A Place on the Wall by E.A. Mayer

In Memory of Hector Moggia
Tunk is sitting on the ragged stump of a pine tree split by lightning when he hears Griff and his buddies drive down the narrow fire road in two cars; they jounce over chuckholes, slap spruce limbs. Griff and a man dressed in tree-bark camouflage get out of a blue Jeepish thing. Five other men tumble out of a low-slung foreign car like circus clowns.

Tunk looks at their feet, then glances down at his own. Everyone's wearing L.L. Bean boots. Leather tops, rubber bottoms. That's what they have in common.

Tunk is from just outside Millinocket, a native. He's never been further south than Augusta, when his fifth grade class rode in a stinking bus to see the gold dome of the state house.

Griff and the others are from away. Down from Connecticut. Down for their deer. The camp belongs to Griff. Albert Griffin Tillbody V, that is. Before that it belonged to Albert Griffin Tillbody IV, Griff's daddy. Tunk has worked for them both. On paper he's the caretaker. But Griff calls him the guide when he has sports around.

Every year at this time, Griff gives Tunk a call, telling him to get the place ready. To Tunk it's as much a sign of deer season as hoof-scuffed earth and steaming clusters of droppings. A day or two later, he'll drive down the fire road to Sprucewold. That's what Griff's daddy named the place back in '49. Tunk made the sign himself, carving it out of a slab of birch.

It takes Tunk the better part of a day to get the camp cleaned up, but he enjoys the ritual of the work: loading the firebox, sweeping what he calls slut's wool from the corners, airing out the blankets, knocking papery hornet nests off the porch.

Now Griff is up again for another season, another trophy. He ambles over to the shattered stump to shake Tunk's hand. "If there's a buck in these woods, Tunk'll find him," he says, by way of introduction. "You wait, he'll be calling them in like dogs."

The others are standing around in khaki clothing, rubbing sore backs, passing around an engraved silver flask. One of them is fussing about a scratch on the foreign car. Tunk has no idea what they do for a living. From what he has gathered over the years, Griff moves money around by telephone, collects expensive wives and guns, maintains a suntan the color of a penny.

Tunk follows Griff and his friends up to the porch, then totes their gear inside, making sure they all have their big Coleman coolers and monogrammed gunbags.

The man with the flask twitches a twenty dollar bill near Tunk's hand. "Appreciate it," he says. "I like to see a working man rewarded for his efforts."

"You can put your money away."

"I forgot. You guys are funny about stuff like that. The Yankee thing, right?"

"I work for Griff. That's the arrangement."

"I'll keep it in mind."

After cocktails and a few rounds of cheating poker, Tunk shows them all how to fire up the wood stove without torching the place, points out the way to the backhouse, warns them about the coyotes.

The man with the flask tips it toward Tunk and says "Like a hit off my canteen, Scoutmaster?"

"Shut up, Baskerville," someone says. "You're juiced."

Griff isn’t following the conversation; his eyes are focused on an empty place on the wall opposite the fieldstone fireplace that runs up to the ceiling like a city street. He rubs his hand across a patch of yellow pine between a framed photograph of his granddaddy resting his boot on the woolly head of a dead bison and a faded Dartmouth pennant with Class of ‘03 stitched in rotting thread.

“Right there,” Griff says. “That’s where he’s going.”

“Who?” says a man with a hunting knife strapped to his leg.

Griff traces a wide circle across the wall with his trigger finger. “Tell him, Tunk,” he says, measuring the blank space with the flat of his hand.

“Not that old fella we scared up last time out?”

Griff nods, speaks to the wall. “Silver sides, oak tree rack, backside like a linebacker.”

“Some bucks just ain’t meant to be taken, Griff.”

“You can take anything you damn well please, if you’ve got the right hardware,” says Baskerville. “Get yourself some heavy metal—say a thirty ought-six—and you can knock down a bull elephant like he was a beer can.”

“No elephants up here,” Tunk says. “‘Less you count animal crackers.”

* * *

When Griff rousts his friends out at four o’clock in the morning, Tunk is waiting in the mist that’s strung through the trees like yarn. He sits there, scratching the stubble along his jaw with a broken piece of antler, watching while the sports chew on bark-like strips of beef jerky, pucker up to scalding cups of coffee, assess the redness of each other’s eyes with flashlights. They’re dressed in a riot of camouflage, all zippers and bullet loops, carrying deer rifles whose custom-fitted stocks are etched with muscular stags and towering pines.

Baskerville tops off his flask with Johnny Walker Red.

Griff lopes toward Tunk, his big gun creaking from its leather sling. He’s painted his face in jagged streaks of gray and black, and a green rag is knotted across his forehead. His eyes are stones in a muddy pond.

“How lucky are you feeling this morning, Tunk?” he says.

“No more’n usual. No less neither.”

“I can live with that.”

Griff whistles to the others. “Okay,” he says. “Here’s how it goes. Rule number one: call your shot before you take it. And rule number two: no second shots.”

“Call me crazy,” Baskerville says, “But I didn’t drive seven hours to be a Camp Fire Girl.” The flask bulges in a pocket of his camouflage vest like a hand grenade.

“Nobody’s asking you to like it,” Tunk says, moving toward the group. “Some things I don’t cozy to myself. Like chasing down a gut-shot buck ‘cause some boy got sloppy.”

“And who might that be?”

Tunk tucks the broken antler into his belt, tips his head at the trees that ring the clearing like an iron fence and says, “Best pay attention out there, son.”

* * *

Tunk sits on a scrap of moss, rubbing his thumb over the worn tip antler fragment. The black-and-blue checked cap on his head is cocked into a breeze that pushes steadily up the ridge, flopping the curled leaves back like hounds’ ears.

He listens for Griff and the others. Bringing them out here makes him feel sad, cheap, as though he’s dragged a fancy woman home for Sunday supper.

Upwind of him stones tumble and click together. A twig snaps. Griff’s painted face looms up from a knoll.

His skin is beaded with sweat and the rag across his forehead is a damp, black-green. Baskerville is right behind him, balling up the wrapper from a Clark Bar in his fist; his lips are sticky at the corners.

Griff breathes through his mouth, the wet cloth of his shirt filling and emptying like a bellows. “We close to anything?” he wheezes.

“Still got a ways,” Tunk says.

Baskerville roots around in a fanny pack for a bottle of buck lure, then splashes it on his neck and arms.

“Pickle yourself all day in that stuff, won’t do a lick of good,” Tunk says.

Baskerville sniffs at the buck scent on his hand, wrinkling his nose. “You don’t think too much of a guy like me, do you?”

“Guy like you don’t concern me one way or the other.”

“That’s what I mean. I’m just some Greenwich wiseass you have to try to ignore. The question is—why the hell do you put up with it?”

“Mister, maybe you ought to keep your mind on your hunting,” Tunk says. He rises slowly to his feet, brushing off the seat of his pants.

When the others trickle in, blistered and sore, Tunk lets them rest for five minutes, advising them to leave their salt tablets for the porcupines and to drink no more than a swallow or two of water.

Then he starts off without a word, leading them along a trail that offers no more than a hint of passage through endless clots of puckerbrush and moose maple. The trail links several clearings at which Tunk kneels to interpret clustered droppings and matted leaves, evidence of slumbering deer.

He pushes himself hard in spite of a hip that feels like a cracked teacup brimming with hot coals. Most men his age have given up backwoods hunting, content to shoot crows from the porch and play cribbage for match sticks. There’s no good reason for him to be out here, slogging through beaver bogs, picking his way over ridges toothed with granite, while his hip hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.

It would be easy to give it up. When Griff calls next year, he’ll just tell him he’s flat out of luck, tell him to hire out with some candy-ass who’ll let him plug corn-fed deer while he’s driving around in a Jeep with a Bud between his knees.

But Tunk knows he won’t do any such thing. It would mean taking a job paying minimum wage somewhere: pick-poling logs off a conveyor belt at the pulp mill or operating a deep fryer at a McDonald’s or—worse yet—selling tickets at the petting zoo out on Route 129. No, he’ll stay on.

It’s just after daybreak when he spots what he’s been looking for: three ash trees whose bark is worn away in fuzzy patches roughly four feet up their trunks. A buck rub. He circles the trees quietly, noting clusters of warm scat and overturned mats of leaves, acorn husks.

Hell if he hasn't found the sports some deer. The fact that he’s done it—can still do it—makes him want to whoop and holler like a logger on payday. Instead, he removes a stale Necco Wafer from the torn roll in his pocket and lets it melt on his tongue while he waits to show the deer sign to the others.

Griff scuffs up with Martini and Baskerville. “The rest of them crapped out,” he says.

Baskerville carefully spits on an ant between his boots. “Shit birds.”

“They know the way?” Tunk asks.

“They’ll find it eventually,” Griff says. “Hell, they’ve got all day.” He blots his face with the back of his hand, leaving a streak of greasepaint across his knuckles.

“Weak tits,” says Baskerville, spitting again.

Martini laughs. The knife gleams in his palm as he draws the blade along the thumbnail of his other hand, raising a tiny snowflake. He blows it away, satisfied.

Tunk points out the frayed tree bark, the churned soil.

Griff kneels beside the scuffed leaves, inspecting an acorn.

“How many are we talking about, Tunk? One? Two?”

“Could be one old boy with plenty of spunk. Maybe a couple of youngsters testing their spikes. No telling exactly.”

Tunk watches Baskerville draw the flask from his pocket, vaguely offer it around, lift it to his lips, then replace the cap—all with one hand. The Lord gives us all a gift, he thinks.

Tunk keeps the group close together now, leading them in a loose arc toward the place where they will wait, concealed. It’s a spot he’s known since boyhood: an abandoned brickworks. Stubborn maples have pushed through the crumbling kiln, their roots lacing through the stone foundation. Shattered bricks velveted with moss lie heaped about on either side of a forgotten roadway grooved with the scars of vanished wagons. A stream flows along the downhill edge of the road, chuckling faintly beneath doilies of hoarfrost.

Tunk hunkers down beside a twisted maple, favoring his hip as he settles among the roots. Griff crouches next to him, shucks off his boots and rolls his socks down to his toes, probes the blisters on his heels.

A fog bleeds up from the ground while the men whisper to one another. They watch it spread quickly, consuming stones and trees in a cool, pale fire.

"Isn't this just too picturesque," Baskerville says, heaving a brick shard at the crawling whiteness. "Maine fucking fog. No wonder the damn season's so short up here."

Tunk wrinkles his nose, takes in a good snort of damp air. It smells rusty, decayed. He begins to rub the scrap of antler against the scars and fissures of the maple behind him. The sound knocks and grates as he works the antler—both drumstick and violin bow—building the frenzied rhythm of a buck in rut. He pauses, glancing at the others as they slurp smoked oysters from a can. They don't deserve to be here; he is no better for bringing them.

Martini strops the blade of his knife on his pants leg and holds up a small carved figure: a man, bent and bearded.

"Let me guess," says Baskerville. "It's one of the Seven Dwarves—Sleepy or Doc."

Martini shakes his head. "Saint Francis of Assisi."

"You know what they say about guineas and statues?"

Tunk lurches to his feet, using the maple tree for support.

"What is it?" says Griff.

Tunk tilts his good ear toward the stream. Something is out there. Sizable, too, judging by its footfalls.

"Looks like Daniel Boone's got incoming on the radar," Baskerville says.

Griff stands in unlaced boots, a slovenly Boy Scout. He fingers the custom checkering on the grips of his Remington.

"Talk to me, Tunk," he says.

Tunk waves him off. He is trying to fill in the shifting blanks around him, sketching a map of sounds in his head. There's something at the stream, a tongue lapping among the wet stones, a sound within a sound. Then a rustling.

He sees antlers spiking through the gauzy mist to his right—three rifle barrels. Damn, dumb sports: so quick to pull a trigger, so slow to think. He shoos them back with angry flaps of his hand.

Only Baskerville stands his ground. "I don't hear shit," he says; his voice sounds lost, puny in the fog.

The others perch, angled and itchy, straining to hear a grunt or snuffle—something to lay a sight on.

There's a splash and another sound—low, almost chesty. This time they all hear it.

Griff steps up next to Tunk and whispers, "How big, Tunk?"

"Best wait and see. They're skittish, won't move far in a fog."

"Wait, hell," says Baskerville. "If you won't take the shot, I will."

Griff looks to Tunk, shrugs. "I'd kind of like to hang something on that wall."

"Your shot'll come."

Something strikes the water—once, twice—the sounds moving away upstream.

"I'm waiting, Griff." Baskerville follows the splashes with his rifle barrel, squinting through the scope.

Griff fits the Remington's walnut stock to his shoulder and gives Tunk a backward glance without saying anything. He takes a sip of breath, swinging into a firing position, loose and easy.

A breeze from the northeast scours the maples, abrading patches of fog, which fill themselves in. Tunk glimpses a limb flagged with crimson leaves, a clot of tannin-stained foam in a stream eddy, tangled ferns.

He watches the muzzle of Griff's rifle; it bobs slightly, then rears back with the shot. The gun's report cracks through the trees like an electric current.

"Jesus Ever-loving Christ," Griff shouts. He loops the rifle sling over his shoulder. He's pumped up and smiling, the boy who scored the touchdown. "I tagged something, no question."

"Didn't look like much to shoot at," Tunk says. "Where'd you put it? You thump his chest?"

"I took the shot, didn't I?"

"If the son of a bitch is over twelve points, you're buying dinner at 21," Baskerville says.

"That includes the Cuban stogies," Martini adds. The carved feet of St. Francis jut from his coat pocket.

Tunk watches the sports trot across the sunken roadbed toward the stream, stumbling on brick chunks scattered in the mist. A gunshot or two and they all become Superman. He listens to their whoops and curses, their voices shrill and boyish as they give chase. He waits for them to get well ahead of him, then shambles down the grade.

The stream runs brown and cloudy where Griff and the others have crossed: the far bank is tattooed with their toes, their heels. L.L. Bean boots. Tunk crouches to look for deer prints and finds several. They're old, a day or two at least. Then he sees a ribbon of blood across a patch of gravel; it's already sticky, going brown. Blood and bootprints lead through curled, fetal ferns and, beyond that, beaver-gnawed alders. He limps after the sports, sees where they've stopped to light cigars, then, further along, where one of them has fallen ass-over-teakettle on a patch of moss the size of a doormat. Their tracks read like a comic book.

Tunk finds himself stopping often. It’s his hip. He figured his eyes would go first. Or his teeth. His good ear picks up scraps of shouting, not enough to piece together or understand.

So he pushes on, following the tread pattern patented by Mr. Leon Leonwood Bean. It's amazing to Tunk how a man could make a fortune off rubber boots. Now here he is—stomping around in their silly prints. He could have made a pile of money himself. Ten, twelve years back, his nephew had asked him to go in on a toothpick factory. All they needed were birch trees, junk stuff. There wasn't a joint from Moody's to Miami Beach that didn't have a little bowl of toothpicks set out by the cash register next to the mints. But something in him just wouldn't give up the sight of a buck's jeweled eyes or maple leaves winking in the breeze like dimes. It's the only kind of money he's ever really had.

He hears the hollow clap of a gunshot just over a granite spine downwind of him. Two more claps follow.

He hustles along as best he can, his hip socket burning like a welder's bead. He thinks back to the racks of bucks he's helped hunt, considers their differences. They were better than snowflakes, their twists and warps telling stories of bitter winters, battles over does, dry seasons; the same stories unfolded on his tongue whenever he ate a mouthful of fresh venison. He thinks ahead to the little chores and tricks he'll do when it comes time to dress out Griff's kill. Later on, he'll salt down the hide. The head he'll freeze until he can take down to Rip Thwackett's in East Millinocket. Rip can make a stone look alive.

Tunk feels the press of gravity nudging him downhill. The ground crumbles under him, falling away like burnt paper. He gropes for the edge of something, claws up pine needles and loam, plows furrows with his boots. His slide ends in a snarl of a blackberry thicket. He picks thorns from his wool pants and blots the scratches along his wrist; otherwise he's unhurt, though he feels green, foolish.

"Walk it off," says a voice from somewhere below him. It's the Italian—Marty something with the knife.

"Could've busted something."

"Well, I didn't," Tunk says. He slaps the dirt from his pants. "Where's Griff's buck at?"

Martini shucks off his cap to smooth his hair. "How long you say you've hunted around here?"

"Forty-six, forty-seven years. Long enough t'have seen some things."

For a moment Martini's eyes try to read something in Tunk's prickly face, then he turns and clomps off downhill. Tunk follows him through pockets of mist, feeling cranky about having to trot along after some country club hunter.

The land begins to tilt upward, cresting at a grove of tattered birches before dropping to bend around in a tight hollow; mist swirls above it like steam from a soup bowl.

Tunk looks past the shoulder patch on Martini's shooting jacket and sees Griff and Baskerville on the far side of the bowl. They're hunched over, busy with something on the ground, two heads bobbing on the surface of the fog.

"Griff didn't start the dressin' out, did he?" Tunk asks. "He'll just botch it up. Don't know the first damn thing about it." He pokes Martini's shoulder. "How big d'you say it was?"

Martini doesn't answer him.

Tunk wades across the bowl of fog, his boots moving unseen, disconnected from the rest of him. He smells cigar smoke as Griff and Baskerville pass something between them. It's a good sign, celebrating.

Griff sees him and stands up, wiping his hands on his pants; a cigar is pegged to the corner of his mouth. Baskerville sits there, puffing deliberately, watching the bluish smoke climb through the trees.

Tunk drifts toward them, wishing Griff's daddy were there. The Old Man would have pounded him on the back and said, Like a fox with a road map, Tunk—hell if you didn't find them again. That man could put starch in you.

"Done good," Tunk beams. "Ol' Man'd be proud."

Griff laughs once, the sound stalling like a cold diesel engine. He jingles something in his pocket.

Tunk rolls back a sleeve on his jacket. "Meat'll spoil, we don't gut him out soon."

"Go ahead," Baskerville says. "Lord Baden-Powell hauled us all the way out here. At least show him your merit badge."

Tunk scratches his head, fusses with the cap in his hands. When he looks up, there's a grin flopping at the corner of his mouth. "You, boys knock off your funnin' now."

"Shut up, Tunk," Griff snaps. "Be quiet, dammit."

Tunk stiffens. "Your old man never spoke to me like that. And you don't add up to half of him."

"Funny," Griff says, "He used to tell me pretty much the same thing." He pulls a scuffed leather band from his pocket; a pair of metal tags dangles from it, chiming dully.

Tunk snatches the tags and brings them close to his eyes. They're scratched and worn. He makes out a word. A name. Champ. He flings the tags at Griff's streaked face, etching the grease paint with a jot of blood.

"At least he was a pure-bred," Baskerville says. When he looks up from the knot of his cigar the barrel of Griff's gun is at his head, its muzzle like a cave. Tunk steadies it with both hands.

"Listen, friend," Martini says, "the joke or whatever is over."

"Put the gun down, Tunk," Griff says.

Baskerville breathes shallowly through his mouth.

"Is he dropping it or what?" Martini says.

"Come on, Tunk. No harm done."

Tunk presses his cheek to the walnut stock, sighting in on the map of veins at Baskerville's temple.

"All the seasons I been out here, I never shot nothin'," he says.

He squints and jogs the barrel a couple of inches. Squeezes the trigger. A puff of powder kicks up from a rock. He squeezes again. Bark flies off a pine tree. He squints at the ragged patch of sky. Squeezes. Feels the recoil, the sting at his shoulder.

When he lowers the rifle, Griff and the others are fanned out, slinking away. The gun is suddenly heavy, a damp log in his arms.

Baskerville shakes his head, coughs, vomits on his boots.

"You coming, Tunk?" Griff asks.

Tunk leans on the rifle, looks away.


"Screw him then," croaks Baskerville.

Tunk sits listening to the sounds of Griff and the sports bleed away, straining his good ear as his eyes roam over matted leaves, strewn acorn husks, the pale carved figure of a man in the dirt.


E.A. Mayer has had short fiction published in the Absinthe Literary Review, the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Pindeldyboz, Potato Eyes and Tower, the literary magazine of Dartmouth College. He recently completed a comic novel about the antiques trade. His blog can be found at fictioncentric.blogspot.com.