by Amy Cameron
What to Wear Deer Hunting
For all her childhood, he watched her. From the small open porch of his Philadelphia row home, beneath the low-slung awning that blotted out the sun, he sat among the floral cushions of his wicker couch peering out at the narrow city street, and everyone on it.
Thicker (in build) rather than taller, he was an imposing presence. His round colorless face too large for the sparse features floating awkwardly at its center.
He had a wife and five children, but they came and went during the course of their busy days, impervious to him. Up and down the porch steps like rowdy patrons, they sailed in and out of the house giving him barely a “hi-ya,” or a wave, in their wake.
He worked at random times, varying between day and night shifts, as a boilermaker for the old power plant, now closed, at the edge of Port Richmond, alongside the Betsy Ross Bridge. Aside from this, (as well as smoking cigarettes and drinking beer) he never seemed occupied with much else. Whenever he wasn’t working, he was outside on his floral couch, still as a spider, and hardly visible after dark—aside from the slow rise and fall of his glowing cigarette.
There was nowhere she went without his eyes on her. Even inside the shelter of her own home, she knew he was out there, waiting. And it changed her. The way she played, the way she walked down the street—too aware of her own body.
She knew the woman who took care of him now.
Now that he was old and alone.
The woman was a home-care aide found and hired by his daughter after his wife had died the previous year. He was too feeble (and old) to take care of himself. and the daughter lived in Harrisburg, five hours away. No one knew where his boys were.
Michelle, the home-care aide, went to his Kensington house from 10 to 4 every day, to cook and clean and wipe his ass. Michelle was a small woman, but loud and direct, and didn’t hesitate to issue commands or slap a hand away when necessary.
She knew this, because she knew Michelle. They were both nursing assistants turned home-care aides working mainly in Olney, next to Jefferson Hospital, but traveling as far south as Kensington, or Fishtown, as it was more commonly called these days. (She found that the small pocket neighborhoods of Northeast Philly would redraw their boundaries and re-christen themselves with new names every generation or two.) From time to time, if working close by, (as seemed to be more usually the case than not) the two women would meet for coffee or lunch and swap patient stories as if they were friends.
She got the call at noon on Wednesday, on her way to lunch. The old man was down. Michelle couldn’t lift him alone.
“He got past me, Mare. The stubborn son of a bitch.”
Michelle was known to nap on the job from time to time—once sleeping clear through one of their lunch dates.
“—Goddamn broke a glass, too. He’s on the floor. …In the kitchen. The one room he’s not allowed in.”
Kitchens were usually off-limits once a person passed a certain point. —When they started forgetting to turn off the burners, or their hands became too weak and shaky for knives.… Slicing bread or frying an egg could turn disastrous quickly.
“I am so screwed.”
It was a delicate situation. They both understood that 911 was not an option. The EMTs might decide to take him to the hospital, and the hospital would have to notify the daughter… who would then most likely fire Michelle.
“I can’t lose another client right now…” Michelle said. “You’re on lunch, right?”
She was. Michelle knew that she was. Knew that she left her client’s house at noon every day to eat … even what her favorite lunch places were.
They were eight city blocks apart.
“Can you come?” Michelle asked. “Five minutes…max.”
Unable to think fast enough to lie, she agreed.
His street was her street. Her family had lived directly across from him for years. She’d shared the second story front bedroom, the one that faced the street (and his house) with her younger sisters. But she hadn’t stepped foot on this exact block for years. She wouldn’t even drive down it. Diverting her car around, dodging questions –should a passenger beside her innocently ask why such a diversion was necessary. If she’d been assigned a client on the block, she would have turned down the job.
But she’d agreed to come today. There was no turning back now, short of faking an accident, or causing a real one.
She turned onto his block and walked swiftly to the end, determined to get things over with as quickly as possible. She stopped in front of his house, pausing only briefly before walking slowly up the porch steps. She stared over at the old wicker couch, cracked and unraveling now with age. It was missing all of its floral cushions, and its seat was full of holes, but it wasn’t hard for her to imagine him sitting there, beckoning her, his fingertips stained with nicotine. He must have been young back then, but she remembered him as old. His hands thick and rough. Working at the coal plant was hard living. Finishing a shift, a man felt entitled to his down time.
In addition to watching her from the couch, the old man would also gape at her from his upstairs window. Between slats of Venetian blinds, he held black binoculars up to his moon face and peered into her bedroom window. He used the same kind of long-lens binoculars her own father used while deer hunting. A lot of men in the neighborhood went hunting for deer in the Fall. They’d wear orange hats, for safety, and rent cabins. Drink beer all night and play poker. No one ever came home with a deer.
The old man had peeped on a lot of girls and women in the neighborhood over the years. People used to talk about it, comparing notes, shaking their heads. But that was a long time ago. Ancient history. Everyone had forgotten now.
But she remembered.
He’d stand in his window, bare-chested, with the binoculars. Two round circles of glass, like mechanical eyes spaced far apart. A robot face, unblinking and unchanging.
When she caught him, he blamed her.
She’d been changing after school in her bedroom when she noticed the robot face in his window across the way. His mouth curled below the binoculars as she rushed to cover herself, and pull down the blinds.
He waved her over the next day when the street was quiet.
She stood frozen on the sidewalk in front of his porch, her heart going like a hummingbird’s wings. He sat with his legs spread, smoking. Accused her of wanting the attention–that she kept her blinds open on purpose.
He threatened to tell her parents. Said that nobody would look at her the same once they knew. When she started to cry, he laughed, and his face cracked open in a terrifying display of teeth and gums. He slapped the floral cushion next to him, and beckoned her up.
“Don’t you cry now,” he said. “We’ll figure this out.”
He wanted her on the couch.
She didn’t think, she just ran. Straight to the end of the street and around the corner. She was not physically capable of climbing those five steps up to that porch. Of being near to that round white face. Up close. Looming over her.
She vowed to never go on his porch. And she’d kept that promise, for years.
Until Michelle called.
She pushed open the front door that Michelle had left ajar. Inside his house, the musky stench of grease was oppressive. The air was thick with it: that unmistakable smell of old skin breaking down. Wholly expected, yet repulsive. It clung to her clothes and the hairs inside her nose. There was no escaping it.
She knew she was in no danger, but her body wouldn’t believe her. It refused to disengage from fight mode. Like muscle memory. And she thought: how strange fear remains, when danger is long gone.
“Mare? That you?”
She braced herself and walked through the dimly lit living room: past a huge floor-cabinet TV, covered in dust, and a plastic-slipcovered couch. Wallpaper was coming down in thin strips on the wall beside the stairs leading up to the second floor. She imagined little hands rubbing the paper there, through the years. Five little bodies racing down, moist palms outstretched. Bursting through the front door and down the porch steps. She walked past the dining room, with its rectangular table and eight chairs lovingly crowding the space. Enough chairs for five kids, two parents, and one extra guest. A grandparent perhaps? Or a friend of the daughter on a Friday night? She walked on (through to the kitchen) and it was there that she saw him, on the floor, half-clothed, and so old that he was barely recognizable. The wispy white hair that remained on his skull only made his face seem larger, adding to the perverse distortion between it, and the tight, inverted triangle of eyes, nose, and tiny mouth at its center. On his forehead, a thin line of blood (presumably, from his fall) was the only bit of color to him. He was awake, but his eyes were closed. She didn’t know why. It was as if they refused to see who had come to his aid. Refused to acknowledge the help that was being offered—the help he so desperately needed. They would not plead, or even thank, so they remained shut—refusing to witness the indignity of their situation. If he ever opened them, she never saw it.
They lifted him off the kitchen floor and hauled him upstairs to bed. He weighed even less than he looked. As though, with the right breeze, he might float mid-air. But they went slowly, careful not to jostle him too much—old bones being fragile as they are.
Once on his bed, Michelle cleaned him. The tangled sheets strewn back, as if in lovemaking. His pale body lay prostrate, then supine, then prostrate again, as she worked.
They were in the bedroom he had shared with his wife of sixty-five years. Conceiving their children in holy matrimony; nursing them through to adulthood. Private family moments. Consecrated in the body of the Savior hanging above the headboard. Did he catch a glimpse of her? Remember her? She could not tell. The only sounds he made were inarticulate moans as he was lifted and handled, again and again. Was he asking for his daughter? His wife? For all those who were long dead, who he would be (should be) following soon? She couldn’t tell that, either.
She spotted the hunting binoculars on the windowsill, poking out from behind dusty drapes. They were exactly where they’d once been needed: directly across the street from her bedroom window. A heavy layer of dust covered them.
Pain, he still felt, at least. His tight eyes were proof enough of that. His gaping mouth, smooth without teeth, his pale tongue rolling. She remembered him sticking it out at her, making wet kissing sounds as she’d walk by. His angry joy at seeing her.
Like a spider on that couch, he’d waited. And when she returned home from school, and ran upstairs to change into play clothes, did he run too? Into this room? His wife’s bedroom. Reaching for these very binoculars? Just as excited as she was, for school to have ended?
He would have hated having her here now. Her strong adult body so close to his small, weak one.
He wanted a good death, he told Michelle once. A merciful one-shot kill. Massive stroke, sudden cardiac arrest…something quick so he wouldn’t suffer. Lingering was hell, he’d said. Limbs twitching in an effort to move. Vulnerable. Impotent to relieve the pain.…
Was it hard to pull the trigger? She wondered. Deer hunting…watching a fawn through your scope. Did it matter how close you were? Was it easier to pull the trigger from farther away? Could you do it up close? If the fawn was beside you, looking at you? What if instead of a rifle, you had only your hands? Could you use your bare hands to hurt a deer? A child?
On the walk over, she’d thought of killing him. Smothering him with a pillow. Pushing him down the stairs when Michelle wasn’t looking.
She still thought she might.
His body was in her grasp. Rice-paper skin at the back of his arm. She could have pinched it and watched his eyes well with tears. She imagined whispering for him not to tell. That nobody would believe him anyway…because she was never here. Just a secret favor done for a terrible home-care worker.… Just a shadow passing by the forest blind. The scent of predator on the wind, turning back the ears of grazing deer.
He felt far away. And that made her feel safe—as if she could whisper anything to him, and he wouldn’t see it coming. Just a disembodied voice…like she didn’t exist. Her body older, softer now…hardly noticed in this ugly row home, on this nothing street in Philadelphia…where a bad man lived once, but nobody talks about anymore.
“Here, let’s—Mare?” Michelle was looking at her.
“Let’s lift him—okay? One more time…. I’ll change the bottom sheet. Then you can go—”
Holding the corners of the old sheet, they half rolled, half lifted him, cradled in the soiled linen. Michelle was doing it one-handed, mostly. He was that unsubstantial now.
The fresh sheet was spread out on one end of the bed, and then on the other.
He was so light, and the burden she carried so heavy. Yet he felt none of it. Bore none it.
Atoned for none of it.
He lingered, she realized.
Here on earth. He lingered, against his wishes. In this house…in this room. Lonely day, after lonely day. Children playing loudly outside his window, but none coming to visit; no pictures of grandchildren on the walls. He didn’t get his clean death after-all. No one-shot kill from the long barrel….
Maybe this was as close to peace as men like him got.
When she finally lowered him down onto the freshly made bed, unharmed, half-asleep, her arms were suddenly unburdened, and the difference was obvious, and enough.
Amy Cameron is a writer living in New York City. She is an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine, and her fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Magazine and Wall Literary Journal. In 2020, she was a semifinalist for American Short Fiction’s Halifax Ranch Prize. Her work explores social injustice, loss, and the everlasting endurance of hope.