Joyland

The Midwest |

Gate Count

by Amanda Marbais

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

We were ranching a lab-owned deer farm thirty miles from the nearest highway. Most mornings were the same. Our withered rooster, Mr. Kirkaby, woke us with strained crowing, and Lenny and I got up around 5 am to feed the deer millet muffins. Lenny and I met at UIC, moved around a lot, and eventually quit our jobs and seriously considered ourselves tramps, in the most nostalgic sense.

Everything hailed from our garden, a jungle from seedling, reaching to the Paper Birch and beyond the marsh. That Sunday morning, we talked about making this job work.  Lenny resolutely set down a beer, which foamed to the table. With flexible jobs, sometimes we had beer in the morning. As we drank, the Andy-deer scratched at the glass, their electric hum filling the yard. At least, we thought it was the deer. Harold Lloyd had become horny lately, and yesterday had scratched deep lines into the deck.

“Go away, Harold,” said Lenny. He poured another beer, a T-shape of sweat on his shirt. It wasn’t even 10 am, and the humidity beaded on the walls.

We oversaw forty acres of woodlands, ponds, and marsh. We’d happily moved into the deserted WPA lodge, which was filled with hot tubs and broken Adirondack chairs, and missed cha-cha classes. The lodge was also rife with ghosts who once languished in the changing atmosphere, their irritation now bubbling.

The scratching continued. I didn’t move, because our boss, Ann Mimis, felt near, sneaking in with the green fog. The fan turned slowly above us.  Lenny and I had argued. That was unusual. But, Ann sometimes wedged herself, like a heavy coda between our work/life balance.  I went outside.

Ann Mimis was a Frenemy. In high school, she beat me up, when she sparkled with silver rings and fake nails, and she dressed in acid-washed jeans and Metallica T-shirts. She left a gouge in my neck, a pinkish moon. Lenny called her the killder-beast. We differed on how to treat the deer, with Ann insisting that they could not live outside the corral.

“She’s a bully,” I said.

“Is that how she got to be coordinator? She bullied someone?”  said Lenny.

“Yeah. She waved her claws, and she made fun of people.”

Lenny grunted. At the time, he was printing labels for dried deer tea. We had organized our canned goods, our sundries. Snakes of philodendron, fed by the fog, had tripled in size. Half-broken vines filled the lodge’s butler pantry, and I hacked them away all afternoon just to get some jam. Lenny slipped the tea in an envelope for his nephew Phil, who could not speak, a developmental thing.

Still angry I hadn’t finished my Eggs Benedict, I kicked something soft and large in the entryway. I dropped the feed bag, sending muffins pattering over a lunar-like surface at my feet. I screamed, and when Lenny arrived, he turned on the porch light.  Mary Pickford’s jaw was unhinged, her crooked limbs akimbo. She was twenty yards from the corral, and the walk must have been excruciating. She had been scratching. She had scraped the deck, in a semi-colon, a gaping death-grin.

Thick and wiry, once a wrestler, Lenny, crouched in a Boston Crab, cradled the haunches, and did lifts punctuated with warrior cries. “Fuck it,” he finally said. I stood up, and got a lodge blanket from a divan by the cold fireplace, near the ghost of a bored teen trying to feel up his girlfriend, and we slid Mary Pickford onto the blanket. She’d gotten heavy. We dragged her nearly-doubled corpse down the porch, each step squeezing air through her vented belly. We made bandit-masks of our shirts.

“Don’t look,” I said. Her face had bloated, a strained football.

Not listening, Lenny, leaned closer and touched her red, woolen neck, his eyes swollen with unshed tears. He swatted away a quarter-sized, glowing mosquito, which seemed to have fed off the humidity.

“Lenny, I know. But let’s drag her to the edge of the farm.” I said through my shirt. The softest ground was the marsh under the poplars. Hungry, perturbed, we dragged Mary one hundred feet more.

The breaking light revealed the corral, where beyond the gate, George Beranger stood on the Astroturf, joints chattering, a silhouette-like stop-motion. His gesture started a chain, and as deer lifted, the smooth scream, from the sudden impact of so many electrical impulses engaging with a series of complex joints, filled the farm. “Jesus!” I said. My voice echoed to the marsh and back to the lodge.

Underneath the trees, we wiped sweat and listened to blackbirds. “Should I hold her?” said Lenny.

“No, thanks,” I said. Humidity slicked my hand, but I plunged the pocket-knife firmly. Her side steamed with gas, like the smell from a city subway.

It didn’t take long, as Lenny cleaned blood from the steps, and I enjoyed my only cigarette in years, a smoke that took me back to Def Leopard, binding jeans, and bejeweled nails.  Surveillance being what it was, Ann Mimis would be here tomorrow.

*

George Beranger jumped the fence, tilted his head, and let the static of a ham radio pass over the antlers, a play of noises. “Go do it,” I said. When the Andy-deer stand still, they hum, like tires over sleeper lines.

“Greenboro’s Market,” Lenny said.  We hadn’t installed the sensors and didn’t mind shutting them off.  They powered down and blipped once. 

George Beranger crackled as he got going, vaulted the electrified fence not knowing it was off or what to trust.

“Look at him go,” I said. In one hour, a Modesto’s suburbanite would drop his beer or grocery sack. He would gape at George Beranger’s odd skitter and white blazing eyes, so keen on his task. He’d remember or create some pastoral scene of waving grass and mountains. Depressing.  George Beranger’s pupils will contract. He will beep, unfortunately like R2D2, which will lessen his legitimacy. His retinas, modeled on Big Horn Sheep still contract more like a human’s than a deer’s. If he gets angry, he’ll lower his antlers. 

*

We were wrapped in lodge blankets, Lenny and I on the porch swing, sipping beer. We often stared at the Andy-deer, the woods, the horizon, grateful to have left our lives in Chicago.

We barely needed the grocery: we gardened, canned, raised real goats and chickens. That was the sort of bucolic shit that happened every day. 

When George Beranger returned from Greenboro’s, he carried a flier about cheap millet, a nice touch. We popped out his DVD and watched it on a laptop seated on the fence, with George hanging out over my shoulder. The deer could see us in the house; they could see a car down the dirt road or a stranger approaching through the woods a mile away. They had better eyesight than a falcon’s, so said their manual.

But, without exercise, George Beranger’s feet grew lame. Trackers came to his toe’s edge as a part of his now-natural development. The small ball bearings would work out of his soft tissue. I stepped on his bloody ball bearings once.

On the DVD, high school students played with their phones, draped over cars with stereos blasting, stopped mid-gossip/turned to face the camera and taunt him. They could have been from my high school. Someone threw Corn Nuts. Someone threw a condom. George Beranger sniffed but didn’t eat the condom. He went to town on the Corn Nuts as phone pictures were snapped. Some kids could have had my high school classmates for parents.

George Beranger was visible in the laptop, head tilted, his sides bulging with Corn Nut gas. When he saw himself chased by a skinny kid in a Daft Punk T-shirt, he dropped, knees first, tilted his head back to bay, in a pitch that was aggressive, a throw-back to what a teenager would look like. “Lame” he said plainly.  Then, George Beranger stole Lenny’s beer.

At 9 pm Lenny fed them mini-muffin/oat millet mix.  He worked up a sweat, throwing huge scoopfuls into the pen. He came to bed, this time a cubby on the second floor landing. With so many spaces, we liked to try them all out.

He kissed me and said, “I think George Beranger constructed a sentence.”

“And said what?”

“Fucking awesome tumblr.”  Lenny ate a handful of millet mix.

“What?”

“I think he’s learning.”

“He’s mimicking,” I said.

“What’s the difference?”

“A lot.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying I don’t want to cut them up if they’re learning.”  It was the same reason I didn’t want to eat meat. If they were smart, the meat grossed me out. And, maybe we should disable their destruction mode, blinking like a permanent beacon on their side.

The concept of a self-replicating, neutral-net deer was not secret, at least in Garret Park.  Freezing the body parts in zip-lock bags was pretty much a pastime. 

Mimis said using body parts was superstitious.  But, A-E-I-O-and U became easy for my nephew Phil to say, and he drank the tea by the gallon.  If the deer had a certain programmed death anyway, there seemed to be no breach of ethics, unless that could be changed.

*

The evening before, George Beranger and Sarah Blanche Sweet stood patiently while rugrats were slapped onto their backs. Money was tight and we pimped them for birthdays. George Beranger, Theda, and Albert Austin played a game in the middle of the pen, but stopped when I walked past, and eyed me. They weren’t so happy about the birthday party. I returned the tack to its peg, and pulled the pillowcase from the camera to avoid Mimis’s questions. For dinner, Lenny brought barbecue and whiskey, and we sat on the huge patio, spread out the food, and ate as the sun went down.

George Beranger approached in the dusk, barking a deep baritone, the yellow barn-light surrounding him as fog returned. George Beranger jumped around as if on acid. “Jesus, it looks like he’s on acid,” said Lenny. George Beranger creaked and popped with static, before he vaulted up on his powerful haunches and ran off. “Today,” George Beranger said. It came less from his antlers and more from him, as if he mouthed it, vowel to consonant, slowly.

 * 

The email from Ann Mimis came. They were doing a full-court press on the whereabouts of Eric Campell. ARC’s private security hadn’t found him. As with George Beranger, we’d let him blow off steam. When Clara Bow died, Eric Campbell made bird sounds for eight hours. But, Ann never believed anything she couldn’t hear on the camera, and she searched the lodge and was pissed he wasn’t there.

“I don’t know what you thought you would find,” Lenny said.

“Lenny, I would watch yourself,” she said.

That we didn’t get our paycheck somehow surprised us. The deer were nearly forgotten. Like some dolphins in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, the Andy-deer were a novelty. There was talk of equipping them with guns, but that never worked out. The antlers couldn't support the weight.  

*

Another died, and I stood above it. If it could have talked to me, it would have. I looked at the sky and back at the deer, who must have felt like outdated mammals.

Ann returned the next day. She had been counting the deer and came storming up to the lodge, but I couldn’t take her bitching, so I didn’t take my earbuds out. Predictably, she shouted. I took them out.

“I can’t get them to spread out,” Ann said. 

Safety in numbers was their thing. Lenny and I followed her to the corral. We had tacked up wavy neon, because they liked the visual pattern. Some nights we played electronic pop—Animal Collective and Notwist. They galloped around the corral in synchronous rhythm.

Mimis either didn’t want to admit their hostility or was exhausted by it. She asked me if they were accounted for, using the droll expression of boredom and anger that a teacher adopts when dealing with difficult high school students.

“I have no idea,” I said, though I knew. I knew Eric Campbell was the only one missing, and that we had cried for him. “You know I feel it’s poachers.” We actually saw Eric Campbell running across the countryside, and he saw us, but he did not slow or stop.

Lenny opened the gate and asked if she wanted to count them, and the way that he said it was kind of aggressive. I loved him even more. His insensitivity bubbled at the right time. She decided not to ask us to eat at Sonic, an awkward experience anyway.

She hurried through the gate, stumbled over large clumps of mud, and clumsily checked their sides for beacon lights. She must have seen that we turned off George Beranger’s, because she pulled a gun from her purse and raised it to his head. He skittered off, his barometer and radar indicators leaving a neon trail in his haste. A cloud of teenage ghosts playing soccer forgot the game and floated into the corral.

“How did you disable that deer?” she said.

“I didn’t,” Lenny lied.

“If I don’t shoot him, someone else will come out here tomorrow.”

Lenny and I couldn’t move.

“It’s a problem if Sennett is missing too,” she said. She was sweating, and this seemed hardly the point.

“Sennett is right there.”  I pointed to Mabel.

“Well,” she said. “God, Rachel, you always were a fucked up cunt.” She tentatively raised the gun. Lenny stepped forward, and in a wrestling move called the Peckinpah, removed the gun. The best thing to come out of college, I swear. I loved him more than I could say.

Though she said she’d be back with agents the next day, a week passed. We watched the road. When Lenny went out to feed the deer, they’d form a loose pattern. George Beranger stood on his hinds in the center, brandishing his hooves like a horse. They turned as if Lenny wasn’t there. 

The deer had an order for their lives. George Beranger slept with Gloria Swanson, and Gibson Gowland slept with Sarah Sweet, and no one laid down until the fawns were sleeping, though who knew if they had the extensive neural nets.

They were, in a way, becoming our children, I told Lenny. “They’re definitely our first and only responsibility.” 

We stood at the window on the second story of the lodge. Lenny told me he had noticed that the deer weren’t in their usual pattern. They were putting off going to bed. I peered to see George Beranger standing, but this time he laid his hooves on a corral support and sniffed the charged air—as if listening for low frequency sounds produced by a distant tornado. His barometer light flashed a color I hadn’t seen. The fog finally dissipated, but the ghosts of a teenage volleyball team, sweaty from lodge-league play, floated around the deer and taunted them. “They’re worked up,” I said. “The ghosts and the deer.”

 *

When Lenny walked outside, George Beranger lowered his feet.  It was not unusual for George Beranger to be annoyed when Lenny came to check up.  After Lenny fed them mini-muffins, George Beranger laid down as if for sleep, curling softly in the mud of the corral. When Lenny returned to the house, I heated soup, and we watched YouTube videos. “What’s going on with the deer, you think?” I asked.

“Not sure. Something though,” he said.

“I think the lab is more concerned with weather patterns than with bothering with our shit.” Sporadic hail kept me up. Bees appeared and seemed to indicate too-fertile soil rather than healthy growth. I dreamt that everything would grow too large, overtake the roads, the bridges, the groceries, force a reset.

Lenny did his crossword puzzle.  

I woke and looked outside and saw the deer on their hind-legs. When I called Lenny, to look at them, they went down simultaneously. 

“I believe it,” Lenny said. “They’re acting weird.” 

We waited for twenty minutes for them to stand again while we ate a pie at the window, seated on antique carousel horses we couldn’t sell. From their shadows, we could easily see that the deer were down in the pen.

“Damnit,” I said, and we gave up and turned on an episode of Parks and Recreation.

*

The following day, the deer grazed on muffins in the corral. Lenny and I sat on the northern-most balcony, arms and legs tangled as if in a mariner’s knot. When they didn’t move for a half-hour, we gathered buckets of cleaning fluid. In our anxiety, we liked to clean: top to bottom, every small space and angle, every uppermost window, every crosshatch and cross-section of the house, imposing order so different from the vines engulfing the house. With our buckets and gloves and dusters, on our hands and knees, we worked the floor. George Beranger knocked on the window but was gone when we came to it, a trail of the word “cleave” heard in his the static as he skittered off the deck. Or “needs.” Or “sleeve.”  We couldn’t tell.

*

I yelled to Lenny to come to the balcony. He couldn’t understand why I was upset, so for a minute we attempted to communicate with little progress. George Beranger was out of the pen and half-way to the river. He had Irving Thalberg and Eric von Stroheim behind him.

Even from a distance, we could see that he limped. Lenny pulled the binoculars from the lodge bar, and watched George Beranger navigate the marshiest land, teenage ghosts announcing his departure like seraphim. Lenny went out for an hour and came back. Above stretched a long cell cloud, the color of motor oil.

I grabbed Lenny’s hand.  As he squeezed my fingers, grinding them to the bone, I saw a flash, two or three miles off. My heart beat faster. The deer were leaving the corral, their antlers buzzing with new sounds, a mix of languages. Lenny and I grabbed our things. He’d had a bag prepared in the closet, and again I loved him. We started out after the deer, hoping we could catch George Beranger before he headed south. The deer were going to figure it out on their own, and we would follow.