Teeter Hawkins smiles at us—Derek, me, and the five other pledges—and says, “Your last mission, before we become brothers, is to kill one of those goddamn geese with this—” He holds out a golf club, a pitching wedge. “And bring it to the party tonight.”
Teeter is a handsome guy. He has sharp dark eyes, blond hair, and a cleft chin. He’s pre-med and plays baseball for the university and seems comfortable in the world, like it’s molded for him. He steps forward, holding out the wedge, waiting for one of us to take it.
“Come on, damnit!” he says, “Take the fuckin’ golf club and go beat the shit out of one of those fuckin’ birds.” His southern accent, a deep Georgia drawl, makes his cussing seem softer, almost beautiful. The other Kappa Sig brothers are behind him, mostly smiling at his antics. I notice one or two of them looking worried, glancing around at the walls covered with group photos of graduated brothers. A few move to the back of the large, musty living room checking their cell phones and sipping solo cups, others drift into the frat’s kitchen. They aren’t about to interfere with Teeter.
Still, none of us move. Teeter looks at each of us. “Okay, which of you pansies is going to take charge. I thought you wanted to join this fine fraternity, but, shit, the way you’re acting, we’ll have to do the French Egg Trick again.”
Last week, Teeter lined the pledges up, after getting us good and drunk, and duct-taped our hands behind our backs. The cockiest pledge was at the end of the line. I was in the center. Derek was up front. Teeter made us pass a raw egg from mouth to mouth until it reached the end of the line. If we dropped the egg, we had to start over. We had to start over eleven times. Each time, after about the third pledge, the egg was nothing but yellow slime. On the seventh attempt, I threw up all over Teeter’s loafers.
“Here, Sam,” Teeter says, thrusting the club into my hand. “You take charge. Make up for my shoes.” He looks at me. His face is red, lean, and muscular. It’s his confidence, his certainty. I want to believe in myself the way he believes in himself—his sexual prowess, his athletic ability, and his intelligence. Everyone admires him.
“I can’t hit a goose with this,” I say. “It’ll fly away.”
“Use your head,” he says.
“Bread crumbs,” Derek says, glancing over at me, his eyes downcast.
“That’s right,” Teeter smiles. “That’s the idea.”
Wallace, one of the other pledges, asks in a thin voice, “Couldn’t we get in trouble for this? If we’re caught?”
“Look,” Teeter says, “I go duck hunting with my Dad every Thanksgiving. We kill birds all the time, so calm down. Haven’t you ever hit a bird with your car? Or seen a bird slam into a window and break its neck? It’s like that. We’re in their way, they’re in our way. It’s a struggle.”
“But what we’re doing is illegal,” Wallace says.
“Sure, that’s the risk—and the challenge,” he says in a hallowed tone.
“What’s the point otherwise?”
Wallace squints at him, mystified.
“Just bag the fuckin’ bird, and you’ll be brothers,” Teeter says. “It’s that simple.” He smiles at us and slaps me on the shoulder, his fingers digging in, kneading my shoulder. I tighten my grip on the wedge. Confidence, I say to myself, confidence. This will soon be over.
Back in our dorm room, Derek is sitting on my bed crumbling a couple slices of bread into a Zip-lock bag. “I don’t want to do this,” he says. “I have nothing against Canadian geese.”
“It’s a stupid way to initiate us,” I say. “I don’t get it.”
“I heard Teeter complaining about them. His dad owns a golf course or a country club in Georgia, and he said they’re pests. They’re getting in the way of golfers and shitting all over the greens.”
“Hence the club,” I say, mimicking a golf swing. “It’s stupid, but it’s what they want. What Teeter wants.”
Derek finishes crumbling the bread and closes the plastic bag. “It’s cruel, too,” he says. “It’s brutal.”
Derek and I were roommates at boarding school. His father and mother died in a car wreck when he was eight, which gave him an air of seriousness that confused and pissed off the other guys. But it put me at ease, like I didn’t have to bullshit him, like it was rude to lie to a guy who’d lost so much. All summer, over the phone and through email, we imagined what our freshman year of college would be like, how different and awesome it’d be, how we’d escaped the absurdity of an all-boys boarding school, how that was all in the distant past.
“We’re almost K-Sigs,” I say, trying to sound upbeat. “I’m not giving up now. We’ve come this far.”
“I don’t want to do this.” He tosses the crumb bag to the side and slumps on his bed.
“It’ll be all right,” I say. “It’s our plan, remember.”
“That was before we had to murder waterfowl.”
“People respect Kappa Sig, you know. Girls respect it. Once we’re in, we’ll begin to live a little around here, be part of something.”
Derek pushes his hand through his sloppy dark hair and lies back on his bed.
“Besides,” I add, “it’s my Dad’s frat.”
Derek seems thinner and paler now, like he’s trying to disappear. His sophomore year of boarding school he broke down, stayed in bed with the lights off for three days, and refused to go to class. When he came out of it, I asked him what had been wrong. He told me not to worry about it. But when I wouldn’t let it go, he said it’d hit him: he was alone, really alone. I told him he had his aunt and uncle, and me, of course, but he just smiled.
“Maybe they’ll fly away before we can hit one,” I say, hoping it will cheer him up. “Maybe we’ll just scare them.”
“Okay,” he says, not moving.
“Maybe, that’s the point anyway. Just to scare them.”
“Sam,” he says, sad in the corner of his eyes, “I never thought we’d have to go through all of this shit.”
I don’t say anything for a moment. What can I say? I didn’t either, but it doesn’t change what I want, what he should want, what we need to have a life the next four years, a life we deserve.
“Let’s have a beer,” I say, smacking the side of his arm. He nods and rises.
We are in Teeter’s van, driving to the lake, just on the edge of the university’s property. Teeter wants to watch us to make sure we don’t back down. There are seven of us now, including Derek, myself, and Teeter; Wallace dropped out. He’s sunk. No frat will give him a bid now. I’m sitting in the back, holding the pitching wedge with both hands.
My father tried to teach me golf the summer after my first year at boarding school. After pressuring me into T-ball in elementary school, and baseball and tennis in Middle School with only fumbling results, this for him was a gesture of pure hope. “The other boys will expect you to play at least one sport well,” he said, rubbing my shoulder. “Golf’s good, because it’s a lifetime sport.” He taught me how to grip the club and how to stand, legs apart, shoulders loose, but I rarely hit the ball, and when I did, I had no control over it. At first, he was reassuring: “It just takes practice, son,” but after a couple hours at the driving range, he stepped back, looked me over, and said, “You need professional lessons.”
A week later, he signed me up with a sixty-year-old golf pro named Pierce Patrick Parsons, who had sun weathered skin, long dyed bleach blond hair, and a Lacoste polo in every pastel color. Triple P, as he was known around the club, feigned patience at first, his voice mild, soothing, and tinged with gin. But after I’d hacked up enough sod, he snapped: “Jesus! Try harder. You must focus, man. Focus!” I gave him a focused “fuck you” glare and walked off the course.
When I told Dad, his face turned bright pink and started shaking his head. He had a bad temper when I was a kid. After he threw a patio chair through a storm door over something at work, Mom made him go to therapy. But I can still tell when he’s holding it back and stuffing it down, which is so much worse. Eventually he said, “You win, Sam. I give up,” and walked away.
Although he’s not mentioned it since, from time to time, Mom will ask me if I have thought about giving golf another go, or even tennis. She asks sweetly, but under her tone, there’s a weight, as if she’s saying it’s up to you to fix whatever broke between you and your father. Maybe she’s right, something did snap.
I glance up at Derek sitting across from me. His eyes are bloodshot, and his forehead, damp. He’s clearly drunk. I feel warm and a little bloated from the beers, but I’m not drunk, just loose.
As he’s driving, Teeter talks to us about his girlfriend: “Jen’s hot and smart. She made all A’s on her exams last semester. She wants to go to medical school, like me. I’ve never been so crazy about a woman before.” Bill, a pledge from rural Kentucky, is hanging on his words, his mouth drooping open. “When you get a girl,” Teeter says to him, his voice lowering, becoming more earnest, “a good one, one you really respect, you’ll know it. Trust me.” He lifts his chin a little, taking in the road ahead. “Jen’s the real deal. She understands me, what I need.”
Bill believes in Teeter. For a moment, I believe in him. But it’s difficult to imagine him cuddling with a girl or comparing Anatomy notes or giving her neck massages, but Jen serves a purpose for him; she’s the right kind of girl to be with. And I understand why she would be with him. When he takes the time to speak to you, you feel like he gets you, no matter who you are, and that his undivided attention is a privilege. Maybe it is.
“Sam my man,” he says, catching me in the rearview mirror, “did you bring bread crumbs?”
“Derek has them.” I look at Derek. He seems frightened. I shake my head at him, warning him not show his fear.
“Well,” he says, “that’s lucky. Derek’s going to have the first swing. He got off easy in the French Egg Trick.”
Derek shakes his head.He looks sick.
“He’s too drunk,” I say.
“That’s even better,” Teeter says, as he adjusts his worn baseball cap.
The lake is calm, secluded, and edged by pine trees. The only houses are on the far side, a mile or so away. The afternoon sky is gray and flat. Teeter parks under a tree. Over his shoulder, I see a flock of geese, maybe 40 or 50, milling about at the shoreline, their heads darting back and forth, some jabbing their black bills at the mud. They don’t notice us.
“Geese mate for life like doves,” Teeter says. “When the female is laying eggs, the male will stand guard and defend her. Sweet, right?”
“No shit,” Bill says.
“And the adults lose their ability to fly until their goslings are fledglings and can fly too.”
“Fashinating,” Derek slurs. “Did your girlfriend teach you that?”
Teeter scowls, gets out, and throws open the van’s side door: “Let’s do this. Derek, you’re up.” He reaches in and tugs his arm. Derek pulls himself up and tries to find his legs
As I help him out, he stumbles a little, catching the doorframe before falling. “Shit,” he mutters. Teeter yanks the pitching wedge out of my hand, grabs Derek’s hand, and molds it around the grip.
“Go for it, Derek! Do it!” the other pledges call out.
“Come on,” Teeter says. “Bag us one of those ugly ass birds! We need a trophy. And, hey, be careful with my wedge. My father gave it to me as a high school graduation gift. Its a piece of crap, but it has sentimental value.”
Derek lurches forward and shuffles toward the geese, using the club for support. When he’s a few yards from them, he yanks the crumbs out of his pocket, unzips the bag, fumbles it, and dumps them on the ground in one lump. A bird glances up, its slick, gray-black feathers ruffling softly. It honks to other geese, a half-hearted “Over here, guys!” and begins strutting toward the wad of bread, its white-striped head jerking back and forth, its webbed feet pulling at the mud and its eyes bulging with determination. Derek slowly lifts the club over his shoulder. As the bird extends its neck for a cautious nibble, he swings and misses. The motion knocks him off balance. He wobbles, then flops sideways in the sludge. The bird doesn’t move. Teeter and the others burst out laughing. Derek tries to stand up, but the mud is thick and slippery. Suddenly he stops struggling, leans to one side, and pukes.
“Go get him,” Teeter says to me. “Go get him and the bird.” He looks at the other pledges and adds, “I’m thinking of a joke: How many assholes does it take to kill a fuckin’ bird?”
No one laughs, but some pledges smile.
“Well, we’re going to find out,” he says. That pisses me off. He seems to sense this and smiles at me. It’s a genuine smile. Bright and good-natured. All this is making his day.
I go to Derek, pick up the wedge, tuck it under my arm, and help him to his feet. Under his breath, he mutters, “I couldn’t do it. Sorry man. I just couldn’t.” The odor of vomit and goose shit and wet earth churns my stomach. I hug him tight, and he leans heavily against me, gripping the back of my shirt, and we shuffle toward the van, where I hand him off to the other pledges. He lies down inside and curls up, like a dirty, lost kid. I wonder if he is crying, if he’ll pull the blinds on our window and go to bed for days. I wonder if he hates me now. Teeter smirks at him. I want to fly at Teeter, but he’s too big, too skilled, too beloved by the others to take down by myself. Over my shoulder, I see two new geese pecking at the crumbs. I catch Teeter’s eyes for a second, steady and smug in their sockets, and snatch the club from the ground.
The first swing hits the goose on its side with a meaty thunk. It quavers and cries out, a terrible sound, something between a honk and a screech. The other geese scatter. I hit it again. Its eyes, little black holes, vanishing points. It seems to understand what’s happening to it. It tries to limp away, crying out more desperately, its mouth bright pink. I hit it from above. It gives into the club and falls over, its feathers splattered with black mud. I hit it again. Its being there is unforgivable. I’m no longer hitting it, but something in my mind, some shifting image—Teeter, Dad, even Derek. They’re laughing, they’re weeping. I keep hitting. By the time I stop, it’s hard to tell it was ever a bird.
I’m spent and breathless. Gray feathers float in the air around me like ashes. I look up and see Teeter. He’s as handsome and composed as always: a curl of blond hair sticks out from his cap, his hips slack and cocked at an angle. Although he’s not smiling, I’m sure he wants to. All this is what he intended, what guys like him always intend.
I give him a “fuck you” glare, turn, and pull the wedge back over my shoulder and, breathing out, fling it out over the lake. It disappears against the gray sky. I hear gasps, and Teeter yelling, “Mother fucker!” Then it plunks into the black water. He’s running toward me. I don’t move. His first punch hits the small of my back. I fall forward, the thick, goose-shit slime smacking me in the face, getting in my mouth, up my nose. It tastes like mushrooms, like shit. He’s on top of me, his knees pinning me down, his punches branding my back and sides. He’s yelling about his club, his precious graduation gift, how I had no right, how I was a fuck-up. I don’t defend myself. Teeter expects me to, Dad would want me to, it’s what men do, but I refuse to.
When it’s over, we struggle to stand up, the sludge coating our clothes and skin. Without looking at me, he begins limping back to the van. He calls over his shoulder, “Don’t forget the bird.”
I stop and look at the crumpled, bloodied animal. “Oh God,” I think. “I did this.” Then I bend down and gently scoop it up with my arms, but not because he told me to.