Matt Stenovec
In Velvet

I pick up the phone, dialing the familiar 530 area code. Northeastern California.

    Hey Dev, it's Steno. Got a minute?

    Sure.

    Listen, remember that deer last summer?

    Yeah.

    I had some questions.

    Alright, about what?

    Let's start at the beginning.

*          *          *

    It's been a slow week, made slower by the heat. We've reached mid-July, so the perpetual feeling of being slow-roasted is not unexpected, but it still makes working 14-hour days outside hard. Seven months before our phone conversation, Devin and I sit out on the dining deck at the camp we call home every summer. Coppercreek Camp rests midway up Keddie Peak three miles outside the quiet main street town of Greenville, California. Two and a half hours northwest of Reno, Nevada, we are in the part of California the rest of the world forgot. The shade offered by the towering Ponderosa pines does little to stem the 98-degree heat. The meat of the day has already passed; the sun is on its way out as we engage in the favorite pastime of camp counselors - digesting the events of the day and gossiping about our coworkers. Devin is six years older than I and has been working at summer camps since he was seventeen.

    We recline on benches opposite each other, enjoying the quiet fifteen minutes before table setting for dinner. Devin spins a story of his misadventures when he was my age, and I am eating up every last bit. A voice comes in over the radio sitting on the table between us, interrupting Devin's avuncular parable.

    "It's Craig. Anyone up in programming copy?"

    Becky, the programming head and wife to Craig, grabs her own radio from the office adjacent to where Devin and I both sit. "Becky here, Sweetie. What's going on?"

    Both radios respond in stereo. "I just got a call from Linda at the barns. There's a deer stuck in the loose goat fencing out near the maintenance sheds on the ranch property."

    Becky's face darkens. "Well, what do you want me to do?"

    "Get me some guys to get down here and help!"

    "I have Devin and Steno here; I'll send them."

    "Tell ‘em to hurry."

    Devin is already untangled from the picnic-style tables and striding towards the stairway off the dining deck. To no one in particular, Becky shakes her head and says, "I told Craig to clean up that fucking fence." And then to me, "Well, Mr. Stenovec? Get!" She turns and walks back into the office, the radio still in her hand. Devin is almost to the green GMC parked in the lot below the dining deck, and I scramble out of my seat and over the railing, jogging after Dev. I jump into the passenger seat while Devin throws the old truck into gear, and we head over the bumpy dirt road towards the pasture.

*          *          *

    Devin Bradley is a big man. Not just by his six-foot-three, 200-pound mass, but so more by his crushing laughter and ever-present smile. Devin's a native of the area, born and raised in Chester, California, right on that dusty line separating the Sierra Nevada from the Cascades. An elementary school teacher, a gifted camp counselor, and a close friend, Devin is one reason I keep coming back every summer.

    There is a story about him comes up a lot during staff meetings towards the middle of the summer. When everyone is tired of the kids, tired of the heat, tired of the incessant schedule, Lauren, the camp director, tells the story of when Devin's grandfather died. Devin heard the news but kept right on doing his job to the fullest. He went to the dance that night, worked his magic pulling the wallflowers onto the dance floor, making a fool out of himself so even the shyest kids were in stitches. The next day he left for the funeral. Lauren uses this to pull all of us out of our own self-pity and remember why we are here: for the kids. Devin demonstrates his well-earned title as the "Super Counselor" by his ability to separate his own personal issues from the task at hand.

*          *          *

    I just need to make people laugh, I need others to feel comfortable.

    And you do a good job of it.

    A short, barked laugh.

    I've been doing this shit for a long time - there's a reason they call me the super counselor. Kinda weird, huh? I mean, I feel like I've never shown my real face to anyone, at least not at work.

*          *          *

    It's only a five-minute drive down the main road and out the camp entrance, and then a quick left towards Craig's "office," a collection of barns housing the ski boats, skip loader, and wood shop. Devin and I turn towards the maintenance sheds. Craig stands near his house and waves us down. I scoot over so that he can join us in the cab. Craig is from Ukiah, over on the west side of the mountains. He moved east to be a chairlift maintenance worker in Tahoe, a job generally intended for old cons without much to lose. While working late nights in season trying to get the lifts running by morning, careless co-workers occasionally lost fingers, or even whole limbs. He revels in the cavalier. Craig Hogland is the sort of man who sits in his hot tub with a shotgun, a case of beer and an auto-fire clay pigeon launcher; he's a hunter, small-time rancher, and full-time camp counselor. I've known Craig since I was twelve years old; he's another reason I keep coming back every summer.

    We stop at the edge of the meadow and exit the truck. The buck is immediately visible, staggering as if it's afloat in a storm. The deer is clearly dehydrated, frothy spit like shaving cream falling from its mouth. A certain fear creeps up from my lower back, a basic wariness of sharp hooves and feral strength. The buck must have gotten stuck in the fencing while browsing; the hard black plastic mesh interwoven with copper electrical cable would have been all but invisible carelessly left in the tall grass after the goats had been transferred to their permanent corral. The buck is young, his velvet antlers containing a total of four points, his fur still bearing traces of the spotted camouflage found on fawns.

    Craig, the most senior among us, naturally assumes control of the situation. He orders me to find the spigot and hose near the edge of the clearing and sends Devin in another direction to grab horse blankets from the back of the truck. Craig readies his knife.

    I hose down the blankets Devin carries and the three of us slowly approach the exhausted animal. The buck's eyes roll, white showing all around. His soft antlers are wrapped in the black mesh of the electric goat fence, a shadowy veil pulling him off his feet. Only now does he notice us. Devin has the lead, and the buck turns to face him. The animal starts towards Devin, then collapses. I begin spraying him down with the hose, a light mist to cool him off. Devin and Craig run in, Devin throwing the sopping horse blankets over the heaving belly of the buck. I fill my water bottle and toss it to Devin.

    Craig instructs Devin to hold the buck down, using the wet blankets as he cuts away the black plastic and wire mesh. Devin holds the neck with his forearm and attempts to pour water into the buck's gaping mouth. The deer halfheartedly laps at the stream. He appears scared and feeble, his face still showing the disproportionate delicacy of youth.

*          *          *

    I remember those eyes. I was swallowed in them. They were terrified, full of terrible life. The buck was helpless and he knew it, I wanted to scream, I wanted to tell him to hold on...

*          *          *

    The buck's one visible eye locks on Devin, and then seems to fade. When Craig finishes cutting the antlers free, he stands and slowly backs away. I get as close as the hose will allow and continue to spray the sweat-soaked hide. The buck's legs move, a shudder runs through him. A small hope swells up inside me.

    "Stop," says Devin softly, "it's over."

    I stand there, impotent with the hose in my hands, water falling slowly around the three of us, providing a brief respite from the absolute heat.

*          *          *

    Did I ever tell you about Cameron?

    No.

    My little brother, Cameron, had leukemia. I'd watched him suffer since he was five. One morning my parents asked me if I wanted to go with them to hospital for one of Cameron's checkups. I said no. It was the first day of school, you know? I didn't want to get behind. Later that day, my folks showed up and pulled me out of class.

*          *          *

    The buck has stopped all motion now and lies still in the grass. Craig stares at the ground, mumbling curse words. He turns. "It's different, you know?" Craig says. " I mean, I hunt buck, slaughter cows and pigs, but it just wasn't his time. Dammit." He looks to the ground. "I should've cleaned up that fence."

    Devin is still on his knees, face down, the buck's neck in his arms. He looks up, tight-lipped, saying nothing. "Well," Craig says after a minute, "I guess I'll call Don; he'd be willing to take care of this."

    Don Williamson was the manager and sometimes butcher over at the Evergreen Market in town. That realization seems to settle the matter for Craig, but Devin remains silent. The sun has fallen to a steep angle; our shadows are long and thin across the meadow, dark pillars on a sea of gold.

*          *          *

    Yeah, as if I didn't feel shitty enough after staying home the day Cameron died, there was my girlfriend back in Vermont.

    What happened?

    After college back east I returned to northern California. She called me to tell me she was pregnant. I sent her money for the abortion. Get it? I wasn't there - I was out West. Fuck, I felt awful.

*          *          *

    Craig walks over to the maintenance shed, talking on his radio. Devin stands up and walks over to me. The hose is still running; mud forms around my shoes. I realize this and turn off the hose, coiling the black length of rubber in the grass. Devin signals to me to walk with him back to the truck, and we ride back in silence.

    Becky meets us on the porch and I relate the news. Devin continues on into the cool darkness of the programming office, seemingly without noticing Becky. She shakes her head and clucks her tongue when I finish. The dining deck fills with sunburned and smiling faces, boys and girls eagerly trying to outdo each other while recounting the grand adventures of the day. I locate my charges and we sit, waiting for grace.

*          *          *

    You know what, man? I'd never felt like a good person.

    Devin...

    No, before the deer. The buck came to me right when I was wondering who the fuck I was. I wasn't at the hospital, I wasn't in Vermont. I've been absent for the most devastating moments of my life, and I've hated myself for it. The buck, he looked up at me, his eyes, they focused. He spent his last moments terrified. That moment made me so happy I wasn't there to see Cameron go; I have so many great memories to thrive on. And there I was beating myself up because I missed the worst.

*          *          *

    That night, after dinner, after skits and campfire songs, after TAPS and lights out, a quiet descends on the camp, not unusual for night, but still surprisingly refreshing. The temperature drops to forty-five degrees, a much-needed change from the day. Devin sits outside, his campers asleep inside his cabin. I see him on his porch, a lighter figure in the world of grays. The full moon, just rising, has trouble penetrating through the thick woods where the cabins stand.

    I sit next to Devin. He looks at me, and then back to the carpet of pine needles and red volcanic dirt eddying around his feet. I feel absolutely helpless for the second time that day.

    We watch the stars come out, doing their best to shine despite the moon. Devin stands, turns, and walks back into his cabin, making sure the door shuts silently behind him.