Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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At my former father-in-law’s funeral in November, I walked up to my ex-husband Billy and kissed him. It was our fifth kiss in thirty years: one when we finalized our divorce, one at his mother’s funeral, one at our son’s wedding, one at the birth of our twin grandchildren four months before, and now this kiss, with its hint of grief. I still loved his parents. And I had loved him once.
When I was fifteen and walking home alone in the rain from a dance, Billy leaned out the window of a parked car and invited me in. His dark hair and eyes and strong cheekbones brought a flutter to my stomach. So, despite having been warned by my mother never to get into a stranger’s car, I did. And I spent the summer sneaking off with Billy, riding on the back of his big black BSA motorcycle. He taught me to lean into the curve until I thought we were falling. He would open the throttle and go a hundred miles an hour. I met him in the park after dark, and we lay in the grass kissing beneath the stars and the blinking lights of planes and satellites. He stormed my defenses with his wild attention, but I held him off until I went back to boarding school in the fall. The next summer, scared I’d lose him, I told him I had grown up: I was ready. That night he drove me to the lake, where a full moon shimmered on the water, and we lay down in the back of his van, and he pulled his red sleeping bag over us.
Back at school, a few weeks after my seventeenth birthday, I found out I was pregnant. I called Billy from a phone booth at the end of the hallway. “Marry me,” he said. On Halloween I sneaked out the iron gates and caught a Greyhound bus to Boston, where Billy met me for the drive home to Maine. That evening, in my parents’ living room, while trick-or-treaters laughed outside, I told my mother and father. Their shocked expressions turned fierce, as though I’d snatched my great-grandmother’s antique vase off the shelf and hurled it to the floor. There would be no gluing it back together.
I thought love would sustain Billy and me — no matter that we had little in common other than our ferocious attraction and the baby inside me; no matter that we had no money, no education, and no furniture other than a mattress and the red sleeping bag. I was so young I didn’t know how young I was. And I didn’t realize that Billy was young, too, or that his drinking would settle around us like pea-soup fog, and I would strain to hold him at home as he strayed farther out night after night.
Years later our son, Zach, said he could not imagine his father and me married; we are so different. He couldn’t even remember us together: three years of fighting and weeping and only scattered laughs. But he remembered a childhood of wanting to see his father more, wanting his time and attention, wanting what I had once looked to Billy for and not gotten. Now my beloved grown son was still looking for it, and my frustration with Billy would surge whenever I saw him riding through town on his silver Harley.
But at the funeral I hugged Billy and said, “I’m sorry,” and I was — for his father, and for our younger selves and all that had gone wrong between us. That evening the past rose around me like smoke. Throughout the wake my ex-husband’s friends appeared as gray-haired, middle-aged ghosts of their former wild selves, human museums of stories I knew but would never tell — one of the consequences of staying in the small town where you grew up. They kissed my cheek and promised to leave deer steaks on my porch, remembering how I had loved venison when I’d been young, in love, and lost among them.
A few weeks later, on the December solstice, a day that would slam shut at 4 P.M., I left the house at two and drove south to my son’s. I felt relieved to have my hands on the wheel. Lately the road had been the only place I knew where I was headed. I’d been happily remarried for years but now was sad and restless, longing for something I couldn’t quite find, as though in the process of growing up so fast all those years before I had missed something necessary, lost a piece of myself.
At least I’d made it through another November. That month, with its moldering leaves, bare trees, and rifle shots sounding in the woods, always raised the past for me: a dark, almost sweet nostalgia; a longing to press my face into a man’s red wool hunting jacket pungent with cigarette and wood smoke. Now I caught myself wanting to run away, to escape to distant landscapes, so I turned the car radio up louder, put on my dark glasses, and drove into the sinking sun. I’d be walking through my son’s front door just as the pink light faded, and I’d step into being a grandmother — a self I could fit into.
I was crossing the Wiscasset bridge, the river shimmering with reflected sky below, when my new cellphone startled me. I still wasn’t used to its ring.
“We hit a deer,” my son said, “but we’re all OK. Don’t know how the deer is though. It ran.”
OK, I thought. They’re all OK. Soon I’d have my twin grandbabies in my arms and a long evening of feeding and rocking them. Then I’d drink a slow glass of red wine.
But when I pulled into my son’s driveway, they weren’t home yet. My phone rang again. It was Zach, still on the roadside, calling to say he’d found the dead doe and hauled it out of a stream but didn’t know what to do. “Too bad to have her die for nothing, but I don’t know how I’d get her home.”
“I brought the truck,” I told him. My car was at the mechanic’s.
“It’s providence, Ma! Come get her.”
So I drove up the dusky road until I saw Zach and his new minivan beside a black Audi that belonged to his visiting Manhattan brother-in-law, David. They slung the doe, which was barely bigger than my dog, into the back of my husband’s pickup.
“I was hoping you were joking about taking it home,” David said. He was dressed too nicely for salvaging roadkill and didn’t know where to wipe his hands.
“God, no. That’s good meat,” Zach replied, his Maine accent thickening.
We drove to Zach’s house and dumped the doe in the backyard. This was not going to be the evening I’d imagined. “We could give it away,” my daughter-in-law, Aileen, suggested as Zach, now changed into grubby clothes, rummaged through a drawer for his little-used buck knife. My son had never hunted, let alone cut open an animal other than a biology-class frog. I, at least, had butchered a hen.
“The meat’s a delicacy,” I told Aileen, who was new to Maine. I hoped she would still look at Zach the same way after he’d gutted a deer in their yard.
Aileen and David stayed inside while I aimed the truck’s headlights at the deer and held a flashlight. Zach punched numbers on his cellphone. “Dad will love this,” he said, looking pleased to have a reason to call his father for advice. The phone was loud, and I could hear Billy answer and give instructions, his Maine-native’s voice rising into the night: “You gotta cut her up the butt to the ribs and really spread her good.”
Zach bent down and set the tip of the knife against the doe’s anus. “This is pretty weird,” he said. “Here goes.” He stuck the knife in and cut hard, just as his father had told him, opening the deer before us: first the matted belly fur; then, with another slit, the gleaming peritoneum.
Faced with the deer’s guts and blood, all those exotic reds, I came back into my own self again, the lost feeling that had haunted me suddenly gone. “You can do it,” I told my tender-hearted son. I could name the parts as he pulled them free: First the big, sleek bag of the stomach, as large as Zach’s head. Then the rich twists of intestines, coiled and packed inside the glistening omentum. Then the slick, placenta-like liver, so slippery it fell from Zach’s hands into the grass.
On the phone his father said, “The lungs will feel like they’ll never come out.” Zach pulled and tugged. At last the spongy sacs, with the remnants of the doe’s last breath still in them, tore free and rested in his hands. Then Zach knelt and put his arm in up to the elbow, reaching high between the doe’s ribs, almost to her throat, it seemed. After much yanking and grunting, he wrenched out the heart. It was meaty and dense. He peeled the thin pericardium away, and we could see the still chambers and the now-empty aorta.
The large intestine was still attached to the deer. Zach called his father again. “Cut her good around the butt,” Billy said. “Right around the ass. Clean her out good.”
“This is kind of gross,” Zach said as he bent and cut and sliced. Finally he pulled the intestine free. Pellets of scat fell on the ground. The doe lay there gutted, her ribs perfect and pale. Zach stood up with a big grin on his face, a shining man covered in blood. “I did it!”
I backed the truck up, and Zach hopped in the bed and threaded a rope through the deer pole that fortunately had come with the house. He noosed one end around the deer’s neck and hauled her up the pole to bleed the carcass out. Her little tongue hung out of her mouth, and her head looked too small for her body. Her legs, tipped with delicate black hooves, dangled around the wide red slash where her abdomen had been. “Don’t you just love Maine?” Zach said to me as he wiped off his knife.
We carried the heart and liver into the house, where the babies were already asleep. Zach washed up and changed out of his blood-soaked clothes. Aileen was drinking white wine; her brother, Scotch. They watched me slice the heart and fry it in an iron pan with butter and onions. Then they sat looking on while Zach and I ate it. Aileen had one tiny bite. David would not even taste it.
“Makes me want to go hunting,” Zach said.
“Oh,” Aileen murmured, witnessing this new side of her husband.
“You were great!” I told my son, his cheeks still flushed from the effort and the cold night air. We ate the whole heart. Then David prepared dinner for everyone, and we sat around the table and ate and drank and talked.
Three glasses of wine later, Aileen and I still lingered at the table. The twins were asleep in the room above us, the sound of their moth-wing breaths coming over the baby monitor. “I bet that’s the most bonding Zach and his dad have had in twenty years,” I said. Zach had been like a different man all through dinner — broader and brighter somehow. Aileen and I both knew that he sought his father’s approval. I knew what that was like myself.
I was usually careful and reticent when I talked about Billy, but that night, refilling my wineglass a fourth time, I wandered into a story:
In the winter of my pregnancy, when I was just seventeen and suddenly married, I stayed home evenings in our nearly snowbound two-room apartment while my restless husband went out. Late one night I woke up alone and went to the kitchen to wait for Billy to come home. Orange and blue flames flickered in the kerosene heater. A red-checkered cloth covered the table. The apartment was quiet. All I could hear were the sounds of the clock, the building creaking, and the wind. Falling snow shone in the streetlights outside. It seemed the whole town was asleep. I waited there until I heard Billy’s boots on the stairs. The door opened, and he stepped in smelling of beer and smoke, snowflakes glittering in his dark beard and hair.
“Look what I brought,” he said. “It’s the best part.” He held out a deer heart in his hand.
I’d never seen a deer heart, had never eaten deer meat. I’d never been married, never been pregnant. I’d never been poor, never slept on a mattress on the floor. I stood there in my long nightgown, in the middle of the night, with this stranger I’d fallen for, our baby flickering inside me, and this horrible, beautiful heart in my hands.
Elizabeth Tibbetts’s essay “The Best Part” [October 2010] reminded me of the time I horrified my friends by telling them that one of my family’s holiday traditions was to eat deer heart on Christmas Eve. They thought I was kidding until I provided them with the gory details.
My father and his father were both responsible hunters, never taking more than they could use and sharing the venison and hides with other hunters and their families. But the heart always belonged to the man who’d killed the deer. When that was my father, he waited until Christmas Eve to offer up to us what he considered the best part.