It was another one of those kinda sorta snowy days here in the heartland. The local weathermen seemed almost disappointed that their dire predictions about the Armageddon that the oncoming blizzard was about to befall on the citizenry turned out to be only a spit of freezing rain and a handful of scattered snow flurries. They did manage to get the temperature right though, it was damn and cold and the circumstances kept the family, all two of them, gathered around the kitchen table idly trying to solve yet another jigsaw puzzle while the aroma of a roast stuffed with cloves of garlic and covered in horseradish and pepper filled the house.
The child, a little girl just a few months past ten, wants stories to fill in the gaps between the silence. Not the ones told by the television or the DVD player. Not the ones told in books about princes and princesses or talking animals or voyages to distant lands. No, she wants stories about what life was like when her father was her age, what kind of friends he had, what he did for “fun”, what kind of toys he played with, the ones that are hard to recall.
The father, nursing a beer and tending to the roast smiles a little smile and for whatever reason finds the words too hard to come by. It seems so long ago when he too had shared a table with his dad but rather than listen to the stories, instead, he turned a deaf ear and attitude of indifference towards the storyteller. He chalks it off as another tragedy of lost youth when he was the center of the universe and since the stories didn’t revolve around him, they were of little importance. The regret on his face is masked by his effort to find the right words to tell his rapt audience.
For whatever reason, the little girl brings up the subject of slingshots. Maybe some kid brought one to school or maybe she saw one in a store. The father hears the word and is suddenly transported and somehow slingshotted back in time.
His memory lands him to a time when he was about thirteen or so and managed to get his hands on just such an apparatus. Oh, this was not your average, run of the mill slingshots made by the Y of a stick and held together by some electrical tape and rubber bands. No, this one was the real deal. Manufactured for the purpose of launching projectiles at great speeds and with surprising accuracy at the intended target, usually a bulls eye or a silhouette of some kind of another. How he got his hands on what might have been his first “weapon” is lost in the ashes of time.
The father tells the story of the slingshot to his little girl. He tells her of growing up Brooklyn and how he was one of the lucky ones to have something that qualified as a backyard. It was narrow and made of cement, wide enough for people to put their cars in their garage and not have to park on the street and was shared by a row of maybe 8-10 houses on his block. There was no grass to be cut or gardens to be maintained, this backyard was purely made for function. During the summer, it sometimes it served as a place to play stickball or wiffle ball or any other kind of game that required a ball and a fence. It was the kind of backyard where people barbecued on the sticky hot cement in the summer and sat and idled away the time in those plastic beach chairs that you stuck to when you tried to get up.. It was the kind of backyard that called itself home to those 3 foot high swimming pools made out of rubber lining and aluminum that held two kids at most and were always in danger of collapse.
It was paradise to the kids.
The father recalls staring out of the window of his room into the backyard, wishing that dinner time was over and that he could go out and play back there without having to worry about the dangers of traffic and playing in the street. He recalls glancing over to see the slingshot and a bag of marbles and the boredom he felt is suddenly replaced by a wisp of inspiration. Maybe a little target practice is in order. There are an infinite number of things to practice his trade on. Tree’s on the other side of the fence, benches that dot the park in the apartment buildings across the way, trash cans that line the rear wall of the backyard, they all make good targets. That’s when his eyes glance up and see the birds that dot the telephone wires and a more sinister thought bounces through his brain. With the stealth of a sniper he opens his window and takes aim.
Perhaps because he is still unskilled or perhaps because the birds have an innate sense of danger, his aim is not true. The projectile whizzes past his intended target but startles him enough so that he takes to the air. His companions on the wire recognize this is as a warning and join him. Soon, they are scattered like stars in the sky, unreachable by any slingshot known to man.
The father recalls his disappointed and how badly he wanted that first “kill” and devises a plan to lure the birds back. Stale bread and patience is all it takes. He tosses handfuls and handfuls of it out the back window to lure back his prey. They seem reluctant at first, wary at this new found easy source of food and approach with caution. The hunter knows better, he knows that the ache of an empty stomach will cause them to let their guard down and that he’ll have another shot at picking one of them off. He is not disappointed.
Marbles fly at a surprisingly high rate of speed and accuracy when in the right hands with the right weapon. They aren’t subject to the dips and dives that a stone might be subjected to when aerodynamics are applied. They seem to cut through the wind like it wasn’t there at all and smack into their target with an impassioned ignorance. They are just doing what they were told.
The bird never saw it coming. It never had a chance as the marble shattered its little body. From the looks of it, it died instantly, no twitching or death throes or attempts to fly off. The boy has a sinister smile on his face, that his efforts somehow felt good and that the evidence would soon be devoured by the many stray cats that lived in the neighborhood. He also knows that another brand of target might be coming his way for the bird, once a seeker of food, was now another form of bait for the cat.
The boy discovers another thing about the marbles. Besides being accurate, they fly great distances and can indiscriminately shatter windows from a long ways off when fired from a slingshot. Like Lee Harvey Oswald from his perch in a Dallas book repository, the boy in his room leans out his back window takes aim at the windows in the apartment complex across the way. He is pleased when he hears the tinkle of broken glass.
All of these memories come rushing back at the mere mention of the word slingshot. He remembers getting caught but forgets what the punishment was. He remembers the slingshot being cut up and thrown into the trash. He remembers the different way his mother and father began looking at him, as if some unknown stranger had invaded their house and taken over what was their son. He remembers being sorry but not that sorry.
The father tells the story to his little girl. As he does, it comes rushing back with a surprising clarity and attention to detail. She looks at him with a wide eyed sense, not of wonder but of horror. Her father could not do such a thing. He tells her that he is sorry, that he was kid that didn’t know any better but it rings false. The guilt is etched across his face.
The little girl, already wise beyond her years, seems to recognize this and begins to take it in stride. She says that maybe those marbles, launched from the slingshot so long ago, flew across and through the years and made the father tell the story so that she wouldn’t repeat the circumstances herself.
The father is slingshotted back from the past to the present. The roast that has been lurking in the oven is almost ready and there are other, more happy stories to be told that he hopes will impart a meaningful message..