You're Not Smiling
Hey all! This is a bit of nonfiction I tried to sneak into a couple of magazines or journals looking for "stories about encountering nature" or some such. As is so often, or exclusively, the case with me, it went nuts pretty quickly.

I'm posting it in the free section so people already following me can show it to their friends and be like, I'd patronize this person. I'll publish work exclusively in the paid section soon.

For now, enjoy my personal essay about gender, young love, and a meat locker, "You're Not Smiling".

There is, perhaps, no utterance to thrill a boy more than “don’t tell your mother.” All interactions between fathers and the people they raise as their sons exist on one continuum. On one end is confidence (a father takes their son into theirs) or no confidence (you are not good enough at wood working to make this birdhouse or any other). I estimated then and know now, I am a poor example of maleness and couldn’t always relate to my father. We bonded over science fiction and fantasy, but my brother was the one who loved firearms. This isn’t to say I related so much better to my mother. I do not know how boys who like guns are told to relate to their moms. In my experience, you decide your place on the maternal spectrum by earning her respect for you as a man. I was self-defeating all over.

But my brother was gone the day Dad bagged his first deer, and I was taken into confidence. And if I stayed in it, I would be a traitor. Necessity was, for each of us, the parent of hypocrisy.

For my brother, it was a much simpler thing to go into confidence, to harbor quiet the way families so often do. I was bad at keeping secrets, even Christmas gifts; I love appreciation. On the flipside, I’m too soft-hearted to cradle information like a round in the chamber, ammunition stored for a later and unrelated argument. The way families so often do. Even if I’d been of sterner stuff, I doubt any blackmail of my father would have been effective. Most transgressions were small enough to render my subterfuge tattling. Once, on the way to my flute lesson (surprise, the sensitive kid played the flute), Dad, my brother and I saw a bus from the prison where my father works and he shouted with a sententious glee, “Hey, you fuckers!” We were shocked and scandalized, being nine and seven-and-a-half, but I knew this wasn’t major enough to warrant a bribe. When we tattled to Mom, it was a tease, an admonishment over meat and potatoes.

A larger malfeasance, the deer transgression, would only trade my father’s trust for his hurt feelings, and I can imagine his disappointed, “Man, why did you have to do that?” before shaking his head and walking away, too disgusted to look at me. And for what? A real disclosure to my mother would warn her against trusting me with any secret. It would demonstrate to my brother my ignorance of the vague male ethic, and that kind of distrust makes grade school really crappy. No, thank you.

We hold these hurts, these inabilities to relate, so closely in our chests. We set them up in our ventricles and atria, fully furnished apartments, and all we ask of them is to thrive. Every relationship we think of as love does this to us. 

In junior high, I had such a crush on Mina Kirkwood. I couldn’t have told you why. She was quiet, and lived on my bus route. Maybe in those hours I spent reading, looking over at her, I projected the same bookish silence I hoped I was cultivating. Maybe it was the way her haircut framed her face, or the loamy timbre of her voice. As likely as anything else, it was because my best friend at that school harbored some disgust for her wearing fashionably tight and short clothes, which revealed patches of hair on her back, under her arms, etc. He would make such fun of her and certainly the connection between us, the victimized, endeared her to me. I defended her, without her knowing, but my sense of fairness still demanded she owe me affection for my magnanimity in overlooking her flaws. Such was the generosity I held in my heart that it doled obligation as if obligation itself could be loved back.

That is how families work, right? Liabilities and commitments built over years and decades and minutes.

My mother came to me and said, “Pause your game. Your dad got a deer.” This made one deer for all his mornings up before dawn, ablutions performed with soaps that made him smell as moss and wet leaves. Undetectable, he would blend in with the fecund forest floor. There were the day trips to towns so small they hardly had names, or trips to barter for a firearm in shops stocking Coca Cola and live bait in the same cooler. Dad would drive over an hour to negotiate the use of a tree stand. And while my brother tagged along, I had no interest in the tent revivals doubling as hunting bureaucracy. My brother was at football camp. I had to put down my controller.

It was insane to think that only a few weeks before Dad was in a hospital bed, more vulnerable than I had seen him or anyone else. He could hardly keep his eyes open, and the disinfecting iodine smeared on the incision scar over his breastbone made him look jaundiced. I remember hugging him as soon as we were allowed. I have this sense of his body being slick, but that might just be my mind conflating that hug and the quakey quality in his voice. He sounded like walking through a plowed field the morning after a light rain.

I have never worried about my family even when my thinking mind told me I should. I was such an anxious child that, by 15, I had burned in myself an ulcer. Though taking high school seriously is bound to do some damage, I knew I was too worried, too scared of life and that made me confuse life and living with death and embarrassment.  I decided halfway through the prescription that knit the hole in my guts, that I just wouldn’t worry anymore. Can’t say I’ve really adhered to that, but I’ve tried not to fret another tear in my belly. Sometimes I’ve worried I should worry, that I’m supposed to, but that doesn’t make me feel that anxiety.

My father’s heart surgeries and my brother’s tours of duty didn’t worry me because worry would not keep them safe. My belief they would be well came from my insistence that these things happen to other people. Lucky for me that the things that only happen to other people haven’t happened directly to me yet. I say this knowing full well the things that only happen to other people do, inevitably, happen to all of us.

Mom drove the pickup truck, an indigo Chevy Cheyenne with rusted wheel wells--the accidental weapon with which Dad killed his first deer--along the road connecting the two high schools which together fielded the best football team in the tri-county. Mom was still nervous with me driving, and not without reason. That’s why Dad taught me. Much of my permit period was spent taxiing him around after that first heart surgery. He couldn’t use his core or chest for much, and driving targets just those muscle groups. He’d pretend his breath wasn’t labored as I took him to the pharmacy or clinic. He did let himself yell a bit when I crossed the highway and we got a little closer to getting T-boned than he liked. But in general he clutched his heart surgery pillow to lean over and tap the accelerator on the cruise control, despite my protestations against speeding. I wonder if he would have made me pay any speeding ticket we got.

Printed on dad’s pillow carried the logo of the Quad Cities hospital where his heart surgery was performed. He clutched it to his chest whenever he sat up in the hospital bed and at home as he watched TV. It helped him feel as though his chest wasn’t going to pull open again along his sternum’s new pink seam. During commercial breaks, he’d exercise his shocked lungs. He would suck on a tube which made a yellow ball in the cylinder float between this line and that. I tried the thing and got winded trying to control the spacing. I gave up again and again, thinking about breathing life into those pinball toy keychains with the ball bearings suspended in water. Dad clutched his pillow and kept working at it. He had to.

How could someone who had to retrain his lungs to breathe and held his heart in with a nylon cushion hoist himself up into a tree stand? And to bowhunt, no less.

Mom explained the muscles dad’s surgery beat up weren’t used very much in pulling a bow. So while lifting anything more than 35 pounds was verboten, and moving around too much frowned upon, he could clamber into a tree and draw his compound bow. His tree stand was in a friend’s field, not too far from my girlfriend’s uncle’s house.

I gave up on my crush on Mina years before then. The first blow to my hopes fell in health class. Which is, I imagine, the setting of a lot of disappointments. Mina and I sat next to each other and I was sniffling. Allergies plagued me in the Midwest, probably the pesticides blanketing endless corn fields. I had already gotten up several times this class to blow my nose and didn’t feel like doing so again, so I sniffled. Mina hissed at me, “Aren’t you going to blow your nose?”

I was crushed. I spent the rest of the afternoon dismantling my daydreams of holding her hand at the Carl Sandburg Mall food court, using our free hands to eat Karmelcorn out of the same box. Having my first kiss under the clear sky you only get in the country (complete with poisonous corn clouds). Had to shut all that down because she must hate me, certainly sounded like it. That evening, on the roof of the dog kennel we used as a chicken coop, I mourned the love that was never to be. The vastness of the Heartland spoke to the emptiness in my blah blah blah.

Eventually, I got over that. And eventually, I found a girlfriend at youth group. It was her uncle whose house we passed to the tree stand. She and her step sister visited Dad in the hospital and signed his pillow with the hospital-provided sharpie. The pillow quickly became covered with the signatures of people who just kind of appeared to wish well. It seemed like stock taken of my father’s life, these autographs on a heart pillow, people who knew and cared about him, or his family, coming in and touching his shoulder or hand. I think it takes a certain amount of courage to visit someone so unwell, especially if you aren’t very close. I remember how cold he was to the touch. He needed that touch and for everyone to pretend this was a normal interaction.

My parents did not like this girlfriend, and knowing that made me a little uncomfortable being so close to her family’s home. Then again, my parents didn’t like any of my high school girlfriends. Then then again, neither did I. It’s not as if they accepted me for who I was, someone who was supposed to be a boy but didn’t play football or basketball or shoot shit. But they were willing to manipulate who I was, and I thought that was close enough to love.

Mom and I bounced along the access road in the truck, eventually coming to the clearing. I didn’t look in the direction of the house on the walk from the truck. Several hundred yards through grass tended with wheel ruts, a dappling of trees, then where deer dwell. Manicured forests have an imposed regularity. The paths go to where we want to find beauty, to see nature. A deer’s forest feels random, but only because it follows a logic we can’t relate to, can’t exert control over. We can’t relate to wildness.

We walked along the matted leaves until we found my dad hunched over his prey with the biggest smile on his face. I’ve never hunted and the highest order of animal I’ve killed is a chicken. I’ve seen my father kill both, and they are very different experiences. For him, butchering a chicken was a mechanical process: the fulcrum of the shears, the sheet metal killing cone, remove the organs with incisions here, here, and here. For me, I can still remember the look on the face of the first chicken I killed. It was a rooster, and as its head fell in the bucket, blood spurted onto his eyes and comb. Brackish red on leathery red. It, he, the chicken, tried to crow but didn’t have lungs anymore.

I couldn’t imagine bringing down something so large and vital as a doe, so I couldn’t imagine my dad’s euphoria. Mom brought the camera to take a picture of him, and while I don’t remember watching him as it was taken, I do remember the photo itself. It was a disposable camera, only about half used, but Dad made sure to drum up enough photo ops to run through the rest of the roll. Stuff like beautiful sunrises, or my high school graduation.

The photo is washed out, my dad’s sunned paleness bleeding into the prairie grass behind him. He’s beaming and holding the head of the yearling to pose with him. That photo is now embedded on a stained mounting board, along with the doe’s head. It’s the only trophy of my father’s in his basement room full of calls (duck, pheasant, deer), odorizers and deodorizers, and a copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.

Mom hates “just heads.” But that isn’t why I was told not to tell my mother.”

Mom and I dragged the deer out of the sparse trees, along the packed earth wheel ruts. Each of us carried two legs, and I had the fore. The doe’s eyes were glassy and I understood what writers mean when they describe eyes as “obsidian.” Her tongue lolled out, and it was hard for me to conceive that the tongue couldn’t sense the blades of grass surrsurring along the small pink organ. The doe looked almost happy, our impromptu palanquin carrying it out of the woods. I told the deer she wasn’t smiling.

We lifted the small bundle of bone and meat and hair into the bed of the pickup truck. She was small relative to other deer, not us. In so much of what I’ve read, when humans kill small animals, those animals become the dead weight of innocence. They feel “broken” to the touch, and only heavy in a too literal sense, as the heft of life has left. Our animal felt dense and nascently strong. We struggled to get it into the truck bed. I reminded myself it couldn’t have smiled, even when she was alive.

Mom took Dad’s car home. He and I were now on a mission: get the deer field dressed before it spoilt. In case you didn’t know, there’s a good reason a slit throat is how butchers and gods prefer to slaughter: if the blood sits in the dead muscle, it rots in the striations and ruins the meat. If you cook it like that, it will turn a sick blue, as your lips would if you froze to death. We needed to field dress our doe, but we had the secret objective of harvesting a trophy. Secret to me, at least. I suppose, strictly speaking, we weren’t field dressing it, having left the field. 

It was late Sunday, and we needed to find an open butcher shop. We made a couple of calls and found one in Roseville. A 45 minute drive, cutting it close. I drove. Dad watched the doe and told me to drive faster, speed limit’s 65 for godssakes. He knew full well we were going 70, and when I pointed this out to him, he told me that meant we could get away with at least 75.

The butcher shop cold jarred me after spending the last few hours in June heat, and the smell was the kind you get when meat freezes. A young boy sat on the concrete floor next to the counter, on which sat a dirty white plastic register. The boy clutched a thick piece of marbled bacon and I swear it was raw. He gnawed on it like a dog with a rawhide. I tried to convince myself that wasn’t what I was seeing while my father thanked the proprietor for staying open.

I always stood to the side while Dad made the kinds of transactions men make with money, blood, and handshakes. I would again later that night. It didn’t bother me. He would rub his stubbled chin, obliquely wisecrack with the other men in uniforms or camouflage. This is why I didn’t accept proffered invitations to duck blind drawings, which let my brother and father enjoy their days with the boys while I stayed home and read.

I did, on spring break part way through college, go to a duck blind draw. My brother was working and unavailable and Dad didn’t want to go alone. I brought along the copy of Return of the King he gave me when I was small. I think I was reading it for the third time, which is significantly fewer times than he’s read it. We camped out under the kind of tent you see at small towns’ sidewalk fairs or heritage days or whatever gets people downtown in summer. I sat myself down next to a cooler full of cheap beer and at a table with chafing dishes full of fried catfish. Dad hobnobbed, did the kind of networking you do if you aren’t much of a killer but are much of a carnivore. Rick Kirkwood came by and said hello, his daughter Mina in tow. She didn’t even look at me.

I didn’t have a book with me at the butcher’s and Jesus, I wish I had. I got tired of looking stupid at the kid with the raw breakfast meat in his mouth, and in the spirit of after hours, I wandered back to the locker where my dad was working out the details with the butcher. The doe was hoofed and hanging by her leg bones from meat hooks. The men were discussing caping her, now that the butcher had exsanguinated her. “Caping,” by the way, is removing the skin of the head and base of the neck. Her tongue still hung from her mouth.

I did not have to handle the cape, for which I am immensely grateful. Once, I was digging around in our freezer, our kitchen freezer--not the one in the basement we bought for freezing our home raised chicken, butcher shop sides of beef, and expired Hostess snacks from the feed store--and found a Ziploc bag full of chicken feet. When I asked my dad why in the hell he had a bag of feet in the freezer, he asked if I remembered his coworker. “Sure. What does he--”

“He needs them for a spell.”

“Of (fucking) course.”

Incidentally, I had found my brother’s entire duck cadaver in that basement freezer. It now sits in a plexiglass box complete with nature scene. It’s making friends with a plastic frog.

We took the cape to Rick Kirkwood’s house. Another 45 minute drive, and it had already been a long day. I don’t remember what Dad and I talked about, if anything. The grown men hashed out the details of payment, Rick pushing for a little more, Dad holding at a little less. Their wives were, technically, not present. When Rick ran back in the house to grab some implement or another, Dad turned to me. “Don’t tell your mother.”

At the duck blind draw, I, for the first time, tried fried catfish. I gnawed on it, and didn’t mind when Mina pointedly didn’t make eye contact with me.

Rick recognized me as his daughter’s classmate, but I don’t know if he could have told you how he knew that’s who I was. It was a cold night and our fathers wound down for their negotiations. More important than the dollar amount, they were coworkers at the prison, so they were friendly enough and had heard enough about each other in the correctional officer underground to affix something personal enough when offering and counter-offering. My dad’s slight edge was Mom working at the office where the Kirkwoods had their cars insured. They did not have Mina scheduled on the policy. Not brilliant considering we were on the same bus route and she wasn’t riding anymore. I’d noticed, looking up from my book.

The men shook hands. Finally. I was freezing, and after the meat locker I was tired of being cold. Mina was inside, watching TV. I don’t know what, the TV wasn’t facing the window, but she was. The couch was an ugly floral print, pale daffodils over taupe. Flashing cathode light flushed her face. I actually said to myself, under my breath, not that the men would deign to hear me had I had spoken out loud, “Mina, invite me in whydon’tcha?”

I never heard my parents’ fight over the mounted head, but it was the centerpiece of my father’s outfitting of the small room in the back of the basement. Outside that room’s door was piled Christmas decorations and the furnace. I used to read in an old easy chair in there, but the doe did portend the room’s transformation into man cave. Fifty dollar bottles of deer urine (and $50 does not much pee buy), a copy of WestWorld starring Yul Brynner on DVD, a turkey call. All presided over by the doe, mounted on varnished oak cut in the shape of Illinois, the picture of my father smiling a boy’s smile. The picture Mom took. He looks washed out in the daylight and prairie grass.

Tall grasses hemmed in the camp where we drew lots for duck blinds. Mina didn’t look at me. But I had my second favorite kind of beer, beer I didn’t pay for, fried food, and a novel about the advent of a just patriarch. When I mentioned to my dad on the hour ride home that Mina didn’t even look at me, I had no hurt feelings for my voice to betray.

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