Men and a Boy
Deer hunting in New Jersey was a big thing every year for Tommy Marach and his buddies on the force. Deer hunting was a time for them to kick back and get in the woods and freeze their asses off and drink whiskey at night and smoke cigars and get away from the city, the concrete. They had rented the same farm out in Central Jersey since Tommy Marbach's old man hunted there fifty years before. Deer hunting had been part of Tommy Marbach's rite of passage into manhood. Deer hunting would be part of Christian Marbach's own avenue into that same matrix. The practice on the firing range he had spent with his father feeling the fierceness of his own inadequacies in his father's voice and face was only the prelude to what would be the real test of Christian's mettle.
Deer hunting in New Jersey always began the first Monday of December. Tommy Marbach and his buddies, all cops, always rented a cabin for the week. Sunday to Sunday. Christian would miss school for a whole week. His friends, those who did not have cops as fathers and or who were not friends of his old man, were pissed off with jealousy. A week from school and then in two weeks Christmas break.
His whole life his father had told deer-hunting stories. There was the head of an eight-point buck in the finished cellar where Tommy Marbach had a bar and held card games with his buddies and played pool from October until the first thaw. Christian had deer hooves attached to ornate wood for book holders. Every winter there were pictures of men and their guns with dead deer hanging from trees on the refrigerator. Men smiling with their guns poised, the barrels upward toward the sky, smiling, kneeling on one knee the dead deer in the background.
The place Tommy Marbach and his cop buddies and now Christian Marbach as well rented a cabin was near a town called Califon. It was a small town that was tucked into a gentle valley and hugged a small river. The town was old and rugged although some of the houses were large and well kept. Tommy Marbach loved the town and often talked about moving there when he retired from the police force. The town was surrounded by dairy farms each with its own partition of wooded land parceled out, Tommy Marbach surmised, for the maintenance of the huge herds of white-tailed deer.
The men rented the cabin from an old farmer, Eli Jameson, who had sold most of his dairy stock and mostly grew grains to harvest in the fall. The cabin was large with two roomsthey were now used for bedrooms and the enormous amount of supplies the men brought alongand a rather large kitchen and a great room with a working fireplace. There was running water in the kitchen, but there was no bathroom, only an outhouse about fifty yards from the porch of the cabin.
"Men don't need any fancy shit when they're going out to kill deer. Whiskey and tobacco and guns, nothing more," his father had told him for countless years before he finally experienced what he had been dreading and yearning for since he could remember.
The first day there were a lot of deer shot. Out of the ten men that came to the "deer camp"that's what his father had labeled the cabinsix bucks were shot. One was a twelve pointer and dressed out at 175 pounds. Some of the locals, who had heard of the deer, drove over in their pickup trucks to investigate. They were rough looking men who stood around with their hands in their pockets scuffing at the frozen dirt with their work boots. When they were offered beer by Marbach's father, they drank it quickly and they became more talkative about other deer that had been shot and had become local legends. Marbach liked watching them with their wandering eyes and their rough-looking faces. They didn't seem as boastful as his father and the men who had come to hunt for the week. They laughed easily once they had a few beers, and they seemed to have a friendship with each other that didn't have to be talked about. Marbach's father and his friends always had to broadcast their friendship by busting one another, as if it was justification for their feelingscertainly not too closetoward each other.
Even though Marbach's father was polite with the men when they were there, Marbach knew that when they left, his father would be critical of them. He saw the smirk on his father's face when the men talked about other deer killed on the hills around Califon. They had odd accents that drew out their O's, and when they laughed, some of them had rotten teeth or no teeth.
Sure enough, when the last of them had pulled away after thanking the New York policemen for the beerthe men found it amusing they were drinking beer with copsMarbach's father said, "Wonder how many of those suckers have the same father or brother or whatever?"
The other men laughed loudly and Marbach felt a sudden shame for his father and the way he had been polite to the strangers and then had to disgrace them behind their backs. When all the men went inside to begin their card games and drink their beer and whiskey, Marbach stayed behind to examine the deer that had brought the strange men from their homes to see if it really existed. By now the dead deer's eyes were without any real colora blue black but with a kind of gray film covering themand his tongue was hanging out of his mouth. The deer must have been magnificent when it was alive, Marbach thought, its rack so symmetrical and its neck and shoulders broad and lovely in death. Marbach could only imagine his worth to his father if he had been the one who had killed the deer. The man who had shot the deer was now the cynosure of all the jokes by the men, and that was the strongest declaration of their admiration for him. As Marbach stood in the twilight, the cold beginning to fall down upon him and the cabin so that plumes of steam came out of his mouth as he breathed, he felt all the tragedy of the death of the deer. Hours ago it had been alive and a part of the greatness of the woods and fields of this beautiful country. But as sad as Marbach felt over the death of this great deer, he wished he had been the one who had shot it. He wished he had been the one his father would admire most at the end of this week, even if it was only as tenable as this deer's short life.
But Marbach and his father and friends were not the only men in the woods and fields that surrounded Califon. The whole week the hills around Califon were driven for deer; a string of men lining one partition of dense woods and a string of men positioned at the opposite end waiting to see what deer would charge through to their fate of death or freedom. But by Thursday, many deer had been shot, and only the men who still hadn't killed a deer were still in the woods each morning before first light and coming out of the woods dejected and slightly ashamed as the last of the light disappeared in the west.
Now, by Thursday the deer weren't as inclined to move during the day. They felt the danger of too many men in the woods, but the woods weren't being driven anymore so they lay in one spot until dark. Marbach's father had shot a spike buck the day before. It was not a remarkable deer and Marbach could tell that his father's mood had turned sour. In the morning on Thursday Marbach went with Kevin O'Malley, a cop who worked with his father and had a funny sense of humor. He always told Irish jokes, and his Irish brogue was always the funniest part of the stories. They decided they would split up and Kevin O'Malley decided he would go deep into a stand of woods he had seen deer run through earlier in the week. Marbach decided to position himself at the edge of a field that still had the corn stubble from the earlier harvest.
The day was gray and cold. The woods on the edge of the field and east of where he stood, his gun leaning against a tree, were the color of steel at midday and they made everything seem dead. At one in the afternoon O'Malley came quietly out of the woods and motioned with his hands that he was going to the cabin for lunch. Marbach waved him on indicating he wasn't hungry even though he was. He was determined to kill a deer that day, and he had learned in the short time he had spent in the woods that patience often brought success.
He never saw O'Malley return and it was getting on toward five in the afternoon when he heard the racket of leaves being rustled by movement. He quietly took his gun from the tree, checked the safety, and laid the gun across his now crooked arms. The noise became louder and his heart began to pound in his chest. He had dreamed of this moment and now that it was close to happening, he felt a great surge of fear and excitement. As the noise continued to get closer, he noticed a flash of red in the woods and then, before he could understand or register what that might mean, he saw the three men walk close to the edge of the field, laughing and talking loudly as they headed for the open road that was to the south of where Marbach stood. Marbach quietly cussed them as they disappeared finally from his sight. In a few more minutes even the sound of their voices disappeared and then the woods fell silent again.
The cold was becoming extreme, and he thought it was unlikely any deer would appear before dark after the ruckus of the hunters. Just as he considered this possibility he saw movement to the extreme right of his peripheral vision and then just as suddenly a buck deer appeared in the center of the open field. Marbach, without thinking, raised the gun and shot just ahead of the chest of the deer. Fire came out of the muzzle and the roar was almost deafening in the silence that had preceded Marbach's firing the gun. The deer collapsed to the ground immediately, its front legs losing their power to flee. Shaking, Marbach got up from his spot and walked quietly to the fallen deer.
The deer was still alive. Its breathing was rapid and forced, and Marbach saw the first traces of blood coming from its nostrils. When the deer saw Marbach, it attempted to rise but only brought its head up, falling back again with the registration of futility. Marbach felt a sudden pang of despair as he realized the deer might be in some terrible agony. He pulled the knife from its sheaf as his father had trained him to do. "Slit its throat and the deer will die. It's not cruel. They don't know any better anyway." But Marbach, despite the soundness of his father's instruction, could not force himself to bring the sharp knife to its throat. He lay next to the deer and placed his hand on the chest of the deer. The deer once again attempted to get upright, but this attempt was even feebler than the one before.
"I'm sorry I've done this," Marbach choked with remorse. He tried to calm the deer by petting it, but it only went into a paroxysm of fright, kicking its back legs and almost slicing Marbach's canvas pants open with its sharp hooves. But this last attempt by the deer took all the struggle out of it, and after what seemed like an hour to Marbach but was only a matter of moments, the deer took one deep breath into its lungs, and then coughed out blood and died.
The darkness was falling rapidly, and Marbach knew he had to eviscerate the dead deer and remove its musk sacks. He had seen all of this done at least a dozen times during the week, and he did it now feeling the heat and the effluvia of blood and shit as he opened the stomach cavity. Somehow, with the deer now gutted he felt less sadness. For the first time he realized he had shot a very large deer. It had twelve points, and after removing the musk sacks and beginning the task of dragging the deer the quarter mile to the cabin he realized it was also a heavy deer.
When he reached the cabin he was exhausted and sweating profusely despite the radical drop in temperature. Also he was angry no one had come out to find out his whereabouts. The darkness was complete, and he heard men laughing inside the cabin as he searched in the shed for the rope and wooden slats to brace the deer's back legs so that he could hoist the deer off the ground and away from fox and stray dogs. After he had accomplished getting the deer raised in the air, he heard the sound of a car and then he saw the lights approaching the cabin.
The man that got out of the car was one of the cops Marbach had met only this week. He carried a case of beer under his arm, and it wasn't until he was almost directly on top of Marbach that he realized he was there.
"Holy shit, Christian," he said, using his name for the first time. "You shot that buck?"
Marbach nodded feeling a rush of elation as the man looked at the deer intently.
"Where'd you find a buck deer that size?" he asked, running his free hand along the back of the monstrous buck.
"In the open field before you go over the rise to Mr. Jameson's house and barn. He came out after some hunters went on to the road. It was almost dark and he must have thought everyone had left the woods and it was safe." Marbach had never shown such effusion of language before with a stranger.
The man laughed. "He sure as hell wasn't." The man looked again at the deer and then looked at Marbach with what could be described as respect. "You're old man's gonna to be proud as hell."
The man went into the cabin, the yellow light streaming out into the fierce cold. Marbach didn't know whether to follow the man in or just stay where he was standing. He decided to wait. His father was the first out of the door, coming down the stairs in slow, deliberate steps. The rest of the men followed, all of them carrying a beer and smiling. One of them turned on the light above the front door and the yellow light weakly illuminated Marbach and the hanging deer.
"Looks like Christian out did his old man," Billy Riordon said, a cop who worked with Marbach's father and he had known all of his life. The other men laughed knowing this was a source of ribbing that could last the rest of the week.
"Let's see, the old man shoots a bald-headed buck and his twelve-year-old son shoots a twelve-pointer. No doubt who has the balls in that family," another man said who had helped Marbach cook eggs and bacon one morning. He had a booming voice and he seemed the most popular of all the men in the camp.
Marbach watched his father closely for his reaction and when his father broke into a grin, Marbach felt a certain amount of relief. His father walked up to the deer and examined it closely. "Jesus Christ, Christian," he said in what could only be interpreted as admiration. "I guess I can't call you a pussy anymore. You sure as hell got yourself a big buck."
Marbach could feel the edge in his father's voice and so he didn't say anything.
"You fuckin' sure as hell never shot a deer that big in your life," Billy Riordon yelled from outside the circle of light. "Looks like there's a new buck in town in more ways than one."
Again Marbach watched his father and again his father smiled broadly, his face showing the stubble of not shaving for almost a week.
"Well, he has a way to go before he catches up in that department," his father said. The men laughed loudly and it may have been that they felt the tension as well.
Marbach looked at his father, but his face didn't tell him anything.
I have to wash this blood from my hands," he finally said, moving toward the light of the cabin and away from his father. His father caught him as he passed, his large hand on Marbach's arm.
"That's a hell of a deer, Christian. Picture of that'll have to go on the refrigerator door for sure." He released Marbach's arm and he went into the cabin and to the sink to wash his hands. As he washed the caked-on blood from his hands, he heard the noise of the men laughing and the sound of playful banter. He knew his father was the source of the ribbing and he wished he could go back to before he shot the deer despite the small pride he felt at such a great accomplishment.
After a rough dinner of stew with mostly beef and potatoes and little else, all the men decided to go to the Califon Pub, a small saloon where mostly local farmers met to talk about livestock, crops and weather. The cops talked often about those nights with a kind of superiority attached to their stories. They thought the men in this remote area were backward and callow about the world. But they were mostly treated hospitably and they could spend time at the pool table and listen to Hank Williams on the juke box. Marbach was left behind to clean the dishes and then go to bed.
After he completed the dishes he began to clean his gun. He loved doing this, removing the gun powder resin from inside the barrel and making it, when you looked down the barrel with the chamber open, like a barrel of brilliant glass. He oiled the outside with great care while he forgot the pain of watching the deer die, and concentrated on the accolades he had received from his father's buddies during their meal. They suddenly treated him as one of them, and they even tried to convince Tommy Marbach that his son deserved to go to the pub with them. But he knew that wouldn't happen and it didn't. He was relieved, really. His father seemed distant all through dinner, and he hardly spoke despite the fact that he was the central figure in ball busting. He laughed, but he didn't join in.
He was on the floor next to the pot-bellied stove that was the only source of heat for the cabin. The heat was intense and he felt tired after being out in the cold all day and then dragging the deer a quarter of a mile. His shoulders ached from the strain of the burden, and if he had been at home and his father not around, his mother would have rubbed strong ointment that smelled like chamomile into his shoulders. She was always loving and affectionate with him when his father was not at home. His father would never allow any kind of touching between the two of them, and if he ever witnessed it, he would ridicule them harshly.
He must have fallen off to sleep, because suddenly he was aware of someone in the cabin. He stirred from his position and was about to get up when his father rounded the corner from the bedroom where the supplies were kept. He looked down at his son and Marbach could tell that he had been drinking heavily. His eyes were glazed and his face was flushed. Marbach looked around the room to see if anyone was there besides his father.
"I came home alone," his father said, his words slurred. "Think you're a fuckin' big shot don't ya? Think cause you got lucky and shot a deer, you're a big ass big shot."
Marbach kept quiet. He knew it was always better to leave Tommy Marbach alone when he was drunk and pissed off. Sometimes he would blow himself out and then go to bed and pass out.
"But I know who ya are, don't I? You fuckin' pansy." His father leaned over toward him grabbing the table in the center of the room for balance. "Don't I know who you are, ya pansy? Don't I?"
He had learned long ago that with Tommy Marbach there was no right way to react when he was like this. He knew staying still and quiet was his only defense. He didn't move or flinch as his father moved in closer, his alcoholic and tobacco breath putrid to smell.
"You think I can't take a little razzing because you shot a deer? That ain't it pansy boy. What fuckin' gripes me is that I know who you are. I don't fuckin' say nothing cause I am too embarrassed. You and your fuckin' mother always conspiring against me. Ya think I don't know what's said?"
This time he struck Marbach on the side of the head with his open hand. He tried to steady himself and not flinch when his father pulled back, but both happened. He hit his head against the stove, and as quickly as he pulled away, he ducked expecting the next blow. He knew that was a mistake, because he knew it infuriated his father thinking he was cowering from him. He struck him again, this time with his fist and he saw black and then stars. He felt the coolness of the wood floor on his face and he didn't know whether to stay in that position or to get back to a sitting position. He felt disoriented and couldn't seem to locate his father's face. He finally pulled himself up to where he was sitting on the floor the gun now to his side. His father struck him again, and this time he heard the bone break in his nose. He could feel the hot blood stream down his face and onto his flannel shirt.
"Please daddy," he said.
"Please daddy," his father said mockingly. "You fuckin' see I know who you are? Please daddy!" He screamed.
Marbach tried to put his hand out to pull himself once again to a sitting position, but he couldn't seem to find the floor. He saw his father's rubber-soled boots and he thought he would probably kick him in the face. He didn't. He just stood over him, and Marbach could hear the loud sound of his breathing. After a while his breathing slowed to almost normal, Marbach all the time watching his boots. He felt the blood dripping on the floor and running down his open collar and on to his chest. He wanted to sob but he was afraid it would ignite his father again, so he just lay there trying not to breathe loudly. Then he watched the boots turn away and walk toward the door leading outside. He felt the cold rush of air sweep onto his face as his father walked outside and slammed the door closed.
When he was certain his father would not return, he began to cry softly. He knew his nose was broken, but the pain was not too bad. He only felt the embarrassment of pleading with his father. He knew his father, drunk as he was, would always remember his pleading. He would never let it go. Marbach thought of loading the gun and waiting for his father to return, but he knew he could never shoot him. He cried harder because he knew that no matter how mean his father was to him, he still loved him. No matter how much his father looked upon him as inferior and weak and stupid, he loved his father with a consuming love that made him yearn to trade places with the deer that was supposed to be his rite of passage into manhood.