Walt didn’t feel like going out. It wasn’t the first time, and Patsy got that look on her face, clenched and squinty, like everything was his fault—the July heat, the near-dry well, even the rat snake that had coiled on the driveway one sunny afternoon. She jerked her purse off the counter and dug for a cigarette, even though she’d sworn to quit. She stood there, puffing angry clouds at him like she was sending a signal.
“Damned if I’m going to sit around all night watching TV,” she’d said. Only it was more of a growl, the way it came out in a deep, wet voice, at the back of her throat.
“Suit yourself,” Walt said. Walt had the news on—a drought update had caught his eye—and Patsy traipsed back and forth from bedroom to kitchen, he guessed so he’d see her progress in getting ready to go without him. First it was the hair. She fixed it up high, like she did when they used to go dancing—back when Walt worked at the lumberyard and they liked to party, had big plans for the future, kids, trips to Opryland. She came out in her panties and bra, not the low-cut, flesh-colored thing she wore sometimes with a blouse half-unbuttoned, but a white one that pushed her up and made her look bustier than she really was. She splashed whiskey over ice, stirred in a little 7-Up, and took it into the bedroom. Then she came back in the slinky blue dress Walt gave her two Christmases ago, and the pink coral necklace he bought for a birthday years back, that she gushed over at the time and hardly put on anymore. The hair had already come undone a little and a long strand dangled off her neck. She shot a look at Walt and went back in the bedroom when she’d freshened up her drink. Next time out her lips were fierce red—clashed with the necklace, Walt thought, but of course he wasn’t going to say anything—and she’d added green eye shadow. He’d told her once she looked like a banker’s fancy girl with her eyes done up like that, not the wife of a dirt-poor landscaper who couldn’t get the topsoil out from under his nails. Patsy took a last gulp of her highball and tossed the ice in the sink, grabbed the keys to the pickup and let the screen door slam behind her.
It was after dawn when the Ford pulled in and skidded on the gravel to about an inch from a load of stone Walt planned to lay in Miz Doak’s garden. He watched out the bedroom window, saw the whole thing, how Patsy stumbled getting down from the cab and sneaked a look around, like she was afraid the McKennas across the road would see. He didn’t want her to see him either, so he slid back in bed, although it wasn’t like he’d slept at all. Not worried about her exactly, since she’d done it before, but wondering if maybe this time she wasn’t coming back.
Her hair was completely down by then. She rattled the necklace onto the bureau, like she was rolling dice. She kicked off the spike heels, let the dress crumple to the floor and fell into bed without once looking at Walt. Didn’t care that he saw, he guessed, or didn’t want to know. The next night, without a word passing between them, Walt moved to the sofa—a frilly, flowered number he’d never liked but had learned to put up with, grown lumpy and bowed in the decade he and Patsy had been married. He was still there a week later, but giving some thought to what he could do to make things right between them. It couldn’t go on that way forever.
On Sunday, as if a midsummer morning didn’t come early enough as it was, down the road Miz Doak’s rooster started hollering at first light and a chorus of her woeful cows chimed in. Patsy’d wake up mean, Walt knew, coming in late again, after three. He swung his legs off the sofa, folded the sheets, piled the board-thin pillow on top, smoothed the yellowed case. Now the mule started to bray and there was another voice in the mix, high-pitched, like a whinny. But Walt knew Miz Doak’s last mare was a year dead, and the only other horses in the hollow were another mile upcountry.
Walt shuffled across the gritty kitchen floor and switched on the light over the stove. Toss yesterday’s grounds in the compost bin, rinse the pot, one scoop, two . . . six, pour in the water, filtered, not from the tap, Patsy hates the taste of the well water. “Like chalk and tin cans in my mouth at the same time,” she says, when he forgets. He cinched his old plaid robe tighter, though the day was already warm, and leaned against the sink to peer into the yard, see what the weather had to offer. High clouds. No rain in sight, no relief. The coffee maker crackled, and dribbled into the pot. Something moved out back.
Ducking down, to see under the redbuds and past the gangly walnut that presided over the backyard like an archdeacon, Walt noticed the gassy smell in the drain— cabbage from his own garden, foul when left to rot like that. Not from last night—last night they’d skipped supper—but from the night before. The coffee maker still popped and dripped. There, he saw it again. Something definitely moved. Through the leaves, he could just make out the muzzle nodding, inches off the ground, as if the deer wanted to graze. Odd to see a deer so close to the house, in full light. At dawn maybe, in twilight safety, but the sun had been up a good hour. Walt yanked the pot off the burner and let coffee drizzle into a mug, then slipped the pot back. He almost turned to see if Patsy’d witnessed the maneuver. “Walter, don’t do that,” she’d say. “It makes a mess. Can’t you wait?” It was funny when she was the one complaining about a mess. Talk about the pot . . . Walt took his cup to the dining room, to get a better view of the fence.
Dining room. That was a joke, too. More like a wide spot in the living room where the hand-me-down table had landed last year when they moved in. The house had seemed just right at the time, with room for the coming baby, and a sunlit yard for Walt’s garden. But Patsy’s miscarriage derailed the unpacking— unopened boxes were still stacked in a corner of the bedroom and the dank basement—and they’d never figured out what to do with the table, short of Patsy’s idea of chucking it in the fireplace. Walt pulled a chair close to the window.
The glass was streaked and dull. But there was the deer, half in the yard, half out, slung over the barbed wire fence like a musty blanket on a clothesline. Walt opened the window, and instantly regretted it. The doe had seen him, or heard the grating of the warped frame; she struggled and kicked, craned her neck. Her front hooves pounded the dirt and raised a dust storm. The wire shuddered. Blood trickled down the inside of her hindquarters, a leg twisted between strands, snagged on a barb. Walt backed away from the window. She’s killing herself, he thought. Got to keep her calm. Only way to save her.
Patsy was in the kitchen now, leaning against the stove. She lifted her coffee cup with two hands and eyed Walt as he bent over the sink.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“There’s a deer. On the fence. Trying to figure out what I can do to help her.”
“If you had a gun, like every other man in this county, you’d know what to do.” She looked over his shoulder. “Can’t see anything,” she said.
“Not the season, honey, even if—”
“But you’d let it die slow?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Walt left Patsy inside and peeked around the corner of the house, but the deer saw him and started thrashing again, slashing a trough with her hooves, kicking her hind legs out, stretching her neck up to make herself look bigger. He’d seen dogs do that, to fool larger animals. If he could keep her quiet, maybe cut the wire or find a way to lift her off the fence, she might have a chance. The closer he got, the harder she struggled, and that’s when he thought of the jute sacks. Sometimes Patsy bought a forty-pound bag of potatoes from the wholesale market and Walt saved them.
“They’re filthy,” Patsy’d crabbed when he rescued the first one from the trash. “They’ll just be more clutter.” To Walt it didn’t seem much different than hording plastic tubs for leftovers, or grocery bags for the garbage, but Patsy wouldn’t listen.
“I’ll find a use for ’em,” he’d said.
They were in the garage, under a stack of bricks left over from when he’d redone the front walk. That was in the fall, when Patsy’d been so snappish and distant he couldn’t stand to be around her, and he’d invented time-eating projects in the yard—the walkway, transplanting the azaleas, setting out dozens of bulbs and daylilies. Those extra bricks he piled beside the crib he’d painted for the baby, tucked behind boxes so Patsy wouldn’t have to see it.
He came out the side door so as not to spook the doe. He’d have to work fast, run hard to where she was, grab her neck to keep her still, and slip that sack over her head. Then she’d settle down, blinded, and in a minute she’d be calm enough for him to take the next step. Except now he saw his cutters would be no match for the heavy-gauge wire. And he wasn’t sure how he was going to lift her off that top rung without hurting her even worse, especially with her hind legs caught up in the next two strands.
But there was no sneaking up on her; the doe wouldn’t let him near. Walt held the putrid bag open like a butterfly net, but when he came close her flailing grew so wild he could hear the barbs rip through her flesh and the fur actually flew. He’d always thought that was a dumb expression, but there was no denying the hair on the doe’s hide floated in the air like dandelion fluff. This is killing her, Walt thought, and backed off.
He poured more coffee and watched from the dining room window. The deer’s struggle slowed, but every now and then she’d lift her head or twitch her ears and he knew she was still alive. There weren’t many options left. He could call a neighbor—John Craig down the road was a good man—and maybe the two of them could get the deer down, even with all her crazy dancing. Maybe she was going to be still now, maybe she’d figure out he only wanted to help.
Or he could call the Sheriff. Walt wasn’t on particularly good terms with the Sheriff’s office, didn’t like their coming around all the time, like this spring when one of his oh-so-helpful neighbors had called to report an incident at Walt and Patsy’s place. It had all been a misunderstanding—Patsy’d screamed bloody murder when she saw the garden shears in his hands, probably remembering another incident, ancient history, when he’d just been laid off and they were both drunk, involving a butcher knife and shouted threats. And there’d been that muddle in high school, not so long ago really: pranks with beer cans and spray paint, brawls with boys from Defiance, getting high and racing down country roads. It got so the Sheriff came looking for Walt and his buddies at the first sign of mischief.
All behind him now. It wasn’t as hard to quit drinking as he’d thought it would be, and Patsy went right along with him, even seemed relieved. It was part of their plan, and things were good for a while, peaceful, although they had to get by on Patsy’s tips from the nail salon while he hunted for work. And when Walt got hired on as a landscaper, life seemed downright sunny; they saved a little money, Patsy got pregnant and they bought the house. But the Sheriff still stopped by from time to time, like he figured Walt was destined for trouble.
So Walt didn’t want the Sheriff’s help. He made some calls. The Game Department was no good, when he finally got through to somebody. She was polite enough, but said there was nothing they could do, and suggested he call Transportation. That made no sense to him but he called and, it being Sunday, got no answer anyway. It dawned on him they’d be the folks to clear away road kill, and then he wished he hadn’t left his name on their answering machine. That wasn’ t what he wanted at all. The Wildlife Center didn’t do rescues in the field. “You ought to call the Sheriff,” they said.
Walt set his coffee cup on the dining table, noticed the dust fly and brushed his hand across the surface, leaving stripes that turned his fingers gray. He waited.
Patsy made herself breakfast—Walt heard butter sizzling in the skillet and then the crack of eggs and Patsy’s humming as she stood over the stove with a spatula, the ting as the bread landed in the toaster. Walt drank his coffee, kept an eye on the doe.
He turned when he heard the click of Patsy’s heels on the linoleum. She stood in the doorway, a plate in one open hand like a serving tray, sopping up runny yoke with her toast.
“You going to watch that damn deer all day?” Patsy’s nails, freshly lacquered in a shade of pink that brought undercooked pork to Walt’s mind, scraped the underside of the plate. “That thing better be gone by the time I get back.” She was going to church with her sister, Molly, then a movie at the mall and shopping afterward—a high school ritual they hadn’t grown out of. Patsy’s plate rattled in the sink, just as Molly honked out front. The screen door slammed and Walt didn’t have to get up to picture the two women gunning away in Molly’s beat- up Grand Am, hair fluttering out the windows, trailing the oldies station behind them like exhaust. Beat-up because it wasn’t hers and she didn’t give a damn what her ex-boyfriend, Darryl, had to say if he ever showed up to claim it. Probably wasn’t worth it to him, knowing he’d have to get past her first.
Now Walt made something to eat. He and Patsy hardly ever ate breakfast together anymore, and she’d stopped cooking for him months ago. Sometimes he fixed supper, but Patsy didn’t show much interest and most of the food went into the trash, or down the drain. While he waited for his toast, he watched the deer for signs of life. It was still, maybe the head bobbed, but Walt wasn’t sure. He found the butter and jam and returned to his spot by the window, feeling like he was at the movies, too. He watched a rabbit nibble on the spirea he’d just planted, then bolt into the woods with another rabbit in pursuit. He finished the toast, catching the crumbs in his cupped palm, and licked the jam off his fingers. A cardinal landed on the feeder to peck at the sunflower seeds and then was joined by a drab female. Walt tapped on the window and the birds scudded into the sycamore at the edge of the yard.
That sent the deer into a paroxysm that startled Walt. The front legs stirred up even more dirt and that white tail flew, her head high, like she was just now starting her jump over the fence, and dropped fast when she came up short. The hind legs banged against the barbed wire and he could hear the twang even inside the house. And then she was still.
He didn’t blink for fear of missing any twitch of movement. But there was nothing. The hooves were planted, motionless. The wires settled. The neck hung, snout drooping close to the ground. The eyes stared. The rabbits ran back into sight. The birds forgot about him and returned to feed.
Now he had a different problem, but at least he knew what to do. There was no hurry. Walt showered and dressed, ready for chores. There was a fallen tree to clear down by the creek, the garden needed attention, he’d let the grass get higher than he should and it would be sluggish mowing.
He took a break around three. Careful to slip off his boots before he traipsed dirt into the house, Walt filled a glass with ice and poured warm Coke. He felt cooler already, just listening to the ice crackle and feeling the Coke spit on his hand. He peeled off his sweaty t-shirt and traded it for a dry one, held the glass to his forehead, ducked down again to see the deer. Still dead, he thought, and shook his head. Not funny, not . . . respectful. The cold Coke burned his throat, hammered his head just behind his eyes.
Out back now, it couldn’t be avoided any longer. He took a few steps toward the deer and stopped. Took a few more. Flies hummed in a chorus like they enjoyed their work, swarming on the doe’s eyes, the nostrils, the trail of blood on her legs. He took a few more steps and the swarm lifted and settled again, and he wondered if all those thousands of flies had gone back to their own spot on the carcass or if maybe they’d taken that opportunity to change places. Now the stench was noticeable. The doe had been straddled there for hours in the sun, baking, rotting, and it didn’t take long for the smell to start. But he was close enough to see what he needed to see. She’d managed to get a hind leg over one wire and twisted under the next and it was squeezed around her like a paper clip; barbs had sliced through the hide in a couple of places and he could almost picture the wire sawing her in half. A saw. He might need a saw, but didn’t relish having to cut through bone just to get the deer off the damn fence.
In the garage, he settled on the tools for the job: gloves, a hoe, a trowel in case the hoe didn’t work. The flies buzzed off when he came back, sounding angry, mad to get to their prize. Holding his breath and gripping the deer’ s front legs, he lifted. Heavier than he’d expected, and he couldn’t do it—she didn’t look that big with her head down—and they were on an incline so lifting from the front was moving her uphill, the lift harder. But the leg was stuck in the wires anyway, and just lifting wouldn’t have done the trick. He tried to pry the leg loose with the hoe, but that was no good. With his boot he jammed the lower wire down and pulled up with his hand, finally managed to untwist that leg and let it spring free. Then he vaulted the fence and came at her from behind. He wasn’t holding his breath anymore, just working fast to get it over with. The smell was bad, but the flies were worse. It seemed like they were after his eyes, his nostrils now. He tried to shoo them away, but there were too damn many. One, two, three, lift, and she was off the fence, on the ground, neck twisted and ugly like a train wreck, open black eyes unforgiving. Her brown hair coated the top wire where the body had creased, and blood in the dust darkened and seeped into the rocky soil. Walt crouched, grabbed the hind legs just above the hooves, and pulled the doe under the fence. He dragged her through the tall weeds, the thistle and wild roses, apologized for the thorns that added insult to injury. The abandoned pasture parted, and they left a trail of crushed grass and shivering Queen Anne’s lace. He pulled, his breath coming hard as he tugged the weight uphill, not from the exertion so much, but just the sadness of what he had to do. The dry soil crumbled under his boots; sweat boiled out of him. He stopped. Dropped the legs. The flies swarmed to the body. Walt turned his head and backed away.
He set the tools on their pegs in the garage, hung the bloodstained gloves above the bench, next to the pliers and the useless wire cutters, and went inside. No sign of Patsy yet. He washed up, drank another Coke, eyed Patsy’ s bottle of whiskey, lay on the sofa.
* * *
First one, circling high, gliding like a kid’s kite until it sees the doe on the hillside, or smells her, swoops down for a clumsy landing, waddles over, hunched wings nearly hiding the small poppy skull, and pecks at the deer, rips away a bit of hide with the black hook of its beak. Then it launches and soars, drifts over the hillside and disappears. Later, letting the flesh melt in the sun, the vulture comes back with another, and a few more follow, and then the sky is full of them, wafting toward the doe. One lands and makes for the carrion, then another. A pair roosts in the walnut tree, peering down, waiting their turn. Then the ground is covered with the birds, wrestling over the corpse, stripping meat from the skeleton, spreading their wings in mutual reproach. They’ll be silent, for the most part, a whine or a hiss to stake a claim, but the sounds are the ripping and tearing of the hide and flesh, the clattering of bones. It’ll take a day, maybe two, to pick her clean.
* * *
The sun dropped behind the pines on Bald Rock Hill, spilled pinks and oranges over the ridge, left the sky violet black. Walt sat on the porch, watched the swallows until they became invisible, swatted at the mosquitoes, listened for the growl of Molly’s Grand Am. Darryl’s Grand Am. Nothing. He gave it another hour.
Inside he found a backpack he used sometimes, on hikes up in the Blue Ridge, or when he was out in the field on long summer days. When he picked it up he knew it still had a water bottle from the last trip. Loose change clinked in the side pocket. It wouldn’t hold much, but it wouldn’t need to. He pulled briefs out of the bureau, socks, a few t- shirts, just enough to get by for a few days, a week. He’d get the rest later, after he found a place. He went out to the garage. He ran his hand over the glossy white of the crib, the pink and blue trim, traced the stenciled flowers with his finger. Then he tossed the pack into the truck bed, next to his toolbox and a pair of muddy boots, and climbed in.
Gravel spun under the tires, headlights washed over the vacant fence, and Walt pulled the Ford onto the dark road.
Clifford Garstang has published his work in Shenandoah, The Baltimore Review, North Dakota Quarterly and others. He has won the Confluence 2006 Fiction Prize and was a finalist for Harpur Palate’s 2006 John Gardner Fiction Prize. He will be a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer. He has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.