By Ethan Johnson
It is a dark, rainy fall day. Not unusual in Minnesota but despised all the same. It is the kind of day that makes a person want to stay indoors and dream of happier times and places because there surely aren’t any out there in the cold.
We, however, are making the trek back to a small, beat-up shack. The shack sits on eighty acres of woodland; thick brush covers the ground and thousands of slender birch trees broken up by the large oaks blanket the landscape. To the north of the eighty is a narrow dirt road, to the south and east is state-owned property, and to the west is an unplowed field, owned by a farmer with fewer teeth than fingers. Cursing under my breath, I walk directly behind my father.
“Every year. Every freakin’ year.”
He turns around. “Did you say something?”
I walk past him. “You know, every year since I can remember we’ve been coming out here for deer hunting.”
“Yup.” He quickly catches up to me.
“When do we get to take a year off? It’s not like we’re starving. We don’t have to do this.”
He laughs. “Well, good luck explaining that to your grandpa.” And with that, the owner of half of the eighty acres slides his rifle strap further up his shoulder and plows on ahead. Leaving me to my thoughts and curses.
As we approach the shack, a familiar sound greets us. A four-wheeler is pulling in from one of the other trails. As it comes to a stop right next to the door, the man on it slowly lifts his leg over the seat to get off. He is old, seventy-six to be exact. He is short and bald. Has a beer gut and walks with a limp. He owns the other half of the eighty acres. He is my grandfather, Wayne.
“Did you see anything?” my dad asks him, knowing the answer will be the same as always.
“Not a fuckin’ thing.”
Wayne is the sixth of twelve children, one of the sons and daughters of Eddie and Anna Johnson: Earl, Lyle, Delores, Donnie, Arlene, Wayne, Jimmy, Jeanette, Betty, Judy, Sharon, and Larry.
Growing up poor means hard work. It means after eighth grade school is over. And it means surviving by any means necessary. The small field being tilled up is what the Johnson family will survive on for next winter. One kid, usually the youngest, runs the tractor, while Eddie and the other kids work the field by hand, and Anna stays inside, her hands full taking care of the kids too young to work. Jeanette is driving the tractor today, a brutishly hot summer day. It is her first time on the machine, and Eddie gave her a quick lesson that morning.
“Hold the clutch in…good. Now shift to reverse…now forward…and remember, we’ll stay out of your way. You just keep going no matter what.” The tractor stops for no one. This is the motto of the Johnson family.
Jeanette is pretty proud of her work today. No mistakes, and the field looks pretty good. She glances over to see where everyone else is working and wonders if they can tell, if they can see the perfectly straight lines. Then she looks back at the ground in front of her.
Wayne walks up to the tractor with the intention of asking Jeanette if she wants to head inside, as they are done for the day. But he slips, and his left leg folds under him while the right leg shoots out straight ahead. By the time Jeanette sees him it is too late. Wayne’s right leg is completely underneath the tire.
Eddie comes running.
Anna, hearing it from the house, gathers her children closer to her.
The tractor stops for no one.
“If I see one more goddamn jackass hunting right next to me, I swear to God I’m gonna shoot his sorry ass,” Grandpa states between mouthfuls of beef stew and mashed potatoes.
“Dad, they have every legal right to be there. It’s state land. Anyone can hunt on it. And more importantly, why would you build your deer stand so close to the state land if you hate it so much?” my father asks as he sits down on the worn out couch, putting his feet on the coffee table.
“Cause it’s the best spot in this whole eighty acres. And it doesn’t matter. What matters is they piss me off.”
As my father and grandfather continue to discuss the merits of shooting someone because they “piss
you off,” I climb up to the top bunk of the bunk bed in the 16×16 shack. It has no running water, but it does have a refrigerator, stove, and all the canned goods a person could ever want. Two couches sit perpendicular to each other, and a long counter top broken up by the refrigerator and stove sits against the west wall. Cupboards line the walls above the counter top, full of things we “might” need. A small coffee table is in front of the couch on the south wall. Another table is along the north wall with four rusty folding chairs around it. As I start to close my eyes I hear:
“Maybe I won’t shoot at ‘em. But I sure as hell can shoot around ‘em.”
My dad is scrambling to get out the door.
“I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon.”
He owns a local business, so when something goes wrong, he needs to be there. Grandpa looks over at me and smiles.
“He don’t ever quit thinkin’ about work, does he?”
“Well, what now?”
“I have no idea.”
And there we sit. A seventy-six-year-old man who worked for everything he has, his hands covered in scars and blisters, and one big scar on his right leg. His arms are like tanned leather until he pulls up his sleeves to reveal ghost-white biceps. This is a man who values hard work and not much else. Across from him is an eighteen-year-old smartass who thinks he knows everything about the world. Soft and doughy, scars from horseplay, not from working the field until his hands bleed, or setting up barbed wire fence for a neighbor for four dollars a day. No blisters or work ethic in sight.
What would we, two people from different generations (seemingly different planets), have to talk about?
He likes stories. I think they help him remember. And sometimes he changes the story, so he doesn’t have to remember. So Wayne starts in on a story.
“Did I ever tell you why I quit drinking?”
Wayne met a girl. Her name was Dian. She worked as waitress at Jonny’s Café. They got married. He was working as a semi driver and she stayed at home with their children: Marty, Terry, and Roxanne. The nights he was home, he came in drunk. Dian would let him have it.
“Goddamn it Wayne. I’m stuck here with the kids and the one night a week you come home, you go to a bar first?”
Wayne raises his voice to match hers.
“Oh yeah? Well, Jesus fuckin’ Christ, why don’t you go and work to feed this family? I’ll stay home then and bitch at you when you get the chance to come home.”
Eight-year-old Marty walks into the room and yells at his father.
“Quit yelling. Mom doesn’t like it when you do that.”
Wayne raises his hand to put an end to this perceived revolt against his authority.
“And then I thought, ‘what am I doing?’ and I quit drinking,” Grandpa says as he raises his Coors Light to his mouth.
I climb up to the top bunk to go to bed. Grandpa climbs into the bottom bunk. He hits the lights on his way and is snoring when his head hits the pillow. I roll over, hoping I can find a spot where the noise is muffled. I manage to doze off.
The voice wakes me and I smack my head on the ceiling.
I realize that this voice is my grandfather in the bunk below me.
He doesn’t reply. I roll over and decide it’s probably just a dream. I’ll ask him about it in the morning.
Wayne and Jimmy grew up together. They were the closest in age of any of the other siblings. They did everything together. Work, chores, school—they even started smoking together. So when the U.S. entered the Vietnam War, they decided to join the army together. Wayne was denied entry because of his bad leg. Jimmy, however, was readily taken in as a new recruit. Wayne stayed home and worked on the farm. He eventually got a job driving a semi truck around the country. He married a girl. He had two sons and a daughter. He even owned a local bar. Jimmy never came home. His unit was captured by enemy forces. Jimmy’s body was never recovered. Wayne still has nightmares about what they did to him. He hears Jimmy’s screams in his mind. Every day he thinks about it. He should have been there. He could have saved him. He should have saved his little brother.
The alarm clock rings at six o’clock. I roll over, hoping that Grandpa doesn’t hear it. He’s already up and getting dressed.
I slowly get out of the bunk bed and start to pull on my clothes.
“Good luck,” he whispers and then he’s gone. Out the door and onto his four-wheeler. I hear the machine start up and pull away. I grab bread to put in the toaster and diligently throw on my clothes. Sit down to eat my toast. Finished, I don my orange stocking cap and head out.
As I descend the steps, the smell of rotting leaves washes over me. I move south and walk on the edge of the woods and the neighboring field. Plodding forward and
eventually reaching my destination. The deer stand. This is where the magic happens. The murder of a helpless animal not because we need the food, oh no, but because we enjoy it. Well, one of us enjoys it. Up the old wooden ladder to the stand that is basically a chair ten feet up in the air, attached to a tree trunk. I reach the top and strap myself in, ready for the eventful day.
When I say “murder of a helpless animal,” I actually mean intent to murder. No one has seen any deer on the eighty since 2004, the last time Grandpa shot one. Maybe they all got the hint and stay away from the eighty, or maybe we killed them all. I ponder what would happen if somehow my grandfather was responsible for exterminating the entire white-tailed deer population in the area.
I hear a gun shot. The noise echoes through the now silent forest. I knew whoever had shot had connected with their target. The sound of impact could be heard milliseconds after the initial sound. I say a small prayer and start heading back. The sound of a four-wheeler starting up and taking off confirms my initial assumption.
He got one.
By the time I get to the shack Grandpa already has untied the deer from the four-wheeler and ready to string up. Since my dad isn’t here, I get to help. I grab the back legs of the eight-point buck and slice open small holes in the hide, in between the bone and tendon. Threading the rope through the holes and trying to get the least amount of blood on me as possible, I toss the rope over the thickest branch I can find and start to pull down on the other side of the rope. Pretty soon the carcass is airborne. I tie off the rope around a tree trunk and we get to business.
This is my first time “gutting” a deer.
“Well, first things first. The head’s gotta come off.”
I look at the old man incredulously.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
Evidently not. He grabs an old hacksaw and begins his gruesome task. I manage to make it through the first pull before I have to make an exit. I vomit and then vomit again when the smell reaches me and assaults my senses. Not only can I smell the blood, I can almost taste it and feel it on the wind. I muster up what small amount of courage I have and make my way to the now headless carcass and my grandfather.
“Yeah. I upchucked the first time, too. You get used to it.”
At first I am comforted by the thought of “getting used to it,” of not having this reaction again. And then I think about it. And I don’t know if I want to get used to it.
“So Grandpa?” I ask, trying my best not to offend him. “If you’re not really a fan of this and I’m not really a fan of this, why?”
He looks at me as though he too had been thinking about the same question for a very long time. He shrugs his shoulders, turns, and slices the deer open from pelvis to chest.
To hear Ethan Johnson read an excerpt from “Eighty,” click on the arrow below: