Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the second in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part one, see Quitter #7.
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I grew up knowing that come November there would be a deer hanging somewhere in the front yard, probably by the antlers or the neck and probably from the branch of a tree. Or maybe hanging out of the bed of the pickup truck. Or from a rafter in the dirt floor garage.
I knew that the stories of how that “big buck” came to be dead would be floating around the house until they could be recited, with all the groan inducing embellishments, by people in the house who could say nothing in return. This was my step-father’s personal mythology, another way to blanket us with his control. I could probably dig deep enough to remember one or two of those stories, but who gives a shit really?
My maternal grandfather also told stories, the ones that I have not forgotten on purpose, the ones about how the deer tricked him or showed him up or maybe never even existed. The stories always began with my grandfather sitting on a stump, watching his breath leave his face and disperse. There would be a cracking sound, a stick snapping close by. He would stop breathing, close his eyes, crank all possible processing power to his ears. He would triangulate, check his heartbeat and turn his head only to see nothing but the cold of a Fall morning staring back at him. He would smile at us, the story clearly ending there. He could provide lessons without lecturing, saying “you will be fooled, but don’t take it personally”.
He never gave in to my step-father’s superficial glory of shooting something in the face; when a deer was in the freezer before December my grandfather seemed satisfied with the knowledge that, with the deer’s help, he and his family would have food for the winter. He didn’t amuse in the winners and losers of what most sane people would see as a wholly lopsided conflict heavily subsidized by civilization and its tools – a heavily armed human against an unprepared, unwilling and unaware opponent.
My grandfather’s task was brutal regardless, but maybe less so as there were no mounted heads on the walls of his home like there were in our home. The need for those stuffed and preserved reminders is something that I couldn’t explain back then, but know now is an indication of small mindedness, a dedication to the outward projection of dominance when you know that you are inescapably weak inside. You are a collector with no sense of how to interact with the dead or the living, both phases of life simply reminders of inadequacy, weak interpersonal skills and low self-esteem. If you have a deer head or a stuffed fish on your wall, go look at it and ask yourself what reminder it serves that could not otherwise be captured by a photograph or poem. Is it there to show your friends and family what a fucking hero you are?
When I was twenty, I volunteered twice to travel with a New York DEC deer ager on their rounds. For fourteen hours we visited deer processing places as well as any house that had a deer hanging in the front yard. My job was to write while the ager examined teeth and called out the ages of each dead deer.
I think it was during this time that I became permanently desensitized to the sights and smells of dead non-human animals. At each processor were dozens of barrels and drums and tarps full of various parts; piles of legs next to buckets of guts and tails; lines of deer carcasses waiting to be disassembled by hacksaws, band saws and reciprocating saws, mostly frozen in rigor mortis or by the depth of cold in the evening air. Steam escaped from some of the recent arrivals, a sign that they were less than an hour dead.
There can be nothing more brutal or common or necessary than taking a life in order to eat and sustain a body. Non-human animals do it without question, without any perceptible remorse or hesitation. What makes our actions so much different?
We pull carrots from the soil, ending their run with gravity, ending their gathering of sugar and all the processes that made them a living thing. They may not scream or run or struggle much, but a carrot is a living thing nonetheless and we must kill it in order to eat it.
Eating a carrot is nothing like eating an animal, which is why many choose not to eat the latter at all. I respect that choice; it was a choice that I had once made as well. As with eating it, killing a carrot is nothing like killing an animal. Animals articulate their disappointment in our choice to kill them in blood gurgles, screams and the twitches of ending nerve impulses. We destroy them in order that we can live; we destroy them for other reasons as well, reasons that have no bearing on survival. If you do not believe that then you deny that your meal had any previous life beyond its packaging. I apologize, but I can’t let you do that.