(Originally published in the Beloit Fiction Journal.)
Janikowski stayed at the bar until close and then walked home through two feet of snow and found a six-point buck standing in his kitchen. From the alley, he saw his back door open in the cold, so he came into the house with a three-foot piece of broken-off drain pipe cocked behind his head like a baseball bat. There was no burglar, just the buck standing unsteadily on the slick linoleum, eating Granny Smith apples from a bowl on the table. When Janikowski saw the deer he slipped and whacked the back of his head on the doorframe. He dropped the drainpipe and it clattered on the floor. The deer turned to look and one of its antlers scraped a rack of pint glasses off a shelf. Janikowski covered his eyes against the flying glass and when he uncovered them the deer was staring at him. It chewed, and chunks of apple fell from its mouth. Janikowski dragged himself up and used the kitchen phone to call Georgie, a woman he wanted to sleep with.
“Can you bring your gun over?” he said. He listened and said: “Yes, right now.”
Georgie showed up in her pickup truck and plaid flannel pajamas, a winter coat and fur-lined boots. Big snowflakes melting in her hair. The black rubber grip of her pistol sticking out of her jacket pocket. When she saw the deer she said, “Sweet Jesus.” She put her fingers behind Janikowski’s ear and squinted at the bump.
He told her the deer had scared him and he fell. She pursed her lips.
Up close the deer wasn’t brown or red, but a mixture of dirty grey and black fur. Its coat was patchy and uneven in places. It smelled like rotting leaves and pine needles. Standing inside, the deer looked much bigger than Janikowski would have expected.
“I’m going to shoot it,” he said.
Georgie shook her head. “Look at it,” she said. The deer was watching them, its eyes big and black. “It looks like a librarian.”
He and Georgie had already been on two dates. After the second, they kissed on top of a baseball dugout in the park and she showed him her gun. She pulled it out of her snow pants. Big chrome revolver. Bullets the size of baby carrots.
“Just in case you attempt anything untoward,” Georgie said in a serious voice, straddling him with the pistol up next to her face. Janikowski liked the funny way she talked.
Now she handed him the gun, butt first, and stripped off her jacket. “Don’t shoot it,” she said. “Let me try.” She made a slow move toward the deer, her hand out. She said, “Nice doggie.”
The deer bolted forward a step, antlers down and Georgie jumped back. “Shoot it,” she yelled. “Shoot it.”
Janikowski yanked the gun up but didn’t fire. He leveled the barrel at the buck, which was now standing with its head chucked slightly to one side. It blinked at him, peaceful. Instead of shooting, Janikowski put both of his hands above his head and shouted. He waved his arms. He sang the words to the pledge of allegiance, in the tune of Yankee Doodle. He meant to scare the deer, but instead it just stepped back and took another apple off the table. Janikowski stopped singing.
“Did you really want me to shoot it?” he said.
“Fucking city deer,” Georgie said, still breathing a little heavy.
It was not uncommon to see deer in the slant streets neighborhood this time of year. The neighborhood was built into the weird, two-mile triangle of land along the river and between the university and the mountain. They called it the slant streets because the roads didn’t work right. There was an old story about it. A beef between city planners, generations back. One built streets north to south, east to west. The other angled-in along the river — northwest to southeast, etc. They started at opposite sides of town and met in this corner, turning it into an asphalt jumblejamble. Some places the streets dead-ended where there should have been intersections. Some places roads emptied into huge, uncontrolled lots that went to gravel and potholes from the freezing and thawing of changing seasons. It was the kind of neighborhood where once you got in – if you were new in town or just had no sense of direction – it was hard to get out.
When it got cold, deer came up out of the riverbed and ate from peoples’ rotting gardens. It got so the deer weren’t scared of humans anymore. They’d come right up to you while you were shoveling your walk. This was the first time Janikowski knew of one coming inside and making itself comfortable.
He moved to this neighborhood when he came to town because it was cheap and near the fishing. His rental was one story of brick and stone with a concrete front porch big enough for two camping chairs and a hibachi. Inside was all decaying linoleum and hard wood rippled from water damage. Most of the windows were cracked around the corners. The panes in the back of the house were divided in a wooden grid and some of them were punched out in fist-sized holes. Janikowski patched them with cardboard from 12-packs of Olympia to keep the cold out and it sort of worked.
He met Georgie at The Rebuilding Center, where they both worked as gophers in the architectural salvage yard. The Rebuilding Center sold secondhand hardware to the young, upwardly mobile hipster crowd – Buddy Holly glasses and tight pants and all that. Everybody who worked there wore Carharts and had cheap tattoos.
The first time Janikowski noticed Georgie they were in the back lot, hoisting a heavy two-chamber sink out and onto a handcart for a couple remodeling their first kitchen. Rebuilding Center employees all wore green t-shirts that said “The Rebuilding Center,” on the front and back and Georgie had her sleeves cut off and the neck trimmed back in way that, when she bent over to wrestle with the sink he could see that she had a picture of a bomb inked at the base of her neck.
The bomb was the ambiguous kind from cartoons – a black cannon ball, fuse lit, throwing red and yellow sparks up toward Georgie’s hairline. When he saw the tattoo and the slender lines of her neck the word that flashed slowly across his mind was: “Bombshell,” and something stirred in his work pants and he felt embarrassed at himself for being such a big, dumb animal.
On their first date, he took her to the train tunnel. The trains didn’t run there anymore. It was a foggy night and the fog froze to trees and street light poles, making everything look like sugary candy. They hiked along the river, next to the tracks and went into the tunnel. It was dead dark inside and Georgie grabbed his sides with both hands so the wouldn’t lose each other. Out the other side was the skeleton of the old dam. The dam was going to be removed in the spring, the voters had voted on it. The dam’s big yellow halogen lights still glowed, making the snow and the air and their skin and the half frozen water glow gold in the night. Janikowski and Georgie skipped stones on the stagnant water behind the dam. They drank a 12-pack.
“Somebody left the dam lights on,” he said. An old joke from his grandpa.
“You ever wonder if you’re maybe the greatest saxophone player who ever lived,” she said, “except you won’t know because you never played saxophone?”
“I think I feel that way about pretty much everything,” he said.
They went to the bar after and drank until they got loud. They talked about work. Georgie did imitations of The Rebuilding Center’s customers – crossing her eyes, saying in a nerdy voice that she had a Masters in Fine Arts but couldn’t change the spark plugs in her Volvo. Georgie said that people were lazy, that nobody knew how to do anything real anymore. Janikowski laughed in a way he hadn’t laughed in a long while. The bartender filled plastic cups from the gun and looked at them over his glasses.
Georgie said their second date was girl ask guy, like Sadie Hawkins. Janikowski smiled, but he didn’t know who that was. They went skating at the park in the slant streets after dark. The park was tucked in beside the old mill and the river and a little bit under the bridge. It was cold and still and the bare trees cast shadows like giant birds on the snow. Hobos sat at park benches and watched them skate.
They skated on the frozen fish pond. In the summer, Fish and Wildlife trucks pumped perch and trout into the pond. Slant street kids fished there with red and white bobbers and Walmart polls. Now it was solid ice. Georgie skated as fast backward as forward. Janikowski had never been before. He fell down and the bums laughed at him. He bruised his ass. Later Georgie bought fancy cocktails for both of them.
“We’re good people,” she said. “We should drink real drinks.”
“You think there’s still fish down there?” he said. “Frozen? Or do you think the trucks come and suck them out?” He drank.
Georgie frowned at him. “A man who wants to be taken seriously as a man shouldn’t drink from a straw,” she said. She took it from his glass and tossed it on the floor.
They walked back through the park toward her truck. She cut through the baseball diamond and climbed the dugout. She beckoned him with a gloved finger. After that it was the kiss and the gun and then Georgie sped off in her truck, leaving him standing by the curb with his hands in his pockets. He stood there and looked at the moon. She came back ten minutes later. She said she couldn’t get out of the slant streets. He got in the truck and they kissed again for a while. He guided her back to a place where she could find her way and then he walked home.
Now he stood in his kitchen and looked at the gun. He looked at Georgie, who was biting her lower lip. He couldn’t tell if she really had wanted him to shoot the deer. He didn’t want her to think he was the kind of guy who would freeze up when it was time to push all his chips in. Even if he was that kind of guy, he didn’t want her to think it. Maybe she thought he’d balked. He regretted telling her that the deer had scared him at first and that he’d fallen down. Maybe he shouldn’t have called Georgie at all. A 30 year-old man, a grown man, should be able to handle a situation like this. Nothing life threatening, a deer in his house. He could feel the weight of the beer he’d drunk that night sloshing around in his gut. It made him feel heavy and slow. He wanted very badly to sleep with her.
She looked at the open back door. The wind was blowing in, making little drifts of snow inside. “It can’t stay here forever,” she said. “Maybe if we go somewhere it’ll just wander off.”
Janikowski saw promise in that. “Where would I go?” he said.
Georgie shrugged. “Motel maybe,” she said.
Before he could think about what that meant, the deer lay down on the kitchen floor. It tilted its head and then rested its chin against the tiles like a big dog, curling its legs under itself in a dainty kind of way. Janikowski leaned against the counter. The gun hung heavy in his hand, the butt resting against his thigh.
“Somebody’s got a lot of nerve,” Georgie said to the deer. It was getting late.
Janikowski felt desperate for an idea. Something to make Georige think he knew what to do.
“I’ve got more apples,” he said. “In the fridge. We could make a trail, try to lead it out the door.
Georgie snapped her fingers. “Hansel and Gretel style,” she said.
Janikowski nodded. There were a couple of leftover Granny Smiths in the crisper. They took them out and he used a steak knife to cut them into sections. He felt weird, standing at the counter using the cutting board like he could be making a salad, with the deer lying in the doorway to the living room. Georgie looked over his shoulder and clicked her tongue like she was evaluating his technique. When Janikowski finished, he went outside and put a handful of apple pieces outside in the snow, a few feet from the back door. He bent over and walked back into the house, dropping slices every three or four feet until he got to the middle of the kitchen.
The deer didn’t seem to notice. It followed him with its eyes without moving its head up off the floor. He and Georgie both stood back and waited. He held his breath. The deer scratched at its belly with one of its back hooves. Georgie put her cheek against his shoulder and watched the deer.
“He’s doesn’t care,” Janikowski said. “He’s got his fill.”
“Maybe it’s near-sighted,” she said. “Or sick. Maybe we need to get closer.”
She took the few remaining slices.
“Cover me,” she said.
She moved in a crouch, inching toward the deer with the apples in her outstretched palm. Janikowski brought the gun up again. He used both hands and leaned his weight against the counter. He took a bead on the deer, in the soft spot above and behind its front leg, where he imagined the heart would be. Georgie was whispering to it, things Janikowski couldn’t hear. The deer seemed sleepy. Georgie moved closer, until she held her palm just in front of the deer’s nose. She moved her hand in front of the deer’s face. She made an airplane noise, like she was trying to interest a baby in some baby food.
The deer seemed to get scared of her all at once. It kicked its feet and jerked its head back and Janikowski fired the gun. Inside the house the gun seemed preposterously loud. He hadn’t shot a pistol many times in his life. Even though he knew it wasn’t like a toy gun, that you didn’t have to push the trigger very far to make it go off, it still scared him. The boom rattled the windows and the gun almost kicked right out of his fist. When Georgie heard the shot, she jumped away from the deer. She skidded on her butt to the other end of the kitchen, where she bumped her back against the wall. The deer hopped up onto its feet like it had been stung. It shook its head, antlers scraping on the door frame.
“Shit,” was all Georgie said. She said it again: “Shit.”
The hole the bullet made in the deer’s fur was bigger than Janikowski would have imagined. The deer bled on the floor. It turned its whole body in a circle, like it was trying to inspect the wound, but it couldn’t get its head around far enough. It looked at them. First at Janikowski, then Georgie. It picked its front leg up and put it down again. It looked like it wanted to run, but there was no room.
“You shot it,” she said. She hadn’t gotten up. “Was it attacking me?”
“I think so,” he said. He was looking at the deer. “I don’t know.”
The deer stood still for what seemed like a long time and then sagged to the floor. Back legs first, then its chest and head. It went down and stretched out on the floor like it was very tired. It squirmed once and lay flat. Janikowski took a step into the middle of the kitchen and looked down at the deer from a safe distance. It blinked at him.
He looked at Georgie and saw that she was crying. She was up now, pulling her parka back on. He said her name, maybe the first time he’d ever said it out loud. She turned to him and the look on her face made it so he couldn’t finish.
“It was lying down,” she said.
“I thought it was after you,” he said. He wondered if he’d really thought that. His ears were ringing.
“It’s suffering now. Kill it.” she said, pulling her gloves on.
She went out the back door. She still had the apples in her hand. Janikowski watched her throw them into the alley before she started her truck.
He stood over the deer. The deer made little sucking sounds with its mouth. He looked away, up at the ceiling. He pointed the gun. He hooked his finger around the trigger and squeezed his eyes shut but couldn’t shoot. He stood like that. It took the deer a long time to die.
A few minutes later, when Georgie came back, he had put the gun on the table and was trying to pull the deer out the back door by its antlers. He could barely move it. She came in and stomped the snow off her boots. “I hate your fucking neighborhood,” she said. Her cheeks were still wet from tears.
She was stuck there with him. She came in and sat at the table.
“You could’ve shot me,” she said. “Then what?”
“I wouldn’t have shot you,” he said.
The bowl on the table was spilled over. There were half-eaten apple chunks scattered on the table top.
“Come here and help me move this,” he said.
She sat there and stared at the apple chunks. She wouldn’t look at him. After a minute she got up and came over. She took hold of the deer’s back hooves and together they pulled the dead animal out into the snow.