Lori White's latest stories will be published this spring at The Journal Online and Camroc Press Review. Other stories have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, The Kenyon Review anthology Readings for Writers, apt, and Necessary Fiction. She teaches English at Los Angeles Pierce College.
It's Jim's first day out of work, laid off from Flint Tool and Die after twenty seven years as head machinist, and he can't sleep. The need to stay busy, useful, stirs inside him, makes him rise from bed early and shuffle through the three-bedroom brick ranch, overrun with wildlife, samples of his art—rabbits and squirrels, owls perched on branches, and deer. Many deer. He goes down to the finished basement where, in one half, he runs his side business, Affordable Taxidermy; the other half, separated by a sliding panel, is Sher's beauty salon, and though his wife tries to maintain a feminine air about the place, Jim's work spills over. Unclaimed deer heads—those his customers never pick up, never pay for—are mounted in between the hair dryers and above the sinks. Sher uses their antlers as towel racks, their nose pads handy spots for setting foil squares and bobby pins, her disregard for his art camouflaged in practicality.
He takes a seat at one of the sinks under the eight-pointer a guy from work shot opening day and left on the back stoop without a note or a deposit. Jim did the work anyway, unable to pass up a mount so promising. The buck's head is in an upright pose, its blue glint eyes white-rimmed and wet along the lids. The lip line is crisp, a mark of Jim's skill, the corners of the mouth upturned in a slight grin. Too much and the deer looks like it's laughing; too little and a frown overwhelms the mount. The nose is splattered with white paste. He wipes it clean, then removes a row of hair clips pinching one ear, his wife's carelessness more deliberate than inconsiderate now.
Jim picks up a worn copy of People and begins paging through it, something he'd never had the time for during General Motor's heyday, back when union wages and benefits were incentives, not concessions, when computers couldn't replace a man's attention to detail. There's an article about how Montana—with its wide open skies—has become a draw for celebrities and millionaires. He swivels back and forth in the padded chair, imagining a place where his work would be appreciated (and paid for), where he could try his hand again at big game—bear, moose, elk—the likes of which he hasn't seen since Flint's Buick plant shut down. His business name would have to be something more suitable to men driving Hummers and Range Rovers (Quality Taxidermy?), men who would gladly pay up front for his artistry.
The ceiling above him creaks. Sher is in the kitchen, making coffee. It's already six, the time he'd be getting dressed for work while she made him eggs and toast, then packed his lunch and walked him out to the truck. Instead, she appears with two cups, hands him one and takes a seat. “How long you been down here?"
“A while,” he says and blows on the coffee. Sher likes her coffee hot; it took until noontime before he could drink from his thermos without burning his tongue. He passes her the magazine. “I've got a plan.”
“Not again,” she says. When Flint Tool and Die made cutbacks ten years ago, Jim wanted them to move to South Africa to work the safari circuit. She glances at the pictures of Montana's rugged mountains and lakes, then hands it back to him. “You'll find another job.”
He imagines living under those wide blue skies, each day taken up with purpose. “This time you won't even need a passport.”
“And what am I supposed to do?” Sher says. “When women out there want a new hairstyle, they buy another cowboy hat.”
Jim flips to a picture of a sleek-haired actress arranged on a sofa, the living room decorated with her husband's trophies: longhorn sheep, antelope, and a grizzly in the corner, towering on its hind legs. Patrons of his art. “You're forgetting about the wives. They'll need somewhere to go while their husbands are out hunting. We could join forces, call the business 'Simpson's Hide and Hair.'”
Sher laughs. “I heard the school district's looking for a handyman part-time. You should go down there and apply.”
He points to the picture. “Those people recognize real craftsmanship when they see it.”
“I've got another idea,” she says. “If we move the divider back your way some, I could put in another station, maybe rent it out.” Lately, with the economy, Sher's salon covered the mortgage. Somehow budgeting never applies to women's hair.
He swivels away from her and looks up at the buck. “The shop's cramped as it is.”
His wife gets up to dump the remainder of her coffee in the sink. “If you'd get rid of those deer heads, you'd have plenty of room.”
Jim points to the buck's muzzle. “See that light patch? That wasn't there before. Did you get sloppy with the peroxide again?”
“If you don't like it,” she says, “then move them back to your side. I'm running a business here. Besides, my customers are starting to complain. They say it's creepy, like the deer are watching them.”
“I've got a business to run, too,” he says, slapping down the magazine. “Those heads are my work, just like your rainbow-colored hairdos.”
Sher tightens the sash on her robe, then squares her shoulders. “The difference is my customers pay me when I'm done.”
He picks up another magazine and starts to thumb through it. In Montana, one of the last frontiers, hard work and skill measured the man—not money.
“We can't just pick up and start over,” she says.
When he went to see the career counselors hired by Flint Tool and Die, that was their advice. To start over. “I'm supposed to find a position,” Jim says, “where my work's not 'redundant.'”
Sher swats his thigh. “Let's forget it,” she says, her voice softening. “We'll be fine. I've got three girls coming in this morning for color. Some singer dyed her hair neon blue and now they all want it.”
Jim heads for his shop. At the divider he stops. “They're the experts. I'm just doing what I'm told.”
By mid-morning, the basement swells with the sharp mix of bleach and chatter. Sher lets her customers choose the radio station; the steady rotation of Top 40 makes the tools on Jim's workbench bounce and pop. He goes over to Sher's side to sweep up some hair. The brown trout he caught a few weeks ago at Lake Huron is ready to be stuffed. Sher had wanted him to filet the trout for Sunday dinner, but that would have been a waste. The skin color and pattern are so brilliant, he doesn't even have to paint it. The women jabber on, lifting their feet for his broom as they tell stories about their husbands' ineptitudes. When he passes the radio, he considers turning down the volume some, then changes his mind. It's a cranky machine and touching it might just break it. The music will go off on its own when the tiny motor needs a rest stop. In the meantime, the pulsing music is better than the chatter.
Later on, the doorbell rings. Sher calls out that she's elbow deep in blue and could he answer it. The bell rings again, but Jim takes his time going up the stairs. His wife's customers show no shame for their impatience, their demand for service. But instead of Sher's next appointment it's Troy Stevens, rumpled and unshaven, his arms around a doe head Jim did for him more than fifteen years ago.
Troy takes off his jacket, and the warm, acrid smell of alcohol lifts from his flannel shirt. Since the GM plant closed up, Jim's run into Troy a few times at Auto Zone, where he mans the register. Troy holds up the head and jabs at some puckering on the neck and around the muzzle where the form curves and dips. “Something's not right,” he says. “From a distance they look like tumors, like it's got cancer.”
Jim sets the head on the dining room table to examine the hide. Troy stands back, his arms crossed over his chest like he's ready to do battle. There's a faint mildew smell and the eyes are cloudy. “Looks like water damage,” Jim says. “Pretty wet last spring. Your basement flood again?”
Troy takes a step closer. “Don't try to shift the blame on me. Are you going to fix it or not?”
There's room to sculpt out the slack and bring back the form's muscled lines. It's tedious work, the kind that demands all of Jim's patience, all to undo unnecessary damage. His hourly rate could soften the insult, but getting a fair deal from Troy would be a lost cause. “It's going to take some time, but I can do it. I'll give you a break on my regular rate.”
Troy motions to the collection of deer heads along the living room wall. “You saying you don't stand behind your work?”
“Well, sure, but there's got to be a reason why this happened after so many years,” Jim says, rubbing his forehead. “Something environmental. Like a basement two feet underwater.”
“My buddy's got a buck from the same shoot, says I should've taken it to Ypsilanti like he did.”
Jim smoothes his thumb over the doe's eye. There may still be some old Van Dyke stock in his box of whitetails that would fit. He wouldn't be creating as much as recreating, restoring beauty ruined by neglect. The men in Montana would have safeguarded against this kind of abuse. And in the event of an accident, they'd be insured. They'd come to Jim grateful, respectful of the work involved. But if he turns Troy away, his art suffers the consequences.
“Tell you what,” he says to Troy. “Seeing as how I want the doe to look good, I won't charge you.”
Before heading back down to the shop, Jim fixes himself a sandwich and settles down on the back stoop to take in the yard. The old Le Mans rests in the driveway, rusted out on concrete blocks, drifts of leaves piled against its sides. The paper boy throws the Flint Journal under the car like it's a game. Recently, Jim quit playing and let the papers pile up. The morning glory vine along the chain link fence is brown, and the grass has turned early. Under Montana's big sky, he thinks, greenness sweeps wide, from the pines to the rangelands, luring game into the open to graze. Here he has squirrels. There's a dead one under the car.
He kicks away the leaves from the Le Mans. He gets down on his hands and knees, knocks away the other papers to get today's. The car seems to pop off its blocks and crush against him, but it's just him jerking against the underside as Sher's cranky radio screeches through the basement window. He goes back inside. This time he's going to do more than turn it off. This time he's going to kill it.
At the worktable is Sher, leaning over the water-logged doe, happily swaying her hips to music he hates. In one hand is a stick of eyeliner, in the other a colorful palette of eyeshadows. “This poor girl needs some help,” Sher says.
The ruined doe is bumpy with tumors, but Sher is like the nurse in hospice who hasn't given up. The patient might die, but it will die with pretty eyes. There's still hope in Sher's world.
He comes up behind her, watches over her shoulder as she works. “I think you've got something going there,” he says. “After you're done, let's go to Montana, see how it takes.”