None of us knew Dad even owned a gun until he walked across the lawn in his sagging boxer briefs, his stomach and bald head glistening like distant planets in the dewy morning light, and shot Phillip the Goose straight through the head. My older sister Rachel was the reason for the name Phillip. She was a vegan now, and believed everything should be given an identity: squirrels, blades of grass, even pinecones had a heartbeat. Phillip was the name of her sophomore year boyfriend who broke up with her for her roommate. She denied the connection however, insisting this goose just “had the vibes of a Phillip.”
It was therefore to no one’s surprise that Rachel came bounding across the lawn seconds later in only a bra and panties (the McGaffey’s are not a pajama family) and, fat sloppy tears already leaking from her face, knelt in prayer position before the lifeless bird. “What have you done?” She cried out in a volume that carried down the street and throughout the neighborhood, chasing the echoes of the gunshot into the stratosphere like the timeless dance of predator and prey.
The rest of us watched them from the kitchen window. Under other circumstances, Dad and Rachel would have been mortified by their public nakedness, yet Phillip’s death, for varying mystifying reasons, had shaken them so deeply that the issue of exposed lovehandles and hairy pale thighs were rendered momentarily obsolete.
“Why is everyone naked?” My younger sister Grace asked as she waved her arms in windmill fashion for my mother to pick her up.
“Not naked, just underwear.” Mom explained, as if this salvaged the scene some sanity. She lifted Grace into her arms and rocked her with a well-practiced maternal sway that Grace was getting much too old for.
Still holding the gun we hadn’t even known about, Dad considered his manhood with great concern. He was a well-intentioned man with a generally awkward yet gentle demeanor who spent most of his spare time watching Discovery channel documentaries and reruns of antique shows. To kill an animal, particularly one that his daughter had developed an off-kilter yet perhaps touching affection for, was completely unlike him. Although he found her to be mostly annoying, Rachel was still his daughter, and for that he loved her unconditionally. So it pained him to be the source of her tears, however petty they might be. Yet at the same time, he felt the desperate need to cling to his perpetually slippery title of Family Patriarch, and that the only way to do that was to remain confident about his violent and dramatic murder.
“Poor Daddy.” Mom said in the belittling yet transcendentally sympathetic way that people who have been married for over 20 years regard each other with.
It’s important to note that no one else in the family loved Phillip the way Rachel did. Any love we felt for him was just spillover love for Rachel, who we all adored, even though she truly was very annoying. In the beginning we thought he was cute, at least as cute as a creature with a large beak in the middle of their face who omits loud unpredictable noises can be. And sure, we felt flattered, even special, that this animal had chosen our backyard, our deck, our garden of engorged heirloom tomatoes and wilting basil, as its place of solace. At the very least, he was a refreshing and much needed break from our mundane suburban lifestyle. We fed him and posed with him in photos that we then sent to our friends. But after a few weeks, when we realized how picky and ungrateful of an eater Phillip was, and when his beak started bearing a crusty layer of mud that made him far less photogenic, he became much less of a makeshift pet and much more of a constant irritation. We began to distance ourselves from Phillip, all of us except for Rachel at least.
The past year had been a difficult one for Rachel. She had an unarguable abrasive demeanor, a “love it or hate it” vibe, as I had once overheard two mothers call it during our annual Christmas brunch. It seems that most students at her college had chosen the latter, and she graduated with a very small clique of unpleasant and abstinent girls and a crumbling sense of self. The timing of Phillip’s arrival was so perfect it was almost ethereal: something she could take care of, that would listen free of judgement, whose main priority was always her, exactly the way Phillip the Human could never be.
“Mom, aren’t you pissed that Dad’s been hiding a gun from you this whole time?”
Mom sighed impatiently, still rocking Grace on her hip. “It’s actually my gun, Nicholas.”
I looked at her, feeling both betrayed and exhilarated. “Are you kidding me? How could you? For how long?”
“Probably around when you were born and Rachel was three.”
“So we’re one of those families?”
“Someone broke into my house when I was in my twenties. It was very traumatic for me.” She explained as if describing a mild day in March. “Here, take Grace, I’m going out there.” Mom handed over my sister, and with that, the argument ended. Together, Grace and I watched her walk across the yard in her bathrobe like a fed-up woodland nymph.
The three of them stood over Phillip’s body and argued. Or at least, Rachel argued, shrieking and gesturing aggressively while Mom met her every move with her signature calming voice, until Rachel’s voice melted into a defeated whimper. Dad was mostly silent, probably still busy conversing with his manhood. Finally, they seemed to come to a resolution, even though by then their voices were so low it was hard to make anything out. They hugged: Rachel desperately, Dad uncomfortably, Mom smugly. Two out of three parties wore only underwear.
“Gross.” Grace pointed out.
“Very much so.”
Back in the kitchen, Mom cleared her throat as if preparing to make a toast. I could tell she was having a “this is my family and I love them” kind of moment. “We’re going to have a funeral for Phillip.”
Rachel was wiping her eyes dramatically and nodding in agreement. I turned to Dad, who was still holding our family gun.
“That’s a joke, right?”
“Dad, is this true?” I asked, desperate for an ally.
Dad glanced at the two women next to him with subtle terror. “I think it would make your sister very happy.” While it didn’t make it more logical, none of us could argue with this.
“Can we have cake?”
“Of course, Grace.”
“Chocolate with sprinkles?”
“Whatever you want.”
Grace shrieked and clapped her hands. She wriggled herself out my arms and ran from the room, feeling satisfied.
The four of us stood in a contemplative silence.
“When?” I asked finally.
“Next weekend, so we have time to prepare.” Rachel explained while staring at the opposing wall. I tried to meet her gaze, to have the intimate exchange of eye contact only siblings are capable of that might pull her out of her insanity as it had many times in the past, but this time she wouldn’t budge.
“Great. Are we doing open or closed casket?”
Mom shot me a glance, even though I was truly curious.
“Well, I’m going to go get dressed.” Dad announced, finally recognizing his naked body.
The four of us dispersed to pursue the rest of our Saturday. On the way out, I glanced at the clock. It was 9:37am.