October 28, 2012

Tom

It was a luminous autumn day, cloudless, in late September. It must have been one of the
last weekends before the school year started in earnest, one of the last lazy weekends that
Tom and I, both of us eighth graders, were to spend at the cabin. I was going to say that
it was one I’d never forget. But I did forget. For decades, I had forgotten. I thought of
Tom this morning for the first time in years.

The cabin, surrounded by miles of Michigan wilderness, was a nice piece of family
weekend and summer real estate, outings to which I divided amongst my three closest
friends, Barry, Ken, and Tom, according to a metric that is lost to me now, most likely
Tom’s availability. Of the three Tom was the brightest, the most fearless, the most
doomed. My imagination found a playmate in his courage. There was scarcely a dare he
would not take, but with the smarts to deftly turn the tables on, if I took it too far. We
made crank phone calls. We philosophied and opined. We filched cigarettes. Tom was a
straight-A achiever. I was an artsy prodigy and a mediocre student whom teachers liked. 
An intimacy sprang up between us that I kept instinctively, if salaciously, cloaked, but
which he, simply for the sake of arousing my chagrin, would unexpectedly, and publicly,
flaunt with a kiss or a grope that turned my ears to stoplights.

A city boy, Tom was enchanted with all the country things, boats, guns, field and stream,
that I took for granted. Those country weekends were a kind of manful world unlike Tom
had known. A world wherein two fourteen year old boys were allowed set off for a tramp
in the woods with .22 rifles, and the trust of adults that made him practically throb with
pride - and assume a sense of responsibility almost querulous in its propriety. In return,
his incipient thrill-seeking often catalyzed the surroundings, so familiar to me, into a
framework for adventure. Those were days when youngsters, though much less indulged,
enjoyed in many significant ways, more freedom.

One summer Tom suggested that we take the boat, a little wooden two-seater, all the way
upstream to the “big lake”, which he had heard me talk about, but which expedition only
my older brother had heretofore pulled off, and alone. Of course Jack’s cautionary
account, complete with water moccasins and strange cries heard among the cattails, only
whetted Tom’s appetite. We announced our intention at dinner that night. By morning my
mother, always a trooper at hiding her maternal misgivings, packed a paper bag of
sandwiches. My dad informed us that if we came a cropper, my brother would get my life
insurance. Three hours later we were casting lines into the lake, under postcard summer
skies. When the buckets were full of perch we started back home. That was when we were
confronted with a handful of inlets which we realized were impossible to tell apart. We
picked the most likely and within an hour, and under deepening skies, we found ourselves
in an unfamiliar, and inexorably narrowing stream, and soon a thorny tunnel scarcely
wider than the boat, choked with bramble, our skin poked, scratched, and mosquito-bitten.
A treacherously rocky riverbed sheared the outboard’s cotter pin, rendering the propeller
useless. We clawed our way along with the oars. I don’t remember any of the
conversation, but it probably went something like

“Oh, shit.”

“Heh, heh… yeah.”

I remember Tom’s now-we’re-in-for-it grin. I suspect it was a lot like mine. Stripling
commandos we were, confronted with nature’s heart of darkness, if not our own. We
made it home, miraculously, by dinner. The only thing we admitted to was the broken
cotter pin, for which I received a paternal lecture and a garnished allowance. My mother
eyed our scratches with suspicion, but was disinclined to press the matter. We feasted on
lake perch. My brother, spookily astute as usual, made sly references to the “road not taken,”
about a poem he claimed to be reading.

We were down at the stream fishing one autumn day, casting night crawlers off the
bridge, not far from a treacherous curve in the road that the local folk had long ago
dubbed The Devil's Elbow. It was flanked on both sides by a marsh, a peat bog, really,
thought to be all but bottomless. It was said to have swallowed, over the years, quite a
number of cars, families, pets, and lovers, all sucked to their doom who paid too little
respect to the hairpin curve. Once in a rare while, a tow truck would show up, hauling out
some car or pickup truck, dripping with black muck. Those were the lucky few that had
gone in right next to the road. Many others, it was assumed, were out there in the bog,
travelers, passing through this remote country, never located nor seen again.


























The Devil's Elbow, on Stockbridge Road, had a creepy desolation about it. Tom,
although more daring than I, showed little interest in exploring the area, beyond our first
and last hike past the oddly still twist, not far from our habitual fishing hole at the bridge.

As we stood casting for sunfish and blue gill in the stream that day, lost in our own
thoughts, we heard the familiar soft crunch of distant gravel and turned to look down the
road, past the Elbow, for the approaching vehicle. The crunch of tire on gravel grew
louder but the usual cloud of dust, the visible herald of what our ears told us we would
soon see, was oddly absent. Then suddenly rounding the feral curve came an old red
pickup, of some throwback vintage that neither of us had seen before. We heard the
music, coming from the truck's radio. It stuck in my mind for some reason - an old big
band rendition of Little Brown Jug. As the truck passed, we glimpsed a young family,
mom and dad in the cab, two boys and a dog in the back.

It strikes me now, as I write this, as it could hardly have occurred to me then, how
comprehensively one can discern a complete emotional dynamic in a passing glimpse. The
man was laughing behind the wheel, while the woman stared straight ahead, unamused.
There was something a little mocking about that laugh, heedless. The woman’s stony
silence looked deeply etched. Neither the elder boy nor the dog seemed to notice us in the
least. Only the young boy looked at us as the truck sped by. I remember every detail about
him. The baseball cap, red, with a yellow ear of corn, half-shucked, on a logo advertising
Picknell’s General Store. The tattered white shirt, with its bone-colored buttons, short-
sleeved, frayed at the collar. His cornflower-blue eyes. His gaze was fixed on Tom as the
truck careened past the bridge, nearly driving off the road. A gaze of the utmost
compassion, little brows knitted, a soul crying out from some deeply timeless place for an
explanation… an answer…

We watched the truck disappear among the far trees, its passage still weirdly unmarked by
the cloud of dust to which we are said, when all is said and done, to return.

“That was weird,” said Tom. “Yeah, man…” I said. And that was all that was said. And
that, it turned out, would be our last weekend together at the cottage, or anywhere else.
School intervened. Other voices, other rooms. By the next year the friendship that seemed
beyond a second thought, like the hill on which the cottage stood, had vanished in a cloud
of noise, new friends, rivalries and dust. Tom fell in with some old friends from the city.
Sagacious, street-wise friends. Friends who had no use for stream-fed idylls or the vile
affections that were rumored to be turning him queer. He faltered academically the next
year. He was in and out of trouble. In high school he was suspended for smoking in the
parking lot and mouthing off to the civics teacher who caught him. The cocky brilliance
that made him a leader in grade school, was informing his delinquency now. Or so we’d
heard. After his suspension, he never returned. For my part, new friends, new pursuits,
closed in around his memory, until it was clammed away with my broken heart. I learned
from Barry, over breakfast at Denny’s years later on one of my rare visits to Michigan,
that Tom had been killed in a car crash, years ago, coked to the eyebrows, on Middlebelt
Road on Halloween. Hearing that, I stood up and bawled. While a discretely unobtrusive
speaker somewhere played Bobby McFerrin singing Don’t Worry Be Happy, I cried my
heart out.





Labels

DIVE IN...