“It was your idea to go camping,” snapped the dad on a winding backroad in search of the campground. He wiped perspiration from heat and embarrassment, braced for the retort.
“No it wasn’t.” The boy’s sour glare darted the man’s chest.
The dad smiled grimly with comprehension that consoled little for his foolish reliance on a sketchy downloaded road map. “Your mother said you wanted to go camping.”
“She was wrong,” son declared as if flicking a gnat.
Years before, with a plastic bat fresh from Toys R Us, the boy had swatted ball after ball while his dad “attaboy!-ed” at the machinelike consistency of his son: fifteen now, he still murdered the fat ones. His set his chin on a grasshopper knee, gazed at the sunlight that strobed through the redwoods.
“No she wasn’t wrong,” the dad brayed. “I said, ‘What’s Danny into these days?,’ and she said, `Camping, the boy loves the outdoors.’ So we’re camping.’”
“We are?” the boy chortled as they rounded yet another shady bend.
“Yes,” the dad crowed. “There’s the sign, behind that huge redwood. Nice job they did of hiding it, no?” He looked over. “Congrats, Danny, you’ve perfected your smirk.”
“It’s Daniel now. No one calls me Danny.”
“Daniel,” said the father, wincing as if tasting dust in his mouth. “These trees are hundreds of years old ... Daniel. Some are over a thousand, maybe.”
Beneath the tires, gravel crunched and twigs snapped. On each side giant redwoods peered down at a father and son going thankfully silent. The dad slowed the car to take in the scene, and mentioned the one other camping trip they had taken. In wonder he squinted up at the trees. “Coast redwoods: sequoia sempervirens.”
“Yeah, Latin, wow. I sure wowed `em at the bowling alley with my Latin. Gutter ballus. Hey, remember taking batting practice with Hal and Fat Morris? You’d chase balls for hours, then we’d let you hit? Danny? Man, take that damn thing out of your ear!”
“It’s an earbud for my iPod, and I’m not ignoring you because of an iPod.” The boy glared a bull’s-eye at a freckle beneath eyes as intense and demanding as they always had been, but thrillingly vulnerable now, too.
The dad’s beset gaze appealed to the tree tops. “What a spot this is. I reserved it five months ago, and I’m glad I did. Planning ahead, that’s the key, Danny Boy.”
“That’s you, Keith Man.”
“Danny.’ ” The boy’s murmur fell just below the dad’s sonar. The dad crunched to a stop at the campsite against a roughhewn timber, cut the engine, clamped the wheel, gritted his teeth and stared at the dash. “Look, Danny ... Daniel–you’re not calling ... this guy your mom married–”
“Yeah. You’re not calling...”
Daniel stretched a flat smile and glanced at his father. When had the harsh white crept into his beard? When had the eyes darkened? When had the man shrunk? With a smile that asserted some secret higher knowledge, the boy slipped the earbud into the ear that was away from his dad and dialed up the volume, then stepped out into the simmering heat. He measured nearly six feet tall when giraffing his neck against the door jamb at his mom’s house, and like a sapling he full-faced the sky, closing his eyes to allow the sun’s warmth to saturate his face and radiate out to his ears and down his neck, his smile blossoming in the light. The dad approached from the rear to ask for help unloading the truck, but the boy, unaware, pressed his palms together and shot long arms upward, then separated them in controlled slow-mo like clock-hands sweeping in opposite directions. The O formed by his father’s mouth uttered no reproach, and the man watched in wonder as his son communed with the woods via yoga forms that reached for the sky, waved the clouds, drew wood-sprites from hiding in the tall ferns of a nearby grove and in the high branches of the redwoods themselves. Then the boy, still a novice, crooked a leg to nearly horizontal as his twenty-one year-old stepbrother had taught him, lost his balance, and staggered.
“I don’t think I could do that,” the dad chuckled. “Not the falling, I mean, the other.”
The boy grimaced at the mention of the stumble, and his dad resumed unloading alone. The man spread the new tent flat on the ground and scattered stakes at the corners. The boy ambled up. “Good spot,” said the dad as if allowing his son to listen in on adult conversation. “Nice flat ground, pretty smooth, and a view of the fire ring in case we get bored.”
“Sure,” the boy mumbled. “’s fine.”
Encouraged by his son’s approval, the father turned to him. “It takes four hands to build this thing, D. Good thing you’re such a tall son of a gun, you can hold up the center while I bend the poles. How’d you get so tall anyway?” The dad reached for his son’s cheek to pinch, but the boy jerked away and twisted a smirk of pained discomfiture and aversion, just as his father had feared he would. The boy grew conscious of the picture-postcard families and happy late teen couples in nearby campsites and avoided looking at them lest they notice him: there, in his skin, on the earth, with his dad.
The combined weight of the boy’s silence, the sky, and the redwoods overwhelmed the father, who directed his son with commando-like gestures as if speech might be fatal. They inserted thin fiberglass poles into tent sleeves and crossed the first two in the center. Then the son, at his father’s terse command, held the two poles in place like a gangly Atlas as his dad forced the last two poles into their sleeves. They raised the tent and it held its form well, and the man congratulated himself for rehearsing the procedure at home as he ceremoniously pounded the last stake. “Nice job, Dano. Care to go for a hike?”
The boy thought it over. “I think I just want to chill a while. Soak up the–you know–”
“Atmosphere?” the dad said with a pointed grin. “How’s English class coming, anyway?”
The boy jerked his head away in annoyance and swung a camp chair into the shade at the edge of the campground. He angled the chair away from the tent and his father, inserted his earbuds and dialed his iPod. The dad looked around as if seeking a witness to his son’s disrespect, but the other campers were encased in private bubbles of gladness that seemed as remote as if glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope. The dad grabbed the other camp chair, set it a few feet from his son’s–the ex-wife had advised him that giving the boy space was crucial–and patted the brand new volume of nature poetry he had purchased especially for the occasion.
One hour later he turned and declared: “This poetry’s great.”
The boy ignored the hint, so the dad pulled his chair closer and tapped his son’s arm. The boy pulled out an earbud and directed his gaze along a tangent passing by his dad’s face.
“This Wordsworth guy, Danny, listen: `There was a time when meadow, grove and
stream ... dot dot dot ... the glory and the freshness of a dream!’ I love that line! It’s like that out here now, isn’t it Danny? So fresh and clean? It’s nothing like this in the city, is it?”
The boy smiled sourly as if caught unprepared by a pop quiz.
“Danny, do you even study in school?”
The son’s face twisted with pain; the dad chastised himself. “I mean,” he softened, “poetry is great stuff, son. You really should give it a chance, you know?”
The boy sat as impassively as he had years before when his cloud was about to burst. The dad remembered the sign, popped open a beer and jammed his head down into his shoulders, upset with himself and dismayed by his seed.
They sat silent for hours: iPod and texting on the right, restless reading and journaling on the left, the dad’s journal entries staccato bursts following glances at his silent son. The shade of night fell cool and sweet and mosquitos lighted, and the dad swiftly produced a can of mosquito spray from an overstuffed box of camping supplies he had purchased that week. He sprayed his wrists and rubbed them together, then reached a damp wrist towards his son’s neck and pressed it against skin as honeyed in hue as pastry crust and sweet smelling from the sun’s warmth and a glaze of dried sweat. The son jumped at his father’s cold touch on his skin, looked testily at him, and was stunned by the swirl of emotions he found in the man’s face–pain among them.
“Sorry, but you startled me,” the boy said. “But–thanks though. You know, Tom said that stuff has DEET in it, it’s not like, good for you. It’s like–”
“Who is Tom?”
The man who’s been raising me, the son told himself, pronouncing the syllables in his head as distinctly as a courtroom indictment. “Well,” he offered, “this stuff’s a lot better than nothing, that’s for sure.” He shook the can and looked up at his dad with an effort to reconstitute the trusting gaze of childhood. “How do you–”
The father mistrusted the malformed gaze. “Like this,” he said warily, rubbing wrists together and applying the spray to forehead, cheeks, and neck. “Watch your eyes and nose or you’ll mess yourself up.”
The son complied, then watched his father for further instructions.
“Hey, let’s build that fire now, what do you say? Why don’t you go gather some twigs for–” he gazed into the redwoods with pioneer eyes and located the elusive word “–kindling.”
The son discerned that his dad had finished issuing instructions, and tromped over to the fringe of the wood to pick up handfuls of small branches and twigs–free of moss, as his stepdad had taught him. His father built a criss-crossed structure of firelogs and gestured vaguely at its base. The boy squatted and poked twigs through the openings, taking care to allow room for ventilation. A teenaged girl the next campground over set interested eyes on the boy. The man proudly followed the girl’s gaze to his son.
“Want to light it?” the dad asked, nodding at the impressive structure.
The son shrugged ambivalently, noted the disappointment in his father’s eyes, then reached compliantly for the proffered lighter. Beneath his father’s gaze he knelt and probed the structure’s orifices until burnt orange flames rendered a castle on fire.
“It reminds me of that jack-o-lantern we carved last–” The dad choked off the sentence: It was his fourteen year-old stepson with whom he had carved.
The boy whirled like a bitten feral cat and perceived a blurred impression of the glowing smile of the girl at the next campsite. He set eyes rich with teen code upon her, and she smiled back.
“Danny?” The man looked up from his haunches at the profile of his son’s jaw and cheekbones: they were hardening fast, but were not yet a man’s. “Let’s eat.” He approached his son, but his son couldn’t hear, so he tapped him on the shoulder and the boy jerked away. The dad pantomimed “take out the earbuds,” and when the boy did so, the man added, “I’ve got your favorite eats” in the coaxing “come up out of the basement” tone that had worked well years before. “Foot longs.”
The boy snapped his gaze at him. “Man, I told you I don’t eat animal flesh!”
The unexpected intensity of the reply knocked the dad’s head back and upset his balance. He stumbled backward and tripped on the unused fire logs and fell down backwards into the fire ring, collapsing the wood and sending showers of sparks sizzling upwards. With a howl he rolled out of the pit and desperately ground his back into the dirt to stifle the embers nipping his back. When he finally stopped wriggling, the boy stood over him and reached down his hand to help his dad up, but the man ignored this and panted from flat on his back: “Stop, drop, and roll, Danny. Remember that if you’re ever on fire. You’ve got to deny oxygen to the fire.”
Looking down at his father, an overturned turtle dispensing advice, the boy fought the impulse to laugh but did not fight it hard, and quickly succumbed to a giggle that grew into full throated laughter ringing orange and black like sparks in the night. The night had changed from purple to coal-black, and the boy’s laughter transformed into whimpered convulsions of sorrow, elation, freedom, and fear. He turned his gaze to the girl in the next campsite. Her face had darkened in dismay at the discord, and she sat down in a camp chair next to her parents with her back to the boy.
The father set to rebuilding the fire, but the logs were nearly spent, and a poor blaze resulted. He rounded his back and bent over the fire and munched defiantly on a foot-long hot dog; then a second; then a third; while his son chomped sullenly on a bun stuffed with onions and relish. The night sky deepened, the soft chatter and melancholy guitar chords at nearby campsites diminished with the fires, and the stars shone cold and silver.
The boy raised his eyes to the multitude of stars, drew a draft of cold air and shuddered. His father had disappeared within the embers. The boy felt an impulse to turn to his
father;–he fought it, faltered, and turned to the man.
“Dad–” the boy started, but the dad’s cell phone’s ring tone indicated his second wife, and he did not hear.
“Not interrupting a thing, best moment of the day,” he said loud and clear and heedless of his son, who, hearing this, dialed his iPod to shut out the world and seal in Wordsworth’s ode to the glory of nature, the freshness of dreams, and thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.