Jesse was concerned about his son. His son’s name was Jesse, too, but everyone called the boy JJ. JJ wasn’t enough like him, even though Jesse had always told himself that he wasn’t going to be the sort of father who wouldn’t accept anything less than an exact replica for a son. The boy didn’t have to play football if he didn’t want to, for instance. He could play basketball or baseball instead. He didn’t even have to hunt necessarily, just as long as he was a good enough shot and knew his way around a firearm. Jesse was concerned, though, because being a man was a hard goddamned thing, and he didn’t want his son to grow up unable to hold his own in every situation that a man should be able to hold his own in. And that required, fair or not, being able to pass what he called the eye test. With just a glance, one man could size up another and judge him wanting as a fellow man, if wanting he was, even in the slightest, and Jesse was concerned that JJ wasn’t passing the eye test, at least as it applied to twelve-year-old boys.
Jesse was a taxidermist by trade, and JJ had never shown any interest in learning about it, which had been fine for a while, but since the boy wasn’t showing any interest in anything at all that passed the eye test, Jesse decided that it was time for him to start spending some time at the shop after school. The boy didn’t need to become a full-fledged taxidermist, but whether he liked it or not, he needed to learn not to make that ugly, stupid face whenever his daddy’s work got mentioned. And he needed to immediately stop always calling it gross. He was too goddamn old to still be acting like that.
JJ resisted, as Jesse knew he would, but the boy surrendered soon enough, as Jesse also knew he would. He had no choice.
Jesse started him slowly and easily. Nothing “gross.” Just cleaning and organizing things. Then he had the boy watch him work. At first, JJ complained, especially about the smells, but Jesse put a quick stop to this. Gradually, Jesse had him doing little things for him. “Flush that with the solution.” “Cut this here.” “Hold this still for me.” Baby steps, sure, but progress. Before too long, JJ even stopped showing any signs of being disgusted by the work—no more pussy-ass looks on his face. In fact, the boy actually began showing some understanding and initiative. When he asked Jesse for the first time if he was ready for the fleshing beam now, Jesse had to fight his mouth to keep it from smiling. What he’d actually needed was the fleshing cone since he was working on nostrils, but Jesse said yes anyway.
The day JJ finished a squirrel that he’d mostly worked on all by himself from the beginning was a proud day for Jesse—and, more importantly, he could tell that JJ was proud of himself, too, even though he also still knew that the boy would rather spend his afternoons with his friends instead of with him at the shop. Jesse brought the squirrel home and placed it on the mantel so that he could show it off to everyone. It was a hideously deformed mess, sure, but it also wasn’t too terribly bad for a thirteen-year-old. Jesse’s dream of one day handing the shop over to his son seemed a little less hopeless, but the boy still had a long, long way to go before being able to do any work that could even pass as adequate.
By the time he was nearing fourteen, JJ had learned a lot. Jesse was proud of how mature his son had become about all that he’d once considered gross, but he was even more proud that JJ seemed to be growing more and more comfortable moving through the world now as a male of the species, which had been, when it came right down to it, Jesse’s main goal in the first place. It was nearly time for a test, he decided, an initiation of some sort. A rite of passage, so to speak. At fourteen, Jesse’s own father had taken him out to bag his first buck. Jesse had been hunting with his father and older brothers plenty of times before this, but only to watch and learn their ways. On his birthday, though, his father told him that nobody would be taking another shot until after Jesse succeeded—“even if it takes you all season. Even if a fourteen-pointer’s begging me for a boiler-room shot. You’ve got to be the next man up.” The pressure to get it done quickly had been intense, so he was grateful for his good luck on the second day at their lease in Val Verde County. His gratefulness, however, dimmed in comparison to how proud and how loved he felt when his father smeared the buck’s blood across his cheeks and proclaimed him a hunter.
Jesse had long ago abandoned any hope of repeating this particular ritual with his own son—the boy was still just too soft-hearted, even after the progress he’d made—which saddened Jesse, of course, but he would make do. After all, no matter how much he’d loved the old man, hadn’t Jesse sworn to himself that he’d never do to JJ what his father had done to him on all the many days he hadn’t measured up? It took him a while, but eventually, thanks to an unexpected discovery of a little fella in the Russian thistle behind the shop, he came up with a substitute for his own blooding ceremony, though he couldn’t help but find it paltry in comparison. Nonetheless, paltry was better than nothing.
At the shop the day after JJ’s birthday, Jesse told him that he needed his help with a burrowing owl.
“Somebody brought in a burrowing owl? They’re no bigger than a crow, though.”
“It takes all kinds, son.” He pointed to an old-timey hat box on the table between them. “Have a look.”
Jesse knew what JJ was expecting to see, so he watched the boy closely as he lifted the lid.
“It’s alive!” He quickly closed the box again.
“Don’t worry, it’s not going anywhere. One of its wings is broken.”
“Are we going to nurse it back to health?”
“Let’s lift it out.”
JJ didn’t move.
“Take the lid off and lift it out, son.”
JJ took the lid back off but didn’t lift it out.
“Lift it out. It won’t hurt you.”
JJ still didn’t lift it out. He stared down into the box, paralyzed.
“Lift it out already, goddammit.” Jesse didn’t shout this, though he wanted to. “It’s harmless.”
Carefully, slowly, JJ lifted it out. “It’s so light,” he whispered.
“It is, isn’t it?”
“What are we going to do with it?”
“You’re going to stuff it.”
“You mean if it dies?” JJ looked up at him.
Jesse stepped around the table and behind JJ. He reached his arms around his son and covered the boy’s hands with his own.
“What are you doing?”
Jesse didn’t answer. Gently, he began pressing.
“Stop it! Dad!”
Through his son’s resisting hands, Jesse could feel the owl struggling, fighting for breath, as he carefully increased pressure. JJ whimpered, straining weakly against him. Over the boy’s shoulder, Jesse watched the owl as it swiveled its head and opened and closed its beak. Its yellow eyes blinked and stared, but little by little they dimmed, and stilled. Jesse lessened the force but kept his hands over his son’s, which were now holding a dead owl. “Just look at it. It’s perfect. You’re going to be so proud of it.”
JJ was crying now, but Jesse ignored the noise and the shaking. With time, the boy would be fine.
Kevin Grauke is the author of Shadows of Men, which won the Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for Best First Work of Fiction in 2013. Originally from Texas, he teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Find him on Twitter at @kevingrauke.