Roadkill

A slow march through a long winter in a forgotten place in America.

Transcript

Narrator: Shit. How many toenails? How were there eleven? That’s not even how people cut their nails. 

Okay. A weird story. 

So yeah, I grew up way North on 91, between exits. 

Adult Peanuts Character: Inaudible.

Narrator: Well, you wouldn’t know that, would you? It makes sense that you haven’t heard of it. It’s small.

There was a paper mill there, a long time before I was born, and it shut down but the town just never died. It could be a Bruce Springsteen song, except no one gets out at the end. 

It’s dreary. Even the kids look old. Not too many people smoke anymore in America, but the percentage that still do is mostly from places like Alleville.   

I lived with mom, Jen, and her kids. I’d get up in the morning and look at all of them and think ‘Fuck.’ Because I didn’t have anything to give them. Kids don’t have a sense of inevitability, and teaching them about it won’t help. Ignorance is bliss, but platitudes are for idiots, so I didn’t exactly know what to do. 

The official line was that I was helping pay rent, but I wasn’t. The places that’ll hire me are places that will hire anyone, and they’re happy to let you know it. A lot of that kind of work is waiting, and the mind wanders when your job is just being somewhere. It settles on the worst stuff. What you’ve done, what you might do, what exactly is going to happen to you. 

There was a bike coop in town… Do you know what a bike coop is? 

Adult Peanuts Character: Inaudible

Narrator: Not many people do. Do you know what a bike store is? 

Adult Peanuts Character: A bike coop is like a bike store fucked a homeless shelter and had a kid who was a mental hospital. They provide tools to people to poor to get their stuff fixed by professionals, and turn shitty broken bikes into shitty working bikes. It’s a feel good thing for a town but the people who use it, mostly, are as down on their luck as possible without having a ventilator tube running into their throats. 

I started volunteering there in the Spring. I needed something to do. That’s when I feel hopeful. I made myself go at first and then it got to be something I liked. 

There were five of us who were there most of the time. 

Paul started it. He was in his sixties, and healthy in the way that only people with money get to be. He was a lawyer before he retired and he and his wife lived ten miles out of town. I think he wanted to save people or maybe redeem himself for something bad he did. Whatever. He didn’t have any obvious reasons for doing what he did.

Donna was the only employee. She’d moved back to Alleville from the city to watch her mom die. She’d been out of Alleville for long enough to look like she was really alive. She had a Mad Max haircut and black t-shirts with band names on the front. She’d been working at a bike shop in Montpelier and I could see her turning grey as the months rolled on. 

Dennis was a volunteer like me, the same age as Paul but showing it. He was one of the quietest people I’ve ever known. He’d claimed the radio. Any time I’d try to talk to him he’d turn it up. Still, I never thought he was a dick, just… that he’d had enough. 

Then there was Jeff. Jeff came in in the afternoon. He worked for the highway department, chucking roadkill in the back of a truck, dropping loads off at the rendering plant. He was weird and clearly dumb and sometimes he smelled like rot, but I could tell that he just wanted to be around people, and so badly… I think that everyone felt that way about him, wanting to give him some of themself and wanting to hold something back. 

So we all used tools we couldn’t afford to fix bikes that weren’t worth it. 

The rest of the time I’d ride around. I’d put a bike together for myself. It wasn’t new and it wasn’t fancy but it worked and I knew enough to keep it working. For all the grey of Alleville, the countryside can be beautiful. Anything ugly gets broken down. Trees rip their way out of the sides of old barns from just a little sun falling through the planks. Ancient tractors disappear when the goldenrod gets high. And I feel like I can get lost in it too.

Except for the roadkill. That always brings me back, reminds me of what we’re living through. You could argue that nature doesn’t care about anyone or anything, but that’s not true. Nature cares. It might want to kill you or eat you, but it’s got a use for you. Not like the road. 

I’d pass so many dead things. I won’t rattle them off, but everything that walks, crawls or flies in the Northeast, I’ve seen, flattened or on its back with it’s legs sticking skyward from the bloat, leaving aside moose. That’s probably because if a person hits a moose it flies through their windshield and kills them. 

Being roadkilled is a lazy way for things to die. There’s no point to it. It’s only been one hundred years since the model T, and none of the animals have figured out that the top predator in America usually kills because it’s distracted and impatient. 

The worst are the cats and dogs. They’re an extension of a person. Maybe the best part of them. 

Sometimes, when I wasn’t doing that, I’d hang out with Jeff. I don’t want to say he was a friend, but I didn’t spend a lot of time with anyone else. I felt like it was another volunteer gig. He needed someone. The universe called and I answered. 

He had his own house, about ready to fall apart, and a stable internet connection, which is worth its weight in gold.. Sometimes I’d sit just outside his garage as he painted his jeep with spraypaint, scratching his dog behind the ears. Her name was cricket, and she was one of the reasons why dead pets are sadder than dead bears. The rest of the time we’d hang out and get stoned, watching dumb shit on television. 

There were a lot of reasons that Jeff was alone. You could call it bad luck, but suicides and murders and car wrecks aren’t bad luck. They’re human error. Jeff got cheated, and I think he knew it. I could see the anger sometimes, just barely breaking the surface. 

Despite everyone with an obligation to care about him being dead he had a gift, and the gift was a total lack of insight into who he was, and that left him free to be himself without worrying about whether people thought he was a lunatic or an idiot. You can’t train for that kind of thing, you just have to be born with it. 

So he wasn’t shy about trafficking in conspiracy theories and superstition. It was all there, right from the beginning. A lot of it seemed harmless, but if you’re willing to believe anything than you might be willing to believe everything, and there’s some scary and stupid things that are everything. 

Still, it never got too dark. Not at first. 

Jeff’s chief weird interest was magic. Magic makes sense. I get it. If your whole life is out of your control, and all the normal avenues to getting some control are out of reach, then you grab on to what you can, good sense be damned. Magic isn’t that strange a way to make sense of things. It’s not far off from going to church and buying nutritional supplements. 

I’d just smile and nod. He had tarot cards, the I-Ching, even a magic 8-ball that he kept in his closet, right next to a little shrine with a picture of his mother looking down on it all. I didn’t want him to do any readings for me and we’d drift back to the couch after not too long. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible)

Narrator: Oh. You’ve used a Ouijia board… what did it say? 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Well that sounds about right. I wouldn’t want to answer anybody’s stupid questions either. 

He had little grass dolls hanging over his doors, and little runes painted on the molding with nail polish. He said they were for keeping out evil but that they might not be working. 

And on the coffee table, he had a piles of notebook paper with weird patterns on them. They were sigils, he said. For realizing goals. I looked around his little living room and didn’t say anything. 

The patterns were letters. All the consonants from a phrase piled on top of each other, with some energy expended to charge them. You could do push-ups or jerk-off or hyper-ventilate. It just had to be something that took effort. After that, you burned it or buried it or threw it in flowing water. 

I asked him what he was trying to get with the one on top of the stack and he told me he wanted a new jeep. And it worked. He got rear ended a week later and got a new jeep with the insurance money, just as shitty as the old one. 

One of the things that happened back then that didn’t seem important at the time was the Coop started collaborating with the school district on shop classes. I didn’t see the proposal for this, but I heard Paul on the phone with one of the school board members. He said ‘Hands-on STEM’ a lot. Isn’t that funny? 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible)

Narrator: Oh, well, see, STEM is science, technology, engineering and math… 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Right. That’s the acronym. But… okay, it’s funny because a stem… you know what? It’s not important. 

It was like a science class, but without science, technology, with machines that have been around for about two hundred years, math that didn’t go any further than counting and a ruler, and engineering about a million miles away from any practical design. But Donna did her best.

Jeff, Rick and myself would stay out of the way when the classes were happening. I don’t like to be around kids I’m not related to. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: No. I just don’t… I’m weird. I’m a weird guy. I worry about people not trusting me. But that’s not the point. 

The point is that there are old bikes that used to have generators on them. How fucked up is that? It’s basically the technology behind a Prius in the 1970’s. They only powered lights, but still, the core concept is there. 

Jeff was very interested in the generators. He was staring, and that’s a creepy thing for an already creepy guy to do. I could see Paul watching him out of the corner of his eye. 

And after that, Jeff got very interested in these parts. We were never discouraged from taking parts home. There were so many that were so shitty that there wasn’t any reason not to give them away. So he started pulling them off of bikes that were destined for the scrap heap. He asked Dennis to teach him how to wire them and Dennis turned up the volume on the radio and taught him by example. 

So Winter is long there. It starts in November and ends in May. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Yeah, skiing is awesome if you can afford to do it. Otherwise it’s awesome for all the people from New York and Connecticut who get off of the highway twelve miles North of here. 

Otherwise, it sucks. Without a car it sucks. Riding a bike in the cold sucks, so you take the municipal bus and try not to make eye contact with the other passengers. I once saw a guy remove a glass eye, spit on it, clean it with the sleeve of his jacket, and put it back in. 

But if you’ve got a car then you probably have a job and you have to drive there, which means digging yourself out, and if the plows haven’t gotten out soon enough it’s easy to drift off of the road and hang upside down in a frozen stream. I’ve heard people say that freezing to death isn’t that bad, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t frozen to death, so what do they know? 

Dennis asked me for help. He had a truck with a plow on it and a handful of accounts. When he asked me it was the longest sentence I’d heard out of him, about six words long. After that, after every storm, I’d walk to where he lived, grab the keys, and head out. 

I didn’t make very much money doing this, but what I didn’t give to Jen I used to hit Jeff back for all the times he’d given me beer and weed. 

It was an election year. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Yup. Okay. Everybody remembers it. I don’t think we need to talk about it. It’s just coming up because it’s part of the story. 

So, Alleville isn’t a place where people go public with their political views. There’s not enough people for that. All this stuff with the flags flying on the back of trucks- 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible)

Narrator: Oh. Yeah. You’re still doing that? 

That’s not a thing in Alleville. After two miles of driving you’re just letting squirrels know how you feel. 

So anyway, all the stuff happened. The thing at the Capitol. All of it. And Jeff couldn’t hold it in one night and, let’s say we had a difference of opinion. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible)

Narrator: Yeah. I try not to get into it. But I have to ask you: There’s this really obvious conspiracy going on, where the rich and powerful fuck over everyone else for money and power. Shouldn’t we talk about that one first?

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Alright. Let’s not talk about it at all then. 

So we had a difference of opinion and he was really pissed that we weren’t on the same page. He got red, threw a beer bottle onto the floor, and I took off. He needed me more than I needed him. 

You’ve heard that expression, that death comes in threes? 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Well, I don’t think the math works out. I need a timeframe to tell you if its accurate, but if you’re talking about people I know in a single season then it doesn’t. 

First it was my sister. She worked nights at the hospital and a storm got going after she left for work and didn’t let up until the next morning. She did one of those slow rolls I mentioned, just a graceful fishtail into a ditch. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Funerals don’t pay for themselves. 

A few weeks later Donna’s mom died. We had a little gathering after, at the coop, but she didn’t show up. Turns out she left that morning. 

Dennis was next. He had a stroke and went into an assisted living place, then another stroke  a few weeks later. I didn’t introduce myself to anyone at his wake. I thought that someone might have a claim on his stuff and I wanted to hold on to the truck. 

Then the truck itself died. I’m no mechanic. About as much as I can do is change a tire. Blame… well, man, I think you’re the one to blame for that. I remember standing there in the driveway, breath steaming, wondering what the fuck I was going to do. 

The coop was three people down at that point and Paul didn’t get his hands dirty, so I went back. I was hunting for work and not finding any. It was a mess. Every one of us left in the middle of something and it was all there when I stopped back in. Paul told me he’d be wrapping things up in the spring, after a last push do find a home for the tools and the bikes. Then the landlords could deal with it. 

Like I said, most of the time the people who came through were on the last leg of hope, the kids and the adults. Angellville wasn’t a great place to be homeless. It was a place to become homeless, but not to stick around in- 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible)

Yeah. A lot of people think that. But you’ve got a chicken and egg problem there. Does a person become homeless because they drink, or drink because they’re homeless? 

Anyway, after the last big storm three guys froze under a bridge. Paul and I knew them all. They’d gotten bounced from a seasonal shelter two towns over. Paul set up a memorial for them and only five people showed, myself included. 

That night, after the girls had gone to bed, I sat in the kitchen. A ticking clock is loud at night. There’s not as much background noise. Not enough other sound. I felt so heavy then. The past piled up behind the present and the future was a drop that I couldn’t see the bottom of. I wondered how there wasn’t a hole drilled through space where all this stuff could drain out. I don’t cry. I don’t think I can. 

The last death was Cricket. We were close to Spring and the Coop was getting empty, all the junk we hadn’t fixed yet getting rolled out the door into a trailer Paul had borrowed. It would get scrapped, at a loss, because mixed metal is completely worthless. 

Jeff came in, too frantic to make any sense, and started emptying the parts cleaner. All I got from him is that his dog was dead and I felt like that hole, that dark, invisible hole, was even closer to opening. 

I found work again, at the Sunoco off of the highway. I fucking hated it… place was an all-purpose addiction store. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Oh. Yeah. I never dipped. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible)

Narrator: Nah, not Jule pods either.

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Slim Jims? Fuck no, man. But I get it. They wouldn’t be addictive if they weren’t good. 

But anyway, I’d ride my bike there at 6PM and home at 6AM. Sometimes Jeff would pass me in the roadkill truck, but he didn’t stop or wave. It’s a busy time of year for Jeff, early Spring. Everything that died in the Winter gets refrigerated in the piles of snow the plows push off the road, so there’s about four months worth of dead stuff that shows up when the snow melts. 

But, the animals seemed to be picking up that the road wasn’t to be fucked with, and that was even worse. It meant more maimings, and I’d catch sight of groundhogs dragging themselves through a field to die in their hole, or a fox disappearing into the woods at a limp, a busted leg pushing through its fur. And always little birds, flapping or spinning in circles. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Alright. You’d put them out of their misery. That’s really merciful. You ever go to a nursing home, let me know how it works out. 

I decided I’d put Jeff’s freakout aside. I was determined to not be his friend, but I didn’t want him to die alone, enraged and miserable, then melting into his couch. No one would find him for a long time and that’s a terrible, sad thing. So I rode over on the first nice night of the year on a day off. 

He didn’t answer the door. I knew he was home, or already dead, and that might have been relieving. I could say I made an effort without any expectation that I stick around. “My brother’s keeper” without any responsibility. 

He had a window cracked. I looked through and there was no one. I didn’t smell death and I could see that the TV was on. I walked around the house to the side door of the garage. The overhead fluorescent was on. That’s an ugly light. He had shelving built into the exterior wall and it was hard to see through the window. But I could hear something. A rhythm. I tried the door and it opened. 

It smelled bad inside. Just the kind of smell you’d expect. Something dead. And I could hear spinning. Wheels. A bicycle. Jeff was dead center in the room. He was riding a bike on an old stationary trainer. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: No. Not like a peloton. Totally different. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: No, just picture it. It’s a thing that makes a bike stay in one place. That’s the important part. And he was sweating. Soaked. Red skin. On the brink of a heart attack, giving it his all. 

So, this one bike that he’s pedaling is hooked up to another bike. Like the chain went forward, from the front chainring forward. And it was just staged like that. Up and down. He had six of them, and each one had one of those generators, wires leading down to the floor, and in the center of everything, in front of Jeff, was Cricket’s body, inside loops of metal shavings, the stuff he’d gotten out of the parts cleaner at the coop. 

He was barking out consonants. The sounds, not the letters themselves. I listened, and I heard them. P-L-S-D-N-T–L-V-M. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

How is it that your first guess is Poles Don’t Love Me? And that’s not a request. A request man. Remember, the sigil thing? It was ‘please don’t leave me’. He wanted his dog back. 

He stopped pedaling. He tried to get off the bike and fumbled it. He fell on the floor and stared at the ceiling. I don’t think he saw me, and I backed away, far enough that he couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see him. And I thought I heard a tearing, and thought about that night, that late night, after those three guys died on the coldest night of the year. And I thought I heard nails on the concrete. 

I never saw Jeff again. And I stayed in Angellville for a while after that. I kept riding my bike to the gas station in the afternoon, and I’d see all the dead animals just like before. On my way home, I’d see what could have been those very same deer limping across the road and getting run down again. The drivers didn’t stop, and as I passed those deer would look up, still terrified and so hurt, but maybe there wasn’t any way out anymore. 

So I left. Now I’m sleeping under bridges. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible) 

Narrator: Yeah, I didn’t expect to talk to you again. I figured you were dead. You were dead to me anyway. 

Adult Peanuts Character: (Inaudible)

Narrator: No, I don’t think I’m going to try bringing you back, Dad. You had your chance. How much fucking up do you think you want to do? And anyway, I don’t believe in magic. 

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