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  • I am in the video store parking lot the first time I see a dead elk.

    Much as I imagine my life here playing out like some backwoods horror movie, there aren’t 6 toothless inbreds with rifles clinging to the back of the truck with the elk. Guns stowed, the hunting band is inside picking out a movie, perhaps some Meg Ryan rom-com. Hunt over, the elk also looks relaxed. Lashed over the hood of the pickup, tongue lolling, his head droops under the weight of his enormous antlers. Or rack, if you live here. Six point rack, if you’re a hunter telling your annual one-that-got-away story.

    A few guys wander over from across the highway, hands behind their backs, nodding in admiration. I content myself with the view from my car. Where is the blood? I wonder. And, wouldn’t it have been easier to put the elk in the truck bed?

    Tonight I decided to visit the only video store in town because I can’t go to the movie theater anymore. If one of my students isn’t tearing tickets, two of them are sitting in the front row doing something I could write them up for. I like my days off. When I’m not at school, I try to stay home. There’s no place else to hide.

    At the junior high I share a huge classroom with another teacher, Mr. Todd. I’m putting attendance into the computer database the next day as his class begins dribbling in.

    “Where are all my students?” I say. “Everyone can’t be sick.”

    “Hunting season,” Mr. Todd says.

    I look up. He can tell I need more information.

    “Lots of dads buy a medallion and take their kids out the first week.”

    “A medallion?”

    “A license,” he says. “To hunt.”

    I nod, remembering the video store elk.

    Dressed in the plaid shirt, jeans and work boots typical to men around here no matter what they do for a living, Mr. Todd blends in. I don’t. So I consider this new piece of hunting trivia. Can I use it to seem local? Do I want to?

    I return to the attendance. Last week I found a student named Talon in the database. I’ll bet his dad bought an elk medallion.

    Unconsciously I begin screwing around in the attendance program. It has everything for every student: medical conditions, drug prescriptions, custodial parents, active restraining orders against and physical descriptions of non-custodial parents, admonitions not to hand kids over to the wrong parent, instructions for what to do if a non-custodial parent shows up and insists.

    Adjacent to each child's catalog of potential woe is the child: smiling hopefully in their best picture day t-shirt. New year, full points, fresh start. I don’t notice how silent the room has become. Until Mr. Todd speaks.

    “Hey,” he says. “Can you watch my class for a minute?”

    Hunched over their worksheets Mr. Todd’s students are locked in another race for candy. Come on, I think. Everyone always gets a piece. Even with my eyes on them, they don't break. Why does this work for him?

    I’m already sitting here. All I have to do is watch for fights, cheating, drug use. Try to look in charge if an administrator comes in.

    “Ok,” I say. “Sure.” I don’t ask where he’s going.

    Mr. Todd opens the door.

    A frustrated shriek cracks the silence; the art teacher. She’s the best friend I have here which worries me since she hates her job.

    “I mean it!” she yells. “Stop horsin’ around by the…” the door clicks shut. A round of snickers. Then, all is silent concentration. Or post-lunch coma.

    I still haven’t finished attendance.

    Ten minutes later, attendance completed, I glance at the clock. What’s taking him so long?

    Just as the muttering and paperclip flicking begin, Mr. Todd returns. We exchange a look; the baton has been passed. The bell rings and the students trade their worksheets for a nasty piece of Safeway hard candy. As the last student departs, I have to ask.

    “Is everything OK?”

    “Oh yeah,” Mr. Todd says. “My buddy called me out to the parking lot.”

    I wait for the rest.

    “Just bagged an elk. An 800 pounder! Had to go check it out.”

    I imagine the view from the parking lot. A procession. Mud encrusted pickups stretch along the highway from the reservation, to Charlie Clark’s Steak House, to the LDS Temple, each one sporting an 800 pound hood ornament. Empty beer cans rattling around in the beds. Gun racks. The toothless.

    My neighbors. Their half-hidden trailers wedged into the gaps between scrubby pines. Modest lots ringed in chain link. The ground is like cement. To dig you need a backhoe, to plant, you need better soil. Most people just set things on top; mobile home, camper shell, dead car, salt-eaten pickup, potted plant.

    It’s cheap to live up here and hard to get the money together to leave. I can leave whenever I want. That’s how I know I don’t belong. Just look at the car I brought.

    Our dirt road gets graded once a year. Although I steer around the knee-deep potholes like a princess, I still have cracked engine mounts; and no 4-wheel drive. One hard snow and I’m stuck in the driveway. Even on a good day I wonder why I'm here. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to begrudge my students their elk steaks.

    “Wow,” I say. “That’s a big elk.”

    “Yep,” Mr. Todd agrees. “Meat for the winter.”

    Photo credit: T. Lewis
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