I’m one year into vegetarianism, and Baker’s offering me a piece of heart.
“Just try it,” he tells me. “You’ll like it.”
I pass. I already tried the venison jerky, which was delicious and probably worm-free, but the heart does not look appealing. Baker looks at me with pity in his eyes, then takes a bite of the muscle.
“Not the same once it’s cooked,” he tells me. “But, you know. Meat is meat.”
Baker likes guns, and I like Baker. We’ve been best friends since middle school, when we paired up on a science fair project to test how fast various household cleaners would kill houseplants.
HYPOTHESIS: Very quickly. CONCLUSION: We are goddamn geniuses.
Baker taught me how to pick locks, and how to make thermite. He gave me my first copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook, showed me with a pair of pliers and a box of ammunition how bullets work. When I become a vegetarian, I think it’s the first time I surprise him.
“So, why?” he asks.
I give him the bullshit I’ve cooked up about reading book after book, article after article on the benefits of this new lifestyle. I don’t admit that the decision was made almost entirely after reading the liner notes of a Moby CD.
He chews this over for about a month, and then asks if I want to go hunting.
Baker and our friend Rudy have access to a cabin somewhere in the heart of Emptiness, Indiana. They go by themselves now that they’re old enough to drive. It takes a while, but eventually I agree to go with them. They’re my friends, and I’ve learned to love guns, and anyway I can’t keep putting it off.
We’re driving through wooded fields for what feels like an eternity. It’s well after midnight when we arrive – they pick me up from my dorm room in Muncie, and then we turn around and head back south. I’ve brought a sleeping bag, but no pillow. It was a deliberate choice. No pillow = roughing it, and I want them to see that a vegetarian can also be rugged.
Baker and Rudy have pillows, and sleep much more soundly in the cold of the cabin. They sleep like men with nothing to prove.
My first day, Baker has me go up into a tree stand. I have a walkie-talkie, and a bag of trail mix, and a bottle of water.
“Just radio us if you see anything,” he says. “We’re going to take up posts elsewhere.”
I nod. From the tree stand I can see maybe an acre of land, but the woods are pretty dense, even with winter having defoliated the trees. I’ve brought a pocket-sized edition of Walden, which I intend to read in order to have an Authentic Experience in the wilderness. It’s hard to concentrate on the book with my teeth-chattering. After a while, I radio in to the guys.
“I am cold and I am tired and I am going back to the cabin.”
Nobody tries to stop me.
When Baker showed me the heart, we were in the school cafeteria. He’d brought it in along with some venison, partly for lunch, partly for bragging rights. Before he starts offering me slices of it, he shows me the bite marks on one side.
“Rudy and I took bites after we field dressed it,” he explains. I dimly recall this as some kind of tribal ritual, a way to spiritually connect with the animal before you feast on it, like an offering of gratitude. Except this doesn’t seem right – Baker and Rudy eat food bought from Kroger, grew up in good Christian homes, and do not, to my knowledge, otherwise worship animal spirits.
“So, why?” I ask him.
He doesn’t answer at first, then slices off another sliver of heart.
“The experience,” he tells me.
Back at the cabin, I fuck around with a can of beans and the metal stove. I don’t have any luck getting a fire started, so I eat them cold, holding the can to my lips like a glass. Baker’s .45, Lucy, is lying on the table. You can’t hunt with a handgun, but Baker doesn’t go anywhere without her, so she’s come along with us.
I’m eating my beans, minding my own business, staring out the cabin windows when it happens. Three of them, two does and a fawn, come ambling up alongside the front porch. I freeze. It doesn’t dawn on me until much, much later how ridiculous this is – my friends are out lying in bushes, staring down the barrels of their rifles, while I sit indoors with my can of beans and my copy of Walden, spitting distance from a trio of game.
It occurs to me that if I, the vegetarian too stupid to bring a pillow to a wood-floored cabin, were the only one to bring home a deer, it might prove a point. I’m just not sure what that point would be.
I quietly set down my can of beans and pick up Lucy. I switch off the safety. I shoot left-handed, so this is a little awkward. A right-hander can just tweak it with his thumb. But the deer haven’t left, and I go to the door, and I pull it open, and still they’re standing there, staring at me. I can just take my pick.
Who can tell what made that hole? Blow its brains out, the bullet goes through the other side and who’s to say it was a handgun or a rifle? I hold up Lucy, line up the barrel with one of the deer. I’ve shot dozens of times with Baker. I know how to handle a gun, and even if I didn’t, this is a stupidly easy kill.
I squeeze the trigger. Dirt explodes from the ground where I’ve lowered my aim, and the deer take off flying. A second later my walkie-talkie crackles.
“Rudy, was that you?”
“No,” Rudy answer. “I thought it was you.”
I hit the call button to respond. “Sorry, guys, didn’t mean to startle you. Three deer just walked up to the cabin. I spooked them.”
“Okay,” says Baker excitedly. “Rudy, keep your eyes peeled. They might be coming your way.”
I switch the safety on again, and go back inside to wait.
Nobody gets a deer that trip. Wherever I scared them to, it wasn’t toward Rudy, and it wasn’t toward Baker.
“Don’t sweat it, man,” Baker tells me. “You couldn’t shoot them with a handgun anyway. Give us all kinds of trouble if you did.”
“It was crazy,” I tell them, repeating the story for the hundredth time since they’ve come back. “They were just… right there.”
And we laugh it off, and they curse their luck, and we all go back home. I crawl back into my warm Muncie bed, with warm Muncie blankets and warm Muncie pillows. I’m still a vegetarian, and they still eat hearts. Nothing’s changed, except that I fired a shot at some deer, and either I wanted them dead or I wanted them warned. It was our dumb luck – mine and the deer’s – that things happened as they did. Sometimes the authenticity of an experience means not knowing what the fuck just happened.
Originally published in Punchnel’s and reprinted in Midwestern Gothic