Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Chapter 3 / Road Kill

We lived on a road where the women drove faster than the men. 

The women drove what people around here refer to as “vehicles.” These women zipped down the hill above our house and around our curve in their Chevy Blazers or their Ford Expeditions, as they ferried their kids to school or set out on errands. 

The men drove pickup trucks with elderly brake linings and stiffer steering. The speed limits were set for the pickup trucks. We learned this our first year here, when Ed got his second speeding ticket in six months and I had to take charge of drives into town for a while. Obey the limits in a vehicle, or even in a Honda hatchback like mine, and they seemed out of date, a throwback to 30 years ago, when the county was truly rural, dotted with family farms. Or even 10 years ago, when our neighbor Thompson still rode his tractor to the post office to fetch his mail. 

Borrow a friend’s truck to pick up a load of topsoil and you fit right into the pace. 

So we suspected our neighbor Sally and her red Jeep as responsible for the death of the peaceful stray cat that our neighbor Nancy had been feeding for a month. Ed imagined the old guy wandering around, or distracted by a field mouse, not having learned to be fast enough to stay out from under Sally’s wheels. Nancy buried the cat more or less where it fell by the side of the road, in a final act of charity mixed with her Scots practicality.

For Bob’s calico cat, I blame Grace in her black Chevy Blazer. 

I was driving home one Saturday morning from my twice-a-month trip to Shop Rite when I saw the cat lying in the other lane of our road, its calico coat still fluffy, dead but not yet squished. It lay across the road from Thompson’s house, and I thought it must be his. I pulled over just past his door and knocked. Thompson’s given name was Peter, but Ed and I always referred to him as Thompson or in public, Mr. Thompson. He went to school in our house, back in the day when the building was the one-room schoolhouse for this area, when his family’s farm would have been one of the three properties on this three-mile stretch of road. 

“Water was always silty,” he said about our well, trying to reassure us, but Ed, trusting no one, had a new well dug.  

Thompson had an ancient, agreeable black dog and a turquoise barn out in back of his house, so I figured he would have some cats. But he said, “Nope, must be Bob’s.” So I ran down the road a few hundred feet and up Bob’s 45-degree driveway, praying that other drivers would steer around the cat and not mangle it, and hoping Bob was home. 

Like Thompson, Bob greeted me with bewildered suspicion—this was the bachelor farmer end of our road. 

“Do you have a calico cat?” I said. “I’m afraid it’s been hit—”

Bob was out the door, past me like a shot, his tanned, moon face creased with fear. “Thank you—” he called over his shoulder.

I followed slowly, not wanting to see this. I knew Bob only slightly, to wave to as he passed in his pickup truck. We met up with him sometimes at the post office or the dump or when a local issue brought us all to a town board meeting.

When I got to the road, Thompson had scooped up the kitty in a shovel and deposited it on the shoulder of the road. He leaned on his shovel as Bob kneeled over the cat, his back to me. I left, feeling I had done my part and not wanting to see the dead cat. Driving away, it occurred to me that Bob probably thought I had hit it. 

“That was nice of you, Annie,” said Ed as we put away the groceries. 

“If my dog were lying in the road, I’d sure want someone to tell me,” I said, momentarily irritated with Ed because he would have felt the same, even more, and why couldn’t he put himself in Bob’s shoes, etc.

Years later—the field of coneflowers that Ed had planted around our new wellhead was waning but still beautiful, and even Ed was mildly optimistic about this new presidential candidate, Bill Clinton—September then, three years later, a state trooper came to the door to tell me where I might find Ed’s body, and I thanked him. 

I had been puttering around the house, feeding the dogs, not trusting my voice to talk to them. Afraid to use the phone, I still called Kathleen, who always knew what to do. I’m on my way, she said, so I sat and worried, trapped in a paroxysm of indecision about whether I should wait for bad news or go out and look for it. The officer arrived first, and I thanked him the same way Bob had thanked me—as an afterthought, appreciating an effort made and remembering not to kill the messenger.

What I saw in my mind’s eye as I put on shoes, found a jacket, was Bob’s calico cat, still clean and combed in the northbound lane of our road. And that reminded me of the red fox that Ed and I had seen just down the hill from Bob’s house one Sunday morning—one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever encountered. It lay stretched on its side in the early sun on a county road, its pelt perfect, full and rich and glowing auburn as if it had just been curried.

“Oh no,” said Ed. For as he slowed the car, a smaller fox came out of the brush and sniffed the dead one, nudging it a little. 

In the back of my mind, as Kathleen drove me through the darkening countryside toward the hospital, lay years of road kill—the dog with its head severed from its body, the half-dead deer struggling to rise—but they were still in my subconscious, waiting till I slept. After 15 years with Ed, what I thought of when he died was the calico cat and the red fox.

Copyright (c) Debby Mayer


  1. painful. good. more pls.—L

  2. You certainly do know how to drop a bomb! And yet it makes sense. Not that Ed is dead. That will have to come later. But in the context of raod kill -- or perhaps more accurately, sudden death.

    I would say you truly have a way with words and a story.