Fiction · 06/27/2012

Jacklight

The buck lopes down the last stretch of hillside and bounds over the low fence behind the industrial park, hardly slowing, legs tucking up, body stretching out and arcing like an arrow, then coming down soft on the other side with just a faint ticking of hooves on the asphalt. The man stops and considers. Catches his breath. He looks up at the sun, pulls out his phone: 4:36. Jesus Christ. The buck doesn’t even look hit, but he’s seen spots of blood on the ground here and there throughout the pursuit, since he took the shot at, what, 10:30? Good lord. He’s sweating underneath the coat and sweater, his long underwear soaked, the smell of him leaking out through his collar. They say you’re not supposed to object to your own smell but he does — it’s an earthbound smell and he doesn’t care for it. The buck can smell it too, he’s sure; it may be what made it take a step sideways as he pulled the trigger and set this thing in motion. He saw the jolt when the bullet hit, the buck’s haunch flinching as though a bee had stung it. Now and then he’s noticed a catch in its gait, a little stumble; enough to keep him chasing and he wonders if it’s a calculated thing, the way a killdeer leads a predator off, wing held out to its side crying in mock-pain — no, bucks don’t do that; a doe maybe, but not a buck. They look out for number one.

He scrambles over the fence, the strap on his rifle snagging on the chain link, holding him up; one of the points jabs into his leg and now he’s limping worse than the deer — one of them will have to give out sooner or later but fuck if it’s going to be him. Everyone has been telling him to quit this or that forever — hunting, cigarettes, salt, wanting — and he doesn’t care if he looks like an idiot chasing a deer for six hours, perseverance is the thing his dad always told him separates the winners out, time and will-power.

He hasn’t had a clear shot since the first one, no chance to finish him off. The gap hasn’t closed much at all throughout the chase — when he walks, the deer walks, watching him, recovering as he does, mirroring him. Maybe even mocking him, though that is surely beyond a deer’s capacity, isn’t it? His daughter would say no.

— They’re as alive as you are.

— They don’t feel anything complex, emotion or longing, just hunger and pain and fatigue.

— How would you know? Have you talked to them?

— They eat what they find and they sleep where they lie down.

— They deserve mercy.

— Don’t we all?

She thinks she’s hitting him where it hurts, but it doesn’t bother him the way she thinks it does — he admires her commitment, she has beliefs and he’s not about to run that down — it’s just that everybody has such stiff opinions now about everything, you have to take a stand on every little thing, you’re tested all the time and it’s fucking exhausting.

Inside the industrial park fence, he limps through a narrow parking lot between two wings of offices. He sits on a parking curb in the shade of a stunted sweet gum. Up ahead the deer stops, turns half toward him. Its sides are heaving, eyes wide — it’s pacing him again, step for step. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the blinds in one of the office windows twitch, sees three or four faces behind the tint, half-ghost faces talking and pointing — he nods, smiles, knows he looks crazy, camoed and sweat-soaked with a slung rifle in the middle of an office park. He worked in a place like this once, and he remembers the electrical way fear passed from person to person, an equilibrium of panic establishing itself with each pulse, the world inside and the world out differentiated by the damping of double-pane glass. In some ways he misses it — the anesthetic air and the childish excitement at the department birthday cake. He has told himself that he is more in tune now with what we are deep within us, but he’s failed to convince himself — he has heard such talk since he was a boy from booze-faced hunters grieving a simpler time, always a generation back, a lost dream they believe can be reawakened via gun oil and Coors Light. He knows better, or should.

Inside the building an alarm goes off — he looks for smoke, for signs of evacuation, and realizes the alarm is sounding against him, he’s the barbarian at their cardlocked gate. He tries to wave reassuringly, to signify somehow that he is harmless, that he is just like them, but they shrink back from the windows and screw the blinds closed. He jogs out of the parking lot, across the little strip of lawn and down into the sunken lot where the buck has already disappeared.

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Is he one with the buck, do they share a connection, however fragile? He doubts it. Fear is what the buck feels almost certainly, it would be more than happy to have the situation reversed and in that configuration the man is quite sure he would not be as philosophically inclined. He would simply be pushing himself on until he couldn’t go any farther, wanting more than anything just to live, to get to wherever it is he set off to this morning, which wasn’t by any stretch here.

The grass is waist high in the field and he can see only the wake of the buck ahead. He follows it, trending downhill to a drainage pipe burrowed into the earth beneath the road. He hears hooves on concrete, follows into the pipe where the light is cut off by a subtle turning, pitch black with a thread of water coursing down the middle. He takes his headlamp out of his coat pocket, straps it on to reveal the graffitied walls, the high water line from past floods, cans and plastic bags and the puffed remains of small dead things floating. Emerging on the other side the light blinds him, the sun lowering toward the low band of hills in the west — the buck halfway across the next field, stopped, head up, waiting. He sees the red smear on its flank and feels a stab of regret, wishes briefly that they were back in that morning’s woods, the shot and the chase only one of many possibilities.

The buck’s ears go up and it turns, begins to run again. He hears the commotion behind him then on the road above the culvert, but he doesn’t stop to look at the sheriff’s deputies getting out of their car, hands raised against the sun. One of them, the tall one, had been to the newly remodeled art museum the weekend before at his wife’s insistence, and the scene down in the basin reminds him of an odd, busy painting he had seen there. A crowded mass of people and animals tied together like pieces in a living Rube Goldberg machine. He imagines the painter dropping the man and the deer here, the first characters in a new painting, an undiscovered masterpiece sitting neglected in the muggy basement of — what the hell was his name? It started with a B, Br, Br-something. He raps himself on the side of the head trying to recall it, then his partner yells at him and he goes to help with the spotlight.

The man keeps moving. He should stop, everyone would tell him so — his wife, his daughter, even his father would say perseverance is one thing stubbornness another — but he keeps going for no other reason than that he has become accustomed to it and has no confidence in whatever would replace it. The buck is still moving and the sun is almost down, the lower rim just touching the mown backs of the hills. He’s got no more than ten minutes and then he will have to stop, the buck will have won, or not won but at least survived — it will stand on the crest of a rise with the city behind it, its antlers cradling the glow where the sun was a minute before. It will look at him, they will acknowledge one another and then he will draw the bolt back, eject the magazine, pull the strap over his shoulder and go home.

He hopes that his daughter will put in a surprise appearance, back unannounced from college, that she’ll hug him like she used to and call him daddy instead of dad, that they will eat together and after dinner will all watch something funny on TV, a preposterous sitcom with no bearing on their lives. He’ll pull a blanket over her when she falls asleep on the couch and the stars will waver in their course like fireflies over the house.

The deputy wonders how you go about starting a painting, creating a world like that, so ridiculous and authentic. He squints at the buck, which has stepped onto a low swell that is only a pile of discarded concrete, then at the man, who is raising his rifle. The sun is mostly gone. His partner is aiming down the spotlight’s pale beam, grinning. Probably the sky, he figures. You probably start with the sky, then work your way down.

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Jeff Ewing’s stories and essays have appeared in Southwest Review, Crazyhorse, Utne Reader, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, and elsewhere. His plays, including the award-winning Middle of Nowhere and The Road Into Town, have been staged in New York, Los Angeles, and Buffalo. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.