Road Kill

Here’s something I never could’ve imagined myself saying before the fires: I’m lucky the old man drove big trucks. Here’s another: I fucking love rattlesnake stew.

I saw every bit of this country with Dad. You could have breakfast on the beach, go skiing in the afternoon, and end the day shaking scorpions out of your shoes in the desert. Just in California alone.

Once, in Wyoming, we saw the sky split in half. In one direction, it was blue all the way to heaven, and in the other these big dark clouds, wet and sweating with electricity. We stood over on the side of the road getting hooted at by the other semis, with the wind off them roughing our hair and clothes and making us feel storm-weathered and fierce, and we looked across the plains where the long golden grass was bright from the sun shining over our shoulders while dark clouds pressed down in front of us, and it was like the Earth was lit from within. I wish you could’ve seen it.

I’m getting sentimental. The real reason I’m lucky Dad drove trucks is one of his old buddies gave me a job after the fires ran out of things to burn. A lot of people left the mountains then because they hadn’t learned yet, like I had, that going to a place where there were unburned things only meant the fires had unfinished business. I lingered on in doorways that didn’t have houses behind them anymore and got drunk when there was something to drink or high when there was something to smoke or shoot.

The lake was still around back then but it was shrinking away from the old ruined resorts on its shores, and it was briny and starting to smell from all the dead fish. We drank out of it because we had to. We purified the water by evaporating it in big holes that we’d fall into sometimes when we were stumbling around drunk.

On a summer day when the air burned like bleach on my skin, I saw a guy up to his knees fishing in the lake with a real rod. It had been months since I’d been able to get my hands on any line, and I was curious whether there was still anything alive down there. I mostly walked over because he was whistling to himself, and I thought maybe he was having some luck. There was a lizard in my pocket that I’d caught, and I gave it to him the way I would have given a quarter to Dad when I was a kid, if his route was taking him through Vegas, and asked him to play it in the slots for me.

He severed its tail with his fingernails and hooked it and cast.

“I’m Casey Pelter,” I said.

“Shit. You sure are. You look just like your old man.” He spat chewing tobacco in the still water, and the greasy gob of it floated around our knees. I asked for a plug and he gave it to me. “Red Daley,” he said. “Your pa used to haul cattle for me.”

Red had the complexion of an anglerfish. He was shorter than me, but his stocky frame was mean. I wondered while he cast again whether there was something in the ancient brain that could look at a man’s knotted wrists and know whether those were the muscles that grew out of grappling and choking or strumming and plowing.

His chest was covered in tattoos and even though they were obscured by time and sun, you could tell most of them had tits. Sorry—breasts. There were two big words across his ribs on the side where I stood, maybe names, but he kept his arm tight across them. I didn’t like the idea of him knowing my dad. “He never mentioned you,” I said defiantly.

Red looked me over. I’m big like Dad but there’s always been a softness to me and it was looking like even starvation couldn’t conquer it. He chuckled. “No,” he said, “I don’t suppose he woulda.”

The dip was starting to spin me around. I sank down in the water up to my shoulders and let the salt float my legs.

“Your pa make it out?”

There was a look people would give you back then, when it was all kind of new, and when you saw it you knew for sure they were going to ask whether somebody had died. It was almost a courtesy, that look. It gave you a second to square yourself, to frame an answer that kept some dignity in it all. But Red just looked at me straight and asked. It gutted me like a fish. I spilled everywhere. I opened my mouth and it filled up with rank brine and Red’s dirty spit.

Red waited for me to flounder to my feet. He didn’t offer a hand. His little eyes mirrored the dead water back at itself. I wiped my tongue on my sleeve and shook my head.

“Fuckin’ shame,” said Red. “I thought the old coyote would live forever.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“We were good pals, me and you old man.”

“Right.” Dad had an easy way about him that got him invited to dinner. He ate better than anyone else on the road.

“He was the best drinkin’ buddy I ever had.”

The sun was beginning to sink, smug and fat, into the haze of the bald mountains on the opposite shore, catching the lake with a fire that faded to cinders at our feet. The smog made sunsets last forever.

“Dad didn’t drink.”

Red laughed. “Okay, kid.”

“Least, he quit before I was born.” He used to, plenty. I’d heard stories.

A crow called distantly. I used to think that was a forlorn sound, but it was so rare by then that it kind of buoyed the good feelings up to the top of my blood. I squinted into the sky. Behind us, the burnt skeletons of junipers grasped unsteadily at the ground, an army of monsters that melted as they advanced. Above them, the crow hung motionless.

“Well, alright then. One time your pa and I had a couple too many lemonades out trekkin’ in the woods. We were pretty messed up and we weren't lookin’ around, we were just starin’ at each other cross-eyed and laughin’ at squirrels, and we’d lost the path. I bent over to tie my shoelace or something and when I came back up, the guy was gone. ‘Course, he had the fuckin’ compass.”

The crow dove. A pinpoint on the horizon could be a miracle. It took my heart with it as it plummeted. True, I would have liked its prey for myself, but the crow was one of us. Like ours, its life was a senseless defiance.

“I was good and top heavy by then. And I’ll admit, after a while it was gettin’ to where I was feelin’ pretty sorry for myself, I was sittin’ on the ground, rippin’ a pinecone to bits, and I heard somebody whoopin’ some ways off.”

The crow ascended in disappointment and resumed its guard.

“I look over and you’re pa’s flyin’ down the hill on this little pink tricycle, it’s got those streamer things comin’ off the handlebars and everything. He’s flashin’ through the trees with his mouth open, just bouncin’ off rocks, and he can’t stop laughin’, he’s pissed himself he’s laughin’ so hard, and I’m laughin’, too, suddenly everything’s so funny. It’s funny that I coulda been angry at a guy like that. It’s funny that it makes no sense where he got a little girl’s bike from in the middle of the woods. And of course it’s funny that we both know he’s gonna crash. He’s not even steerin’, really, he’s just showin’ me how lucky he can get. You coulda cast him in bronze and put him in a church.”

I was starting to get reeled into the story. It must have been before he quit, before I was born, so it didn’t bother me so much that he’d been drunk. “Dad was always lucky. He could’ve flipped 20 heads in a row if there was something riding on it.”

Red laughed and spat. “Even when he did go down, he did it lucky. He lost half a tooth. He shoulda got his head caved in.”

I was 14 when Dad came home with a broken tooth. He wouldn’t patronize me with a lie but he wouldn’t tell me where he got it either. Well I was as dumb as a boiled oatmeal as a kid—still am—and all I needed was for him to say it was okay and I’d believe it.

 I looked back at the treeline. Someone pulled the drain plug on the crow, and it circled and plunged. I knew that rush from pulling my legs in spinning on the tire swing.

I’d seen that side of Dad, but I always looked away. Medals and epaulets in a locked drawer. How he’d busted through the door one Christmas Eve, sweaty and stumbling, singing old army songs with his arm around the shoulders of someone who wasn’t there. The dysmorphic Titans he whittled ceaselessly and pointlessly out of blocks of pine while we sat around watching football. But mostly he’d been gentle. Someone could dent his bumper and leave a number on the windscreen and he’d text them just to say not to worry about it.

I was still watching the treeline. It had been a minute or so since the crow dove and it hadn’t come back up. I imagined it down there struggling with a fat lizard.

I know I don’t have to tell you this, but when somebody you love dies, you don’t get new memories of them. You’re stuck with the ones you’ve got, unless somebody comes around and gives you a new one. And it’s a wonderful thing to have something new to chew on. But I didn’t want the one Red gave me.

Red was still talking, but I wasn’t listening. I was watching for the crow. The stakes felt high in a way I can’t explain. I felt the footsteps of a strange creature on my heart, a hot-belching cryptid born of hope and disgust. I smiled. Maybe there was still something down there big enough to kill it.



Kim Carson Bodie

Kim Carson Bodie is an American journalist living on unceded Whadjuk Noongar Boodja land. She has worked a lot of odd jobs and lived a lot of odd places. This is her creative debut. You can find Kim on Instagram and she recommends you donate to buglife if you don't want to end up like the characters in this story.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, April 27, 2023 - 20:11