By gad, sir," Michael Ahearn said to his son, Paul, "you present a distressing spectacle."
A few nights earlier they had watched The Maltese Falcon together. Paul, who had never seen it before, was delighted by his fathers rendering of Sydney Greenstreet. Sometimes he would even try doing Greenstreet himself.
"By gad, sir!"
Pauls attempts at movie voices were not subtle but commanded inflections normally beyond the comic repertory of a twelve-year-old boy from a small town on the northern plains. His voice and manner were coming to resemble his fathers.
The boy was lying in bed with a copy of The Hobbit open across his counterpane. This time he was not amused at Michaels old-movie impressions. He looked up with resentment, his beautiful long-lashed eyes angry. Michael easily met the reproach there. He took any opportunity to look at his son. There was something new every day, a different ray, an unexpected facet reflected in the aspects of this creature enduring his twelvedness.
"I want to go, Dad," Paul said evenly, attempting to exercise his powers of persuasion to best effect.
He had been literally praying to go. Michael knew that because he had been spying on Paul while the boy knelt beside the bed to say his evening prayers. He had lurked in the hallway outside the boys room, watching and listening to his careful recitation of the Our Father and the Hail Mary and the Gloria rote prayers, courtesy of the Catholic school to which the Ahearns, with misgivings, regularly dispatched him. Michael and his wife had been raised in religion and they were warily trying it on again as parents. Sending Paul to St. Emmerichs meant laughing away the horror stories they liked to tell about their own religious education in the hope of winning a few wholesome apparent certainties for the next generation.
"I was fourteen before my father took me hunting," Michael said. "I think thats the right age."
"You said kids do everything sooner."
"I didnt say I thought kids doing everything sooner was a good idea."
"You dont even like to hunt," Paul said. "You dont believe in it."
"Really? And what makes us think that?"
"Well, Ive heard you with Mom. You, like, agree with her its cruel and stuff."
"I dont agree with her. I understand her position. Anyway, if I didnt believe in it why should I take a tender runt like you?"
Paul was immune to his fathers goading. He went for the substance.
"Because I really believe in it."
"Oh yes? You believe in whacking innocent creatures?"
"You know what?" Paul asked. "This was a Christian Ethics topic. Hunting was. And I was like pro in favor. Because Genesis says dominion over beasts. If you eat the meat its OK. And we do."
"Yes I do," Paul said. "I eat venison kielbasa."
Michael loomed over him and with his left hand put out the lamp on the bed table.
"Tis blasphemy to vent thy rage against a dumb brute," he informed Paul. He had been teaching Moby-Dick with his favorite assistant, a very pretty South Dakota girl named Phyllis Strom. "Now good night. I dont want you to read too late."
"Why? Im not going anywhere."
"Maybe next year," Michael said.
"Sure, Dad," said Paul.
He left the bedroom door its customary inch ajar and went downstairs to the study where his wife was grading Chaucer papers.
"Did he beg and plead?" she asked, looking up.
"I dont think hes absolutely sure if he wants to go or not. He takes a pro-hunting position."
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Stone. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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