Prickly Skin (part 2)
On the 3rd of July, we all gathered around the kitchen table to draw a folded piece of paper from Dan's baseball cap. We had a lot do to before the park's annual Fourth of July celebration, and, by tradition, had to pick the work we would do from a hat. There were some easy jobs, and some pain-in-the ass ones. Everyone had his or her own technique, to try and redirect fate. Margot covered her eyes with both hands, and jumped gleefully.
"Pick one for me. Don't let me see," she said. "Kitchen Prep." Paul thrust his hand into the cap forcefully, read the paper, and then popped it into his mouth.
"Grocery Run," he shouted. Dan approached his cap rubbing his two hands together, and then took a step backwards. He then brought his knee up quickly, like a diver trampolining from a board. His two palms touched in mock-dive formation and his belly jiggled. "Cabin Clean."
"Here's the mope," Margot said.
"It's mop," I said. Casey and I faced each other in front of the cap. There were only two pieces of paper left. Two people were needed on a grocery run. I looked at Casey and then over at Paul. Casey gestured for me to go first, but I couldn't, so Casey picked.
"Grounds Crew," Casey said, crumbling up the paper with one hand and smiling at me.
"Toss me the keys, baby, and we're off," Paul said. I grabbed the keys from the table, and threw them hard at his chest. He turned his hand quickly and caught them, and glared at me.
"I'm not your baby, Paul." The others in the kitchen laughed at the tension.
"Play nice, kids," Dan said, backing away in fake terror. "Play nice with each other."
Paul slammed the door of the pick-up and turned on the radio. The tranquilizer gun for the elk was in the gun rack behind the seats. Paul tapped on it with his hand and looked at me.
"I'm tempted," Paul said, "to use it on you."
We drove without speaking. A grocery run was a sixty-mile round trip deal. Then you had to tear the shopping list in half and wander around the sprawling warehouse of a supermarket. We made our purchases, with money that everyone had put in: burgers and hot dogs, rolls, corn-on-the cob, huge containers of ice cream, and watermelon. We loaded the groceries in the truck and drove in silence. Paul smoked, and looked out the window, and changed stations every time I started singing along with a song. It was already dark when we returned to the ranger station. Paul cut the engine and turned off the headlights. He leaned over me to open up the glove compartment, to take out his cigarettes. His hands dropped onto my legs.
"Alison, I know what you need." One hand tightened on my knee while his other hand squeezed my thigh.
"Don't," I said, trying to move away.
"Sssh," he said and tried to kiss me. I turned and he grazed the side of my head with his mouth. He swung one of his legs over both of mine, pinning them together. As he crawled closer to me, the buckle on his belt pinched my stomach. He kissed me and pushed his tongue into my mouth.
"Stop, Paul, " I said, leaning into him.
"Just relax," Paul said. He didn't think I could free my legs, and he didn't think I would kick him where I did. His body jerked backwards and the tip of his boot hit the steering wheel. The horn went off. Casey came out on the porch, and saw me sliding out of the truck sideways, still prying Paul's other hand off my leg.
"What's going on?" he asked. "Nothing," I said, with my eyes on the ground. I knew my face was burning red and I straightened my shirt that had hitched up. Casey put a hand on my shoulder.
"Really?" He studied my face carefully. I turned and ran to my cabin. I headed straight to the bathroom, where I sat on the toilet, with my underwear around my ankles. My underwear was wet. How could someone I hated excite me?
The tree race was a prime example of the utter stupidity in which Paul and Casey had entangled themselves. We were all sitting on the porch one Friday after dinner at the end of July, drinking vodka coolers, an invention with apple juice as the mixer, since we had run out of orange juice.
"I was going past that tree the other day," Paul said, opening a tin of tobacco. "It's got to be impossible to climb those things without ropes. I thought I heard a jay nest and wanted to check it out, but couldn't get higher than about five feet." He shot a look at Casey and then pulled back his lower lip with one hand and stuffed a wad of chew into place.
"You didn't touch the nest, did you?" Casey frowned.
"I just said I didn't get any higher than five feet," Paul said. "No, I didn't touch the nest. I couldn't get near it."
"'Cause if you touch a bird's nest, she won't come back to it. It's the smell of humans."
"Home wrecker," I accused, helping myself to the pitcher.
"I didn't touch the nest, ok?" Paul said, spitting on the floor. "I'm talking about the tree -- have you ever tried to climb it?"
"Not that particular one," Casey said, taking the pitcher from me.
"Did you use ropes to climb?" Paul asked.
"No, I didn't need them," Casey said quietly.
"I don't believe you." Paul spat again, laughing when I made a face. "I want to see you do it right now, no ropes."
Casey smiled and downed the remainder of his glass. The screen door cracked shut and the two of them headed off, while Dan, Margot, and I followed.
I didn't want to watch, while Margot thought it was a scream and was dancing around and shouting encouragement. I tried to talk to Casey, but he was staring up at the top of the tree and wriggling his fingers around, like a gymnast about to grab onto a bar. Dan announced the start. While they climbed, we could only see their kicking legs and the branches sagging under the unaccustomed weight. I could see Casey's hiking boot appear in a break of the covering about twenty feet up, and then I heard the crack. I saw his red sweatshirt slipping through the straight branches, and he landed with a sick thud over the roots of the tree.
"I'm OK, I'm OK," he said immediately, trying to sit up. Paul jumped down from the last branch and rushed over to where we all were gathered.
"Paul, you fool." I lunged after him.
"Alison, calm down. Christ, somebody get her away from me," he complained as one of my swings finally connected with force. I was too afraid to go over to Casey and continued clawing at Paul, until he gave me a rough push, and I fell backwards.
"Alison, look I'm fine," Casey said, holding on to his shoulder. Breaking into a weak smile, he motioned me towards him and grabbed my hand in front of everyone. In a low voice he added, "Quit manhandling Paul. You're making me jealous." Bursting into tears, I threw his hand from mine and ran back to my cabin, where I slammed the screen door loud enough for everyone to hear.
At the beginning of August, during breakfast of scrambled eggs and black coffee, Casey started following something with his eyes that was moving through the woods.
"Did you see that?" he said.
"No. What?" I said.
"Something orange," he said, and hunched down in his chair. "I saw it again," he said, throwing a piece of toast on his plate. Dan and Paul shuffled into the kitchen like sleepwalkers. Margot was still in our cabin sleeping. He rushed outside and the door banged shut. I ran to the porch and saw Casey walking quickly, his arms swinging, over to the firewood pile, to the splitting log that had the axe jammed into it. He placed one foot on the stump and pried the axe away forcefully. He hunched over, like an animal stalking prey, and ran to the wooded area near the beginning of our eight-mile driveway, and stood completely still.
"Dan, follow him," I said. Dan brushed past me on the porch and began jogging to catch up with Casey. I lost sight of Casey and saw Dan begin to run faster. When I heard Dan yell, No, and start to curse, I jumped off the porch and started running, too.
Casey had knocked the hunter to the ground, and was sitting on the guy's stomach, with his legs squeezing him around the middle. He had the axe raised above his head and was threatening the man, who yelled, and kicked the earth with his boots.
"What were you trying to shoot?" Casey screamed at the hunter.
"I wasn't shooting. I wasn't shooting," the hunter said, his rifle was on the ground a foot away and his orange cap had been knocked next to it.
"Don't lie," Casey said, the veins on his neck bulged.
"Casey, back off," Dan said.
"He was trying to kill one of our elk, " Casey said, with the axe still raised above him.
"Put it down, Casey," Dan said.
"There is no hunting here. You know that," Casey said shaking the man's neck. He brought down the axe, so it thumped the earth next to the man's ear, and then raised it up in the air. The hunter's eyes were closed and he had stopped struggling. "Casey, I said to put it down. Put it DOWN. PUT IT DOWN," Dan said. Dan was all brute force when he was angry. He swung his fist and knocked Casey off the hunter's stomach. "Alison, call to have this guy picked up. We'll let the authorities deal with justice. Right, Casey?" Casey stood up, brushed off his knees, and stood there staring at the man.
"Casey," I said softly. He looked at me, as if he didn't know me, and walked away.
Paul appeared, rubbing his stomach and still half-asleep. "Wow," he said. "Nature Boy flipped out."
Once a month, the five of us would pile into the pick-up truck and drive to Jackson, a journey of about two hours. Jackson is a not too exciting town with plenty of bars and a thousand other overstuffed pick-ups, screeching their tires at intersections and flirting with rude suggestions and mild insults.
"You want to what?" Paul screamed at the girl in the truck on Dan's side. "Wait, wait, a minute, I think she's serious. Dan, get a look, is she a dog or what?" Dan hit the gas, and we lurched around a corner, and slid into each other. "Come on, man. Aw, you blew it," Paul said.
"I don't think you two would have much to talk about," Casey said, smiling.
"Talk? We have plenty to talk about. When and where."
"Paul, you work hard at being truly disgusting," I said.
"Where do you want to go?" Dan asked. "Tell me now. Should I turn here?" We stopped at a hokey establishment that was doing its best to stay authentic to its name, The Cowboy Canteen. Several Harley Davidsons were leaning out front. We grabbed our favorite booth in the back so we could view the whole place, and sat: Dan, me, and Casey with Margot and Paul on the other side. Casey ordered our traditional bottle of vodka and everyone reached into his jeans to contribute a few crinkled bills that formed a green pile on the checkered tablecloth.
The bottle and the shot glasses arrived and we each took a warm-up drink before settling into a rapid fire game of Sevens, which is a great drinking game if all the multiples of seven sit ready to spring from the tip of your tongue, but it was hell for me. Margot's cheeks were already flushed before we began the second bottle and her English was amazingly confident and full of slang.
"Shheet, I forgeted my number," she laughed, propping her face up with her hand. "Gimme my drink, man," she demanded as Dan pulled the bottle away from her unsteady hand. Dan had a paper napkin on his head and I kept turning to him and saying, "What's that, man?" while he laughed contagiously and would say, "This," and point to his head, "this is my hat."
Casey had that wild, animated look he always got when we drank. His features would intensify so that his eyebrows looked like one thick smudge of coal and his chin hardened, held high with the determination of liquid confidence. I was kind of feeling like I was melting, dangerously close to becoming a full-fledged puddle, so it seemed like not so much of a big deal when I made my move. My right thigh brushed against and then became a part of Casey's leg, and my hand found its way to his knee and then moved up the inside of his thigh.
Paul and Casey were arguing about conservation laws.
"It's simply not practical to carry out the relocation project in other parts of the state," Paul said, in his lawyer voice. "It's expensive and it's time consuming. You see what I'm saying? The government funds us, to do this work as a token project, in order to appease the extremists. In more settled areas, there is nothing wrong with a controlled hunting season. Do you want all the elk, due to over-population, to die of disease, starve, or get hit in front of shopping malls? A hunting season is just as humane as all of this relocation."
"How can you work on this project with that kind of attitude? You're just as unforgivable as those other murderers," Casey said, through a barely-parted mouth.
"Oh, yes, it's true," Paul said, with his hand to his forehead. "I'm an awful, awful, bunny-killer and ant-smasher. Come on, man, I'm being realistic. I'm not floating around on some kind of harmony with the animals trip."
"I would never shoot an elk. I'd rather kill myself than any animal," Casey said slowly, leaning towards Paul.
"You are all talk, Nature Boy," Paul said. Dan got up and put money in the jukebox. He stood in front of Margot and spun in a circle just as Marvin Gaye's song, "Let's Get It On," started to play. He pulled Margot to dance. Margot shimmied around Dan, while he twisted like a puffy Elvis during his decline. Margot lifted up Dan's shirt and exposed his bulging stomach. Dan was so unsexy, that we all started to laugh.
None of us should have been driving that night. So it wasn't Dan's fault. We were in the home stretch. In another few minutes, we would have reached the entrance of our eight-mile driveway. The elk was standing in the bend of the road and there was no way to avoid hitting him. I just remember seeing that he had a full rack of antlers. Casey jumped out of the truck and was standing over him. The impact had crushed the front of the truck.
"His back legs are broken," Casey said. Paul pulled the tranquilizer gun off the rack, and started loading it.
"Stand back, Smokey. I'm going to make this painless." Casey and Paul shoved each other and the stunned elk tried to pull himself away on his two good legs.
"He can be helped," Casey said.
"Back off. This is a deadly dose," Paul said.
Paul pushed Casey away and lifted the sight to his eye. Casey lunged towards the fallen elk to cover him at the same moment that Paul released the trigger. The animal panicked when Casey slumped across him, but somehow the elk found the strength to pull himself into the darkness of the trees. I fell to my knees.
- - -
About the author:
Jennifer Prado writes for independent film in New York City. She has a degree in Fiction Writing from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and studied Screen Writing at Film and Video Arts in New York City. Her short fiction and essays have appeared (or are forthcoming) in EWG Presents, Fiction Funhouse, Nuvein Magazine, Small Spiral Notebook, and Tower of Babel. She has recently completed her first novel, Love and Sex, and is navigating the perplexing world of New York agents, editors, and publishers. She spent the last year living in a rural community in Brazil, where there are more cows than people.