Dennis Vannatta

Deer Whistle

Currently Doyle Tripp is afraid of deer.  There are a lot of them here in Arkansas.  Around a month ago, I think it was, I read in the paper about a man from Hampton in the southern part of the state who hit a deer with his Silverado, rolled it—the Silverado—and  wound up as dead as he’d ever be.  My guess is Doyle saw the same article because right after it came out he shows up with a deer whistle on his pickup.

“They can hear that baby from a mile away.  It’s like a snow plow, only it clears the road of deer,” he explained to me.

“I know what it does, Doyle,” I said, “but I swear it drives me right up the damn wall every time I hear that damn screeching.”

“Aw, Clayton, come on.  You only hear it when I’m coming or going.”

How do you reason with a man who says something like that?  He wasn’t being smart-alecky, either.  Doyle isn’t that type.  He’s a nice guy, a good neighbor.  This was the first thing I’d complained about, in fact, in the three years I’d lived just down from him out here on Left Fork Road.  He was apologetic as can be, but he still hasn’t taken that damn deer whistle off his pickup.

Doyle’s been by himself too long, that’s what I figure.  Until I bailed out on Sara and moved into this little mobile home a hundred yards down the blacktop from his house, Doyle hadn’t lived within earshot of another human being since his wife got electrocuted out at the shoe factory, oh, how long ago?  The shoe factory’s been closed for at least a dozen years, so longer than that.

He’s odd, no getting around it.  Odd but not crazy.  It’s not crazy to be afraid of dying.  Who isn’t?  But you can take it to the extreme.  He’ll read about something or hear something or just dream it all up on his own, something that scares him so that it’s all he can think about, and he’ll stay scared of whatever it is until some new thing comes along.  He averages about one a season, I’d guess, which means this deer thing has another couple of months to run.  I don’t know if I can last that long.

Hell, if I’d wanted noisy neighbors, I would’ve just stayed in Prospect.  It may be a little town, but every direction you turn there’ll be a person there, so Prospect might as well be New York City, the way I see it.  And I’m not living in New York City.

That’s where Sara is right now, far as I know.  She came to see me before she headed east, the only visitor I’ve had since I moved out here except for Doyle, who's come over a bunch of times with tomatoes and other stuff from his garden, but he never got all the way inside.  Come to think of it, neither did Sara.  Not that there’s anything wrong with her.  Sara’s a good woman, no complaints from me, nothing about our split her fault, I’ll be the first to say it.  It’s just that a relationship takes a lot of energy to keep going, and my needle was on empty.

Anyway, one day there she is at my door, says she’s come to say goodbye, says she’s given up on us, can’t invest any more of her life waiting to see if I’ll come around (we’d been broke up for around six months by then), so she might as well follow her dream and go to New York City and see if she can break into acting.

I’m not making this up.  She was forty-three when she lit out, a year older than me, a couple of kids by the time she was eighteen without benefit of marriage, both fathers vamoosed.  She raised those girls on her own, working two jobs most of the time, waitress, school cook, highpoint being the manager of the cleaners on Main in Prospect.  Both kids turned out to be sluts, but you can’t blame Sara for that, and at least they were out of her hair not long after they were old enough to go on birth control.  The point is, Sara was no starry-eyed teenager, falling for that “break into acting” crap.

I told her, too.  “Hell, goddamn it, Sara, think about it.  How many movies and TV shows have you seen where some dumb broad from the sticks heads for Hollywood or New York to make it big and winds up being on the streets, white slavery, something like that?”

“Oh, so you’re worried about me now?” she said.  I’d been all set to say something nice to her because like I said she’s a damn good woman on the whole, I bear no grudges, but I had to watch my step here, she was on the lookout for options, but I wasn’t.  So I didn’t say anything.
She just looked at me for a minute and when that didn’t get anything out of me she said, “It’s not like I’m doing so great here,” and when I didn’t say anything to that, either, she added, “and neither are you.”

That’s when I said, “Fine.  There’s nothing holding you here.  Enjoy your bite of the Big Apple, you silly bitch,” and slammed the door, because from my experience it’s better to make the break clean.

I haven’t heard from her since then.  I thought she might call on my birthday or maybe Christmas, but not a word.  If she was hard up, she could have called collect.  I would have accepted the charges.  And if she was too proud for that, a postcard isn’t going to break the bank.  My guess is she’s ashamed because she’s not doing too well, not as well as I am for damn sure. 

I’m living the goddam American dream, thanks to Lady Luck and the Teamsters Union.  I’d held about as many two-bit jobs as Sara before I caught on with UPS.  That’s how I met Sara, delivering packages to First-Run Video when she was clerking there.  They pay you good, UPS, but you earn it, too.  Tight schedule, always on the run, climbing into and out of that truck in all weather, wearing those silly-ass shorts.  What made it worse was that the UPS office I worked out of was in Marseilles, thirty minutes up US 65 from Prospect, so I had that half-hour commute onto both ends of all that driving on the job.  I’d been at it a year before I met Sara and then another three years after that, and that was three or four years too much for me.  I was looking for a way out when the way found me: stepped down out of the truck wrong and wrenched my back somehow.  It hurt like hell for a couple of weeks.  I could hardly walk, much less work.  I was pretty much back to normal in a month, though, but did I tell the company doc that?  Ha.  My mama didn’t raise no fool.  The great thing about back pain is that doctors can’t tell when you’re faking it.  Add the support of those fine fellows at the Teamsters Union, and it adds up to permanent disability, check coming in once a month, me never having to work another day in my life.

If it wasn’t for that damn deer whistle of Doyle’s, life would be grand.

* * *

“It’s up to orange now, the security thing,” I tell him.

“What thing?” Doyle says.

“You know, the security thing.  The color thing.  The president announces it, colors to tell you how bad things have gotten, you know, green or blue or something for when things are all hunky-dory, then yellow if you have to worry, then orange when it’s time to bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.  Well, now it’s orange.”

We’re standing on Doyle’s front porch.  I hadn’t even given him a chance to invite me in but just started right in on the orange business that I’d heard about on TV, only I hadn’t rehearsed what I was going to say or anything, forget what the hell you call it, and wind up stammering like a damn idiot while Doyle looks at me like I’m speaking Chinese.  But then I can tell by the “ah ha” look on his face that he’s finally figured it out.

“You mean the security alert, the terrorist business.  They’ve bumped it up to orange, right?”

“You got it.  That’s it.  They were talking about it on TV.”

Which is true.  You can’t just go around making things up with a guy like Doyle, always on the lookout for something to be scared of.  He keeps an eye out for stuff like that, reads the papers, listens to the radio, watches the news on TV.  You don’t want to destroy your credibility by getting caught in a lie.

I go on:  “The only reason I mention it is they’re worried that the A-rabs might be changing their tactics, might start targeting smaller towns now, poison water supplies, stuff like that.  I mean, hell, what if they poisoned our goddamn water, Doyle?”

He turns white.  No, I’m not just saying that.  He really does turn white, and his eyes roll up and he stands there like that with his eyes up like he’s studying the underside of the porch roof--bead-board, I notice, a damn expensive cut of wood to use on a porch.

Doyle’s house is small, not much bigger if you leave the porch off than my mobile home, but you could tell that back in the day he and his wife kept it fixed pretty nice, vinyl siding, double-hung storm windows, and wall-to-wall carpeting, which I can see through the front door.  I’ve never been inside although he’s invited me over for supper and stuff.  Like I said, Doyle’s a heck of a nice guy, friendly guy, lonely now that his wife’s gone and never had any kids, and he’d have me living over here probably if I didn’t keep my guard up.  Not queer, oh hell no I’m not saying that, but needy, and you can get in over your head real fast with some needy SOB, which is why I kept turning down invites to supper, until he got the point and quit making them.

Finally Doyle gets himself under control and says, “Yeah, I think I did hear something about that.  Jesus, Clayton.  Our water.  What on earth would we do if they got into our water?”

“Die, that’s what.”

He swallows hard like he’s trying to keep something down.  “Clayton,” he says.  “A man’s body is eighty percent water, did you know that?”

“Ninety percent’s what I heard,” I say.

I feel bad about scaring the poor guy, but he’s the one who started it.  A guy’s got a right to a little peace and quiet, doesn’t he?  Besides, Doyle’s going to be scared of something, so why not try to make it something a little easier on the ears?

You have to be careful it doesn’t boomerang on you and you wind up with something worse than a deer whistle, of course, but I can’t see that happening with water.  Hell, I figure enough Tennessee sour mash will kill whatever those A-rabs stick in the water.  Not that I’m a juicer or anything.  Sure, I’ll have a few, but if I drink too much I’ll get stupid, start missing Sara.  It happened once and I found myself telephone in hand trying to call her in New York, only I didn’t know the number.  She still has family around Prospect who’d know, but by the time I’d thought of that, the mood had passed.  Just as well.  If you’re not on that ship when it sails, you’re not going to catch it swimming.

Thinking about my old pal Jack Daniels makes me thirsty, and I have one or three while I’m watching Doyle’s house for signs that my little plot is working.                                                          

It’s after noon before he comes out, gets in his pickup, and heads off in the direction of town.  He’s back an hour or so later, and he proceeds to unload must be two dozen plastic gallons of what even from this distance I can tell is store-bought water.  I figure that bastard will be buying distilled water the rest of his life, probably take baths in it.  And that deer whistle is still on his pickup screeching away.  So there’s one idea shot to hell.

* * *

I’m over at Doyle’s house again by seven the next morning.  I’m not usually an early bird, but I’d had a lousy night trying to sleep so I thought I might as well get up and put Plan B in motion.

The problem last night was this dream.  Probably too much Mr. Daniels.  I thought I’d learned my lesson.  It wasn’t Sara this time, though, I wasn’t dreaming about her.  It was about two kids.  There were two kids in the house.  Yeah, in this dream I was living in a house right here where the mobile home sits, little house, about the size of Doyle’s.  I’m going through the house calling, “Come out, kiddies, kiddies, come out!”  Like hide ‘n seek or something.  Then it’s the second part of the dream and the kids are going through the house calling, “Come out, Clayton, Clayton, come out!”  A boy and a girl, I think, but I don’t see them too clear now that the dream is over.  Not my kids, either.  If they were my kids, they’d be calling me “Daddy,” not “Clayton,” you can bet your ass on that.  Not that I’ve had kids or ever will.  Could you see me with kids?  Pardon me while I laugh.

Anyway, the dream bugged me for some reason and I couldn’t sleep, so here I am on Doyle’s porch.  For all I know he’s still in bed.  No, he comes to the door after about two knocks, fully dressed, and before he can say howdy-do I hit him with, “This is the week for orange, looks like.”

“Orange?  You mean—“

“No no, that was yesterday, that orange alert thing.  This is something new.  I saw it on CNN, I think it was, or maybe not CNN but one of those stations.  Agent Orange this time.”

“Oh sure, I know all about that, Clayton. I--”

“No you don’t.  This is something new.  They’re now finding out that this stuff can take thirty years before it shows up.  Guys who thought they were off the hook are now coming down with it bad, real bad.”

Doyle doesn’t turn white like he did yesterday.  Instead he looks off into the distance sort of sad-like.  “Oh,” he says, “that’s awful.  That’s just awful.”

“Yes sir, it is.  Soon as I heard it I said to myself, you’ve got to tell Doyle this.  I remember you telling me you were in the army back then and all.”

“Well,” Doyle says, looking down like he’s sort of embarrassed or something.

“You should get it checked out, Doyle.  It may not be too late.  There might be something they can do for you yet.”

“Well,” he begins again, “you know, Clayton, I spent my whole tour of duty stateside.  I was one of the lucky ones.”

“Oh yeah,” I say, off-kilter for a second, but I’m fast on my feet and come right back with, “But that’s the bad thing about all this, Doyle.  They now think this stuff is potent enough that even if you weren’t exposed to it yourself but were just around some poor bastard who was, you know, like sleeping next to him in the barracks or something, you could come down with it, too.  Those are the guys who’re getting hit with it now after all these years, the ones who were exposed to it second-hand.  Now I may have this all wrong, but that’s how I understood it, anyway.  CNN, I think it was.”

I add the bit about maybe being wrong because I’m strictly winging it at this point, of course.  But Doyle doesn’t hardly seem to be paying attention to me anyway.  He’s staring off into the distance again with that sad look, so sad I turn for a look, too, but there’s nothing there.
When I turn back, Doyle is looking at me now, and he says, “Clayton, you know I lost a brother over there, over in Nam.”

And I say, “Doyle, we all lost brothers over there.”

“No,” he says, “I lost my brother, Clayton, my brother Leslie.  My baby brother—“

Then he can’t talk.  He’s not crying exactly, but he has tears in his eyes and he can’t talk.

“I’m sorry, Doyle,” I say, and I am, too.  I never meant for it to go like this.  All I wanted was for him to take that damn deer whistle off his pickup.

I feel so bad that I’m just about to reach out and give him a pat on the arm, comforting, you know?  But a guy in an emotional state like Doyle can go from being sad to jumping up and busting you in the chops in about half a second.  So I keep my hands to myself, turn around and head for home, trying not to break into a run.

Half an hour later he’s knocking on my door, says he’s heading down to the veterans’ cemetery in Little Rock to put flowers on Leslie’s grave, wants to know if I want to come along.  Little Rock’s ninety minutes each way.  They can keep Little Rock far as I’m concerned, keep it and welcome to it.  I’m not wasting three hours on the road to see that mess.  I make some excuse that sounds lame even to me, but hell, why should I feel guilty?  He’s not my damn brother, is he?

* * *

I don’t believe in any third time’s the charm bullshit, but the next day I give it one final try anyway.  Why?  Couldn’t tell you.  Maybe just boredom.  Maybe meanness.  I wouldn’t put much of anything past me.

It was a little bit of trivia I read in the “Food” section of the paper this morning while I was eating my oatmeal.  About tomatoes.  I’d heard it before, but when I saw it this time naturally I thought of Doyle because he raises them.  Good ones.  He’ll bring me over a sack full a couple of times a week during the bearing season.  More than I can eat.  Enough for a whole family.

“I’ve got to stop watching CNN,” I tell him when he comes to the door.  He doesn’t say a word but just looks at me, waiting.  I can tell what he’s thinking, though.  He’s thinking he’s damn sorry he rented the mobile home to my sorry ass.

Maybe I forgot to mention that Doyle’s my landlord.  He bought the mobile home, used, and parked it out here for his mother to live in after his father died.  Then his mother died of breast cancer.  Then a year later his wife gets electrocuted out at the shoe factory.  Or maybe it was the other way around, wife first, then mother.  Whatever.  He rents the mobile home to me.  Said he’d be glad of the company.  I’ll bet he’d sing a different tune now.

Anyway, he stands there looking at me like, Please God, somebody put me out of my misery, and I tell him, “It’s tomatoes they were talking about last night.  I mean to tell you I have got to stop watching that damn CNN.  Tomatoes.  Innocent thing like that.  Who would think they’d be the thing to do you in?”

I give him an opening, but nothing from Doyle, so I go on.  “Guess what?  Tomatoes are a member of the Deadly Nightshade family.  Deadly Nightshade!  Poison!  Yeah yeah yeah, I know they’ve known that for years, but now they’re beginning to think that folks back in the olden days who thought tomatoes were poison were on to something.  A tomato now and then won’t bother you at all, but you eat too much of them and over the years the poison can build up and, well, they’re not sure what it’ll lead to down the road, but whatever it is, it’s not good, you can bet on that.”

That’s it, I’m done, game over.  I just stand there waiting for whatever he’s going to say or do, call me a goddamn liar, kick my ass off his property, whatever, it’s all the same to me.

But he just looks at me a moment, then looks down at the ground or whatever and smiles.  There are smiles that are real smiles, happy smiles, and then there are smiles that are about the saddest damn things in the world.  This was one of the sad ones.

Then he says, “It was Nancy planted that garden—the first time, I mean.  Planted tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, carrots, green peppers, cucumber—different things over the years.  But she started with tomatoes first off.  Said you couldn’t beat a good tomato.  Hell, it didn’t make any difference to me, not at first.  Store-bought was fine with me.  But she was right.  A fresh tomato is something.  Early Girl.  Better Boy.  That’s what Nancy planted.  She just liked the names.  She called them her boys and girls.  I’ll still plant a couple of Better Boys and Early Girls for old time’s sake, but I’ll grow Beefsteak, too, and try out a different hybrid or two every year.  You can’t beat Better Boy and Beefsteak for taste, but those hybrids are good in Arkansas, what with all the bugs and wilt and stuff we get here.”

I wait for him to go on because, like I said, I’m shot, I’m through, but for the longest time he doesn’t say anything else, just stands there looking down with that sad, sad smile.  Then finally when things are starting to get a little uncomfortable he looks up at me and says, “You know, Clayton, everybody I ever loved died.  Every single one.”

He isn’t crying, either.  No tears in his eyes.  Not yet, anyway.

* * *

I pull the back off the La-Z-Boy so it’s easier to carry and haul it in two trips into the bedroom end of the mobile home that’s got the window looking out on Doyle’s house.  I sit in comfort all day long, watching.

Doyle finally comes out at sunset right when, you know how it gets sometimes, with the sun sitting on the edge of the world, the light slanting straight across everything, everything either in shadow like it was cut out of black construction paper or lit up so bright you think you can see right through it.  Doyle’s lit up, a hundred yards away and I can see him lit up like there’s a spotlight on him, see him crying, I swear I can see those tears, as he rips those tomato plants out of the ground one after another and flings them over his shoulder without looking.  Well, I knew he’d be crying sometime.

After he finishes with the tomato plants he goes on to the cucumber vines and eggplant or green pepper, I can’t tell from here, and then he’s down on his hands and knees tearing at something, maybe radishes or carrots, although you’d think it’d be too late in the season for those.
Not that I ever grew anything myself.  Sara used to say she wished she’d lived in one place long enough to grow a garden.  It was a dream of hers.  She’d come in and announce right out of the blue, “Well, today I’d be putting the okra in,” or, “It’s really wet this summer.  I’d be spraying my tomatoes for blossom-end rot right about now.”  So over the years with Sara I picked up a few things about gardens.

Doyle’s halfway down a row of something green when he gets tired of ripping stuff up, I guess, and stands up and brushes his pants off and goes back into the house.  I watch awhile more, but I really don’t expect to see him out there again.  What else is there for him to do?  I’ve messed him up good.

Night falls and I don’t feel good about much of anything.  I go into the bathroom and break the mirror and then start looking around for more mirrors to break but then say to myself, what the hell, what the hell.

I get a powerful urge to talk to Sara.  I get as far as holding the phone in my hand, trying to think who I should call to get her number, when I realize what a dumb idea it is.  Sara’s got a new guy now.  Nobody’s ever told me that, but it’s a fact anyway.  She’s the type of person who’s got to have somebody in her life all the time.  So she’ll have a new guy.

What the hell.

It gets darker and darker inside the mobile home.  You’d think once night falls, that would be it, but somehow it just keeps getting darker.  But I don’t even put a light on.  There’s nothing here I want to see.

I sit for a long time in the dark until I can’t do that anymore, and then I head over to Doyle’s.  I don’t bother to look at my watch, but I know it’s got to be the middle of the night by now, yet his house is lit up, like he’s got every light going.

I go up on the porch and knock on the door, and here comes Doyle.  He just stares at me, which is a damn sight better than what he should be doing to me.  I’m sorry is what I came over to say.  I’m not sure what I would have said after that.  I don’t know if I would have had the guts to tell him all I’ve done, but I would have said I’m sorry, at least that.

But before I can work up to getting even that out, Doyle says, “Are you scared, too?”

I nod, and he steps back and I go on in.  We’re in the living room.

“Here,” he says, motioning toward the sofa, and I sit down.

He disappears into another room, then is back in a minute with a pillow, sheet, and a blanket.

“It folds out into a bed,” he says, meaning the sofa, “but we’d have to move the furniture around for that.  We can do that tomorrow night.  Late as it is, this will do you for tonight, won’t it?”

I nod, taking the bedding from him.  Doyle disappears again, and I start to make up the sofa.  When I finish, he still hasn’t come back, so I sit there awhile, waiting, until I decide he’s gone to bed.  I take my shoes off and lie down.  I close my eyes for a second, and when I open them, there’s Doyle again.  He’s got this look on his face like, I don’t know, like I’m somebody he hasn’t seen for a long time.

“It’s good to not always be alone,” he says.  I nod.

He stares at me another minute, and then his expression changes, gets tense or something, like he’s just thought of something.
“Tomorrow we’ll go into town and buy you a good deer whistle,” he says.  “OK?”

I nod.