by Beth Burrell


by N.T. McQueen

When my dad used to come home from work during the winter, he would walk straight to the gun safe and take out a shotgun. Vest weighted by shells and a duck call in hand, he would sit in a patio chair on our wraparound redwood deck overlooking the panoramic scene of Clear Lake, and the mountain ranges that separated us from Sacramento, and he’d blast duck calls into the wilderness. From our extra living room, the one with couches and décor we never actually enjoyed, you could see the back of his peppered head, him still in his slacks and white dress shirt, the 12-gauge single shot resting across his lap.

Sometimes I didn’t realize he had arrived home. Perhaps I was shooting demons on my PC or listening to Slick Shoes upstairs. When I saw he had come home, he’d be sitting in his usual position above the pool waiting for the chance of a flock of ducks speeding across the gray sky from the marsh in front of us toward the muddy waters of Thurston Lake behind us. Flying the narrow gauntlet required him to take a shot and let the bird drop close enough to retrieve it. Our dog, Yuba, lacked the mental capacity to do much more than bark at balloons and trample my young cousins unwittingly. Most nights before the sun set, he would get a shot off or two but hitting one eluded him.

Some evenings before dinner, I would grab my 20-gauge that he’d bought me for Christmas, and join him. With our duck calls, we proclaimed a chorus of blabber into the air in hopes of convincing a flock to fly straight over our house. For all we knew, we may have been insulting their families or warning them to steer clear. Perhaps we were proselytizing or excoriating them or singing Rod Stewart tunes. Based on our success rate, the latter seems more likely.

But I would join him. Together, facing the lake and mountains, we sat cradling our guns and watching the expanse of gray skies. Jackets and vests loaded with shells. Not much conversation, but simply sitting together. He may have asked me how was school and, being a teenager, I probably said, “Fine.” I never asked him about work. Maybe I should have. Maybe the simple question would have provoked an honest answer. An opportunity to expel the lies and crimes that ate his blood and bones with each passing year and every click of interest charged. The mist and cool breeze stuck to us, blurred our glasses. Nothing dramatic or life-changing happened in those moments. But I remember them.

I could linger on the fact that he chose to sit on the porch with a shotgun instead of seeking me or Sarah, my sister, out and hugging us. Or asking us about our lives and pressing, even if we didn’t feel like talking, because he cared more about what conflicts and joys dwelled inside us than what our moods dictated. It’s easy to soak in the anger and bitterness of thoughts about what should have been.

Regardless of my initiative, those moments, those fragments, come back to me. I remember when he actually killed a duck and had to hike into the brush to get it. These moments come and go like a passing scene from a windshield. I still see the clouds and the rail from the deck and the framed image of my father through the living room window. I wish I could say powerful conversations occurred on that deck, but the truth is, they wouldn’t have mattered. My father was my father. His flaws outweighed his love. But I see him now as simply my father and I accept him there, seated, on the other side of the window. It’s a memory where I comb away the context and background and find joy in the spaces of time.

To find joy in the spaces of the time we are given is all we have.