.
He was looking out over the water, but he felt the land stretching away behind him, flat, fertile fields marked off by tall, straggly loblollies and little stands of pines. The broad belt of marsh grass whispered under the wind, behind him, beside him. Through the soles of his sneakers he could feel the land, firm and deep, beneath him.
“Get your hair cut. You look effeminate,” his father had said, his voice dry as harvested hay.
Bullet had just looked at him, but the old guy never looked at you, never looked you in the eye. Mostly, Bullet didn’t answer his father. I don’t have to listen to this, he said inside his head, at his father’s face. As long as I do my work, that’s what you’re entitled to and I work my tail off.
“Effeminate means girlish,” the sarcastic voice had said, as if Bullet didn’t know that. The cold eyes had gone down to the other end of the table, where Bullet’s mother sat. She didn’t say anything, she never would anymore. The old man wanted to run things, and he wanted you to say something so he could knock you down with his answer and box you in tighter. If she said something, it wasn’t her he’d try to knock down, it was Bullet, just the way he had with Johnny first, then with Liza. Driving them away, to drive them away. Bullet’s mother sat there, her eyes dark and angry, her mouth still as stone.
Bullet had hooked his hair behind his ear and kept on eating.
“I want that hair cut tomorrow.” His father gave the order.
If wishes were horses, Bullet answered inside his head with the old nursery rhyme, beggars would ride. The thought struck him as funny.
“Or I’ll take the scissors to you myself.”
* * *
There was a wind blowing up from the south, blowing in thick, heavy air. Bullet didn’t mind that. He never minded weather, even when the muggy summer air hung so close and humid you couldn’t sweat into it. His eyes drifted out to the end of the dock—Johnny’s boat was still there, still afloat. He wondered how many years it would be before the wood gave out to the weather and the thing just sank. His mother was the only one who ever took it out, and she bailed it too and scraped as much of the bottom as she could get to standing beside it in the shallow water. But she couldn’t get it out of the water for the winter, didn’t have time to caulk and paint the hull, never had any money, so she couldn’t have it hauled at one of the boatyards. Too bad. Too bad the old man wouldn’t let her get a driver’s license either, because that meant the only way she could get
around on her own was this sailboat. Which would, someday, sooner or later, just rot away.
He turned away from the little waves, blown over the top of the water under a September sky, and let the wind hit his back. He was about ready.
But before he could take off, he heard pattering footsteps and panting behind him, where the path came down to the shore from the marsh grasses. A cold nose touched his calf: “Get,” he said without looking. “Get lost, OD.”
The dog ignored the order. She stood wagging her tail, her brown eyes staring up at him, her tongue lolling out of her mouth. He turned around and raised a foot to kick at her. Liza’s old dog—Florabella was what Liza tried to get them to call her. Bullet named her OD, for Old Dog—and because the dog was an overdose of Liza’s stupid softheartedness. Liza found her one morning, just swimming out in the middle of the bay. Somebody had dumped a litter of puppies overboard—without even bothering to weight down the sack, apparently—and this one was just swimming away stupidly, putting off drowning. Liza and Johnny got her into the boat, and Johnny had gotten the old man’s permission for Liza to keep the puppy. That was back in the days before the old man paid much attention to any of them, before Johnny started growing up and getting angry. Bullet couldn’t have been more than four when Liza found OD. OD was really getting to be an old dog, thirteen was pretty old for a dog. She lived in the barn and Liza used to feed her and play with her—he guessed his mother might be feeding OD now, Liza had been gone for a few years. The only thing Liza left behind when she took off with Frank was this dog. Just like leaving something of herself behind, because the dog was about as stupid as Liza was.
When Bullet raised his foot, OD backed off. She crouched low
to the ground and waved her tail to appease him, but she kept her stupid brown eyes on his face. He turned full around, raised his arms and roared at her. She backed off, fast, afraid, stopping where the path entered the marsh grass. The grass towered over her. She was no taller than a beagle, even though she was rounder, with long golden hair. He roared again, jumped twice at her King-Kong style, and she fled up the path. He fired off a couple of oyster shells at her rump, to keep her going.
Bullet wouldn’t have minded a good hunting dog, a hound or a bird dog. But the old man would never let him. First it was, “You’re too young to take the responsibility,” then, “You’re too old for pets.” There was never any argument you could have with him. Unless you were Johnny, but if you were Johnny you would have been a carbon copy of the old man and Bullet didn’t want to be that. His old man was a nothing, nothing but right answers and holding on to his precious farm.
Bullet bent down and straightened up, ten slow toe touches, breathing in deep and easy, getting his palms flat on the ground. Hold on, he said to himself. Be fair. The old man was bad enough as he was, there was no need to be unfair. The guy was a crack shot, for one thing. Every year he got his deer, as well as the quota of goose and duck. To watch his father bring down a deer was a treat. The old guy never hesitated, never took more than one shot.
And the old man knew about things, he’d learned a lot and remembered it. Science and mechanics and farming, but also history and what people long dead had said—he could answer just about any question you asked him. If you asked him a question. But he didn’t listen to other answers, and it took Johnny years to figure that out, once Johnny had some answers of his own. Not Bullet, Bullet learned from watching the two of them, learned a lot. Johnny’d try his own answers, and at first the old man scared him and boxed him in with how much more he
knew; but as Johnny grew up he got angry instead of scared. Bullet figured it out: little kids you could keep boxed in, so that was okay with the old man; but older kids could fight back and he couldn’t take that. The more Johnny fought back the more his father boxed the rest of them in, and Momma too. Bullet learned that, fast and good, because nobody—he stood up straight, his arms wide, breathing air deep into his lungs—but nobody was going to get close to boxing him in. Nobody. No way. Not ever. He’d been his own man for years.
Bullet started on the run. Beginning in March, he ran his ten- mile course every evening. Up five miles along the shoreline, back five miles. Rain or sleet made no difference to him. He’d be out there in his shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. Cross-country took that kind of training. Bullet didn’t have to train like this to win the races, but that wasn’t what he was after, anyway, just winning. He had to train to keep getting better, to be as good as he could. And he was really good.
The course started off along the narrow beach, then cut inland—up over the eroded banks and fallen trees, through undergrowth, then back down to the muddy sand. Sometimes Bullet swerved inland to a field and pelted across it, his footing tested by the furrows with dried cornstalks like giant stubble, every footfall calculated. Sometimes he made short zigzagging spurts, ten yards up a beach, then five at the overgrown land’s edge, testing the spring in his legs and his ability to get over obstacles, or through them.
You never knew what kind of land a cross-country course would cover. The disadvantage of training down on the eastern shore was that the land was so flat. The meets up north, or in the western part of the state, could be killers if you weren’t used to working uphill. Cross-country was a killer anyway, but that was why Bullet liked it. Running around a cinder track, or even hurdling
when they put jumps up at specified distances, you might as well be a horse, a trained horse going over the jumps they put out for you. But cross-country—he turned at the edge of a field where a pumpkin crop was ripening up and headed south again—cross-country was really tough. You had to be fast, but that was just the beginning. You had to have endurance, too, and quick reflexes. You were going to fall, you always did, but you had to get up fast and keep going. And smart, you had to be able to look at what lay ahead and get ready for it, you had to run smart.
Somewhere between the eighth and ninth mile, he began to feel the work his muscles were doing. From then on, he ran on strength alone, keeping up the steady pace, just not paying any attention to what his body was trying to say to him. After a little while he didn’t feel anything. He’d run past it, run through it, and his body got back to the work he intended it to do. A year ago, Bullet would have hit that point at around five miles—hit it and gutted his way through it.
For the last quarter mile he ran along the flat beach. That was the way most cross-country courses were, too, a flat run at the end. Bullet sprinted, driving his feet into the wet sand, pumping his arms faster, to force the faster rhythm on his legs.
Back at the dock again he stood straight.
He wanted to fall down onto the boards—he could have thrown up his whole supper without any trouble at all, lots of guys did just that at the end of every race. But Bullet stood straight and locked his throat tight. His chest heaved, he couldn’t even focus his eyes on anything, as if a film of blood spread over his retinas. He stood straight, arms loose at his sides, his shaking legs holding him firm. Every muscle in his body had been used and felt it.
Sweat poured down his back and legs, stung in his eyes, soaked his armpits. He liked that smell of sweat.
When his vision cleared, he took a look at the sun. His time was okay. He looked at the water and wanted to fall into it, but because he wanted to, he waited. He knew he could do that to himself, for himself; he’d learned that, too.
The sun hung red, just above the watery horizon—as if it were being sucked down into the water. The water reflected the cloudless gray-blue of the sky. When he no longer needed to, Bullet allowed himself to go swimming. The tide was up. Wind slapped the waves against the sides of Johnny’s boat. A single star burned low above the horizon, obscured by the brightness of the sun. Bullet did a shallow dive off the end of the dock, then splashed around for a while. This late in the year you didn’t have to worry much about jellyfish. Water soaked his clothes and shoes and all of his skin. He hauled himself back up onto the dock and sat there, looking out. His sneakers were heavy. His hair was plastered onto his forehead and clammy down the back of his neck.
It wasn’t even as if his hair was that long, only halfway down his neck, and it looked good, thick and dark brown like his mother’s. Some of the people at school—they had hair so long they kept it tied back in ponytails. The old man wanted him to have a crew cut, as if there was something wrong about a good head of hair on a man, as if that had anything to do with anything. It wasn’t haircuts the old man cared about, it was being able to give orders. With Johnny gone and Liza gone, there was only Bullet to give orders to. You’d think the old man would learn.
Bullet swung his feet back and forth, the weight of wet sneakers pulling at his thigh muscles. The farm lay behind him, all the flat acres of it, broad fields, patches of woods where raccoons and rabbits and squirrels lived, fields left fallow, fields where cornstalks dried in the September sun, lines of loblollies—he didn’t look back, he didn’t have to, to see it. He looked across the water at the horizon, to the invisible western shore.
The farm was his now, both a draft deferment and a job. If he wanted it. After a couple of years, when Johnny just didn’t ever come back, the old man said that to him. “It’ll be yours.” Ignoring Liza. Bullet just shook his head. The old man thought Bullet was scared of the hard work, but he wasn’t, and the old man only thought that because it was an idea he got hold of. The old man got hold of ideas and kept them, clenched tight in his fist, as if that made them true. It was boxes Bullet was afraid of, the kind of boxes the old man built around people he lived with. The draft was a kind of box, too, except that Bullet wasn’t so sure he’d mind the army, and he knew for certain he’d make a good soldier; the same way he knew for certain what it would cost him to stay on the farm, waiting for the old man to die.
It wasn’t as if his father even wanted Bullet to have the farm. He didn’t, he didn’t want to let go of the farm ever. Funny, because it was really his wife’s farm, her land anyway, the old Hackett place. When they’d gotten married, the old man took over from his father-in-law, who wanted to retire in Florida. The only other person with a claim on it was his wife’s sister, who had married and disappeared up north to live with her rich husband. So the farm was his wife’s, half of it by law and all of it by rights. But the old man never admitted that, he slapped his name on her, slapped his name on the land, and owned everything. Only, the way he acted and talked, the farm owned him and he hated it. What a life.
For her too, Bullet guessed, living with the old man this way. Except, to watch her work over her vegetable garden, or climb down into Johnny’s boat and get the tiller in her hand, he knew she liked it. Whatever the old man did, there was something about her, something proud and bold and brave and strong—the old man couldn’t break her, couldn’t drive her off. Not if he lived to be a hundred.
The sky grew dark, gray colored with purple, and a few dim stars appeared. The wind blew around him. It was just like the old man to tell him to get his hair cut without giving him a buck for the barber. Do it my way and pay for it with your money. Money Bullet had earned for himself, working for Patrice. Work he’d gotten for himself by going down to the docks early, hanging around, asking if anyone needed an extra hand for the day, doing day work until he met up with Patrice and had a steady job. Hauling crabs all summer. Hauling oysters on winter weekends. Sure, he had the money, he had six hundred and fourteen dollars saved up, and by the end of this fall he’d have enough money to buy himself the sixteen-gauge Smith and Wesson he’d had his eye on for two years. He’d held that gun just once, the only time he’d seen it, at the store in Salisbury. The stock fit into his shoulder like one of his own bones, the triggers moved like a hot knife through cold butter, the balance of the thing made his own twenty-two feel like a Tinker-toy, like the junk it was. He knew what he was saving his money for and it wasn’t for haircuts.
With a gun like that, and some practice, he’d—he could see the deer, pronged antlers held up, see it poise for just those crucial seconds listening, see its legs crumple in mid-stride, see it fall while the echoes of that one clean shot still echoed through the trees.
Bullet shook his head to clear the image out of it. He’d learned not to make dreams up for himself, that was part of growing up. Growing up meant you knew what you wanted and you worked for it, and you didn’t let yourself get in your own way. Not dreams, not memories—he knew he could allow no weakness in himself if he was going to win free. He could feel the danger of his father’s will closing in around him, and he could feel his own strength too. It would cost him, but what didn’t cost something? Nothing, that was what. It would cost him this farm that ran acres wide under his feet, that ran acres deep and fertile underneath
him. It had already cost him whatever it cost to be different. Nobody knew him anymore—which was funny because all he had done was let his real self out. But everybody saw only the difference. Nobody knew what Bullet was like. Except Patrice. And maybe nobody ever had except Patrice, who didn’t mind him as he was, who didn’t try to make him into somebody else. Or his mother—she could read him still, he knew, and he could read her too for that matter. But they never talked about that, not in any way. Because it didn’t make any difference.