Fiction · 03/10/2010

Carrion

Now, there were no secrets good or bad between Daddy and me, but once he got popped for that third DUI coming out of Highlands, he brought me into the family business of carcass shopping down around Seneca and Greer. There he showed me to the bloody back rooms of old gutted trailers and flyspecked sheds, the wrecked and mauled deer corpses hanging by their hind ends, forelegs drooping down towards the floor like they meant to gain solid ground with just one more stride. Whole rooms of battered hide and dented bone.

His was the simple business of scooping up of carstruck bucks and does before the state police phoned in a roadkill site to the county removal detail. Made for decent enough money in the right circles, especially given what Daddy liked to call “these peculiar economic times.” He said to me that there was no shame in the use of slaughter that would otherwise spoil and prove nothing but a hazard to commuters who cared not a whit whether it was the government or us who hauled the dead out of sight, freighted them down to the men with meat saws who would turn around and sell the cuts for pretty much pure profit once they’d paid us for our troubles and risks that involved dodging eighty mile per hour traffic in day or night, snow or sun.

But what I didn’t know, of course, was just how much Daddy was skimming off the top before he handed over my share, the paper bills gore smudged at the tips like the lipstick kiss around the rim of a lady’s beer glass or cigarette butt. I was only seventeen, he said, only seventeen and liable to run him clear off the road. But he figured it was better to hazard steel mangling up around his body than to risk highway troopers catching him out with a suspended license, which everybody knew would get him sent upstate for a good six months of lock up if not more. So he’d show me bits and pieces of what to look for on a salvaging trip. That’s what he called our highway drives, “salvages,” a word that’s always sounded mean on the tongue to me, like some issue of a match and kerosene.

He would put me behind the wheel while he leaned up from the backseat where he could take his drinks at ease and talked in my ear, his breath a snaking mad spice around my head. We would head down in that old restored Pontiac that coughed and spit exhaust smoke, and he would show me how to spot a hard median, kicking gravel all across the macadam when we pulled a quick stop. In time I got damn good, sometimes covering a couple of hundred miles of interstate to find a decent kill or two, trussing them up in the trunk, or sometimes, if they were too big, lashing them to the hood, the smell of their blood carrying straight through the vents, coppering up the air.

There were times we would have to stop, have to skim off the main run and drive up the access roads, blundering down old state routes, sometimes mile after mile, hunting up a liquor store or some truck stop honky tonk that would sell brown paper booze under the table. Time would just seem to peel open for him, and he’d forget the hours still ahead while he sought the bottom plumb line on any bottle of brown liquor in his fist.

It was a time such as that, a time when Daddy had shunted us up a good hour off the track that was our last time out salvaging. He’d torn through a pint of George Dickel and his breath was a hot ache on the back of my neck. He was talking about all the times he’d taken me hunting as a kid and then he remembered how once I’d dumped out his secret flask on the dirt when he wasn’t looking. He’d promised my Mama he wasn’t going to drink anymore, and I had poured out the whiskey, afraid of the times he’d drink and pull his Ruger revolver on me when I stepped back into the deer camp from going to pee. He would have gotten so blind drunk that he couldn’t recognize the face of his only son when I stepped back under the hard circle of lantern light. He remembered that and kind of laughed there right in my ear in such a way that I could tell he took no pleasure in the memory.

He was in my ear talking, and I was wanting to put the pictures inside my head to rest, so I dropped my foot down a degree or two on the accelerator, letting the road surround us with its hum. He didn’t seem to notice, so caught up with whatever it was he thought he was trying to prove to me. I let the country just flow past. The land beyond the road was raw, not snowing or raining but looking like it might, black winds blowing out of black foothills and the sky scratched with something ancient and flat. For hours, in all that stretch we saw only cars and trucks huffing out their smoke without sight of a single roadkill until it was at that switching hour between day and night, the time where light falls down in on itself like it’s finally given in to gravity, that was when he saw the buck.

The deer lay in the center lane, untouched somehow even though the cars were just inches on either side of it when they whipped past. I swerved off over the rumble strips, the whole car shuddering until I got clear to the emergency lane. Daddy was out of the car before I could throw the transmission into park, stumbling out into the headlight-bored twilight. Cars zipped on by, honking as he wobbled across the lanes, fighting his way towards the corpse.

It was a big old buck that would have gone a good two-fifty on the hoof if it went an ounce, laid out with antlers webbed from his head like a broken halo of bone. Daddy turned his head to me and smiled so wide I thought his chin would drop. Just then, another heavy vehicle came flying, a heavy cement truck, and Daddy realized it meant to cut our find in two. His hand loosed its stranglehold on the empty bottleneck and the glass cracked forgotten on the hardtop. I yelled for him to come back, but he didn’t hear, didn’t hear as he reeled out towards the middle of the road, waving his hands over his head like a lost man would for a search party, the thin comets of oncoming headlights showering him. I yelled again, but he was there now, jumping up in the air, kicking his feet like they were hurt by any contact with the ground. I wanted to turn away, to not see the spray of blood that would be my last memory of him, but the truck came so fast there wasn’t time to close my eyes.

The tires laid out a long scream as the truck jerked towards the left, a blind lane switch that crushed only air. The loud horn came back, bellowing like a huge wronged beast, but kept driving on down the road into the gathering night. Daddy looked back at me, laughing and shaking like someone had him on strings. He turned back towards the buck and grabbed hold of the antler tine, raising his trophy’s head.

But then something happened. As soon as Daddy touched hand to horn, the resting life of that deer shot up through its muscle and bone, a current that shook it from a sleep men would never know. Daddy staggered back like he’d been struck, the buck coming to its uncertain legs like it had just been foaled, tossing its flattened black snout. It came straight at Daddy, slow but steady, shivering its head and grunting, drunk from temporary resurrection. Daddy stumbled back to the edge of the road and screamed for me to follow him to the car. When I got in, he was already in the back seat breathing hard, his head rolled back on the seat rest, his face pale as a truce flag. He said to me, just so that I had to really listen to hear him, “Good lord, let’s get on now, just get on and drive now, just go!”

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Charles Dodd White lives in the mountains of western North Carolina and teaches English at a couple of small colleges in the area. His stories have appeared or will appear directly in Night Train, North Carolina Literary Review, PANK, Word Riot and others. His novel Lambs of Men (Casperian Books) will be published in Fall 2010. He is also co-editing, along with Page Seay, an anthology of contemporary Appalachian writing called From Hill to Holler (Bottom Dog Press) scheduled for a Spring 2011 release. His website is www.charlesdoddwhite.com.