This story won an Artistic Merit Award in the Flash Fiction 2010 Contest, The Writer's Circle, Inc., Warwick, RI
At the south rim of the Grand Canyon, there was nothing anyone could do when Aztec Maroney, son of a divorced mother in Melanville, Massachusetts, from a running start somewhere about a hundred feet back, sprinted over the edge into the freezing dawn light.
He burst past a few scattered bleary-eyed early risers, some taking their first sips of coffee from thermoses they loaded the night before. He disappeared into a wisp of fog three-thousand feet above the floor of the canyon with no parachute, no safety net, no obvious entourage encouraging him, tucked into a ball as if he were doing a cannonball into the family pool.
A 'what was that?' rushed through the minds of the tourists as Aztec vanished. Most thought it was a crazed animal. No one got a good look. He fell about three hundred feet until, still tucked in a cannonball, he hit an outcropping. His arm bones from his elbows to his wrists and his leg bones from his knees to his ankles, shattered. He was conscious enough to wonder with his first thought after impact if he would ever walk again. Then he wondered if he would die.
Aztec's jump sucked the tourists to the edge of the canyon and they leaned over not sure what they were looking for. They squinted into the haze and heard moans from below that could have been man or beast.
At the same time, three young people backed away from the rim. They wore colorful, expensive down jackets and right-out-of-the-box L.L. Bean hiking boots. They looked like the shiny, happy faces with perfect teeth and smiles you see in private school catalogues. They were alternately wrapping their arms around themselves and each other and gyrating.
One of the tourists had the presence of mind to run to the ranger station. She rapped on the door till a ranger appeared and she had to force out the words: "I think something has happened".
The traumatized young people were the first one's the park rangers attended to and the first ones the police questioned that day.
"We don't know, we don't know, we don't know!" screamed Jenny, who was revealed to be Aztec's girlfriend early in the police interview after the rangers and the police calmed them down enough to begin their investigation.
The other young man in the surviving threesome tried to help.
"He said he wanted to get a picture of us on the rim, that's why he went back away from us."
Then he broke down, dropped his head, had a seizure of sobs and choked the words out: "He…he said he wanted something…something to remember us by."
In Flagstaff, having been told his father was en route from Connecticut, Aztec, conscious, saturated with morphine, waited in his hospital bed, wondering what was real, and how he'd explain.
Delmar Poissant never, ever, got follow-up calls after a job was done. The call came at one-thirty in the morning. He reached out for the shiny black phone that he cleaned earlier that day before going to work. Even in the dark, with eyes closed, he knew precisely where the receiver lay cradled in the base. His dresser, where the phone was, was an arm's length away. On the dresser, aligned in perfect succession from right to left, each in its own territory, was pocket change in an ashtray which was cleaned and no longer used for butts since he quit smoking, silver nail clippers always placed perpendicular to the bed edge of the dresser, a plastic container for his retainer, a neatly folded clean handkerchief for the next day, his wallet, and a framed picture of him and Jill sitting in beach chairs on the deck at his parent's house on the lake.
The picture was taken by his mother a week before Jill moved out. As particular as he was about the objects on his dresser, Delmar couldn't yet bring himself to put that picture somewhere where he couldn't see it every day. In the month since Jill left, he looked at it every morning and felt powerless to fix her not being there, but he wanted to. He was not used to not knowing how to fix things. For a moment, as he brought the phone to his ear, he wanted to touch the picture frame with his finger tips.
"We have no vaahter!" yelled a voice on the other end that jerked his head away from the receiver as if he'd been slapped and set off a throbbing headache. Too many beers last night. Forgetting Jill. Not forgetting Jill. Jill threatening to leave. Jill leaving.
"We have no fucking vaahter!"
"No fucking vahter.", the voice calmer, more matter-of-fact.
Delmar mentally replayed the water heater job he did at the Petrowitz cottage late that afternoon. He must have forgotten to turn on the main feed from the well and the feed and supply valves on the new water heater after finishing . The valves were a prick to get to. 'Fuckin' butcher job' he thought to himself, blaming the shoddy original work he had to deal with that day to distract himself from acknowledging his own mistake.
The Petrowitz place was one of the many lakeside camps converted by their New York owners years ago from summer getaways into year-round homes, often by using unlicensed plumbers and slipping a couple of crisp hundreds to the building inspector. Delmar did not want to get in the truck and drive the seven miles to the north end of town to the top of Kivver Lake to turn on the water for Mr. Petrowitz.
"Mr. Pterowitz, can this wait till morning? I can come out first thing," sweeping back his mane of hair that had not been cut since Jill moved out. And since she moved out he had not been able to move smoothly through his work days with his mind completely on his work. He had a few near fuckups that he caught and straightened out himself since Jill left, more than he had for his entire fifteen-year career. 'I'm not one of your plumbing jobs! I don't want to be fixed. Don't you get it? Don't you ever listen? ' she blasted at him when she slammed the screen door in his face the day she left. This middle-of-the-night call was not a near fuckup, it was the real thing, but pretty harmless if it meant simply turning on three valves.
"Vee need vahter to taken shower." continued Mr. Petrowitz.
"Why the.." Delmar stopped himself from asking 'Why the fuck do you need to take a shower at one-thirty in the morning?' and instead asked meekly:
"So it can't wait till morning?"
"No. But I don't vant to bodder you. You tell Vitra how turn on vahter. Hokay?"
Great. Delmar could simply direct the old man and go back to sleep. He thought of movies in which a heroic character in airport ground control would safely negotiate a ten-year-old boy to a safe landing at a small, out-of-the-way airport after the pilot, the boy's father, had suffered a massive coronary. This wasn't nearly as serious, and he certainly wasn't up to heroics at one-thirty on Saturday morning, hung over with heartburn igniting in his belly. He sat up and swung his legs around to get his feet on the floor. He leaned over to resume the grip on his temples with one hand, resting an elbow on his knee. The other hand pressed the phone to his ear.
"You sure you can handle this Mr. Petrowitz?"
"I get flashlight. Hold phone" he replied. Delmar recalled there was a single ceramic light bulb fixture with a pull chain in the middle of the Petrwowitz cottage cellar. The bulb was burnt out. He did the water heater job using his floodlight stand. The Petrowitz phone plunked down on a hard surface and once again Delmar moved his receiver away from his ear. While waiting for Mr. Petrowitz to return, he slowly moved the receiver back within hearing distance as if he were handling a dangerous weapon. For quite a long time, there was no sound coming from the other end. Delmar looked up at Jill's picture. He regretted the confrontation with Jill. He felt himself inching toward a confession: he did not listen to her, he could be a 'vane, selfish prick'. He let the phone touch his ear. Then bang! Delmar stood up from the bedside and fumbled the phone.
"Hokay, Dat bulkhead door too heavy. I drop. I'm in cellar."
The only entrance to the Petrowitz cottage basement was the metal bulkhead in the back of the house. The cottage was originally built without a cellar. When some previous owner decided to dig a small, half cellar under the cottage, they never put in a door to the cellar from inside the house. The half basement was small and crammed with garden tools, a lawnmower, boxes of old glamour magazines that Mrs. Petrowitz once appeared in, old patio furniture, and the accumulated bric-a-brac of the Petrowitz's lives, all scattered on and around a small workbench. It was as if someone just tossed everything in there without a second's regard for order. When Delmar went to install the water heater, the disarray pissed him off because he had to move half of the stuff out through the bulkhead in order to install the new hot water tank.
"Mr. Perowitz? Are you ok?"
"I am in basement. Tell me where is valve, please," Vitra said, breathing heavily.
"Ok. Good. There are three valves you'll need to turn on. From the bulkhead, you want to go to the back left corner of the cellar first. That's where the main from the well is."
Delmar heard the old man panting and muttering the refrain 'back left corner, back left corner'. 'Jesus,' thought Delmar, 'the cellar isn't that big.'
"Hokay. Back left corner!" Mr. Petrowitz boomed into the phone like he was hailing a cab.
"Now, Mr. Petrowitz, the valve has a red plastic handle. It's a straight handle and it's parallel to the pipe that goes up to the ceiling."
"Parallel. Yes, I know parallel."
"Have you got it?"
"Hold phone. Flashlight no good."
Delmar hears what sounds like the old man slapping the flashlight in the palm of his hand over and over again. Mr. Petrowtiz was a barrel-chested veteran of World War II who, just that afternoon, had regaled Delmar with his tales of hand-to-hand combat in the Pacific and complained about all the heart medication he was on. At seventy-eight, he still had a handshake like a vise..
"I go get new batrees. Hold phone."
Delmar paces by his bed. He grabs his glasses and puts them on. The old man's portable phone acts as a microphone broadcasting the old man's actions. He can hear the old man stumble and kick his way through the cellar, muttering to himself, and he hears him ascend the wooden bulkhead stairs. He hears the metal bullhead creak open as Mr. Petrowitz grunts. Then a screen squeaks open and slams shut. There is the sound of a drawer opening and the shuffling of objects. Then a voice.
"Vitra. Ees vahter on yet? No? Why not?"
It was Mr. Petrowitz wife, Lana, a sixty-five-year-old blonde bombshell who still turned heads everywhere she went. She did not suffer fools gladly. She was the general in charge of the Petrowitz infantry and she never let him forget who was in charge. He would do anything for her.
"Soon dahlink. Soon. I must find batrees, please."
"In left drawer", she advised.
"No battrees sweetbuns."
"Then use candles my dahlink."
Delmar craved a cigarette, though he hadn't had one since he quit cold turkey at Jill's insistence. He noticed it was two AM. Mr. Petrowitz began speaking again as he headed back to the cellar with a box of wooden matches and a couple of little blue birthday candles Lana found in the cupboard. Mr. Petrowtiz was energized thinking about the nice cool shower he and Lana would soon enjoy on this oppressively muggy summer night that you made you sweat even in motionless sleep. A great pleasure of their golden years was showering together late at night and making love in the shower. The old man had told Delmar about this too the previous afternoon. He envied Mr. Petrowitz.
"Mr. Petrowitz, did you get some batteries?"
"No batrees. I use candles."
Delmar pictured the lawn mower and gas can in the half cellar that lay in the path to the main water valve. He heard what sounded like the old man striking a wooden match on the box of Ohio blue tips. He listened to Vitra shoving his way past the cellar's obstacles. 'Jesus' Delmar half cursed, half prayed 'not the gasoline'.
"I light birthday candles. Ha, ha! Hokay, I turn main valve. I hear water flowink. This is good!"
"Great," said Delmar. "Now all you need to do is open the water heater valves."
Delmar puts his glasses back on the dresser and lays back in his bed ready to finish the call. He lets the receiver cradle between his ear and shoulder. He rested his hands together on his belly like a body at a wake, and still wishes he had a cigarette. He misses Jill again. He wants her to call. He will call her in the morning. He will listen. He will only listen now. No more fixing. He pantomimed taking a nice, long drag on a Lucky Strike.
"Lana! Lana!" came Mr. Petrowitz's panicked voice louder than ever.
The phone clicked like an empty gun and went dead. He tried to decide if the call was over, if Mr. Petrowitz was ok. He wanted to go back to sleep. He wasn't sure how much time passed before he heard the fire horn blow downtown. A few minutes after that, the sirens of two trucks began to move into the night. He could tell the direction the sirens were travelling. North.
Delmar shot out of bed like it was infested with lice. He put his glasses back on, hurried to get his pants and shoes on and ran down to the kitchen for his truck keys. His chest tightened as he got closer to the sound of the fire trucks. He had the dream-like floating, suspended feeling a driver has when an accident you have no power to avoid is about to happen. Again he thought of Jill, as if she had something to do with this night. Did she curse him? Had he cursed himself by driving her away? Yes. He could freely admit it now. He drove her away. He made it impossible for her to stay. So he would have to fix it. He would have to change and it would be harder than quitting cigarettes. Delmar wondered why the fire trucks blasted their horns on the road to the lake at this hour when no one was on the road. Were they trained to do that or just rubbing it in that they were heroes? He gripped the wheel of his truck and let the worst of thoughts roll in: the cottage in flames with the Petrowitz's trapped in the cellar, the Petrowitz's burned to death — and it's his fault because he forgot to turn the fucking water on. Could this be a manslaughter charge? Would he get sued by their children and his life ruined forever? Would this have happened if he had been different enough for Jill to stay? His future did not exist beyond knowing what the hell happened to the Petrowitz's.
He slid his truck to a halt in the Petrowitz pea stone driveway. No flames. No fire. Not even smoke. He grabbed his flashlight and bolted from the truck and followed the fire hoses around to the back of the cottage. Two or three firemen, holding hoses that were shut off, looked up at him and were as casual as if he was seeing them at Benoit's Bar.
"Hey, Del. The old man's in the cellar."
Without a word, Delmar lowered himself through the bulkhead. He stepped over a garden hose that snaked into the cellar. At the bottom step, he followed the hose with his eyes to the corner where the water heater was and shined his light into the eyes of Vitra leaning against the wall, sweating, his shirt unbuttoned, Lana stroking the grey hair on his chest and the top of his head and two more firemen turning towards Delmar as if anticipating someone else. They all put up one arm to shield themselves from his light. Delmar lowered his flashlight.
"Is rescue squad?" piped up Mr. Petrowitz.
"No sweetbuns. It's the plumber," she said coldly.
Delmar approached them, banging a shin on a box, grimacing, leaning over to rub his shin, the firemen parting beside Vitra and Lana.
"Are you all right?" asked Dekmar.
"Vitra start fire with candle. I put out with hose straight away. I save house and Vitra. Vitra's heart not so good." She summarized the events with a passive matter-of-factness, a resignation, a fatigue. Delmar had his life back.
"All because you forget water!" she screamed full force, shaking her finger at him.
It didn't matter. It sailed right over Delmar's head. He had his life back. He had his life back. Tomorrow he'd get Jill back.
Junior Jarbor couldn't wait to get to ninth grade so he could take wood shop. When he finally got to ninth grade at Melanville High School, wood shop was the only class where he did not look at the clock to check how long it was before class was over. He would stay there all day, right where he felt he belonged, if he was allowed.
Junior learned how to work with tools from his carpenter father, Jim Jarbor, Sr., the way most kids learn to toss a ball back and forth in the backyard. From the time his son was in first grade, an age when he could reliably respond to 'No' and 'don't touch that', Jim Jarbor, Sr. taught his son about tools. His son knew which tools he was not allowed to touch at all, which ones that required his father's strict supervision, and which ones he could touch on his own. Power tools were off limits until seventh grade, a rule instituted by Clare Jarbor, who worried about her young son's exposure to what she knew could be an unforgiving profession. She knew carpenters with missing fingers, hands deformed by arthritis, back trouble, and bodies aching from years of swinging a hammer in all kinds of weather. She wanted more than carpentry and woodworking for her son. She wanted his mind to be his greatest tool. If her son was to learn cutting, she preferred he do so as her father had done, as a surgeon. Clare did not like accidents or foolishness, but she knew full well they sometimes played a mysterious role in shaping fates. She was not so naïve to believe that things did not always go as planned by parents or anyone else. Her marriage to Jim Jarbor was proof of that.
Junior's parents, Jim Sr. and Clare, were natives and lifelong residents of Melanville, except for Clare's absence during four years of college, which included a semester in Paris. Her father wanted her to become fluent in French. She did. Her father would have liked her to follow him in medicine, but she followed her mother into education.
Her future husband Jim Jarbor was not on the college track in high school. He was a football star, a braggadocio who was tolerated more than liked by many people because he was an integral part of a proud history of Melanville Stags football which included a state record twenty-seven game win streak during the three years of big Jim's varsity tenure. As the feared, featured, premier running of his day, Jim Jarbor laid the hurt on countless linebackers and defensive backs from all over the county who all still remembered, not very fondly, the big brute.
In his heyday, Jim Jarbor walked the halls of Melanville High like he was on parade. He always had condoms in his gym bag and always let the guys in the locker room know it. After Thursday football practice, the day before a Friday night game, he'd go through the contents of his bag in front of everyone while they were toweling off in front of their lockers. Jarbor would set his gym bag on the wooden bench that ran the length of the lockers. 'Let's see, do I have everything I need for the weekend?' and like some bumbling, comic magician looking inside a hat for a rabbit, he'd toss dirty socks, a jockstrap, and foot powder out of his bag, then finally pull out a little box of Trojans. He'd hold it up like he was in a TV commercial, smiling, 'It ain't a rabbit, but it'll help me fuck like one!'
"Jimmy, you talk a good game, but we all know you're not the bad ass you pretend to be," his best friend Del Freeder would say. The younger boys found Jarbor amusing and contradictory. They saw another side of him during football season. For all his hot air, Jim Jarbor had a protective side that most people never saw. He never dogged it at practice. He encouraged the underclassmen, took them under his wing. He forbade hazing of any kind. He surprised a freshman who asked him when the hazing would start after pre-season practice in August one hot day. Jim told him hazing was for pussies. This protective, loyal side of Jim Jarbor, Jr. wasn't known outside the privacy of the football team. Around town, Jim was simply considered a chip off his father Hank's block. People had him pegged. At McDonald's on Saturday mornings, a group of retired teachers who met there every week would check Jim's stats from the Friday night game. "The kid's good," one would say. "Yeah, and all piss and vinegar, just like his old man," another would chime in grudgingly.
Jarbor joined his father's construction business right after graduating from Melanville High. Hank Jarbor gave his only son two choices: either work for him or join the Marines. He knew that Jim would shy away from the prospect of leaving the familiarity of Melanville to go to some far-off military base, so his choice of working for him or joining the Marines was really no choice at all. People in town thought Jim would join the Marines to get out from under Hank's weight. His guidance counselor told him the Marines seemed a good fit, secretly hoping to free him from Hank, maybe broaden his horizons. Despite his reputation as a tough guy, the unfamiliar scared Jim Jarbor. His range of tolerance for things out of the ordinary, out of reach, was minimal. His father Hank, the devil he knew, was preferable to the devil he didn't know.
One Saturday morning Hank saw an empty beer can roll out from under the seat of his pickup after Jim borrowed Hank's truck for a post-game Friday night date. The small amount of beer that leaked out of the empty looked to Hank like someone peed on the floor mat. The shakedown in the kitchen of the Jarbor household that night at supper time was swift and effective. Hank told Jim he could drink all he wanted, 'just don't drive my god-damned truck when you drink and leave your goddamn empties in my truck'. He told Jim if he ever did that again, he'd haul the entire contents of Jim's room to a dumpster at one of their job sites and change the locks on the house, and kick him out forever. Jim Jarbor channeled any resentment he had towards his father into being the hardest-working young guy in town, priding himself that no one could outwork him on the football field or on Saturdays doing work for his old man. Hank groomed his son for a life in carpentry by being a tough boss and tougher father. Hank never understood all his bullying of his son to shape him wasn't necessary. His son loved the trade. He felt right at home in it, had no plans for anything grander.
Jim Jarbor and Clare were an unlikely success as husband and wife and mother and father of Junior in Melanville, given their back stories. He was a Presbyterian, she Catholic. The parents' generation was not comfortable with marriages between Catholics and Protestants. He was the cantankerous carpenter's son. She was the daughter of a doctor and a teacher. There was an expectation that the marriage would explode one day, that Jarbor being so domesticated just wasn't possible until death do us part. They did not have an auspicious start.
When they were seniors at Melanville High, in the dizzy, heady days just before graduation, Clare's friend Katy Benoit got some beer, ironically, with Jim Jarbor's help. Katy lived a half mile down the road from the Jarbors and they had a connection since riding the same bus in grammar school, long before the the gownies and the townies drifted in different directions. They remained cordial to each other around school, but it was obvious that Katy and her best friend Clare Savoir and their other friends were headed for a different life than the likes of Jim Jarbor, Jim, being of age, bought beer for Katy and her friends.
Katy, Clare, and friends went to the old sand pit behind the American Legion post one night, built a fire, and sipped their beers as they sat around the small pond formed by years of water draining into the lowest bowl of the sand pit. It was the same pond where Jim Jarbor and his friends in grammar school used to shoot frogs with their pellet guns. Talk turned to guys, and one of them asked 'What would it be like to go out with Jim Jarbor?' They all laughed, some doubled over, arms folded, careful not to spill their beers. There was 'Oh, God' and 'Are you kidding?' One of them said: 'I dare anyone here…come on, just one night…'
Clare Savoir, who rarely drank, had a pint of beer in her. She stood up, swayed as she looked left and right at her friends, and raised her left hand like a witness at a trial, giggled and announced 'I'll do it'. She took a long final swig as if celebrating some triumph and made a lame attempt at crushing the can she held with her one bare hand. The can barely collapsed and she stepped forward and dropped the empty into the fire as Katy lunged toward her and grabbed her around the waist, afraid she'd trip and fall into the blaze. The girls had a good laugh as they stuck their necks out and watched Claire, shocked and delighted at the same time. One of them laughed beer through her nose and started a coughing fit. Clare went to her and patted and rubbed her back, slowly slurring words of consolation.
Clare Savoir, even drunk, had compassion most teenagers her age did not have. Jim Jarbor needed his football heroism for people to grant him a measure of begrudging respect. Clare needed no such shield. She was an honor student. She had a way of doing well and doing right without it looking difficult or burdensome and without separating herself from the pack. She had a way of bringing people along, making them feel like they belonged, welcomed. Her kindness was disarming. She was petite, confident, unafraid to speak her mind, but never offensive.
Katy volunteered to make the matchmaker call to set things in motion. She had to leave a message on the Jarbor answering machine. Hank Jarbor routinely checked the machine at the end of the work day. He discovered her message and listened to Katy Benoit's voice tell his son that Clare Savoir wanted to go out with him. Hank knew who Clare Savoir was. It didn't make sense and Katy Benoit sounded drunk. He didn't like messages not related to work cluttering up the tape.
When Jim got home, his father looked up from the newspaper and yelled from the living room, without ceremony or interest "Katy Benoit left a message on my machine. Make sure you delete it when you're done." Jim thought she must be having a graduation party and was inviting him to be polite. In the kitchen, he grabbed a banana, hit the replay button, and waited for the message while he leaned against the counter and peeled the banana and bit into it. Katy's message made him stop chewing the banana, pull up a chair with his free hand, and sit down at the kitchen table. Before pressing the rewind button, he wiped the banana residue on his fingertips against his t-shirt, his banana-filled mouth stopping in mid chew while he did so. By the third replay, he stroked his chin and knit his brow. 'What the hell?' was all he could think. His mother passed by. 'Don't talk with your mouth full', she said. He dialed Katy.
"Katy, this a joke, right?"
It was loud enough for his father to hear.
"I'm sorry?", she said, confused for a moment till she recognized Jim Jarbor's voice.
"Clare Savoir wants to go out with me?"
Hank thought 'they're screwing with my boy…and he doesn't even know it.'
"Oh, yes…yes she does." Katy recovered, trying to sound convinced, enthusiastic. "She wants you to call her…tonight."
"It's not a joke, then?"
"A joke. No. No. Clare's had a pretty big crush on you for while," she laid it on thick.
His usual reaction to news that a girl wanted to date him was to enjoy the flattery and then charge forward, make the call, make a date, look forward to making out. This one made him nervous. He wasn't thinking about making out with Clare Savoir. He was just picturing Clare Savoir, trying to understand her wanting to make out with him. He couldn't get past just picturing her. And he wasn't in the picture. No fantasies. Nothing else. Just her. She was pretty, but she had no sneer at all, like some of the girls in the college track that he'd love to hit the drive-in with, but knew he couldn't get near. Clare and he were in the same study hall once. He bumped into her and knocked her books to the floor. She apologized for bumping into him and smiled at him. Picturing her. That's as far as he could go.
"Jim? Jim?", said Katy.
"Will you call her?"
"Yeah, sure. Uh, yeah. Uh. Do you have her number?" He tucked the receiver into the crook of his head and neck and got up and fumbled for a pen and paper at the counter.
When Jarbor called Clare, her father answered. When he handed Clare the phone, he looked painfully confused, a look that said 'Why on earth is Jim Jarbor calling you.' He knew who Jim Jarbor, Jr. was. Clare faked surprise, saying 'What in the world would he want?' to reassure her father, then retreated to the living room with the phone. She sat down on the sofa and said hello into the phone like she had no idea what the call was about and it was interrupting more important things.
She can't speak.
"Yes, this is Clare," she winces, wanting to turn back from the stupid joke.
"This is Jim…Jim Jarbor," he said, waiting for her to take the momentum.
"Hi…Jim.", she forced his name out. While he is recalling his one lifetime encounter with her, their collision in study hall, she has no recollection at all of the encounter. He waits. She says nothing. She hears a dog bark on Jim's end, then another voice "Jimmy, will you let the fuckin' dog out!" before the line goes silent because Jim smothers the receiver in his hand before he drops it on the kitchen floor and it bangs like a gunshot in Clare's ear. Clare considers hanging up. If he called back, she could pretend they'd lost their connection. Maybe he wouldn't call back.
"Sorry about that, I had to let the dog out." He sounded relaxed by the distraction.
Clare doesn't respond, disappointed in herself for lacking the nerve to put the phone back in its cradle.
"I was talking to Katie the other day," he said. Still no response. "She said you wanted to go out with me?" he blurts out, his impatience obvious.
"Well, I've always admired you." She raises her shoulders as if wants to block her own ears from hearing what she is saying. "I'm a big sports fan," she lies, squeezing her eyes shut and slowly tapping her fist against her forehead, mouthing the word 'shit'.
"I remember seeing you at some football games," he lies, glad the thick ice is broken. He tries to picture her, bring her into focus. He realizes he never really checked her out at school. She was so out of his league, in a different solar system.
"Do you like to go to the movies?" he continued, gaining confidence.
"I love going to the movies." It was true. She was relieved. They had something in common. This wouldn't be so bad. They'd watch movies and get it over with and she and the girls could have some laughs about it before leaving town for their first year of college and then forget about it as easily as an erased chalkboard.
They agreed to go to the double feature at the drive-in. He arrived at her house at dusk in his father's massive red diesel pickup. He left it idling in the driveway and the gurgling low growl of the diesel drew Clare's father to the window of his upstairs study. He pulled the curtains back just enough to see big Jim Jarbor get out. Jarbor hesitated, deciding whether to use the side door or the front door, then strutted to the front door of Dr. Savoir's home and rang the bell. Dr. Savoir wondered why Clare did not invite her father downstairs to meet her date. As they drove off, worry churned in Dr. Savoir' stomach like a greasy meal.
The date did not go well. Jim parked the truck far enough away from the lights of the concession stand and the screen to keep them in the dark. It was a bit chilly and he offered her his letter sweater. She had under-dressed, being so distracted getting ready for the date, so she took the sweater from him and put it on.
He politely asked her if she wanted popcorn and left to make the trek to the snack bar while Clare sat in the cab. While he was gone, she touched the sheepskin seat cover, wondered if it was genuine. There were a couple of issues of Playboy sticking out under the driver's side seat. She noticed the gun rack behind her head. She shivered when she noticed the stick shift was a deer hoof, a black, two-pronged foot, strands of fur still sprouting from it. She pulled the letter sweater tighter.
Jarbor popped the door open and startled her back to attention. He stood there bear-hugging a bucket of popcorn and two colossal sodas and saw her staring at the hoof. "How do you like it?" he asked as if he were showing off something wonderful he just bought.
"Is it a real deer foot?" she asked.
"Absolutely. My first kill. I was, well, I was too young to be firing a shotgun, but my dad let me. I saved it. I was ten. My dad had it mounted for me when I passed my driver's test."
He said all this like it was the greatest story ever told. Clare reached out for the popcorn and he set the drinks down on the floor by the shift. After a few handfuls, Jarbor's drive-in protocol took over. He slid over and put his big right arm around Clare Savoir and nuzzled her neck and he put his left hand on her chest. Clare straight-armed herself from the football star with both arms, like she was trapped by an animal. She folded her arms tight and leaned forward, staring straight ahead. Her breathing fogged the windshield. Jarbor turned the key and twisted the defroster knob to full blast, its noise burying the sound of the movie bleating through the speaker hanging in Jarbor's window.
"Can you take me home, please?", she asked, unwilling to even look at Jarbor.
He turned down the defroster. The voices of a man and a woman in the movie were engaged in intimate conversation. He looked at her staring out the windshield. She rocked back and forth. He wished he could say something. He reached to touch her. She flinched. He moved the tipped popcorn bucket from the floor to the seat. He leaned toward her, watching her as if she was pointing a gun at him, and he carefully picked up the spilled popcorn, first tossing handfuls out his window, then carefully picking one bit at a time and placing it in the bucket until the seat and floor of his father's truck cab was as immaculately clean as it was before the spill.
He rolled down the window of his father's truck, tossed the popcorn bucket out, and rammed the truck into reverse, ripping the drive-in speaker and wire from its post.
"Fuck!" he said, and cranked down the window and flipped the disconnected speaker out onto the ground.
Before Jim even made the turn into her driveway, Clare had her hand on the door handle. She just wanted to run into the house. When the truck stopped, she lifted the handle and put her shoulder into the door. He turned to grab her arm and got a fistful of her sweater.
"Oh, the sweater," she said.
"No, keep it on," he said. "I'm sorry."
Clare turned to look at him, nodded slightly, and turned to go.
He wouldn't let go. "I'm sorry," he repeated, tugging on her sweater, nodding for emphasis. Then he let her go.
She was so glad to get away, she forgot about giving him the sweater. Clare did remember, some time later, when Jim Jarbor didn't have a friend in the world, when he said he was sorry, he really meant it.
After graduation, after their ill-fated non-date, Jim Jarbor, Jr. went to work for his prickly father. It was a typical summer for him. He worked hard, made money, drank beer, played poker with his friends, and went to the drive-in with girls who weren't like Clare Savoir and didn't mind going to second base or further. Clare kept crossing his mind. The unspoiled image of her he pictured when Katy Benoit first matched them up. That stupid date. Why did she have Katy call to tell him she wanted to go out with him? Clare was so pissed at him. But he couldn't forget her. He wanted to know why she went out with him. It didn't make any sense.
Clare was happy to leave town for college that fall, leave her small town and the embarrassment of the Jim Jarbor dare date behind. She never gave her friends the details despite their prying. She just said it didn't go well. "But did you like him at all?" they kept jabbing. She'd pause and lie "Not really." She could not forget his look of regret, a look she stole a glance at as they drove home in silence from the drive-in. And when they got to her house, he was the one who broke the ice. "I'm sorry." Twice. Clare never returned the letter sweater and Jarbor never came to get it.
To Clare, Jim Jarbor represented all that was wrong with being stuck in a small town and never seeing beyond its horizons. She did not want to be stuck. Eventually, her college semester in Paris gave her a spectacular view of the world beyond Melanville and its Jim Jarbors. Yet she could not fully escape her roots, the place she might have back home. Her father and mother had made a good life there, just as the Jarbors had, on the surface anyway. It was Paris, the city of romance and poetry and art that made her question seriously for the first time where she belonged.
By fall of that year, Clare was gone to college and Jim settled into working for his father, making good money, planning to swing a hammer for a long time. He was driving his brand new diesel pickup west through the light in the center of town, when the angle of the late fall sunset blinded him. He didn't even hear the impact, just felt a thump. He thought he hit a dog. He stopped in the middle of the intersection. Drivers behind him blew their horns. He muttered 'fuck you', annoyed at both the horn blowers and the inconvenience and embarrassment of hitting a dog during heavy evening traffic in front of everyone right in the middle of town. He shifted into neutral, stomped the emergency brake pedal and got out.
When he rounded the front of his truck, his knees buckled as if he'd been shot. He couldn't breathe. He saw a woman lying in front of his truck, her arms and legs contorted like she'd fallen from the sky.
"Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!" he repeated, dropping to his knees a few feet from her, his arms flailing like a swimmer trying to reach her. He doubled over and vomitted. Another driver started directing traffic around them. Someone yelled "Take it easy for Chrissake, someone's been hit!"
The face of an EMT snapped Jim out of his daze. He saw the woman's face when the EMTs carefully rolled and shifted her unconscious body onto a stretcher. It was Mrs. Turnbull, the retired town librarian, one of the most beloved people in town. There was no blood, just her ashen face. Stupidly, all he wanted to do was apologize to her for not liking reading and writing book reports. She tried hard to make him like reading and doing book reports. That's what he remembered looking at her lifeless face.
Jim Jarbor was arraigned for involuntary manslaughter. He went to Mrs. Turnbull's funeral at the First Congregational Church and sat in the back. He didn't have the nerve to go to the wake. He never shook hands with anyone in the Turnbull family and they never contacted him.
He was given probation for two years. He lost his license for one. His was a family that did not wear their hearts on their sleeves. They didn't wear their hearts anywhere. Hank and his wife stood by their boy. There was no discussion of the accident, just an unspoken commitment to getting past it, like a scene left behind in a rear view mirror. "Get through thus probation thing. Get your license back," his mother said after the trial. No talk of remorse.
For the first time in his life, young Jim Jarbor could not act like he had the world by the balls. No, it was the second time in his life. The other was when Clare Savoir shoved him away at the drive-in and made him take her home. He still hadn't fully recovered from that either.
His moments of peace were few during the year he couldn't drive. Getting driven to job sites by Hank was torture. Every time he thought about driving somewhere and remembered he could not, he replayed the accident. During hunting season that year, he'd walk the woods off Mollycross Road alone. Once, he broke the law by going without his orange vest. Some days, even with a magnificent buck in his sights, he didn't bother to pull the trigger. He'd sit on a log with his loaded shotgun and brood. He thought about suicide.
Hank's nagging and bitching about one thing and another as if he was the only wise man in the world grated on him. Neither did Hank let him forget what it cost for the lawyer to get him off. That winter Jim stayed home every Friday and Saturday night and got drunk. At his low point, he thought of Clare again. He remembered their aborted date. He remembered liking her. He decided to write her.
Too unsure of himself to write a letter from scratch, he went to the drug store to look for a card. He picked out a "Thinking of You" card that was blank inside. He didn't notice it was in the sympathy section. He washed and scrubbed his calloused, scratched hands so he wouldn't soil the card. He wrote, straining to keep his rough penmanship readable:
You probably never expected to hear from me. I'm sure you've heard about what happened to Mrs. Turnbull. You're probably just as angry at me as everybody else. I'd give anything to take it all back. In a small town, that's tough to do.
When Clare heard about the accident from her father, at first she wanted to erase Jim Jarbor from herself even more than she already had. She did not want to accidentally run into him in town when she came home from school. When the small envelope with Jim Jarbor's return address made it to Clare's mailbox at college, she pulled it out with her other mail, looked at it, and put it back in her mailbox. After a few days of seeing it in the mailbox, it was if he was waiting on her doorstep like a stray dog, refusing to leave. She relented and opened it.
The words "Thinking of You" made her think she was being stalked. Then she read the note. She stuffed it in her backpack, look around, and tried not to cry.
The summer after her freshman year at college, Clare still dreaded a chance encounter with Jim Jarbor, not so much out of fear, but out of uncertainty, as if they had a connection she could not understand, was not willing to pursue, and could not avoid. It happened at the drug store where Jim bought the card. She and Jim nearly collided at the register when the clerk said out loud "I can help the next customer over here!" and they both approached the counter at precisely the same moment and collided.
They both started to say excuse me and then realized who they were. He had another "Thinking of You" card in his hand. She looked at the card, then at him, in the eyes.
"Clare." He felt relieved just being able to say her name and look at her. She didn't look disgusted or afraid.
That weekend, they returned to the drive-in, this time in her car, for a second go-round. They ate their popcorn. They watched a double feature. He kissed her goodnight on the cheek when she dropped him off at his house. They dated all summer. They kissed, the best kisses either one of them had ever known. They saw lots of movies at the drive-in. They even went to the library and took out books to read. Clare's friends got wind of it. They cross-examined Clare all summer for details. She gave them none. Two years later, during her junior year abroad in Paris, Jim Jarbor left the country for the first time in his life to visit Clare in Paris. He cut his annual deer hunting vacation in half to do it. By her senior year in college, they were engaged. She went to see her parish priest to talk about the engagement, as was required of her. Dr. Savoir insisted. The priest took little time to advise against marrying Jim Jarbor, Jr. She pressed him to explain why and all he could say was "It's just not a good match." She landed a job as a French teacher at Melanville High as soon as she graduated. They were married that fall, in the Presbyterian church, with the Reverend Wilfred Chops presiding.
By the time Junior was old enough for his father to let him use power tools, they did not feel alien to him. He felt as if he had used them all before because of watching his father for so long. When he took wood shop in ninth grade, the shop equipment did not intimidate him. Del Freeder, the shop teacher, his father's lifelong friend and deer hunting partner of nearly thirty years, relied on Junior to help teach the other students shop safety, often asking Junior to demonstrate proper handling of the equipment.
Junior did well enough on his aptitude tests all the way through grammar school to be placed in the college-bound track in high school. He had a high IQ and his reading skills were always beyond grade level. This pleased his mother and father a great deal because, they were in total agreement Junior was to be the first Jarbor, that is, the first one on his father's side, to attend college.
Junior's father bragged about it to his crew even before Junior entered ninth grade when Junior helped out on Saturdays. "One day a week is all Junior will ever do of this. He'll be going to college," he'd say out of the blue during lunch at a construction site without any prompting. It embarrassed Junior, but the guys treated him like one of them and he felt like one of them, never thinking of himself as smarter than them, headed for something that would make him better than them. He liked the carpentry trade and felt it natural to follow in his father's and grandfather's footsteps.
His mother and father never asked him if he wanted to go to college. It was just assumed. Assumed because Jim Jarbor had married up, married a woman he had no business marrying, an educated woman, daughter of a doctor and a teacher, people for whom going to college was assumed, people for whom bettering yourself was the path of life. Bettering yourself meant college, getting beyond Melanville, not being stuck there, or at least being free to move on from there. Junior never told them what he really wanted to do. He thought he had plenty of time to get them to change their minds, though he had no idea how he could do that, except by becoming so good at woodworking they would see that's what he was meant to do.
Grandpa Hank did not share Junior's parents' aspirations for college for his grandson. He regaled his grandson with tales of his father, Junior's great-grandfather, who was also a worker with wood, a lumberjack. When grandpa Hank told junior that his lumberjack father once killed a man who tried to rob him of his season's pay by picking him up and tossing him over the rail of a footbridge a hundred feet above a stream somewhere in northern New Hampshire, his grandfather had a look in his eye like he would have loved the chance for an adventure like that himself. Grandpa Hank relished the fact that great-grandpa Jarbor never had to deal with the law about it. "Now that's bare bones justice," he said. "You take it into your own hands."
Since Junior was old enough to pick up a tool, his grandpa let Junior do odd jobs with him around his house. When Junior didn't do something right, Hank showed a patience with Junior he never showed with Junior's father saying things like "That's close enough, we'll get it right next time." More than once Junior's father happened to overhear this kind of exchange between grandfather and grandson. He envied Junior because his father was never that forgiving when he was a kid. His father would inspect his son's work without a word and always find something that wasn't quite perfect and, without even looking at his son, hold put a hand and demand a tool. "Gimme a hammer", he'd say or "Hand me that screwdriver" and he'd make an adjustment to his son's work as if he were angry, inconvenienced. Then he'd step back and finally look at Jim and say "You only get one chance to do it right, Jimmy" with the smugness of a poker player gathering a pile of chips to himself.
Junior and his father and grandpa Hank and Junior's best friend Billy Freeder and his father Del Freeder, who was Junior's shop teacher, and Billy's grandfather started deer hunting together when the boys were age seven. Deer hunting was something they did without fail, every day for one week, every November. It was something both Junior and his father could not and would not imagine doing without.
Junior often thought of the story of his great grandfather killing a man to save his pay when the six of them patrolled the woods off Mollycross Road for deer every November, still rubbing sleep from their eyes at daybreak, in the wild, where things were unpredictable, though not too far into the wild because they were never more than an hour's trek from the road where the trucks were parked. As they walked slowly in silence along the hunting path, he thought of the danger his great-grandfather faced during the river drives getting the logs to the mills and the danger of travelling through the woods with a pocket full of hard-earned money. Theirs was a safer lot. The proximity of forest rich with deer and nearby road made it easy to drag a buck or doe's carcass to the truck to take it to the deer checking station at Sarge's Country Store.
Some weekends they hunted till late afternoon. If it was a Jarbor kill, after weigh-in at the store, just as it was getting dark, all six of them drove to the Jarbor home to dress any deer they shot. Junior's first kill, when he was in eight grade, was a memorable one. It was an eight-point buck, over one-hundred and seventy pounds, and he replayed it over and over in his mind.
Junior and Billy untied the rope that held the buck on the roof of Jim's truck and they dragged the it into the Jarbor back yard to the edge of the lawn where the overgrowth and trees started. Junior tossed one end of the rope over a strong horizontal maple branch they always used to hang the deer by its hind hooves the way his father taught him. Junior and Billy pulled the rope to hoist the carcass up to a level where Junior and his father could dress it. Grandpa Hank drove a stake in the ground with a sledge hammer to secure the hoist rope.
Junior donned his plastic surgeon gloves and his father removed his leather gloves and brushed off the leaves and twigs caught in the white fur of the deer's underside as if he were grooming a pet animal. His father lightly touched the wound where his perfectly-placed bullet had entered the deer's side. He looked at Junior and nodded. Then he put on surgical gloves and picked the smaller bits of dried, dead leaves, dirt, and twigs from the animal's coarse belly hair.
As the sun set, Junior held a flashlight aimed at his father's hands and knife. His father carefully cut around each leg near the hoof and then sliced down the length of each leg and began peeling the skin, tugging with one hand and separating the skin from the flesh and bone, gently working the blade between the skin and meat underneath.
"Now you try it, Junior," his father said taking the flashlight from him and handing Junior the blade. "Pull easy or you'll tear the hide and this won't look so good on the rec room wall." They looked at each with half smiles. Grandpa Hank hovering, repeated 'That's far enough', 'Careful not to tear the hide' and both Junior and his father turned and give him a look. Grandpa backed off, cocked his head and held both hands up like a man being robbed.
Tearing the skin from the bone sounded like pulling a piece of masking tape off a wide roll. When the leg and buttocks skin hung like the sleeves of a coat half taken off, Junior's father made an incision from the crotch all the way down to front legs where the white fur turned to brown. As the underbelly skin parted like a curtain, steam came from the insides of the deer's body like a person's breath on a cold day.
Junior's father gives the bloodied knife to Junior and, with both hands, pulls out the liver, intestines, stomach, and heart and places them in a puddle of blood which has dripped from the deer into the big galvanized wash tub positioned under the hanging carcass. He stands up straight, put his hands on his lower back, leans back to stretch and pauses, gloves and coat cuffs bloodied. Next he strips the rest of the skin. All six of the hunters help bury the guts in the garden mulch pile. They go as deep as they can into the pile of decaying leaves and grass clippings so the guts will decompose during the winter. During the couple of hours it takes for the blood to completely drain out of the deer into the backyard grass, they eat a hearty dinner prepared by Clare Jarbor.
Late the same night, after the Freeder's and Grandpa Hank have gone home, Junior and his father let the deer down from the tree and place it's head on a large piece of firewood. Jim Jarbor gets down on his knees and braces the head and neck with all his weight. Junior, on one knee, with a bone saw, begins to cut through the skull. He starts just behind the antlers and has to pause several times to give his arm a rest and catch his breath. He finally cuts through the forehead. He stands up and holds up the rack in the moonlight. His father looks up at him.
Jim Sr. had buck racks, deer skins, and souvenir hooves from all their years of successful hunting mounted on the walls of the downstairs rec room, more trophies than any hunter in town, which he made sure to mention whenever they had company.
Clare Jarbor does not want her husband to end up like his father: arthritic hands that can barely hold a screwdriver anymore and a cranky back that does not do anything to help Hank's moods. With her encouragement, he is taking architectural design classes at night so he can ease out of day-to-day building work, leave it to the younger guys, even increase their income as Junior grows closer to going to college. They want him to go to a private college, not too far from home. They have set their sights high as advised by Junior's guidance counselors. The counselors have been continuously wowed by his standardized test scores and his IQ scores. It simply never occurs to Clare that Junior might not want to go to college. Clare accepts the praise for her son graciously. His father believes he's the cock of the walk for bringing Junior into the world. He is determined to be unlike Hank, to be hands-off or at least a gentler hands-on with his son. Sometimes it takes all the will power he can muster to back off from trying to direct his son.
Jim Jarbor, though, because of his friendship with Del Freeder, knows of Junior's passion for woodworking. He does not share with Clare what Freeder has observed about their son. Del Freeder has let Jarbor know about Junior's passion for and skill at woodworking and has heaped the same praise on Junior for his woodworking acumen as the college advocates have on Junior's brain power. But Del refrains from butting heads with his hunting partner about the kid's future. If he had the guts, he could have argued 'What's so bad about woodworking? You and your father have done very well in the trades, haven't you? Why do you think college is some kind of magic bullet? Hell, half the kids who go drop out and the ones that stay spend half their time drinking like fish.' He never made that speech, though it perched on the tip of his tongue ready to fly off more than once during their walks through the woods together out of earshot of their sons during deer hunting season the last couple of years.
Junior decides he does not want to let his freshman year go by without a heart-to-heart talk with his father about what he, Junior, wants to do with his life. By the end of September, he decides to have the talk on the Monday freshman football ends, the same day hunting season starts, while his father's in a playful mood watching his son's team finish their season and happily anticipating deer hunting. He realizes he's never had such a conversation with his father, or with his mother, or anybody, not even his guidance counselor. He believes Del Freeder knows. It is an unspoken knowing.
He imagines asking his father if he might talk to him in the rec room. There the two of them would go, and surrounded by the hunting trophies of their lives, Junior would confess that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, work for him like he worked for Grandpa Hank, and then someday start his own custom cabinetry business. He played the scene over and over in his mind, practicing it, wanting to become sure of it, so when the time came, he wouldn't blow it and his father would agree with him and not be disappointed or angry. That was the part that was impossible to imagine: his father being pleased that Junior wanted to follow in his footsteps, his father not losing it when he heard that his only son really would rather not go to college. Junior forced himself to believe that if and his father could get beyond that, they would having the best hunting season ever with Grandpa Hank and the Freeders.
Jim Jarbor still has the locker-room flair for the dramatic. He shows up at Junior's first football game in a deerskin poncho suit and hard hat with antlers glued to it to cheer on the Melanville Stags freshmen team. Junior rarely gets into a game. When Junior made the freshman team, having tried out because he felt the need to pay homage to his father's storied past at the school, his father was delighted. His father didn't prod him, didn't give him extra coaching. He knew Junior had neither the talent nor the desire to follow in his football footsteps. He knew Junior had other cards to play that he never had. He knew Junior would have a different life, wanted him to have a different life. He would go on to college.
Nevertheless, Junior liked belonging to a team and the team liked having him along for the ride. They knew who his father was and admired the way Junior enjoyed the game and being on the team, as talentless as he was. Junior would have them doubled over laughing in the locker room with his impersonations of the principal and the teachers. He even impersonated "big Jim Jarbor" who was in the school's hall of fame. But what a weak parody it was, the scrawny, diminutive Junior, his body modeled after his mother's, trying to play the role of his strapping Dad.
On a Saturday three days before deer hunting season, the last week before Jim Jarbor garaged his Harley Hog for the winter, the Reverend Chops backed his pickup truck into Jim Jarbor and his Harley in the supermarket parking lot. The reverend thought he bumped a stray shopping cart and as he looked into the rear view mirror toward the sound of the bump, he quietly cursed the lazy person who neglected to park it in the cart corral and worried if his chrome was scratched.
The words "Mother fucker!" from behind the truck were loud enough to come through the closed sliding rear windows of the cab. He froze for a moment, took a deep breath, and got out, the keys still in the ignition, the seat belt warning bell dinging away, and he found Jim Jarbor sprawled on the ground beside a spilled bag of groceries, pinned under his motorcycle, rocking his upper body back and forth, holding his right leg, his red open-mouthed face spitting with pain.
A couple of good Samaritans worked to carefully free Jim from under the bike. The Reverend Chop asked another passerby to go to the drug store to call for an ambulance. He tried to console his fallen parishioner, patting him gently on the shoulder.
"Jim, help is on the way."
"Godammit!" Jim Jarbor screamed, his spittle spraying the Reverend's face.
The orthopedic surgeon who put Jim's leg in a cast from his toe to his crotch told him he could not put any weight on the leg for two full weeks. 'No cheating' she cautioned as Clare thanked her and pushed Jim's wheelchair to her car for the trip home from the emergency room.
The doctor told Jim he could stop using the wheelchair as soon as he felt confident walking with crutches. On the drive home, Jim was sullen. The absence of conversation made Clare flash back to their disastrous first date all those years ago. She momentarily had the same trapped feeling. As soon as Clare pulled her car into their garage, he told her:
"Hand me the crutches, I'm not using any fucking wheelchair to get around my own house," even though he built ramps for his mother when she was ill with cancer and Clare could have wheeled him inside.
The evening of the day of the accident he insisted, despite Clare's resistance, that she drive him to her father's for a second opinion.
"My father's not an orthopedic surgeon, Jim. Besides. he won't go against the doctor's orders."
Clare relented and drove him in Jim's truck, as she would have to until his cast was off, because his leg cast required the room. She cringed before gripping the deer hoof shift knob, the same one Jim had transferred to every truck he'd owned since he was sixteen. She had rarely driven his truck. She didn't feel in control when she did.
When they arrived, Dr. Savoir was in his study and he heard the diesel pull in the drive. He looked out through the curtains and went downstairs to greet his daughter and son-in-law.
Dr. Savoir had to bite his tongue to stop from saying 'Are you kidding me?' when Jim asked if he could just tag along on crutches when deer hunting season started.
"Jim, with a break that severe, it's going to be at least a month before you can put full weight on it."
With that, Dr. Savoir pronounced dead Jim Jarbor's deer hunting season, the first one he would miss since he was a boy.
"Did the surgeon prescribe any painkillers?", Dr. Savoir asked.
"He threw the prescription out the window on the way over here," said Clare as if she were turning in a misbehaving student to the principal.
"Jim, I can write you a prescription for pain medication."
He reached into a kitchen drawer and pulled out a prescription pad and sat down at the kitchen table and wrote it out. He tore it off and started to hand it to Jim who ignored him, so Clare reached out and took it. Still, Dr. Savoir addressed Jim:
"This stuff is potent. No booze with it. It can make you hallucinate."
Jim hobbled back out to the truck without a word. Clare thanked her father and followed her husband, wondering if he'd drop it or force her to take him to a third doctor. There would be no third opinion. Jim argued with Clare about filing a disability claim. Just the word 'disability' made him want to puke he told her. She explained he had paid for that insurance all of his working life. He was entitled to use it.
"Entitled to be disabled?", he shot at her. "Doesn't sound like such a privilege to me."
She hadn't seen her husband this sour, this surly, ever. Clare resolved to take her husband with her as much as possible during his recovery. She did not want him to be alone, even though being with him was no picnic. When they drove by Sarge's Country Store on the way to church the day after the accident, Jim spoke:
"By Monday, guys'll be lined up to have their kills checked", he said, without relish, without enthusiasm sounding like a man deliberately excluded from a party.
In his sermon the next day, the Reverend Chops, who had a sermon technique of sweeping his gaze across the congregation without ever really looking anyone in the eye, encountered the dark brown steely eyes of Jim Jarbor in the third pew and the reverend's eyes, against his will, locked onto Jarbor's eyes like a deer in a gun sight. The Reverend Chop was saying something about the lion lying down with the lamb and halted abruptly, victim of a sudden brain fart. He had to grab the lectern with both hands to wrench his eyes away from his victim and go on.
The Reverend had paved the way for his shepherdly visit to Jim after the accident by sending flowers. "What does he think? I'm dead?" quipped Jarbor to Clare after looking at the card signed by the reverend. When he finally visited the damaged member of his flock, he apologized profusely. Jarbor was more relieved to get it over than he was.
That Sunday night, the eve of the hunting season, Jim and Junior both knew final arrangements for tomorrow's brief early morning before-school hunt had to be made by calling Grandpa Hank and the Freeders. Neither one of them could bring it up during a silent supper with Clare. They couldn't get any words to move from their brains to their mouths. Every year they would make a ceremony of crossing off the days of November on the calendar that hung by the phone in their kitchen. Neither of them had crossed off the two remaining days since the accident. Opening day was circled in red. After Junior cleared his place, he walked to the calendar while his father sipped his third beer. With his back to his parents, he crossed off the last days, and said:
"I'll call Grandpa and the Freeders."
Junior tugged the long phone cord around the corner into the living room to spare his father the conversations about tomorrow's hunt. When he went to bed that night, Junior remembered the talk he rehearsed, the one he was planning to have with his father tomorrow, the last day of football and first day of hunting. He realizes he'd better not do it. He'd have to wait for a better time. He did not want to be the straw that broke his father's back.
So Junior, Grandpa Hank, and the Freeders went out at the crack of dawn on Monday for a an hour and a half before school to kick off their umpteenth deer hunting season together. Hank and Del called Jim on Sunday and his mood was so sour neither one of them cared to drop by. They decided to give him some space, some healing time. Jim Jarbor was not at the door to see his son off and say hello when Grandpa Hank picked up Junior on Monday morning. He was in bed sleeping soundly under the influence of beer and painkillers. Each of the hunting party asked Junior with sincere interest about his dad. Without any conviction, Junior told them he thought his dad was coming along fine. They tagged no deer that day and Grandpa dropped Junior off at school.
After dropping off Junior, Hank stopped by to check on his son.
"Jimmy!" Hank yelled as he rapped on the sliding glass doors in the back of the house with an open palm. He squinted for signs of life in the kitchen. There was cereal and milk on the table, coffee percolating.
He went to the front door to try the bell. He pressed it with his thumb without letting up. He turned to go and walked a couple of paces when he heard the front door suck the air out of the space between it and the storm door.
Jim Jarbor opened the storm door a crack and stuck his head into the cold air and ran one hand from his chin to his scalp as if he'd just splashed himself with cold water.
"Any luck today?", Jim asked his father.
"Nah, not even a sighting." his father answered, as if such failure was expected, predictable. He took a step toward his son. The just looked at each other for a moment as if embarrassed by that step.
"You OK?" Hank asked.
"Outside of not being able to do anything and the fuckin' pain, I'd say I'm as well as can be expected."
That seemed as far as either could take the conversation, as much as they were capable of. Jim Jarbor started to close the door.
"Get better," said Hank holding the storm door open for a moment, pushing the words hard enough to make it through the storm door before his son shut it.
Jim Jarbor took no painkillers so he could have a few beers. He drank plenty, but all it did was lighten his head and make his leg a ball and chain of pain. He buried himself in the day-old Sunday paper, something he never did. He read it cover to cover and felt a glimmer of pride in that achievement. But his mood remained sour because so much of what he read was bad news. He even attempted the crossword. He gave up after filling in only three downs and two acrosses.
When he put the paper down on the coffee table, he thought of the librarian, Mrs. Turnbull. He saw the solar glare again, remembered falling to his knees in the road. He went to the fridge for another beer. Finally he slept. He woke in the afternoon and crutched himself to the kitchen. He had a headache like ten-penny nails in his temples and remembered it was Junior's last day of football.
"A plywood deer?", said Del Freeder to Junior in shop class that day. "People who put plywood deer on their lawns have never picked up a shotgun."
"It's for my dad, kind of a joke. You know, because he's missing the deer season," said Junior, although he wasn't really sure if it would make missing the season even more painful for his father.
"I think your dad will get a kick out of it," he lied.
Jim Jarbor refused to wait for Claire to get back from the dentist so she could take him to Junior's final game. She told him the night before she'd only be able to get him there for the second half. He also did something Clare asked him not to do anymore; don the deerskin outfit and antler hat he made. When he wore the outfit to Junior's first game and whooped it up in the stands, it embarrassed the hell out of his son, who relayed that fact to his mother who in turn made a gentle request that he stow the stag outfit for good. Jim Jarbor was not recalling any of that now. He just wanted to break out of his confinement. He downed a couple of painkillers and called Cram Devereux's dad to ask for a ride to the game.
Cram's dad had politely commiserated with Jim about his accident after Sunday services during the church coffee hour, but otherwise regarded his disabled friend as damaged goods. There was a secret pleasure in seeing the guy who was such a blowhard back in their high school days reduced to this state. When he arrived at Jarbor's house to pick up Jim he saw him dressed in his deer costume. Jarbor cursed his crutches as he banged his way into the passenger side and slammed the door. Cram's dad surprised himself, feeling sorry for the son-of-a-bitch, and more sorry for Junior.
After the dentist, Clare stopped at her father's to tell him that Jim was choosing to drink rather than take the pain medication because he'd been told not to mix them. She was worried about the drinking. When she got home, she got a stab of anxiety in her chest when she couldn't find her husband. She checked the garage, worried he'd try to drive and quickly swatted from her mind the thought that some people commit suicide by carbon monoxide in their garages. She tried to convince herself he couldn't spiral down and out of control that quickly, that badly, not just from a broken leg, a missed deer season, not big Jim Jarbor. She flung open the door from the kitchen to the garage and exhaled thanks to God the truck was there and he was not.
She drove to the game and as soon as she got out of her car saw her husband tottering on the top row of the bleachers with his crutch and Don Devereux lending a steady hand for balance.
After the game, she helped her husband into her car and they wait in the parking lot for their son. He pulls a beer out of a duffle bag he brought for the deer outfit.
"Honey, you're not supposed to mix that with your medication," Clare says, putting a gentle hand on him.
"What medication?", he says with a wink, pops the top and spills a little beer on the floor of her car.
"You should have seen Junior's run," he says, "maybe he's a player after all." He describes the run Junior made after Junior got in at the end when the game was beyond reach. Just before the handoff Junior heard and saw his rabid father yelling. He feared there just was going to be no good time to have that heart-to-heart talk with him.
Jarbor described the run over and over, the brief act of his son as if it were a two-hour movie.
"I'm so proud of him. He sits on the bench all season, then he gets his chance, and…bang!".
Clare is holding his hand, patting it, nervous, glad he is safe. He smells like a brewery. They both sigh. She opens her window to get some air and turns up the heater. On the way home he leans his head back and falls asleep. When they get home, Clare and Junior struggle to help him into the house and put him to bed.
The next day Junior turns his football equipment. His brief career at Melanville High is over. He will not try out for the j.v. team. He knows he has no chance to make the team next year. He also knows his father wants him to try out anyway. His father told him he would not think anything less of him if he did not make the cut. This was true, but his father also secretly wished his son might change his mind about the sport or maybe have a growth spurt. If Jim Jarbor were completely honest with himself, he'd see clearly that his son simply did not need football the way his father had. In that regard, Junior Jarbor did not want to follow in his father's footsteps. On the other hand, his father was blind to Junior's desire to follow his father's work life.
Junior spends that week in shop class finishing the plywood deer. It's nothing fancy, just a plywood cutout painted black. It looks like a silhouette. He's planning to mount the deer in the back yard, on the edge of the woods on the last day of deer season. That is also the day he will have the talk with his father, the talk about not wanting to go to college.
Jim Jarbor's anger, melancholy, and bitterness seemed to fade during the week. He even got up early enough one morning to see Junior off when Grandpa Hank picked him up to hunt two hours before school.
Grandpa Hank and Junior returned from the Saturday hunt, the last one of the season, triumphant. Grandpa bagged a buck, Junior a doe. They hid them under a army-green canvas tarp in the bed of Hanks' truck and when they got to Jarbor's house and he asked the usual question about luck, Hank and his grandson pretended they had no luck but wanted to show him something they found in the woods.
The three of them walked to the truck, Grandpa and Junior walking slower than normal in deference to Jim being on crutches. At the back of Hank's pickup, Junior unlatched and lowered the tail gate and he and his grandfather drew the tarp toward themselves unveiling their kills.
Jim Jarbor, leaning forward, the rubber tops of his crutches digging into his armpits, felt left out and awkward, wanting to say something congratulatory but unable to. For the first time he saw Junior as a young man. He remembered Junior not even being big enough to reach the latch of a truck tailgate. He envied his father being the one to accompany his son, the young man, that day. He realized that praise was not something he and his father ever did with each other, not heartfelt praise, just maybe grudging praise. There was only expectations and living up to expectations, or not.
"You guys did well," Jim Jarbor said. And they brought the deer to the back yard for dressing, Junior taking the lead because of his father's disability, Grandpa Hank guiding, and Jim Jarbor just observing, deliberately staying back, watching his son, and sipping on one beer after another.
After his father was asleep that night, Junior brought his mother out to the side of the garage where Del Freeder had helped Junior hide the plywood deer under a tarp.
"Is this a joke?" Clare asked.
"It's kind of a get well card for Dad", he said, "Something to cheer him for missing the season."
Junior drove a two-by-three stake into the soft lawn grass on the edge of the woods just beyond where the squares of light from the glass sliding doors in the back of the house reached. It was just to the right of the maple where he and his dad dressed deer. He tugged the long orange extension cord from inside the garage across the frost-covered grass and drilled screws into the deer to mount it on the stake.
Jim Jarbor's mood on Sunday morning was subdued. He was still thinking about his relationship to his son, feeling the beginning of some painful, inevitable distancing that had to take its natural course. He wasn't sure what that intuition meant practically speaking, but it was sure it was beginning and would continue no matter what.
Clare, Jim, and Junior went to church and even said hello without incident to Reverend Chops at coffee hour afterward. Junior, Clare, and Jim enjoyed a big breakfast at home including the last of the previous season's venison sausage. As they were cleaning up Junior made the request.
"Dad and Mom, I need to talk to you."
Clare was surprised. Their son had never made such a request. Jim saw it as the evolution he began to recognize the day before when Hank and Junior returned with their deer. Neither one of them dared guess what he wanted to talk about: drugs? booze? sex?
"Sure, honey," said Clare, immediately returning from the kitchen sink to the table and drying her hands on a towel. Jim Jarbor put his elbows on the table and folded his hands as if in prayer.
"You know how you expect me to go to college," he said and their silent look back at him said 'Yes, and you are going to college' with not an iota of brain space available for entertaining any other thought.
"So you've already decided where you want to go?" asked his father, completely relieved they were not talking about drugs or alcohol or sex.
"Well, no," he said, "I've decided that I don't want to go at all," and as they both tried to speak at once like a rising tide of objection, he intercepted them before they could get a word out.
"I want to be a carpenter like Grandpa and Dad and go into custom woodworking." He was surprised how easy it was to say it. They both look concussed like a fullback slammed into a linebacker on a dive play seeing stars and the coach bending over them saying 'Do you what day it us? Do you what the score is? Do you know what team we're playing?'
"Wow", sighed Clare.
Jim Jarbor didn't think it could be worse than drugs, booze, or sex, but it was.
"Are you sure Junior?"
"I'm sure and I really needed to tell you," he said.
Jim Jarbor had quite a few beers that night and Clare sat with him, the TV on, neither one of them paying attention to it.
"Why do I feel like my son just ran away from home?", Jarbor asks his wife. He is seated on the sofa, his broken propped up on a hassock, the foot of his good leg flat on the floor. The coffee table is littered with his empties.
"He hasn't run away," she answers, "he's just figuring out who he is. He needs space for that."
Clare does not look up from her knitting, concentrating so she doesn't lose her place, lose count of the rows. She is making a winter scarf for her son.
Jim Jarbour gets up and shuts off the TV. Without a word, he turns to leave the room, his crutches creak like painful joints. Clare hears his breathing become more labored as he ascends the stairs to the bedroom.
"Good night honey!" she says loud enough for him to hear and barely hiding her irritation that he did not kiss her good night, something he never fails to do. She keeps knitting.
At the top of the stairs, he hears her and utters a 'good night' without enthusiasm or energy. As he lies in bed, he feels again like he did in the two years he was trying to escape his manslaughter of Mrs. Turnbull, wanting to get beyond something, make time go by faster, make bad things that happen race past as inconsequential and forgettable as the blur of roadside on a highway. Why did Junior simply saying what he wanted to do plunge him into this depression? Was he just worn out from being disabled and Junior's "talk" really had nothing to do with it? His head ached. His leg ached. He reached for the painkillers.
On Monday morning, Jim Jarbor is up alone before dawn with heartburn. He stands at the kitchen sink staring out the window fantasizing about he and Junior getting the guns out of the rec room cabinet during hunting season, heading to Sarge's for a donut and hot chocolate, and heading into the woods. The he comes back to reality and feels relieved the hunting season is over. For the first time since the broken leg, he starts to look forward, forward to getting back on the job, swinging a hammer, hunting deer.
He reaches for the bottle of antacid tablets on the shelf over the sink. He stares straight out the window and freezes, the hand holding three tablets stopped halfway to his mouth. He feels every hair on his body electrify just like the day of the accident that broke his leg and killed his deer season. There, in vague outline in the morning half-lit fog, on the south edge of his backyard, was, he could swear, a buck. It looked a little short for a buck.
He thought he remembered a law that he could legally shoot the deer because it was on his property. Or was that a law about burglars? No matter, he was smitten. He popped the antacid tablets into his mouth, chewed them furiously and grabbed his crutches, careful not to make a sound, not to spook the deer, even though he was inside and the windows were closed. He struggled mightily down to the rec room and back, sweating his way up the stairs barely able to hold his shotgun squeezed tight against him with one arm. He had a cartridge in his mouth.
He paused at the glass sliding door that led to the back yard to catch his breath. He fogged the glass he was breathing so hard. He used one forearm to slide the door open quietly and just enough to let himself out sideways, all the while looking back and forth at the outline of the deer on the edge of his property, afraid it would disappear like a dream. A few paces out onto the wet grass his bare feet felt the November cold. He brought his gun around in front of him and let his crutches fall away, balancing mostly on his good leg and putting just the slightest weight on his broken leg. He quickly switched the cartridge from his mouth to his gun without losing his balance.
He aimed and fired.
Every bird within a mile took flight. Clare jerked awake, popping up straight like when an actor has a nightmare in a movie. She turns to Jim and he's gone. Junior hears the shot too and believes it is real.
Clare gets to the kitchen first, feels the cold coming in the half open sliding door, and goes to it, grabbing it with both hands to slide it all the way open. She looks up and sees her husband in the fog. She runs out, Junior right behind her. She struggles to tie her robe.
Within a few feet of Jim Jarbor, Clare and Junior hold up. The sun is in their eyes, burning through the fog. Jim Jarbor is standing there, crutchless, shotgun lowered, shoulders heaving up and down as if he is having convulsions. His head is shaking from side to side. He drops the gun and Clare and Junior jump back at first, afraid the gun might fire. They lunge forward, both expecting him to collapse.
They each grab an arm and pull themselves to him. They peek around each side of him and see him laughing hysterically, tears rolling down his cheeks. He raises a forearm to point at the plywood deer, now perfectly visible in the dawn, a large hole blasted in its center. They tug harder on his big arms, let out sighs of relief visible in the cold air, wanting to laugh like him, but unable to make so quick a switch from terror to humor. They tug harder, as if they are trying to snap a Thanksgiving turkey wishbone.