I was staying at a Hampton Inn in West Seneca, New York, just south of Buffalo and about ten miles from the international airport. A relatively built-up part of the suburbs, with shopping gallerias and chain motels, a Wegmans, a Walmart, a whole bunch of Rite Aids. Life as a service drive. It was 7PM; I’d been driving all day and had another seven hours left to get back to Boston tomorrow. I needed some dinner and didn’t feel like venturing far from the hotel, so I drove a mile or so to Duff’s Famous Wings, where I’d been once before. Decent enough wings, though better are available elsewhere on the planet. I tend to order the spiciest wings on the menu, just because I happen to like spicy food, though I feel slightly self-conscious asking for them. There’s a perceived look-how-macho-I-am element to ordering very spicy food, which I don’t go for at all, but it’s hard to avoid feeling guilty-by-association. The names don’t help either—it’s usually something like “Toxic Wings” or “Satanic” or, in the case of Duff’s, “Armageddon” that increases the feeling of unintended douchiness, like “Look how cool I am for ordering these lethal wings.” Always the waiter or waitress asks if I’m sure I really want them, and that makes it worse. Yes, I’m sure, it’s not a big deal, I don’t expect you to think I’m badass just because I’m ordering these wings.
As I ate, I noticed a TV in a corner of the dining room playing music videos, which I mostly tuned out as the pile of chicken bones on my plate grew and the stack of pre-moistened towelettes decreased. Then a song came on that caught my attention, and I looked up to see a live clip of the band Styx, probably taped in the 80s to judge from the singer’s perm, performing their old classic, “Come Sail Away.” I’ve probably heard the song 50 times in my life, but always as a chance encounter. Styx isn’t really a band I actively seek out, though my tastes often include that sort of thing. When Styx was still a going concern, they were marketed as America’s answer to some of the English Progressive groups of the time, like Yes and King Crimson. I love those groups, and not just the well-known Brits but German bands like Can and Neu!, Magma and all those other Zeuhl outfits from France, Italian Prog from the likes of Banco and P.F.M. For me the problem with Styx isn’t the music itself, but confusion over the branding. It’s like expecting white cheddar cheese and getting butter instead—it doesn’t mean you don’t like butter, but damn you wish you’d known ahead of time.
My point is that I probably ought to like Styx more than I do. I’m the kind of guy who naturally gravitates toward albums made in 1975 called Equinox that feature a flaming chunk of ice on the cover, but when I’ve actually tried playing Equinox by Styx, I’ve rarely felt the need to go back to it, unlike the way I probably put on Close To The Edge at least once a month. Not the band’s fault, just my own dumb hangup. That said, when I sat in Duff’s listening to “Come Sail Away” from Styx’s 1977 album The Grand Illusion (a better effort than Equinox), I had to admit to myself that, yeah, this is a pretty good song. Actually, it’s a great song. It’s not “Hey Jude,” but if we’re using as a measure the sheer enjoyment a song gives you when you hear it, I can’t make much of a distinction between them. They’re both great songs to listen to while you’re eating hot wings in suburban Buffalo. I even got a little sentimental watching the video and remembering how many distinct cool parts there are in that one song. The little fiddly piano bit at the beginning. The cresting melody sung by Dennis DeYoung. The place when the full band kicks in and it suddenly feels like you’re on a powerboat bouncing over waves into the open water (though I suppose that creates a bit of a mixed metaphor with the title). What made me sentimental was the idea that a band so journeyman, so generally derided by critics, and so forgotten by many segments of society, could produce a song as interesting and epically emotional as “Come Sail Away.” I almost feel like I’m inviting ridicule to stand up for it, but I don’t care. That night in Buffalo convinced me.
After dinner, I drove looking for a place to pick up a small bottle of wine to take back to my hotel room. I didn’t want much, just a half-bottle or thereabouts. A few sips while I checked my emails. First I tried the Kmart across from the hotel only to find my choices were limited to warm beer and some sort of fruity, fizzy thing. I didn’t want beer because I’d already had one with dinner, and I’m trying to watch my weight—the wings were already enough of an indulgence. Giving up on Kmart, I checked the grocery store next door, which also only carried beer. Beer and champagne, that’s helpful. A nearby Wegmans offered full bottles of wine, but I didn’t want full bottles of wine. I just wanted one drink, maybe a glass and a half, and I didn’t want to go to a bar. Back in my car, I retraced my route practically all the way to Duff’s, where I’d seen a convenience store with a light-up sign in the window for Rolling Rock. I wasn’t expecting them to carry wine, especially not the mythical, perfect-sized bottle I’d grown fixated on for some reason, but at least the guy at the counter was able to give me directions to possibly the only liquor store in greater Buffalo where you could buy a half-bottle of wine.
It was past 8PM now, and quite dark along the mixed commercial/residential street that I was following for the second time that night. As I passed the parking lot for a sports bar, I was startled to notice a full-size adult female deer lying dead in the gutter. Startled, because in the past I’d only seen really big deer carcasses off the side of the highway, not a surface road like this one. At most you’d expect a dead raccoon heaped up near the foot of someone’s driveway. I think I might’ve said to myself, “Shit, someone’s gotta clean that up,” and drove past the dead thing.
I went another block. Then another half-block.
Before the end of the second block, I glanced to my right and saw a deer about to crash right into my car. All this happened in about one-and-a-half seconds. Mist unveiled the deer’s face in my headlights, revealing beautiful black eyes and a pale, almost white coat. A full-grown doe, it probably stood five feet tall and measured six feet from tip to tail. I guess it was trying to sneak in front of my car and misjudged the distance. It jumped, and the graceful way it handled its weight was apparent in the lift and reach of its body as it smashed into my right front headlight. The whole car shuddered, and there was a sound of bending metal. I said something like “Fuck!” or “What the fuck!” The deer rolled up onto my hood and came to the briefest rest against my windshield: the texture of the fur, almost like quills, not every hair the same exact color. I’m still driving—picture a car with a dead deer on its hood clunking thirty miles an hour past a gas station or a Dairy Queen closed down for the season. I swerved to the right, and the deer slid and dropped off the left side of the car, leaving the windshield covered with dirt and moisture from its hide. The debris looked like damage to the glass at first, so I flicked on my wipers to make sure at least the windshield was okay. I yelled at my hands: “What the fuck! What the fucking fuck is that?” The things you say. The car seemed to be running okay as I made a right at a lighted intersection. I was still 500 miles from home and did not want to deal with something that couldn’t wait until I got back to Boston.
Pulling into the parking lot of a shopping plaza, I got out of the car and went around the front to inspect the damage. The right headlamp was shattered and the hood of the car had been knocked an inch out of whack. There were other bumps and dings that I knew I probably wouldn’t bother fixing. Other than that, the car looked okay, or at least drivable back home. (You hear about people running into a deer and the deer winds up in the back seat.) I looked across the lot and saw the wine shop the guy in the convenience store had told me about. With the deer still on my mind, its strikingly white hide and shiny black eye, a strange Martian visage glimpsed an instant before impact (I would’ve had no clue what it was if I hadn’t just seen that dead deer a few moments before, though I would’ve figured it out), I went into the wine shop and found my half-bottle of wine. Want had changed to need. A part of me wanted to tell the cashier about what had happened: “Hey, man, I just hit a deer! Right around the corner, like six, seven blocks away. Came out of nowhere. What’s up with that?” — but decided not to. It’s kind of a crazy thing to say to someone, isn’t it? Ten past eight on a Tuesday night, a guy comes in by himself, buys a six dollar bottle of wine and says, “Yeah, I just hit a deer. You believe that? Just coming back from dinner. Shit. Now I gotta deal with this…”
Instead: “…and forty-three cents is your change.” “Okay, thanks a lot.”
Anyway, I can’t think of a better way to sum up my 2014, a year in which I lost the job I loved and haven’t really been able to find much since: a moment when you notice the beauty in something you always knew but never appreciated, the warmth of that moment’s residue still on your lips and cheeks and in your heart, and Bam! Random deer all but falls out of the black November sky.