The sun woke him. He’d nodded off after the moon went down and the morning birdsong had begun. Coming up slowly out of the sleep he felt the early autumn cold. He was on his belly, and the hard ground had stiffened his hips and legs. His hand went for the rifle and he pulled it close to him. He raised his head and looked down the hill, into the clearing fifty yards below, where he had last seen the stag, a red deer, huge, a twelve pointer. He squinted and then let his eyes move over the woods around the clearing and the small pond in its middle. The air was sharp and dry; no wind, no breeze. He felt his right leg cramped and asleep, and he shifted his body weight and spread the affected limb away a few inches to restore the blood flow. The dry, brittle leaves underneath him were roused and complained quietly. He focused on the clearing before him and in his mind he called to the buck, here, here, come here, c’mon, even as his hand lay loosely around the rifle’s barrel. The silence endured and it moved him at last to sigh in defeat. He left the rifle on the ground, and he rose, swaying slightly at first, regaining his balance. He unzipped and pissed a hard, sustained stream, and then he stretched and groaned the stiffness out of his body with a long, deep bellow. His cry startled the birds. The hunt was over. He picked up his provisions bag with one hand and his rifle with the other, and he started the mile walk through his woods, back to the road and his truck. His name was Noah Ben Wheeler. He was sixty nine years old.
He saw the white sheriff’s car as he stepped out of the woods; parked behind his pickup it made the battered, rusting, grey Chevy look sorrowful. When he’d left it the afternoon prior he’d stopped and cast a backward glance and found some pleasure in the sight of it sitting in the path off the road; under the trees still green, and with the sunlight leaf-splayed over the roof and bed it appeared to him as comfortable as a nesting bird. It fit there. It belonged.
Now he headed toward the truck, with long purposeful strides. Deputy Billy Swann smoked a cigarette and leaned back against the front fender of the patrol car. He watched Noah stow his sack in the truck cab, set the rifle in its rack, and shut the groaning door gentle. Billy shifted his bulk and made room for Noah against the fender.
“Seen a bobcat late, coyote before that. Might be they’s the reason.”
“Might be. Smoke?”
“I thought we was trying to quit.”
“And we’re still tryin’, ain’t we?”
“Okay.” And he took the cigarette and a light from Billy.
“When’d ya see him last?”
“Three weeks ago back there; before that, the woods across from the house. Saw him from the porch.”
“Damn. He gits around.”
They smoked in silence.
“Ain’t handed out any citations lately, Noah. Ain’t caught anybody in the act. The road’s lookin’ a lot better. Might be they’s gettin’ the message.”
“Might be, too, the sign helped.”
“Yeah, that, too, yeah. Councilmen ain’t happy ‘bout it though. Your property and all, but they figured you might coulda worded it a bit better.
“Yeah, well, I tried nicer, didn’t I? That county sign? Pretty-please don’t litter? Didn’t get me nowheres.”
“They’s another thing, Noah. Why I’m out here. You know, that new wrinkle you put on things.”
“My property, Billy, like you said. And these sonsabitchs’ are gonna quit throwing shit outta their cars onto it. Now I got their attention I’m fixin’ to drive home the point.”
They smoked a while, silent.
“You can’t shoot folks for litterin’, Noah.”
“Well, I ain’t shot nobody. Not yet, anyway.”
“Some folks might see it as a threat.”
“Well, that’s the idea, ain’t it?
“You givin’ ‘em a warning shot now and agin? Over their heads? That’s the talk, ceptin’ nobody’s made any kind of formal complaint.”
Noah ground his cigarette with his shoe, reached down for the butt, and put it into his shirt pocket. “Woods are dry,” he said. Billy pinched the end of his and thrust it into his pants pocket. They settled back again.
“When’s this retirement of yours fixin’ to start, Billy?”
“Come November. Then me and Connie gonna hitch up the old trailer and head west for a few months.”
“You’ll be lucky to git a few miles out of that old tub, never mind a few months.”
“Mebbee.” Billy coughed, took off his cap, laid it on the hood, and folded his arms over a comfortable belly. Noah produced a packet of toothpicks from his shirt pocket, took one, offered one to Billy.
“What you got to cook tonight?” the deputy said.
“Rabbit. Might go to the Post later, few beers, shoot some pool.”
“Well, might see you there. Connie’s at her sister’s a few days.” He pushed himself off the fender, retrieved his hat, and ambled round the front of the car. Noah stepped away and watched him climb in, toss his hat on the seat, and start up the car. He backed up and u-turned, stopped beside Noah, and leaned out the window.
“Then again, some litterbugs need killin’,” he said.
They both grinned.
“I’ll see ya, Noah.”
And Noah went to his truck and started it up, the gears grinding as he backed out onto the road and began the two mile drive home. He slowed as he passed his tobacco field, cast his eyes over the scene with some satisfaction, drove a bit farther and saw his hired man unloading the hay in the field for the cattle. He felt more contentment. He made a fair living, had some money in the bank. He came to the stretch where they’d been littering. Billy’s DUI’s had been there the day before, so both sides of the road were clean.
Noah’s old house was big and white and two-storied with a wraparound porch, and on that, a couple of rocking chairs, a table, plants in vases, hanging plants, some wood crates with tools he meant to bring back to the shed. Off to the right, some fifty feet, surrounded by a miniature picket fence was the family cemetery. They were all there, going back two generations; eleven weathered stones. He went inside, turned the radio on to the local farm station, and set about preparing the rabbit. When that was done he put it in the refrigerator while he worked some farm figures, and then he napped on his couch. Around five o’clock he started the rabbit up in the stove, took up the Mossberg shotgun from a rack in the hall, and walked down the sloping dirt driveway of his house to the end of the yard. They’d be coming back from work now, going home down the one main road in and out of the valley.
A high-top bar chair sat at the front edge of the yard, and behind it a sign made from a white sheet stretched six feet across two wooden posts, high above the chair, and in crude lettering, black, bold paint, in two lines:
QUIT THROWING YOUR SHIT OUT YOUR WINDOW
ONTO MY PROPERTY.
He hoisted himself up onto the chair, settled in, and laid the shotgun across his lap. He heard a car approaching. He drew another toothpick from his pocket and set it between his teeth. The woman driving the car slowed and waved, beeped, gave him the thumbs-up, picked up speed, and continued on. Two more cars passed, headed into the valley, down to the subdivision. When he heard the diesel he straightened slightly in the chair and laid his palm over the shotgun’s trigger guard. A bright red Dodge Ram came into view, rounded the curve, and slowed. Two teenage boys with sunglasses sitting on top of backwards ball caps leaned to face him, grinning. He knew them to be offenders; he’d seen them several times. They dumped bags of fast food, cups and straws, and beer cans.
Noah smoothly brought the Mossberg up from his lap, pointed it over the truck’s cab and into the trees, and fired. The air split apart. The driver, eyes wide, shrieked an expletive, and his passenger dove onto the floorboards and disappeared. The truck roared, wheels shrieked and burned the pavement, and in an instant there was nothing but a cloud of black smoke from the dual exhausts. Noah listened for the engine’s fade, smelled hot rubber, and watched the smoke thin and die. Then he settled the shotgun across his lap, fiddled with the toothpick in his mouth, and yawned. The traffic built over the next hour, cars, pickups, school buses, and then dissipated. Most everyone looked at him; no one slowed, and no one else waved. After a while he went home, ate the rabbit, and watched the sun go down. Then he went to the Post to meet Billy.
He’d seen its beginning some two years prior, after the houses were finished and sold. Traffic passing his house increased, mostly in the morning and in the late afternoon, a pair of modest rush hours that made no real dent in the country quiet or much of an impression on Noah. He knew company was coming –that’s how he put it- as sure as he knew he couldn’t prevent it. The new Interstate bypass cut into the countryside and carved it open. But he had enough land around him, seventy some acres, to remain solitary and secure. No chance of anybody getting too close.
There was a stretch of road near his house where the woods on both sides closed in over the pavement, a stretch about six tenths of a mile ending at the start of his front yard. The trees stood so close and so high, some of their tops touching the peaks of the others across the road, folded over canopy-like, that the sun had to struggle to find a place on the road to warm. Maybe it was the feel of a tunnel, the dark, or the seeming isolation that made them think it was here that they could rid themselves of unwanted paper cups, paper bags, sandwich wrappers, plastic bottles and plastic cups, beer cans and beer bottles before they passed another mile of open country and crested the hill that led down into the valley and their houses. Why leave this trash in their new cars? Why bring it back to their new homes? Why not dump it here?
At first it didn’t amount to much, and though it annoyed him, he let it be. Some folks were just stupid or arrogant, or worse, both; common flaws in human nature, and what could you do about it? But eventually he found himself well and truly irritated by the sight of it, and he began going out, gloved and with a bag, and picking up the trash. Then it occurred to him to do this during the hour that traffic was high; they were going home and would see him, and that would put them off, maybe even shame them. And it seemed to work, if only for a bit. The amount of trash was reduced somewhat, but there remained enough of it to continue to spoil the road. For others it only made them delay their dumping until they were out of his sight; the road snaked and turned several bends. After several months he got the county to put up a warning sign with a set fine, and Billy set about lying in wait, catching a few dumpers and handing out citations for two hundred dollars each. Shoulda heard ‘em howl, he’d told Noah. Then Billy requested the DUI’s out there once every couple of months, and they would clean it up. The wooded edges would stay untrammeled for a few days, a week, and then someone would start it, begin it with an empty beer can, or a convenience store soda cup. One or two items were like a bell, a starter’s pistol, a door swung wide open, an invitation to add to the pastiche, a ticket that said, it’s okay now, everybody’s doing it, so can you.
Finally the day came when he knew he’d had enough, when he knew something needed to be done and clearly stated, a first step taken. It was a woman, flashing past his house, the window down; out came a white bag landing in his yard. She slowed as if she’d realized that she’d been too late, she’d missed her chance along the usual place on the road, and tossed her trash into a yard. Whatever misgivings she might have had she overcame them quickly and sped away. She hadn’t seen him. He leapt from the porch chair and strode quickly down to an empty coffee cup and a half eaten carrot cake in a crumpled bag. He hurried to his truck, jumped in, and set off after her. She was driving a black Lexus, easily seen, and he caught up with her fairly quickly, and followed at a distance. She didn’t appear to take any notice of him. He followed her into the gated subdivision, took two turns behind her and followed her right into her driveway. A man was standing in the doorway of the house and he slowly came down the porch stairs, face puzzled, concerned. She got out of her car and turned and saw Noah, who had stepped from his truck, holding the bag. He walked up to her and held the bag out. She colored immediately.
“Ma’am, I believe this is yours.”
“I… Uh, I…” She took it from him.
“What’s going on, Sweetie?” The man, her husband, had come up beside her, and when he saw her distress he turned a hostile eye on Noah. Noah held up his hand.
“Hold on now. My name is Noah Wheeler. I own the house and land back a-ways on 33 State Road Nine. Big white house. You know it. Now, some folks have been using a stretch of my property to dump trash out of theys cars. Been goin’ on for quite some time now. Seems like that’s easier than bringing it home and tossing it into theys own trash basket. You’re wife here was a little late tossing hers and it ended up in my front yard. I saw her. Ma’am, I’d be obliged if you wouldn’t do that again.”
“Now wait a minute,” her husband said.
“No. No, Jim. He’s right. I did it. I threw the bag out the window. And he’s right. I meant to throw it out along that stretch of road he’s talking about, but I went by it before I... And I.. I’m sorry…”
“Now, Sweetie,” the husband said, placing his arm around her shoulder.
She dipped her head toward him and whispered fiercely, “Christ Almighty, Jim. Stop that sweetie-shit. You know I hate it.” She turned again to Noah. “No, I am sorry. And I’m ashamed, because I’ve done it before, more than once. I saw the other trash, the litter, and, well…” She put both hands around the bag, crushed it a little and pulled it into her chest as if she wanted to make it disappear. “I apologize, Mr. Wheeler. I’m sorry. I can’t speak for anyone else that’s doing it, but I assure you I will never do it again.”
What she began to do when she drove by, if she saw him in his chair, was to beep her horn and give him a thumbs-up. He would smile and nod.
On the Saturday morning after his shot over the boys in the red truck, Noah sat out on the high deck he had built onto the porch back of the house, watching the first glinting frost of the year melting on the grass under a strong morning sun. His eyes wandered to the tree line, to where his woods began at the end of his backyard, some thirty yards away. The ground began a steep slope a short distance in and that slope ended in a creek that cut through the hill bottom almost in a straight line, but so far down that he could not see it even from the perch he now occupied. On the other side another hill started its climb that ended higher than its neighbor. He never tired of looking into these woods, didn’t matter what the time of day or night, the weather fair or foul; sun, moon, or stars, the trees ornate or nude. It was all about the mystery of the forest and being a part of that mystery, of belonging. It was as simple as that.
As a boy, an only child, he had tramped the woods, acre after acre till he knew it all; and like all boys, finding Indian artifacts and Civil War bullets, and letting his dreams loose while he clutched an arrowhead or a tunic button. He listened for drums and chanting in the wind, and horses and bugles in the breeze. He learned to shoot from his father. The first buck he ever saw came when he’d stepped suddenly into a clearing. They surprised each other. It rooted him to the ground, a six pointer that lifted its head, stared at him for a long moment, and then turned slowly away, into the trees, flicking its tail in insolence. He had laughed out loud. The first deer he killed was a doe. One shot had brought it down. His father was at once speechless and proud. He taught Noah field dressing and how to hang the deer from a buck pole and cure the venison. Over the years there were more deer that fell to his gun, but the bucks eluded him. And by the time his parents had died, Noah had given up deer hunting. Now the population had grown. They ate his garden, leapt in front of cars, and they carried ticks. A man was killed trying to avoid a deer that had burst from the trees and headed straight for the car’s headlights. The man had been speeding and his swerve took him headlong into an old, unmoving oak. The deer population had to be thinned and Noah had begun.
A big mug of coffee was in his hand and a Savage 111 Hunter XP lay on the old picnic table. He’d bought the rifle a week prior and had brought it out on the deck and loaded it. Now he sat intent on admiring it. He reached for the cigarette pack in his left shirt pocket, hesitated, then pulled the packet of toothpicks out of the other, and placed one between his teeth. He put his feet up on the wooden stool he kept on the deck for just that purpose, and he leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes to the sun. He breathed slowly through his nose, taking in the air that promised fall, and feeling his heartbeat slow.
A cloud passed across the sun and he opened his eyes to see it, cumulus, light, and the sun shining behind now like a halo around it, silk-white. He brought his gaze down to the woods again and after a few seconds of adjusting his eyes came to rest on the stag, his buck, the twelve pointer, standing just outside the tree line, broadside to him, its massive head and crown turned his way. Noah sat still, unmoving, watching, finally letting go of the breath he’d been holding. The sun was behind the deer so there wasn’t much doubt that he could see Noah. His head dipped once and then rose again to look off to the left. The rifle was within easy reach, but Noah remained fixed and watchful. The deer slowly turned so that he was now presenting his other flank, and his head dipped twice and then again, and then he was facing Noah. It seemed the woods and all the birds in them had fallen silent. And they continued to look at each other, until the buck turned into the trees and was gone. Noah was up quickly, rifle in hand, and even though he knew it was futile he jogged down the yard to the spot where it had stood, and then he crossed into the woods to look and listen. He was surprised to find his heart thumping and his breathing hard and fast, almost a wheeze. He put it down at first as his age, or the buck’s surprise entrance. Probably both, he figured, with a grim shake of his head. The birdsong started up again, and he stood there till he was calm and he realized then that the birds had never stopped singing, that he had shut out all the world while he and the deer had faced each other. He became aware of the rifle heavy in his hands, and he tucked it under his arm. He took one more long look into the forest, and it suddenly came to him that he would probably never shoot that buck, never even try again. On his way back to the deck he was hard pressed to figure out what he was feeling.
Billy parked his truck at the bottom of Noah’s driveway and walked the incline up to the porch in the deepening twilight. He was huffing when he reached the chair Noah pointed to and he sat down heavily and with a grunt. A table stood between them and was set with a tin pail filled with ice and six bottled beers, a bowl of chips, and a tub of jalapeno cheese.
“Why’n the hell didn’t you drive all the way up ‘stead of walkin’?”
“Cause,” Billy said, and he reached for a beer, twisted off the cap and drank half it down before burping and continuing. “Cause I don’t know as it would stay in gear on a hill, and that emergency brake ain’t worth a damn.”
“And this here’s the vehicle’s gonna pull that trailer of your’n across the country? You and Connie? She lookin’ forward to that?”
“Now, you know I ain’t goin’ to subjugate her to that. I’m fixin to get me another truck ‘fore we get gone. They’s time. I’m lookin’ now.”
He drank off the rest of the beer, set the bottle down and reached for another. He put it on the table unopened and spent several moments with the chips and dip, crunching, breathing through his nose, till Noah finally barked a laugh.
“Hell’s fire, boy. Ain’t you et in a while?” And he grinned wide.
Billy snorted, brushed crumbs from his shirt, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and pointed to the rifle leaning against a porch pole. “That the new’n?”
“Beauty. Yessir. That’s a Hunter XP, ain’t it? Yessir, Sonny DeLuca got hisself one.” He popped the cap off the beer. “So what you aimin’ to shoot if you gone decided that buck ain’t for you no more.”
Noah shrugged, pulled out a beer, and started up his rocking chair. The two were silent as the last of the day rolled itself up and the dark began to slip into the space the day had left behind. They watched the occasional car or pickup pass by, and headlights beginning to appear.
“Why, you think? Noah?”
“You know. That deer, the buck.”
“Don’t have any one real makes-sense-reason I can point to. Not a-one. But if you was to force me, pin me down on it, and I was to risk soundin’ a might teched, I expect I’d have to say it’s cause somethin’ somewhere - that morning he come up on me and we was facin’ each other- I felt tired of a sudden, Billy, just so damn tired. Old, I guess, huh? And then, well, when I got down to the edge where he’d been, and I was a little outta breath… I stood there and looked into those woods and thought mebbee he’s doing the same thing right now to me… just lookin’. And that somethin’, that somethin’ somewhere said, leave him be, just leave him be. I ain’t even sure how I heard those words, if’n they was even spoke at all. Might be I got ‘em from the woods, Billy. Might be I got ‘em from the trees and the grass and the stream down below. They just come up inside me. Crazy, ain’t it? I’m turnin’ into a old woman.”
“Not hardly, Noah. Not one bit of crazy. And you old, that’s a fact, but you ain’t no damn old woman.”
They heard the diesel coming from the left, from the subdivision, and they both leaned forward in their chairs. It was full on dark now but there was no mistaking the big red Dodge Ram as it sped down the road, and no missing the carton that flew from the passenger window and onto the yard, spilling empty beer cans. As the truck passed, the boy driving set off a big klaxon horn, its speakers mounted on the cab’s roof, and the sound shook the woods. Both boys whooped and the truck shot ahead and out of sight.
“Well, I’m a sonofabitch,” Billy said, and looked quickly at Noah, who was shaking his head. “Looks like I’m gonna be puttin’ those two in jail tonight. Look at them cans, and neither of them two is even twenty yet. C’mon, Noah. They’s a radio in my truck. I’ll get a car out here lookin’ for ‘em, and we’ll get ‘em fore the night’s over.” He heaved himself up and out of the chair. Noah did the same and picked the rifle up as he stepped off the porch.
“Sonofabitch,” Billy said again, dipping his head in disbelief. He turned round to Noah as they made their way down the drive, and tossed a surprised laugh out. “Bold little bastards, ain’t they?”
When they reached his truck Billy called in to the dispatcher; a deputy was nearby and would be there soon. Then, caught off guard, they both turned, speechless, toward the sound of the diesel, the boys coming again from the other direction, coming back around, making another pass. They could hear them, still whooping and hollering.
“Well, goddamn,” Billy said, and his eyes narrowed and his smile reversed itself.
“Well, those two is drunk certain, no mistake.” Noah said.
“You gonna put one over their heads?”
“I don’t believe so, Billy. They’s drunk and drivin’ too fast. A shot’ll only make ‘em go faster, maybe get ’em killed.” Noah stood legs spread, holding the rifle with both hands.
The truck’s engine was closer, louder, and then they saw it, blunt and square and big, high-beam lights blazing, and the klaxon horn went off, shaking the woods. The truck sped up as it made to pass the two men, and the driver, backwards ball cap, leaned out the window and waved his middle finger, and he whooped. The horn shrieked again. Then the buck, the big red deer, the twelve pointer, jumped out of the woods, onto the road, about twenty feet in front of the speeding truck. Noah and Billy saw it clearly though the boys in the truck did not. Their heads were turned back round to the two men, for one last laugh, one more look, one more finger. The buck turned into the truck’s headlights and stood. The sound of the impact was explosive, metal collapsing, crushed, folding in on itself, and the buck’s two hundred pounds came up over the hood, on its back, crown first, the antlers and head crashing through the windshield, and the truck was punched into a lurching crawl and then a dead stop. Crumpled metal had engaged the horn under the engine, and it howled one steady, piercing note, but not so loud that Noah and Ben couldn’t hear the boys’ screams.
“Sweet Jesus,” Billy hollered, and set off at a run. Noah stood and stared, not believing it was the buck, his buck, till Billy turned and roused him with a shout. He had the rifle firm in his hand and he leapt forward and caught up with Billy. The truck was dead in the middle of the road, the horn blared, the emergency lights were flashing, and the cab’s dome light was on, illuminating the nightmare within. The buck’s cry was all panic and pain. Both men came up on the driver’s side and pulled the door open. The crown and head had shattered the whole of the windshield, driven straight into the cab while its body thrashed over the wide hood and its legs kicked wildly in the air. The air bag had not engaged. The boy driving had hold of one of the deer’s antlers to keep it from his face, which was pockmarked with red pellets of glass. The other boy was pressed back against the seat, nothing holding him there but his own shock and fear. Billy grabbed both sides of the cab’s entry and heaved himself up and inside, where he got his hands on the deer’s antlers and tried to push them back from the boy.
“Jesus Christ, Noah, he’s gonna gore this kid! Help me here. Help me hold ‘im. Jesus.”
Noah climbed up and leaned over Billy’s back. The noise was all madness flung together; the horn, the boys’ screaming, the deer shrieking, and Billy yelling.
“We got to kill it, Noah, kill it, or he’s gonna put an antler into this kid’s chest. Now. We gotta do it now. I cain’t hold him too much longer. Shoot him, Noah, shoot him.”
“I cain’t, Billy, goddammit. They’s no room for a clean shot. Too much jerkin’. I might hit you or the boy.”
“You gotta try, Noah. You gotta…” And he stopped and suddenly shouted. “I got a knife; I got a knife, a Bowie in my truck, Noah, in the truck in the toolbox. Get it. Get it. Hurry.”
And Noah ran back to Billy’s truck, set his rifle in the bed and pulled open the tool box lid. The knife lay on top, fixed in a leather sheath. Noah grabbed it and as he ran he pulled the big knife free and dropped the case in the yard. The other boy had jumped from the passenger side and was standing, trembling behind the truck, his nose streaming blood, taking a step back when he saw the knife. Noah went past him quickly and climbed again into the cab and over Billy’s back. Noah took hold of an antler with his free hand and pushed it back to further expose the buck’s neck.
“Push back harder, Billy, and hold him tight. He’s gonna shoot straight up when I do this.”
The boy cried out again and Noah looked down at him, bloodied, panicked, terrified, and then he brought the knife to the deer’s exposed neck, where a vein pounded visibly through the skin.
“Hold on, now, Billy. He’s gonna jump wild.”
“I’m holdin’, Noah. Just get it done, get it done.” Billy was wheezing, breathing heavily.
Noah tightened his grip on the knife’s handle, and the buck’s eye rolled and fixed on him. Noah saw fear and pain, resolved to end it, and plunged the knife into the animal’s neck, pulling it up and back to open the throat. The deer screamed hoarsely and thrashed harder, Billy hollered and hung on, and the boy, sensing that this was the moment, tightened his grip on the antlers inches from his face and pushed. Blood leaked from the deer’s neck and then spurted and the cab filled with its metallic smell. It dripped over Noah’s hands and over the boy’s chest. When he felt its heat and his nostrils were full of it the boy began to scream anew even as the deer’s death throes diminished.
Still holding the knife across the deer’s neck Noah looked down at the boy, and anger rolled up out of his stomach, and he roared, “Shut up, goddamn you, Shut your goddamned mouth! You did this! You! This is all your doin’. Now shut up.”
The buck was still at last. Noah felt Billy collapse, felt and heard the big man’s breath coming in gasps. He took the knife away from the open and mortal wound, and he held the crown up to let Billy slide free and out of the cab. The boy was next. He was shaking, crying, a nineteen year old kid, and Noah’s anger left him. He took the boy’s shoulder and lifted him up.
“Awright,” he said. ”That’s enuff now. You awright. You ain’t gonna die. You ain’t gonna die. Climb down now, go on.”
Noah let himself down after the boy, and turned and looked back at the deer, its head hung loose in death, the eye black and unmoving, the blood from its neck glistening in the dome light, the blood pooling on the seat.
The two boys drifted toward each other and began to whisper excitedly; then the driver pulled off his bloody shirt and held it away from him, and both of them stared as if it were a strange, unknown thing suddenly come alive. Billy had come up beside Noah, his breathing back to something normal. The truck’s horn suddenly disengaged and it was quiet again except for the ticking of the battered engine.
“Well, weren’t that somethin’? Weren’t it?’ Billy snorted. “Sonofabitch. Goddamn.”
“It was. Yeah, it was.” They stood still and looked in at the buck, at the massive crown, its twelve points.
“You awright, Noah?”
“Yeah. I’m awright. That goddamned truck horn of their’n brought him out, Billy, spooked him and brought him out.”
“I expect so.” He coughed and then spit to one side. “That there was a magnificent animal, Noah. No doubt.”
“He was for sure.” He took a big breath, held it, let it out, and then he said, “And it weren’t no way for him to die, neither.”
They looked down the road at the oncoming flashing blue lights and both of them near sank to the ground as the adrenaline left them.
The boys suffered no serious injury and were placed on probation. Billy retired, bought a new truck, hitched up the old trailer and took his wife west for a few months. Noah butchered the deer and gave most of the meat away at the Post, to those that wanted or needed it. News of the accident swept up the county and, by whatever curious, inexplicable design, caused an almost total cessation of littering on Noah’s road. A few weeks after that night he went for the sheet-sign, pulled it down, bunched it up under his arm and headed back to the house. The buck’s antlers went up over his front door.
Let’s look in on Gil Barrett this morning. There he is just getting out of bed, a little later than usual as it’s a Saturday and Gil has the day off. He’s had a pleasant dream about his dead son, and though he can’t remember the particulars, he takes its sweetness with him into wakefulness. He swings his legs out of bed and pauses over the memory of the boy, the brain cancer at eight years old; and though he tries to hold it at bay he cannot stop the memory of the anger that came from being powerless to help his son, the rage at the Heavens, at God, this anger that had built itself a permanent corner in his being, and eventually drove his wife to leave him. And this morning it sweeps away the gentle whispers and the delicate colors of the dream.
After he’s attended to his bathroom ablutions we observe his entrance into the kitchen, where the coffee pot he had programmed the night before has failed to turn itself on at the appointed time. Worse, he notes the presence of tiny dark specks, pellets on the counter, droppings that he wearily realizes signal the return of mice. He’ll have to pick up a box of rodent poison today. He was through with those useless spring traps after that nightmare debacle a few weeks ago. We’ll get to that in a moment.
He has a modest headache from the previous evening’s three pints of beer, but the empty pot and the mouse shit ratchets it up a notch. He rubs his forehead; the beer aside, Gil gets more than his share of headaches. His doctor says it’s a combination of stress and high blood pressure, but Gil refuses to acknowledge the first, or to fill the prescription he’s been given for the second. He thinks, I’m only forty three years old and I’m not about to start taking pills for this or that, every little goddamn thing.
As he turns his gaze out the side window we see his face suddenly soften; and taking in the small view of the house next door, in the summer sun, the gray siding and the maroon shutters, he smiles. Yep, Gil has a new neighbor; she’s a petite, forty year old widow, no kids, and very pretty. Her name is Oriana. Oriana Vasquez. She was born in Argentina, met an American journalist when she was twenty five, fell in love, married him, and moved to New York City. But he was a danger junkie; he took assignments that placed him in the middle of violent unrest in foreign lands. She begged him to accept easier stories, and here at home, but he wouldn’t. And then finally in a dusty village square in Nigeria a bullet carried off most of the back of his head, and that was that. They’d been married fifteen years. New York City had always been too much for her, so Oriana sold their condo, gathered up a few belongings and a considerable life insurance payout, and moved to this small burg in rural Rhode Island, to start again. Gil met her on the first day of moving in. They hit it off immediately, and Gil found himself walking on air. Then there was the mouse incident, the one we mentioned, the one that nearly wrecked everything. Let’s go back and have a look at that.
One night he sees a mouse run along the side of the wall behind the couch, and disappear. He pulls the couch out and searches in vain for several minutes, growing increasingly more irritated. His next trip to the market he picks up a couple of mouse traps, baits them with cheese and places them in the corners of the living room. After a day he finds the traps still armed, but the cheese is gone. He confides this to Oriana, when he joins her on her porch to watch the setting sun. Gil keeps a clean house, better than most single men, and he’s annoyed by this field mouse invading it in summer. He’s bothered by it more than he should be. That’s what Oriana tells him, and it’s Oriana advising him to use peanut butter instead of cheese. She pats his hand and urges him to calm down, not to get so upset over such a little thing.
He returns home from work the next evening, checks the traps, and finds that one has captured a mouse. His elation disappears when he sees the mouse is still alive. The trap has closed on its hind quarters and failed to kill it. The mouse squirms slowly and pathetically, one eye turned on Gil, who curses and remains standing there a few minutes hoping to see the creature pass quietly away. But it doesn’t. Chiding himself for being wimpy, Gil strides into his kitchen to begin preparing his dinner, but first he pours himself a generous measure of scotch, half of which he tosses back, thinking that certainly the mouse would soon be out of its misery. Let Nature take its course. He checks three more times in the next hour and finds the mouse still twitching and eyeballing him. The latter is unsettling, and to fend that off he barks at the mouse, I didn’t ask you to come in here. What’s wrong with the fields where you live? This is your fault, not mine. But the outburst does little good for Gil, or the mouse.
He throws back the rest of the scotch and pours himself another. After dinner things with the rodent remain as they were. Gil is now distressed and a little drunk. He has to find a way to end the mouse’s ordeal. He rejects the toilet bowl. For starters he would have to pull the mouse out of the trap before flushing it, and then there was the drowning. No. The idea repulses him. After all its suffering he wasn’t going to add any more. He turns away,
thinking hard, and takes note of the small closet in the living room. His shotgun is there, loaded with bird shot. He thinks he’s found his answer. Take the trap, mouse and all, out into the back yard; a clean blast and that will be the end of it. He retrieves the gun, checks the chamber, and then, with kitchen tongs, gingerly picks up the trap and the mouse, and heads out the back door. It must be mentioned here that in his rush to end the mouse’s torment and his own distress, he fails to remember that it’s against the law to fire a gun in this housing subdivision. He lays the trap on the ground; stands back a few feet, aims, and fires. The boom is deafening and the gun kicks back into his shoulder. A clump of lawn soars into the air, but one look at the trap shows him the mouse is still alive. How could he have missed it? Now he’s breathing hard. He fires again and another clod of earth wings upwards, but the trap remains, though some of the bird shot has caught the mouse and now it’s bleeding, but stubbornly clinging to life. Gil is shaking, his heart is pounding, and his ears are ringing from the second report of the gun. He drops it and goes into his garage, frantic, looking for something, anything, and spies a big claw hammer, gathers it up, and at a brisk pace he’s back out to the yard. He kneels beside the mouse and brings the hammer down several times on the creature, ending the drama, the suffering. Gil is breathing hoarsely, and trembling.
We’ll pull back now and view the entire scene; there’s Gil, clutching the hammer, wild eyed, chest heaving, hunched above the mangled mouse, and over there we see Oriana standing in her yard about fifteen feet away with both hands covering her mouth. Now Gil sees her, and horrified, watches as she turns and runs for her back door, slamming it shut behind her. Up to that moment it was as if he had been inside a bubble, divorced from what was happening around him. Panic seizes him as he staggers across her yard calling out her name. It’s a long moment before she opens the door to his pleas, just a crack, and refuses him entry until he has haltingly told his story. Then, overwhelmed by a wave of pity, confronted by this poor man in anguish, a helpless victim of his own kindheartedness, she softens and leads him inside to her couch.
She’s handing him a cup of tea when three forceful knocks resound on the front door. It’s the police, two of them, and they’re young and very nervous. They had gotten a call, shots fired, and seen the shotgun lying in the grass behind Gil’s house, and after approaching cautiously, finding no one at home, they have diverted to the house closest, to Oriana’s. But as the story is related both by Gil and Oriana, they grow calmer and quickly regain their confidence and official demeanor; growing sterner. Gil is handed a citation; he will have to go to court, but it will be a slap on the wrist. He’s warned by the larger of the two officers to stay in control of himself, and Gil stammers out promises to do so.
No more mouse traps. He sets himself to poisoned bait, and that would be that. The only problem would be finding the little corpse and disposing of it quickly; far better though to find it dead under a chair than having to resort to the gun and the hammer.
* * * * *
But that was then, this is now, and we’re back to the kitchen. He makes do with a cup of instant coffee, and heads out to the garage and his truck. And again, let’s push ahead a few hours. It’s as we’ve said, early autumn, a bright, beautiful morning, sun low in the sky, slanting, bestowing a gold tint on all things surrounding, especially the trees, the light that makes it appear to plain folk and poets alike that the leaves are blazing. A pickup truck comes around the corner of a country road, and here’s Gil in the driver’s seat, one arm dangling out the window, fingers splayed in the unseasonably warm breeze, big smile. He’s just come from the town shopping center, accomplished almost all of what he had set himself to do, including the acquisition of mouse poison. Given the glorious day, he’s taking all the back roads he can, and he’s taking his time. He’s pleased with himself and with the way his life is unfolding now that Oriana’s in it. Mind, they have as yet to achieve the intimacy Gil would like, that being his bed or hers, but he feels they’re close to it, and he’s content not to rush things. She’s been off visiting relatives in Argentina for a long month, but is scheduled to return in a week. He’s counting the days.
He sees a hawk circling in the sky just ahead of him, and then another swoops lower to the field on his right, then up again, as if its target had found cover in time. A flurry of little birds burst from the brush on the roadside and dart low across the two-lane, ten feet in front of his truck. He’s wondering if it’s the hawks that have them spooked. Two more little birds fly in front of him, barely escaping the oncoming truck’s front end, and he pulls his foot off the accelerator. The last thing he wants to do is hit a frightened bird. But that’s what he does.
One second it’s there, on his right, and then it disappears in front of him, and fails to emerge on the other side. He’s had no time to react, to punch the brake, but he shoves his foot down on it now as if the force of it will cause the truck to not just stop, but to reverse itself and leave the bird to fly away free and unharmed. The brake squeal dies quickly and silence fills the cab; the truck has stalled. He sits unbelieving for a few seconds and then grabs the door handle and hauls himself out onto the pavement. He walks quickly around the truck and peers at the grill and bumper, and sees nothing. Hope alights in his chest. He looks around praying to see it in flight, but the birds he sees now are far away, high in the sky. Perhaps it’s on the ground, he thinks, on the street, under the truck? It’s when he kneels on the pavement and bends low that he sees it, a brown sparrow, a little ball of feathers caught in the lower left side of the grill, and his breath caches as he reaches out his hand to touch it. One wing flutters as his hand approaches, and he can see that the other wing is caught in the grill. The stunned bird, now somewhat recovered, suddenly begins to twist and writhe, trying to free itself. Gil is on his knees for several moments, staring, helpless, until he remembers where he is. He rises quickly, goes to the front door, reaches in and turns on the emergency flashers. A car is coming up behind him, and slows to a coast, as the passenger, a teenage girl with ear buds, rolls down the window. The man, probably her father, tilts his head down and asks if Gil needs help. Gil explains quickly what’s happened, and that he’s going to extricate the injured bird and see what can be done for it. The girl grows a frown, gives Gil a disdainful look, and the man laughs and jeers, Good luck with that, he cries, and they speed away.
Gil watches them go - like father, like daughter, a pair of heartless creeps - then steps back in front of the truck and the trapped bird. Its head is snapping around, up and down, the little body trembling. What to do? How will it react to being picked up, because that’s what he’s going to have to do? It might even fly away once he pries it loose. Well, that would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? But where will he put it if it can’t? He can’t just leave it. Another car passes but doesn’t stop. Better move the truck. And he does that, parking it well off the road, rushing round again to see if the bird has escaped and flown. No.
He has no choice now. He looks at its beak, fetches his work gloves from the back seat, kneels down and tries to cup the bird in one hand, but it struggles and he stops, afraid to cause it more injury. Over the next quarter hour he sits and watches, occasionally trying to grasp it. Finally, it seems to have tired itself out. He cups it with both hands and gently manipulates the body while he watches as the wing slides free. He’s done it. He opens his gloved hands and looks at the bird sitting there, and the bird looks at Gil, but makes no move to fly away. He places it carefully on the ground. The bird makes a few pathetic hops, a few flutters of the one wing, and then is still, motionless on one leg. Gil makes his decision. He’ll bring it back to the house and see what can be done; what exactly? -he has no idea. From his shopping bags he finds a small box that holds a pastry he bought on impulse. There is enough room for the bird, and that’s where the bird goes, no need to close the lid.
We see Gil’s face now; the stress, the concern, the sadness. He begins talking to the bird in the box beside him, promising to take care of it. Gil suddenly laughs and encourages the bird to have a bite of the éclair that’s sharing the box. Strangely, his heart is singing now. He will find a way to fix this bird and have the pleasure of returning it to the woods and the sky. He’s sure of it.
* * * * *
And this is just what he does. In a way he’s like an excited kid at Christmas who’s just been given a wonderful pet. In another, with the memory of the mashed and mauled mouse still troubling him, he sees this as his ticket to a peace of mind, to forgiveness, a clearing of the slate, for along with his kind heart Gil carries that guilt about little things he’s done wrong in his life, but mostly about his son, and his wife’s departure. At least this he can fix. Arriving home he takes the pastry box with the sparrow into the house and sets it carefully on the kitchen counter. The bird is still, hunched into a corner, but looks up at him and gives its wing a flutter. Gil whispers soothing words. He retrieves his shopping from the truck, and while putting away the groceries he keeps up a steady stream of dialogue aimed at the bird.
Speed up a bit and we quickly view the next five days, days in which all of Gil’s thoughts, even at work, are of the bird and its progress; because, after a very shaky start, the bird is indeed eating and getting well, though it shows no sign of being able to fly again.
Gil has even visited a veterinarian to get some tips. The vet himself was abrupt when he realized that Gil had no intention of bringing the bird in for an office visit, that he was looking for free advice. Well, yes, of course Gil is going to fix this bird on his own. It has to be that way. When the doctor retreated to his exam room the receptionist whispered an apology, assured Gil that most vets were more compassionate, and expressed admiration for what Gil was doing. When he told her how it happened she advised him that the bird was probably a song sparrow and that they made their nests in thick brush, close to the ground; hence, it’s low flight in front of his truck.
It may be a surprise to learn that Gil hasn’t named the bird, no, because he feels that would be a bit much, even childish. What might Oriana think? Ah, Oriana! Instead he has an assortment of manly endearments, shall we say, like Old Pal, Little Buddy, Partner, and Little Dude, for Gil takes for granted that the bird is a male.
After a search of the garage the pastry box has been replaced with a good sized wire cage that had once held a hamster belonging to his son. He bends down to the cage and happily views the contented sparrow pecking at the seeds Gil provides for him. A week of care and feeding have restored the bird, though Gil has come to realize that it may never be able to fly again, and that he may have to care for it for however long sparrows live. That was alright with him, better than alright. It was a task he relished.
He thinks of Oriana, just returned from Venezuela the previous day; how delighted she was when he told her the story, and then proudly escorted her into the garage to see the patient. She cried out when she saw the sparrow, and hugged and kissed Gil there and then with an enthusiasm that thrilled him. She would make a special dinner for them this coming weekend, and her eyes and body language told Gil that this was it, the moment that he’d been waiting for, the night they would spend together, the first night of the rest of their lives. Look how he beams at the bird. Thank you, Little Dude, he says, and laughs when the bird chirps back.
And now let’s fast forward to the weekend, and turn to the events of that day, the afternoon of the day of the special dinner, the day that was to change Gil’s life and Oriana’s as well.
Autumn has recently given way to the first bony fingers of winter, but not today; in one last gasp today the sun shines, the breeze is warm; and the smell of the earth and the dying leaves is intoxicating to Gil. It is a day not unlike the one in which he and the bird, well, first came together, shall we say? Here he is in the garage, the door is up, the truck parked on the street, and he’s raising a swirl of dust as he brooms the floor and brushes the shelves. Listen: Gil hums and whistles softly, and the radio murmurs quietly in a corner of his work table where the cage sits.
The past few days Gil has allowed the sparrow to hop around the table, which it does haltingly, but no longer favoring just the one leg. And he’s thoroughly tickled when he lays his bare hand down in front of it and the little creature hops into his open palm easily, no fuss. Gil has just returned the bird to its domicile when the phone in his kitchen rings. With a boy’s enthusiasm he bounces up the stairs that lead into the house. Oriana is his caller. She wants to know Gil’s likes and dislikes of herbs and spices, how hot does he like a certain dish? And she’s making special hors d’oeuvres. Gil settles himself into a chair beside the phone and the two embark on a meandering conversation ending with Oriana commenting on the time, and laughingly stating that if they are to eat at a reasonable hour she best continue on with the preparations. They ring off and there’s Gil, whistling, returning to the garage. At the door he sees the cat.
And here he stands, momentarily flummoxed, startled, then stunned, then disbelieving and more; and here’s the cat, a neighborhood cat, big, tawny orange, up on top of the work table, beside the tipped-over cage, one paw holding down the struggling sparrow. Now we close in on Gil’s face and we see him registering the cat and the open garage door, and then the sparrow, his sparrow, twisting and bloodied under the cruel paw. A bellow of rage rises up in him as he lunges down the few stairs. The cat arches its back, hisses fiercely, and keeps the bird pinned until Gil is just a foot away, a clenched fist held high over his head. The cat springs from the table and Gil’s fist connects only with its tail, but this is enough to elicit a shriek from the cat, which when it lands on the floor, turns around menacingly, hissing, standing its ground. Gil looks quickly down at the bird, and he groans, moans at what he sees. The bird is alive, but barely, the injured wing is hanging off and its little belly is torn open.
Suddenly all is eerily still to him, motionless, and things become quiet in his mind, nothing reaches him from outside, but very soon a rushing begins in his head, like the thunder of wild rapids plummeting toward a waterfall. It feels like his ears have been blocked solid with a heavy wax, that his head is expanding, filling with water and poised to explode. A drill begins buzzing maniacally between his eyes, growing louder. He has no conscious thought as he turns back to the cat, bends his knees, and begins a slow creep toward it. He has to get close enough to kick it, punch it, and strangle it to death. The cat blinks, sees a large predator, and turns and streaks out of the garage, across the driveway and away behind Oriana’s house.
Gil stops now, stands upright, his fists clenched; and slowly his hearing returns, and with it the sound of his own labored breathing and moaning. His shoulders slump and he turns back to the bird. The rage drains down and out of him as if a huge hole has opened in his stomach and loins. His legs barely keep him upright. He totters for a moment like an old man. The bird is still, the only sign of life now is one eye watching him. Gil stands for several minutes as the truth of the thing wraps around him, suffocates him. The bird is suffering; it’s going to die. He picks it up tenderly and cups it in one hand, and steps out into the sunlight. He can feel the bird’s heart, and his own cries out, and his eyes fill. He lays it on the pavement. What to do? How to end the suffering? A quick stomp of his boot? No. No. He returns to the garage and grabs a short handle shovel. One quick blow and then he’ll bury it. And there he goes, he’s done it. The bird is flattened and dead. He closes his eyes and thinks how its spirit might right this moment be flying away, up into the sky. Some comfort in that, but now to bury the little body. He opens his eyes and there, of course, is Oriana, a plate of hors d’oeuvres in her hand, a surprise-something for Gil before the big dinner. She’s stepped out just in time to see him bring the shovel down on the bird.
And now a repeat of the scene with the mouse. Oriana, dropping the plate on the pavement, where it splits in three, the food scattering; and just as before, she turns and runs back to her house, the door slamming behind her. And here comes Gil again, calling on her to wait, wait, let him explain. But this time it’s not to be; forgiveness and understanding is not forthcoming, because she will not open the door; in fact she has retreated to her bedroom, as far from the back door as she is able. Gil taps on the glass, raps on the wood, calls her name, begs, tells her the story in bits and pieces, making no sense, mixing up the events as they fell out, but hoping she will hear, hoping the truth will come through if he just keeps talking.
After a quarter hour of entreaty has passed he gives up. He’s slumped down to the deck, knees drawn up, his back against the door, head in hands. He pushes himself upright, unsteadily, weaving, starts slowly toward his house. He passes the little bloodied corpse and does not pause; he doesn’t want to see it, not now.
And so, look at what we have here: A profoundly sad, deeply troubled man, a great part of him still in a welter of turmoil, which is slowly devolving into a sea of helplessness, hopelessness. Watch him passing through his garage, into his house, his living room, and tumbling backwards into his couch under the window. Time passes, an hour, another, and still he sits miserable. What is he going to do? How is he going to fix this? And then, why is this happening to him? Why? He’s a good, kind person. It’s crazy, is what it is. First, the mouse, and now this. He’s dreadfully afraid he’s lost Oriana for good this time; that she thinks he’s an out of control, violent lunatic. And at last our Gil begins to get angry, first with himself, and then with the chance circumstances of two ridiculous events that have ended in complete misunderstanding and the collapse of a dream. He stands up and paces, muttering, until the shadows fall around him; night is coming and the bird lies unburied. He sighs, then clenches his teeth, steels himself and heads woodenly for the garage, through the kitchen, through the door, and there he stops at the bottom of the stairs.
Out in the driveway, in the fading light, the cat is back, crouched down over the little corpse, staring at it.
In an instant the anger has Gil, all of him, head to toe, an inferno of anger that roars up behind his eyes and threatens to blind him. It steers him back into the house, back into the living room, into the closet, and to the shotgun. He grabs it and pumps it as he hurries to the garage. He advances down the stairs, strides across the garage floor like a World War One soldier crossing No Man’s Land, shotgun gripped in both hands, eyes fixed. He treads lightly, hears nothing, not even his own breathing. The cat sees him and once again arches its back, but does not retreat. Gil pulls the shotgun to his side and aims it from waist level. He’s five feet away from the cat when he pulls the trigger; caught in midsection by double-ought, the cat fly’s apart in an explosion of blood and cartilage and fur. Gil stands over the mess a few minutes longer, empty, lost. He walks back to the garage, into the house. He doesn’t see Oriana watching from her rear window.
Now let’s bring our story to a close with one more view from above. There’s Gil in his house and on his couch, exhausted, thoughtless, staring at nothing. Slide over and look down at Oriana, trembling, still holding the phone to her ear, because the police dispatcher has told her to do that. Is he still in his house, she wants to know? Yes, Oriana says, I’m pretty sure he is. Stay where you are, Honey, says the dispatcher, and stay on the line.
Now we pull back higher and higher above the roofs of Gil’s house and Oriana’s, and in the darkness we see a cluster of flashing blue lights approaching, splitting up, encircling the area. Does Gil see the lights? He does, but he closes his eyes to them and lays his head back on the couch.
* * * * *
By: Dennis O'Rourke
“What’s up with Noodles?”
“Beats me. He ain’t talking.”
“Is he broke?”
“Nah, he’s got money.”
“Well, hell, it looks like he’s crying.”
“Yep, it does that.”
“Shit.” McHugh stood up. “Get him a beer for me, will ya?” He walked down the bar and seated himself in the chair beside Noodles. “What’s up, partner? Merry Christmas.”
“Yeah, sure. Not for me it ain’t.” He didn’t look up.
“Whatever it is, man, it can’t be all that bad.”
“I’m being thrown out of my apartment, evicted. Is that bad enough?” He turned and blurted it out. McHugh noted the misty eyes.
“You’re kidding. Two weeks before Christmas some landlord is going to toss you out? Is it the rent? How far behind are you?”
The barman set a beer in front of Noodles and said, “This is on McHugh.” Noodles took a big pull without acknowledgement or thanks.
“It ain’t that. It’s Ernie, my dog. They told me I have to get rid of him or get out. It’s a rule. No pets over twenty pounds.”
“So, do you know anybody that’ll take him?”
“I’m not giving him up, Danny.” He straightened and swiveled in his chair to face McHugh, his eyes narrowing. “I love Ernie. I love my dog. I ain’t giving him up.” He turned back to his beer. “But they’re not letting me have enough time to find another place. They want me out by Thursday.”
“Didn’t you know the twenty pound rule before you moved in?”
“Yeah, I knew it. Ernie weighs forty pounds, but he looks skinny. I thought I could get away with it. The apartment was nice, furnished and it’s cheap. Someone in the building told on me, reported me - the guy lives across from me, always complaining about Ernie barking. I know it was him. He always gets this look on his face whenever he sees Ernie.”
They sat and drank for an hour, leaving the canine and domicile problem behind, talking about music. Noodles was a bartender first and a sax player on the side - jazz, not bad, but not good. On his instrumental breaks he had a tendency to putz around, never really get anything going, noodling. A drummer called him Noodles and Noodles was naive enough not to see that it wasn’t a compliment. McHugh was a guitar player; he worked behind some pretty big Country stars, often on the road, and was in demand for recording sessions. He had just moved in to a three bedroom apartment in a swanky complex, high atop a hill overlooking a range of lush woods. He was comfortable.
When he thought about it later he guessed that it was the specter of a fellow musician in trouble that nudged him to make the offer against his better instincts. And it was Christmas. And he was drinking scotch.
“Listen, man, tell you what; I don’t want or need a room mate, but I’ll help you out for a couple of weeks till you find another place. You can take the back bed room in my apartment. You got your own bathroom. There’s no furniture in the room though. You got a sleeping bag or something?”
Noodles grinned wide. “Oh, man! Yeah, I do.”
“Okay, but wait a minute now. Be sure you understand what I’m saying. A couple or three weeks at most, at most is all I’m offering. Through Christmas, that’s it.” They clinked glasses. “So, are you sure you’re gonna be able to find an apartment that will take you and the dog in that space of time?”
“Oh, shit, yeah. I’ll have something to move into by January first, easy, easy, probably before. Oh, man, oh, Danny, I can’t thank you enough. I’ll pay you, too.”
“Oh, no, no. I don’t want your money, Noodles. You’re not a roommate; you’re a guest for a couple of weeks, that’s all.” He held out his hand. The scotch flowed through him, the Christmas cheer, and he grew more expansive. “But you’re a welcome guest.”
On Thursday morning Noodles and Ernie presented themselves at McHugh’s front door. Ernie was a sorry looking mutt of indeterminate breed, brown and black, as skinny as Noodles mentioned, with small bald patches on his back, where the skin showed an ugly, unhealthy red and yellow; and he carried a distinct, unwashed aroma. The dog looked up at McHugh and then put its head down and slunk through the door. Noodles followed. McHugh had a bad moment, a pang of doubt, but he shook it off.
* * *
Second thoughts began the very first night. McHugh came home around six in the evening. Noodles was at his bartending gig. Ernie was in the back bedroom. When McHugh looked in the dog was lying on Noodles’ sleeping bag. He lifted his head cautiously and stared at McHugh. Clothes were all over the floor and three cardboard boxes hemorrhaged papers, sheet music, paperback books, porn magazines, towels and more clothes. A sax stood in its stand in the corner. McHugh was, as a rule, a neat and orderly fella, and he shook his head at the carnage before him. He told himself that Noodles would straighten the room up in a day or two. But what did it matter anyway? He would be gone in a couple of weeks.
McHugh turned and headed toward his own room. He’d gotten only a few steps into the parlor when he saw it in front of the fireplace, on the rug, a pyramid pile of dog shit, so neatly formed, with a twist at the top, that at first he thought it must be one of those joke turds. Now why would Noodles think this was funny, he thought? But on closer inspection it proved to be the real thing, a gift from Ernie. McHugh swore and for the second time shook his head. He retrieved the kitchen basket and scooped the shit up with the fireplace shovel. He got a bucket with hot water and soap and scrubbed the spot till it was clean. Then he sprayed it with Lysol.
Noodles was going to have to make arrangements to make certain the goddamn dog was walked so that this didn’t happen again. McHugh was not going to clean up after the animal, nor was he going to volunteer to walk the dog. He had to have a talk with Noodles tonight, he thought, or this might be a very long two weeks. But he remembered that Noodles was closing the bar and would not be back until after two in the morning. Hell, it could wait till tomorrow.
* * *
Hours later McHugh was awakened by the bell of the microwave in the kitchen. Noodles was nuking a frozen dinner and whispering excitedly to Ernie, that mantra of praise that inevitably gets a dog worked up. “Good dog, yes, yes, you are.” The dog was whimpering in anticipation of being taken outside to attend to business. McHugh caught a faint, sweet whiff of marijuana. The front door opened and closed with a bang. McHugh was startled to hear Ernie begin to bark out in the parking lot. He leaned over toward the clock. Two forty-two in the morning. After a few minutes the door opened and in they came in a rush. It sounded like Noodles was urging the dog to jump up at him. Now fully excited Ernie began to bark again, each one sounding to McHugh like a gunshot. His groaned and his heart sank when he heard an answering bark, a yipping coming from the apartment below him, the little Pekinese. McHugh sailed out of bed, pulled on his pants and headed into the living room. Noodles was indeed getting the dog all riled up.
“Noodles, for fucks sake; it’s three in the morning. Jesus, you got the mutt downstairs going now.”
“Ah, oh, shit, Danny. Shit, I’m sorry.” Noodles reached down and caught Ernie by the collar. The dog cowed immediately. “Hey. It’s all right, big guy; it’s okay. Daddy’s just going to take you to the room, c’mon now. Time to lay down. Sleepy time, Ernie. Come with Daddy.” McHugh watched silently as a stooped Noodles led his dog to the room. When he emerged he was grinning. Stoned.
“Boy, do I love that dog, man. I really do.” He ducked into the kitchen and came out with the micro waved dinner. He set it on the dining room table. McHugh sat down at the other end.
“Hey, Danny, I got a six-pack. Want one? C’mon, have one. Lemme get it.”
He set the bottle in front of McHugh and one beside his dinner. McHugh looked at the beer. Three in the morning. Noodles began to eat and talk at the same time, running on about his night at the bar and the tips he had made and the chick he had met. McHugh sighed and took a sip from the beer, then held up his hand.
“Noodles, listen. Did you take your dog out at all today, you know, for a walk?”
“Yeah, this morning, but I never made it back here from rehearsal. It went late. I just went to work from there. We got a wedding reception in a couple of weeks.”
“Well, Ernie left a deposit on the rug, right in front of the fireplace.”
Noodles stood and looked past McHugh. “Ah, shit, no.”
“Ah, shit, yes. Shit is the operative word. Hey. Where you going? Sit down. There’s nothing to see. I already cleaned it up.”
“Man, I’m sorry, Danny. I just got tied up, busy, and…, well, I guess I forgot. It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“If you love the dog as much as you say you do, you shouldn’t leave him here ten, twelve hours straight without coming back once or twice to let him out. Or however many times a day they need to go out. I don’t know. I never had a dog.”
“Hey, man. I know. It was a mistake. I’m sorry. Like I say, won’t happen again.” He looked down at his macaroni and cheese, pushing it around with his fork like an unjustly scolded child. “And I do love him.”
“Okay, Noodles. I know you love him. And I know it won’t happen again. Okay. I’m going to bed. See you tomorrow.”
But it did happen again, the very next day. This time McHugh left it, walking around it when he went to and from his room. He went to bed. The next morning it was gone. Noodles had cleaned it up, but McHugh could see there was a slight discoloration on the rug. The dog had hit the same spot twice.
* * *
Over the next three days there was no repeat of the rug deposit, but Noodles continued to make a clatter when he returned from closing the bar. He would get the dog all riled up, take the dog out, the dog would bark and that would set the Pekinese to barking as well. He’d get stoned and microwave one or two macaroni and cheese dinners, and drink a few beers. But on two of those nights McHugh returned home late himself, a little worse for the wear, and would join Noodles at the table for a beer, though he shied away from the marijuana. McHugh was coming up to forty years of age and had decided there were some things he would live without for the rest of the journey.
As for his search for new digs, Noodles made a great show at first of leafing through the newspaper classifieds. He would leave the paper on the table with different apartment listings circled in red ink. This satisfied McHugh that Noodles was on the hunt. Convinced that he would soon have his apartment back, McHugh paid a visit to the elderly couple below him and apologized for Ernie’s barking. They assured him they were not disturbed, they were sound sleepers.
A week before Christmas an old girl friend of McHugh’s stopped by in the early evening with a small tree and some decorations. They had split amicably a year before. She had come to see that for the time being McHugh was not one for commitment to anything but music. She was dating randomly, and on a whim, knowing McHugh would not do it for himself, she had bought the tree. They drank some wine,
decorated the tree and then made love in front of it. It was all quite spur of the moment, a delightful surprise, spoiled only momentarily for McHugh when he looked up midway through the proceedings to find Ernie eyeing them from the room. He gave the dog such a glare that Ernie backed away and disappeared into the darkness of the room.
When Noodles returned that night he was like a happy child when he saw the tree. McHugh was headed for bed, pleasantly buzzed from his evening, but stopped to marvel at Noodles’ enthusiasm, and finally ended up joining him in a few beers at the table. At these moments he felt good about helping Noodles out. While they talked Ernie crept out of the room and took up a position beside Noodles. After a few moments of staring at the tree the dog began to growl. Noodles cuffed him lightly on the ear.
“What’s that all about?” McHugh said.
“Ah, it’s just that it’s something new, the tree and the lights, something he hasn’t seen, has to get used to. Maybe he’s a little afraid of it, too.”
McHugh fell silent for a moment. He looked down at Ernie.
“Noodles, how goes the apartment search? Got anything lined up?”
* * *
After dumping the tree and cleaning up the detritus of needles, broken ornaments and tinsel, Noodles began to offer up the usual apologies, but McHugh again waved him to silence. Later Noodles made a show of scouring the newspaper ads.
And then all was quiet, mostly. There was the occasional dog shit mishap, which McHugh would leave for Noodles. Noodles tried toning down his late night weed and macaroni celebrations, but never really succeeded. And suddenly it was the end of January.
* * *
McHugh had been napping. He had a date that night and he’d been looking forward to it all week. He got up around the time Noodles usually left for work. He stopped outside the closed door of the guest room and heard Noodles laughing, talking to someone on the phone. He was about to turn away when he heard Noodles clearly say something that hit him like a punch in the stomach.
“You can stay here, Nadine. C’mon. What do you say?” Noodles paused, and then said, “Nah, he won’t mind. Danny’s all right. He’s a good guy.” He paused again, listening, and then said, “Well, sure, of course. He won’t mind, I’m telling you. You can stay the whole week.”
McHugh backed away, the blood throbbing in his ears. He retreated to his room where he closed the door and sat on his bed, listening for the sound of Noodles’ departure, all the while thinking, “I don’t fucking believe it. I don’t believe this guy. Holy, sweet Christmas Christ Mother of God. The son of a bitch! I said two weeks, maybe three. It’s now more than six, he’s still here, and now he’s inviting his girlfriends. I don’t believe it.” He sat there realizing that he was far too angry to confront Noodles now. He would wait till that night. He listened to the sound of Noodles’ departure and tried to unclench his teeth.
It still weighed on his mind when he picked up his date. The woman quickly grew confused by his distraction and he finally had to tell her the whole story.
“Sure, I’ve thought about whether it was the scotch,” he said. “Probably had something to do with it. I know I can get sentimental after a couple of belts. Lots of people do. Some people go the other way and get aggressive, want to fight. I don’t. I just felt bad for the guy. And don’t forget, here it was just a couple of weeks before Christmas. And on top of that, he’s crying.”
“Now that bothers me,” she said. “What kind of a grown man goes into a bar and cries? Sounds to me like there’s a good possibility you were set up and conned. He could have been targeting anybody for that matter, any of his friends.”
McHugh was surprised. “You think so, really? Well, okay. Maybe. But I honestly don’t think Noodles is that smart or that devious.”
“But you did offer to help. You did invite him.” She paused and said softly, “And he’s still there.”
That cleared it all up in McHugh’s mind. Noodles had to be given his walking papers, it was agreed. They carried on a little further into the evening until it was obvious that the problem had closed itself around McHugh and he couldn’t shake it. She smiled and said she understood. He apologized and took her home.
“See you again, I hope.” She kissed him on the cheek. “You’re a nice fella, McHugh. But I think you’re being used, if not outright manipulated.”
He had another two hours before Noodles would return and McHugh did not want to wait for him in the apartment, sitting at the dining table like some outraged spouse. So he went to the local and had a few more tumblers of scotch. There was no sentimentality in any of them.
He could hear Ernie barking as he walked up the stairs. A cloud of blue marijuana smoke hung over the table where Noodles sat eating his macaroni and cheese. McHugh sat down at the other end of the table.
“Noodles, I want you out of here, you and your dog. I want you out of here as soon as you can find somebody else to put you up. And that better be within the next couple of days.”
They argued for twenty minutes. Noodles was stoned and McHugh was drunk. Ugly words filled the air at high volume. When he realized how close he was to punching Noodles, McHugh went to his room, undressed and passed out.
* * *
He awoke around eleven in the morning, his head ringing. He propped himself up on his pillows and pulled the covers up to his chin. Outside was a gray, lifeless day, windy and undoubtedly cold. When he turned away from the window he found Noodles standing in the doorway. He was wearing a wool cap and a sleeveless down parka. They stared at each other for a long minute. McHugh was damned if he was going to say anything first. He couldn’t remember most of it, but he knew that what he had said last night was enough. I want you and the hound out of my house. Case closed.
“You really hurt my feelings last night, Danny, do you know that?” Noodles said at last. His voice had a hard edge to it as though he felt he was standing on the firm ground of righteous indignation. When McHugh did not answer, he continued, “Some of those things were really uncalled for, absolutely out of line. You had no right to say them.” Another long moment passed and still McHugh lay still, unspeaking, eyeing Noodles over the blanket. Ernie suddenly appeared beside Noodles and sat down, looking back and forth at the two men.
“You owe me an apology, Danny.”
“I want you out of here, Noodles. I want you and Ernie and all your stuff gone as soon as possible. I believe I made that clear last night.”
“And like I said last night, where am I going to go?”
“I don’t care. I don’t care where you go or how you get there. Just go. I tried to help you out. I gave you three weeks to find a place to live. That was the deal. Three weeks. You’ve been here six weeks and haven’t really made any effort.”
“No, no. That’s where you’re wrong. I told you. I have been looking, I have. And there’s plenty of places I could be living, there are.” Ernie suddenly rose to all fours with his head jutted straight out, as if he were a hunting dog, pointing. Noodles looked down as he continued his plea. “I found one a few days ago.”
“Then why aren’t you moved in? Why are you still here?” McHugh propped himself up on his elbows.
“Because they won’t take dogs, they won’t take Ernie. And I’m not giving him up, I’m not. I love this dog, I do. Maybe you can’t understand that because you’ve never had a dog or even a cat for all I know. Maybe you’re just not an animal lover. But I am. I’ve had Ernie for almost a year now and I’m not giving him up. I love my dog, Danny, I really do.”
Ernie coughed once, twice, and thrust his head out and back, hacking. The coughs came faster; his jaws opened wide, his sides began heaving. Noodles looked down. McHugh let the covers fall from his chin and craned his neck up, watching the dog. After a few more heaves, the dog began to spew a stream of bile, a foul looking brownish yellow, whose smell quickly made it to McHugh’s nostrils. The spasms came to an end with two short spurts and one final eruption, and then the dog stepped back, looked up at Noodles and then slowly backed out the door and disappeared. Noodles stood staring at the vile wet mess. In a whisper, almost to himself, but still loud enough for McHugh to hear, he said, “I can’t believe he just did that.”
* * *
Noodles and Ernie gradually vacated McHugh’s apartment over the next few days. Noodles packed and moved boxes and sound equipment and clothing out to his truck before heading to work. No words were spoken. McHugh had no idea where Noodles was going, he didn’t ask; and he tried to convince himself that he didn’t care. But he began to feel badly watching Noodles’ somewhat dramatic departure, silent, head high; a wronged man toughing it out. Recalling his date’s remark about being manipulated, McHugh bit the bullet. Besides, he realized that any show of sympathy now would either be haughtily scorned, rebuffed; or worse, open the door for a Noodles plea for just a few more weeks.
McHugh returned home on the third night and his place was his own again. Noodles had left the key on the dining table, no note. Just as well. McHugh washed, vacuumed and sprayed before going to bed a happy man. He awoke at two-thirty half expecting to hear the microwave bell and Ernie’s barking; and to catch the smell of marijuana. He greeted the quiet with open arms and fell back to sleep smiling.
Several months passed. It was spring at last. McHugh was at the bar when Noodles walked in and took a seat at the other end. This was the first time McHugh had seen him since hearing that Noodles had found a one room apartment in a rough corner of town, but a place that allowed dogs of all sizes. The bartender set a beer in front of Noodles and stood there listening while Noodles talked in a whisper. He finally turned to another customer and McHugh had a full view of his former houseguest. He couldn’t believe it. It looked like Noodles was crying. McHugh signaled the bartender for his check.
“I’m not sure I want to know. But… Jesus, is he crying again? What the hell is wrong with him now? No. Don’t tell me. I’m gone, outta here. I don’t want to know. I don’t.” He paused. The bartender scooped up the money McHugh had laid down, smiled and raised an eyebrow. McHugh stood up and leaned over the bar. “Okay. All right. Tell me. Go ahead.”
“The dog again. I don’t fucking believe it.”
“The dog is dead. He croaked a couple of days ago. Noodles said he got real bad sick and so he took him to a vet. Vet says the dog was probably poisoned. Noodles thinks it was someone in the apartment complex, thinks he knows who, but no way to prove it.” The bartender turned to his register.
McHugh looked up and found Noodles staring at him. McHugh nodded toward him, slightly and only once. Noodles didn’t respond. McHugh left quickly and without looking back.
* * * *
He was in a cheap hotel in Memphis on the last leg of a long, sales road trip. A winter weather watch was in place for the city, windy and cold with an abundance of freezing rain. He had settled his business with one client on the phone, and stood looking out the window at the dark sky. He had a few hours to kill until his dinner meeting at seven. The TV cable was out and he had forgotten to get a newspaper. He turned around and viewed the pile of dirty clothes spilling out of the two suitcases on the floor, and sighed. He needed a clean shirt for dinner. There was a coin laundry two blocks from the hotel. Might as well, he thought. If anything, just to get out of this room.
He stripped a pillowcase off and pushed his clothes into it, put on his coat and grabbed his umbrella. In a few minutes he was out on the street, the freezing rain pecking at his face, so much so that he began to rethink the journey. But there was no getting around the need for a clean shirt, and besides, he had already covered a block, and could see the Laundromat just ahead. As he approached he noted that it was poorly lit and at first he thought it closed. But the dirty, glass door yielded to his shoulder and he went in. A small, rusted bell hanging by a string at the top of the door clanked against the glass. It was cold and damp inside. The machines were old and several had Out of Order signs. The walls were yellowed and littered with flyers and posters with announcements of local events, many of them months old. A cork board held some ten or twelve tattered business cards. The room seemed deserted and that suited him fine. He was averse to idle conversations in places like this. It occurred to him that he hadn’t been in a coin laundry in years.
He slipped five dollars into the change dispenser mounted on the wall and scooped up the quarters. He bought a box of soap powder, dumped it in a washer with his clothes, and set the machine to running. Then he sat down, looking around for something to read. There was nothing. He began drumming his fingertips on both knees and tapping his feet.
The door opened, the bell clattered. An elderly woman entered, dragging an impossibly large laundry bag. He stood up quickly to help her. She gave him the bag with a nod, but her face was so leathered and wrinkled, it repulsed him. And the bag was heavier than it appeared. How far had she dragged it? There were no scuff or sidewalk marks on it, and oddly, it was dry. He looked over the top of her head and said cheerily enough, “Well, which one? Where to?”
She motioned to the back of the room.
She led the way. She was five feet, wrapped in an old black coat, and had a red and black checkered babushka, knotted tightly around her chin, that covered her thick, white and steel-gray hair. She wore a pair of old fashioned black rubber boots, wet, that squeaked on the tile floor. They came to the back of the room and she signaled for him to put the bag on top of a washer.
“Anything else I can do for you?” he asked. “Do you need change for the machine or soap?”
She looked up at him with unfocused, milky-blue eyes and shook her head. He thought he heard her groan softly and of a sudden he felt awkward and then somewhat nervous. He lifted his hand slightly to wave farewell, mumbled, Okay then, and quickly headed back to the seat in front of his machine. Once there he sat down and felt the uneasiness leave him. The minutes went by. He forgot the old woman. He closed his eyes and nodded off till he awoke to find himself tipping from the chair and with the unsettling feeling that he had just dreamed something unpleasant. He stood up and went to the machine. It had jammed and stopped in the rinse cycle. He cursed. It was half-filled with water. He blindly pushed buttons and knobs, but couldn’t get it to work. The only thing for it was to move the clothes into the next machine and start again. He got more change and another box of soap, and initiated the whole process once more, trying to cool his temper. He closed the lid and listened as the machine got satisfactorily underway.
He glanced to the back of the room and saw the old woman standing, folding her laundry. Had he been asleep that long that she had washed and dried everything? She stopped and looked in his direction and then she beckoned to him. He pretended not to notice at first, looking instead out the window at the dark, rain-lashed street, and feeling the cold wind slip through the glass door. At last he turned back and found her still waving for him. He idly, nervously tapped the top of the washer once and walked to the back of the room. It seemed to be even darker than when he had first ushered her down there. It was stiflingly hot, but she hadn’t removed the old black coat or the kerchief. White linen was piled up on the machines on either side of the one she was using. One pile was small and neatly folded, while the other, large and slipping to the floor, waited its turn. She picked a ball of it from the latter pile and motioned for him to hold out his hands. He did and she placed part of the bundle in his hands and stepped back pulling the linen out to its full length, holding it as wide apart as her small arms would allow. When he did the same, and saw what he held in his hands, a sharp intake of breath caught a wad of saliva in his throat, and he choked.
It was a fitted sheet.
The old woman hissed at him, in a dry, coarse rasp, and impatiently shook her end of the sheet, holding it up and gesturing for him to watch how she put it together. But he couldn’t seem to recover from the choking; his breathing was suddenly short and labored and he felt a tightening in his chest that he had never experienced, as if a hand was slowly squeezing his heart. His arms were heavy, but his hands shook as he brought the ends together. She was tucking one end into itself and motioning for him to do the same. The lights around them flickered and died, leaving only a solitary, naked bulb above and behind the old woman’s head. He could hear himself wheezing and he felt his legs giving way. She pulled on the sheet and drew him closer as if to fold it in the middle between them. He was unable to resist and he stepped forward.
When she lifted her head he found himself looking down into shapelessness, into an abyss; he tried to take in a breath but felt the maw in front of him pull the air away from his mouth, and pull him closer. A sewer stench filled his nostrils and he began to gag. Then he saw a brown, wrinkled face forming, like old tree bark, eyes black and wide, the mouth hanging open, revealing yellow teeth and a long stream of drool. He was gripped by mad fear, by terror. He tried to cry out, but could not. When he looked down, the sheet was folded perfectly in his hands.
She turned toward the pile again, pulled another sheet out and beckoned to him. He placed the folded sheet down on the pile and reached for the one she offered, even though everything inside him, his entire being was screaming to run, run, for God’s sake, run.
He reached out for the sheet and took it in his cold hands, even as his entire body trembled. He was sweating profusely. He held the sheet in a ball until suddenly he heard a voice in his head urging him to drop it and run, run. He was about to pull away when he felt hard, cold fingers grasp his wrists. His heart thundered. He looked down at his feet and found that the sheet had enveloped his legs and was slowly moving up his body. He looked full into the horror of the old woman’s face and finally he screamed. This had an astonishing, liberating effect upon him. He felt as if he were shaking something heavy off himself.
The old woman’s mouth opened in silent laughter, her thin shoulders shook, her grip on his wrists tightened. He kicked his feet against the sheet, caught the tip of it and pulled it down with the toe of his shoe. He was free of it and he cried out again. With a desperate effort, one that he was sure would be his last if it did not succeed, he wrenched his arms away from the old woman’s grip, a grip that now felt like steel claws.
He spun around, tripped, but reached his arms out in time to prevent him crashing into a machine. He shook the sheet off the one leg and ran, ran like a madman to the front door, past the coin changer and the soap powder dispenser, past the machine that was gently churning his clothes in the wash cycle, bursting out the glass door so hard that the stringed bell came loose and followed him several steps down the street. He was gasping for air. He did not look back.
After an hour at the hotel, most of it under a hot shower, he gained some measure of control, telling himself that it had been some kind of a dream, or a hallucination. He sprayed the shirt he had been wearing with underarm deodorant and went to his dinner meeting. He was still shaky from the experience and he made the client nervous, finally losing the man’s attention and the account.
He made no effort to retrieve his clothes from the Laundromat. He left Memphis that night and never went back. And he never again mentioned fitted sheets.