THE KEEPER OF SECRETS

The boy had become the family Keeper of Secrets.  He was smart and listened well, so that seemed natural, but the family was large and had a lot of traditional women in it — that is, women who had things to say, but no one listened to them.  So they told the boy.  Also, these women were often rivalrous so they tended to see many little faults in each other, but particularly between the two branches of the family, the paternal and maternal.  He didn’t call them that.  He said, “City family, country family.”

His mom was country family now but she was city family before she married his dad.  It was hard for her to learn how to be country and her sisters could never understand why she married into such a situation, though they liked to visit now and then, if only to inform her how much better their lives were.  Then they’d get the boy off to the side and pump him for information about his mother and father.

He was a good secret keeper and learned early which ones were radioactive and which ones had such obvious and dull answers that they were safe, though he was careful to leave out details or add ones that meant nothing, just to disarm the information.  The trouble was that as a little boy, he really didn’t know the difference between dangerous and innocent and once in a long time he would trip up and hear things screamed at his mother.  Things like, “How can you neglect your hands like that?  When was the last time you had a decent manicure?”  He didn’t know what a manicure was.

The main secret he didn’t know himself was that being a little boy meant that he shouldn’t have been told many things.  Not until he was an adult did he understand that miscarriages, abortions, lovers, early menopause and a host of accusations like “mother always loved you best” were not for little boy’s ears, much less any expectation that he could figure out what they meant or what to do about them.  

Once he went to his father to ask what some of these things meant, but that was a mistake.  His father lost his temper easily and was likely to react violently.  Not that he didn’t slap, grab, and shove both he and his mother all the time anyway, sometimes hard enough to bruise and once or twice violently enough to break bones.  Even if he went to school with a black eye, it was evidently a secret not to be mentioned by his teachers or classmates.  He knew never to tell home things at school or school things at home.

The grandmothers hated each other.  His paternal grandmother dearly loved and praised his father, her cherished only son.  His maternal grandmother had no time for boys or men.  This may have been because his maternal grandfather had disappeared, taking the family dog, and left her to raise all the girls alone.  Most of them worked hard at school and jobs and were successes, but didn’t marry except for his mother. 

So he formed an alliance with his paternal grandfather and the two of them became prodigious fishermen.  Glam told him everything he knew about fish — which was a lot — but when the boy asked about his parents, the old man confided that he didn’t understand women and, frankly, he was afraid of his own belligerent son.  With reason.  His son had once actually punched him out.  He explained it was wrong to go to the police when your son knocks you down.  It was a city thing to do.

There were a few boys at school who had families that were similar.  It was the way of the world to push fathers into these roles, criticizing them if they were weak or talked too much or didn’t make enough money.  Love was a luxury or a material obligation like chocolates at Valentine’s Day.  

The country was rapidly developing as more housing was needed.  But there was still enough undeveloped land around the farms for the boys to find places to gather, even to build a little campfire and gather around it.  They didn’t roast marshmallows — these were boys who kept dried beef jerky sticks in their pockets to chew on when necessary.  The “hotter” the better.  Not that they wouldn’t accept cookies when they were offered, but they tried not to mention that or to ask for them.

They didn’t discuss their families much because it would be complaining, but sometimes a boy caught in a domestic war would spend some time cursing and imagining terrible retributions.  Then one day an uncle showed up, a not-quite-grownup who seemed very worldly.  One of the comforts of the boys was smoking, which was in the comfortably gray area of disapproved and risky but not really illegal, and easily broken down for sharing, one at a time from a pack or handed back and forth, with the little added element of being a kind of displaced kissing.  Nicotine was both arousing and calming.  It helped with the anxiety and the smoke was fun.

The uncle, who was quite a bit younger than their parents but older than the boys, asked them if they ever smoked pot.  The boys were still pretty young and they had not, but they knew what it was.  He had some with him.  Some say pot is a threshold drug and will lead up the primrose path to heroin and so on, but the real threshold drugs were the self-generated hormones of sex and worry.  And the real addiction was secrecy.

The uncle had been in the Navy and the reason he left was a secret.  One summer day he invited one of the boys to walk with him away from the group to a wooded place he knew because he “wanted to show him something.”  It was sexual and began as seduction but ended as force.  Rape, to give it the right name.  The boy yelled and the other boys came.  They weren’t in time but the uncle did not escape.

It was a wooded place because there was a spring and that kept the ground wet and soft.  They buried him there and his remains disappeared quicker than one might guess.  No one ever told the secret and because of the spring that land wasn’t built on for decades.  The uncle’s sister, who was the mother of one of the boys, grumbled, “I understand that men always leave, but he could have taken his worthless dog with him.”  The boy loved that dog.

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