I had gotten to the office late just so Mr. Denver would be ready to see me, but the receptionist, Miss Marble, only smiled and said, “Sit down, Charlie. Mr. Denver will be right with you. ”
So I sat down outside the slatted railing, folded my hands, and waited for Mr. Denver to be right with me. And who should be in the other chair but one of my father’s good friends, AI Lathrop. He was giving me the old slick-eye, too, I can tell you. He had a briefcase on his lap and a bunch of sample textbooks beside him. I had never seen him in a suit before. He and my father were a couple of mighty hunters.
Slayers of the fearsome sharp-toothed deer and the killer partridge. I had been on a hunting trip once with my father and Al and a couple of my father’s other friends. Part of Dad’s never-ending campaign to Make a Man Out of My Son.
“Hi, there!” I said, and gave him a big shiteating grin. And I could tell from the way he jumped that he knew all about me.
“Uh, hi, uh, Charlie. ” He glanced quickly at Miss Marble, but she was going over attendance lists with Mrs. Venson from next door. No help there. He was all alone with Carl Decker’s psychotic son, the fellow who had nearly killed the chemistry-physics teacher.
“Sales trip, huh?” I asked him.
“Yeah, that’s right. ” He grinned as best he could. “Just out there selling the old books.”
“Really crushing the competition, huh?”
He jumped again. “Well, you win some, you lose some, you know, Charlie.”
Yeah, I knew that. All at once I didn’t want to put the needle in him anymore. He was forty and getting bald and there were crocodile purses under his eyes. He went from school to school in a Buick station wagon loaded with textbooks and he went hunting for a week in November every year with my father and my father’s friends, up in the Allagash. And one year I had gone with them. I had been nine, and I woke up and they had been drunk and they had scared me. That was all. But this man was no ogre. He was just forty-baldish and trying to make a buck. And if I had heard him saying he would murder his wife, that was just talk. After all, I was the one with blood on my hands.
But I didn’t like the way his eyes were darting around, and for a moment just a moment-I could have grabbed his windpipe between my hands and yanked his face up to mine and screamed into it: You and my father and all your friends, you should all have to go in there with me, you should all have to go to Greenmantle with me, because you’re all in it, you’re all in it, you’re all a part of this!
Instead I sat and watched him sweat and thought about old times.
I came awake with a jerk out of a nightmare I hadn’t had for a long time; a dream where I was in some dark blind alley and something was coming for me, some dark hunched monster that creaked and dragged itself along . . . a monster that would drive me insane if I saw it. Bad dream. I hadn’t had it since I was a little kid, and I was a big kid now. Nine years old.
At first I didn’t know where I was, except it sure wasn’t my bedroom at home. It seemed too close, and it smelled different. I was cold and cramped, and I had to take a whiz something awful.
There was a harsh burst of laughter that made me jerk in my bed-except it wasn’t a bed, it was a bag.
“So she’s some kind of fucking bag,” Al Lathrop said from beyond the canvas wall, “but fucking’s the operant word there.”
Camping, I was camping with my dad and his friends. I hadn’t wanted to come.
“Yeah, but how do you git it up, Al? That’s what I want to know. ” That was Scotty Norwiss, another one of Dad’s friends. His voice was slurred and furry, and I started to feel afraid again. They were drunk.
“I just turn off the lights and pretend I’m with Carl Decker’s wife,” Al said, and there was another bellow of laughter that made me cringe and jerk in my sleep-ing bag. Oh, God, I needed to whiz piss make
lemonade whatever you wanted to call it. But I didn’t want to go out there while they were drinking and talking.
I turned to the tent wall and discovered I could see them. They were between the tent and the campfire, and their shadows, tall and alien-looking, were cast on the canvas. It was like watching a magic lantern show. I watched the shadow-bot-tle go from one shadow-hand to the next.
“You know what I’d do if I caught you with my wife?” My dad asked Al.
“Probably ask if I needed any help,” Al said, and there was another burst of laughter. The elongated shadow-heads on the tent wall bobbed up and down, back and forth, with insectile glee. They didn’t look like people at all. They looked like a bunch of talking praying mantises, and I was afraid.
“No, seriously,” my dad said. “Seriously. You know what I’d do if I caught somebody with my wife?”
“What, Carl?” That was Randy Earl.
“You see this?”
A new shadow on the canvas. My father’s hunting knife, the one he carried out in the woods, the one I later saw him gut a deer with, slamming it into the deer’s guts to the hilt and then ripping upward, the muscles in his forearm bulging, spilling out green and steaming intestines onto a carpet of needles and moss. The fire-light and the angle of the canvas turned the hunting knife into a spear.
“You see this son of a bitch? I catch some guy with my wife, I’d whip him over on his back and cut off his accessories.”
“He’d pee sitting down to the end of his days, right, Carl?” That was Hubie Levesque, the guide. I pulled my knees up to my chest and hugged them. I’ve never had to go to the bathroom so bad in my life, before or since.
“You’re goddamn right,” Carl Decker, my sterling Dad, said.
“Wha’ about the woman in the case, Carl?” Al Lathrop asked. He was very drunk. I could even tell which shadow was his. He was rocking back and forth as if he was sitting in a rowboat instead of on a log by the campfire. “Thass what I wanna know. What do you do about a woman who less-lets-someone in the back door? Huh?”
The hunting knife that had turned into a spear moved slowly back and forth. My father said, “The Cherokees used to slit their noses. The idea was to put a cunt right up on their faces so everyone in the tribe could see what part of them got them in trouble.”
My hands left my knees and slipped down to my crotch. I cupped my testicles and looked at the shadow of my father’s hunting knife moving slowly back and forth. There were terrible cramps in my belly. I was going to whiz in my sleeping bag if I didn’t hurry up and go.
“Slit their noses, huh?” Randy said. “That’s pretty goddamn good. If they still did that, half the women in Placerville would have a snatch at both ends. ”
“Not my wife,” my father said very quietly, and now the slur in his voice was gone, and the laughter at Randy’s joke stopped in mid-roar.
“No, ‘course not, Carl,” Randy said uncomfortably. “Hey, shit. Have a drink. ”
My father’s shadow tipped the bottle back.
“I wun’t slit her nose,” A1 Lathrop said. “I’d blow her goddamn cheatin’ head off. ”
“There you go,” Hubie said. “I’ll drink to it.”
I couldn’t hold it anymore. I squirmed out of the sleeping bag and felt the cold October air bite into my body, which was naked except for a pair of shorts. It seemed like my cock wanted to shrivel right back into my body. And the one thing that kept going around and around in my mind-I was still partly asleep, I guess, and the whole conversation had seemed like a dream, maybe a continuation of the creaking monster in the alley-was that when I was smaller, I used to get into my mom’s bed after Dad had put on his uniform and gone off to work in Portland, I used to sleep beside her for an hour before breakfast.
Dark, fear, firelight, shadows like praying mantises. I didn’t want to be out in these woods seventy miles from the nearest town with these drunk men. I wanted my mother.