Middle Birds

Past the police firing range, in the shadow of the newly constructed Betsy Ross Bridge connecting Philadelphia to Pennsauken, along a wide path between the woods on one side and the Delaware river on the other, the hunt commences. Walking upriver, pellet rifles in hand, the two brothers spoke softly on life’s seemingly haphazard journey and their place in an ever-changing world, while scanning the trees for game.

“Little bird.” The younger said matter of factly, and whirled to his right, aimed and shot.

“That’s a miss.” said the elder, watching the grey sparrow rise straight up off the skinny branch where he stood bobbing with the breeze and veer away.

The brothers continued without comment on their stroll through their hunting grounds. Armed with BB rifles that auto loaded but were notoriously scattershot, they walked north but looked east. The rifles were also able to shoot a more accurate single-loaded pellet. The round BBs would exit the barrel and make a slice or hook, like a weekend golfer, never straight or even remotely where it was aimed. Thus, pellets were the ammo of choice. Solid lead on one end, conical and hollow on the back end. These flew true.

“My turn,” the older brother said, pausing to confirm a clear shot at a tan and red female cardinal.

“Middle bird,” he said and pulled the trigger. The bird rolled over backwards crashed through the leaves and branches to the forest floor.

“Score,” said the younger, flatly, barely hiding his contempt.

There were many birds, of many varieties and sizes present in these woods. It was prime hunting grounds. It was secluded, a requirement since any onlookers would frown on this activity, and probably illegal as well. The brothers liked to mix hunting in with their discussions. The younger was out of work and looking for direction. The elder was steadily employed and on the proverbial ladder to greater successes. These successes were unrealized, but still offered the clout needed to advise one’s younger brother.

They came here, to the dense woods adjacent the great and historic river, often bringing a bag lunch and ammo, to talk and compete. The path wore through the woods following the shoreline and dipped inland some distance away from the entrance toward a tidal creek where after a zig and a zag, the path ended in a marsh. Here they would pause, maybe have lunch or just rest a few minutes before retracing their steps and resuming the hunt. They may make three or more round trips in a single afternoon.

That season, the weather was nearly ideal. Warm, sunny most days with a steady cooling breeze coming in off the water, shivering the trees in small waves, and occassionally tossing the targets like a videogame reset button. The ammo hung in plastic pouches on their waist belts, each carrying their favorite brand. The targets were grouped into sizes; there were little birds, middle birds and big birds. The shooter was obligated to call out his target before shooting, much like a pool player calls his shot. Points were awarded for difficulty. The little birds, being the hardest to hit were the highest value, the big birds least.

Adding to the difficulty was that the effective killing range of the pellet rifles was only about a hundred feet, so stealth was required. And the little birds were easily agitated, and flew off at the slightest inclination. Big birds, on the other hand, were easier to hit, and most were of the same species, doves, which would allow a hunter to within fifteen feet before deciding wether to vacate their perch. A pair of doves, sitting side by side, was hard to pass up, shoot one, the other would not even flinch, but continue to sit there as if its mate merely went to get a snack and would return momentarily. Doves were not much sport, but if you needed points, they were there for the taking.

Tjay, the younger of the two, was questioning his brother about his line of work, if there were still potential in it, did it pay well to start and if there were an apprenticeship or trade school available that would hasten his time to a good payday. Tjay’s brother gave him the pros and cons, ins and outs, trying not to influence his little brother’s decision but present as much factual information as he could. He wanted to help, of course, but not be responsible should Tjay take his advice and fail spectacularly.

“The only school for this stuff is in Las Vegas?” Tjay repeated, not sure he heard his brother correctly. “Long ways off, but still, it’s Vegas.” Sure would be fun either way, wouldn’t it, he thought.

“Yeah, it’s all new technology and that’s the only school in the country. There will be more down the road, but right now that’s the only one, in Vegas.” Jayce told his younger brother and was amused to see the location play out on his face, like a grinning neon marquee.

“Little bird,” Jayce paused, took aim through the leafy woods and pulled the trigger. A wren with yellow slashes along it’s grey-brown body rolled and crashed to the forest floor.

“That’s a hit.”
“Yep, puts me in front, little bro!”
The brothers were making their way back, the first loop of the day. It was noon, sunny and warm with a hint of honeysuckle and pine in the air. On the next circuit they would stop and settle for lunch. This day followed the pattern of many others that came before it; shooting, keeping score, talking. Pleasant and comfortable, the brothers enjoyed the hunt and each other’s company.

Three bursts of three gunshots each rang out. Staccato, crisp reports, rattled through the woods but were quickly muted by the river. The brothers stopped in their tracks.

“What the hell was that!” Tjay said, his head on a swivel.
“Someone at the firing range. At least I hope so.” Jayce said.
More shots. A pause then another group, all from the same firearm.
“Must be sighting in a new weapon,” Jayce offered. “Or, recalibrating an old one.” Jayce spun on his heels and headed back toward the marsh, away from the range. Tjay followed closely behind. After a few hundred yards, Jayce slowed and Tjay came up along side him.

“I’m with you, I’d just as soon not be down that end while it’s active like that.” Tjay swung his rifle to the other arm so as to point it away from his brother, and matched his gait. The calm that surrounded them previously was replaced with a low level nervousness. Their pace was quicker and they didn’t bother to scan the woods for targets. It was like an invisible commander had given them a mission and they weren’t to deviate.

They continued in this mode until they reached their lunch spot down by the marsh. A huge log along side the path, that had been felled by a recent storm, was table and chair. They sat one leg folded up on the log, the other planted on the ground for balance, faced each other and unwrapped deli sandwiches on the ruttled bark of the old red oak.

“Let’s give them plenty of time to clear out down there before we go back.” Jayce said. He let out a long sigh, as if the pressure that had built up finally tripped a release valve.

“Got to, that’s where the car is.” Tjay reminded his brother. They had parked the car under the bridge, away from the entrance and not suspicious in any way. Other cars were nearby, residents kept their cars along this easement as well. Residents, whose neighborhood was cleaved, against their wishes, in order to build yet another bridge across the Delaware into Philadelphia from New Jersey. There are now four spans within a few miles.

This one, named after the famous national flag seamstress, connects to Pennsauken, a small township in southern New Jersey, named after William Penn and his favorite pasttime. It is said this is where Willie went hunting with his hawks, the contraction came out, “Pennsauken.” But that’s only one historical take, another says the name originated as “Pindasenaken,” a Lenni- Lenape Indian word meaning “Tobacco Pouch.” The locals, when asked, say it is indeed an Indian name, loosely translated means “industrial park.” For that, unfortunately, is how the town is now known.

Dark clouds appeared out of nowhere, a light mist began to fall and the hard-packed dirt and clay path turned a dark, slick color. The brothers, heads bowed into the damp breeze, trudged back towards the bridge, their half-eaten lunch tucked under their arms. Birds and forest noises were replaced with a steady wooden ping of rainwater gathering on leaves, reaching a tipping point and dropping to the next layer of branches and leaves below. Across the river, fog had obscured the city and replaced it with a gray swirling wall. The brothers were quiet, each thinking about the sudden turn of weather as they headed back to the car. Rifles, glistening in the light rain, cold and hard in their hands.

Sounds from the police firing range had ceased. The damp turn evidently chasing the gunners into their squad cars, and back to duty or station. The mist turned into a drizzle, temperatures dropped and puddles began to splotch the riverside path. Making the turn for home, the brothers, ill prepared for this, dripped as they walked from soaked hair and sodden shirts. Moods turned from bright to cloudy exactly as the sunny weather turned from carefree to dark, as if the events were directly connected.

Tjay was deep into thought, blocking the weather and dreaming of Vegas as he slogged along. Bright lights, pretty girls, cheap food buffets, win-win-win! His outlook dimming only when the very real problem of tuition entered his otherwise perfect plan. He made a mental note to follow up on this possible new direction to his life. An excitement built within him. He needed something, and this certainly didn’t sound like drudgery.

“Hey, I win today.” Jayce called back over his shoulder to his trailing brother.
“No, you didn’t.” Tjay challenged. “We never finished, this is a rainout.”
“Nice try, but victory is mine!” Jayce shouted into the wet breeze, feeling Tjay’s narrowing

eyes boring into his back with resentment. “Hah, loser!” “Whatever.”

Published by James Calore

James Calore, a freelance writer was born in Philadelphia and raised in Southern New Jersey, where he currently resides in the midst of the Pine Barrens with his wife, Linda, and their pet boxer, Tyson.

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