In a spectacular show of bravery my coworker, Vam Meej, allowed me to stay at his apartment with him and his wife and their newborn daughter while I saved up a little cash and searched for my own place. I had told him a month tops, but secretly hoped to squeeze out another because his apartment smelled like an Asian restaurant (I loved their Hmong sweet pork dish) and I was in fact part-Asian myself. 

The one incentive I had for tracking down an apartment any sooner was so my son and daughter could finally see me in a home of my own. They lived three hours away with their mom and stepdad. I didn’t see them much, but I was trying to change that, and I hoped that together the three of us could fill my own place with the smells of our own freshly cooked chicken adobo, which was, the last time I checked, still my kids’ favorite dish.

Like my children, Vam saw only the best in people. His earnestness was downright inspiring. He was my friend (our mutual nonwhiteness contrasted with a very white town) and we were close in age (well, in all honesty he was probably ten years younger), and I felt that he possessed a strong sense of loyalty. I suppose I hoped that some of his loyalty and earnestness would wear off on me. Until recently, I hadn’t held down a job for more than a few months, but now that I was forty, I vowed to change my ways. 

 Vam and I worked together on the maintenance team at the state university in Winona, Minnesota, where we did everything from landscaping to plumbing to the occasional HVAC. Vam was an ace, knew a little about everything, and I learned a lot from him. He had the patience of a youth pastor. 

We were getting along quite well, but on the last day of the first week at his place, I was asleep on the thread-worn couch in the middle of the night when I woke to his voice.

“Wake up, Vincent. Wake up!”

“Jesus, what? Work already?”

“Fire drill practice,” he said and laughed the way he did when trying to be serious.

I swung my feet to the floor and rubbed my eyes. “Wait—what exactly is going on?”

  Mai stood in the dark next to the wall, a shadow of herself, looking small and impatient, holding their daughter, Bao. Bao cried only occasionally, and if I didn’t see Mai holding the baby, I would sometimes forget she existed in the same space. Both my kids were in high school at this point and they sent me text updates once a week. Sometimes they sent me a video chat. I liked those the best.

“Hurry!” Vam said. 

I kept the blanket over myself and reached for my shorts, wanting to slip them on underneath it. Since I slept in my underwear, I didn’t want to make Mai uncomfortable.

“No time for that.” Vam snatched the shorts away and chuckled, but his tone had shifted. “They make no announcement—fires. You won’t have time to put them on.”

“True,” I said. “You make any coffee?”

He hurried to the bedroom and returned clutching a mounted deer head. When I’d first visited, I stood just inside their bedroom door and gawked at the massive animal head perched above their headboard. If either of them woke up in the middle of the night, it was the silhouette of the deer they’d see with its enormous tentacled rack. I had been curious about the décor choice but decided not to ask after they’d invited me to stay. I figured it might’ve played into one of their kinky fantasies, and I suppose I settled on that conclusion, which is why I opted not to comment. Vam wasn’t one for disclosing personal information about his romantic life, which was fine by me. If a person wanted a huge fucking deer head with its fathomless glass eyes hovering over their lovemaking, well, who was I to say otherwise? 

Now that he was holding it, or trying to hold it, in the gray light, it looked even bigger than I remembered. Vam wobbled as he tried to fit it through the door. 

“Help,” he said. 

I grabbed two tines, each as thick as a beer bottle. It wasn’t heavy so much as awkward. But now I was exposed in the half-light, in my tighty-whities. Mai took one glance and turned away. She put her nose gently against Bao’s head.

“What the hell are you doing with this thing now?” I said.

“We need to get it to the parking lot, down the fire escape.”

“Tall order,” I said. “It’s a behemoth.”

“All part of the fire drill.”

“So, once we get it down, we have to lug this fucker back up?”

We both looked around because Vam didn’t like people cursing in front of his wife and child, but Mai had already left the room. I pictured her carrying Bao down the communal fire escape at the end of the hallway.

“Hurry,” Vam said. “We only have three minutes to get out safely, according to the website, otherwise we lose the deer.”

“What website? Don’t they encourage taking things that matter, lighter things, like photos, cash. Maybe your wife and kid?”

“Never mind, it doesn’t matter.” Vam chuckled but stopped short, so it sounded more like a stomach rumble. 

We shuffled our feet, trying to figure out who was going to go first.

“Hurry!” Vam whispered.

“Okay, I’ll go backward,” I said and stepped over the coffee table, but as I did, my foot caught the glossy cover of one of Vam’s hunting magazines and tore it. 

“Damn, sorry about your—”

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “The deer is most important.”

“So is all the meat we’ve been eating the past week venison? I don’t mind. I’m just curious.”

Vam ignored me and pushed forward. If he had weighed more, his thrusting might’ve knocked me over, but he was smaller than me, so I was able to hold him back while I maintained a steady footing. 

As we maneuvered through the door and down the hallway, we both started to breathe heavier. His stale morning breath reminded me of the smell of my children’s diapers. 

Vam stopped. “What’s wrong?” 

“Nothing, just your breath.”

“Ha-ha,” he said to indicate he wasn’t amused.

I pushed the fire escape door open and saw Mai three stories below in the alley. She held Bao wrapped in a light-colored blanket. The air was still and thick. Even the street light, which cast a fuzzy peach hue over everything, and which normally produced a slow steady buzz, was unusually quiet. It was the middle of summer. Maybe the best one I’d had up to this point. I glanced around, admiring the strangeness of being outside at three in the morning, stone sober. Then an unpleasant sound coming from Vam himself broke my reverie. A beeping. 

“We are dead.” He reversed and nearly pulled the deer from my hands. Below, Bao started crying.

“Hold on. I’m losing my grip. What do you mean—dead? We’re not dead. We’re alive! We made it!”

“The timer is three minutes, it went off, and now we are dead. In flames. Up in smoke. Poof.” He almost laughed, but seemed too tired to bother. 

“Well at least they’re alive.” I glanced down at Mai who was trying that patented bobbing motion that parents use on squawking kids. I honestly don’t remember much from when my kids were that age, I was too hopped up on pills and booze, but that bobbing thing stirred something deep. Bao wasn’t wailing, but I could tell by the way Mai kept looking up at us and then around the empty lot, as if some angry ogre were going to emerge from behind the darkened bushes, that she was agitated. She shushed Bao, who didn’t know what the hell that meant anyway, and I thought of all the stupid shit parents do to fuck up their kids. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Mine seemed to be doing okay, and better yet, I was finally back in their lives and trying to piece together a relationship that I’d fumbled for too many years. This time, if I could just get myself together, I wouldn’t take it for granted.

Vam glanced at the deer. We stood on the threshold of the fire escape, holding its weight. “This is the most valuable thing I own,” he said. “The most important to me, too.”

“You sure about that, big shooter? Might be time to reevaluate your priorities.” 

“Let’s try again. Practice one more time.”

We got back to the living room and I sat down and rested the antlers next to me on the couch. Vam pivoted so that his part of the deer—the actual head—touched my leg. Its eye, only inches away, fixed on me. It was a challenge to be seen so clearly by anyone or anything, including this deer, which was by far the biggest I’d ever seen. 

“They offered me twenty thousand for it,” Vam said. 

“Wait, who? For this?” I pointed at the deer.

“Bass Pro. For their outdoor displays. It’s—it’s a world record.” Vam let his shoulders relax. He took a deep breath. “They said it could get stolen—that’s how much people might want it. They’ll steal it from me.”

“Dude, take the money.”

“I can’t. I tried, but I can’t. I can’t let it go.”

Mai entered the room. Bao had quieted down. “What now, Vam?” she said. “Are you happy you got your stupid deer out on time?”

“But we didn’t.”

“Close enough,” she said.

“Close doesn’t count in a fire.”

“I hate that thing,” Mai said. Bao whimpered. “And you woke the baby.”

“I was trying to be quiet,” Vam said. “And we hardly spoke out loud, didn’t we, Vincent?”

I held up my hands, palms facing them. “I’m staying out of this.”

“Own up to your mistakes, Vam,” Mai said. “You woke the baby.”

“Let’s all go back to bed,” Vam said. “We’ll try another time.”

“I’m going with Bao to our room,” Mai said.

“I will join you,” Vam said.

“No,” she said. “I hate you right now. I hate that thing.”

“Tough to hate something worth so much money,” I said, trying to diffuse the situation, but the momentum in the room shifted completely, and Vam’s face reoriented. 

“What money?” Mai said. “What money are we talking about?”

“What do you mean, ‘what money’?” I said. “Vam, she doesn’t know—”

Vam, who was still standing next to the couch, looked at me and shook his head slowly.

“What money, Vam?” Mai said. “Is this a joke?” Bao whimpered, and Mai instinctively started bobbing the baby again.

“It’s worth a little,” Vam said. “Not much.”

“Not much, huh? How much is not much?”

“Not much is not much at all. Let’s go to bed and talk in the morning. Bao is tired.”

“Bao is fine.”

“I should probably use the bathroom,” I said. But I stayed put, as they both ignored me.

Mai stood there, bobbing the baby, the look on her face one of doubt mixed with the sleepy confusion of waking up at three in the morning, something I knew well, having suffered from insomnia since I was a teenager, plus having lived most of my life with late night drinkers and partiers, so I knew the look, and maybe I’d add one other quality to the arrangement of Mai’s facial expressions: a touch of rage. You might call me an expert in deciphering this look as well.

“What is this worth, Vam?” Mai stabbed a finger into the deer’s hide.

“Twenty thousand,” I said, rubbing my bare feet over the thin carpet. “It’s worth twenty thousand. Time to fess up, Vam. Time to tell the truth. It’s the only way to live. I’m just trying to help you out here.”

“That thing—twenty thousand? Liar,” she said. “Don’t lie for him. Don’t try to downplay this, Vincent. This is serious.”

“You don’t believe me? Fine.” I leaned back into the couch. 

Vam crossed his arms, shifted his weight slightly, and then uncrossed his arms. The room felt stuffy. These were the longest, hottest days of the year, and I thought I saw the first hint of sunlight absorbing the dark—the room moving from subdued gray to violet.

“Two thousand,” he said. “It’s worth two thousand.”

“Vam! That’s almost four months of rent! Two thousand! You have to sell it. You have to sell it now!”

“I’ll buy it for two thousand,” I said. “Sounds like a solid investment.”

“Be quiet,” Vam said to me, but he didn’t laugh. “We’ll see, we’ll see,” he said to Mai. 

“No discussion,” she said. “You sell it.” She fled to their room and shut the door. From behind the door, she repeated: “No discussion, Vam. You sell it tomorrow.”

Vam whispered, “You screwed me.” 

“No I didn’t. You’re not my type.”

“Not funny!” He started pacing.

“Well shit man, why don’t you sell the damn thing? You’d have a down payment on a house easily. Houses around here aren’t near what they are in St. Paul. You gotta sell it.”

“Quiet down.” He pointed at the bedroom door. “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

“Does their offer stand?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Gotta sell it before the record gets beat. Then it won’t be worth jack.”

“I know, I know.”

“Are you serious though? $20K?”

“I just couldn’t get myself to sell it. You don’t know what it took to take that thing down.” Vam paced the room, taking small steps with no logical sequence. 

“I’m not much into hunting, but I’d love it if there were a few less deer around here. Man, they’re like rats. They’re everywhere!” 

“I cried afterward,” Vam said, still pacing. “It was sad, taking its life. I was so sad. I thought I wanted to be a hunter. I wanted to be like the guys at work.”

“Fuck those doughy marshmallow boys. You don’t want to be like them!”

 Vam chuckled. “They’re always talking about hunting, but I had no idea what I was doing, what I was getting myself into. That’s why I read these.” He picked up the magazine with the torn cover then tossed it back down. I looked at it closer and realized the deer on the front of the magazine was Vam’s. The tear severed its antlers from its skull. The headline read: “New World Record.” I’d largely ignored Vam’s hunting magazines until now. 

“Would you look at this. You’re famous.”

 “It was the first one I ever killed. I had been practicing with the bow, getting a good shot down, and then one day I went out, and I wasn’t even doing it right. I wasn’t in a deer stand like everyone else does it. Like the magazines say how to do it. I was just walking around the bluffs and woods over by the river. I had decided I didn’t even want to shoot anything. I just liked being out there, in nature, by myself. The fresh air. And then there it was. It had run up on me, startled me, and it just stared. I got my bow ready and I sort of blacked out. I don’t know why, I just brought my bow up. It was almost like I had to shoot it now because it was right there, a few yards from me. I honestly don’t remember much after that except I let the arrow go and the deer jumped like ten feet, and that’s all I remember. When I came to, I was standing over this huge thing, and I had to drag it out of the woods by myself. It took me all day because I was so far from the car, and then I had to stuff it in the backseat of my little Corolla. Bleeding all over. I had a tarp though. It seemed so undignified and such a sad outcome for this massive deer to have its final farewell in the back of a Corolla.” 

Vam started to laugh, but stopped himself short.

“And now I have this weird attachment to it. I can’t explain it. I just can’t see myself without it. The newspaper, magazines, wrote articles about it, and I was famous for a day, maybe a week, for something I deeply regretted, and now I can’t seem to part ways with it. I can’t get myself to benefit from it, even that much money, and yet I can’t seem to give it away either knowing what it’s worth.”

Vam hefted the deer onto the chair and flopped on the couch. 

“I’ll take it,” I said.

“Not funny.” But he managed a small chuckle. A minute later, he said: “Mai didn’t believe you.”

“I don’t blame her for that, but you’ll have to tell her the truth tomorrow.”

“Just goes to show, truth or not, doesn’t matter unless people believe you.”

And pretty soon, I’m not sure how it happened, Vam lay his head on the arm rest, as did I, so that we were lying parallel to each other, but with our feet near each other’s necks. I thought about moving to the floor, but at some point in the thought process I must’ve fallen asleep, as did Vam. 

In the morning, which was really just an hour or two later, I woke up nearly eye-to-eye with the deer. I could sense now that this deer mount, as grand as it was, wasn’t long for the Meej household, and part of me felt sorry for Vam. He was in the kitchen, making coffee. I could hear Mai moving around the kitchen as well. She said hello to me when I walked in, and I said the same, and then, taking her lead, we carried on like nothing was the matter. Mai ate rice with coconut milk and raisins, and Vam poured coffee for all of us, and we never spoke of the fire drill, just sipped our coffee and peered out the window to the sun—pinkish-orange, hazy—which was up past the bluffs in the east. 

At one point, after a brief silence, I said, “I used to feed my kids rice at breakfast too.”

No one said anything, just a brief, quiet acknowledgement, and then they kept on eating. I eventually joined them, and Mai eventually went to pick up Bao, who made tiny baby noises from her crib. When they came back in the kitchen, Vam said, “Good morning,” to Bao and he smiled and laughed a little, and the baby made a smiley face at her father. 

 

Vam eventually sold the deer to Bass Pro, but the store that it’s now featured in is several hours from Winona, which was what Vam wanted, so he could forget about it. He used the money to put a down payment on a fixer-upper house within walking distance of work. I took over their apartment, and Vam was kind enough to let his deposit roll over as my own. On the first night by myself, I figured out how to send a video to my kids. I strolled around the apartment showing them all the rooms and narrating the entire time. The video was brief, but then again it’s a cozy space. I was mostly grateful to show them something that was mine—a place of my own. When I pushed send, uploading the video to our group chat, right away I got a thumbs up from both, even before they would’ve had time to view it. I was disappointed for about half a second before I realized that they reserved more right to any disappointment, generally speaking, than I did. Still, those damn kids. Probably never did watch the video. It was a pretty good video too. I even made a few jokes about where Vam’s deer was in the bedroom. Not those kinds of jokes. The good ones. Of the “dad joke” variety. 

But before that, I stayed on at Vam’s and Mai’s place for a few more weeks, and the whole time I was there, I never heard a peep about the deer. Vam never remounted the thing to the bedroom wall, and so it sat in the living room, and after a day or two we all seemed to forget it was there. It simply blended into the mismatched furniture. I slept only a few feet from it and must’ve walked by it hundreds of times over the course of those weeks. I must’ve woken up with its eyes on me. And yet I have no specific recollection of it actually being there after the fire drill night. It had faded into the background of our lives. Just one more thing that occupied space. And then one day, poof, just like that, Vam sold it, and it was gone. 

 

Cover art: “Orange Delight” by Timothy Phillips

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Keith Lesmeister

Keith Lesmeister is the author of the story collection We Could’ve Been Happy Here (MG Press, 2017). His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, New Stories from the Midwest 2018 (New American Press, 2019), North American Review, Redivider, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. He received his MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. He is codirector of the Luther College Writers Festival, a founding editor of Cutleaf (new online literary journal), and teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College.

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