Elk By John Picard
Jenny hadn’t wanted to come to the cemetery. She appreciated the significance of her and Karen visiting their parents’ gravesite for the first time since their father passed—effectively orphaning them—but after only a day with her sister and brother-in-law she felt more fragile, shakier, than when she arrived, not nearly up to standing over the bodies of her deceased parents.
“I’m afraid Ken was a little hurt when you turned in early last night,” Karen said.
The only other living person in the cemetery was a young man standing with his head bowed before a marble gravestone.
“Why?” Jenny said.
“He thought you didn’t want to watch his DVD.”
“I was tired. It’d been a really long day for me.”
“I know, but it’s Ken’s biggest bull ever and he’s very proud of it.”
“I thought it was elk he hunted.”
“A bull is a male elk.”
“Only the bulls have antlers.”
It was on the tip of Jenny’s tongue to ask what an elk was, what species of animal, but she didn’t want to contribute any more to what struck her as an insensitive departure from the grieving process.
“It’s so nice here,” Jenny said. “Right across from the duck pond. All the pretty trees. No wonder Daddy and Mom picked it out.”
“Ken and I have our own plot.”
“We’ve talked about that—getting our own plot.”
“Well, that’s one conversation you won’t be having any more.”
Jenny didn’t reply.
“Have you and Rob made out a will?” Karen asked.
“Thank God for that.”
Jenny let this slide too, though it was harder. “Do you think I should apologize to Ken?” she said.
“That’s not necessary. All he wants is a little recognition. And he deserves it. His shot placement has gotten better and better. He can drop an elk now with no meat damage. Believe it or not, Ken’s even talked about moving to Colorado. That’s how much harvesting bulls means to him.”
Jenny had never been to Tampa in August. It was only nine in the morning and already she felt oppressed by the heat and humidity. “I can’t picture you in Colorado,” she said. “Do you think you’ll really move there?”
“Who knows? Now that Mom and Dad are gone we’re free to go anywhere we want.”
They started walking back. The young man had dropped to one knee, his folded hands in prayer. Jenny’s phone was ringing.
“I bet I know who that is,” Karen said.
“I’ll let it go to voice mail.” She was not about to talk to Rob with her sister there.
“Has he been calling much?”
“Not that often,” Jenny said, when in fact it seemed like every other minute.
“He’s lucky you talk to him at all.”
“He’s my husband. That hasn’t changed.”
They got into Karen’s black Esplanade. What was it about her family? Why were they so pushy? Last night Ken turned off the TV at nine and announced it was time for bed, without asking if Jenny (or Karen for that matter) was through watching. Another time, when she and Karen were talking in the hallway, Ken came by and asked Jenny not to lean on the wall. Now Karen felt free to appoint herself Rob’s judge and jury.
“I haven’t left Rob,” Jenny said. “That’s not what’s going on. I’m just taking a break.”
“You don’t take a break from a husband like yours. You divorce him.”
Karen had their father’s fleshy cheeks, hooded eyes, and heavy lower body, while Jenny took after their mother: small features, thick wavy hair, petite figure. Karen also had their father’s blunt manner.
“It’s very complicated,” Jenny said. “He could go to jail.”
“Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Did you ever think of that?”
They rode for a while in silence.
“Do you still wish you’d had children?” Karen said.
The question caught Jenny off guard, but she answered truthfully, “Yes. Sometimes. Why do you ask?”
“At least you’ll never have to explain to your children why their father is gay.”
“Rob says he isn’t gay. He just has a problem.”
“He has a problem all right. Soliciting male prostitutes in public toilets is definitely a problem.”
Karen guided the Esplanade into a residential section. She turned in the driveway of a large split-level and cut the engine. Jenny opened her door and stepped out, letting Karen ease the SUV into the garage. She would have preferred to enter the house without running into Ken, but no such luck. He was in the living room watching the Sportsman’s channel on the gigantic TV.
“How was it?” he asked.
“How was what?”
“The cemetery. How’d it go?”
“It…fine. It went fine.”
Ken’s tight white T-shirt accentuated his beefy arms and shoulders. He was bald except for some gray on the sides. His head and face seemed to have a permanent sheen, as if it were smeared with a thin layer of cold cream. His small blue eyes were set deep in their sockets.
“Rob called,” he said. A pack of zebras was racing helter-skelter across the floor-to-ceiling TV screen.
“What did he say?”
Ken smiled. “I said he called. I didn’t say he said anything. I knew it was him, of course. There’s this new thing? Caller ID?”
Retreating to the first floor guest room, Jenny lay on the queen bed and closed her eyes. Moments later her phone began to vibrate.
“Where’ve you been?”
“My parents’ grave.”
“I thought you weren’t going there this trip.”
“I changed my mind. Did you call here? Ken said you did.”
“I couldn’t get you on your cell. I was starting to worry. Yeah, I hung up on the bully. Did he say anything about it?”
“Has the bully said anything about me at all?”
“Ken hasn’t said anything much since I’ve been here.”
“Karen has, though, I bet. I’m sure you’ve gotten an earful. She wants you to dump me, doesn’t she?”
Jenny said nothing.
“Well, she is one.”
“I don’t say mean things about your brother.”
“My brother’s not trying to break up our marriage. Karen’ll do it, too, if you let her. I know how she bosses you. You didn’t change your mind about going to your parents’ grave. Karen made you go.”
“She didn’t make me.”
“But she got you there. She got you to do something against your will. She’ll do the same to us if you let her.”
“I won’t let her. Did you call for any particular reason?”
“Yeah. I wanted to tell you I did what we talked about. I looked at some shrinks online and I found someone who seemed kind of okay. I’ve already made an appointment.”
“That’s great, Rob.”
After Jenny bailed Rob out of the county jail, he’d made a long and tearful confession. The seismic shock, the terrible hurt. She’d felt so alone, so bereft. But talking made it better. They’d never done so much talking. It alleviated much of the initial horror. It gave her hope. And yet, as encouraged as she was by Rob’s desire to get help—as well as his promise to become a better husband and regain her trust—she’d felt the need to get away, to process this blow to her marriage, to her life, and, as one does in a crisis, she’d turned to family for support and guidance.
“Yeah,” Rob said. “I’ve decided I’m glad you know. I don’t have to hide it anymore. It’s tortured me long enough. I’m finally doing something about it.”
“I’m so happy to hear you say that. We’ll talk more about it when I get home.”
“So you’re coming back? You’re coming home?”
“Yes, I’m coming home. Karen’s not going to make me do anything I don’t want to do. My flight’s on Friday. I’ll see you at the airport at 12:30.”
That afternoon Jenny put on her two-piece and sunbathed on the lanai—what Karen and Ken began calling the cement patio after their Hawaiian vacation. Karen, who was long over the novelty of year-round warmth, sat under the awning at a little round table, nursing an iced tea and flipping through a magazine. She rattled the ice in her glass. “Do you ever think about what Rob does with these men he meets?” She rattled the ice again. “Do you ever imagine him with a man, down there?”
“Of course not,” Jenny said with a firmness she hoped would deflect her sister’s line of questioning.
Karen closed her magazine and rested her chin in her hand. “I meant what I said before. You need to get checked out. You need to make it the first thing you do when you get home. It isn’t just AIDs you have to worry about. It’s chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes—”
“Rob says he’s gotten tested after every…encounter.”
“And you believe him? Jen, a man who’ll cheat on you will lie to you. Cheating is lying. I always thought there was something sneaky about Rob.”
“Rob’s been a good husband, mostly. I think he’s entitled to a second chance.”
“That’s very generous of you. But also very foolish.”
Jenny hadn’t wanted to bring this up, but it seemed her only defense against Karen’s judgment.
“Weren’t you and Ken both married when you started dating?”
Karen gave her a quick look, one of surprise and perhaps even respect for this rare show of nerve. “That was different. We were unhappy with our spouses. We weren’t cheating in our hearts.”
Jenny had heard this justification before. “Neither was Rob,” she said.
“Promise me you’ll get checked out as soon as you get home. You don’t know how many men Rob’s been with.”
“I’ll get checked out.”
“Because there’s some really nasty stuff that goes on between homo—”
“I said I’ll get checked out.” Jenny grabbed up her sunscreen and sandals. “I’ve had enough sun.” She went inside.
For dinner that evening Karen made baked ziti, a specialty of their mother’s.
“It’s as good as Mom’s,” Jenny said, trying to be extra pleasant. She felt bad about leaving the lanai so abruptly. Their mother always said there was never any excuse for bad manners.
“That’s because it is Mom’s recipe,” Karen said. “It’s the same recipe from the same cookbook.”
“But you know how a recipe can get lost in translation, so to speak.”
Head down, shoulders slumped, Ken ate quickly and efficiently. When Karen wasn’t jumping up to get him another glass of water, the salt, the Tabasco, she was watching him shovel it in, move his food with a piece of bread onto his fork before raising it to his thin lips. Jenny had liked David, Karen’s first husband, a nice, easygoing man. But David had been boring, according to Karen, which seemed to mean she’d been able to push him around. No chance of that with her second husband.
Ken, who perspired noticeably when eating, picked up his napkin and ran it over his face. His head glowed under the low-hanging ceiling lamp. He set his silverware on his plate with a clatter—the signal, Jenny knew, that the meal was over. Others might still be eating but they did so outside the established time frame. Ken put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands. He looked at Jenny.
“We’re very disappointed in Rob.”
“He’s very disappointed in himself.” Jenny noticed how the gray in Ken’s eyebrows made them almost disappear. He was all beady blue eyes and gleaming baldness.
Ken said, “Most experts agree that sex addiction is incurable. Especially when combined with deviant tendencies.”
“I just talked to Rob,” Jenny said. “He’s already made an appointment with a therapist.”
“A waste of time and money. He might as well go to the local witch doctor.” Ken paused as if to collect his thoughts. Then he said, “We think you should move here.”
“Here? To Tampa?”
“We understand it won’t happen overnight. You can stay with us while you’re getting settled. Cheap rental units are popping up all over Tampa. The job market could be better but there are signs of improvement. The important thing is putting as much distance as possible between you and Rob as soon as possible.”
“But I don’t want to put distance between me and Rob.”
Ken frowned, as if puzzled by this objection to his wholesale revamping of his sister-in-law’s life. He asked, “Then what do you propose to do?”
“Work on my marriage.”
“I just mentioned how unlikely it is that Rob will change. Sex addiction is chronic. There’s no cure. Except one. And it’s fallen out of favor in our enlightened times. Certain drugs have the same emasculating effect—if taken in strong enough doses. But there’s always the temptation for the user to stop taking them and return to his perverted lifestyle.”
As well as she thought she knew Ken, Jenny was amazed to hear him suggesting that her husband should be castrated.
“I don’t know if what Rob has is an addiction,” she said.
“Everything points to Rob engaging in these sorts of acts his whole life. If that’s not addiction, I don’t know what is.”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily incurable, is what I mean. Rob seems really committed to getting help.”
“I’m sure he is. I’m sure his intentions are good. But nothing will come of them. Meanwhile, you’ll be living with a man who’s been lying about having sex with minors the entire time you’ve known him.”
“Rob doesn’t have sex with minors.”
“No? That sort prefers them young, the younger the better. It’s part of their hedonistic lifestyle. They recruit children. They prey on them.”
“Rob would never do anything like that.”
Ken leaned forward. “Can you be certain of that? Can you be certain of anything about your husband?”
“I know he would never take advantage of a minor, a child. It’ll take some time before I can completely trust him again. He knows that. We’ve talked about that—rebuilding trust.”
“I don’t think you’re treating this matter with the proper seriousness. It’s not just a social problem we’re talking about. It’s a transgression of natural law. It’s a sin against God and creation.”
“I don’t think I want dessert,” Jenny said and pushed her chair out.
Ken raised a finger. “One more thing. If you decide to return to your marriage, you leave us with no choice. Rob hasn’t only deceived and betrayed you. He’s deceived and betrayed us. He’s brought scandal on the family. He’s brought shame and dishonor to it. Therefore, Rob will no longer be welcome in this house. We won’t have someone under our roof who abuses our trust as he abuses himself.”
“Excuse me.” Jenny left the room.
Sitting on the edge of the bed in tears, she wondered why she’d bothered to come here. When had Karen ever done anything but give her unwanted advice? It was as though she’d conjured up a fantasy sister. She wondered as well how she’d get through another day in her brother-in-law’s house. She thought about calling Rob, but in her current state she lacked the self-control to describe recent events without the required editing. Rob would have to be told about Ken’s edict, just as he would have to be told about the events leading up to it. But that could wait.
There was a knock on the door.
“Ken’s ready,” Karen said.
“His DVD, remember?”
“Is Ken serious about banning Rob from the house?”
“For the moment. He could change his mind later. He’s extremely upset.”
“One of his uncles was gay. It tore the family apart.”
“Rob does not prey on children.”
“Ken has the DVD in the player. He’s waiting for us.”
“I don’t think I’m up for anything about hunting.”
“It’s only a few minutes long. Ken doesn’t hold you responsible for Rob’s actions. He loves you. You’re the sister he never had. Which means your support is very important to him.”
“Karen. I’m not leaving Rob. How many times do I have to say it?”
Jenny trailed Karen into the living room and sat beside her on the sofa. Ken, on Karen’s right, aimed the remote at the mammoth TV. A sparsely wooded area appeared.
“We’re in southwest Colorado,” Ken said. “About forty miles east of Durango. Temperature in the thirties. Low cloud cover. Perfect conditions for harvesting.”
The shaky camera panned slowly to the right until it reached a grassy plain.
“There,” someone whispered on the DVD.
“That’s Freddy talking,” Ken said. “Freddy’s the guide. Super guy.”
“Could be more. Could be six.”
“A rack,” Ken explained to Jenny, “is the antlers. Points are the number of horns. Six is very good, incidentally.”
The camera followed two men in orange hats and vests, one of them Ken, the other Freddy, presumably. They stepped gingerly up a shallow incline. The camera zoomed in on a four-legged animal grazing alone in the open, dipping its head in the tall grass. The elk looked to Jenny like a giant reindeer, with bulging reindeer eyes and turned-up reindeer snout and white reindeer hindquarters. It raised its head, as if it heard something, then lowered it.
Ken and Freddy carried long rifles with scopes on them. They wore heavy boots and coats. Walking in a crouch, Freddy stepped ahead of Ken, squatted down, then waved Ken forward. They did this several times as they climbed the ridge overlooking the plain. The camera zoomed in on the elk. It was munching its food, twitching its ears. The elk grew larger and larger until it filled the screen.
Simultaneous with the crack of gun fire, the elk reared up and started to run. It didn’t get far, though, its front legs buckling, its body rolling. It collapsed on its side.
“Yes! Oh yes!”
The screen went dark momentarily, then Ken and Freddy were approaching the motionless animal.
“Ken,” Freddy said, “you just shot an absolute pig of a six point.”
“I did, didn’t I?”
They high-fived, then Ken got behind the elk and, grabbing it by its antlers, turned the animal’s head so that it faced the camera. A dark, runny gash was visible on the elk’s flank. Its eyes were open. It looked like Ken was proudly displaying his trophy with the elk’s full cooperation. Ken dropped the head to the ground. Then Ken and Freddy dragged the body by its antlers toward a pick-up truck. Together they swung it into the back. It landed on its side, its liquid eyes staring out at the camera.
Jenny got to the bathroom just in time to lose the little she’d eaten for dinner in a single, shuddering up-chuck. She brushed her teeth and washed her face. When she came out Karen was waiting for her.
“You all right?”
“I need to lie down.”
“Does this mean you’re turning in?”
“Yes. I’m very tired.”
“Okay, but don’t forget to mention Ken’s elk in the morning.”
“That was horrible, Karen.”
“What was horrible?”
“What was horrible about it?”
“Everything. Why didn’t you warn me?”
“I didn’t think you needed warning.”
“Well, I did.”
Karen arched her back, crossed her arms high on her chest. “What a priss you’ve become,” she said, turned and went up the hallway.
Later, in the guest room, Jenny could hear Ken and Karen preparing for bed. She waited an hour before stealing into the second floor study, turned on the computer and went to Orbitz. There were no direct flights to Raleigh the next day and the cost of the ticket was exorbitant but, undeterred, she booked a 7:30 flight, which meant she’d have to be at the airport before dawn. She didn’t care. She knew if she did it any other way she’d be talked out of it.
At two-thirty, she called Rob’s cell. When he didn’t answer she left a message giving him her arrival time. If he didn’t get it for some reason she could always take a taxi from the airport.
At four o’clock, after dozing for a couple of hours, she called a cab and told the dispatcher she needed to be picked up at four forty-five. A few minutes before then, on her way out, she left a note for Karen on the dining room table, explaining that Rob had called in the middle of the night pleading with her to return home a day early. Carrying her suitcase rather than rolling it over the wood flooring, she let herself out of the house. She could see a pair of headlights coming slowly up the street. The taxi pulled to the curb. Jenny didn’t wait for the driver to pop the trunk. She jumped in the backseat, suitcase and all.
Arriving at the airport terminal, she tipped the cabbie generously and proceeded to the check-in desk. A nice lady helped her with the automated ticket machine and after the nuisance of going through security she followed the signs to gate 14, taking a seat directly across from it. She tried Rob again, this time calling the townhouse’s land line.
At the end of the second ring she heard, “Hello?”
It was a man’s voice, a voice didn’t recognize, and she looked to make sure she had the right number.
“Who is this?” she said.
She heard someone shushing in the background, then a loud rustling noise. The phone went dead. She pressed redial but the call went straight to voice mail. She tried again; the same thing happened.
Perplexed, Jenny sat with her phone in her lap, her attention drawn to a skycap pushing an old man in a wheelchair. She glanced at the boarding sign: an hour and a half until her flight to Charlotte, where she had a fifty-minute layover. She’d just returned her phone to her purse when she stood straight up, suddenly needing to move, move somewhere, move anywhere. But this made her feel light-headed and she sat back down. Impatiently waiting out the dizzy spell, she stood more slowly and hurried off, pulling her suitcase behind her. She moved quickly down the busy concourse, arriving breathless at the point beyond which she’d have to go through security again to reenter the boarding area. She stood there for a minute, then turned and headed back, stepping around an express train carrying an elderly couple, a man talking on his cell, a chattering flight crew walking four abreast. She angled toward the wall where there was less traffic. She walked past gate 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9…
At the end of the concourse, panting, sweating in her clothes, she stopped under a television monitor mounted high on the wall. The TV was turned to one of those early morning talk shows. She decided she’d watch some of it; maybe she’d watch all of it. Maybe by then she’d know what to do. Maybe by then she’d know where she was going.
John Picard earned his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has published fiction and nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The New England Review, Mid-American Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. A collection of his stories, Little Lives, was published by Mint Hill Books. John also has work forthcoming in the North Dakota Quarterly.