One morning after I’d gotten to my tree branch, Flaaten pulled out through the neck of his black Grand Funk Railroad t-shirt a hamburger bun bag containing a bowel movement suspended in urine. He’d tied off the bag with an electric guitar string and carried it snugly against his chest on the walk from his house to the tree and on his climb up the tree to his branch. If by then the territory we considered ours encompassed many square miles, extending from Kenny’s Convenience Store to the Courtney Fields Sports Complex and from the Bush Lake ski jump to Nine Mile Creek, I had no sense of where Flaaten lived, what his home life was like, whether he had but the single half-brother stationed in Da Nong or other siblings, though in time I would learn that we’d passed through the woods abutting his back yard on numerous occasions.
“We don’t want to waste this on just anyone,” he said and handed me a cigarette. I took it from between his fingers and stared at it uneasily, unsure if I should put it to my lips. “Don’t worry,” he said and shook the hamburger bun bag so that the stool sloshed about in the liquid like a pickle in brine. “This,” he said, “and that never came into contact. My method was laboratory safe. Trust me.” From his blue Bic sprouted a long, orange flame, and I leaned into the airy divide that separated us to light up.
From the tree we could see the Minneapolis skyline off in the distance, the I.D.S. Building, then in construction, a middle finger prone among others bowed at the knuckle, and the tower crane and boom that rose from the top of it in an oblong cross. As we smoked we watched cars proceed from the Crosstown Highway up Gleason Road, though none were to Flaaten’s liking. When a police car turned from the exit ramp onto Gleason, he grew agitated—“Now we’re talking,” he said. “That’s right, buddy. Come to papa. Come to papa,”—and as it passed below us lofted the bag underhand through an aperture in the leaves. I held my breath as piss, shit, and trailing guitar string somersaulted through the opening on a trajectory heavenward, then earthbound and clapped on the glass beneath the greenery.
Like several of the vehicles we’d strafed in the past with tomatoes, eggs, bananas, figs, even artichoke hearts, the squad car pulled into the Chalgrens’ driveway, only this time Mrs. Chalgren, who’d befriended my mother several weeks before with a tuna casserole brought to our doorstep, parted the drapes of a ground floor window and peeked out at the rotating beacon flashing red and blue. The poor dear, I thought as two police officers exited their vehicle, inspected their windshield, and, like others before them, tried to spot us through the limbs and leaves.
“What did I tell you?” Flaaten whispered. “Even Edina’s finest are blinder than bats.”
As if they’d heard him, the officers started toward us. Brush swished, twigs snapped. Soon the policemen were directly below us, the pentagonal crowns of their hats passing in and out of view, no bigger than trampolines seen from an aircraft.
“They were here,” one said. “See that smoking butt?”
Flaaten let the butt he was smoking slip from his fingers into a tumbling free fall.
“Look, another one,” said the other. “Was that even there a second ago?”
Between my sneakers, as if at the end of a long telescope, an eye peered up at me.
“Deliquents. Wouldn’t surprise me if they set the whole goddamned forest on fire. Look at all these butts. There must be hundreds of them.”
“Look up in this tree, Daryl. You see anything strange up there? Way up there in the leaves?”
“I don’t see anything. Whoever they are are probably at the sports complex by now.”
“You think so?”
From then on, I believed we could not be seen, and to this day do not believe we ever really were, at least not in a way that anyone remembered. We stuck to the swamps and forests, the railroad tracks and freeway overpasses, the negative space that left no imprint on the eye. When forced by circumstance into a neighborhood, we cut through back yards, usually at a running clip, stopping only as long as it took to liberate from a garden plot a carrot, melon, or ear of corn. Things left on lawns and porches—dog leashes, coffee mugs, croquet mallets, children’s toys—we gathered as we flew past and shed in the safety of a blind. We kept almost none of it, leaving the junk in cairns that marked our routes. If at day’s end I was piqued by the thought of a child weeping over the disappearance of a sandbox pail, hula hoop, or Matchbox car, an adult wondering where a badminton racquet or terra cotta planter had gone, I told myself that if nature, by all accounts conscienceless, experienced neither guilt nor shame, neither would I.
Flaaten was likely a sociopath, I think now, limited in his capacity to experience emotions, others’ and his own. But because I had yet to make any other friends in Edina, I assumed he was typical of boys my age there. In truth, I might as well have been a space traveler drawing conclusions about the human race based upon my observations of a single specimen. As it was, I wanted to be just like him, to grow my hair to shoulder-length and pull it in close to my temples with a blue bandana, so that the tails of the knot would flap with it when we ran. More than that, I wanted to be as affectless as he was, to approach situations with as diminished a range of reactions as his, to eliminate laughter, smiles, grins, tears from my palette of expressions and extinguish all brightness from my bearing, to be like the weather, insusceptible to emotions.
In spite of how busy my mother was organizing our household in expectation of my father’s return, which she believed imminent, she noticed the change. “What’s wrong with you?” she said one evening at the supper table. “You’re not a teenager. You shouldn’t be so sullen and brooding. I’m not ready for it.”
By then it was the middle of August, and school would start in less than a week. “I’m not sullen or brooding,” I replied with Flaaten’s deliberateness, as if words and their meanings had to be bolted to each other before spoken.
“Look,” she said, “I made your favorite dinner.” She passed me the platter of tacos, prepared with corn tortillas fried in vegetable oil as opposed to the ones in tortilla shells that other kids’ mothers served, the ones that came twelve to a carton and crumbled into shards in your hands.
She was right—her tacos were my favorite—but you wouldn’t have known it to
look at me, with my head down, regarding the fruits of her labor there on my plate as if they were no different than the Corn Nuts and Slim Jims Flaaten and I shoplifted from Kenny’s Convenience Store or the cans of Hormel chili we heated over an open flame beside the railroad tracks. Flaaten valued food for its utility, the sustenance it provided when eaten or the splatter it made when launched, and was as happy to quell his hunger on a swiss chard or carrot still speckled with earth as on the cotto salami and muenster sandwiches his mother, he said, sometimes handed him as he went out the door. Usually he gave them to me.
I ate my tacos and asked to be excused from the table. “Not while others are still dining, Howard,” my mother replied. “It’s bad manners.”
My sister had eaten half of a single taco in the time it had taken me to eat three. My mother had eaten even less of hers. Leo sat in his high chair, creating abstract art on his tray out of pureed peas and yams, having ruined his appetite on breast milk.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Jill said, “Mom’s worried about you. Frankly so am I. You leave after breakfast and don’t come home until supper. Then after supper you stay out until bedtime. Where do you go? Have you made any friends? I bet not.”
“Where I go and who with,” I said, “is my business, not yours.”
“It is too
“Darlene Chalgren came by for coffee this afternoon,” my mother interjected. “She told me something very strange. She said that ever since our family moved into the neighborhood, cars have been pulling into her driveway having had foodstuffs—that was the word she used—thrown at them. I asked her did she mean tomatoes, eggs, foodstuffs commonly thrown at cars by—well, let’s face it, Howard—boys your age. She nodded, but said other weirder things had been thrown from across the street as well. Figs, for instance. And artichoke hearts. And six days ago a police car had—now I know this isn’t appropriate dinner table conversation, but since Darlene left, I’ve thought of little else—a bag of fresh human excrement land smack in the middle of its windshield.”
“A bag of fresh human what?” I asked, hoping to hear her say it again, and at the dinner table no less.
“You heard me, Howard,” she replied.
“Excrement,” Jill repeated and nibbled her taco.
“Do you know anything about this, Howard?” my mother asked.
I said neither yes nor no. I simply did what I imagined Flaaten would do. I stared back at my mother, having rid my face of all expression and transformed it into a cypher in which she could read the answer I hoped she preferred.
“Thank heavens,” she said. “I can see that you’re just as incredulous as I.” She laughed.
“But Howard didn’t say anything,” Jill bellowed. “He didn’t say anything at all.”
My mother shot my sister a furious stormcloud of a glance. “Darling,” she said, “he just told me everything I need to know.”
“I hope you’re not questioning my powers of intuition, young lady,” my mother said. “Inference isn’t lost on me, not when it comes to my children.”
“Excrement,” I said, wagging my head.
“I know,” my mother said. “It’s kinda funny when you take us out of it. I keep
seeing Darlene Chalgren’s face when she said it. Like she’d discovered some herself in a
handsel wrapped in tissue.”
The next morning I found Flaaten ammo-less, but with his wrist rocket hanging from his neck by its bands like a pair of sunglasses. He asked me whether I could see any progress on the I.D.S. Building, and I told him I couldn’t. “Me either,” he said, and I followed him down the tree, then through the woods past survey markers that hadn’t been there the day before. Waist-high, each was topped with an orange plastic ribbon, and as we walked Flaaten yanked the flimsy wooden shafts from the ground, splintered them across a knee, and left the broken tender lying behind him in the ferns. He didn’t do this angrily, but matter-of-factly, as if he and the natural world were one and he merely a thumb and forefinger tasked with removing a sliver from a nail.
Within the year this would become the Indian Hills subdivision about which my father had feigned such excitement months before, when he and my mother had first discussed moving to Edina at the supper table in Fort Hood, but try as I might to imagine the homes that would be erected on the very ground Flaaten and I treaded was as difficult as imagining my mother and father together in Edina at all. Though he’d promised to return to us shortly, I didn’t believe him. I didn’t believe for a second that his discharge was forever being postponed due to bureacratic red tape or that he had any intention of leaving Texas or the military, so perfectly, it seemed to me, had both suited him. He loved nurses, and nurses loved doctors, and while Fort Hood itself may not have been to his liking, being over a thousand miles away from my mother undoubtedly was. If familiarity bred contempt, there he could indulge his taste for the exotic without fear of reprisal, and I steeled myself against the indignation and sadness I felt on my mother’s behalf even as I longed to rejoin him in Fort Hood and pretend that each new woman he brought home could, in time, take my mother’s place in both our lives.
Flaaten led us through the woods down to the banks of Arrowhead Lake, a musky pond that would one day provide water views to a dozen homes. On it a couple of mallards paddled among lily pads as Flaaten put a stone in the pouch of his wrist rocket and pulled back the tapered latex tubes until they trembled as a single sinew above the long, flexed muscles of his forearm. “Please don’t,” I said. “Not today.” With the same high-powered sling-shot, he’d taken out a squirrel and a rabbit several weeks before, game we’d subsequently gutted and skinned with a jackknife and roasted on a rotisserie fashioned out of willow boughs, and I was loathe to repeat the process. But his fingers released the pouch, and as the bands snapped between the uprights, the drake squawked amidst an explosion of blood and feathers and lay quivering on the water. His mate splashed about in maniacal circles, flapping her wings and quacking, as Flaaten removed his clothes and strode through loosestrife and cattails into water green with pondweed. He swam to the dying fowl and slung it above him by its neck, droplets arcing from its webbed feet. By the time he emerged from the pond draped in watermilfoil and algae and carrying the duck upside-down by its legs, I’d made a firepit with stones pried from the marsh and lit some kindling in the center of it.
“That’s a good wife,” he said.
He said it without irony or spite, as if immersed in play simply acknowledging our respective roles in that day’s unfolding drama. I was irked by it, but I also believed that by ignoring emotional impulses I could eradicate them over time and become more like Flaaten, whose responses to everything were resoundingly placid and objective, almost robotic. As he gutted and plucked the duck, I set up the rotisserie, using a rock to pound sturdy Y-shaped willow branches into the wet ground on either side of the firepit and whittled a skewer from a bough long enough to rest securely in the notches.
“Here you go,” he said, handing the duck to me, the shiny flesh of its breasts and thighs still warm to the touch, swaddled in shredded garments of skin and fat. “I killed it, you cook it.”
As the duck roasted, Flaaten squatted naked beside the fire, his drooping penis haloed by pubes as delicate and white as hoar frost. Though to my eye our organs looked virtually interchangeable, the hair surrounding his glowed as if emitting its own milky light. I didn’t want to look at it. It seemed wrong to do so. And yet the color seemed preternatural there among all the greens and browns, like something that wanted notice. As the vines and clots of plantlife dried on his skin, Flaaten peeled them from his arms, legs, and chest and dropped them in the fire. They sizzled, curled into themselves, and vanished in puffs of smoke.
“Will you check my back?” he asked and displayed shoulderblades and buttocks adorned with forest green specks and tendrils.
“It’s covered with seaweed,” I said.
“It isn’t seaweed,” he replied.
“What is it then?” I asked.
I pulled off vines of it and with my fingers combed bits of it from his hair. Then I picked wads of it from his upper back, lower back, and buttocks and flicked them onto the coals. “Thanks,” he said. When the duck was blackened from bill to drumsticks, we extinguished the fire with pondwater cupped in our palms. It was too hot to eat, and even if we’d thought to bring oven mitts, there was nowhere to set it. As we waited for it to cool, Flaaten asked me if I was ready for summer to end and the school year to begin.
He so rarely asked me a question I didn’t know how to answer him. “Are you nervous about it?” he asked. “Scared?”
“No,” I said, though in truth I was both. I would know none of the other students except Flaaten, had known him only under cover of shade, and worried that our friendship wouldn’t survive the glare of public exposure, that like an insect under a magnifying glass it would erupt into flame and expire. Though I’d moved often enough to know that one made friends wherever one went, a new kid was always viewed with suspicion, everything about him scrutinized and lambasted, from his clothing to his haircut to his accent. After four years in Fort Hood, mine was Texan twangy and already sounded funny to my own ears. “Are you?”
“Nah,” he said. “School’s easy. There’s nothing to it. It’s not like relying on your wits.”
He ripped a thigh from the bird, scraped away the blackened crust, and gnawed on the tender meat beneath it. I did the same. Then we each ate a breast, a wing, and a drumstick.
“C’mon,” he said when we were through. “Let’s find some smokes.” And off we went through the woods like deer veering around thickets and loping over fallen trunks on the fleetest of hooves. It was as if the duck we’d eaten had lit fuses in us both, and soon we were glorying again in our invisibility, zigzagging through back yards with arms splayed like seining nets, amassing treasure as we leapt fences and dodged patio furniture. Not until we reached Nine Mile Creek did we take inventory: a Mason jar of sun tea, lawn shears, a rake, a posthole digger, and a bra, 34 double-D, snatched from a clothesline. Flaaten always knew from whom we’d taken each item and said the name of the owner as we laid it on the mound. “Mrs. Sharpe . . . Mr. Stehley . . . Mr. Graham . . . Mr. Fulford . . . one of the Heutmaker twins, either Monica or Pam.” From his breast pocket he produced a half pack of filterless Camels and tapped out two. “Dr. Beasley.” The smokes we kept, the rest we left to the elements.
It was as we were following the creek upstream to the freeway underpass where twice we’d taken shelter during thunder showers that we saw the water tower, a golfball on a tee no different than others polyping the landscapes of midwestern suburbs and towns, but with its igloo-shaped door a gaping portal in its fanning base. Soon we were standing in awe before the cavity, the door that had been shut and padlocked every other time we’d gone there open and suspended on its hinges. Coupled to a U-bolt, the laminated Master lock we’d tried to spring over and over with rocks. Flaaten traced the threshold with his fingertips, then kicked one of the panels, and within the darkness a gong sounded. I stepped past him through the passageway into air like that of an abandoned refrigerator, though no more noxious than the gasses emitted from the stagnant pools in which Flaaten mucked. “You coming?” I called to him.
“You wouldn’t get me in there if you promised me Raquel Welch, Brigette Bardot, and Jayne Mansfield together on a waterbed,” he replied.
Beyond him mowed furrows striped the hillside to the creek and freeway where vehicles crisscrossed like targets at a shooting gallery. Everything looked different through the opening, as if I were seeing it through alien eyes.
“You’re scared,” I said. “You are.” I was flummoxed. For the month and a half that I’d known him, nothing had scared him.
“It’s stupid to go some place where you can’t see what’s right in front of you.”
“You can see a little,” I said. Welded to the primary feeder pipe a ladder disappeared into the blackness. I grabbed hold of a rung and started to climb.
“Not if someone closes the door,” he said.
“You gonna do that?” I called down to him. “You gonna close the door on your wife?”
“I might,” he replied.
In truth, I’d begun to hate him, and as I ascended the ladder the less significant he and all we’d done together seemed. Below me on the foundation of slab concrete sunlight winnowed until it was no brighter than a cluster of stars. Above me spanned only blackness, and as I climbed into it, I imagined my progress up the stem of a great chalice, the sheer weight of the reservoir above me a gravitational field into which I’d fallen. I could as easily have been crawling downward or sideways, my arms and legs moved so effortlessly. In time the rungs opened onto a steel latticework platform on which I stood, sat, and then lay facedown. It was a catwalk, and with my arms outstretched I could finger the edge of it, beyond which there was only air, and the feeder pipe, moist with condensation. From photographs taken later, I learned that the catwalk was surrounded by a guard rail, meant to protect those responsible for taking water samples and checking hydrostatic pressure, but unless you were standing you might roll beneath it and off. Mere feet above me, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water rested on a pedestal, and when I put my ear to the pipe I could hear water rushing through it either upward into the storage tank or downward and out to faucets and taps, I couldn’t tell which.
“Come on up,” I called to Flaaten. “It’s better than trees, better even than the Bush Lake ski jump. It’s like floating in space.” No longer was any portion of the floor sunlit, though tiny perforations in the walls of corrugated sheet metal admitted tiny beams of light undetectable to the eye until retina and pupil adjusted to the darkness. When that happened, it was as if I were so far away from Earth and its problems that mine seemed sub-atomic in comparison and barely worth considering. Why fear making friends or a new start? Why fear a parent’s decision to leave a marriage? Why fear anything? In an instant I thought I understood why Flaaten was the way he was. I called to him, “You’ve got to come up here.”
“I’m here,” he said, and then he was upon me, yanking my trousers down as he panted into my hair. It was all he said. I bucked and thrashed. I couldn’t, obviously, see anything. Then it was quiet. I never even heard a thud. When I called his name, I half-expected him to holler back, “When you coming down?” or “How’s it feel to be blinder than a bat?” as if what had happened had been all in my head. I pulled my trousers up. I stayed calm. I could no longer remember which direction I faced, whether the feeder pipe was to my left or right, but once reoriented I crawled backward until my feet found the opening in the latticework and then I placed them on a rung.
Going down took longer than going up. Or perhaps that’s just how I remember my descent, probing the abyss with the toe of my sneaker and feeling relief when a bar withstood the weight I placed on it. The rungs were evenly separated, but each one seemed a farther drop than the one before, and when at last I stood on the concrete, I had the sensation of being as far below the ground as the water tower was above it. Flaaten had shut the door upon entering, and I shuffled toward it like a zombie, with my arms in front of me to break my fall in the event I tripped over him. When I opened it, sunlight fell across him, his arms and legs distended as if he’d been running at the moment of impact. That would be how he’d be found several weeks later, albeit without the wrist rocket around his neck, when the water authority employee, likely the very one who’d left the door open for us in the first place, came to conduct a battery of routine quality control tests. By then, Alan Norris Flaaten had been reported missing, was thought to have run away or been kidnapped, and the discovery of his body put an end to all the endless speculation. His death was ruled a suicide, though how he’d gotten inside the water tower when the door had been “securely locked” remained a mystery.
Outside I closed the door and locked it. By then it was late afternoon and the sun was glaring. I walked past the tennis courts, skating rink and warming house to Gleason Road and followed the sidewalk past the elementary school where in three days I would start sixth grade. Then I walked past homes past which I’d soon walk every school day and didn’t care who saw me.