My father stands at the kitchen sink, cleaning the dirt out from under his fingernails with a nail brush when my son asks him, “Papa, what happened to your finger?”
My son eats his snack at the kitchen table, no longer so small that he needs the phone book for his elbows to clear. The table has been draped with the yellow plastic tablecloth because, when a young grandchild visits, milk is often spilled. At the moment, however, his milk is in no danger. Its position to the north of his plate suggests that either my mother or I moved it out of harm’s way.
My father glances over at my son when he hears the question, then returns to his scrubbing. His eyes skew skyward for a moment. “Well,” my father says in his story-telling voice. I know my father is fanning out the possible responses like a deck of cards. My son knows it, too; he sets his sandwich on the plate and folds his hands in his lap. On either side of my father’s lumberjack suspenders, his upper back flexes with his movements. Then he flicks the faucet off, shakes his hands dry, and leans back against the sink.
“When I was a boy of six or seven,” he begins, “my father gave me a BB gun and told me to go learn how to use it. I’d get up before dawn, 3:30 or so in the morning, and walk through our backyard through the Howard place into the Gibson’s orchard. Then I’d hunt English sparrows, which the farmers hated because they ruined the fruit. After I got pretty good at it — I must have been about 10 — my father brought me a 22, a real gun.”
My son’s eyes widen.
“Of course I wanted to try it out. My brother Bill and his running mate Jack Callahan and I came up with a game. We’d go up to Cowiche Canyon to hunt rock marmots. The farmers didn’t like the marmots either, because they tore up the alfalfa fields. For every marmot we each killed, we’d earn a point. The one who got the most points would win.”
Until this point, my father’s voice has been percolating along at a steady pace. He stops. When he begins again, his voice is low and slow, as if sharing a secret.
“I had just laid down in a shady spot on the ledge when I spotted a marmot come out of his burrow on the far side of the canyon. So I sighted down my barrel.” My father raises the imaginary gun to his shoulder and squints one eye.
“I had just one problem.” With his arms still in position, he looks over at my son.
“When I went to pull the trigger, the tip of my finger got in the way.” As he says this, he wiggles the stub of his finger. “It stuck out so far that I couldn’t see where I was shooting. What could I do?”
My son doesn’t know where the story is going. He shakes his head. “Well, I had to fix the problem. So I took out my pocket knife and cut it off!”
As punctuation, my father emits his loud “skeesix” sound from the side of his mouth, startling my son.
For a few beats the helium of belief keeps the tale aloft. A look ricochets back and forth from boy to man, many to boy, until the boy’s chin tips sideways. The connection broken, my son asks, “What really happened?”