Every weekday morning, Lance Dial got out of bed fifteen minutes before six as if he still had a train to catch for work. He showered, shaved and dressed –– blue Brooks Brothers shirt, cream-colored slacks, brown oxfords –– and headed downstairs, his knees cracking so loudly he wondered why the noise didn’t wake his wife, Jo, still buried beneath the comforter. He paused and stretched in the silence and then resumed walking, the silence following him.
At the bottom of the stairs, he looked through the living room’s french doors at the backyard and the pink terrace damp with dew and uneven from chipmunks that for years had burrowed beneath the square tiles. In the dim morning light, he considered the rotted wood fence that separated his yard from woods. He could just make out the roofs of the condominiums on the other side of the woods. The condos had not been there when he bought his property a half-century before, and they were filled with people he did not know and who did not wave when he drove past them and raised a hand in greeting.
Someone had left an unsigned note in his mailbox the other day calling the deterioration of his fence a blight on the neighborhood. Dial did not deny the fence would need to be replaced one day. Boards had fallen off and it listed when it rained, but it had been a dry year and the fence had held. Dial saw no need to do anything about it now. He threw the note away.
As he stared outside, Dial noticed the fence shudder and weave back and forth. Crows scattered into a gray sky streaked with red lines. He stared at the fence, tracking the movement, until he saw a dark, thrashing shape.
“Jesus,” Dial said.
A deer had impaled itself on one of the posts. It reared back and opened its mouth and stayed like that for some time before it lowered its head, tongue lolling out one side of its mouth like a slug. Blood dripped from it.
“Jesus,” Dial said again.
He looked away. He had suffered a heart attack six months earlier. Ever since, he worried that any surprise or shock, any unexpected jolt would be the equivalent of a power surge and overwhelm his heart. He pressed a hand against his chest and sat down. He looked at the deer. It stared at the ground and then turned its head toward the house. Dial looked away, pressed his hand harder against his chest.
Dial had suspected nothing. He had assumed his asthma was acting up from the heavy humidity of an unusually hot spring afternoon. However, the ache in his chest that morning persisted and by lunchtime, when his left arm began to numb, Dial called his doctor. He spoke to a receptionist and explained his symptoms. She told him to stay on the line until an ambulance arrived.
“You may be having a heart attack,” she said.
What nonsense, he thought, but he didn’t argue. The mere fact he got this information from someone he could not see and didn’t know, and whose voice was not particularly warm, intimidated him. The anonymity of it made him feel lost. He placed a hand over his chest.
“Why are you doing this to me?” he asked himself as if his body had, in cahoots with the receptionist, plotted against him.
Jo rode with him to the hospital. She held his hand. He breathed through a mask the paramedic put over his mouth and nose. Machines wheezed and whistled. He listened to the siren, imagined cars pulling over to let them through. He took deep breaths, felt his lungs expand against a great burden.
An electrocardiogram showed he had suffered a minor heart attack. A coronary artery was partially blocked, a doctor explained. He would receive a blood thinner through an IV. He would not require surgery but he would remain in the hospital at least three days.
Dial’s 42-year-old son and only child, Lance Jr., walked into the room as the doctor was speaking. Lance sat straight in a chair at the foot of the bed and said nothing. Don’t slouch when you sit had been drilled into him as a child.
“Any questions?” the doctor asked.
Dial shook his head.
“Thank you,” Jo said.
The doctor left. Dial stared at the ceiling. He looked at his son and waited for him to speak.
“How you feeling, Dad?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Just a little scare.”
He forced a laugh. His son forced a laugh.
“A little scare, really,” Jo said.
Lance Jr., glanced at his watch. When he felt he had stayed long enough to fulfill family etiquette for situations such as these, he stood up.
“I should go,” he said.
Dial looked out the living room window again. The deer was struggling, shaking its head as if in disbelief. Dial could not imagine why it had not cleared the fence. Perhaps one of its legs became ensnared in a vine when it jumped. Something.
When was the last time he had seen a deer? Years. Before he built the fence, deer would wander through his backyard throughout the year. Then a neighbor sold their house to a developer and Dial installed the first line of fence. Then, another neighbor behind him sold to another developer and he added to the fence. He continued adding to it as more properties around him sold and mushroomed into condominiums. He added trees to absorb the sound of backhoes and nail guns and cement mixers and to provide a screen against the intrusive sight of “those monstrosities,” as he called the condos. He felt hemmed in, trapped in a world he had devised to keep the rest of the world out.
Dial noticed the deer raise its head, ears pricked forward. The way it looked made Dial think of a weather vane. He saw the top of the post sticking above the deer’s left shoulder. Blood geysered from the wound. Dogs barked from somewhere on the road. They sounded close but he could not see them through the brush. The deer kicked, its rear hooves breaking bark off a tree. Blood sprayed out of its mouth and it stopped moving and hung its head again. The fence sagged beneath it. Dial watched the deer submit. He could no longer hear the dogs barking.
Dial’s younger brother Alan had died the previous year at 68. Alan appeared fit weeks before he was admitted to a hospital. Still ramrod straight, not a bald spot on his gray head of hair. He walked two miles a day, attended a YMCA gym regularly, rarely ate meat and played golf. On Saturday afternoons, he would stop by, lean back in a kitchen chair and kick his feet up on a corner of the breakfast nook table in such a natural and casual fashion, talking about golf, that it always took Dial a moment to say, “Alan, get your Goddamn feet off the table.”
Then poof, Alan became ill. A little stomach upset, nothing more. Then it was nothing more than the flu. Then it was pneumonia and it did not have to become anything more.
Every day, Dial drove to the hospital to see his brother. More often than not, Alan was asleep when he arrived. He looked thin, pale and wrinkled in a blue smock as if his age had finally caught up with him. Machines clicked and beeped, and nurses walked in and out of Alan’s room in uniforms as white as the walls. They examined clipboards, flipped switches and left, their sneakers squeaking against the shined floors.
Dial couldn’t take it. He hurried out of Alan’s room chased by feelings of despair that followed him to the parking lot like a posse of woes.
Dial walked into the kitchen and dialed the police. A dispatcher told him an officer or a park ranger would take care of the deer. She didn’t know when.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
Before he retired, he would stop at a coffee shop on his way to work. He became acquainted with several police officers who gathered there. He had not been to the coffee shop for he didn’t know how long. What would he say when people asked him what he was doing? He’d make up something, followed by the betrayal of a nervous laugh.
“I don’t know,” the dispatcher said. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“I don’t know you, sir.”
“I see. You’re dispatch. Some of your officers know me, though.”
“I’ll let them know you called, sir.”
“Thank you. One officer, I can’t remember his name but I spoke to him all the time.”
“We’ll get someone out to your house when we can.”
“Thank you,” he said.
The dispatcher hung up.
Dial reached for a loaf of raisin bread on top of the refrigerator and put two slices in the toaster. He tried not to think of the deer. He had called the police. What more could be done? Nothing.
He opened two faded curtains above the sink and stared out at the driveway. Two teenage boys bicycled past, disappearing behind some trees. He closed the curtains and looked at the wall clock above the oven. Three o’clock. He knew it was not that early. The batteries must have died. The toaster clicked and his bread popped. He smelled the cinnamon and opened a cabinet for a plate. He imagined the clock ticking, the hands moving in silent jerks. When would the police get here? How long had the deer been impaled on his fence? He lost his appetite thinking about it. The police should have been here by now. He didn’t like waiting. He had founded a chain of office equipment and carpet stores that he sold at a sizable profit when he retired. Whatever he needed had always been a phone call or fax away. He had been in charge. People responded to him. He never waited.
Jo had urged him to volunteer somewhere after he retired but he refused. Elderly volunteers advertised to the world they had nothing better to do than mince around community centers serving lunch to people as old as them. Doing something for the sake of doing something was how Dial saw it. They seemed proud of it, almost boastful that they filled their days in this way, working without compensation or goals. Their smug self-satisfaction repelled him. He knew he had too much time on his hands, but he had earned it. He had no idea what to do with it, but he had no intention of giving it away.
One night, he overheard his wife on the phone complaining to a friend that he would never just sit with her after dinner and talk. Instead, he rushed through his meals and was off to the kitchen to clean up while she stayed at the table, ready for a conversation about the day ahead or the day just past.
He understood his behavior annoyed her but he could not help himself. He enjoyed washing dishes. The motion of swabbing them with a soapy sponge and toweling them dry relaxed him. It was part of a routine that had been with him since he was a child and told by his parents to clear the table. Once he retired, it was one of the few routines left to him.
His wife often spoke about taking a trip. Let’s go to Miami, she would say. They had been there before. Summer vacations had been a natural part of their life when Dial worked and their son was growing up. Now, the mere consideration of planning a trip against the pressure of all this vacant time wearied him into inaction.
“Hello, this is Lance Dial again. I think I spoke to you earlier.”
“I don’t know about that, sir. Why are you calling the Northfield Police Department?”
“Well, a deer’s impaled on my fence. I called earlier and someone was supposed to come out and put it down.”
“I see the report here, sir. An officer has been notified.”
“When will they get here?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I mean it shouldn’t take this long.”
“They’ll get there when they can, sir.”
“I don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand, sir?”
Dial got off the phone and considered calling his son. Lance Jr. owned a handgun. At least he said he did. He mentioned it one evening while the news was on in the living room. The newscaster had talked about a conceal and carry proposition on the ballot. Lance supported it. Then he mentioned he had a handgun. Kept it on his night table. If anyone broke into his house, he’d get what was coming to him. Lance often spoke like this when he got worked up, as if he was still somebody and had not lost his supervisor job at the Princeton, Indiana, Toyota plant. His voice would rise until he shouted his opinions as if he were speaking to a room full of people. Well, Dial thought, if he had a gun and wasn’t just talking like a tough guy, he could come over and shoot the deer and be done with it.
Dial didn’t remember when he had last seen his son. Lance had been unemployed for a year. He gave all sorts of reasons why he had not found work after he’d been laid off; he was over 50 and overqualified, not enough job openings at other auto plants, lousy economy, minorities were getting all the jobs. Dial, however, suspected he was not looking for work but was content for the time being to live off his 401(k) and severance package. He lived with his girlfriend. She sold kitchenware at a high-end department store while Lance stayed home and cleaned the house, gardened and walked their dog. He liked to cook and took great pride in the salads he made from the vegetables he grew in his garden. He drank a lot, too, leading Dial to believe his son was not as content as he let on. But he said nothing. He didn’t know what to say.
When Lance did visit his parents, Dial and Jo would speak around his “circumstances,” as they called his unemployment. They discussed the weather. How odd it was so hot in November. Lance would dispute a prediction of rain as if he had something prove. Prove what? That he knew as much as a meteorologist? What was the point? Dial didn’t know. It didn’t make sense. After a while, Lance would settle down, and they would speak about something else. Dial endured the visit, his discomfort almost suffocating until Lance left.
Why aren’t you looking for work? Dial wanted to ask. Just put the question out there. Skip all this other nonsense. He wondered how awkward the silence between them would be. Would they fill the void again with mindless talk about Lance’s dog, his vegetable garden, his God knows what? The weather again? How many times can two people discuss the weather? Many times, Dial knew, many times if the goal was to avoid saying what was really on his mind, and he would avoid it because he didn’t know how Lance might answer: Dad, I just don’t know what to do. Is that what he might say? Or, Dad, I’ve just given up looking.
Dial had never had a conversation like that with Lance. He felt he shouldn’t have to. He had never needed such a conversation with his father. Lance was a grown man. He doesn’t need me to talk to him, Dial thought, he needs to get back to work. He was a Dial. Not just a Dial but in all probability the last Dial. There would be no more Dials unless Lance and his girlfriend had children, an unlikely event since they weren’t married and she was no younger than Lance.
“When I go, you’ll be the last one,” Dial told Lance after Alan died.
As far as he was concerned, Dial had done his part. He had been a husband, father and provider. He had bought a house, put food on the table and held a good job for 40-odd years. He celebrated holidays and birthdays and took his family on vacations. He visited his parents at least once a week until they died. He put Lance through school, attended his recitals and watched him play baseball and football. Dial had spent a lifetime doing his part. Since birth, he had been dutiful. Dutiful to his parents, dutiful to Jo, dutiful to Lance. He had conducted himself properly and fulfilled all his obligations. He raised his son the same way.
“If my father asked me to jump, I didn’t ask why, I asked how far,” Dial liked to say.
Dial’s values were the values of his parents and their parents and their parents before them. He never questioned them any more than his parents had. If he had not married Jo, Dial would have married someone else. He would have had a different family, but a family nonetheless with the same responsibility to Dial values.
He caught his reflection in the windows overlooking the driveway. He stared at himself, comforted by the shape of his nose, the curve of his mouth and the slope of his high forehead like so many Dials before him.
Lance had disregarded his family’s values. He had instead chosen to live in a manner his father could not understand and did not want to. Dial had done all he could. As a father, he felt obligated to love his son but he did not approve of him.
Dial would call the police one final time and if they gave him more of their runaround, he’d tell Lance to come over and shoot the deer. Lance could do that much if nothing more.
Dial walked into the living room. He watched the deer jerk and kick, thrashing its head back and forth. Branches entangled its antlers. The two boys Dial had seen earlier on their bikes stood behind the deer and threw stones and sticks at it.
“Hey!” Dial shouted knocking on the glass. “Hey! Stop! Goddamn you, stop!”
His heart pounded. He should go outside and stop them, he told himself, but he didn’t. He didn’t know what to expect. Children no longer had manners. The things he overheard them say, the language they used, would have been unthinkable when he was a boy. He imagined them laughing at him. Perhaps they would hold their ground. “Fuck you, old man!” Dial had heard worse. Then what would he do? What would they do? He didn’t know. He continued knocking on the glass.
“Hey!” he shouted, “hey!”
One of the boys slipped and fell and the deer kicked its rear legs and grazed the boy’s shoulder. The boy raised his head and screamed. The other boy pulled him away. They ran out of the woods. Dial watched them go, steaming the glass with his breath.
“This is Lance Dial calling again.”
“What can I do for you, sir?”
“I’m calling about the deer.”
“A deer that impaled itself on my fence. It needs to be put down. An officer was supposed to come out here. I’ve been calling all morning. I just chased off two boys throwing rocks at it.”
“I have the report here, sir. Someone will come out there.”
“Yes, I’ve been told that before. But when?”
“I don’t know, sir. It’s not a priority call.”
“Well, who would know.”
“I don’t know, sir.”
He hung up the phone. He looked for his son’s number. He looked on the bulletin board but didn’t see it. He strained to hear if his wife was getting up. She would know the number. He thought he heard something and moved to the foot of the stairs.
“Jo?” he shouted.
He walked up the stairs and peered in their room. She lay as still as when he had gotten up. buried beneath the comforter. He saw the back of her head, wisps of gray hair. He stepped closer, saw the small rise and fall of her shoulders, the heavy tone of her breathing against her pillow.
“Jo?” he said. “Jo?”
A weighty sadness settled over him. He didn’t like this change in Jo. When they first married, he and Jo awakened every weekday morning at a quarter to six. She made breakfast while he showered and dressed for work. Even when he retired, they continued to get up early.
Lately, however, she had taken to remaining in bed until mid-morning. She had become so terribly slow. A slowness of batteries winding down, lights shutting off, fuses blowing.
His older sister Edith had died in a restaurant of what Dial settled on calling “the slows.” Her heart, the doctors said, had simply wound down like a clock until it had stopped. The last tick occurred just seconds after the main course of broiled salmon, green beans and cole slaw was served. Edith’s head drooped as if it were being lowered by invisible hands until it settled a little to one side of the cole slaw, snaring a bean with an earring. If she had to die in a restaurant, Dial thought, why couldn’t her heart have stopped seconds earlier so that she could have expired on a clean table cloth instead of coming to harbor in a mound of cold slaw?
Joe never tired of talking about how Edith died, and it pained him to listen to her. He felt so helpless thinking that while he was watching the news and Jo crochet, only miles away Edith had her face in her dinner plate, dying. There were moments he almost told Jo to stop talking about Edith and the way she had died, but her fascination with the manner of Edith’s death in a way kept his sister alive for him. Jo resurrected her with each retelling.
He wondered if Jo’s obsession with Edith’s death stemmed from the worry that she too might die of the slows. Jo had always enjoyed going out to restaurants, but after Edith died, she stopped nagging him to take her out. He concluded that in anticipation of her own death, Jo had decided to cordon off all paths that might lead to an undignified end.
“Hello, Lance, this is Dad. Your father.”
“I know who you are, Dad. What’s up?”
“I need you to come over.”
“A deer. A deer’s stuck to the fence. It looks like it jumped and fell on it. One of the posts is sticking through it.”
“Christ. Did you call the police?”
“I called the police but you know how they are. They’re not in any hurry. But I thought, I thought, well, you said you had a gun. You could come over.”
“And shoot it? I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know if I can just shoot it. Just wait for the police. They’ll come.”
“Well, I don’t know why you won’t just come over.”
“Because you don’t just go shooting a deer in the middle of the neighborhood.”
“What do you have a gun for?”
“Not to shoot deer.”
“You don’t know how to use it.”
“I know how to use it, Dad.”
“You don’t even have one, do you?”
“I don’t think so.”
Lance said nothing.
“I’m here, Dad.”
“You’re sitting around not doing anything.”
“I’m not exactly sitting around not doing anything.”
“What are you doing?”
Lance didn’t speak. Dial waited and then hung up.
The doorbell rang. Dial hurried to answer it. A police officer stood on the other side. He wore a perfectly pressed blue uniform and dark sunglasses. Dial saw his reflection in the lenses refracted like a kaleidoscope of faces.
“Are you Lance Dial, sir?” the officer asked.
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Where’s the deer?”
Dial walked the officer around to the back of the house and pointed. The deer lay across the fence, drooped in half like a wet sock. It legs kicked feebly. The officer took a deep breath.
“Damn. Jesus, that’s sad,” he said. “OK. I have a rifle in my vehicle. I’ll call the park service to take it off your property after I’m done here. You can go back in the house. You don’t have to watch.”
Dial nodded. He watched the officer return to his car. The assertive stride of his walk offered Dial a kind of certainty that had been missing from his morning, a sense of purpose that buoyed him, and he turned with confidence to go back in the house when he noticed the deer watching him. The expression in its eyes asked a question Dial could not answer. After a moment, it released a long breath and drooped its head against the fence.
“It’s dead,” Dial thought.
He walked across the lawn, felt the grass fold beneath his feet. He heard no insects or birds or cars on the street. He glanced at the sky. Sunlight blinkered off the roofs of the condos. He stopped before the deer, hands at his sides. The brown fur patchy in spots. A musky odor. He touched its neck, felt the heat of its skin through his hand, a rippling of muscle, and the deer jerked its head, jolted and floundered violently.
Dial stumbled backward. The deer kicked and kicked and gave a great heave. The fence snapped and the deer jolted forward, head lowered, and caught Dial in the chest, trampling over him before it stumbled and collapsed on its side.
Dial lay crumpled on the ground. He raised a shaking hand to his broken chest. Shadows and lights flickered and darted behind his closed eyes. He heard the officer shout. Lance? Dial thought. Maybe he had come over after all. He could not understand what he was saying. Then he heard nothing. He waited for Lance to speak again. He waited and waited.
Between them silence had always replaced words, a silence punctuated now by the slowing beat of Dial’s heart and the passage of seconds into fewer seconds until the length of something cold ran through him. He allowed himself to sink into a vast, empty space, and his final breath mingled with that of the deer, a cloud between them that just hung there before it vanished.