When I was 33, my father gave me his shotgun. He was recklessly unconcerned about the consequences of giving his most incompetent offspring a firearm. I thought I should use it. So I headed out to someone’s unused farmland to shoot birds with three Chicago detectives.
They assured me that we’d only be shooting the guilty ones.
They supplied me with an orange hat, an orange vest, a cup of black coffee, and a box of red shotgun shells.
The sun wasn’t up. I was unemployed and in an SUV with three cops, a dog, six shotguns, and hundreds of rounds of ammo; by all indications something was going to die.
The only experience I had similar to this was going fishing with my father. Rocketing down pre-dawn I-57 in my dad’s truck. My dad driving faster than his eyesight toward a lake where I could count on catching the small fish we would later watch float, stiff and lifeless, in the live well. I didn’t know how it would be for these birds, but I assumed at the very least the pheasants would die quickly. I was wrong. Like I am about every damn thing.
We had to pick up the birds first. I thought that birds came from eggs or nests, but apparently, the ones we were going to shoot came from cages. Six roosters or seven hens to a cage. Those cages were waiting for us at a game ranch 30 miles north of the farm.
The ranch was nothing more than someone’s screened-in backyard. Hundreds of pheasants pecked around each other in a huge enclosure. More than a few were outfitted with blinders. I’d learn later that the blinders were there to keep the prison riots to a minimum. Next to the yard there was a huge shed that smelled of oil and animal. Inside, our six cages were stacked one on top of the other in a neat tower. Eyes and feathers poked out of every crack in the small boxes.
We loaded the crates into the SUV and navigated the nothingness to the private property where they would live out their next few hours.
The farm was flat and cold. A few tree lines broke the horizon and a creek scarred the southern edge. Two buildings and a shed rested at the top of a slope. One structure looked like someone’s home, but there were no other cars or people. We stacked three crates on the floor of the shed that smelled of oil and animal and put the other three on the front rack of the ATV parked inside.
The guy who invited me along on this expedition has an unfinished sentence for a name: Bill Blast. An incomplete threat. “Play nice. Or your name will finish my name.” And of course Bill is a guy who can make good on any threat.
While Bill warmed up the four-wheeler, the rest of us discussed who would help Bill release the birds and risk their life and serious spinal injury being his passenger.
“Jeff, you’re going with Bill.”
If it was cold and flat standing on the farm, it was freezing and crippling as we bounced on its unforgiving terrain in the ATV. The cages were bungeed to the rack, but the pheasants were free to have all the concussions they wanted inside the shit-caked boxes. I watched feathers trail behind us and wondered at the sport in shooting dead birds.
When Bill stopped the ATV, I hopped off onto numb feet and stumbled around to the cages. Wide eyes, bloody beaks and feathers sprouted through the bars and wooden sides.
I opened a cage and grabbed my first bird. It was a colorless hen. I released it. It flew out and up, over the few trees, and completely off the property.
Bill looked at me for a long moment. I felt like I was a person of interest in a secret room deep in the basement of a Chicago police station. “What are you doing?”
I looked around for my court-appointed attorney. There was only me and Bill and flat land for miles. “Releasing the birds?”
“That’s not how we release the birds. We put them to sleep first.”
“We what now?”
Bill reached into the cage a pulled out a rooster by its long neck. He tucked the bird’s head under its right wing until it looked like a feather-covered football and shook it like a martini. “Do this until it goes limp.”
I wondered how a football could go limp.
Bill began pushing aside the tall grass with a muddy boot and made a divot. After a few moments of rocking the bird, he tucked the pheasant into the cleared ground and pushed the yellow grass back over the sleeping bird.
Bill looked at me for an eternity. “That’s how we release the birds.”
I reached into the cage and retrieved a struggling hen. One wing flapped free and it almost shook the other one free.
Bill was watching.
After a short fight, I tucked its head under a wing and began lifting the bird over my head and bringing it back down like I was stabbing myself in the gut with it.
Bill was looking right through me.
The bird’s talons were pushing against the pinky finger on each hand. The pushing lessened until I knew the bird was unconscious. I cleared a spot in the grass just as Bill had and stopped committing hari-kari with the bird. I placed the bird into its temporary nest and felt Bill’s eyes burning holes in my orange hat.
Bill was sitting on the ATV and we slammed against the frozen earth until the rest of the birds were nestled and ready to be shot.
We put the ATV and the three empty crates back into the shed with the remaining birds that would be released the next day by different hunters. The dog who made the trip with us was a chocolate lab named Spice . She was running and whining and ready to show us where the birds were hiding. Even though we placed the birds in the grass, I was told we would need her to find them again. Apparently, some would wake up and walk away.
I shot at the first bird Spice flushed. With the boom in my ear and the kick against my shoulder and my Hollywood understanding of the explosive potential of firearms, I expected to see the bird disappear in a shower of feathers and fire. Instead, it tilted to the right and started flying a different course. Bill fired the second shot and the bird stopped flying.
Spice retrieved the bird.
Bill gazed deep into my failure.
The world was flat.