BY TAMARA DEAN
On election night, Dory sat in front of the TV eating the gamey, greasy stew from the night before. Her name and Falk’s jockeyed on screen—Dory ahead by three, Falk closing in. Margins stayed in her favor, but Dory didn’t relax. She lifted the spoon and chewed the stew—meat, carrots, and potatoes gone tepid—until she had no choice but to swallow.
She had represented her neighbors on the county board for twelve years and never campaigned. Never had to. (They knew her from childhood; what they cherished she cherished.) Meanwhile, Falk—tall, baby-faced and rich, recently relocated from Boston—took his false humility, his do-gooder grin, and yard signs door-to-door. Word got back to Dory about how he was met: with an incidentally lifted crowbar, a loosely held rifle.
Even so, the race was a “nail-biter,” according to the toothy TV anchor.
What had Falk heard and said about Dory? In the neighbors’ wallpapered kitchens and paneled dens, did they call her a lowlife because of her bear kill? Hunting was fine, hunting was good, but the kind she’d done, on the state’s northern border, with a paid guide, was something like cheating. Did neighbors wonder why? “For once,” she said how-many-times in imaginary debates, “I wanted the thrill of taking down a beast twice my size.”
Two weeks ago, Dory had followed the hunting guide into a doughnut shop at dawn. Locals lifted their hands and Dory waved back as she passed them, her boots rasping the shiny linoleum. She thought they’d stay for breakfast, but the guide drove her straight to the woods, where, as instructed, Dory placed the box of crullers in a clearing and lifted the lid. A half hour later, a bear swaggered past. Like a toddler he plopped his bottom onto the bed of pine needles. He scooped out pastries two at a time. Paws as big as headlights. Frosting-smeared snout. Downwind in the tree stand, Dory smelled the bear’s musk and appraised her stance. You don’t squander opportunity. You don’t waste a hundred-dollar license, the hide and the meat, even if it’s gamey. You act. You win.
Afterward, the guide snapped photos of Dory with her giant prey, sun splintering through the branches behind her. The man pointed to the ivory muzzle and grinned. “You’ll make headlines.” This boar must have been a legendary menace, she’d thought, terrorizing dogs and children, smashing grills and birdfeeders. Driving home, feeling heroic, she guzzled a half liter of Coke. She worked up a story about the hunt, but by the time she had the chance to tell it, everyone knew.
Her daughter, Michelle, who lived in the next county and hadn’t visited in a year, not even at Christmas, texted, WTF?
Just Dory’s luck, her bear was famous online. He had a handyman’s name and six-thousand friends. News of his death went public. Videos were posted in remembrance—the beast splashing in a river, shimmying up a tree, pirouetting around a backyard gazebo. Animated, flickering candles. Pixelated lilies.
& 4 what? Michelle demanded.
Dory thought of a half dozen replies, but didn’t send one.
Now, never mind about the bear and gossip, she was winning, winning during the late night news, winning up to the time when stations used to play the national anthem and go dark. Finally, the race was called. No longer too close. Dory won. She shouted, “Hah!” and slammed her fist on the coffee table, making the spoon and bowl jitter.
She was too wired to sleep. The old clock on her nightstand glowed phosphorescent green and clicked out every second. In an imaginary conversation she told Michelle, “After all, bears don’t vote.” Michelle’s reply was pained and self-righteous. “They should. They’re affected by politics as much as people are. Maybe more so,” which was of course untrue. Dory cut her off. “Kill or be killed,” she said, eyes half-open in the dark, leaning against her padded headboard, although that was a lie, too. The bear hadn’t been looking to kill her. And she wouldn’t say such a thing to her daughter.
The next morning she was wearing a baggy Packers sweatshirt and her hair was a rat’s nest when someone knocked on the door.
Falk. His smile spun gold out of the autumn sunlight. He wore a flannel shirt and stiff camouflage pants, a crease down the front of each leg. “Dory,” he said, like they were buddies. He stepped forward and held out his large, tanned hand, which she shook, although she wouldn’t go craning her neck to meet his eyes. She wanted to believe that people got exactly what they deserved in life. But Falk, so put-together and pleased with himself, seemed to have gotten more and she, less.
Then he burst out, “Congratulations!” and Dory remembered that she had won the election. It wasn’t a surprise to her anymore, it wasn’t anything.
“Well. Thank you. Come in.”
She led him through the hall, past the photos of her daughter and nieces when they were young, in Halloween costumes, then older, in graduation gowns, past the turkey tails and twelve-point buck mount. Yesterday’s dishes were still in the sink. The kitchen smelled like sour fat, maybe worse than she knew, since people got used to their own smells. She raised the blinds in the dining room and cranked open a window. She offered Falk a chair, then a cup of coffee that he took with both hands like it was a newborn chick.
“You must be elated,” he said. He looked into her eyes.
The most they’d ever talked was at the dump, once. He was gutting the old farmhouse he’d bought and he asked her how to get rid of the trim that was infested with ash borers. She explained the quarantine area, the form he’d have to sign, and thought, “He’s too charming for here.” She bet his wife and kids were just as charming and that they would never stay. Like all the city folks who fantasized about a house in the country, they’d build a mansion, get bored, and leave. So she’d been caught off-guard when he declared his candidacy.
“You’re a tough opponent,” he said.
“You ran a good race.” She sat across from him, lifting her own cup of coffee, her third. She’d slept about four hours before the crows started arguing in the backyard.
“I heard so much about you.” He smiled like he wanted to hear more.
“Like about the bear?” If that’s what he was hinting at, if he was curious, she’d tell him. “It was something I always wanted to do. Take down America’s biggest predator. And I did. With one shot to the heart. Just the two of us there in the woods, him against me. Until you do it you have no idea. It was thrilling. A real thrill.”
Falk looked surprised.
Didn’t he think a woman was capable of shooting a bear?
“Here, I’ll show you,” Dory said. She fetched her cell phone and sat beside him.
“Three-hundred pounds.” She held out a photo of the bear. “More than twice as big as me.” She swiped to the next photo, the one where the bear was laid out on the ground with this head in her lap, jaws open, doughnut mash stuck to the rosy tongue, and tilted the phone so Falk could see.
“Impressive,” he said. He sounded like he meant it. His aftershave smelled like white pines, like fresh-sawn timber. Why wear aftershave on a Wednesday morning, here, with her? Or was he on his way to someplace more important?
Falk’s scent reminded Dory of the north woods, and she was about to ask him if he hunted—who knew?—when her phone buzzed and jingled, and above the bear’s body appeared Michelle’s photo, the one from a wedding where her hair was pinned up and blonder than usual and her smile was smooth, like she just discovered someone’s secret.
“Oh,” Dory said. She couldn’t decide about taking the call. She held the phone while it jingled and buzzed and thought about the rest of the bear photos she wanted to show Falk. She needed to talk to her daughter. But here was Falk eyeing the picture of Michelle, the beauty she had become, so much like Dory herself thirty years ago.
Falk looked away, giving her an excuse. Dory said, “I have to get this.” She stood, she backed up into the kitchen. She said, “Hi Sugar. How are you?”
While waking this morning she’d thought of what to say to Michelle to make peace: “I know I can’t expect you to understand. We’re just different that way. You have to take me as I am. You know what you get with me.”
Before she could say it, Michelle said, “You sound funny.”
“What do you mean?”
Falk was gazing out the window toward the shed. He seemed content, as happy to be in Dory’s dining room as he would be at a Mexican beach or a French chateau, places she was sure he had visited.
“Suspiciously sweet,” Michelle said.
“I’m having coffee with a neighbor. What are you up to?”
“I figured if you weren’t going to call me, it was time for me to call you.”
“I’m glad you called, dear.”
“You know what.”
When Michelle was nine she got herself bitten by one of the neighbor’s barn cats. It was a surface cut, the kitten’s teeth were little pins, but she howled as if someone was sawing off her arm, even louder as she neared the house, and Dory couldn’t help but laugh at the girl’s acting. Even as she cried, Michelle glared at Dory. Like a look would magically change her mother’s reaction. Dory said innocently, “What?” and Michelle said, “You! Are a cruel mother.” Dory’s gut fired hot and fast. She seized her right hand with her left to stop herself. She wouldn’t haul off and slap her daughter, just a little girl. She wouldn’t be that mother. She said, “Let’s see that arm.”
Falk was standing. He was lifting his big paw to wave. He was about to mouth a goodbye, Dory could tell. She said to Michelle, “I’ll call you back in a little while.”
“No, we have to talk. Tell your company to leave, Mom.”
“Yup, in a little while.”
“Okay then. Talk soon.”
She ended the call, but now Falk was in the doorway. Her chance to show him the rest of her photos had passed. He said, “Well, Dory.”
“Why don’t you stay for lunch?” She had so much stew. She had the cookies she still made every few weeks, even though Michelle and her friends hadn’t come around to eat them in years.
“Next time,” he said.
She couldn’t beg the man to stay. He had somewhere else to be. He was only being polite. But that meant something. “How about next Wednesday?” she said. “I’ll tell you about the god-awful meetings, people jawing about their troubles, and the pissing contests you’ll miss by not being on the board. You’ll never think about running again.”
“No, I’ll run again. And before then, I’ll get you to tell me your secret for winning.” His smile was a mile wide.
Dory looked up and saw his ambition. Even though he’d lost, he was hatching a dozen ideas for the county—a new grader, wider shoulders on the county roads, a cheaper waste hauling contract—the same ideas board members tossed around for years but never did anything about. He would stay and he would make things happen.
“You got it,” she said. “Next Wednesday then.”
They shook hands once more.
Dory would call Michelle back after lunch, after doing the dishes, and say, “I’m sorry, but what do you want me to do, unkill the animal? I can’t do that,” and pretty quickly Michelle would realize that it was a mistake to think her mother was cruel, and they would come to an agreement like reasonable adults.
She leaned over the kitchen counter and looked through her photos.
What a heavy beast it was. How warm it was in her lap.
Tamara Dean’s stories and essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Bellevue Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, New Ohio Review, Orion, Seneca Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in fiction writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in rural Wisconsin, where she’s built a home of mud bricks, co-founded a radio station, planted a prairie, and recently completed a novel. More at www.tamaradean.media.