Different Floors of the House

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Short Story, September '09: Roadkill


It was both exhilirating and disheartening seeing you the other day. I felt I should contact you in some way. I'm sorry I haven't. I've been thinking about you a lot.
I don't really know what to say, or how to say it, so I'll just throw ink on the paper and see what happens.

I was walking in the middle of nowhere this morning. At least, it used to be the middle of nowhere. There are rows of houses atop hills. Huge houses. McMansions and ‘Dream Homes’. There used to be an old logging road out here. Now it’s a well-manicured street. Too clean, too TV-land. The sidewalks are pristine white concrete. The house numbers that identify each winding brick driveway are painted in sharp, black, perfectly aligned numbers on the curb below each shining mailbox. There are trees out here. But they are not the trees I knew.
I was out here almost 2 decades ago, which seems like a long time. But it is so damned different here now. It’s hard to imagine how they completely erased this place and replaced it with this immaculation, in the course of just a few years.
When I came out here before, so many years ago, it was for a reason. I happened upon an old shoebox in my attic full of letters and paperwork dating back to the middle of last century. The papers were all my wife’s grandfathers. I came across a water stained picture too. There was a man standing on a hilltop in front of an old shack-looking house. If you ever went out toward Timber for fishing, you might have come across the old fish and tackle shop at the crossroads over there. Well, that’s what this shanty looked like. It was an old shack with that crappy old warped-bottle glass for windows and the tin roof and the old crooked metal chimney flue. The man in the picture, who I later found out to be my wife’s great-uncle, was sitting in a rocking chair on the very narrow porch (if you can call it that) of this building (if you can call it that). He had a rifle across his lap, which he secured with his right hand on the barrel. His other arm was draped over the side of the chair and it was reaching down to a medium sized bear that was lying on the ground next to him. At first I thought he was holding the bear’s head up. But, it seems to me, after looking at the picture again, (by the way I’m looking at the picture right now as well) that he is caressing the beast. I don’t expect that bear was alive. I guess it could have been. This old geezer may have been a real-life Grizzly Adams. But I doubt that. I think the bear was dead.
Ever since I was a kid I always wondered what happens to animals when they die. Like squirrels and possums and shit. I’m not talking about possum heaven, I mean, what do they do when they know they are going to die? Do they check in to the local rodent hospital and die in a whitewashed room after racking up a twenty thousand dollar pharmaceutical bill? Up until I saw that picture of the Timber man, the only dead animals I ever really saw were on the roadside, victims of an under budgeted local political infrastructure that didn’t seem to think that crosswalks or pedestrian bridges were important enough to invest in. Bah, forget all that. That’s just what marsupial society doesn’t need: more government. Those rogue whacko’s need to learn how to look both ways. Maybe it’s a failure at the kindergarten level. “Look Both Ways” should have been as much a part of the social conditioning curriculum as were mantras like: “Stop Drop and Roll” and “Just Say No to Winter Hoarding Restrictions.”
I’m not even talking about that anyway. At least, I don’t intend to. What I really mean to say is: What do these animals do when they know that life is at its end and where do they go? And don’t tell me they don’t sense when death is approaching. They go somewhere. I know they do, because I’ve been through hundreds of walks in the forest and have never once seen a dead skunk just lying there as if ‘bam!’ death occurred. It doesn’t happen that way.
Well that said, I have to tell you about the dead deer corpse down by Timber, around the place where that old picture had been taken. The experience was pretty weird, but not gross. Another time, I saw a dead dog on the side of highway 43 when I was twenty-two or twenty three, and it was disgusting: A lake of putrid yellow maggots was churning inside this dog’s torso. The stench of it was unreal—you might know it—that acidic, stifling waft of death that fumes up and around you, melting the air and burning your nose as it leaves that invisible, intangible, violently acrid film on your tongue that you can’t stop tasting for a very, very long time. That taste fills your mouth. It’s beyond gross; it’s the epitome of some nameless, eternal essence. It moves around in your mouth, it’s the only ‘thing’ in the world that moves without being moved. It coats your tongue, seeps in between your teeth. It fills the gap between your gums and your inner cheek. That salty, pungent form grows up to the roof of your mouth, and up into your nose, then back into your throat. It tries to wriggle its putrid mass down into your soul. It squirms, it fights, it might even reach your larynx and stifle your voice—and you wonder why the only utterance you eschew are primal, guttural grunts and that pre-emetic hacking gasp, you know the one. Hmm…I might have gotten carried away there… But really though, even when I covered my nose and mouth with the sleeve of my coat, I couldn’t look at it straightaway. I had to look off into the forest or into the oncoming traffic and gradually build up my courage to slowly turn my head toward the carnage. And even then, I really don’t think I looked at it directly. I wish I had. I wish I had the balls to look at that filthy cleansing process.
I can tell you still aren’t getting it. Probably my fault. Ok, check this out, here is an example:
My wife and I had just bought a new car and decided to take it out for a drive. This was years ago, of course. We headed out on the old river road toward the mountain. Well, about half way between the oxbow and the reservoir, we had to stop. Actually, my wife saw them first, which in some way pisses me off… Anyway she slapped her hands onto the dashboard and screamed “Stop!” like, five times real fast. “Stopstopstopstopstop!” I slammed on the brakes; this was before ABS mind you, so we actually did come to a skidding, screeching halt. Right before the car veered a little to the left and stopped, I saw them: a mother duck and five or six little, yellow, fuzzy ducklings. Well, we just sat there for a few minutes, my wife smiling, giggling even. Yeah, ok, it was cute or whatever, I guess I was probably feeling a little giddy myself, because I was an idiot back then. I had no idea what was going on.
It was probably five minutes we waited. But the procession didn’t move. The mother duck sort of circled her babies, corralling them. She never once looked at the car or at me. She just stared ahead, into the sky like a roving preacher leading her congregation down to the river to pray. Eventually, she just parked right there on the side of the road. And when she sat down, all the babies sat down in unison. Some time later, she stood back up and all her parishioners did likewise, simultaneously.
My wife kind of shrugged at the event. We couldn’t figure out what the problem was. The duck family simply wouldn’t cross the road. They were a good 20 yards away, she was afraid that if we started to go, they would attempt to cross the road. “I’ll just drive slow around them.” I recall suggesting. But at that moment we noticed another car coming down the road toward us. It was going as fast as I should have been.
“You got to get out and stop that car, Dave”
“I do?”
Now this is a small road, mind you. The forest on either side is separated from the road by two narrow ditches, which makes the road seem wider in some respects, but that’s just an illusion. So anyway, I started the car up again and pulled it off into the minuscule emergency lane. I got out and started walking up the hash marks in the middle, waving my hands. As I got closer to the duck family they started to go. I couldn’t believe it. I started yelling at the mother. Well, she apparently couldn’t understand a lick of English, because she was completely ignoring me. Then I got mad because she started walking faster as I got closer. I didn’t want her to walk now. Now I wanted her to stop, or better yet, turn the fuck around and get off the road entirely. I stopped in my tracks. And so did she. So I took a step forward, and then, so did she, followed by a military-like half step from all the trailing minions. I looked back to my wife. I said something about how unbelievable this was, but my wife was yelling something I couldn’t hear and pointing down the road frantically. I shook my head to inform her I didn’t know what she was saying. She got out of the car after fighting with the handle due to nervousness, I guess. When I saw that I knew something was wrong.
That other car was coming on so fast. I’d say probably about 80 or 85 mph. From where I stood, looking toward the west, you could see the sun setting at the top of the road a good two or so miles away. I guess the car picked up speed coming down that hill, or it was just another illusion. In any case it was closing in fast. Momma duck must have seen it, or sensed it because she started moving—in the wrong direction. And the faster the car seemed to go, the faster went the row of ducks. I really, really thought they were going to get smooshed to smithereens, but I had to get off the road. That car, whose driver apparently didn’t see me, or the damned ducks, wasn’t going to stop.
Now, I don’t know why things like this happen to me, but they do. I should have, could have, simply walked off to the right side of the road. But I didn’t. I felt, just then, as if I had some kind of universal or biblical sense of responsibility. Or maybe I didn’t. I think…I just didn’t want to have to deal with the sight of squash, squish-squish-squish-squish…. I forgot how many squishes there could have been…
Eh. I must do something else. I’m really horrible at coming to the point, aren’t I?
Why can’t things be simple? Life is simple. At the beginning. It’s simple because we haven’t got any choice about anything at all. Choice sucks. Ok, I know that’s not true. I just…well, when I saw you there at the hospital, knowing what I know about your illness, that masked demon that kills everyone we love… The end is so difficult. It so…damned difficult to do because something is gone that will never come back and it’s been replaced by something we’ll never be able to destroy, no matter how hard we endeavor to do so.
Well, I mentioned that deer before, the one in the forest. Maybe I really don’t like to talk about it. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the way I want to go out. Forget about the goddamned ducks for a minute. Jesus, I’m trying to make a point here. All you want is to skip to the end. Then again, I guess that’s what this is all about. The end. The end of all things. Of course, all things never end. For the bible tells me so.
So, anyway. The deer. It was on top of this grass-covered ridge. I’d just come up from the dirty logging trail that parts its way through a peripheral host of thirty year-old stumps. I could have kept going on that trail, but I was looking for an old shack, where Jack Marbury used to live in the 1920’s. I had my makeshift map, drawn by me and verified by Lennox Andrews at the Gulliver’s Pass Fish and Tackle Shop on the crossroads. Eh, that’s where Gulliver’s pass crosses highway 10 now, if you don’t know. Of course in the early part of the 20th century, neither of these roads existed as ‘roads’. But at this time, which was about twenty years ago now, one was traversed daily by all those rodent-killing machines on their way to the beach and the other was used by government contracted loggers in trucks larger than anything Jack Marbury probably could’ve imagined in 1925 or 26 or ever really.
So, the map had two X’s on it. One to specify Regence Hill, named for Patty Regence’s great, great uncle. You don’t know about her, Patty that is, anyway she goes by Melmann now, since she married me. The other mark signified, or was supposed to at least approximate the location of Marbury’s shack.
From the logging road, which was sunlit and dusty, the forest seems bleak and dark. Some of those trees have been up there for over forty years since no loggers could afford the minimum bid required to harvest them. So now they grew through and above unchecked, rampant fecundity…and they scared the shit out of me. I can’t explain why. They just seemed to be hiding something from me. They kept whispering to each other. I’m not kidding. And I’m not crazy. One tree would bend slowly in the wind toward another, whisper something, and then go erect again. If I got too inquisitive or tried eaves dropping, the muffled whispers became a gust of howling winds that got me to looking in a different direction entirely.
I left my car a few miles back in adherence to the law. Fuck all that, I should have had my car nearby. There were other things there too. Besides the gossiping trees. Things were moving up there, in the ridgeline. The wind bowled down Regence Hill, over the dirt road and up the other side only to be met by a wall of trees, which blocked the wind and deflected it upward or to the side. I heard things; things that made me look back down the road in the direction I came from. Fuck all that eco bullshit. If you saw the evil up in that wooded hell, the peering red eyes and rustling black I had to hack my way through to find this stupid shack, you woulda wished they all met a model H2HG43XY, 29 inch maximum flare saw, too. No, on second thought, you probably wouldn’t. I know all about you and your narcissistic ways. I’m just kidding. Geez.
Of course, the terror of a thing is only amplified ‘in the moment’, as it were. But right before I checked the ‘get the fuck outta there’ box in my mind’s fight or flight survey, I heard something else. There was a beep-beep-beep, like the sound big trucks make when backing up. Then there was an extremely loud mechanical lifting sound. You know, like a crane or something else that picks things up and moves them to a different place. And I heard yelling, what I took to be loggers barking orders and whatnot back and forth. I couldn’t tell which direction all the noise was coming from, but all that commotion made me feel a little bit safer. When things are silent and still, the amplitude of things we don’t want to or can’t understand scare the shit out of us. That noise, those loggers and their equipment, wherever they were…well, it made me feel safer for some reason. I resolved myself to going through the woods to get to this shack. “It just better be there!” I yelled beyond the woods. I sort of expected an echo, but none came.
So anyway, I rough-and-tumble my way through the first wave of undergrowth, bramble and various other shit. I make it up the first tier of this ridge without much trouble, a few nicks and scrapes sure, but no dark spirits attacked me, no ravaging beasts. The second tier was even easier to ascend. I found various ferns and adolescent tree stalks to grasp onto as I propelled myself up the hill. The trees got bigger near the top, so much so that the sky was at certain points, blotted out entirely. But this didn’t seem to shake me. Maybe terror isn’t amplified ‘in the moment’. Nothing happened. Nothing ate me. Finally, I immerged on top of that ridge, victorious without much of a fight at all.
Well, they are just trees after all.
On the top of that ridge the sun beat down hard. No wind came up there. No wind at all. Which was weird, because, apart from the ring of trees that surrounded this baseball diamond sized clearing, there was nothing to stop the wind. But I reckon I’m just trying to be spooky by saying that. Well, that is where I saw the deer, after all. And I’m not sure really how to describe the scene to you in a spooky enough fashion, so perhaps the wind thing is simply my pre-emptive attempt at garnering some type of tension.
Well, it’s kind of a lie anyway. Or, rather, a half-truth. I didn’t really see ‘a’ deer. That would require seeing a whole deer, which I cannot truly say I did. What I did see was the hindquarters of a deer. It appeared as if the thing was half buried from about the mid-section up. All I saw, and again, I didn’t really ‘see’ it, for my response was sort of like the response I had to the roadkill on highway 43 so many years before, I had a hard time looking directly at it. But I could tell, this animal was only half there. I thought for a second that maybe a bear or mountain lion ripped it in half and dragged the yummier part off into the woods to eat. But then I thought, ‘wouldn’t the hind of the hind be more tasty? How should I know?
For a second I thought maybe there could be some kind of predator up there, preying on me, watching me with red eyes from some point along the ridgeline. I spun around and around, my eyes shifting and darting around trees and ferns, looking for whatever could be wanting me. Of course, I saw nothing. I looked also for the shack that was supposed to be up here. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t in the clearing or anywhere visible within the trees for as far as I could see.
I got up the gumption to investigate the dead deer a little more. I don’t know why, or how. I knelt down beside it. The skin of it was mostly in tact. I might have ruled out predation at that point, but I saw something that made me think. Its left leg was fractured. Dried blood stained the tattered fur in both directions. The blood had run both up and down the leg. The fracture wasn’t a clean one. I’m no hunter or zoologist, but I could swear this looked like an impact break, not an incisory puncture. This deer had run into something, or something had smashed into it.
Which brings me back to the ducks.
So I was standing there in the middle of this skinny ass road. I thought I was waving my arms until I realized I was simply gyrating in fear. I could tell the car was slowing down. But he had been going really fast and he was never going to be able to break in time—no ABS, remember.
There were two images. My left eye was just jumped to the right. But for some stupid fucking goddamn inexplicable moronic dipshit reason watching the speeding car; the other half of my sight was locked onto the ducks. I should have …yeah, I’ll tell you this, but it might not be true: I think I thought that if I jumped into the ditch on his side of the road he might swerve and hit the ducks, which might be a good thing, because if he swerves to his right, he tin cans his Chevy in the ditch, which could kill him. Of course if he kills the ducks and freaks out, he could go out of control and smash into my parked car and end up dead anyway. Which would be ok, really, as long as my wife wasn’t in the car…
So I turned around. I should have moved. Left. Right. Either would have been better than neither. I did neither. I turned around to see where my wife was and that was the last thing I remember before waking up in the ambulance.
Bah. I should have never been on that road like that in the first place. I was about forty or so then. I had no business being there. I had half my life to live yet.
So anyway. I broke my leg. No big deal. The guy barely hit me, or so they say. He swerved or did whatever and ended up in a ditch. I don’t know which ditch. But he didn’t kill anyone…just a broken leg. Which is what I was talking about before with that deer, wasn’t it?
Its corpse appeared to be weeks old. Like I said before, there were no gross maggots around it, maybe that process had already been completed. It didn’t smell bad. It smelled…different. The bones I could smell, and they were clean, they didn’t smell bad or anything, just a weird, rich, natural-type smell. That’s the best I can do. The fur had a smell too, but not an acrid scent. Why am I talking about smells? You don’t care about that. You want the end. The point. I seriously doubt there is a point to any of this. Would that be ok? Maybe I just don’t know what to say to you. I know what your thinking: ‘shuttup and finish the goddamn story.’ I know all about you man.
Ok. I noticed some marks by where the corpse of the thing was cut in half. Almost looked like digging marks, as if the animal was clawing itself into the ground. Remember now, I’m not making this up. I’ve no reason to do so. I say remember that, because what I found next…well…it borders on the absurd. I know I said ‘weird’ before, but that was a serious flaw.
I dug with my hands in the area the deer had been assumedly digging. The deeper I got, the more of this animal I unearthed. It wasn’t cut in half after all. The ground got harder a few inches down, so much harder that I couldn’t dig anymore. I scoured the perimeter of the ridge for a good rock and a few ample sticks for digging. The sun was going limp, but I was still sweating. With my crude shovels I dug and dug. The ribs of the beast I found, then the upper spine and the atlas and the skull, all the way to the tip of its snout. I uncovered the deer’s front arms and almost had the thing unearthed in tact until the head fell off. The only thing missing was a hoof.
I dug around for the hoof a little bit more, but I never found it. I found something else, though. I had just thrust my larger stick into the clay when I heard a crack. At first I thought my stick broke. And then the ground in front of me gave way. Both my arms fell through a toilet bowl sized hole, but my fall was broke by my chin as it hit the earth above the area I was digging into. I was in an awkward position. My arms dangling below the earth in some sort of hollow space, which was freaking creepy, my face smashed up against the clay. My legs were bent at the knees and locked under my stomach. I heard a rush, like an oncoming wind, and a howling whistle reverberated past me as air burst out of the hollow below me, knocking me back like a buoy on a wave that gets laid flat by a surge, only to pop right back up.
Well I jumped right out of that hole. I stepped back a few paces, scared shitless, as you can imagine. I didn’t know how deep this hollow earth/cave/hole/abyss thing was. I was only glad I didn’t find out the hard way. I made a chair of a moss-covered stump barely large enough to fit one ass-cheek on. I looked at the dirt on me. I was covered in dirt. I started thinking then, about the absurdity of my actions. For the life of me, I couldn’t think of any reason why I was up here on this hill, digging out a deer skeleton with the sun going down. And then my chair broke.
Actually, first it creaked a little, like a rusty, old metal pipe, then it sank an inch or two, which startled me up onto my feet, then it cracked and the top of it fell over limp. I picked it up and stripped some of the moss away from it. It was metal. It was copper or some very, very ancient metal. It was a top of an old flue, the antique kind that would have been connected to an old cast iron wood stove. Yeah. I had found Jack Marbury’s shack. At least his chimney.
I don’t know how it became buried. I suppose it could have had something to do with St. Helens blowing up in ’80. But I never verified that, because I never told anyone about it until now. And here’s the reason:
Never mind how I snuck down to the loggers and stole a 50-foot rope. Never mind the makeshift torch I made. Never mind how I found out that I really don’t know how to tie a good knot. Just believe me when I tell you what I found, at the bottom of the black hole that had once been Jack Marbury’s shack. Bones. Entire endoskeletal frameworks piled up. There were stacks and stacks of them. The place was a fucking tomb.
My torch was a piece of shit and blew out often. But when I could see well enough, I found that it was hard to gauge the dimensions of the place. I, to this day, cannot recall ever seeing, feeling or even sensing a wall—be it dirt or otherwise—in that entire enclosure. Enclosure. Well, that’s exactly what it seemed to be. But if there were no walls?
There were so many different types of skeletons that I could see. Most of them were shattered and dismembered, perhaps from time or gravity or disturbance. I reckoned the smaller ones were mice and chipmunks. But there were others, larger ones: Badgers (I’m pretty sure because of the teeth), rabbits (again, dental analysis), bears or dogs or wolves or some canine-type things, birds of various types (few of which were in tact), skunks (eww), deer, marmots, snakes, etc. etc. etc. It was Noah’s ark…the eh, dead version. Oh, yeah, and there was one human skeleton there too. I couldn’t miss that one, it was hanging from a very dusty, tattered rope that ascended up and disappeared into the darkness above.
I guess I found Jack Marbury. Which was not my intention. Actually I have no proof that this was Marbury at all. It’s not important is it? The skeleton was hanging a bit out of my reach, like some apparition flickering in my torchlight. I probably should have just left it alone, but inquisitiveness got the better of me.
I looked around for something to stand on and found a busted up old wooden box. I dusted it off and carefully moved some random bones off of it and slid it over to the hanged man. I tested the damned thing for durability. It seemed sturdy enough. It wasn’t.
I think I twisted my back trying to hold myself up. To no avail. I sort of broke my fall, but I landed in a pile of bones. I was dazed for a second. I felt I was probably going to black out, which would be ok since I dropped my torch whose light was now flickering low and fading. But before it did, I fixed my sight on something. A skeleton of a bird. It was a large bird. Like a mother duck, perhaps. And nestled all around it were tiny bird skeletons. With the dying light it seemed that the larger skeleton started forming flesh and innards and then a skin grew over it and feathers, brilliant and dark feathers grew out of it until, at once, it was a living thing again. And then (I admit all of this is quite absurd) the ducklings came to life and the bones and carnage and darkness of that hole became the greenery and wildness of that small road to the mountain my wife and I were on those many years before.
And this was when fear really grew over me. Because I was there, on that road, bleeding and broken with pebbles stuck in my face as I was lying on the pavement. I was unable to move anything but my eyes. And she was all I saw, the mother duck, as she looked at me one time before burying her beak in her chest feathers and closing her eyes one last time.
There was no question she died right there. The ducklings huddled around her for a minute or two and the world grew quiet—save for the sound of a spinning wheel behind me. The babies mourned her, or did whatever they do, without keen or cry, and then, finally, they rose in unison and started their slow procession through the ditch and back into the woods before my eyes slipped shut.
When I came to, I checked myself for injury. I was fine. But I realized I couldn’t stay there any longer.
I left that place as much in tact as I could. Even after I got out of that hole (which was not easy, by the way) I was spooked by it. I headed to my car in the dark and went home. All the way home I couldn’t wait to tell my wife about what I found. But I never did. I don’t know why, but I never told anyone about that place until just now. I thought about it often, and came close to telling someone about it. I figured I could write about it, maybe publish it on a large scale or maybe just tell one person, like my wife or my brother, perhaps. I did neither.
And then I saw you in the hospital last week. I can’t explain how truly, deeply saddened I am for you. I know we haven’t even seen each other since high school, which was near 50 years ago now, but I felt you were the person to tell this to. I really do hope you beat that cancer. I know I wont beat mine. It’s not because I don’t want to. Believe me when I say I want to live. Everyone has a right to live. But the rights of the meek are constantly usurped by the privilege granted to the powerful.
So this morning I set out to find Marbury’s shack again and instead I found this place. These huge estates, these immaculate streets. I had that old map still, the one I got from the tackle shop that isn’t there anymore. The crossroads are still there. But there’s a supermarket there now. And traffic lights. And a video rental store. And a fern bar.
I never found that hill today. I found many hills. Just not that one. I half expected to find a few dead animals lying in a yard somewhere. But I didn’t. In fact, nothing is dead here, not even a brittle leaf from last autumn.
But don’t worry about me. I know the place is around here somewhere, buried like it was before. And I know I’ll find it. And if I don’t, there’s a road right here.

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