“Too many deer, wild pigs, raccoons and beavers can be almost as bad for the animals as too few. This is why communities across the country find themselves forced to grapple with a conundrum. The same environmental sensitivity that brought Bambi back from the brink now makes it painfully controversial to do what experts say must be done: a bunch of these critters need to be killed”—David Von Drehle, Time Magazine, December 2013
It was precisely because of Melvin’s particular nature that he did not get the Time’s December 2013 issue until the middle of February—the month of the Hunger Moon. And by then it already felt too late. The Pest Problem: It’s Time to Cull the Herd, the cover declared. As usual, Melvin sat in his chair by the front window that overlooked the park. The old man set the magazine down and felt a crushing weight fall on his stooped shoulders. He stared out at the brittle flower gardens suffocated with hundreds of Canada Geese that had long since stopped their southern migration. Melvin knew that if he didn’t do anything about what he’d read, the thin film of order and reason he’d constructed for his life would slough off, like the skin of an egg revealing the vulnerable, pearly flesh within. What Melvin saw out his window, clusters of geese so thick they nearly trampled each other like a horrible PETA video, only confirmed what he’d read. A pest problem indeed.
Melvin pulled off his glasses, placed them on the blue-mirrored coffee table— one of his favorites—and pinched the bridge of his nose twice, very sharply. He felt a nosebleed coming on, a slight tingling and fluttering near his tear ducts. Winters in Denver were always bloody. Even in the years before his present condition, Melvin’s nose would suddenly seize up and let loose a deluge that smelt of iron and stained his pressed, white-collared shirts. But today a bloody nose seemed ominous, not simply a token of the arid winter. No, today, after what he’d read, the blood was symbolic, and he was determined to stem the tide.
Melvin was the type of man who always read his magazines in the order in which they were delivered. Time Magazine arrived weekly on Tuesday’s and was the first subscription he ordered over 40 years ago, the day he began his tenure at East High school. Thus, Time began the periodical cycle. Then came the monthlies—National Geographic, Audubon and then finally, the New Yorker—a newer subscription of his, but possibly the most pleasurable. Upon arrival he placed each magazine on the floor by his armchair in the upstairs sitting room, sliding the newest edition to the bottom of the heavy stack.
Melvin was a slow reader. He’d always despised speed reading; finishing a periodical in ones gluttonous ingestion, merely to get it out of the way. He’d been suspicious of his second wife, a self-proclaimed “visual reader”—when she declared she’d finished Moby Dick in less than two days. Sometimes he wondered if this suspicion burrowed beneath all his dealings with her, until he no longer took her word for anything. No, Melvin relished every article and dog-eared the most relevant and entertaining pieces should he ever want to read them again. Additionally, he logged every favorited article in one of the many leather-bound notebooks he kept in giant stacks in the closet. Within those tomes he included the date of the issue, the title of the article and the day he finished reading it. Once Melvin logged a piece in his archives he committed it to memory. It was as if the mere act of recording what he learned solidified some sort of neurological path—ensuring that he could always find the information exactly where he left it. Throughout his life, Melvin was known for repeating information from the New Yorker or National Geographic randomly in conversation. But what was once a sign of a curious mind had now become what appeared to be a symptom of senility.
Only recently had he started a list on the computer. Melvin was new to computers, often fumbling over an error message for days. The kind people of the Genius bar offered assistance:
Why, hello there! Oh that silly error message? Not to worry, we’ll take care of that for you right away.
Did you know that the Maldese nation will be under water by 2085?
No! I did not. What an interesting fact! Where did you read that? How INTERESTING. Here, sir, not to worry, Jason’s gonna get you all worked out.
But despite his geriatric state, Melvin was no fool; he could see that computers were the way of the future, a future he stubbornly clung to despite his limited time left to spend in it—a future growing smaller and smaller with every magazine delivery. While Melvin secretly felt that computers contained within their nuts and bolts some type of technical magic that could shoot electricity through his corporeal form and allow him a Frankensteinian extended life on earth, he couldn’t quite bring himself to forgo his handwritten logs or his walk-in closet filled with notebooks. Yes, computers might be the cure for the ailments of this strange, mechanical world, but his own handwritten logs held a personal transcendent power. His closet was long instead of wide and sunk deep under the eave of the roof, so as you walked under it you could barely stand. Whenever he stooped inside the closet, surrounded by records of everything he’d ever read, Melvin felt healed. As if he did have a history and it was tangible—all he need do was run his fingers along the spines.
Melvin went to the phone book (not the computer—old habits die hard) wet his fingers and rippled through the flimsy pages until he came to the number for Home Depot.
“Uh, yes, hello,” He said into the beige-colored receiver. “I’m interested in purchasing an industrial freezer. Yes, I’ll hold. Yes, hello, I was just speaking to a young man about procuring an industrial sized freezer. Yes, for meat, yes. And how much is it? Ah, I see. And delivery charges? Well, I do not have the means of picking one up, no—Yes I do understand that the delivery of such an item would be quite costly. No, I would not like to purchase the item over the phone. I’ll pay in cash. Yes, I will be there in half an hour. Yes. Thank you.”
After setting the tan-receiver down, Melvin let out a beleaguered sigh; that phone had once been white and the transformation consistently disappointed him. Rummaging through a second closet, meant only for clothes, Melvin emerged with a black peacoat, loafers to replace his house slippers, a bowling hat, and sunglasses. Ever since his surgery, the sun bothered him excessively and he never felt right in a car without the proper protection.
In the driveway, resting under the shade of the house, was his 2008 Subaru Forester. It was nearly useless to wash ones car during Denver winters, what with the rapid snow flurries—plump, wet and jovial flakes that sat for no more than 24 hours before the sun eliminated every last trace of moisture. The constant vacillation left cars covered in light brown streaks, like someone had the runs and decided to relieve themselves on your trunk. Although it was impractical to wash it in February, the sight of his vehicle in such a state always made Melvin cringe. It was a nice car, and nice things deserved to be treated well. Nice things should be cared for so that they could last.
Melvin kicked at the stalagmite of salt, grime and hardened ice dangling from his tire. The geese were nested in his lawn as usual, shitting green and white cylinders on every square- inch of dried grass. As he pulled out of his driveway and into the busy street, a row of Canada geese strutted across the street from the park and into his lawn. Seven of them made their webbed-waddle across the asphalt; traffic stopped in either direction. Melvin always thought you could tell what kind of person a body was by the way they reacted to a goose march. Do they honk at the birds crossing the road or simply tap their steering wheel and wait? He was never one to honk. However, as he watched their grim procession, their sharp, black eyes, that claustrophobic feeling of only a half an hour before, fastened on his heart. If only he’d gotten to the article earlier. If only it’d been published before Thanksgiving, last year even, or when he was eighteen-years-old and leaving his family farm for the first time.
Melvin didn’t take off his bowling hat nor his sunglasses when he purchased his True T49-55 inch solid door freezer for 3,122 dollars (including the delivery charge); a price so astronomical it would make any man blink, especially one as frugal as Melvin. The cashier with salt and pepper hair and a surgical scar from a cleft lip didn’t see Melvin’s deer-in-the-headlights expression through Melvin’s black, quarter-inch-thick, prescription lenses. He didn’t notice Melvin’s hands shake within his leather gloves as he handed the cashier his cash—recently withdrawn from the bank and still crisp. Had Melvin been a younger man, his hulking frame the way it once was and not shriveled with age, the cashier might have been suspicious or concerned by his behavior. But not today. Once 6’2, Melvin was now closer to 5’10, with flabby biceps and a slight belly wobbling below his shirt. And so the cashier didn’t find the purchase or the man noteworthy at all.
Thank you SIR! Do you need help getting to your car? We can have Johnny walk you out!
Have you heard that Atmospheric CO2 recently surpassed 400 parts per million, the highest level in more than 800,000 years?
No, you don’t need help? Alright sir, YOU HAVE A GOOD DAY NOW!
Now all Melvin had to do was wait. Over his lifetime Melvin decided that, in general, efficiency was a trait inherited from birth. But not for him—Melvin constructed his habits. The way Melvin conducted himself; his coordinated set of solid blue serving plates, indigo rimmed drinking glasses, furniture in various shades of cerulean; his 6:30 am, french press, midday espresso, and 6:30 pm cup of english breakfast tea—those were all earned traits. Having a home with color coordinated furniture and dishes was a luxury he treasured. His determination to arrange he acquired upon his move to the big city. Farm life doesn’t allow for punctilious behaviors. There, you were constantly one step behind—running water, electricity, profit. Melvin was now fifty-five years gone from his father’s farm, east of Ogallala, Nebraska, but long before he’d ever left the fields—he’d trained himself to be patient and to wait.
While Melvin waited for the freezer to arrive, his daughter, Melanie, stopped by his house three times. First under the pretense of looking for an old family photo, something to show her husband. The one of her as a child with chocolate cake smeared on her cheeks sitting in Melvin’s lap—back when he still had hair enough for sideburns.
Dad? Melanie poked her head inside the front door. Melvin groaned inwardly. It was as if she no longer trusted him to navigate the world without her. How quickly she’d forgotten that he was the one who came before. He was the pioneer in the wilderness that was the time before her life began. He thought briefly of what Melanie would be like at his age—young Cecelia following her mother around like an anxious duck. How Melanie might think back, old and infirm, and wonder if this was how Melvin felt all those years ago. But he quickly stopped this train of thought. Before, when he looked to the future, he was always in it, but now the future barely contained the memory of him.
I brought these pamphlets for you to look at when you get a chance. I’ve looked into a lot of those centers in Mexico and they actually LOOK VERY SAFE. My friend, Julianne’s brother just came back and his tumor is completely gone… Melvin tuned his daughter out and looked back into the park.
You’re only 74. You still have time. We can get ahead of this.
Hmm.. he mumbled. His daughter had asked him a question.
Will you at least look at them?
Of course, Mel. There are more mountain lions in the United States now than there were when European Explorers first settled here—did you know that?
I’m back to the office. I’ll stop by later this week, OKAY?
At this moment she looked like her mother; a furrowed brow and intense concern masking her face. He could never tell though, with mother or daughter, if it just made them feel better, stronger, more alive to be concerned, to be worried, grieving. As if in the grand scheme of emotional worth, sadness, even manufactured, was worth more in the global trade of relationships. Even this woman before him, a product of his own salt, sweat and breath was a mystery that exhausted him. Before, just the idea of a woman was a trail he’d spend all his nights navigating. Each gesture and expression—a detour, a distraction from the right way. As he fell asleep he’d unravel their words, their pitch, pace and the syntax of their touch and wonder What are you really thinking? But now apathy had dissolved even that most treasured quest. He no longer cared what his daughter meant right now, in this moment shoving, pamphlets into his purple, papery hands, her brow creased unattractively, eyes fervent. He just wanted her to leave so he could wait for his freezer in peace.
Did you know that the extinction rate is of 100 to 1,000 species lost per million per year, mostly due to human-caused habitat destruction and climate change? And yet the United States is being overrun with Canada geese, deer, black bears and wild hogs?
Where do you come up with these things, Dad? Okay, love you, MWAW.
The day the freezer came he had the drivers meet him in the alley at 11:00 am. It was Tuesday, a day Melvin chose on purpose because all his neighbors would be at work and no one would witness his latest delivery.
Here, listen to this—‘Crain’s sign points directly to the heart of the crisis. For the fact that New Jersey is teeming with bears (and all other manner of urban and suburban wildlife) has relatively little to do with Mother Nature and far more to do with you and me. In the state of nature, a burgeoning bear population would be handled efficiently and unsentimentally by a dry-eyed tyranny of starvation and disease—’ Melvin read this to the delivery drivers as they opened the truck. Neither man acknowledged him. Both were overtly skinny—with bulging biceps that threatened to break through their fragile appendages. Like silent twins—each bearing a mop of dishwater blonde hair that hid black, jumpy eyes—they ignored him.
Look, you see, I understand that you lads don’t care about all this stuff. But it’s important to consider these things.
SIR—please open the garage door.
Oh, yes. Yes of course.
When the drivers dragged the inordinately expensive and gleaming machine into the brick garage that he’d built himself forty-years ago—Melvin felt like a fox that forgot to wade in the stream and eradicate his smell from the path of a hunter. But of course, that was ludicrous. He was too diligent to be caught. And if he was? Who would care?
He knew he should wait a few days, perhaps a week, but the claustrophobia was setting in. Melvin gripped his purple spotted neck with anxious fingers. His old skin was too thin for the pressure of his blood pumping below the surface. Despite the late hour, Melvin poured himself a french press: medium roast, with a chocolate, deep and aching smell. He liked his coffee the way he liked the women he could never keep—sharp, mysterious, with an unexpected undertone. Melvin loved the way the coffee looked in the cobalt glass mug—lucent as oil pooled in circlets on the top and he lovingly poured the milk—always whole, into the center of the dark liquid. It mesmerized him, the way the creamy tendrils of milk reached the surface and spread out—smoothing the harshness.
Melvin carried his mug to the chair by the front window that overlooked the park. Even now, in the depths of February, Melvin loved his park. With its brittle garden, snowless, Denver ground, and cottonwoods bereft of leaves, plugging along, shriveled and spindly like him. But unlike him, come spring, from their withered frames new life would unfurl. Uncertain at first until the warmth and light emboldened them. Come summer they’d be thick with life.
Melvin had never been conscious of the spring of his own life—it came and went the way most springs on a farm go—as the light of day grew longer so did the list of tasks to fill your waking hours. His childhood, the spring of his life—was a succession of heavy chores that left him anemic and frail-looking. Until the day spring left his body and was replaced by the robust glory of summer. Muscles mysteriously appeared overnight; time spent in the fields left his face tawny and smooth—long before they faded into spots and cancerous blights.
It was at times like these that Melvin thought back to that moment in late August. The day his brother was called to war and Melvin was not. The world was stagnant; not a cloud or a gust of wind on the horizon. He still remembered how they stood, face to face, in the desiccated dust before the farmhouse and said nothing, as they’d always said nothing. The brothers simply hardened their faces against the glare of the summer sun.
In that moment, before there was any justifiable reason, Melvin felt a hollow loneliness overtake him. As if a trade had just been conducted without his knowledge. Melvin traded the feeling of the sea roiling below his feet in the darkness of the night, the sound of insect wings in a fecund jungle—for a woman in a tea dress. A woman who seemed to hold all the uncertainty of war in a single glance. Facing his younger brother that day, Melvin should have been glad it was not he who would have to say goodbye. That his relationship would not fade with faltering penmanship. Instead, Melvin was contorted by a grotesque combination of jealousy and cowardice. He did not want to die or even offer himself up to the possibility of death. But the impractical part of himself yearned for far shores, for all the things his brother would see and he would not.
Over time and years, Melvin came to believe that his first wife was nothing but a hardened crust without any true depth. He soon thought that the mystery he’d found in her gaze was merely an inability to understand her true self. Was this really the case? Or did their understanding simply dissolve. Had Melvin begun to vilify her because he was incapable of acknowledging that what had once been beautiful and mysterious about their relationship still had the potential for resurrection? Had he blamed her because he was too much of a coward to understand his own autonomy? Who would ever know.
Even though his brother never returned, Melvin always wondered if it had been a good trade. A long life, barely a fathom deep, instead of a short spring spent as a man experiencing something new, something ripe. Melvin looked out at the frozen park. He coveted these winter moments jealously now. It was a time when he and the world around him shared a kinship.
A flock of geese stormed across the clear sky from one end of the park to the other, releasing their barks into the windless day. He’d always loved their calls, their v-shaped journeys across the clouds. A second flock rose from the hill before him, flying towards the half-frozen pond at the northern tip of the park. When he and his first wife moved here, a few dozen geese stayed every winter, possibly even a hundred. But now, there must have been thousands, leaving their green, white-wash shit over every inch of the park. He didn’t mind it that their muck stuck to his loafers on his evening walks, nor their sounds as they circled in droves above his house. He didn’t even mind that, now with the tenements of the park filled to bursting, the geese taken to roosting in his front yard, hissing at his knees on his way to his car.
In fact, they’d never truly crossed his mind before. He only thought of them on Thanksgiving, when he marveled at the hungry men lining the street outside the church downtown, the great expensive turkeys and the growing population of semi-wild, semi-domesticated park geese; the solution seemed obvious.
Melvin’s coffee lasted him until dusk. An excitement he’d rarely experienced in his long life boiled in his belly and he couldn’t stop his fingers from tapping on the side of the blue mug. When he was finished, old man pulled on his rain-boots, winter hat, scarf, stuck his drop point knife in a satchel along with week-old bread and his lock picks. The gibbous moon was on its way upwards, illuminating the skies of cirrus clouds. Bad weather was coming.
Melvin thought about this moment for several long weeks and was able to plan it down to the last detail. They were sleeping now. He had the element of surprise. Although, it was rumored they slept with one eye open. Air glided over his dry cheeks and his hands instinctively closed around the moldy bread bag.
Melvin reached the old boat house. The new paint job made the century-old building appear cheap. He clucked his tongue at the tacky colors—a beige pink and cream. Below the boathouse, kayaks from the 70s were still stored. The double doors to the storage facility were fastened with a deadbolt. He’d not used his lock-picking skills since his teenage years and even then it’d just been for breaking into his younger sisters’ chests and his parents’ safe. In the farmhouse, with six children, secrets were precious, treasured. The only thing that made Melvin feel powerful in all the noise, the commotion and the exposure of living in a hard family on hard land, was possessing everyone else’s secrets too. Keeping them to himself was enough. Those secrets made him feel like his silence was potent, teeming with all the things he had the power to reveal but left unsaid.
Tonight, Melvin’s old hands faltered with the cold, iron picks but the lock yielded itself to him as they always did. It was a short distance from the kayaks stored in the cobwebby basement of the boathouse to the small lake—they called it a lake although it was more like an overgrown pond. Melvin was not yet a weak man despite his stooped figure and hanging skin, so he was able to drag the boat out with only a few grunts and heaves. He shut the doors to the boathouse behind him and tugged the boat into the water. This kayak was a remnant of the old days when the water of Smith Lake was still polluted and oily, children could rent a boat for a dollar and swing dances were held in the boathouse. Nostalgia flooded him in waves—a mental image of Melanie going out onto the water for the first time—still knobby-kneed with pigtails.
Melvin held the boat steady with one arm and slid into the kayak. The boat tipped dangerously under his weight and he had to brace his knees on either side of the kayak. The oar was wooden, splintered and cracked with age, but it would do fine for tonight.
The old man parted through the icy waters, feeling like the captain of his own Titanic—but the sinking ship he was on was not this boat, but the very world in which he lived—one where doom was inevitable and he was only staving off annihilation for a little while longer. As if in this venture across the pond, he held not only the death of the world at bay, but his own. That night, Melvin felt the weight of each journey he’d never taken on the ledger of his flesh. He hoped, wildly, to redeem himself then and there under the light of the moon. He’d lived a quiet, bland existence. Women left him and his routines, his structure. But perhaps, with its absurdity, this trip was adding years to his life—making up for all things left undone.
When he arrived to where a group of geese huddled together in the water, Melvin studied the park around him. All was silent—good. With deft and calculated speed that Melvin didn’t know his frame still possessed, his slender, gnarled fingers grazed a feathered neck and lifted the bird into the boat. Melvin felt a thrill of simultaneous terror and joy as he clutched the goose. The animal couldn’t squawk through his tight grip as he held the flapping wild creatures head against the kayak.
Before he could stop to think, before he could change course, Melvin raised his right arm up and brought the rock down on the bird’s head—to knock it out. Melvin then dragged his drop-point knife across the animal’s neck, severing the cervical. Blood sprayed everywhere. But the animal was dead and there had been little pain and nearly no noise. He was reminded of killing chickens on the farm, grabbing them below their heads and swinging them above his head until their necks snapped.
Like smashing a spider below his shoe, Melvin marveled at how simple it was to end a life. He stared at the dead bird, aghast at the notion that while his life was relatively unchanged, whatever had been the mind and will of this creature was no more. There should be a rift in the seam of the universe, a sense of passing, Melvin thought, at least some sense of omnipotent remorse. But the night, the lake and even Melvin himself, were bereft of feeling.
The other geese remained unperturbed, rustling in the waters. He reached out and grabbed another goose. Melvin hoped that this one, sleeping so close to his first kill, was the bird’s mate. He knew that geese mated like humans—if not for life, for comfort, and often for years. He didn’t want the animal to wake up, its partner gone in the night without a sign. This bird struggled more than the first, but again, Melvin’s grip was so effective, no noise escaped its beak.
Melvin murdered seven geese that night. He butchered them in the garage and stored them in his new freezer.
By early April, Melvin murdered over 100 geese in cold blood. He served feast after feast to his neighbors, his daughter, even his old teaching friends from East High. Not a soul noticed. No one wondered where he purchased such delicious, greasy fowl. How could he afford such a unique delicacy—and not simply for special occasions? He began to understand why serial killers grew sloppy. Melvin even went so far as to leave smatterings of blood on the cement and carelessly keep the deadbolt of the boathouse unlocked. And yet, week after week, the Washington Park Gazette was devoid of any information about missing geese—strange bloody markings in the park or of dark figures roaming the lake in the dark.
Melanie continued to stop by his house—she came nearly every day now. New pamphlets with each visit. She’d even begun dragging Cecelia with her.
You know, this is the house I grew up in Cece. Isn’t this FUN, Dad? Have you even looked at those centers yet? We still have time, but you heard Doctor Kanakia, we have to act soon.
One night, as April grew to May, the smell of lilacs drifted into Melvin’s room. He crawled from his bed and wandered into the garage. He stared at the gargantuan freezer, looming dark and ominous like some beast stalking its prey—shimmering, metallic eyes in the dark.
I can’t escape you, he said aloud. We can’t escape you. Suddenly he felt the earth’s tides rise within him, swallowing his shores, his islands, his cities, his continents—until he was flatly consumed by a devouring, brackish mouth. Even if he murdered all the surplus geese, the excess bears and deer that environmentalists were intent on saving, it would make no difference to his own life. He belonged to a culture obsessed with calculated rescue — that believed letting nature have its control was absurd and uncalled for. They needed to decide what lived and what died, what mountains and valleys eroded, which landscapes were destroyed and which were gifted to the future.
Long before humans, animals fell to extinction. Wolves became whales and the undulation of species and death, the great see-saw, was managed without remorse. No sorrow over endings—over periods—when really it was an ellipsis that ran the world. The fight, the craven fight to belong past the point of natural belonging—that fight belonged to his people and his alone. Melvin looked out at the dark freezer and he felt so sorry for himself, for his pitiful human brain incapable of understanding and contemplating his own end. How can you live your whole life with the knowledge that despite all else, one thing, one final, guttural event will eclipse your life? His existence was a maze that he could solve if he simply began at the end. How could Melvin have known and yet not known? How could he be here, at this moment, and still be unprepared?
His daughter was devoted to his preservation because to fight for his life was to fight for her own. But she was unaware that what had once been beautiful and graceful about his time on earth had metastasized with every borrowed breath. They’d both failed to understand that his very presence, his existence past his expiration date, was contributing to all of this.
Melvin headed back into the house. He sat in his cobalt chair by the window and placed his father’s revolver in his lap. A relic from a life long gone. He thought to himself, yes, this is cliche, but so is every ending.
Melvin looked out at his park, closed tenderly in the grips of winter, and he imagined its slow spring release. He sighed and a gaggle of geese erupted into flight, barking up into the winter air.
Sammie Downing. The poet Ed Roberson once told her “You only have one life and you only have one work.” Advice she has taken to heart–she’s filed taxes in 7 U.S. States and now finds herself working on a cattle and deer station in the depths of New Zealand. Find her at www.herearelions.org