By Paul Negri
“I don’t understand.” Marsha watched her husband Matt load the back of his black Jeep Wrangler with plywood.
“What’s to understand?”
“Why now? You haven’t been hunting in years, Matt.”
“That’s exactly why now.” Matt looked at Marsha and tried to smile but didn’t quite make it. Smiling had always been an effort for him and lately it just didn’t seem worth it.
“You’re still on the mend,” said Marsha.
“I feel fine. And I’ve still got a week of sick leave.”
“Is it me?” asked Marsha.
“Is what you?”
“Is it just to get away from me?”
Matt put his toolbox on top of the plywood. “For God’s sake, Marsha. It’s just for a few days. That’s hardly getting away from you.”
“What I mean is,” said Matt, walking up the driveway and standing before her, “I have no desire to get away from you. Per se.”
“I just want a couple of days by myself.”
“Sitting in some damp hole with a gun in your hands?”
Matt returned to the car. “It’s not a hole. I’m fixing up a blind. I’ll be snug as a bedbug. In a bed.”
Marsha walked down the driveway to the car. “It’s too soon, Matt. It was just a few weeks ago.”
“Three weeks. And it was no big deal. Just a stent in an artery. A small one.”
“Nothing with the heart is small.”
“I will be all right, Marsha. Honestly.” Matt got into the car and blew Marsha a kiss. He turned on the ignition.
“You’re still mad about Jerry,” said Marsha.
“I’m not mad about Jerry.”
“It was just—it was nothing. We had our clothes on. Jesus, Matt.” Marsha began to cry. Since she turned fifty, a year ago, she seemed to cry a lot more, Matt noticed.
He turned off the ignition.
“Like you said, it was nothing. We all had too much to drink. I was so plastered I think I would have let Jerry grope me, too.”
This time he succeeded in forcing a smile.
Marsha stopped crying. “I didn’t even like it. It was so stupid. I could kick myself.”
“I’ve got to go. I want to get up there as early as I can.” Matt started the car once more. “I’ll call when I get there.”
He pulled out and waved goodbye. But he hadn’t gone thirty yards when he stopped and looked back. Marsha was standing at the curb, her arms wrapped around herself, as if she was cold, although it was warm for October. Years of being a top salesman had ingrained in Matt the practice of never leaving a customer unhappy. He got out and walked back to her. He put his arms around her.
“You know, I don’t blame Jerry one bit,” he said. “If I had a chance with a babe like you, I’d sure as hell go for it.” He kissed her.
“He didn’t have a chance,” whispered Marsha. “Please don’t go.”
“I’ll be back in a few days,” said Matt. “You just go and visit Sandy. The kids will love having you stay over. You’ll have to read them that awful story about the snowman who comes to life but melts when the sun comes out. Again.”
“They always cry at the end.”
“So, this time make up a happy ending. They won’t know you’ve made it up. They can’t read anyway.”
“Promise you’ll call and let me know exactly where you are.”
Matt smoothed Marsha’s hair away from her forehead. Her eyebrows need plucking, he thought.
Matt drove all through the morning and early afternoon until he came to a spot where the dirt road faded into the trees and gradually became nothing but woods. He’d been there before and knew that a half mile up the narrow trail was the remains of an old double blind, dilapidated but till standing, that could be salvaged with a little wood and the kind of simple tools he knew how to use. He parked the Jeep in a clearing by a rotting log, turned off the ignition, and sat for a while taking deep and steady breaths. He fingered the small blue bottle of nitroglycerine in his pocket but resisted taking a tablet and slipping it under his tongue to quell the pain that rippled slowly across his chest. A little pain never hurt anyone, he thought.
Somewhere from high over the canopy of trees came the short, sharp call of a raven.
“Same to you, pal,” said Matt.
Although the plywood strips were not heavy, they were awkward and Matt had to make two trips to get all the wood, his tool chest, backpack and rifle from the place where he parked to the blind. The blind was built into the side of a hill about fifty yards from a small pond. It was really no more than a particleboard box with a lid. But it was a fairly large box, big enough to accommodate two hunters, or one if he intended to stay overnight and stretch out in a sleeping bag. Matt intended just that, to stay overnight, perhaps one night or two, maybe even more. He had not thought that far ahead. He knew only that three weeks after his midnight trip to the hospital emergency room and two weeks after he came upon Marsha and his friend Jerry being more than friendly in the kitchen during a party Jerry and his wife had thrown (they drank all right, but Matt knew they had not drunk that much), he felt a need to go off to the woods and shoot something. Fortunately, it was deer season.
The front of the blind was intact, but needed some boarding up, particularly around one of the two shooting slots, which looked as if something had tried to claw its way in. The roof too needed some reinforcing here and there, although the door on the side was still in good enough shape to open and close if you pulled and pushed it enough.
Matt went about his mending slowly. He felt in no rush. It had been a long time since he’d been hunting, although he had hiked until recently, but always with someone else. He had forgotten how quiet and peaceful the woods could be when you were alone. Sunlight filtered slowly through the trees, fell and splattered yellow on the brown leaf-covered ground and sparkled in the still pond. The wind whispered through the treetops and scattered in the wind were the songs of birds.
After working a while, Matt took a sandwich and his canteen from his backpack and sat on a moss-covered rock. He took a bite of the sandwich and lifted the top slice of bread. Marsha had made a bunch of sandwiches for him, this one turkey, and had deprived it of mayonnaise.
“Christ,” he muttered, chewing the dry sandwich and remembered the awful row they’d had a week before when Marsha snatched the jar from him as he slathered mayonnaise on a sandwich he had made himself.
“You’re just killing yourself with all this fat,” she’d told him tearfully. “I’m too young to be a widow, Matt.”
“But not too young to be an old nag,” he’d told her, and as soon as the words were out felt as badly as if he had hit her.
She slammed the jar back down so hard it broke and bled mayonnaise all over the table and before he could say he was sorry Marsha rushed out of the kitchen and up to their bedroom and slammed the door. The slamming of that door was becoming a familiar sound in their house.
Matt finished his sandwich and drank a full bottle of water, though he wasn’t that thirsty. He found that he was never very thirsty, hardly ever thirsty at all. Marsha drank copious amounts of water and was constantly warning him about the dangers of dehydration. If I drank all the water she wanted me to, thought Matt, I’d have drowned by now.
“She means well,” he said aloud, and startled himself with the sound of his own voice. “Shit.”
Then he stood up.
“Shit,” he yelled into the woods. “You hear me?”
The wind whispered, the birds sang.
By dusk Matt had finished all the patching necessary to make the blind temporarily habitable. He scooped up handfuls of dirt and leaves and spread them over the front and roof of the blind and stuck on branches and bits of forest to make it as natural a part of the landscape as he could. It was not the best job of camouflage but good enough, he hoped, to fool just one buck, perhaps a careless one, to come to the pond and stay long enough for him to get a clean shot. He had shot only one buck in his years of hunting, a small one, twenty-five years ago, just after the birth of his daughter Sandy, when he had guiltily left Marsha with the howling infant for a few days so he could, as now, be alone and shoot something.
Matt settled into the blind, putting his food and water in the corner, hanging his battery-powered camp lantern on a nail, unrolling his sleeping bag on the plywood floor, which he had cleaned up as best he could. The blind was just tall enough for him to stand straight, though it occurred to him that a taller man would have a tough time in it and for once was glad not to be a taller man. He positioned his rifle through one of the shooting slots and found that it was a little low but gave good viewing of the pond and surrounding woods. If anything came to drink from the pond, he had a good chance, he thought, of putting a bullet in it.
Darkness fell suddenly on the woods like a curtain coming down on a stage. Matt turned on the lantern and took out his cell phone. It showed three messages, all of them from Marsha.
Christ, he thought, I should have called her when I got here. He put the phone back in his jacket pocket. Then he took it out again.
“All right, all right,” he said aloud. He punched her number.
“Matt?” Marsha sounded out of breath.
“Yeah, sure,” he said.
“Where are you?”
“In the woods. You know that.”
Matt thought about it for a moment. He wasn’t quite sure where he was.
“About two miles off 32 north. Near Clarkston. You and I hiked here last year.”
“By the big lake?” Marsha sounded hopeful.
“That’s right,” Matt lied.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Marsha. Stop worrying.”
“Okay,” she said. “When are you coming back?”
“Depends on when I shoot a buck. Or don’t. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day.”
“Say hello to Bobby and Brandie.”
Christ, thought Matt.
“Hi, Grampy.” Two simultaneous squeaks.
“Hey, kiddos,” said Matt in his Grampy voice. “What you doing?”
Matt didn’t know which of the grandchildren was talking. He didn’t ask.
“I’m doing nothing, too,” he said.
“Matt?” It was Marsha again.
“The kids miss you.”
“I miss them too,” said Matt, as he knew that was the expected response.
“I love you.”
“Me too,” said Matt. “Marsha, I’ve got to go. I’ll have the phone off most of the time. Scares the whole goddamn forest if it rings at the wrong time. I’ll call you tomorrow at around noon.”
“Bye, Marsha.” Matt ended the call, turned off the phone, and put it in his vest pocket. He was surprised at how hot it felt against him. Then he realized it wasn’t the phone. It was his chest. First the heat, then the familiar pain. He sat down on the plywood floor, his back against the rear wall of the blind. Breath, he thought. Then he laughed. “Breath in, breath out,” he said. That’s all there is to it, he thought, the meaning of life. But the pain came hard this time. He fumbled for the bottle of nitroglycerine, shook out one of the little tablets, and slipped it under his tongue. He felt it tingle and tried to relax. When the first one didn’t stop the pain, he took another. He had never had to take more than two and three was the limit, according to his doctor. So, what happens if you take more than three, he thought, you explode?
But the pain subsided. He stood up and looked out of the shooting slot. It was so dark he couldn’t even see the pond, though he could hear something moving through the brush by it.
“All right, you buck,” he said. “Looks like we both dodged a bullet tonight. Kill you in the morning.”
Despite the cold and discomfit, Matt slept well, cocooned in his sleeping bag. He awoke to the quiet of the forest and the smell of damp earth and for many minutes lay still, not thinking about anything. Usually on waking his mind was subject to a steady trickle of worrisome things which, through the years, changed with his circumstances: his early troubled marriage to Marsha, his daughter Sandy’s sickly childhood (always on the brink of some health catastrophe), problems at work, the threat of getting fired, the promise of promotion, the dull assortment of everyday warts and worries that pockmarked so many of his days. And then there were the times he worried about not worrying. During one of the more difficult periods of their marriage, Marsha had urged him to see a psychotherapist, which he did, reluctantly. Over the three months of weekly sessions, Matt remembered only one thing clearly, the phrase emotional deficit.
“You pretend a lot,” the therapist, a woman, had said. “Why?”
“What else can I do?” he had asked her.
She made a note and said they would take up that question in the next session. Matt never went back.
It was just dawn and a gray light tinted the woods. Matt peeked out the shooting slot and could barely see the pond. He stretched to unstiffen and took a hard roll and thermos of lukewarm black coffee from his plastic bag of provisions. This isn’t so bad, he thought. I’ve had a lot worse mornings. He thought about Marsha and Jerry and how embarrassed they both were when he had come upon them in the kitchen. What surprised him was not that Marsha was doing it, but how little he actually cared. He tried to be angry and had succeeded, but just momentarily. Then the anger ebbed away and was replaced by—nothing.
“It was really pretty funny,” Matt said to himself, recalling how Jerry was holding a corkscrew in one hand and Marsha’s breast in the other.
He thought about Marsha when they got married, she already pregnant, his sleepwalking down the aisle, then those first years with the baby, the early jobs, the big squabbles and small good times, he doing everything he was supposed to do, even through the rough patches, then the slow smoothing out of things as Sandy grew up, the dull success of his salesman’s job and the surprisingly good money, Sandy’s marriage and the grandchildren, her divorce, Marsha’s cancer scare, which turned out to be nothing, then his pain in the night and the ride in the ambulance and Marsha’s face full of an anguish he couldn’t share….
Matt heard a branch snap. He peaked through the scope. The woods had gone from gray to grey-green. A whitetail buck stood on the other side of the pond and looked directly at the blind. Matt froze. The buck lowered his head and began to drink.
Matt took his small binoculars from his vest and slowly raised them to his eyes. The buck was large and had five-point antlers, making him more than legal to shoot. His coat was reddish-brown, but dull and fading. Matt figured he was about 130 pounds or so, about the same as Marsha. Stupid thing to think, he thought. Forget it. Focus.
The buck raised his head and looked once more in the direction of the blind, then turned sideways, as if to give Matt a better target. Matt raised his gun quickly, steadied it on the lip of the shooting slot, and fired too fast, before he was ready. He slipped and fell back against the wall of the blind.
“Goddamn,” he yelled.
He got up quickly and peered out. The buck was gone.
“Son of a bitch.”
Then laughed. He was almost glad he missed. What am I doing out here? he thought. But he didn’t think about it too long. He was just glad to be there, even if he didn’t get to kill anything in the end. He’d had his shot and missed. Good enough. Maybe, he thought, I should just go home.
He walked through the dirt and dried leaves, stepping over the roots of trees, to the pond, which was smaller up-close than it appeared to be from the blind. It was shallow and it took just four steps to cross. On a tree by the pond was a splatter of blood.
“Christ,” said Matt. “Guess I didn’t miss after all.”
But there was no sign of the buck. The sun was coming strongly through the treetops now. It speckled the forest floor with bright spots and some of those spots glistened red. Matt followed the blood trail about twenty yards and stopped at a large splotch of blood. Then spots again, going deeper into the woods.
Matt had followed a few blood trails when he was young, but never for a deer he’d shot himself, always someone else’s. Once the trail was a long one and it took them two hours and going a good distance before coming on the deer collapsed in the tall grass, finally dead. But no one ever thought of quitting. You finished what you started. That was the rule and you didn’t think about rules, you just followed them.
He probably hasn’t gone far anyway, thought Matt. He went back to the blind and got a roll of toilet paper so he could use sheets to mark his trail and know how to get back, just in case he went far afield. When he straightened up from his backpack, he felt dizzy and steadied himself against the wall of the blind. He thought of just forgetting about the buck and going home. What did he care how long the animal took to die? “Shit,” he said. “Sure, I care. Of course, I do.”
I’ll track the poor bastard, he thought, and put him out of his misery, like any decent man would.
Matt followed the trail, placing sheets of toilet paper now and then on the low-hanging limbs of trees as he went. The sun was up and the backpack felt heavy on his shoulders. The spots of blood were sometimes on the ground, against a tree now and then, and at times seemed to vanish altogether, only to reappear if he looked hard enough. The longer he followed the trail, the heavier the gun felt in his hands. After an hour, he was about ready to give up and make his way back to the blind, feeling he had done enough, and if the buck had gone so far to escape him, he had earned his life back again.
Then he spotted a pair of antlers. They seemed to emerge from behind a very big gray rock at the bottom of a dry gulley. Nothing more of the buck could be seen. Matt took a look with his binoculars. The antlers moved.
The way down to the bottom of the gulley was steep and the large rocks were spotted with blood. Matt shouldered his rifle and made his way slowly, backwards, gripping whatever was at hand for support. By the time he reached the bottom, he was out of breath and sweating hard. He looked back up to the top of the bank and was overcome with a sick feeling. He had gone down further than he realized and both sides of the gulley were sharp and steep.
Calm down, he thought. You’ll just take it slow on the way up.
He wiped the sweat from his face and took deep breaths. He fingered the bottle of nitroglycerine tablets in his pocket.
Matt made his way over the rocks and fallen branches to where the buck lay. The buck was bigger than he thought, perhaps 150 pounds, and with a fine rack of antlers. The fur just under his neck was clotted with blood and blood flowed from his nose and mouth and formed a small pool by his head. His sides rose and fell rapidly. A swarm of gnats buzzed around his ears and eyes. He blinked four or five times and then the blinking stopped.
Matt raised his rifle and aimed, but hesitated. He came closer and crouched down near the buck. The buck’s eyes were open and unseeing, his sides still, without a ripple of breath.
“You beat me to it,” he said. “Good for you, pal.”
Matt sat down with his back against the big round rock. He put his gun down by his side, slipped off his backpack, got out his canteen and took a long drink. Half the water seemed to miss his mouth and flow down over his vest.
“Oh no,” he said and the pain shot up his neck and down his left arm.
He managed to get his bottle of nitroglycerine and slip a tablet under his tongue and waited. But nothing happened. The pain was blossoming like a fireball in his chest. He took two more tables and waited, then another two. His hand clenched into a fist and he dropped the bottle. He heard a loud gurgling sound and thought it was the buck somehow come back to life before he realized it was coming from him.
He pulled out his cell phone with the hand that was still working and managed to click it on messages and see there were two more from Marsha, before his hand fell and he slipped into a roaring darkness….
When Matt opened his eyes again, the sun was just overhead. He looked at his hand. Something was crawling on it, but it did not disturb him. It was as if the hand was not his, but just part of the rock and the rock was just part of the ground and the ground and the trees and the swirling blue sky and burning yellow sun, the fire in his chest and the whispering wind, were all whirling together and taking him somewhere and he couldn’t stop it, nor wanted to stop it, just wanted Marsha and Sandy and the kids and all the others long forgotten but now remembered, to go with him, and he’d make it all up to them, and they’d all go on and on, forever and ever, all together and never, never stop.
But then it did.
Paul Negri has twice won the Gold Medal for fiction in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. His stories have appeared in more than twenty publications, including The Penn Review, Vestal Review, and Pif Magazine. He lives and writes and doesn’t do much else in Clifton, New Jersey.