White Pines

by Landon Charlebois

 

     A man stands at the stove frying bacon and eggs. He wears dark brown coveralls over a thick denim work shirt. His hair is disheveled, dark, and thinning at the crown. Stubble covers his jowls and he keeps an ill-defined mustache. Across the small, linoleum-tiled kitchen, spreading margarine across burnt toast, Joel is anxious for the day to begin. It’s the first day of summer and his father had told him he could take a summer job with him at the plant this year.

     Joel’s father takes a mug from the cupboard and fills it with coffee, turns and sets it on the table. He nearly closes the cupboard before grabbing a second mug, filling it and setting it in front of Joel. The boy draws a deep breath. It smells to him like the beginning of every fishing trip and camping excursion he’s gone on with his father and his older brothers. He hugs the cup with both hands and brings it to his lips, its warm. He sets it down, lifts it again with one hand this time, by the handle. He sips. The hot black coffee burns his tongue and warms him. He feels the numbness of his tastebuds.

     The man brings the huge cast iron skillet over to the table. He sections off two fried eggs and slides them onto Joel’s plate, as well as a pile of bacon. The fat sizzles and bubbles on the plate. The man empties the rest of the skillet onto his plate and sits down across from Joel. He lifts his mug to his mustache and swallows half his coffee in one brief motion. His attention remains on his food throughout the meal.

     Joel shovels his breakfast down in an attempt to keep up with his veracious father. The boy continually looks up from his plate to check his pace.

     “Are you ready for the day?” asks his father, still occupied with sopping up the last of a greasy egg yolk with a bit of toast.

     Joel nods enthusiastically, “Yes,” he manages through a wad of half-chewed bacon.

     “Good,” the man answers, picking up the dishes and placing them in the sink. He dumps most of the boy’s coffee before he can finish it, “follow me.”

     They step out into a frigid autumn morning. Their small colonial house sits in the middle of a round, neat clearing. White pines crowd the edges.

     The man walks back past the side of the house, limping slightly, and makes his way to shed, the boy following suit. The weathered door swings open and the man murmurs something about replacing hinges. He digs through a shelf of odds and ends in the dark hut, pulls out a pair of leather work gloves, turns around and hands them to the boy.

     Joel takes the gloves and runs his hands over the soft, cracked leather. He remembers his grandpa and how he would trace the lines in his face with his fingers. It was like a map, he thought, and he wondered if it was a map of where his grandpa had been, or maybe where he had wished he could go.

*  *  *

     They wind around the thickly wooded two-lane highway that leads to the plant. The windows of the olive green Ford Courier are down and John Prine is playing on an AM station. Coming around a sharp corner, the cab leans and empty cans tumble and slide to the side of the truck bed.

     In one short moment, the boy sees a doe jut out of the tree line and out into the road. The man white-knuckles the steering wheel and jerks it to the right, missing the head of the deer but smashing its flank before coming to a stop. Everything is quieter than the boy was braced for: the sickening thud, the cracking windshield, the doe sliding off the driver’s side of the hood. Angel from Montgomery plays on the radio as the truck idles.

     “Shit,” the man sighs.

     He leans his head out the window and looks down at the doe, its breath labored and frantic. He backs the truck up and parks it on the side of the road. Joel sees the doe clearly now through the partly shattered windshield. She’s large, with alternating dark brown and white markings running down her back to her tail. Splayed out on her side, the animal looks completely still from this distance, save a small pool of red that creeps out from beneath her. The fur on her belly is black with blood.

     A car comes around the corner and narrowly misses the deer, swerving around where it lay on the dashed yellow lines.

     “We have to move it,” the man says, turning to the boy “I’ll need your help.”

     The boy pauses apprehensively and looks out at the deer. He turns to see his father’s face; its expectant and unchanging. Joel nods.

     They walk the thirty feet over to the dying animal. “I’ll take the front legs and you’ll take the hind,” says the father.

     Joel looks down at the doe, her breathing more frantic with the men so near. She groans rhythmically under her labored breaths. The father lifts her front legs and the doe screams. The son steps back and his mouth opens in horror. He remembers his father and looks to him, hoping he hasn’t seen this response.

The doe lifts its head and screams in fear and pain.

     “Pick ‘em up!” The man yells over the outcry.

     Joel lifts the hind legs and closes his eyes as he drags the writhing doe across the asphalt. The men are side by side now, walking backward, dragging the creature to the road side as the sunrise breaks over the pines, pouring golden light on the scene. For the last few feet the doe stops screaming. Joel opens his eyes.

     The doe is still breathing, but slowly, faintly, her head now limp against the pavement. Her eye searches Joel wildly.

     They reach the trees and release her legs. The man stands back, resting his hands on his sides and catching his breath. He looks over at Joel, who’s staring at the doe.

     “Come on, now,” he huffed, “we’ll phone it in at the gas station up the road away.”

     Joel climbs into the cab of the truck and hears his father curse the windshield and the sunrise and the glare but he doesn’t listen. He thinks for a long while about the doe, not the blood or the screams, but the searching gaze. He’s lost in thought until his father gets back in the truck after calling the cops at the gas station. The sound of the truck door pulling closed makes him jump. His father lights a cigarette and pulls out of the gravel parking lot.

     As they drive up to the plant, Joel imagines the prospects of his summer job.