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
"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 brow.
"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
"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 night."
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 done.
In the 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 anything."
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.
Susan 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, snuggling
close, content to kiss and roll, fully clothed in smiles.
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
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
Bright 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
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 excessively.
"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 the mattress.
"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 snakes.)
Leon 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
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 be forgiven.
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 before.
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.
In the 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 come closer.
"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.
That night with Jack sleeping by his side Leon laid on his stomach,
his face toward the wilderness, dreaming of Susan. His father's 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 rub.
Jack shifted, murmuring in the fits of a dream, lingering just on the
outskirts of the waking. He still lived in mom and dad land, with 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.