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A hard death on the high road

Most days that summer, when my brothers and I campaigned for my father in Wyoming, started out early. We drove long distances to dusty little towns, handing out flyers, asking stores to put my father’s posters in their windows. This was well before Walmart, so there were still living Main Streets where one could hang up political posters and other notices. We had a rented machine for blowing up helium balloons in the recreational vehicle. Everything — the clarke for senate balloons, the posters, the flyers, even the RV itself — was in red, white, and blue.

One of my father’s four younger brothers, the crazy one, Uncle Aldous, had allowed us to use the RV for the campaign. We did a lot of damage to that RV. It took fewer than four weeks for us to smash the front and rip a long hole in the roof by driving under a low awning at a fast-food restaurant. We also forgot once to pull in the little set of stairs attached to the side door, so they caught on a telephone pole as we turned a corner. After that, one could neither use them nor put them away. They just hung there, flapping noisily like a metal flag beneath the door.

Like most people in Wyoming, my father’s brothers were Republicans. Perhaps the only legacy of my mother’s relationship with my father — aside from his three children, and the mess he made — was that he abandoned his family’s political beliefs and became a Democrat. It is very difficult to win a statewide election in Wyoming if you are a Democrat, and my father did not win the race we ran that year.

My brothers had to do all the driving that summer. My very first pair of prescription glasses had been stolen earlier, in June, while I was working at a camp not far from Los Angeles for developmentally disabled adults and inner-city children. I was unable to sleep in the cabin, which was too full of people, untold stories, pain. Instead, I slept on the ground nearby in my sleeping bag. At that time, I was beginning to wrench myself away from my own story, and the separation came slowly and at a cost. Sleeping outside was just the beginning.

The air in the San Bernardino Mountains was sweet at night, though what we saw, whenever we had a clear view of Los Angeles, was a thick gray haze hanging over the city. One day I went with a friend to see the city itself. Coming from Wyoming, where we did not lock doors and often left our keys in the ignition to avoid losing them, I had no idea that cracking my friend’s car window to let the air in while we wandered on foot was a bad idea. Luckily, the car was still there when we returned. Unluckily, all my friend’s cassette tapes, my glasses, and a variety of other things had been stolen. My friend, whose name I cannot remember, was very angry.

Timothy was driving when it happened, and as usual he was driving too fast, flying down the little highways crisscrossing Wyoming, surrounded by emptiness. The enormous RV really did seem to leave the ground, to fly, a miracle that barely held itself together. I had lain down, resting on one of the little beds in the living area, when there was a heavy thud. Jolted out of bed, I pulled myself up off the floor as Timothy stopped the RV and parked it on the side of the road so we could see what had happened.

We had hit a deer. Right in the middle of the front of the RV was an enormous deer-size indent. We looked nervously at one another. Even under the best of circumstances, we were all a little scared of Uncle Aldous.

Then we saw the buck. Lying on the ground, his beautiful head still graceful and with two or three points on each antler, he was preparing to die. From the look of things, it would take a long time. As far as we could tell, the only thing wrong with him might be broken legs. Yet broken legs for a deer signify death as much as pancreatic cancer does for a human. And worse still, that death comes slowly. He would probably die of thirst, and it might take many days.

I should tell you that the very real possibility of intending to do good, and instead doing bad, has haunted me my whole life. I knew about this particular kind of wrongdoing — it lived as close to me as skin. My family was full of good intentions and terrible happenings.

I started to cry. My brothers did not. We were raised to know that crying was a liberty allowed to girls, and then only on special occasions. This was a special occasion.

After pausing to take in the situation, Martin said we should get going. We had somewhere to be, some place to canvass. I refused to leave, insisting that we kill the deer — that we put him out of his misery, as that strange saying goes.

We all knew how to use a gun. When we were quite young, our father taught us to load and fire a rifle, using empty soda-pop cans as targets. My brothers had regularly gone hunting in the fall for ducks, or perhaps geese, with my father and uncles. But knowing how to use a gun did us no good, as we had none with us and were far away from home on a small and empty highway. We decided to wait and flag down the next person who passed. Many Wyoming men carried a gun with them in their truck or car, often mounted over their rear windows, visible to all. And many people used those guns for subsistence hunting.

Mike and Diane, the couple who had generously boarded my horse on their property for very little money, fell into this category. They killed deer for meat, storing the flesh in a garage freezer in the fall to last through the brutal winter. When they told me happily about seeing deer on their front lawn, we all three paused for a moment and imagined those deer. Yet their pleasure was sharply distinct from mine. I imagined beauty and the delicious notion that I was not alone on this planet, living fearfully among humans. I imagined the freedom of being deer. Mike and Diane imagined food, also delicious.

They kept my horse for me and had between them an eye that permanently stared in the wrong direction. That wild eye had taken flight from the other eye, the eye sitting right next to it, complacent and conforming. Mike’s wandering eye had decided to go it alone. In this strike for independence, that eye permanently stared off to the left and up toward the sky. I am not sure whether it saw things — clouds and birds, airplanes and stormy weather. Most of us do not see most of what happens, so not seeing was the least of that eye’s problems. More pressing was the inability to get free, truly free. Getting free came right after good-intentions-going-awry among my most common anxieties. I was not sure exactly what it meant, but like Mike’s eye and like that waiting deer, I, too, wanted to be free.

While we waited, I brought the deer water in what, Martin pointed out, was our one and only bowl. It seemed that Uncle Aldous had not fully furnished his RV, or had perhaps emptied it before lending it to us. At any rate, there was not much in it.

We sat down near the RV on the little highway. We waited and waited. Finally, we saw a semi approaching in the distance. Excited that we could now kill the deer, we all jumped up and started to wave. Slowly the truck grew and grew until it was almost upon us, and the trucker blew his horn just like the truckers used to do when I was a child and I waved from the back seat of my mother’s old car. As our waving became more frantic, he got the idea and began to slow his vehicle. It takes a while to bring something so large to a stop. When he pulled partially off the road, we were relieved to see that he had a rifle mounted in his rear window.

The trucker climbed down from the cab and we hurried over to him. Martin, the eldest, explained the situation. We had hit a deer. With the tiniest roll of his eyes, Martin added that his sister did not want to leave the deer to suffer. Would the trucker help us out (and the deer too) by shooting it?

The trucker took the long time people in Wyoming take in responding. I can see that now. After a pause, he said that he did not have a license for hunting deer. Without a license, he could get into trouble for helping us out.

This explanation baffles me still. People from Wyoming fought the laws mandating seat belts and motorcycle helmets. These same people believed in little to no government, even as they opted for incredibly stupid things like refusing to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. Since when did an armed Wyoming trucker hesitate to shoot a deer wounded on the side of a road — and a road with no one and nothing in sight as far as the eye could see?

Sorry, he said, as he climbed back into his truck.

Okay then, Timothy said. Let’s get going.

No, I said. I am not leaving until we kill that deer.

My brothers looked at me and then at each other. What could they do? Force me back into the RV?

I had started to cry again.

Martin asked, How are we supposed to do it? With our bare hands?

Let’s cut its throat, I suggested hopefully. My brothers groaned, but started walking toward the RV to look for a knife.

We could find only one knife and no forks or spoons. (It occurred to me that we would not be eating cereal during the campaign.) The knife did not look very sharp anymore. Timothy shrugged and headed toward the buck. The buck looked dazed. This was understandable. A creature only somewhat larger than a big dog, he had collided with a massive RV going eighty or perhaps ninety miles per hour.

I grabbed the antlers to hold the head still, and Timothy leaned in with the knife. With one quick slash, he made the first cut. The buck’s fur flew off in a tiny poof along the line my brother had made. I peered around the deer’s head and Martin did, too, while struggling to keep his balance in this relatively crowded area along the shoulder of the road. We wanted to make sure the job was done.

The job was not done. The buck’s throat had a little bald line where the fur had been shaved off, but the skin itself was not even scratched.

Timothy grimaced and got back to work. Perhaps it would take a few cuts. The fur continued to fly off and the deer’s skin was still intact, albeit increasingly bald.

This is stupid! Timothy said. He stood up, unwinding his skinny, six-foot-plus frame, and backed away. Martin and I followed. None of us wanted to discuss killing the deer in the deer’s immediate presence.

On the Wyoming plains, if one has one’s glasses, one can see forever in every direction. There are no trees. The land is endless, golden, brown. And although the plains appear flat, as if a person could step right off the edge into the ocean waiting on either side of the continent, they are actually high up, close to the sun, more than a mile above sea level. Perhaps because the sky is so close, it seems more dramatic than the land. You can witness a nearby thunderstorm by turning one way, empty blue another way, and the vivid purple and pink of a Wyoming sunset in a third direction. Living there, you learn to take that sky for granted — just as living in New York City nudges you into retrospective gratitude for having seen any sky at all.

Riding my pony for hours under that sky, in the days before sunscreen and skin-cancer panic, I more than once came home a bright red. One time, I had pus-filled blisters the size of quarters up and down my arms. I did not want to condemn the deer, already weak enough to stay put while three teenagers attempted to cut its throat, to day after day under that sun.

My next suggestion was that we hit the deer on the head to knock it out. Maybe if we got lucky, our blow would kill it. One of my brothers brought out an old piece of steel pipe that, for reasons unknown to us, Uncle Aldous had in his RV.

We did not get lucky. The thing about bucks is that they have very hard heads. They are in the business of smashing their heads against other hard heads as they fight for the privilege of mating with a doe. It is a strange system, but a system nonetheless.

We tried other ways to kill that poor animal. I will not linger on any more of the details except to say that deer have very strong necks and are generally well-built, solid, and tough. Throughout the ordeal, the deer watched us, looking on like a messenger of God, judging us, judging our humanity (and I do mean humanity). I can still see him, resting elegantly on the side of the road. He held his head erect the whole time. As I remember it, when one looked at him, he returned one’s gaze.

When we were through with tormenting the deer, we left Uncle Aldous’s bowl filled with water next to him. And I covered him with Uncle Aldous’s only RV sheet in hopes of giving him some protection from the sun. I’m so sorry, I whispered to him. I promised to call the highway patrol when we got to the next town, knowing full well that the highway patrol was not going to bother with a wounded deer by the side of the road.

And we drove away.

teaches at the College of Staten Island and is the author, most recently, of The Parallel Lives of Women and Cows: Meat Markets (Palgrave Macmillan).

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November 2013

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