I'm seventeen and driving a truck barefoot down a Michigan road. It's summer; a sunny blue-sky day with cornfields and Christmas tree farms spread out flat alongside the road as far as the eye can see. The air is humid, smells like grass and fertilizer and carries the sound of cicadas, a high-pitched hum that rises and falls and seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. I'm driving my cousin Wendy's boyfriend's caramel-colored Chevy pickup. I just got my driver's license and I'm excited and nervous. I'm thinking that Tommy shouldn't trust me to drive his truck barefoot down a country road - me, the city cousin just visiting from New York, but desperately trying to hide that I'm a city girl; wanting to fit in, not to look like an idiot. The three of us are wedged into the front seat. We don't bother with seatbelts. A hot wind buffets us through the open windows, whipping my long hair all over my face. I've never driven barefoot before. I've never even driven a pickup truck before. I can feel the rubber tread of the gas pedal under my bare toes. Tommy grins at me. He's blond and skinny, with bright blue eyes and freckles. He has shorter hair than any of the guys I know back in New York, and he wears his Detroit Tigers baseball cap pushed back on his head like a little boy. Wendy is in the middle, giggling and sipping from her can of Tab. She really likes this guy, I can tell. The last thing I want to do is to total his truck. Neither of them is aware of how easily I could get us all killed. Tommy turns the radio up loud, blasting Led Zeppelin.
We're bombing down 33 Mile Road and I feel an electric energy in my arms and legs, giddy laughter in my throat. The highway is so empty and open. I learned to drive in city traffic with its constant stop-and-go. This is a rush - the speed and the music and their trust in me. We go along like this for a few miles, laughing, Tommy playing air guitar, when suddenly a quick-moving brown shape appears just outside of my field of vision to the right. I slam on the brakes with my outstretched toes. Wendy's Tab can goes flying, its contents speckling the windshield in the blinding sunlight. Everything is golden, slow motion, as the brakes screech and we skid sideways onto the shoulder. Through the amber cloud of kicked-up road dust, I can just make out the flick of white, the tail of the deer I almost hit, fleeing into the trees.
"Hot damn!" Tommy is laughing, thank God. "That would have totaled my front end. Good move!" He reaches over and slaps me on the thigh. When the adrenaline rush is over, I'm shaking uncontrollably and trying to hide it, white knuckles on the steering wheel, as I slowly pull back onto the road and drive us back to my grandfather's cabin. Wendy is talking nonstop and nuzzling Tommy's neck. It feels as if it takes hours to get back. I am hyper alert to every movement, even the breeze stirring the tall grass by the side of the road. Everything I see is a potential living thing, a target that could run out in front of the truck.
We finally arrive at the cabin as the sun is setting. My father and grandfather are in the garden with my cousin Ricky who's twenty-one and just got out of the army. Ricky is busy growing out his hair and his beard, but he hasn't got a job yet, so he's helping my grandfather around the place. I see that he's squatting over the strawberry patch, eating as many as he's picking. My father is leaning on a long handled shovel, and waves at us as he squints into the orange light. I feel like I might get sick, but I don't. Instead of throwing up, I climb out of the truck in the dirt driveway. I'm wearing cut-offs and my bare sweaty legs come away from the vinyl seat with a ripping pain. I don't care. I'm relieved not to be driving anymore, relieved that we are all still alive.
Later that night, Wendy and I doze in sleeping bags on the floor of the cabin. My grandfather, my father and Ricky are playing cards and smoking cigarettes out on the screened porch under the yellow bug light. There is finally a cool breeze coming in the screen door, bringing the smell of pine trees and upturned soil. I'm kept awake by the occasional whine of a mosquito close to my ear. My grandfather teases that they love to bite me because they like my "city girl blood."
I'm roused from half-sleep by a screech of brakes out on the dark road, followed by a sickening thud and the unmistakable sound of breaking glass. The men are out of their chairs and out the door instantly. Wendy and I walk out onto the porch in our T-shirts and underwear. We watch their flashlight beams bounce away into the darkness. It's so late that even the crickets have gone quiet, but the sky is alive with stars. The stars look as if someone flung them up there randomly, a bright, milky mass.
We hear car doors opening and closing, men's voices, then the sound of a car driving away, the engine making a rattling noise, disappearing into the night. Then we see the beams of the flashlights again, making their slow deliberate progress back to the cabin. My father comes to the door first, rubbing his forehead.
"I need a drink," he says, going into the kitchen. "Guy hit a deer." I can hear my father tossing ice cubes into a glass.
Back out on the porch, Wendy and I see Ricky and my grandfather making their way toward the cabin, dragging the dead doe behind them.
"Oh, gross ...." Wendy groans, covering her eyes.
"Some folks from Grand Rapids," my grandfather says, cheerfully, "Never saw her. She's good sized, though. Got some good venison here!"
"Man... you should have seen the car," Ricky chimes in, "The front end was completely trashed."
I watch in fascination as they drag the lifeless doe past the porch, a dark trail of blood glistening in the grass behind her. I try not to look at her beautiful, unseeing eye.
They hang her by a rope from a dead tree in the back yard. By the dim bluish light of a single camping lantern, they begin to skin her and strip the meat off, speaking in low tones. Watching from the kitchen, I can see the gleaming cords of her exposed muscles mottled purple. I have to look away, trying not to think of how recently those muscles propelled her across the road, confused and blinded by headlights.
My father sips his vodka and peers through the kitchen door. He chuckles, shakes his head.
"Will you look at that - sneaking around in the dark, like a scene from a bad movie. You're not supposed to take venison off-season. They're supposed to report it, have the Fish & Game people pick her up."
I watch my father watch them. He has never liked venison. I don't like it either. It's stringy and gamey-tasting. It's also deer meat. But my father grew up hunting deer. My grandfather even went to jail once during the Depression, for hunting off-season. He told the authorities that he hadn't meant any harm; he was just trying to feed his family. I try to picture my father as a teenager who left this rural life for the big city, looking for something else. Anything different.
I look out the window again, but not at the backyard scene, where my grandfather and Ricky perform their methodical butchering. Instead, I look up at that beautiful mess of stars hoping, knowing that this is not the same deer that I so narrowly missed earlier in the day. This is the same sky that I can see from my bedroom window in New York, but it looks different there, the stars so few and far between, diffused by the orange glow of the city. There seem to be so many more stars here in the Northern Michigan sky. When I look long enough, I am just able to make out the familiar shapes of the constellations, winking from the camouflage of brilliant light.
About the author:
Stephanie Williamson is a writer and photographer. Her writing has been published in Literary Mama and Common Ties and her photography recently appeared in The Sun. A former New Yorker, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two sons. She teaches photography at City College of San Francisco.
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