The Deer Walking Upside Down

The weather? How do you argue about that? This was nothing about money or alcohol or Clayton, their son-in-law. Or trivia—whether, say, Eugene McCarthy ever really supported Reagan. On this winter day, he’ d maundered aloud about the heat of last summer, wondered idly if it got over a hundred out on the lake. 

“Why wouldn’t it?” she slung back. He tried to explain. 

When did she conclude that everything he said was bogus? Once, there was an occasional butting of heads, maybe an interval of knee-jerk reactions before descending to the steady toe-to-toe, but this hadn’t seemed gradual like that. It came more like an epiphany, except what do you call an epiphany when it’s bullshit?

“So the lake is a different place?” she chased.

“It’s a heat sink, for Christ’s sake.”

“They should give two different weather forecasts. Today in Fletcher, it will be a hundred, but take your parkas out on the lake. You’re saying wind doesn’t mix it, even?”

“No, just not as much as you might think.”

“As much as you think, though, that’s what it does.” She lowered her voice, thinned her eyes, so that she could see all the way through to the back of his eyeballs, where she snapped up the shades, flung the sashes open. The trouble was that it wasn’t the wind she was thinking about or even cared about, she was simply skeptical of anything that passed through his mind. The Great Corrupter. If they had become two blind people describing an elephant, their orbits posted forever to opposite ends of the beast:

“That won’t hold more than two quarts.”

“It holds a gallon, Larry.”

“In Mississippi Masala, the one who played the father. That’s who it was, Larry.”

“No, not Nehru, he didn’t play Nehru in the Gandhi I saw. They didn’t even look alike.”

“Yes. Rosh something.”

_____

“Merrit is not a day over fifty-five,” Carol affirmed.

“He’s over sixty. And it’s Merrick.”

“The superintendent’s name is Merrit, not Merrick.”

“You can’t believe Ron Merrick is in his fifties,” Larry inveighed. “He’s a grandfather, for Christ’s sake.”

“There are lots of grandfathers in their fifties, and it’s not Ron either.”

“So what is it?”

 “Something Merrit. I can’t remember.”

 “All you know is that I’m wrong.”

 “Odds are.”

 _____

Odds are that Carol and he are driving to his brother’s place. Behind these thousand bickering hills on the horizon, Larry imagines dark, lost canyons. The best that could be said at the moment is that they aren’t yelling, as they had the night before after they’ d gone out to dinner. What scared him most was that they could live together in the same house, sleep in the same bed, kiss each other good night or more—take it all the way, sometimes—and still be on the outside looking in. They lived in entwined but separate channels. At home they could retreat to different rooms, but in the car on trips neither could flee, every escape valve rusted shut. Now they could add going out to dinner to this list of dreads? 

She’s brought up the oil change. “You said every three thousand miles, and suddenly when you forget to do it, forty-five hundred is okay.”

“I didn’t forget. We put on two thousand of those miles on the interstate, which makes it different.” They’ d driven to Seattle for her niece’s wedding. What was their mileage there and back? How many fights per mile? How many sinkholes of silence?

“What makes it different is you forgetting and not wanting to admit it.”

“You won’t believe me. Look at it from the crankshaft’s point of view. That’s what counts. It’s in the middle of the motor, where the oil goes. When you’re not driving in town and shifting down all the time, the crank turns fewer times for every mile.”

“Different rules for you, that’s all I hear. You should teach them at Quik-Lube that their numbers need to be changed. They could put them up on the wall. Larry’s rules. Except they’re no good unless your name is Larry. ” 

He doesn’t say anything. Down it comes, this screen, like a stage curtain falling between them. “What’s happened?” he asks abruptly. “I don’t know how to make this stop.”

“What’s not stopped?”

“What we’re doing. Do we hate each other?”

“Sometimes. It’s your crankshaft, I think.”

“Right,” he says.

“It is. You know how to rile me, and you won’t pass a good shot when you see it.”

“As if you pass the shots you get.”

“You don’t know how many I let go by. You don’t know how careful I have to be.” Her voice drops dramatically.

“Careful? That’s an interesting concept. Pampered, that’s how I should feel?”

“What were we talking about before? When we left? Wasn’t it your brother?”

“We agree about my brother.”

“No, not the religion. The way he treats Rosalie. Like she’s a complete pinhead.”

“She doesn’t treat him any better.”

“No, but she doesn’t use him for a rug.”

“They don’t fight any more than we do.”

“I don’t know why they stay together.”

He doesn’t say anything to this.

“Stuck. They’ve quit on each other.”

He tries to divine where she’s headed.

“I don’t like being talked down to any more than she does.”

“I talk down to you more than you do to me?”

“Only all the time. In everything, you make it seem that I’m the one who doesn’t understand The Big Picture.” She says the last three words with a deep voice. “That I’m the one who never sees beyond her nose. While you take in universes. You belong on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Your finger would have to be longer, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well, you refuse to look an inch past your own nose. You’re the arrogant one, the one who believes it’s all common sense, so long as it’s your version of common sense. But it’s changed, you know, how much you’ve thought I’m wrong. Once, it was now and then. Now, it’s always. Does that make me narrow and you open-minded?”

“It’s different than that.”

“I see,” he says.

“There, that’s what I mean. You don’t see. There’s the sarcasm that’s supposed to make it clear to me how messed up I am about everything.”

“And I’m not messed up about everything if you think I’m wrong about everything I say?”

“In a different way.”

“I see.”

Carol takes half a breath and holds it. When he doesn’t hear her breathing aloud again, he assumes it’s a tactic, as if silent breathing is twice as condemning as mere silence.

She parks the car behind his brother’s—a little close, he thinks, but says nothing. She says, “Let’s get through this.”

He can feel his eyes bulge. He thrusts his canted head toward her.

“This dinner, I mean.”

He lifts away. “Right.” He sweeps to his skyward post, viewing himself from above in the right miniaturized context, as a blinking mite, one of so many billion tricked creatures on the skin of one of a bajillion planets.

_____

Rosalie is in the kitchen staring at the wall, rigid and erect as she winds on the salad spinner. She softens and smiles at them; the spinner winds down, diminuendo. In the adjoining room, Mel crawls out of his La-Z-Boy when Larry wishes him a happy birthday, nods with bulky motions like a horse, and says thanks.

“Mom’s not here?” Larry asks.

“She wasn’t ready.” Mel looks at his watch. “Maybe by now.”

Rosalie sighs. “I told him she’ d be ready by the time he got there.”

Mel lurches, frowns, throws Larry a knowing look, then sags. “Want a beer?”

“I’ll go get her,” Larry says. “I’ve still got my coat on.” He ducks back into the kitchen. “You need anything?” he asks.

Rosalie squints, searches the ceiling blindly, then shakes her head. Carol is pouring herself a glass of wine. Mel wanders in. “She’ d be here now,” Rosalie says.

“It’s his birthday. He doesn’t have to do anything,” Larry tells her. “Do you need anything?”

“Then it must be his birthday every day.”

“Put a lid on it, Rosalie,” Mel snarls. “They didn’t come over to listen to you bellyache.” He says bellyache like a caller for a square dance. 

Mel goes to the refrigerator. Larry catches Carol’s gaze, her eyes hard as a spider’s. A chill of recognition? This kitchen is a web, with all these cob-dusty snares. 

Larry flees out to the car, where for a moment he contemplates the house, a blue box that Mel and Rosalie live in. Their kids are gone, off to their own boxes. Karen, too, his and Carol’s daughter, off to another city. Are there webs starting in the box where Karen and Clayton live, tentacles that scare Karen? Is it universal, accumulations in every box that one must tear down, chop away, lest one day they metastasize? Or is it a personal situation? Are he and Carol, like Mel and Rosalie, the opposite of star-crossed lovers? Star-splayed? Posted at the far ends of an ever-expanding, an ever-more-unknowable universe?

_____

Larry drives the back way, through the ten- and twenty-acre lots, the cropping checkerboard developments of houses all struck from the same template, then back again into the lots and past the cemetery, a golf course, the occasional sugar-beet field. It’s early December, the ground frozen half gray with sanded white spots of snow in the dips and basins. Geese and mule deer, a pheasant or two, fleck the barrenness. The two-lane pavement is narrow with steep borrow pits, the speed limit a default fifty-five even where hedges and lawns and barbecues and the strewn array of bikes and sleds crowd up against the indifferent, contemptuous traffic. Sprawl has a way of being recent and old at the same time.

Where the gray sky opens out again, under a fence row of old cottonwood, Larry sees a buck walking slowly toward the road. A three-point. It’s the tail end of the rut, and a few bucks from the surrounding rims and cedar breaks poke about in the valley. This deer walks with his head down, as if dogging a scent, but he seems in no particular hurry. Larry passes by, broods on, his unhappiness parked like an unwanted passenger in the backseat.

Unaccountably, a quarter mile on, the deer thrusts himself back into Larry’s mind. What’s true about a deer is that there is no more beautiful animal on the earth. There couldn’t be, because there’s no surpassing what’s perfect. He glances up at the rearview mirror to see in startling clearness a slow-motion sequence of the deer walking over the highway and a white car approaching. The slow, deliberate clarity of the buck’s progress is confounded by an absurd geometry of a path arcing above the highway and the swerving car—the deer is walking there upside down, as he would if he were decorating the outer edge of stationery or a quilt or weaving. Larry blinks and the deer is gone, but he can tell by a glimpse of the white car’s side and by the boat-like lift and fall of the chassis it’s an old American model, a Continental or a Cadillac, maybe. The driver appears to stop on the narrow shoulder. 

In another quarter mile, Larry turns left on an intersecting road. Going on, glancing over his shoulder now and then with this diagonal view across an intervening field, he sees the car starting up again and driving on. A van that had stopped behind follows now. Must be dead, Larry thinks. The image keeps playing: the deer walking upside down . . . what, three or four feet above the car? That animal wasn’t watching. Nor the driver. Not enough. There was the buck, intact and solid, walking right-side-up on frozen ground, mindful of a scent maybe; then he was upside down, still walking, except not for long and forever.

Larry can see his mother at her window when he pulls up. Maybe she can recognize his car, maybe not. Walking up the sidewalk, he waves. She’s squinting, tilting at the window, but she doesn’t respond. He knocks and goes in. 

“It’s me,” he says. 

“Ah, Larry, everything okay? I’ve been waiting.” She has her coat on, her bag with her oxygen canister. He tells her that all is well. “Will you run to the desk and check me out?” She pulls off the plastic tubes that feed to her nose and turns off the machine.

When he returns, she’s standing in the hall. She takes his arm and—slowly, walking haltingly the way people do in lines—they make their way to his car. The series of maneuvers and stages she goes through to seat herself in the car are remarkably precise yet pathetic at the same time. “Is the birthday boy okay?” she asks, when he pulls out onto the highway. “I was expecting him.”

“Doing fine.” He glances at her, finds her examining him with her eyes moving like sea anemones, soft and waving and searching. Macular degeneration well advanced.

“Well, this will be nice,” he says, wincing at the nothingness he’s just expressed.

“What I’ d like to do is beat you at a game of cribbage. That’s what I miss most about these get-togethers.” She’s staring ahead now, and Larry wonders how much of the road ahead she can make out. “Especially Rosalie—she’s the most fun to beat. And you.”

“You didn’t always beat me.”

“But you were the most fun to muggins.”

“Yeah.” He wouldn’t play muggins cribbage with anybody else. He could deal with losing points he missed, but it stuck in him sideways when his opponent got to take what he missed. If he was too serious, his only comfort was that it was no less true for Carol. “I’m sorry,” he says to his mother, “that you can’t play cribbage anymore.”

“Or smoke. And that’s the one I’ll never get over.”

“You don’t want to get over it.”

“No, I don’t.”

There were different kinds of regrets. If his mother was sorry she couldn’t play cribbage or smoke, she wasn’t sorry she had smoked, even though it brought her to this. She could take getting mugginsed from anybody, although he couldn’t remember it ever happening.

“I saw a deer get hit on the way over.”

“Oh no. . . . Was it awful?”

“I saw it from a distance. It’s just up ahead here.”

But when they drive by, he can’t see the deer’s body in the borrow pit. It didn’t seem possible that an animal knocked that high into the air could live or walk any distance away to die. They go on another mile before Larry brakes and turns into a driveway. “I’ve got to go back,” he tells his mother. “I need to know.”

“Of course. You didn’t see it when we passed?”

“I didn’t.”

Returning, he pulls off just across from the line of cottonwoods, his marker for where the deer had been. He has to park deep in the borrow pit to get off the road completely. The car tilts badly, and he has to hold the steering wheel to stay in place. His mother is pressed into the corner by the door, which she resists with an elbow. Everything seems out of whack: no deer anywhere, the car’s slant alarming, his mother here. But she says nothing. 

He leans to see out his side. Those are the trees where the deer crossed. He cranes about. 

“Oh Jesus, shit,” he blurts, for the deer is only fifty yards ahead of them, alive and struggling. The buck lifts his head out of the tall grass, thrashes, and falls back. One of his antlers is gone. All four legs must be broken, or his back; he can’t get off his side. “Shit, shit, shit,” Larry moans. He’s been alive all this time. What’s it take to kill an animal like that?

“Is it there?” His mother squirms, strains leaning toward the windshield. “Alive?”

“Yes. Lying in the grass. And I don’t have anything.”

“Can he live?”

“No, I can’t imagine how he’s lasted this long. Goddammit, dammit, dammit.” He freezes, holds the sides of his face with both hands. The tire iron would not be enough. A rock, not enough. He has no knife, no gun. A rock, it’s not enough, he tells himself a second time. He starts the car, stretches up to see behind, then revs it to shoot back up onto the road.

“What are you going to do?”

“I have to get something to kill him with.” He accelerates.

“To Mel’s?” 

“No. That’ll take a half hour. That deer’s been there that long already. Shit,” he hisses.

She doesn’t say anything about his swearing. A small white house appears on the left. As he brakes and turns in, his mother does not intrude with questions. He strides to the porch. The steps are creaky, old wood, the structure itself peeling paint, the windows obscured with plastic nailed under furring strips. Larry pounds on the door frame. He can see into the kitchen; it’s lit, but no response. He knocks again, this time on the door itself, the glass amplifying the staccato racket. 

A shirtless man appears carrying a baby, opens the door at once. Round face, short dark hair, a day’s growth of a dark beard, the wakeful yet silent baby with light skin but the same dark eyes and swatch of hair. The man’s expression is questioning, though without any apparent suspicion. 

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Larry says, “but a car just hit a deer just back there, and I want to put it out of its misery. Do you have a knife I could borrow?”

“I have a knife,” he says tentatively. “Come in. It’s not a very sharp knife.” 

He speaks with the hint of an accent; Larry guesses he’s Mexican. The house is warm, humid, the light inside incandescent yellow. Something in a lidded pot cooks on the stove. The man rattles through drawers, the baby watching his face. “I saw the car. It was an old man. But he drove on. Here. I’m sorry, but this is not a very good knife.” 

Larry examines it. “Oh, boy,” he murmurs. The knife has a blade as long as his hand but it’s incredibly dull and the point is rounded. “Do you . . . ?”

The man shrugs.

“A steel then, or a stone?”

He rifles again in a second drawer, hands Larry a whetstone the size and shape of a cube of butter. Larry thanks him and rushes back out to the car. He starts the car, then sits there whetting the blade. “Did you get what you need?” his mother asks.

“It’s really dull.”

She doesn’t say anything, seems to apprehend that he needs to concentrate, get another plan or gather his forces. He drives back, pulls off across from the deer and, taking both the stone and the knife, bolts across the road.

Vainly, the deer struggles upward. Larry drops the stone, clutches the single antler and tries to force the deer’s head back onto the ground, but the broken animal is remarkably strong, so Larry has to lean in and throw his weight over him. He uses both hands to get the head down, then lifts his fist high and drives the knife at the neck. The blade bends, nearly doubles back, but does not penetrate. The deer convulses, flings Larry hand away and flops about but cannot rise. 

Leaning back, Larry chokes. Stupidly, he straightens the defective blade, examines the point. Only a grinder can put a point on this. In mad, jabbing motions, he works the nearly straightened blade on the whetstone again. He’s heard stories about tornadoes impaling power poles with grass stems. Can he persuade his arm to channel the power of a storm? He has the deer’s head down again, and this time he plunges the blade with the fullest concentration of force and speed he can summon. The blade goes in to the handle. In frantic, spastic lunges, he saws the blade up and down, outward. Purple-red blood gushes, fills the hole made by the knife, mounds out and over in a heavy, syrupy column. In one motion, Larry lunges back, pulls the knife out, and rises. He averts his face from the deer’s, fetches the stone from where he dropped it, a couple feet away. 

At the highway’s edge, he wipes his hands and the knife in long, frosty stems of grass. He doesn’t look back.

In the car, his mother remains quiet. He appreciates her respect. 

“It’s done,” he whispers.

 _____

At the house, the man still cradles his baby, but now he has a shirt on. From the doorway, Larry extends the knife, handle first, and then the stone. “Thank you.”

The man, like Larry’s mother, does not ask, but his eyes shine questioningly. Larry shows the man the palms of his hands, attempts an apologetic shake of the head that comes off more like a shudder.

_____

At Mel and Rosalie’s, Larry walks his mother in and then goes to the bathroom to sit on the lid of the toilet, while his mother tells them what happened.

“Wow,” Mel says when Larry comes back out, “you’ve already put in a day. Where’s your hunter orange?”

“Yeah.” Larry doesn’t look at them.

“I’m sorry,” Carol says, “that you had to do that.”

“It’s a good thing you were there,” says Rosalie, “or who knows how long he would’ve had to suffer.”

“He’ d still be there waiting to die,” Mel adds.

Larry broods: Suffer? What a strange word. It could be waafer, poofer, laffer. A funny-sounding word for the most peculiar thing. Pain, certainly, but that could have been the smallest part. A lens of fear, the deer’s and his own, fused into a single column clear as ice, when neither wanted it. 

In the kitchen, they watch him.

“I see you as God’s instrument,” Mel says. 

“I feel like I’m somebody’s instrument.”

“You were,” Mel says, ever more fervent. “Don’t you think?”

“You don’t want to know what I’m thinking, Mel.”

They wait for him to elaborate, but he says nothing.

“You’re upset, Larry,” his mother says.

“Yep,” he says.

“Well, I’m glad the deer’s out of his misery,” Mel says.

Larry won’t look at him.

Frowning, Mel picks at the back of his hand the way he does when he’s uncomfortable. At length, he rises. “Come on, Mom, let’s go see if the game’s started.”

She stands in stages, untangles her oxygen tubes. “Larry,” she says, touching his shoulder, “you only did what you could do.”

He touches her hand. “I know, Mom.” 

Rosalie goes back to the kitchen, but Carol stays. “You seem a little deranged to me, Larry.” 

He regards her, uncertain whether she intends any accusing. “I know. I think I want to be.”

“But you’re okay?”

He opens his hands, shows them and his complete bewilderment to her. He widens his eyes and blinks.

“Oh,” she says. “Yes.”

He considers this: her understanding is a kind of affection, his to have. A gift, but he needs to keep it a small one. He dares not be too grateful. Today, he saw a deer walking in a place he has to keep track of. 

 

Jerry McGahan (1943–2016) was the author of the story collection The Deer Walking Upside Down (Schaffner Press, 2015) and the novel A Condor Brings the Sun (1996). His stories and essays were published by the Iowa Review, the Antioch Review, the Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, and other literary journals. McGahan passed away with his wife Janet by his side, in the house he built in Arlee, Montana, on the land he loved for almost fifty years.