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Poacher

written by: Lindsay Morton

@lindseeeeee

 

Hale was married in Reno the February after he turned twenty-two. She danced in the topless floor show at the El Dorado twice a night. A local girl raised on a California ranch just west of Bordertown, she knew the unofficial name of every geological formation within fifty miles, had never seen an ocean. They lived at Stateline in the days when the south shore was cheap before the condos on the beach were built and Harrah’s bought out all the smaller casinos; before the gypsy moth plague, when the trees were greener. They barbequed at the landing in summer and skied in jeans and gaters when it grew cold; they crashed tourist parties and saw all the big acts from the wings while their friends worked the lights. They shared a little rental, out on the hillcrest about a mile from the shore. There’s a golf course there now, twenty-four holes, a four-star restaurant designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and a spa with a tall, weathered bronze Plains Indian standing beside the door.

Hale worked on the strip, at the old Paddy’s Casino, unloading trucks, moving furniture and heavy equipment, hanging curtains, and smoke detectors, and signs. Breaks he spent at the bar with the cocktail waitresses in their green sequined leotards, green bowler hats, and sparkling green-heeled shoes, waiting for the El Dorado floor show to end, for her to come striding between the slots, long legs and long hair swinging. The night they married, their friends pitched in for a good hotel, white silk sheets and Champagne, a hot tub on the balcony. They had eight years and a daughter named Gloria together before she left him, moved back to California, and married a guy with a disability stipend from PG&E.

Hale still works in Stateline—at the Havey’s—but now he lives over the mountains in Gardnerville, where the schools and tap water are more acceptable. He spends fifty-hours each week in a hot little office off the men’s locker room behind a desk made of metal, with an adding machine and a view of the parking garage roof. From there he supervises the grunt-staff—the maintenance workers responsible for setting up specified numbers of tables and chairs and putting them away again.

Hale and Gloria live on the second floor of an aging brick apartment building converted from a turn-of-the-century sanatorium. Black and white lithographs of thin people cover the walls in the entryway—the nurses, skinny kids, delicate artists, and fragile women observe all their comings and goings. The silver miners’ wives in simple grey dresses and city women in white laun, with genteel handkerchiefs; all the men beardless, with hat bands, and canes and watches on chains. There are no labels on the photographs, but Gloria named them all, years ago. Her favorite has always been Sarah-toe, a tall, gaunt, unsmiling girl who Gloria identified as a ballet dancer because of her long, thin neck and long ruffled skirt. Before Gloria went to school there were stories about Sarah-toe—she went on trips to visit her mother at the beach, or the mountains, or the Reno Chuck E Cheese, where Gloria had once attended a birthday party for the daughter of one of Hale’s coworkers. She is ten now, and the stories are long over.

Weeknights Hale drives home quickly in the early dark, over Kingsbury Grade, past Heavenly Resort and the ridge-top condos. He smokes out the car window and listens to weather reports one after another on the fuzzy radio. The grade is steep and exposed. In the valley below sparse lights speckle the dark desert, vanishing and reappearing from behind spiky black conifers with each bend in the road. The reflective panels along the cliffside flash in the high beams and the gravel left by the snowplows spatter against the underside of Hale’s station wagon, making a sound like rain on a metal roof.

Hale’s always rushing, late for the office, late to pick Gloria up from homework club, or dance class, or her friend’s house. It’s worse over the holidays when there’s no school, and he still works. Early in April, when only the last remnants of filthy snow linger in the shade, the school closes for semi-annual parent-teacher conferences, and Hale takes his daughter to work with him.

They wake early. Hale makes ham sandwiches at the low counter dividing living room from kitchen while Gloria watches old cartoons. Nothing but news and reruns before the sun comes up, and she’s still too young to care about the news—though the other day she asked him where Persia is. “Gone,” he’d said. “It isn’t there anymore. It’s an old country, from history.” She’d meant the Persian Gulf, he realized, eventually. Her fourth grade class is studying the environment this Spring. She’s growing up, starting to draw these adult connections. A few years ago it was a ruffled skirt, ballet, and Sarah-toe. Now it’s environmentalism and the Gulf oil spill.

Gloria leans against the cooling wood stove, trying to absorb the last of the heat from the night before. Hale never builds fires in the morning, except on his days off.

“Eat your cereal,” he says.

She lays her cheek on the warm metal. “I can’t, it's too early to eat.”

“Well, go out and start scraping the windows then.”

The snow is mostly gone, but the frost stays dense and thick, edging dead leaves in white and leaving patters like jagged feathers on windshields. Gloria buttons her coat slowly, her eyes on the television screen. Hale wraps the sandwiches in waxed paper, gets two apples and two instant soup packets from the cupboard. They leave the apartment together, through the empty lobby, past the black and white pictures, the apartment office, closed and dark.

Outside it’s cold and quiet, except for the mechanical groan of a garbage truck still several blocks away, and the distant sharp shout of a dog barking. Hale squints into the east, where a pale smear of false dawn illuminates the peeks, making snow and stone shine white above the timberline.

“It’s getting late,” he says.

“The door’s stuck shut,” says Gloria, yanking on it anyway.

The car doors are frozen. Setting the lunches on the hood, Hale opens his thermos of coffee, pours a short drought into the seam along the edge of the door. The steaming liquid erodes the ice, creating an ugly brown runoff. Hale jerks the door open.

They scrape the windows while the car warms up, starting on either side of the windshield and working slowly around the car, Hale on the driver’s side, Gloria on the passenger’s. They leave each other messages on the glass with their fingers. Hale writes backward so that she can read the words through the opposite window.

“Hi Gloria!” he writes.

Gloria writes, “Hi Dad!” in several places, leaves a large “Wash Me!” in a thick patch over the right side of the windshield.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” Hale jokes. Gloria giggles.

They’re leaving later than Hale would’ve liked, and he drives quickly through the valley, ice dribbling down the windshield, destroying Gloria’s slanting letters. The headlights catch on roadside reflectors with a quick gleam, like a spark, but do little to lighten the road ahead. In the dim shade of early morning, sky and street are the same faded grey. Most mornings he’d have a cigarette, but he never smokes in front of his daughter. Hale keeps the window cracked though, enjoying the sting of cold air against his recently shaven cheeks, until Gloria says, “I’m cold.”

“Okay, Morning Glory,” Hale answers, and he leans forward, stretching to reach the crank handle that controls his window.

He sees it as he straightens up--something large and lithe moving quickly in the bare brush to the right, blurring in the half-light, obscured by melting ice. The front of the car connects just as Hale’s foot touches the brake.

An explosive sound like a stone on metal. Gloria screams and glass splinters with a loud crack. The car jolts to an abrupt halt.

Hale turns to his daughter. “Alright there?”

Gloria nods dumbly, her short hair falling over her face each time she dips her head. Worry makes him angry. “Let me see,” he snaps. Hale looks her over carefully. Her eyes, wide and wet, hands fisted against her chest, skinny legs flattened against the seat. She’s scared, but she’s fine.

Hale puts the car in park and turns off the ignition. In the quiet that follows, he hears a grainy scratching sound, something scraping against the pavement outside. He opens the door and steps out.

The deer lays with its rear legs between the front tires, soft face on the asphalt. A young buck, lean after the long winter, with short pale antlers like forked aspen branches. One shoulder is badly damaged, broken and torn by the car’s metal grill. The deer struggles, dragging heavy hoofs in an effort to kick, spraying blood from its delicate nose with each frantic breath. Then it begins to make a sound like none Hale had ever heard, a hoarse bellowing screech, the unnatural scream of an animal built for silence. It dies while Hale searches for a rock.

He turns to see Gloria standing just behind him, beside the open door. “Did we kill it?”

“Yeah,” says Hale, “it was better that we killed it. It was too hurt to live.”

“Dad, what’s this?” In her hand she holds something small and smooth, the color of bone. Hale steps closer, squinting at the object.

“It’s part of an antler,” he decides, finally.

They stand for a moment looking at the carcass stretched out on the pavement. Gloria inhales slowly, her mouth getting smaller and tighter, until her chin dimples and begins to shake.

“Okay,” Hale soothes, “it’s alright.”

He takes her around to the back of the station wagon. The word “Hi” is still visible on the rear window. Gloria leans against the bumper, crying and wiping her eyes with the stiff gore-tex sleeves of her winter jacket.

“Glory, it’s alright,” he says. “Stop rubbing your eyes like that, you’re just making it worse.” Gloria sobs and wraps her arms around his waist, pressing her face into his stomach, like a little kid again. “Shhhh,” Hale says softly and rubs her back.

After a while she asks, “Do you think it has a baby? Out there in the bushes someplace.”

“No, it’s a buck. A guy.”

“Guys have babies.”

“Not deer.”

Gloria looks down, fingering the antler fragment. “Can I keep this?”

“If you like.”

Hale makes Gloria stand back, shifts the car into neutral and pushes it carefully away from the deer and onto the gravel shoulder. He drags the carcass out of the road, then flips on the flashers and orders Gloria to stay in the car with the doors locked. They’re maybe five miles from Mottsville and only about two miles to the first gas station on the way into town. From the gas station phone booth, Hales calls work to tell them he won’t be in, wishing now that he’d just taken the day off. Then he calls the only person he knows who might be awake and willing to help: his landlord, Bo.

Although he has a perfectly nice top floor apartment in the sanatorium, Bo spends most of his waking hours in the dingy office at the base of the stairs watching baseball on his portable television and peering into the hallway.

“Hello?” Bo answers the office phone in a surprised tone as if he’d forgotten it was there.

“Hi,” Hale says. “Look, I got this deer.”

“Out of season.”

“Well,” he hesitates. “It was an accident. Anyway, I can’t take it to the butcher.”

“Ah. Where are you?”

“207, outside Mottsville.”

“Be there soon.”

By the time he gets back to the car, Gloria has fallen asleep in the front seat, exhausted from crying and the early hour, the windows fogged with her warm breath. Hale props himself against the back of the station wagon and sneaks a cigarette, careful to hold it below window level in case she wakes. He looks back the way they came, waving on the few cars that slow to offer help, watching until Bo’s many-colored pickup appears in the distance on that long straight road.

Bo pulls even with them, leans out the window, whistling between gapped teeth. “Crushed the wheel well, huh?”

“Dented it, anyway.”

“You’ll need a tow.”

“Probably.”

Gloria awakens wanting to help, her earlier tears forgotten. Hale makes her stand back, out of the way while he and Bo work. The deer is relatively small but it takes the two men a while to lever it onto the tailgate and into the back of the pickup.

“I’m strong,” she protests, bouncing on her toes, all energy now. “I can do it.”

“Watch out for cars,” Hale says.

Later, back at the sanatorium, she watches as they field dress the deer on a bed of black garbage bags.

Hale tries to convince her to go into the house.

“Why don’t you play for a while, or watch some TV? Why don’t you go inside and have a snack? You hardly ate any breakfast.”

Normally, TV’s not allowed during the daytime, but Gloria’s still not interested. “I don’t want anything to eat,” she says, “I want to help.”

Bo agrees, “Oh let her stay. She might learn something she can use.”

Hale is fairly positive that butchery isn’t a skill Gloria will need in her adult life. Already she’s so much smarter than he ever was. Someday soon, he knows, he won’t be able to see her mind work anymore. She’ll outgrow that natural transparency, start making connections he can’t even guess at. Six more years and she’ll have a driver’s license of her own. Eight more, and then college in some city, Reno or Vegas, or even farther. She’s smart enough to go out of state.

He relents. “Stay if you want to, Glory.”

Bo’s good with a knife. Before he bought the building he was a chef in one of the big hotels on the south shore, famous his duck baked in salted pastry and his habit of walking the gaming floor in a white coat and chef’s cap at the end of every shift. He cuts around the anus and removes the digestive tract through the rear, then opens and empties the chest cavity, routine and easy. Some of the internal organs are damaged, but the liver is salvageable. Bo cleans it carefully and lays it in a bowl of ice Gloria has brought down from their apartment.

“Gross,” she says, dispassionately. “Why do you do that?”

“It’s a delicacy.”

“Why?”

“It’s rich. Very flavorful.”

“Will we eat it after this?”

“Hell yes, we will,” Bo crows. “With onions and brown gravy. You’re going to love it, kid.”

Hale cuts away the damaged shoulder and other inedible parts with a hacksaw. Together they hang the carcass from the garage roof for skinning. Bo strips the fur away with long, precise strokes, admirably steady hands.

Gloria watches, eyes wide, brows arched beneath bangs in need of cutting, clearly fascinated.

“Time for the steaks,” Bo announces.

“Pass him a ziplock, Glory.”

She already has one out, open and waiting, eager to participate in any way she can. Hale understands that feeling; he shares it. When her mother nursed Gloria as an infant Hale was always right there, bringing glasses of water or mugs of tea, extra baby blankets and clean rags for burping, making himself an integral part of their small, warm circle. One winter night when his daughter was a little over a year old, a solar storm drove the northern lights down south; red and blue-green shimmered in the sky like the pale shadows cast by moving water. Not once in a lifetime, but rare. Hale let his wife sleep, but he woke Gloria and brought her outside in her little baby snowsuit. He wasn’t even sure if she could really see it—babies don’t have the greatest vision—but it seemed as if maybe she could.

“Hell of a windfall,” Bo says, reaching up to drop the first steak in the baggy. Gloria carefully squeezes the air out, folds the top of the bag over, and presses the zipper closed.

“A what?” she asks.

“A windfall. It’s like a lucky break. A little something extra when you don’t expect it.”

“Windfall, like—when a tree falls in a storm? How is that lucky?”

“Well, it's about as lucky as tow and a bunch of bodywork, I guess,” Hale says, laconically. Gloria laughs. She always does like his jokes.

Bo rolls his eyes. “Not a whole tree. Just a piece of fruit or some nuts or something like that.”

“Come here, you can do the next one.,” Hale says.

Lindsay Morton

Lindsay Morton

Lindsay is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in Opium Magazine.
Lindsay Morton

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