Wish In One Hand
They were right outside of the window, no more than thirty feet away. They were not even looking in the old man’s direction; he was able to watch them in secret.
“Awwww, fuck! That’s nasty!” That was the boy, Jeremy, the younger one, even though he was the bigger one by a good twenty-five pounds and probably three inches.
“Shut the fuck up,” the older one, Jason, said calmly. “The whole neighborhood don’t need to know about it.”
That didn’t stop Jeremy from voicing his disgust.
“It fuckin’ stinks, man!” He peered down into the basement window well. They were on the north side of their house, the common side that they shared with the old man’s yard.
“It does not stink, idiot. It hasn’t been warm enough. Just go get a fuckin’ trash bag. One of the big black ones from the garage.”
“What for? Why can’t we just leave it there?”
“Because then Mom will have to take care of it. You wanna listen to that?”
Jeremy shrugged but took a step backwards.
The old man had a clear view of them from his south side windows, even though they were grimy with dirt from too many years of not being cleaned. The man was too old to clean them himself now – no ladders for him anymore, not after that last time – and they had grown gray with the dust of passing years.
Jeremy tromped away, his lip curled up in mild disgust, towards the back of the house where the garage was. Jason, the older one, continued to poke into the hole with something that looked like a kid’s plastic snow shovel. It was a faded red and cracked like the old man’s face.
The old man wondered what it was that they were trying to remove. Something, probably a squirrel, had crawled in there and died over the winter, sick with some kind of rot or even rabies. The old man hated squirrels – they dug up his green beans and wrecked his potted petunias every summer if he wasn’t watchful – so he would not shed a tear over a dead one. Tree rat, he muttered and then, perhaps taking a cue from the boys: Fuckin’ tree rat.
Jason stood there, his legs splayed, waiting for his brother. The old man noticed that he had a terrible case of acne (zits, he thought that kids called them, although maybe that term was outdated too). Jason never had been the cutest kid anyway (no, his brother had surely gotten all of their mother’s looks) but at least he had always been quiet, unlike Jeremy, who the old man had had to get after many times for being too loud in the yard while the old man himself was trying to take a nap. This was years ago, of course, but they still weren’t on the friendliest of terms.
The old man saw Jeremy round the back corner of the house, trailing a large trash bag behind him like a ladies’ evening wrap. The old man thought of his wife then, how she used to look on the few occasions they had to go into the City, to a play or a concert. She had been, of course, the cultured one, like most women are. Himself, he did not ever remember being anything but an old man.
“Bout time, douchecanoe,” Jason said to his little brother. “Open it so I can get it in.” The window well loomed wide and deep in front of him.
“Don’t touch me with it, okay?” Jeremy asked his brother, his voice rising in pitch, making him sound an awful lot younger than he was. The old man guessed that they were fourteen and fifteen now. They had moved into that house when they were probably five and six (or so his wife had thought when she took a casserole over to their tired but lovely mother). The old man vaguely remembered a father of some sort, but only at the very beginning and then there was never anything more of him after the first six months or so. He was just gone, and as far as the old man had seen, there was never any other man over there. Not ever.
“Just hold the fucking bag open, okay?” Jason’s face, already red from the acne, strained red against the weight of whatever it was that he was trying to lift. He seemed unbalanced, and whatever it was on the end of the shovel fell back down into the hole.
“It’s fucking heavy!” he said, leaning against the ridiculously small shovel to catch his breath. The old man grunted softly in disgust. A boy like him should have more strength than that, he thought, remembering for a brief second when he himself was that age and the chaff that stuck to his ropy arms, itching him feverishly as he slung hay bales for his father and uncle on a farm that now belonged to strangers. Then the memory folded in on itself, too quickly, and he was an old man again.
“Listen, dickweed, you’ve got to hold the bag open really wide. I won’t be able to get it in otherwise.”
Jeremy complied, stretching the top of the bag into a wide, black mouth, and Jason leaned down into his second attempt. It took the old man a second to register what Jason brought up, balanced precariously on a shovel that was too small to hold the weight.
It was a baby deer, very small, too small for sure, and that’s why it was there, the old man was sure of it, in the window well of a small, broken down house, near the center of a small, grimy town. It was too small and perfect to be of any use to anyone here in this place.
“Hold the bag steady,” Jason yelled at his brother.
“Don’t touch me with it! I don’t want rabies,” Jeremy whined.
“You can’t get rabies if it’s dead, moron. Pull the bag up around it.”
“I am pulling the bag! It won’t fit!”
“It will fit! C’mon, it’s getting too heavy, I’m going to drop it. Get it in the bag!
At that moment though, the small shovel, too small even for a tiny deer baby, broke in half and the body fell to the ground next to the window well. The old man saw it land in a neat pile, where it bounced once softly, its bones fluid in its death, and then rested in a perfect circle.
It landed just outside of the northern shade of their small house. The sunlight picked up the golden glint of the baby’s fur and the pretty white markings that dotted its forehead and nose.
“Good going, dumbass. Now how are we going to get it into the bag?” Jason spoke without much conviction.
“I’ll get the big snow shovel. That won’t break.” Jeremy made a move towards the garage, but Jason stopped him.
“Nahhh. I don’t think it’ll fit in the bag anyway.”
“We can’t leave it here though. Mom’ll see it and lose her shit.”
The old man had never heard their mother do anything of the sort. If anything, she was always too reasonable with them, talking in low and slow tones whenever she interacted with either of them, like she was underwater and couldn’t be bothered to come up for air. Although, the old man reasoned, no one ever really knew what went on behind closed doors.
The old man was getting uncomfortable. His right leg was beginning to throb (not where he had been shot a hundred years ago, not there, but always below and a little to the right of there) and so he shifted his whole body weight onto his left leg – the knee there wasn’t that good either, when it came right down to it – and leaned the side of his face and his shoulder against the wall. He could still see them just fine, but now he felt reinforced.
“Here, lay that flat and stand on the edges so it doesn’t blow away,” Jason said. Jeremy complied, and Jason used the pieces of the broken kiddie shovel to flip and roll the dead baby deer onto the flattened trash bag.
“Now what?” Jeremy said, using the worn toe of his running shoe to nudge the body.
Jason looked around, zeroing in on the old man’s house. The curtains were drawn - the sheers, his wife had called them, due to the fact you could see through them, he supposed - and the brittle afternoon sun shone right against the south side of his house, the side that the boys were squared up with. The old man knew that he couldn’t be seen, not with the sun and the curtains both covering him, but he flattened himself further to the right of the window, taking more support from the wall.
Jason didn’t say anything more to his brother, not then, but just motioned towards the old man’s house with a flick of his hand. Jeremy shook his head.
“No, man, no! He’s probably watching us right now,” he hissed.
“No – he sleeps in the afternoon,” Jason said, his voice so low that the old man had to strain to hear him.
He was mostly right, the kid named Jason was. The old man usually did sleep during the afternoon. He always had, right up until a few weeks ago, when he had decided that he had enough of sleeping and had started willing himself to stay awake, reasoning that he didn’t have much time left and that he couldn’t spend it sleeping. Instead, he would just be awake and watching.
And during this time, he would reflect, before his mind closed in on itself as it always did now, on the sweet and slow ache of watching his wife get ready for bed, how she used to slide her skirt off over her hips – she always wore skirts – first one side and then the other, and then after it had stretched over them, it met no resistance from her coltish legs and it would fall to the ground. Then she would half-turn and look at him from the corner of her eye, to see if he was watching. He was always, always watching, he never missed it, and so she was not ever able to keep from smiling her little smile as she bent to pick up her skirt off of the floor, her slip whispering as it moved across her thighs when she bent down. This is what the old man thought of now, in the afternoons, when he should have been sleeping without dreaming.
Jason began dragging the bag towards the old man’s house. Jeremy plucked at his older brother’s arm, but it did not stop him. The old man thought about throwing back the curtains – the sheers – and surprising them with his presence – Surprise, assholes! – but he was entranced with the color of the dead baby deer, and the fact that it was so far away from home (it belonged near his childhood farm, and not here, where he lived as an old man, in this sorry excuse for a town) and the fact that its forehead marking looked like ancient runes or hieroglyphics, a message he could not decipher. He was mesmerized by the mystery of it all, and then when he heard the soft thunk! of the small body falling into his own window well (here on the warmer south side, where it would glow in the sun, but also rot and puddle down into nothing much, much faster) it was too late.
“Grab the bag, you dumb fuck,” he heard Jason say, in an iron voice, to his brother, who grabbed up the black bag like a victory banner, holding it over his head as they retreated, running into the safety of their own backyard.
The old man sighed; it was a great and deep gush of air. He had hoped for more from them (maybe only because they had shoveled his sidewalk twice last winter without him asking and without any payment or even acknowledgement from the old man, and so his heart had softened somewhat towards them, of course they hadn’t known that), but like his wife always said, Wish in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up first. It was probably the crassest thing she ever said, but he knew, without a doubt, that she was right. As always.
The old man pushed off of the wall with his left shoulder. The shotgun that always stood at the ready – a soldier, even an old soldier must always be ready – gleamed dully from the corner opposite him, its two black eyes, watching, waiting. He reached for it, steadying himself with the butt, and then he moved with it to the kitchen. There, his wife sat at the table in her slip. Her own eyes hadn’t seen anything for years, but she sat as patiently as the shotgun, waiting. He touched her straw-like hair with his free hand. At least the flies had mostly disappeared from her leathery skin, engaged now in more lively pursuits.
The old man sighed as he turned to the counter, letting it go with a great gush of air. He would make himself a peanut butter and bologna sandwich and while he was eating it he would check his sights, and even though he should by all rights be sleeping without dreaming because he was an old, old man, by God, then he would make up his mind on what he should do next.