The summer I turned fourteen I saw my mother's best friend naked. I had just come out of the woods and found her asleep in the glade alongside the cabin. Had I been more acquainted with the unclothed female form I might not have stared at her as long as I had, and thereby run the risk of being caught, which I was. Sadly, the sum total of my experience to that point had come from the clandestine study of somebody's father's stash of year-old Playboy magazines and from the nano-second glimpse of Brigitte Bardot's bared breast you could catch in the film, And God Created Woman, provided you were clued in by somebody who had already seen the film to look at the mirror on the wall of her bedroom when she was getting undressed with her back to the camera.
Sylvia Zellner's breasts did not resemble Brigitte Bardot's. Her body was sturdy and functional like a building that would house the Bulgarian Ministry of Agriculture. The breasts of the centerfold women stood in the full and upright position even when they were reclining on fur backed sofas. Theoretical lines drawn out from their nipples ran parallel as railroad tracks. Lines drawn from Sylvia Zellner's breasts would have constructed a baseball diamond, with the foul lines running underneath her armpits.
I'm sure I did nothing to startle her. I barely breathed. Yet she suddenly sat up as if a branch had snapped. She had small brown suspicious eyes and her natural expression was always close to a scowl. Now a string of thoughts raced across her eyes that read: What did he see? How long has he been—? What kind of boy would—? My two choices were to disappear or apologize and I chose the more difficult.
"Sorry, Aunt Sylvia."
She put on her halter-top and looked past me down into the woods.
"Where's Paul?" she said, when she saw that I was alone. There was a tone of annoyance in her voice as though I was always hiding the very next thing she needed.
"He's coming in the jeep with my dad."
"I thought you were all going fishing."
I enjoyed this brief moment of advantage. Aunt Sylvia was a far more commanding figure than my mother, and not just because she was taller and more physically imposing. Other mothers were always nicer to the visiting children than they were to their own. Certainly mine was. Watching her being thoughtful and considerate, granting their wishes without first making them feel ungrateful and mean for asking, rewarding their behavior, delighting in their individuality, siding with them in every dispute, all made me long to be a visitor to my own house. But not Aunt Sylvia. She adored her own son like a weird six-leaf clover, and treated me like some loud, over-sized, temporary interference in their electrical force-field
Aunt was an honorary title, and it was fine. She was my mother's friend for a hundred years since grade school. Calling her husband Uncle Jack was a little weird. He was the least avuncular person you'd ever meet—suspenders, thin, reedy voice. During the rest of the year we lived in the same apartment house in Brooklyn, and he carried the pompous self-importance of being Junior High School Assistant-Principal with him into the summer. Paul was their son.
He was a year older than me, but despite the growth hormones and everything else they tried he was still a wiry little hyperactive shrimp. He had the personality of a sniper. A ring-and-run artist. He'd kick you under the table so you'd be the one who got caught retaliating and then laugh when you got punished. If you were playing Go Fish and you asked for sevens and he had two of them, he'd give you one and then pretend to pick one on his next turn and call for them back. Somehow our parents thought we were best friends or that the forced proximity would make us best friends, which is why I was up here. Parents never seem to understand that pecking order is established on the street, and that nothing they can say about it has the slightest influence.
At home Paul and I never hung out, I was completely into sports, with a clear life plan of playing Major League ball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Every moment revolved around baseball or some street permutation of baseball. Stickball, stoopball, punchball, running bases. I was getting chosen into games with kids a few years older. The first couple of times up, the outfielders on the other teams played in too shallow, daring this pudgy, freckle-faced, Howdy Doody look-alike to do some damage. I loved blasting line drives over their heads. There's nothing like the feeling you get in your hands when you hit the sweet spot or seeing the expressions of peoples' faces after they've underestimated you.
Paul was into disruption. He called everyone who liked sports a pituitary case. He was always inside with his stamp collections and coin collections except when he'd occasionally ride his bike through a game in the street and swat the spaldeen away. It was his rifle that I held under my arm now as I came out of the woods, barrel pointing safely downward, chamber emptied, bolt thrown clear, as I had been taught.
Aunt Sylvia could not take her eyes from the blotches of dark stains splattered all over the front of my shirt. She knew very well what candy stains and berry stains looked like and that these were nothing of the sort. "What do you mean plans changed?" she said. I liked how it felt to be the only person in the universe who knew exactly what had happened on the side of Red Maple Mountain that afternoon.
My father had driven up from the city that morning to bring me back, so you could say it started with that, though the original plan had been for me to stay here for two weeks, which turned into one week, or actually slightly less, so you could say it started then. Their house was three miles up an unpaved mountain road from a place called The Maples, which was just a gas station and General Store about thirty miles from Woodstock in upstate New York. The big rumor every year was that the power line was finally going to reach them and they'd be hooked up to electricity and indoor plumbing. But now it was kerosene lamps and a wood burning stove for cooking, an outdoor privy that smelled way worse than you'd even imagine, and a well with a handle you had to pump. The rubber hosing was a big favorite of the porcupines, who chewed it all to hell, and it was a constant battle to keep them away. Hence the rifle.
The problem up here was there was nothing to do. There was no level ground for any kind of ball. No wall to throw against. No place to hit. You couldn't even get the Dodgers on the radio. The closest thing to athletic activity was trout fishing. A creek ran through the woods about fifty yards down from their house. It wasn't more than fifteen across at the widest and barely shin-deep. But there were occasional little waterfalls that created deeper pools, and Paul had discovered that each day there was one trout living in each one of those pools.
The night before our first expedition he lectured me as if we were setting off to climb Mt. Everest. How we'd have to be up at five to dig worms and that I'd have to follow him and watch every thing he did. We slept on metal cots in the A-frame attic. There was no insulation so in the daytime it was hot and airless and night it was freezing. I woke up that morning with a foot rolling across my face and Paul standing above me all dressed.
"I'm going," he said.
"Why didn't you wake me?"
"Did anybody wake me," he said with a smirk that made him sound like he was fifty.
It was cool and gray damp outside. The grass was soaking wet and you could hear the sound of the creek and a few morning birds. Paul had two rods leaning against the wall. One was a flexible fiberglass beauty with a Shakespeare reel and perfectly weighted tackle.
I got the other one.
The pathway down to the creek was made up of blue slate flagstones. When you lifted each one of up you'd find little bugs and ants scurrying around in the unexpected light, and meshy hairnets of root stuff stuck to the bottom of the stone and usually a few earthworms, which we collected for bait. Paul dangled one in front of my face as a test but it didn't bother me nearly as much as he hoped.
When we got down to the creek Paul suddenly clambered up the rock overlooking the first pool and dropped his baited hook into the water. A moment later he yanked his line out and a trout sailed backwards over his head in my direction. And that's the way it was. Paul mountain-goating from rock to rock, fishing the trout out of each pool. Me struggling up each rock face to fish the empty water. I have to admit he had a lot of strength in that wirey, sinewy body. I was still built like a catcher in those days, squat and baby fatty.
I sat on a dry rock on the side and let my line drift with the current. I probably got a little hypnotized trying to focus all my attention on one spot in the creek. The water was only a few inches deep but clear and cold and moving briskly. I watched it swirl around a small jagged shaped stone, a splash of sunlight catching each successive wavelet as it moved.
I realized it had been doing this forever, this endless conveyor belt, and tried to conceive the amount of water that had passed this very spot since water had started passing this spot.
My baited hook had been carried some distance downstream. I stood and reeled it in to move to a better location. After a few easy turns on the ratchet I felt a heavy resistance. As I reeled in the line became more taut. A flood of adrenaline ripped through the top of my scalp. I had just read Zane Grey In The Jungle, so I knew all about how a deep-sea fisherman lands a tarpon. I leaned back with all my weight, then quickly leaned forward and reeled in the slack. He must've been a fifteen-pounder. I could barely move him. I dug my heels into to the sandy creek side and tugged again with all my strength. I must have dislodged him, because all his resistance was suddenly gone and I was catapulted back on my ass, my elbow banging hard and my rod sent clattering down the embankment into the water.
Paul came back down when he heard the rumpus. "I got one," I said, looking around behind me, confused that I did not see it or hear its flapping. "Somewhere."
"I don't think so," he smiled, and gestured toward the creek where my severed line flapped impotently across the rock where my hook had got snagged. "You caught a rock."
"What am I supposed to do now?"
"Did you bring a spare?"
"Well. I guess you can watch."
I have to admit, the first time I really hooked one it felt like hitting a fastball flush on the sweet spot. The vibration of the strike spread through my arms like a delicious inkblot. We scaled and gutted those trout right at the stream. Slit them down the middle, throat to tail and took their insides out with our bare hands. Paul was quiet for a while and when I looked over he was crying. The fish belly he'd opened was a fertile female, full of eggs. He said we had to show more respect for Nature to throw pregnant females back in. Especially, I had to, he said, because the pregnant fish was the one that I had caught.
"Right. Like you could tell them apart."
He indicated some random spiral markings on the side of the fish he said was mine. He pulled all the others out and son of a bitch if mine wasn't the only one with the brown spiral. I wondered if this was ridiculous blind luck of a bluffer pulling three cards to a straight, or worse, if he was telling the truth. I was relieved when we found another belly full of eggs. He tried to say that these weren't fertilized. But when two more of his fish were pregnant he just laughed the whole thing off like he had never meant it.
It was Paul's idea to take my father fishing. He had been sucking up to him the whole morning, being polite and diplomatic like the ambassador from East Bullshit. Obviously the game was to show my father what a perfect little gentleman he was, which would subtly reinforce the premise that whatever trouble had brewed was the fault of guess who?
It was so blatant—Paul's complimenting him on things that you would never compliment my father about, like his athletic prowess. He was a CPA. The one time he was coerced into a father-son touch football game, he wore sox and sandals that made a hard flapping sound on the pavement, and couldn't run a pass pattern to save his life. It was embarrassing.
"Uncle Ted doesn't need to go fishing," Aunt Sylvia decreed.
Since my father's first heart attack when he was thirty-seven, the possibility of the next one loomed over our heads us like a safe that had been dropped put the window of a tall building—though we didn't know which floor. The best remedies doctors could prescribe were to cut down on salt and stress. I envied the horrendous bouts my friends had with their fathers. Every pulled punch and act of consideration on my part was an indictment of his weakness. Only forty years later, when a doctor looked across his desk at me after reading the biopsy results of my rectal polyp and said, "well you've got quite a bit of cancer there, Mister Axelrod," did I understand the state of constant terror my father had lived in, knowing that the elements of his mortality had been set in motion.
But then I only knew that he was being deeked by Paul, so in my most cheerfully disinterested voice I said, "Yeah let's go fishing." Paul made a big deal of saying that he'd be the guide today and that Uncle Ted should use his new rod. This was all about what had happened a couple of nights ago. Neither one of us had said anything about it, openly, but from the disgusted looks he kept throwing at me when nobody was looking, I knew he was thinking about it every second.
I don't know why I had started thinking about Paul's sister, Joanne, that night. Maybe the sheets that Aunt Sylvia had brought up to the country had been on Joanne's bed during the year and absorbed the scent of her skin, and it was like I was sleeping in her underwear drawer. Joanne was nineteen and a bit chubby, and was usually angry about that or something else. She wore sheer blouses that showed the outline of her bra and that was all I needed to think she was beautiful.
She had gotten engaged that previous winter to a guy named Elliot who was in Pharmacy school, and had decided she was staying with him down in the city for the summer. To hear Sylvia Zellner explain it to anyone at Van Der Kellen's it sounded like it had been a mutual decision easily arrived at. But I had heard some of the name-calling between them and was pretty surprised women knew those words.
In my dream I was riding double with Joanne on her bike, a red Schwinn with streamers and a basket. Joanne was on the seat and I was pressed up against her from behind, my arms around her to reach the handlebars, pumping the pedals as we rode uphill. She told me to take off her bra, and though I had never seen one before, I undid the hooks with my left hand while steering with my right. Ah yes, quite the deft magician.
The bicycle crested the hill, then began a wild descent. Joanne stood up off the seat, her skirt blowing up over her waist. Of course she was naked underneath. I could feel myself rocking against the mattress of my cot. I tried to keep the metal from creaking because Paul's cot was right alongside. The inside of my thigh got warm and sticky. I got up very very quietly to change my underwear. I heard his voice behind me, not at all asleep, say one word. "Freak," and from that moment I became his public enemy number one.
He was almost fifteen and hadn't started "getting any pleasure out of life," as we used to call it back then. But how was that my fault? I had my own problems, coming in later than most of my friends, and of course lying about it, though it was pretty obvious in the locker room who had hair and who didn't. Paul delegated me the Sherpa, carrying the rods the creel, directing me to lift up the flagstones to harvest the worms. He had also brought the .22 rifle with him, which he was not allowed to take without permission and I thought of calling Aunt Sylvia's attention to it, but that would have made me too much like him.
He was carefully solicitous to go at my father's pace as he led our little expedition down to the creek. He showed "Uncle Ted" how to use the forward and backward gears on the Shakespeare reel, got him situated on the rock above the first pool and baited his hook. It was hard to watch. It was like he was diapering him.
I found a circuitous way to and jump past them like a Chinese checkers move and get to the next downstream pool first. I had never before been in the lead and it felt great and terrible to drop my line into that unfished pool, to feel the bite and tug of that trout, to let him play knowing I had him and finally to whip it up out over my shoulder and feel it sail back behind me and hit the ground. I scampered down from the rock to the skimpy shrubbery to collect my catch.
Paul was standing there with his foot on my line as if it were my throat. "Robert," he hissed. Not Robbie or Bob like everyone always called me, but Robert, which only my mother called me. "I don't understand people like you," he said.
He unhooked the trout from my line and scuttled along the edge of the creek to a spot just underneath the outcrop where my father was fishing. Hidden from view, he tugged hard on my father's line and yelled, "Uncle Ted! You've got one. PULL!"
As my father jerked his line up out of the water, Paul lobbed my trout onto the embankment behind him, and then raced up after it as though it had flown there off my father's hook. To hell with them both. I circled around behind them, avoiding the outstretched green shiny leaves of poison ivy, and snaked back to the head of the creek where we had begun.
Paul thought I had not noticed where he had cached the .22 against the rounded crotch of an old red maple. The only time we had gone out target shooting he had made me absolutely swear that I would not tell a living soul. I had to say the actual words, "I swear" and then the exact thing I was swearing to.
Before he'd even let me hold the damn thing, he had to teach me the angle to the ground the barrel had to make when you were walking and where the stock rested in the crook of your arm and engaging the safety. He set a tin can on a tree stump about fifty yards away, then counted out ten bullet shells into two piles of five. He went through every aspect of loading and sighting along the barrel, being sure the range was clear, avoiding ricochet angles. He demonstrated each point by firing off another round. Some hit the can. The shots he "deliberately missed" were to teach me something. He used all five of his bullets, and then one-by-one, all of mine.
"That's it for today," he had said.
"Don't I get to take a shot?"
"We used our quota."
He had looked at me as if Life had delegated him to express its disappointment in me and to render its decision that I was far too immature to be trusted with an adult weapon.
It was exciting now to grab a handful of live shells from the box had stashed alongside the .22. They felt heavy and dangerous in my hand, like they could change the course of the world. I put one shell in each of my four pants pockets, one in my shirt pocket, and slid one into the chamber, left the bolt open and headed down the narrow dirt road. I had to smile to myself, thinking of this moment as a movie poster: An angry teenager in the woods with a rifle. What could possibly go wrong?
The road up here was hard packed dirt, narrow enough so that two people could touch fingertips and also touch the waist-high stone fence that bordered each side. It was steep and slippery going downhill and I could never get the hang of hopping and gliding down the way Paul could do. He'd always look back at me with belittling contempt, as if our progress was an illustration of how evolution favored the small. But today, I was sure-footed and thoughtless and wished that somebody I knew could see me.
The hairpin turn in the trail elbowed to the right and then merged with the semi-paved road. I must have scared some animal, because there was a loud rustling in the thicket. At first peripheral glance it might have been a large rooster or a turkey. But no, that long, thin curved neck, the bridal train of tail feathers. I had never seen a peacock, but I was instantly sure that was what had just scuttled from the low thicket into the copse of slender willows. Before my brain knew what my body intended, I had taken a stride backwards for momentum, and vaulted over the top of the stone fence, landing soft and strong with my knees coiled. I plunged down the hill in long unpremeditated leaps, holding the rifle in one hand above my head. It had been a rainy summer and the grasses almost knee high, interwoven with hidden pockets of thorny wild berry bushes. That soon gave way to thicker darker brambly woods.
The thicket was perfect terrain for the bird. There were no beaten trails. Branches of new growth whipped my face. I stopped and listened for him but he had gone to ground or flown away. I set the rifle down beside me and lay out prone on the forest floor so I could peer through the lowest lacework of twigs and underbrush. I pushed away the small sturdy root branch of a low-growing shrub. Rather than snapping off, it snapped back at me. The point of a twig stabbed me in the corner of my right eye. It felt like a carpet tack stuck in my eyeball. I howled and bolted upright, and in doing so cracked the top of my head into a sturdy overhanging bough. The impact drove me back to my knees and I thought my head had broken open and crazy captured thoughts were leaping from it that should never be let out into the world. If I died here, would they miss me or say that it taught me a lesson?
I brushed the palm of my hand lightly across my scalp. It was either blood or tree sap. I didn't know. I couldn't open my right eye. I had just read in Ripley's Believe It Or Not about a kid climbing a peach tree and getting a twig stuck in his scalp and a month later it started to sprout leaves and it sent a root structure down into his brain and he died. I tried to be very quiet. To will my vision to clear. There was an eruption of sound from right alongside me. The bird propelled itself out of its hiding place. Its wingspan was immense and the impact of its tail feathers knocked me on my side. The rifle lay on the ground. I pulled it toward me by the end of its polished wooden stock, jammed it against my stomach and fired point blank into the air. The recoil knocked the wind out of me and it was a good thing I didn't have it between my legs.
The sound was like the world had cracked open in my ear. It surely must have reverberated across the whole mountainside. If my father and Paul hadn't noticed I was gone, this would get their attention. But most likely they had already returned to the trailhead where Paul would have seen that the .22 was gone. He might not have said anything for fear of alarming "Uncle Ted," but at the sound of the shot they would have started to run. Paul would have commanded my father to wait there while he went for the jeep and my father would have obeyed. A man who fears for his life is easily dominated.
I trudged up hill out of the thicket. The pain in my eye began to dull and I could flitter it partially open. It was like looking through a honey jar but up ahead I could see the outline of trees. My bare arms were covered in nicks and scratches and I had to swat away chunky black flies that lighted on me, attractedby the scent of blood. It wasn't as easy to vault the fence from the low side. I crawled across it on my belly.
Moments later I heard the sound of the jeep's engine starting up in the distance. The sound also gave me my bearings. I had been climbing in the wrong direction. Now I righted myself and presently recognized the stone fence alongside the road. It wasn't as easy to vault the fence from the low side. I rolled across it on my belly. A jolt of pleasure surged between my legs as my erection met the return pressure of the stone. The prospect of feeling this voltage whenever I wanted to made the future look sweet.
The sound of the jeep's engine was close at hand. I was suddenly Audie Murphy in a World War II movie or Gregory Peck in Pork Chop Hill. The jeep was a Nazi patrol or a platoon of North Koreans and I was trapped alone behind enemy lines with only my rifle and my wits. It was strange to hear my name sung out on my father's unmusical voice as the jeep rode by. He didn't know how to play the airwaves like mothers' did calling their children home through the dusky end of day. I crouched behind the fence and let the vehicle pass. I reached back into my left rear pocket extracted the shell that resided there, slid it into the chamber and slid the bolt. I rested the barrel across the fence and sighted down the 'V'. My right eye was still blurry so I had to crane my neck across the stock and look through my left.
The hollow in the back of Paul's neck, just under the thin strap of his Yankee baseball cap was in the 'V." I tilted up slightly so the single point at the tip of the barrel intersected. My index finger curled toward the trigger. I swung the barrel a few degrees to the right. And now it was the prematurely graying hair of my father's hair that I had in my crosshairs. I was positive that after firing at the bird I had engaged the safety. My finger bent more firmly around the trigger. The beveled cuticle of metal found its niche in the fleshy joint of my index finger. I felt the trigger's mechanical resistance. I popped my lips together and whispered pow as the jeep swung around a turn and out of sight.
The smell of exhaust was still in the air as I turned the opposite way, back up the hill. With the sun on my face, I felt tall and rawboned, like I was striding onto the diamond in Game Seven of the World Series. Look how I was holding the rifle! Swinging it easily with two hands on the barrel like it was a baseball bat. The shroud that envelops the future opened before me and I saw what I would become: A lanky six-foot-two mythic hero stepping out of one of those mythic Southern towns. Salt Lick Fish Gap, Arkansas. A kid whose legend preceded him. You heard his fastball pop before it hit the catcher's mitt. That's right. He could throw faster than the speed of sound. And that was with his off-arm. The good one approached the speed of light. And could he hit? His swing was compact and lyrical. No wasted motion. The crack of ash on horsehide at the moment of contact was biblical.
I reached the hairpin where the road veered off to the unpaved path. From the downhill side, the elbow of the turn jutted out like a parapet over the wooded valley. At the very crook of the elbow, directly in my line of sight, perched on the top level of the stone wall less that a hundred feet away from me, was a chipmunk.
I waited for it to see me and scamper away but it didn't move. Perhaps it was daring me. Like a base runner trying to deek a fielder into making an unnecessary throw so they could steal an extra base on you. I've seen the trick. I let one of the older guys try it on me. But he hadn't seen my arm. I made him think I was throwing behind him to second base. He took off for third and I nailed him (from right field!) by twenty feet. You should've seen his team get on him. And when my center field trotted by me at the end of the inning, he ruffled my hair and said "Good arm, kid. Good play." It doesn't happen so often that somebody sees the whole thing that you did, not just the top layer.
I knelt and braced the barrel of the rifle on the wall and sighted the orange-and-black striped head. He had enough warning. He should have moved by now. I released the safety. I squeezed the trigger and fired.
A fragment of stone shot away just underneath him. His hindquarters rose up. For a moment all his weight was on his two tiny front paws. I had obviously missed him by a fraction of an inch. And that was fine with me. A warning shot across the bow. A throw to first just to keep the runner close, not to pick him off. But to my bewilderment, and growing annoyance, the chipmunk did not run away. I wondered for a moment if this was a real animal or a decoy. I took another shell out of my back pocket. I aimed and fired again.
I saw this one hit. His head and frightened eyes darted in every direction. But he didn't run. I came out of the blind and walked deliberately across the open space toward him, the rifle, now so much a part of me, at my side. I loaded the shell from my front left pocket. At point blank range now, I saw that my first shot had not missed. It had torn through his hip and crippled his back legs. That was why he hadn't run. The feeling that I had forever changed the course of the rest of my life began to engulf me. And what happened after that is like Channel 15. All snow and jagged lines and pulsations of unintelligible language.
I must have continued up the hill to the house because that was when I encountered Aunt Sylvia sunning herself. I was not aware until I saw her staring at the front of my shirt that it was splattered with blood.
"What are you doing with Paul's rifle?" she said. "Where are Paul and Uncle Ted?"
Moments later the jeep came tearing back up the hill. It careened to a stop off the path on the grass. Paul vaulted from the drivers seat straight at me and tore the rifle from my hands. "I may forgive this," he said "but I'll never forget." He frisked all my pockets and ordered me to give him all the shells I had left.
My father didn't look well. His face was whiter than it should be and I kept waiting for someone else to notice. "Why did you do it?" he said. All I could think to say was that it had come into my field of vision. Though I might have used the words, "line of fire."
"I think you better go," Sylvia said. She was thoroughly sick of the sight of me. But Paul wasn't through with me. "What did you use to cut its tail off?" he demanded. "A rock?"
"Oh God," Sylvia's voice clogged with repulsion.
Paul took the animal out of the crèche of leaves and twigs he had made for it and brandished it in my face. Its fur was ravaged. Its corpse was mottled with blood and stiffening, a look of stony blank indifference in its vacant eye.
"You knew it was alive when you butchered it didn't you."
My father's face turned yellow, then white.
"No!" I said. It was nothing like that."
"I'm sorry, Uncle Ted, but he has to know," Paul said, like he was sacrificing something of his own. "You saw it when we got there. It was still alive."
"Daddy, I wouldn't do that. You know me."
My father's face had turned whiter and I wondered if I was watching my father die right in front of me, knowing that the last thing I told him was a lie, wishing that he believed me anyway, and feeling the hacked-off chipmunk's tail pounding blood into my shirt pocket as if it were my own heart exploding.