caught Jack at the edge of the woods, in front of a tall milkweed,
spacing out on nature once again. Leon watched, smiling, his feet
dug into the pine needles as Jack used his broken pocketknife to
slit the milkweed with an eight year olds surgical precision. Jack
had no idea how long he'd been out here or how mad Dad would be.
He had no idea Leon was openly cultivating his father’s anger,
that he was a pawn in this game.
When Jack threw the pod to the lake it floated crazily on the dark
surface before being attacked by the ever-watchful bluegill. If bluegill
grew as large as carp, they’d bite your leg off. That's what
his father had said on every fishing trip for the last ten years. Be
patient and just about everything will come to you. That was the weakness
in his father; he loved the small things like bluegill. If this many
bluegill lived in the lake, big bass rested somewhere close by waiting
for darkness. His dad was content to fish for bluegill all day long.
Leon wanted to hook on to the big monster bass. He and Jack would come
back after supper when the shadows fell on the water.
Oblivious to the bluegills and their murky violence, Jack focused on
the juice oozing from the stalk. After a proper deliberation he stuck
his tongue tentatively to the liquid. As if all of nature existed to
satisfy his kid’s curiosity. That was the sign for Leon to move.
He rose and in two long strides pounced, rolling Jack to the water's
edge. Pinned in the stagnant muck, Jack twitched and thrashed as Leon
stared into his rolling eyes, watching the terror turn into fury. Then
he spoke in a calm, adult voice.
"Don't you know dummy... Milkweed juice is bad poison. It could kill you."
"But you told me..."
"Yeah... I've told you a lot of things. Rule Number One: Don’t believe
everything people tell you." Leon mussed Jack’s hair lovingly, seeing
with satisfaction his brother was already forgiving him.
Dad was winding across the hillside, a frown evident from two hundred feet.
Leon wasn’t surprised by the frown. He had been cranky from the beginning,
like it was Leon’s fault for not being bubbly and full of jokes just
because they were going camping. Dad had been up at six, forcing them all to
an obscenely early start. Leon had resisted from the beginning, as if now at
fifteen he should decide for himself, and maybe even stay home—though
that option had not been offered. He and his dad had quarreled early, and during
the endless winding Ozark drive the tension grew in the hot air. After eight
hours of driving at a snail's pace on winding roads listening to news programs,
swap shops and country music Leon and Jack had run far and fast to the lake
before Mom and Dad started unpacking, before they could detail the endless
chores, and lay out plans for Sunday’s drive to the church which they
had called a week ago for times of services. Leon ran to avoid seeing the leaf
blower, the flag, coolers, lanterns, mosquito candles, rakes, hoes, axes, hammers,
fishing rods out the wazoo.
When his father stood in front of them, Leon saw the irritation etched on his
You know, your mother and I might want to have some fun too. Did you think
there wasn’t any work?"
Leon looked contrite, knowing it was best to stay out of his dad's way until
after supper. He'd heard it before. Fun for his father meant roasting marshmallows,
taking a shower at the bathhouse, building a fire, and talking with the neighbors.
His father could find fun in peeling potatoes, or in greasing the cast iron
skillet. Leon knew that during their run to the wilderness the entire campsite
had been prepared. By now the station wagon was unloaded, the firewood bought,
the campsite aesthetically arranged with assorted electric cords, an army shovel,
eight or ten fishing rods, and lawn chairs. The gas stove was assembled, the
water jugs filled, the clothesline hung from tree limbs, the Apache tent trailer
erected, the awning tacked smartly with guide ropes, the bedding unrolled.
Was it his fault dad worked too hard and long, whether in the office or the
wilds as if there were rules dictating suffering before fun? Now his dad stood
glaring, sweat on his forehead, wearing the threadbare sleeveless T?shirt that
made him look like a refugee from a concentration camp. His look said it all—discipline
and work, discipline and work—until it was all done. To Leon, that meant
that half the time no time for fun ever existed. Leon was going to get his
fun when he could.
" Your mother and I don't ask much."
Right,” Leon murmured.
“ What did you say?”
Nothing.” Leon knew the message about order on camping trips, and clearly
stated rules. You may use my tools; just put them back where you found them.
You have to be prepared, and that means thinking ahead.
They followed the trail back to the campground and found the tent-trailer secure,
the water jugs full. Dad had expertly staked out the land and followed the
game?plan. Mother was already messing at the stove, her supplies staking out
her territory. They ate on the red vinyl tablecloth, with his mother pushing
the celery and the green jello with embedded grapes as the epitome of health.
By the time the ninety-nine cent Wal?Mart sandwich cookies were devoured his
father had the firewood arranged and ready to light.
Leon and Jack knew that after supper Mom and Dad would scout out the territory
searching for people to talk to. His mother’s farm upbringing emerged
each time she met an outsider--she acted like she hadn't talked to anyone in
weeks. As if she was still sitting on the side of Highway 61 under the walnut
tree, swatting at flies, waiting for some exotic urbanite to trail down from
St. Louis to tell her about the world.
She had already made one exploratory visit to the neighbor's compound. Already
she was cataloguing with delight the mundane details of their lives.
" That couple is from Rapid City, South Dakota. Did you know, people come
from all over to be here. They have a daughter in the Navy... They drove all
After the meal his parents took off on their walk with orders to Leon about
dinner dishes and bedding. Leon cringed as he glanced over at the neighbors,
seeing the beer, two motorcycles, the air conditioner, and the flickering TV
set, all wrong as wrong could be. That wasn't the way to live. How could Mom
and Dad be so undiscriminating, when my minute indiscretions are noted as soul
threatening? He angrily gouged at the skillet as a mosquito lit on his arm.
If they only knew what I think of doing with Susan, and what I’ve already
trailer that night, Leon and Jack snuggled in their sleeping bags,
listening to the cicadas talking in the trees,
feeling that home
was ten thousand miles away. Like most every night Leon was talking
aloud in a half whisper making sense of day, telling stories. Jack
lay close, his head on Leon’s arm, his eyes half-closed. Leon
told Jack about Indians living without camping coolers of hamburgers,
of pioneers harvesting milkweed, wild strawberries and grubs from stumps.
He explained about seventeen year locusts, the medicinal properties
of red dogwood berries, why mulberries stain the skin, and how mud
turtles have sex. They discussed why earthworms came out on the pavement
after a big rain.
At one time or another Leon had explained just about everything he
knew to Jack. His brother’s inclination was to believe. Leon
knew he too had once been that way, up until dance late night story
time that pickles were alligator penises, carefully packed by old women
from Chester, Illinois in an old factory down by the river. Jack believed
for at least a day that those were the number one pickles in the country.
He said something to his teacher at school, and she called home, and
Leon had his mouth washed out with soap.
In the half-light Leon began the familiar story once again.
" They eat them in every bar, every diner. Look for them. They're right
there next to the gallon jars of pink, pickled eggs."
Jack nodded as if he still believed, and Leon abruptly stopped.
"Do you believe everything anyone tells you?"
"But you told me a million times."
“I’m telling you now, you can’t take anyone’s word on
They slept as the breeze ruffled the canvas, as the neighbors walked the gravel
road that crunched and talked like it never did in the daytime. Leon woke once
in the half-light, brushing the canvas wet with night air, sure he had heard
a wildcat scream in a back hollow.
had focused his agenda. Seeing her every day was more important than
throwing the football with his Dad or going
on family camping
trips. Leon wanted to see her every minute. He feared if he didn’t
touch her each day she would drift off and disappear. So the thought
of spending five days camping threw him into an immediate and prolonged
panic. Six months before meeting Susan, Leon would have cleaned his
tackle box, rearranged lures, and dreamed of fishing for a month before
a camping trip. He would have badgered his Dad to buy new lures, to
leave home early so they could fish at dusk. But instead of eagerness
Leon had fought this trip at every step. He made no move even to pack
his graphite rod. That look in his dad's eyes that said no, there's
no need for girls at your age had caused it all to go to hell and left
Leon with no choice but to say yeah, it will happen no matter what
you or anyone says. If his dad couldn’t understand Susan, Leon
wasn’t going to pretend that fishing could make them close. He
was about to start high school in three weeks. He would see Susan if
he wanted to. That's all. His dad would get it eventually.
Eight nights before in the last week in July, the big fight happened.
All afternoon Leon and Susan played tennis. When they quit they rode
their bikes the mile from the sycamore-lined park to her empty house.
In her kitchen Leon drank the lemonade Susan offered, taking in her
too quiet home. Curtains hung on every window keeping the heat outside.
He didn’t know how to act. Used to scrabbling for ten minutes
alone here, a half an hour there this afternoon threatened to stretch
on forever. For once they had a whole world to themselves in a place
where time had died. He kissed her and her eyes closed. Ten minutes
later they were in her bedroom. There was a moment with the air conditioner
breeze making the room clean and fresh, when he took her in lying
on the bed, her arms outstretched, smiling. Leon marveled that he
was there--that he had done nothing to make it happen. Together they
laid together, snuggling close, content to kiss and roll, fully clothed
Later somehow he disentangled, and left in a daze. He rode his bike
wildly down the hills, a wide smile on his face. How could he explain
to his father it was ok to be mesmerized by the beauty of muted sun
in a girl's bedroom? How could he explain that he was still innocent—that
he and Susan could look and touch and kiss without exploding into
pornography. How could he explain that no sin existed between them?
Though he should have gone straight home, he didn’t. For once,
just feeling himself free and alive was enough. He wanted to savor
the afternoon. He ended
up in the park to play fuzzball with Wilkening and Schwab. He got lost in the
game, the whole day caught up in the magic of Susan. Mel Davis uncharacteristically
hit a shot over the grandstand into the lagoon. Several times Leon told his
team he should leave, but he was needed to keep the side alive.
When he got home at nine that night his father was waiting. Trying to brush
aside the questions, Leon tried to make for his room. He’d stayed away
too long. He knew they were worried. But couldn’t they for once let it
go? Couldn’t they see the innocence in his eyes? Leon kept his eyes down,
looking meek, and moved to turn his music on. His dad stood in the doorway.
Your mother asked if you had eaten. You didn’t answer. Where were you?”
I’m sorry…I’m sorry. I was on my bike, playing ball. I told
you I would be playing ball."
“ You were playing ball since one this afternoon?”
“ Yeah, Bill Wilkening, and Greg Schwab, and some others. Then we watched
the college game.”
All we ask is courtesy and some consideration for others. Did you know your
mother was worried about you?" His father grabbed at Leon's arm to make
his point. "You just need to tell people where you are going to be."
Leon pulled away, twisting backward.
" Ok. I don't know where I'll be all the time."
His father reached for him again.
Leave me alone,” Leon cried out. Cornered, Leon crouched into a fighter's
pose, his heart beating fast, his fists up. I don’t care, I don’t
care, he comes a step closer I’ll hit him. His father stopped, wary of
this new phenomenon. The energy was all between their eyes. Some line had been
passed, some message conveyed, and both of them were shocked by how fast the
craziness had traveled. Then a flicker of sadness crossed his dad’s face.
And Leon, seeing that look, knew it was ludicrous to push his Dad this far.
He saw the scene as if it was written in a book--a fifteen-year-old son crouched
defiantly in front of his father, his fists ready to strike--the kid so locked
in his anger he was out of control. Yet, Leon kept his fists raised, his face
rigid, until his father sighed and walked away. That scene had been the prelude
for this camping trip.
and early Leon and Jack were out on the dock, ready for swimming.
They’d focused on swimming since they got up. Dad was pleased
they were eager to plunge into recreation. Now that the stress of driving
and setting up was over he was ready to move on to camping fun. After
breakfast, Leon and Jack grabbed towels and walked deliberately on
the root strewn trail to the deserted mud beach. Leon knew the plunge
into the deep forest lake with fog drifting off the water this early
wouldn’t be a piece of cake. Yet, there was no question about
whether he was going in. The rule for vacations was you swam where
you could, preferably as early as possible. Leon prided himself in
rivers, streams, ponds, sloughs, and lakes. He knew ahead of time the
depth of this lake, the aggressive underwater plant growth, the general
eerie shadiness of the hills hunched over the far shore.
Leon pushed Jack’s air mattress into the transparent water, Jack
looking spindly, white, and sleepy, not too sure about swimming so
soon after oatmeal
and pancakes in this lake lying deep in the valley with trees bunched thickly
on three banks.
Lying quietly on his mattress in the deep water to absorb heat and not the
breeze Leon focused on the vine-like plants arching up from the underwater
slime. Closer to shore a green mat of plants crawled over the surface. Leon
felt the goose bumps rise as the water inched between plastic and flesh. The
secret was to lie quietly until the sun gathered power. He dreamed of Susan
brushing her hair before the mirror, he standing behind her holding her waist.
He replayed the night a week before in her father's car sitting close, reaching
for each other's hand. The scene never far from the surface showed Susan in
the movie theater magically out of the darkness lifting his hand to her breast.
He replayed this scene over and over, the hand on the white blouse, the hard
ridges of the bra, the promise of skin underneath. That night under those flickering
lights in the midst of that quiet crowd the warm moving skin underneath the
fabric sent the message--This is me... Explore.
When Leon turned over on the air mattress he was aroused, flushed at the imagined
touch of fabric and skin. Fueled by the breeze Jack’s mattress bumped
gently against Leon’s arm. Already Jack's back was pink.
" You're getting a burn. Keep your toes in the water and you won't get red."
Jack dutifully slid his legs into the cool water. A crow lazed from the pines,
a signal the day was maturing, calling out his wilderness disdain for their
presence. A bluegill slid tentatively from the depths. Leon watched the kid's
closed eyes as the fish came closer, drawn to white hairs, and bit. Jack screamed
" Ooh. Something got me."
" Probably a horsefly. Get in the water and hang on."
Always the believer, Jack shivered as he entered the water where the vines
seemed to reach for his legs. Within a minute he thrashed his way back onto
" There's something down there."
Leon settled him, bringing the two mattresses together, talking softly, pointing
out the vines, showing Jack the hiding places of lake snakes, of green darting
madness. He explained why white bodies of loggers sat motionless in the depths
protecting the lake's mysteries.
" Why do you think they call it Loggers' Lake?"
Leon talked until Jack’s fish fear subsided and the heat began to regain
its power. As Leon stared into Jack’s vulnerable eyes, he thought about
how he could eventually make his brother tough. If he didn’t succeed,
when Jack got to 8th grade, they'd eat him alive.
Leon contemplated the steps to opening the air valve on Jack’s mattress.
He reached out quietly and did his work as Jack dozed in the heat. Without
an air mattress, confronting the deep green depths would be a challenge.
Back on the shore Mom was there to frown and soothe the kid. Under her watching
eyes Leon explained it was nothing but a joke.
The next night with the lantern sending light over the water Leon
and Jack sat with their dad on the dock, listening to the whippoorwill,
fishing for catfish. When the taut lines tugged, his father yanked,
Jack yelled, and they watched the struggle, the lake yielding to the
frenzy within. Then the fish, all blue and white and trailing algae,
emerged on the boards flopping, and his father cautioned both of them.
" Watch for the barbs, they can hurt bad."
At that moment the fish rolled, his dad grabbed, and his palm was stained
with blood. The boys stared at the catfish, his mouth slapping open
and shut. “Big enough, maybe two pounds,” his dad said,
as if the wound meant nothing. He wiped the blood on his pants, put
the fish on the stringer and resumed his vigil. Leon and Jack laid
on the boards, carefully keeping their legs on the safety of the dock.
Leon watched his father's attentive gaze on the water. The blood was still
fresh on the pants. His comment was his usual fishing command.
(Do not let parts of the worm dangle off the hook. Jerk gently only when the
fish is clearly on the line. Use a net to lift fish from the water. Watch for
was still in no mood to listen. He wasn’t remembering the
fifty camping trips his father had organized. He wasn’t remembering
the endless days playing catch, or the day his dad fell off the roof
putting up the basketball goal. He didn’t focus on baseball trips
to St. Louis, or the many times he’d seen pride in his father’s
eyes. Just four days before the fight that wasn’t really a fight,
Leon had seen something he’d rather forget. What he saw was his
father in his summer Saturday frayed jeans crouched next to the tailpipe
of the running Volvo, a garbage sack in his hand, bent on yet another
project. His father bent on doing what he was going to do. Leon thought
nothing of it. But then he heard the plaintive meow that meant Mollie’s
new kittens were in that bag, and his father was doing something that
couldn't be made right later. Before his father could see him Leon
ducked back down the steps to the safety of the back yard.
Mollie, searching for her offspring, had appeared at his window that night,
Were those kittens carted away as trash, shuffled off without comment? Was
it the time in the military that made him do it? Would he do it again? Adults
were supposed to know what they were doing. And some adult actions just couldn’t
That night in the trailer Leon lay awake next to Jack listening to the tree
frogs and cicadas. Leon marveled at the depth of life moving in the darkness.
Dead kittens were a part of life, as was Susan. Not ten feet away his father
snored, oblivious. His dad's heart would stop dead if he saw him kissing Susan
on the blanket as the air conditioners purred. If Leon was home, he'd pry the
window open, slide to the ground, quiet the dog, and set his bike in motion
into summer night air whipping his hair. Soaring toward Susan, like he'd done
Six weeks before, at two in the morning when even the dogs were quiet, he and
Susan arranged a blanket on the lawn outside her bedroom. As the blanket grew
wet with dew, when nothing mattered but their closeness, Susan’s father's
voice came straight out of dream, muffled by bushes and insects, but real enough
to startle. Leon, drawn from his meditation on Susan’s breathing, sprang
to his feet and ran. Susan scurried to the front porch and back to the house.
Leon made it all the way home that night without brakes.
trailer Leon listened to the thunderstorm rolling across the valley
and wondered about the secrets his father kept
mute. He couldn’t
see his father shirtless on a blanket in the summer night with a girl.
His father as far as he knew had never been young. He couldn’t
see his dad making mistakes at all—whatever he had done had to
be deliberate. Finally, when the dreams came, Leon saw the lake weeds
growing from the mud, reaching toward the campsite, the lake monsters
peering with reptile eyes from the water.
In the morning, in a fishing-fever Leon and Jack hunted worms in the overgrown,
rock- strewn ravine. Uncovering the humus under rotting logs he found more
than bargained for--night crawlers, sometimes ten inches long, thriving in
the moist roots. Jack overturned a rock and four worms squirmed for darkness.
Wow. Come here," he squealed in delight.
Together they threw boulders, lifted logs, plunged into the dark weeds, determined
to unearth every worm. Covered in dirt and sweating, Leon lifted a great, half?eaten
log, then heaved it to the side. In the moment of release his eyes replayed
in slow motion the snake, fat and dry, falling into the soft dirt left by the
rolling log. The snake was alive, and the rattles shook slow and quiet.
" Snake. Watch it."
Even then Jack didn't believe and stood stolidly, looking for confirmation.
The snake moved, on a flat rock, his triangular head hard, eyes focused on
Leon's leg, the gray rattles shaking hypnotically. Leon motioned for Jack to
" Watch it, watch it. He can kill ya."
Leon raised a rock high above his head. He'd kill the snake dead as a door-nail.
He'd see its guts splattered. As the rock came down the snake struck, and Leon
saw the head reach fast, a demon on primitive power, a machine.
He screamed, stepped back, his feet dancing.
" He's got to die."
He hit the snake again and again, ten times. The snake jerked, tried to strike
feebly, and then lay listless.
Movement in the entrails brought Leon and Jack closer. Leon probed with the
stick, looking for the mechanics of death. Out of the murk six miniature snakes
waggled in wetness onto the rock, little bits of dirt clinging to their fresh
skin. Jack's eyes widened as he backed rapidly away.
" Wait. It's ok, wow, babies, can you believe that?"
With contagious panic Leon poked at the snake, flipped it over, leveraging
the stick under the snake. When he lifted the stick with a jerk his strength
was more than he realized, and the dead snake flew into the air big and heavy
and seemingly moving in all directions. Leon ducked, scrambling for cover,
turning to see where it would fall. In horror, he saw the snake draped across
Jack's shoulder. Twisting in revulsion, Jack pawed at the snake, then tripped
and the two were there??the snake and his brother trying his hardest to fly
from slime and evil and snake and his brother.
Leon wanted to stop him, to make it better as Jack ran in panic. Leon felt
a twitch, a cough of love as he stood and watched. The poor kid, how scared
he must have been.
night with Jack sleeping by his side Leon laid on his stomach, his
face toward the wilderness, dreaming of Susan.
snores tried to drown out the noises of the night. Only the thin canvas
walls kept his family world in place. In the trailer the air was thick
and moist. Outside the winds blew in the treetops. A distant splash
in the lake said the Big Life was going on without him. Leon wanted
a world where he paid attention to the rules that really mattered.
When he got home he and Susan would take their clothes off and just
shifted, murmuring in the fits of a dream, lingering just on the
outskirts of the waking. He still lived in mom and dad
Santa Claus, and Jesus. Leon knew that he too, had lived in that world.
Leon’s favorite picture captured his father with his arm over
his shoulders, the dog at their feet. His father’s eyes in the
picture looked straight ahead as if he was protecting Leon from danger.
Leon still knew that feeling of rightness in his dad’s arms.
He was never going to fight him again. But he was going to have to
protect himself, and to do that, he had to figure out just what was
out there. He had to do the exploring alone. He and Susan would go
to the county fair to see the livestock and the guys with tattoos.
He'd show her the sixty-year old dwarf sitting in his half-pint lawn
chair, the green boa wound round his neck. There would be cigarettes,
danger, and darkness.
There was nothing to do but plunge on.
Jack stirred, in danger in his dreaming. Leon touched him on the arm.
Hey," he whispered, "It's ok."
Leon vowed to teach him when he could.