Slogan and I tiptoed around the kitchen. I watched him filch some doughnuts for our trip; he wanted coffee but wanted to get going just as much. We could easily stop along the way.
We were the first ones up. The house stood silent in the August dawn, the last thing we needed to do was start banging around with a coffee pot and all and wake my mother up. Make her come downstairs all pissed off again, breathing fire.
Yesterday's heat had persisted through the night, you could smell it, like rain, you could feel it on your skin. A whiff of last night's violence still hung in the air, as well, heavy in the wet New Jersey swelter.
I had no idea the dawning day would turn out to be the best I'd ever had in thirteen years on the planet. If I'd been old enough to wager, say at the harness races with my father, I probably would've put my money on More of the Same as the odds-on favorite. Normally, the inevitable replay of the quotidian was all I could reliably count on. But the day before had been so head-spinning, so miserable, that, by any measure, the new day just about had to be better, if only by a little. It was hard to imagine it turning out worse.
We descended the stairs into the basement. My father had obviously slept in his swivel chair, feet on his desk. We'd been quiet, but he'd heard the stairs creaking and swung his feet to the floor and stood up blinking blearily, fooling no one, as we hit the landing.
"Been down here all night?" Slogan said. My father was wearing the same clothes he'd worn at dinner. Suit, white shirt, at least he'd loosened his tie, untucked his shirt.
"Yeah," he said.
Slogan walked around the desk and they stood close to each other, taking each other in. Neither had anything to say, for once. I thought Slogan might throw his arm across my father's shoulders but neither of them were that demonstrative.
They were close though, these big men, tall and broad-backed, carrying weight but not fat. My father wore his hair slicked back showing off his high forehead; Slogan's nose was pushed in and crooked, something to do with the war nobody talked about. Slogan asked my father if he wanted to come along with us. My father asked "where?"
"Parts unknown," Slogan said, one of his favorite expressions.
"I better stick close," he said in a half-whisper, as if speaking in a normal tone might break something. He looked pale and sad and exhausted.
"You're only gonna end up spending your whole Goddamned day walking on eggs," Slogan said, "Carpe fuckin' diem and all that shit. What's the point?"
"I know; it can't be helped." I knew what he was trying to do even if Slogan didn't; my father was taking the brunt of my mother's fury to spare the rest of us. Throwing himself on the grenade to save the platoon. I was just as happy he wasn't coming; I'd have Slogan all to myself, though I felt vaguely guilty for thinking that way.
I loved both of them, but it sometimes it felt more like a duty, like a tradition handed down. I had to love him; I hadn't been given much choice in the matter.
On the other hand, Slogan came and went, he was ephemeral, nearly imaginary. My love for him was not obligatory but spontaneous, completely my own invention, a thing that originated from within me.
He and I headed back upstairs and sneaked out to where Slogan's year-old '66 red Imperial waited at the curb—the sun already making the roof hazardous to the touch. With barely a sound, we climbed in and sped off.
At dinner the night before, the family sat around the table. Nothing new; there never was. My mother in the usual foul mood she could steep in for days at a time, my father trying to clown her out of it, which, as always, only antagonized her more. My brother in the middle of yet another red-faced standoff with his vegetables. Slogan Boyd, my father's buddy, and his wife Eva were keeping their heads pulled as far under their carapaces as possible. Once he'd been The Reverend Slogan Boyd, but that was long ago, before he got himself in trouble.
Cocktail hour had cheered up exactly no one. I drifted off, daydreaming of exotic birds and jungle expeditions.
Slogan and my father had a lot in common. For one thing, they were both chronically broke. Both had a number of aliases, thorough alternative identities they could conjure from their back pockets on two seconds notice. Neither had a definable profession, calling themselves "marketers" and "salesmen", which was accurate only insofar as you could hammer a lifetime of odd jobs, capsized schemes, and unemployment lines into a shape resembling either. My mother called their schemes "swindles" but she exaggerated all the time, especially when the opportunity to make my father look bad came into view.
"They don't know where the lines are," she would say.
I didn't think she was being fair, both of them—Slogan and my father—had a tennis pro's eye for precisely where the lines were, a knowledge that was critical playing as close to the lines as they did. The occasional foot fault was practically inevitable.
With a ceramic clank my little brother Davey dropped his fork onto his plate, abruptly ending a perfectly good daydream. He was having none of his lima beans as usual. This annoyed my father—bored him mostly—but it infuriated my mother.
"Eat!" my mother said. The rest of us had finished, ready for dessert.
He refused, staring into his plate, mouth set, not lifting his eyes when she spoke.
"They're slimy," he said. "Like eating snot."
"Eat, you little bastard." They went through some version of this every suppertime.
"Marie..." my father said, the sound of a warning in back of his words, "Please..."
"I agree," Eva said, "Let the boy eat what he wants, he won't starve."
Slogan said, "Eva!" sharply, but too late.
"You stay the hell out of this, the both of you. Whadda you know? You've never had to raise kids, put up with their bullshit. And you're Goddam lucky to have a roof over your heads at all." She was "Goddam sick and tired" of having the Boyds underfoot all the time.
She turned back to Davey, glaring at him wordlessly but with rage enough to fill the world. In June he'd flunked three subjects in third grade; they were threatening to leave him back until my father went in and sweet talked them out of it. The day before, Davey, at his piano recital, veered wildly away from the Chopin and Schubert he'd rehearsed, instead playing—and singing—a bawdy song that featured the word "asshole" in the middle of the second verse instead. Definitely not on the printed program they'd handed out as neighbors and friends filed in. The entire recital had lasted two-and-a-half minutes, about twenty-seven minutes short of the announced duration. I thought it was pretty funny, and I could tell my father did too, although neither of us laughed or said anything. We'd acted like adults, not betraying our amusement, keeping our own counsel.
Davey, caught in my mother's glare, ducked his head, helped two beans onto his fork with his fingers, raised it slowly to his mouth and started to chew.
He gagged, choked, and coughed, spraying his half-chewed beans over his plate and across my mother's clean tablecloth. I started to laugh; I couldn't help myself—this was something new. And it did seem to be an altogether appropriate response to her cooking.
My mother turned her glare on me and I dummied up, choking on my laughter. I hadn't been exactly setting the world on fire in school either.
She lunged out of her chair, suddenly standing behind Davey, snarling curses at him, low and guttural. Curses no one understood. Curses the Neanderthals had used.
She broadened her field of fire, cursing out Slogan and Eva, who'd moved in with us in the spring and still showed no sign of leaving. Cursing out my father for letting that go on, the way he always did, not kicking them out long ago. Finished by cursing all of us out collectively. Curses even my father, whose vocabulary of profanity was legendary, had never heard.
"Marie..." my father said.
"Eat!" she screamed and slapped Davey on the ear, hard.
This was no longer the usual nightly power struggle. It had gone way beyond that.
At least it was something new.
"Eat it!" she screamed again, slapping harder, rocking his head to the right.
Eva and Slogan looked away, trying not to see.
"Eat it!" rocking Davey's head left again.
We could hear her breathing hard, her mouth gaping, as she batted her son's head back and forth.
Davey's expression of utter defiance remained unchanged, he wasn't giving her the satisfaction of crying or backing down. I squirmed in my chair; I'd been raised to aspire to adulthood—my father hustling me through an accelerated childhood, the goal to make me an adult as soon as possible. I was divided; I felt for my brother. I pleaded with him wordlessly, silently begging him to relent. Why not just give in and choke everything down the way the way the rest of us did. Davey's way seemed all wrong. I went back to daydreaming, back to the birdsong peace of the jungle.
With me in the shotgun, the air conditioner blasting, Slogan drove the Imperial west out of town on Route 4 then onto 17. We flew northwest out of the suburbs and malls and into farm country where Slogan could "open her up" and "put her through her paces". Cows, a few sheep. On the wide grassy median, every hundred yards or so, a woodchuck stood scanning the landscape from atop the entrance to his burrow. I had never seen one before and craned my neck to get a better look as we sped past. I got the silly ditty, "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" going through my head and felt like a moron when I couldn't turn it off.
We crossed into New York State below Suffern, trading the interstate for a two-lane heading north. Once over the state line we entered hillier country and gradually worked ourselves higher and higher into the foothills, until we were climbing a small mountain, switchback by switchback. They'd cut the road right through the side of the mountain, blasting it out of rock. You could see the half-round traces of the holes striping the rockface where they'd drilled to sink the dynamite.
We rounded the top of the mountain and a vast valley opened below us, sunlit and shining green with an infinitely cloudless sky arching over us. You could see all the way across to a glimmering lake and, beyond that, another range on the other side.
"This is when you realize you live on a planet," Slogan said, "A planet that's round and traveling through space at a tremendous clip. Here you feel incredibly small and infinitely huge at the same time, humble and prideful. This is how we were supposed to feel in the presence of God before God was reimagined into tent meetings and bake sales. Awe is not inappropriate right about now." I didn't say anything; I'd been brought up not to believe in God and my father wouldn't cotton to me agreeing with Slogan in this department, friends or no friends.
Once across the valley, we stopped at the lake we'd spied from the mountaintop. Mist rose off its surface as the sun struck it. We had to pay a ranger to park and got a brochure with a map showing the campgrounds and the toilets in return. It was cooler at the edge of the lake. We walked slowly, quietly. Ahead of us frogs jumped into the water with tiny squeaks of alarm, disappearing magically into the mud as we neared.
Slogan called out the names of the ducks gaggled out toward the middle.
"Those gray ones are Gadwalls. Over there? American Widgeon. We used to call them Baldpate back when I was your age. Common Goldeneye, right next to them. The one flashing the white patch on his head? Bufflehead. When I was a boy, back in Tennessee, there were lots more of these guys, millions of 'em." He was always talking about when he was a boy and you had to admit it sounded quite a bit better than my situation.
"Where'd they go?" I said.
"They didn't go anywhere," he said, "They were shot-out."
We walked along a gravel bank where canoes and small sailboats lay beached.
A long-legged bird dashed helter-skelter ahead of us in short, worried bursts, keeping itself always about fifteen feet distant.
"That's a Killdeer. See how her wing doesn't look right? How she keeps flashing that white patch at us? That's to fool predators—in this mistaken case, us—into thinking she has a broken wing. She's trying to draw us off, distract us. If you get too close she'll fly away, there's nothing wrong with her at all. She probably has a nest nearby, probably in the opposite direction from where she's running."
We stopped to watch the bird until finally it flew away.
"I suppose the idea of you going with Eva and me to Memphis for a spell has gone by the boards?"
Slogan and Eva, mostly Slogan, had come up with this plan to take me home with them if and when they finally did get around to leaving. Home to Memphis where they would have me stay with them for a year or so. I'd already spent six weeks of the previous summer with my grandmother in Fort Lauderdale, so it didn't sound all that far-fetched to me.
He'd explained it to me a couple of weeks before, "Think how much good it would do you to get away from this whole mess, the whole fouled-up term at school? All I'm proposing to you is you take a break, come back to Memphis with us. For a year. We'll put you in school so you can keep up, you don't fall behind.
"I grew up in Memphis. It's a wonderful place to be a boy. There's lots of other boys there, too, to grow up with. A place on a bit of land. It was my father's. We'd have a barn. It's warmer there by about ten degrees, but otherwise it's like here."
But my father and mother, mostly my mother, weren't buying; in fact she went nearly bananas at the prospect, calling it a cockamamie plan, and saying, "I'm not gonna let those two kidnap my son," which everyone else thought was a pretty extreme interpretation of the situation but nobody said anything. Lots of screaming and crying.
"Yeah, it's complicated," I said.
"I get it," he said, "I knew it was a longshot, but I've always liked a longshot."
"Let's head back to the car," he said, and we turned around.
"People lose their way all the time," he said, and I was pretty sure he wasn't talking about getting back to the car. "And you have to forgive them even if you can't help them find their way again."
I said, "I already told them I wasn't going."
"Is that what you really want or are you only doing it because they wouldn't let you even if you did want to go?"
I thought about it for a minute while we walked.
"It's the only way I can get it to all fit together," I said, "make everybody happy."
"Making everybody happy is not your job," he said, "which I reckon is part of the problem." I hadn't thought there was a problem. It was just the way things were. Life.
We walked past the ranger's booth not saying anything, as if we were afraid he was eavesdropping.
"Look, I gotta tell you, we're leaving in the morning, me and Eva. Going back to Memphis. We decided this morning."
I stared at him.
"I was planning to stick around until I could finish up some business with your pop," he said, "But..."
The parking lot gravel crunched and crackled under his feet.
"...after that whole ruckus last night and all…all the shit between your mama and Davey…?" He left the thought hanging.
Then he said, "You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to see your mama's tirades aren't about Davey. Or at least not all about him. He's just the catalyst. They're about your pop, they're about you. They're about me and Eva, too. So that's one of the reasons we're gonna skedaddle, maybe take some of the pressure off your mama."
Another beat-up two-lane, surrounded by thick woods coming right up to the edge of the macadam. I wondered if the road was even on the map. Every five or ten miles, they'd bulldozed a clearing into the forest, paved it, built a log-sided roadhouse and planted a flashing neon sign roadside: Robber's Roost. The Tree House. Mort's. The Hideaway. Dew Drop Inn. Each advertised Steaks, Cocktails, Seafood to mostly-empty parking lots. I'd been to a million of these with my father—stopping for "refreshments" I wasn't supposed to tell my mother about. Slogan and I kept going, right past, driving fast, his Imperial like some streamlined red eel slithering around the curves.
We rattled into a hot, dusty lot and slid to a stop in front of a beat-up-looking general store called DOLLY'S. The crinkled-paper signs taped to the insides of the dust-coated windows said Ammo, Bait, Beer, Ice. Inside we found a grocery with a long, fluorescent-lighted bar stretching across the back. Hunters spread over barstools. Dusty canned goods, odds and ends for campers, rustic tourist tchotchkes.
Dominating the front as we walked in stood ten four-foot-high wire bins filled with giant cellophane bags of marshmallows; more marshmallows than anyone had any right to expect to ever see in one place. Was this what we'd come to see?
Slogan snatched up two bags, tossed one to me.
"Welcome to the marshmallow economy," he said, laughing as I nearly bungled catching it.
He paid the salesgirl. We had to wait a minute to pay. The Top Forty blared from a little radio behind the counter, filling out a general atmosphere of cacophony; embattled parents mostly, women in sandals wearing light skirts, men in short-sleeved shirts and sunglasses. The line was short but ongoing—two or three people, all of them clutching bags of marshmallows and jabbering excitedly, as if gripped by some mass delusion—The Great Rockland County Marshmallow Psychosis.
Out back, in a corral surrounded by a stockade fence, standing on platforms jerry-built from two-by-fours and planking, set atop poles hewn from amputated tree trunks jutting twenty feet in the air, stood a cohort of floppy-looking bears. Fat and sleek, one to a platform, there were eight of them; nearly all black with buff-colored snouts, a couple cinnamon-colored. Each had a chain locked around one ankle. You could tell they didn't see well from the way they snaked their snouts out into the air, squinting, their necks and upper bodies undulating, smell their guiding sense.
They weren't entirely blind though; they could see well enough to catch the majority of the marshmallows everyone was throwing to them.
Slogan ripped open his bag of marshmallows and tossed one up to the nearest bear. His throw was off, the tidbit nearly sailed past, but at the last second the bear swung its head out and intercepted the marshmallow with an audible wet snap. It chewed twice and swallowed, drooling foaming ropes of sticky-white slobber. Slogan tossed him another, more on target this time, and the bear scarfed it with the same dispatch. More slobber.
All around us people were throwing marshmallows to the bears and laughing and talking and pointing. Kids running. There wasn't anyone who wasn't having a good time, the bears included.
"C'mon, open it!" Slogan hollered, pointing at the bag in my hands, and I did.
The aerodynamics of the pitched marshmallow took a little time to master, but after a few tosses to get the hang of it, I saw how I could affect the bears' reactions by controlling where I tossed the marshmallows, like a pitcher throwing inside, outside, high, low. I could make them rear up on their hind legs by throwing over their heads or make them stretch out to the edge of their platform by throwing just beyond their reach. I tried taunting them, fooling them with feigned throws and crazy windups, but it didn't seem right to ruin their fun for the sake of mine. Enough flew out of reach unintentionally anyway. I got to where I wanted to holler "Sorry" at the poor guys whenever I got one past them. They seemed to know the difference.
Each bear was different. Some were more enthusiastic than others, stretching themselves to greater lengths and jumping so high their paws left the platform in their efforts. Each was comic in a different way; this one had a Buster Keaton deadpan, another one was chubby and disheveled like Lou Costello, the thin cinnamon long-faced and dumb-looking, like Stan Laurel. I picked one that looked shyer than the rest and concentrated on getting him to notice me.
Slogan crumpled a five-dollar bill into my hand.
"Git us a couple more pokes," he said.
I ran back and forth all afternoon, buying bag after bag of marshmallows. As was everyone.
My father had finally put an end to it. He looked weary, spent, as if he was the one getting beaten.
"Marie..." He stood up, stepped behind her, and grabbed her wrists all in one move. He was twice her size. My mother, disarmed and overpowered and defeated, fell back against him. He let go of her wrists and took her in his arms.
He held her, shushed her, until she regained her breath and then held her a little longer. He kissed the top of her head and she slowly turned and slipped into his embrace.
"I can't take this shit anymore," she said, sobbing into his chest, exhausted.
"Marie..." he said, softer, stroking her hair.
Davey pushed his plate of uneaten limas away. The whole thing was over and, as far as he was concerned, he'd won.
"I think this is terrible!" Eva said, "I've never seen a child treated so horribly before."
"Then you haven't been paying attention," my mother snarled, suddenly angry again.
I went back to daydreaming, drifting away. Pythons, pith helmets, the law of the jungle.
None of us got dessert.
I was having the most fun I could ever remember. Slogan, too. He kept laughing and looking over at me, as if to make sure I was laughing too. It was obvious he wanted me to have a good time, to relax and laugh and not think about all the crap at home. He wanted the day to go on forever as much as I did. He wanted to be my friend. He wanted me to be his son. I could tell; I'd been studying him, admiring him, loving him, for a while.
After going through probably ten more pokes of marshmallows, Slogan said, "I guess we better get going, we wanna be back by dinnertime or your mother will get pissed off again. We don't want that." It seemed everyone was afraid of my mother on some level.
The minute Slogan and I turned our backs on the bears I started thinking about coming back. Though I had no idea where we were, by what route we'd gotten there, how we'd find our way home, I was sure I'd be back. But Slogan would be gone tomorrow and who knew when he'd be back, if ever. I thought of asking him to give my father directions to this place, draw him a map maybe. But I knew it wouldn't be the same. My father enjoyed things in a different way. He'd have fun, yes, but he would also be annoyed by all the hubbub and shouting, and the kids running around underfoot and screaming, and assume their parents were morons. He'd have asked the cashier inside to turn off the Top Forty, only idiots listened to that stuff. We would have run out of marshmallow money and he'd have complained how they were overpriced; how the whole dump was a clip joint and one giant tourist trap. And there was a strong possibility Slogan had made the whole place up, a fantasy world just for us, just for that day, or maybe I did.
I ran to the Imperial and climbed into the passenger side. Slogan folded himself into the drivers' seat. The seat was pushed all the way back but still he had to scrunch to get his knees under the steering column. The car came to life the second he turned the key. I thought about how when I was younger he would let me sit in his lap and steer. He'd let me guide the car through traffic, looking out over its vast hood, thrilled and intimidated by its power. I was too old for that stuff now. Even then I knew he kept one hand on the bottom of the wheel, a minor fraud that didn't faze me. We'd tacitly agreed on this impersonation of adulthood and as long as both believed it was so, it was.
"One way to look at this whole operation," Slogan said, "is as a vast Rube Goldberg-ian scheme for selling more marshmallows per day than perhaps anyone else on earth. You gotta admire it. Most everybody up in this neck of the woods is poor as Job's turkey, but the people who own this place have found another way, they're homegrown marketing geniuses."
He threw the shifter into Reverse and backed us to the edge of the lot. Switching to Drive, he swung a giant U-turn, our whitewalls throwing up a squall of gravel until they grabbed some asphalt and launched us onto the two-lane. I turned around for a last glance at the place, but you couldn't see the bears from the road, or the people laden with bags of sweet treats. Like so many things in the world, you just had to take it on faith the whole scene was still going strong, pitching marshmallows and gorging themselves and slobbering. This was how everything ended; driving away. As our little resort faded further and further into the woods behind us, I changed my mind. I decided if I never returned here, it would be okay. Probably for the better. There are so many things you can't do twice.