In the dark before dawn he put on his camouflage and his orange fluorescent coat, stopped at Sheetz for energy drinks and beef jerky, and drove on to a hunter's cabin on the family farm. He cooked eggs and potatoes on a wood stove and the chimney smoke drifted through the gnarled apple trees. He gathered himself there in the dark, smoking a joint, and the only sound was the hollow beating of a red pileated woodpecker.
He had a daughter with long red hair and a gap-toothed grin that stretched across her freckled face. He took her to the range and she enjoyed firing his AR-15. When it was a few days before her ninth birthday he decided that he would buy her a rifle and that a .22 would suit her best. He called the gun stores all over the state but the only one that carried what he wanted was in Clearfield, an hour's drive away.
It was late October when the leaves were brick red and the scuds drifted over the hills. He made the trip and bought the .22, and on the way home he stopped at the family farm to test it. There was a weedy glade they used for a range, where he sat on a warped, weathered old bench and aimed at paper targets pinned to haystacks and old logs. He was a sure shot, he knew, but when he fired this gun he did not hit anywhere near the target. He saw the boughs shudder behind the haystacks. It was the shoddiest firearm he had ever seen, no more accurate than a blunderbuss. His daughter would have no pleasure if she could not strike a target.
He spent hours trying to figure out what was wrong with the rifle. He inspected the scope. He found the barrel was crooked, due to an error in manufacturing. He took the entire rifle apart and screwed it back again, but even then it fired no better. He had come to the range in the mid-afternoon and did not leave until one in the morning.
Getting a new part from the manufacturer would take months and her birthday was only days away. He had to go back to Clearfield. He would miss the Halloween party and probably the Steelers game too.
Clearfield was an ugly town, a rainy jumble of power lines and steeples. The ethanol factory belched its plumes into the featureless sky, gray against the gray. He returned to the gun store and bought another rifle. Then he stopped at the St. Charles Cafe and had a cup of coffee before heading home.
He made his way back to the farm, and his truck was rocking, bumping, and shuddering all the way down the rocky road that led to the range. He would stay there all night shooting in the rain and in the dark, his silhouette in the headlights as the rain slipped through the beams like sparks. He would stay as long as it took to make sure he had it right.