Tuesday, March 07, 2006

More Pancakes, Tub?

One of my favorite short stories is Tobias Wolff's "Hunters in the Snow." This story begins as a realistic tale of three friends out for a day of deer hunting. It begins with a nice dollop of menace:
Tub had been waiting for an hour in the falling snow. He paced the sidewalk to keep warm and stuck his head out over the curb whenever he saw lights approaching. One driver stopped for him but before Tub could wave the man on he saw the rifle on Tub's back and hit the gas. The tires spun on the ice. The fall of snow thickened. Tub stood below the overhang of a building. Across the road the clouds whitened just above the rooftops, and the street lights went out. He shifted the rifle strap to his other shoulder. The whiteness seeped up the sky.

A truck slid around the corner, horn blaring, rear end sashaying. Tub moved to the sidewalk and held up his hand. The truck jumped the curb and kept coming, half on the street and half on the sidewalk. It wasn't slowing down at all. Tub stood for a moment, still holding up his hand, then jumped back. His rifle slipped off his shoulder and clattered on the ice, a sandwich fell out of his pocket. He ran for the steps of the building. Another sandwich and a package of cookies tumbled onto the new snow. He made the steps and looked back.

Tub is the fat friend; Kenny and Frank abuse him mercilessly about his weight, and about the diet he is supposedly on.
"You ought to see yourself," [Kenny] said. "He looks just like a beach ball with a hat on, doesn't he? Doesn't he, Frank?"

The man beside him smiled and looked off.

"You almost ran me down," Tub said. "You could've killed me."

"Come on, Tub," said the man beside the driver. "Be mellow. Kenny was just messing around."
Yes, Kenny was just messing around.

They hunt; it's cold. They stop for lunch, and Kenny says
"You ask me how I want to die today," Kenny said. "I'll tell you burn me at the stake."
Kenny also reveals that Frank is having a tryst with a babysitter. They see no deer, but finally they notice some deer sign, and tracks disappearing into some posted property. They drive to the farmhouse of the man who owns the property; Kenny goes inside and gets his permission to hunt the deer. An old dog barks at them and then retreats.

They follow the deer but eventually lose the tracks. They head back, frustrated. Frank and Kenny exchange words and things get weird.
"Drop dead," Frank said [to Kenny], and turned away.

Kenny and Tub followed him back across the fields. When they were coming up to the barn Kenny stopped and pointed. "I hate that post," he said. He raised his rifle and fired. It sounded like a dry branch cracking. The post splintered along its right side, up toward the top. "There," Kenny said. "It's dead."

"Knock it off," Frank said, walking ahead.

Kenny looked at Tub. He smiled. "I hate that tree," he said, and fired again. Tub hurried to catch up with Frank. He started to speak but just then the dog ran out of the barn and barked at them. "Easy, boy," Frank said.

"I hate that dog." Kenny was behind them.

"That's enough," Frank said. "You put that gun down."

Kenny fired. The bullet went in between the dog's eyes. He sank right down into the snow, his legs splayed out on each side, his yellow eyes open and staring. Except for the blood he looked like a small bearskin rug. The blood ran down the dog's muzzle into the snow.

They all looked at the dog lying there.

"What did he ever do to you?" Tub asked. "He was just barking."

Kenny turned to Tub. "I hate you."

Tub shot from the waist. Kenny jerked backward against the fence and buckled to his knees. He folded his hands across his stomach. "Look," he said. His hands were covered with blood. In the dusk his blood was more blue than red. It seemed to below to the shadows. It didn't seem out of place. Kenny eased himself onto his back. He sighed several times, deeply. "You shot me," he said.
This tone shift is reminiscent of another Tobias Wolff classic, "Bullet in the Brain," in which Anders, the protagonist, is shot in the head halfway through the story. Until this point in "Hunters in the Snow," the men have been taunting one another, joking in the "good-natured" but cruel way that men joke. But now Kenny is lying in the snow, gutshot.

How do Tub and Frank react? After determining that the bullet missed Kenny's appendix, they return to the farmhouse to call an ambulance, only to find that it will take too long. While Frank is on the phone, the farmer tells Tub that he had asked Kenny to shoot the dog, which was infirm and needed to be put down.

Tub and Frank get directions to the hospital and try to load Kenny into the back of the pickup.
[Frank] rolled Kenny onto the boards. Kenny screamed and kicked his legs in the air. When he quieted down Frank and Tub lifted the boards and carried him down the drive. Tub had the back end, and with the snow blowing in his face he had trouble with his footing. Also he was tired and the man inside had forgotten to turn the porch light on. Just past the house Tub slipped and threw out his hands to catch himself. The boards fell and Kenny tumbled out and rolled to the bottom of the drive, yelling all the way. He came to rest against the right front wheel of the truck."

"You fat moron," Frank said. "You aren't good for diddly."

Tub grabbed Frank by the collar and back him hard up against the fence. Frank tried to pull his hands away but Tub shook him and snapped his head back and forth and finally Frank gave up.

"What do you know about fat," Tub said. "What do you know about glands." As he spoke he kept shaking Frank. "What do you know about me."

"All right," Frank said.

"No more," Tub said.

"All right."
As the story continues, Tub and Frank become more interested in patching up their differences and less concerned with Kenny, to an extent that becomes surreal. On the way to the hospital, Tub and Frank decide to stop for coffee to warm up. They leave Kenny in the back of the truck. Inside, Frank confesses that he is having an affair. Tub asks him who with.
Frank paused. He looked into his empty cup. "Roxanne Brewer."

"Cliff Brewer's kid? The babysitter?"

"You can't just put people into categories like that, Tub. That's why the whole system is wrong. And that's why this country is going to hell in a rowboat."

"But she can't be more than--"Tub shook his head.

"Fifteen. She'll be sixteen in May." Frank smiled. "May fourth, three twenty-seven p.m. Hell, Tub, a hundred years ago she'd have been an old maid by that age. Juliet was only thirteen."

"Juliet? Juliet Miller? Jesus, Frank, she doesn't even have breasts. She doesn't even wear a top to her bathing suit. She's still collecting frogs."

When they come out of the bar,
Kenny had tried to get out of the truck but he hadn't made it. He was jackknifed over the tailgate, his head hanging above the bumper. They lifted him back into the bed, and covered him again. He was sweating and his teeth chattered. "It hurts, Frank."

"It wouldn't hurt so much if you just stayed put. Now we're going to the hospital. Go that? Say it--I'm going to the hospital."

"I'm going to the hospital."
They drive for a while and decide to stop at a roadhouse, again leaving Kenny in the back of the truck. Now it is Tub's turn to confess a secret: he admits that he eats secretly, gorging himself on candy at every opportunity. The "glandular problem" he used as an excuse was entirely fabricated.

Frank responds by buying Tub four orders of pancakes and waiting while he eats every bite and then licks the plates clean. They return to the truck and set out again. Tub tells Frank that the farmer had asked Kenny to shoot the dog.
"You're kidding!" Frank leaded forward considering. "That Kenny. What a card." He laughed and so did Tub. Tub smiled out the back window. Kenny lay with his arms folded over his stomach, moving his lips at the stars. Right overhead was the Big Dipper, and behind, hanging between Kenny's toes in the direction of the hospital, was the North Star, Pole Star, Help to Sailors. As the truck twisted through the gentle hills the star went back and forth between Kenny's boots, staying always in his sight. "I'm going to the hospital," Kenny said. But he was wrong. They had taken a different turn a long way back.
In the last two lines, Wolff's omniscient narrator reveals himself in all his godliness.

Make what you will of the "coldness" of the men, of the casual cruelty initially shown Tub by Kenny and Frank, and how, after the pivotal shooting scene, Tub and Frank open their hearts to one another while Kenny lies in the back of the truck, almost, but never quite, dying.

I can't think of another Tobias Wolff story that ends on such a surreal note. We can easily imagine this threesome driving the backroads of this farmland for all eternity, Tub and Frank stopping now and then for more pancakes, Kenny writhing in his truckbed purgatory. For once, Wolff abandons realism, and the result is unforgettable.