Safe Colors

Thaddeus Rutkowski


Following my father’s instructions, I put on bright-colored clothing before going into the woods. I pulled on an orange leather hat—it had a bill and earflaps. I didn’t like the way it fit. The hat was too thin, but I wore it anyway.

I rode with my father as he drove on a dirt track between fields and parked at the edge of trees. “People go crazy during hunting season,” he told me. “They shoot doe instead of bucks. They shoot cows instead of deer. They shoot people, too. A man sitting on a log got shot because he looked like a turkey.

“But don’t worry,” my father added. “If someone shoots at you, just jump up and wave your arms.”

I walked carefully in my blaze-orange hat. Whenever I heard a shot, I expected a bullet to come my way. I was ready to jump up, flail my arms, and yell, “Don’t shoot! I’m a person!”


In school, I went to a meeting of a student club that promoted international relations. There was only one other student in attendance, a girl with glasses and hair chopped at the shoulder. She told me the purpose of the club was to prepare for an upcoming conference, a meeting of “nations.” We had been assigned the country of Pakistan. “It’s a good country for you,” she said, “because you look Asian.”

She added that since there were only two of us, we would both be ambassadors.

“What does ‘ambassadors’ mean?” I asked.

“It means we can speak in the General Assembly.”

“What will we speak about?”

“Anything we want. We have to write a resolution.”


At home, I watched television with my brother and sister. My sister lay on the floor while my brother stood in a doorway. We followed detectives as they tracked a kidnapper. Oddly, the kidnapper was played by young man who, in real life, was a member of a boy band. In the show, he wasn’t entertaining anyone. He was keeping a young woman in a wire cage.

I didn’t believe the character. I saw the young man as a pop singer. The woman in the cage seemed distressed, however.

When the detectives found the perpetrator, I wasn’t totally glad they did. The kidnapper was arrested before he had a chance to sing.

When I got into bed, my mother surprised me by coming into my room. She crouched next to my bed and said quietly, “Your first word was gun.”

I remembered a silver-colored six-shooter that I’d carried in a holster. The pistol had the parts of a handgun, but all it shot was caps. When the trigger was pulled, there was a sharp report, but nothing came out of the barrel. I still owned that pistol, but I didn’t know where it was.

“Your father likes guns,” my mother said. “But we didn’t have guns where I grew up. My father was a pacifist, teaching the Christian way in China.”

“Where is he now?” I asked.

“I don’t know. He was rounded up as a counterrevolutionary.”


The girl in the international relations club came to visit me. She wanted to prepare for our conference. “Do you have any ideas for a resolution?” she asked. “You should know about the East.”

All I knew was that the East was red. My bright idea was to take a gun outside and fire it. “I’ll show you how to shoot,” I said.

I picked up a deer rifle and some cartridges and led my classmate up a hill behind the town. When we came to a flat, open area, I handed her the gun.

“It has a hair trigger,” I said. “When you take off the safety, all you have to do is touch the trigger.”

She was holding the gun at her side. I was standing next to her, and the gun was between us. Somehow, she released the safety and put her finger on the trigger, and the gun went off. A slug from the rifle could cut through brush and drop a deer at a range of a hundred yards. It was a jungle-hunting gun. The report shocked me, and it must have frightened my companion, too. Luckily, the gun had been pointed at the ground.

“You have to aim first,” I said. “You have to lift the gun to your shoulder and sight down the barrel. Then you breathe out and fire.”

“I don’t want to shoot anymore,” my classmate said.

She went home without working on the school project with me.


I found the toy pistol I’d played with as a small child. It had been stored away in a box. The gun had a chamber that held caps on a roll of red paper. I put the gun in a holster and buckled the belt to my waist.

I stood in front of a mirror and practiced my draw. In a duel, the gunman who drew first would shoot first and kill his opponent—unless he missed. I wanted to fire and hit. I wanted to survive. After a number of tries, I got faster. I might not have been the fastest gunman, but I was the fastest gun boy.


I prepared a resolution for the international relations club. In the paper, I asked neighboring countries to support Pakistan’s new government. I didn’t think India and Afghanistan would vote for my proposal—they were my rivals—but I might get votes from the superpowers. A couple of them wanted Pakistan on the Security Council. I looked forward to speaking in front of the General Assembly.

When I showed my proposal to the girl in my delegation, she said, “I can see you worked hard on this, but I’m quitting the club.”

I decided to go to the conference on my own. I would be a delegation of one.


The night before I was to leave for the meeting, I had a dream about my family. My brother and sister and I were going hunting with my father. But we didn’t go to the woods or the countryside. We went to a town that had been remodeled as a tourist attraction. An orchestra was playing in an open area. All of the buildings were new.

Our father led us into a building—its old storefront was now a gift shop—but I wanted to leave it and go out to the fields. I could see grassland through the building’s windows. I walked to the back, but there was no exit.

I was wearing a green jacket, and I knew green was not a safe color to wear in the woods. My brother and sister were also wearing green. No one had a bright-colored article of clothing. Any of us could be shot by mistake.


Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the books “Guess and Check,” “Violent Outbursts,” “Haywire,” “Tetched,” and “Roughhouse.” “Haywire” won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.