How do I tell Chris he can’t be friends with Kevin?
“I’m not driving you to Kevin’s anymore.”
“Because I jumped off his barn?”
How do I tell him without him thinking it’s his fault?
“Because I fell in the gravel pit?”
Maybe I could call the school? Have them do something? Kevin’s unclean. He has bug bites. He lives out on the edge of the district.
“He lives way out of town. Chris, I don’t have time. Kevin’s welcome at our house.”
I pull past the lilacs into our driveway. I’m chewing a gob of Trident to quit smoking. Black walnuts pop under the tires. Chris runs inside and the storm door bangs shut behind him. The splatted walnuts smell bitter, like fall is bitter. It snowed last night. The sky’s pink behind the city where I have to drive for work tomorrow, and where I have to take Chris for counseling again after.
Our farmhouse has character the way an old dog has character. We don’t farm but Chris’s grandfather farmed. I remember Chris in the field picking strawberries, filling his little basket, covered in red. I remember brown grocery bags filled with corn shucks, and mashed potato craters filled with gravy. But my parents-in-law died, and my husband divorced me, and I don’t think Kevin Herendeen is a good influence for Chris.
* * *
When Kevin told me he had a pond on his land, I believed him.
“Let’s catch frogs,” I said. “Caught one with red spots last summer.”
“Watch out for snappers,” Kevin said.
We crossed the county road into a field and walked for a while.
“I can’t find it,” Kevin said. In the sun his blue eyes shone transparently. He wore a dusty tan shirt all the time, and his arms were darker than the shirt, not muscled but ready for them. He could lift a hay bale. His golden retriever plowed a path through dead corn stalks. “She’s flushing turkeys,” Kevin said. “Zelda’s a hunting dog. Watch out if she gets one.” The stalks tore like paper. Her fur matched the color of Kevin’s buzzed hair. I wore a mullet. Mom said it looked good. Years later I discovered a brown birthmark on the back of my neck.
The back of Kevin’s neck was red.
I pointed at a dimple in the land. “I bet there’s a pond down there.”
“That’s the gravel pit.”
The pit’s dull yellow walls had been scraped out by excavators. Sliding down we trailed ocher streaks in the sand while Zelda strafed the rim. At the floor we chased each other up crane-dropped conical piles of dirt and gravel. Pretending to ski I bounded down collecting pebbles in my shoes and sand in my socks. Rocks clacked under my feet. I tripped headlong, scraping over aggregate. Sitting in a pile at the bottom I examined my palms, the little flakes of curled skin. My left ear burned.
“Am I bleeding?” I asked, pointing to it.
“Yeah,” Kevin said.
“I gotta go home.”
We came through the neglected corn rows toward Kevin’s house — insulated around the exterior with hay bales, an empty silo towering behind. Mom circled her Astro Van in the driveway — a dirt-worn track in the yard between the house and the barn. I was late. Following Zelda I ran through the field and across the street to her. When I saw her scowling face I cried.
* * *
Chris showered. I’ll have to wait on the water heater before I can do a load. I set our meatloaf and lima beans on the counter. He likes my meatloaf but takes a small portion — he never eats enough — and joins me in the den. Chris used my Pantene. I see his ear is healed. He heals like he’s impervious. I remember gravel in the wound, fingers curled into claws, mouth opening like a dark doorway crying Why Mom? Why did you bring me here to suffer? We’re watching Urkel. I want him to smile with the laugh track, but he doesn’t. How could I have let him play at Kevin’s? His father’s a farmer. He’s always out on the back forty. I can never get him on the phone.
* * *
Sleeping over at Kevin’s wasn’t like other sleepovers. We had the house to ourselves because his dad made a bonfire out back and we weren’t invited. I never saw Kevin’s Mom. I think the school psychologist recommended all the kids of divorce play together, and that’s why Mom let me go there. We sat on the floor close to the TV. The braided rug smelled like dog piss and piss cleaner. Rough wood floors, walls sticky with cigarette resin. Things were left out at Kevin’s: toys, dishes, tools whose use I could never guess. At our house everything had a place. Alone with room-temp pizza and a two-liter, we watched The Leprechaun — rated R. The worst part is when the leprechaun puts holes in a guy’s chest jumping on him with a pogo stick. The leprechaun giggles the whole time. I’d never seen Kevin’s dad up close. He’d be riding a tractor or four-wheeler kicking up a dust wake, dog in chase.
Zelda barked behind the house.
“Let’s spy on the bonfire,” I said. I was sure we’d stay up all night.
Kevin stretched, yawned with his eyes open. “I’m tired.”
“Don’t you wanna sneak out?”
Kevin pressed a game into his Nintendo. The screen went blue, silhouetting his face. “We’ll get caught,” he said. He blew into the cartridge.
“But I’m the guest.”
Kevin glanced from the TV to the dark window. Cold air leaked through the pane. He went up and turned on his bedroom light, then clicked off the downstairs light. He opened the screen door very slowly. I was sneaky, too. Once, I followed my dad to our barn and caught him smoking after he’d said he quit. He flicked his cigarette into an oil drum full of butts.
Kevin avoided the tractor ruts and disappeared in high grass. I followed. The hazy sky glowed above the far city. Smelling sweet smoke and florid air left me half alert and half dreaming. Kevin crouched, pulled my shoulder down. “No talking,” he whispered. I flinched at popping sap. Kevin’s dad heaved on a pallet, and sparks swarmed the sky. We elbowed forward and Zelda barked. Kevin lay flat as though listening to the earth. I gripped clumps of grass as though the earth shook.
“I can’t see anything,” I whispered.
“Don’t!” Kevin said.
I inched forward. Darkness hid me beyond the fire’s circle. Zelda lay behind the fire, tail sweeping up dust. Hunched on a round, Kevin’s dad sat beside her. Through flame tips I studied him: ponytailed, bearing the same tight-tendon arms as Kevin, unshaven with imperceptibly blonde stubble. His glazed pottery eyes pierced the fire heart. Fueled by a clear bottle, his lips muttered. Zelda absorbed it. Melted glass shards glinted upon the ash bed. I listened over the rushing fire to strings of curses and nonsense. I’d never known anyone could get so drunk, so beyond words. I guessed at the bottle’s fullness, wondered how long until it would be thrown in the fire, shards tinkling like wind chimes. Zelda’s ghostly orbs roved, searching for me.
I backed away. Following his bedroom light I sprinted to Kevin’s and found him in bed sleeping or pretending to. I couldn’t sleep until after dawn, when the bottle broke.
* * *
We share a bathroom and Chris sprayed the toilet seat again. I can’t call him in to wipe it up because I’m worried. I rinse my face wishing sun damage washed out. I’ll run the dryer before work tomorrow. It shakes the house and I don’t want to hear it tonight. I only kept the old farmhouse for the district; I didn’t want to uproot Chris. That was maybe a bad idea. His father was handy. Chris used to have nightmares and come to our bed; when his father said no, Chris would sleep in the laundry basket.
I poke into his room to say goodnight. He has a galaxy of stick-on stars on his ceiling. “You okay?” I ask, settling on the bed. He’s under the blanket facing the wall. “That was reckless today. Do you know what reckless is?” He won’t shift to face me. Reckless is being suicidal without knowing what suicidal is.
“Kevin did it first,” he mutters into his pillow. I rub his back and he cries. Thank god he’s crying. “He dared me.”
“But you’re okay?”
“I didn’t want to. For ski season.”
Chris wants to go to the Olympics. I stroke his back until his tremors settle, then I rise and say, “Sleep tight,” but it feels sarcastic.
Before I shut the door he says, “Mom?”
“It’s fine. I don’t want to go to Kevin’s anymore.”
I shut the door and walk past the laundry basket. Later I dream of packing him inside it, like luggage, but his arms and legs keep growing.
* * *
The snow blinded until sun melted the dusting. I guess Kevin’s dad was excited to use the plow because he piled dirty snow against the barn. The barn was my favorite part of Kevin’s property. It had a hay loft.
“Wanna see a deer brain?” Kevin asked. It was hunting season.
I followed him behind the barn where his dad had strung up and flayed a deer. The gutted deer made an impression. It was just hanging there like an unzipped tent. Kevin stepped to a workbench where a brain like a small human brain rested on newspaper, as out of place as anything else at Kevin’s.
“Why’d your dad take its brain out?”
“Dare you to touch it,” he said.
I poked it. It felt solid — not mushy — and cold.
“Dare you to lick it,” I said.
Kevin grabbed it and raised it to his face. He sneered and threw it hitting me in the chest. I reached down and whipped it back, missing by a mile. The smashed brain rolled into sawdust. Kevin carefully wiped it off and placed it on its paper. Our hands were sticky as if from frog catching. We wiped them on our jeans and went inside the barn where nail pegs hung shovels, pitchforks and scythes. The ceiling was high to fit machinery. All the heavy wood beams reminded me of church. I followed Kevin up a ladder of 2x4s nailed to the wall behind a combine with unbelievable tires. We came through a square hole in the ceiling to the hayloft where it smelled less like oil and more sour like straw. Bluish sunlight entered through barn side chinks. Bales stacked to different heights resembled Kuwait City — squarely built here, bombed to jigsaw there. I’d seen it on TV. Kevin mounted the stacks and disappeared. Climbing on top I saw that bales had been removed from against the loft’s back wall, making a stairway down. Kevin rustled somewhere beneath my feet. “Come on!” he yelled. “Down here.”
Straw scraped my back as I crawled. The tunnel wound left and right, up and down, arriving at a chamber. He’d removed bales and set down plywood and replaced the bales. It might have taken years. “It’s booby trapped,” he said. I didn’t believe him. Kevin sat on a bale examining a Hustler. In dim light I saw a pile of them. They showed penetration. “I stole them from my dad,” he said. “He doesn’t know.” His eyes flashed. I think he meant the fort. Loose straw and blankets covered the floor, a couch pillow, a bag of tobacco with an Indian on it. Once, Kevin came to school with straw in his hair. “You want one?” he asked, lifting his chin at the reading pile.
“I’ll get caught,” I said. I sat beside him. I smelled my hands.
“You’re the guest.”
I knew I couldn’t lift even one bale; imagining the weight of twenty above my head, the plywood ceiling seemed to sag.
Kevin pushed past me and crawled out.
As I emerged, a stack of hay bales wobbled and fell clogging the entrance like a dynamited mine shaft.
“Told you it was booby trapped.”
I opened my mouth to swear but someone did it for me.
“Somanabitch!” The voice came from outside. We peeked through the slats. Kevin’s dad was at the workbench with the sawdust brain, mumbling, beyond words.
“Escape route,” Kevin whispered.
He tugged me and I followed him to the loft window. We climbed onto the old stable’s roof, which gave access to the upper barn roof. Our footsteps rattled the aluminum sheeting. We stood facing the driveway. My fingertips were numb, my nose wet in the cold sun. I thought Kevin wanted to show me the roof, show me that he could climb out here or anywhere he wanted on his thousand acres. I could see very far up there, to the city, but I couldn’t imagine a thousand acres.
Kevin jumped off. I crouched to keep my balance, as if the barn itself had suddenly thrust upward. Sliding my feet to the edge, I leaned out. Kevin wiggled out of two thigh-deep post holes in the snow pile. “Come on,” he urged. I considered lowering my body below the eave first. Would I tear my shirt? Kevin squinted at me, focusing the glint in his eyes. “Don’t wait too long or you’ll never jump,” he said.
He was right.
“I’m climbing down,” I said.
I slunk back from his view and went to the lower roof and from there to a fence. Walking in the silo’s frigid shadow, I passed the doghouse. I crouched and peaked in. She was balled up tight. I reached in to pet her. She was frozen to the ground.
Kevin stood behind me now, his jeans wet from snow.
“Your dog’s dead,” I told him.
He tilted his head. That was all. Sometimes death has to process. Or maybe Kevin already knew.
“Let me jump,” I said. “It doesn’t look high now, from here.”
Kevin stood below in his dusty tan shirt with his arms crossed. I tried to judge my landing so I wouldn’t hit his post holes. Mom’s Astro Van turned up the driveway.
“Better hurry,” Kevin said.
“Okay,” I said. I stepped off the roof, wind rushing in my ears.
Kevin acted funny whenever I left his house, like there was more to show me — something better than a frog pond or a secret fort. I lifted the van’s door handle prepared to see Mom’s scowl again when Kevin’s dad came from behind the barn holding a farm tool I didn’t understand. He shifted his trucker hat high on his head and smiled at my Mom (who still lives there in my memory, who still throws my ski boots, wrapped a month before Christmas, down the stairs at me, who still shoves me when I’m much too big to shove and I shove her back). I wish I could possess my child-self then, right there in the Astro Van, and tell her it’s fine, I grow up fine. I don’t become my father.
We left Kevin and his dad standing in the driveway.
Featured image: West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
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