Hot exhaust lingered as the city bus lurched overthe bleached pavement through a part of town not worth the new blacktop. He held his breath as the bus pulled away and he picked up his rod and started toward the neighborhood his grandmother had lived in, lined with modest ranch houses and the occasional Baptist church. He had been cutting grass with his shirt off since school ended and his skin was brown to the waistband of his jeans, across the new strip of hair under his belly button, which he revealed to no one but himself by passing his hand under his shirt at odd intervals. Stroking the little patch, he was suddenly self-conscious about fishing. “Am I too old to be fishing?” he asked himself silently, then nodding slightly, “No.” He’d seen bums fishing off the overpasses in the town, and they weren’t young at all.
Shielding his eyes from the sun, he gangled between two houses at the perimeter of the suburb, rhythmically tapping his tackle box against his leg as he went. The windows of one were boarded over with new wood, which to the boy seemed like a shame to waste, and from its overgrown back yard, he could see the drainage ditch and his favorite spot a few yards up from the culvert. He loped down the sunny incline to a clear area on the edge of the water and set his tackle box down, pulling out the bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon he’d pilfered from his father’s ice box in the garage, rolled up in a tattered copy of Penthouse.
Back at his house, his mother sat at the kitchen table scowling at some papers. Seated closest to the window unit, his father sipped a glass of ice water and smoked a cigarette and staring out the window. She underlined a something on one of the bills and did some calculations in pen beside the column before looking up at him. His shoulders were relaxed, tugging his threadbare shirt across his chest. Before she spoke she studied his hand for a moment, watching him thumb the delicately papered cigarette and tapping the ash into one of her porcelain teacups. “Will it last another month, or can it wait?”
Her husband, Gil, looked back at her warily, “the car?”
For forty minutes she’d been carefully rearranging the month’s expenditures to accommodate this new grinding sound coming from the engine, with him sitting across from her, smoking. She rolled her eyes, “Yes, the car. I don’t know anything about engines.” She stopped, sighing at her own temper, “Will it last another month or is it an emergency?”
“It should, it needs work, but it won’t fall apart. Especially if we keep oil in it and don’t drive it during the hot parts of the day.”
“Good. Then I will pay the gas and electric first…” she trailed off, circling her first string of subtraction on the bill, “and fix the car later. Just try to do most of your work early in the day, ok?” Gil drove from door to door for work, and put a lot of miles on their old station wagon.
“I’ll try. It’s cooler then, anyway.” Gil snuffed out his cigarette against the bottom of the cup and sat forward eagerly.
“That’s all. You can go,” she said shuffling her stack of papers back into her folder.
“No, what about the dog we saw. Erland really wanted it.”
“You just want it because she had spots like your first dog,” she said over her shoulder as she walked back to their room.”
After she had gone, he scribbled a tornado lightly across the wooden tabletop, and muttered under his breath, “So?”
There were no fish in the creek, and Erland had no hooks, but he sat alone on the bank and flipped through the ragged pages. The magazine had been in the tackle box so long that it smelled like fish and bait, but the smell had become so deeply associated with the shudders that the images provoked that it was a staple in his sensory memory. He will not know why, years later, he always takes his dates to the aquarium.
His favorites were still there between the dimpled pages, with names like Courtnee and Daisee. Names he wished his neighbors had as he examined the crevices of a certain brunette as she leaned over a school desk. Nearby, a baked gust air caught leaves up in a stunted cyclone. In this heat, everybody else was marooned in islands of cool air in front of their window units, and he had a thing like privacy. Clumsily, he reached again into the tackle box and wrapped his hand around the beer. His eyes were still trained on the brunette when he opened the bottle of beer, which spewed warm froth across his shirt from the agitation of being tapped against his thigh every other step.
“Fuck,” he muttered as he dug the foaming beer into the rotting grass and wiped the liquid with his hands, the stain spreading rather than wiping clean. His hands were gummy and his magazine was damp, so he mopped it dry with his shirt before rolling it back up and returning it to his box. Grass from his hands had started sticking to his shirt, and he looked around for a way to remove the gunk. The culvert had smooth, rain-washed sides, so he climbed across the mud to grind off the muck against them.
Once inside, the tunnel was longer than he had expected, and chilled air washed over him in a wave of relief as he took off his shirt. He rubbed the shirt against the wall, about shoulder-high, walking toward the other end where it surfaced on the other side of the road. Walking slowly, enjoying the cool air, his foot caught something on the ground and upset a nest of blind baby spiders out of some egg sac in a tangle of cloth on the ground. He recoiled and stomped on them ferociously before spying a pale crescent between the folds of fabric. Exhilarated by the experience, he crouched down to examine it more closely.
Wrapped in a muddy black jacket, the thing was small, and seemed to rock when he sat down on his heels, as if his weight had displaced its balance on some fulcrum within its wrappings. He warily peeled back the sturdy black cloth with hesitant fingers and exposed a pale, bony stone. “Less like a rock,” he thought, as his fingertips traced its rounded contours and parted it from its shroud-like wrapping, “and more like an egg.”
He took the egg home and stashed it at the bottom of his laundry basket. It was dinnertime and his father was setting the table quietly as he walked down the hall “The water glasses go on the right side,” his mother instructed as she eyed his progress. The boy watched his father nod his head back and forth and placed his little brother’s glass on the right side of the plate. His brother was left handed, and it pained his father to put it back. “Erland,” she said, eyeing her son up and down, “well, too late for washing up. Go get your brother, anyway.” Erland went out to the back to his brother, who was sitting in the dirt and playing jacks. He was very good at it. Bounce, three jacks gone. Bounce, two jacks gone. It was 6pm and everything had gone as planned. First Pete had had his bath, and then gone to play jacks, then dinner. He liked the routine, if it were interrupted he was liable to get cranky.
“Are you ready for dinner?” Erland asked, making his voice as adult as he could without being intimidating, while tracing the silhouette of the cutout concrete lattice of the porch wall. The boy, who was daily becoming less of a boy and more of a teenager, stood and stared at him impassively, waiting for him to take the lead. Erland took his arm lightly and led him to the kitchen, with Pete staring at their feet as they went, “I hate dinner,” he muttered softly as they made their way up the concrete steps.
As Erland’s mother washed Pete’s hands, his father set the table mindlessly, staring at a tiny television set showing a football game. His mouth drooped slightly, and he set the utensils down haphazardly as the neat lines of players splintered into tactical maneuvers across the light grey screen. His mother poured milk from the warm refrigerator into two glasses, and iced tea into the other two. “Now turn that off, Gil, we’re setting down to supper,” his mother directed, her order full of firmness etched with warmth, and he sadly reached out and turned the little knob around until there was silence, and a man kicking a ball, and then the screen clicked over to blank and the electrical hum of the machine began to wind down.
They sat still, heads bowed as his father gave a short prayer. Erland’s mother picked her head up just a beat before it was over and passed a bowl of store-bought rolls to her left, taking one for herself. “Amen,” his father whispered before picking his shoulders up and resting his weight on the table, arms on either side of his plate. Erland sniffed his milk. It was sour again. It had been sour yesterday, though somehow he’d hoped that would resolve itself. How he’d get rid of it, he’d no idea.
“So did you like fishing?”
His father caught eyes with his mother and said resignedly, through a half mouthful of food, “You know it was a big privilege we gave you, letting you take the bus by yourself.”
“It wasn’t that far, it was mamaw’s old neighborhood.”
His mother interjected, “Still far! It was still far, and you could have been hurt in any number of ways.”
“But I wasn’t, was I?”
“You didn’t catch any fish,” his father observed.
“I did. I caught one, but I let it go.” How his father expected him to bring fish back on the bus, he couldn’t fathom, even if he had bothered to bring hooks.
Erland hadn’t eaten anything yet, he pushed around the soggy cabbage and smelled the brine of the neighborhood drain. The thought of hiding one food under the other made sense, until he considered the idea of all the foods touching.
“Did you have a good day, Pete?” his father asked.
“Yeah, dad. Good day,” his brother replied in monotone, eating a piece of boiled cabbage and letting the water drip across his shirt and plate. Erland glared at the glass of milk and cabbage and meatloaf and kicked his shoe against the floor.
Gil stared at the blank television and mused, “Maybe we should all go fishing or on some outing, us men.”
Pete looked up, pleased with the possibility of being included for a change.
“I’ll call dad and see about him letting you off work,” his wife offered.
Gil stared back as his soggy food and chewed slowly for a moment, watching as Pete knocked over his milk, reaching for it with the wrong hand.
That night after dinner, Erland waited for the sound of his mother’s deep, satisfied snoring. He palmed the stone, which was cool and softly grained. Sitting on his stomach, in contrast to his hot, scratchy sheets, it was the most appealing and magnetic object he’d ever seen. It was white like the stone baby he’d seen on television, where the baby had got stuck and been filled with calcium. He became self-conscious again, and wondered if he was too old to be imaging the stone egg to have some special power. He stroked his little totem, and from down the hall heard his mother snoring and his father grunting aggressively. His mother slept the way she was, Erland thought to himself, uncompromising and all in one direction.
When Erland woke up that morning, he could hear his mother speaking quietly on the phone. He pulled on a clean white shirt out of his dresser, working out the creases where his mother had folded it, and padded to the kitchen where he poured himself cereal and sniffed the gallon of milk. It was still sour, but in the cereal it would taste ok.
“I know, Dad,” his mother said into the phone as she looked out the window to the driveway, “I know. He’s sick, is why he didn’t come in.”
Through the window, Erland could see his father working on the car. It was Wednesday, and had it been May and not August, it would have been early enough not to be oppressively hot. In the shade of the carport, his father had a slight sheen of sweat, with two darker imprints underneath the arms of his shirt. Erland waited for his mother to withdraw to the living room before taking his cereal outside.
“Hey scout,” said his father, wiping his hands on his shirt.
“I am thinking about taking you and your brother on an outing. You remember the cave we visited when you were little?” His father stood taller than usual, and with his back up straight, his chest was wide and almost impressive.
“Pete’s never been. Make sure he knows what it will be like, you know how he is.”
Erland poured the warm milk out of his bowl into the grass and let the screen door slam behind him. His mother was already coating Pete with bug repellent, cradling the cordless phone between her ear and her shoulder. Pete couldn’t hear her from wherever he was inside his head, he was doing that thing where he stares without blinking as he let his mother roughly rub the cream into his skin, his body twisting slightly when his mother spoke more loudly and pushed him too hard.
“No, dad,” their mother sighed, as she turned Pete around roughly to do his back. “No, this isn’t like that time. That’s not fair.”
Erland wished Pete had been listening.
Cindy stood by the picture window, watching the car pull away. Her father wasn’t paying attention to his tirade any longer. After Gil had lost his job at the warehouse, her father had gotten him a job selling gutters door-to-door. Gil was reticent and didn’t like the work. He came home exhausted from knocking on stranger’s doors and trying to talk them into buying new gutters. Her father didn’t understand, and she could hear him rustling with papers from the office between his words.
“I am very disappointed. I go and get him a job that pays the mortgage and keeps a roof over your head and he blows it off to go fishing.”
“He didn’t go fishing, he went out with his sons for a day before school starts.”
“Whatever the reason.”
“I know, dad. Try not to be angry.”
“What am I…” He found whatever he was looking for and stopped speaking for a moment, “going to tell my superiors?”
“Dad, I doubt they will care.”
“I care. I don’t have a man out doing fieldwork!”
“I do too, but what do you want me to do? He’s a man. They do these things.” She ignored the gap in his argument, no sense in getting him mad at her, too.
“Pffft. Yours does. You need to keep it together.”
“You think so?” She said this sadly, smudging an imaginary speck on the window with her finger, and leaving a trace of Jergen’s lotion and bug repellent on the pane.
“And tell him to get his ass back in here.”
She sighed heavily and got off the phone.
She had worked in an office before Pete was diagnosed and she decided to home school him. She missed the extra income and she feeling that she had things under control. Gil had never been an ambitious man, and her father had not been pleased with the match. Part of her attraction to Gil was his tenderness, Cindy had to talk him out of taking home every puppy they saw, but as time had gone on, he seemed to be more passive than anything else. She looked at the panel of glass, with a small streak on it from her finger. She could never get her hands soft like they were before she was married. Going to the kitchen, she went and got the Windex and rags to wash the window, then took an aspirin. She had woken with a headache and didn’t know why.
The cave was about two hours away, and they drove with the windows down, listening to the radio on the oldies station. His father knew all the words, and Pete knew most of the bass lines. Erland just listened, watching the scenery. Gill pointed to his sons the places where workers had cored meticulously spaced lines into the grey rock bluffs along the way, making room for dynamite. The road had been blasted out of limestone hills, the same way the cave had, Erland thought, just faster and above ground.
He couldn’t remember what the cave looked like inside, and was surprised by it. After waiting in line in the hot sun, his father handed the park ranger their tickets and they passed down a series of stairs, the air getting cooler and smelling more mineral as they descended. After weeks of summer heat, the temperature change made his skin chill and the hairs on his arms stand up. It was dark as his eyes adjusted to the lights from the tour. Underground, the limestone was smooth and glossy, and almost as milky as the egg, Erland thought. Every surface was intricately ridged and sheeted with just enough water to shimmer. “This is the egg’s mother,” Erland thought, “this is where it came from.” The three all ran their hands across the velvety rock and were quiet in the dark, listening to the steady and uneven splashes made by hidden droplets, calling out from somewhere deeper in the earth.
Later that night the boys came through the door, sweaty and dirty and slightly sun burned across their noses from playing at the park. The two boys sauntered through the door. They were tired and happy from the adventure, but Erland was trying not to show it. Pete followed after his brother, smiling widely. Leaves and grit fell off their shoes to the carpet as their father ushered them in, not seeing their mother in the kitchen. The house reeked of cleaning agents, like a pine forest during and ammonia storm, and had the scoured look of a funeral home. Their mother was at the table, with papers and bank statements spread out in front of her. She looked up at them, dirty and leaning against the wall.
“What do you think you’re doing? Can’t you see I’ve been cleaning all day?” she got up and grabbed Erland’s arm and pushed him toward the bathroom. She turned to her husband, “And you! I was talking to Dad and he agrees that you don’t take your family seriously. I’ve been going over some of our expenses and I just don’t see how–”
Gil set his things down on the carpet and walked to the back room. Pete stood in the bathroom with Erland, staring at him, not speaking; they looked down the hallway after their mother, who stormed down the hallway after their father, pointing her finger into his back.
“Don’t walk away from me! You always do this! You quit! I have to do everything! I-”
Gil turned around and grabbed her arms and pushed her back to the kitchen, not quite hurting her, but not quite not hurting her either. Taken by surprise, she backed up the hallway in her bare feet, propelled by her husband marching her up the matted carpet. From there he turned her around by her arms, clenched up by her sides, threw her over the table so she was bent over it, and grabbed her hair.
“That is enough!” he bellowed, pushing her face onto the table, waxed smooth as marble so the creaseless papers did not flutter to the ground as he pushed her face down and let her up again over and over, repeating “Enough, Enough Enough!” Not quite rubbing her face into the table, not breaking the skin under her cheekbone, letting her get her hands under her face to protect it, but still standing behind her with one hand on her shoulder and another on the back of her head, knotted in her hair.
Erland pushed past his mute brother and ran up the stairs, dangerously close to his father and his mother and his belt around his waist, catching Pete’s blank face with wide-open eyes peeking out of the bathroom as he went. In his room, he dug into his closet, dismantling the pile of laundry and releasing a humid waft of young smells. The egg was there, light and smooth in the dark, muggy closet. He touched the round thing; it felt cool and in the dark corner, it somehow very faintly seemed to glow.
He pawed the cadaverous globe in his young, tan hands, barely lifting it enough to pry it loose from its moorings in his laundry. He could take it back. He would take it back to where he had found it in the tunnel and leave it there with the dead, blind baby spiders back in the clammy mud. He listened to his father downstairs, the occasional piece of glass breaking. The tiny canyon between the egg and its nest diminished. The table shifted and though he could not know, his mother watched her husband’s muscular wrath without fear or malice. He heard his mother sobbing restrainedly, with her cries coming from the same place in the room even when everything else changed location. He listened to all this, knowing his brother was looking on, and let the egg rock back into its hiding place, glowing white and distant as the moon, before concealing it back under his musky clothes.