In the center of the attic is a piece of plywood the size of a basketball
backboard, fastened to the floor with a couple of old door hinges nailed
right into the wood with four rusty framing nails. Willie and I sleep
up here, even though it's about a hundred degrees, and at night Lyle pulls
this piece of wood shut over the rectangular opening of the attic so that
he and Kathy can get some privacy. The plywood is buckled, and if you
lay yourself straight across the floor you can get a look at the downstairs
room where, just now, grey mountain light is filtering through the homemade
gingham curtains and into the little cabin. In the center of the room
Kathy and Lyle are standing naked in front of the unmade sofa bed. Lyle's
teeth are bared. Kathy's soft shoulders are scrunched forward, as if to
protect her vital organs. Over her right shoulder, in spindly blue-black
lines, a smiling cobra pokes its head from inside a basket of parti-colored
flowers. Lyle takes his finger and pokes Kathy in the face and Kathy holds
her elbow up, Dracula-style. The snake shimmers and springs on its banded
"You beat me and then the rest of
the time you're at me," she says.
Lyle raises the other hand behind his head
and I roll silently along the splintery boards and back into my bed. In
the cot beside mine Willie is still sleeping, a gob of warm spit running
down his stubby chin.
The sound of muffled blows. Their voices,
"Some vacation," she offers.
"What do you call this place, Camp Deliverance?"
"You love it," he laughs. "This
is the mountains, not your pitiful New Jersey K-Mart life."
"Don't," she says. "-stop!"
There is nothing to do in the Adirondack Mountains but look at trees
and get on each other's nerves. The black and white TV in the cramped
living room picks up one station, jumpy as a transmission from outer space,
and we've watched marathon stretches of Gilligan's Island, The Addams
Family, Star Trek. Lyle, usually irritable no matter what is asked of
him, is glad to watch these shows with us. He remembers them from his
own childhood. Last night we watched the most famous episode of Star Trek,
the one in which Kirk and Spock travel back in time in search of Doctor
McCoy who, overdosed on cordrazine, has accidentally run through a time
portal called The Guardian of Forever. The portal, a circular outcropping
of carved rock and bristling cosmic energy, is like a giant talking TV
screen through which all of history is continuously broadcast. Soon after
McCoy disappears into the vortex it becomes apparent that he has somehow
disrupted time, changed history. The crew of the Enterprise is stranded
on a barren planet without a ship, without a past. Spock and Kirk must
follow after him in time, try to prevent him from doing whatever it is
that changes the course of history.
"That's Joan Collins!" Lyle exclaims,
to me, then to Kathy who sits smoking at the kitchen table, then to Willie,
as if he might have a clue about Joan Collins. "I never realized
that," Lyle explains, turning up the sound. "Joan Collins, before
she got so rich and famous!" I watch with my family as Captain Kirk
holds Doctor McCoy back: Joan Collins is struck by an automobile, world
history is restored. The three time-travelers return unharmed through
the cosmic TV set that is The Guardian of Forever. "Captain Kirk,"
Lyle observes with nostalgic laughter. "The intergalactic hound dog."
"He's noble," Kathy sighs, exhaling
cigarette smoke into the darkened room. "He always does what's right."
"Do you think anybody can really change
history?" I ask Lyle.
"They might could," Lyle says
thoughtfully. "Hard part would be getting back there, though."
Between the uncleared breakfast table and the unmade sofabed is a set
of steps, a wooden ladder nailed into the shag carpet on one end and the
untrimmed rectangle of the attic opening on the other. Dangling from the
top rung of the ladder is a paper sign Lyle tacked up there two days before.
NO SEX UPSTAIRS (UNLESS I'M INCLUDED)
Lyle pulls Kathy toward the ladder, flashes
her the Elvis gaze. The eyes piercing, the upper lip curling. He grinds
his pelvis into the bowed ladder. "A hunka hunka burnin' love,"
he sings. "A hunka hunka burnin' love!" Kathy laughs until she
holds her sides and gasps for air.
"But them people are coming to see
the cabin," Kathy says, waving her arm in the air in front of Lyle's
face for him to cut it out. Her pigtail flops over her bare shoulder,
covers the yellow disc of a happy face she has tattooed there. "They
said no later than four. And I got to clean this up and get supper started."
Willie flushes the toilet.
"Willie!" Lyle screams. "You
flush that toilet one more time I'ma come in there and put your head in
"You will not," Kathy says, and
tunnels her head forward beneath Lyle's bent arm. "You will not do
no such thing to my baby boy."
"Go on outside and play now, Waylon,"
Lyle says to me, nice and even. "Go on now take your brother outside."
"Come on Willie," I say, tugging
at the bottom of his T-shirt.
We go out of the cabin into the front yard.
A tractor-trailer passes by the front yard, kicks up some dust, rattles
back into silence. Jagged pines cut their tips into the cloudless sky.
Willie turns and runs around back of the cabin and toward the woods. He
pauses at the mouth of the leafy green trail, gets down on all fours and
shakes his oversized head, barking.
"Grow up, Willie," I say, coming toward him.
He stands up beside me and we walk along.
"Let's t-t-t-take his gun in the night
and b-b-b-blow his head off," Willie says. His teeth begin to chatter.
"He's not so bad."
I pull my brother by the hand, or he pulls
me, going deeper into the forest. Cool and dark in places. Mossy and lizard-green.
Unseen birds flap and screech in the tall trees.
"That's just his way, talking like
that," I explain, trying this out on myself as well as him. "He
doesn't mean anything by it."
"Well then how b-b-bout with her?"
Willie brushes his cheek against my bare
arm. I feel with my fingertips the buzzed blond hairs that cover the top
of his seed-shaped head. The sunlight is scattered on the forest floor
like blown leaves.
"Maybe we'll see a bear out here,"
I suggest. "Or a herd of deer. Or a pack of wild Indians!"
Willie whoops and hollers among the tangled
trees. I watch him disappear and re-appear all along the twisty path.
When I catch up with him he is crawling
around the center of a small, littered clearing, piling up a collection
of dead branches. He takes the pen knife from the front pocket of his
Bermuda shorts and strips the few remaining leaves from the branches and
piles them in the shape of a miniature bonfire. He looks up at me, smiling.
"I s-s-saw this on T-T-TV," he
says. "We d-d-dig a hole, then cover it w-w-with these." He
holds up a handful of twigs like a drooping bouquet. "When he f-f-falls
in, we b-b-bury him alive!"
I pull Willie up, laughing. "Listen,"
I can hear myself saying, "let's just try to get along here. It's
only harder on her this way."
"I c-c-c-can't help it."
A car engine and some raised voices. We run back down the snaking green
trail. When we reach the front of the cabin Lyle is standing by the roadside,
his arms folded, squinting into the windshield of a glossy white BMW.
A lady is driving. The car has its back wheel halfway buried in a ditch.
She guns the engine and the wheel spins in place, sending dirt flying
in all directions.
"Straighten your wheel!" Lyle yells to her. "Straighten
The windows of the BMW are rolled up and the man in the passenger seat
is making faces and pretending to pull his hair out. Lyle goes around
to the driver's side and gives a little push. The car lurches out of the
The man and the woman push the doors of
the car open and get out. They glance at each other across the shiny hood
as if they are the first humans to land on a strange, uncharted planet.
They are both tall and thin: white pants, white dress, white shoes. They
peer curiously at us over the tops of identical pairs of black, bug-eyed
Meantime Kathy scurries out of the cabin,
changed out of her bathing suit into blue Umbro shorts and a red tank
top. Everybody stands together in the front yard.
"Sorry to disturb you," the man
"No trouble atall," Lyle says.
Smiles his white teeth. "We're just up here, sort of taking it easy."
"Beautiful property," the lady
Everybody looks around and then up at the
"Nice view," the man says. He
shuffles from one foot to the other, scuffing his white canvas sneakers
in the dirt. His eyes behind the sunglasses avoid and then are drawn back
to the longstemmed rose that curls along the concave slope of Kathy's
partially exposed left breast.
"Yesterday we caught a fish,"
I say. "Over there."
I point beyond the shimmering blacktop
to a place in front of a weathered grey house where the ground drops off
in a tangle of weeds.
"It's a swamp," Lyle says. "But
I've taken trout in it. Up above is a crick going by the house. I don't
know if you can see it from here."
The lady takes a Polaroid camera from her
handbag and snaps a picture.
Lyle threads a grasshopper on a hook and
floats it out on the yellow-green water. He catches a trout, a small one.
It lies flopping and twisting atop the rims of three ice-packed beer cans.
Lyle sits back against the bucket, plucks the pack of cigarettes from
his top pocket. When I ask him for one he says, "Why the hell not?
I been smoking since I was ten years old."
Lyle and I sit smoking together.
"Don't tell your ma, hear?"
"No. Of course not."
Lyle tells me then about how when he was
a kid they'd come up here all the time, summer and winter. They didn't
even have an outhouse, just two planks across a couple of tree stumps.
"But we had fun. We were a family, Waylon. And that's what you want
for you and me and Willie and your ma. To be a real family. Like those
days when we were all up here together having fun. Hell, that's why I
brought us here in the first place."
Lyle studies me.
"Is that what you want, Waylon? Because
it's up to you, bud. Willie looks to you and your ma looks to you too,
don't think she don't."
"Sure. Of course."
"And you and me are going to be pals
then and everybody be a real family?"
"Well," Kathy says finally. "Would you like to come inside?"
Lyle holds the door open and the man and
woman file in, ducking their heads for no apparent reason.
"Kitchen," the man says, running
the tap next to the stove.
"This is where it all began,"
Lyle says. "One room where we all slept. Fish all day, run in the
woods half the night. These young pups don't have no understanding of
that kind of life."
As if to illustrate this point, Willie turns on the TV and begins flipping
through the channels.
"You're up high, so reception's good,"
Lyle tells them, snapping the TV shut. "At least for a few stations."
The lady moves forward into the living
room, stands looking at the paintflecked ladder and the paper sign Lyle
has attached to it.
"That's Lyle's depraved idea of a
joke," Kathy says.
"Says who?" Lyle says, and laughs,
and the man laughs with him.
The lady pulls her skirt taut with one
hand and climbs the wobbling ladder a few steps. "Pictures,"
she says. "Our friend Bob the carpenter said to take lots of pictures."
"That attic can be fixed up into a
beautiful master bedroom," Lyle says, watching her head and shoulders
disappear. "I suggest you change this tarpaper roof to a tin roof,
though, before you do anything else. We built this place from scraps but
you might want something more permanent."
She says something in a low voice, I can
hear the camera click and whine, and after a few moments she shimmies
back down again. She looks around the room as if she has just gotten off
a very fast and terrifying amusement ride. Her feet seem to clutch at
the unlevel floor.
Willie flushes the toilet.
"Oh I see," the man says. "He's
giving us a little demonstration."
Kathy busies herself in the kitchen. She
dumps a package of pretzels into a pink plastic bowl.
"You all care for any refreshments?"
she says, offering the bowl around. "Soda? Beer?"
"No thanks," the man says. "We're
just now heading out to dinner. Soon as we leave out of here."
A noticeable twang has crept into his voice.
The lady plucks a pretzel from the top
of the heap, appraises it, a pretzel that has touched nothing but other
pretzels. She sits down on the sofa, acting comfortable, and jams the
pictures she's taken into the side compartment of her handbag.
Lyle opens a fresh beer and drinks it down in three long slurps. "I tell you," he says, standing over her to reach for a handful
of pretzels, "you folks like seafood? Right down there in town is
Tulley's. Best seafood going."
He gives the two of them his Elvis gaze.
The lady looks around as if she is about to be accused of something. She
springs up, panicky, from the folded sofabed.
"You folks do like seafood?"
"Oh sure," the lady says. "Of
course we do. Me, I don't even eat any meat."
"Are you a vegetarian?" Kathy
asks her. She widens her eyes to show interest.
"Well, I eat fish and shellfish, but
no animal flesh."
"That's great," Kathy says. "I
think that's great. Is that how you keep your figure I'll bet?"
"Well, no. Actually I-"
"Not eat a piece of meat!" Lyle
yells out with exaggerated astonishment. "That wouldn't be for me-"
"Well honey, everybody's different,"
Kathy interrupts. "Everybody has to do what's best for them. Maybe
I should try it. I got to do something to get rid of this cottage cheese."
She jiggles her sunburned thighs. "That what I call it. Cottage cheese."
"Well," the man says. "Well."
To Lyle and then to Kathy.
"We thank you for your time. A lovely
place you have here. Just lovely."
"And the property," the lady
says, walking toward the backlit doorway. "It's outstanding. You
wouldn't think, living in the city, that there's anything left this unspoiled."
"Oh, it's that all right," Kathy
says, sarcastically glum. "A little bit too unspoiled, if you ask
"That's my luck," Lyle says,
trying the Elvis sneer out on them this time. "I'm a country boy
and I marry a girl with champagne taste."
Willie and I get to dress up in rented blue tuxedos, string ties and
Stetson cowboy hats. Afterward Kathy and Lyle go on a honeymoon, a weekend
in Atlantic City, fifteen minutes from the trailer park in McKee City
where we all live now together. While they are gone we stay with Lyle's
mom and dad, whom we call Gramma and Grandad. Gramma cooks things in a
stewpot. Grandad keeps calling Lyle "your father" and brings
out a cardboard boxful of toys from Lyle's boyhood. When Willie breaks
the head off a painted wooden horse, Gramma scoops them all up and puts
them back in the attic again. Kathy and Lyle come back a day early. Kathy
laughs and shrieks that they are flat bust. She is wearing a pair of sunglasses
that she does not remove for three days, and Lyle keeps calling her "Jackie
O." Everybody looks at everybody.
"Five acres," Lyle says, pushing the screen door open. "That's
the minimum buildable lot up here. Walk around. Have you some privacy.
The boundary trees are marked with white paint."
Willie runs ahead of them, barking.
"You go get him, Waylon," Lyle
says, gritting his teeth.
"What's the harm in it?" Kathy
laughs. Throws her head back.
"It's just the idea—it's what these
people must think of us." He flexes the blue underside of his jaw.
"You wouldn't understand that, having no pride yourself."
A noise, deep-down, like the sound of heavy
machinery grinding and snapping.
I stand at the back of the house while
the two white-clad figures disappear into the thicket then re-emerge a
short while later, smiling brightly. Their sunglasses reflect a series
of backward-moving pictures: weathered cabin, slanted scorched pines,
rocks and dirt, the glary blacktop that winds like a river and disappears
among the tall trees.
"Beautiful," the lady says.
"Absolutely pristine," the man
says. "Just like in the poem-ah-what's he say? Verdant greens and
winding mossy ways?"
"It's verdurous glooms," the
lady says, smirking.
"What the hell's wrong with you boy?"
Lyle adopts his scariest Mountain Man grimace. "Misquote poetry in
these hills is a hanging offense!"
They shake hands all around.
"Safe trip back," Kathy says.
"I'll call your father tomorrow night
after we've discussed it," the man says, patting his wife on the
"Don't wait too long," Lyle says.
"I might just scrape up the money and buy it myself."
"Tee-hee," Kathy says. "Scrape
would be the word."
The white BMW bounds out of the soft shoulder and disappears around the
The four of us stand in a sudden, unexpected silence, as those discovered
often experience when the discoverers climb back into their space ship
and fly away.
Lyle kicks the toe of his boot into the
Willie, gnomelike, capers at the edge of
the littered clearing.
"Aw, what the hell's the use, anyways?"
Lyle says, shaking it off.
The day begins to fail, a muffled silver-blue
flecked with treeshadows. Lyle opens another beer.
Kathy plays her Johnny Cash tape, sets
a pot of water on the stove to boil. I point out that the lady has left
her camera behind. When everyone looks it is there, sitting on the coffee
table next to the plastic pink tubful of pretzels.
"Come into a man's house and start snapping
pictures," Lyle says. "Did you ever hear of anything like it?"
"They seemed nice and friendly," Kathy
says. "I don't see where..."
"They take my life and what does that leave
me?" Lyle mutters to no one in particular.
"It's just a shack in the woods," Kathy
says. "I don't see where..."
"It's all gone!" Lyle cries with ruined
finality. "It's all forgotten!" The little cabin trembles. I sit with
my back propped against a leg of the kitchen table, watching the empty
space of screen darken against the darkening trees. Willie goes into the
bathroom and begins flushing the toilet. He catches my eye through the
open doorway and flashes the knifeblade. Once, twice. Quickly. Lyle stamps
his feet and mumbles vague obscenities. Kathy fixes a drink and lights
a cigarette and sits with her legs tucked under her, reading an old water-damaged
copy of The Ladies Home Journal.
"Don't ignore me that way," Lyle says,
standing up and clearing the small piece of carpet that separates him
from her in two or three loamy bootsteps. He pulls her up by the wrist
and wheels her around as if they might dance to the country music that
is vibrating across the kitchen table at the exact level of my scalp.
"I'll teach you about that." The drink rocks sideways and the magazine
clatters to the floor. I crawl on my belly across the sticky shag carpet
and spring up with the camera in my hand.
"I know," I say, as if to enliven a vacation
day gone drizzly. "Let's take pictures!"
Lyle looks at me, red forearms and scraped
blue jaw, and I snap his picture. Willie runs from the bathroom screaming
"Turkish Justice!" and stabs Lyle in the ass and I get them both inside
the frame and snap the picture. Lyle meanwhile turns Kathy loose and begins
hollering and clutching at his behind and swatting mindlessly at Willie.
Kathy in the act of turning to see what has just happened glares at me
so that everything seems to stop for a moment, freeze-frame, as I press
the red plastic button and the camera spits out one picture after another:
Willie laughing just inside the kitchen door and Lyle squatting down and
bellowing and Kathy's blanched confused face, the palms of her hands thrust
forward against the snickering flash, concave slope of upturned breast,
puffy pink gumline and missing eye tooth, the O of her mouth a different
modulation of the word "Don't" for every new frame of film that is exposed,
and I don't want to but I can't stop it, either.