|Robert D. Vivian|
Joe Caesar was bringing the road kill home to feed his wife and seven kids when it jumped up in the back of his truck and fell into the road. The movement was so sudden and of a piece it was like it had already happened a long time ago in the private part of Joe Caesar's soul. The kill must have been revived by the cool air rushing into its lungs at 60 mph, its limbs made new again by the baptism of sheer speed like the momentum took them back to an atavistic state where there was no need for dying. For a moment the head of the deer looked like a saint's or a distant relative's as it stared at Joe through the rear window of the truck like it knew him somehow, a little sad and reproving, a little embarrassed. Then its brief resurrection turned to gum and shoe strings as the deer teetered and fell out of the truck, pouring back on to the highway.
He hit the brakes and skidded a good twenty feet on the wet asphalt before coming to a stop. He swore so quietly and reverently it was almost like a prayer, back to a place he had never left as he closed his eyes and bowed his head against the steering wheel. The moment stood outside of time somehow, suffused with reluctance and regret, a vertical drop of a few thousand airless feet, his life in strange and timeless freefall that felt for a moment like deliverance, like justice and redemption, everything in the dense Michigan woods conferred to him in the empty package of what he had already lost and would no doubt lose again. It was a helluva thing to have to bring road kill home to your family that was hungry, a helluva thing. The deer started making eerie, high-pitched noises and squeaks, not unlike a bat or a radio between stations. Maybe it was trying to communicate something in the voice of dying, those whines and warbling decrescendos like distant rays from a lightless star. He was sure the doe had been dead when he found it twenty miles back, not breathing and still warm from with its tongue sticking out. No way a deer with a broken back could stand up like it had just done, he'd must of seen it wrong or made it up in his mind because the deer looked perfectly fine when it stood up in the truck, startled and scared maybe but hardly worse off for that. The way it looked at him with those soft brown eyes probed his memory, asking him in one woebegone glance why he had to do her that way, lifting her up off the highway as if he'd kidnapped her from everlasting peace.
He listened to the deer awhile before lifting his head from the steering wheel. He imagined the faces of his kids sixteen on down to two, fiddling with his snowshoes in the garage and gnawing on pieces of cardboard. Then Bell stomping around in the kitchen pissed off again, clanging pots and dishes, making all kinds of racket to communicate her wrath and frustration, her giant gut pushing out way beyond the view of her own feet. He didn't understand how she kept getting bigger while they kept getting poorer, like her weight was mocking him in inverse proportion to the things he kept on losing, stability and self-respect in the face of his own family. They hadn't had sex in months. They were just scraping by, all those hungry mouths to feed, him going from odd job to odd job as handyman after he'd been laid off again and Bell taking in day care. He'd only picked up road kill a few times before, never telling his kids where it came from though his eyes were always on the lookout for it, expert at gauging what was fresh and what wasn't, a lifelong keenness for leftovers. The deer was a gift from the highway gods before the rendering truck came to take it away, meat to last a good long time while he looked for another job. Now that undead deer was mocking him by not staying killed, its struggle for life an insult to his worries. He wasn't so sure he wasn't cursed somehow, mocked by forces he couldn't control, not yet quite reduced to welfare but close, like he could almost taste the food stamps. And him getting drunk a little more each night, sitting around in his underwear with a twelve-pack, though winter was closing in and with it the heavy Michigan nights that pressed remorselessly down on the roof of the house they rented at the end of somebody else's dirt road.
Joe Caesar thought of Christmas lights and how much fun they had putting them up, fuck the expense, his kids as excited as they would ever be about anything in their lives, a hundred yards in all of blinking rainbow lights and still white candled ones, their house consistently the brightest and most lit-up for miles around no matter how much money he had coming in. He always bought more on credit anyway before they maxed out their two remaining cards. He even had a bundle of lights in the back of the truck right now, ready to add to his sprawling collection he could wrap around each one of the kid's dreams, the one thing he could give them without holding anything back. But the deer kept pulling him away from his hopeful reveries, and like everything else it seemed these days, he had another sorry-ass job to do.
With a sigh he heaved himself back from the steering wheel and groped in the glove compartment for his buck knife. He would slit the deer's throat and get it over with, no more humpty-dumpty in the back of the truck and scaring the shit out of him. Maybe he would even warm his hands in its steaming innards, dwell awhile in its viscera like a close-fitting room, go back to the lifeblood of the doe's heartbeat before it petered out to nothing. Bell's disapproving face loomed up inside his mind like a catastrophic moon and slowly melted away into something like acceptance or sorrow, he couldn't be sure which. She was a wizard with a crock-pot though, the best he'd ever seen. They'd be having one of her improvised stews in no time. Maybe he would even get some after the kids were fed, after he had a mild buzz on or full-blown drunk that blotted out the past and the future so he could concentrate on seducing his overweight wife. But the odd and troubling questions still remained: How do you kill something that was already dead to begin with? How do you take that body into yourself and the mouths of your children without telling them how you got it?
He was all alone on Highway 3 and could hear anything coming up from a long way off but nothing did, it was just him and the deer and his own conscience and uncertainty of what to do the day after tomorrow. He got out of the truck and reached for the bundle of Christmas lights like an afterthought, not quite knowing why he grabbed it on his way to re-kill the deer. Seemed appropriate somehow, preordained. The deer had momentarily stopped noodling its odd, dying song so he whistled in the dark silence for both of them, though the shrill cheerfulness seemed wrong against all those listening trees. The deer lay where it had fallen, stretched out and trembling, like it was trying to hold on to some invisible center that kept breaking up and getting smaller. The white, dazzling fur of its belly was anti-camouflage now, flaring like a trapped cloud-streak in the sky. Joe Caesar was small and desperate and he didn't hide himself from the fact. After a few steps his blood pressure went up and his breath quickened. His palms grew sweaty in the cold air. He'd killed animals before, he'd gutted them and cleaned them with sure, expert hands, just like his daddy had taught him. Killing a dead deer was no big job, already a done deal in the back of his mind. But this deer was different, like it sought him out to take care of it somehow. He carried all he would ever have in the knowledge and strength of his hands, what they could fix and haul away, what they could figure out with the right tools. What could he do with them when they didn't have a job to do except take care of what had already been dead?
But when he got to the deer he couldn't follow through with it, even though he knew the deer was suffering. He placed the bundle of Christmas lights on the ground in front of its head. He held the knife out at his side and it felt foreign to him, it felt dangerous and extraneous to anything he really was, a piece of false equipment that was falling by the wayside. Instead he got down on his hands and knees and did something he would never understand, even if he lived forever: he curled up behind the deer and held it in the middle of the highway like he was cuddling with his wife, his body fitting perfectly around the dying dead deer like the two of them had just finished making love at the beginning of the world. And the deer did not flinch nor in any way show that she did not want him to be so close to her as he smelled the odd mélange of pine needles and asphalt, the deer's fur as clean and fine as any fancy store wardrobe. Her breath came in quick, tiny puffs that made his own heart beat faster. He stroked her head and the back of her ears, whispering to her. He told her what he knew, he spoke to her in the soft, nuzzling tones of a sweet confidence no one else could hear. He knew she was already on her way, hearing him only as a general buzz leading her without dispute into the hereafter. He didn't want to leave her, not then or ever, as the ridges of her dying spine trembled against his chest, communicating something between the hollows of their bones that made Joe Caesar hold onto her even tighter. He held her long after she died and long after first snow started to fall, after he stopped believing that anything good could come of his family eating the deer. Then he picked her up anyway and carried her back to the truck, like a lover carrying his beloved to the grave.