Art by The Plague.
I’m sitting here right now in my room, at my desk, by my bed, under the roof of the boy’s dormitory. It’s quiet; early enough in the morning that nobody but me’s seen fit to wake up and greet the day. There was some ruckus about an hour ago; the lacrosse team was getting ready for this morning’s practice. Now while they’re out tussling and scrimmaging, I’m sitting here all alone. I moved in here three weeks ago, and until now I haven’t found the time to write it down, but this morning as I wait for my roommates to stir, I’ll tell you about the boys back in Sterling.
Sterling is a small town in the north of Louisiana; nothing but soggy floorboards, old thoughts and old minds. In spitting range we had three schools, a gas station, a main street three blocks long and one church. My Momma and Daddy weren’t no Baptists, but they went there every Sunday like good Christians. Pop used to say that a wrong church was better than no church, so long as you knew where they went wrong and accounted for it in your prayers. While everyone else in our pew was asking for new cars, job opportunities and gentle storm seasons, Daddy was apologising. Apologising and asking the Lord to forgive him and our flock for stepping one foot off of the path to Heaven because we didn’t have nowhere else to worship. Where I am now has plenty of churches for all kinds of folk, but I’ve only been in the one at school. Now the pastor’s saying the things my Daddy wanted ours back home to say, and nobody’s got anybody to apologise for.
I’m up in New Hamp these days, attending a school for boys that’s older than sin. Pop sent me off to learn, to “enrich myself,” he said. I ain’t been here long, but I can’t see much enrichment to be had. I tried joining societies, teams, groups and clubs, but they all seem to be about the things they’re about, nothing more. I can’t seem to find anything that needs to be found, so I go looking in other places. The school grounds bleed into the forests like the slurry in the butcher’s shop; I’ve been spending a lot of time out there. It ain’t quite like the marshes back home, but I find lots of home in it. I find hutches and lean-tos made by wayward boys like me, I find names carved into trees and leavings of cans and packages, forgotten on expeditions and campouts under the teachers’ noses. I find the garbage of rebellion in those woods.
Back in Sterling, we had a similar kind of rebellion. Red Dirt was the leader of our gang; he hated real bitter anybody calling him his Christian name. His daddy died last year, lost in the war far away. Red said that once the big man died, he didn’t feel right being called the name he gave him; he had to find a name of his own; to earn one. With his daddy having passed, his momma had to take up a job for her own, leaving the chores and housework to Red. Once, he spent the whole of a blistering summer day digging around in the clay beside his house so the water’d flow away and they wouldn’t get flooded again. By the time he was done, and could come by the rest of us at Chopper’s, he was caked head-to-toe in the stuff. Somebody asked him where he got all that Red Dirt, and his name was made.
Old Red got himself a powerful obsession about names. He loved his father dearly, and had learned from him what it meant to become a man. He learned a man had convictions, responsibilities and a duty to himself and those he cared for. He learned a man earned what he had; everything of it. Red was still a boy, beholden to the generosities of his momma feeding, clothing and rooming him, but he earned what he could. He saw fit to earn himself his name, and the trend caught on.
Back in the spring I was riding home from the track on my ten-speed when some boys from Taylorton tried to get the jump on me and beat some fear into my head. I tried losing them, but stumbled over one of the roots sticking up from the willows on Moore’s Grove and caught a hard fall on the road. One of the spokes on my front wheel snapped and stuck out to the right side crooked and sharp, but I didn’t have time to fix it. Those Taylorton boys were gaining on me, so I hopped back on and took off pedalling. Each time the wheel came around it cut a line in my leg, deep and bloody as anything. By the time I got away, some two miles down the road, my whole appendage was redder than a fire wagon. I started rolling up my school pants to show off the scars, and once Red Dirt saw them he called me Broken Spoke. That was how I earned my name.
The rules for how a boy got monikered were unclear at the beginning. I earned my name for a desperate act of self-sacrifice; Red Dirt earned his doing right by his momma and home. There was a fat boy among us, Pox, who earned his name one night when he took his daddy’s lighter to his own face and burned off all the acne. Some kids at school had been teasing him about it all year, and that night he broke; solving the problem for himself. The next day, he was still covered in spots just like before, but these were ones he made with his own two hands. These were marks on his skin he chose to have, not ones that the good Lord marked him with. To him, that made all the difference in the world, and so Red Dirt gave him the name.
Back in those days, at the beginning, me and everyone I knew hung around Chopper’s scrap yard. Chopper Gunderson was a salty old man, a wrinkled prune of a critter with a mop of spindly black hair and a pair of overalls that seemed crispy and crusty to the touch. He didn’t pay us no mind most of the time; we got together deep between the trash heaps and lazed away our summers without incident. That was until one time just before the school year ended, when Chopper’s pen knife and war medals were stolen; he suspected us right away. Red Dirt told him that ain’t no friend of his would do something like that, but Chopper wouldn’t hear it. He told us not to come round anymore, that trouble-makers like us weren’t welcome. He put up one of those “No Trespassing” signs, and that was that. A couple of weeks later, Sap-Sucker found that stilt-house out in the marsh and we forgot all about old Chopper. Sometimes I wonder if he still thinks of us, if he ever got rid of the drafts of our Charter that we left behind. Something tells me he didn’t.
We were wayward for a short while, but before long Sap-Sucker came into the picture. He was a strange boy; the son of a working girl with no clear daddy of his own. He was known for wandering the marshes outside of town, collecting sap from the trees and breathing in its fumes. It had a profound effect on his mind, sending him into a stupor unlike what we’d seen before. They said he did it to cope with his place in the world, but I wonder if he did it to open his mind. One day, he was walking the marsh, already afloat on a cloud of inebriants, when he found it: The Stilt-house. Red Dirt named him after the oozing substance that led him there.
My daddy said that the place must’ve been an old hunting lodge or station for the park rangers, but by the time we happened upon it there were no signs of life. It sat on top of a pond thick with algae with four legs that bent at odd angles and plunged below the surface into the murky mud and soil. There was a big old hole in the back wall with a tree growing up through it; we weren’t sure if the hole welcomed the tree or the tree made the hole. The whole house sagged back toward it; all of the empty cans and packages we threw away ended up tumbling to that corner of the room. Pox said that meant it must’ve been the tree making the hole; that some storm in years past blasted the lodge into the tree and got it speared on the trunk. Red Dirt said it didn’t matter; that the presence of life growing through the husk of a home was a gift from the Lord. He hung our flag from its branches and Red himself stood with it at his back when he gave speeches. We figured it would make the tree feel better; that it wouldn’t be forgotten like the lodge was with all those pairs of eyes looking at it.
In that abandoned lodge, we developed our Charter. It spoke of our place in the world, of Red Dirt’s personal philosophy and just how a boy was meant to earn his name. What we settled on was the idea of sacrifice and duty - the two things that Red thought made a man. I sacrificed the skin of my leg to avoid them Taylorton boys beating me stupid, that earned my name for me. Red sacrificed his time and his effort to help his momma out, honoring his duty to his household. Pox sacrificed his vanity for years to come to prove his convictions to the boys at school. Sap-Sucker was the exception of those I’ve named so far; Red allowed it anyway. “A man is a creature of mercy,” he said. Sap-Sucker was wayward, more than anybody else. To Red Dirt, he was something of a lost cause; too disconnected from life for duty and left too wanting for sacrifice. Red couldn’t abide by keeping a perpetually nameless boy around, but would feel it a betrayal to cast him out after he was the one that found the place. I’m sure that the difficulty of such a choice haunted him powerfully at the time.
As the summer began and every kid in town was let loose on the land, boys found all sorts of ways to earn their names. Tube-Turner worked in a shop for the whole of June to afford a ten-inch TV set for the lodge. Babble was a master at talking his way out of trouble; it was him that got us allowed to start camping out there by circulating an open letter to all of our parents. One kid in town was the son of a historian at the university a few miles out of town, and one night when a burglar broke into their house, the boy fought the intruder off with a three-and-a-half-foot broadsword the professor had kept on the mantle. Red Dirt named him Ser Knight, or just Ser for short. When some of the boys from Taylorton came around in the middle of the night and switched our flag with a white one of surrender, it was Gumshoe that figured out who did it. Then it was Crockett that led us in hiking through past the town limits to throw rotten eggs at their houses the following night. Those two got their names together, and they were rightly inseparable after that.
Red Dirt was more than just a school friend to all of us; he was a prophet. It was he that preached to us that those days were the greatest of our lives, and that the times to come were ones of lifeless routine. His cousin, a few years our senior, came around a lot in the time after Red’s father was lost to war. He was there to give a hand in the patriarch’s absence, but brought with him a vision of Red’s own future that sickened him to the core. He was prone to complaining about his job in the city, where every day was the same, and the debts, obligations and promises that he’d made set his shoes in concrete. Red passed along the lessons he’d learned in observing his kin, lessons that spelled a bleak existence for any boy foolish enough to finally grow up.
The end of summer was more than just symbolic; our fates were set in years past by a common effort amongst the parents of our town. In Sterling, the parents knew the score. The town was located in one of the worst school districts in the country and everyone knew it. The elementary school was hard-up for cash, but the high and junior high schools were beyond saving. As we as a generation aged, our parents began to worry for how our education would leave us. It was around then that the subsidies came through: discounts at out-of-state boarding schools for children in “at-risk” districts like ours. The parents all agreed that this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and began saving their funds to send all of us off as soon as they could. We aged through junior high underfunded and underenlightened, but by the time we were headed off for high school the money was there to give us an escape.
As June bled into July and August loomed in the wings, more and more of my friends got the talk. The one where your folks sat you down at the kitchen table with a folder full of flyers and brochures sitting between you, where they told you to pick between horseback-riding on weekends in New Hamp or eating lunches in the city in New York. The one where they told you you’d be saying goodbye to your friends, your home, and your identity; but that you’d be getting new ones of all of those pretty soon. The one where it finally became real to you that your life as yourself was over, and your life as your parents’ son began. Mine came for me in mid-August; my daddy and momma were merciful like that.
It wasn’t in the cards for everyone, though. When Red Dirt’s daddy died, so died with him any chance of them affording a fancy school like the ones in New Hamp. He was “doomed,” my daddy said, “to spend his life diggin’ graves an’ clearin’ roads fer the state,” like either of those were a fate worse than death. Like in either of those it was impossible to earn a fair wage, make a good living, and sow a legacy for yourself. In some ways, I envied Red, but I soon came to find out that he would be nearly the only one of the gang left behind. With so few students, it was sure to be seen that Mirkwood High School would get less funding than the year before, which wasn’t much to start with. Perhaps he truly was doomed; it would explain why he fought so hard for us all to find meaning before the summer was through. He knew better than anybody that there was nothing on the other side of the leaves turning, least of all for him.
We spent many a day colluding in that lodge, and many a night lying on the damp floors, staring out through the hole in wall to the blanket of stars above. In his sleep, Red Dirt tended to fidget and speak, rarely anything coherent though. I was prone to bouts of insomnia, lying there most nights into the small hours of the morning, listening to the sound of my slumbering friends. Red’s restlessness was an item of some interest to me; it spoke volumes more than he ever did in his waking hours on just what kind of man he was developing into. His worries haunted him in his dreams, breaking through the barriers that his words made so resilient while the sun was high in the sky and his guard was up there with it. I often wondered who else among us knew, or if anyone noticed at all. I never heard a stirring other than Red’s during those long, sweltering nights in the lodge. Maybe that secret was meant to be left with me.
As the summer marched on, the group of those boys who hadn’t gotten named began to dwindle. Razorwire got his on the first day of August, when he climbed over the fence at the old mine outside of town and brought back some dynamite. His clothes were sliced to ribbons by the wire sitting on top of it; he came to us looking like his laundry’d been fed into a thresher and he wore them anyway. Red gave him the moniker while holding back tears of laughter, and we celebrated by hucking sticks of dynamite into the pond and watching them make waves with their explosions. He sacrificed the clothing on his back to fulfill his duty to enjoy the summer, which was good enough for Red.
When we were out at the lodge for the long haul, as we were more and more as autumn approached, Fleetfoot would be the one to run into town for food and blankets. He was blessed with a light build and feet the size of shovel heads, meaning he could run across the water-logged mud without sinking deep. He made the trek from the lodge to Main Street faster than anybody else, making him the natural choice to do it. After achieving his best time ever, clocked in at just under 17 minutes, Red awarded him with a name he could be proud of.
Every year in Greely County, there’s a pie-eating contest; that summer it was hosted in Taylorton. Every kid in our gang went there to enter, but we knew that they make their boys big in that town. Two of them were twin brothers, and fat ones at that. They were the kind of twins that wore the same thing every day and took tests for each other. Red Dirt was positive that they would try and pull a switcheroo half-way through the contest and fill two bellies instead of one. We all knew that nobody’d be able to best them with our stomachs alone, but one of us stepped forward to act. A few days before the contest, this charming fellow went on a date to the local diner with Vicky Vulmer, who as everyone knew caught at least two dozen stomach bugs each year. That brave soul kissed Vicky Vulmer on the lips that day, and by morning he was puking out more than he’d ever ate. Later that day, we took him over to Taylorton, tugging him in a wagon behind our bikes as he groaned and held his stomach in with his hands. He snuck over to the twins’ house and spat into their sack lunches. Come morning on the day of the contest, neither of those boys could get out of bed, let alone eat a stack of blueberry pies. It was our boy Pox that took home the blue ribbon, earned with the sacrifice of the boy we came to know as Contagio.
We made many a memory that summer. The frosty-freeze heist, the war of the lemonade stands, the old tomcat that would mysteriously appear at the lodge whenever we had a fish fry; these were the best moments of our young lives. But in the waning days of our freedom, we lost much.
One day, we came out to the lodge to find a sign on it reading: “CONDEMNED”. Apparently, the Sheriff in town had heard about it from somebody’s parents and couldn’t abide by a violation of building code like that. There were unfamiliar footprints on the path, and changes to the natural balance of the room within that none of us would make. Someone without a name of his own earning, who was unfamiliar with our ways and means, had entered our sacred home.
Sheriff Ed Bridges was a stern man, raised by a stern father and he a stern father before that. He never took a liking to me and the boys, though I can’t say I blame him. We were out re-inventing what it meant to become a man and here he was too old and too grown to try it out for himself. I could understand his distaste for our journey of self-discovery, but him trying to stamp out our home just days before our separation was a step too far. The last days of the summer were spent sending a message to that man, our “final statement,” according to Red Dirt. First, we uprooted the police tape and tore down the sign, then piled it all up outside his house on Harlan Road; the next morning they’d been put back on the lodge and then some.
Next, we went out to the opening to the path leading to it and cut down trees, re-distributed the brush and even muddied-up the dirt with water carried by bucket chains from a nearby pond. When we were done, the path was rightly indistinct; hard to see where it even began. We then took off the signs again and dumped them at Chopper’s with the rest of the town’s garbage. Our thinking was that Old Sheriff Bridges would never be able to find the lodge again but, sure enough, the next morning, the signs were back. It was then that we figured out that a man like the Sheriff knew the county better than most; maybe even better than us. We had to do something drastic if we wanted to protect our home, if we wanted to return in the summer to come, next year.
Something drastic is just what we did. We gathered everybody we could; those who’d gotten their names and the ones who didn’t, and brought them through the marsh to the lodge. Red Dirt had us step into the swirling waters between the stilts, to submerse our feet into the pond that carried us for the whole of our summer. Saws were produced, borrowed from sheds, homes and even from Chopper Gunderson’s scrap yard. Together, we cut through the stilts themselves, breaking that house away from the ground. Then we put our hands on its belly and pushed up, lifting it skyward. Our feet sunk into the mud as we did it, even Fleetfoot’s. With Red as our guide, we started walking up onto the land again, carrying the house up and setting it down on the soft grass above.
We spent the rest of the day fixing up the underside, patching holes and adding all kinds of ballast. There wasn’t no way that we could carry that lodge away; the trees locked us in like bars in a jail. But on the water, they were thinly spread, far enough apart to fit the lodge through. It got powerful deep out there though; we couldn’t walk it through. Red Dirt’s plan was to make the place as buoyant as could be and float it down the swamp to where the Sheriff wouldn’t find it. Sap-Sucker taught us that the syrup that dripped from the trees could seal the water out, so we put that to work too. The sun started to set, earlier than it had just a few days before, and the time came for us to try it out. We got together and lifted the house up again, then sawed the rest of the stilts off to nubs. Then we carried it out into the water again; it floated okay.
Red knew that we couldn’t all of us join the house in its journey. It was already leaking through the floorboards; the weight of everybody inside would get us sunk quicker than we could bail it back out. Red decided that none of us with our names deserved it, that by going we would be stealing this last moment of glory from those who had yet to prove themselves. There were three of them, Red Dirt named them Skipper, Tiller and Buccaneer. They were beyond over-joyed to be afforded the opportunity that late in the game.
We watched them go from the bank of the swamp, leaving the tree with our flag hanging from it behind as they went. Skipper stood on the porch and watched for trees on either side while Tiller used a big oar from the scrapyard to steer through the hole in the wall. Buccaneer sat straddling the roof and waved back at us as they moved deeper into the swamp. The plan was for us to meet them a ways down the marsh, but I’m telling you now that they never got there.
The town had to get a whole bunch of state troopers in rowboats to find them. They never showed up where we were supposed to meet, or at home that night neither. We went looking for them in the morning, but we didn’t find nothing; it took the troopers canvassing the marsh for someone to stumble across the Stilt-house.
I saw the pictures the troopers gave to the Sterling Howler to publish. They said it struck a rock somewhere not far past where they’d left from and the whole thing tipped over. They pulled three broken, soggy bodies from it that night, and by the time the week was through, I’d been to three funerals. Momma said we couldn’t afford two suits, so the one I wore to the funerals would be the one I wore to my first day of school. The unintended meaning of the gesture was not lost on me.
Red Dirt never was quite the same. I do believe he felt that youth made us invincible, but those three boys drowning in the marsh made mortality very real to him. Once again, he had said “goodbye for now” to people he cared for, only to have them die before seeing him again. The last time I saw him, he was cold; unlike the Red that I knew. It was at the funeral for Buccaneer, the last of the three lost marsh-sailors. The pastor got up and talked about the boy’s life, even how it ended. He said that the Sheriff had told him that based on where they found him, it appeared that Buccaneer had tried to rescue the others as the house sank, but hit his head by mistake and drowned. Personally, I’d heard the same story twice already, at the other funerals, but with each of the other boys in the role of the hero. The pastor was a man of the city; clearly he didn’t think to mind repeating himself. Where he came from, people just had worse memory, I guess. Red couldn’t stand it; he stood up in the middle of the service and called the Pastor a liar, a bastard, and a no-good son of a bitch.
Sheriff Ed stood up next and snatched up Red in his arms, leading him out of church to cool off. The room was full of murmurs, of whispered opinions and predatory rumors. I just sat there between my Daddy and Momma, biting my tongue. Red said what every one of me and the boys were thinking, I had nothing to add.
I caught one more glimpse of Red as we were leaving the church, sitting against the outside wall next to the Sheriff, bawling. I wanted to talk to him about it; about everything. I wanted to let loose like he did, and let all the hurt in me flow out of my mouth and my eyes instead of crushing it and squeezing it in my fists and between my teeth. I wanted just one more day to find a better ending to things, but it was not to be. My parents took me straight back home to pack; I had to leave for the train station early in the morning. Twenty-four hours later, I was unpacking my things in my new dormitory, giving the time of day to my roommates and looking over the review packages given to me for my first classes, the following week.
It’s been a few weeks since then. The leaves have gotten started changing around here; it’s as pretty as they told me in the brochures and on the tour of the grounds. The air nips at your skin here; colder than anything I felt back down south.
Sometimes I get letters from the boys. Babble was mighty verbose in his correspondence, telling me all about the new acquaintances and sweethearts he planned to make at his placement in Washington. Gumshoe and Crockett were adamant to their respective parents that they couldn’t be separated; they ended up at schools on either side of a river in Michigan. Crockett told me he was working on a raft in his free time to cross it, and Gumshoe said that he was working on figuring out just how his parents misplaced the brochure for Crockett’s school. Pox was put in place somewhere outside of Boston; he sent out a kind of newsletter to each of us about how he’d taken a liking to his science classes. I could picture everybody reading it and sweating about what would happen when the acids and Bunsen burners were introduced.
There’s no two ways about Sap-Sucker; the boy just disappeared. He was similar to Red in that he would never have the money for a good school, but when discussion came to that topic during the summer, he was always quiet. I read the report in the paper, of the thirteen-year-old in Louisiana that ran out one night, robbed a sporting goods store for camping gear, and faded away into the swamplands. There was a quote from Sheriff Bridges, talking about how broken homes lead to broken men, and how a strong fatherly presence in a boy’s life keeps him from straying from the path. After that, I found it hard to be surprised when I heard from Red’s cousin that the Sheriff was coming around their house more and more, and that he’d taken a liking to Red’s momma.
As for Red himself, I haven’t heard a word from him. Accounts from his cousin were few, and about a month ago they stopped altogether. I know he started attending classes at Mirkwood High, but beyond that is a mystery. I often find myself wondering if he kept the dream of rebellion alive; I can’t help but doubt it. Tiller, Skipper, and Buccaneer drowning in that swamp seemed to break him; I don’t see how even a boy as passionate as him could go on fighting after that.
Now, I can hear my schoolmates down the hall starting to get up; the line for the showers should be developing steadily. They don’t turn on the water until 6:45; I’ll need to get going if I want to get bathed before breakfast. I find I clean myself much more than I ever did in Sterling, never mind that I hardly sweat in this cold at all. One of my roommates said to me it came with the territory; I suppose he’s right. We’re on our way to become men now, at least in the eyes of the world. I told them I already became a man back down south; I even showed them my scars. They didn’t seem to understand.
It’s eight more months ‘til the school year’s through and we all head home. I don’t know what’s waiting for me back in town; Chopper’s is still off-limits and that the Stilt-house is rotting somewhere under the muck, water, and painful memories. I know Red will be there, but I don’t know just what I’ll find in him. I want to see if he thinks he was wrong back in the summer, and if his hopes for the future have improved in my absence. Something tells me he’ll only feel worse about life when I see him again.
Red used to say that life was like striking a match. It starts with flash and colour, then dies down to a small flame for a long time. Then it snuffs out and leaves nothing but smoke and ash behind. “Our matches are about to run out of flash,” he said. As I douse myself in water for the third time this week after waiting in line behind a string of other regimented youths for the privilege, I wonder if that boy back in Sterling was right.