Afternoon of a Fawn

If it weren't for Jessie Betts's skating dress, the author wouldn't have had this close encounter of the deer kind
September 15, 1991

This is a true story. That's the trouble with it. Three days after these events actually happened to me—three days, that is, after I became the first person I have ever heard of who wrestled, physically, with an apparently lust-driven deer—I visited a movie set, where I told the story to everyone who would listen. Everyone looked professionally dubious. A prominent screenwriter was on hand to help punch up this movie's script from day to day, make it track better, give the characters clearer motivation. Two thirds of the way through my story, the screenwriter frowned.

"Where would he get a brick?" he said.

"Not he," I said, "me. This happened to me. I just reached down, and there was a brick there, on the ground."

"What would a brick be doing there?" he wanted to know.

"I don't know," I said. "This happened. See, here are the scars."

Actually they weren't scars yet, they were cuts. But they looked as though they might become scars, if I kept picking at them. (Today, I regret to say, they are almost gone.) The scriptwriter wasn't motivated to do more than glance at them. I pushed on through to the end of the story.

"I thought you were going to do more with the red sequin thing," the screenwriter said. "If not the pants."

If this were not a true story, I dare say I would do more with the red sequin thing, because it was a crucial element: Jessie Betts's skating dress. If not the pants.

Some back story (I believe that's what they call it in the movie industry). I divide my time between New York City and the country, western Massachusetts. So do my close friends, the Betts family. But they weren't coming up to the country on the weekend of Sept. 22-23, 1990, because Jessie, their 14-year-old daughter, had a big ice skating competition in the city on the afternoon of Sunday, the 23rd. If she finished in the top three, she would go on to a higher-level competition at Lake Placid. And Jessie had left her red sequin skating dress in their country house. So her mother, Lois, asked me to bring it in to the city in time for the competition. I was more than happy.

I went to the Bettses' house and picked up Jessie's dress before noon. That gave me time to play tennis with my friend Jon Swan on the Bettses' court, which lies in a clearing in the woods behind their house.

I have a good first serve when I get it in, but otherwise my tennis game is not, I like to believe, a reflection of my character. Jon is a decade or so older than I am and has a bad leg and a worse racket, but his play is clever, steady and amicably intent; whereas my ground strokes fluctuate back and forth from overhit to tentative, my concentration is feverish one moment and miles away the next, I am often preoccupied with trying to think of some way to dissociate myself from my last shot (if not from my character) as I hit the next, and I lack (on those rare occasions when it might become an issue) a killer instinct.

In my day I have pressed strong opponents, however, and over the years I have mellowed to the point that I no longer scream and throw my racket. And this was the first set I had played since the previous summer, so when I lost to Jon 6-0 without having got loose yet, and noticed that it was time to head toward the city, I was philosophical. After all, I was about to spend the rest of my afternoon coming to the aid of a promising young American figure skater.

Knowing the importance of my mission, Jon volunteered to sweep the court. I hustled up the path and emerged from the woods into the Bettses' backyard.

Where a deer stood.

Just stood there. About halfway between me and the Bettses' driveway, where my car was parked.

Deer abound in western Massachusetts. Once, after a heavy rain, I looked out the window of my own house and saw a big deer rushing downstream in the river. I thought maybe it was being swept away by the swollen current, but when I ran out and hollered, "Hey!" the deer hooked a quick U-turn, swam back up-stream a few yards and then jumped out of the water and ran through the middle of the village into the trees behind the general store.

The deer of my story, as I say, was just standing there. In the Bettses' backyard. I glanced at my watch, saw that I had a little leeway timewise, and thought to myself, "I believe I'll see how close I can get to this deer."

I crept toward him. He didn't move. I crept closer. He didn't move. He almost looked like he was looking right at me, but I couldn't tell for sure. I crept closer, then I relaxed, stood up straight, walked right toward him. He didn't move.

At this point in the story people suspect a trick: "Stuffed, right?" My agent, Esther Newberg, to whom I told this story the day after it happened—at that point I was still so stirred by the story that I thought her first reaction was going to be an eagerness to sell the movie rights. But no, what she said was, "Right, right, the Woody Allen moose, right? Wakes up on the bumper of the car."

And my own sister, Susan, said: "Is this going to be like the time in New Mexico we took that old dried-up deer carcass that the dogs drug up and we put it in your bed to see what you'd say when you pulled the covers back?"

But no. This deer was not stuffed, nor temporarily stunned, nor dead. He actually shifted his stance a bit, but not much. I was only six feet away from him. I thought to myself, "I believe I am going to be able to touch this deer." I took two steps and put my hand between his horns.

He didn't mind. Not very soft to the touch: ridged coarse hair on hard skull, like a cow's head.

I scratched. He seemed to like it. In fact, he butted forward slightly, as if appreciatively moving into my stroke as a cat will. But unlike a cat's, this deer's head wasn't very pitiable from my point of view. As opposed to his, evidently.

I thought: This is neat. Then I thought: This is weird.

Childish thoughts. But linking up with a wild animal is something I have been thinking about since childhood, when stories led me to identify with so many rabbits and bears.

And then I thought: These horns I'm scratching between. They're horns. Altogether, four points. It seemed to me that I had probably been scratching this deer's head long enough. I couldn't see that it was leading anywhere. "O.K., then," I said briskly, the only time either the deer or I spoke. I made to take my leave.

The deer wouldn't let me. That is to say, as soon as I took my hand away he took a step forward, pushing his head into my midsection. I grabbed his horns, close to his head. He took another step.

I didn't want to back up. It wasn't a big issue with me: I didn't feel that I had anything to prove, exactly, to this deer or to myself. But everything considered, I didn't like the idea of backing up. The deer pressed forward.

I was wondering, Why was this deer doing this? It didn't accord with any deer behavior I had ever observed or heard about. He was so intent on it. As though it was just something that he'd always wanted to do. He, of course, had no responsibilities. It meant nothing to him that Jessie needed her red sequin dress.

Then I noticed he was drooling.

Could you get rabies from a deer? But he wasn't showing any interest in biting me. I had never in fact heard of a deer bite. You could get Lyme disease from a deer tick, I knew, but I had never heard of anyone getting deer ticks directly from a deer.

At any rate, there we were. I felt strong enough to hold him at...well, at bay, didn't seem to be the expression. To a standstill. But for how long?

Enough. I had things to do. I gave the deer a brisk shove, freed my hands and flapped my pants at him.

I was wearing shorts. From the tennis. I had my long pants tucked under my arm. Waving my pants at him required that I push off and do a quick snatch-and-wave, and I didn't get a very good grip on my pants, and my tennis racket—which was also tucked under my arm—slipped down between my elbow and my hip, and what with one thing and another, my pants wound up on the ground. The deer, recoiling slightly, glanced down at them.

I didn't feel secure about bending down to pick them up. The deer butted at them tentatively. Then he lifted his head. My pants were hooked on one of his horns.

Oh, Lord, I thought. This deer is going to run off into the forest with my pants. Containing my wallet. And car keys. How can I get Jessie's red sequin skating dress to her in time for her competition?

I grabbed my racket and hit at my pants. They came loose. I didn't feel secure about bending down to pick them up, though. The deer surged forward. I grabbed his horns again, in the process dropping my tennis racket.

And there we were.

If you are attacked by a shark or a bear, I had heard, your best bet is to punch it in the nose. But it is hard to get a blow to the head in when you're in a clinch. I did manage to frap the deer's nose with my knuckles. It felt like—well, you don't get any gratification from hitting a deer in the nose. And the deer didn't seem to mind it. I twisted his head one way, and then the other. This he seemed actually to relish.

I decided to bulldog him down. I pushed his head all the way to the ground—lowering myself, in the process, to one knee. I didn't get his head turned over, though, the way rodeo guys do a steer's. His head was on the ground, but the rest of him was under no pressure to follow it. All four of his feet remained planted. And what if I did get him tumped over—those sharp toes thrashing around. Then I noticed that his points were now pointing at my groin. I stood up again, and his head came with me.

Either I was tiring, or he was pushing harder. I gave some ground. I had the feeling that the deer, if he wanted to, could push harder still. And he had more traction than I did, and his horns were harder than my hands—I wasn't holding the points, but the parts I was holding were rough, almost like coral, and what if he got a temper up?

"Were you scared?" I was asked by people to whom I told this story early on.

"Yes," I answered, until my friend Vereen Bell said, "That's hard to imagine, being scared of a deer."

"Not so much scared," I have told people since. "I mean, I knew he wasn't going to kill me. But what if he got frightened and started slashing around? Deer use their horns to fight off wolves, right? I could imagine getting gouged enough that I'd have to go to the emergency room. You don't mess around with a wild-animal puncture. And then how would I get to New York in time with Jessie's red sequin skating dress?"

I was backing up bit by bit to keep my arms extended; every bit of extension I lost, the deer took it up like slack.

I could have called out to Jon, who was down in the woods sweeping the court. But I didn't want to. Maybe if he hadn't just beaten me 6-0 I would have, but I don't think so. I felt this was something I ought to be able to deal with myself. Anyway, what would I have called out?

"Jon! Could you come up here quick? I...I'm...I've got a hold of a deer and he won't let me turn him loose!"

No. I tried to put myself in the deer's place. What did deer do with their horns, usually? Beside fight wolves. Bump and rub them off on trees. Did this deer think I was a tree? I backed around in the yard, looking over my shoulder for trees, finding a couple of little ones. What did he need with them? He had me.

I backed further, into some bushes. This felt like a bad move. I minded being in these bushes more than the deer seemed to. And now I didn't have anywhere further to back. I looked down.

That's when I saw the brick.

If this were fiction maybe I would have the red sequin dress under my arm. Maybe the dress would be what attracted the deer. Maybe the deer would knock me down and make me wear it. But no. The dress was waiting in the car.

And the brick came to hand. People have bricks in their yards, right?

I turned loose with my right hand long enough to pick up the brick and bonk the deer on the nose with it. The deer seemed startled, in a tentative way. The brick didn't feel good in my hand, but I hit him harder with it—not hard hard, but hard enough that he pulled back, somewhat.

He looked at me, noncommittally. I was, tired of this! I needed space! I wanted my pants! I wanted to get rid of the brick, get rid of the deer. I threw the brick at him. That did it, he sprang away.

"Jon!" I yelled. "Come up here! The strangest thing!"

I saw that my right hand was bleeding. I ran to the Bettses' swimming pool and stuck it in.

Jon witnessed the deer, standing a few yards away looking enigmatic, and he also saw my wounds. You could write him at the Columbia Journalism Review, where he is an editor. Jon also recalls that I was flushed and breathing hard, which I suppose is true enough, but I feel he puts too much emphasis on it.

I went to the Swans' house and Marianne Swan bandaged the cuts, and I drove to the city holding my hand above my heart—all the way, for two hours, so it wouldn't bleed anymore (Marianne's idea). I got the dress to Jessie in time.

The Bettses said the deer must have been the same one they'd seen lurking around in their yard the previous weekend. Their bulldog, Max, an amiable and forthright animal, had run him off twice. (Once when the Bettses were at my house I carelessly shoved an armload of waste-paper in the fireplace, the fire blazed out into the living room, and Max jumped up and attacked the fire. It backed down.) The Bettses had been told that the deer was probably one of several that another family in the area had been feeding all summer long. So he'd lost his fear of people.

My friend Jim Seay, a deer hunter, put in that it was rutting season. At that time of year hunters sometimes clack two old racks of antlers together, and male deer come running, looking to butt heads. "Your deer was horny," Jim said. "I never heard of one hooking up with a person like that, though." I thought he might sound more envious, somehow. He sounded...sympathetic.

Here was my son John's response to the story: "I'd probably have done the same thing myself." A generous thing for a son to tell a father. I feel bad that I didn't think to tell him in return, "I'd probably have done all the things I've given you a hard time about myself, too." I might say that there seemed to be a note of resignation in his voice. When something happens to your father you can't help thinking, deep inside, Ah. Yes. This is the kind of thing the men of my family do.

Maybe I should have whispered something to the deer or chanted something or jumped on his back and ridden him off into the woods. This story could use a transcendent moment. But I had to get away, there was Jessie's dress. Which, as I say, I got to her on time. She skated with aplomb. She missed, by one point, making the top three and Lake Placid, but that didn't get her down.

A couple of weeks later, the deer approached a man who was doing some work on the Bettses' house. The man called the game warden, who shot the deer with a tranquilizer dart and took his horns off with a chain saw. Nobody has reported seeing the deer since. Maybe he was cured of being a people animal, or maybe he let a hunter get close to him during deer week in the winter and died wondering what he may also have wondered when he and I parted: Hey, what is the story here?

THREE ILLUSTRATIONSMARK STEELE

Adapted from "Camels Are Easy, Comedy's Hard," published this month by Villard Books.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)