An excerpt from ‘The Education of Nancy Adams,’ the latest novel from Iowa City author Larry Baker

Larry Baker
Larry Baker Live: Author readings will take place in Monticello on May 8 and at Beaverdale Books in Des Moines on May 9. — photo by Ofer Sivan

The Education of Nancy Adams will be released on June 1 by Ice Cube Press.

Chapter One: Thirty Years Ago

I have perfect vision and low blood pressure, assets that make me a great shot. I can sit on the dock that slopes away from my house and finish a box of shells in an afternoon. I like to shoot things. That scares some men. A woman with a gun. Too bad it never scared the men it should have. My theory is that being educated and being armed ought to reinforce each other. Wrong.

I used to watch my father shoot from the same dock 30 years earlier. He was a lousy shot, and my mother had always insisted that he keep his gun pointed toward the water of the St. Johns. Odd, I always thought to myself, because daddy was much safer to be around than my mother. Frances Adams had a short fuse, and dishes were always breaking if she lost her temper. Dishes and cats and pictures on the wall, nothing was safe. I had seen her launch an empty coffee mug at my father, poor hapless Charles, and then they laughed at each other. My parents were strange. PhDs or not, teachers or not, mother hot and father cool, but cool in a good way, two parents who adored their perfect only child, me, I could never make them as normal as my friends’ parents.

Like my father, I’m not a hunter, and I don’t shoot in front of other people. I’ve got no illusions about protecting myself with either the twenty-two rifle or my small gauge shotgun. They’re always unloaded and locked away most of the time. If I can’t talk a murdering raping flesh-eating burglar into leaving, I’m in big trouble. No, I just like the feel of the stock on my shoulder, the imaginary line down the top of the barrel as I aim, the jolt as I fire, the sight of the target exploding. I seldom miss. I wear ear plugs, but not so thick that the explosion is simply muffled into a mere whisper. And the smell, I really like the smell.

Daddy taught me to shoot, but he told me to never kill anything. Even ant hills were off limits. He was an ideal role model for gun safety, a liberal through and through, except for the time an alligator wandered into our yard. Me, I thought he was the bravest man in Florida that evening.

It was hot and humid, and the sunset had brought no relief. He and I had been shooting off the dock, and we hadn’t seen the gator crawl out of the water behind us. When we turned around, the gator was between us and the house. Daddy fired a few shots into the ground around the gator, intent on scaring it back into the St. Johns, but the gator had an agenda and was headed for the house.

I had looked up at my father and wondered what he would do next. He had looked down and smiled, “You got any more bullets?” It was a moment I always use to explain him to others. I shook my head, terrified at the implication. He smiled again, “Well, I better make my last one good, right?” He quietly explained his plan, as if he had prepared all his life for that moment: Get the gator’s attention, turn it to face us, make it come toward us and shoot it in the eye. A 22 shell would probably bounce off the gator’s hide, and even a shot in the jelly eye wouldn’t kill it, but it might scare him off. Daddy seemed confident. I was about to pee in my pants.

He had assigned me the key role, as if I had proven myself in a crisis a hundred times before. Run toward the house making as much noise as possible, and when the gator turned toward the noise I was to run back toward my father, remembering to stay out of the line of fire. That was my favorite part of the story to re-tell, because I always remembered my first thought: You want me to do what? But I did as I was told, and as I started running toward the house I wondered how mad my mother was going to be when she found out that daddy had put me in harm’s way, and then an absurd thought made me laugh … me and daddy were doing the gator a favor by keeping it away from her.

The gator had snorted as it turned its head toward me. I screamed as I headed back toward my father, not seeing if the gator was after me or the house or him. All I heard was the single shot. When I opened my eyes again, clutching his legs as he was leaning down to kiss the top of my head, I looked out toward the orange ripply line that marked the setting sun’s reflection off the water. Daddy picked me up and carried me to the house, whispering in my ear, “He won’t ever come back here, that’s my guess.” Ever since then, I’ve never been too sure.

Thousands of bullets and 30 years later, I’m still shooting Coca-Cola bottles. I like the eight ounce bottles with a cork in the top. I can throw them far away into the St. Johns. They’re small, and they bob with the current, not an easy target. But when they’re hit they make a satisfying shattering sound, and then the pieces disappear under the water. If I had had enough money, I’d shoot bottles everyday, but I was going broke last year. Facing the necessity of finally going to work full-time for the first time in my life, I had to decide if I was going to let Russell Parsons come to my rescue.

Larry Baker is the author of five novels. He lives in Iowa City.

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