Sunday, November 23, 2008


Elliot Jameson laid his 160 pounds gratefully on the mattress. Jane, his wife, was already in bed. He fit himself to the curve of her back and nuzzled her ear. Her hair smelled faintly like the back of the couch where her head had rested all evening while she watched television.
Elliot smelled faintly of turpentine and linseed oil. His fingernails were edged with a stain of mixed hues.

“My painting is going well,” he volunteered. “I’m really pleased with the changes in the background.”

“That’s nice,” Jane answered. “Now go to sleep, or at least lie still.”

“I have to work a closing shift tomorrow,” he said. “I won’t be home for dinner.”

“Did you ask about a raise yet?”

“It’s retail, dear. That never pays much.”

“Are you even looking for a better job, or do you keep forgetting?”

“Why don’t we just sell everything and move to the woods somewhere?” he asked.

“Sell everything? We just got most of it. What about the microwave? I’m not selling the DVD–“

”Hush,” Elliott interrupted softly. “It was just a thought.”

“You never think these things through” she said. “You just need a better job. If I didn’t have to worry about money I’d be a lot nicer to you.”

He pressed himself against her back and slid his hand around her.

“Stop that,” she said. “I’m tired.” She let those stressed syllables hang in the air as she curled her head back, kissed him quickly and rolled away onto her stomach with her face toward the window.

Elliot rolled toward his side of the bed and bunched his pillow up under his head. Slow breathing was interrupted only by the mysterious noises houses make at night.

The next morning, Jane woke up next to a large gold brick. There was no mistaking the dull luster of the precious metal. Elliott was not in the bed.

“Elliot?” Jane called. Then, louder, “Elliot!”

Sun streamed in the open curtains, but the only sound was Jane’s voice. She looked at the gold bar and touched it lightly. It did not disappear.

“Elliot!” she called again. She got out of bed.

Automatically she slid her feet into dingy slippers and pulled on a frayed robe.

His clothes were all present, in his closet, his dresser, or draped over various furniture and the tops of doors.

She peeked into the kitchen. Elliot was not there. She went to his studio. His latest painting sat on the easel, presumably no nearer completion than he had left it at bedtime. She stared into the pleasant landscape of his imagination for a few moments before continuing her search.

Her exploration brought her back to the bedroom and the gold. She worked her fingers under the edge of it and heaved with a ladylike grunt. It didn’t budge.

She sat beside it and wondered what to do next. She felt that she should report the find to the government or some association of rich people who would tell her the rules and customs she should follow. What was the first step? And what did all this have to do with Elliot?

She and Elliot had been scraping along for years. Every once in a while he would sell a painting, but not consistently enough to call it a career. Meanwhile, he worked in shoe stores, sporting goods stores and other jobs she considered kid’s work, because all he ever thought about was his painting.

Jane had worked her way to office manager at a small engineering firm, but her salary didn’t bridge the gap between his meager income and her modest ambitions for home and status. He seemed to her more child than man, fascinated by clouds and sun sparkles and color and light. She had to make sure they had a lawn to mow and all the latest appliances, because he only cared if they had a stove, refrigerator, shower and toilet.

They had never hired a lawyer for anything. Jane didn’t know how to pick one or how to protect herself if the lawyer tried to get control of her wealth.

She felt she deserved the gold after years of tight budgeting, but she knew she couldn’t tell where she had gotten it. She had an idea the government would tax it hugely, if not cause her even greater trouble. She should invest it, but how? She guessed the gold would let her live out her life never having to work again, but only if she were careful now, in the beginning.

She went to the living room and looked in the financial section of the paper for the closing price of gold the day before. Her heart beat fast and hollowly at the amount a single ounce would bring. In that moment she came up with her plan.

She knew gold was soft. She fetched a small saw from the tool drawer in the kitchen. In the bedroom she was easily able to saw off a section of gold and cut it into irregular lumps. She could sell one or two in town now, and sell others on trips, keeping up a steady cash flow. There must be 160 pounds of gold on the bed. A few ounces at a time, she could upholster her life nicely without interesting lawyers or the government.

She wondered why she sensed the finality of Elliot’s departure. Or was it his removal? Mentally she inventoried his possessions. If he had left her, he’d gone naked.

Holding the soft weight of a chunk of gold in her hand, she squeezed it and slid her thumb and fingers over it as she thought of Elliot naked. He was a slender man, smoothly muscled. When he remembered to stand up straight, he was graceful. When he wasn’t twisting his face absent-mindedly while he contemplated some new illusion of depth or trick of light, he was handsome. At worst he simply looked like he was put together out of spare cousins. On the whole, Jane had been attracted to him when she was attracted to anyone.

As long as she thought about the gold, her mood stayed benign. Gold meant freedom. She could relax. Whatever happened, she could pay. She could buy a house, plant a garden, feed the birds. She could make love.

She leaned over and smelled Elliot’s pillow. The scent of him filled her as she closed her eyes. Why did he have to disappear just when they didn’t have to worry anymore?

She had met him just when she had decided she would finish her life alone. His pursuit of her had been single-minded and insistent. He had acted as if lovemaking was as important to everyone as eating, and had presented himself as tasty. Curious and lonely, though not especially aroused, she had given him what he asked for so that they could get on to friendship. But he had been satisfying and his desire never wore out.

Hers wore out, or at least wore thin. The constant struggle to pay bills and furnish the house nicely in the face of Elliot’s disinterest left her dry and sleepy by day’s end. Lovemaking was too much trouble when life was a dismal round of chores and she had to wear the same old clothes day after day.

She occasionally bought lottery tickets. She knew the odds were dismal, but years of herding dollars for other people had made her want her own. Elliot certainly wasn’t producing it. She would read newspaper accounts of lottery winners with envy and resentment, but also with compassion, because she knew what relief and disbelief those instant millionaires would feel.

Elliot simply smiled and tipped his head to the side in a gesture that was not quite a shrug, as if to indicate that they were always destined to contribute to the jackpot, never to hit it.

“My odds are better of getting a painting in the Louvre,” he said. “It’s a sucker’s game.”

“But it’s only a dollar,” Jane had answered. “You never know.”

“You keep at it, then, love.” He had kissed her and given her a squeeze. She had felt her eyes get warm, because he understood her. Little things meant more than big things from a man. Elliot’s modesty was not false. Her desires weren’t extravagant. Why couldn’t they get a little lucky?

Many times she lost patience. She snapped at Elliot when he didn’t have her dinner ready or if he spent his day off in his studio instead of cleaning the house. She kept after him to get a raise, so the store owners wouldn’t exploit him. He was so easy to exploit. He was too understanding.

He was basically reliable, too. She smiled at this thought, because he was as likely to come home form the store with half the things on the list and a dozen things they didn’t need. But he was loyal. If he was late coming home, it was because the sunset was beautiful or the moonlight made strange shadows for him to watch, or the kids in the park were sailing their boats.

Now she had won a lottery she didn’t know she’d entered and the price of the ticket seemed to be Elliot. She was too nonplussed to cry. It was not like he had been run over by a bus or had run away with a ballroom dancing instructor. He had simply whiffed out of existence like a soap bubble. Jane felt a curious compound of feelings.

Like anyone who has pledged to spend her life with someone else, she wished at least once a day that he would change or go away. To have those urges suddenly consummated left her feeling free and guilty. She thought of everything she could do now and was excited, thought of doing it alone and was depressed. The wave action was making her nauseated.

Her nausea was well-timed. The jangle of the phone jolted her. It was her employer calling to find out why she had not appeared for work yet. She sounded dazed as she told him she was sick. He wished her well. She thanked him. When she hung up the phone, the whole exchange could have been imaginary.

She bathed and dressed as she emerged from her reverie. She had to go sell the first lumps of gold so she could pick up a few things for her wardrobe and see about getting the car fixed. She should probably move to another town and get a different job, too. Fortunately, Elliot had no close family. She would store his things for a while.

She went out into the sunshine to walk to the little shop she’d seen with a sign that said “top prices paid for gold and silver.” They would probably rip her off a bit, but they wouldn’t ask too many questions, either.

The breeze had brought the children to the park with their boats. A man stood among them, smiling and laughing, suggesting races and explaining the wind. Another lay on his back, staring up at cumulus dragons and galleons, while a third sketched from a bench. She avoided their eyes as she passed them, because they were strangers and she lived alone.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Buck Naked

Bill Blair rolled his window down a crack and tipped another empty beer can into the night. He’d been driving two hours and had two more to go before he reached his hunting cabin. He drank beer to cut the monotony.

Ahead, at the limit of his sight, he saw a human figure, limned in the monochrome of his headlights. As he approached the figure, its arm lifted, thumb extended. The night was chilly and the road dark.

Bill had to make up his mind about the hitchhiker in a split second., because he didn’t have a set policy to pick up or refuse them. At the last instant, he swung to the right and thrust his foot onto the brake pedal. The truck scrunched to a halt on the gravel shoulder. While the hitchhiker ran up unseen in the darkness from behind, Bill rummaged under the seat for his .38. He set it inside his shirt where he could fire it left-handed at the passenger if necessary.

The hitchhiker opened the door.

“Thanks for stopping, man,” he said, climbing in. “I haven’t seen anyone for hours.”

“No problem,” said Bill. “Where you headed?”


“I can get you to Pepper Creek.”

“Two hours closer. I can try my luck or curl up in the leaves.”

Bill didn’t want to look too directly at his passenger. He grinned and laughed nervously. He didn’t mention his cabin on the ridge above Pepper Creek, either. He didn’t want to hear any crap if, in two hours, he preferred to kick this stranger onto the roadside rather than offer him shelter.

“Want a beer?” Bill asked.

“Thanks,” said the hitchhiker. “My name’s Theo Buckman.”

“Bill,” said Bill. “Cooler’s by your feet. Gimme one too.” He didn’t want to lean forward with the gun in his shirt. It might slide out.

“You up here for opening day?” asked Theo.


“Live around here?”

“Nah. Come out from the city.”

“So. Weekend hunter.”

“Yeah, what about it?” Bill’s tone was only a little defensive. Theo’s had been hard to assess. It might have been scornful.

“Nothing, really. You like venison?”

“Not much. It’s all right. I like shooting.”

“What do you do with the deer?”

“A good rack I’ll take home. If I’m not too far from the road I’ll drag a carcass out and give it to a friend.”

“What if it turns out to be smaller than it looked when you lined up on it? Sorta cover it up with leaves and pretend it didn’t happen? Save your tag for a good one?”

“Jeez, who would do a thing like that?” Bill snorted. Then he chuckled. “You live around here?”

“Oh yeah. Guys around here, they gotta get that deer for the freezer. Some of ‘em do a little jacking, maybe forget to tag one or two. ‘Course they always eat ‘em.”

Bill relaxed a little. This guy knew the score. Hunting was hunting. You didn’t wait all year to shoot one lousy animal in all the weeks of deer season. Hunting was too much fun, and there were plenty of deer. Filling your tag on the first day was like squirting in the first five seconds on a great-looking woman. Hunting all season and only bagging one was like pounding away for hours and ending up too raw to feel it. He preferred to do it several times if he could. None of this “one shot and it’s over” crap.

Of course he had to be careful with the bodies. It was almost as bad as killing a person, the way he had to cut ‘em up and spread ‘em around and obscure his trail. He couldn’t make the deaths look like accidents. Deer didn’t just trip over things or take radios in the bathtub with them.

Presently Bill tipped his can out the window and indicated his need for another. Theo might have taken one, Bill wasn’t sure.

“Where you staying tonight?” Theo asked.

“Got a cabin –“ Bill blurted. He stopped, coughed, started again with a sigh. “Got a cabin up the dirt road from Pepper Creek.”

“I know that country pretty well,” said Theo.

“You own any land there, got any friends who do?” Bill asked casually. He’d blown his secret about the cabin, so he wanted to make sure he wasn’t talking to a neighbor or someone who knew a neighbor, before any embarrassing revelations slipped out.

“Own land, that’s good, that’s good.” Theo chuckled. “No, no land. And I don’t mingle with people much.”

“Just wondered.” Bill had tree stands all around the ridge and had cut a trail for his ATV toward several of them. He’d never bothered to ask permission for any of this. He was out in the woods, after all. This was the free country it had always been, since the white man took it and put it to good use.

“So what do you do for work?” asked Theo.

“Sheet metal. Ducting. Heating and cooling stuff.”


“I dunno. Kinda sucks, I guess. ‘Nother beer?”

“How much you got in here?”

“Twelve cold. More in the back. Gonna be a long weekend.”

“You meeting friends with all this beer?”

“Couple guys said they might come out tomorrow. Let ‘em bring their own damn beer.”

“What are you gonna eat?”

“Beer,” laughed Bill. “What are you, my mother?”

“Nah,” said Theo, laughing too. “Just getting hungry and kinda drunk.”

“Yeah, me too. Great, ain’t it? In fact, I gotta take a leak.” Bill aimed the truck toward the roadside, shifted into neutral, set the brake and hopped out. Only when it clattered to the ground did he remember the Smith and Wesson, now warm from his belly. He bent to pick it up, glancing quickly at Theo, who was just dismounting from the other side of the truck. Bill tucked the gun in the back of his pants and undid his fly. He swayed slightly. He’d had a long day.

“You want to stay at the cabin, try for another ride in the morning?” he asked.

“Thanks,” said Theo.

Bill had no trouble concealing the .38 again before he climbed back into the truck. He stole a glance at Theo by the dome light before he shut the door.

Theo had brown hair. He wore a denim jacket and jeans. He looked like any number of young men Bill had seen around here. He would have looked equally appropriate front and profile on a wanted poster or driving around in a rusty station wagon with a teenaged wife and three kids. Just a country kid.

A couple of beers later, they passed a sign that said Pepper Creek, Unincorporated, and a darkened cluster of trailers and rickety shacks. They turned onto the next dirt road and began to climb. The truck jounced through puddles. Ruts occasionally yanked at the steering wheel. Bill slowed. An owl swooped through the headlights. A rabbit bounced into view from the right and curved back out into the darkness.

The cabin nestled in a clearing barely bigger than itself. Bill pulled up and parked, but left the lights on. He wedged the .38 in his waistband inside his outer shirt before he left the truck and stepped to the cabin door. He undid the padlock and the deadbolt, unlocked the knob and pushed the door inward. The cabin had the chill of long emptiness.

Bill returned to the truck and pulled his lantern out of the back. He carried that and the first duffel bag that came under his hand. Theo followed with a case of beer under one arm and a duffel bag hanging from his other hand.

The light made a bright circle in the square room. The men cast distorted shadows away from the table.

Bill crumpled paper and put it into the little wood stove. On top of this he added small sticks, and then larger splits of wood. He touched a match to the paper. Yellow light and a lively crackle rewarded him.

“I’m a woodsman, yessirree,” he said. “Know how to light a fire.”

He and Theo brought in the rest of the gear, including his rifle from the rack in the truck cab.

“You can take that bunk,” said Bill, pointing across the room. He had already dumped his bedroll on the firmer cot in front of him.

“How about some more beer?” asked Theo.

“I don’t know, boy, I’m pretty beat.”

“Hey, you want to start this hunting season off right, don’t you? Get that first deer right off?”

“What do you mean, ‘first deer?’”

“You know what I mean,” Theo said conspiratorially. His large brown eyes held Bill’s gaze.

“Well, first deer or only deer, do you know a spot that’s guaranteed?”

“Oh yeah. Not far from here. Maybe you’ve been there.”

“Could be. Why don’t we get some shuteye and go there first thing?”

“Hell with it. I gotta get to Winfield and we’ll probably both be hung over and tired if we try to sleep and wake up early. Hell, it’s almost early now.”

Bill had to admit that Theo made sense. Maybe they should go to this place. If it was great, he’d get a deer, Theo would leave and never know if Bill hunted again that season. If he didn’t get a deer, he could come back to the cabin, sleep, and go out again near dusk to one of the spots he already knew.

“Let’s try it,” said Bill.

“All right,” said Theo.

Bill took his rifle, a flashlight, his heavy jacket and a small pack with compass, first aid kit, some food, matches, and toilet paper. He slipped a box of shells into his coat pocket. His handgun was now well concealed under his outer clothes.

Theo led the way into the darkness. Bill followed closely on his heels.

The route led up the ridge through hardwoods. Leaves scrunched underfoot. Bill breathed heavily. Sweat greased his skin beneath his heavy coat. Theo moved quietly ahead of him, extending the distance between them and then slowing slightly, as if towing Bill by a stretchy bit of rope.

They swung left along the contour of the hill, then jogged up a ravine, clambered up a rocky outcrop still overstood by trees, and crossed a saddle to the other side of the ridge. Bill thought the ridge seemed too low. The saddle was unfamiliar.

“How far?” he hissed.

“Not far. Shut up,” said Theo. “They’ll hear you.”

Bill trudged on, trying to set his feet down as quietly as Theo, but his boots fell heavily and his legs felt hollow. He belched sourly. Then he nearly blundered into Theo’s back as the other man stopped.

“This is it,” Theo breathed in a barely audible whisper. “Hunker down by this tree and wait for light. The deer are close in front of you. If the wind shifts you’ll have to move. Good hunting.” He stepped away.

“Just a second,” Bill croaked. “You leaving me?”

“Yeah. You’re a big boy, aren’t you? I have to get to Winfield, remember?”

“How you planning to get there?”

“Same way I got to your place. Hang my thumb out.”

“Bullshit. My truck’s back there. You stay here with me.”

“Look, you came to hunt, keep quiet so you’ll have something to hunt.”

“Get back here.” Bill pulled out the .38 and thumbed the hammer back. The click carried through the cold, still night.

Theo turned slowly. “What are you going to do, kill me because you think I might be going to steal your truck? Fine. Let’s sit down and wait for light.”

Bill relaxed when Theo capitulated. He settled to the ground beside a tree and watched the dark silhouette opposite him slide down along another trunk. He stared into the gloom with wide eyes. As his face grew heavy with the weight of his eyelids he decided it would be safer to ease the hammer down and tuck the handgun away.

In the pearly fog of predawn, Bill’s dim perception was of coldness. He felt around for a blanket or something to pull over himself. His hands found something fuzzy. He pulled it up and rolled himself in it without fully opening his eyes.

In his dream, Bill was in a canoe. The boat kept settling lower and lower into a dark river. He knew he didn’t want to fall into that river. He was going to get wet if he didn’t wake up and do something about that canoe. He opened his eyes a slit. His bladder felt as big as a watermelon. His mouth felt dry and tasted sour. His legs felt damp and cold. His feet were bare.

He snapped awake as he realized that he was naked except for the blanket he had pulled up in the morning dusk. That blanket smelled a little rancid. He stared at it for several seconds before he realized it was a deerskin.

Heart pounding, he leaped to his feet. Theo! A gray curtain blocked his vison and then unraveled as blood made its way to his suddenly elevated brain. He snapped his head from side to side, looking for any sign of his clothes, his guns, his survival pack. He saw none of it, but the leaves were all scuffled up around where he lay. Piles of deer droppings showed they had been there. How had he remained asleep when some of the droppings were practically on top of him? How drunk had he been?

His bladder wouldn’t be denied, so he attended to that first. Clutching the deerskin around himself, he surveyed the scene grumpily. There were no deer now.

He couldn’t be far from his cabin. They hadn’t hiked that long. That bastard Theo couldn’t have taken everything from the cabin, there wasn’t room in the truck. Bill was bound to find something to wear besides this smelly pelt, and maybe a can of beans to heat up on the wood stove.

Here it was, opening day and he’d fallen for a scam that left him naked in the woods. He should yell for help, but he didn’t want anyone to see him.

“Wait a minute,” he said aloud. “I’m wearing a goddam deerskin! That asshole! I shoulda shot him!

“If anyone does see me, they’re just as liable to shoot me before they see I’m a man. If I call out, they’ll see I’m a man dressed in a stinking deer hide and I’ll look like the biggest asshole in fourteen states. I gotta try to get to my cabin without someone seeing me.”

That would seem easily done on a deserted hillside on a gray morning. Bill started down the ridge until he remembered he and Theo had crossed it. He angled back up as the world spun to reorient itself with his new sense of his position. Overcast hid the sun. The air was raw. Rain or snow would come by night. He needed the deerskin for warmth.

The bastard didn’t need to have left the head on, Bill grumbled inwardly. It was a four-point buck, a narrow rack. It was an animal he would have shot for fun, but he wouldn’t have bothered to take the antlers for a souvenir. The head hung down behind him, but he had no knife with which to remove it. He moved gingerly in his bare feet.

He finally saw his track from the night before. He was glad now that he had shuffled tiredly. But soon he noticed other ruffled tracks crossing and tangling. The deer herd had foraged through here. He couldn’t pick out his own trail for sure. He took his best guess.

He stumped along for a few minutes, planning to drop to the ground or duck behind a tree if he heard anyone else, before he realized that anyone hunting would very likely be concealed and silent. How could he get by without being mistaken for prey or discovered as a shamed man?

Maybe someone would shoot at him and miss. What could he do? Hide? Yell out? Maybe someone would shoot at him and not miss.

Maybe someone would see him, realize he was a man and let him come in close to get a good look and a good laugh.

Suddenly the way back to the cabin seemed very long.

He sat with his back to a big tree. The wind blew across the ridge. A hunter who knew what he was doing would hike into the wind, but not everyone knew what he was doing, especially on opening day. Still, the odds favored him to meet someone coming the opposite way to the one he had to take.

In open woods, someone could see him and try a shot from a long way off. He could crawl from cover to cover, walk normally and trust his luck or climb a tree or hide in a hole until dark and then try to find his way home through bad weather with no light.

As soon as he stood and stepped away from the tree, the rush of fear made him feel dizzy. How many times had he himself fired at something brown and white between tree trunks? At least he had never just blazed away in the direction of a sound. Some people did, though.

Whoever shot would probably miss, he told himself. He’d be fine. Hitting the quarry was hard.

No, that wasn’t any good. His own friend Ray could light a wooden match at thirty feet with a scope, resting the barrel on the hood of his truck. With the next shot he’d blow the damn thing out. And what about the local boys, who grew up with their guns? Bill had had his K Mart Remington for eight of his thirty-eight years. He’d heard these hillbillies got their first rifle as soon as they could close their hands and were nailing squirrels from the basinet. He could only hope they were good enough to identify what stood before them as an overweight sheet-metal worker, the victim of one of their own good-ol’-boy pranks. Bastards.

He wished he had a big plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast and hash browns, with a cup of coffee. He wished he had a stacked waitress leaning over his table saying, “can I warm it up for you?” and then he’d say something smart back to her. He wished he wasn’t standing in dead brown leaves on a cold hillside columned with silver and black tree trunks. He wished he wasn’t wearing this stupid deerskin.

A step at a time, pausing to listen every few steps, he tiptoed up the ridge. He even caught himself stopping to sniff the air. He’d never been this careful before.

He froze as a flicker of motion caught his eye. He turned his head slowly toward it. It was a deer, perhaps thirty feet away to his left. It hadn’t gotten his scent yet, or maybe the deer hide masked his odor.

Bill hadn’t seen too many live deer from ground level, certainly not this close. Hunting from a stand was too easy. He could sit behind camouflage burlap, watching and listening for any creature that approached his ambush. Sitting in comfort, he found it easy to remain quiet. He would even fantasize that he was a sniper or an assassin. Now, however, he was on nearly equal footing with the prey.

He almost yelled at the deer. It made him nervous. But some shred of pride stopped him. The deer moved away. Bill resumed his cautious advance. He realized his footfalls sounded like the deer themselves, stopping as he did to look and listen. When the wind made the dry leaves patter, he felt a surge of irritation because he could not sort out other sounds. The wind would cover his own noises of motion, but he still had to worry about being seen by hunters he couldn’t hear.

The trip home would take him a couple of days at this rate.

Despite his beer belly and his preference for driving somewhere rather than walking, he was not yet forty. His senses responded as he extended them, assuring him he was safe from moment to moment. He just had to remember to keep checking. A few steps. Stop. Listen. Sniff. Look in all directions.

Hours passed. He felt he had to be nearing his cabin. He began to look for familiar trees and contours. Yes, he was getting there.

A branch snapped and he caught a scrap of human voice. It was the first human sound he’d heard all day except his own, and he’d stopped making those a while ago.

He dropped to the ground and crawled over toward some fallen trees. He wanted to burrow under them completely, but he imagined discovery and then had to fight an urge to get up and start running. He peered out trying to locate the source of the voices.

Two men were talking. He couldn’t make out words. He heard their scrunching footsteps dwindle. When they got upwind, he smelled cigarette smoke.

As Bill twisted to back out of the log pile, he grabbed a branch stub and it snapped off.

The gunshot was almost instantaneous.

Bill felt his heart and lungs burst into flame. A sob escaped his chest as he dropped back to the ground. The bullet had whined by, high and to the right, but three more shots followed it. Then silence.

“Jesus. Sound shooters,” moaned Bill. His heart roared like an outboard motor lifted from the water at full throttle. He lay still, waiting for the crunch of boots in the leaves. The footsteps did approach, but then he heard a voice say, “guess it was nothing,” and the footfalls receded.

“Something sure made that stick snap,” said the other voice, fading.

“Squirrel,” was the final faint word Bill heard.

“Nothing. Squirrel. If they’d killed me nothing would have happened to them,” Bill said bitterly. “‘Jesus Christ, you shoulda seen this nut in the deer skin. Of course I shot him, the animal-fucking weirdo. Who the hell goes out in the woods on opening day dressed like Bambi’s dad?’”

Slowly he raised his head again, looked, listened, sniffed. He eased himself out of the woodpile and began to walk.

The slow pace suited his bare feet, but they were still bruised, nicked, cold and sore. The deer head thudded against his back whenever he took a couple of quick strides or twisted sideways. He stopped to try to cut it off on a sharp rock edge, but got too cold in the gloom and the first pellets of dry sleet. He hugged the hide around himself and trudged on.

He was going to sell the damned cabin and take up fishing. No one ever got hooked, gaffed, dragged in and clubbed because someone mistook him for a bass. Nothing was worth what he was going through now. The surge of anger warmed him a little and made him step out more vigorously. His defensive vigilance relaxed a little more with every shift his mind made toward aggression. He sensed he must be near home. He no longer cared if anyone saw him. He’d sing right out if he saw anyone else. If they laughed he’d rip their throat out.

Dusk was falling, the end of this sunless day. He’d had enough of crawling along wondering when something horrible would happen. And then he found his trail, the one he had made into the woods from his cabin. He stepped around a big tree and stubbed his toe on a rock.

As he sprawled across the trail, the tail of the deerskin flipped up and the head flopped forward. A flash of light blinded him as a hot spear blasted through his rib cage and a bang like an instant thunderclap deafened him. He fell on his side.

Heavy boots thudded toward him. He couldn’t catch his breath.

“Jesus! It’s Bill,” he heard a voice say.

“What’s he doing in a goddam deer skin?”

“I don’t know. Man! I got him in the lungs!”

“Would’ve been a good shot if he’d really been a deer.”

“This ain’t funny, man. We gotta get him to a hospital.”

“Ain’t gonna happen. We might not even get anybody on the radio, and he wouldn’t travel real well in the truck bed. I think he’s going right now.”

“Bill! Hang in there! You’re going to be all right!” Someone was kneeling beside him now, but Bill felt like they were kneeling on his chest. It didn’t really matter. He felt no strength in his limbs and just gave way to sleep.

“But what was he doing in that stupid deerskin?”

For one final moment he wished he knew.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Justice in Oz

Sometime during the terrifying wait in the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy realized the Wizard had set her up.

"That son of a bitch," she said aloud. "He didn't want to help us, so he sent us after the witch. If she nails us, he won't have to deal with us. If we get her, she's out of his hair and he can feed us booze, big meals and excuses until we die of old age."

Just then, Aunt Em appeared in the crystal ball on the table.

"Dorothy! Where are you? We're trying to find you?" she cried.

"You have no idea, Auntie," said Dorothy.

As the sands trickled out of the glass that was supposed to mark her final hour, she heard the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion outside.

"In here!" she yelled. "Hurry!"

The Woodman's ax thudded against the door, splintering it. Dorothy burst out. She scooped up Toto and clustered in an embrace with her three friends. In the crush, she felt someone squeeze her ass. She couldn't tell who it was, but when everyone backed away, she saw straw clinging to the back of her dress.

Just then the Wicked Witch and her soldiers crowded into the corridor and Dorothy and company had to scamper away. The Witch marshaled her forces.

"Half of you go that way and half of you go that way, she said, pointing left and right.

The soldiers trotted off with their weapons in their fists.

Dorothy's mismatched commandos ran out onto the rampart and down through a corner tower. On the next open stretch of wall, a squad of guards forced them back to the tower room. There the witch waited.

Cornered, Dorothy and her friends shook with uncontrollable terror. The stress had given either the Lion or Toto gas.

The witch thrust her green proboscis into Dorothy's face.

"The last to go will see the other three go before her," she rasped. She held her broom into the nearest torch and swung its flaming straw against the Scarecrow's arm.

"How about a little fire, Scarecrow," she cackled.

The Scarecrow yelped and leaped. Dorothy lunged for a bucket of water.

"Don't touch that bucket!" screamed the Witch, but she was too late. Dorothy grabbed the handle and doused the Scarecrow with one swift motion. The over splash hit the Witch.

"Aaaaaah! I'm melting! You fool!" screamed the Witch. Writhing and wailing, she shriveled inside her clothes, but stopped with her head and upper torso still intact.

"Ha ha," she began, but Toto scampered over and lifted his leg.

"Aaaah!" she screamed again, despairingly. "I always hated dogs..." Her voice faded as she shrank down the rest of the way, leaving her pointy hat and empty dress.

In the stunned silence that followed, one soldier said, "What do you call the Witch's hat lying on top of her dress?"

"The boss with the shit knocked out of her!" answered another one. The whole group of guards roared with laughter.

"Well, you killed her," said the guard nearest to Dorothy. "We're free! Long live Dorothy!"

"That's great, Fur Face," said Dorothy. "Now what did she keep around here for real butt-kicking magic?"

"There's the broomstick," offered the guard.

"Yeah, we need that. I'll go see what else I can dig up."

A few minutes later, the flying monkeys were carrying Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion back toward Oz.

"Set us down outside the city in some cover," said Dorothy.

Shortly, the four adventurers stood outside the Wizard's gate.

"I can't wait to hear this bullshit," muttered Dorothy.

The massive doors swung open. The conquerors of the witch strode down the hallway with Toto trotting behind them.

In the Wizard's chamber, flames flared, smoke jetted and a booming voice echoed from the huge, floating head.

"Have you brought the broomstick?"

"Have I ever, Pops," said Dorothy. "Aren't you surprised to see us after you tried to scrape us off on that witch?"

"I am a great and powerful wizard. I don't get surprised."

"Yeah? Check this out." Dorothy raised the broomstick and unleashed a sizzling bolt of energy across the chamber. It shattered one of the flaming urns.

"Small potatoes," said the Wizard, but his voice had gone up a little.

Dorothy swung the broomstick at random, exploding different targets around the chamber, while the Wizard bellowed in rage. While she did this, Toto, scurried over to a curtain and pulled it back. A man in a frock coat yanked levers and spun hand wheels as he tried to pull the curtain to cover himself.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain," he intoned into a microphone. "I am Oz!"

"Yeah, well your pants are history," said Dorothy, as she burned the seat out of them.

The Wizard leaped, slapping both hands onto his sizzling buttocks.

Dorothy fired a few bolts at his feet, making him dance a ragged hornpipe.

"So how am I going to get back to Kansas?" she asked.

"Quit shooting! I'll take you, honest," whined the Wizard.

The next day, amid pomp and ceremony, Dorothy, Toto and the Wizard stood in the gondola of his hot-air balloon. As the Wizard delivered his seemingly endless farewell speech, Toto jumped out of Dorothy's arms to chase a cat the Wizard had paid a woman to bring. Dorothy leaped out after the dog, as the Wizard had known she would. The balloon, suddenly lightened, slipped its tether and carried him up and away.

"See how you like running the place," he called. "I'm getting a new gig!"

Dorothy burst into tears of rage and sadness. The pair of middle fingers she brandished at the dwindling balloon didn't help much. But through her tears she saw a bubble drifting toward her. It burst, revealing the simpering Glinda, Good Witch of the North.

"How am I supposed to get home now?" wailed Dorothy.

"Why you've had the power to return all along," fluted Glinda.

"What?!" snapped Dorothy, grabbing two fistfuls of Glinda's glittering bodice. "You mean I could have zapped straight home from that midget-ridden pest hole where my house landed and you didn't tell me?"

"Er -- um -- yes," said Glinda. "Go easy on the fabric there." She tried to loosen Dorothy's fingers.

"Go easy! Hah!" Dorothy snatched Glinda's wand and snapped pieces off until it was about six inches long. "Here," she said, shoving it back into Glinda's hand. "I'm demoting you to Assistant Tooth Fairy. I'm the real power in Oz."

"You can't do this," protested Glinda.

"Back in the bubble, Boopsie, before I decide we still have one witch too many."

As the bubble receded across the sky, the Scarecrow sidled up.

"You know, Dorothy, brain or not, I've been getting ideas..."

"You were always my favorite," murmured Dorothy. "Let's go somewhere we can --ah --'confer'"

Since the Lion had gone off to the hairdresser's and the Tin Woodman stood strangely frozen with his hand to his chest, Dorothy and the Scarecrow were able to slip away.

Unfortunately, they tried to smoke a cigarette after consummating their union.

"Aaaaaaah!" screamed the Scarecrow. "If I'd only had a brain!" But it was too late.