Love Just South of Second Amendment Road

 

Roo and I were driving along the bank of the Ohio River on the West Virginia side. We were on our way into town to buy a used cardboard box. You can always tell something about how a town is doing by what’s in the free classifieds, but even when a place is down to junkyards and a tire repair stand, you don’t see many single cardboard boxes listed. Cardboard box, Good Shape, 36 x 18 x 18, $2 OBO. I was just going to go the whole two bucks.

Right around Second Amendment Road, I pulled over to let Roo take a look at the river. The Ohio is one of America’s big ones — its mud-brown water runs a thousand navigable miles from Pittsburgh to join the Mississippi in Illinois. An old man with time on his hands wandered over to have a look at Roo. 

“Okay to say hi to your dog?” he said.

“She’d be glad if you did,” I said. “She’s not as mean as she looks.”

“Oh, I can see you’re a real mean dog,” he said to Roo while he held out a hand for her to smell. He got a wag and a smile from Roo and scratched her ears. “You’re a good dog, aren’t you?” he said to her. 

“She’s a whole pack of pit bulls,” I said.

He looked up to me and said, “I had a Golden,” he said. “Best dog I ever had. Got cancer, though. Died young. Fine dog, though.”

I told him that my dog before Roo had also died young of cancer and we got to small talking and looking at the river came up and he pointed to an old tree on the bank.

“See right down there? Used to picnic some Sundays after the wife got back from church. Just me and her. Back then people picnicked. I guess they still do. She’d wrap some chicken in wax paper and a bottle of pop. I didn’t have the dog yet or I would have brought him. But you could look at that river all you wanted and you’d never see a drop of water. It was wall-to-wall barges and tugs. They ran thick as paint. Steel, lumber, you name it, it came down that river. A long time ago they even made sewer pipe right here. Hundred acres of stacks. They never set. They just shipped out and kept stacking. Wasn’t dead like this.”

Now you can see all the water you want. We’ve driven up and down this stretch at least a dozen times and haven’t seen any freight at all on the river. There are a couple of tugs tied up on the Ohio side under the bridge in East Liverpool, but that’s about it. The old factories are abandoned now, the sheet metal walls rusting off their rivets and snapped angle-iron supports dangling in places like all that’s left of the wings of a vulture blown into barbed wire. Even the padlocks on the chain link fences have turned brown. Whoever had the keys last is likely dead. On the opposite side of the road are a couple of abandoned strip clubs, the size of small warehouses, perfectly positioned to ambush a pay envelope on the way home, but they, too, have weeds growing from the cracks in their parking lots and letters missing from the marquees. 

At the end of town we passed a chain pizza joint that had a sagging banner outside advertising a $7.99 special for a large pizza. The catch was you had to order online to get the discount, so I did, specifying anchovies, Roo’s favorite. It gave the option to pay in the store or with a credit card now, and rather than enter the long number on the phone, I opted to pay there. A tracking widget popped up on the site to keep me posted on the minute-to-minute progress of the pizza. It informed me that Andy had placed the pizza in the oven at 4:48.

We went to pick the cardboard box up in the back of an old machine shop and headed back to the pizza place. There had been a sprinkle of rain, but not enough to cool the baked asphalt, and steam was rising from it when we got there.

While I was paying for the pizza, a young woman — I know that’s what one is supposed to say, but she was a girl, really, 17 or 18 — came in. She was flushed and tired-looking and in a hurry. She got to the counter and edged sideways in front of me to speak to the cashier. She was wearing a black tank top and had a tattoo on her shoulder blade. It was full of mistakes, maybe done by one of the meth heads who finance their habit by getting worn-out mail-order tattoo kits at pawn shops or out from under the beds of relatives in custody and assembling convincing portfolios of tattoo pictures they find online. 

What would have been eraser smudges if it were a pencil drawing were instead areas of overwrought adjustment where more and more lines of frenzied green ink had been added to try to repair things, and then whole blotches to cover bigger mistakes, the way someone might fill in an absentminded ballpoint heart with an arrow through it before anyone saw it. I imagined the tattoo artist telling her, “It’s looking real good, baby. Gonna be hot,” and she believing it and waiting to see her new skin in a mirror.

Seeing it made me feel terrible. It wasn’t a tattoo, it was an emblem of the general ruin. It had reached all the way down to this individual young body, carrying now and until hers went the way of all flesh this stigmata of the Bad American Start. It was not her fault. It was a branding engineered by the liars and con men promising more guns, more Jesus, lower taxes and an end to abortion, in other, truer words, the plundered budgets of schools and libraries and hospitals and unions and community centers.

The cashier’s terminal kept instructing her to enter all sorts of codes, one at a time, then rejecting her entries and forcing her to re-enter them in order to get my credit card transaction approved.

“Is Andy here?” the girl with the tattoo said to the cashier. 

The cashier looked towards the kitchen factory area, which was open to full view, and said, “Oh. Andy? I don’t know. He was. I really don’t know. I think he was here before. Anybody seen Andy? Maybe he stepped out or something.”

Thinking nothing of it, I said, “So there really is an Andy. The web site just told me that a guy named Andy just made my pizza. I thought it was just a gimmick.”

The girl shot me a look as if I was a surprise mystery witness brought to the stand to clinch a murder case against someone she knew was guilty of a crime but was not yet prepared to side with a stranger over.

Andy, however, had not stepped out. Where he had stepped was behind a wall out of sight to the customers, but right next to the cashier who had tried to cover for him, and, trying to look unbusted, he headed toward the work area. 

He was the kind of kid who worked hard at cultivating the look of cruelty. Maybe he was insecure about his height or being as skinny as he was. It might have been his nose, which would have looked squashed on a pug. He was wearing shorts and his legs looked like surgical tubing. They were covered in tattoos of the style intended on the one on the girl’s back. They were about the same age.

“Can we step outside?” she said to Andy.

‘Uh-oh,’ I thought. ‘Didn’t see the angry-girlfriend-showing-up-at-work-vibe coming.’

“Yeah, we could,” Andy said. “If I wanted to.” Hopefully this pizza job was just temporary, because the sooner Andy got into the asshole business the sooner he would rise to the top of a profession. His sneer showed off a gold ring he had through his nostril. It was too small for anyone to hook a finger in if they wanted to booger-fling him by it into the Ohio.

The idle comment I had made about Andy’s name on the web site made me feel uncomfortably involved in this, which of course I didn’t want to be, so I was trying to become invisible the way dogs do at inopportune moments. Any second the pizza would be handed to me by the cashier — who was wide-eyed and red-faced because of her lie about Andy not being there when he was actually hiding right next to her, and I wanted to get clear.

“Yeah, well, you and I need to talk. We need to talk right now,” the girl said to Andy. 

“I know you know how to text.”

“Like you answer texts.”

He drifted sideways to position himself behind a steel worktable and, though there were no pizzas in the pipeline and he was doing nothing, said, “I ain’t got a break coming.”

She took a deep breath as if to give herself another chance to reconsider saying what she had planned to say. But she went through with it, raising her voice to make sure everyone heard. 

“Okay, then,” she said. “When are you going to come see the baby?”

Andy stared out the plate glass window in the direction of the flaking plywood on the abandoned storefronts across the street. Once, those shops had probably sold vacuum cleaners and apple corers and ukuleles and summer dresses and manicure sets you could get your initials stamped on in gold. Now they were just more of the coffins piling up in the gutters of former boom towns. Andy didn’t answer her.

She said, more confidently now, “You have to come see the baby.”

Andy stared out the window more intently, as if he had just noticed a custom Harley in one of the windows and was considering buying it. He would extend the forks and make it into a chopper. Choppers were badass. Get a badass paint job on the tank, too. Those are real badass. And straight pipes so they hear you coming from a mile away.

She took another few breaths ad said, “All right. Why don’t I just bring the baby in to see you, then?”

“I don’t want to see your baby,” Andy said.

The thought occurred to me that from where I was, if she pulled out a gun and aimed it at Andy, I would be able to grab her wrist and stop her, but wouldn’t.

The cashier said, “Darn it. I made a mistake. Can I see your card one more time?” It was as if the transaction was undergoing close scrutiny by a hastily-convened meeting of the board of directors at the bank’s headquarters in New York, where they were tired of hearing from this part of the country now that the factory pensions had been successfully pirated. But, finally, word came from a walnut-paneled boardroom on the 56th floor of an office tower overlooking Central Park that another eight bucks of credit was extended, as long everyone in that goddamned town swore never to call on them again. 

The cashier gave me the pizza at the same time the girl — the young mother — reached her limit. She had been holding her head high in her exchange with Andy, but she sagged and turned away in the loneliest way I have ever seen and went ahead of me to the door. Even at this moment of her struggle, her instinct for politeness was intact. She didn’t seem to realize she was holding the door for me until she heard me say, “Thank you.” I don’t know if I said it wrong or if it sounded like there was something else I was thinking or if I just looked awkward. Whatever it was surprised her enough to make her smile for a second.

“You’re very welcome,” she said. The bottom rim of one of her eyes was wet.

She walked fast in her scuffed suede boots to a battered little car with one mis-matched yellow junkyard door and old adhesive window tinting peeling off. She opened the door and leaned in and reached down to something I couldn’t see in the passenger seat.

Roo found a newborn fawn alone in the forest today.

[This story is dedicated to Rebecca Shelor and her beautiful and special Golden Scout.]

 

Roo and I were hiking on a trail that approaches a small lake, and when she saw it, she headed down the 60-foot embankment to take a swim. If you like dogs, you never get tired of watching them jump in the water, and so I was watching her run through the leaves and brush when she stopped dead in her tracks, shocked by something she happened upon. My first impression was that this was not prey, because Roo always pounces when she sees prey, even if it’s not to pounce on the prey. She just pounces for the hell of it first and then continues to chase her mouse. 

She put her nose down into the brush and approached whatever it was slowly. She looked the way she does when she finds a carcass. I figured she was going to roll in it and I just hoped it wasn’t one of the bad ones. 

There was a mortifying wail that I didn't recognize. It sounded like a cross between a sheep and a cat. Whatever it was sounded like something Roo should not be tangling with and I yelled at her to leave it alone, but it was too late. She was already walking uphill, in my direction, carrying what with distance and dappled light looked like a carcass the size of a large cat, limp and apparently dead.

I was horrified. Roo knows damn well that she is not allowed to chase cats, let alone kill one, and that's what I thought had happened. I didn't know how I was going to punish this, because Roo has never had to be punished. This was happening quickly. It had been only a few seconds since the now-dead animal had let out that awful, long bleating wail. But killing a cat was going to require a strong response. I was preparing to grab Roo by the neck and throw her down on the ground and half strangle her while baring my teeth and growling at her. Another thought crossed my mind, powerful with bad emotion, that Roo might have crossed a line beyond which might lie something about her that I would always hate. That was an intense and terrible and disappointing feeling.

As Roo kept walking towards me, I realized two things in quick succession. First, that she wasn't acting like this was prey, because she doesn't come to me with prey unless I insist. She doesn’t even volunteer to show me a high-value carcass if she scavenges one. And she was just calmly, carefully, even, walking towards me. Right after that, as tan spots on brown fur appeared, and long, spindly legs and a teardrop-shaped head hanging and swinging gently as Roo walked, I recognized what it was. Roo was carrying it by what would have been the scruff if it was a puppy, but this was a fawn, newborn and small enough to wrap in a newspaper, and the little deer had no scruff. In the last few feet of her approach to me I was suppressing rage. I thought she killed this newborn. She knows damn well she's not allowed to hunt deer. All right, she gets away with a bark at them and a few feet of chase, but that’s all. The idea that she would kill this newborn made me angrier than I’ve ever been at her. I said nothing, though, because I didn't want her running off.

And yet, she was still walking towards me. That made no sense at all, and I knew it. If she had killed this fawn, she would have cut a wide swath in another direction to keep it to herself.

When I got to her, Roo stopped and stood still. I put my hand under the tiny fawn's belly and told Roo to drop it. She hesitated, not so long that you'd normally hold it against a dog while they thought about it, but I was in no mood to wait at all and I repeated it and she did. It didn't feel like more than a dozen pounds weighing into my hand, soft belly fur. Roo, without being asked, lay down, which was also never in a trillion years something she would have done if she considered this prey. She would have been riled, if not agitated, and would have wanted it back.

I placed the little fawn on her side, careful to support the head — her neck was as slender and flexible as a miniature giraffe’s — and to tip its black hooves, not much bigger than thimbles, in the dirt on the way down to keep her thin legs from bunching beneath her. The fawn was limp but alive. She was one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen, every bit as beautiful as a young ocelot, who until today I considered the most beautiful of my contact. Everything about the fawn was perfect. Her fur, a deep auburn freckled with dozens of light spots, was shiny, with every hair in place as though it had been slicker-brushed. On the buff-colored legs there was not the first of the thorn scratches or cuts she would have gone on to receive had she a lifetime ahead. The hooves had no scuffing. Her black nose was the size of a button and her ears were as thin as onion skin, long and pink and veiny on the insides.

I didn't know what else to do so I started stroking her side while I checked for damage. There was none at all. If Roo had wanted to kill the fawn, she would have by shaking her or biting her. I’ve seen her kill enough to know. She had not wanted to kill this fawn. She had carried her with her softest mouth. There was nothing on her but a little dog spit on the upper back where it rested on Roo’s tongue. I felt her ribs and legs and neck. There was no damage at all. My impression was that the fawn was more dazed than anything. She seemed partially conscious, enough, anyway, to position her pear-sized head away from where Roo was lying five feet away. 

We were in an area where you would see the deer if there were any, as I have on numerous occasions every day since we got here, and I had been paying attention and was sure there none around. I kept stroking the newborn, hoping that might calm or comfort her. Her ribs weren’t as thick as pencils, and even with no pressure on them they felt flexible as she breathed. I was expecting her to be breathing hard, but she wasn't. Just steady little puffs, into lungs the size of a sandwich baggie.

As I calmed down I was thinking several things at once. I thought the fawn might have been dying when Roo found her and was going to die now and I hoped that I wasn't making things worse by stroking her. I thought I should call someone who knew about these animals for guidance, and while I dug my phone out of my back pocket I turned to look at Roo. She was looking on, but not in the way she would have if she thought I was interfering with prey. She was just looking interested.

Some instinct other than that of a predator had made her bring the fawn to me and I understood that now. I had been able to see it in the way she brought her to me.

"You're a good girl, Roo," I said. She lay there panting. She hadn’t gone for her swim.

All I know about deer is the reputation does have for leaving their young if they’ve been afflicted by the scent of any human handling, and it seemed reasonable to expect that even if the scent of a damned human could be overlooked, expecting the same reaction to the stench of wolf saliva might be asking too much. I figured on waiting a while to make sure the fawn was as calm as she might get, a few minutes, anyway, and then call the park ranger. I know full well that one is never supposed to remove a young wild animal from their home, but had this one been abandoned already or was she sick or injured? I was prepared for a dressing down from the ranger, for many offenses, against this fawn and against the law for allowing a dog off the leash, but I didn't care.

After a couple of minutes, during which I was becoming more beguiled and saddened by the passing beauty and perfection of this new animal, the fawn moved her long neck to raise her head and looked up at me with clear black eyes, and then, while dropping her head back down, noticed Roo lying in the grass panting and with a jolt of energy that I could feel electrify the body under my hand, the fawn bolted upright onto her legs and with a prancing hop higher than I would have believed possible to clear some branches, begin to run downhill. 

I was astonished and relieved. There was nothing wrong with her. She was perfectly coordinated and balanced.

The abruptness of her move startled Roo into reflexively taking off after her, but I shouted at her to stop and she did before she went three steps. The sound of my loud voice scared the fawn and made her collapse on the spot. She lay there for a second wondering what to do, but then gathered her wits quickly and got up and kept running. Roo and I stood there watching for a minute. 

It seemed best to go away. If there was any chance of her mother returning to find her, we had better not be in the way.

Though it seemed to have worked out, to some extent, anyway, the experience had made me feel terrible. I was worrying about the fawn, alone now in those woods, vulnerable and frightened. I had been confused about Roo’s motives, first darkly angry at her, then quickly realizing not just my error but my frailty in coming to it so prematurely and wrongly. And its reversal and processing the idea that what really seemed to have happened — that Roo had found a newborn animal and, well… I think wanted it, somehow, or wanted to protect it or to see what I could do about her. I don’t know. I do know that Roo had no desire to kill the fawn and intended to bring her to me.

We walked away. The trail is too steep at the other end so we had to come back the same way later. Roo was on the leash as we approached the area. There was no sign of the little fawn. Two teenage girls were coming the other way, each walking a dog, one a Shiba Inu, the other a smiling little Jack Russelley kind of guy.

I told them to keep their eyes open for a little fawn and told them what happened. One of them seemed to know a lot about deer.

“Deer will leave a newborn like that somewhere while they go off if they have to do something. Once she hears it call, she’ll come back,” she said.

“Well, but I handled that fawn. Everyone always says once the scent of a human is on them, their mothers reject them.”

“I don’t think she will. She’s around here someplace.”

“Dog spit, too, though,” I said.

“I don’t think it’s going to matter. She’s going to come back.”

It's later now. The sun is going down.