by Ben Shields
Before he lost his owl, Lance wiped down the bar and listened to his ex from way back, Elizabeth, because he felt the pull of her familiar face. He served her whiskey and soda. She’d left her boyfriend three months ago, but still she sat in front of Lance and dished her man’s evil. He knew she never went long between men, that three months was an abnormal stretch. He wondered about this one she was hung up on and the feeling he gave her.
When Lance had gotten back to town and started work at the bar, he rubbed out the grime. A sense of clean invaded the place. Nothing in there was so tacky anymore. People still came because it was the only bar, but they slid off the stools, and it took three days of smoke to get rid of the chemical smells. Lance, his boss told him, thank you, but never do that again.
The hair on his arms caught in the new sticky of the glazed wood when he leaned on it to better listen to Elizabeth. He nodded and understood when he was supposed to. Coward, Lance said. What an ass. He spoke little else, but in between fixing drinks for the thin crowd, he came back to her. Lance noticed her hands, saw that they were gorgeous still. He found her one freckle below the back corner of her left jaw. They both let their hands linger on the passed tumblers.
Lance said, After I close down I’ve got an owl I’d like to show you.
He watched her headlights in his rearview. On the levee road he saw them juke in the dark, and he slowed down. A piece of Lance wanted to stay driving like this, her behind him lit only as two burning bulbs, because he knew better than to pull into home with her.
They drove down the levee then far out along his dirt road. His headlights passed over the hundreds of acres of flat land and a few deer eyes glowing in the fields. He’d missed the place while he lived in the city and wanted to be back here and settled. Forever ago oceans drowned it, and after they dried out the river washed its silt over the grass and trees. The big water receded, and the levee hedged the river on a decided course. When he moved back this summer past, the wind rattled the rice and corn leaves. Because it reminded him of growing up, the noise helped Lance sleep.
They parked in front of his house, and his truck and her car settled into sitting still, clicking in the cold. The brisk wind made his bones sing. The two of them climbed the strips of boards nailed to the bare oak, up to his tree house. He poked his head through the floor and felt like he did the first time he came through when his father built it twenty years ago—glad and nervous. They sat beside each other along the far edge, giving the owl room. Its talons tapped the boards. No clouds were in the sky. Under the big moon the owl stood straight, almost two feet tall. It shook its head and made noise in its throat.
He’s gorgeous, Elizabeth said.
How long have you had him?
Over a week. I think his wing is broken.
He’s gorgeous, she kept saying.
The wind picked up, and they each tightened their jackets.
She asked, Why are you back in town? She looked at him. I didn’t think you’d come back to stay.
He cleared his throat, scratched his head. Dad, I guess. I don’t know. Somebody needs to keep the house up. I was tending bar in New Orleans. I can do that here just the same.
She smiled at him. Did you ever think about me?
He raised an eyebrow. You’d like me to say, yes, wouldn’t you?
She put her head on his shoulder. Tell me you’re going to stay awhile.
Lance’s father had years before started measuring his life by the landmark of fucking his back up. There was before and after. Before he fucked his back up, he ran fifty miles a week up and down the dirt roads and turnrows that divided the fields around the family home. He loved it. When Lance was young his father would come in hot like a foaming horse and chase his laughing son and wife through the clean house, threatening them with his sweat. Before he fucked his back, he and his son would hunt together, quiet in the trees. Every time, right before he or Lance pulled a trigger, he would lean in and whisper to his son, Men used to do this with sticks. Whenever they skinned and quartered a deer he would step back and say, Men used to do this with rocks. These sentences made Lance’s blood bloom.
The moment joy left Lance’s father—he slipped a foot on the roof. He slid down the shingles, passed over the gutters, and landed on his heels. Deep pain shimmied up his bones and settled in his vertebrae. He was alone when it happened in the middle of all that space around him. He told Lance that he sat against the brick wall for five hours and watched the sun move. Rabbits skirted the edges of the fields and tore out in a full run for no reason, for what seemed like only the pleasure of speed. When he stood, he was bent, and he’d been bent ever since.
Before he lost his owl, Lance visited his father in his shitty, first-floor apartment in town. He had moved there because he couldn’t handle the scope of his brick home and the taunting dirt roads. He’d grown fat.
You should kill that owl, his father said. It’s devastated.
You’re breaking my heart, Dad.
Lance had grown tired of the cocky, aloof shits he served drinks to, tired of the city’s wrecked streets and its statement of decay that once charmed him. When he thought of a home he thought clean empty where you could stretch out and take off.
When he got to town he found his father a more bitter mess than ever and the house a wreck. His mother had kept the place up, but her new life with a new man was already hard set, and Lance couldn’t get his head around her, how she quit a life so thoroughly. He split the piled up wood for fires, fixed the sagging roof over the porch. He swept the gritty floors. It felt old and lived-in and pure as when the family was together.
Lance remembered the conversation with his mother one week before he was leaving town for college, how she said, There’s nothing you can do with a broken person, Lance. I’ve tried with your father for years now, and sometimes it’s just better to cut ties. You have to learn that one-day.
He watched her adjust her new flowery blouse and ready herself for a whole new thing. She turned to him like the thought had for the first time occurred. She said, You know, it’s just like with that ex-girlfriend of yours. The way she treats you is cruel, and you ought to see that.
Lance stared at the boxes his mother had packed stacked in a corner. Besides some of her clothes, there were few souvenirs from this version of her life except a few pictures of Lance and the two or three trinkets she kept after her own mother died. He said, You’re saying Dad is cruel.
His mother came to him and held his face in her hands. Of course not. Of course not, son. The problems with your father are much different than that. She sighed and dropped her hands to her side. He’s just, she said looking off. He’s a shell, honey. There’s not a thing left in him.
Lance stood up, angry at how callous he felt she was. Whatever it is you thinks he’s lost, he can get that back. It’s not like it’s gone anywhere.
I don’t expect you to understand.
Well, I don’t. I think this sucks.
She went back to fluffing her hair in the mirror and ignoring Lance’s fit.
Coming into evening once, Lance sat with his owl to keep it company. Down the dirt road he saw a plume of dust lifting through the cold air.
We’ve got company, he told the bird.
It shook its neck feathers.
I expect you to behave.
Lance looked down at Elizabeth from the tree house. Thought you’d just drop by? he asked her.
She smiled up at him and shielded her eyes from the low-going sun with a delicate hand. Yeah, she said.
You want to come look at this owl?
You’re obsessed, she told him.
I think it likes the company.
I think you like it more.
When she sat next to him she said, You need to hang around people instead.
Like you? he asked, pressing his shoulder into hers.
Lance got caught up thinking about falling into something easy and familiar, about how sweet that would be here. He didn’t say anything at all until he said, The vet in town won’t touch it. Said she doesn’t do birds.
They watched the owl settle in for the night. It adjusted its wings, sat low on its feet.
You don’t think it’s sweet, me taking care of it? he asked.
She turned to him and put one of her hands on his face. It felt almost like it did a long time ago when the tip of her first finger would rest right outside the corner of his eye. They covered themselves in their coats and hid in what was fast becoming dark.
After they finished, he said, Look. He clicked on his flashlight and drew it across the dark fields. A dozen sets of glowing deer eyes watched them.
Two weeks into caring for his owl, Lance visited his father again. The old man sat alone watching television in his messy apartment. He winced at the light that flooded through the opened door. They didn’t greet each other. Lance started picking up empty chip bags and paper plates and carrying them to the kitchen.
Lance’s father asked from his chair, You still got that owl?
Lance put the cereal boxes back in the cabinet. I do, he said.
I told you to get rid of it.
While he stared at cans of sardines and potted meat Lance said, Too bad I’m a grownup.
His father just nodded his head.
I was thinking about making a room for him, Lance said just for the hell of it.
His father kept nodding.
One of the old bedrooms I’m not using, I guess. Might would need to get the carpet out of there, you think?
His father flipped through the channels, landed on the news.
Lance loaded the dishwasher and tied up the trash. I’ve been seeing Elizabeth again.
His father muted his program. He looked at Lance.
Don’t say anything. That was a long time ago, Lance said.
She ran you out of town.
No. College ran me out of town. Lance came over to the couch and sat.
His father turned and studied him. Be careful with her.
I mean it.
Un-mute it, Lance said pointing at the television. It was the weather. There was more cold coming. Lance said, Move back to the house.
I got it nice again.
His father stared at the television for what felt like a long while. Then he looked around at his shitty place. Two things, he said. Keep that owl out of there and maybe. And it won’t ever feel like home again. Know that.
Lance smiled at him.
The owl’s claws couldn’t pierce Lance’s leather sleeve. He felt the pressure of its grip while it strained to balance. He stood in the tree house and looked down at his bent father and new-old girl, looked over at his friend pacing his arm.
You look so pleased, Elizabeth said.
You wouldn’t believe it, Lance said.
You know what I think, his father said looking at every creature present.
The owl lifted its bad wing slightly off its body and hooted.
I didn’t bring you out here so I could baby you, Lance said to his father on the couch. Sweets wrappers floated off the coffee table with the wind of someone passing. Lance picked up the scattered plastic and crunched it into a ball in his hand.
His father made an odd face. He said, That’s how my hips sound in the mornings.
Well, it’s afternoon now.
I don’t know exactly what you want me to do.
I want you to get off your ass. Rake the yard, take out the trash.
His father held his hands out. How do you expect me to? I can barely walk. Your momma isn’t here anymore.
Lance looked at the ceiling. You’re slow, but you can get around fine. You just gave up on it. Then he leaned forward and said to his father, And she’s not here anymore, is she?
His father was quiet and settled firmer into the couch, crossed his arms. I don’t like that girl spending so much time out here.
What does that have to do with anything?
His father put his hands up. I’m just saying.
Lance shook his head. He picked up his rifle beside the door so he could go kill another rabbit. You could hunt with your son sometime. Not a lot of walking when you’re sitting in a deer stand.
His father looked from the television to Lance, his face like the conversation never happened. Hey, since you’re up you want to put another stick on the fire for me?
Lance made dinner. His father slung the potatoes into a pile on his plate. Elizabeth showed up late, hair messy, lipstick smeared beyond her lips.
Lance’s father said, You’re late, and you’re messy.
Lance said, Damn it, Dad. We get it.
I’m just saying.
Elizabeth looked at his father and forced a smile, then looked Lance’s direction. Sorry, babe. She kissed his cheek. I got caught up with work.
Lance noticed she smelled like wine and cigarettes, that she made too much a deal over the gorgeous dinner, that she looked at his chin or hair rather than his eyes. Then he chose to ignore it, because it was too soon for that, too early for the coming together of his home life to falter.
Lance’s father sat down on the couch. Lance said, Nope. Get in here and eat at the table.
I’m already settled, he said flipping the channels.
Lance stood up, grabbed his chair and plate. He turned to Elizabeth nodded toward the living room, and she hesitated but followed.
Lance sat directly in front of the television. His father said, Aw, come on, now.
Elizabeth just looked at Lance. He smiled, said, Sit. She did.
His father watched them both, said, You’re as bad as your mother.
Lance ignored him. Isn’t this nice? he asked. What a nice family dinner. He reached and put his hand on Elizabeth’s knee.
His father said, This is not a family dinner.
Now don’t say that. I might run out, get my bird, and bring him in. He’s getting his strength up. Dad fixed his own plate. Things are starting to feel real good around here, aren’t they?
Elizabeth smiled a weak smile. His father said, This is not a family dinner.
When he lost his owl, Lance flipped channels alongside his father who said, I’m real sorry for you, bud. You can’t help but resort to your natural habit when possible. I don’t blame it a bit.
Lance watched somebody try to sell him something.
His father asked, Where’s Elizabeth? Why don’t you get her over here?
Quit trying to be nice, Lance said. He threw the remote on the coffee table. She didn’t answer the phone. Hasn’t for a couple days.
Try again, son. We can play cards or something.
Lance looked over at his father. She may be running around on me.
His father slapped him on the leg with the back of his hand. Now, you’re just saying that because of your bird.
No. I’ve thought it for a week or so. Feels the same way it did last time. She won’t look at me. She’s really not good at hiding it.
Hell with her, then, his father said flipping a hand in the air. He put his arm around Lance’s shoulder, groaning because it stretched his back. Who needs her? It can be the two of us. Unless you want her around. There’s room for three.
I think I’m going to go see Mom.
His father sat back, crossed his arms. He didn’t say anything for a minute until, I’m trying.
I know, Dad. You’re doing fine. I just haven’t seen her in a couple of weeks.
Well, he paused, tell her I’m dead.
Outside, Lance walked around the tree again looking for any sign of disarray, hoping that the bird did fly off rather than tangle with a possum. Its wing had been getting better. Lance knew he should have been better prepared.
He drove out the dirt road and onto the levee. The river was hidden behind a line of black willow and locust trees. The tree line was thinner than it was when he was young. Barges made a habit of tying off to the trees and leaving before cutting loose. Down in the flat between the levee and the water, cows stood still in the brown grass. He drove into his town then crossed the river into the next. He passed through it out to his mother’s new neighborhood on the outskirts with clean yards and new construction. There was only one car in the driveway, thankfully his mother’s.
Everything was new in the house—lamps and shades, the clothes she greeted him in and the coffee cups. It smelled like lavender and many cleaning agents. They sat on the glassed-in back porch. Lance crossed his legs and uncrossed them. The sun was too bright coming through the too clean windows. He burned his tongue on the coffee and set it down.
How’s Mr. Greg? he asked.
Honey, he’d much prefer you call him Greg. She put her cup and saucer on a small table covered with flowery clothe. He’s fine, though. Work, work, work.
Lance nodded. Dad says to tell you he’s dead.
She laughed loud, the sound of someone completely unaffected by another person’s existence. Well, that’s like him. He’s still a mess I gather?
He’s back in the house with me. Doing better, I think.
Good for him, she said. Now, I hear you’re seeing somebody.
Was. I don’t know. Elizabeth. You remember her?
His mother looked worried. That girl from high school?
Lance said nothing. His mother just looked at him.
What are you thinking, son?
He picked up his coffee and swirled it around his cup, looked around the room. You don’t ever think about the way it was back at the house?
She said, No, son. I don’t. It was nice early on, but that ended so long back. Your father just wasn’t the same person after he hurt himself.
He looked around the room and said, I dwell on how it was when we were all together.
She said, I assume you know how I feel about dwelling.
Lance cleared his throat, put his cup down and leaned his elbows on his knees. How do you manage that? he asked.
It doesn’t do to think about it. There’s a number of possibilities everywhere. Not just the ones you’re used to.
Out the glassed room Lance saw a thin, oak sapling in the yard, so young that it looked shitty and awkward. Everyone would be dead before it’s even a quarter grown. Lance asked, So, Mr. Greg is good?
He’d much prefer you call him Greg.
I don’t think I’m going to do that ever.
Lance pushed hooks through the hide, between the tendon and leg bones of a doe he shot alone an hour ago sitting quiet in a stand in the woods way out beyond the house as the sun came up. Bullet struck, and the doe had still run a hundred yards, tearing through limbs and brush. He threw a rope over a low limb next to the tree house and pulled the deer up with his truck. She hung upside down and twisted in the wind. His breath turned to fog.
He ran his knife down her belly and opened the tight flaps of skin. He pulled her guts into a bucket. The mess was sick colored and steaming in the cold. He saw the doe’s heart in several wrecked pieces. The bullet had hit it directly, and it must have been nothing but adrenaline that kept her moving after she was shot. He got the hose and washed his hands. As he sprayed out the doe’s hollow body and bloody water washed over her hair, he heard the crunch of tires on the dirt road. Elizabeth parked next to the house before walking over to him.
You’ve been scarce, he said.
She stared at the ground, and said, I know.
He scratched the dirt with his feet. How about you look at me, he said.
She wouldn’t, so he said it again. Look at me.
Then she did, and she was not crying but there was a kind of sadness and sorry set in the creases around her eyes.
Lance cleared his throat. Is it your ex?
She looked at the tree house. She asked him, Where’s your owl?
Lance looked up there, too. He got better and flew off.
Lance nodded. It’s awful. Are you getting back with him?
She kicked the dirt. Lance, she said moving her hair. No.
Is that what you wanted to tell me?
She shook her head.
I like being with you, she said.
Lance laughed. Glad to accommodate.
I mean it.
You just can’t make up your mind. Is that it?
No. I want you. I just messed up again.
Lance dropped his head backwards and looked up at the cold sky. He made a noise in his throat. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
She walked to him and touched his face on both sides. She blinked a tear. You have to let me show you I can do better.
Lance had not noticed that his father had come outside until he heard the man shout, She’s nice. Lance saw him moving slowly their way and smiling at the deer.
Elizabeth backed off a step, and the three of them stood there while the deer swung. His father said to Elizabeth, You ever cleaned a deer?
She looked at his shoulder and said, No.
They used to do it with rocks, he said and winked at Lance. I guess we could show you.
Lance understood what his father was doing. How he tried to help, to go whichever way Lance wanted. He said, Dad, I don’t think we have to do that.
No. Let’s. You’re sticking around awhile, aren’t you, Liz?
Before she could answer Lance’s father took the knife. He groaned when he lifted his arms and took short breaths. He made circle cuts around the deer’s ankles and slid the knife down the shins then gripped a flap of skin on one of the legs and jerked. The hide came down by inches leaving meat and silverskin showing. Lance’s father winced with each yank. He kept going and started on the other side. Lance helped, and they brought the whole hide down until it hung like a cape over the deer’s head.
They stood back. Lance’s father said, Well, that wore me out. He looked at Elizabeth. He said, She’s not green at all.
They were all quiet. Lance felt like he should speak, but he didn’t think he had a thing left to offer.
His father asked Lance, Hey, did you yell in her yet?
Elizabeth spoke. What’s he talking about?
They both looked at her. Lance sighed and said, When I was a kid he’d pick me up and fly me around like a superhero then stick my head inside a deer after we’d cleaned it, and I’d scream.
Why? she asked.
Blessing the meat, his father said. Saying thanks. It’s a primal thing, kind of. You do it, Liz. I sure as hell can’t pick you up, though.
Dad, Lance said. No. I think she’d rather not.
Come on. You won’t get dirty, I promise, he said to her.
Dad, Lance said.
It won’t hurt.
Lance looked at him a way that made everybody shut up.
Lance took the knife from his father. He spit on the ground and walked to the deer to start butchering it. His father came around behind the deer to act like he was helping. He whispered, She needs to go then if you don’t want her around.
Lance kept working the deer and asked, Did I say that? He watched his father look at the ground, then the deer and Elizabeth. His father leaned against the tree and said to Lance, Well, go on and get your head in there.
Lance put his hands at his waist. He scratched the ground with his foot. No.
His father said, Come on. It’ll be like you’re a kid again.
Lance saw the wind move Elizabeth’s hair to her face. She looked like she might cry again any second. His father slapped the animal’s back hard and asked, Isn’t this your whole damn deal?
Fine, Lance said and spread the deer open. Inside the hollow cage, he finally let a long, ragged one sink into the bones and meat. With all his air gone, the warmth left in her body cradled his head, and black moved in around the outside of his vision. He pulled out, empty of everything, and filled himself with cold, clean air on a bright, pretty day next to people he hoped would try with him in mind.