Storyglossia Issue 23, September 2007.

Finalist — STORYGLOSSIA Fiction Prize 2007


Rutting Season

by Larry T. Menlove


Here is a list of the particulars:


(1) The buck was suffering. True. It may or may not have had life-threatening injuries—the latter being proven afterward by my bloody fingertip—but the deer was clearly in a state of discomfort and disarray.

(2) She was a strange beautiful woman. Striking, my friend Joe would no doubt have said of this woman. She had no business being dressed like she was and doing what she was doing where she was doing it.

(3) I was drunk.

(4) I am by and large an irresponsible man.

(5) I was too far from home, meaning I wasn't within walking distance and I wasn't interested in sleeping in my truck, even though it is a nice big truck, extended cab and all.

(6) Rea was already pissed at me. Rea's my wife of near twenty years. We had a big ol' fight that morning.

(7) The wind was whipping up through the oak and maples and the cheat grass and rabbitbrush that night in front of a weak storm system approaching from the south.

(8) Mace is airborne when dispensed and given free rein to the local air currents.

(9) I was downwind.



My buddy Joe and I had finished off a boatload of pitchers out at the For Old Time's Sake Saloon in Hoytsville. It's a cockroach and fungus inn, but it's just the kind of place that Joe and I can really get attached to. Maybe that's unhealthy being emotionally wrapped up with a bar, but we were talking and shooting a little pool, pickling our brain cells and philosophizing over subject matter neither one of us had any privilege to be ruminating on. But then Joe and I, we do that: inebriate ourselves and cover intellectual ground like a couple of backwater Oxford chaps. If we could only remember to write some of our material down once in a while, list it out in some fashion, we might both be published. Hell, might even win ourselves the Nobel Prize.

We departed around eleven o'clock. Old Time's was dead for a Saturday night, and Joe went his way. I went mine. I was out on Echo Dam Road, this side of the junction alongside the reservoir driving slow trying to keep the truck on the road as best I could, watching the phantoms in the headlights merge into true trees, boulders and brush.

I was thinking about Rea, wondering what her mood would be when I got home. It's been that way lately. Kind of hard to figure her moods. God bless us, but it's been a difficult patch we've had the past couple of years. I might have not even found her at home when I got there. Like as not she would have gone to her sister's place down in Salt Lake City for the night. We don't communicate the way a married couple should. Notes on the countertop and the odd phone call from the bar. I'm not so proud of it, the way things are. Can't really say when we kind of lost the admiration for one another. There's no defining moment. It's just a glacial thing. You get married and everything is beautiful, all this love as huge as a mountain, and before you know it there's this big old scoop cut out of what used to be solid stone. We don't have any kids. We've tried, yes, just haven't had the success of others. Gave up a while back, and now we rarely even muster the gumption to pretend we're trying to make a little family. Not even just for the good wholesome pleasure of it.

Driving along right about where the road takes a long deep bend over the Grass Creek I came upon a spectacle lacking in all reasonable continuity. Lit up in the headlights of a new Jag automobile was this lady in a short little black dress and high heels. Her long blonde hair was pulled back tight in a pony tail. She was bent over a mule deer laid out on its side on the ground, its skinny legs gyrating around slowly in front of the Jag's front bumper. I could see it was a big old buck. Would have been an eight-point—but one side of its antlers was broken off.

I drove by slow and pulled over and got out of my truck and walked back to the lady and the deer. And this was where it got a little weird.



What happened:


"Did you hit it?" Already, I feel like a dumb-shit. I stoop down so that the deer is between us. The woman's face and ears are silhouetted in the double headlamps, while stray hairs from her pony tail jerk and twitch in the wind. I can smell her perfume. She waves her hand in front of the deer's snout. I hear this spraying sound, and I wonder if I know her. Then I feel the stinging in my eyes.

"Damn fool things," I start to say, "they just jump out of nowhere."

Then it's like someone opens a kitchen tap full-blast hot in my head. The tears start to flow and the snot shoots out of my nose. I'm coughing. I'm sneezing. I'm trying to stand up—not doing a very dignified job of it—and then I'm on my back, rolling around clutching dirt and pulling at weeds, just making a general mess of myself. For the life of me I can't open my eyes.

"What the hell?" I finally manage to mutter. "What are you doing lady?"

I feel soft lovely fingers on my shoulder. "Oh no! My God, what have I done?" Her voice is slow and smooth, like thick cream but tangy and tart, southern. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to. The wind . . . "

I can't think of anything brilliant to say right off, so I cry out: "Good Lord-Almighty, what is that crap?"

"I hit it. It just . . . was there. I don't know, I don't think it was my fault."

I groan and wheeze and roll around some more, bump my forehead on a big-ass rock. "What's wrong with my face?"

"It's mace. I didn't want it to suffer."

"Suffer?" I roll around and cough. I swear my lungs are spewing out of my throat, and my brain feels like it's melting and flooding out of my eyes and nose like a generous spring thaw.


She's got her fingernails in my arms, trying to get me to sit up. "I didn't have a gun to shoot it with. Do you have one?" she asks. "I mean in your car, don't you have a gun?"

Clearly this woman is deranged or just plain dim. I don't dare tell her about the 30.06 that's always stashed under the back seat of my truck. And right where it's going to stay this night. "No," I say, "I don't have one."

"I've just got to find a gun. The poor thing."

I spit and it just dribbles over my lip and ends up on my shirt.

"And you, what can I do for you?" She's still trying to help me sit up straight. "You know, I think it just wears off eventually. You look like shit, poor thing," she adds, like I don't know that already.

I feel her soft breasts against the back of my head, and just like that, I'm laughing. The whole thing is funnier than the Sunday comics. One minute I'm feeling like some self-assured Lancelot du Lac about to help out some poor helpless Guinevere and then the next I'm a useless pile of snot and tears. I really appreciate her getting down here with me in her nice dress, and I want to thank her for obliging my horrible incapacitation, but all I can do is laugh, cradled in her arms, until I nearly choke.



I've got these nephews. Troy and Todd. Twins. My sister Bab's kids. Troy's the oldest. He's got twenty minutes on Todd. Todd came out second born with a big port wine stain shaped like a handprint on his forehead. When they were little, I swear, that stain matched up perfect with Troy's hand, like Troy had pushed his brother back in the birthing canal, so as to put himself out there first, for valor or egotistic self-interest, either of which is unclear at this point. They're just your run-of-the-mill eleven-year-old kids for now. I've taken an interest in them. I suppose it's no more interest than any uncle would take in his nephews, except that lately I've been thinking of them more along the lines as sons rather than nephews. That's easy to understand, seeing how Rea and I don't have any kids of our own, and their real father lives in Biloxi farming shrimp and drowning in shameful economical bourbon.

Troy came home a few weeks back from the sixth grade and told his mom that his teacher was an asshole. His choice of words not mine. Bab called me up and said she couldn't handle it and asked me if I would go to the fall semester parent teacher conference with Troy's teacher. The conference was the very next night and I had to break a "Beer and Belief" symposium with Joe, but I went.

The first thing Troy's teacher, Mrs. Victoria, had to say was, "Our Troy here has been a disruptive influence in the classroom over the past few weeks." And then she sat there at her tidy desk with her tall pile of hair and posture and looked at me. I looked back at her and waited for more explanation. I saw how there was no further explanation forthcoming, and so I turned to Troy sitting beside me in the little desk there and I say, "What's this all about?" Troy shuffles in his seat and traces at the words "PIS8 OPP" scratched in the desktop and says, "Don't like the way they're talking about Todd." "Who's talking about Todd?" I ask, and he says the names of a couple of shitbirds whose parents I know and don't care for, truth be known, and I ask him what they're saying about his brother. "They call him Gorby," he says. "What?" says I. "Gorby," the boy says. "What's that mean?" I say, and he says, "Don't know." So I say, "Gorby?" And it goes like that for a while. Come to find out then from Mrs. Victoria, she thinks it's possible the kids are referring to that communist Russian leader with a stain on his head like Todd's. Yup. I can see how she was onto something there no doubt.

I don't condone violence or harsh words or even getting hot under the collar, but there are some circumstances you've got to admire a little insurrection in a sixth grade classroom. I felt ten feet tall and swollen with pride to be squished there in that seat, my knees pointed at the ceiling, next to that boy under the disparaging gaze of Mrs. Victoria. I told Troy I was proud of him. Told him brothers, no matter their politics, have got to stick up for each other just like he'd done. Damn but I was proud of that boy. I took him for a cheeseburger and double thick milk shake at the Polar King out near the interstate to commemorate his brotherly allegiance.



The lady with the Jag left me there in the dark by the side of the road with the buck. She mentioned something about going back into town to see if there were any guns. She patted me on the shoulder and told me to, "Wait here, darlin'," and then I heard the Jag's engine come to life. I could sense the light sweeping over the top of me like smoke and then the darkness again as the growl of her car slowly faded up the road.

It was dark as death—of course, I wouldn't have been able to see much even if it was light. I couldn't smell. I couldn't taste—although I was aware of dirt on the back of my tongue. What I could do was hear. There must have been a whole brigade of crickets out there, and the wind was blowing their chirping up and down over the round hills, through the oak brush and sage and the few pinions that litter the landscape. After a while all those crickets joined together and set off to playing a harmony with the blood pulsing like a bass drum in my temples. The crickets chanted, and the beer in me and the night conspired to make me go mad. I thought over a few things to try to keep my reason, tried to list these most recent events in my head to report them back to Joe. And I thought of things like Rea, and those boys of mine—the twins. I thought about how Bab had mentioned to me a few nights earlier how I was more father to Troy and Todd than their real father was. She said I was doing more good for them than I was for my own wife. She offered to put me up in the little back room of the trailer if I wanted to so I could take a more active role in their lives. Troy and Todd, men in the making. Thought about how I was still in the making. I figured the mace and the Jag lady had knocked off about six, seven—maybe ten full years of man-making from my current meager tally.

So, I sat there in the dirt, listening to the bugs, feeling like they were crawling all over me, when I heard a grunt and some rustling and felt a nudge at my chest. I put my hands up and there was the deer's wet snout. It was long, the hide rough. Its ears were erect and firm. It must have still been dazed or couldn't smell me from its own dose of mace, because that old buck let me rub my hands up all over its head until I had one hand wrapped around the base of one side of antlers, holding on, and I could feel the jagged bloody hole where the other side of the rack should have been. My ring finger slipped in up to the first knuckle.

I must have touched something on that old buck's brain then. I heard a snort and the stomp of hooves. The deer wrenched itself away from my hold, and I heard it go crashing blindly through the brush. I listened to it plunder away from the road into the rough country, back to where it came from, until there was silence. Then the crickets started up again, slowly regaining their voice after being struck dumb by the chaos of a deer recovering its wits after Jag and mace and human touch.

My finger stung. I put it in my mouth and felt raw flesh. I could taste my own blood mixed with the wild tang of the buck's blood. About a quarter of an inch of skin was torn from the tip of my finger. My own flesh and blood taken away by something wild and free. I felt a swell of, what? Privilege? Proxy lust? I don't know.



My sister Bab has put on a little bit of extra weight lately. God bless her but she doesn't have a whole lot of room in that skin of hers for too much more expansion. I suspect she's given up on the possibility of finding another mate, letting her feathers go drab and decommissioning her little pheromone factory. Rea, on the other hand, she seems to have ramped up production of her seduction musk.

The other morning I came in on her in the bathroom while she was getting ready for work. She was naked and the mirror was all fogged with the steam from the shower and she was bent over the sink plucking at her eyebrow looking through a little rubbed spot on the mirror, and I hadn't seen her like that, unclothed and bent over, for years it seems. Well she was skinny again. I could see ribs and her belly was flat and her backside was quite becoming there in the steam. I put my hand on her waist and slid my fingers down her leg, kind of leaned into her a little bit, like the old days, and she cringed. Actually cowered away from me, pulled her arms down. Oh, you're cold, she said, or something to that effect. But I didn't think I was cold just then. I think she just plain didn't like my touch. That's what it was, I'm afraid. Makes me wonder if there is someone's touch she doesn't shy away from. I'm pretty certain that's it. I suppose a man has an animal sense for matters like that. She's found someone a little more sure, a little more done. A little more man.



After the buck had bolted, I'd found the road and my truck and, inexplicably, the broken off antler the deer had lost. I was leaning on the back bumper holding the horn when the Jag came by, did a narrow u-turn and pulled up in front of me. The lady left the headlights on. I could sort of see again.

"Are you all right?" the woman said, getting out of the car. "At least you're up and around." She handed me some napkins. "Here's some tissue." Her sweet southern accent had slipped some. Funny.

I guess I had blood all over the front of my shirt from my lacerated finger, because suddenly she was shrieking, "Oh my God! You're bleeding!" And she was doing this little dance, back and forth, putting her hands up and down like she wanted to touch me but didn't dare. I was getting a strange kind of pleasure out of this, so I didn't show her my finger right off, just let her go on fussing.

"Your deer's gone," I told her. I lifted the horn and tossed it in the bed of my truck.

She said, "Oh, good. Poor thing," as she calmed down and realized I wasn't about to bleed to death anytime soon. Her southern drawl was back.

And then like a slick traveling charlatan, she convinced me with the effortless coaxing of a dropped octave in voice and a slight sway of buttock to get in her sweet car and go on up to her condo in Deer Valley to get a Band-Aid.



Rea and I bought the house in Henefer about four years back when Rea got the job at the factory outlets there in Park City. She started at the Nike store and moved over to a watch outlet called The Time Keeper when a managing position opened up. Now she's got all these watches, one for every occasion and outfit, a hundred watches if she's got one. My favorite's her Mickey Mouse one. It has this dial full of water, and Mickey's in a red and white striped bathing suit, and he's holding a towel so it looks like he's drying off his backside as his hands move around the face. Anyway, she makes decent money, and I work the coal mine when I can, so we bought the house.

It sits off the main road a bit and north of downtown Henefer city proper. Not that Henefer is a big metropolis or anything. Far from it. There are only about six-hundred of us on a bad day. Bad weather's about the only thing that keeps people home. Most are pretty hardy, lived here for generations and know the way. Winters are long and summers are spent piling up wood on the south side of the house. There is a kind of implicit reverence around town for a man who can obscure the southern exposure of his home by mid-August.

Ol' Scratchy Davis, out on Donner Reed Road did it by July 31, once. Took that pile right up to the eaves and started in on a second row. Would have lasted him two winters but he disappeared in the cave-in out at Triumph mine that fall. His woodpile has started to dip a bit, falling in on its own weight. I suspect the whole thing will collapse someday, but for now there it sits over Scratchy's empty home, a monument to getting things done right and early.

Our house has three bedrooms, a living room, two bathrooms, a kitchen/breakfast nook and a carport. We can only fit one vehicle under the carport. That's where Rea's white Grand Am goes. She's done a lot for the old house, tore down the wood paneling, tore up the old carpet, knocked a wall out to make the pantry into a kitchen/breakfast nook. She painted the walls—Eggshell in the bedrooms, and Sagebrush in the kitchen/breakfast nook. Those paint names kill me. She's got a way with decorating, not afraid to take a chance, and we've got a real nice place, no doubt about it. She keeps it tidy in there. I like to work in the yard, chop wood, lean on the rake handle and peer into the distance. It all looks good from the road, I presume.



This woman in her Jag got us out on to I-80, headed south to the resorts. She told me about the condo she and a friend had been renting all summer long at the Stein Lodge. Telling me about the Jacuzzi and the big round beds and the wet bar. She said her friend's name was Geena, with the G sounding like the G in gun. Search me. She said they were here from Georgia, that things were getting too imprudent, her word, down there. I looked her up and down in the light from the dash. Swear she looked familiar. TV or porn maybe, something Joe got off the Internet. I asked her her name, and she said, "Now, now, no need to get that personal. Call me Lily, if you want."

Now I'm no George Clooney, but I do have my qualities, like my boyish tousled hair and my unexpected vocabulary, I suppose. This lady told me I had nice legs and put her hand on my knee. Boy, she gave me a look, parted her funny lips and dropped her jaw. I could see her top teeth, so white, and her spongy tongue down in there. She squirmed a bit in her seat, and before long that little black dress was creeping up dangerously close to the point of revealing just what every red-blooded male dote wants to see when sitting on leather seats, reeling back from mace poisoning.

"Geena's out for the evening," she says. "Want to see my parakeet?"

I was going to have one hell of a story for Joe next week.



Not too long ago I picked the twins up from Bab's place. Come to think it was a Friday night and Rea had made a reasonable excuse about her sister's shitty husband and had left to go and console her down in Salt Lake. Bullshit, but there I was, pleased to be alone with the nephews and to give Bab a break.

I was just going to take them for fast food, pizza maybe, a dollar movie, but Todd starts in with how he wants me to steward him to a tattoo parlor to get his girlfriend's name etched into his arm or his ass or ankle or some such nonsense, and I say to him, What the hell you want to do that for? And all he can do is look at me with those big brown eyes and that port wine stain that makes you stop and pause, and the whole idea makes me wonder, what the hell? When is love at its purest? That first touch? When the body is young, a bud in the desert, bark as thin as fuzz, the roots so near to the trunk? Why not?

I asked him, "How well do you know this girl?"

He says, "I don't know. Since kindergarten. We had nap time together. She had this Navajo blanket she slept on next to me. We shared a pillow."

Shoot no. Makes me wonder though, shouldn't we all have something to mark those monumental highlights? Birth. First love. Heartbreak.

What else?



Lily drove us in her Jag. She took me right up to her place there at the lodge and parked in the roundabout driveway next to the stairs. She leaned over and kissed me, put her hand on my parcel that jumped and nearly broke through my zipper. I kissed her back, and God forgive me, I touched her too. She licked my chin and the short-hairs on the back of my neck. I rubbed her ass through the silky black dress and started pulling that up. She had my zipper going down in her fingers. I discovered she wasn't wearing a brassiere to speak of. We were working it all up good making it real hard to turn the truck around. And maybe then I thought about Rea. Maybe I felt a little twinge of burden that tightened a screw down against my heart. Maybe.

It didn't matter though, because that's when a big dude came walking down the stairs. Lily saw him first. She let out a little yip, and I thought I'd done something a little untoward like pinched her too hard. But there was this man halfway down the stairs now. This really big man coming down the stairs.

"Oh shit," she said, and let go of me and started the engine and tore out of there.

I looked back to see the man. He was standing there watching the Jag. He was huge, and he took a step or two towards us and then stopped.

Lily ground the gears and barked the tires. "He wasn't supposed to be here until tomorrow," she said. "Sorry."

"Who's that?" I asked, a little crushed in mood and defeated in loin.

"Oh him? That's Billy."

And that was that. No parakeet.



Lily drove me all the way home as I percolated in my own brewing shame and remorse. I still wasn't sobered up much. Figured I'd get Joe to take me to my truck next day. My head still stung from the mace, and Lily and I didn't say much to each other on the way to Henefer. I just told her where to turn and where to slow down for the culvert crossings that can shear off your muffler if you take them too fast. We went past Bab's and the boy's little trailer. It was dark. I pointed the place out to Lily. She asked me if I liked her southern accent. Confessed she was working on a new role for some movie or other. Knew I'd seen her somewhere.

I had her drop me off in the Mormon ward house parking lot through Granger's alfalfa field from my house. I didn't much want Rea to see me getting dropped off by this lady. I told her thanks for the ride as I stood there next to the car, the door open and the dome light on her. She leaned over and looked at me with those eyes, showed me her teeth and tongue like she does and said, "Sure darlin'. Sorry about Billy. But anytime you want to go for a ride, you look me up, ya hear?" And then she was gone in the night. Me standing there watching the taillights fade.

I sighed, felt the mislaid longing in my groin and rolled over Granger's fence. Hooked my shirt tail on the rusted barbed wire. Tore it. The sky was clear but the wind was kicking up.

My neighbor Granger keeps his field in good shape, all plowed out in lines in the early fall like the dutiful farmer that he is, but it made for hard walking, all those torn pieces of fertile earth jutting up, and I fell half a dozen times making my way across that field to the back fence of my yard.

I stood there with my hands on the top wire looking at my empty house. No lights were on, and Rea's car wasn't in its spot under the carport. It was just as well.

And before I threw myself over that fence and walked past the woodpile I had going up against the wall, before I walked into the house through the backdoor and flipped on the kitchen light, before I sat there in the Sage kitchen/breakfast nook with a fork and a cold casserole dish I found in the back of the fridge, and before I noticed the note with Rea's wedding band sitting on the counter next to it, before all that tremendous heartbreaking human effort, I held on to that fence and leaned back and looked up at the nebulas, galaxies, the wide open space, and I hoped that buck with only half a rack and some of my own blood would get by this fall, fight the good fight, find itself a doe, and multiply. By God, yes. Multiply.

Copyright©2007 Larry T. Menlove