Divining a visitor's identity by sound is a point of personal pride with me. I don't brag on it. I just like a chance to be right about something without their knowing if I happen to be wrong. Costs nothing. Hurts nobody.
The ailing muffler narrowed it down. Could be Carl. Only three lots over, he'd been driving his F-150 up to my trailer for poker night even before he started losing toes to diabetes. Garland's old Chevy made as much racket, but he owed me twenty-eight bucks from the last game. Not likely to see him for a while.
The sound of chains dragging across sheet metal clinched it. I knew Dub's big, ugly International sat in my driveway. Everything riding in the bed of his truck had to be chained down. He called it a 'rope-free zone.' He likely spent as much on clevis hooks and shackles as I did on cigarettes and lotto. I wondered if he were returning something he borrowed, coming to borrow something else, or bringing another broke-down mower for me to fix.
I hollered before he even knocked. "Come on in, Dub. It ain't locked."
If impressed by my clairvoyance, he did not let on. "Hey, man. Got me a little problem."
"Now, I told you that mower deck was about rusted through. Them spindles done wallered that metal out."
Dub shook his head. "Got nothing to do with that mower. I sold it to some fool down in Wetumpka. Give me two hundred bucks." He handed me a twenty. "Your piece of the action."
"Well, all right then! What else can I do you for?"
Dub pointed at the chest freezer in the center of the room. It served as dining and poker table, all the while keeping my groceries frozen. "Got any space in there?"
With a magician's flourish, I yanked the blue tarp aside and lifted the lid. "Space? This is a portal into another dimension. Behold the frozen planet of the Tater Tot people."
Dub leaned back from the cold, rancid air, fanning his nose with one hand. "Man, you gotta quit watching that Dr. Who shit. Folks is starting to think you're gay." He took a deep breath and inspected the interior, mashing down on some niblet corn and pushing aside bags of okra. "You got just enough room there if you ditch these." He held up a multicolored hunk of ice.
"Aw, man! My Popsicles must have melted in the power failure. Probably need to toss a lot of shit."
Dub nodded. "Yeah. You got any meat, you need to ditch that." He grinned. "But I got good news! I snagged me a deer last night."
I sucked air through my teeth. "Man, that ain't good news. Season don't start for two weeks."
Dub looked away. "Yeah, I know. She was just standing there, upwind and there I was with my rifle. I reckon instinct kicked in."
"You shot a doe out of season and you expect me to hold it for you."
"Yeah, I know. I'll owe you one, but in a couple of weeks it won't matter. They ain't gonna autopsy a dead deer."
"I don't know, man. Kinda makes me an accomplice." You learn things about the law living in a trailer park.
"You can have the tenderloin."
"Gonna take a little more than that."
He looked thoughtful for a moment and unbuckled his belt. He slid off the knife sheath with his elkhorn handled blade. "I know you had your eye on this since I got it. It's all yours."
The knobby horn felt good in my hand. No amount of blood would make it slip out of my grip. I saw Dub take a deer down to the essentials in less than ten minutes with it. The man knew how to cut but it helped having the right tool. The blade gleamed with an enthusiasm for separating meat from bone.
"You got you a deal, Dub, but I'm cooking that tenderloin opening day. You come get the rest of the meat then or it goes to the dogs."
Dub tilted his head a couple of times and stuck out his hand. "You're a fair man, Jimmy. That's why I respect you." He brought in two heavy duty trash bags wrapped in gray duct tape. They looked like a pair of midget mummies.
"Hey, Dub. They remind me of that little robot from Star Wars." I made some beeping sounds followed by a whistle.
"I warned you about that shit, Jimmy!"
I hefted one of the robot mummies. "Damn, Dub! That's a lot of meat for one doe. You save everything?"
He looked pained. "Couldn't leave the guts out where they'd be found. Had to work quick but I got all the nasty parts and bony stuff in one bag. The edible parts are in the other. It's all triple bagged. I done it clean."
I knew better than to question his methods but made a mental note to grill that tenderloin until well done.
Dub started clearing out my freezer. "I'm gonna put the meat on the bottom, put some of this other shit on top. Your veggies are probably alright."
"Do what you gotta do, Dub." I sipped a beer and watched him from the kitchen as he arranged the bins and bags just so. After closing the lid, he smoothed out the tarp like a proper tablecloth.
"Damn, Dub. Ain't you the little Suzy Homemaker. Should I call the Homo Squad on you?"
"I blame Doris." He snorted and shook his head. "That woman. I brung home a trophy bass other day." He paused and looked me in the eye. "Private pond. No laws violated. Anyhow, this thing was a real lunker. Before I start gutting it, she's all, 'You ain't puttin' that stanky thing in my freezer!' and all such as that."
"I know how she gets."
"Yeah, well, while she's off taking a shit, I pull these old bags of squash and whatnot that's froze all together and drop them in the trash. Freed up enough room for a stringer of bass."
"She seen what you done?"
"Oh, yeah! So I say, 'You're always telling me you need some space, well there it is.'"
"She probably got that from them bitches on The View."
There went that look again. "Man, I'm serious. You need to quit watching daytime TV. Anyhow, I turn to wash off the cutting board and knife and she snatches that lunker out of the freezer. Chucks it out the back door. Bitch says 'Well I believe in catch and release. How you like that?'"
I wound my fist in a circle, Ralph Kramden style. "So, you send her to the moon?"
His expression turned somber. I guessed he didn't catch the Honeymooners reference. "I suppose I did." He waved away the beer I offered. "Got a long drive ahead of me. Going up to Virginia."
"What's up there you ain't got here?"
"Work, I hope. My unemployment's run out. Anyway, I really appreciate you taking this off my hands for now. I ain't proud of what I done, but it won't happen again. I can promise you that."
The handshake lasted just a little longer than I'm used to, like saying goodbye for good. From the front steps, I watched him go through his ritual of hanging chains on the special rack behind his cab and securing the tailgate like I wasn't even there. Without another word or wave, he left.
The early morning knock on the door surprised me. Cops seemed to maintain their exhaust systems, but they had a way of knocking that gave them away. I turned the sound down on a re-rerun of Lost in Space, the episode where this giant cabbage plant keeps cloning Judy Robinson. So hot. I pulled up my jeans as I hobbled to the door. "Just a minute."
Two white deputies with Smokey hats and aviator glasses stood grinning on my little porch. Experience taught me to not stare at their sidearms or do anything else that made them nervous.
The one not holding a notepad addressed me. "Morning, sir. I'm Lieutenant Sprague and this is Deputy Carnes. We are conducting an investigation. Just have a couple of questions."
I swallowed hard. "Now, officer, I know that tag is expired but I ain't drove that truck on a public road in more than a year. You can ask anybody."
Lieutenant Sprague smiled. "This is not about that."
I knew better than to ask if somebody filed a missing deer report. "Okay, officer. I got nothing to hide."
"Oh, we all have something to hide. Most of us just got nowhere to put it."
The dark glasses made it hard to tell but I felt certain both men were staring at my freezer. Before I could start a blithering a confession, Deputy Carnes handed me a photograph. "Are you familiar with William Williams?"
I hesitated, considering my options. Best bet would be to play it cool, stall for time and hope they got called away on an emergency before they found that carcass. "Oh, yeah. We been calling him 'Dub' so long I almost forgot his real name."
Officer Carnes scribbled on his notepad. "'Dub', you say?"
"Oh, you know. For his initials. In high school, shop teacher called him 'Dubya Dubya'. We all started calling him 'Dub.' He hated it at first."
Lieutenant Sprague cleared his throat. "Well, I don't know if that's what his widow will want on his tombstone, but we haven't been able to find her."
For a moment, I quit worrying about the deer. The deputies fixed their lenses on me. I saw enough cop shows to know they were studying my reaction.
"Something happen to Dub?"
Sprague nodded slowly. "Texas Rangers found his truck rolled over in a ditch near Odessa. Mr. Williams was dead before they arrived on the scene."
I exhaled slowly as I considered the facts. They were not here about the deer. I could not be a suspect in Dub's demise unless they thought I tampered with his brake lines or something. I kept cool, much as it troubled me that Dub, a man I never knew to bluff at cards, so completely lied to me. "That does come as quite a shock. We was close."
Sprague lifted his sunglasses for a moment of eye contact. "Sorry for your loss."
Glasses back in position, he ripped through the questioning, Dragnet style. Just the facts.
Sprague: Neighbor saw Dub's truck here trailer couple of nights ago. Why?
Me: He paid me off for fixing a mower. Said he was going away to find work.
Sprague: His wife, Doris, was not home. She's missed two days of work.
Me: They quarreled over fish guts he left in the sink. She goes to her sister's near Birmingham after a fight.
Carnes: Dub a violent man?
Me: Never knocked Doris around any more than a man ought.
Sprague: Dub have any other friends?
Me: Carl Poythress, Lot 16, and Garland Sentell, Lot 23. We play poker most weekends. Low stakes.
Sprague: Thanks for your cooperation. We may be back to corroborate a few things after we talk to them
Me: I'll be right here rest of the week.
The patrol car gone, I downed three malt liquors and watched two episodes of Laramie back to back as I considered every moment of Dub's last visit.
Morning drinking always seems to fast-forward the sun. I awoke at dusk from a fitful nap that included visions of Hollywood-style car crashes, animal attacks and forensic investigations. In the periphery of it all, a pair of mummies lurked, watching me. Dub had it right. I watched too much TV. Lying on the couch, the chest freezer loomed like the monolith from 2001, A Space Odyssey, one of my favorite movies, even though I failed to understand the ending. I knew one thing for sure: that meat had to go.
Hunting's my thing. Deer, turkey, rabbits, and wild hogs got me out in the woods on days when sensible folk stayed in. For me though, the hunt is the thing. The killing, butchering, and cleaning up I could do without. I mostly like to explore and discover old home sites and forgotten family cemeteries. When I did confront game, I often shot wide and enjoyed watching the critter bound or scurry away.
The Shady Acres Mobile Home community was blessed to be surrounded by an abundance of forest. I knew these woods well. Having lost my license after an unfortunate series of DUIs, I confined my hunting to an hour's walk from my residence.
An old home site lay not a quarter mile from my trailer. Straight shot out my back door up the near flank of a ridge. Ivy, jonquils, and a cluster of massive hardwoods amongst the younger pines testified to a dwelling that once stood there. Old bottles from the privy hole decorated my kitchen. The dug well was too deep to explore but a dropped rock showed it to be dry. I made a mental note of its location. Hunters often joke that they know where to dispose of a body. Seemed natural that a deer carcass would be just as secure.
An hour after sundown, I pulled the tarp off the freezer and spread it on the ground behind my trailer. I wrapped the two little duct-taped meat mummies inside and ran rope through the grommets, tying loops in the ends to make a crude harness. Packing a couple of beers in my vest pockets, I set off into the woods.
Having made a quick run up the trail before dark to get my bearings and get a pace count, I knew about how many steps I needed to take before turning off for the well. I marked the point with a row of cans across the trail. I did not want to have to turn on a flashlight unless absolutely needed. Light from a three-quarter moon came and went as patchy clouds drifted overhead.
The load was not as easy to pull as I hoped. The fabric snagged frequently on roots and rocks. I soon lost count of my steps and had to stop and rest several times until spurred by the not-so-distant howls of coyotes. Wishing I'd brought a gun, I pressed on until the telltale crunch of an aluminum can signaled my turn. The well lay less than a hundred feet off the trail. Whatever above-ground structure that once protected it had long since rotted away. I would have to take care to not fall in. A heavy cloud bank blocked most of the moonlight and I had to feel the ground with a long stick when I thought I was close. Trying to find a hole in the ground in the dark with a stick takes time. Success is marked by a knee-weakening sense of nothingness that wants to pull you in. When I found it, I, tugged my crinkling tarp to the edge of the well, sat down and cracked a beer.
The howls sounded closer. No time for fussing with knots in the dark. I pulled Dub's knife and worked on the lines that joined the tarp grommets like a fat woman's corset. The rope gave way as if made of fog and I recalled how Dub prided himself on a sharp blade. I also recalled that tenderloin and how good it would be grilled up and slathered with bar-b-que sauce. It would be a proper way to honor my friend.
I flipped one of the mummies on its side and felt around. The first bundle had long ridges, like sticks. Had to be leg bones. Dub would have bagged them with the head, guts and other inedibles. I kicked it into the well. The timing and sound of the thud reassured me that the hole, though dry, was plenty deep to keep a secret for a while. I cut through the tape and trash bag of the other mummy. At least a dozen freezer bags spilled out onto the tarp. I set to work separating the likely candidates from the unlikely, strictly by feel. The tenderloin should be about a foot long and big around as a rolled-up pair of socks. In short order, I narrowed it down to a pair of rock-hard candidates of identical dimensions.
Neither of them felt quite right. I would have to just take a chance and turn on my flashlight for a few seconds. The battery dead, I relied on the thin flame of my lighter as it struggled against a rising breeze. Between the flickering light and obscuring ice, I could not tell much except that they felt like mirror images of one another. I worked the slightly thawed end of one until I saw a row of four, no, five little chips of pale orange that made me gasp. Doris Williams was the only woman I ever knew to use that shade of nail polish. I dropped her foot down the hole like a live grenade.
I rolled up the rest of the meat in the tarp and shoved it into the well. The clouds parted for a minute, revealing the hole as a black patch amidst frost-silvered leaf litter. The moonlight illuminated a ragged gray apparition that arose from the well. I assured myself it was merely displaced, saturated air condensing in colder, drier air. You learn shit like that watching The Weather Channel. Still gave me a chill.
Just before chugging it down, I held up my beer and bowed my head. "I know it ain't much, Doris, but we can take some pride knowing your husband and my best friend weren't no poacher." Indulging a mighty belch, I tossed the empty can, hand-tooled sheath and, lastly, the elk horn knife into the dark void.
Notes from the Author
The germ of this story came from encountering abandoned dug wells while performing environmental assessments of wooded properties in Georgia, often old farms. If with others (usually survey crews), one of the guys would invariably say "Tell you what, you could throw a body down there and nobody would ever find it." It was like a reflex to the guys, many of them hunters. Set me to thinking.