He would be standing with his father on one shore of the lake, his own eyes were very good then, and his father would say, “They’ve run up the flag.” Nick could not see the flag or the flagpole. “There,” his father would say, “it’s your sister Dorothy. She’s got the flag up and she’s walking out onto the dock.”
Nick would look across the lake and he could see the long wooded shoreline, the higher timber behind, the point that guarded the bay, the clear hills of the farm and the white of their cottage in the trees but he could not see any flagpole, or any dock; only the white of the beach and the curve of the shore.
“Can you see the sheep on the hillside toward the point?”
They were a whitish patch on the gray-green of the hill.
“I can count them,” his father said.
Like all men with a faculty that surpasses human requirements, his father was very nervous. Then, too, he was sentimental, and, like most sentimental people, he was both cruel and abused. Also, he had much bad luck, and it was not all of it his own. He had died in a trap that he had helped only a little to set, and they had all betrayed him in their various ways before he died. All sentimental people are betrayed so many times. Nick could not write about him yet, although he would, later, but the quail country made him remember him as he was when Nick was a boy and he was very grateful to him for two things, fishing and shooting. His father was as sound on those two things as he was unsound on sex, for instance, and Nick was glad that it had been that way; for someone has to give you your first gun or the opportunity to get it and use it, and you have to live where there is game or fish if you are to learn about them, and now, at thirty-eight, he loved to fish and to shoot exactly as much as when he first had gone with his father. It was a passion that had never slackened and he was very grateful to his father for bringing him to know it.
While for the other, that his father was not sound about, all the equipment you will ever have is provided and each man learns all there is for him to know about it without advice; and it makes no difference where you live. He remembered very clearly the only two pieces of information his father had given him about that. Once when they were out shooting together Nick shot a red squirrel out of a hemlock tree. The squirrel fell, wounded, and when Nick picked him up, bit the boy clean through the ball of the thumb.
“The dirty little bugger,” Nick said and smacked the squirrel’s head against the tree. “Look how he bit me.”
His father looked and said, “Suck it out clean and put some iodine on when you get home.”
“The little bugger,” Nick said.
“Do you know what a bugger is?” his father asked him.
“We call anything a bugger,” Nick said.
“A bugger is a man who has intercourse with animals.”
“Why?” Nick said.
“I don’t know,” his father said. “But it is a heinous crime.”
Nick’s imagination was both stirred and horrified by this and he thought of various animals but none seemed attractive or practical and that was the sum total of direct sexual knowledge bequeathed him by his father except on one other, subject. One morning he read in the paper that Enrico Caruso had been arrested for mashing.
“What is mashing?”
“It is one of the most heinous of crimes,” his father answered. Nick’s imagination pictured the great tenor doing something strange, bizarre, and heinous with a potato masher to a beautiful lady who looked like the pictures of Anna Held on the inside of cigar boxes. He resolved, with considerable horror, that when he was old enough he would try mashing at least once.
His father had summed up the whole matter by stating that masturbation produced blindness, insanity, and death, while a man who went with prostitutes would contract hideous venereal diseases and that the thing to do was to keep your hands off of people. On the other hand his father had the finest pair of eyes he had ever seen and Nick had loved him very much and for a long time. Now, knowing how it had all been, even remembering the earliest times before things had gone badly was not good remembering. If he wrote it he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them. But it was still too early for that. There were still too many people. So he decided to think of something else. There was nothing to do about his father and he had thought it all through many times. The handsome job the undertaker had done on his father’s face had not blurred in his mind and all the rest of it was quite clear, including the responsibilities. He had complimented the undertaker. The undertaker had been both proud and smugly pleased. But it was not the undertaker that had given him that last face. The undertaker had only made certain dashingly executed repairs of doubtful artistic merit. The face had been making itself and being made for a long time. It had modeled fast in the last three years. It was a good story but there were still too many people alive for him to write it.