Late autumns when the trees were bare, the Hudsons and Chryslers and old black Buicks with running boards and two spare tires would glide through town before breakfast with eight and ten-point bucks lashed to their fenders. Some mornings there’d be snow, and the icy staccato of chains on the old Dutch cobblestones would carry all the way down the hill to the diner where sparrows pecked nervously on the sooty salted sidewalk. Rudy and I made a quarter apiece shoveling those days, and we were just about finished one time when the men arrived.
You could smell the bacon and eggs, the fresh coffee and the wet wool of the hunters as they passed us, opening the door, glancing back one more time towards their prey, oddly solemn. They wore black-and-red-checked jackets like uniforms of an especially dull hue, and matching leggings that laced up the sides to the knee. Six-inch knives hung from their belts in sheaths stuck in their hip pockets to be safe. They all had hats--real hats, with flaps that could cover your ears, some of them left over from the war--and their hunting boots, half rubber, half leather, left imprints of interlocking chains in the snow we hadn’t got to yet. There were numbers in clear plastic pockets pinned crooked on their backs, and along with their tobacco and their exertion, we could just make out the sweet scent of gunpowder.
Once the men were inside, starting new cigarettes and ordering from Rudy’s mom and his crazy cousin Feebo, we’d ponder the fixed and opalescent eyes of the deer, one to a car, sometimes two, lined up like dead Nazis, maybe, all along Warren Street. Steam rose off some of their bodies still. The blood from their wounds and the vicious gashes along their bellies was not always dry, but their tongues all lolled in unison with a frightening gray finality. Their noses were very black. You could feel everything around you starting to freeze after a while, and you had to stamp your feet because you were too small for hunting boots, and your galoshes had buckles that kept coming undone.
Rudy and I jingled our way into the diner. The windows were steaming over and the whole place felt warm and safe. The men were laughing, very noisy after the silence of the snow and the deer and the sunless sky. The radio was playing some of that violin music that Rudy’s mom liked every morning. She was pinning a ticket to the wheel-thing for Uncle Pete in the kitchen when Mr. Rogerson, who owns the hardware store, goes:
--You shoulda been there, Hope; the prettiest doe you ever did see, next to you of course. There was general agreement from the hunters, and Mr. Rogerson sort of snorted into his coffee.
--Oh, Ben. Rudy’s mom brushed her hair back away from her face and topped off Mr. Viebrock’s cup.
--Yep, says Mr. R, one a the few times I wisht I had a doe license. Big and beautiful, just the way I like ‘em.
Rudy’s mom set the coffee thing back on the burner behind her and moved to the window to pick up a plate of sausage and eggs from Uncle Pete. Mr. Rogerson followed her with his eyes the way grownups do.
--You’d shoot a doe? says Mr. Golding, the guidance counselor at the high school.
--They taste the best, don’t they? ‘m I right John?
Mr. Viebrock was a quiet, contemplative man, dependably even-tempered. He had a German accent.
--So I’m told, Ben. Can’t say from experience, though.
--Well they’re built different said Mr. Rogerson. They don’t have the muscles and the heart of a buck. They’re sweet lil things. It’s genes.
Rudy’s mom smushed quickly the back of her hand across both cheeks.
The place suddenly felt like church. The music on the radio was simply all there was, drifting softly into space. I watched the water trickle down the insides of the windows like memories.
It was the end of 1955. The men had all been back a while from the war. Rudy’s dad, though, he never did come back. You could see what Rudy was going to look like someday from his dad’s picture there by the cash register.
It was a time, it seemed, when all anybody knew was shadows. Shadows passing over with no apparent purpose.
In the diner that morning, though, everybody eventually felt a little like they were lucky, and then maybe not-so.
It was when I realized we all die the same in different ways.