The Pointer

Jim McDermott Click to

A native of Virginia, Jim McDermott is the author of a creative nonfiction book about dogs and of a research text centering on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s prose style.  He lives with his wife and two children near Washington, D. C.

 “The Pointer” received the 2nd annual Bevel Summers Prize for the Short Short Story.

Swallows fly in and out the broken windows of a V-12 silvered by weather, our great-grandfather’s ancient Sunday cruising sedan. We’re sitting on the hoods of the used-up cars that rust now on the first farm he ever owned, waiting for shooting hours to begin. We talk about our city jobs and toss a baseball back and forth. A profusely ticked young pointer, intelligent-eyed, with shivering legs, tilts her nose toward the sky as a gust of wind clears the ragged woods. Pinned against the logo on the side of a derelict tractor is a sunflower, brittle and spiked; the neighbor’s little combine did not catch it. Our watches say it’s time or we would dally there all day in the automobile graveyard.

Out in the field we see the young pointer, John’s dog, quarter like an Elhew and shake the cover to pieces. Seeing her courage so young, we want to be bird dogs ourselves. John whistles her in and makes a show of apologizing that there are so few birds to find. The spring was wet and cold when it shouldn’t have been; young quail died of exposure by the thousands. Thousands more did not make it through the summer-long drought. We walk the cover anyway and carry our side-by-sides at port-arms as if we might have a chance to use them.

John keeps the pointer at heel until we’re within sight of the overgrown feedlot. Two hundred calves used to bawl here during each fall’s weaning. The original owner of the farm had built for his family an improbable four-story house. In the grass we see the stone foundation with nothing above it, the root cellar open to the skies, the splayed piles of weathered boards. We shift our path and walk around.

In the feedlot the dog ghosts through foxtail spikes. The bell attached to her collar chimes. When there is no sound, we fight through the cover and see her standing so still it seems she cannot move. The bird is not the bobwhite we had been hoping for. The bird is a wren. We watch its swerving flight and crack our guns.

At the family plot there are the matched headstones and what seems like too much space on every side. We walk the savage grass, the pointer leading us toward a wild plum thicket as bluebirds scatter. The headstones are turning green. Each year it is harder to read what they say. The family cemetery never took; our ancestor and his second wife alone honored the idea. We have killed birds near the graves before. We have stopped to talk about how this outsider did so much of the work of getting somewhere that we don’t have to. All of our own work, we have said, is just a kind of playing around.

He should have died one winter; the polio was the worst sign yet of his father’s vexed luck in the new world. The virus damaged his leg for good. While his brothers and sisters helped labor to right the farm, he took piano lessons and was spoiled by his mother and aunts. No one went to college but him; only he needed to make a living in town. He studied military history, learned the Civil War to no end, went on to become a music teacher. He wore suits and won cash with his sunny tenor though his brothers never learned to read. Eventually, he made a killing dealing cars.

Cow-and-calf operators sold out to him and he built his land empire. Some of the ruined men he kept on as hired hands or sharecroppers. They drove his cast-off cars and trucks to death to do his work for him, left them out in the open to save the cost of hauling them away.

After he turned to business, our ancestor would do anything, it was said, to get another dollar. Crafty Irish bastard: the worst chiseler around.

Wandering the last piece of land we have to know him by, we have shrugged our shoulders. Every family commits a shameful act. If it does not, a run of bad luck could set it back forever.


The next day we clamber on the cars in early afternoon. Our boots dangle near wheel wells; the backs of our knees graze bumpers. The last two hours we marched through hedgerow jungles without a break. The universe of clover across the wet-weather creek was also empty.

A tractor starts up by the neighbor’s new barn; the engine catches and begins to rumble. A cropduster makes another pass above the neighbor’s winter wheat. John taps the hood of the V-12 and the pointer jumps up. In a moment she is on the roof. Facing forward, the beautiful dog we all admire ornaments the old sedan.

After dark we take the ferry across the James and find our table at Taylor’s in town. Another empty place, another way of telling us the birds aren’t here. A game is on TV: seven-man football, the Triple A Championship carried live. The air stinks from a solitary cigar angled toward the ceiling by an aged farmer’s stumped fingers. He drinks by himself at the bar. Almost without noticing, we decide the matter: we’ll make a deal with the neighbor. By Christmas it will be done.

Past midnight we spill out the door. The silent streets of the town rebuke us. We wander across railroad tracks and stand dumbstruck before a wire cage stuffed to a height of twenty feet with salvaged aluminum cans.

In the daytime at the farm, the light was all over us. We could have been an army at rest, young men in camp at Shiloh after taking a dip in Owl Creek. Ten miles distant, the farm is quiet. The burying ground for old cars reveals three rows of still forms. Near the woods edge, the ancient V-12 sinks lower and pushes itself hard against the earth like a soldier drying himself in the sun.