by Henry Russell ’15
When I discovered the tent in the back corner of my grandparent’s A-frame, I never expected my dad would let me sleep in it for the boys’ weekend, but when I asked him, he said, “sure, champ,” and we took it to the backyard and put it up together.
“Boys should always work hard,” he said as he hammered the last stake into the ground, “but a boy’s weekend is a time for fun. Got it, champ?”
“Roger dodger, sir,” I said and gave him a big salute.
He saluted back and went into the house. I stayed in the tent, drawing a picture in my notebook of our dog Captain and me sleeping in our new tent. I thought about adding my dad to
the picture, but decided not to because it was an illustration for a story called “The Adventures of Mel and Captain.” In the story, we had run away from home.
Sitting in my tent, I smelled the salt air that carried from the harbor beyond the woods. A
red hawk landed on a maple, and I began to draw him too. At some point, the other boys arrived.
I heard them laughing with my dad from inside the house, but I stayed in the tent with Captain
and drew my pictures. I listened as the crickets droned over the voices of the boys and watched
a thorn bush rustle in the wind. A dogwood bloomed white-pink in the center of the yard. A
chipmunk stopped to eat his acorn beneath it, and Captain saw him and chased him into the
woods. I liked it out there in my tent.
There were four of us boys on the boys’ weekend— five if you counted Captain. Besides me, the boys were my dad, my godfather Stephen, and my eldest cousin T.J., but that was it; it was just us boys.
The A-frame belonged to my mom’s parents, but they were letting us use it for the boys’
weekend. My dad called the A-frame “The Love Shack” because it’s where he first met my mom. Stephen had introduced them. The outside panels of the house were painted red, white and blue, but the paint was chipping and faded. Green-brown moss grew up the slant of the roof. When it started to get dark, I slipped inside with Captain, and we explored the house as it creaked under the weight of the bigger boys. In my mother’s old room, I found her dresser drawer empty except for a tiny, brass key. Imagining a secret treasure chest, I searched the house for the matching hole, until I returned to my mother’s room and found the key fit the lock of the dresser from which it came. I left the drawer open and pocketed the key.
Combing the rest of the house, I uncovered, among other treasures, a watercolor in a broken frame my mother had painted of a sailboat, an arrowhead, and a brittle horseshoe crab left in a windowsill. I collected these treasures into a pile at the corner of my tent. In a dark closest whose drawstring bulb wouldn’t go on, I found a heavy trapdoor that opened to the crumbling foundation of the house. Even Captain wasn’t brave enough to go down there by himself.
The boys were in the living room. Stephen was holding a red-striped beer can in one hand, and flipping through a pile of dusty records with the other. “Remember when this album came out, Danny,” Stephen was saying to my father, holding up a white record, “if only Springsteen would shut up and play music like he used to.”
Just then, Stephen noticed me in the doorframe. He walked over and slapped me hard on the shoulder, “where you been hiding, kiddo,” he said. “Aren’t afraid of me, are you?”
I shook my head. I wasn’t afraid of my godfather, but I didn’t like him much either. Stephen had big shoulders, and blond shaggy hair, and his teeth were too white. I was glad this was a boys’ weekend, because I didn’t like the way Stephen kissed his wife— how he pressed his hand on the back of her head as if trying to hold her there forever. Once I even saw his tongue moving into her mouth. It wasn’t anything like my mom and dad’s kisses. I hadn’t seen one in a while, but when I did I always said to myself, that is love. That is what love looks like.
“So, kiddo,” Stephen continued, “any girlfriends yet?”
I saw him turn to my father and wink, and wondered how best to answer this question. I was pretty sure I had a crush on a girl named Alex. In “The Adventures of Mel and Captain,” we
saved Alex from many dangerous circumstances, but I’d hardly ever spoken to her in real life.
Just in time, something I had heard an older kid saying on my bus came to mind:
“I’m playing the field,” I said, and to my delight, the boys laughed.
“That a boy! That. A. Boy,” Stephen said, and clapped me on the shoulder again. My dad’s surprised smile told me he was proud of me.
Stephen turned to T.J. who sat in a lumpy, pink armchair, and said, “but this guy— from what I hear he has a pretty fine piece of woman on his hands. What’s her name again, T. J.?”
“Anne,” T.J. said and nothing else.
“Anne? Nice name. How far you gotten with this Anne, big guy?”
I wanted to hear how far T.J. had gotten with this Anne, but my dad spoke first, saying “All right, all right, that’s enough,” and changed the subject to T.J.’s wrestling season.
My dad woke me from the tent before sunrise the next morning. I followed him around to the front of the house and found the others were already up and packing the bed of my dad’s company truck with coolers, boxes of tackle, and fishing rods. The rods were drawn taught and
curved like bows ready to snap.
My feet sunk into the pine needle drive that was soggy and cool with dew. A thick mist rose through the trees from the harbor and clung on my arms and face. From the backseat of the truck, I watched the white houses of Battlefield Road rise and fade in the mist. Captain balanced on my lap, and I opened the window so he could stick his nose out like he liked. My dad drove slowly around the hairpin on Harbor Drive, and then, out of the haze, I saw the harbor, the little sailboats poking from the blue-grey, the dinghies lined like soldiers along the tideline. Through breaks in the fog I saw the sky turning pink over the eelgrass of the far shoals. “Red sky in morning,” I said, pointing, “sailors take warning!”
“I checked the weather last night,” Stephen said, “it’s gonna be gorgeous.”
When we got to the boatyard the fog had burned off. We untied my dad’s Whaler from the dock and set off up the river for the cut-through. Captain propped himself up at the bow, and barked at the red and green buoys as they passed. My dad laughed and said “Good dog. Never
stops protecting us.”
We meandered up the river through the maze of moored boats and floating docks, and, all of a sudden, my dad grabbed me, and lifted me onto the high rubber of the captain’s seat. My feet dangled over the white fiberglass deck, and he began to show me how to work the wheel. “A
little wheel goes a long way,” he said. I nodded, and then he said, “now you try, champ,” and he let go of the wheel and suddenly no one was controlling the boat, and he looked down at me, and I looked up at him, and he nodded, and I nodded, and then, at last, I grabbed the wheel. It felt cold and electric in my hand like the football ring I sometimes snuck into my dad’s room to try on. I focused on the channel markers. I tried to use as little wheel as possible. My dad went up to the bow with Stephen and rubbed his hand back and forth on Captain’s head.
As I drove, T.J. came back to talk to me. T.J. was my favorite cousin. That winter, my father had taken me to watch him win the Class A State Wrestling Championship. He was short—five foot, six at best— but stocky with a big smile and an army-style haircut. I used to beg him to lie on his back and bench-press me. I liked the way my stomach lurched up and down as I rose and fell. I thought about asking him if he would bench-press me when we got home, but didn’t because I wanted him to think I’d grown up.
We watched an osprey land on a rusting fishing boat, and I asked T.J. what it felt like to be a wrestling champion and he said, “good, I guess,” and he told me about how tough it was to keep his weight down and how he hardly went out with Anne during the winter because he was so tired all the time. I asked him Stephen’s question again about “how far he’d gotten with Anne,” because it confused me, and he laughed, and said “we just kiss,” and I wondered how
it was that he kissed, and if it looked like love, but didn’t ask because I thought that would be weird. A white gull plunged into the water in front of us. I used too much wheel to avoid it, and then corrected that mistake with a larger swing in the other direction.
“What is this— the slalom,” shouted Stephen from the bow, clapping my dad on the back.
“Little movements,” said my dad.
My cheeks grew hot, and I said to T.J., “I’ve never driven before,” and he said, “you’re doing good,” and then looked over the banks of the river as they rolled past in silence. T.J. was
quiet like me. That’s why I liked him. I didn’t know it yet, but a few years later T.J. would step on a mortar in Afghanistan. I would stand with my dad at his funeral and flags ripple red, white, and I would remember this moment on Oyster River. Anne would be standing across from us in a black dress, and my dad would say “he was a good kid,” and I would nod my head and think of the boys’ weekend.
When we got to the cut through, my dad came back and said, “mind if I take over, champ. It’s time to go fast.” He saluted me, and I slipped off the high captain’s seat and said, “Rodger
dodger, sir,” and saluted back.
I went to the bow with Stephen and T.J. and held Captain tight in my lap. My dad revved the engine hard, and the wind rushed past my ears faster and faster. You couldn’t hear anything
over the wind and sound of the engine, so I talked aloud about how excited I was to be fishing
with the boys. I watched the water spraying out in an arc from the hull. I watched and watched,
and then I felt dizzy from watching and looked, instead, over Monomoy point. A red lighthouse grew up from the dunes.
The boat careened towards a throng of grey plovers, and they all flew to the sides as we approached except for one stupid bird that flew straight away from us for as long as he could.
His wings drove like chariots until we were right up on him, and just as I shouted for my dad to stop, the bird veered left and glided back to the others.
My butt was getting sore from whacking on the fiberglass, and I was happy when the boat finally slowed. The other boys rigged the lines, and cast them over the stern, while my dad
explained to me about how this spot was called the Rip, and that it was where the ocean met the
Nantucket Sound, and that this was the best spot on Cape Cod for fishing. All I could think about was catching my first fish, and when, at last, we got a bite, I was disappointed when my dad said, “let’s give this one to T.J.,” and T.J. took up the jumping rod and leaned into the hull to reel it in.
His biceps shuddered under his skin as he turned the reel. He pulled back on the rod and
eased it, pulled back and eased, and when he eased he reeled. It was beautiful the way he reeled that fish.
Suddenly, the glimmering back of the fish ripped through the surface of the water and flew high into the air. It thrashed and leaped and the line jumped and held tight. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them the fish was in the boat. Stephen was saying, “we gotta keeper,”
and I watched him force the jerking fish against the deck and wedge a pair of pliers into its eye- socket to dislodge the hook, and when he pulled it out, the eyeball popped out with it, and it rolled onto the deck and drew a brown-red trail through the speckles of fish blood. Keeping one hand on the fish, Stephen reached down and picked up the eye. He held it up against the sun smiling at it like it was some rare jewel, and then threw it out into the ocean. He shut the writhing fish into the cooler, and it was all over. Stephen and my dad were giving T.J. high-fives, and Stephen said: “we ain’t gonna starve, boys,” and my dad pointed to me and said, “you got the next one, champ” and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to catch a fish anymore.
It took us a while to hook another fish and the whole time I was afraid. I sat by the cooler and listened to the fish flapping on the bags of ice, until, after a while, the fish was quiet, and I knew he was dead. All the while, I watched the rods, hoping they wouldn’t jump. The sun rose high in the sky, and Stephen grabbed a beer and drank it. My dad wound the boat up and down the Rip. I felt in my pocket for the brass key to my mother’s dresser and watched the rods wishing them into stillness.
And then the starboard rod was jumping. The line buzzed out over the ocean, and my
dad grabbed the rod and said, “It’s you, champ,” but I stayed where I was, and he said, “It’s
a big one. We’ll catch it together,” but I shook my head, and I think then my dad understood,
because even though Stephen was saying “c’mon, kid. Be a man. Be a man,” my dad said to Stephen,” “you take this one.” Stephen said, “What? You afraid, kid,” and my dad told him
again to take this one and pushed the rod into Stephen’s hands, and then came over to me and
said, “It’s all right, champ. You catch the fish you wanna catch.”
When we got back to the A-frame, the fog was rolling in again from the harbor. It reached for us through the woods that lined the yard. I sat on the sofa in the den, and watched the white-pink blossoms of the dogwood turn blue in the oncoming dusk.
The house had a mist of its own. Under the orange glow of the canvas lamps I watched dust float on the air like snowflakes. I bobbed my head to the rock-and-roll that spun from the record player and tried to remember the names of the bands as the older boys talked them over.
“Cat Stevens was a genius,” my dad was saying.
“He’s a terrorist,” said Stephen.
T.J. said nothing.
Captain sat in my lap. I thought I saw him nodding his head, but he was just a dog.
The smell of the grilling bluefish wafted from the porch. On the boat, all I smelled of the
fish was bleeding eye sockets and the fluttering, silver gills that shimmered with blood and saltwater, but now the fish smelled like food. The fish smelled good.
My dad was drinking beer from a red-striped can. I watched the way the yellowish liquid slipped into his mouth, and how his bottom lip cradled the lip of the can. He drank the beer like he kissed my mom. Gentle. A gentleman.
Stephen finished his own beer. He crushed the can against his chest, and tossed it towards
the bin the corner. It missed, and he sat back in his pale, grey armchair and sighed. My dad was looking at him.
“Pick it up,” he said.
“I said pick it up.”
Stephen stared at my dad, started to say something but stopped and lumbered over to put
the can in the bin. My dad went out to check on the fish. Raindrops began to speckle the wooden
porch. The kitchen table leaned to one side as we ate. The grain of the rough pine splintered into fissures. Captain hid under the table, and I passed him a piece of bread when no one was looking.
After dinner, I went back to the sofa with my notebook and began drawing a new picture of
Captain and me driving my dad’s boat. Stephen and my dad stayed at the kitchen table drinking
their beers. I looked up when I heard my dad say my mom’s name: Heidi. There was something
unfamiliar in the way he said it. Heidi.
I looked out at the tent my dad and I had set up in the back yard. The raindrops rolled down its walls like minnows crowding and falling over each other.
T.J. came in and asked me if he could bench-press me, if he could show me how much stronger he’d gotten since last time, and I said “I’m too old for that now,” and he said, “you’re
never too old to be bench-pressed by your favorite cousin.”
I smiled because he was my favorite cousin, and he wrestled me down to the ground and started pressing me up into the air and letting me fall back against his chest. We counted the reps
together, and, at thirty, I felt him go tired beneath me. The shaking of his arms passed through my own body, and he pressed me up one last time, and then I collapsed down on top of him. My dad and Stephen were in the door frame watching us. Once T.J. had caught his breath, Stephen said to him:
“You drink yet, big guy?”
“Not yet,” said T.J.
“I see,” said Stephen, “old pop’s a stiff, right? Doesn’t let you do anything fun.” He slapped my dad on the shoulder and spilled some of his own beer down his shirtfront, “I always knew old Tom was stiff, eh Danny.”
My dad smiled, but didn’t say anything. Outside, the darkness settled on the yard. Droplets of rain hit the porch, and exploded into geysers in the glow to the porch light.
“Anyway, we can’t have T.J. taking his girl around without any drinking experience,” Stephen continued, “girls like guys who know how to drink responsibly, am I right, Danny?”
My dad nodded slowly. His eyes followed Stephen as he went to the cooler and grabbed one of the dripping, cold beers. Stephen walked over to where T.J. and I were lying on the floor, and said, “get up, big guy,” and T.J. stood up. Stephen held out the beer, and T.J. took it. They
might have been shaking hands.
T.J. cracked the pop-top and lifted the can to his mouth. A thin stream of beer trailed down his dimple as he drank. He held the beer in his mouth for a moment as if thinking something over and then swallowed. I didn’t know what the beer was, what made it different from the lemonade I was drinking, but I did know that in that moment, as T.J. swallowed, he had entered a new stage of boyhood.
Stephen had a proud smile on his face. He turned to me and said, “you wanna’ try, kiddo.”
My dad shot him a look. “Easy, Stephen,” he said, and Stephen said, “can’t he try a little sip of his godfather’s beer.”
My dad nodded again, even slower than before.
Stephen handed the beer down to me. I took it in two hands. It was warmer than I expected. I felt Stephen’s heat upon the can, his eager look. I raised it up to my mouth, and just as my lips touched the metal, my father said, “No,” and I dropped the beer. It hit the ground and
the yellow-brown foam spread out over the floor. The beer sunk into wood like rain into mulch.
It left a shiny, dark stain.
“It’s just a taste, Danny,” said Stephen.
My dad shook his head. “He’s too young,” he said, “His mother—“
“Forget about his mother,” said Stephen, “that’s the whole reason we’re here this weekend— to get away from his mother.”
My dad said nothing.
“Honestly, sometimes I wish I never introduced you to her,” said Stephen, “Sometimes I think it’s the biggest mistake of my life. None of this would have happened if I’d just kept her
And then my dad was out of his chair. His fist flashed before my eyes and buried itself into Stephen’s nose. Captain yowled and Stephen fell back against the wall. For a second, I thought he was going to hit my dad back he looked so angry, but he slumped down against the wall and cupped his hands to his face to catch the blood that dripped from his nose, and said, “Jesus, Danny. What the hell?” and when he said it some blood spattered over the floor from his mouth, but I didn’t hear what my dad said back because I was too afraid to stay in that room any longer. I ran through the screen door into the rain, and Captain ran after me. We went into the tent, and I closed the flap.
In the tent I squirmed into my sleeping bag, and Captain curled up at my feet. The rain
shellacked the walls, and I listened to it fall for a long, long time. I felt in my pocket for the grooves of my mother’s key. After a while, I heard footsteps on the wet earth outside, and the flap of the tent unzipped, and my father said, “do you mind, champ,” and I didn’t say anything.
He came in anyways and lay down on the floor next to me.
I hadn’t realized it yet, but sometime around then, my parents had stopped loving each
other. My grandparents had let us use the A-frame for the boys’ weekend so my dad could blow
off some steam from an argument he was having with my mom. But I hadn’t realized that yet.
On a night in September, my dad would come into my bedroom and say it couldn’t be helped, that he and my mom were splitting up, and that they both loved me very, very much, but there was nothing they could do. They were splitting up. I would tell him I’d be all right, that in “The Adventures of Mel and Captain,” we did fine without any parents, and my dad would look very sad, and then he would have to leave the room. A few months later, an electrician would find mold growing up from the foundation of the A-Frame, and that summer, my grandparents would hire a bulldozer to tear it down. But none of that had happened yet. Lying there in the tent, I didn’t know any of it.
The rain fell harder and harder, but we were dry in our tent, and I asked my dad if Stephen was gonna be alright.
“He’ll be fine,” my dad said, and then he said, “I’m sorry,” and I said, “it’s okay,” and after that we were quiet, listening to the rain.