Friday, May 18, 2018

The Deer Lure

Certain places can exist in various, evolving forms to an individual, altering throughout their lives. Hidden shortcuts and off-trodden routes can become mundane and monotonous if abused enough. What I am describing has the same color, but necessarily the same cynicism, that you would expect from one telling of their experiences of working an unsatisfying job at a beloved theme park. Sure, you can recognize the love that is there, and why it is there, but nonetheless, that bit of magic might have faded.

Whether it is complacency, or just plain taking a mainstay sight for granted, this abstract recognition holds for me a small, near-ancient two story house in the center of a public park. It is known by a few names, registered and historic, but I've known it by a handful of my own and my family's creation over the years. Presently, and probably until it is eventually demolished and only a memory, I recognize it as the Deer Lure.

Merely thinking of the building is a unique "trip," if I really devote more than a few passing seconds. I (literally) see it almost every day at this point in my life and career, but only in passing. For now, I will not divulge too much historic context or geographic proximity, as it is quite clear that park rangers and staff wish to keep as much through-traffic away from the site as possible. As with many short-funded public works, it has been in a constant state of questionable repair, renovation, or even actual transportation for years now. At times you can see blue canvas and tarp, clear indicators of rudimentary repairs or efforts against the elements, across patches in the roof or windows from the road. From the main thoroughfare, it sits against a dense treeline. Sure, trails run just a few hundred feet behind it, and you could hit it with a rock if you were so rudely inclined (from the road), but nonetheless, there is a silent understanding that visitors are not welcomed. That is, of course, except for the dozen or so deer that are outside almost every day.

Probably pushing almost a decade ago, at this point, perhaps when I was more foolhardy and the site itself was less foreboding and maybe unrecognized as a target for potential visitation (and perhaps vandalizing), I did just that that I had described above, glossing over an obvious desire to be left alone. I was a schmuck with a camera and a willing traveling companion who wanted to see any ounce of standing and breathing history we could find. They were the same old acquaintance that had gone with me to the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. I believe it was even that same, odd summer. I am not sure if plans culminating elsewhere had fallen through, or if the proximity of the Deer Lure offered a quick trot off the beaten path, but somehow it became our destination. I figured it would be a quick excursion, no big deal. I suppose I was partially right, if only due to the brevity of the visit.

We parked in an unrelated and unassuming lot a few "blocks" away (as it was a park, units of distance are a tad blurred...) and walked on foot, crossing over a high road and then sticking to a treeline. Even if it was not as patrolled as it is today, the lack of coverage from the roads made one an obvious target. This land no longer belonged to man, the pockets of deer amongst the tall grass at any hour throughout the day made that abundantly clear. As we got closer, we became aware of a rough property line that marked the house, a private residence, surely, at some point, at some when. It was old enough (mid-1700s, in fact) that we quickly realized there were head-markers for a small grave site, right there, in the middle of the park. I was taken back, I had never known. Surely this was just a memorial, there weren't bodies here, right? Right? My companion did not know.

At this point, we were torn from the dwelling thoughts of unmarked graves and just how old this structure was by a terrible thrashing noise. We both stood, I grabbed their wrist and we scanned the area. A poor deer, who was visibly and audibly more alarmed at our presence than we were of it (who had not even seen the thing moments ago...) was battling the failing chain-link fence that once stood at the back of the house's property line and before the woods (the aforementioned trails beyond). Without much further struggle (and thankfully no noticeable injury or continued resistance) the creature found the large gap that it must have known waited for it and disappeared into the brush. We laughed. It was the middle of a hot, sunny Jersey day and we were in a beautiful park. We have to remind ourselves that our lives are not always a convoluted horror plot. The laughs and reinvigorated courage quickly faded as we found ourselves closer to the back of the house, realizing that there was, in fact, a very large and traversable opening into the building. It is one thing to inspect and appreciate an ancient thing that is all-but-removed from a King novel; it is quite another to go in, woefully unprepared and under-dressed.

"Well..." I looked into the unnaturally dark hole, seemingly cut into the wall. The portion around a backdoor or large window must have been destroyed with time, and the partition hastily put up by a public works failed to cover it after a storm (or other, less savory visitors...) tore it down. The large, flat piece of wood would conceivably serve as a ramp up, the combined lank of us at the time probably not much past 250 pounds.

"I mean, we're here..." she nodded towards it, all but saying, go first. So I did.

Immediately, the thick humidity of a New Jersey summer disappeared. It was dark, besides a thin pillar of light coming in from up and above through the decay of the roof and the gutted building. It was damp. It was... cold. And, all of a sudden, it was loud. Not ten feet away from me, beyond the sloping arch of a portal between the kitchen I stood in and the main front room, was a cloud of swarming, buzzing horseflies. Memories of getting bit by the bastards at my grandma's pool had me momentarily recoil, but they seemed pretty content and uninterested in us, so I hesitated. I took a few steps back, leaning on a few suspect portions of the wooden floor, checking its integrity, and went back to help my friend in. I pulled her up and we just stood there for a moment, taking the odd nature of the predicament in. We loved this stuff. I know I always have. But this was simultaneously one of the most inviting places I have ever visited and the most off-putting, now that we were up close.

Now, of a few things I was sure: there may have been a flight of stairs to the second story at one point, but time and interim plans at renovation removed them. Likewise, there was a huge hole in the center of the second story, extending over the arch between rooms. There was not enough strength or stable portions to support climbing up, no matter how skilled or foolhardy. I know that the singular ray of light that managed to pierce the building shone down from somewhere in the roof and cut down through the whole building, making a spotlight across the room from us, in the foyer. I knew, at that moment, of a heavy thud directly above me. If I had to describe it, consider a body in a sleeping bag rolling off a bed and then being pulled to attention. I knew, at that moment, that my friend had to stifle her horror-movie scream and it was her turn to grab my wrist. Something, something large, rose and then blocked out that ray of light beaming through the house, from upstairs.

"Time to go," I gritted between my teeth. She was out before I had turned around.

Of course, shortly thereafter (and now) we can laugh about it. But we don't know who or what was up there. If it was park staff, they would have fallen through the floor. I know this for a fact. There was no easy way up there and no necessary or useful reason to do so. If it were kids poking around, I do not know how or why they were so damn silent and managed to not trigger any of the natural alarms we had stumbled through on our way there. Whatever it was, we ran, almost screaming, from the Deer Lure that day, an almost forgotten summer afternoon in New Jersey. I can still see, turning back, half-jogging at that point, the solitary, almost unhealthily skinny deer, now far away and in the safe, dark comfort of the woods. I could never say with certainty that it was our startled friend from before, but it's a happy thought to believe so, isn't it?