How to Skin a Deer: What My Father Taught Me About Writing

06/14/2017 12:10 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2017

1

I come from a Louisiana land of celebrations and magic, a place of seafood gumbo and deer hunting, a world of David Duke and Jesus Christ. It is a land of Vicodin and Jack Daniels and lonely dreamers. It is also a place where fathers often leave their sons too early.

I usually don’t admit it. But sometimes I miss him. Sometimes I really miss my father. I don’t know why I feel embarrassed to say that. I’ve always pretended that it has not mattered to me that I didn’t have him for long. After all, even when he was here, he was only half here.

Even though my father was a carpenter, everything in our shotgun house was a little bit broken. In fact, the house was not quite finished when we moved in. There were missing panels from the ceiling, a missing door here, a missing bolt there. He talked about fixing those things. There was a lot of discussion about how he was going to fix the hole in the floor beneath the kitchen sink. The possums sometimes sneaked in and made me nervous. Uncle Denny promised that he was going to rewire parts of the house so that we could run an air-conditioner without blowing a fuse. When things are broken for so long, you begin to wonder if they even need to be fixed at all.

In our southeastern Louisiana neighborhood, many people didn’t get second acts. In the shacks of the Ozone where I lived, people died young. They called the neighborhood the Ozone because of the supposed unique air quality or atmospheric layer above. I never understood this, as none of us could breathe all that well. But the sky used to be a perfect blue in the summer. I loved the way the Ozone sky looked back then.

My father looked too old to be my dad. In fact, he was old enough to be my grandfather. He had little hair, and was tall and slim, graying and masculine, usually wearing shirts with a penguin on the front pocket. My father looked like a giant to me, but that is probably because I was always so scrawny and weak. He looked like a golfer, but we were way too poor to do things like play golf. We were not a country-club family. My father’s eyes and hair grew a little bit lighter each year. He was always fading away.

In those dilapidated, nearly condemned houses, we lived hard. We skipped school, chiseled graffiti on walls, and daydreamed about what it would be like to be some other place. The peeling, shotgun houses were all lined up imperfectly along the sewage canal that ran along the streets. Sometimes we caught inedible crawfish and watched water moccasins bathing in the Louisiana sun. We got high and glassy eyed and talked about what it would be like to grow up and move to New Orleans or Houston or wherever else we wanted to go.

At eight, I was already old. In the Ozone, nobody was a child for long. We were young but ancient. Bad things happened to boys like me in such neighborhoods. Events turned us into old men by the ages of twelve or thirteen. You can’t be a child in a place like that. You won’t last. I have always been an old man.

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When I was nine and ten years old, my father bought me my first typewriters. He bought me a different one two years in a row. Those were big Christmases because he was finally working or had gotten some money from the VA. Those years, besides the Sears typewriter, I also got a pinball machine and a handheld, electronic NFL football game.

The kitchen table was where everything happened in our house: food, poker games, fights, laughter, sadness. My father played Porter Wagoner and Lefty Frizzell. And as “A Satisfied Mind” poured out of the speakers, I usually sat in one of the chairs at the table and typed away. I created and recreated stories. I wrote story sequels to The Movie Channel movies I had just seen on our new cable television. I wrote a continuation of Rock N’ Roll High School where Riff Randall and the Ramones ended up in a detention center.

My father sang along to the music, and sometimes he played his fiddle or his Dobro guitar. And I sat feeling as safe as I ever would with him. There were other times when he wasn’t playing the guitar, when we weren’t listening to music. In fact, much of the time, he was sitting there sadly staring off into space, broken-hearted about the way his life had turned out. About not being a performer on the Grand Ole Opry. He was full of dead dreams and guilt about not being able to take proper care of his family. Maybe he needed a typewriter too.

But he would ask me to spell words. I could spell anything he asked me to. My father seemed happiest when I spelled words correctly, when I spelled words that he could not. He really liked me then. He loved me in those moments, during those writing and spelling lessons. And he told me stories about WW II and how Uncle Denny was so disturbed because he had helped to liberate Buchenwald. He told me how Uncle Wilson had landed on the beaches of Normandy. He told me stories about his days as a taxi driver when he drove Minnie Pearl around. He told me about how Hank Williams and Patsy Cline had died.

One night at the kitchen table, he promised that he would show me how to build a wooden toolbox for the 4-H parish fair competition. “Tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow after school, we’ll work on it.” I thought that perhaps building things like the objects he built as carpenter would be as fun as having the typewriter. Two days later, I returned home from school and I saw the toolbox sitting there. Shiny and varnished and perfect. He had built it without me. Even when it won a third-place ribbon from the judges, I felt like I had completely lost the competition.

So I had to hold onto my exchanges with him those nights at the kitchen table. That’s what he knew how to do. How to watch me write. But I never forgave him for that wooden box that he made for me instead of with me. At that point, it was like he was already gone.

3

On the October day he died, he was helping build a house for one of Huey Long’s former bodyguards. My mother was in the kitchen shredding lettuce for roast beef po-boys when we got the call. Until the call, it was just another day, around four o-clock after school. Apparently a short while earlier, he had said, “Oh, God, here it comes,” and dropped dead of a heart attack.

I was eleven.

A siren roared along the highway. “They are going to where he is,” Mama said. And she was right.

That entire day, everything moved in slow motion. My mother left, and I had the rest of the evening playing out in my mind. I imagined that my father was sitting at the end of the table, laughing and talking about what had happened at work. I fantasized that he had gotten a little sick but was fine. He would tell us that it was not a big deal at all. He would say all of this when he got home later. That is what went on in the television of my mind. On that screen, my father was just fine.

The cars pulled up one right behind the other. Car after car of relatives who only came at the same time when something bad happened. That is when I knew. I realized that my father was not coming back. I ran outside and into a yard, which was filled with sobbing adults. I walked right into them, hoping that one of them would take me. One of them had to take care of me because I was not sure what I was supposed to do. I did not know the appropriate way to move or the right things to say. I was grown up in mind, but this was not something I had read about in Rolling Stone magazine or in my library books. My precociousness had its limits.

4

I spent many of the summers after my father died flying through the woods on three-wheelers with my cousin Terrence. We filled the days riding and sweating through the Louisiana heat. And we cooled off in the pond. I was still not much of a swimmer, but I still liked being in the water. At night, I dreamed of surfing. I loved riding the waves of my mind.

We sneaked out late at night, roaming the dirt roads and open fields of Uncle Harry’s nursery. On those nights, sometimes with other friends, we laid out on the flatbeds of trucks and stared at the moon, talking about girls and about escaping in eighteen-wheelers or airplanes. Several summers later, I would get braver and get on a bus headed west. But then, I was content just to dream of breaking free.

One day, while we were speeding on a three-wheeler, we came across some of Terrence’s uncles. I could smell the dead animal before I saw it. There was a huge deer hanging from a tree. And they were cleaning it. The deer was sort of all over the ground and weighing down the tree at the same time. I had never seen anything like it, never seen a deer so big or an animal so dead. And I had never seen men and boys connect the way those guys were connected. While there was tension in that family, in that moment, they seemed so united. There was peace.

And I didn’t understand exactly what was happening, why they would kill such a beautiful deer, why they had to rip it more apart, why I couldn’t truly be part of this group. And it made me angry that my father hadn’t taught me about all of this, about any of this. He hadn’t taught me how to hunt. My Uncle Eddie had to be the one to teach me how to fish and how to trawl for shrimp. Uncle Denny had taught me how to put together the Christmas tree. My shop teacher had to teach me how to use a saw. I couldn’t understand why my father had not taught me how to skin a deer.

5

I did not know it then, but I would spend too much of my adult life looking for him. I would roam the country and beyond in my search. From Santa Monica to New York to Italy to France, I would spend too many years trying to fill that 1981 void, trying to find out what I had lost when I was eleven. I would go on to search for my father in the darkest of nights, in the broadness of daylight, in bottles of whiskey, in bags of dope. And I never found him.

If he had never died, maybe he would have taught me everything that I wanted to know. Maybe he would have taught me how to change my grip for a one-handed backhand, and how to kick a field goal. He would have taught me how to build a shelf, how to get a close shave, and how to drive a truck. He would have shown me how to climb a mountain, how to swim in the ocean, how to catch a wave. How to skin a deer.

I have only recently realized that it is a waste of time trying to find something that I already had. For a while, I did have a father. Had a dad. And he taught me how to sit at the kitchen table and spell words better than him and to know more words than he would ever know. He taught me how to daydream to Merle Haggard and Bill Monroe. He taught me how music and words could mean everything, equal to kicking a field goal or hitting a one-handed backhand. And he taught me how to plant my fingers on the keyboard and watch the impressions of the letters and words appear on the paper. And how one word beside another word beside another one fit with the music from the stereo. And how those words and my dreams could create something new. Just like building a house or a wooden box for 4-H.

He taught me how to do this, how to be a writer. Perhaps that’s why I still find myself sitting at kitchen tables at night with music playing and my fingers on a keyboard. My father was not a writer, but he made me one. He taught me how to be a dreamer, how to tell stories, and how to live a life that he was never able to. Sometimes that is the best thing a father can give to a son.

This piece is also part of Martin Hyatt’s recently competed memoir, Greyhound Country. Hyatt’s latest novel, Beautiful Gravity, (Antibookclub, 2016) can be purchased via Amazon or other retailers. More information can be found at: Martin Hyatt Official Website. An earlier version of this story was published in a slightly different form in Who’s Yer Daddy: Gay Men Write About Their Fathers (edited by Elledge and Groff, University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).

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