Warning: Objects are Closer than they Appear
Important lessons on dog care, wingshooting under adverse conditions and learning a foreign language.
When I told Putnam Fairweather I’d learned my Spanish in a Tiajuana flophouse, he smiled. "That’ll be fine. Just the kind of Spanish I need to know."
He’d bought a pecan operation in Crystal City, Texas, where Spanish was the approximate language, so he came by my office at the college looking to insinuate private lessons into his busy schedule. I traveled with him some, and we became friends who mixed business with pleasure, swapping off pluperfect conjugations for, say, Wednesday night smorgasbord at his country club, or an afternoon of quail hunting at his plantation, or vine-ripe tomatoes, or shelled pecans, or the use of a North Carolina cabin on pretty water. After one particularly engaging jaunt through preterit indicative, he gave me some virgin timber that I cut up for my heart-pine floors.
Fairweather was a thin, hard man in his fifties, with a straight-backed, high-stepping gait, half-bantam cock and half Tennessee walker--a style he developed walking through catclaw briars and diamondback rattlesnakes behind strong dogs. Although my legs were longer than his, he was hell to keep up with because he was dead serious about hunting. Everything he did was full throttle and total immersion.
His friends blamed me for his "bilingual echolalia," as good a name as any for his new habit of repeating in pidgin Spanish anything he said in his laconic South-Georgia English. Sometimes, in the presence of his highborn friends, I felt like Victor Frankenstein taking his creature to cotillion, but it turned out Fairweather could do all right on his own. Not long after the lessons started he flew to Colombia on business and came back a week later married to a beautiful Latin lady with an eight-year-old daughter. This rendered my Spanish lessons unnecessary, but Fairweather and I remained friends and hunted together many hours in wiregrass behind fine dogs. As a matter of fact, bird hunting on Pebble Knoll, his plantation near Albany, Georgia, just about ruined me for quail hunting anywhere else.
Then one day he phoned, wanting us to spend the weekend at a friend’s ranch in Florida to hunt QUAIL from horseback. We were to take our wives, Fairweather said.
I couldn’t understand why anybody would want to hunt birds anywhere else but Pebble Knoll. "What will the ladies do?" I asked. The only thing Claire ever hunted was a sale at Rich’s. Muriela, from what I could gather, had never in her life set her stylishly shod foot out-of-doors.
"They’ll love it," Fairweather said. "They can read fashion magazines at the Plantation bighouse and do their nails."
So when both wives, in their respective idioms, agreed, I was astounded. We were to travel in Fairweather’s brand new recreational van, its virgin voyage. We met in his driveway, where we were greeted by a yappy little Yorkshire terrier wearing a rhinestone collar--the kind of dog you see licking a fat lady’s face at a red light. It bounced up to me and sniffed my leg. Yike! Yike! I could see close-set beady eyes under its bangs. Miniature white teeth snarled from its maloccluded lower jaw. I hated yappy dogs, and it could tell.
"Down, dog," Claire said, showing the mutt her outstretched palm. This, from a woman, works on yappy dogs; it means: "Keep off the nylons, buster." From a man, it doesn’t mean anything. When I do it, yappy dogs gnaw my socks.
"What you want with something like that?" I asked my host, knowing he’d never badmouth anything he’d paid good money for. He’d bought it for his stepdaughter, who was adjusting to a new language and a new country. "Candy’s a smart little dog," he said, "plenty of sense. Muy inteligente. Feisty, too." He was loading the van with SHOTGUNS
AND a box of scavenged fashion magazines.
"Candy?" I smiled.
"Se llama Cahndee," said MuriE(a)la.
"What?" said Claire.
"SE LLAMA CAHNDEEE!" shouted Muriela, assuming that volume is the key to trans-lingual communication.
"Her name’s Candy," I translated.
"That’s what Putnam said."
"Does Candy hunt?" I smiled. Fairweather knew I had no use for any dog weighing less than 50 pounds, much less one that wouldn’t hunt QUAIL.
"Yorkies were bred to catch rats," Fairweather said, "Ratas."
"Ratas? I had to buy a three-day Florida hunting license to hunt ratas?"
"Lolita won’t go anywhere without Candy." Fairweather wrapped an arm around his beautiful Colombian stepdaughter. She cast her adorable Latin eyes upward at a darkening sky. "Mucha lluvia," she said, "Much rain come."
We crossed the Florida line. To christen the van, I’d bought screw-top champagne and plastic glasses at a convenience store. Fairweather, our driver, declined, but Muriela and Claire partook, chatting amicably over barriers of idiom and high-backed seats, pointing out photographs in their respective magazines until a flash of lightning, gale winds and torrential rains aborted conversation and slowed us down to 50.
We settled down to the magazines, cozy in somnolent rain and borderline apprehension, rocking and swaying gently down the hissing highway until a change in atmospheric pressure or ozone from the lightning activated Candy. She bounced from Muriela’s lap and scampered around the back of Fairweather’s seat, climbing to his shoulder, Yiking and licking his ear.
"Call Candy, Lolita," Fairweather yelled as the van swerved over the centerline. I knew Candy’s noise wasn’t bothering Fairweather. Like most middle-aged Southern men, he was certifiably deaf from 40 years of shotguns. He wiped his ear with his shoulder, keeping both hands on the wheel.
"Smart dog," I said, leaning forward. "Affectionate, too!"
"Llama a la perrita!" Muriela screamed through cupped hands.
"Vente, Cahndee, Vente," Lolita called from the back seat, where she was dressing a Barbie doll. By then I was getting acclimated to Candy’s hyperactive dances for affection--the revved up little motor, the little pink tongue, the barking and bouncing around the van. But every time she scampered up from Fairweather’s armrest to slurp his ear, the van swerved dangerously.
"Vente, Cahndee!" Lolita called.
Candy sprang from Fairweather’s armrest, bounced once, then streaked down the aisle, stopping with impossible abruptness dead flush with the back of Claire’s bucket seat. No dog can stop that fast from a full run without choking on its tail. And sure enough, that’s what she was doing.
"Yeet!" she exclaimed, eyes bulging beneath her bangs, her collar snagged and twisted on the tilt lever of Claire’s seat, her little feet running like an animated toy.
I leaned over to free her, and she promptly sank her fangs into my thumb.
"Ouch!" I cried, my champagne spilling into my shoes. "Putnam, pull over!"
"What?" Fairweather hollered.
Claire leaned forward. Fairweather’s shoulder rose protectively to his ear and the van swerved again.
"Candy’s caught, "she told him. "Stop." She returned to her Vogue.
"Qué pasa?" he asked Muriela.
"Estop!" she said.
"Can they hold on until the next town?" he bellowed. I reached again into the violently struggling fur ball, and Candy worked my hand like an industrial sewing machine.
"YOW," I howled, slinging beads of blood onto the headliner.
"What?" Fairweather hollered from the side of his mouth, his neck craned around his seat, his eyes straining to stay on the road. "What’s going on back there? Qué pasa?"
I dropped to my knees in the aisle, dug out my pocketknife with the hand that wasn’t bloody and tried to cut the rhinestone collar, but it was twisted too tight to get the blade under it without risking Candy’s neck.
"No!" screamed Lolita, rushing forward and beating me with her little fists. "Pootnahm, hees keeling Cahndy! Mata a Cahndee."
"Estop!" said Muriela.
With the heel of my bloody hand I tried to hold back Lolita and try again to cut the collar, but I lost my balance and fell against the side of Claire's armrest, along the way slicing through the gray velour of a high-back seat. "Help me!" I cried.
Claire leaned over the aisle, holding back Lolita with one hand and pulling me by the hair back to my knees with the other.
"Ehurr, you're pulling my hair!" I squalled.
"I know," she said.
"Estop," said Muriela.
Now the knife blade began slashing around almost on its own, with me hanging on, trying to steer it clear of flesh and velour. My other hand, windmilling for balance, fell upon Candy, who sank her rattlesnake teeth gum-deep into the tender drumstick of my thumb just as Fairweather swerved again. Claire was left holding a fistful of brown and silver hair. My face smashed back into the armrest, she dropped the champagne bottle from between her knees, it hit the floor, the cork popped and suds spewed across the headliner, some of it raining down on Fairweather, who finally pulled over into the break-down lane.
I dropped my pocketknife to nurse my smashed nose, and through teared-over eyes I watched fine strands of my hair float down from Claire’s hand through the beam of her reading lamp while gouts of champagne ejaculated into my lap. I seemed to be seeing it all through the van’s convex side mirror, the one lettered with "Warning: Objects are closer than they appear."
Only a few moments before we had been cruising down a rain-swept highway in the Florida Panhandle, a snug capsule of contentment, rain drumming on the metal roof. Now gravel rattled against the undercarriage, louder than the rain against the roof as we ground to a stop. Fairweather got out into the downpour and jerked open the sliding door. I could feel him survey the back of his new van.
"Candeeeeee!" wailed Lolita.
Candy lay still, her eyes rolled back white like cocktail onions, her tiny bloodied teeth in a death mask grin. I unbuckled Candy’s collar and handed her to Fairweather, who stood there in the rain looking at her through fogged-over wire-rimmed spectacles, his mouth open and his chin dripping rainwater.
We both knew what was next: mouth-to-mouth. If it had been Bear, Fairweather’s solid pointer, or Patty, his svelte setter, we might have fought for the privilege. But now we hesitated, each with our hands on the limp Yorkshire with dead eyes and a runny nose.
"Candeeeeee!" little Lola cried again, this time from the doorway, her olive cheeks wet with tears.
"Your dog, your turn," I started to say, but Putnam Fairweather and I both looked over at that little girl, whose only pal in the U S of A had just died, and we both snatched at Candy like we had been jolted by the same shock collar. Fairweather was quicker. I fell out of the van and into the mud. With elbows extended, he covered little Candy’s face with his mouth and began to blow. As the lifeless pelt expanded, Putnam seemed to get thinner, then he’d stand up straight and watch Candy deflate as his breath rushed out of her.
I was giddy, partly from the champagne and partly from the fallout from Fairweather’s sour expression as he spit my blood and Candy’s saliva each time he came up for air. It was exactly the same expression he’d had when the diamondback hung a fang in Bear’s shoulder and he had sucked and spit while I drove the jeep to the vet.
"What's the matter, Putnam?"
"Your blood. You ain’t got nothing I can catch, do you?"
"You sure you’re blowing in the right end?"
He glared over his glasses. "What the hell are you laughing at?"
Candy groaned weakly, grrrrrrrrring like an electric train transformer. Her chest moved by itself, independent of Fairweather’s first aid.
"I was just thinking. What if that little dog comes to and finds you kissing on her like that."
Which is exactly what happened. Fairweather, inspired by new hope, bent to administer the decisive breath of life, and Candy joined the battle just where she left off, only confusing Fairweather’s lower lip for my thumb. Her rat-killing instincts ran full-bore, and she shook fiercely, vibrating Fairweather’s head.
"Yaaaaaaah!" screamed Fairweather, staggering backwards into the shallow ditch, pushing his index finger into the corner of Candy’s mouth to pry her loose. "Yaaaaaahooow," he wailed, finally slinging Candy to the ground, his feet waltzing circles in the slanted rain. He fished out a red bandanna and stanched his bleeding mouth as Lola wrapped Candy in a doll blanket and returned to the van.
While Claire unpacked a dry towel, Fairweather staggered to the side mirror to inspect his punctured lip. I followed, looking over his shoulder into the convex mirror at what looked like the faces of a couple of Nassau grouper with enormous lips and oculateral vision seen through the rain-swept window of a fish market. The mirror gave Fairweather’s swollen lower lip a prognathic thrust that made him look like… well, like Candy.
The next day the sky cleared. We hunted bobwhites, followed serious, long-range pointers, climbed on and off tall horses until our bellies were sore. We missed quail consistently. Fairweather, pouting, said he felt feverish from dog bite. I claimed I couldn’t pump my model 12 with a swollen thumb.
"Why you missing your first shots then?" he said, violating the principal commandment of quail hunting détente: "Thou shalt not question a partner’s excuse for missing birds on a covey rise."
A SINGLE COCK, PROFFERING REDEMPTION, EXPLOADED VERTICALLY FROM A SKRAGGLY TUFT OF BROOMSEDGE INCHES FROM MY BOOT. MY FIRST PREMATURE SHOT BARKED AS HE ASCENDED ON WHIRLING WINGS TO BREAK THE VERTICAL SUCK OF GRAVITY. I FIRED AGAIN AS HE LEVELED OFF AND TURNED ON HIS AFTERBURNER. MY THIRD SHOT I SQUEEZED OFF LEISURELY AT A STATIONARY AND SLOWLY DIMINISHING TARGET THAT DISAPPEARED OVER THE CLEAR FLORIDA HORIZON WITHOUT A BREAK IN RHYTHM OR A SINGLE LOSS OF FEATHER. I FELT THE HEAT OF BLOOD RISING TO MY CHEEKS AND FORHEAD, A BLUSH AUSUAGED ONLY SLIGHTLY BY PUTNAM’S BROKEN AND SMOKING SIDE-BY-SIDE. TOGETHER WE TURNED OUR HEADS AND SPIT, AN IMPOTENT AND FINAL GESTURE OF VANQUISHED MANHOOD.
MEANWHILE BACK AT THE RANCH, (The wives) , THE WIVES read magazines and did their nails, ( at the ranch house,) developing (a) friendship and a common language. Lolita dressed up Barbie dolls and pampered Candy, who growled and raised her hackles whenever Fairweather or I came around.
On the way home, I decided to account for our shameful marksmanship by blaming the van and the horses.
"How you figure that?" Fairweather was willing to grasp at any straw to save face.
"Riding up high in the van and up high in the saddle made us feel smaller when we climbed down off those big horses to shoot IN ALL THAT FLAT TERRAIN."
"I did feel smaller," Fairweather agreed.
"So the quail seemed bigger by comparison," I continued, "and closer than they really were."
"Like in the mirror!" Fairweather’s eyes lit up.
"That’s right! So we weren’t leading them far enough and we were shooting them out of range."
"I’ll bet that’s it!" he said. "Those quail were just plain closer than they appeared."
We became better friends after that trip. There’s no bond surer than dog bite, blood brotherhood and a common excuse for missing quail.