Kenny, Winking by Annie Dawid
Usually I nap every day around 2:30, before I take the younger kids to sports. The three oldest are in high school now, so no more home schooling for them – we let them choose in 9th grade. But Kenny and Christine were doing their normal routine; once a week, they do target practice out back, weather permitting.
I can sleep through anything. Over the years, I’ve never been bothered by probably hundreds of afternoons of target practice when the older kids were home schooling, then all through the Kenny and Christine years—there’s an 8-year-gap between the youngest and oldest. If there’s no wind, they get out the rifles and pin up the targets on a hay bale and practice for a half-hour. That’s how we’ve always done it.
But that day, something woke me just as I’d entered a hazy dream, where I was in a room without any lights.
It wasn’t like any gunshot I ever heard in my life. Since I hunt, or used to, along with my husband and father and siblings and of course the kids, I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands of shots fired. But this sound was like an explosion inside my body, like the inside of a volcano deciding to erupt. Then I heard Christine scream.
He was still using the kid-size rifle that belonged to Gramps and Dad before him, and then of course the rest of us. We all did; it was a rite-of-passage when we graduated to adult-size rifles. Kenny said he was ready for the grown-up size, because he would be 11 on his next birthday. Dad said maybe. Kenny hadn’t gone through a major growth spurt yet. He was smaller than most of the kids on his soccer team.
We were in the back, shooting, like always. When Kenny said he was going to the basement to get more bullets, I just nodded. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to forget to bring the box up. I kept shooting, with one perfect bull’s eye that surprised even me. I’m the best shooter at 4H in my age bracket, 13-15.
Then there was this sound. I’ve cried and cried, and while everybody says it wasn’t my fault, I know it was. I’m the big sister, the one who’s supposed to be responsible, like my big sisters and brother were with me. I just let him go. Didn’t check to make sure he’d left the rifle outside. We always re-load outside, always with me watching. All of us have taken gun-safety classes. We know how to handle guns like most people around here. He’d reloaded that kid’s rifle I don’t know how many times, always without any trouble.
Now I understand the boom was the sound of the shot in the basement, echoing. I never heard a bullet go off INSIDE a house before: mine or anyone else’s. Our family has always shot outdoors: at targets, deer, and, when we’re lucky in the annual lottery, elk. None of us has ever been to an indoor shooting range. I’d never heard that sound before in my life.
My twin sister and me were running track, like we do every spring. I do the 800, she does the 400, and we race each other, though the coach doesn’t like it, since we’re in different events. We’re outside, feeling the dirt beneath our track shoes – we love that feeling after a winter of no running. it’s a fantastic day: no wind, no clouds; then we hear sirens. My dad, uncle, cousins – most of the guys in our family – are all volunteer firemen. I’ll join them as soon as I can, so I’m always alert to the different tones. The long, deep, uninterrupted siren is for fires. The three-beep short, high tones are for EMT only. Often you hear both – the long one first. So when I heard the three beeps starting out, I relaxed, knowing that Dad or Uncle Ted wouldn’t be going out. No one’s ever gotten killed fighting fires in my family, but we’ve had injuries. None of us does EMT, which is weird, because you actually get paid for that. But we’ve lived in this valley a long time: running cattle, building, fixing tractors – lots of different but important work – so we’re established. Being on the force is tradition.
When the three beeps sound, T looks at me worried; then her expression changes. Good, Dad’s not going – and then we both run faster. I let her get ahead, then zoom past at the last second before her finish line.
I always hold my breath when I hear the sirens. I want to be a firefighter too, like the guys. My dad says sure, why not? But Mom doesn’t want me to. She’s pretty old-fashioned sometimes, though she grew up on Granddad’s ranch, doing all the roping and branding and everything men did – even gelding – but after she married Dad and started making babies, she said she realized how important it was for a woman not to harm her body, especially the baby-making parts. She let’s T do the training, but I can’t until I’m 18. Two more years.
After the three beeps, I let out the air I didn’t realize I’d been holding. During certain times of year, the sirens go off once a day; then weeks will pass without a single emergency. Good weather usually means no car accidents. Once, Great Aunt Betty was driving down the canyon in the rain and went over the edge, where there’s no guardrail. In a coma for 9 days, but she’s a tough old goat, and recovered totally.
Tough women, that’s what I come from. When I felt glad Dad wouldn’t be going to a fire, I had another weird feeling pass through me, like a shudder, but I pushed it away, because I want to be tough. At least as tough as T, so I ran faster and harder.
My brother and me were pouring a foundation for one of the new Amish families. We’ve made money since they started moving here a few years back. Don’t get me wrong – they’re fine, upstanding Christians like us – but sometimes it rubs me the wrong way how they call attention to themselves. The way they dress and get around town, their old-fashioned clothes and the out-of-control beards and the buggies and the bicycle carts…. We’re Mennonite. Our people settled here in the nineteenth century, but the Amish just showed up in the early 2000s, leaving rising land prices in Ohio. Usually, our altitude scares people away, and the growing season is very short. Anyway, we’re pouring when I hear the siren. Our equipment gets pretty loud, and though I should be wearing plugs, I don’t. I motioned to Ted to take his out.
We were both on call, which is unusual, since the fire department has some kind of superstition about not having brothers fight together. We’ve got different schedules, but I was subbing for someone. I checked my radio in case we’d missed the call. Nothing. Then I assumed it was an EMT call, which normally doesn’t concern me, but I thought about Dad. His emphysema’s worse, so I worried about him for a minute, then figured it was for somebody else, so I went back to work.
Amish folk have money. Me and my brother, we couldn’t afford to build such a huge barn, but since they get each other to do the construction, they don’t have to pay anyone. The Amish fascinate me. Strangers get Mennonites confused with them all the time, but we’re so different. You can’t tell us from the rest of the population by what we drive. I don’t get why they can sit in a car being driven by a non-Amish but not drive themselves. They take advantage of technology but don’t want to operate it. As I was pouring, I was thinking how we’re using our equipment to pour them a state-of-the-art foundation for their old-fashioned barn put together with pegs and dovetail joints. The phone vibrates. I pull it from my pocket and see the sheriff’s number, which is odd; I think about Dad, who might not have much time left.
Before I can call back, the phone buzzes again. Sally the dispatcher says, “Ted! You need to get your brother to his house. Go with him. Stop whatever you’re doing and get there.” She’s dead serious, so I know it’s bad. It can’t be about Dad if we’re headed to Jim’s.
My dispatcher gets me on the private line to tell me something’s up at the Tremain’s on First Street. Jim built that place on the piece of land I wanted 20 years ago. We haggled like two old women, but the actual old woman who owned it – the widow of my buddy Amos, or I thought he was my buddy – she decided to sell it to the younger and handsomer Tremain boy, and it’s stuck in my craw ever since.
Don’t have nothing against his family – that’s a sweet wife, one of the Holt girls, and their five kids are great athletes, or were, I suppose I should say – but Jim, he’s had one of them shit-eating grins since he was in kindergarten with my boy. Always gets what he wants, that Jimmy. Don’t misunderstand me: I wouldn’t wish anything like this on my worst enemy. But I’m trying to remember what I felt when I got that call, and I was almost – I don’t know, maybe pleased that something was finally going wrong for that guy, and on the very land I’d wanted, where he and his brother put up what I’d call a mansion, like one of them trophy houses the summer people build on the hilltops out of town, ruining the view for everyone. Now I’m glad I didn’t get the land, because maybe there’s some kind of curse on it. Amos’s widow thought so because Amos got on a horse drunk one night, went looking for a missing calf, then fell right where that house is now. Told everyone she didn’t want to keep that part of the ranch.
EMT No. 1, Sue
Me, I’ve seen just about everything. Before we moved here from Chicago, I was an emergency room nurse downtown, and my husband was a cop. We’ve seen more gun deaths and murders and suicides and every kind of mayhem. Never in a million years did I think that any situation in Willits, Wyoming, could ever top what I’d already seen. I was Number 1 on the crew that month, Mary Ellen Number 2. We had that old drunk Dean as our driver, but that day he didn’t reek.
When we moved here, I hadn’t planned on being around any more injured or dead bodies. But retirement got boring – I was gardening and had the horse of my dreams – two of them, actually – but after a year or two, the novelty wore off. I didn’t need to work for the money. Now I wish I’d never started up EMT work, but at the time it seemed like a good idea. I’ve felt good about most of the work – mostly it’s old men and women who need transport to the hospital an hour from here. We’ve had some gruesome car wrecks too, which the fire people work on with their Jaws of Life, so they tend to see mangled bodies first. The three years I’ve been an EMT, plus 25 in Chicago’s ERs – none of it prepared me for that kid’s death.
EMT No. 2, Mary Ellen
I like working with Sue. I’m still new – in my previous life, I was a dental hygienist. The worst thing I ever saw was a severely rotted set of teeth in this old man who’d been neglected by his family for years. Man, that stink was the worst thing I ever smelled in my life! Had to pull every tooth. But he didn’t die from it.
EMT Driver, Dean
Those women have stronger stomachs than me any day. When I saw that kid’s body – no, not his body, it was his head, or what was left of it, I lost my lunch. I couldn’t help it. I’m supposed to be a professional; I know I’m a good driver – been driving all my life. Trucks, moving vans, even triple trailers in Oregon – you name it – but I’m not so good with people’s brains being splattered all over the room. The kid was dead by the time we got there, so all our speeding made no difference. EMTs get sent, even when it’s too late; we’re supposed to secure the scene and register important information, assuming we get there before the sheriff, but Kenny’s ending was just too much for me. Goddamn if I couldn’t even hold it till I got outside. To get to that basement, you had to go into the kitchen, then take the stairs. It just come up too fast, so I barfed all over the gun cabinet. At least I didn’t spray anybody. It was just me and Sue and Mary Ellen down there. The sister and the mother, they were glued to each other in the kitchen. The girl had run down, then back up after finding her brother. She wanted to keep her mother from seeing him, and I guess she’d succeeded. “Mom, Mom, you can’t go down there. Wait for Dad.” The mom put up a struggle, but I’m thinking she really couldn’t have handled what I saw. “Mom, the dispatcher said she’d find him and get him here right away.” That girl, Chris – she’s pretty strong. Asked me to help hold her mom, but she’d been doing okay herself. I guess she was getting tired by then. I felt bad, because I knew I smelled like vomit, but the mom was hysterical. Hysteria can make you pretty strong. So I held onto that screaming woman until her husband showed up, which was about ten minutes later.
I’m the oldest, closest to my folks. Sometimes I think they depend on me to keep it together when they can’t. I was working on the computer, headphones clamped tight, when the librarian comes over. “You’ve just been called to the office. You and all the Tremain kids. Go.”
My first thought was that Gramps had died. I took a deep breath, gathered my books and went to the office. I saw a bunch of my cousins arriving from elementary, and middle school, with my twin brother and sister racing in from track.
The secretary says there’s been an emergency at home, and someone’s coming to get us. That confused me, because Gramps is out at the ranch, unless maybe he was visiting Mom and something happened. Mrs. Hopkins said she didn’t know what it was about, but I think she did and wasn’t saying, because she looked like hell, like she knew something really bad had happened, and she didn’t think it was her place to tell us. It wasn’t. I understand she was doing the right thing, but at the time I was so worried I thought my heart was going to stop. Between the Tremain and Holt families, their siblings, their kids, there’s a lot of us in the school system. I didn’t know why all of us would be called unless it was Gramps. She kept saying, “Just wait for your uncle to get here.” Or “Just wait for your dad to get here,” to Ted’s three kids. We were all looking at each other confused and uncertain. Everyone kept asking, “Are you sure it’s not Gramps?” and she would shake her head and say, “I don’t think it’s your grandfather, but I don’t know. I don’t want to say anything because I could be wrong. I got a call from the dispatcher saying I should get you together, and that Ted would come for you. That’s all I know.”
Us older kids decided we should wait in the parking lot instead of making Uncle Ted park his truck and come find us, but just as I’m gathering the littlest ones – Ted’s youngest is in first grade – I see him coming through the front door. I never saw a look like that on anyone’s face, ever.
He says, “Come outside, all of you,” in this very calm, very slow way, which I know has to mean the worst thing in the world must have happened, only I don’t know what that could be. Did our house burn down? That was my first thought.
“There’s been an accident,” he says slowly, once we’re in front of the building clustered around him. He picks his youngest up and clutches her really tight. I know it’s going to be bad, so I pick up the next youngest, Timmy, who’s in third grade. It feels good to hold him, to be holding a sweet warm child who smells good, because I know that whatever Ted’s going to say next will be more horrible than anything I can imagine. Maybe it’s not the house. Mom? Has something happened to my mother?
“It’s Kenny.” He takes a very deep breath and exhales slowly. “Kenny had an accident with his rifle.”
Since he doesn’t say “Kenny’s dead,” I’m guessing he’s in the hospital, or on his way to the hospital. I didn’t hear any sirens ’cause of my headphones, but maybe the others did. Maybe the Flight for Life helicopter is already here or on its way. I’m picturing Kenny shooting himself in the foot, because I could imagine him doing something stupid like that. The little kids are crying and saying “Daddy, what happened? Tell us what happened.”
Ted looks at me. I can see in his eyes Kenny is dead, and he’s afraid to say it. I look at the twins, hanging onto each other – I’ve always been a bit jealous of that closeness, the way they have each other. Even though I have four siblings, had four siblings, sometimes I feel alone, like I have to be in big charge of all of them, all the time, and I never have anyone to share it with. Mom has Dad, and a lot of the time, Mom seems overwhelmed, so I jump in and do things, but I try to make it like I’m just helping out – not that I need to do it because it won’t get done otherwise. I don’t want her to feel bad. Maybe she was too young when she had me, straight out of high school. Married the day after graduation, then I pop out eight months later.
“Where are we going?” I ask. “I want to be with Mom.”
“Your dad is there with her. The EMTs and the sheriff are there, waiting for the coroner.”
”What’s a coroner?” chorus the younger kids.
Ted starts crying and hugs his little girl, who immediately starts to sob. “Your cousin, Kenny, he’s gone. He had an accident with his gun. It was too late to save him.”
Instead of crying like the rest of us, Travis runs to the bike rack beside the school doors, picks up his bike and throws it as hard as he can, slamming it against the brick wall. After it falls, he picks it up and throws it, again and again. He doesn’t say one word. Travis scares me. Only Tina can calm him down. She didn’t try to stop him, though. The bike was already completely ruined after the first collision, and she understood what he needed to do to feel better.
All us kids can’t fit in Ted’s truck, but I have the big Ford, so between us, we got everyone in a vehicle.
Our house is two miles from school.
I pull up first. Ted has the younger ones, so he’s driving more slowly. I’m usually the careful one, “slowpoke” as my siblings call me, but I just tore out of the parking lot without thinking, and when I got to the dirt road, which has no other houses on it but ours, with a half-mile straightaway before the driveway, I just gunned it. My cousin Jessie, who’s a freshman, is frozen with fear; she thinks I’m going to crash us. I can’t slow down though. I can see – all of us can see – the collection of vehicles by the house. The EMT van, the sheriff’s car, two other deputies’ cars, the coroner’s car, and some other vehicles I can’t identify. I can’t park where I normally do, so I just pull over as close as I can get and start running. I don’t turn off the engine or shut the door – I had to get to Mom.
Over the decades, I’d like to think I’ve learned a little bit about what to say at funerals, and more importantly, what not to say. Each is different, of course, as unique as the individual who passed away. I’m 81 now – been ministering in Willits, Wyoming, for 53 years. So Kenny isn’t the first child I’ve buried. In fact, one of the very first funerals I ever did was a boy, even younger than Kenny, who might have died a more horrible death, if you can judge such a thing. At any rate, it was a longer death. He’d been outside with the cattle in calving season, a very very cold March, as I recall, a 7-year-old who was the big kid in the family trying to help out ’cause his dad was ill. His mom was doing everything at the ranch plus caring for the three younger kids plus her husband, who I think, if I remember rightly, had pneumonia. Suffice to say, the boy got in the wrong pen and a huge, pregnant cow trampled him. He couldn’t move, and was too far from the house for anyone to hear him, if he had enough strength to yell in the first place. Long story short, he was badly injured, and the temperature dropped. The mom fell asleep on the couch from exhaustion… That boy froze to death overnight, April 9, 1957.
But this is another generation all together. Kenny’s funeral was super high-tech compared to that boy’s, when we still used the one-room church and one-room schoolhouse. For Kenny, we were in the new school gymnasium (paid for courtesy of Wyoming’s oil and gas riches), and the family had put together a slide show. Every one of those shots had Kenny smiling, impish, silly – in some of them it was Halloween, and he was Darth Vader, another year Spiderman. There were pictures of him playing soccer, football, basketball, baseball, on horseback. No hunting shots, though.
It was one of those occasions where I knew to say as little as possible, to let the ceremony take its course. Which, in this case, was a long celebration of Kenny’s short life. I didn’t talk about how he died, or go into the theological ponderings of why, which sometimes mourners need to hear, want to talk about, to wrestle with, especially when it’s a young person, or a freak accident is the cause, or some other situation where the death is a total surprise to everyone. Was Kenny shooting himself a freak accident? I just can’t call it that, can’t “go there,” as my granddaughter at university in Laramie says. Can’t. The boy had to turn the rifle in such a way as to aim it at his forehead, then pull the trigger, which is not the easiest thing to do with a rifle, even a kid-size one.
For two hours, no one said anything about Kenny’s death, only his life.
I’m not from around here, which is to say, not one of the founding families. You can live here 40 years, but if you weren’t born here, then you’re a newcomer. I came only ten years ago – now that I think of it, probably the year Kenny was born. Moved out here from Laramie, where I directed I.T. at the university for a few years. Then my parents died, leaving us quite a bit of money, and my wife said, “Let’s raise the kids in the country. We can move back to Laramie when they’re ready for high school, if you want to.” Famous last words. As these things tend to go, I ended up liking it here in the wilds of Wyoming a lot more than she did. (She’s from Long Island, New York.) We split up. Only took a year, but I stayed, ’cause I’d fallen in love with the place. Didn’t make sense for the kids to have two schools, so they’re with her during the week, and I get them weekends, vacations and summers. In Laramie, I had played soccer and coached it too, so I originated the first soccer team in Willits. I was surprised when there were enough kids to put together a few teams, since this is serious football territory. All the Tremains do sports. They’re athletes in that family. So every single one of them got into it – every age group – to try it, at least. Kenny took to it more than the others. On the kids’ team, Kenny was the smallest, though there were younger ones. In some of the towns we play are a number of migrant families, mostly from Mexico, and they’re very serious about the game. In Mexico, soccer is like a religion, so the devotion is hard-core – not just the kids but their parents too. Deeply invested in winning. I don’t think I’m being prejudiced when I say these teams sometimes play dirty. Sometimes it’s good to play teams like that to get soft kids tougher. Most of the players in Willits are rule-followers. My kids too. And the older Tremain kids. But not Kenny.
He was a match for those Hispanic players. Went right through their legs, which he could get away with due to his size. He elbowed, butted, did anything to get the goal, and if the refs didn’t see it – well, what was I going to do? I could always talk to him after the game, of course, and did. To no avail whatsoever. He liked his tough-guy image, especially being so small. A Napoleon complex in a 10 year old, oversized in his ambition to compensate for being little. He loved winning, and he loved applause. When he made a goal, with all that extended family on both sides, there was always a crowd. I think his parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents must not have known the rules of soccer – it was new to them -- so they couldn’t tell when he was fouling on purpose, playing the dirtiest soccer out there. I’m just guessing about that, since the Tremain family seem like rule-followers; their kids don’t cheat at other sports.
The strangest thing when I heard about how Kenny died was that it didn’t surprise me.
Now that’s very odd, not to be shocked by a ten-year-old boy’s death resulting from a rifle re-loading accident. I was horrified, but in no way surprised.
Around here, people don’t think twice about the lethality of guns – they port ’em all over the place, right out in the open, gun racks in every truck. Growing up in San Diego, I was always drawn to the idea of the “West,” in quotes. Living on the West Coast is not living in the West. When I got out of school, I could’ve gotten any kind of tech job I wanted. But I had this dream to be in the land of cowboys and mountain men and horses and women wearing tight jeans and boots. I never thought about the gun part of the Wild Wild West, which was a giant oversight: a key element to leave out of the myth. Unfortunately I can be like that: blind to the obvious. Like what happened with Ilene. Since we split up, I’ve tried to notice more, to work on observing what’s around me at all times so as never to be blindsided like that again.
What happened with Kenny – I’m not saying I have the answers, and I’d never voice this idea aloud in Willits, Wyoming, a place I love for its austere beauty and the sky and the clouds and the wildlife. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize my position here as a newcomer, and I’ve heard stories – plenty of ’em – about newcomers being “run out of town,” even after 20 years or more, for going against the accepted grain of how reality is perceived in this part of the world.
Kenny thought the rules didn’t apply to him. Not in soccer. Not in regular old behavior either. I’d see him acting all loudmouth with his family, but they always called him cute, or funny, and laughed at his antics. I’m not saying he wasn’t funny – he was. Since his death, I keep picturing him doing this comic routine with a toy rifle, looking down the barrel, grinning, winking, pulling the trigger and laughing when nothing happens, doing a Chaplin-esque pantomime. In my strange imagination, he smiles at me and looks like we’re sharing a secret, which we often did when I saw him make an illegal move on the field and the refs didn’t call it. He’d wink at me, raise his hands together like a boxing champ, bow, and run back out in the field, his family and the others chanting his name.
Annie Dawid’s fifth book, PUT OFF MY SACKCLOTH, was published by The Humble Essayist Press in 2021. It was a runner up in the Los Angeles Book Festival 2021 autobiography category.
Her poetry chapbook, ANATOMIE OF THE WORLD, was published in 2017 by Finishing Line Press.
Her three volumes of fiction are:
York Ferry: A Novel, Cane Hill Press, 1993, second printing, winner of 2016 International Rubery Award in Fiction
Lily in the Desert: Stories, Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2001
And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, Litchfield Review Press, 2009