Looking out for the Dead
Eugene shifted the flatbed Chevy into third and crawled up Sawmill Ridge. He turned Robert Earl Keen up a notch and surveyed both shoulders of the road. The dispatcher, Deidra, had said the accident was just over the hill, and that the roadkill wasn’t pretty, or so she had heard. She said the victim and the police were at the scene. When he reached the apex of the ridge the lights of a police car flashed behind a blue Volvo sedan. Down from the two vehicles, an officer and a man stood along the highway looking over the dead. He swung the truck in behind the police car and set the handbrake, got out with a pair of gloves in hand.
“There’s the animal guy,” the officer said, pinching his hat brim. It was Stuckey, the recent transfer. He stepped up to Eugene. “It took you long enough. We got another creamed critter. If another five minutes went by we’d have put a red bow on it for you.”
“That’s a baby there,” Eugene said, staring at the brown fawn with white spots. Its bloody tongue hung from the corner of its mouth, and its front and rear legs were bent like upside-down handlebars.
“It might look like a miscarriage now,” the man said. “But it sure left its mark on my Volvo, took the headlight and grille out.” The man loosened his neck tie and pointed at the hole in the front end, at the crinkled hood. “The insurance company is going to stick it where it hurts and I don’t even get a meal out of it.”
“You could always take it home yet,” Eugene said, “get something. A few backstraps maybe.”
The man unbuttoned his navy blazer and shook his head. “How would I get it there?”
Eugene shrugged. He scratched his wrist. “As little as that thing is you might get it in the trunk.”
The man frowned and walked toward his car. On the way he reached for a broken piece of grille and held the plastic mesh in his hand, then rubbed the Volvo emblem with his thumb.
Stuckey moved behind him and kicked the other pieces into a pile. “Make sure you pick this trash up too,” he said.
Eugene nodded. He waded through the knee high grass into the ditch and grabbed onto one of the fawn’s broken front legs. A green bottle fly scampered across the fawn’s snout, and clung to a cloudy eyeball, as Eugene dragged the fawn toward the shoulder of the road. When he reached the truck, he took a leg in each hand and swung it over the truck rail. Air escaped the fawn’s belly and it bleated as it landed.
“Well, I think that should do it,” Eugene said, and tossed a broken headlight in with the fawn. He straightened his orange protective helmet and tried to give Stuckey a wave.
Stuckey had a notebook in his hand. He leaned down next to the hole in the front of the Volvo and wrote something. When he was upright again, his body started to convulse—abrupt spasms of his arms and head as if he were having a grand mal seizure. He stopped jerking and made a winding gesture around the side of his head and pointed in the direction of Eugene. Then Stuckey nudged the man on the arm and the man laughed.
Eugene shook his head and climbed into the cab, and before he could get the truck turned around his phone erupted. It was Deidra again. As she described another pickup location, he pictured her at the courthouse, in a tan skirt and a sleeveless white v-neck, hunched close to a glowing monitor as she ran a finger along a map. Two weeks ago, at Deputy Halverson’s retirement party, she asked him to swing by and remove a dead raccoon in front of her place, and he learned then that she had a young son. She even joked with him afterward and sent him away with a bag of store-bought apples. Later, one of the gals in the office said she was single, so he planned to ask her out, maybe take her and the son over to Roy’s on Michigan 66 for some home-style cooking. But ever since someone at the office complained recently about him coming in there smelling of sour death, to talk and fill out his time sheet, with blood and guts smeared on his uniform, he now had to stay out in the service garage.
He rolled the window down to get some fresh air, to allow the July morning to push through. It wasn’t long before the cab filled with the scent of fresh cut grass and honeysuckle, and he slapped the steering wheel to the beat of the radio, to the squeal of tires eating corners and swallowing small hills. Within minutes he arrived at the new location on Bunker Hill Road, and a man in blue jeans with a feed cap stood next to an opening in a barbed wire fence with a shotgun in hand, about ten feet from a russet-colored cow with large, bulging eyes and a crooked leg.
Eugene got out and gave a nod. “Howdy there,” Eugene said.
“Howdy yourself,” the man said. “Some asshole hit my cow here and took off.”
Eugene turned. Two skid marks squiggled along the gray highway. The cow had limped off the road and positioned itself next to the fence. Blood trickled from a knee on its front leg, and the knee had swelled to the size of a football. A wet rumble came from deep in the cow’s throat as it tilted its head.
“Do you know anything at all about who might’ve hit it?” Eugene asked.
“Hell, son, your guess is good as mine. I don’t suspect people right care much. Not now days.”
Eugene lifted his head to say something but thought better of it. He straightened his hard hat and tried to get next to the beast, to get a look at its injured leg. In a perfect world he’d put his hands around the swollen knee, shift the cartilage and bones into place with his thumbs, and wrap it. As he got closer, the cow veered to head him off and bellowed. Eugene stepped back, and the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of shells. He stuck them both in the breech and snapped it shut.
“Whoa, hold on,” Eugene said. “Can’t we save it? Besides, you can’t do anything with that gun until an officer gets here. Standard procedure.”
The man took one of his hands off the shotgun and pointed a finger at the ground. “Is this your land? No. It’s my goddamn land, who you to tell me what I can or can’t do?”
“Listen,” Eugene said, “I’m not here to tell you anything. I know it’s your land, so please don’t get mad at me. I’m just trying to do a job. I don’t want any trouble.”
The man turned the barrel upward and rested the gun against his shoulder, and Eugene went to the truck to call dispatch, to make sure an officer was en route. While Eugene leaned against the hot fender and waited for an officer to arrive, the man circled the cow and cussed under his breath.
“Don’t understand how someone can hit a son of a bitchin’ cow and keep right going. Don’t folks these days give a shit about anything? Bastards.”
Eugene understood. It’s what got him to want to be a roadkill technician in the first place: the caring. When he was in the 5th grade, some negligent driver hit Bob, his chocolate lab. Eugene rode the school bus home unaware of Bob’s death until the bus driver told everyone to sit tight and thudded over an already dead Bob to drop him off. Abandoned, with a dog tag that flashed in the sun like a discarded beer tab, Bob lay on the side of the road next to a blood stain. No courtesy. Ever since then Eugene had a desire for helping animals, whether dead or alive, get the respect they deserved. He never understood how people could live with the guilt after running down someone’s pet or livelihood and not care, to shrug, maybe sip a coffee or a beer, and keep going.
The police car arrived. It was Stuckey again. He hit the lights and talked into the mike. He looked at the man and the cow as his mouth moved. Then he clipped the mike on a hook and stepped from the car, unlatched his gun holster. “Sir, could you please put that firearm down? We can’t do anything until that gun is put away,” Stuckey said.
The man shook his head. “Jesus Christ,” and spit shot from his mouth. “My cow, my land, my gun, and now it’s my goddamn fault. Where’s my rights?”
“I understand,” Stuckey said. “Please put the weapon in the grass and we’ll talk rights. I’d hate to have a stray bullet take someone like Eugene down.”
The man sighed. He leaned the gun against a wooden fence post and stomped toward Eugene and Stuckey. His face was red.
“Thank you,” Stuckey said. “Do we know who hit the cow?”
“Well it sure as hell wasn’t this boy, I don’t reckon,” the man said, and pointed a thumb toward Eugene. “Beats the hell out of me who it was. I got a call from a neighbor up the way, said someone hit a cow, that’s all I know.”
“Okay. You don’t think there’s any way to save it do you?” Stuckey asked. “I mean, if you can’t nurse it back to the pasture, we’ll have to put it down.”
The man looked at the cow. He lifted his cap and ran a hand over the stubble on his head, then slipped the cap back on. A procession of vehicles idled past, and the exhaust fumes deadened the air, as more and more rubberneckers stopped and setup folding chairs along the opposite side of the highway. One man had even climbed onto the roof of a Ford pickup to get a better view. He sat up there with his legs dangling over the driver’s side door, clutching and sipping a Pepsi. Down from him, two children in bathing suits shoved each other on the tar and chip blacktop over a red candy stick.
“No, there ain’t no saving her. She’s good as gone,” the man said.
Stuckey motioned for the people to move back. He brushed his starched gray shirt and tugged on the loops of his uniform pants. He stood in the gravel along the shoulder of the road and faced the cow. He dug grooves with the heels of his polished shoes, looked behind him again, and wiped the sweat from his forehead with a free hand. A young girl had a sucker going in and out of her mouth and her lips were red; she stood behind Stuckey without blinking. Stuckey pulled the black 9 mm from his holster and aimed the gun. The first shot missed and the spectators gasped. The sucker disappeared into the girl’s mouth and her hands covered her ears.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” the man said. “The county has two children at large, one shoveling and one shooting.”
Eugene shook his head and guessed Stuckey didn’t want to get up beside the cow in the first place because blood might have splattered and stained his uniform. Then Stuckey inched forward. He raised the gun again and held the aim longer. On the second shot the bullet struck the cow in the head, tearing the roof of its skull off. The cow shuddered, then turned its neck and eyed them before the ass of it crashed to the ground and the front came with it. The cow’s legs jerked. Blood spilled from its head.
Stuckey ambled up to the cow and nudged its neck with his foot. He stared at the tip of his shoe and rubbed it in the grass. “First shot got away from me, must have been the sun,” he joked.
Eugene and the man didn’t laugh.
“I’m gonna get my tractor. It can’t sit long in this heat,” the man said, and he started making his way toward a red, gambrel-roofed barn in the field.
“Eugene will help you until you get it off the side of the road,” Stuckey said as the man walked away. “That’s why we pay him.” He slapped Eugene on the shoulder. “Good luck, Genie. Hopefully somebody else gets called and has to see you pimply face next time.”
In less than twenty minutes Eugene and the man had gotten a chain around one of the cow’s rear legs. Then the man revved the tractor’s engine and pulled the cow through the ditch. The cow slid with ease through grass and smoke and the man didn’t say thank you. The burning sun glowed like a branding iron and bore down on Eugene’s neck, on the truck bed where a tornado of flies swirled around the fawn. All the spectators had left except for the man on the roof of the truck. The guy even had the gall to ask the owner of the cow if he could have it. Nothing surprised Eugene anymore. He had only been on the job a year since graduating from high school and had seen it all. When he got into the cab, he grabbed his phone off the seat. He had eight missed messages, all from Deidra. “Christ,” he said, “will it ever end?”
Eugene spent the rest of Friday afternoon working through the different location messages Deidra had left. On Kidder Road he picked up another deer, a bloated spike horn. By the elementary school he used a flat head shovel to scrape up a calico cat that looked like it had been run through a meat grinder. In between stops he replayed Deidra's messages. A few times he thought he could sense some flirtatiousness with the way she started sentences with “would you please” or “could you please.” He just didn’t have enough time to get through them all. The rest would have to wait until Monday.
After he’d finished dropping the carcasses at the compost station—and covered them with soil, so they could be born again someday through vegetation—he drove to the service garage. He pulled the truck in the shade and dragged a hose over to wash the bed out. As he sprayed the truck, to drown the stench and clear the maggots, he watched as the office gals exited the courthouse. He wanted to catch a glimpse of Deidra. Maybe he could stop her before she left and ask her out to dinner? Her silver Toyota Camry was nosed up to the chain-link that skirted the parking lot. He stood spraying the truck, waiting. Finally she came out. She was talking with another gal. He couldn’t help admiring her long, slender legs and her heels that clopped over the asphalt. A moment later a truck swung in next to her, and Stuckey got out wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans. He strutted over to the passenger side of her Camry and placed an arm along the roof above the door, leaned in, and started talking. Stuckey smiled, told some story with his hands. Some of the words sounded like cow, gun, and Eugene. Then Deidra and Stuckey laughed, and Deidra reached over and gave him a piece of paper. Stuckey looked at it and stuck it into his pocket. Then he tapped on the roof of her car and gave a wave.
Eugene tried to wave to her too as she zipped by, but she didn’t look his way. He stopped spraying the truck when Stuckey pulled up.
“Hey, Genie, why don’t you wash my truck next time? It could use a good spit shine.”
Eugene wanted to tell him to go to hell, but gave a fake laugh instead. “Keep dreaming.”
Stuckey grabbed a lever next to the steering wheel and pulled on it.
“Hey, what’s the story with you and Deidra anyway?”
Stuckey’s truck clunked as he got it into gear and held it with the brake. “Wouldn’t you like to know, huh, buddy?”
“You two an item or what?”
Stuckey smiled. He leaned close to the rear view mirror and ran a hand through his crew cut before turning back to Eugene. “Come on. You don’t actually believe you got a chance do you?” He shook his head. “Look at yourself. You shovel dead shit all day for Christ’s sake. You’re not in her league, man. She thinks you’re a chump, forget about it.”
Eugene gripped the hose nozzle and it hissed. He wanted to jam the nozzle into Stuckey’s mouth, squeeze the damn thing full bore until an eruption spewed from his nose and mouth and he choked like a yard sprinkler. See how almighty Stuckey acted then. “You know, I’d like to buy into the hype, but the more I learn about you the worse it gets.”
Stuckey shook his head. He let out a laugh and seemed to enjoy the attention. “Just stay away from her. Then we won’t have any problems. And if you’re lucky, when I’m through, you can have her. That’s if there’s anything left.”
On Saturday afternoon Eugene loaded his camping gear into his 1978 Ford Ranchero. He found a Coleman cooler in the shed and filled it full of Busch Light. Abby, his English setter, ran around the yard with a stick in her mouth as he loaded gear. When he had everything stowed away, he got Abby into the front seat and drove through East Jordan. Now that he wasn’t allowed in the office anymore, he wished he could run into Deidra somehow and ask her out on a date. Maybe should would bring her son along to the river for a picnic? He swung by Murphy Field to see if Deidra was there with her son, throwing a ball around. He drove over to the beach in case they were spending the day there. Children screamed and filled the water. Mothers in bikinis rested in the sand with magazines draped over their faces. A few stood in the shallows and adjusted their tops before grabbing a hold of a child’s hand. He circled along the beach road once more, peaking over the embankment of beach sand, as Abby panted with her head out the window. If he spotted Deidra, he’d put Abby on a leash, walk her over, and say hello. He’d be a man for once and tell her he’d been hoping to find her, but he didn’t see her anywhere.
Out near the city limits Eugene pulled over and fished a beer out of the cooler. He’d take the scenic route toward Graves Crossing and set up camp along the Jordan River. Spend the rest of the afternoon tipping beers and listening to the radio, watch Abby plunge in and out of the cold, clear river. When he reached Timber Ridge, he wondered why he hadn’t stopped by Deidra’s to pay her a visit, ask if she’d like to come along, get away from it all. She lived just down the road. He might try tomorrow if the weather was nice. With what Stuckey suggested, though, she’d probably say no anyway. Why did that guy have to be such an ass?
Around seven o’clock Eugene had a little fire going and had filled the dog’s food dish. The sun wore him down earlier, made him feel more buzzed than he wanted to be, so he had put his chair in the shade and turned the radio up. Before long it was night and he threw a few more maple logs onto the fire. He tried to stop thinking about Deidra and what it would be like to feel her body touching his, to be able to wake up first and cook her breakfast. He leaned his head back, rubbed Abby behind the ears, and closed his eyes—listened as Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away” cut through the blindness and over the lull of the river water, deep into the night.
When he awoke it was morning, and the sun pinched between the trees. A pile of Busch Light cans lay fallen around the chair and his neck hurt. He stepped behind a bush to take a leak and heard Abby’s dog tags rattle out from underneath the Ranchero. Maybe after he got the cans picked up he’d drive by Deidra’s, see if she would like to come back and have breakfast. After he finished cleaning and got Abby into the car it was nine thirty. He pulled onto M-66 and eased the throttle down toward Deidra’s. He pulled the visor down to block some of hell’s curtain burning low to the ground, and wondered what he might say to her. She’d probably say thanks but no thanks to whatever he said. He still couldn’t see, and he tilted his head this way and that to watch the road. When he got close to her house something white flashed in the ditch. It broke from the tall grass and jumped in front of the car. It looked like a possum. The animal made a thump thump as it scraped against the floorboard and shot out the back. He pumped the brake and pulled onto the shoulder of the road. About twenty yards behind the car an animal shook, half pasted into the asphalt. He got out and hustled over. It was a dog, a beagle. A thin piece of bone jutted from its crushed skull and its tail still wagged.
He looked at her house across the highway, a white single story with a swing set in the yard. A leather ball glove lay in the driveway. “Shit,” he said. He dragged the beagle into the grass and ran to the car. Abby danced on the seat as he opened the door. He thought about saying the hell with it and driving off. But what would she say? Was he still drunk? He couldn’t just leave, so he grabbed his hat off the seat and turned back. When he reached the beagle again, it was already dead. Eugene pulled his animal control cap down to conceal his face, and he scooped the beagle into his arms and walked across the road. A few cars rumbled past, and the occupants had their heads pasted against the glass, watching. He didn’t know how this could be happening.
He walked through the front yard with the warm dog in his arms. He laid the beagle on red and purple petunias in the flower box next to the porch and took a deep breath. The flower blooms and the dainty earth made his mouth water. Her son appeared in the bay window. He had blond hair and a round face. Eugene stepped onto the porch and knocked, but the boy didn’t move. He wore Spiderman pajamas and he rubbed an eye with the ball of his fist. The door opened.
“Eugene, what are you doing here?” Deidra asked.
She wore a thin white robe and the end of it stopped in the middle of her thighs. A flash of nausea shook Eugene as if he had been kidney punched. He started to sweat.
“Well,” she said, “what is it?”
Eugene looked at his primer splotched Ranchero idling up on the road and almost made a break for it. “There’s been an accident,” he said, “I was driving and—”
“Are you okay?” she asked, and stepped out on the porch. A light breeze lifted the ends of the robe, revealing more of her thighs, and the boy remained fixed in the window.
“Actually,” he said. “It isn’t good.”
“What?” she asked, and crossed her arms.
Eugene turned and pointed toward the flower box. “I’m not sure, but I might’ve hit your dog.”
Deidra hurried down the steps and slipped onto her knees. When she bent forward, her vanilla-colored panties became visible. Eugene shook from the guilt and averted his eyes to the dog. Deidra poked it with her finger as if it were a child’s belly, as if it were still alive. She petted it. She cooed to it and lifted its head. Then the boy came out the door.
“Mommy, what you doing?” the boy asked.
“Just go back inside, honey, Max is sick. Please go back inside, okay,” she said.
The boy inched closer. He tilted his head over the iron railing.
Eugene came off the porch. “I messed up,” he said, “I’m an idiot.” Eugene tried to block the boy’s sight and was about to place a hand on her shoulder when Stuckey stepped out. He didn’t have a shirt on and his chest was shaved. He held a plastic spatula in his left hand and some egg clung to it.
“Jerry,” Deidra said, “please take Allan inside. Eugene hit Max.”
“Genie did what?”
Deidra made a twisted face and shooed at Jerry to get her son away. “Just take Allan into the house.”
Stuckey took Allan by the arm and helped him inside. When he closed the door, Deidra stood up. She tightened her robe and gave Eugene a disgusted look as she rushed up the steps and went into the house. Stuckey leaned against the railing and stared down at Eugene and the beagle.
“Hell, if I’d known this would happen, you might still be favored at work. God, I hated that fucking dog,” and he scratched his chest.
“What?” Eugene asked.
“You deaf? None of that really matters now, does it? You did yourself in this time.”
Eugene stood there for a moment; then he stepped closer. “Why couldn’t I’ve missed the dog and got you hung up under the car instead? Then I could’ve scraped you out like shit from a boot.”
Stuckey smirked and looked off at something in the yard, and behind him Deidra’s son held both of his little palms against the bay window. A few times the boy stuck his lips to the glass and mumbled something.
“You know,” Stuckey said, “there are two kinds of people. Those that help others and those who fuck things up so others have to help. I don’t think it takes much now to see the side you’re on.”
Eugene hesitated. He didn’t know what to say. This time he had screwed up, and he wished there was a way out of it. He wished he could’ve seen the road a bit better. He thought about asking Stuckey to step into the yard, to see what he had, but the boy still watched from the window.
Then Deidra stepped out wearing stained sweat pants and a T-shirt. “Thanks, Eugene. I trusted you. Of all people, why did it have to be you?” She got on her knees and wrapped a towel around the dog, then cradled it and stood. “Please go, Eugene. We can handle it from here.”
She turned and headed toward the field, and Stuckey came off the porch to follow her. Eugene walked with them halfway around the house before Stuckey turned to stop him.
“You heard her. I think it’s time for you to vamoose. You’ve already caused us enough pain,” Stuckey said, and he hustled to catch up with Deidra.
As Eugene lumbered across the brown lawn toward the highway, the boy came out of the house and tottered down the concrete steps. He ran toward Deidra and Stuckey, and Eugene could hear both of their voices telling the boy to stay back, to go play as they helped Max. When Eugene reached the Ranchero, he turned and watched Deidra trudge through the waist high grass with the bulging towel in her arms before she vanished. He got in the car and Abby whined. He grabbed the steering wheel at noon and three and sat there for a minute; felt the car lift and fall each time a vehicle moaned past. He thought about leaving Abby tied to the mailbox or to the front door, but Deidra and the boy probably wouldn’t want her. He slipped the Ranchero into drive, did a U-turn, and pulled onto the highway. Deidra worked a shovel now in the high grass and her brunette hair glistened in the sun. She stopped shoveling and wiped her forehead on her sleeve; she pinched her shirt and fanned herself before thrusting the shovel handle back and forth again. Along the edge of the field, Stuckey stood clutching the spatula, and next to him Allan crouched with the ball glove in his hands. They both turned from Deidra as Eugene mashed on the accelerator, as he gained speed and shot past the blood stain, and headed back in the direction of the river.
About the Writer
Keith Rebec resides in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s a graduate student, working on a M.A. in Writing, at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Underground Voices, and Paradise Review, among others.