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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons living or dead is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Thank you to Elizabeth Weaver-Kreider for your hard work, dedication, and editorial expertise. Thanks also to Stephanie for minding the house through all of my literary trances. Your inspiration and words of encouragement carried me.
For Stephanie and for Ed.
“Jimmy Myerson!” Rebecca Shields’ words pierced the silence. Jimmy raised his head with a start. There was laughter in the classroom. “If you would like to go back to sleep, we can turn the lights off!”
“Sorry, Ms. Shield!” Jimmy managed, wiping a patch of sleep from an eye. Two weeks into class—two weeks into this deer-crazy town—and Jimmy already wanted to leave.
“It’s Ms. Shields with an S, Mr. Myerson.”
Jimmy gestured an apology, sat up, and looked around. As he turned, a crumpled ball of paper hit him in the side of the head. Five camouflaged guys were eyeing him humorously from the back of the room. One of them whispered: “Yeah. Wake up, city boy?”
“Now class,” Ms. Shields continued, “before we get into more of your deer hunting speeches, which I know all of you are just itching to get up here and finish, the River Bluff Police Department—”
A chorus of mischievous hisses and boos resounded.
“—The police have asked us to remind you of some things…again. As you know, it’s opening day of gun season tomorrow, like it or not, and we are in the rut, which means what, class?”
Almost in unison, a variation of: “Bucks are trying to mate!”
“That’s right. Black-tail deer this time of year get very territorial, and very aggressive, and as you remember from last week’s guest speaker, Mr. Dole, from Environmental Sciences, our little community of humans hasn’t been faring so well in numbers this year.”
“Screw them deer!” one of the back row boys blurted out, a sentiment echoed by a few of his peers. A girl in front of him told him to shut up.
Ms. Shields ignored the interruptions. “Let me just remind everyone, because it appears everyone isn’t from around here—”
She was looking directly at Jimmy.
“—That over the last twenty years the deer population has exploded despite extending the hunting season, and even though we are conditioned to be on the lookout, some of us apparently need more help than others when it comes to doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
“What’s that mean?” another newcomer to the upper peninsula, Dale Owen, asked, meekly.
“Class, what that means, in case you didn’t watch the news this morning, is that another ten people were killed yesterday deer versus automobile, and three more businesses were broken into.”
Jimmy leaned back in his chair. What did she mean three more businesses were broken into? It wasn’t like a deer could burgle a place!
“What businesses?” said Tom Iverson. He was seated next to Jimmy.
“A deer got into the Farm Bureau Insurance Office on State Street and destroyed the main office: $50,000 damage. A small herd jumped through the Bluffs Hotel lobby window and almost killed a front desk worker—”
“That was my cousin!” a gum-chewing Michelle Rees chimed in from near the window. “She shot it.”
“Is she alright, Michelle?” Ms. Shields asked.
“She’s in the hospital. She got gored but she killed one.” Michelle gave a playful twist to a curl in her hair as if being gored in a hotel lobby deer rampage was nothing new. In fact, it wasn’t exactly new to her family. Two black tail doe got into her family’s hunting cabin two years back and turned it near to splinters as her parents slid out a back window.
Ms. Shields cleared her throat and continued. “And they got into Link’s Automotive this morning.”
“That’s where my uncle works!” said Art Biggs from the front row. He had a huge grin on his face as if he were proud of the incident.
“There weren’t any fatalities at the businesses, but you people have to slow down when you’re driving. Two cars flipped over: ten dead. As you know, the deer are in overabundance and their numbers aren’t getting any smaller in spite of all you hunters. You realize River Bluff is sitting in the middle of Michigan’s largest state forest, so our roads are also the deer’s migration trails. You got it?”
“So, slow down!” Michelle Rees added, popping a chewing gum bubble.
Ms. Shields told her to spit the gum out and she did.
“So, that’s our announcement. As Michelle said, slow down when you’re driving. Pull your shutters. And if you don’t have to be in the woods and you aren’t hunting, stay out of the forest. There are only so many sentinels posted. They can’t be everywhere and they can’t see everything.”
Jimmy turned to Tom to his left, and asked, “Hey, what’s a sentinel?”
Tom gave him an unconcerned shake of his head and slugged him in the left arm. “You weren’t here last week, were you?”
“No, I was moving in.”
“How long you been here, anyway?”
“Two weeks,” Jimmy said, rubbing his arm.
“Well, didn’t your mommy tell you anything about this place?”
Jimmy shook his head. “My mother’s dead.”
Tom raised eyebrows, shook his head again, and turned his attention back to Ms. Shields.
“Class, today we’re going to start with Jimmy Myerson. Since you weren’t here last week, you can add your introductory speech to the front of your deer speech. How’s that sound?”
“So without further ado, Jimmy, are you ready?”
Jimmy began assembling his notes, some of which had fallen to the floor. He bent forward to retrieve them. He hadn’t anticipated going first. He wanted to be last. Public speaking was about the last thing he wanted to do. The class, truth be known, was forced on him. His counselor called it a mandatory elective, which seemed an oxymoron to Jimmy. His goal was to receive an associate’s degree in science, which was the first step toward getting accepted back at Detroit Mercy near to where he’d grown up. There, he could pursue his true passion, which was Astronomy, but in the meantime, he had to struggle through the 101s: classes such as Speech, Spanish, and English Literature with its emphasis on Greek tragedy.
The class looked on with amusement as Jimmy searched in vain for his missing notes. As he scoured the floor, he was wondering why he hadn’t practiced more with Bonnie before this. She had offered to be his pretend audience several times that week. He couldn’t seem to muster the enthusiasm to do much practicing, though. The subject seemed ridiculous to him in this setting. Deer Hunting: For or Against? In River Bluff, it was like asking a group of people inside a casino if they were for or against hunting.
Tom Iverson had slid a foot over and put a boot on one of Jimmy’s papers, and had dragged it out of Jimmy’s view. Several students noticed and laughed. Ms. Shields had made her way to the back of the room as Jimmy finally stood to approach the podium.
“Now class, Mr. Myerson is going to introduce himself and then he’s going to tell us if he’s for hunting or against it. Jimmy, you’re up!”
The topic was indeed timely. The following day was opening day of gun season in Michigan, and the atmosphere around the North Michigan Community College campus was fervent.
Opening day was virtually a holiday in River Bluff, the UP’s second largest town next to Marquette. Hunting season was officially kicked off sundown, a day ago, at the mayor’s complex in city center. Jimmy and his wife, Bonnie, had attended. It was the one night of the year where hunters could gather in city limits and shoot off their guns in a celebration reminiscent of the old American west. Hunters of all ages, and spectators alike, would gather in the village to wait for the Giant Bullet to explode, signaling permission to fire away.
A twenty-foot tall, five-foot wide mock shell casing was suspended by a crane about fifty feet in the air. Jimmy had only one memory to compare it to: a New Year’s Eve he and his parents spent in New York about five years ago, when a giant apple was raised in Times Square shortly before midnight. It was a fun time. All of those times before his parents had died had been fun.
So as the clock on the town square counted from sixty backward, rifles and shotguns cocked, hunters took aim into the night sky, city workers lit fuses to an arsenal of patriotic songs, and all waited for the numbers to read zero for the Giant Bullet to explode.
The Opening Day Parade was the next big event. It had become the only parade in River Bluff worth attending to most citizens. Opening Day Eve in the morning, mid-November, the Thanksgiving Day and homecoming parades had become a thing of the past.
This year, Little Oliver Bo had won the right to be the Parade’s grand marshal. In River Bluff tradition, the youngest hunter to bag a buck the year prior became the grand marshal for the next season’s parade. Oliver’s was an eight point, and his smile had lit up the street. Riding along in a mock version of the Dukes of Hazard’s General Lee car, complete with orange paint and the Stars and Bars painted indelibly on its gleaming roof, Little Oliver had beamed. He’d stuck his head out the passenger window and waved proudly to onlookers as the General Lee’s horn loosed its old southern call—di-di-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-di-di-di-da.
Little boys and little girls, some younger than Oliver, all hoped it would be them riding in the marshal’s car next year. Confetti fell. Kisses were blown. Waves were tossed in return. The marching band played its chorus of hunting songs and on and on until the last of the floats made their way out of view.
The Hunting Season Festival would follow. Fairground workers and volunteers were busy prepping the lots for the carnival rides and tents that weekend. Bakers were fine-tuning their venison recipes for their food booths and cook offs. Bonnie was going to enter her signature dish: a venison minced meat pie, something she served to Jimmy on their second date that he said made his mouth water.
The atmosphere around campus was electric. Hallways were decorated in hunter themes. Campus movies like Deliverance and Carnivore played in dorm lobbies to crowds of excited students. The basketball and football teams had the weekend off to prepare for the hunt. Trees around campus were adorned with camouflage ribbons in honor of all the people who had lost their lives to deer in previous years.
Jimmy thought this the strangest tradition: the camo ribbon memorials, but he wasn’t too surprised by the sentiment. Newly married and relocated, this was a hunting culture he’d been transplanted into. What surprised him most was how many ribbons there were on those trees. In his walk to class that day, he’d counted at least a hundred. As he reached the campus grounds and looked around, virtually every tree had at least one ribbon tied to it with a name on it representing one deer fatality. There must have been hundreds of people who were being mourned by those ribbons.
As Jimmy struggled to organize his thoughts at the podium, more giggles and a bevy of whispers took off again. Jimmy looked about, resigning himself to having to wing his speech, something he knew Ms. Shields wouldn’t appreciate. She seemed to take it personally if people weren’t on time, alert, and prepared. He didn’t fit in to this place. He certainly wasn’t prepared—for anything about River Bluff. He wasn’t a hunter. He never had been. He had never even fired a gun—and he could have cared less. His wife was the hunter, but husbands and wives didn’t have to see eye to eye on everything, and they didn’t have to do the same things all the time. She didn’t see why he liked to watch the night sky every night. She could tear a rifle down but didn’t know an aperture from a telescopic lens.
Jimmy had completed a hunter safety class back in Detroit shortly before the twelve hour drive up north, but even that seemed a blur. He could hardly remember how to load a pistol, let alone a twelve gauge or whatever other canons these UP loonies seemed to like to hang from the back window of their pickups.
River Bluff and its happy-hunting culture were hardly ever discussed between Bonnie and Jimmy. Bonnie had left the UP for Detroit a year ago, which is where (and when) she met Jimmy. When they first talked, she didn’t plan on returning home. She’d even dropped her UP accent in an effort to fit in more to the city. She’d also changed her wardrobe from country bumpkin to something more suitable for Detroit, something a bit more metropolitan, was the word she’d used. But Detroit didn’t work out for Bonnie. She dropped her classes shortly after she’d met Jimmy, and not long after that, she dropped her maiden name and took his.
Jimmy needed to get away from the city. Not that he preferred the country. Nor was he in trouble. He just wanted to leave Detroit. An only child, his parents had died about the time he’d met Bonnie. Their deaths had left him twenty years old and homeless. No family to speak of, he was living out of his Jeep and cleaning dishes for a local hotel for minimum wage when the couple met. When Bonnie quit school for her own reasons, the country seemed to be calling her back home.
Her parents were calling—truth be told. If she wasn’t going to complete her education, she was going to come home and work. Mac McFarlane would see to it.
No, the forest and the woods and the hunting atmosphere of Bonnie’s hometown simply weren’t discussed in their brief courtship. The deer weren’t discussed, nor was her father’s controlling attitude or her parents’ mutual resentment of Jimmy. It was all inferred, all understood from the moment Bonnie had told them they were eloping. Jimmy didn’t feel welcome up north, and the truth was, he wasn’t.
But it was a spur of the moment decision to marry, made out of simple necessity, and simple love—they wanted a home together, and they needed a house. Bonnie had a job lined up at the state forest up in River Bluff. In fact, it was Forestry (not Education) that had been her passion. Realizing that was the reason why Bonnie quit her classes. And River Bluff had a community college. Jimmy could take classes there. Bonnie could too, if she so chose to. They could get an Associates and transfer wherever they wanted within two or three years, or they could build a life there. And to add to the equation: Jimmy had crashed his jeep. He wasn’t hurt, nor was anyone else, but the Jeep was totaled. River Bluff with Bonnie was the best option Jimmy had.
Even on the twelve-hour drive from the city in Bonnie’s dilapidated Ford F-150, Bonnie hadn’t talked much about River Bluff. Jimmy asked her once, crossing the bridge into Saint Ignace, ‘What’s your little forest town like?’ But Bonnie fairly ignored the question. Her mind, that day, was on where the couple would live. She wasn’t going to move in with her parents, even though that’s what they had wanted. Bonnie had different ideas. She knew Jimmy wouldn’t get along with Mac and Alice. She would ready her hunting cabin her parents had given her after high school graduation. She’d graduated valedictorian of her class. The cabin had been meant to entice Bonnie to remain in River Bluff, and to enter the Forestry program at Northern Michigan, but the gesture had failed. Following an argument over whether or not Bonnie should spread her wings and follow a friend to Detroit to enter into Education, Mac had one too many drinks and said one too many controlling things.
Soon after, Bonnie left.
Jimmy Myerson was essentially dropped headlong into the fray and asked to swim. He went to the Mayor’s complex and watched on as Bonnie and her father fired shotguns into the air at sundown with all the others. He helped Bonnie prepare her venison dish. He took walks through the woods to try and familiarize himself with his surroundings, but acclimation wasn’t something he’d been offered just yet. The whole parade atmosphere seemed an exercise in foolishness. He’d expressed this thought to Bonnie standing curbside that morning at the parade, but Bonnie had ignored the comment, or didn’t hear it. She was tossing kisses to Oliver Bo or waving at some friend’s cousin in the marching band. It was hard to talk over a tuba and ten trombones blasting away ten feet in front of him.
He announced the week’s topic again with a tone of apathy. “Deer hunting: for or against!” and then introduced himself. “I’m Jimmy from Detroit. I’m married. I like Astronomy.”
Jimmy cleared his throat and paused to look out over the class. There were a lot of blank faces that seemed not to have understood what he just said. Maybe they don’t know what astronomy is! Jimmy told himself in an effort to break his own tension. But did he tell them anything else? Should he? Did he tell them his father had died from drinking too much? Or that his mother had died by her own hand? He was supposed to tell the class something unique about himself: about his best and worst days, and his fears and dreams, all of those personal things that make humans human but are often too personal for humans to share.
Jimmy’s best day was when he had met Bonnie, a day not so long ago, a day when he had his parents around. His worst day—there were two of them—the days not long after when his parents died. These were none of anyone’s business! Jimmy told himself. And fears? My fears aren’t anyone’s business, either.
Before his parents had passed, Jimmy wasn’t afraid of anything—but now it seemed every day revealed some new fear. The biggest was of dying, but confessing that was a level of honesty Jimmy wasn’t ready to ascend to.
And dreams? That was a different story. He could tell them about his dream, and he did, but all he said to the class was ‘I’m going to be an astronomer,’ which wasn’t exactly an expression of one’s dream.
There was one other thing that he could share, however, which had something to do with the topic—his first experience with a deer.
Jimmy had only ever once seen a deer. He was ten years old. Outside of his family’s apartment complex in Detroit, a young white-tail had gotten tangled in some barbed wire trying to hurdle a fence. “Police had to be called to put it down,” Jimmy explained. For the first time he seemed to have his class’s attention. “Until they did, the deer did what it could to free itself. It banged and tore at the fence so hard that the posts began bending under its weight. It twisted, kicked and even screamed,” Jimmy told them, drawing energy, now, from their interested faces. “The noise it made seemed like a sound effect out of some horror movie.”
Jimmy tried to recall the noise, and tried, with even more difficulty, to describe the sound. He described the noise as a sort of “high-pitched wailing,” which generated a burst of muffled laughter. “The deer just convulsed, really,” Jimmy went on, “until it had the barbed wire wrapped around its neck. In another minute, it was dead.”
A girl who spoke before Jimmy had made mention of the voice of a deer. Her name was Blossom. Her speech was entitled, “The Deer Totem.” Blossom argued that deer have a voice that is connected to both the wind, and to human life. She spoke of the four winds, and the four calls of a deer. Then she referenced an old Celtic myth that says when one hears the cry of a deer, someone is going to die. The girl received no questions after her speech—only laughter and shaking heads from the back of the room as if the idea of a deer having a spirit was crazy.
Blossom did get at least one comment, however, for her deer totem troubles. A young man who called himself Cramp let loose with a fart, and then hollered, “She must be in Dean Olsen’s Environmentalism class.”
Blossom hung her head and her eyes filled with tears.
A student supporter of PETA—People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—named Holly, sitting in the front row that day, defended Blossom. “It’s Environmental Science, you idiot!” she hollered. Blossom called herself a mystic, where Holly was an atheist. The animism of deer wasn’t something Holly believed in, so she only privately praised Blossom’s effort.
Jimmy’s story brought about mixed reactions. Most of the girls in class appeared disturbed by the visual, Blossom included. Most of the guys, however, had either no expression or seemed to be amused by the deer hanging story.
Ms. Shields wondered what the point of it was, since Jimmy didn’t seem to have a point to make of it. He simply recounted the event and stood there nonchalantly flipping through his papers.
And what was the point? How did a deer hanging relate to the question of being for or against hunting?
Jimmy considered this, and then considered the question, again. On its face, it was a stupid question. He’d written as much in the margins in one page of his missing notes. There were multiple types of hunting, not just one. There was hunting to eat, and hunting for the simple, sick thrill of it. How was he supposed to say if hunting in general was right or wrong when there was such a gulf, in Jimmy’s mind, between hunting for sport and hunting to survive?
As Jimmy tried to determine how to communicate his conflict, something caught his eye to his left. Outside the classroom windows, a deer had emerged from the woods into a clearing. In fact, two deer, and then a third, made their ways out of the trees and began approaching the building. The very animals Jimmy was going to speak about were now strolling curiously toward the classroom as if they might want to hear what Jimmy was about to say.
Jimmy’s eyes followed them, and so did the eyes of his classmates. And soon, several students stood up and approached the glass. Within seconds, five more deer and then a sixth emerged.
Jimmy was amazed at how big they were.
“They aren’t going to jump through the glass, are they?” Dale Owen blurted out. Two others stood up and walked timidly to the far side of the room.
“It’s armored glass,” someone replied as a chorus of laughter erupted.
The deer walked closer. The spectacle seemed to Jimmy something out of an Outer Limits episode on TV. He didn’t realize they could be so bold, or so social. And these were larger than he’d imagined. He’d heard rumors of giant deer up north, but what he was seeing wasn’t computing. They looked almost like large elk; the closest to the window had antlers that put its height near eight feet tall.
The deer near campus considered the hundred-acre grounds around NMC a sort of sanctuary. Most students considered the campus deer tame. Typically it was the female does that showed themselves, not bucks. Jimmy thought back to what Ms. Shields had just said about the male deer being in the rut and possibly aggressive. He could see better now why hitting one of these with a car could get you flipped over and killed.
To Ms. Shields and most staff, it was nothing to see four of five black-tail deer frolicking outside a classroom window on a sunny fall evening such as this. These deer weren’t tame, but they were less apt to attack. They were curious and they were hungry more than anything. NMC—a college of refurbished dormitories on the historic Coastal State Asylum grounds—was a feeding ground for the deer. Environmental science teachers like Dean Dole had placed salt licks in an arc about the campus to attract deer so that students, as well as patients in other parts of the grounds, could better observe these creatures in their natural habitat and gain a respect for them.
Ms. Shields ignored the commotion. This was something Jimmy was going to have to manage. Distractions like this were often a part of public speaking.
As the deer strolled closer and gathered in a cluster a few feet from the classroom window, Jimmy searched again for the missing pages of his notes. As he looked toward his desk, Tom Iverson seemed to be waving something at him. It was a piece of paper. In fact, it was two pieces of paper. Tom Iverson had the rest of Jimmy’s notes.
Students reclaimed their seats and Jimmy decided to end his speech. He had no definitive opinion about hunting in general. The way the question was being asked was an unanswerable one to him. Conflicted, neutrality was the only answer Jimmy was prepared to give.
“Deer,” he said, “have a right to land, and so do people. We have to remember that we are on their territory, and they are on ours. They have a right to exist and so do we. So let’s just cohabitate.”
Jimmy looked to Ms. Shields for permission to sit, sensing a barrage of questions brewing. Ms. Shields smiled and gestured for Jimmy to wait as she asked the students if they had any questions or comments.
One girl spoke up immediately. Her name was Olivia. She was dressed in a camouflage tank top and camo shorts. She looked like a blonde Daisy Duke. “The point of the speech was to declare a position. Are you for hunting or against it?”
Jimmy looked to the window again at the deer. The herd was still there, some grazing, some looking on with apparent interest. Olivia cleared her throat as another round of muffled laughter erupted.
“Am I for sport hunting or hunting for food? There’s a difference,” Jimmy responded.
“Either one!” Olivia replied. “What’s the diff?”
Jimmy gave the girl an irritated look. “I am not opposed to hunting deer or for it, and I don’t see why we should need to choose the way the question is asked.”
This brought about another burst of commotion and a surprised look from Ms. Shields who then scribbled something on Jimmy’s evaluation paper. Another girl raised her hand. “Why can’t you choose?”
“Because,” Jimmy said, remembering a few facts from his notes, “I think a deer has a spirit just like you do—and I wouldn’t shoot you. I also think too many people are killed with guns every year—too many hunters. In Michigan, one hundred people are killed opening day of deer season every year—more than any other state. From the looks of your camouflage ribbons outside, it looks like most of them are from right here! Who knows how many deer are killed by cars! And now, anyone can hunt. Maybe deer should be able to hunt people!”
Almost in unison, two camouflage shirts erupted from the back row. The loudest among them was Anson Noll, a particularly large and brutish young man. “Anyone should be able to hunt deer!” he shouted as if Jimmy had just spit in his face. “Those dead people are heroes!”
Jimmy looked to anyone in the room who might come to his defense. One girl was looking on who seemed to be troubled. She had a week ago declared a staunch opposition to hunting deer. Her name was Monica. She’d been sitting quietly all this time, but understood the point Jimmy was trying to make about the sanctity of life in all its forms. Noticing the complicated plea welling up in Jimmy’s eyes for support, she didn’t quite agree that deer had spirits, but she did feel sorry for Jimmy. She certainly didn’t appreciate the way her classmates were treating him. He was a newcomer, but it was his turn to speak. He deserved respect just like Ms. Shields said every speaker deserved respect. Almost automatically Monica cried out, “I’m with you, Jimmy!”
This momentarily silenced the class.
Jimmy naturally smiled at Monica’s show of support, which, within seconds, only seemed to escalate the ire from the back of the room.
Blossom then seconded Monica’s support. “I’m with you too, Jimmy! Deer do have spirits.”
Likewise, Holly, an atheist and a PETA supporter chimed in. “So quit shooting deer!” This brought about a spattering of applause from other PETA supporters in class as the hunters, male and female, began shouting over them.
Soon, the entire class was clamoring to be heard. Anson Noll even tossed his books on the floor and Cramp let loose with a speech-defying fart.
Ms. Shields made her way to the front of the room as Jimmy finally took his seat.
Tom Iverson stood up, tossed Jimmy’s missing notes his way, and moved his chair to the back row as a show of solidarity to Anson and the rest of the hunters.
There were some speeches, and some students, who got a nice grade for simply evoking such a response. Sometimes the point of a speech is to evoke emotion so that others might declare their position, which was, unwittingly, what Jimmy had done. No matter the purpose, Jimmy discovered something about himself that day. He did have an opinion—if not on hunting, then on the hunting culture in which he’d been dropped. He hated it and he decided the 101s—particularly Ms. Shields Fundamentals of Public Speaking 101—was simply a waste of time.
Ms. Shields stood at the podium staring daggers at her class until the students simmered to a low boil. The PETA girls including Blossom, then Holly, and then Monica moved their books to Jimmy’s table and sat down around him.
“Thank you, Jimmy. Class, that’s our time for today. You hunters enjoy opening day tomorrow! You PETA people, you might want to stay out of the woods.”
Jimmy remained at his table gathering his things until most all of the students exited. Tom Iverson gave him a slap on the back as he and Anson Noll left the room. Anson turned back and raised his thumb and pointed a forefinger at Jimmy and gestured pulling a trigger at him.
Ms. Shields told Jimmy she needed to speak to him before he left.
He made his way to the front of the class and took a seat across from her desk.
“What is going on?” she asked. “You looked like a deer in the headlights up there.”
Jimmy shook his head. “I lost my notes. I just don’t see the point of this. I don’t want to be a public speaker or some politician. I don’t hunt. I don’t even care. I guess I just wasn’t prepared.”
Ms. Shields accepted the remark, but put off commenting on any of it. Instead she asked, “So tell me, Jimmy from Detroit, how is life in the U.P. and River Bluff agreeing with you?”
Jimmy looked to the floor. “All right I guess.”
“It must be quite a culture shock coming here. This sure isn’t Detroit.”
“No. I mean maybe a little. There are just so many hunters around. And a hunting season parade? Everywhere you look there’s a guy in a tree stand with a gun.”
Ms. Shields laughed mildly. “Tell me again, you want to be an astronomer, is that right?”
“Well, you might not agree with this, but this class does apply to astronomy. Astronomers don’t work alone, and they’re certainly not quiet people. You have to present your work to other people from time to time, no matter your field: your theories, your conclusions, your plans. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“And to do this, you have to present yourself. You have to engage people and justify your intentions. This requires persuasion, and persuasion requires preparation.”
Jimmy looked to the floor.
“Were you from the city or the suburbs?”
“What brought you up here, if I might ask?”
“I got married.”
Ms. Shields looked to Jimmy’s wedding ring finger, to the modest wedding band he was wearing, and took stock of it. It was a golden band with a T of diamonds embedded in it in the shape of a cross. She reached out a hand and took Jimmy’s hand in hers.
“You are a Christian?”
Jimmy shrugged his shoulders. “Wife is.”
“Are you agnostic?”
Jimmy had not heard the term before. “I don’t know. I guess.”
She let go of his hand. “Well, you might want to make a choice. Being Christian doesn’t seem to square with your contention that deer have spirits any more than it squares with being an atheist.”
Jimmy did not know what to say to this because he wasn’t sure, spiritually, what he was. He had never given his spiritual makeup much consideration. Bonnie had asked him the same thing before, but Bonnie seemed okay with his indecision.
“You are arguing an animistic point of view,” Ms. Shields went on, “or a reincarnation point of view, sort of like Blossom did in her deer totem speech.”
Jimmy wasn’t sure what his teacher was getting at. He wasn’t sure how to respond. He didn’t have any experience with theology, or much with Christianity, for that matter. Bonnie hadn’t made him attend church with her. She didn’t press the issue and she didn’t make him make a decision. Not yet anyway. He’d never heard of an animistic viewpoint. All such a phrase brought to mind was an image of Bambi lamenting the loss of its mother in the old cartoon.
What Ms. Shields was trying to point out was Jimmy’s apparent indecisiveness, in general, and how indecision doesn’t work for a person when giving an opinion speech. “You need to be a student of life,” she continued, “not just a student of one subject. This speech wasn’t about deer hunting in general. It was about making a choice, right or wrong, and sticking with it. Do you understand?”
“Astronomers are well-rounded people who pay attention to detail and make decisions. Sometimes they make mistakes, but sometimes this is how we learn.” This, Jimmy could not argue with, except that the statement made him feel as if he’d just been attacked.
Ms. Shields returned to the subject of marriage. “How long have you and Bonnie been married, might I ask?”
“One month tomorrow.”
“Ah. And tomorrow is opening day of gun season. What are you going to do for your bride for your one-month anniversary?”
“I’m not sure.”
Ms. Shields gave a nod of disapproval. “Let me suggest something. Go hunting with her. I know Bonnie, and I know she likes to hunt. It will be fun.”
“Ms. Shields, can I have my grade? I really need to go.”
Ms. Shields cleared her throat and turned her attention to Jimmy’s evaluation paper. “Okay. But don’t you want your grade?”
He didn’t want his grade, but he nodded anyway. She’d find out in a week or so he wasn’t coming back.
“Overall, your effort was poor. I expected more from you.”
He hung his head.
“Your effort was compromised. You concluded your speech without paying respect to the rules of the speech.” Ms. Shields hesitated. She looked to Jimmy for that tell-tale sign of irritation, which she recognized. There was also anger in Jimmy’s posture, but that was okay too. Students needed to be upset from time to time in order to change. “It was only when you were asked to commit to a position that you committed, but you committed to a neutral position.”
“I had my notes mixed up.”
“You fell asleep and your notes fell off the table! Tom Iverson found them. And this is a speaking class, Jimmy—not a sleeping class!”
“Not good enough. I expect more from you. You are older than most people in here. And you’re married. You are how old, twenty-one?”
“You have more experience than most students in this class, and you need to share that experience. There are things these forest kids can learn from you.”
“Deer have a right to fair treatment, just like we do!” Jimmy said. “I told them that.”
“You are right. You did tell them that. And I want you to tell them that again, the next time around. I’m giving you another chance.”
She finished checking boxes, making sure she took her time and then penciled a capital I on the top of Jimmy’s critique: I for Incomplete, and handed it to Jimmy. “This does not mean you failed,” she explained. “This means you are free to try again.”
Miss Shield’s policy had been to allow those who failed a presentation, for incompletion or otherwise, a second chance. Jimmy, however, had no intention of trying again. The best he could achieve would be a B for a second effort. And a B simply wasn’t worth another round of public humiliation.
He took his paper and stood up. His heart was pounding. His muscles were shaking. This had not turned out like he had hoped it would. He meant to tell the class to be moderate in their hunting; to use what they needed from deer and to take no more. He meant to tell them that deer, like people, live in communities, and that they, like human beings, can sense a loss. He meant to tell the hunters in class to appreciate the peacefulness of deer, and their gentility. Likewise, he meant to tell the class that deer could be aggressive, and could even kill at times. He meant to tell the PETA people who believed in nothing but the gentility of deer, that sometimes deer jumped through windows to get to people, just like they had said on the news.
But he remembered very little of any of that.
In Detroit, an incomplete bought you an F, and an F didn’t stand for freedom to try again—it stood for failure. His humiliation complete, Jimmy accepted his evaluation paper from Ms. Shields and proceeded to leave.
Before he could, she grabbed his right arm to stop him.
“I know you’re planning on dropping, Jimmy. I can see it in your eyes.”
He turned to her, stunned at his own transparency.
“I’m asking you, as a personal favor, to please not to. I need you and this campus needs you. And I know Bonnie. She needs you to carry through with this. This isn’t just a speech class. This is your life. Please don’t be a quitter.”
Jimmy nodded but he didn’t answer her. She might be right but his mind was already made up. Rebecca Shields never saw Jimmy Myerson again.
Jimmy’s walk home from campus took about one hour on a good day—but this wasn’t a good day. Typically, he didn’t mind the walk. It gave him some time to catch his breath, and to think. And lately, all he seemed to be doing was thinking: thinking about how to tell Bonnie that he was done with Northern Michigan College. He was tired of classes. He had a late start because of the recent move. He felt behind, and he wasn’t a good student to begin with. He never had been. She will understand, he told himself, eyeing the trees from the clearing where the deer had been walking earlier. Bonnie had done the same thing back in Detroit: she’d dropped out. So it wasn’t her not understanding that Jimmy was concerned about. He was concerned about her disappointment and her worry. He was concerned about what her parents were going to say. She had invested in Jimmy’s education: not just morally, but financially. She was giving him a place to live. Though there had never been any deal struck between the two of them, Jimmy understood there were expectations. If he didn’t go to school, he’d have to work. But where? She was depending on him. And Astronomy wasn’t a possibility without a degree. It was his dream, after all. She wouldn’t understand why he was willing to give up his dream. Would she think him lazy? What would it mean to their life now? Dropping out would be costly for many reasons.
As concerning as the decision was, Jimmy headed for the woods to think. Upon entering the trees someone called out to him. “HEY, YOU DOWN THERE!”
Jimmy looked about. Twenty feet up a nearby tree, a man was perched on a deer stand. He was in camouflage and holding a rifle.
Stupid hunters! Jimmy thought.
“Yes, you. Are you going in there?”
“To the trees!”
The obvious answer to that was yes, but Jimmy didn’t answer right away. It was none of this stranger’s business where he was going. Back in Detroit if you bothered yourself with another man’s business like that, you were liable to be shot.
And what was he doing hunting so close to the campus anyway?
“Cat got your tongue, does it?” the man called down, unconcerned with the troubled expression Jimmy was giving him.
“Deer are moving you know! You guys were asked to stay out of the woods for the rut, no?”
“I’m walking home if that’s okay.”
“You got about a half hour left of sunlight, so I suggest you hurry it up!”
“What are you doing hunting right there?” Jimmy asked. “There’re students around here.”
To this, the man seemed to be laughing. “That’s sort of the point. You ain’t from around here, are you?”
Jimmy didn’t answer.
Again the man just laughed. “Go on. Hurry up and be careful. A few others aren’t too far ahead of you, so you might catch up to ‘em.”
After a few minutes into the trees, Jimmy came to a modest-sized hill which eased into a wider plateau overlooking a valley. As he appeared over the ridge, he thought he heard people laughing a ways in the distance.
That must be them! Jimmy thought.
He stopped and listened. In a cluster of trees at the bottom of the hill near a creek, there was a group of people. They weren’t walking though. They’d gathered and appeared to be just talking. They appeared to be smoking as well. They were all laughing and all wearing camouflage.
Jimmy wondered if it was the camouflage boys from the back of speech class. He’d walked this way once before and hadn’t seen anyone in the woods. He didn’t give their presence too much concern at the time. He had as much right to be in the woods as anyone else.
One of them noticed Jimmy approaching. “Hey, look there! Here comes City Boy!”
Jimmy counted them from a distance. There were six: four males and two females. As he continued toward them, he noticed that one of the guys was Tom Iverson, the kid who had sat next to him in class—or had sat next to him until today. Anson Noll was there, too—another camouflage brute from the back of the room who’d thrown his books on the floor. And there was Cramp.
Jimmy had an urge to turn around and walk back to the campus. The sun was setting and he didn’t have time to waste answering stupid questions. He had a couple anniversary presents to wrap before Bonnie could get home and discover them.
As he grew closer, Jimmy recognized the other male. His name was Axel and he was Cramp’s brother. Their real names were Dan and Mark Ford. They had made it a point to announce their nicknames in their introductory speeches a week ago, although Jimmy didn’t know that. Axel took his nickname from an accident he’d suffered while working beneath a car when he was twelve years old. The car had fallen off a block and almost crushed him between the ground and the car’s axle. Cramp didn’t go into detail about the origin of his nickname, but the way he unapologetically farted in class seemed to explain it. Truth was: he suffered from IBS—the irritable bowel—and wasn’t afraid to tell whoever he could about it.
Jimmy didn’t recognize the girls, yet he thought one of them looked familiar. She was standing beside Tom Iverson. She had long blonde hair tied up in a ponytail. He’d seen her in his Spanish class. The way she seemed to be tucking herself into Tom’s wing probably meant she was his girlfriend. She was smoking a cigarette and seemed amused by the whole ordeal.
The other girl was standing beside Anson Noll. She had dark red hair, also long, also ponytailed. Jimmy had never seen her before. She, too, was smoking but she wasn’t smiling, and she didn’t appear amused.
Jimmy stopped just in front of the group.
“What’s going on, Detroit?” Axel said, unsmiling. He was chipmunking a mouthful of chewing tobacco in his lower lip.
“Nothing? You’re trespassing!” Cramp chimed in. The accusation caused everyone but the girl standing beside Anson to smile.
“What do you want?” Jimmy replied.
Cramp answered by hocking a bolus of tobacco spit at Jimmy’s feet. Axel did the same. Axel’s hock, however, caught the cuff of Jimmy’s pant leg.
Jimmy took a step back.
“I said what’s going on, Detroit?” Cramp asked again. “And don’t say ‘nothing.’” He coughed and tongued at some more chew as if forming another loogy.
As Jimmy was considering what he should do, or say, all four males in the group let loose with a barrage of spit. In three seconds, the better part of Jimmy’s shoes were splattered by a mix of saliva, Skoal, and Kodiak. This finally got a grin out of Anson’s red-haired sidekick.
Jimmy was stunned. He stared at the group defiantly, a gesture which prompted Red Hair to suggest, “Why don’t you just punch him!” to anyone who seemed interested. “Don’t just spit on him!” she added. “Punch him!”
Anson looked on at Jimmy and nodded his head. “I think you’re right, Alison. Someone needs to punch this city boy.”
This comment was the spark Tom Iverson needed. He stepped directly in front of Jimmy and looked him in the eyes and punched Jimmy in the left shoulder, hard enough to almost knock him down.
“Slug bug! What are you going to do about it, Detroit?”
Jimmy took a step back. He looked to Axel and then to Cramp, and then to Alison. “If I had a girlfriend that talked like that,” Jimmy said, “I’d slap the taste out of her mouth.”
Jimmy dropped his backpack and readied himself for the fallout. Running wasn’t an option at this point. Neither was yelling for help. Either would be a fruitless effort. His pack fell to the ground in a thump and as it did, Jimmy surprised the group and let loose with a right cross that caught Tom Iverson squarely in the left eye.
Iverson passed completely out.
The blonde girl let out a set of shrieks that are still echoing in those woods if you listen just right. Immediately, Cramp and Axel rushed Jimmy as she attended to Tom. Axel grabbed Jimmy and tackled him to the ground. Cramp held Jimmy’s legs and was trying to mount him. About this time, Anson Noll joined the mix.
Alison had taken her cigarette from her lips and held it out in front of her. Without hesitating, she hurried over toward her brother and ordered him to hold Jimmy. They did. She smashed her lit cigarette into Jimmy’s left cheek. The singe burned him, causing him to utter a shriek to rival the blonde girl’s. Alison then told the group to punch him harder as she began kicking him in the legs.
“You ought not have done that, Detroit!” Anson said as he and the Ford brothers continued with the onslaught.
Restrained, Jimmy could do little to fend his attackers off, and after two or three minutes of this, passed out.
“I got a little surprise for City Boy, here,” Axel said, standing up and pulling something from his jean pocket. It was a bottle. He told everyone to stand back and then unscrewed its cap.
Anson asked what it was, but within seconds it was apparent what it was.
Axel dumped a bottle of doe scent over Jimmy’s body, saving just a bit to smear beneath Tom Iverson’s flaring nostrils to rouse him. Ammonia salts couldn’t have worked any better.
“That’s what you get, City boy!” Alison said kicking dirt at Jimmy’s bleeding face. “Smack me, huh? Fuck you and your little Bonnie bitch!”
“Who’s Bonnie?” Axel said as Tom finally made it to his feet.
Alison shook her head. “A girl who ought to have stayed in Detroit! It’s his wife!”
The gang helped Tom regain his balance just as the sun was setting. Tom looked down at Jimmy and took a look his hand. Shimmering through the trees, the setting sun had cast a beam on Jimmy’s wedding ring.
Tom picked up his hand and gave the ring a studied glance.
“You’re aren’t taking his ring, are you?” Cramp asked, trying feebly to pull Tom away.
Tom didn’t respond. What he did do was to pull the ring off Jimmy’s finger and slip it quietly into his pocket. “Punch me in the eye, will you! You’ll get this back when you pay for it.”
this is a test book