By Alan Sincic
It wasn’t the voice that woke me, but the jolt of the trailer. It was Dad. He’d lurched out of bed. Fumbled upright as if in a dream, as if he’d skippered a boat upside a pier in the dark, struck a piling and—pow—off the pitch of the deck and onto the dock he stumbles.
Not that the camper was what you’d call terra firma. Less like a home on wheels and more like a traveling dollhouse, everything pretending to be more than it really was—parlor the size of a bathroom, bathroom the size of a fridge, fridge the size of a toaster, toaster the hearth around which we’d huddle when the rain shattered and the dark thickened and the cold rose up to stab us in the ankles. The Cookie Tin’s what Mom called the trailer. Dad and Mom in the fold-out bed at the back, at the foot of which you got a curdle of flannel, Ben-Ben, not a toddler anymore but still squat enough (Tater-Tot we called him) to wedge in cross-wise. Up top of that the rack for Cece—canvas on a pair of poles, like a stretcher. Down below a carpet runner rolling out a luxurious four feet to the front-end boudoir—Len and me bull-dozed into the same bed together, head-to-toe across a table-top that, every morning at eight, we’d pop back up into place.
Oh. And Sal. Little Miss Bon-bon. Seems like the second a girl gets a couple of—what would be the polite word for it?—bosoms—you got the whole damn troposphere torqueing up to accommodate the blessed event. The VW van should’ve been for Len and me but no, Sal’s gotta have her privacy, her womanly solicitude, as if a girl who burns a whole afternoon spot-welding a girder of curls into a confectionary (what would be the word?) spectacle could give a damn about privacy.
The whole trailer rocked as Dad righted himself, the pants in a crumple at his feet. Up over the hips he hauled them—the jangle of coins and keys and pocket scree, the slab-of-leather belt and the clap-clap of the copper eagle buckle, the pen-knife, the wallet, the fist—extra bit of heft up over the balls that marks you as a man.
He snapped the curtain aside, peered out the tiny window. That’s when I heard it, the voice, for myself. The wind put a warp in it, more like the cry of an animal than a person I thought, but no. It paused. As if waiting for a reply. Then started up again. Pitched up now to a higher note, a wail. And then the wind shifted. Gone.
We stopped. Waited. Not something you’d hear, you’d ever listen for. It was a wonder we could hear anything at all, much less a voice in the rain, in the Smokies, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the woods, and what with us campers all sprinkled up the mountain and each an acre of our own, and what with all the switchbacks to scatter us even farther, and the worst of it the clay, fat with rain, like cornmeal all caked up where the roads rim the cliff and climb the ridge to the sky.
Dad buckled up, wrestled on his boots, snapped the bomber jacket off the hook. The trailer shifted as he moved, as if it were drifting. Up high he reached, almost to the ceiling. Groped at the door of the cubby we kept the road flares and the jumper cables in, you know, all that extracurricular crap. Out of it he hauled—Oh. That’s where it was. The .45. Strange to see it here, here in his hand. He checked the safety. Slipped it into the outside pocket of the leather jacket, just under the flap. Only once before had I ever seen him hold it. Couple years ago he’d run us out to the sandpit for the demo and the speech (this is not a toy). Taught us how to load and unload, to blast a bottle off a fence—the basics, right? Like the sex talk, you know—you get the one lesson (this is not a toy) and then, that’s it, go ye forth and multiply.
Service revolver. Souvenir of the war. You think it was fun and games? he’d say when I’d ask. Think again. As if that were all I could handle, fun and games, sixteen trips around the sun too brief a journey to win me a seat at the tribal circle. By the time he was twelve he’d lost a kid brother and a father to the flu. He’d scrounged the back alleys of bakeries for moldy bread, slept in a rustle of rats on the floor of a basement, hopped a freight at sixteen to hobo west. Oh. And then the war.
Me? I broke a finger once, digging a toy harmonica out the hole of a toy guitar. Fortune favors the brave! We who are about to die salute you!
The sound again. This time the voice seemed—or the wind made it seem— closer. I could just hear it above the rattle of the rain across the aluminum roof. Somebody was crying. Maybe Sal.
No time to grab much of anything as we rolled out the door. He carried a flashlight is all. The other hand he hooked up onto the pocket by the thumb, you know, like a cowboy at the ready, the thumb at the ready so’s to keep the pocket from flailing, so’s to keep the gun hand free.
I rammed open my umbrella and fell in behind. This is what men do, right? Twelve O’ Clock High. D-Day. 81st Airborne Division pop-pop-pop out the belly of the B-29. He motioned for me to keep up as we pressed into the rain, meaning so you don’t get lost and so I can protect you, but I was tall as he was, twice again as limber, prided myself on the push-ups I’d mastered in secret, at night, nose-down in the corkboard matting at the foot of the workbench in the corner of the garage, hidden by the pickup and bunkered off by a stack of mulch, by the redwood chips in the fifty-pound bags that framed me as I executed the fingertip push-ups like Ted Williams says in The Science of Hitting, page 58: “squeezing rubber balls, working hand grips, doing fingertip push-ups, swinging heavy bats, anything to get stronger.”
The umbrella bridled as I slid my hands up the shaft and pushed my head upside the ribs to ride out the gust. From inside the Cookie Tin the storm was a musical loudness, but here the wind whipped us whichever way we turned, ricocheted off the gravel, ripped a puddle loose and sent it shearing off into the blur. Up the slope on a patch of level ground sat our VW bus. Because the ground was slick we had to angle our way, careful not to step too far. His boots bit the turf and his arm—the one with the flashlight—strobed up and down as we climbed. How alien, how strange, that VW bus, that loaf of steel, so crisp in the sun but here in the black, in the buzzing of the rain, not much more than a smudge, a yellowy hum, like the wings of a bee in flight, like the brim of a struck bell. When the beam of the light hit the rear hatch of the bus, that’s when I saw what he was looking for. The door lock, little pop-up the size of a golf tee, not but a foot above the bed.
We both of us thinking what happened the week before, the scream-a-thon about vacation, the rights of man, Sal’s Declaration of Independence as a Woman of International Mystery. What right did we have to assume that Her Majesty would agree to join the family in a campout. In the woods, no less. And with the children.
As long as you’re under my roof says Dad all crackly with rage, to which Sal replies with a caber toss, the whole of her half-open suitcase, the denim and the linen and the silky unmentionables, kablam across a card table cluttered with cubelets of cheddar Ben-Ben pulled from out a slab of his toasted cheese. The table collapses. The plate shatters, the toddler yodels, the poodle yips. Somewhere over the Sahara a swarm of locusts spirals upward, gather their bearings, wheel out over the Atlantic to rendezvous with our little soiree. So the day begins.
And then the World Wrestling Arena Tag-Team Event, afternoon edition, halfway through Georgia, Her Ladyship demanding we go back to fetch her makeup case, Mom and Sal in a face-off, something about Maybelline, tyranny, painted women and The Face That God Gave You. On and on it went.
Nuns in prison and what would Jesus do and how do you know he didn’t and watch your mouth and you mean like your mouth, your mouth with all of that lipstick, and Mom there trembling, Ben-Ben on her lap, bopping up and down oblivious, sucking on a set of eyeballs to a Mr. Potato Head and punching at the buttons on the dashboard radio and Mom thinking if Ben-Ben had been a thing, a side of bacon, a basket, a loaf, a thing, she’d have flung him back over the seat at Sal. Pop. Take that. And then, like an hour or so before we ever get to camp, the coup de grâce, the slo-mo incendiary, that specialty of Sal’s when Dad, ahead of time, he tells her to lock the VW windows when we bed down for the night.
“Really? Really?” She’s incredulous. “Lock the doors,” he says.
“Like you lock the door to a camper?” “Don’t laugh.”
“And like you what—like you lock the door to a tent?” “All I’m saying is—”
“You mean people do that? Like to a tent?”
The earth’s tilting as we ribbon off the interstate and upwards now, the long slow climb up the blacktop and into the thick of the woods.
“Anybody could come by,” says Dad.
“And like what? They’re gonna steal like what? Like the bug spray?” “As long as you’re inside of that car . . .”
“And that should matter why?” “Because you’re a girl, that’s why.” “So what?”
“Don’t tell me you don’t know the difference,” says Dad, reddening now but not with anger, “between a girl by herself alone in the woods and—”
“Then you tell me,” says Sal, pressing in with that last little bit of blush— “because I don’t know. You tell me what the difference is.”
“Lock the doors,” says Dad as he steers us round the bend, ducks the sun as it ricochets off the cowl of a semi. Raw’s what his face is, raw like a radish, we can all see it, but that’s all I’m saying is all that he says, palm of the hand epoxied up onto the stick as he wobbles it into gear, chunks it up into second, spears us up into the clouds.
And now the storm. And Sal out there on her own. In the van? Out yonder in the woods? The hatch in the rear was locked. Like blind men we palmed our way round the side to the doors. You’d think the lightning could somehow blast us out a panorama, but no. We were boxed in by the rain, by the rebound of it as the after-spray BB-ed off the hardpan to soak us from the ankles up.
Dark the van. The storm too loud to shout. The curtains shut. Dad tried each of the doors in turn.
The front passenger side—there was the ringer. Pop-up lock in the up position. The water boiled up his jacket sleeve as he cracked open the door and levered the beam of the flashlight left and right.
There she was, the queen asleep in her chamber. The red glow of a beaded throw pillow, the purple curlers in a coil, copy of Teen Beat elbowed up into a teepee. So much for the big rescue. The last thing I saw, through the whip of the curtain as he pushed the door shut, was a twist of the quilt, the flash of pink—Sal’s face as she rolled, in her sleep, back into the night.
Dad braced himself as the wind pummeled away, his body against the door, trigger hand jammed in the pocket, the bulge in the leather like it was ready to burst. The back panel of his jacket popped like a rug when you beat it.
Then the voice again. On the move somewhere above us, up where the sky wavered, the mist billowed and fell, the road wrinkled up into the woods. Someone was calling out.
“Jesus H. Christ,” he said. Gripped the car like he was fixing to climb it. It was one thing to fend off a burglar in a bedroom, but a scavenger hunt for a what? For a voice?
“Go back,” he said to me without looking. “Go. Go back to bed.”
And miss the adventure? “I’m already wet,” I said. I stepped out toward the road. Stuck my head out the umbrella and into the smack of the wind.
“Your mother’ll be—” he said, but I kept moving. Calculating my age is what he was doing, from the zygote to the Jell-O head to the Cub Scout to the—
“What the hell,” he said. “To hell with it,” and up the slope he turned.
Launched out into the mist ahead of me.
We fought our way up the bank, pressed into the rain as the flashlight painted, not the ground ahead but only the air itself, chiplets of light where the falling water broke the beam—boulder shapes, silhouettes of trees. Up ahead we heard a cry. Like a woman or a child. Thin. High. Not but the length of a breath, and then nothing, and then the wail again. There. Just ahead there. We doubled our pace, climbed a rise at a curve in the road, up out of the fog. There. The kid—had to be a kid.
Dad called out as we drew near. “Damp out, eh? I say: Damp out. Damp.” The figure stopped. Turned. From out of the fizz emerged a boy, maybe ten,
crumpled up into a raincoat cut for a man, more like a puppet than a person. Up over his head he carried, as if he’d forgotten it was there, an umbrella punched up into an exclamation point, the ribs all wacka-doodle, all clicketty-click in the wind. From the other hand he swung what looked like a hurricane lantern, vintage KMart with the plasti-crappy shell and the itty-bitty ember like a night-light, like the bulb to an Easy-Bake oven.
“Looks like you belong to the Lost and Found,” said Dad. You know like when you feed the deer you give it that little slow-motion shuffle? He kept his eyes on the boy but his hand reached back to tug at my umbrella, by the fabric and then, as the fingers walked their way along the fringe, by a single spoke. I took his meaning but I held my ground. Pretended not to notice. My umbrella. Mine to give.
Mine to bestow.
“You got a name, son?” said Dad. So’s not to blind him he shot the beam off at a angle, a bank shot off the boy’s chest. The face under the cap reddened, rounded up into view like the pulp of a nectarine.
“Yessir,” he said between sobs, yessir, but with an edge, you know—hurt and angry at the same time, like it was our fault, like somehow we were the wound come calling to hurt him again.
It took a bit of doing. Dad took a knee. Smiled up at the boy. Danny the boy said, up under all the sobs, what his name was. Danny. I peeled open his hand. Swapped out—my idea now—the umbrellas.
Tossed away that rug-beater of his with a flick of the wrist. Harmon Killebrew–style, see? Cueing up that home run trot with a backhand flip of the bat.
Dad shifted to the other knee, sharpened up his hand into a visor to break the rain, looked up at the boy’s face. “Listen, Danny. Listen,” he said. “There was this time I lost a watch. Big. Ginormous.
Leather strap. Bunch of buttons. Got a dial tells you the time on the moon. I’d been fishing, see?
(Now it’s booming up into the wind, his voice.) So I get home. Gotta take a shower, right? Gotta wash all the fish offa you so you don’t smell like a fish, so people don’t think you’re a fish. So get this. I reach up to take off my watch but it’s gone. Escaped. Somewhere’s back there jumped offa my wrist!
Ran away from home!” The kid—I couldn’t believe it—the kid stopped crying. It was the picture that did it—the fish, the watch, the moon, the smell, the shower—parenthesis in the middle of all that woe.
“So I run back to the river—ticka-ticka—I can hear it around the bend, there in the water—ticka-ticka. So down I crouch. Along comes this hairy old fish up onto the shallows—ticka-ticka-ticka. Bam! I slap it up out the water and onto the bank. You ever seen a fish burp?”
Danny shook his head.
“Burped up a watch, right there on the spot.”
Then up he rose, Dad, slowly, as if to keep the planet at an equilibrium. Stood back to survey the scene. “So what do you do when you lose your way? Simple.” He spread his arms to gather up the rain. “You go back to where you been.”
So we set out in search of Danny’s campsite. Not a single patch of level ground, not even the road.
Up over the roots and the boulders rambled the path. Shoulder to shoulder we marched, as if already en route to the prize. Dad quizzed him. Upslope or down? Open or shade? Mountainside? Cliffside? Or down maybe, down a hollow? And then: “What state are you from?”
State? I pictured us tramping out over the horizon, hitch-hiking from town to town, hopping boxcars, fording streams, nibbling the spokes of a wagon at the foot of the Donner Pass.
“New Hampshire?” Danny said, the last syllable tilting back up into a question.
“What kind of car?”
He opened his mouth in the shape of a word but then held it there, empty. I know what he was thinking. A car car. My car. What other kind of car could there be? Like you get a kid on the phone, ask him where he is, and “here” is what he says, here.
“New Hampshire then,” said Dad. “A New Hampshire car.” And that was enough. It was as if he had a gyroscope in the gut to guide him in every endeavor, a kind of balance I’d yet to master. Thread a line. Swing an axe. Build a fire. If he was the song then I was the echo, the beat behind, the off-key by an eighth.
With a purpose now we set off down the trail and then, abracadabra, a dozen or more campsites later, tucked away from the gravel and into a stand of spruce, bingo: Dodge Polara wagon the color of chaw. New Hampshire plates. Red rubber ball shish-ka-bobbed up top the bent antenna. Rust like the rind of a tangerine around the bumper and the trim. Lashed to the roof, a wooden bed frame converted to a carry-all: campstools and tarpaulins and mess kits and such, all covered with a raggedy yellow crust-of-a-pie canvas that thrummed as the water struck it.
The boy tugged at the umbrella we shared, pulled me down the slope to the car, pressed his body upside the metal skin. Farther down the slope, we could just make it out through the mist—appearing, disappearing, reappearing—the tent. Lit from within, like a Japanese lantern. The light wavered, trick of the wind across the wall of the tent, wobbled like a flame on the move. What we were waiting for I couldn’t say, but when the shadow of a person—not yet a face but, as if with the stroke of a brush, a face in the making—whispered up onto the canvas, the boy stiffened. The tremor, I could feel it, the thin of his shoulder in the palm of my hand, and then off he went. Shot off down the hill. No. Sailed off down the hill is more like it, what with the play of the wind and the rain—the chink of the lamp, the puff of the umbrella, the canter of the coat up his shoulders as he ran.
I waited for him to glance back, for Dad to holler something brave, for something heroic to happen, photogenic, like the image from Life Dad’d framed and hung in the attic, the Arc de Triomphe at the Liberation of Paris, Sherman tank all frosted with peasant girls in culottes the color of snow and the gunner, the helmet askew, bubbling up the turret to collide with the breast of a nun, collide with the sun, collide with the cries of the Frenchmen weeping (yes weeping! men weeping!) at a sky flurried with scally-caps and neckerchiefs and bowlers hurled, at the snap of the shutter, upward, into the open air.
The tent opened. The thunder thundered. The mountain blinked. And there you go. That was that.
The boy was gone.
I waited for . . . I don’t know what. For Dad to sidle up alongside, clap me on the shoulder, offer up—like Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven—a motto to live by. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do or Head ’em up and move ’em out or Vamos amigo—we’re burning daylight.
But no. Dad was already halfway down the earthen bank that bordered the gravel, shortcut to the hairpin below. On his butt he skittered down the slope and into the kudzu to break the fall.
Staggered up onto his feet, up onto the path, all tipsy, all stuccoed with mud.
I ran to catch up. Clamored down. A deluge was what it was, a shattering, as if the wind were a hammer and the clouds made of glass. But where was the blood? Where was the battle? Quivering in a bush alongside the path was the lid to a trashcan, liberated by the wind or some kid-idiot’s idea of a Frisbee, and as we passed I plucked it up, worked my fingers along the rim, made ready to swing it like a shield up over my head, like a Spartan.
In the movie—Quo something or Spartacus or, you know, the one with Kirk Douglas? That was the one: Spartacus, he gets a wicked hack on the breast and they cauterize the wound, beat back the germs with a torch while all the while Spartacus, he’s standing there with his pecs on fire, he’s looking at ’em with that grin and that squint of his like, Is that all you got? The best impersonation of Kirk Douglas I ever saw was Dad on the way home from the Drive-In that night. You know, that voice? Wicked up over the Adam’s apple like that?
Two choices, says Dad. You got two choices.
Shush! You’re waking the baby, says Mom.
Either you carry the shield home—one hand on the wheel, the other hand, palm-up to the ceiling—or we carry you home on the shield.
That’s what I’m talking about. That was more like it. You don’t flinch when you’re the hero. You got people depend on you.
I pictured my pimply face in a bloom across the big screen, rugged and buff and handsome as a Burt Lancaster or a . . . you know, the guy who played the sheriff in that—Cooper. Gary Cooper.
Cooper: What you got there, buddy?
The lid to a garbage can. But it’s not a lid, it’s a, it’s a like a shield. Cooper: You don’t say.
Well, not a shield exactly, no. More like an umbrella.
Cooper: Well, I don’t blame you, partner. I don’t blame you a bit. Say what?
Cooper: I’d do the same thing, too, if I was made of sugar.
I ditched the lid. I bared my face to the wind.
From every angle the sky fell, chopped away at us, not in downward strokes, not with the decorum gravity imposes but wild with the zig and the zag of the wind. If I’d have been twelve the old man would’ve clapped his arm around me, rubbed up the small of my back to break the chill, dropped the big bomber jacket down over my shoulders. I would have elbowed my way up into the hol- low sleeves, stirred myself into the scent of licorice and Old Spice. The plumb- line pull of the gun in the pocket I’d feel, and the yoke of the collar there, all buffed up into a leathery curl, slick as the heel of a mitt. He would have swad- dled me in the heat, that’s what he would have done if I’d have been twelve, the borrowed heat, the lifted-up-into-the-leather heat of his own body.
We stopped at a switchback.
“You follow the curve of the mountain, see?” He pointed up at the green shoulder of the rise we’d yet to climb, then back at the trail we’d already covered. “You count the number of . . . of loops.”
“Switchbacks,” I said.
“Right. Right. Switchbacks. Loops. You count ’em.”
The road wound its way up, then down, then up again. We took a blind alley, then another, then another—cul-de-sacs buried in brush or bulldozed up into mounds of gravel. Through the mist we tunneled, followed the beam wher- ever it landed. A nest of broken jars, the bed of a pickup, the snub end of an Airstream, silver like shad in the flicker of light. We stopped to catch our breath.
Beside us there in the hollow of the cloud, a pup-tent breathing in, breathing out the dark.
“Which way?” I asked. It was a strange question. Since we were standing in a clump of grass beside a tent, in the middle of the dark, bereft of a trail and abandoned by the map, what kind of which could there be to go with the way? Inside the snug of the tent a bedroll stirred, rolled, curled up into a croissant. Up the small of my back the wind clamored, up between the blades of the shoulders to stiffen the flannel. Somewhere in the Yukon a trapper crackles the ice off the end of his mitt, his fingers the shell of a shattered walnut. Somewhere in the wild the Yeti howls. Somewhere in Arabia the Bedouins are baking bread, bread in these little mud ovens they skewer down into the burning sand.
Not a word. Off we went. He quickened the pace to keep warm I suppose, but to also—who can say?—accelerate over the shame. Passed a maple—bent, sprung out the slope at a right angle and split by lightning, the gash half-healed, the bark bubbled up rough round the edges like the skin of a gator.
“We been here before,” I said. “Cinch up your laces.”
“But I don’t—”
“Cinch ’em up. Cinch ’em tight.” “But I—”
“I’ll be damned if I’m gonna—”
“Okay. Okay.” I knelt on a slab of rock angled uphill. The muddy water sliced by in a sheet on either side.
“Damned if I’m gonna see you break your damn ankle.”
It wasn’t just lightning that ignited the air, but lightning-obliterated, a billion filaments fizzing out through the fog in every direction. When I looked up, he was a dozen yards behind me, back where the road disappeared round the curve of the mountain. He’d climbed up onto the stump of a tree to survey the switchback we’d just taken and maybe (through the gaps in the rain) the campsites below, but the trees were too thick here, too raw to yield up a glint of anything human. From side-to-side he rocked, stiff-legged, stiff-armed, the hands jammed into the jacket pockets, the feet a shoulder-width apart.
Just when I cleared the thicket to reach him, it happened. The bark he was standing on snapped from the force of his boot, sheared off in a crescent like the meat of a coconut. Down he went.
How much do we see we make sense of only after the fact? Before I could even register the fall I heard the crack of the pistol. It all of it of a sudden, like the glimpse of a face in the shuffle of a deck: Dad against the air, then the void in the air, then the Dad on the ground. On his back in the turf. His eyes open. His body of a sudden—for the tick of a second, the hush between the beat of the heart and the beat to come—still.
The pocket was blown off completely, scorched away in the wake of the fall. The shell of the jacket smoldered where the pocket had been. He swung the gun out away from his body, up out of the blue smoke, and then he righted himself. Rose. Reassembled himself, one piece at a time, like a drunk in the dark undresses, dresses, undresses again. It’s as if he were counting the pieces: feet, legs, hands—both hands, there they are, both hands. I saw myself running through the wreck of the rain, over the rock and the brier to will him back together again.
But if I’d run to him I would have what? Hugged him? Brushed the mud off his jacket? Shook him like you shake a branch to hear the rattle? Is it dead? Is it green? No. He was a man. I was a man. You don’t, when a man falls, bustle over to publicize the event. You give him a space of a size to rise again of his own accord. That’s the deal, see? That’s the trade-off.
When I was five we played a game. Torpedo we called it. He’d post up at the foot of the bed and I’d make a run at him and leap, full-bore, my body the torpedo, to spear him in the chest. Somewhere in the middle the leap (his big hands up under my arms) would turn into a levitation. Twice the height of myself I’d fly to strike him full in the chest, boom, chest to chest, and down we’d go, topple onto the bed with me in his arms.
Semper Fi. The day would come I’d be the one to hold him. It’d be my turn. Not a vision but a glimpse: his breakable body fitting into my arms. I backed away.
Shrouded as we were by the rain, he’d never know I’d been watching. By the time he stumbled out of the underbrush and back onto the path I was back into position—down on one knee, yanking at the laces, captivated by the divot in the tongue of my Dunham’s.
Goddammit he said as he labored up the slope. Christ. As if Christ were to blame. As if the cosmos—right up the chain of being from the amoeba to the quasar—were to blame. Jesus Christ!
I didn’t say it but I thought it. I didn’t want to think it, but there it was. He was the one who’d always say, when I’d crank up the complaint machine, What! What? What are you, an egg? he’d say, and having busted me for some bass-ackward move—jack-knifing off a roof into a pool or chunking a hatchet at the trunk of a tree—he’d point to himself, stiffen his fingers and point and say I look like an egg carton to you? You think the world is an egg carton?
You’re goddamn right.
And now here he was, cursing the rain and kicking a stick up into the wind. I knew better than to say a word, but he grabbed me by the collar just the same.
Up onto my feet he yanked me. Not a word. Not a glance.
Can’t say I’m proud of what I did next, but you gotta understand. What it was he did. Not the force of it, no—where I come from, a punch on the shoulder’s the same as a hug—no. It was the way he did it. I was a boy. That’s what it meant. A tag-along. A puppy.
I shook off the rain as he limped down the trail, back the way we came, the flashlight a wobble of yellow, the shred of the jacket—but to hell with that. To hell. I set out on my own, up the slope in the opposite direction. He called out—I think he called out—but the boom of the sky on the brow of the ridge garbled it.
Only once did I (as if to catch my bearings) look back. A slash of mud scored the front of his jeans, the ripped cuff of the one leg trailed out behind, the flesh and blood of the bare ankle flashed. I walked faster. No let-up in the rain, but as the gravel gave way to slate and the trees began to thin, the angle grew steeper. My legs began to burn. Only then, when I was about to falter, did the wind wipe the mountain clean and, for the moment at least, clear the air. I’d reached an overlook.
I turned to face him. Up the slope he hobbled. I’m not a boy, that’s what I would tell him, look him in the eye, but he labored on as if I was not, after all, the true destination. The destination lay beyond.
Gave me a punch on the shoulder as he passed, off-handish, punch like you punch a gunny sack to jostle the produce. A jolt to the marrow as he carried himself a step or two farther, up over the shoulder of the trail. Stopped at the edge of the cliff. Lost. We were lost. Might just as well have been on another planet, that vantage point, for all the good it did us. The old man. Old. He planted his feet, shut his eyes, pitched his face up to the sky and snapped at me, like it was an accusation: “Do you have to go?”
Go? It took a second to figure what he meant. Go where? With who? Through the blaze of the rain I marked him, the whole of him there in the sway of the sky, and then it came to me. In all the excitement I’d forgotten, but yes, come to think of it—that pressure down there in the hold—I did. I did have to go. The both of us too angry to feel the cold, the wet, the slash on the cheek and the pang in the gut.
We stepped up onto the lip of granite where the trail met the air, the edge of the earth beyond which rolled the mist that covered the trees and hid the whole valley from end to end. Side by side, mano-a-mano we stood. A wilderness is what it was. As it rose and fell it rumbled like the swell of a sea, like the hikeable white hillsides in all those pictures of heaven.
He unzipped, and then I unzipped, and then taking careful aim at everything in particular, and like Odysseus, who offers up his face to the stars, and who pours out his libation to the sea, and like sailors out over a pulpit railing, who serve themselves up to the wind, and like children even, who cast themselves into the water for no other reason than that the water is wet, we marked our territory, we crossed our swords, we shook ourselves, we gods, we sovereign beings, dominion over all that walks and swims and crawls and flies, we peed.
Alan Sincic is a teacher at Valencia College with an MFA from Columbia and Western New England University, Sincic’s fiction has appeared in The Greensboro Review, Hunger Mountain, Saturday Evening Post, Prime Number, Overland, Burningword, From The Depths, Tin Can Literary Review and elsewhere. His stories have won contests sponsored by Big Fiction, The Texas Observer, Driftwood Press, Gateway Review, Prism Review, Westchester Review, Vincent Brothers Review, and American Writer’s Review. Please visit him at alansincic.com.