Fiction Editors’ Pick: The Road Kill Retrieval Kit

Mrs. Donovan never prepared herself for motherhood. How she had become Mrs. Donovan, living as wife and mother, was still a bit blurry to her. She never seemed able to look at her past head on. Instead, she always appeared to be seeing it along the edge of her sunglasses—the periphery of her origin being scary enough she had no desire to see it up close.

As a girl, she felt ambivalent at the idea of having children. She once held her sister’s child and felt an urge to drop it. This was something she wanted to share with her husband when he suggested the idea of children. How to go about describing the experience left her at a loss. Her husband’s glasses were slightly askew when he posed the idea of babies; his stubble brushed her cheek when he kissed her before he plunged into a speech about procreation. He looked so tender, almost like an infant himself. The way he smiled, with just the edge of his crooked lip creeping up his cheek, disarmed her. It had simply been easier to give in to the moment. To wrap her lower pelvis around him and let more physical parts of her body speak.

Most of her life was a slow, easy, giving in. In her second trimester, along the time when all she wanted to eat were pickles and pineapple smoothies, she felt something resembling anger. A rage seized her in a sudden blunt attack. It started at her left temple and moved down her cheek to her chest. It was one of the few moments where she admits to a second without control, where nothing made sense but her fury over her own body being captive to the child inside it. She slipped out on the back porch and smoked a cigar. The total taboo of the gesture made her toes curl. She touched herself then, not in the way of lovers, but in the way of saying: I am still here. When her husband returned home, she lied to his face when he mentioned smelling tobacco. It was something she had never done before, titillating to a woman who mostly withheld the truth, rather than voicing a real fiction to her partner. There was a distinct difference to Mrs. Donovan. She had been faithful to this distinction up to this point, not wanting to muck up the marriage with non-truths. But half-truths were a needed and useful practice.

Mrs. Donovan enjoyed pregnancy after the initial shock that she was indeed pregnant. She relished the size of her body, the round points of her frame elongating and taking on new shapes. The way her stomach would ripple with movement if she ate chocolate or anything with high sugar content. She loved the hedonism, which seemed to overwhelm her in those months. Once Doris was born, she realized her husband felt more for the child than she. He cried at the birth, as their friends said he would. She remembered no tears on her part, just a satisfied feeling of accomplishment more to do with herself than the squalling infant. The narcissism of the moment was not lost on her, but she could generate nothing more emotional than a mental pat on the back: good job you did it. Her husband read the books, had become overqualified on subjects. They seemed to cross the line into the domain of motherhood. A domain that should have been hers alone, still she felt a sort of safety in this reversal.

Mr. Donovan could tell you just about every detail of the progression of development in utero. He suggested at one point she strip naked, squat in front of the mirror and visualize the birth with him. The placenta was kept in the freezer for a week after the birth—Mr. Donovan had made plans to cook it, some sort of placenta stew the family was supposed to consume. But Mrs. Donovan refused this. Later, burying it in the backyard and planting a rose bush on top. Mr. Donovan gave Doris bouquets off those rose bushes on each birthday. This disturbed Mrs. Donovan.

She felt vomit rise in the back of her throat when she watched him prune the bush, and would shut the shades during his gardening days. She liked to lie on the couch with a hot washcloth over her eyes, visualizing a barren desert where she alone lived. The only thing that could trump gardening days for Mrs. Donovan was Thanksgiving. Mr. Donovan’s parents would come to dinner wearing the sonogram T-shirts Mr. Donovan had made for them during the pregnancy. Her father-in-law would smile proudly, puffing out what he passed off for a chest and walking around the room like some peacock in heat. She would sit at the table eating turkey, looking at Doris plus two pictures of her uterus on shirts. She tried to confiscate the T-shirts, or at least damage them in the laundry, but had been unsuccessful due to the fact the pair of them never took the damn things off.

Mrs. Donovan did little in preparation for pregnancy with the exception of a nine-month religious fervor where she went to church every week. She hoped to have a part of the sermon siphon down to reside somewhere in the middle of her torso. A gift from some deity she didn’t believe in but still wished could help her. She recognized this as a foolish thought. She could not escape the hope that she would indeed feel something for the child, be it of her own making or by the grace of pastor what’s-his-name. Her mother told her it would come, some inner female instinct would emerge like a butterfly out of her chest when she gave birth, at the very least when she breastfed. But as it turned out neither was true. Breastfeeding is something she found to be primal but unpleasant. She weaned Doris as soon as she could while her husband fluttered around in the background worried about frontal lobe development and quoting some Harvard graduate who had done a study on colostrum.

*

Toby Starchild, previously known as one Doris Talley Donovan, convinced her parents to let her rename herself in first grade after reading a book about a boy who lived in a snail shell with a similar name. Snail Boy, the story which inspired the name change, would continually be lost due to her mother hiding the book to escape nightly re-readings. Much later, on one of Mrs. Donovan’s bad days, she burned the book in a bucket, smoking a cigarette and muttering choice words barely above a whisper.

Among many things, Toby was a lover of animals. This became clear as she moved from a toddler to a precocious young girl. At four, she had taken her pet goldfish, Susan B Anthony, for a walk. Toby thought Susan B would enjoy a look at the new titmouse nest in the Blue Oak tree, along the corner of the house where the green trim met the drainage pipe. She removed Susan B from the fish tank, putting her in a plastic bag, and strolled around the garden remarking on all the adventures they could and would have together. It took weeks for her to recover from the fact that the goldfish died, not to mention her horror at her mother’s suggestion to flush Susan B down the toilet! In the end, they flushed her as a mummy wrapped in toilet paper. The only silver lining being her father had written all Susan B’s good qualities in permanent marker on the toilet paper before wrapping her up. Mr. Donovan informed her if it was good enough for King Tut then it was an honor for Susan B. Toby still has misgivings over this; the toilet was not, after all, a pyramid.

Toby’s love for animals was not thwarted by the Susan B debacle. Her obsession with them only seemed to grow with each anthropomorphized book, film, or TV show she watched. It got to the point where any sort of road kill brought her to tears. She would desperately beg they pull over and somehow remove the animal from the road and take it home to bury. Her father jokingly remarked to friends that he had a pet graveyard under the strawberry patch, and if he had his way, he would be buried there among coyotes and badgers. He chose not to mention his daughter insisted on a full ceremonial burial, with him using what little Latin he knew to give the ceremonies they held a “Catholic feel.”

The first time this happened, Toby had seen a dead fawn on the freeway. Her mother would later wish they did not go to the garden center for bulbs that Saturday, and instead, sunbathed in the backyard by the purple kiddie swimming pool.

“Daddy, pull over, there is a deer in the middle of the road!”

“Doris, Daddy can’t pull over, we are on the freeway. It’s dangerous,” her mother replied.

Toby sobbed at the top of her lungs, and this was followed by putting her whole fist into her mouth to emphasize the point that she would not let this atrocity go.

“I can come back for the deer later, hon. In fact, we can call animal control and have someone come pick him up off the road.” Mr. Donovan was trying to be an understanding parent. Yet, his daughter was having none of it.

“But Daddy, they won’t get here in time. His guts are all over the road…what if…what if there is nothing left by the time you come back?”

“This is ridiculous! We are not going to spend the day worried about a dead deer. Someone else will take care of it.”

“Daddy, we can’t leave him there, we just can’t.”

Mr. Donovan looked at his wife; she had a stern look on her face, which turned a bit panicky when she saw he was caving to their daughter’s demand.

“This is absolutely out of the question! It’s a freeway, you can’t go running off into the middle of the freeway on a child’s whim.”

Mr. Donovan mustered the courage to make a fast dash to the center divider lane and wrap the adolescent deer in his extra jacket. This resulted in a ride home with the car permeated by dead deer smell, alongside Mrs. Donovan’s icy silence—a combination that was enough to give even Mr. Donovan pause.

Mrs. Donovan tried to forget the scene that took place when they arrived home, not to mention the fact Mr. Donovan had ruined his good jacket. The logic of taking a St. John dinner jacket out of the dry cleaning plastic and wrapping a dead deer in it was lost on Mrs. Donovan, although she attempted several times to understand. She was a sensitive woman in spite of herself; her mother told her she was prone to depression and hysterics. She liked to wear paisley and purple when she felt melancholy in an attempt to turn the feeling around, something that started when she married Mr. Donovan. She wondered more than a few times if she was really cut out for this life and all the shit that came with it. She had a distinct memory of the deer incident. Once they arrived home and moved the animal from the putrid car to the soft dirt of the strawberry patch, Doris insisted on everyone making some sort of comment about the animal. She read a eulogy she had written in the car with her grape-colored crayon, involving many statements in reference to Bambi and what it means to be a deer.

Mrs. Donovan hoped this was a one-time occurrence, which her daughter would forget after a few readings of Mike Mulligan. But the next morning, Mrs. Donovan woke up to her daughter outside making a cross out of beaver sticks she found and collected from a dam last summer on the McKenzie River.

Years later, the strawberry patch in the backyard would be covered with crosses. Having run out of beaver sticks Doris moved on to stones with chalk on them. Mrs. Donovan used to eat the strawberries in the backyard. However, she curbed that habit; decided on store-bought pesticide-sprayed strawberries rather than eat the ones out back. Her husband found the whole situation hilarious and often ate the strawberries. Mrs. Donovan always pictured the broken road kill the roots fed off, and could not even touch the strawberries without feeling a morbid sense of death in her mouth, like a tart piece of red candy gone wrong.

*

Toby was home-schooled at the insistence of her father, Mr. Donovan. He had a whole shelf in his library dedicated to books on proper childhood development and how to achieve brilliant children through attached parenting. However, Toby had wanted to take choir, something neither of her parents had any interest in. But it was arranged for Toby, at eight years of age, to go to choir in the mornings on Tuesdays at the local public school. Mr. and Mrs. Donovan decided to have her ride the bus in for practice. They would go in to pick her up after practice ended since this was the only class she took at the public school and happened to be first period. They both felt it encouraged socialization and helped Toby build a community outside of her Girl Scout troop and ballet lessons. This was especially important since Mrs. Donovan was concerned the pet cemetery was due to limited socialization in juvenile communities, rather than the unique print of DNA she and her husband created when they conceived Doris. Mrs. Donovan had finally started reading those parenting books her husband collected.

After about two weeks there was a call from the principal, Mr. Howe, asking Mr. and Mrs. Donovan to come in early. Toby would not be able to go to choir practice. Once settled in the office, the panicked-looking principal described what had transpired. Their daughter sat in a chair with a tear-stained face, unwilling to make eye contact, which caused Mrs. Donovan’s stomach to sink. There was a feverish expression on Doris’s face which Mrs. Donovan had come to know meant some bizarre encounter with road kill. She had only been wrong once about this, when Doris got the chicken pox.

“Mr. and Mrs. Donovan, thank you for coming in. I wanted to discuss Doris, excuse me, Toby’s transportation to school with you.”

“Of course. Is the busing not working for some reason?”

Mrs. Donovan was hoping it was some mechanical issue, searching for a concrete reason that involved an engine or perhaps a routing issue with the bus, instead of her daughter’s unique behavior.

“Well, perhaps Toby would like to tell you what happened on the bus today?”

Silence…

“Well, obviously I was not there. However, the bus driver recounted the whole story to me. I am sure he would be here, but I think he is a little overwrought at what happened. It seems the bus…well…hit a squirrel on the way to school. Your daughter demanded the bus driver stop so she could retrieve the animal….”

The principal stopped here and looked at both the parents with an odd expression on his face. A mixture between dread and laughter and something else Mrs. Donovan was not sure she liked.

“When the bus driver refused, your daughter decided to scream at the top of her lungs and run up and down the aisle until he conceded. The bus driver was forced to stop the bus. At which point, your daughter ran off and grabbed the squirrel. He could not leave her there, so as a result she brought the dead animal on the bus to school with her, causing the other children a great deal of emotional damage, I am sure. The bus driver informed me he tried his best to get it away from her but she bit him. Yes! Bit him, so he drove her here and got me and the guidance counselor.”

It was at this point Mrs. Donovan realized Toby was clutching her backpack harder than usual. A fuzzy tail with a little smudge of guts, or what could possibly be squirrel brains on it, was showing at the top where the zipper had not fully closed over the animal. After a great deal of discussion and pleading on their part, it was decided Toby could continue with choir after a week break. However, she could no longer ride the bus and she was not allowed to bring a backpack to school anymore. The principal had misgivings about what she could hide in the backpack.

The whole family left, Mrs. Donovan feeling dejected and helpless. She had an extreme desire to leave her daughter on the side of the road and quelled it by opening the window and sticking her head out like a crazed golden retriever. Her two compatriots did not seem to have the same misgivings about the day. Mr. Donovan was driving with clear focus on the road, but made some comment about what kind of character it took to stand up to an adult at eight; a completely ridiculous response to the whole incident in Mrs. Donovan’s opinion. Toby, in the meantime, was examining the carcass in the backseat with deliberate attention to detail.

“Can we have a funeral?” Toby asked.

“I am taking a nap when we get home. I will not be participating in a squirrel funeral!”

However, Mrs. Donovan’s nap was thwarted upon returning. As they moved the animal out of the backpack and into the backyard Toby became more insistent.

“Daddy, will you say something about him?”

“I am not sure it was even a him, Toby. I’m not real clear on how to tell the sex of a squirrel.”

“It’s actually a chipmunk. I tried to tell that to Mr. Howe before you came, but he would not look in my backpack with me.

“You could say some stuff in Latin about him…Mom all you have to do is stand there. Please?”

They held what passed in the Donovan household as a full mass for the squirrel that turned out to be a chipmunk. When the eulogy was finished, they all walked back to the house together.

“I have to head back to work. Will you girls be all right without me?” asked Mr. Donovan.

“We will be fine. I think we will take a vacation day. What do you think Toby?”

“What are you going to do mom?”

“I’m going to take a nap.”

Mr. Donovan returned to work and left Toby to her own devices, something Mrs. Donovan tried to make sure never happened. Being left alone, an event that happened rarely, Toby was struck by what she should do. She was eight, but she felt something odd had occurred. She had held an adult at her mercy, not her mom or her dad who did not count, but the bus driver, a small square man who always called people “friend.” A term she found rather offensive since clearly they were not friends. It was something she had not known was possible with anyone other than her parents. A fact she decided to spend the afternoon mulling over.

She looked at the bookshelf hoping to find a book she could read.

She saw a picture book at the top that looked interesting, but it was with her father’s books on the highest shelf, and thus not within her reach. She precariously climbed on the back of the merlot leather ottoman and balanced herself against the edge of the shelf and the wood-frame lamp to her left. Her right middle finger could just brush the edge of the book she wanted. She worked at it for about ten minutes, eventually getting the book to fall, just as she toppled from her perch onto the deep orange carpet below. She looked at the title of the book, sounding it out as best she could: A-p-o-l-o-g-i-a by Barry Lopez. She was mesmerized by the pictures, which reminded her for some reason of her animal cemetery. They were deep black etching of animals, detailed down to the very pores on their nostrils. Toby ran her hand over the images wondering at what kind of an instrument had made them. Clearly, it had been more than the magic markers she used to draw pictures. It was at this point that her mother chose to make an appearance and destroy the independent afternoon Toby had imagined for herself.

Mrs. Donovan walked down the stairs to find her daughter with a book open, full of what looked like pictures of dead animals. Mrs. Donovan was not a weak woman, but having a daughter so dissimilar to herself, she was overcome. She walked past her daughter out into the garden, grabbing the pruning shears off the bench where her husband left them. They were large shears, built for a man’s wide shoulders rather than a woman’s. They had rusted after being left out too many times during rainstorms. But Mrs. Donovan had some sort of sub-human strength that came to her, similar to that of mothers who lifted cars in the heat of the moment to save their trapped children. She came at the rose bush like a would-be friend, simply out to cut the dead growth away so the plant could flourish.

She cut at the bush till there was nothing left, creating new and interesting ways to levy her weight against the rusted shears to get them to close. She butchered the bush to a stump unrecognizable to those who knew it as a rosebush. There were small cuts up to her elbows, and, at one point, she had fallen face first into the plant, giving her a tiny but deep gash above the left eyebrow. This would have ended the event for some women, but Mrs. Donovan seemed to relish the experience. She wanted all of it, not just the flowers, branches, and leaves, she wanted the roots. She wanted its death. She grabbed the base of the stalk with both hands and began to pull, squatting low and digging her heels into the clay soil. She used her quadriceps, along with leaning back to add her weight to the process. It was only when she failed at this and started to walk back to the shed to retrieve a shovel to dig out the roots that she saw her husband. He stood in the open doorway with Doris, watching.

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