Sunday, December 6, 2015

Roadkill by Jane Hertenstein

Laine, with barely enough money to feed her growing family, decides to salvage a dead deer from the roadside in Jane Hertenstein's blackly comic piece.

"Mom, for Halloween I want to be a hobo old man. Either that or a scary guy with fangs and long fingernails."

Her son's rambling carried over from the backseat where he sat in his safety booster. Since she'd sworn off coffee, mornings were like walking backwards through molasses.

"What was I last year - oh yeah, Robin Hood. Do we still have my hat?"

She nodded. Through the top half of the windshield a black object in the sky hovered, a raven making large aerial loops over the roadway. "It's upstairs in a box in the back of your closet."

Bright orange and red tree canopy sheltered a narrow bend in the road where runoff trickled down the hillside over ancient exposed rock. Off to the side, in the gravel berm, upon a bed of frost-coated leaves was a deer, still and stiff, steam rising slowly from its blood encrusted nostrils.

Lanie winced as if in pain. Clearly it had been hit, as one side of the rib cage was a bit concave from where it had been struck. For half a second she felt like crying; a half second later the feeling passed. These days her emotions were as fragmentary as the clouds racing across the sky overhead.

"Are we getting a pumpkin this year?" Eben asked, drawing Lanie's attention back to the present.

"Honey, I'm not sure." The last pumpkin they bought had been eaten. She'd peeled the rind, boiled it, and made soup out of it. It had been a long, hard recession with very little left over. Her husband's used bookstore was still just getting off the ground.

After dropping Eben off at kindergarten she drove pass the deer again and this time slowed down. The animal seemed intact, almost alive, but definitely dead. In the span of a second Lanie got an idea; she speeded up.

"Where's Galen?" Lanie ran into the bookstore out of breath, with her coat flapping open.

Even though she was only four months along, it was her second baby and surprisingly her body had taken on this new project with a gusto and fervency that caused her to immediately gain twenty pounds.

Shan shrugged his shoulders, his few words lost in his shaggy beard. Shan wasn't exactly Galen's assistant, he wasn't even employed. In short Shan didn't touch money. Commerce was against his religion.

"Can you help me lift a dead deer into the car?" She was in a hurry.

"Uh, sure." Shan was also a vegetarian. Though he wouldn't touch meat, he didn't have any qualms about handling roadkill. He followed Lanie out to the car.

About ten minutes later she spotted the deer and carefully pulled over. It had been raining for a week and the ground was especially squishy.

Shan got out to direct her. "You're gonna have to get closer."

Because of a steep ravine on that side, the road shoulder was very narrow. She backed the car up, keeping the poor animal in her rear view mirror.

Even though it was a doe it probably weighed over a hundred pounds. Lanie hated to think what the car looked like that had inflicted such damage. She hated to think about the deer and its last frightening seconds before impact.

"One, two, three," she counted off in short breaths as they lifted the deer by its legs, taking care to avoid the bloody mashed parts, and swung it into the open trunk. Shan banged the trunk down, accidentally breaking one of the doe's legs in the process. "Sorry."

The heft caused the rear end of the car to settle and before Lanie and Shan realized what was happening the automobile began to slide ass-first, skating on top of wet leaves, down the hillside before finally stopping, perpendicular to the slope, an evergreen preventing it from rolling any further, about ten feet from the roadway.

"Oh," Lanie exhaled.

At that moment a patrol car came around the bend and slowed. An officer rolled down her window. "Everything okay?"

The lady-cop eyed the muddy tire tracks leading down into the ravine. "Seems like you've gotten yourself into a pickle."

Lanie nodded.

"Can I call you a tow truck?" The police woman asked, turning on her flashers to alert passing traffic to proceed cautiously.

"That would be nice." Though she wasn't sure if their insurance would cover a tow truck out in the unincorporated hinterlands.

It took an hour and much sprayed mud for the car to be hauled out. The tow truck driver was surprised. "For a compact it sure did fishtail in the rear. Whatcha carrying?"

"Rock salt for the water softener," she lied.

After signing a sheaf of paperwork, Lanie and Shan headed back to the bookstore.

"My God! What happened to you?" Galen exclaimed when Lanie rushed in. She looked down. A stain of red dissected the front of her coat. Her preggy tummy seemed to attract grime and dirt at its widest circumference. When she was carrying her son all her shirts had a stripe in the center where she rubbed against things.

"Huh? Nothing. I mean - I got us a deer!"

She led him out to the car where Shan popped the trunk. The carcass bulged as if inflated.

"What am I supposed to do with this?"

Lanie took a deep breath, trying not to hyperventilate. Did she really have to explain? If he hadn't noticed they were living on the edge.

"To eat. Venison stew, deer burgers. This will be our horn of plenty!"

Galen scratched his head. He was a tall, lanky man with Lincolnish whiskers and a melancholy Lincoln demeanor. He couldn't quite grasp what his wife was so excited about. Sending a deer to get processed cost money. Money they didn't really have.

He'd thought about increasing foot traffic to the shop by outfitting Shan with a customized bike, a book buggy, to give away books. It wouldn't exactly impact sales directly - since Shan had taken a vow not to buy or sell - but by being out on the pedestrian mall with all the other vendors, he'd be getting the word out about the bookstore.

Flies were already beginning to feast on the body, warm inside the trunk. Lanie didn't want to tell him about the tow truck. That would be showing up on their credit card statement sometime down the road.

"Lanie, I -"

"It's okay. I can go home and try to move it."

"Now, that doesn't make any sense. Listen, I'll drive you home if Shan will hang out here at the bookstore."

Shan nodded, taking a seat at the store piano where he randomly plunked a key or two.



Galen had no idea what he was going to do with the deer once he got home. He certainly didn't want to deposit a dead deer on their front porch. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays the across-the-street lady, Annie, had therapy because of a stroke she'd suffered a year ago. Galen grabbed a rope out of the shed and tossed it over the lower branch of a huge oak tree in Annie's back yard. He hoisted the deer up by its back legs. For now it was out of the way, until he could do something with it.

"I don't think we should leave it there for long." Lanie shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand. Dried blood had crusted beneath her fingernails. She couldn't get the smell of rotting meat out of her nostrils. Lately everything had been on ten - her sense of taste and smell, her threshold for sound, and for circumstances beyond her control. "You've got to start butchering it now."

Galen didn't feel like arguing with her. Pregnant women could be crazy unreasonable. Besides, how hard could it be - cutting up a doe?

While Lanie left to car pool Eben and several other kindergartners home from school, Galen fetched a hacksaw from the shed and the sharpest knife they owned from the kitchen drawer. And, he stuck a marker into the back pocket of his jeans.

With the Sharpie he outlined where he'd make his incision. Recently he and Lanie had watched a documentary on YouTube on Caesarian delivery. Like a surgeon, he washed his hands and rolled up his sleeves, before plunging the knife into the side of the deer.

That was a mistake.

A swill of guts escaped through the wound and seeped out onto the ground. He quick grabbed a bucket and put it under the leaking corpse. The smell reminded him of the kitchen sink when it backed up after Lanie tried to can peaches, except they botulated and she clogged the pipes disposing of them. He was pretty sure that he'd punctured something best left intact. Obviously he was going to have to read up on how to field dress a deer.

So while the deer drained he sat on his front porch with a beer from the fridge and read Lanie's What to Expect When Expecting and a cookbook about various cuts of beef, trying to make sense of it all. He managed, after a couple of beers, to get bloody thumbprints on the pages, but little else.

Lanie arrived home with Eben and helped him out of his booster seat. Employing vague language, she asked. "Is it done?"

Galen nodded. He'd moved on to YouTube, watching home movies about slaughtering deer. "Nearly there."

She went inside to start dinner. Even though Shan didn't trade in common currency, he contributed by gathering obscene amounts of food from Dumpsters and garbage cans. That evening Lanie planned to make a three-bean casserole, using up some dried beans scavenged from out behind the Whole Foods. She set the beans on to boil.

Suddenly she heard Eben scream. A five-year old can hit a note few grown women can pitch. Lanie ran outside in time to see Galen leap off the porch. Eben came barreling out from Annie's back yard carrying what looked like after-birth. "There's a deer with a hole in it back there! This was hanging out."

Lanie crossed her arms and glared at Galen. "Nearly done?"

Galen ignored Lanie. "C'mon, boy. We've got work to do." He grabbed his laptop and took Eben by the hand.



Using the neighbor's wi-fi, Galen watched the "field dressing" video a couple more times. Some of the stuff inside a deer could be hazardous. Maybe he should have had a pair of latex gloves, but too late now. Hopefully he hadn't ruined the good meat with his misplaced incision. He also decided he needed some real teeth in order to cut through the bone and sinew. He went into Annie's shed that she kept open and borrowed her power saw.

Good thing the deer was young and not tough, he thought as he pulled a cord and the saw sputtered to life.

Shan wandered over and squatted next to Eben watching the proceedings as if spellbound. "Leeper came by and is watching the store," Shan informed Galen just as he decapitated the deer. Eben clapped wildly. The head plopped into the bucket. "Way to go, Dad!"

Back in the kitchen Lanie sliced some loaves of sourdough bread Shan had fished out of the trash behind a bakery.

Galen was momentarily sidetracked by the head. He'd read plenty of Native American folklore and knew the brain was useful. Nothing was wasted. He just couldn't remember if it was called head cheese or used as a condiment. He Googled it.

A screen door opened and closed. Annie came out on her patio.

The recent stroke had scrambled her brain. It affected her reasoning and ability to interpret social situations, causing her to skip words or say untactful things. Sometimes her confusion presented like Tourette's Syndrome. What the hell? she thought - or had she actually said it? "There's a headless deer in my yard."

"Hi Annie," Galen answered. "Hope you don't mind. We needed to use your tree."

She thought she recognized her saw too. Galen was continuing to trim the deer, lopping off its fore legs. Eben quickly gathered up the pieces, pretending to walk them up the slope to where Annie was standing. "Want to shake hands?" he asked.



The process was taking much longer than Galen had anticipated. The autumn sun had already slipped behind Annie's house. Dusk would quickly descend.

Under the watchful eye of the doe, staring blankly out of the detached head in a bucket beside him, Galen slit the underbelly of the body open and delivered the guts. The disemboweled bowels sloshed out onto a tarp spread out on the ground. There were more insides outside than he could ever have imagined. He picked up Annie's garden hose and sprayed out the coagulated cavity. Either it was sweat or organ splashback, but his frayed shirtsleeves were soaked. Galen tried rolling them up, using his slimy hands.

By now he was starving. Lanie wandered over to see how things were going. "Are we going to get any meat?"

"Well," he confessed, "I accidentally perforated the small intestine, so that meat might be contaminated. And, uh..." He paused to think; he was bonking from hunger. "Baby, I need a sandwich or something."

Lanie didn't want to point out that when he'd wiped his brow, he'd left a red streak. "I'll see what I can put together."

Galen yanked the hide off the deer. It was like the underside of a tapestry, the variegated colors of veins and sinew and marbled fat. Lanie leaned over and retched.

"Dad, Dad," Eben danced around the skin in Galen's hands. "Can we make something out of it?"

"Hey, honey, you feeling okay?"

Lanie stood up and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "How much longer?" It was nearly dark.

"I can't imagine it taking much longer," Galen told her. In fact he could see it taking all night.

She nodded and told Eben it was time for bed. She followed a wailing Eben into the house.

Now it was just Galen and Annie, muttering nonsense to herself, and his laptop. By the dim light of the screen he surveyed the suspended cadaver, wishing for a road map, some way to differentiate between dead ends and a good cut of meat. Here was where he really needed the YouTube tutorial, but his battery was running low. In the growing darkness he began to hack and tear. Between the impact wound and gristle and bone, there seemed to be very little left to freeze. He would have needed tweezers to extract the meat. He sensed the raccoons watching him from under Annie's porch, their little zombie eyes burning yellow and amber.

Lost in thought he sculpted slabs, what he supposed were roasts, fillets, chops. It was all venison to him. The smaller pieces were cutlets, trims for the burger pail, stew meat. By the time Lanie came back with a flashlight, he had entered a killing zone, a place between Neanderthal and barbarian.

"Any progress?"

"Yeah," he answered, "I'm evolving." He was ready to plunge the knife into his own neck. "Baby, I'm so done."

She stood there, thinking. "What do we do with what's left?"

They couldn't just leave the scraps and entrails there. "I don't know, but the coons are circling," Galen answered.

They lowered what was left of the eviscerated deer and hauled it using the tarp to the back of the car. Each taking a corner, they lifted the remains and threw it into the trunk. Eben was upstairs sleeping with Shan listening out for him. Feeling suspiciously like mobsters, Lanie and Galen drove to the end of a dead-end street, down to the ravine, where on the weekends the college students partied and disposed of their beer cans. Galen cut the headlights.

Working together without conversation, they hefted the tarp wrapped like a mummy out of the trunk and dragged it to the edge of the pines. Far off they could hear a dog bark. A twig snapped beneath Galen's boot. Suddenly a high beam shone down upon them. Lanie and Galen froze.

"Come out of there, with your hands up."

Paralyzed by the spotlight, they dropped the ends of the plastic sheeting and raised their hands in surrender. An officer stood behind her car door. She must have recognized Lanie. "You, again."

Lanie nodded.

"The pregnant lady."

Lanie quickly tucked her sticky, bloody hands inside her coat pockets.

"Illegal dumping is a $500 fine."

The police woman paused. "I don't even want to know what you two were doing. Just get back into your vehicle and get going."

The car had been left running. Galen sprung to the driver's side and tried to open his door. It was locked. Lanie's too. He must have pushed the autolock switch when rooting in the darkness to pop the trunk. "Umm, officer," Galen began. "We have a problem. Can you call a locksmith?"



After another hour and a sheaf of paperwork, Lanie and Galen were heading home past monster garbage cans set out on the curb, past evil-eyed raccoons skulking about, sliding in and out of shadows. In a few hours it would be time to wake Eben and get him into his costume.

5 comments:

  1. This is hilarious and very well written, well paced and engaging. The visceral details combined with the crazy innocence of Lanie and Galen worked brilliantly together. And it all seemed such a good idea to Lanie start with! Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. Thank you for a well written and funny story. I especially liked the relationship between the curious and intelligent little boy and his father, and the way the delightfully quirky Shan weaves in and out of your story in just the right places to add to oddness of the day's and night's events.

    L.S. Sharrow

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  3. Disturbing and bloody, like the movie (and the current TV show) Fargo. In Roadkill, as in Fargo, gore becomes just a backdrop for emotion and surprising twists as partners rally behind a common purpose. Roadkill makes us forget the gritty situation to focus on what the family needs to accomplish, with Lanie initiating a sequence of choices, hers and Galen’s, to overcome obstacles in a plan going awry. The police woman’s appearance twice in the plot is a nice touch.

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  4. this is a fascinating, quirky story, with much needed attention to detail. I liked it that Lanie overcame her sadness for the animal, she saw no choice. very good and credible characters and a good ending.

    Mike McC

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  5. A sensible husband's "No way, woman!" is what's missing in this story. Then, of course, there'd be no story.

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