Artist Statment

The flash format comes to me naturally: I want to tell a story quickly, but I also want to include the main elements of fiction: character, setting, incident, beginning and end. A consistent, sometimes humorous voice allows me to build a cohesive piece.


The narrator in my fiction has a persona close to my own. He has strong desires but is often frustrated or shut out by the people around him, so he acts as an observer much of the time. The characters in my fiction are deliberately unnamed. Readers, I believe, can easily form impressions from key words like “mother,” “father,” “brother” and “sister.”


Fiction and nonfiction overlap in my work, but I select, distill and reorder images and incidents so they have a shape that is more dramatic than my actual experience.

Under the Guns

Thaddeus Rutkowski

 

My father took me to a turkey shoot in a field next to a firehouse. At the event, people didn’t shoot turkeys, they fired at paper targets. They used shotguns, and the pellets that ripped the paper closest to the bull’s eye won. Since it wasn’t possible to aim a shotgun, winning was a matter of chance. The prize was a frozen turkey.

 

My father positioned me about thirty yards from a target and gave me a 20- gauge shotgun. “Go ahead. Blast away,” he said.

 

I lifted the gun to my shoulder and looked down the barrel. When I pulled the trigger, the explosion was deafening. I felt the recoil in my arm and glimpsed a shock wave in the air. A man ran in front of me and yelled, “Clear!” as he took down the target I’d shot at.

 

My shot didn’t make much of an impression—a couple of nicks were gone from the edges of the paper.

Shortly, my father said, “That’s enough. These cartridges are expensive, and we have to pay for each shot. It’s time to go.”

 

I had fired once. We left the grounds without a turkey. *

 

*

 

Later, my father took me to hunt for quail. We hiked through fields above the town, kicking at clumps of weeds to scare up game.

 

As I walked along the spine of a hill, I could see the valley stretching away. The ridges were parallel in this part of northern Appalachia, and the valleys ran straight for miles. Below me, I could see the town with its one paved street, and the firehouse, where the turkey shoot had been held.

 

I had my shotgun ready at my side. With one hand I bore the weight of the gun, while I kept my other hand around the chamber. I rested one finger on the trigger guard and another on the safety. I could raise the firearm, release the safety and pull the trigger all in one motion, if I needed to.

 

As I walked, I saw many small birds, none of them fair game, and none of them quail.

 

Suddenly, I saw a brownish-colored bird fly up. I lifted my gun and shot the thing out of the air. The blast scattered the feathers. My father came over to look. The bird was spotted black and brown, and it had a yellow chest.

 

“Is it a quail?” I asked.

 

“No,” he said. “It’s a meadowlark.”

 

“Should we bring it home?” I asked.

 

“No. It’s too small. After cleaning, it would be one bite.”

 

We left the downed meadowlark in the field. Scavengers would find it sooner or later.

 

*


Another day, my father took me in his car to a stretch of highway that ran between fields. We weren’t carrying guns. He parked on the gravel shoulder and took photography equipment out of the car. I followed as he walked into a sea of grain stalks and set up a tripod with an instant camera on top. He pointed the lens at the striated fields—they lay in rows until they reached the nearest ridge. The fields were shades of yellow and brown, and the hill was dark purple. He took several frames of the fields, hill and sky.

 

“I’m going to make paintings from these photos,” he said as he held the prints in the air to dry. “Then I’m going to turn the paintings into prints. I’ll sell them for a couple of dollars each, so anyone can afford them.”


I looked across the field and didn’t see any game animals, or any animals at all, not even small birds. The farmland was totally barren.

 

At home, when I walked into my father’s studio. I saw the photos he’d made, lying on a table. When I moved them to the side, I saw some images of my sister, nude from the waist up. I didn’t know when these photos had been taken, and I didn’t know why my sister had agreed to them.

 

*

 

After small-game season, my father marched me into the woods for deer. We both wore heavy boots, and I followed behind as he walked. He didn’t call out the steps, but I could hear a cadence in my head: “To the left, to the left, to the left, right, left ...” He found a likely place—next to a trail made by deer hooves—and stopped us there. The idea was to stand in one place and wait for an animal to walk by. I found a tree to lean against, and my father took a spot out of my sight.

 

I got tired of waiting, so I played with the gun I was carrying—it was a .410 shotgun loaded with rifled slugs. I pretended I saw a deer running across my field of vision. I brought the gun up to my shoulder and swung the barrel as if leading a deer. I didn’t pull the trigger; I didn’t even take off the safety. But as I grew more bored, I became bolder. I pulled the gun up and slid the safety off, but I didn’t touch the trigger. After a few more practice moves, the gun went off, startling me. I must have squeezed the trigger.

 

I liked the sound—I’d wanted to fire the gun; I’d been holding it for hours without doing anything.

 

I took out the spent cartridge and buried it under leaves as my father came running up. “Did you shoot?” he asked. “I heard a close shot.”

 

“It must have been someone else,” I said.


“A deer must have run through here, and someone must have seen it,” he said. Later, I gave back the cartridges he’d given me. He counted them and noticed one was missing.


 

“I must have dropped it,” I said.

 

“Yeah,” he said. “You must have dropped it.”

 

At home, my father made me clean the guns.

 

“Take this cloth and put oil on it,” he said. “Run it through the barrels, then wipe down the metal parts. Get rid of the powder and rust. You’re not done until the guns shine!”

 

I spent the evening wiping and polishing while my brother and sister watched television. My mother spent the evening in the kitchen with her apron on. My father spent the evening at the local bar.

 

*

 

In school, a student asked me, “Did you hear about Bob?”

 

“Bob who?” I asked.

 

“The student council vice president. He skipped school to go hunting and got shot.

 

“How?”

 

“He was crawling under a barbed-wire fence, and he was holding his gun. It went off and killed him.”

 

I knew the boy, or knew who he was. Everyone knew who he was. That day, I noticed that students were quiet in the hallways and classrooms.

 

Later, I discovered that I’d forgotten my lunch. I didn’t have money to eat in the cafeteria, so I went to the alternate lunch area—a storeroom—and sat at a long, Formica-topped table. When the kids around me noticed I had no food, they gave me parts of their lunches. I got half of a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, one celery stick and one carrot stick. The food was good—much better than nothing.

 

*


My father presented me with one of the guns I’d cleaned. “I want you to have this,” he said.

 

“I’ll take it,” I said, “so I can sell it.”

 

“You can’t do that,” he said. He pointed to the metal that enclosed the chamber and trigger mechanism.

 

“See,” he said, “There’s an engraving of a fox on one side and a grouse on the other.”

 

“I still want to sell it.”

 

“You won’t want to give up this gun,” he said, “even when you’re my age.” I took the gun from him and put

it in its canvas case. I brought the covered firearm to my bedroom and propped it in a corner, just behind the door. It balanced perfectly on its blunt end there.

 

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