When I moved to Whitler many years ago, its population according to the most recent census at the time was 734. The census had not, of course, accounted for cattle. I say this in jest—kind of—for back then, the bovine outnumbered the bipeds four to one. Come to think of it, one of the first things you used to see when taking the Whitler exit off of Interstate 85 was rolling pastures upon pastures of cows seemingly euphoric in their grazing. Beyond those pastures had lain fields of soybeans and tobacco, and beyond them, the railroad tracks, over which one would drive to enter the hamlet of Whitler, which had not been—and would never be—annexed by the county. Not if the residents had anything to do with it.
In my early Whitler days, there was no such thing as idle time. When I wasn’t at work (I was a staff-level CPA back then), I devoted myself to revitalizing what I jokingly referred to as “my little country estate.” I’d bought a 114-year-old colonial revival bungalow. It was in fine condition considering its age, but it was in desperate need of some upgrades—namely in its kitchen and bathrooms. The house stood squarely in the middle of a 3.2-acre plot, over half of which was a jungle of weeds, wild privet, pokeberry shrubs, and stilt grass that—if not tamed—threatened to usurp what useable yard I had left. I hacked away at the savage green most days well after sunset with a machete and a pair of loppers until, finally, one day I had reclaimed what could be perceived as a lawn again.
My friends from the city called regularly, but, due to my obsessive toiling, they were forced to leave messages on the machine. “We’ve forgotten what you look like,” they’d say. “We’re eager to ‘make the drive’ (it was only 45 minutes) to see what you’ve done.” Finally, after about four months into my habitation, I returned their calls, feeling at last that my home was worthy of receiving its first guests. I told them dinner would be served the first Saturday in October.
In retrospect, my delay in having company worked for the best. Anyone who knows anything about the dead of summer in the South also knows the season is no time for comfortable gatherings. But in early autumn, the air thins such that permits cool breezes to move about freely in a way that the humidity of July and August forbids. I hated that most of the flowers I’d planted would be dormant, but the Montauk daisies would still be blooming, and that was something.
The first Saturday in October arrived, and so did my guests, pulling in to the drive one by one in a convoy of Hybrid SUVs: Clyde and his husband Mark; my ex, Dave, whom I’d met on my intramural lacrosse team in college and whom had the unique distinction of playing crummier even than I did; Harry, also a college chum who’d become an attorney and—by extension of being our friend—had now become our attorney; and Astrid, beaming and beautiful. She refused to be called a fag hag. ‘I’m a fruit fly,’ she’d say.
Most of them stepped from their cars looking every which way, quite anxiously. Clyde even looked up, as if fearing some alien bird of prey might swoop down and take him back to its nest on high. It was a histrionic display from them all—but especially from Mark and Clyde who, like me, grew up in a rural setting not much unlike Whitler. I learned they’d all followed each other from the city, fearing they’d get lost “outside the beltline,” a presumably dangerous place where their powers of urban savvy were somehow suspended. When asked why they hadn’t carpooled, Astrid explained that each of them wanted the freedom to leave as they pleased or, in her words, they didn’t want “to get stuck in the country.”
They surveyed the outside of the property in silence, but their contemptuous expressions were immutable, designed, I surmised, to shame me for what most of them felt was my inconsiderate exodus from all culture, from all reason, and—most importantly—from them. It was an unspoken agreement between them. They stood firm in their predestination: they would not enjoy the evening. This sadomasochistic sort of compliment—that they missed me enough to dash my hopes of showing them a good time—inwardly charmed me.
I ushered them inside, straight to the parlor.
“No tour?” Astrid asked.
“After dinner,” I said. “Dave, will you???” I nodded toward the liquor cabinet, and he went straight to work taking drink orders. While he dispensed their aperitifs, I hung my guests’ jackets in the coat closet and fetched a tray of charcuterie from the kitchen. I was impressed to find upon my return that they were already on their second drinks (their first being only primers, Harry laughed), but they were presently much more agreeable than when they’d arrived, so I encouraged them to have yet a third.
They revealed that in my absence they’d been exchanging stories of all the strange things they’d seen on their sojourn to the boondocks.
“To the sticks,” I corrected with a wink. “The word ‘boondocks’ comes from the Tagalog, meaning ‘mountains.’ I compel you to find any mountains around here.”
“We stand corrected,” Dave smiled. He was feeding Mark olives straight from the jar.
“Pray tell: what strange things did you see?”
They spoke of hot dog stands, fruit stands, cows and corn “as far as the eye could see,” laundry on a line, and “an old drunk man, beer in hand, driving down the bicycle path on his lawn mower.”
“Oh. That’s Eddie Blaylock,” I said. “His wife was murdered about three years ago, and he’s been drunk ever since.”
“They say every small town has a town drunk. And every small town has a hermit.”
“Eddie is both,” I told Astrid. “Eddie is very much part of local lore. Believe me, everyone in town made it a point to tell me all about him – to warn me about him – when I first arrived.”
“Warn you?” Now, there was collective curiosity.
“Yes. I mean, he’s harmless, but everyone says he’s gone a bit mad. He found his wife at home, her throat completely slit, and it drove him mad. Now, they say he’s convinced that his wife has been reborn. Reincarnated. In the form of a deer.”
“Yes. You know. Like Bambi. He can apparently be seen in the woods late each night, talking to a deer. Courting it almost.”
“I don’t like the word weird,” I said. “Weird merely describes things we care not to try and understand. Anyway, news of Eddie is the only news worth spreading – other than there being a real-life faggot living in town now,” I joked, one hand outstretched, limp-wristed and the other, against my forehead.
“I have to admit. I was worried for your safety when you first moved here,” Astrid said, “but everyone seems relatively harmless.”
“Yes! It’s all so very quaint,” Harry said, emphasizing the word quaint with an heir of condescension. I agreed without acknowledging his tone.
“Yes, all my neighbors have been great. They’re all wonderful people.” I passed Mark the charcuterie, he removed a gherkin and a slice of capocollo, and then passed the tray in kind to Clyde.
“Oh, I bet they are wonderful—as long as you skip talk on politics and religion,” he ventured.
“If you’re insinuating that my neighbors and I don’t share 100% of the same political and religious views, you’d be right. But I could say the same for all of us. We don’t all vote identically, do we? Like drones from some liberal hive?”
“Of course, we do…and of course we are,” Astrid laughed.
“Actually, I know for a fact I don’t vote with the likes of you people,” Harry countered. “You see, I prefer making money to taking up sentimental causes.”
“We all do. You’re just the only one who’s not ashamed to say so.” Most everyone laughed at what I said, but Mark wasn’t amused. He downed his drink and passed his glass to Dave.
“Don’t you mean altruistic causes?” he asked Harry.
“There is no such thing as altruism,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Only that for an act to be truly altruistic, it needs to be selfless.”
“Well, there are convincing studies that strongly suggest doing good for others makes the altruist feel good.” I handed Dave my empty glass, and he sprung to life mixing another. “I mean, there’s notable change in brain chemistry. Endorphins kick in and so on.”
“Precisely. Making the act not-so-selfless and, therefore, not-so-altruistic.” Harry lifted his glass to me, and I lifted my newly refreshed glass to Harry.
“You people bore me,” Astrid said. Her back was to us (she was thumbing through my collection of albums), but I knew without seeing her expression, she was really just annoyed with me. And, sure enough: “With all your Tagalog and your scientific studies.”
She tilted a record into the light for a better look. A blinding reflection shot toward Mark who blocked the light from his eyes with one hand and scavenged the remains of the charcuterie with the other. “Yeah. Let’s talk about the ‘country folk’ again.”
I was already sitting by the window so I opened the shears and pointed. “Across the street, you have the Murphy family. You can’t really see their house from the road. They have a massive property, but that’s their mailbox there. And the house over yonder—"
“Yonder?” Henry nearly choked on his bourbon (he was not a gin man).
I hadn’t wanted to admit that the word sounded foreign, implausible even, as soon as it escaped my lips, but I recovered nicely. “If the word ‘yonder’ is good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me. But, if you prefer, the house over there, to the west, just beyond my side yard. The one with that beautiful wraparound porch? That belongs to the Conrads.”
“That is a nice house, but I like yours better,” Astrid said.
“Is that a hint of approval I hear?” I asked, clutching at my heart. “And here I thought we were to be mortal enemies the rest of the night.” She turned toward me only long enough to roll her eyes and then went back to flipping through the LPs.
“Anyway, the Conrads are fine people. Cream of the crop. In fact, so many nights when I was working late in the yard, they’d call to me from over the fence and invite me over for supper. I wouldn’t have eaten had it not been for them.”
“Oh? A diet of hog jowls and cornbread, I assume?” Dave smiled.
“And now it is you who are boring me.” I returned his smile, but there was really no humor in it. I imagine there would have been another awkward silence, but Astrid finally found a record that pleased her. She put it on the player, it rasped round and round, hissing and popping, until finally playing Piccadilly Palare.
When it came time for dinner, Mark was too drunk to stand. Harry and Dave insisted we remain in the parlor, and Astrid agreed. She’d found a few more albums she wanted to play. So, despite my having gone through the trouble of setting the dining room table in accordance with Emily Post, I at long last relented. It was snug, but the four of us sat Indian-style around the coffee table while Mark snored, sweaty-faced and sprawled out on the settee.
We continued to mingle, having mostly vapid conversations, I’ll admit. Each course brought more of the same cliché “city vs. country” comparisons, like something out of a Raymond Williams essay. But, to own the truth, I couldn’t judge them for their judgment when, in reality, my desires had been exactly the same as theirs (that is to say, exactly the opposite): I’d wanted to show them the error of their ways; that country life and living was far superior to what one could hope to experience in the city. The suppositions from both sides of the argument were about as feebly compelling as one might expect.
“For me,” I told them, “life and living were too easy in the city, with all its cocktail parties, its nightclubs, the theatre, its museums of this, its museums of that. There was always something to do—so much that I never really got anything done. It’s one of those urban paradoxes, I guess. The whole thing ultimately wore me down.”
I wanted to feel isolated, and Whitler gave me that sensation. “My God, at night there are stars in Whitler. The night sky is just full of them. But when you look up at the night in the city, that milky indiscernible hue that is ‘sky’ seems to be the end of the world, a starless lid that separates us from the infinite. Seeing the country stars, the lid-less sky, reminds me of what was easy to forget when I lived in a city: that it isn’t all about us. That, in actuality, it isn’t about us at all. We, our lives, are meaningless.”
This had been a depressing prospect for most of my friends who, until its ultimate nihilistic conclusion, had noticeably dismissed my pontification on country stars for its romanticized undertones. I reassured them, though, that the meaninglessness of our lives was not depressing in the slightest. This great truth wasn’t cynical but rather liberating. It gave us a free pass not to take our lives so goddamn seriously.
“Tell that to town drunk, Eddie Blaylock. You think he doesn’t take his dead wife’s life seriously? You think he thinks his dead wife’s life was meaningless?” Dave said.
There was a heavy silence, pregnant with dread and judgment. I thought we were all misunderstanding each other. My message wasn’t being received. They were misinterpreting me. They were my friends. I liked them, I did, but it seemed that in our brief separation, I had become the other. I’d already become some sort of outsider. The kind they’d make fun of or, worse, dismiss entirely.
“Hey, everybody,” Astrid said, intentionally lightening the mood with a smile. “Let’s say after dinner, we go for a walk? Stretch our legs? See these existential crisis-inducing stars? Let’s look for Eddie Blaylock’s deer wife?”
“Yes!” I agreed. “That sounds like great fun.”
After our entrees, we were stuffed, but that didn’t keep us eating our dessert (I made a delicious panna cotta) as though we were half-starved. I polled the room to determine who preferred coffee and who preferred more wine, and the unanimous decision was unsurprisingly wine. I uncork three bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Cheap bottles disguised in fancy-looking labels. The sweet smell of the grape seemed to rouse Mark from his catnap. He stretched and yawned and held forth his empty glass for a refill.
“Nice of you to join us,” Dave said.
I divided the wine into sippy cups we could each take on our walk. We cheers’d unceremoniously, the plastic cups not quite offering the desirable clink of stemware. The screen door slammed behind us, and we shuffled off down the gravel path. We were off.
Outside, the night was cloudless and veiled in a deep purple. The stars were out just as I’d promised. Even still it sometimes surprised me. I never thought I’d be one to romanticize a pretty night sky. What was it about space, anyway? There were billions of people in the world, each of us feeling strangely alone I imagine most of the time—unable to identify with the people around us. For me, I often felt disconnected, not much unlike this evening with the people whom I called my closest friends. I’m still often unable to relate to anyone. Few things truly connect me to others, music being one, but I imagine this almost primal fascination with the stars, the moon, the vastness. That was another. Perhaps, I thought, when we look up into that void, we somehow subconsciously identify with it. Maybe it is some sort of pareidolia representing the void within ourselves. Maybe it somehow fills it in some spiritual way. How dare we not look up, I thought. Not to acknowledge. Perhaps it’s the closest we’ll ever get to being truly part of the infinite.
Or perhaps I’d just had too much to drink.
“You know,” David asked, “it just occurred to me. How will you ever meet a nice man out here?” He was holding Mark’s hand, a harmless act in the city, but here, it made me uncomfortable.
“Strange. I’ve been so consumed by fixing up the house, I haven’t even thought of romance.”
The five of us huddled together as walked, looking and pointing up, sometimes half-tripping over each other’s feet, commenting on (and getting wrong) many constellations, pretending to be navigators, in a sense showing comradery for the first time that evening. We were giddy. Our liquor-scented laughs floated up in the air in thick unfurling cloud. I could smell a charcoal grill, someone cooking beef in the distance.
We were on an old country road. Not much traffic. But every time headlights approached, a growing sense of dread consumed me.
“Hey, guys. Not here,” I motioned.
“What?” Mark asked, looking down at his hand clasping David’s. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I don’t mean anything by it, but it’s just…different here.”
“So much for your pastoral Shangri-La,” Astrid scoffed.
“If this were the Oregon Trail, I’d say you’ve died of Buccholera,” Mark laughed.
A car approached.
“Seriously, guys,” I said. “Just as a precaution.”
David and Mark willfully clutched tighter to one another.
A flume of dust billowed in the moonlight, trailing after the car as it approached. Its engine grumbled. Its high beams blinded us. We shielded our eyes. It pulled past but suddenly came to a screeching halt. We heard its windows hum down.
“Jesus Christ!” Astrid said.
“Miss?” said the voice inside the car.
“Sorry about that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, walking to the car apologetically. My eyes were slowly readjusting, turning the formless into form.
“Mrs. Tanger!” I said. I didn’t know her well. Just a passing acquaintance, really. A woman I often saw working in her garden. She’d wave as I honked and passed. Sometimes, I saw her in the post office. In the pharmacy. Tonight, she was wearing her signature floppy hat, a tank top revealing soft, old skin with dirt in its creases. A jean skirt hiked too far up. Faded black boots.
She was cautiously clutching the stick-shift as if she may speed away at any time. “I just stopped to tell you that you may want go get to where you’re going.”
“Why is that?”
“Something’s on the prowl,” she said. “It’s killed three of Mr. Hooper’s goats. Throats slit, poor things.” She looked out the window at Mark and Dave, grasping one another. “Who are your…friends?”
“Oh! Friends from the city. Mark and David there,” I pointed. “Harry. And here’s Astrid.” I pushed Astrid toward her, as if proof that I was not totally misogynist. That I was inclusive.
“Astrid,” said Ms. Tanger, pondering. “A lovely name. Scandinavian in derivation.”
“Oh, really?” Astrid asked.
“Yes. It means Godly strength.”
“Yes! How about you use your godly strength and make sure these foolish men get home okay?” Mrs. Tanger laughed. To my surprise, Astrid laughed back.
“It’ll take more than godly strength,” she said. “Some of them have over-imbibed.”
“I can tell.”
“I just love Elton John.”
“Elton John. I just think he’s so talented. And such flare!”
“I agree,” I said. Her car idled. “Well, bye, Mrs. Tanger,” I said, excusing her. The whole thing was awkward for me, though no one else seemed bothered.
“Bye now.” We watched as the car pulled away. Its lights disappeared over the horizon.
“What was Elton John bullshit?” I laughed.
“Stop!” Astrid said. “She seemed sweet.”
“Well, should we head back? Quit our search for Mr. Blaylock?” Harry asked.
“But we’re just getting started.” David jokingly whined and stomped his foot into the dirt.
“Oh, please,” said Mark. “Your wine is gone. You’ll be begging to go back any moment.”
“No, I won’t. I’ll just drink yours.”
“Let’s cut through here,” I said, motioning to the tobacco fields.
“Seriously? Get off the main road?” Astrid was incredulous. “This is the worst idea ever. Are you ignoring every horror movie and folk tale every written?”
“We’ll be fine!” I promised. “We’ll get back to my house faster. I have more food.”
“And booze?” Mark, David and Harry asked in unison.
It was decided.
A small path bifurcated the tobacco fields. Our feet crunched the brittle clay pebbles as we walked. Though it was deep into the night, 11 at the earliest, the world was bright. I know what you may be thinking. Full moon. But no. Close, but not a full moon. Ovular, almost. Impossibly bright. Its light formed a kind of tight aura around the tobacco leaves, their stalks, our bodies.
“You know what I want to listen to when we get back?” Astrid asked.
“Elton John?” Harry guessed.
“You read my mind.”
They all laughed, but I wasn’t. Because there was something off in a clearing in the distance. Something I didn’t want to acknowledge. They followed where my eyes lingered, and – one at a time – their expressions turned from frivolity, to curiosity, to disbelief. “Is that –”
“—A body,” I said.
We were no longer advancing with the thought of wine and cheese. We were lurching with hesitation, hoping our eyes were deceiving us. That we’d had too much to drink. That the moon was working its deceptive magic on us. That Mrs. Tanger’s story had gotten the best of us.
“You won’t believe me, but –”
“– But what?”
“We found Mr. Blaylock after all,” I said. We’d gotten close enough to discern his shape. “He’s probably just past out drunk.”
“No,” Harry said. “He’d definitely dead. Look.” Harry was always one to give things a second and third glance. Analytical. Skeptical. “Look at his face.”
It really hadn’t taken a second or third glance. It really just took a single glance. It was just that, other than Harry, none of us had been brave enough to look – to really look. But when we did, or rather when I did (because, other than Harry, I was the only one who’d gathered the necessary strength to investigate further), I saw a face twisted in terror, completely white, drained of its blood, its eyes bulged, its mouth agape, its tongue hung slack out its mouth, slobber pooling and mixing with the puddle of blood that darkened the earth beneath it.
Harry and I stepped cautiously forward into the clearing. Our vision was no longer obscured by the tobacco stalks. We jumped back initially because there was movement in our periphery. My pulse raced. I imagine Harry’s did, too, but if it did, he gave no sign. At long last, we looked at each other and rolled our eyes, relieved – at least as much as we could be under the circumstances.
“What is it?” Mark and David asked.
“You won’t believe it,” I said.
Astrid looked pensive. “What?”
They inched into the clearing as a single unit, as close to one another as humanly possible. When they rounded the corner, the last tobacco stalk in the row behind them, I could tell they saw what Harry and I had seen.
Bathed in the thickness of the moonlight was a doe. She had skinny legs, almost too skinny to hold up the inconceivable musculature of her trunk, but they did. Her head was hung low, her tongue lapping up the blood that had spread out in the dirt from Eddie’s body. Though her head was down, her eyes were ever aware of us.
“Do you think?” Astrid asked.
“No!” I said, though I wasn’t really sure what she was going to ask. I had my ideas, looking down at Eddie’s body.
“But what do you think?” said Harry.
I took off my coat and, just before I put it over Eddie’s horrific and horrified face, noticing a black, dried blood crusting over a wound on his neck. Somehow, I could taste the tinniness of the blood in the back of my own throat. “He saw something. I don’t know what.” I hadn’t smoked in years, but I suddenly caught myself desperately patting my empty pockets.
“Here.” David threw me a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
“Does anyone have a signal?” I asked. But Harry was already phoning.
It was a strange night.
Of course, that was almost thirty years ago. All the growth that the ‘old-timers’ had feared and had resisted when I first moved to Whitler has long since overpowered them. Like stilt grass. And part of me feels somehow responsible for it. All the changes. The suburban enclaves. The midrise condos. The co-op grocery store. The ACLU outreach center. All of it.
I’ve since gotten married to a man named Myron. When his hand wraps around mine in the Whitler streets, it forms a yin-yang of hairy-knuckled flesh. Myron and I even opened a little avant-garde queer bar on the corner of 5th and Vine, almost on the spot where those old tobacco fields used to be, where we found the remains of Eddie Blaylock, twisted, pale, cold and screaming silently into the silence.
Even now I think Poor Eddie. He’d been a husk, really. The life had been drained from him by only-the-devil-knows-what. I can still see his face. The wanting in it. The destiny.
When you walk into our bar, by the way, you’ll see that virtually everything’s pink. The walls, the floors. The shag rugs under the lounging chairs and fainting couches. The neon lights. The liquor cabinet. The bar itself. It’s unabashedly garish, and yet – above where the bartenders shake your martinis, you’ll find a buck head. Not a doe. Not that poor doe who grazed on the grass and lapped at the blood. But a buck. A 10-pointer. Massive. Its eyes are black yet somehow reflect all the pink.
Myron and I named the place Enlightenment.