I’D SEEN COCAINE BEFORE, of course. Powdery mirrors, white-stained razor blades. But it wasn’t until I was eleven, maybe twelve, that I watched someone pinch a nostril shut and inhale a rail. I was huddled in the cab of my older brother’s truck, keeping warm in the pre-dawn winter cold at a wildlife sanctuary on the outskirts of Yuba City.
Robert, the friend, worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs. His face was always red and bleary from drink, so I’m not sure if he did anything important or if whatever important work he did caused him to drink. Robert tapped some coke onto the small flat of a cassette case, nudged it into proper geometry with his fat pinky and snorted it back. Then he licked his finger and we all had some Peppermint Schnapps. The sudden change in Roger’s energy felt weird to me. There was a darkness to it somehow, but I was with my brother so it had to be okay. Or mostly okay. We got out of the truck. It was really cold.
We trudged through waist-deep waters, breaking ice with each step. We held our shotguns overhead to keep them dry. Rubber waders kept most of the water out, but if memory serves (as an aside, I find we often serve memories) mine was too large and freezing water slop-slopped down my legs. Ice cold toes made me unhappy then and they still do. SmartWool socks are wonderful. My birthday is june 10.
An odd thing happened at first light. We headed toward soggy footing behind a stand of tule rush. The long grasses all around me started bending and snapping, as if pressed by a sudden gust of wind. My brother screamed at us to get down. I stayed upright, confused, while Roger flattened himself into the mud. When I turned around, I saw my angry-faced brother splish-splashing across the marsh toward two hunters who had let loose at birds that had flown low between our positions. I guess that kind of overzealousness is to be expected, what with hunters getting all powdered up before they hit the pond. Nowadays, for several reasons, I’d like to think those birds knew what they were doing.
This wasn’t my first time hunting, but it was the first time I started to hit my targets. I would pull the birds from the sky and my brother’s dog would fetch them off the ice. But I was still a bit removed from the actual killing. The next year, dove hunting near Sacramento, that removal ended. Did you know that birds are still alive after they hit the ground? It wasn’t something I’d really considered. So with doves, what you have to do is pick them up, place their tiny heads between thumb and forefinger, and then squeeze hard and fast to crack the skull and end it quickly.
My first hit was DOA, but the next one … the next one changed a lot of things for me. It was still fluttering on the ground when I got to it. With some hesitance, I picked it up and tried to do what my brother showed me. My hands were too weak or my heart wasn’t into it, or both, and all I did was cause that little bird some great misery. I panicked, dropped it back to the earth and stomped it with my boots until it stopped moving. It was a horrible experience. As my mad crushing dance played out, and feathers literally flew, I smashed not just a beautiful creature but also all connections to a culture and heritage that never fit me well.
That was the end of hunting for me. It wasn’t long before I stopped eating meat altogether. I never told my brother what happened but it wasn’t long before he stopped asking me out to hunt or fish. He’s a smart guy. He knew. I still remember the wet blackness of that bird’s eyes and I love it something fierce when I do.
[The “Life Moments” series consists of half-hour morning exercises. I sit, let a memory bubble up and type it out …. with the clock set for one half hour. Doesn’t leave much time for worrying about grammar or editing. Just get the stuff out the door. All associated photos are mine.]