“Boomerang” by Summer Wood
Winner of the 2013 Fiction Prize
Dusk seeps into the back yard, collecting in the twinned canopy of the sugar maple and the cherry, pooling in the grass beneath the trees, staining the side of the two-story garage we’d dubbed the Fort, slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly bedding the wild rhubarb below in its inky darkness. The sky is still too bright for the stars to emerge. Easton and I, both ten, stand at opposite ends of the mowed expanse and thread a Frisbee through the space between us. It sails out, solid and vivid as the moon, from his right hand to my left. Beneath it my dog Spot bounds happily, her eager bark and hoarse breath the only sounds apart from our occasional laughter or, beyond, the slam of a door or distant passing of a car. And then—this is how I remember it, though it’s been more than twenty years—darkness storms the yard in earnest and it grows too dim to see and I am the one who finally fumbles the catch, and when Spot retrieves it, grips it in her teeth, I slip to the grass to wrestle it from her. I lie back. Fireflies are brightening. In time the dark deepens enough for the first stars to show, and I shift to an elbow and push myself up.
Spot sits beside me, patiently waiting. I am her boy.
Her other boy is Easton, but he has gone home.
San Francisco is a continent away from that Pennsylvania back yard. A lifetime away. Victor and I rent this upstairs flat on Waller Street, now. A big place, newly remodeled, with granite countertops and white oak floors and the kind of bathroom fixtures that go along with that. Victor cares about those things. I care that it’s a brisk ten-minute walk to my lab at the medical center, and that the kitchen window overlooks the trees in Golden Gate Park. I’ve been keeping an eye on those trees for an hour , watching the light fade, passing my idle cell phone from hand to hand. It’s November, and dusk comes fast this time of year. There’s some trace daylight at the horizon, but it is dark, already, in the kitchen. I glance again at the phone in my hand. I shouldn’t delay too long. My mother’s on East Coast time, and I don’t mean to keep her waiting.
When I speak to my mother, Easton’s death will be real.
I hear Victor fit his key into the lock and push open the front door. His crisp footsteps echo in the hall. When he switches on the kitchen light I shade my eyes from the sudden brightness.
“Jack.” Victor takes a half step back in surprise. He makes a gesture toward the switch. “You want this off?” He eyes me as he pulls his arms from the sleeves of his suit jacket and carefully folds it over a chair back. He loosens his tie, slides the chair next to mine, straddles it. Then he leans in to kiss me. No matter how busy he is, he insists on kissing each time we are together again. His family is from Puerto Rico, where kissing is the national pastime. In Pennsylvania, where Easton and I grew up, kissing in public was suspect. Victor pulls back and gazes at me, a long look. “What?”
I’m still holding the phone. “My mother left a message.” How do I describe Easton to him? “A friend died.”
Victor makes a sympathetic sound deep in his throat, and waits.
I should tell Victor his name. Easton Costello. I should pay them both that respect. Instead I say, “A childhood friend. No one you know.”
“You going back?”
I shake my head no. We can afford this place, but just barely. A ticket from San Francisco to Philadelphia, on short notice? “I’ll send the family a card.”
“A card,” Victor repeats, his eyebrows knit.
I give a little smile. I tap the phone lightly, tell him, “My mother might go.” Her message said she was thinking of making the trip—it’s two hours by plane from Florida—but I’ll try to talk her out of it. It’s too much stress at her age. And too many years since we were part of Easton’s life, I think, but don’t say. I stand up, reach for the fridge. Vic’s got a meeting tonight, and he’ll have to leave soon to make it in time. “Get you something to eat?”
“I’ll eat later. I won’t starve.”
“Go shower. I’ll make you something quick for the road.”
When he steps out of the bathroom he is shaved and freshly dressed and handsome enough that even now, after ten years together, I still swoon a little in his company. I hand him a cheese sandwich in a sack as he heads out the door. “Drive safely.”
He studies my face. “I shouldn’t be late.”
I don’t care when he comes home, as long as he does.
I met Victor at my college graduation. He was the nephew of my advisor, back from a year off teaching English to kids in Uganda. He spoke Swahili with a Bronx accent. He wore expensive socks with his Chuck Taylors and flat-front khakis that hung low on his hips, and when he undressed for me that first time the sight of his body whole, entire, took my breath away. He teased me about that, and what happened next made me sure. I don’t know how to be who I am without him.
My mother and Victor have a special bond. She taught English for years, and Victor moved into educational administration. When I landed the postdoc at UCSF he got himself hired as superintendent of schools for a North Bay district. The position requires long hours and a daily commute, but he loves it. The two of them can talk for hours about educational policy in this country, and switch to cooking and talk for hours more. He is the son my mother deserves.
“It was an accident, then,” I say, choosing my words carefully. She’s told me that they found Easton’s car at the bottom of a highway embankment. Maybe he’d fallen asleep, or maybe he’d swerved to avoid hitting a deer. The animals were everywhere on the roads in the fall, driven out of the woods by hunters and filling up on what browse they could find. His car had rolled several times and his body was mangled. It must have been quick, at least.
“He was doing so well, Jack,” she says, her voice husky with sleep. She’s on East Coast time, and I’ve woken her. When my father died she moved from Pennsylvania to Florida to avoid the winters. Instead she braves hurricanes, volunteers part time to save the manatees, and worries about the people she left behind.
“That’s what you said. The kids,” I say. “The new job.” She’s told me these things, offered casual reports as they arrive from Sister, the only one of the Costello family to survive without visible scars. I want to dig down to the heart of it—to what happened with Chet and Easton’s father and with Easton himself—but I know she won’t have it.
“We loved him,” she says, and I can hear her weeping softly.
This is as close as she will come to mentioning that time. “I know, Mom,” I say, and regret having called so late. She’ll be up for hours, now. She turned seventy-four in the spring and her health has been a little rocky. I turned thirty-two this year, twice as old as I was the last time I saw Easton. My father would have been seventy-six, if he had lived.
Chet was seventy-six when he died. My father did not even make it to seventy.
Easton Costello and I grew up in a town full of swing sets and picket fences, painted trim, little sisters. The trash truck rumbling down the road once a week before the fleet of sedans left for work. Baked beans and potato salad. In Grantsville the old country of our grandparents hovered as an ancestral memory, a savory but hard-to-pin-down spice in a sturdy stew. We had barber chairs, a children’s library, an old lady who hoarded everything. We believed in something short of excellence but nothing so inexcusable as failure. And suicide, in there. An ambulance dispatched, its angry wail splitting the night.
There were things we talked about, Easton and I, and things we never said. I would not reveal that I preferred the company of most animals to all humans; that I felt most at home hidden in the bramble in the overgrown lot that backed our house and ran until the mowers took a hard line at the parking lot beside the police station. To sink my hands in the humid rot of a log was to feel myself acknowledged. The animals were wild and did not show themselves often, but I knew they were there. I had learned their signs. As I somehow understood that they knew mine, and did not object to my occasional presence. It was the place I would go when I wanted to be away from everyone. Even Spot knew better than to follow me there.
Spot joined the family, a puppy, just months before I was born. My father had named her for the black patch that covered her left eye and cheek. He was a man of great imagination but he couldn’t buck the universe, he said. He’d tried different names—Sally, Crackers, Pal—but none of them stuck. Everyone who saw her called her Spot, in a bow to the obvious. It was almost a joke, how aptly the name fit her appearance, and the affection it inspired for her rubbed off, to some slight degree, on me. I was John, and while my mother sometimes called me Jack or Jackie around the house, to nearly everyone else I was simply John, Marcus and Eileen’s quiet boy. I might have gone completely unnoticed but for Spot.
Even Easton, I believe, liked me because of Spot. His house was small and his father was in the Army Reserve, which meant he had to go away for weeks at a time for training each year. With her husband gone so much, Easton’s mother refused to consider a dog. Easton and his siblings—he had a brother, Anthony, five years younger, and a new baby girl everyone called Sister—were too much to handle in his absence as it was. A dog would put her over the edge, she claimed. She had nerves. Easton knew better than to press. Instead, from first grade on, he became a regular at my house, taking up position beside Spot’s opposite shoulder to watch cartoons after school, or riding bikes together slowly enough for Spot to trot alongside.
I could offer him Spot’s company, but I needed Easton, too. As an only child of older parents, I understood early how vital it was to have an ally in the small skirmishes that took place in the classroom and on the playground. Easton didn’t require much by way of conversation. He liked dogs and so did I; when he grew up, he said, he wanted to train them for undercover missions. Dogs could smell explosives in microscopic amounts, he claimed. They could tell if someone had cancer before the best blood tests could. I liked dogs because they were willing to sit beside me without the expectation that something would be accomplished. Just sitting, shoulder to shoulder, was enough. I knew early on what kind of a child I was and what kind of adult I would become, and I was not wrong about that. In later years, Easton’s interests would shift and he would become a different kind of man than I could have predicted, but in the fourth grade he had thrown his lot with the animal world, and with me.
We were ten, the three of us, that March when Easton’s mother died.
I’ve never been ordered in my thoughts or my behavior. I find protocols comforting because my mind does not naturally create them. Perhaps this is why I’ve become a scientist. I needed a protocol, a custom that would let me speak to Easton after the worst had happened. Not to make things better: that would be foolish. Just to breach the silence that had accrued like a gossamer bubble, expanding around him. She had killed herself and this moment had arrested Easton in his forward motion and committed him to a brittle isolation. He followed the rote patterns of each day: bus, school, bus, home. I watched him emerge from his front door every weekday morning and tread the sidewalk to the bus stop, his shoulders canted forward to determine his direction and his body obediently following. He walked the same way in reverse each afternoon, up the steps to his door and inside. Weekends, he didn’t come out at all.
It was my mother who created the opening for Easton. After his mother died she went to Easton’s house to offer her sympathy and support to the family. Easton was welcome to stay with us while his father figured out how to care for his three children. Richard Costello rebuffed her. He had hunkered down, fortified, in his grief. But my mother was persistent and returned like clockwork, a new casserole in hand each week and a new idea to offer.
I wonder now what that must have cost her. My mother disliked Easton’s parents, and while she never let on to him, she made no attempt to conceal her contempt for them from my father or me. She thought Easton’s father was a brute and his mother weak-minded. To her mind, Easton was that rare thing: a child unaffected by the excesses of his parents. She meant to keep it that way. At last she settled on a plan he agreed to consider. Anthony and Sister were small enough to attend day care. She provided him with brochures for the options in town, and provided her opinion of the quality of each. No such care was available to children Easton’s age, but perhaps he would come to our house after school for a snack, and Easton and I could play together as we always had. My father would drive Easton home in time for dinner. There would be no disruption of their family life, but Easton’s father could go back to work and know that his children would be well cared for until he returned home in the evening.
I can picture my mother doing this. She wasn’t one to mince words. She would frame the situation perfectly and then sit back to provide Easton’s father time to think through her offer. He’d taken a month’s absence from work and, while his employer was understanding, he couldn’t keep him on indefinitely while he stayed home and cared for his family. She would use words like leave and responsibility and supervised. She herself, she would confirm, would be available to Easton the whole time he was at her house. She was home for the summer anyway, and would be able to ensure his safety. It could be a temporary solution, and Easton’s father could make changes for his family any time he saw fit. For the time being, she would have stressed, it could provide Easton some continuity.
In this way, Easton came back to us. He was quieter than he had been. My mother spoke seriously to me. Give him time, she insisted. Don’t make him do anything he doesn’t want to do. He’s been through something terrible.
As if I ever told Easton what to do. As if I didn’t follow his lead in nearly everything.
We grew up knowing Chet Dunkirk in the way we knew the Methodist church or the shop that sold propane gas and repaired appliances: as a fixed spot on a map, a static and reliable element of the landscape. Chet had driven school buses when the parents were young. Not mine—they were in between generations—but Easton’s, and the other kids in the class. He was long retired and bustled about town before dark with his errands and his volunteer work. He shelved returned books at the public library and pulled weeds in the flowerbeds out front of Town Hall. He’d had a spell of tiny strokes that prevented him from driving, but he was fit enough to walk wherever he had to go. If my parents saw Chet walking, they would pull over and offer a lift. He rarely took it, but they believed him when he said he appreciated the offer.
My father and Chet Dunkirk were friends. In retrospect this seems unlikely—Chet a decorated veteran, my father a conscientious objector so committed he had spent time in federal prison for his principles—but, as a boy, the question of whom my parents chose to befriend was no concern of mine. His house was right behind ours, adjacent to the bramble and fronting the street, a long wild block away from the police station. His parents had left him the property. He had a niece in Florida who visited once a year with a brood of noisy, angry children. They stayed in the Holiday Inn the next town over. I had played with them once but my parents didn’t make me do that again. She drove a big, brand new Suburban with enough seat belts for all of them to fit.
One or two evenings a week, Chet and my dad would sit on our back porch and smoke. Chet stank of pungent cigars and would not come in the house. In the bitter cold of winter when they needed to wear coats and mufflers and to stamp their feet to keep from freezing, on sweltering summer nights with mosquitos working their ways in through the tears in the screen, they retired to the porch to smoke. I would watch the glowing ends of their cigars or cigarettes trace arabesques as they gestured. I never followed what they talked about; they were adult conversations, and boring to me, but I liked to be near them. I liked the deep sound of their voices and the dark shapes their figures cut against the softer night.
I resemble my father. Like him, I’m built on a compact frame, medium height, medium weight, medium brown hair. I have my mother’s eyes. Dad’s were a cool gray and accustomed to squinting. He had ruined his vision reading law books in dim light, he said, and insisted I switch on the lamp whenever he saw me absorbed in a book. My mother thought that was foolishness. Presbyopia, she said. Old eyes. She had a word for everything.
Chet Dunkirk was a big man, not fat but large, and he carried his bulk benignly in the way strong men often do. He was robust and fit in spite of his age. He had a thick shock of white hair he wore longer than most older men did, a sturdy crop of nose hair, and a thatch of white curls that climbed above the rim of his undershirt and were visible when he left the top button of his twill work shirt loose. My mother called him chivalrous. Rumor was he’d been a good shot in his youth, a marksman in the military and a renowned hunter. My father didn’t go in for that kind of thing at all. Hunting for sport was cowardly, he said, although he made allowance for the fathers who harvested an animal to feed their families. That’s what he called it, “harvested.” Easton’s father hunted and I dreamed of going with him, just the men sleeping in a tent, waking before dawn, wearing camouflage and silently stalking our prey, squeezing off that perfect shot to penetrate the heart and bring down an animal without pain, without suffering, in a kind of noble honor.
It was never like that, my father said. There was always pain and suffering.
Chet and my father communed often on the porch, and Easton and Spot and I played in the yard, and my mother shuttled back and forth between the two groups of us, just to be near us, I think, but never to interfere. I watched my mother closely that whole season after Easton’s mother died. She was older than the other mothers, and less full of the kind of frenetic energy they possessed. I watched her closely for signs of decline.
It didn’t cross my mind to watch Spot. She was my age, and I was young.
We found her in August, on the fourth day after she’d gone missing.
My father wouldn’t let me see her. She’d eaten something bad, he said, and went off to heal herself, and when she didn’t heal she was glad to be alone when she died. That’s what animals did, he said. They left the pack to die alone in the wild. They needed some time to be with their bodies.
“Buzzards got her,” Easton said bluntly. He’d stayed away a few days when I was wild with grief, but had begun visiting again. His face stayed strangely passive.
“No,” I said. My hand was poised over a small pile of twigs. I was preparing to light a fire. It was something I did, then: gather things in small, controllable stacks, and set a match to them.
I had to fight back an urge to throw myself at him, to pin him to the ground with an arm at his throat and press hard enough to prevent him from speaking. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. Easton was bigger and stronger than I and any advantage I might have marshaled with surprise would be quickly outweighed by his skill in fighting. Easton’s father had begun teaching him self-defense. I’d seen him practice on other boys in the schoolyard. There was something feral in the way Easton fought.
“Forget it,” he said. His face darkened and he turned to leave.
I couldn’t look at him. “When. When did you see her.” My voice caught in my throat and came out muddy and tear-slicked. I hated myself for that, and hated Easton for hearing it.
“With your father and Chet, when they found her. I was helping to look for her. We all were.”
But she was my dog, not yours, I thought, but did not say. And my father is my father, not yours. You are a boy who has no dog and no mother. But I could picture them standing there, Easton between my father’s compact shape and Chet’s somber bulk, blocking my way to Spot. And I could not stop myself, though I knew it was wrong and that I would regret it. “She was my dog,” I said. “Not yours.”
Easton shrugged, and walked away.
It wasn’t even true. She had been Easton’s dog, too. The one he hadn’t been allowed to have.
But I wouldn’t grant him that. I wanted my grief to myself. I wanted to let the bubble expand and gain strength until no one could enter. Not Easton. Not my parents. Not even Spot.
It was never the same between Easton and me after Spot died. My father brought home a new puppy and we played with it and taught it tricks but it was too wild to live in town, nipping our ankles and whining whenever it was shut inside, and had to be sent to a family with more acreage so it could run free. I didn’t want another dog. I haven’t had one since. Sometimes Vic and I talk about it. He wants children. I would trust him with them but am not sure about myself. Even the thought of a pet seems too big an undertaking. I still love animals but I am happy for them to be wild, to be responsible for their own well-being.
To compensate for my meanness, I took Easton with me to the secret place in the bramble behind our house. I had meant what I said—can still feel what it felt like to say it—and couldn’t retract it, but I wanted Easton to know that I was sorry. It wasn’t fair that his mother had died, or that his father was so angry, or that he himself was turning into a boy none of the other kids wanted to be around. He had a shy smile he still used with adults, but with kids, he had begun to snarl. He would lift his lip scornfully and mutter something under his breath. He looked the way an animal looks when it is cornered and ready to fight back. Most kids left him alone. He would win any fight he entered, and he hit harder than he had to. There was too much fury there, siphoned into whatever limb was delivering the blow.
Sometimes I think it was his mother’s fault, tossing him away like that. Sometimes I blame his father, who transferred his own rage to Easton and twisted his son’s grief into something solid, something that clamped down on him and wouldn’t let him move forward. I know it was wrong, whatever Chet was doing with Easton. And for a very long time I blamed my father, who was not home when I needed him to be, and when I stopped blaming him he was gone, too, lost to the cancer that got into his bones.
It was in the bramble that I came upon them. We were twelve by then, and Easton didn’t visit much anymore. I had discovered chemistry and had got it in my head that I was going to become a scientist, and I spent most of my free time fooling around with the beakers and test tubes and reagents and litmus strips my parents provided to bolster my budding interest. Easton was intent on turning his body into a machine for inflicting damage on others. He watched Bruce Lee reruns and practiced flying kicks and roundhouse punches. He’d been barred from fighting with the kids at school and he took lessons at the aikido gym on the gravel-paved road down along the river, battling men twice his age. I was stretching but it only seemed to emphasize how skinny I was; Easton, meanwhile, tried hard to bulk up with protein drinks and weightlifting. Kids said he could bench press a hundred pounds. That was more than I weighed, and it made me uncomfortable to think of it.
What caught my eye, even before I saw them, was Easton’s shirt draped over the branch of the maple. I couldn’t think of why he would take it off before fighting through the berry canes that barred entrance to the little clearing. There was no way to get through without tearing your clothes, and going bare-skinned through that thorny hedge meant a torso full of scratches. I grabbed the shirt and plunged in. If he had got past the hedge without it, he was going to need it coming out.
I wasn’t expecting to find Easton there with Chet. They stood in the center of the clearing, circling each other. Neither wore a shirt. Easton’s chest was bare and shining and Chet’s was covered in white hair so thick he seemed like a different kind of animal. There was something in the way they turned to face me that made me feel like the intruder: they shared some kind of possession of place, a wildness of being that qualified their presence and felt like a final crushing judgment on my status. They belonged there, and I didn’t. They fit the beauty of the place in a way I never would. I felt the bile rise in my throat and forced it down. None of us spoke. And then I turned and ran crashing through the brambles again—to my father’s office, and when I saw he wasn’t there, I kept running until I got to Easton’s house, and found his father, and told him.
Spot is dead, and my father is dead, and now Easton is dead. Easton’s father is still alive. He is serving life in prison for killing Chet Dunkirk. He will be eligible for parole in fifteen years.
I think about putting on a jacket, going outside. The lights of the bridge are visible from the kitchen window so I know the fog has lifted. I could walk the paths in the park and think about Easton in the open air. I don’t want to bring him into this apartment, into my life with Victor. Even dead, he is too much to bear. Especially dead.
How can he be dead.
There were sirens, and when my father finally came home he went directly to the hospital and sat by Chet’s bedside. Once they disconnected Chet from the machines that kept him alive my father went out talking to people, trying to keep the town from exploding into overheated gossip. Easton’s father had called the police from Chet’s house, told them what happened. In sorting at last through his dead wife’s things, Richard Costello claimed , he had come upon a letter to her from Mr. Dunkirk. The local paper reported it in an article on the front page. In the letter, Mr. Dunkirk had confessed to having sexual feelings for Mrs. Costello. Distressed, Mr. Costello had gone to Mr. Dunkirk’s house to determine the truth, and when the conversation grew heated, Mr. Costello reached out to grip Mr. Dunkirk’s arm. Mr. Dunkirk drew back, lost his balance, and fell, striking his head on the edge of the counter. The coroner determined he died of a brain hemorrhage.
The story came out significantly differently in the trial. It took place six months after Chet’s death, six months Easton’s father spent in the county jail and his children in foster care. Easton ran away from his foster family, stole their car and left it a hundred miles away by the side of the road when it ran out of gas. When they found him they put him in the boys’ home. He wouldn’t get out of there for two more years. When I saw him next we were going to different high schools, and he acted like he didn’t recognize me. Maybe he didn’t.
At the trial, Easton’s father changed his testimony. Chet hadn’t fallen; Easton’s father had shoved him. I overheard my father reporting to my mother, who refused to attend. Easton’s father spoke softly but clearly, my father said, and the courtroom was quiet enough for everyone to hear.
“Tell me exactly what he said,” my mother demanded.
I heard the catch in my father’s voice. “He said he shoved him. He said this. I believed he had bothered my wife and I wanted to hurt him.”
My mother made a small noise. “He wanted to hurt him,” she repeated. “Chet Dunkirk. He wanted to hurt Chet Dunkirk.”
“The prosecutor reminded him that he had not merely hurt Chet, but killed him.”
“What did he say to that?”
“He said he had wanted to. He had wanted to kill him.”
I stepped into the room in time to see my father lay his face in his hands. It was the second time in my life I had seen my father cry. I would once more, when I told him about Victor.
My father seemed mild but there was a raw and rigid fury in him that could frighten people. It never rose with me. I would hardly know it existed except for the formal respect with which he was treated by people who faced him in court, or the way he spoke to my mother some nights. I could hear him through the thin bedroom walls, pacing and ranting. That night I heard him sobbing, and over the awful sound of that, soft and steady as the action of waves, the quiet murmur of my mother’s voice, shushing and soothing him. She talked to me that way, sometimes. It will be all right, she said. You’ll see. Let it go, sweetheart. You’ve done all you can do. Everything will be all right. Just wait; you’ll see.
The next morning my father whistled when he showered, stepped off early—a kiss on my mother’s cheek and a ruffle of my hair—for a breakfast meeting. When the door shut I turned to my mother.
“Dad cried.” It came out of my mouth like an accusation.
My mother looked at me, a long and studied gaze. She seemed to be considering what she would tell me, and what she should not. It was a measuring look, and then it turned to something like pity. And then changed again. “Get ready for school, John,” she said, brisk, officious. “You’re running late.”
I went back to help my mother when my father died. We gave his library to Hartford College, where he’d been an undergraduate. The Salvation Army sent a truck to pick up his clothes. I’d boxed them carefully, making certain everything had been laundered, pockets checked for the scraps of paper and stray bills that tended to accumulate.
The trip home to pack my father’s things was the last time I was in Grantsville. My mother knew she’d be moving, too, before long, and we gave away everything she thought she’d never again have use for. Bereft of so many of the items stored up during their long marriage, my parents’ house seemed hollow and threadbare. When we finished our work each day we’d carry chairs to the backyard and look out across the jungle it had become since my father’s illness struck. Even with the changes, it was still beautiful to me. I told her that. Maybe more beautiful, I said, in its wildness. She didn’t smile, but her eyes crinkled a little and she nodded her head. I’d always been one for the wild, she said. “Your father feared for you, with that.”
I asked her what she meant, feared for me.
She gave a little sigh, and I could hear the sorrow in it. I knew how deeply she would miss him. But then she shook her head and said, “He was wrong.”
“Wrong to fear?”
Wrong to fear that, she said. She seemed to be struggling to find the right words. Language mattered to her, and it took her longer, the older she got, to find the precise expression to convey her meaning. Finally she said, “He thought we should control our wildness. Our urges.”
I shook my head, confused, and then the look on her face told me what she meant and I almost laughed out loud. “Those urges?” I asked. “You’re not telling me Dad was gay?”
She chuckled softly then, too. “God, no. Not your father.” She reached over and squeezed my forearm, and then she lifted her chin toward the backyard. Her expression grew pensive. “Chet, though. Chet had feelings for men.” She glanced over at me. I could tell she felt she had to explain. “It was a different time, Jack. People thought different things. Chet grew up believing it was a personal burden, something he had to resist. Deny himself.” She shook her head again. “He might have been happier if he had let himself find somebody.”
“He did,” I said quietly. “Find somebody.”
My mother caught the bitterness in my voice and looked at me closely. Her eyes widened and her hand flew to cover her mouth. “Oh, no,” she said. “Jackie, no.”
“Not me, Mom,” I said quickly. “I just—I had heard.” I hesitated, and then, because the mask of grief she wore was unbearable to see, I added, “It was a rumor. Maybe it wasn’t true.”
I couldn’t tell her that Easton was the one Chet had found. I could tell from her face that she had no idea.
But my father had, I believe. Earlier that day, at the bottom of a drawer of sweaters my father never wore, I found Easton’s shirt. It was the same one I had lifted from the branch and neatly folded to bring to him. I had carried it under my arm in a snug roll as I tunneled my way through the hedge, and I remember clearly that I kept it with me when I fled the clearing. I ran first to my father’s office but I had not left it there. I carried it the five blocks I ran to Easton’s house, and I gave it to Easton’s father when I told him what I had seen.
I can’t stop thinking of that, now. What had I seen? If my father had been there, I would have told him the simplest truth. Chet and Easton were together in a way that felt wrong. I could not have said to him that there was something they shared that I wanted. Something between them that should have belonged to me. By the time I reached Easton’s house, it came out of my mouth in a jumble. Chet. Easton. Naked. Clearing.
And then what happened, happened, and we could take none of it back.
When Victor comes home it is late and he is tired but voluble, full of stories of the day’s successes. He chats away, removing his clothes, brushing his teeth, climbing under the covers to join me in bed, and I listen to him and ask questions to show him I’m interested. It was a public meeting of the school board and the community members who showed up came prepared to object, but he’d carefully engaged them, showed them what he hoped to accomplish, brought them around. He explained all this and then he fell asleep.
Victor is good through and through. He has suffered his share of setbacks. Has had his heart broken. But he enters the world each day to do battle for good, and I support him in this, do what I can to ease his worries and lift his spirits when some turn of events or another’s act of malice or carelessness impedes his progress. Although the truth is I am the one who needs most often to be lifted, to be bolstered. I fear the day he tires of this. I know him well enough to know how it will go: he’ll turn a quarter turn—not fully, not with discourtesy—and I will gradually come to understand that the full stream of his attention and affection will not return to me. And I, cold, heartless, capable, will be the one to end it.
When Victor slumbers he gives himself wholeheartedly to it, stepping off the precipice of wakefulness and plunging thoroughly into sleep, but tonight he shifts, turns toward me, and his eyes flutter open. He is a beautiful man and I spend a moment gazing at him. I want to kiss him and I do.
“Did you call your mother?”
“Is she well?”
“She is. She sends you her love.”
His eyes close again, and I feel his body slump with release.
Victor wasn’t the first. But when I met him I knew for sure, knew full well I’d have to tell them. Victor is no experiment.
My parents held no prejudice around this, or any other difference between us. Still, it wasn’t easy for them to hear. My father nodded gravely. My mother, game as ever, smiled, asked encouraging questions. Her eyes welled two or three times but she brushed the tears aside and kept on until they stopped coming. My father hugged me and told me again how much they loved me.
No matter what, he said.
Later, we stood alone on the back porch of the house and looked out toward the yard. My father was smoking and I thought of Chet’s cigars and how the two of them stood here those nights and watched us play on the grass. What did my father know? What did he refuse to know? Was he willing to overlook Chet’s actions because of their friendship? Did he think his friend incapable of causing harm?
Did he miss him?
I never did tell my father what I had seen. I would have, had he been there. That was my intention. But when I found his car gone and the office door locked I thought only to stop whatever was happening in the clearing. I wanted to rewind the world, restore the clearing to my sole possession, return Easton to the pocket of my friendship, raise Spot from the dead, stay Easton’s mother’s hand when she shifted forward to turn the ignition of her car in the garage.
I wanted to hurt them: Chet and Easton, both.
Things happened so quickly, after that. My father was away from the house except to fall exhausted into sleep, and Easton’s father so firm in his story that I almost believed it myself.
Victor sighs in his sleep, and throws one arm above his head. The lights are off and the moonlight streams in through the curtainless window and spreads across our bed. Even with Victor beside me, even with this life we’ve constructed and the beauty of what we share, I carry Easton on my shoulders, and don’t know for sure what’s stronger: my guilt, or how searingly I loved him.
It was a mistake, Victor would say, if I could trust myself enough to tell him. Or not even. You did what any twelve-year-old would do. You found an adult and told him.
But I won’t tell Victor, for exactly the reason I love him. Because he believes that the world is an accommodating place, a place where courtesy and warmth and—this part is his vanity, which I also love—and beauty are rewarded, and the bad things that happen can be avoided with a well-placed word, an affectionate touch, a simple sharing of good feeling. For him, it’s mostly so.
On that porch, my father did not look at me when he spoke. His eyes filled and the tears glinted in the little bit of light that lingered to the west and he said, Son. Are you certain? Is this really what you want?
Victor makes a sound in his sleep, a long sigh, and turns his head away from me to rest his cheek against the soft pillow of his bicep. His bare chest shines in the moonlight and the twist of his clavicle rises from its smooth plane. I place my hand there, on the slight knob that lifts, resolute, above the lovely living muscle and sinew that move him through his days. If I lay my head there I will hear his heart pump. Slow and steady. Convinced of its own direction. Unconcerned at the way that what we throw out into the world can double back on us, return to us our own dark gifts, and with something not entirely unlike mercy, bring us to the ground.