“But he should take his coat,” objected the school secretary, who was bolder than the principal lurking in his office, pretending he didn’t know what was happening. They both knew the father was a drunk, the boy was being abused and now would be missing for a few days. What they didn’t know was what happened during those days, except that the boy often had bruises and scrapes when he came back. They DID know that the man would not tolerate interference. He was not big, but he was intense, and he could be explosive. “A type,” thought the principal. “One of those who built the nation and now find it a trap. No more frontiers.”
The father when he was drunk was seized by some drive — or did he drive in order to drink, because literally drive is what he did. “Get in the car.” The boy did what he was told because balking would have mean a blow. This was not the first time. He knew his father picked him up from school to evade the women at home, who would all object, uselessly. He resented the school secretary for trying to intervene, because his father was his hero, the MAN. Women fussed all the time and tried to control, but were too weak. On the other hand, he was not stupid and had hidden a warm jacket under the spare tire in the trunk.
It was a big, showy, heavy car that his father had tuned and customized as carefully as if it were a spaceship. All the men in the family worked for the auto industry and knew their engineering, not in paper theory but in actual hands-on grease mechanics. And along with the car industry the highways had unfolded, leaving gravel pits along the way, calling out to the Daniel Boones without locating real destinations. “Destination Moon” was a movie the same age as the boy, a yearning that wouldn’t be practical for decades. The boy understood that he was a kind of safety mechanism, taking over the driving when his father passed out, though he could hardly reach the pedals, yelling out when there was a hazard his dad didn’t see. It was understood that if something really bad happened, he would survive and go for help. It never occurred to the man that something bad might happen to the boy.
Nor did it occur to the boy either. His father was all-powerful. Everyone gave way before him. The trick was to seem to comply while always watching and learning. The other motive of the man taking his son along was that he was teaching the boy. What were the rules of society and the rows of school desks compared to the far far older practice of apprenticeship in a world of skill versus environment? Aside from his power plant job, his father was an official tester for a fishing tackle company. How could success be better endorsed than by a business? What better matching of strategy against results than fishing? What better place to fish than unknown waters?
Usually they went north because that’s where the water was. Once they tried the SW but it was desert. Up north even in winter there was water under the ice. His father seemed to know people, to have access to whatever he needed, to take things when there was no other alternative. The boy followed suit since he got hungry more often than his father did. Sometimes he thought his food stealing was observed but tolerated by people who somehow knew he was hungry, especially when they were moving among the Chippewa in the small communities. Once an Indian woman came out to where he was lounging against the car, suddenly produced a wet washrag and wiped his face, then put some jerky in his pocket and disappeared before his father came back. Like everything else, it gave him mixed feelings.
Eventually they transferred from the automobile to a canoe, moving among islands. He had no idea where they were, though he soon learned to feel the compass points because of the light, both sun and stars. He didn’t know the constellations, but he knew they existed and later in life he remembered, learned them and the stories they told.
They sacked out in sleeping bags, his father often too incoherent to talk sensibly, but he would sing in a wandering way. He had taught the boy to watch their campfire. In the morning the man would be too hung over to say anything until he’d worked up a good sweat by paddling, but he always smelled of booze. Once in a while a few men, usually Indian, would join them overnight and tease the boy. He learned to game them. Sometimes they gave him things. No matter where they were, people were pretty much the same. Sometimes the two left before anyone else was up, taking the whiskey with them.
One chilly night he dreamt that someone was tugging on his pillow, in spite of the fact that he usually slept on his stomach with his arms folded under it to keep it in place. Waking in the dark, he discovered that a half-grown raccoon had curled up between his shoulder and his ear. Only half-conscious, he smiled and did not push the little animal away. It muttered and cuddled down, warm and soft.
In the morning his father pretended he didn’t see the little raccoon. Instead he went for his usual nude plunge into the water, as a Native American would, though he was a red-headed hairy man, the tribe of Esau. He came back dripping, rubbing his face hard, his man nipples standing up through his chest fur. While he was gone, the boy shared a bit of breakfast with the cub, which swizzled the bits in the bucket of lake water the boy had brought earlier to make coffee. The coffee had to be there right away after his dad bathed.
When they turned the canoe upright, loaded up, and got in, the boy stuffed the little cub into his jacket, which it resisted, struggling and turning over, scratching his ribs, even biting his little boy nipples until they bled. It licked the blood which made the nipples stand up. Then — surprising the boy entirely — it seemed to recognize them as comforting and began to suck. The father witnessed all this, but again he said nothing, just handed the boy his paddle, and pushed the canoe out onto the water. The raccoon settled and went to sleep, maybe because of the rhythm.
Then they drifted and the day warmed enough that normally the boy would have shed his jacket, but he didn’t want to. There was such deep contentment in this small creature against his breast, its little heartbeat palpable, its little hands spread out on his skin, its breath feathering him. The canoe rocked gently and waterbirds made their ridiculous noises. A bald eagle followed them intently, knowing that they were fishing. From then on throughout his life the boy remembered that crystalline moment.
When they had finished the work of the day and returned to the little fishing camp where the car was waiting, the father suddenly came to the boy, reached into his jacket, jerked out the little raccoon and threw it as hard as he could into the woods behind the few buildings. He could throw very hard. The boy screamed, louder than he had ever screamed when his father threw him. Before he could do anything, the father chucked him into the car and gunned off onto the two-track road.
The Chippewa nearby froze for a moment, then moved away quietly. They understood. And that was the second moment the boy never forgot, though it was not crystal, but obsidian, a substance that can be brought to such a sharp edge that it can be used for surgery, as in cutting out a heart.
He had been thrown into the car hard enough to bruise, but he hardly felt it. He hardly felt anything for days. When he did, pain and love had fused. For the rest of his life, in some deeply hidden way, he looked for that little animal that had slept against his heart. Maybe somehow it had survived.