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Shane Cashman

Excerpted from Joyless Kingdom: Poems, Prose, and Dispatches From the Plague

“Know how much a head’s worth?” the old man lights another Pall Mall. “Big money. A lot of money. Lot of memories, too. Got most of them with a bow or a rifle,” he says. We’re standing in his room filled with deer heads.

He has to sell every head. Even the Medicine Man’s stick wrapped tight in deerskin, decorated with an antler. Touristy bullshit––nothing authentic. My guess is he probably paid someone to find these animal heads for him. It’s pathetic.

His wife is no better. Her ashtray face & rotted sweatpants.

They don’t have room for all the deer heads in their new, downsized home, his wife says. They’re moving south. The old man looks each deer in the eye. “I’m not callin’ it a senior citizen home. It’s a 55 and Over. Sounds better that way,” he says. There were no more U-Hauls in town––every last one has been rented for one-ways to Raleigh or Toledo.

The deer heads have a view of the emptied-out seven-car garage. The wife packs up their miniature statues of Jeter, Ali, and Saint Patrick. “Years ago, these were worth something,” she says. Her cigarette smoke spreads at the feet of her tiny statues.

She mourns the value of everything nowadays––all her stuff, which she spent thousands on years ago, might make $15 a piece now.

“Sell the heads. Sell the damn skins.” She hands me black bags to throw more deer skins in.

I can tell she wants to confess to me the parts of her soul that worry her most. Sometimes Craigslist people get that look in their eyes. They just want to unload their grief on you. Her deer heads show no grief. But people just look irreparably sad in surgical masks.

“I’ll tell you what happened?” the wife laments like I knew she would. “The economy tanked. My mother got the virus. It was a disaster. We were builders. Built this house,” which is enormous, but looks as if it has the same structural integrity as a Happy Meal box.

“We had everything,” she says, “then nothing.” She starts to cry. She gasps for air, adjusts her face, and buries the sadness deep down somewhere where it’ll be easy to ignore. Then she takes a good, long look at me, as if I were to blame for the way the world had beat her down. But I’m just here for the deer heads.

“I would not want to be young today,” she says, ashing her cig on the carpet. I’ve got a deer head in front of my face as I remove it from the wall. I must look like some kind of Lugosi Minotaur. Her secondhand smoke twists through me and she says, “I don’t envy you.”

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