25 January 2009 | Vol. 8, No. 4
The Young Good Man
Charlie and me were just about to head out when my wife Kim gave me an ever-so-light kiss on the lips and then whispered, "Don't go." She pulled back to look at me the one last time before she glanced over my shoulder. Charlie was there leaning up against his blue Ranger. At the time I thought she was ashamed or something for trying to keep me home.
"I can't, you know that," I said. I wasn't lying, either. I couldn't've stayed home then no more than I could've gone to the moon. We'd made these plans weeks back and I'd been hassling Charlie for months before that, just to get together. "We hardly ever see each other, man," I'd said. "We only live ten miles apart. If Ma and Dad were alive they'd…"
"All right, all right. Jesus, just don't cry," he'd said.
It's a travesty, if you ask me, how things have gotten. We grew up pretty close too. We were like best friends and I slept right underneath him in the same room for almost fourteen years. Our bunk beds had space ships on them. Pretty slick, we thought. So here we were, actually headed out for the cabin, and she wants me to stay home? I don't think so. I said, "Honey, I had to go through hell and back to get Charlie to dig this trip; you know what it means to me."
"I know," Kim said and then louder she said, "You two boys have a good weekend."
"Sure we will," Charlie said. "You know it."
"I wish Carrie was out here," I said, half in the truck, half out of it. Charlie was telling me to get in, but I was holding out hope she'd try sneaking a peak at the window or come rushing out crying, 'Daddy! Don't go!' My heart might've broke but there are good kinds of pain too. It ain't all bad. But we'd already said our fond farewells and Carrie never could bear to watch either of her parents leave.
Once we got onto the open road Charlie popped in one of his old Mötley Crüe tapes. None of the front windows in that old truck closed too tight and the wind came in through the top and side windows loud and cold. I couldn't much hear anything on the tape over the wind so for a while I just sat there remembering how the day before Kim and me'd run into Charlie at the supermarket, buying stuff for the trip. I went off for a little while and when I came back I heard them whispering. I'd hardly ever seen them in the same room much less whispering like politicians so I knew something was up. I tossed the marshmallows in the cart like nothing was out of place and Charlie jumped like a tomcat at a firecracker.
"Say Pal, we were just talking about you."
Kim nodded a little.
"Yeah? Nothing bad I hope."
"Just a surprise," Charlie said, glancing at Kim. "It'll make you shit your pants, though."
So now I shouted over the racket, the wind and Vince Neil singing "Girls, Girls, Girls" "What's the surprise, Charlie?"
"What's that?" He called out, one hand cupped on his ear.
"The surprise, from yesterday."
"Oh! That. Goddamn man, just hold your horses a bit can't ya?"
"Sure, I was just thinking about it is all."
By then my ears were numbed and stinging so I pulled that old beaver fur hat down over my ears and those started warming right up. The frost was growing on my mustache like moss on a tombstone so I wrapped that scarf Kim knitted me around so it covered my neck and up over my nose. Charlie looked over at me then and laughed.
"You doing all right?"
"Top notch," I said back and the scarf was already a touch wet from my breathing.
"Hell, you always were one goofy shit." Charlie laughed but he ran me down the way he always did and by that I mean he ran me down without a touch of meanness or cruelty because we were brothers and no matter how life dealt us those different cards we were basically still the same person, we'd come from the same blood, and had experienced the same terrible trauma.
We parked out in a dead cornfield, right behind a barn, the red paint worn off and the wood a rotted gray. The frosted over, half buried stalks. We stepped out of the truck and I pulled my wet scarf down and my breath was white in the air. We walked around surveying the area some and with our hands on our brows we spied the forest a half-mile or so beyond. We spat in the snow and said things like, "Hell, this is a nice little piece of country." Then Charlie went back over near the Ranger and lit up a cigarette. I watched him puffing but where I was the air was so fresh and good that for no real reason I leaned back and just sucked it in and then again. I thought of them old time Norse giants breathing out the snow storms from their mouths, and then I exhaled.
"You done dicking around?" Charlie said then. "Can we do this?"
I said of course we could.
Then we opened up the truck and each of us shouldered our burden so that I carried the cooler with the stuff Kim packed: buns and hotdogs and marshmallows and chocolate bars, "Everything you need to make some treatsies, Jimmy. All sorts of treatsies for my sweetsies." It made me a little sad to think about her baby talking to me, but I grabbed my duffle bag and tossed out my mind. Charlie carried his own duffle bag slung over his shoulder and a case of Walters hanging from one arm and grape pop from the other. I saw, too, that Charlie had Dad's old canvass gun case, the one he kept the squirrel rifle in. I'd seen it in the gun case most every day I was growing up, until they died, and then I never saw it again. I never knew where it went. I never really cared—I never even saw Dad hold the actual gun, much less shoot it. "You had it this whole time?" I finally said.
"Well, that there's your surprise," he said, nodding. "Yep."
I just looked at him for a couple seconds while he nodded like an idiot, blushing a little too. He looked like he was busy thinking of the next thing to say. I supposed he hadn't expected me to figure it out so soon. Or maybe he saw how underwhelmed I was. I don't know what I was expecting, but when a guy like Charlie says he got you a surprise, usually it's pretty ace. "Dad's gun?" I finally said. "What's it for?"
"Shooting," he said. He looked away gestured to the trees, squirrels jumping around where we couldn't see them. "Shooting them goddamn squirrels. For supper. You know. Like men do."
"Charlie, I can't shoot. That was always—well, I was too young to go with you and Dad."
He blushed all the more furious now. At first I thought because he was embarrassed at forgetting I hadn't gone hunting with them. Then he said, "Yeah, I know. But I thought maybe now we could start something new up. You know. And maybe… someday we'll both have kids, you know, and all the men—shit, you know what I'm saying."
I kicked at a pinecone and then crunched it under my boot, ground it down good. "Well," I said. "Gee." Then I crunched a stick down into the snow too, tried to snap it in two, but it was the most flexible stick I ever saw. It was like a damn stick of cartilage. "I don't know how much for shooting I'll do," I finally said, leaning over to pick up the stick. I gave it a good toss into the forest. It got good air; I didn't even hear it land.
"Well, shit," he said, turning back to the truck. "That's the right attitude if I ever saw."
"But I'll fry them up. I'll skin them too but you'll have to show me."
Charlie turned around. He looked at me like he was measuring me up to buy me or something. "That's good enough for me. To start out," he said.
With that all settled we were soon hiking into the forest, the leafless birches and the tall pine and the smell of pine everywhere like bathroom at a mall.
Charlie knew the fella who owned all that land and a good portion of the forest and the cabin out in the forest from his poker games. He played poker with all the big shots from his work, and boy, those accountants are hot for poker. And those big shot accountants brought their big shot buddies. One of the best nights I had these last few years was Charlie calling me up and asking if I wanted to join them and though what I know about poker couldn't cover a thumbnail I was the first one over to Charlie's house. Ten minutes later Jack Edwards who's always on television doing commercials for his car dealership showed up and then Pete Warner from the Channel Six weather. I leaned over to Charlie and said, "Charlie you know all these people?" And he puffed a couple times on his stogie and said, "Sure I do, Kid. Sure I do," and then he clapped me on the back and said, "Boys, meet my kid brother." They all said hi and proceeded to clean out my wallet. We had such a good time that night and with all those big shots and characters who showed up and that nice house Charlie bought a year back and that Harley he's always shining up in the garage—well, with all that stuff you'd think being an accountant is about the best thing you can do. It sure looks the life from the outside. Me? I skim plastic off of scissor handles as they come down the assembly line. I take the city bus, sun up, every morning to the Midwest Scissor factory. I work with a bunch of old Hmong women, and during the summer, there's a bunch of high school kids, too. It ain't a great living but it does the trick. Not everybody was built like Charlie to head out to college right off the bat.
Then we were in the log cabin and pretty soon Charlie had a fire going in the stone fireplace. I hunkered on my cooler and he said, "Watch the master do his work," and he set to arranging a true blaze from all the kindling, dried needles and cones, and larger logs, strips of birch bark—we'd a pretty good storage right next to the fire as Charlie'd brought in four or five armloads of split wood from the piles around the cabin and I'd gathered up the rest from around the trees. Two sets of bunk beds. The cabin floor was just plain wood boards—nothing fancy—and we kept our boots on, tracking clumps of melting snow all over. There were no lights and that was fine when the sun was still up but when evening came all we had was the firelight and our flashlights and the candles Charlie brought. We whittled our own first-rate hot dog sticks from branches and had hot dogs and grape pop for supper. Eating those hot dogs really reminded me of when we two were boys and Dad would take us camping, not in any fancy cabin, but in a tent.
We played cards and drank Walters and I even puffed on a cigar while Charlie smoked his cigarettes and they went with a hiss into a used pop can. We acted too like we were teenagers, and BS'd about the girls we laid or tried to lay—in my case from before I met Kim and in Charlie's case up to the day before when a sexy housewife come to the door in nothing but a t-shirt down to her knees. She had a little cartoon band-aid on her knee too she was fidgeting with and Charlie offered to help, though she wasn't having none of it. And just like when we were growing up, too, we argued over the Packers and football in general although we both agreed it was strange when all the players you idolized as a boy were announcing the games, not playing them.
Then I couldn't think of anything more to say. Sports and girls—we'd pretty much exhausted everything we'd ever talked about. So now what? Talk about adult things? Grown up stuff? I could tell him how we were starting to consider a bigger trailer, seeing how Carrie was getting older. Or we could discuss maybe me getting back to school, to a tech maybe, and getting away from those scissors. My hands all cut up all the time. Or could we go deeper, could I trust Charlie enough to tell him how I hardly saw my wife anymore and when I did I felt, well, ridiculous is the word. I'd like to impress her with a first-rate cooked dinner and some flowers and candlelight some evening on the weekend, and I think about it all the time now. But there's a Grand Canyon in between what I'd like to do and what I can manage. Or maybe I could talk about how Carrie is almost five already and soon she'll be in Kindergarten and I worry so much for her. I remember how it was two or three weeks before Ma didn't have to walk with me to the classroom in the mornings, before I could just go in from the playground with the other kids. And if she was the same I don't know that I could bear to let her go. I'd probably just scoop her up and take her home. But knowing Carrie she'll have two-dozen friends right off. Of course, I worry one day she'll come home and look at me funny and she'll be thinking about how I work where I work. Maybe by then I'll be back in school or moved on to something nicer. Maybe not. Man, money is a big deal with most people and they tend to look down from their mountain peak and see nothing but poor trash, when they even bother.
Or how do you explain to your little girl how it is you ended up not even being able to drive, something every other parent can do, and her dad is taking the city bus to work. Taking the bus with all those drooling loonies and old women. How do you explain it don't mean I'm stupid or any less a man. Hell, I just never learned. Ma and Dad died too early. I just never had anyone to teach me. But that's not even the truth. If you want the plain truth you got to go deeper and even now I'm not willing to do that—about my crazy suspicions concerning how I'm gonna go. Anyhow, I never told anyone about that stuff before and I didn't aim to start with Charlie.
So I just said, "Yep, those goddamned Brewers'll never get outta the crapper."
Later we were in our bunks, Charlie on top and me on the bottom. We were silent and listening to the fire crackle and smelling the wood smoke.
Then Charlie said, in a half sleepy way that made me think he'd just been dreaming, "You remember that time when you were maybe eight and the old man heard you swear?"
"I guess. I stubbed my toe on the curb, right?"
"I don't remember how it happened, but I remember how he reacted. I remember he asked you what you said—"
"No, he asked if I swore just then."
"Anyhow and he was pissed. Those eyes of his, those gray eyes, I remember watching from the front steps thinking, Oh Shit, the old bastard's gonna blow his top. But you could've lied. I remember thinking, why doesn't that dumb—I mean you—why doesn't that dumb bastard just lie? It's that easy. The old man doesn't want to knock your block off and if you just say, 'Well, I said shoot,' then he'd just as easy give you a warning and that'd be that. I mean, he was giving me warnings all the time. 'If I ever catch you swearing, I'll knock you into next month.' But what did you say?"
"I didn't want to lie, is all."
"You said, 'Yes, I swore.'"
"He always said tell the truth. He said honesty was the best policy."
"Man, I'll never forget how quick he lunged for you and had your arm before you knew—and the look on your face! Like you'd shit your pants or something. Maybe you did."
"No, I was just surprised."
"Boy did he lay into you. Man. And mom was yelling, 'Don't Daniel! Don't, it's child abuse! It's child abuse!'" Charlie said in a high-pitched voice. "Because he was hitting you with the closed fist, right, unlike usual with a belt or his open hand?"
"Yeah. I remember trying to turn away. I maybe figured better the back than him maybe accidentally hitting my face."
"And you just bawling like a baby."
"That was from stubbing my toe, I think. The punches didn't do much. I had bruises from them but the toe hurt more. And…"
"And I just felt bad."
"I bet you did. He was a big guy."
"No, that's not what I mean. It, well, it hurt my feelings. Here I thought I'd done something good and I was following the rule and it was practically the first time I swore and there he was so mad at me. I just felt bad."
Charlie laughed. "Yeah, you were a weird one."
We were quiet again for a little bit then Charlie asked, "You still think about them?"
"Yeah," I said.
"I guess I do too. But it's strange. I'd already gone when… I'd already left for the tech. When I heard about the accident I was in my room studying and Bill—you remember that ol' boy right? Always had a dip in his mouth?—yeah, Bill he knocked on my door with the phone and he tossed it to me. It was very ordinary. The whole thing. And then that voiced asked if I was who I was."
"Did you know?" I thought I heard Charlie lick his lips. I don't know why, but we'd never talked about none of this before. Maybe it was just too sore a spot for even brothers to discuss.
"I thought it was something bad. I don't know. Maybe it was shock. But it felt like I was already gone from there and in a way it didn't hurt as bad as I thought it would. For a couple years I wondered if something wasn't broke in me that it didn't mess me up. Then I realized those things are different when you've moved on. I think that hurt me more than anything. I only cried the few times and I almost felt I was making myself do it, so I wouldn't feel so guilty."
Charlie didn't say anything after that. If he hadn't had eight beers he probably wouldn't of said it in the first place neither. I rolled onto my side with my arm pressed under my body into the springs and watched the fire. The black wood and red coals that were starting to fade. I thought soon one of us should put more wood on. But for now I was content to watch.
Charlie got down and I closed my eyes like I was asleep and even made a snoring sound. I heard Charlie looking through the wood, jamming fresh wood into the coals, the fire snapping. Then he was back up on the bunk and snoring before too long.
I thought some about what Charlie'd said. But I felt it more in the back of my throat, what different people we'd turned out. It'd been a lot different for me. I was alone then after Ma and Dad died. Oh, I had Aunt Dolores and Uncle Luke put me up and feed me and keep me in clothes. But even when we were in the same room it seemed like we weren't, if that makes sense. It was like they were ghosts and we just passed through each other. And I knew being alone like that I couldn't allow myself to cry. I knew that I had to grow up quick. Men don't cry and men don't let on when they're scared. Some days even now I wish I could go back and change how things happened. I wish I hadn't had to become the way I did—cold, I mean. It's funny because a guy like Charlie with a couple years of tech under his belt and an associates degree to show for it and a good job and girls when he wants them, a guy like that can afford to show how he feels. But maybe that's how he got where he is. Maybe it's a matter of not having anything inside to show folks. Me? I can't afford no one seeing what I've got inside. Even Kim most the time, though she says what a nice man and a loving man and a good father I am. But if she saw the way I really am inside she'd probably cry for me and for both of us. Because most days I'm just scared. I'm scared of all of you and for all of you. I'm plain terrified of what's waiting around the corner for us.
In the morning I woke to Charlie slamming the cabin door shut and stomping the snow off his boots. He had the fire going but it'd died down some from whenever he'd started it. My head hurt like hell and that's one of the two good reasons I don't do much for drinking.
"What the hell time is it?" I asked. I thought maybe ten or eleven the way Charlie was up and at it.
"Eight or so," he said.
"Eight! What the hell you doing up so early?"
"I got cold so I set a fire, then I got to thinking well, maybe I would go shoot us some breakfast." He nodded to the squirrel rifle, now propped up against the table, the case nowhere to be seen.
By then I was up near the fire and warming my hands. Charlie told me to make myself useful and get the fire really up and running again. So I shoved some kindling on there and doused it with lighter fluid, which was cheating, I know, and there's nothing attractive about that fluid smell or the flames eating up the oily lines, but I didn't have much patience for sitting around hoping that kindling caught. Meanwhile Charlie said something I didn't hear so well.
"How's that Charlie?"
"I said, but then the snow really started. You can hardly see the hand in front of your face much less a squirrel in the tree."
"So you ain't going hunting?" I hoped the relief wasn't in my voice; I really didn't know anything about frying up squirrels, much less skinning them. Dad never really got around to taking me out, after all.
"I didn't say I wasn't going hunting. I'm just waiting out the storm."
"It really snowing that bad?"
"See for yourself."
So I went and opened the door and right away a huge gust of wind covers me in snow like one of the Three Stooges getting covered in baking flower. The wind was howling and swirling and yes, Charlie was right, it was almost impossible to even see the trees ten, fifteen feet away, much less what was in them. But that was fine. Sure I'd been looking forward to taking a morning hike but my head hurt so bad anyhow all I really wanted to do just then was drink my morning coffee—brew some up first, I suppose—and sort of piece my skull back together. Maybe I'd toast some marshmallows, too. I hadn't had those since I was a kid. I asked if he wanted any. "It's not Bullwinkle I know," I said.
"Rocky," he said. "Rocky was the squirrel."
I shrugged. I never saw the show. That was before my time.
"But yeah," he said, putting his hands behind his head, closing his eyes. "Make us some treatsies up, huh?"
"Did you say treatsies?" I said.
"I don't know. Maybe. What is that? Baby talk? I must be hungrier than I thought."
"Yeah." I went over to the cooler and inside the ice was all melted, and there were those Hershey bars in a zip lock bag. "It makes sense for me you know, at least."
"What's that?" Charlie said. "I didn't catch it."
"I just said with Carrie you know I start talking, you know, I pick up on it."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"The baby talk. Stuff like that." I turned back to him and he closed his eyes again.
"Oh," he said. "Sure. That's how it goes, I guess. Every parent I know is half a kid themselves. Half the guys in the office smell like fresh diapers. What a smell. Not me. Not if I can help it."
"You must've caught it from one of them."
He laughed. "Worse than influenza!"
The grocery bags with marshmallows and graham crackers were right next to the cooler and pretty soon I had fixed those S'mores up and we sat near the fire. Me in a lawn chair and Charlie just hunkered down in his long john underwear and winter jacket. His pants were hanging over a chair drying out from his earlier hike. Charlie ate his like he was a wolf or something but I just let mine sit on my paper plate. I felt like I'd maybe throw it up if I tried eating.
"Why ain't you eating your thing?" he said with the marshmallow and crumbs in his mustache and the chocolate all over his fingertips.
"I wonder what Kim and Carrie are doing is all," I said. "Sleeping, I bet."
He set the rest of his S'mores on the paper plate.
"Go back to sleep if you're going to whine." He dropped the plate onto the floor.
"I didn't think I was," I said. I was a little surprised about that bad mood of his coming out of nowhere. I just finished the S'mores and brushed my hands together, licked marshmallow off my lip. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it to complain."
"Yeah, well, everything just comes out your mouth like whining then," he said this grinning a little but his voice didn't sound amused. He brushed the crumbs off and stood up, stretched his arms out, clapped his hands together.
I finally said I didn't mean it.
"Oh, the poor baby. Never learned to drive. Never went to college. Poor baby can't get a good job with his GED. Poor baby has to work at a scissors factory. Boo-hoo. You wasted your life. I could give a shit. Stop laying it at my fucking door."
"I'm only twenty five!" I said. "I can still go to college."
Charlie was pacing, across the room, and then back. "Sure you will," he said. "I heard that song before. That's a fucking top-forty hit where I come from."
I just looked down at my feet and he was rummaging around, made his bed like he was fighting a cougar, pounded out a beat on the wall, on the table, real loud like he was gonna hurt his fist.
"Shit," he said after a while. "Soon as it stops snowing I'm gonna go shoot me a half dozen goddamn squirrels."
I didn't say nothing.
"Someone's gotta liven up this lame ass party," he said in a way that twisted my gut funny. He stood at the cooler grabbing another Walters. "You coming pal or you gonna sit around in here with your finger up your ass?"
It took me a long time to say something. My throat was all clenched up. I just wanted to go bury myself rather than answer. But finally I nodded. "Yeah," I said. "Okay."
"Good. Then you can carry them squirrels back for me."
Two hours later after one of Mother Nature's all time great turn arounds we were tramping around in the ankle-deep snow. Just the two of us in the lonesome silence with all those long black trees like pencil lines around and the white birch blending into the snow. Charlie with the rifle at hip level looking to pop the first moving creature he saw. But there weren't nothing living out there, not at all. Just the silence and us two brothers.
"Christ," Charlie said looking right at me like he wanted to say something else. "Let's get on then."
We followed trails that didn't really look like trails and I argued they weren't trails at all since in some places the snow actually came up past our boots. We walked a good while Charlie admitted we'd gone down the wrong trail—one that brought us out near the highway. We backtracked and then we couldn't find the cabin. It was trails and more trails cutting in between the white and black birch trees. Charlie lit up a cigarette while I hunched over and pulled off a strip of white birch bark like onionskin. We continued on then and depending on the forest ceiling the light moved between brightness like the day and a darkness of night and we kept close then and Charlie lit cigarettes and held out his lighter almost like a torch. The air was still and cold but not below zero. A colder day, a usual day, may've had us scared for our lives. So we were lucky in that regard.
We kept stopping then and Charlie kept lighting up more cigarettes and I kept peeling that bark and peeling at what I peeled and dropping the tatters to the snow.
Then we were walking again and the snow coming in my boots and my legs starting to feel like they were dragging concrete blocks around. I asked Charlie what he thought we should do and he told me not to act like a dumb kid. We came to an opening in the forest ceiling and there was the sun and I thought if only one of us knew about the boy scouts or nature we could easily figure our direction. But we didn't know a thing. And we kept going. Getting more and more lost I thought. And the air getting more and more cold.
"Charlie…" I said.
"Shhh." His eyes black.
"I said shut up goddamnit."
I bit my lip and looked down to the dirty snow, the busted twigs. The lump in my throat big as a fist. Charlie scanned those empty trees for some hint of life. I snorted. There ain't nothing out there.
"What'd you say?" He turned to me. I just starred back at him. I hadn't said nothing. The sun just a hazy blob through all the clouds. "What'd you say, goddamn you?"
"Nothing Charlie," I said. He had his rifle up like he was looking to fire at something over my head. "You told me not to say anything."
"That's right," he said and lowered that rifle. "That's goddamn right kid."
"It's just there ain't nothing out here." A twig snapped in the long off distance sort of echoing to us. Charlie sniffled a little bit. "No ani—"
"Why there's one right there," he said in a way that made my stomach cold. He held the rifle out with one hand and pointed with the other. "Take a gander. Tell me that ain't the biggest fattest squirrel you ever saw."
I didn't turn at first. I didn't want to. I couldn't have said why not. I still couldn't come out and say it. But Charlie was just looking at me and telling me to look at that squirrel as if he were telling me to tie my shoes or get into the car, not like he saw a squirrel and wanted me to look at it.
You'll maybe say, 'If you felt so strong then you shouldn't have turned.' So I'll tell you why I turned around and scanned those dead-naked tree branches. I turned because I would've rather taken my chances with the possibilities floating in my head than say out loud what they were. Because I couldn't think of no good reason not to turn. So I did and there was nothing in the trees.
The shot went off and it was the loudest thing I ever heard. I never heard a gunshot so loud. It went off over my head. Then there was the echo and the snow falling from the leaves and the leaves falling down around me slow and golden orange like birds feathers. It landed all on me and down my jacket and I screamed. I turned around and Charlie was leaning on the rifle butt like it was a crutch, the muzzle pressed into the dirt and snow, and I thought about how Dad would slap him upside the head for it, but I didn't say anything. "Ha ha," he said, and spat and then again, and it seemed like he was keeping from gagging something up. "Boy. Boy I got you. Look it—" he sounded like he'd been running a marathon and now he jabbed a finger at me. "Look! You pissed yourself! Ha ha."
It was true. I won't lie. My crotch was all warm and wet and it was dripping down my leg, too. I didn't even know it happened. I didn't have no control at all. But it isn't everyday someone nearly shoots your head off, so I didn't really care much.
"I didn't mean to scare you so much." His voice was cleared up some but he was all pale like a ghost. I didn't say anything about how he looked worse than me. I just nodded.
He spat some more, tried to stand up straight, hand still pressing down on the rifle butt. "I was just clowning around, man."
"Yeah, hell. Jeez, man. Just like we used to, remember? Remember, remember when I used to grab you by the back of your shirt and hold you at the top of the stairs… I used to dangle you so if I let go you'd fall and bust yourself up?"
"Sure. Ha. Shit man, you used to scream yourself silly. But I never dropped ya did I?"
"No, you never did."
"I never did want to hurt ya. Not a once, pal."
"No, I know," I said. My crotch started to cool and the outside was frosting.
"You don't know a thing," he said. I must've started because he laughed, apologized. "Lets get the hell out of here. Clean you up and get something to eat. There ain't nothing to shoot out here. You're right. Let's go."
That night we were on the open road. Everything after the gunshot was a blur in my head. I figured it was the same in Charlie's mind, too, but I didn't ask. It was like we didn't even walk back through all the forest and pack up our things and lug them to the truck. I knew we'd done all that but I couldn't remember none of the details. I even looked in the back to make sure the stuff was there. Charlie seemed a little goofy from the wandering but he insisted on driving and there wasn't much I could do, seeing as I couldn't drive worth a lick anyhow.
I nearly asked Charlie twice why he thought up this camping trip now. 'Why'd you want to go camping Charlie?' I nearly said. But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I don't know why not. He wouldn't've said nothing bad anyhow.
Charlie dropped me off at the trailer court with all my stuff out at the front curb and he didn't say nothing really and I didn't say nothing to him. By then he seemed more himself. Before he drove off he leaned over to roll down the window some.
"You and me," he said, real slow, "You and me gotta get together this Sunday, huh?"
"Though I bet those goddamn Packers'll blow it like they always do."
Then he was gone with nothing but the exhaust remaining and I checked my heart to see if it was worth buying beer and chips for Sunday and I knew it wasn't.
The trailer seemed dead empty and I slung the duffle over a shoulder and took hold of the cooler filled with sloshing water and then the door opened and little Carrie came running out in her snow boots and no jacket and I set that cooler down fast and picked her up by the arm pits and I was holding back those tears with all my might. She was saying 'Daddy, Daddy,' and I called her 'Pumpkin, my little pumpkin,' and rubbed my stubbly cheeks against hers the way she hates and kissed her and kissed her again. I felt like Jimmy Stewart with a pile of money in front of him and everybody singing carols. That's how happy I was to be home again.
Then I turned around and Kim was right there in her Saturday sweats. Her green eyes and freckles. The first time I saw her at that basketball game my mind just about shut down I thought she was so pretty. Then she smiled and I saw those big front teeth like a chipmunk's that somehow are the most beautiful part of her. I set Carrie down and Kim kissed me on the lips. She smelled of sweat and pine cleaner.
"You're early," she said. "I didn't expect you boys back until tomorrow."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"Why're you sorry?"
"I don't know," I said. "It seems like you probably wanted some time to breathe with just yourself and the kid."
"No, no," she said and by her voice I thought she was close to tears. "I'm just glad you're home Jimmy."
It was snowing then and I told Carrie to watch this and I tilted my head back to catch a snowflake and she giggled. Kim asked me where Charlie was and I said he had to run and she didn't ask nothing more of it.
And that night Kim and me stayed up to watch Saturday Night Live like we did when we first started dating and she was still a kid in high school. We drank some beers and laughed a lot and we even thought about calling up old Charlie to see if he wanted to come over, since I mentioned Charlie and me used to watch the show when we were boys. Then one of us, I suppose it was me, started kissing the other. We agreed without either of us saying nothing to go off to the bedroom so Carrie wouldn't come out for a water and see something. Although I wonder if that's such a bad thing. I never saw my Ma and Dad even kiss and it always made me feel a little lonely and I often wondered if they made love—that was the phrase I used—and I hoped they did.
We kissed all the way to the bedroom, stumbling and clutching for each other, and then her pants were off and mine. We hadn't been all over each other like that since we first hooked up. So I started kissing on her neck just like she liked. And that's when she said it.
"Oh Cha—" she said. "Oh Jimmy. Oh Jimmy you stud."
I blushed and backed away an inch. Maybe I heard wrong. Maybe it didn't mean anything at all. I heard some girls think about other folks when they're screwing. It don't mean nothing. But I felt like someone had stuck something in me. There was a true pain all through my chest.
"What?" she said, kissing at my earlobe. "Don't stop. Don't stop Jimmy."
And I couldn't just stop. I didn't feel like doing it at all but if I stopped I'd have to say I didn't want to do it. Then I'd have to say why not. It turns into a whole big thing then. So I kept at it with her, and I tried my best to make like I was just as interested as always. But when she started pulling me down onto the bed I just couldn't go along with it. The last I wanted was to end up on my back—I don't know why, but the thought made me dizzy. So I put my hand on her shoulder and another on her hip and guided her around so her back was to my chest. She asked me what I was doing. I asked her what she thought I was doing. I pushed her down chest first and had one hand on the back of her head.
I squeezed her hard on her shoulder and then harder.
"Shhh," I said, my heartbeat filling up my ears. "Shhh."
Kim always was a real small girl but when I grabbed hold of her hips I couldn't believe how small. I never understood how much bigger and stronger I was until I was behind her like that. With a hand on either side of her I felt like I could just about crush her; instead I reached under her with one hand, moist hot and the thick wiry hair, and I slid a finger up to make sure she was wet enough and she was. I took it in that same hand and I slid in quick and easy and then grabbed hold of her hips like before and she was so light and I pulled her against me as I pushed into her. Slow and slow again. Silence.
I couldn't hear if she was saying anything or if she said my name again or if she moaned or breathed heavy or grunted or said stop. I don't know why but I just didn't care one way or the other anymore. I just wanted it done.
And then I pulled harder and pushed harder and harder and harder and all I could think about was how it was all numb down there, how it didn't feel good or bad or nothing. There was no feeling at all. So I moved quicker and quicker and harder and I heard myself gasping and gasping and my stomach and arms burned and burned. Kim was trying to push me off, swatting back with her arm as best she could and I tried to say something but I couldn't. Then I realized I was biting my lip and my mouth was full of blood.
Then I was done. I didn't know if I came and I didn't care. It didn't really matter. I was too tired and I grabbed myself and it was still fat but soft and slick with her. I heard my heart in my throat like a kick drum. Kim had her hands on the bed and was still bent over. I pulled on my pants and left the room.
Then I was in the doorway to Carrie's room. She was fast asleep, bundled up tight, just a bulge in the moonlight. With my free hand I pulled a handkerchief from my pants, the one Kim stitched my initials onto, and pressed it to my bit lip. Carrie stirred.
"Daddy?" She said. She sounded scared. Me standing so big and tall and all dark like I was. Sure she was scared. Kids are always scared of monsters coming up on them. "Daddy?" She said again. And I didn't answer. I tried, I tried to open my mouth, but my jaw was locked up tight.
"Daddy! Daddy!" She sat up and screamed now and her voice was catching with sobs but I didn't move and I didn't say anything. I wanted to, mostly I wanted to, but I was just all tired and numb and wanted to just close my eyes and drift and drift some more and maybe when I opened them I would be elsewhere, like a ghost, and no one could see me, and you all would just pass right through me and none of us could touch or hurt or love the other and we'd be the better for it, trust me.
But then Kim brushed past me and went to the bed and held Carrie in her arms.
"Shhh," she said. "Shhh darling, it's all right. It's just Daddy standing there. And daddy's tired is all."
Then she came over to me and whispered, the hot breath and spit on my face, tears down her cheeks, "What's wrong with you? What the fuck's wrong with you, you stupid shit?"
"Not in here," I said. I walked out the room and she followed right behind.
We were in the living room then, the Venetian blinds yellow with the moonlight, and I walked toward her and she stepped back. "Jimmy you're a fucking maniac," she said. "You hurt me back there. I'm gonna get a bruise, you dumb shit." She pushed her shoulder out toward me and it did look pretty red.
I started to say I was sorry, but it came out all different and I couldn't help myself, "Charlie said 'Treatsies.' He said 'treatsies,' and I know why."
"Jimmy. Just what the fuck are you talking about?"
"I know everything. I can't help it. I wish I didn't. But I do."
Did her lip tremble? Was she just all shook up from before? Neither of us had to say anything. If I was right about everything, then it was out there between us. The truth, I mean. Once you admit it to yourself there's nothing you can do against it. You can only bury it so long before it struggles up out of the grave like a zombie.
"You better go on to bed," I said.
"Jimmy I think you lost your fucking mind." But she reached up like she was going to smooth my hair. Like she felt bad for what she'd almost done.
I shook my head.
"You better go on to bed, Kim."
She didn't move for a second she just stood there in the moonlight and then I watched her disappear around the corner. The soft padding of her feet on the carpet. I went to the front window feeling like I had stuck a fist in my throat. The snow and the pine trees and two birds pecking at seeds in the snow. I put my forehead against the window and fogged the glass. I wished I'd been killed those years before instead of Ma and Dad. I wished I didn't know the truth. I wished I never figured any of it out. I wished, I wished, I wished. But a wish never meant nothing against the truth. Nothing you can dream and hope and think ever did anything up against what is. I know it better than anyone. I've been knowing it all my life.