Deer in the Valley

It was Ricky’s truck, but Cole drove so Ricky could drink. On past hunting trips they had both drunk regardless of who was driving, but Cole was now six months sober. It had taken a car wreck for him to quit. Wild Turkey had been their drink, and that was what Ricky was drinking now.

Ricky was hard at it. His face flushed red when he drank, a fact he often cited as evidence of his Native American heritage. He believed he was part Indian from his mother’s side, and on his upper right arm he had a tattoo of a circle with two intersecting lines that he claimed to be an Indian symbol for luck. Like Cole, Ricky was a big man, but his frame was beginning to sag with age. Ricky was telling his fourteen-year-old son, John, who was sitting in the middle, about hunting and their heritage.

“It’s important to respect what you kill. We’re killers, you know? That’s a part of what we do. We kill. We’re carnivores. No one respects what they eat today. They just let some Mexican do the dirty work off in some slaughterhouse in Iowa. They don’t earn it. That’s what’s been forgotten today. You need to earn your right to eat the animal.”

Listening to this embarrassed Cole. Ricky had always been this way, but now, maybe because he was sober, or maybe because Ricky’s son was there, it was unbearable. Cole hoped Ricky would shut up or pass out. Neither was likely.

Ricky spoke solemnly. “You’re going to be a natural, John. It’s in your blood. And I’m telling you this, I’m passing this knowledge down to you, so you can pass it down to your son. Keep the cycle going.” A grin broke across his face and he elbowed his son. “That is if you ever manage to get yourself a girlfriend.” He whooped and slapped his palm on the dashboard, and then settled back into the seat, laughing to himself as he unscrewed the cap of his flask.

John sat there, silent. He was playing nervously with pair of red nylon straps that were for dragging deer from the woods.

Cole knew John didn’t really want to be there. He didn’t seem the type. He hunched over, trying to hide his tall, awkward frame. His clothes didn’t fit. A week ago, Ricky told Cole he was concerned that John was becoming a sissy. He harped on the subject constantly. He’s too soft, Ricky would say. Sits around all day moping, feeling sorry for himself. So, for his own good, Ricky brought John along.

The clouds hung low. A few snowflakes drifted down. The windshield wipers smeared the flakes across the glass. The weatherman had been calling for a storm over the past week but word now was some new winds were supposed to push the storm west.

All week Cole had hoped the storm would hit them. He followed it on the news, waiting for each new development, hoping to get out of the hunting trip. It never snowed this far south in November, not in Virginia. He viewed it as a sign.

The truth was Cole was looking to get out of town. He worked as a carpenter for Ricky’s contracting company, but ever since he quit drinking he had used his free time to learn more about his work. He wanted to get into historical reconstruction. In September he took a vacation to Charleston and walked along the Battery, admiring the big, pink houses and the men working on them, maintaining them. He was jealous. He wanted to work on something beautiful.

When he got back to his duplex in Rocktown, he knew a change was in order. He’d had enough. Just a few more months to save some money and then he’d be gone. Since deciding to move, his old routine had become oppressive, a reminder that he had lived in the same place all his life, too lazy and scared to risk anything new. He and Ricky had gone hunting every season since they had graduated from high school, nearly twenty-five years ago. Cole used to love hunting, the ritual of it, the beauty of the landscape and the smell of the air, the camaraderie, but now it was just another obligation pulling at him, trying to prevent his escape.

Ricky rolled down the window and all the heat escaped into the cold air. He kept it open, looking back at Cole and John, grinning. Cole resisted the temptation to roll the window back up and lock it with the automatic controls.

“Cut it out, Dad,” John said finally. His voice cracked when he spoke. Ricky laughed. “He speaks,” he said, rolling the window up.

 

They passed the Super Walmart on 42, driving towards Bridgewater. When they passed Turner Ashby High School, Ricky rolled down his window and gave it the finger. He elbowed John and nodded towards Cole.

“This guy—I know he doesn’t look like much—but this guy here and your old man used to be the heart of the offensive line for Rocktown High.”

“I know, Dad.”

Ricky ignored him. “Spencer Gates. That was our quarterback. Prettiest boy in the whole school. The girls loved him. We used to joke and say that was our job—keeping him pretty for the girls. The Turner Ashby goons would come for him, but we weren’t going to let them touch Spencer. We’d get the bruises and he’d get the girls.”

Ricky laughed and took another pull. Cole grinned in spite of himself. It was true—there had been some good times. Ricky fell silent and tapped on the dashboard with his knuckle.

“I’ve been trying to get John to try out, but he’s too busy sleeping until dinner time or playing Grand Theft Auto. Always playing video games. What girl cares about Grand Theft Auto? He’s never going to get laid from any of that.”

“I don’t like playing sports,” John said.

“How can you even say that? You don’t play them. You’ve never given it a shot. How can you say you don’t like it if you haven’t even given it a shot?”

“I did try. I played little league. I was terrible.”

Ricky took a long breath and then ran his hand down his face. “Are you hearing this, Cole? The kid doesn’t know what’s best for him. He’s tall. Look at him. Skinny, yeah, but he’s gonna fill out. Fast too. Maybe he isn’t cut out for the line, but he’d be a good receiver. But no, all that going for him and he wastes it. Sits around all day playing video games.”

Ricky was slurring his words now. “Never going to get laid like that. Just ask Cole. He knows. He pulled some ass in high school. Not like Spencer, but he got more than his fair share.”

Cole glanced at John. “Not that much.”

“Hah,” Ricky said. “He’s a liar. He was slaying ‘em. What’s the one girl you dated back then? The little blond one? The one tooth stuck out a little?”

“Sally,” Cole said. Sally had been Cole’s high school sweetheart. They’d broken up during Sally’s freshman year of college. Even after two decades, it was still the best relationship he had ever been in. For years he went to high school reunions, hoping they’d run into one another. He would stand around, listening to so and so talk about teachers long retired or the time Marcus Bumberger used rubber cement to seal the locks of all the school doors. Cole would laugh good-naturedly, glancing at the gym doors in the hope that Sally showed up. Then he would sneak off to the bathroom to have a snort from his flask. Sally never did show.

Ricky looked at John. “Sally was something else. A tamale. I wasn’t so into the tooth thing, but where it counted, she had it.”

“Let’s not talk about Sally.”

Ricky put his hands up. “All right. Fair enough. But you get what I was going for.” They didn’t say anything. Ricky took another drink.

 

They drove through the three stoplights in Bridgewater and then by the small man-made lake, where Cole used to go fishing as a teenager, and then turned onto a small highway that ran west. The woods thickened and the mountains were a gray-blue blur through the low clouds.

The snow fell heavier now. The mountains were only a faint shadow. They always hunted at Ricky’s uncle’s farm. It was large and secluded, which was good—no worrying about other hunters—but it also meant there was no cell phone reception. Ricky, on past trips, would sometimes make a show of guessing the time by the sun, even though they both knew Cole had a watch on.

When they pulled into the driveway of the farm, the rear wheels skidded on the cold gravel and the rifles rattled around in the bed of the pick-up. Cole climbed out of the truck. The temperature had dropped, so he pulled down the flaps of his hat. Ricky opened the topper and they took their rifles out. The truck bed was lined with plastic tarps in case they bagged something. Ricky handed his old rifle to John.

They walked down a gentle slope towards the edge of the woods. They searched along the tree line until they found the path. John kicked the thick fallen leaves as they walked.

“God damn, John. You forget your air horn at home? We’re trying to hunt here. You’d have been an embarrassment to your tribe.”

John shrugged but started to walk with more care. They continued until they found an old landmark of theirs—the circle of trees with gashes of dark heartwood exposed from a long-ago lightning strike. They reached a small clearing, and Ricky started across.

“I’m calling that one,” he said, pointing to a deer blind.

John stopped walking. “That’s all you’re going to do? Sit in a tree?”

Ricky looked at him. “This is hunting, son, not PlayStation. Takes a little patience.” He started walking again and then stumbled, the barrel of his rifle slicing his cheek. Sitting on the ground, eyes wide, he felt the new cut. He looked up at Cole and John. He grinned. “First blood,” he said. He picked up a leaf that had collected a small bowlful of snow and smeared it across the cut.

“Well, what are you going to do?” John asked Cole, addressing him for the first time.

“There’s a spot over there a ways I like,” Cole said, motioning toward the tree line. John looked at his father. “I’m going with Cole.”

Ricky’s eyes hardened beneath the liquor glaze.  “I’m trying to teach you something, John.  Father to son.  Something I think is important.”  He glared at John, waiting.  Blood oozed from his cheek.  When his son didn’t move, Ricky turned around and walked across the clearing toward his blind.

 

Cole watched Ricky’s outline dissolve in the falling snow and then looked at John. He thought about telling him to go with his father. He wasn’t interested in any babysitting. But he decided against it. He felt bad for the kid.

John shifted the rifle from one shoulder to the other, still gripping the red nylon straps. He seemed like a nice enough kid. Just too nervous. Cole thought about taking the straps from him, telling him to stop fidgeting, to stand up straight, to have some goddamned self-respect.

He looked out over the tree line across the clearing. The snow fell heavier now. The mountains were only a faint shadow. The sky had turned a solid gray. Snowflake by snowflake, the trees and grass and ground absorbed the sky’s dull color.

“Come on,” Cole said. He turned toward the tree line opposite Ricky’s deer blind. John followed, keeping three or four steps behind Cole. When they reached the woods the hard crunch of the frozen ground gave way to thick piles of dead leaves.

Cole followed the slight ridge off to their right. It led to a creek bed where he could sometimes find deer tracks. He knew this, but he also knew they would probably be covered by the time they got there. He kept on, not knowing what else to do. Maybe they would stumble on a den and have a shot at a deer as it ran off. But he wasn’t sure he even wanted to deal with the hassle. He wanted to be back home, out of the cold, drinking a cup of coffee and watching the History Channel. Or online, browsing through pictures of Charleston—warm, sunny Charleston.

They reached the creek bed, and as Cole expected, the snow had covered everything. Cole sat down on a cold log, panting. In the creek bed, leaves floated in half frozen puddles. He watched as John picked up a stick and drew it across a puddle, slicing the weak ice in half, the suddenly exposed water reflecting dark branches against gray sky.

“We’re Scots-Irish,” John said.

“What?”

“Scots-Irish. With a little bit of German. Just like everybody else around here.” He ran the stick across the puddle again, this time against the flow of the water. The leaves in the puddle slowed for a moment, moving drowsily, and then started spinning in the opposite direction.

“We don’t have a drop of Indian blood in us. Not that I could find. I looked it up at the library last year.”

Just for a moment he looked at Cole, grinning. Cole had never seen him smile before. “He thinks we’re Shawnee, but that tattoo of his, the circle-thing, it’s a Sioux symbol. Or some other tribe from out West. I don’t remember. But it’s definitely not Shawnee.”

Cole laughed and regretted it immediately. It sounded conspiratorial, betraying how he really felt about the boy’s father. John looked at him. Then he threw the stick across the creek bed.

“This sucks,” he said.

“I’m moving to Charleston,” Cole said, surprising himself.

John nodded and shifted his rifle again. Cole held out his hands, watching the snow build up. He clapped them together and stood up. “Fucking weatherman. Let’s get out of here.”

 

They followed the ridge back up the hill and headed towards the clearing. Cole’s mood had lifted. Soon he would be home and could enjoy the season’s first snowfall properly, through a window. Once they reached the top of the hill Cole leaned his rifle against a tree and stooped over to catch his breath.

Silence settled in around them. It was getting dark. Cole took off his gloves and rubbed his hands together. Then, from up on the ridge, he heard the rhythmic crashing of leaves. A deer was running downhill, towards the creek bed. A buck. Cole groped for his rifle, but his cold, numb fingers knocked it over into a drift of leaves and snow. He looked at John. John was already bringing his rifle up, bracing the stock against his shoulder in one fluid motion. He traced, fired. The buck stumbled, then stood again, and then stumbled once more before righting itself and running towards the creek.

Cole looked at John and then back towards the ridge. “Jesus, that was a shot. Christ almighty.”

“I think I only clipped him.”

“Still. Fucking-A. Where’d you learn to shoot like that?”

John grinned. “It’s in my blood.”

 

They climbed up the ravine and followed the buck’s tracks, the top layer of snow blended into a crazed mess of leaves and dirt and blood. It snowed harder. They followed for close to an hour and although they could still see the buck’s tracks they both understood without speaking that by the time they reached the buck, if they ever did, their own tracks would have filled up and they would be stuck in this frozen world.

The smears of blood in the snow triggered something in his memory, a glacial calving, and he was back at his car wreck a year before: He had woken up, confused, the interior a mess of blood and papers and glass and bottles and blood.  He’d looked around, unsure. His leg hurt. Then he remembered. He had hit a deer and swerved off the road into a tree.  The windshield in front of him was shattered, the serrated bottom edge stained red. He tried to move his leg and realized it was broken.  Blood ran down his right arm, pooling in the drink holder next to the gearshift.  An empty bottle of Wild Turkey lay among some fast food wrappers on the passenger seat’s floorboard.  He passed out.  When he’d woken up in a wash of white walls and curtains, tubes and blinking lights, he knew it was time to quit drinking.

Snow continued to fall.  John waited.

“Fuck it,” Cole said, and they turned back.

Cole kept stopping to clear out chunks of ice from his eyebrows and beard, and he lost his way. Soon John took over, guiding them through the storm back toward the clearing. Cole was impressed. The boy was going to be a great hunter. When they reached the clearing, John stopped.

Cole clapped him on the shoulders. “Good stuff.” But John took it stiffly, not even aware of Cole. The boy stood motionless, staring. Cole followed his eyes.

At the base of the tree lay Ricky’s hunting cap, bright orange against the white snow. They started to run across the clearing. “Dad,” John yelled as they ran. “Dad!”

Ricky lay there, entirely still. It looked as if he had aged half a lifetime. His face and lips were drained of color. A thin covering of snow had settled over him, and snowflakes clung to his gray stubble. His head was twisted too far left and his body spiraled strangely. His flask lay close by, the snow near its mouth melted away from the alcohol.

Cole leaned next to Ricky and shook him. “Ricky, you okay there?” He pulled off his glasses and put them up to Ricky’s mouth. After a few seconds he checked for condensation. It was there—barely.

“He’s alive, Johnny.” He looked over his shoulder. John was clenching and unclenching his fists. The look in the boy’s eyes unsettled Cole. “It’s okay, John. Your dad’s going to be okay.”

Cole reached down and grabbed a handful of Ricky’s overalls. “We’re going to get you out of here, Ricky.”

“Don’t,” John said. “Don’t move him. He could have hurt his neck. You aren’t supposed to move him if he could have hurt his neck.”

Snow tumbled down. Cole looked over his shoulder. “We got to, John.”

John nodded, but Cole saw his chest heaving. Spit glistened at the corners of his mouth. He had to get the boy moving. He said: “You go on to the truck. Get it started. Get the heat going.”

Cole watched John until he was almost on the other side of the clearing. Cole looked back at Ricky. He rolled him over and slid his own arms under Ricky’s armpits. Cole started to drag him backwards through the gathering snow.

Ricky’s overalls kept catching on something beneath the tumult of snow and leaves and Cole had to stop and tug at whatever was caught until they were free again. He thought about Charleston. He thought about Sally. He thought about Wild Turkey.

By the time he reached the other side of the clearing he was pouring sweat. The blood pounded against the insides of his skull. He threw his rifle on the ground and took off his hat and jacket. He planted his feet and gripped the stale warmth of Ricky’s armpits and started to drag. Between breaths he cursed Ricky, saying everything he should have said a long time ago.

After another twenty minutes, still far from the truck, Cole could not go any farther. He slumped against a tree and slid down until he was sitting in the snow. He checked to see if Ricky was still breathing. He was. The reality of what he was doing started to set in. He felt sick.

He heard a noise off to his right and looked to see John coming towards them. John held the red straps. He bent over and slipped the straps under his father’s shoulders. He started to drag his father through the snow. The boy cried as he pulled, snowflakes catching in his tears. Cole stood to help, but it was no good. He tried to take the straps from John, to give the boy a rest, but John took a vicious swipe at him with an elbow.

Cole turned away. He followed John’s tracks back to the truck. After turning the engine on, he cranked up the heat and tried to ignore the contents of the glove compartment. He checked his cell phone for service. Nothing. He reached across the cab and pulled the Wild Turkey out, the dark liquid sloshing as he rolled the bottle between its hands. He could feel it there, lurking, the promise of warmth. And then the hunger was there again. The ache of it. He could feel it inside him, vibrating—pure and simple and urgent—almost like love. Then he put the bottle back. He got out of the truck and jogged two laps around it. There was no sign of John. Snow fell. Cole opened the passenger side door and found the bottle. He took a long pull. Then another.

John appeared out of the gray wall. Cole put the bottle away, and together they lifted Ricky into the bed of the truck over the plastic tarp. They closed the hatch and dug out the tires and then started to drive back to town. Snowflakes caught in their high beams, swirling down from the darkening sky.

 

The following November, John and a kid from school were smoking outside of an old bowling alley in a largely abandoned strip mall. The alley had been open for only a year before it closed. Now it was plastered with “For Lease” posters that were covered in spray paint and shredded from the weather.

John took a drag. He had stolen the pack from his mother. She was too preoccupied with his father to control him, and Ricky didn’t care one way or the other. John knew his father blamed him for losing the use of his legs, for being reduced to nothing but a cripple. John knew this. He knew it from his father’s stony face, from how his father couldn’t bear to look at him anymore.

Often times, John felt his father was right. If he hadn’t abandoned him and gone off with Cole, Ricky might still be able to walk. He could have done something to prevent everything that happened. Then maybe they wouldn’t be living off of disability checks. Then maybe they wouldn’t sit around the TV, his father’s wheelchair parked on the discolored spot on the carpet where his armchair had been, suffocating in this new oppressive silence.

As his father had predicted, John had filled out. Thick muscles roped down his arms. He had considered trying out for the football team this past fall. He thought about his dad up in the stands, cheering as he reached out and snagged a football from the air, clutching it close as he ran for the end zone. But he hated himself for the indulgence.   He knew it was too late for all that.

As they smoked they watched the gas station at the other end of the shopping center. Stephen, the kid from school, bragged about what he would do to the different women that came and went.

A rusted Tacoma pulled into the lot and parked diagonally across two spaces. John watched as Cole climbed out, facial hair clinging to his cheeks and chin and neck. Cole went inside and came back out with a case of Busch. He saw John watching him. They stood for a moment, staring, until Cole broke it off. Cole climbed into his truck and skidded down the road.

“Who the hell was that?” Stephen said.

“I don’t know. Some creep.”

“Naw, that wasn’t just some creep. You two were sharing a special little moment there. Is that your secret lover?” Stephen laughed. “Fag.”

John slipped his cigarette to his left hand and hit Stephen in the stomach. Stephen doubled over, eyes wide. It was the first time John had ever hit anybody. He liked the feeling it gave him, the authority.

“Don’t ever call me a faggot, faggot.”

Stephen sat on the pavement, wheezing. “Jesus, man. I was just fucking around, okay?”

John didn’t say anything. He moved his cigarette back to his right hand. He inhaled, exhaled. He flicked his fingers and watched the ash fall, drifting down slowly, like snow.

 

By Ross Garrison

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