Taking a life wasn’t part of the game back then. We never considered that we were killing; we just liked having a moving target. The birds we shot fell to the ground and that is where we left them, only to go and seek another bird. Some days we would do this all afternoon, shooting bird after bird. Bragging when it only took one shot to kill the moving target on the other end of the sights as though we were shooting at pop-cans that hopped from branch to branch.
After a disappointing trip into the small wooded area of the ravine we returned to the house. With our heads down we plodded along, our day ruined–no birds, no other kids to play any games and four hours until our parents returned home for the day. They had gone to do important things that bigger people often did, leaving us to entertain ourselves.
As we approached the large red fence in the alleyway above the ravine we heard a dog barking. Zack, my older brother, looked up and his eyes flashed with excitement. Down the alley the small black mutt whose despicable owner had named Nigger was pulling on the end of his leash, his front legs coming off of the ground as his lower body twisted. The collar wouldn’t give and the dog was caught at the end of the line as a squirrel scampered down the alley, climbed up and across a power line and then into our neighbor’s tree.
We ran down the alley with our guns and hopes high. The squirrel was sitting on a branch in the lower third of an old oak tree. It was chewing on a small bit of food turning it over and over while its teeth worked. It was like watching a small man eat corn off of a cob. Its silver fur shining bright in the sun, it was clearly unaware of the present danger.
Zack pulled back the lever dropping a BB into the firing mechanism. He pumped the gun once. The squirrel dropped the food and turned to face us positioning itself in a way that seemed upside down on the branch. It stared at us until Zack pumped the gun again and then it repeated the spastic hop. Zack pumped the gun five times and then aimed. I loaded and pumped my gun to catch up. When I did the squirrel took off. My brother fired and missed. I fired and missed as well. We loaded, pumped and fired our guns as the squirrel hopped from branch to branch. Pieces of bark and twigs broke as errant pellets sprayed the branch. The squirrel ran up toward the power line and just before it reached it a pellet struck the bark right in front of its nose. It spun around, looked at us and froze. I didn’t know if it had tired or if it was facing the inevitable as we’d broken its will to flee. To me the action was invigorating. I felt the same way I did when we were playing football with the other neighborhood kids. It was a game that we were trying to win, but in this game if the squirrel lost it would lose more than just its pride. We both aimed at the squirrel and fired. It fell, its body twisting and bouncing until its arms caught in between two branches. It hung there blood wetting its thick tail into a red matted clump of fur. Its eyes didn’t drift with the fleeting moments of remaining life. Those charcoal black eyes fixated on the two of us and pleaded silently. Why had we killed so pointlessly? What was the reason, what right did we have?
Instead of shooting it again or bringing it down from the tree we dropped our guns and left. I had never seen my older brother cry until that moment and the tears came for me as well. It was the first time that we’d had to look into something’s eyes after we’d killed it. The squirrel hung in the tree with its arms out and head resting on its chest like a crucifixion.
Working in a hotel had its benefits when you were 21 years old and single. My boss Nolan and I would get off of work and walk across the hall to the bar and plunge ourselves into the trash that collected at Scooter’s Bar and Grill. The methane fields were in full production at the time and from open to close Scooter’s drew the crews from the rigs. Nolan and I having finished long shifts of catering work were typically the cleanest, most well-groomed in the place and that wasn’t saying much considering we usually smelled like grease from the kitchen and had done our fair share of sweating as we packed wooden tables all over the hotel. The booze drew the methane crowd and the methane crowd drew the women, which was frightening. In small town Wyoming the single women who showed up in dingy bars full of men whose clothing was still covered in dirt from their last sixteen-hour shift were women to be avoided. Missing teeth and visibly lopsided breasts were minor offenses. However, ff you kept a distance and your name tag on you could avoid getting caught up in the mix and at times you could just sit back and watch the freak show as it unfolded.
Typically we’d have a few drinks if for no other reason than to be able to stand the noxious smell of cigarettes, but sometimes we just wanted to talk to the cocktail waitress. The waitress, whose name escapes me now, wasn’t necessarily pretty, but she was fun to joke around with and she had friends. In Sheridan during the winter most of the pretty girls our age were off at school in other states. The local college was a community college and most people were twenty years old when they graduated and the bored police really stuck to watching for minors in bars so our options in social settings were usually limited.
“Check that out,” Nolan said as we sat in the bussing area where only employees were allowed. We were both sucking on whatever domestic beer was on the special board that night. If we were lucky the waitress would slip us a few free ones.
Across the bar where Nolan nodded the only black cowboy in town was standing up and moving a table aside so that he could get into the face of a late twenty-something white guy who was dressed like Eminem, dyed hair and all. True Sheridan Wyoming diversity I thought. The white-guy was doing his rooster-like dance, gesticulating by puffing up his chest and stomping around while the cowboy sat and gave him a cold stare. But as usual our hopes of seeing something happen were dashed when a bouncer made his way over and escorted the Slim Shady wannabe to the door. This was all that ever happened, drunk hicks would try and start shit with whoever looked out of place but all they ever ended up doing was puffing up their chests, talking and getting thrown out. The cops circled the hotel like sharks and after getting thrown out these inebriated idiots would get into their cars and speed out of the parking lot just to get pulled over and thrown in jail.
That night as we sat sipping beer and trying to think of something better to do we heard a shout. I turned just in time to see a very tall and extremely overweight man fall forward, sending a cocktail table full of half-drunk bottles flying across the room. From the dance floor a series of cheers arose and everyone went back to dancing, assuming that the man had passed out. I laughed and elbowed Nolan who had already seen it happen and was also laughing. No one did anything right away. The bar manager, Amber, was slowly making her way across the crowded bar and the cocktail waitress was staring but seemed content just wiping down the counter.
Then there was the scream—a scream that echoed through every corner of the bar, over the music and chatter that brought everyone to a halt. A chill ran through my body raising every hair and tensing every muscle. A woman who’d been standing next to the collapsed man was shrieking and trying to climb over a shorter, heavier set man who was holding her back. At first it was just an amalgam of pitches that made your teeth feel like they were shattering in your mouth but then words began to form, “Is he, is he, is he dead?” she cried.
The crowd parted and Amber ran to the man on the floor. She knelt down, her reddish brown hair covering her face as she checked his pulse, placed her ear to his mouth listening and feeling simultaneously for breath. Without hesitating she went right into performing CPR.
For a few minutes, which seemed liked hours, part of the bar crowd went back to their business. The music kept right on playing and some people started dancing while other started making their way to the corner where Amber was trying so bravely to bring this unconscious, possibly dead man back to life.
“Jesus what is she doing?” Nolan asked and then he waved to the DJ and made a slashing sign across his neck to cut the music. Without the direction of any authority most of the bar was crowding around the body. A support structure next to the bussing area gave Nolan and I access to the corner without crowding Amber. She breathed air into the man and his chest raised slightly and then in rhythm she’d switch to making compressions on his chest. Amber was by no means a petite lady, she was tall and athletically built, but the man was so large she had to press on his chest with most of her weight and strength.
“Please, everyone give Amber some room,” the DJ said into the microphone and people took a few steps back, but mostly they just stood and stared. With the music cut some of the bar chatter was audible and so were the desperate sobs of the woman who’d just kept saying, “is my husband okay, is he going to be okay?”
The door opened and a pair of paramedics came in through the doors with a stretcher which they laid on the ground. They were silent and efficient. Nearly all of the bar crowd was surrounding them. People were standing on chairs and the air was filled with an excited buzz of chatter, but when the official medical help showed up most of the crowd showed enough respect to take a step back.
The paramedics conferred over something quietly and one left the bar and then returned with a large box. He opened part of the box and pulled two paddles that were connected to the box with wires. The other paramedic pulled a multi-tool out of his pocket and cut the man’s shirt and removed it, exposing the large, hairy belly and chest. From where Nolan and I stood the man’s face was hidden on the other side of the mound that his body.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have been so fuckin’ fat,” a voice said from out of the crowd.
“Yeah no shit,” someone else replied. The man who’d said it was standing near the back of the crowd, he smiled proudly.
“That’s my husband!” the woman screamed, “That’s my fucking husband!”
The man in the corner was still holding her back as she thrashed about like an animal caught in the trap. The bald man with the neck tattoo who’d made the joke still smirked despite his obvious offense. I wished for a moment that someone next to him would hit him but no one cared; those were the types of people who were regulars at Scooter’s. If they could just see his eyes I thought.
The paramedic charged the paddles and then put them to the man’s chest and when they hit his back arched up off of the ground sending a huge wave down his immense belly like ripples through a waterbed. They turned the voltage up and hit him again and again but nothing happened. There was no breath and no pulse. They loaded the stretcher and carried him out to the ambulance quickly but not with the haste of any hope.
As the music resumed, the cocktail table was picked up and the people went back to dancing.