White-tailed Deer


            It wasn’t the uphill, it was the downhill that was difficult on the icy parts of the trail. Gravity doesn’t help in these situations. JJ hiked carefully down the steep section between Sheep Mountain and the little valley below the ridge. An ashen gray sky, very close to the ground, and a couple inches of hard icy snow crunching underfoot. Seventeen degrees and the dead of winter.

JJ stopped and it was suddenly quiet without the crunching of his boots. There was a distant hum from the interstate on the far side of the mountain and then he heard, as if an echo of his own movement, crunching footsteps coming up from the valley below. A shape moving through the trees below, coming straight up the trail. JJ waited for him.

The man was intent on his climbing, trudging sure-footed at a good clip, and he only noticed JJ when about ten feet away. The man stopped, unsurprised. “White-tailed deer,” he said, gasping a little.


“White-tailed deer. Back that way,” he said and pointed back down the trail. He was catching his breath. “Three of them. Ran up the rocks like it was nothing.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. And did you notice the winter trees. The bare branches reach for the sky like capillaries. Or blood vessels.   Without the leaves I mean. The silhouettes of the branches reach into the sky, yearning. And they get nothing. Not this time of year.”

“I do get the capillary thing. Not the yearning, though. They’re kind of beautiful.”

“Yeah. Kind of like a lot of these people everywhere, reaching for something that can’t be had. Reaching for the sky, but stuck in the ground. Beautiful but doomed to be stuck.”

“Isn’t that human nature?”

“It’s just nature. Some people are birds, soaring. Or song birds, perky and social. Some are burrowers, like possums, nocturnal. Many people are trees, rooted and stuck in place.”

“What are you?”

The man took off his hat and looked up at the sky. Mucus was frozen in his moustache and his sweaty head steamed in the cold. “I haven’t figured that out yet. Maybe I’ll never know.” He put his hat back on. “Which are you?”

JJ thought of Lila and not drinking anymore and the money he won. “I think I was a dying tree that’s turning into something else.”

“Yeah. Sometimes there’s magic at work. Alchemy.” He looked hard at JJ. “I’ve had a lot of time alone.”


“Take care,” he said and continued trudging up the path. JJ noticed the spikes attached to the bottom of his boots, gripping the ice, giving traction.

“I want more traction,” JJ said to himself. “I’m no bird. But, I don’t want to be a tree stuck and reaching to an uncaring sky.” He thought of the white-tailed deer, bounding effortlessly up the hill. He had seen them up here as well, usually in the morning or near sunset. They were silent and watchful, ready to move, graceful, and always in a small group.

“I’m definitely a land animal,” he thought. He started back down the trail, careful of the icy spots, picking his way gingerly. “I’m no deer, though. That’s for sure.”

Honor Your Inner Stalin


New Year’s Eve day, pale sunshine and no snow. So, JJ and Carl hiked from the farmhouse to the top of the mountain.

“In 2015, I plan to honor my inner Stalin,” Carl said.

“That’s your resolution?”

“Yeah. I plan to honor all of me, the light and the dark.”

“Will that make you a better person?”

“I think so,” Carl said. “It will make me a more complete person. I think we repress the dark stuff and that’s where we get into trouble. It’s still in there and needs to be recognized.”

“But what about the genocide? And the Cold War paranoia?”

“Don’t you sometimes wish you had the power to wipe out certain people? Or populations? Aren’t you paranoid and suspicious?”

“All the time.”

“Well, there you go.”

JJ looked out over the town. They sat on a cliff above the valley and no leaves on the trees meant big views all around. Too many people and houses down there, even in this smallish city. Too many people burning fuels, making trash, fucking up the planet. Many just worthless parasites, taking up space.

“But,” JJ said. “You can’t just declare yourself and start the process. You need a plan.”

“I’m talking about my inner Stalin. The psychopath inside. I’m not going to hurt anybody. On purpose.”

“What the hell have you been reading?”

“Emerson. His big thing is that there’s Jesus in all of us. There’s Socrates in all of us. There’s a poet in all of us.”

“So, there’s a dictator in all of us, too.”


Some images of Stalin came into JJ’s mind. Uncle Joe at Yalta, sitting smug with a regal FDR and a fading Churchill. Military Stalin, pockmarked with that moustache, iron-willed and cruel, watching the tanks parade in Red Square. Hitler, with his fussiness and silly moustache seemed like a jester in comparison.

JJ said, “My resolution is to not live in comparison.”

“In comparison to what?”

“Other people. I’m sick of giving a shit what other people think.”

Silence, except for the distant and constant hum of cars on streets, cars on highways, and a few stray horns. “I didn’t think that was a problem for you,” Carl said. “You’re one of the oddest people I know.”

“There’s things I want to do. But I always talk myself out of them.”

“Such as?”

JJ looked out over the town and thought of taking a stand about something. A nameless dread about the Other was always with him and something or someone out there was to blame. Rich people? Religious fanatics? Patriots fans?

“Maybe I’ll start a Gulag,” JJ said.

“There you go. With my inner Stalin and your lottery money, we can make some changes around here.”

“Then you can have me shot after it’s up and running.”

“I’m way ahead of you, man.”
“Happy New Year, asshole.”

“Same to you,” said Carl. “And many more.”



The Holiday Shakedown


“Let’s cut to the chase,” JJ said. “How much do you want?”

“You’re pretty bold since winning that lottery,” Betty said.

JJ’s sister, separated from her husband, had come to town and forced a meeting. He couldn’t hold her off forever. JJ thought a public place would be best, to reduce the chance of bodily harm. So they sat in a crowded café on a Saturday morning. He was hoping she wouldn’t make a scene.

“That was two and half years ago. And you can’t get your mind off my money.”

“Well, look at you, all happy up there in that ridiculous farmhouse. No farming. No actual work. Money will do that for you.”

JJ looked out the café window. Something about the winter before the snow, everything looking cold and brutal with the leaves gone and the grass dead. Maybe that’s why Christmas decorations took hold; so people wouldn’t kill themselves before Christ’s birthday.

“I’m happy for the first time in years,” he said.   “The money helps, but it’s not about the money.”

“So your girlfriend is back, is that it? Lulu or whatever?”


“So she’s back in the picture since the lottery?”

“She could care less about the money.”

“Couldn’t care less, you mean. Couldn’t care less.”

JJ felt the heat rising, the coals of resentment fanned towards rage by this money-grubbing harpy who happened to be his sister. “They’ll dangle the bait,” Professor Tom, his sponsor, had said. “Family will do that.” And here she was, separated from her husband, dangling a big fat worm in front of his stupid trout mouth. “Oh, fuck it,” he thought.

“Dad can’t stand you,” JJ said. “He’s never liked you. After mom died, he told me.”

“Funny,” she said. “He told me the same thing about you.”


“Bullshit,” he said.

“Don’t you ever think why we all hate each other?”

“Betty, we all hate you and you hate us.”

“You can’t stand Brian.”

“We bond over mocking you.”

“He calls me just to wonder why you’re such a loser. That ‘dumbass loser’, I think was the exact term.”

Professor Tom had said it would go like this. “They won’t want you to get away. Even if it’s what’s best for you. It will unbalance the mobile.”

“The mobile?” he had asked.

Families are like mobiles. Every member has their part to keep the balance, even if it’s all dysfunctional. If you leave the mobile, it will get out of balance.

JJ looked at his sister. “I’m leaving the mobile,” he said. “You guys will have to rebalance without me.”

“Don’t give me that shit about the mobile,” she said. “I know all about the mobile. You won’t get away now that everything’s going good for you.”

How the hell did she know about the mobile?

“Anyone who’s been in therapy since 1990 knows about the fucking mobile,” she said. “And you’re not leaving. At least without buying your way out.”

So this was it. She was shaking him down, offering to let him off the mobile for a price. Ok, then. Back to the beginning.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” he said. “How much do you want?”

“I’ll be in touch.” She rose and stalked away, leaving him with the check.

“I’m sure you will,” he muttered. “Happy holidays.”

Lila and JJ in the Fall, Part 3: Together at Last?


They lay in bed listening to the rain, talking little. Lila was on her side, her face snuggled against JJ’s neck. He was on his back, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. He remembered the cracks on the ceiling above his childhood bed, how they formed a river canyon and tributaries, a whole regional map up there. As a child, he lay in his bed and imagined a world of heroic deeds, unjust tragedies, and vengeance playing out on that ceiling. An entire fictional watershed was drained by the topographic cracks up there. There were no cracks yet on this adult farmhouse ceiling. Just some undulations here and there, a rolling prairie rather than a canyon land.

His phone, still in the pocket of his jeans on the floor, double buzzed for an incoming text.

“Don’t,” Lila said into his neck.

“I think something’s wrong.”

“What else is new.”

“I mean, like someone’s sick. Or died.”

“Someone’s going to die if you get out of this bed.”

“I have to,” he said and rolled away from her. He reached down and out, stretching for the jeans. He snagged a belt loop with a finger, reeled them in, and retrieved the phone from the pocket. “See, I didn’t have to get out of bed.”

Lila groaned and rolled away.

JJ read the text: From Betty (Satan), “Where are you!!! Barry had affair and I left.”

He stared at the screen and a strange sibling mix of emotions washed over him. Sadness for his sister, for anyone, betrayed and alone. Disappointment in Barry, tempered by a “What took you so long?” wonderment. Smug satisfaction that his upwardly mobile sister had been derailed in a non-life-threatening way. And, dread over what she wanted from him. Mostly there was the dread. She was in the area, a place she never visited, and that meant she expected to stay in the area. Probably in this very house where he finally lay snug in bed with the elusive love of his life.

“Well,” Lila said to the wall.

“Not good,” he said. “I have to call her.”

“Wait awhile.”

“Barry had an affair.”

“What took him so long?”

“Yeah, I know. But…”

“Oh, fuck it,” she said and flung back the blanket. She got up and thumped naked out of the bedroom. “Fuckin’ drama,” she muttered in the hall and went into the bathroom.

JJ called Betty.

She launched right into it. “Where are you? I was at your house. The car was there but no one answered. I tried to go in but the door was locked.”

Thank God he had locked it. She would have found them cowering in the downstairs bathroom.

“I went for a walk,” he said.

“Well, I’m coming back.”

Lila walked back into the room and JJ followed her with his eyes. She didn’t look at him but went over to the chair to sort through her discarded clothes. She started to dress.

“Listen Betty, it’s not a good time. I have a guest and we’re very busy today.”

Quiet. Then, “Are you saying that your own sister, abandoned by her husband, can’t come over?”

“Go home, Betty. Work it out with Barry.”


Lila had turned to watch him and he met her eye.

“It’s going to be ok,” he said and hung up. He turned the phone off and Lila came back to bed, where it was warm.

Dinosaur Tracks

“Wow,” Carl said. “They’re everywhere.”

JJ said, “Where? I don’t see.”

“There and here and there.” He pointed at different sized depressions in the rocks that slanted down towards the river. And then JJ saw the three-toed footprints and Carl was right. They were everywhere.

“What kind of dinosaurs were these?”

Carl cleared his throat. “Funny you should ask. These footprints were made by Eubrontes giganteus about 200 million years ago. They were carnivores, predecessors of the T Rex.”

“How do you know that stuff?”

“I know stuff.”

“I know you know stuff. You’re always telling me the stuff you know.”

“What’s wrong with knowing stuff? You know, there’s a long tradition of amateur naturalists knowing stuff.”

“I’m sure there is. For me, it’s enough that they were here and now we’re here 200 million years later in the same spot. That’s reassuring to me.”

Carl looked at JJ. “Reassuring?”

“Yeah. These footprints mean…I mean, they take the pressure off. It’s no big deal. They were here and now they’re gone. We’re here now and we’ll be gone. No big deal.”

They were quiet a moment. Carl spoke. “That’s either the deepest or most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I think there’s two kinds of things in this world. Those that endure and those that flame out.”

“Which are you?”

JJ thought of a time, years before, when he aimed his car at someone’s driveway but it turned out to be an embankment down to a small stream. He caromed down the hill, somehow missing trees large enough to stop the car, and skidded to a halt with the front wheels in the stream. 2:28AM the dashboard clock said, even when he turned the engine off.

“I used to think I would flame out but now I think I’m going to endure.”

“That’s not always a good thing. Think of the Rolling Stones. Or Dick Cheney.”

“True. But I’m thinking more like an old oak, like that one over there.”

“That’s a maple.”

Some people were coming down the path to the footprints. They were laughing and clowning and shouting conversation. “Fuckin” this and “that’s bullshit”. One of them dropped a cigarette on the rocks and stamped it out. Another yelled, “Wait, wait.” And he reached down to move the cigarette butt into one of the footprint depressions. “That’s what killed the dinosaurs!” Moronic guffaws. They didn’t even notice JJ and Carl.

Carl said, “My point is, there’s a third type of person. Those who should flame out but endure anyway. Don’t be one of them.”

“I’ll try,” said JJ. “I’m trying.”

“I know. Now let’s get outta here before a meteor hits those jackasses.”

“I think we were those jackasses once.”

“Nah,” Carl said. “We would have been quieter.”

“You mean more stoned.”

They walked up the path away from the river, away from the triassic tracks, emerging from the trees into a 21st century parking lot.