I came out through the tent flap, and my father turned toward me. The hunting knife was still in his hand.
He looked at me, and I looked at him. I’ve never forgotten that my dad with a reddish beard stubble on his face and a hunting cap cocked on his head and that hunting knife in his hand. All the conversation stopped. Maybe they were wondering how much I had heard. Maybe they were even ashamed.
“What the hell do you want?” my dad asked, sheathing the knife.
“Give him a drink, Carl,” Randy said, and there was a roar of laughter. Al laughed so hard he fell over.
He was pretty drunk.
“I gotta whiz,” I said.
“Then go do it, for Christ’s sake,” my dad said.
I went over in the grove and tried to whiz. For a long time it wouldn’t come out. It was like a hot soft ball of lead in my lower belly. I had nothing but a fingernail’s length of penis-the cold had really shriveled it. At last it did come, in a great steaming flood, and when it was all out of me, I went back into the tent and got in my sleeping bag. None of them looked at me. They were talking about the war. They had all been in the war.
My dad got his deer three days later, on the last day of the trip. I was with him. He got it perfectly, in the bunch of muscle between neck and shoulder, and the buck went down in a heap, all grace gone.
We went over to it. My father was smiling, happy. He had unsheathed his knife. I knew what was going to happen, and I knew I was going to be sick, and I couldn’t help any of it. He planted a foot on either side of the buck and pulled one of its legs back and shoved the knife in. One quick upward rip, and its guts spilled out on the forest floor, and I turned around and heaved up my breakfast.
When I turned back to him, he was looking at me. He never said anything, but I could read the contempt and disappointment in his eyes. I had seen it there often enough. I didn’t say anything either. But if I had
been able to, I would have said: It isn’t what you think.
That was the first and last time I ever went hunting with my dad.
Al Lathrop was still thumbing through his textbook samples and pretending he was too busy to talk to me when the intercom on Miss Marble’s desk buzzed, and she smiled at me as if we had a great and sexy secret. “You can go in now, Charlie. ”
I got up. “Sell those textbooks, Al.”
He gave me a quick, nervous, insincere smile. “I sure will, uh, Charlie.”
I went through the slatted gate, past the big safe set into the wall on the right and Miss Marble’s cluttered desk on the left. Straight ahead was a door with a frosted glass pane. THOMAS DENVER
PRINCIPAL was lettered on the glass. I walked in.
Mr. Denver was looking at The Bugle, the school rag. He was a tall, cadaverous man whg looked something like John Carradine. He was bald and skinny. His hands were long and full of knuckles. His tie was pulled down, and the top button of his shirt was undone. The skin on his throat looked grizzled and irritated from overshaving.
“Sit down, Charlie.”
I sat down and folded my hands. I’m a great old hand-folder. It’s a trick I picked up from my father.
Through the window behind Mr. Denver I could see the lawn, but not the fearless way it grew right up to the building. I was too high, and it was too bad. It might have helped, like a night-light when you are small.
Mr. Denver put The Bugle down and leaned back in his chair. “Kind of hard to see that way, isn’t it?” He grunted. Mr. Denver was a crackerjack grunter. If there was a National Grunting Bee, I would put all my money on Mr. Denver. I brushed my hair away from my eyes.
There was a picture of Mr. Denver’s family on his desk, which was even more cluttered than Miss Marble’s. The family looked well-fed and well-adjusted. His wife was sort of porky, but the two kids were as cute as buttons and didn’t look a bit like John Carradine. Two little girls, both blond.
“Don Grace has finished his report, and I’ve had it since last Thursday, con-sidering his conclusions and his recommendations as carefully as I can. We all appreciate the seriousness of this matter, and I’ve taken the liberty of discussing the whole thing with John Carlson, also. ”
“How is he?” I asked.
“Pretty well. He’ll be back in a month, I should think.”
“Well, that’s something.”
“It is?” He blinked at me very quickly, the way lizards do.
“I didn’t kill him. That’s something.”
“Yes.” Mr. Denver looked at me steadily. “Do you wish you had?”
He leaned forward, drew his chair up to his desk, looked at me, shook his head, and began, “I’m very puzzled when I have to speak the way I’m about to speak to you, Charlie. Puzzled and sad. I’ve been in the kid business since 1947, and I still can’t understand these things. I feel what I have to say to you is right and necessary, but it also makes me unhappy. Because I still can’t understand why a thing like this happens. In 1959 we had a very bright boy here who beat a junior–high-school girl quite badly with a baseball bat. Eventually we had to send him to South Portland Correctional Institute. All he could say was that she wouldn’t go out with him. Then he would smile. ” Mr. Denver shook his head.
“Don’t bother. ”
“Don’t bother trying to understand. Don’t lose any sleep over it. ”
“But why, Charlie? Why did you do that? My God, he was on an operating table for nearly four hours-”
“Why is Mr. Grace’s question, ” I said. “He’s the school shrink. You, you only ask it because it makes a nice lead-in to your sermon. I don’t want to listen to any more sermons. They don’t mean shit to me. It’s over. He was going to live or die. He lived. I’m glad. You do what you have to do. What you and Mr.
Grace decided to do. But don’t you try to understand me.”
“Charlie, understanding is part of my job.”
“But helping you do your job isn’t part of mine,” I said. “So let me tell you one thing. To sort of help open the lines of communication, okay?”
I held my hands tightly in my lap. They were trembling. “I’m sick of you and Mr. Grace and all the rest of you. You used to make me afraid and you still make me afraid but now you make me tired too, and I’ve decided I don’t have to put up with that. The way I am, I can’t put up with that. What you think doesn’t mean anything to me. You’re not qualified to deal with me. So just stand back. I’m warn-ing you. You’re not qualified. ”
My voice had risen to a trembling near-shout.
Mr. Denver sighed.
“So you may think, Charlie. But the laws of the state say otherwise. After hav-ing read Mr. Grace’s report, I think I agree with him that you don’t understand yourself or the consequences of what you did in
Mr. Carlson’s classroom. You are disturbed, Charlie. ”
You are disturbed, Charlie.
The Cherokees used to slit their noses . . . so everyone in the tribe could see what part of them got them in trouble.
The words echoed greenly in my head, as if at great depths. They were shark words at deep fathoms, jaws words come to gobble me. Words with teeth and eyes.
This is where I started to get it on. I knew it, because the same thing that hap-pened just before I gave Mr. Carlson the business was happening now. My hands stopped shaking. My stomach flutters subsided, and my whole middle felt cool and calm. I felt detached, not only from Mr. Denver and his overshaved neck, but from myself. I could almost float.
Mr. Denver had gone on, something about proper counseling and psychiatric help, but I interrupted him.
“Mr. Man, you can go straight to hell.”
He stopped and put down the paper he had been looking at so he wouldn’t have to look at me.
Something from my file, no doubt. The almighty file. The Great American File.
“In hell. Judge not, lest ye be judged. Any insanity in your family, Mr. Den-ver?”
I’ll discuss this with you, Charlie,” he said tightly. “I won’t engage in-“