On the afternoon of June 17, 1957, James Henry Harvey died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the temple outside a brothel where the legitimate side of town met the infamous. His son was seven at the time, too young to understand the importance of the concept that was father but old enough to appreciate hide-and-seek in the backyard and a gentle palm on his forehead as night yielded to the early hours of morning.
There was a certain degree of leveling which had come with the turmoil of those few years past. So when this mother watched her now nine-year-old child run barefooted across the swampy yard, over the rock-strewn driveway, onto the street, and finally into a few feet of water to find a ball, she said nothing. She merely retrieved another thin cigarette from her embossed case and lit it with the gas grill lighter before taking a towel from the fresh laundry and stationing herself at the door.
"I told you not to leave your things out in the yard," she mumbled, the cigarette still clamped firmly between her lips.
"I won't anymore," he replied, taking the towel.
"Go get changed. Mr. Gueseppi's coming for dinner."
"He can't cook," Jim pouted.
"He cooks fine, and every time he comes, I don't have to." Ellen said it laughingly, but was rebuked by a thoughtful frown. "You'll take what you get, young man, and be thankful."
"He has a big nose."
"You have a big mouth. Get out of here so I can get ready."
Jim flicked the switch of a cheap lamp on his dresser and surveyed the shadows that cavorted across his walls. The four-poster bed, reflected bleakly in aging grandeur on the mild blue paint, swayed back and forth like the legs of a horse that had been overturned. As he jumped, his elbows and knees poked out of the outline as would the bones of an old, dying animal, and just for fun he made the noises he had heard when his father had taken him to the farm of a long forgotten friend.
The sounds of aerosol hairspray from the next room overtook his thoughts. "What are you doing in there?" His mother's voice asked in a queer, hollow tone.
He heard the faucet turn on and off and her humming the melody from "Moon River." James knew that she was bent over the bathroom sink, the mirror open a bit to catch the proper angle of light as she pinned the straps from her slip under her bra and dusted powder on the thin scar that etched its way from her nose through her narrow lips and across her chin. The humming stopped and he could imagine her mouth slightly open, her tongue protruding as she closed her right eye and then her left and applied too many coats of mascara. The thin sound of crinoline brushing through the doorway. The bang of the closet as she surveyed its possessions. The return of music and weak admonitions to her waistline.
Jim imagined for a moment that he could hear his father returning from the station: the door slamming shut behind him,
his wet coat slapping against the armchair,
his bag thudding dully on the carpet,
his heavy footsteps down the hall.
His mother's surpriseshe was always surprised, no matter how loud the indications of his returnwhen he knocked into the open door of their room and growled jokingly as he threw her over his shoulder and onto the creaking bed.
"Stop it, James, you know he can hear."
"Nonsense," his father answered in a mock whisper. "If that boy's not taking his nap right now I'm going to wallop him a new one."
Their muted giggles as his father and mother crept quietly down the hall, slid open the door to his room and stood grasping each other over the bed where he pretended to sleep.
"I say, Ellen, that's one fine boy you have there."
"Where? I don't see anything."
"Here," his father would return, as he swung Jim into the air amid a torrent of laughs.
* * *
Dear Mrs. Harvey,
It is my duty to inform you that your husband died honorably serving this city while bravely apprehending a known criminal . . .
There were the shouts of anger in the street before him as muted flashes broke the darkness. One of the othershis othersshouted a warning to Harvey before a scream resounded through the stone and wooden night. Harvey called to the officers behind him as thin figures wound their way through the shadows. He fired a few warning shots, aiming at nothingness framed only by starlight. He heard silence save for the shift of a few boards and then they were upon him. There was time for one last call . . .
* * *
His mother waited at the end of the hall: prim, tall, with a straight back and perfectly coifed hair. Mr. Gueseppi towered above her and smiled too widely as he noticed Jim skulking into the room. His mother recognized that his attention was directed elsewhere and turned to see her son's hair bobbing waist high in a flurry of soft brown waves over his eyes. Looking into his eyes, she whispered, "Be nice." He only smiled in return. Jim moved to the front of his mother's red dress and held her arms around his neck.
Gueseppi placed a large, damp hand on his head and asked, "Do you remember me?"
"Of course he does. He was telling me just this afternoon how much he was looking forward to your cooking," his mother answered nervously, gently pushing Jim in the direction of the dinner table.
"Oh, good. I tell you I brought something very special tonight. You will like it, I know. When I was a boy, my mother fixed this every Sunday. Quite a treat after working all day at the lumberyard, I can tell you!" he bellowed in a gentle accent. "Just give me one more minute to finish heating it."
His mother took the good silver from its locked drawer and folded napkins into small swans. She then placed a fancy centerpiece in the middle of the table. "I always knew that would come to good use," she said as she helped Jim into his seat.
When Gueseppi reappeared, the bulky shadow of a stainless steel platter was imposed across the paper tablecloth. "I'm so sorry, Ellen," he said quietly with a small, conspiratorial smile at Jim, "but it looks as though I will have to take this home with me, for that beautiful centerpiece already has command of your dining table."
"Oh," she said, looking up suddenly. "Let me move that. I know Jim would be terribly disappointed if we couldn't eat this special meal after you took so much time to prepare it," she said with a small, conspiratorial smile at Jim.
"It took no time at all," he answered as Ellen took the heavy platter from his hands. " I like to do it for you." Jim thought he saw her finger brush his wrist lightly.
Gueseppi settled into the chair that his father had occupied not so long before, as time is measured in the minds of the young. It creaked under his bulk. Ellen removed the cover and thick clouds of steam rose above their heads before being burnt off by the bare bulb swinging above the table. A strange meat swam in thin sauce, yawning with bubbles of grease. His mother smiled demurely at Gueseppi and, after a warning glance at Jim, implored Gueseppi not to go to such great lengths next time.
"It is nothing. Your mother deserves the rest, does she not, Jimmy, eh? Now who will say the grace?"
"I'd love if you would," Jim's mother answered as she clasped Gueseppi's hand.
* * *
Dear Mrs. Harvey,
It is my duty to inform you that your husband died honorably serving this city while bravely accepting the call of duty . . .
There was silence in the crowded station save for the shift of awkward, frightened feet and the soft wail of an elderly woman.
"Take it easy, man," Harvey said.
"Shut-up," the man said. "You hear me? Just shut-up!"
Harvey thought that there was nothing he would rather do. But how could he? They were here to see. Now that he had taken charge, there was nothing he could do but accept the consequences. A picture of his wife and child flashed through his mind. And then there it was.
The man held a small pistol in his left hand. Between his thumb and the mangled remains of a few fingers, it wavered unsteadily. Was that fear?
There was no time. There was never enough time. The hand grew steadier, steadier yet, and then broke in a torrent of quivering. Harvey lunged at the man. In that last moment he thought he heard his son laughing in the sunlight.
* * *
"Did you hear me, Jim?" his mother asked. "Isn't that a nice thing for Mr. Gueseppi to do? I just think he couldn't be any kinder. After all, you hardly know each other."
"Oh, he is yours," Gueseppi said, "and that is all I need to know for me to trust him." Good humor pressed his eyes.
"You don't think he's a little young for that?"
"Oh, no. When I was two or three years younger than Jimmy is, I went out with my father all the time. There is nothing like the meat of a deer you have killed yourself."
"Is this the season for that sort of thing? I mean, don't they have rules about that?"
"You worry too much. I tell you," he said, leaning across the table as if about to disclose secret material, "I have a friend up in the hills, his place is a long way away from anything else. No one will ever know anything. Unless, of course, you want people to see that your young son has become a man!" He finished with a flourish of his fork.
"May I be excused?" Jim asked.
"You've hardly touched your dinner."
"Oh, that is all right. Why, he is probably just excited. Eh, Jimmy? I would be. I tell you, when I was a boy . . . "
The sound of Gueseppi's thick voice trailed into nothing more than deep tones which resonated in his house. Jim quietly closed the door behind him as shadows from the hall light died along his walls. He did not bother to resurrect the lights, but instead sank quietly onto his bed. There were no tears this night, no, nor the anger he had directed at so many of the strange, hollow men his mother had found scuffling along the aisles of the A&P, or on otherwise deserted buses.
Maybe this Gueseppi was not so strange, not so poor a choice that his mother could not be forgiven. He would bring dogs to their house, dogs and newspapers and slippers and the smell of pipe tobacco. But he would never be a father to Jim. He was big and loud and father-like in a round, laughing sort of way. But his largeness was not strength as it had been in Jim's father.
Jim felt a familiar weight press into the bed and roll him slightly to the right. He saw in the almost blackness a familiar outline turn his head at a familiar angle, and stare gently at his son. "That mother of yours is a piece of work."
"You love her, don't you?"
"Me too." There was a silence. A good silence.
"Who's been teaching you these bad habits? You say yes sir' to your elders, you hear?"
"I've missed helping you with that fort we were going to build."
"Mom doesn't know it, but I got a bunch of boards that washed down from the old mill and hauled them out . . . "
"To that big old tree? I know. Whadda you think, I'd just leave and not come home?"
"No, sir, it's just . . ."
"Yeah, I know, kid."
Jim reached out his hand to the figure and felt the hard, grinding calluses etch into his palm. But there was something elsethick, warm stickiness like that after he skinned his knees on gravel, the thud of a heart pulsing through the thin walls of veins and arteries. And he heard the shot. And it echoed in his ears for a moment. And it was gone.
Jim heard his mother and Gueseppi at the door, heard her crinoline press with but the lightest brush against his legs. Heard them . . . good night.
"Moon River" in the bathroom. Crinoline in the night.
* * *
Dear Mrs. Harvey,
It is my duty to inform you that your husband died honorably serving this city while bravely . . .
This was too delicate for the likes of an undereducated new brat. No, only the best were chosen for an undercover assignment; only the best would do. Harvey was confident that he was the best. But that knowledge did not lend itself easily to arrogance or to overconfidence or to carelessness. The best knew that they could always be better. Harvey was never quiet enough, never obscure enough to suit his own demands. But for this job, he would have to be enough. He was all they had.
But he was not good enough. He had done what he had been sent to do. After that, nothing mattered, did it? Harvey found that it mattered to him. It mattered very much. Now, the hunter he had become wished not to have seen the things he had seen, not to have done the things he had done. It mattered more than anything.
Like an animal with stealth and patterns that blended easily, an animal that could just be forgotten . . .
Was he forgotten?
Animals, more animals like him in the night amid the rain and flashes in the street. Growling, spitting, shouting to their mothers, merely animals and nothing more.
The three words, only the three words. James Henry Harvey. James Henry Harvey. James Henry Harvey. James Henry Harvey. James Henry Harvey. He had been taught to tell this world that bit and starved and murdered, James Henry Harvey. Now he knew that it was not so they would not find out, but so he would remember.
He remembered. James Henry Harvey. Maybe he was dead, and that was all he had ever been. Just three words in a cage of glass and light. James Henry Harvey . . .
* * *
"Come on! Four o'clock, time for boys to rise and shine!" Gueseppi's cheerfulness was something unknown to the barely breaking dawn that wavered, uncertain, over the Virginia hills. It was the blue time of morning when Jim, when he was lying awake, first began to notice that shadows had depth, that what was black before has been cast with the gilded uncertainties of one peculiar shade.
Jim woke slowly, still halfway within a dreamwhat was that dream?and halfway within the car on the long journey of the day before. For an instant he mistook Gueseppi. His eyes flew wide.
"I see you are awake now. Good! We have a long day ahead of us. A very important day, for Frank tells me that just yesterday he saw some on the west slope. We won't tell Frank, but we're not going to take home any weak doe. No! For us," he lowered his voice and pinched air between his fat thumb and forefinger in the manner of a connoisseur. "A buck. They are harder to find. But we will find them, have no doubt." Gueseppi backed towards the door before another thought occurred to him. "Uh, you can dress yourself, yes?"
Jim nodded his reply underneath the thick quilt.
* * *
They stopped the old Chevy, heavy with the smell of smoke and coffee, just before a narrow ford. Gueseppi handed Jim a vest and a plastic container whose weight was deceiving and retrieved a beat-up Winchester from the bed.
"I'd let you take this, but I think it might kick you just a bit too much."
"Even so, you have an even more important job," Gueseppi said as he donned the padded vest. "These deer are not used to people, and so we are lucky, because they will not be looking for us. But they are still very knowing. We are in their home now, and just as we are aware when someone enters ours, they are cautious from this moment until we leave." Leaning down to eye-height with Jim, he continued, "But they are not as smart as men. Men know to look for form. Deer know to look for movement. So when you see anything strange in these trees, you tell me by pulling my pocket. If you see anything white, follow it with your eyes, up and down," Gueseppi demonstrated with his head in an exaggerated, ridiculous manner, "side to side, until you know it cannot be a man. But make no noise, no noise from the moment we begin. No talk, no laughing, no noise. And never move when it moves. Stand as still as a statue when you hear noise or see movement. No, deer are not as smart as men, but they hear and see and smell better than the best man. Follow me and stay to my left side or behind. Those are all the rules you need. No noise, no movement, and be very careful about this gun. It is only made to kill. You understand?"
Jim nodded, sure that he did not want to stay with this new man, so serious, so unlike the Gueseppi he had heard bellowing through the halls of home.
The pair cut back to where a stream intersected a perpendicular, even more rarely frequented, road. They picked their way downhill, the wind at their faces, tracing the path of the western rut. A small snake slid out in front of them, but Gueseppi only looked slyly out of the corner of his eye, balancing the Winchester more carefully on his right arm, and patted Jim on the head.
It seemed to him that they walked for hours, and always in the same circle. He thought Gueseppi must be as incompetent at this new sport as he was at cooking. But then Gueseppi stopped and held a single finger in front of Jim's face. They stood, quiet, motionless, for ten minutes. Jim tried to see what had so transfixed this odd man, consumed with trees, but could not, and went about occupying himself by wiggling his toes.
Then Gueseppi assumed the stance of the egret, silently and easily determining the best way through weeds and rocks. Cold, mountain water soaked his pants to the knee and he shivered unconsciously. Jim, disoriented, could not tell if what they surveyed was the same field they had seen before, only that it was sown with a grain, pale yellow in the sun. Then he saw him. A young buck with a negligible rack was not yet alerted to the danger that stood close enough to kill. Jim pulled the Italian's pocket. "I see him, Jimmy," he whispered. "This is your call. What shall we do?"
"Kill it." The words left his mouth before he thought what they meant. Then it struck him.
"Cover your ears," Gueseppi whispered. He raised the Winchester to his shoulder and braced his foot between two rocks as the current swirled around his legs. Jim heard the barely audible click as the safety was eased off. There was moss, wet moss; Jim began to fall. The deer heard the noise as Jim sank into the stream, but Gueseppi did not even wince. As the head of the buck came around, he took the shot. Jim rose, gasping, from the water. Gueseppi turned to him. "I think we got it," he said, enthusiasm dancing in his voice.
"What do you mean?" Jim asked, knowing what he meant.
"We got the buck. Come on!"
But Jim was already gone. Out of the water, the heavy drops cascading off his sweater, he bounded down the hill. He went to the place where he thought the buck had fallen, but it was not there. He did not hear Gueseppi trip, did not see him retake his balance and run, more cautiously now, down the hill. He only saw the golden slivers of grain laced with red. "It's not here," Jim said needlessly when Gueseppi caught him.
"No, not here. Look with your mind. Where did he go?" Jim turned again to the fresh drops and saw something unexpected amid the trampled grass. He followed the broken stalks with his eyes, saw where they had been turned away by hooves, saw where the path diverged and where more red waited. He could see where what he assumed to be two does had crossed into the trees, but there, ahead of where they had broken . . . there was the large irregular shape where the animal had finally laid down to die. When Jim looked up, Gueseppi met his eyes. "Yes, yes, there," he said before Jim could point.
Jim ignored Gueseppi's admonishment to be careful, and did not hear the single, quiet, understanding laugh that echoed behind him. And when he reached the place where the buck lay, what had taken away his breath at the stream occurred to him once more. This is death. He had not known. Jim remembered Gueseppi's words: It is only made to kill. To understand death and to deliver it were two entirely different things.
Jim saw the buck as all that it was, saw how its head was twisted against its back, saw how the pink froth from its nostrils was so unlike the deep red that had coated the grain and that now soaked its chest, saw how it still breathed, barely, quietly, without more motion than it takes to live, saw how the eyelid blinked, just once. And Jim knew that knowledge of death was also knowledge of deliverance, knowledge of that one moment when something catches in your throat and you are sorry and can see that there is more to life than merely living, after all. But the only thought that manifested itself clearly in a human, understandable language was, how strange that the buck should blink at a time like this.
* * *
The front door was open when Mike's mother brought Jim home from baseball practice. There was a piece of pale yellow paper on the floor, just beside the couch and her hand where it had fallen. She did not move at all and he thought for a minute that there was something the matter with her, that it would have been better if Mike's mother had waited for him to wave from the kitchen window, just this once. Then he heard her voice, strange, weak, unlike his mother.
"Jim." There was the smell of alcohol on her breath, and he was afraid as she rose from where she had lain and sat him on her lap. "Would you like me to read you a story?" she asked in that foreign tone. "Someone sent me a story this morning, a special story." She wrapped her arms tightly around himthat hurtsbut he said nothing.
He saw the shape of the letter, the form of the words, the place where the seal of the private note had been broken. "Okay," she said. "Here goes. James Henry Harvey (7th Pct.) killed June 17, 1957. Cause ruled suicide.' One of your daddy's friends was nice enough to bring us this story, but we're not allowed to know, okay, honey, it's a secret," she finished in that sweet, drunken voice.
Suicide. He had heard of suicide. The pastor had spoken of it once. A bad thing for a person to do. A bad thing for an officer to do. A bad thing for a daddy to do.
She set Jim down gently on the floor and rose, unsteadily, to make her way to the mirror in the hall. She stumbled over the leg of the coffee table, but merely patted its surface as if to beg apology, for she was intent on the mirror. "That's okay . . ."
Jim saw an odd look grow in her eye as she stared at her reflection. "We won't tell." She raised her fist with its broken nails, even then, and shattered the mirror. Glass fell in pieces around her.
Jim cried out.
"It's okay, baby, mommy's going to clean it up." When she reached down to retrieve the fragments, one caught her eye. "Mommy's going to clean it up." She raised the shard between her fingers and drew it slowly from her nose, down her lips, across her chin . . .
There was nothing at first, and then there was blood, dripping onto her yellow-white skin and down her dress. Crinoline shuffling as she sank against the wall. Crinoline whispering nighttime secrets as she gathered her dress around her knees and against her face. Crinoline scratching as she drew him to her and they struggled to breathe together.
The official letter arrived a few hours later along with a solemn officer, the kind he liked to think of his father as being. She read aloud the first few words before taking the gas grill lighter from the kitchen and burning it in a trash can.
Dear Mrs. Harvey,
It is my duty to inform you that your husband died honorably serving this city while bravely . . .
* * *
A shadow rose and fell across his face and knelt down beside him. "I remember the first time my father took me hunting," the familiar voice said. "I kept thinking about how the deer we killed never asked for anything more than a nice field like this one, oh, and a few pretty does," he said with a faint laugh. "Ours wasn't as big as this one, but I reckon it didn't matter too much to me then. Looks like you did a fine job here, son, together with Mr. Gueseppi."
"I didn't want to. It just happened before I could say anything else. I wish I'd never come."
"Well, that's kind of a hard spot you're in. Some people would blame Mr. Gueseppi, say it was all his fault for bringing you along like this, for aiming that rifle and taking down this deer. But I think any boy of mine would own up to it. Say that he knows it was his wish to do this, if only for a moment. Isn't that true?"
"Then what are you upset about? Everything's got to die. Young ones and old ones, they all die the same. Some things die doing bad things and some things die doing good things. Doesn't matter in the end, cause we all turn up dead. You learned something from this deer. Now if you just let him sit here and forget about him and don't remember what you've learned, then you've a right to be upset. Then you go home and tell your mamma that she shouldn't marry Mr. Gueseppi when you know she should and you don't call him sir' to his face and you go on making things up."
Jim reached out his hand and his father took it, and there was no sticky warmth this time, only the strength and the calluses and the great size that enveloped him. "But," he continued more softly, "If you take a look at this buck and say to him, I'm sorry I had to kill you, and maybe it was a mistake, but I'm going to make sure all the good comes of it that can, well, well then you'll have learned something your mamma learned a long time ago." They were quiet, together, for a moment.
"Why'd you have to go?"
"I can't tell you that now," he said easily. "But I don't think it's something you won't know in time. All you have to know is you're my son and I'm your pa. There's nothing but that." He stood and ruffled his hand through Jim's hair and it glinted in the light like his father's. His smile was broad and white, the smile of a man who knew that once he had been a god. It was the smile that said he would rather have been only a man: sad and shining, yearning, alone. "I'll see you soon."
Gueseppi was there, staring and panting, sweat glistening slightly on his wide forehead. "Whatcha looking at?"
"I thought I saw it blink, is all."
"No, it must have been dead for a few minutes now. Sometimes the sun does things like that. We had a good day, didn't we?"
"Yes, sir." Standing together like that, with the Italian's thick arm swung across Jim's shoulder and the boy's form wrapped around Gueseppi's legs, anyone would have found it difficult to believe they were not family.
Wind came up behind them and blew the sycamores and pines: crinoline in the fields far from home. A shadow passed across the forms of the three like the reflection of a searching bird, wheeling and gliding beneath the bright sun.
* * *
Elizabeth Routen, 21, is a native of Hampton Roads, Virginia and is the author of the recently released short story collection VOICES ON THE STAIR, from which this story is excerpted. Her writing has appeared more than forty times in publications including The Paumanok Review, The Adirondack Review, and The Newport Review, among others. She is a staff writer for Storyteller Magazine. You can visit her online at http://routen.windriverpress.com.