Your mother named you Annie after Annie Oakley. I remember you’d wear a fringed and pleated skirt and a flat cowboy hat with the same kind of six-pointed star Annie had pinned to her brim whenever we played. I never minded that you nicknamed me Frank after the real Annie’s husband, or that you made me go shirtless and wear a headband with a single crow feather. Just as long as we played together.
You gave me my first kiss in high school. One day at the bus stop you just grabbed my face between your hands, pressed my lips hard against yours, then said, “That means we’re going steady. I know that’s what you want.” And I did want that. And more. And knowing that, you always took the lead.
You had it all worked out when we got out of high school. Your mother got me my job at her father-in-law’s factory and you got your dream job alongside your mother at the shooting range. I know how proud you were to work in front of the glass case that held all her trophies. I remember the day she added your first turkey shoot trophy to the hoard. I thought I might see you cry for the first time. But you just let out a loud “Whoop!”
It wasn’t long after that you asked me if I wanted to marry you. We tied the knot under the oak tree where your father used to string up and dress the deer your mother took down every season. After we both said “I do,” you shot five rounds into the air: two for Annie and Frank, two for you and me, and one for your father who had passed when we were in middle school.
You told me on our wedding night that I had to learn to shoot because your mother couldn’t hold with a man who couldn’t protect himself. So you taught me yourself. Bottles and cans on fence rails at first. Then targets at the range. Then squirrels. We ate every squirrel we shot. And they were delicious.
And we were happy that way for a time. Bottles and cans, targets and squirrels were all we needed. You had your mother for the real hunting trips. I knew she liked me just well enough to let you marry me, but not enough to take me hunting. I never minded. Every fall you’d come back with enough fresh venison to fill our freezer.
When your mother died just before our sixth Thanksgiving together, you took me hunting with you in her place. I knew then I was on borrowed time. Bottles and cans and targets and squirrels were one thing. But when I had that 4-point buck in my sights, I hesitated. I can still feel your breath on the back of my neck when you whispered a kind of growl, “Come on, Frank. Take the shot.” Through the scope I could see its eyes shining golden-brown and clear as amber in sunshine. I couldn’t let my bullet find its heart and turn out that light. I pointed my rifle into the air and fired just like you did on our wedding day. The buck took off before you could take it down yourself. That was it for you. For us.
You packed up your 12 gauge and the .22 your mother gave you when your father died. And the .357 you bought yourself to ease your mourning after she died. When you asked for my .410, the rifle you gave me on our first anniversary, I knew you weren’t ever coming back.
I’ve been on my own nearly 40 years now. I never could stomach the thought of another woman touching me. And I haven’t taken a shot since I was with you. No bottles or cans. No targets or squirrels. Nothing in my sights since that buck.
When I heard you had lung cancer from all the Camels you smoked alongside your mother since you were 16, I knew you’d never let the cancer win. In the end, the .357 did its job and eased your mourning. And when I called your husband to find out where you’re buried, he said, “I could tell you. But I won’t. You can’t pay your respects to someone who didn’t respect you.”
So here I am, talking to you through Annie Oakley herself. Frank is laid to rest one stone over. Kind of like me being one husband removed from you. The hundreds of pilgrims that still make the trek to Brock Cemetery honor the real Annie with offerings of small stones, coins, flowers, little six-pointed stars, and too many bullets to count. But like you always used to tell me, all it ever takes is just one.