When Molly Porter arrived home from work, she skidded around the last icy turn in the drive into a yard crowded with trucks: John Griffin’s rusty blue pickup, Mike Greeley’s classic Chevy, Victor Gianetti’s silver half-ton, and, of course, Andrew’s faded green Ford. On a summer evening or a Saturday afternoon, it would be ordinary enough for them all to be there, but this was six o’clock on a Tuesday in January.
She squeezed in between Andrew and a tree and cursed as she felt her wheels sink into deep soft snow. When she opened the car door, she stepped into a drift that covered her boots and cursed again as snow slid down inside them.
Her feet ached as she picked her way across the slippery yard. They felt as if she had been running all day—which was just about true. The community care facility where she worked was closing in two weeks, and everyone was anxious and acting out. She couldn’t blame them: she felt the same way and had to struggle to hide her own fear about the future.
All the way home she’d been bracing herself to tell Andrew, something she had been putting off since she first heard the news a month ago. The last people she wanted to see instead were his friends who drank and smoked and broke the kitchen chairs by leaning back too hard in them.
She didn’t notice the blood at first. It wasn’t until she reached the range of the floodlights on the house that her eyes picked out the pattern of bright red spots on the snow. She began to hurry.
When she opened the garage door, she could see the trail of blood and the four men huddled together in the middle of the open concrete floor. The room stank of blood and beer. “Andrew, what is going on?” she called out. Then she saw what they were looking at—a young doe. There was a rope around her neck and beside her a large bucket and a scattering of newspapers.
Andrew turned to her with a long sharp knife in his hand and grinned. “Mol—” he said, “Look what we’ve got!”
Molly peered at the dead animal, clutching her backpack to her chest. The doe’s eyes stared back at her blindly. There was a bullet hole in her forehead, small and red. “Where?” she said, unable to complete the question.
“Shaftsbury Road,” said John. “She damn near killed both of us jumping in front of my truck, and I had to shoot her, so I thought we all might as well have the meat.”
“A lot of meat,” said Victor, poking the doe’s flank with his boot. Mike was squatting by her, sharpening his buck knife on a stone.
“We’ll have venison for the rest of the winter, Mol,” said Andrew. “Isn’t that great?”
His breath smelled like beer and cigarettes when he leaned to kiss her.
Molly turned her mouth away, letting his lips brush her cheek instead. She couldn’t get over how beautiful the doe was, even now, lying on the garage floor amongst the boxes of junk, tools, and paint cans. She knelt down to touch her head, which was already cool under the soft fur.
Although she knew it happened, no one she knew had ever brought home a road-killed deer. The idea was to snap them up before the police or game wardens could come, saving food that would otherwise go to waste. Molly looked away from the doe’s face and reminded herself that, with Andrew out of work and now her job going, there was no doubt they could use the free food.
“Are you going to butcher it now?” she asked.
“We are,” he said, running his thumb across the sharp edge of the knife.
“Do you know how?” She had never heard a word about any of them hunting before.
“Of course,” he said and with that he directed Victor and Mike to throw the rope over the water pipes and pull.
The doe rose slowly until it was hanging from the pipes, its legs dangling in the air.
“Oh God,” said Molly.
“Why don’t you go in the house,” said Andrew.
“Right. Heat up the oven. It’s venison night!” said John, patting his belly.
“Oh God,” Molly said again as Andrew advanced on the doe and with a quick sure motion plunged the knife into her chest.
“Bring the bucket, Victor,” he said, as the knife tore through her flesh, revealing a soft wet interior. Steam, blood, and guts poured out.
Molly ran for the door to the house.
In the kitchen she found the usual detritus of Andrew’s day at home. Dirty coffee cups and plates, the table cluttered with magazines, and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. She changed out of her work clothes into a pair of warm sweatpants and a sweater, pulled her long blonde hair into a braid, and then began to clear up.
Andrew had been out of work since the end of the summer and with each passing week he spent less time looking for jobs and more time hanging around the house or down at The Woodshed. She had tried not to say anything since the day she mentioned that the local hospital was looking for temporary drivers. He had given her a cold sour look, saying any asshole could drive a car. He was not just an asshole; he was a carpenter, in case she’d forgotten.
Of course she hadn’t forgotten. He was a very good carpenter, and he’d tried hard to diversify, learning to make fancy moldings with hand planes and mastering decorative painting techniques like stenciling and graining, but it didn’t help. No one had the money to hire him, so at what point did you have to decide you were something else?
They had gotten by until now because she had a steady job. She worked as an occupational therapist teaching mentally challenged people basic skills like how to buy groceries, use an ATM to get money, or call the doctor.
Now that the center was closing, these skills were more important than ever, and it was frightening to contemplate that she was sending them out into the world equipped with nothing more sturdy to aid them than a few scraps of advice such as look both ways before you cross the street.
Her own skills apparently weren’t much to rely on either. As soon as she heard the bad news, she had begun looking for jobs in her field and so far she had found nothing.
She was scrubbing some baking potatoes, when she suddenly realized it was colder than usual in the kitchen. Her back felt chilled despite her thick sweater. She went to the radiator under the window, and her fingers jumped back from the cold metal. When she checked the thermostat, she found that although it was set at 62 degrees, the needle had fallen to the bottom of the gauge.
A flash of panic made her call out “Andrew!” and recklessly throw open the garage door. “How long has the heat been off?”
She spit out the words before she could take in the scene—the skinned and gutted doe, the pile of entrails on the newspapers, the bucket of blood, and the four men with bloody hands, taking turns cutting away chunks of purplish red meat.
“There’s no heat in the house. What’s happened?” she said again, feeling her face flush with anger.
“I don’t know, babe,” said Andrew. “It was fine earlier.”
“Have you paid the oil bill?”
“I’m sure I did, but I can’t really check right now. I’m kind of busy.”
“Dinner’s on its way, Mol,” said Victor, holding up a thick slab of meat. “Are you ready?”
“Oh, I’m ready,” she said and slammed the door, wondering why, in her life, plenty of one thing always seemed to be paid for by the disappearance of another.
Just finding the checkbook took several minutes. It was buried on Andrew’s desk under a lot of papers covered with notes and drawings for the new cupboards he wanted to build for their kitchen. Molly opened it and tried to decipher what he had written.
The last entry had been made three days before—a check for $300 made out to the lumberyard. She flipped back and could see no sign that he had paid any bills that month.
She stared at the column of numbers, her stomach clenched in a knot of resentment. They had agreed Andrew would handle their finances—a plan that was supposed to make him feel less bad about the fact that she was the only one earning money. Obviously, it hadn’t worked.
She tossed the checkbook back onto the desk and went to the phone to call the number for emergency oil delivery. There was a law, she thought, that they could not leave you without oil in the middle of winter. There was a law. They would have to come and make a delivery.
The woman who answered had a thick nasal voice and a tone that was not exactly rude. They had been taken off automatic delivery, she said, because their bill had not been paid.
“But we’re completely out of oil,” said Molly urgently. “Our pipes will freeze. It’s fifteen degrees tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the woman. “Someone will come as soon as possible. You’ll have to pay the driver though.”
“OK, but will it be tonight?”
“Yes, but I can’t say when. There are a lot of emergencies at this time of year.”
“Thank you,” she said, stamping the numbness out of her toes. “Thank you very much.” When she hung up the phone, her hands were shaking.
The house seemed much colder now that she knew there was no heat. Molly put on her down vest, a knitted cap, and an extra pair of socks. She turned on the oven as high as she dared, put in the potatoes, and then walked through the rooms as if searching for some pocket of trapped warmth. They were all cold and, having lost their warmth, looked small and dingy. The colorful stenciled borders Andrew had painted as practice looked like false faces.
In the bedroom, Molly sat down on the bed and pulled a quilt around her, shrinking down inside it until she felt like an animal tucked in its burrow. There were a lot of things about being hard up that she didn’t mind, but cold frightened her. It reminded her of when her father decided her family should move into a cabin heated with wood. He thought it was romantic, but the cabin was not solidly built and the thin metal stove heated only the area immediately around it. By the end of the first winter, Molly had been convinced she would never be warm again. Now, though her nose still throbbed with cold, the rest of her gradually warmed up. She closed her eyes and tried to feel comforted. The woman had promised they would come.
She was half asleep when she heard the men come into the kitchen, their heavy boots making the floorboards creak.
“Mol-ly,” they called to her in singsong voices. “It’s time for din-ner!”
She went to the bedroom door still wrapped in the quilt. The kitchen had warmed up from the heat of the oven. Andrew stood at the sink washing his hands. He smiled at her, looking sweet and boyish as ever with his tousled dark hair and pink cheeks despite the bloody water streaming down from his hands into the drain. He had a smear of blood on his chin, as if he had wiped his hand there, and rings of blood crusted the folded back cuffs of his blue chamois cloth shirt.
“It feels nice in here, Mol. What was the problem?” he said. Molly did not want to argue in front of company so she contented herself with a glare.
“Are you ready for the big venison feast?” said Victor.
“I am,” said John. “I’m starving.” Mike pulled some beers out of the refrigerator and set them on the table. Victor sat down and, leaning back in his chair, lit a joint.
“I’ll make a salad,” said Molly, dropping her quilt. “You cook the meat,” she told Andrew.
“So Molly, how are your dopes these days?” asked John, popping open a beer.
“Fine,” she said, shredding lettuce into a wooden bowl. She tried not to get pulled into conversations with Andrew’s friends about her job. Nothing she said ever influenced their thinking one iota and she just got upset.
“You know I heard the state wants those people to get jobs and live in the community with everyone else,” said Victor.
Molly glanced at Andrew. Fortunately he was cleaning his fingernails with his pocketknife and did not seem to be paying attention.
“What’s wrong with that?” said Molly.
“Well, I don’t know, but if there’s nothing wrong with it, how come they’ve always been kept away before.”
“Presumably we’re more enlightened now.”
“Presumably the state would rather spend its money on police than freaks,” said John.
“Those freaks—as you call them—are some of the nicest people I’ve ever known.”
“Geez, Andrew, that says a lot for you,” said Victor. His chair crashed to the floor as he leaned forward to pass the joint to Mike.
Andrew folded his knife shut and looked up. “Molly’s not judgmental like you guys,” he said.
“Does that mean like having no judgment? I mean what the fuck. Don’t we have enough unemployed people around here already?” said Mike.
“That’s not their fault,” said Molly, setting the salad down on the table so hard the lettuce jumped. “They have to live too.”
“Right. You know, this steak is going to be fantastic,” said Andrew. “Do you realize we haven’t had steak since the Fourth of July, Mol?”
“Venison is better than beef. Beef has all those chemicals in it,” said Mike, going to the refrigerator again.
“Say, did you hear Wilson is selling his Chevy for parts?” asked John, and the conversation drifted on to cars. For once, Molly was glad to have this absorbing topic take over the conversation.
Usually, listening to Andrew and these friends talk, she wondered how she’d ended up married to him. When they met in high school, he had been a dreamy kid who liked to take long walks in the woods. He knew the names of all the trees and the properties of their wood, as well as the names of plants and flowers that Molly had never even noticed before. He hadn’t fit in very well with the Victors and Johns and Mikes back then. It was too bad, she thought, that he’d figured out how to do it.
“I think we should eat this rare,” said Andrew, pulling the steak out of the broiler and flipping it onto a platter.
“God, it smells good,” said Victor. “Let’s eat.”
While Andrew carved the meat into thick juicy slices and served them up with the potatoes, Molly passed the salad. The men hunched over their plates and began to eat quickly, but she hesitated, thinking of the doe, poised in the snowy woods that edged the road. She couldn’t have lived though, not once her legs were broken, and if she had to die . . . well then.
Molly picked up her knife and fork and found it took some pressure to get the knife through the meat. It may have been a long time since she had eaten steak, but she was sure this meat was tougher than normal. When she had finally cut a piece, she put it into her mouth and began to chew, but her teeth balked on the dense flesh. She chewed again, and her mouth filled with the taste of blood.
She gagged and, pushing back her chair, ran to the bathroom where she coughed the meat into the toilet, but the taste of blood remained. She turned on the water and rinsed and spit, over and over, gagging and coughing on the cold water. When that didn’t help, she filled her mouth with mouthwash and held it there.
Andrew came to the door. “Are you all right?” he asked.
She spit out the mouthwash. “No! I am not all right,” she cried. “I’ve never eaten anything so horrible in my life.”
He shrugged. “I know. I couldn’t eat mine either. Only Victor claims he likes it.”
“I’ll never eat meat again. I feel like I bit into something alive.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. We just forgot it has to age before you eat it.”
“Age?” said Molly, imagining the dead doe hanging in the garage for days. “That’s disgusting.”
“Well, it may be disgusting, but it’s true. Come on back and eat your potato. I threw the meat away. It’s gone.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said, rinsing her mouth one more time. “I’m going to get in bed, where it’s warm.”
Molly climbed into bed with her clothes on and tried to read, but she couldn’t concentrate. She kept remembering how the taste of blood welled up in her mouth like it came from a wound in her own body. From the kitchen she could hear the drone of the men talking as if nothing had happened, the scrape of chairs, the opening and closing of the refrigerator door, the rush of water.
After a while Andrew came into the bedroom and said they were going to The Woodshed. “Do you mind?”
Molly gave him a look, but what did it matter. She had wanted to talk, to tell him what was happening, but she was in no mood for that anyway.
He sat down on the bed and ran his finger around the pattern of the quilt. “I’m sorry about dinner,” he said.
“That’s not your fault,” said Molly. “But the heat is. You said you’d be in charge of the bills, and you haven’t paid them.”
“I know. I thought for sure I’d get some work this month, so I put it off.”
“How can I trust you then?”
Andrew shrugged. “I can’t make you. But trust cuts both ways, you know.”
“What do you mean?” said Molly, feeling her face flush. She clutched the quilt in her fists.
“If you were home all day, you’d know what was in the papers.”
“Oh, shit.” Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, their heat burning her cheeks.
Andrew put his arms around her, and she began to cry harder, all the tension of the past month coming out in sobs.
“I know it’s hard for you, Mol, but you really shouldn’t let yourself get so wound up. You’ll see. We’ll be fine. There’s nothing to worry about.”
She knew he meant to console her, but his words had the exact opposite effect, and she pulled away from him.
“God, you sound just like my father. We have no heat, no money, and no jobs, Andrew. Don’t you get that?”
“OK. We’re a fucking disaster. Total losers. Does that make you feel better?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, it does.”
“You’re drunk, but go to The Woodshed. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll stay up to meet the oil man and pay him too.”
From the stricken look on his face, she knew she had gone too far. But wasn’t she entitled to be mad once in a while? Or was she going to become like her mother—always putting the best face on things?
He left without another word, and her stomach burned with resentment as she heard the trucks start up and go down the drive. Back in the kitchen she saw that they had at least cleaned up before they left. That was a first, but she did not even want to think about the garage. The butchered carcass of the doe hanging there in the dark.
Outside the wind had picked up, rattling the windows and puffing out the plastic that they’d taped over them. The house was getting colder every minute now that the oven had been turned off. She put on her coat and rummaged in the refrigerator for a snack.
As she wolfed down a leftover baked potato slathered with butter, she thought about how she always used to ask her mother “What’s going to happen now?” as they set off on another one of her father’s adventures: a year of car camping out West, a brief stint on a llama farm, two years living on a canal boat, and then the day when he left them completely to become a Zen monk. Her mother had never had an answer.
Maybe that’s why she liked her job, because all day long she doled out answers that made life sound like a series of short, concrete tasks that anyone could master.
Of course, there were times when it didn’t always work there either. Today, she had her group practice how to call for help in an emergency using 9-1-1. She made them each say the numbers over and over, until they were all chanting 9-1-1, stamping their feet, and laughing.
Everyone seemed fine until Lily Wilkes, a round sweet-faced young woman with Down syndrome, said, “I know it now, Molly, but how can I be sure I’ll remember when I’m out there?” “Out there” was how they referred to the future, the new lives they would have when the center was closed.
Lily’s fear produced a ripple effect, and the other members of the group began to look uncertain, their smiles wobbling, then vanishing. Molly was still floundering for words to comfort them, when suddenly Marcus Eaton, who had lived his whole life slouched in a wheelchair, began to sing, “I’ll be there.”
No one had ever heard him sing anything before, much less a song by the Jackson 5, so they all listened astonished. His arms flailed and his face twisted with the effort to get the words out, but he knew it all, down to the falsetto voice breaks. When he came to the final “I’ll be there,” there was a stunned silence. Then Lily, her face shining with relief, began to chant “Mar-cus! Mar-cus!” and everyone joined in, stamping and shouting “I’ll be there.”
Afterward, for the first time they began to talk about the move as something exciting. The unknown had switched from a terrible blankness to a chance to do something new. It was like witnessing a little miracle, what her mother used to call “the good magic.”
Molly had always thought believing in the good magic was about as helpful as saying there was nothing to worry about. Most of the time, she couldn’t, wouldn’t, buy it. Still it was undeniable that something had happened in that moment.
As she stood at the window watching for the oil truck, she suddenly recalled another scene connected to that same song. It had been playing the first time she met Andrew at a high school 70’s dance. He was wearing a fringed leather vest of his father’s as his costume, and his palms were damp with sweat. He asked her to dance, but she didn’t know how to let him lead and kept stepping on his feet. Finally they gave up and simply rocked back and forth in place with their arms around each other. As soon as the song ended, she had left the dance, ashamed of her clumsiness.
The story might have ended there, but Andrew hadn’t given up on her. He had pursued her with the same careful determination he used to plane their window frames to a finish like silk.
She had to admit, she had benefited from his ability to envision what wasn’t there yet. What could be. It balanced off her focus on what she thought of as “the facts,” but she still didn’t know how to let him lead, her foot following his foot.
At midnight it began to snow again, a fine driving snow that quickly coated the woods and mounded up on her car sitting in the driveway. A lone deer crossed the yard seeking shelter, and its hoof prints soon vanished.
When the oil company truck finally lumbered down the drive, Molly watched the driver climb down from his cab, and, bent against the storm, carry the heavy hose across to their oil tank. When he was finished, he rang the bell. She gave him a check and thanked him profusely for coming on such a bad night.
Almost immediately the radiators clanked and hissed, the metal turned warm, and a plume of heat began to push back the cold air. She slipped quickly out of her layers of clothes, put on her pajamas, and jumped into bed; but with snow beating against the windows, she couldn’t relax, much less sleep, until Andrew made it home.
She lay there, watching the numbers change on the clock, wondering where he was. Still at the bar. Lying in a ditch. Vanished forever.
A fresh surge of anger washed over her as she thought of the falsehoods that persuade people they are going to be all right. No one could fulfill the promise to be there whenever you needed them, and it may even have been cruel to let her clients lull their fears with such an impossible idea. They needed to know the truth: that moments of safety and connection were the most anyone could hope for in life.
It was after 2 a.m. when she finally heard Andrew’s Ford pull in, his faltering footsteps, and the homely sounds of his getting ready for bed. The bedroom door opened quietly, and the bed frame creaked as he crawled in next to her, wriggling with cold.
She pretended to be asleep, not wanting him to know of the long vigil she had kept, waiting for him. At first, his body drew on her warmth but then it began to give it back, and she pressed herself into the curve of him. As her heart slowed and her breathing grew deeper, she felt her anger begin to dissipate into the dark of night.
They were warm and safe for now, and there was no way to know what tomorrow would bring. Even the doe had known that it was not enough to look both ways. You have to step into the road, if you ever hope to get to the other side.