Still Life

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Still LifeThe kids spotted a giant statue of a buck from the overpass as we trekked upstate on our first family camping trip. Its antlers stretched longer than the length of our sedan, and it could have easily gobbled the engine block and the front seats with its massive muzzle. But deer are vegetarians, and this was something I knew for sure. So I figured it couldn’t hurt to take the exit and explore this massive gentle beast.

My son, Trent, said the buck must be worth a hundred points. My wife laughed. I wanted to correct him, explain that the points had to do with the antlers, not like points in video games. But he’d learn soon enough, once we got up north, where I’d show Trent how to shoot the rifle. There would be a lot of wilderness education on this trip. I’d grown up camping, but this was all new to the kids who spent their days cooped inside hovering over glowing screens. Both of them were possibly geniuses, scoffing at math homework that scared the hair on my back straight. They’d grow up smarter and better than me, with my failing alternator repair shop. And that was great. Really, I was fine with it. But this weekend, I’d teach them something. Even though money was tight, the trip was worth it, my last chance to show my expertise to the kids before I closed up the alternator shop for good and became Father Failure.

Off the exit, we could see the round building under the buck statue’s hooves. It was painted an orange as bright as a hunter safety vest. I was intrigued, and the kids were mesmerized. The statue loomed larger as we approached from behind, its stubby white tail and anus beckoning our adventure off the beaten path of RVs and trailers flashing expensive red motor boats. The kids said, “Can we?” And I said, “Why the hell not?” My wife nuzzled her head against my shoulder, her lips smelling of Dr. Pepper lip balm. I loved these moments, when we all bonded together to discover our state’s great plaster monuments of tourism. What a state we lived in! Only in Michigan were bucks constructed to match the size of men’s full hearts.

Flyers packed the windshield of the only car in the lot. We parked. The kids jumped out and ran around in busy circles, stopping every now and then to hug each other and point at the giant buck on the roof. My wife lifted a flyer from the rusted wiper blade and read it to us: Whispers of Wilderness. Enter to learn the secret language of the Michigan forest. I pulled another flyer and it was the same. They were all the same.

“Wow,” my wife said. “They really sank their advertising budget into the flyers.” She taught high school economics.

“Kind of overkill, don’t you think,” I said, wanting to agree. I thought of my rows of greasy alternators back home, crowding the shelves and looking like gorilla fists. How could I advertise that? I should’ve listened to her suggestions to diversify with some starters or transmissions. I tried to keep my marketing worries to myself as Judy and Trent sprinted toward the front entrance. A father has a duty to swallow worry.

The front doors were barricaded by a taxidermy bear standing on its hind legs and holding out its paw. A slot for money sliced through his paw. Printed on his chest were the words FIVE-DOLLAR ADMITTANCE. I jammed a twenty into the slot, and there went the s’mores fund, but this was an investment for my kids’ education, and that was worth more than stale marshmallows. After the twenty sucked in, the bear rumbled, “Grrrrrrr-ra-rumba-rop, don’t forget to visit the gift shop,” and slid to the side on a track, his eyes blinking with red lights. We entered.

The lobby was, of course, the gift shop, brightly lit and full of bins spilling plastic deer and bears and loons and wolves and other Michigan wildlife. I didn’t see a single person working the counter, which must have kept their overhead low but their thefts high. Every business choice led to sacrifice. Trent wanted a fox and Judy gripped a doe so tight I thought its head would pop off. I told them that if they were good little fawns they could pick out something later. Kids need to learn to work for rewards.

On the way to the exhibits, we passed a cave trimmed in Styrofoam painted to look like stone. A sign above it warned: EMPLOYEES ONLY. A faint red light pulsed from the shadowy entrance. Trent asked what the cave was. I told him, “That’s where the animals go for breaks, have some lunch, use the restroom.”

“Why don’t they just pee outside?” he said.

“Because they have the cave,” I said.

And that was probably where all the workers were hiding, slacking off, when they could have been selling my kids plastic deer. I pitied the owner, imagined him hunched over a calculator, sweating over the flyer budget, while his workers smoked cigarettes and laughed about his ridiculous ponytail.

Glass cases staggered the dark hallway, displaying still-life taxidermy animals. Each case had hollowed out bull horns filled with speakers you could hold up to your ear and press a button to hear those talked-up whispers of the wild. The first diorama featured a wildcat leaping over a felled pine. The kids pushed the bull-horn-speakers to their ears, pressed the button, and I could hear the muffled whine and hiss of the wildcat, followed by a low, masculine voice, probably explaining a little gem of wisdom or two about the wildcat’s behavior or eating habits. Ah, education! I couldn’t be happier than for my kids to be learning something about their state, knowledge to give our camping trip more meaning. My wife and I stood behind the kids with our arms around each other, watching them as the wildcat pounced forward on a track. They jumped back. My wife squeezed my butt. We all laughed. And I told them that if they ever ran into a real wildcat they should make themselves as big as possible, stretch their arms high over their head. Judy said she would pet the heck out of that cat if she saw it. But then Trent said, “Don’t worry, Dad. I’d shoot it right in the tail.”

The next cases were smaller: robins perched over their blue-egged nests, hawks swooping on fishing line, two herons rubbing necks. The kids listened to each one carefully, taking turns pressing the buttons. Then there was the snow owl, white and majestic and wise, and when you pressed his button his head spun in a full circle. The kids pushed a bull-horn-speaker to my ear, urging me to hear the owl hoot. I broke from my wife and listened, even though I’d grown up on a farm and knew the song of hoots too well.

The recording was crackly, distant, and I floated back to my childhood, could see the pale winter sun slicing through the grayed slats of pine, smell the tractor rust. My parents owned that farm until I was ten, when we moved out to the suburbs. My father failed at farming, and then failed at a string of small businesses: a coat-rack store, a pillowcase outlet, a ham sandwich-only deli. He never figured commerce out, obsessed with fulfilling singular needs. I was bound to follow in his footsteps.

The owl said, “Whooot-whooo-whooot-Whoo,” and then, “Who is that sexy lady with that wild pair of gozangas, and why is she wasting her time with the tubby oaf?”

I pushed the button again. “Whooot-who do you think you are, buddy? Your wife is bored, so why don’t you send her in here, and I’ll show her a good time.”

Who did I think I was? Who the hell was this owl? I was so mad I could have punched the glass and spun the snow owl’s head until it popped right off. No one talked about my wife that way, my best friend, the woman who could melt away the pain of days without a single customer by simply touching my face. But the kids were already running and laughing to the next case. I dropped the bull-horn-speaker and stomped after them.

The dark hallways opened up to a scene of huge moose butting heads, their fuzzy antlers interlocked, a cow moose off to the side licking plastic birch trees. I decided to listen with the kids this time, and my wife picked up a speaker too. Trent hit the button. The moose wailed in between simulated antler clunks. And then the masculine voice came through, saying, “Male moose often fight to impress potential mates. But after their mates are secured, ramming passion is replaced by lackluster complacency. It becomes all TV dinners, and the female will be lucky if her cheap mate takes her to a movie twice a year. Sex becomes as banal as hiccups.”

I wanted to explain to the kids how wrong this was, but they sprinted off to the next case.

“Can you believe this?” I said to my wife. “They’re feeding the kids crap sandwiches.”

“Honey, not everyone is the wilderness expert you are,” she said. “Besides, there’s a little bit of truth to it.” But I didn’t want bits of truth—alternator brushes, diodes, frayed copper wires—I wanted full-on wilderness. She wrapped a hand around my waist, and I supposed all I needed was for her and the kids to be smiling.

Then came the deer window. The glass was clear as nothing. The kids straightened their backs and got ready to listen again. I went to grab myself a bull-horn-speaker, but my wife snagged a belt loop and urged me to just ignore this one. But I couldn’t resist any longer. We had a stake in our kids’ futures. We needed to know what they were learning. I needed to know.

A pack of does were frozen in mid bound, a few bucks chasing after. I pushed the button and a fawn slid forward on a track toward the window and then through it, at which point I realized there was no glass on this case. Judy and Trent crowded the doe, stroking its ears, crying about how cute it was. The masculine voice came on: “These days, most deer are hunted by motorists, as they’ve become impervious to bullets, so there’s no use in trying to shoot us, tubb-o. Also, they’re the smartest of the mammals, surpassing the far stupider ape family. A little known fact is that fawns love to eat quarters. Feel free to feed the fawn.”

I couldn’t wait to show Trent how untrue the bulletproof lie was as soon as we got out of here. The kids tugged on my pant legs, jangling my change, screaming for doe feed. I wouldn’t give in. Even when the fawn’s jaw dropped down to reveal a coin slot, even when my wife tried to keep peace and pass out quarters, I wouldn’t submit. I blocked the fawn’s hungry slot with my chest, crossed my arms, made myself immovable. I did it for the truth of the wild. Judy started crying. Trent punched my thighs. I told them no souvenirs then, and I pointed toward the exit. And that’s where we went, my wife now carrying Judy, and Trent stomping out.

We passed the snow hares, the wolves, the bears, the geese. At one point we passed by a small case of penguins, and I tried not to even look at the buffoonery. And then right through the souvenir shop where we’d entered. Judy stopped crying once she saw the plastic does again. How could I deny her? She was my only girl, and it hadn’t been her fault. Management was to blame for the lies. Trent got his fox, too. Still there was no one around working the register. I’m not a thief, so I left a ten on the counter, which would have been a six-pack to share with my wife, and we headed for the exit.

Instead of the sensor opening the automatic door, a fox dropped from the ceiling. My wife jumped, nearly smacked in the head. Judy whimpered.

“We hope you’ve enjoyed your visit,” the fox said. “Please consider all the lives that ended for you sickos’ enjoyment. Maybe you’ll consider dying yourself and being stuffed, so we can make a very educational human display. If that doesn’t sound so hot, then just consider the choice we had in the matter.”

Then the fox’s jaw fell open just like the fawn’s, revealing another coin slot. Rumbling footsteps echoed from the hallway where the displays had been. I worried about the deer case without any glass.

My palms sweated around the change in my pocket, gripped in my fist. Our exit was blocked, our nature vacation threatened by wild secrets. My wife breathed heavy in my ear. I wanted her to ask me to use my true wilderness knowledge to save us. She didn’t ask. I wouldn’t have known anyway. The wilderness seemed so far away, blocked by glass doors and Styrofoam rocks and a taxidermy fox.

Instead of using my knowledge, I let my body lead. I left my family, adrenaline spilling through my thighs, and jogged toward the EMPLOYEES ONLY cave behind the sales counter to beat the pulp out of the idiots behind it all. The rumble from the halls thundered closer as I crouched into the cave. The deeper I went, the lower the ceiling dropped. I flattened to my belly, against the cold tile floor. I slithered through the darkness, headed toward the red light of what I hoped was management.

The red light grew stronger. Mechanical chugging groaned through the walls. My back ached as I pulled myself along another few feet. What would it solve, coming out the other end to pound on the man in charge? The owner, making five hundred copies of the same flyer to slap onto the same damn car in the lot—business moves of futility, like a raccoon gnawing at its neck to free itself from a trap. I didn’t want to confront a man I knew too well. But I pressed on, into the very guts of the beast.

I passed the red light throbbing over my head where the cave funneled tightest. I squeezed into blackness, through a flap, and then a bright light struck me. The break room, and there he was, standing before a mirror, over a small sink, shaving the last strip of stubble from his throat. He wore a white shirt, buttons open, his bare chest exposed, a tie yet to be knotted draping his collar.

“I’m not paying to get my family out of here,” I said, still lying on my belly, my back aching.

When he turned, I saw him bleeding from a nick on the neck. He looked murdered.

“Suit yourself,” he said and clicked his razor against the sink bowl. The mirror before him opened to eye-splitting daylight. But it did me no good. I refused to bring my family past this murdered man, this final exhibit of failure. I retreated before the man shaved himself clean, buttoned his shirt, knotted his tie around his bleeding throat and was done for.

Back at the lobby, Trent said, “I think I got this one.” He stroked his chin. “If fawns like quarters and bears like twenties…”

“Then foxes must eat dimes,” Judy blurted from my wife’s arms.

“Of course,” my wife said. “But we’re going to need a lot of them. A whole fistful at least.”

I was lost. It didn’t matter. I could worry about all the things I didn’t know later. I pulled out my fistful of change and slugged dimes into the fox’s neck slot. Maybe the coins would slide down a chute, tink onto the desk of the owner, a hail storm of second chances, tapping out enough gas money to drive away from this place. My wife rubbed my shoulders in small circles, and my kids counted out each dime I spent, until finally the fox lifted back into the ceiling.

As we walked through the parking lot, I patted the kids on the back. My wife slathered on more lip gloss and smiled at me brightly. They’d all learned something. I hadn’t saved them, and I longed to get back on the road, reach the campgrounds by dusk and assemble our tent, stretch out the sleeping bags, and build a fire, a big one. Things I knew how to do. I’d stare into the fire and forget the coins in my pocket, the alternator parts waiting to be orphaned back at home. The campfire’s orange tails would nip at the stars, blind the night.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He spent ten years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His stories have recently appeared in Baltimore Review, The Adroit Journal, Washington Square Review, Witness, and The Threepenny Review. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com

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