Come on, baby
Don’t fear the reaper.
-Blue Oyster Cult
You come back from class on a Tuesday, and when you see Darryl, your father’s turkey, whapping against the grill of an old cage on the Millses’ front porch, you imagine your father is not far away.
Dr. Mills, your landlord, pulls his truck in the stone driveway. “What’s that there?” he asks, as though you need to explain what it is rather than why it’s on his front porch. He’s a professor at SUNY Larkport; he should be smart enough to figure it out for himself.
There’s a note tagged to the top of the cage.
“A turkey. His name is Darryl.”
Darryl looks far stranger up close—as stunned as you are.
You read the note to the professor.
“James. Here is Darryl. Your father pisses himself every night. Eats nothing but potato chips. How can he raise a turkey? I saw you looking at Darryl before you left, like you said goodbye. He’s yours now. Mom.”
You hand it to Dr. Mills as proof, hoping that your voice, tripping through the note, eases his response.
“Well. Suppose we’ll have to keep him out back,” Dr. Mills says. “I’ve got chicken wire hanging around in the barn. Fix it up for him to stay for now.”
Maybe you’ve spoken to both of your parents for the last time, so it’s a safe bet to offer Darryl to the Millses for a holiday meal. Then you wonder how your mother found the Millses’ house.
Your parents live in another town, not a college town, but along the same canal as your boarding house. It’s far enough away that you might forget your demented father, his missing history, the words and times and functions that have escaped him. Now, it’s likely your father is on the back porch, alone, scratching his head. You wonder if you should have told the Millses that your father was dying.
A few months ago, when your father came home from chasing ducks along the canal bank in your small town, he carried Darryl, the turkey a farmer had given him to coax him away from the canal. That night, you told your father something that surprised you even though you said it. Something you wish you could get away from.
“Sometimes I want to kill,” you said. The back porch was the only place you and your father ever talked. Some days, he could barely remember your name, the child he’d once chased from fence to door, challenging you to run faster, try harder. Your adoptive parents (you don’t have real parents) used to fight over who taught you things, each would point at the other and back away from you at the same time. You never learned to tie your sneakers.
“Kill what? A squirrel?” he asked. “I don’t know how to hunt.”
“With my hands. Anything that will stay put long enough,” you said.
“Not a squirrel, then,” he said.
You made sure—real sure—you believed he actually had this disease and that his memory was tender and unfortunate as road kill.
Then, you let it fly: “Like women,” you said.
After that, your father dove further into dementia, never recalling your name, and talking to you only about Darryl.
Ever since your mother dropped Darryl off, Marty and Duke, the two assholes that board with you, call you Turk when they address you, which is hardly at all. They’re the type of kids that call girls “baby.”
Some days, when Darryl trills for an hour or two, the others in the house avoid you. In the evenings, when you go out to check on Darryl in the yard, from time to time, Mrs. Mills—a fox if you ever saw one—comes to see you. The sun shines over, through and, eventually, from beneath the pines, so Mrs. Mills’s skin speckles with sweat and you try to focus on the turkey. Then you say something peculiar, like, “Dinner was tasty,” or “I wish my mother could cook like that,” or “A guy could marry a woman who cooks a chicken like that,” and she leaves to grab a few weeds from the garden’s edges.
But tonight, something different happens.
“Your mother just called,” Mrs. Mills says.
“Did she say what she wanted?”
“You should call her back now,” she says, her eyes steady on Darryl. He has stopped carrying on, but he still flaps his wings every minute or so in frustration. “You have to call her back.”
You walk toward the house without looking at her. Once inside, you move toward the stairs like a child running from punishment.
She steps in front of you and places her hand on your arm, a hand you want to hold and break at the same time. She lifts the receiver.
“I think you ought to call her right away,” she says.
You don’t talk.
“Dial,” she says.
Your mother’s voice is tired or sore or less stupid.
You pretend she doesn’t say what she actually says, though your mind takes over, and you imagine your father, already like a ghost, suspended in air, in the basement, from the electrical wire he hangs from.
You ask her, “Are you relieved, too?”
She hangs up.
Mrs. Mills knew already, asks if you want to go home, if you need a ride from Dr. Mills. You don’t even know her first name, but desperately want to.
“What’s your first name?” you ask.
She doesn’t answer, but again she offers a ride to your parents’ house. Your mother’s house.
“No,” you say.
From outside their bedroom door, you hear the Millses arguing about you. Dr. Mills wants to force you to go home, and Mrs. Mills insists you are not normal, that they should give you time.
You have had three dreams about Mrs. Mills since you’ve moved in, but when you see her in the house, it’s not often that you speak. You take the silence as a quiet bond. In a dream you can’t get out of your mind, Mrs. Mills is small enough to lurk around your ankles, a mass of brown-red hair, and you only realize it’s her when she skulks away.
Instead of going to your father’s service, you sat by the canal with your camera and watched late-season boaters doing normal things: eating hot dogs, spilling beer overboard, posing for pictures they didn’t know were being taken. You told yourself that any section of the canal is like being home, but you knew it was a lie. You imagined all the accidental drownings: disappeared college students, a semester’s time passed before they’re really gone; a librarian or a hooker, late for her next shift; a professor’s wife, a half-empty bed. Not your father or his turkey.
Saturday evening, you see Mrs. Mills setting food out for a feral cat in the yard and drop your book bag. The cat is a few feet away, an ugly thing, a whore of a cat, teasing Mrs. Mills with her eyes, weaving grapevines around large stones. Mrs. Mills looks up at you, her head near your knees, and as you bend down to pick up the bag, you can smell the cold ground beef she’s got in the cat bowl, and feel ill.
She asks how you are doing.
“Fine,” you say.
“How are classes?” she asks.
You’ve only gone to a few since they began, though you say, “Good.” One of the house rules is that you must be a student.
“Are you getting along with the boys?”
She means Marty and Duke, who you know would have thrown eggs at you in the high school locker room, too, had they been there.
“Yeah. Okay,” you say, though you barely talk to them. Except the other day, when whichever one of them asked, “Turk, why are you taking pictures of the Millses’ bed?”
The sheets were pushed back, the lumps casting hills on the bed. When you went downstairs without answering the boys, the couple was sipping coffee at the kitchen table. You hate coffee. You felt like you shouldn’t have walked in.
“Okay, then. Where you heading?”
“Town,” you say. “Catching a ride.”
“Your mother called again tonight. Are you going to return her calls, Jimmy?”
“Some time, maybe.”
Walking away, you feel like you kept half the conversation still in your mind. When you look back, she’s still holding out her hand with the bowl of ground meat in it.
You’re supposed to cook one meal a month for the Millses and the other boarders, and you need soy sauce for your mother’s pork ball recipe, the only thing you know how to make. Marty gave you shit for the name of the recipe.
The man who gives you a lift to town tells you about a boy who was drowned in the canal by a dog in the 1930s, that it really drew the country’s attention. Then he continues to the next street, where the supermarket is. When he lets you off, he asks you for money.
“I don’t have two nickels to rub together,” you say, sounding like your father.
He mutters something and pulls away with his middle finger in the air.
You give him two fingers back and yell, “Peace!” but feel stupid as soon as you let your hand drop.
In the market, you try to imagine the cashier you’ve just passed. Even when you talk to people, you stare, not past them or through them, how people say it happens, but worse—away from them, like the repulsion of magnets from each other.
Maybe the cashier’s hair is long and brown; maybe she was on the phone with her boyfriend until early morning, maybe she will go missing and her boyfriend will head up a search committee, dredging the canal with his fingers scraping the bottom until all he finds besides a tire or a grocery cart or some beer bottles is that young boy and some limp dog.
In any other situation, she would not say “hello” in response to you. If you’re lucky, you think, you’ll get a glimpse of a strap, her collarbone, strands of damp hair clinging to her neck when you walk out.
You spend some time in the hygiene aisle, near the toothbrushes and condoms, where the cashier would blush if she followed you. You might remember your only ex-girlfriend from high school, only skinnier, or even a nameless face, or maybe you’ll look at the clerk and feel the heat in your waist.
One girl you took pictures of in high school never actually wrote the love letter that some jock (might as well have been Marty or Duke), sporting a varsity letter like a new car, slipped into your locker with her name signed to it. You screwed up your locker combination so many times that you thought it was part of the trick to mess up twice before it’d open. The paper fell out with perfume and lipstains on it.
You took the letter home, fantasized that as the girl’s nails pressed against the hard barrel of the pencil, she mouthed the words. You’d stroked the paper, your mouth clumsy over each syllable, wrecking the romance before you even knew it was fake. You picture a group of guys spraying the samples from the cosmetics aisle in this store on the lined paper. If you see them in that aisle, now, it won’t matter because you’re on different planes.
The cashier’s drawer opens with a crash, the sound of coins slamming against each other. She chatters with another customer about last week’s small-town drama—your crazy father’s suicide a town over—and when her fingers pull out the change, she’s probably miscounted. She doesn’t even know you’re there.
You’ve stolen before.
There’s dust on every label—the catsup, the mayonnaise, lamely and barely in rows, and no one has touched any of them in months. You shove your hands in your empty pockets, then pick up the jar of soy sauce with its thin dark liquid inside, ready to stash it in your book bag, and you realize you left your bag in the truck.
As if you called for the driver, he’s at the end of the aisle, like he’d left you right at that spot.
He says, “You left your bag. Thought about keeping it, but that’s a nice camera you got in there.”
It’s the man who gave you the ride.
You say, “Yeah. Thanks.”
“I’m suspicious of weirdos, but I wouldn’t steal from one. You need a ride back?”
“Sure,” you say, and leave the soy sauce. It’s getting dark.
He drives the main road back to the boarding house. As the distance between the truck and the canal grows, you swear you feel ghosts let go.
All at once: a crack, a thud. “Fuck,” the driver says, and then a jerk and a halt.
“What the hell was that?” you ask.
“How do you like that?” he says. “A buck.”
The driver is in front of the truck shaking his head at its hood, and you wonder what kind of a dipshit stands in front of his idling car with a killer in the cab. Then he looks behind the truck at the culprit.
In the rearview mirror, you see the buck is still, cockeyed in the middle of the road, one antler up. Pathetic little pisser.
“Get out,” he says to you from the other side of the window. “Help me put this sucker in the back.”
You get out. Even dead, the buck’s weight makes him more alive than you are. You wipe your hands on your pants and get back in the car.
“That’ll be dinner some day,” he says. “Can’t waste it.”
“Yeah,” you say.
He’s moved the car to the shoulder, now, and takes something from the glove compartment in front of you.
“Want some?” he asks, lighting the short white stick.
“Here,” he says, holding it out to you like communion.
You suck hard. You’ve done this before. After seeing your father’s stoned eyes, you found the boys who put bogus love letters in your locker, and, pretending it never happened, spent every cent you had on drugs before you came to college. You’d asked them for “marijuana,” what your mother had called it, and they said, “You mean a doobie? Some weed?”
You had beers with them once, too, until they left the bonfire to go in the house and locked the door, left you pounding until you thought your fists would bleed.
Mrs. Mills will not lock the boarding house until after you are back. Her bedroom door doesn’t have a lock either. You fill up your lungs, and when you can’t take it anymore, open up, and cough the smoke out.
When the driver’s pulled away from the shoulder, he says, “Want part of the buck?”
“No. I’m boarding,” you say.
“Fine by me,” he says, but then you imagine if you accepted some, if Mrs. Mills sliced into its tender meat with a butter knife, slid her lips along the fork, pulling every last bit.
There’s a thud from the back.
“Shit. You hear that?” the driver asks.
“Yeah,” you say.
“Son of a…” the driver is looking up in his rearview.
You turn around in your seat, and watch the antler bob up and down, banging and falling against the hood of the cab.
“A zombie buck,” he says. “Sucker’s not dead.”
“Let me do it,” you say.
Behind the truck, you are afraid to open the hatch. You get a rock from the side of the road, and it, too, is heavier than you thought it would be.
Pushing the buck down, you give all your body weight, rock in hand. And when it gets up, you slam it down again. Suddenly, your father is wrestling Darryl, a fight between a man and something else. The buck has no wings to flap, no guttural calls until you rock him in the head, his hair glinting a color so all you can think is Mrs. Mills. Her nylon legs. Your mother’s nasal voice. A bound cashier. Each crack releases all that energy against the roof of the truck. Hard. With every hit, you let out a call from your stomach. You and the buck grunting in anger. Dumb corpse. Thud again. Your hand looks stronger and older against the rock until you can’t tell where it stops and your fingers begin. You keep going long after the buck stopped moving because the gut sounds set the beat of your pace.
“Hey,” the driver calls. “I think you got him. Pretty sure he’s good and dead now.” He’d back away, running, if he weren’t driving the truck.
You slam the rock hard into the buck’s eye until it falls into its skull. Before you know, the truck revs and pulls the rock away from you. Staring at your hands, you recognize their work, the blood pulsing beneath your skin, and from somewhere in the trees, you hear night sounds.
When you walk up, covered in blood, Mrs. Mills is on the porch.
“James,” she says. “What on earth?”
Her hair is down past her shoulders, and, to you, she seems older, more matronly.
“Just an accident. A deer,” you say.
She brings you to the kitchen, hands you a glass of lemonade as though you’ve had a hard day of work.
You sit at the table, and when you set the glass of lemonade down, you notice that it has a smudge of maroon on it—your fingerprints marking your territory.
She suggests calling your mother. You aren’t sure.
The faucet runs, and then she holds out a wet washcloth, presses it against your palms, and wipes the stains away, leaving only the blood that has sunken deep into the creases.
Sarah Cedeño’s work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Redactions Journal of Prose and Poetics, Literary Mama, Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine, Lake Affect Magazine, and in the anthology Love Rise Up from Benu Press. Her fiction was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Brockport, NY, with her husband and two sons, and she teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport. She is the Fiction Editor at Animal Literary Magazine and holds an MFA from Goddard College in Vermont. She blogs about writing and life in general at copyright1982.wordpress.com.