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, 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 boys’ weekend is a time for fun. Got it, champ?”
“Roger dodger, sir,” I said, and gave him our 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 inside the house, but I stayed in the tent with Captain and drew my pictures. I listened as the crickets hummed 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 under 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 oldest 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. My dad called it “The Love Shack” because it’s where he first met my mom. Stephen 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. 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 it came from. 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 on a windowsill. I carried these treasures out to my tent. In a dark closest where the drawstring bulb wouldn’t go on, I found a heavy trapdoor that opened to the stale, mildewed smell of the foundation. Even Captain wasn’t brave enough to go down there by himself, so we left that dark place unexplored and returned to the boys.
They were in the living room. Stephen was holding a red-striped beer can in one hand, 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 album cover, “if only Springsteen would shut up and play music like he used to.”
Stephen noticed me by the door. 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. He had big shoulders and blond shaggy hair, and his teeth were too white. I was glad this was a boys’ weekend, though, because I didn’t like the way Stephen always kissed his wife— how he pressed his hand on the back of her head like he wanted 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 to answer. 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 dangers, 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.
“Thataboy! That. A. Boy,” Stephen said, and clapped me on the shoulder again. My dad’s surprised smile told me he was proud too.
Stephen turned to T.J. who sat in a lumpy, pink armchair. “But this guy,” he said, “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.
“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 in 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 taut and curved like bows ready to snap.
My feet sank into the pine needle drive, which was soggy and cool with dew. A thick mist rose through the trees from the harbor and clung to my arms and face.
From the backseat of the truck, I watched the white houses of Battlefield Road rise and fade into 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 up like soldiers along the tideline. Through breaks in the fog I saw the sky turning pink over the eelgrass. “Red sky at 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 we 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 then my dad grabbed me, lifting me onto the high rubber of the captain’s seat. As my feet dangled over the white fiberglass deck, he began to show me how to work the wheel. “A little wheel goes a long way,” he said. I nodded. “Now you try, champ,” he said, and he let go of the wheel. No one was controlling the boat. He looked down at me, and I looked up at him. He nodded, I nodded, and then I grabbed the wheel. It felt cold and electric in my hand, like the big football ring I’d sneak into my dad’s room to try on sometimes. 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 while 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. I asked T.J. what it felt like to be a wrestling champion and he said, “Good, I guess,” and 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 tired all the time. I asked Stephen’s question again about “how far he’d gotten with Anne,” because it confused me. 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 too weird. A white gull dove 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.”
“You’re doing good,” he said, 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 while flags rippled red and 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 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. I jumped off the captain’s seat and said, “Rodger dodger, sir,” and saluted back.
I went to the bow with Stephen and T.J., holding 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 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 pack of grey plovers, and they all flew to the sides as we approached except for one stupid bird that flew away from us in a straight line for as long as he could. 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.” T.J. took up the jumping rod and leaned into the hull to reel it in. His biceps shuddered under his skin. He pulled back on the rod, eased it, pulled back and eased, and when he eased he reeled. It was beautiful the way he reeled that fish.
While we watched, 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 up like it was some rare jewel, and then threw it 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.”
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 flapping on the bags of ice until the fish went 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, 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, willing them into stillness.
But then the starboard rod was jumping and the line buzzed out over the ocean, and my dad grabbed the rod and said, “It’s you, champ!” I stayed where I was, and he said, “It’s a big one. We’ll catch it together.” 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 handed him the rod, saying, “You take this one.”
Stephen said, “What? You afraid, kid?” My dad pushed the rod into his 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 dark.
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 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 could smell of the fish was bleeding eye sockets and the fluttering, silver gills that shimmered with blood and salt water, 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 another beer. He crushed the can against his chest, and tossed it towards the bin in 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 was splintered with deep cracks. 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 so he could show me how much stronger he’d gotten since last time, and I said, “I’m too old for that now,” but 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 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 doorframe of the living room watching us.
Once T.J. had caught his breath, Stephen asked 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 beer down his shirtfront. “Always knew old Tom was stiff, eh, Danny?”
My dad smiled but didn’t say anything. Outside, darkness settled on the yard. Drops of rain hit the porch and exploded in the glow of the porch light.
“Anyway, we can’t have T.J. taking his girl out 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 another dripping, cold beer. Stephen walked over to where T.J. and I were lying on the floor, and said, “Get up, big guy.” 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 made beer 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 on the can, saw his eager look. I raised it to my mouth, and just as my lips touched the metal, my father said, “No.” I dropped the beer. It hit the ground and yellow-brown foam spread out over the floor, leaving a shiny, dark stain on the wood.
“It’s just a taste, Danny,” said Stephen.
My dad shook his head. “He’s too young. 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’d 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 for myself.”
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, he looked so angry I thought he was going to hit my dad back but he slumped against the wall and cupped his hands to his face to catch the blood dripping from his nose. “Jesus, Danny,” he said, “What the hell?” and 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. I ran out the screen door into the rain, and Captain ran after me. We went into the tent. I closed the flap.
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 outside. The flap of the tent unzipped, and my father said, “Do you mind, champ?” and I didn’t say anything. He came in anyway and lay down on the floor next to me.
I didn’t realize it then, but sometime around that weekend 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 they were having.
On a night in September, my dad would come into my bedroom and say that he and my mom were splitting up. They both loved me very much, he would say, but it couldn’t be helped. I would tell him I’d be all right, that in “The Adventures of Mel and Captain,” we did fine without any parents. My dad would look sad, and 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 in the tent that night with my dad—quiet, listening to the rain—I didn’t know any of it.