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Pepper Hunt


"Did I ever talk to you about pepper?" he asks the girl, who is playing with the plastic pepper shaker, walking it across the table in quick, jerky steps.


She is twelve, a thin girl with fine, limp hair and green-painted fingernails. She has ordered an expensive breakfast, pancakes and eggs with sausage. He hasn't seen her in a few months and dislikes the new assertiveness in her high, childish voice, the way she told the waitress, "I don't want my eggs runny. I won't eat 'em if they're runny."

She does not respond to his question about pepper. She merely gives the shaker a little shove and puts her hands in her lap. Her eyes roam the room incuriously, surfing, he thinks, not really looking at anyone. Their booth is in the non-smoking section of King's Family Restaurant in the suburb of Pittsburgh where she lives. It is eight-thirty on a Saturday morning, an in-between time, not that crowded.


"Pepper can be dangerous," he says and waits as the girl's vague pie eyes wander back to his face (that is how he describes her no-color eyes to himself: pie eyes). "When I was your age, my dad and me used to go out in the fields and set out white bread with a lot of pepper on it."


She is gazing at him now with what seems to be full attention, but he is distracted, seeing himself, aged twelve, an undersized boy in overalls, a cowlick of wheat-color hair falling over his forehead. His mother used to sweep back his hair with her hand, to get it out of your eyes, she would say, and there would be the ravaged battleground of his pimpled brow. His mother would freeze for a second before she let the hair fall down again. Over the years his skin has cleared, his body filled out like a tube. His face in middle age is furrowed with fatty deposits. He removes his glasses. He knows he is not a handsome man.


"What'd you do that for?" She tears a strip off her paper napkin and wraps it around a nugget of pink gum she has removed from her mouth. He thinks for a second she's asking why he took off his glasses, then realizes she means the pepper.


"To attract animals," he explains. "Rabbit and deer'd come smelling around the bread. They wouldn't catch on to the pepper at first."


His voice is low and flat, a fact-conveying voice rather than a story-telling voice. And he is conveying facts. He remembers exactly the long, brown fields where he and his father used to go, the clods of bitter-smelling earth that stuck to his heels, the thorny bracken in the ditches at the edge of the fields, not far from this very restaurant where they sit.


"Where would you and your daddy be?" And he knows she means while the rabbits and deer were sniffing around the bread. He likes her question. It shows she's listening and thinking about how it was. Her question is a sign that she is not entirely lost, that she may even have something of him in her.


"We'd be ducked down behind some shrub, him over on one side of the field, me on the other." He no longer sees his father in the picture, only himself in his too-big overalls crouched behind a stand of sumac, clutching his baseball bat.


"Anyways," he continues, anxious to go on with the story, remembering the excitement he felt when the first rabbit appeared, its long ears poking up from the furrows like a cartoon bunny's. Then more ears, as though the rabbits had been hiding there all along. And back in the scrub oak on the edge of the field, the larger, bulkier shadow that is a deer. He (the boy) is laughing soundlessly, his breath coming fast.


"We'd wait there, real quiet, and after a while, the rabbit and deer'd come up and sniff at the pepper bread, and they'd start sneezing. They'd sneeze and sneeze and couldn't stop, jerking all over like they were having some kind of fit. Then we'd run up and beat their brains out."


He stops. The story about pepper is over. The girl is looking at him. Her no-color eyes have not changed. She doesn't say anything. He cannot tell what she's thinking. The waitress sets down their plates. The girl starts to eat immediately. He watches her, feeling as though he has told the story wrong. He wants her to react, to ask another question. But she's pouring syrup over her pancakes and doesn't look at him. He feels uneasy, as though he has left something out.


The waitress returns with coffee and fills his cup. The girl says in her high pitched, newly assertive voice that she wants coffee, too. The waitress glances at him, pinching her lips. The red of the woman's lipstick has bled into the cracks around her mouth. He nods. She fills the girl's cup and walks away.


He stirs his coffee, sloshing it into the saucer. He is trying to think of another story, but none occurs to him. In his mind, he is still beating the small doe to her knees. Her head is bloodied, but she continues to sneeze convulsively. He leaves off beating her and slams his bat down on a frenzied rabbit. It crumples instantly. He wants the girl to see this, too, but she is cutting her pancakes carefully into small squares.


She says, "Why'n you never take me on a pepper hunt? Your daddy took you. Why'n you never take me?"

He is stunned. She couldn't possibly expect him to take her hunting. Where would they go? The fields where he and his father went with their baseball bats are paved over with housing developments. Though there are other fields, he doesn't know the people who own them.


"Why'd you tell me that story if you weren't goin' take me?" she asks, her mouth full of pancake mush.

"I thought you might want to know something I did when I was a boy." He resents her question. He wants her to ask about the animals so he can describe the pale trickle of brains that oozed from the doe's smashed skull before she stopped breathing, the sneeze that came reflexively after she died. But she does not ask. Her pie eyes regard him malevolently.


"Maybe you're lying to me," she says. "Maybe you never did no pepper hunts. Maybe your daddy just told you about 'em, like you're telling me."


He wonders where the girl gets such thoughts. From her mother, he guesses, though all he remembers her mother saying when he told her something was, "Yeah?", until finally he couldn't stand it anymore. The girl stares in his direction and he remembers the doe looking up at him from her knees, the wet glisten of her frantic eyes as he raises his bat.


"Listen," he says, "I told you that story for a reason. You be careful what you go sniffing around. That's all I told it for."


And he leans back against the padded seat, relieved to have found this explanation for telling the story. Still, something seems awry. He can't think what it is. The girl's plate is empty. It's time to go. He wonders if she will even remember the story. She has problems remembering things in school, her mother has told him.


"Maybe I'll take you hunting," he says.


The girl's no-color eyes focus for an instant. She nods.


"I'll go," she says. "I'll go in a minute."


"Wipe your mouth," he says, easing his body out of the booth.

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