WORKING THE EDGE
By Grant Segall
Stefan picked his way down the driveway, skirting a pothole with the season’s first ice, trying to save what was left of his hip for what was left of the countryside.
A faint rustling stopped. He turned and scanned the back yard, the chicken-wire fence, the last of the woods beyond. At night lately, he’d caught a couple of crackles and flickers back there. But now, a little after dawn, he could just make out the poplars shimmering.
No, Marta — closer. Standing over your hydrangeas. Staring back. Something we haven’t seen in the Ridge for decades. A deer. A buck. With three, four, five points.
He glanced down the driveway again. Nobody there but the beggar across the street, looking too hungry for human prey to bother the buck.
Stefan crept toward the lawn, hugging his bathrobe. He’d forgotten how delicate deer looked, big as they were. The buck’s long eyelashes were blinking. His spindly legs were flexed, ready to flee. His antlers looked too scrawny and velvety to duel for a doe any time soon. He seemed to hover over the flowers like a hummingbird.
Sure, along the highway, from the countryside. But why bother in 1995? I’m stuck in the Ridge a few more months, meeting those silly new codes, then trying to sell our sturdy house in a rickety neighborhood. But what’s here for a buck anymore?
Back in ’48, when Stefan built the first home here, the restocked deer were surging. Marta, coaxed up from Canalside, tried to drive them from her garden with dried blood. He stalked them deep in the woods, beyond her earshot. Still, the boys needed more than venison, so he helped build other homes, the school, the church, the shopping center, and a highway to fill them all. Soon the swelling Ridge merged with Canalside, where hunting was banned. No matter. The deer had already fled to higher hills.
Now the buck finally bent his head and began to chew the hydrangeas. Sorry, Marta, but they’ll come back next year, and who knows if the buck ever will?
Like the boys, the highway kept on growing. Soon it was taking neighbors with any money to newer, fancier places and chasing the deer further out. But Marta dug in here with a few new friends who’d bought in low and a few old ones who couldn’t afford to sell out low. So he and the boys saw the deer just once a year, camping near them the Sunday night after Thanksgiving, hunting them the Monday at dawn.
The buck threw him another look. Still though he’d been, Stefan froze all over again. The buck returned to the flowers. Magenta again, your favorite, after what, five, six years of periwinkle? It figures. Stick around long enough, and things change and change again.
They changed when the boys moved west for bigger game. And changed again when Marta, for all she denied it, grew too frail to spare him for the hunts. And again last April, when she spared him too much. His hip willing, he’d revisit the deer next month and fix up a cabin among them in the spring.
The buck swiveled his ears. Next door, halfway across his deck, Lamont froze, briefcase bag on shoulder, nostrils extra wide.
Then the buck swiveled his whole head the other way. Eileen was working her way down her stoop in curlers, holding out an apple. “Oh,” she wheezed, “you’re a beauty.”
The buck promptly cleared the fence and vanished. The woods were still thick enough for cover, it seemed. The yard fell quiet again, just the way Stefan usually liked it. But the neighbors kept staring, and so did he, as if the buck would make the same mistake twice.
“Well,” Lamont finally said, “I shouldn’t be surprised. We hear they’ve taken over the bigger towns already: Columbus, Canton….”
“Why?” Eileen asked the bureaucrat instead of the hunter.
Lamont cocked the case toward a glassy roof on the next hill out. “We’re getting in the deer’s space, so they’re getting in ours.”
Fighting a shiver, Stefan counted the days to a yard too wide and wooded for the neighbors to chat across.
“They do all right here?” asked Eileen.
“Sure, at first. Especially in edge neighborhoods like this. They raid the gardens and hide in the parks, alleys, ravines….”
“Then they clear out, if they’re lucky. Before getting run over, infected, whatever.” Lamont chuckled. “Like they used to say, different kinds don’t mix.”
Stefan turned from two kinds of neighbors and shuffled to the curb. His paper was in a dry spot and theirs in puddles again. No, I sure haven’t raised the tip. Maybe the Ridge is trying to fool me into staying.
“So you met the buck at last.”
“At last?” Stefan blurted, forgetting this once to keep quiet.
“Certainly.” The beggar pushed back his silver mane. “He’s been enjoying our hospitality for a week now. As the homies would say, we’ve got hooves in the ‘hood.”
We? Stefan bent for the paper in silence. For maybe a month now, the beggar had been coming who knew how early from who knew where, hogging the planter by Our Lady’s soup kitchen, ignoring the bums from the underpass, cozying up to the rightful residents. Stefan would have admired the hard work, if begging had counted.
“We’ve got a fox too, a couple of herons in the lagoon, a coyote in the ravine.” The beggar cocked his coffee can toward the underpass. “Let’s just hope the riffraff leave them alone.”
Stefan turned up the driveway, unbagging the paper. What makes the guy think he isn’t riffraff himself? His fancy patter? Fancy hair? Private hideout?
Stefan sank into the couch in the Florida room, beneath the family photos and the old buckhead (a 3 2/3-pointer, really, since he hadn’t let the taxidermist fake a tip lost in the chase). Sipping coffee, adjusting his glasses, he reread a letter from Steve’s new printer and tried skimming a book from Walt about Washington’s trip on the Ohio. But he mostly listened to the church bells mark time and watched the sun turn the leaves red and gold. He saw just the usual creatures out there: pigeons mobbing Eileen’s feeder, a Cooper’s hawk scouting the highway, a squirrel scurrying nowhere.
That night, he rolled around the queen bed more than usual. In the morning, he slid open the glass door as quietly as he used to part the bamboo in Guadalcanal. No buck this time, no fresh wounds in the hydrangeas, no prints in the frost. Sure, the buck belongs in the countryside, especially near hunting season, when he’ll need a mate and I’ll need prey. Admit it, though: For one day, he made the Ridge seem new and wild again.
Soon Eileen brought a whole basket of apples down her sagging stoop, which Marta had wanted him to shore up. The squirrels helped themselves. The buck stayed away. Still, Eileen started refilling the basket daily. It just drew more squirrels, who scattered the leaf piles and trampled the garden.
Early Saturday morning, Stefan climbed a ladder in back and started rehanging a few shingles. Soon he’d drawn a crowd. Desiree was sweeping the deck and Brianna prancing across it, her hands overhead like antlers. “You’re kind to try feeding them,” Lamont told Eileen, “but…”
“Now, you know I feed anyone: the bingo players, the homeless, little girls with sweet teeth…” She glanced at Stefan, whose Army jacket was getting baggy lately. “Anyone who lets me, that is.”
Stefan banged a rusty nail. It snapped. His hip twinged. Marta, enviably free of envy, had hinted about Eileen toward the end. But the last thing he wanted was another old lady to share lame help and thanks with.
“You OK up there?” Lamont called.
“’Course.” It seemed the buck was a new excuse for people to mind each other’s business.
“Heard about our fix-up loans? You could hire a little help.”
Stefan drove home what was left of the nail, remembering when he’d been worth the hire himself.
One morning, he saw hoof prints in the mud. Starting that night, he quit climbing upstairs and spread his bedroll on the couch in the Florida room instead. With the space heater crackling, the buckhead standing guard, the poplars rustling outside, and the live buck lurking somewhere, he almost felt like a hunter again.
A week later, he caught the buck a second time, or more the other way around. After a moment, the buck started gobbling the fallen nuts again, looking up once or twice a minute, surprising Stefan every time. Full at last, he slipped through a gap in Eileen’s pickets.
Stefan fetched the paper. “There’s a timely story this morning,” said the beggar, “about birth control for deer.” Where was the guy’s copy? “I read it at home, of course.” Could the homeless get home delivery?
The morning after Halloween, the buck nosed some Twix wrappers on the driveway, glancing now and then at Stefan hammering a siding cap. Near Election Day, he nosed a bag of handbills by Lamont’s garage, hardly glancing at Stefan boxing up ancient metal roller skates for the grandkids.
One tease of a mild day, the buck relieved himself against the back of an ankle. “Ewww!” Brianna squealed from a swirl of chalk on her driveway. Eileen pinkened and raked the other way.
“He’s just spreading his musk,” Stefan mumbled, explaining a fact of life to a girl too young and a woman almost his age. “Marking his territory.”
The rake paused. “Well, it beats graffiti, I guess.”
The buck began to rub his cheek against a branch of the chestnut. Eileen drank him in. Brianna tittered and rubbed her cheek against her chalk stick.
Then a motorbike revved past the driveway. “Vroom vroom!” cried Brianna, steering the chalk like a handlebar.
“Too bad there’s no doe around,” whispered Eileen.
“Just as well,” said Stefan. “Tough place here for fawns.”
The next afternoon, when it was nearing 60 out, Stefan headed toward the Ridge’s last real barbershop. From the alley, someone whispered, “Closer.” Stefan hunched his shoulders and started to hurry past. But the man was facing the other way, toward the rubble from the old depot, and brandishing something at the buck.
“Hey!” Stefan cried.
The buck fled through the rubble. The stalker spun. “Oh, you!” It was the beggar again, with one of Our Lady’s triangle sandwiches. “Guess I’m not hungry today,” he mumbled, maybe shyer about his kindness than his usual greed.
Stefan steadied his breath. “Really, we should let the buck fend for itself.” Those “we’s” were contagious, it seemed.
“Let’s save that for tougher creatures, like yourself.”
That night, the warm spell gave way to swirls of fat snow. Stefan was dragging the garbage to the curb when an ambulance swung into Eileen’s driveway, and paramedics who looked barely old enough to work hauled her out. She raised an eyebrow, asking him to what — save her? the buck? the Ridge? He’d ridden along with Marta, holding her clammy hand, mumbling “It’s all right.” Now he hung back with something between a wave and a shrug. Eileen rolled her eyes and vanished.
In the morning, his paper lay on top of a little snowbank and Eileen’s beneath it. He scooped up both, so hers wouldn’t get soaked. “Good idea,” said the beggar, “keeping her absence secret from the riffraff.”
Safe from her thanks now, Stefan started clearing Eileen’s papers and mail daily. But he drew the line at propping her stoop or filling her basket. The first few mornings, the buck nosed the basket awhile. Stefan finally stowed it in his basement. The next time, the buck nosed the foundation.
That afternoon, Stefan was oiling the garage lock when his hip seized up — his good hip, no less. He spun. There was the buck, nosing the sliding glass, stamping the grass, cocking his antlers, daring the old buckhead to fight.
“Scram!” someone shouted. The buck obeyed at once. “Oh, didn’t see you,” said Lamont. “Just trying to save your door.”
“Thanks, but we don’t really have to worry about him charging,” said Stefan, drowning in “we’s” by now. “Not without a doe around.”
Lamont cocked a thumb at the woods, where a few stubborn old leaves were hanging on. “It’s been sounding lately like a whole harem’s back there.”
On Thanksgiving, Stefan nibbled a boxed turkey dinner from Rzepka’s. Eileen used to bring colcannon with too many onions, and Marta to give thanks for family and friends. This time, Stefan gave silent thanks for escaping a dinner alone with Eileen.
Afterwards, he walked a potted kale to the cemetery and cleared Marta’s stone of snow and litter. Two punks watched from the mausoleum steps, smoking who knew what, snickering who knew why, killing time.
He made it back home by dusk, both hips creaking. The buck never looked up from the chestnut. All right, all right, no hunting this season, at least. Thank the early winter, the sneaky years, our trusting guest.
Stefan spent Monday puttering, dozing, and reading about Washington’s call for the canal. The next morning, he couldn’t find Eileen’s paper. “Someone must have cancelled it,” said the beggar. In the afternoon, her daughter showed up for once, waving stiffly, leading around a woman with a clipboard and a camera. The next day, two men hammered a For Sale sign into the dingy snow and propped up the stoop at last. Sorry, Marta. Eileen must have gone to a nursing home or a grave. Giving her place the jump on ours.
That night, he was dozing over the book when the Florida room burst open. The coffee table bounced off the wall. The buck bounded away. The cold blew in.
Stefan managed to rise. Chunks of glass slid onto the old buckhead below. The brow was gored and the coat flecked with blood. Not enough blood to weaken the live buck, just to rile him up all the more.
Stefan bagged the head, hauled it to the garage, and dumped it in the trash. Then he called a glazier’s hotline and got Muzak awhile. Face it, Lamont’s right: There must be a doe or two around, hoping to make new life in a dying neighborhood.
A dispatcher finally gave out two prices: a fortune for next-day service or two fortunes for overnight. Either way, Stefan would have to crawl to Lamont for that loan and put off the cabin. “Forget it,” he said. For tonight, anyway, he’d just strengthen his guard against two-legged intruders.
He eased his way down to the basement and unlocked the gun case. He wiped down the knife, resheathed it, and strapped it to his hip (still good for that much, at least). He inspected the rifle: tarnished but not warped. He squeezed the trigger a few times and worked it loose. Then he took aim at the dartboard. It froze in his sights. No old-age shakes yet, at least.
Stefan loaded the rifle and set it beside the bedroll. The temperature rose just enough for rain, some of it blowing inside. Could he shoot burglars like deer? On Guadalcanal, he’d scattered some silhouettes on a bluff, but never faced anyone up close.
It was still dark when he gave up trying to sleep and opened the side door. The newspaper truck rumbled past. His copy landed with a splash. Talk about things changing again. Then someone came from across the street. The beggar, on duty already. Stefan hung back. The man rescued the paper, slipped off the bag, shook everything dry, leaned against a streetlight, and began to read calmly, routinely. Now what? Do I call the cops or give him a tip? Eileen would have loved sharing her copy back when. But maybe it was more fun to sneak Stefan’s.
Later that morning, Stefan was boarding up the door when the realtor pulled up and a big family followed: a stringy black woman, a dumpy white man, and kids of all shapes and shades in between. Soon the brood was scampering from one muddy yard to another, with Brianna in tow. Lamont came out chuckling. Then he saw the boards and spun inside.
That afternoon, the doorbell rang. It was a wildlife agent, with those shoulder patches of animals more from Disney than nature.
“Yeah?” asked Stefan, a shiver slipping loose.
“Just stay inside, please, while we catch the deer.”
It figured that the law would bust the deer and spare the bums. “How?”
“With tranquilizer darts.”
The agent lowered his voice. “We dispose of them privately.”
“Why not let them loose in the country?”
“Hunters might eat the tranquilizer.”
For an hour or so, Stefan read about land barons plotting the canal and daydreamed about tranquilizing the agent. Near dusk, the bell rang again. “Smart deer,” said the agent, his breath steaming like the buck’s. “We’ll try again tomorrow. For now, you can come back out.”
“Thanks.” Stefan shut the door. As if old-timers could brave the Ridge at night. Or could I, just this once — hunt near home again, and help the deer die right?
When the last light was gone, he slipped his jacket on, belted the knife, shouldered the rifle, and went outside. He’d forgotten how private the dark was. Brianna was gazing out a window without seeing him. In a minute, though, he made out the gap in the pickets and started down the deer path beyond. The woods were still thick enough to muffle the street’s clatter and the highway’s whirr. They seemed like the woods of old almost, except for a slightly smoky smell.
The path sank toward the stream. He knelt on the bank, in a tangle of vines. In seconds, his pants had soaked through. He fought a shiver one minute and a yawn the next. Orion was rising, the ancient hunter as strong and upright as ever. Stefan would shoot whichever came along first: the buck or a doe. Then the rest of the herd might finally have the sense to give up on the Ridge.
He blinked. The buck was lapping the stream. Stefan sprang up and swung the rifle. The buck kept drinking slowly, as if he had all the time in the world. Stefan steadied his breath. Was the water still OK around here? In the hospital, he’d given Marta sip after sip, not knowing what else to do for her. But he could do more for the buck: a neighbor by now, and the best one, really, not shoving loans or colcannon or coffee cans at him, just keeping him quiet company, keeping the Ridge alive.
The buck looked up calmly, knowingly. Stefan fingered the trigger. The sights were wobbling. In the clutch, he had the shakes after all.
The buck turned away. Before Stefan knew it, he’d fired. The buck lurched and fled, his hoofbeats jerky but fast. Stefan had done the worst thing a hunter could — wounded his prey too lightly, leaving him living in pain.
Another shot sounded. From another gun. Stefan dove with young speed. The hoofbeats stopped with a crash.
“Freeze,” someone whispered, as if Stefan would have dared to move anyway. A hawthorn parted. A pistol poked out. In the beggar’s hand.
“You again.” The man holstered his gun and offered a hand up.
“You too.” Stefan managed to stand on his own.
“Oh, I was just taking my evening constitutional.” Around a wiener roast, from the smell of him. “Until you turned it into work. Now come.”
The beggar led him down the path briskly, surely. Off to the side a ways, Stefan caught a tarp and the last of a campfire. He should have known. Despite the silver hair, the man was still young and strong enough to live in the wild.
”Keep it quiet, please.”
“I keep everything quiet.”
They found the buck sprawled on an old tire, panting, steaming, quivering, a leg oozing, a flank gushing. One eye was shut, but the other was watching them blurrily. Without a by-your-leave, the beggar breathed and aimed. The buck just kept watching. Near the end, Marta had tried to comfort Stefan more than the other way around. “Rest up,” he whispered, “like the doctor said.” Soon she rested too well.
The beggar finally fired. The buck heaved and shuddered. The eyelid fell. Stefan’s own eyes blurred foolishly, when death was the surest way to be shut of the Ridge.
The beggar took out a pocket knife and started skinning the buck deftly. Stefan drew his hunting knife and fumbled with a foreleg. A siren came down the block. It figured the cops would be prompt for once. The siren stopped. A door slammed. Footsteps followed but stopped short of the woods.
Unruffled, the beggar said, “I suppose Our Lady couldn’t take the meat. But the riffraff could roast it at the carhop.”
Stefan didn’t know which would be a sorrier fate for the buck: to feed the buzzards here or the bums there. “They know it needs to age first?”
“Of course. Somewhere safe and dry. Like your garage.”
Stefan shrugged. The way things were going, he might as well give them the whole house.
“You could try some meat yourself,” the beggar said. “Fill out a little.” Stefan had hit a new low: a beggar worrying about him.
More footsteps, another slam, and the cops pulled away. The beggar wiped his knife and sheathed it. Stefan did likewise. Leaving the head behind, they hauled the torso to the yard. Someone chuckled — Lamont, by his side door. “Lucky I know the cops.”
“Much obliged,” said the beggar.
Stefan nodded, though jail would have put off his housing problem awhile.
They hung the buck from a beam, over a bucket and some newspapers. Then they wiped off their hands on rags, while Stefan ignored his hips. “Well,” the beggar murmured, “later, let’s say.” He crossed the yard and slipped through Eileen’s gap as quietly as the buck used to do.
Stefan shuffled inside with the rifle. He’d gotten even more years from it than from Marta. Now it was just a menace all around. He tossed it in the fireplace and lit the tinder. He spent the rest of the night in the armchair, watching the stock blacken and the barrel glow.
A blink or two later, he woke to the bells. He glanced out back before remembering and trudging to the curb. A crowd was lined up by Our Lady already, but the planter was free. The beggar must have been sleeping late for once, after a long night’s work with a buck and a geezer.
“Hey,” someone cried, “it’s the rifleman!”
“Tell us when the meat’s ready,” called someone else.
Stefan retreated with the paper, his privacy just a memory. By the garage was the new buckhead, the antlers perfect, the coat still silky. He’d have to put a stop to all these favors. But the beggar had beaten him to it again. Stuck on an antler was a torn envelope with flowery script: “Take care of the Ridge for me.”
Stefan stared at the woods. Just another vacant property now. Another occupant had turned out to be too soft for the Ridge.
Stefan called the glazier again. “Oh, no emergency, I guess.” Then he bagged the head for the taxidermist’s. If I’m stuck here a little longer, I’d better hang this one in the basement, safe from any other fool buck who might come around.
About the Author:
Grant Segall, a Harvard grad and a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and columnist, won three national prizes and many statewide ones. His articles have been published in Time, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Magazine, American Education, and more. His short stories have been published in five college reviews and two independent zines, earning honorable mention in Whiskey Island’s yearly contest at Cleveland State. He is the author of the well-received John D. Rockefeller: Anointed with Oil (Oxford University Press, 2001), which Booklist called “fascinating” and “first-rate.” “Rockefeller” has been published in the U.S., Korea, and China.