Tom

It was a luminous autumn day, cloudless, in late September. It must have been one of the last weekends before the school year started in earnest, one of the last lazy weekends that Tom and I, both of us eighth graders, were to spend at the cottage. I was going to say that it was one I’d never forget. But I did forget. For decades, I had forgotten. I thought of Tom this morning for the first time in years.

The cottage, surrounded by miles of Michigan wilderness, was a nice piece of family weekend and summer real estate, outings to which I divided amongst my three closest friends, Barry, Ken, and Tom, according to a metric that is lost to me now, most likely Tom’s availability. Of the three Tom was the brightest, the most fearless, the most doomed. My imagination found a playmate in his courage. There was scarcely a dare he would not take, but with the smarts to deftly turn the tables on, if I took it too far. We made crank phone calls. We philosophied and opined. We filched cigarettes. Tom was a straight-A achiever. I was an artsy prodigy and a mediocre student whom teachers liked. An intimacy sprang up between us that I kept instinctively, if salaciously, cloaked, but which he, simply for the sake of arousing my chagrin, would unexpectedly, and publicly, flaunt with a kiss or a grope that turned my ears to stoplights.

A city boy, Tom was enchanted with all the country things, boats, guns, field and stream, that I took for granted. Those country weekends were a kind of manful world unlike Tom had known. A world wherein two fourteen year old boys were allowed set off for a tramp in the woods with .22 rifles, and the trust of adults that made him practically throb with pride - and assume a sense of responsibility almost querulous in its propriety. In return, his incipient thrill-seeking often catalyzed the surroundings, so familiar to me, into a framework for adventure. Those were days when youngsters, though much less indulged, enjoyed in many significant ways, more freedom.

One summer Tom suggested that we take the boat, a little wooden two-seater, all the way upstream to the “big lake”, which he had heard me talk about, but which expedition only my older brother had heretofore pulled off, and alone. Of course Jack’s cautionary account, complete with water moccasins and strange cries heard among the cattails, only whetted Tom’s appetite. We announced our intention at dinner that night. By morning my mother, always a trooper at hiding her maternal misgivings, packed a paper bag of sandwiches. My dad informed us that if we came a cropper, my brother would get my life insurance. Three hours later we were casting lines into the lake, under postcard summer skies. When the buckets were full of perch we started back home. That was when we were confronted with a handful of inlets which we realized were impossible to tell apart. We picked the most likely and within an hour, and under deepening skies, we found ourselves in an unfamiliar, and inexorably narrowing stream, and soon a thorny tunnel scarcely wider than the boat, choked with bramble, our skin poked, scratched, and mosquito-bitten. A treacherously rocky riverbed sheared the outboard’s cotter pin, rendering the propeller useless. We clawed our way along with the oars. I don’t remember any of the conversation, but it probably went something like

“Oh, shit.”

“Heh, heh… yeah.”

I remember Tom’s now-we’re-in-for-it grin. I suspect it was a lot like mine. Stripling commandos we were, confronted with nature’s heart of darkness, if not our own. We made it home, miraculously, by dinner. The only thing we admitted to was the broken cotter pin, for which I received a humiliating paternal lecture and a garnished allowance. My mother eyed our scratches with suspicion, but was disinclined to press the matter. We feasted on lake perch. My brother, astute as usual, made sly references to the “road not taken,” about a poem he claimed to be reading.

We were down at the stream fishing that autumn day, casting night crawlers off the bridge, not far from a treacherous curve in the road that the local folk had long ago dubbed The Devil's Elbow. It was flanked on both sides by a marsh, a peat bog, really, thought to be all but bottomless. It was said to have swallowed, over the years, quite a number of cars, families, pets, and lovers, all sucked to their doom who paid too little respect to the hairpin curve. Once in a rare while, a tow truck would show up, hauling out some car or pickup truck, dripping with black muck. Those were the lucky few that had gone in right next to the road. Many others, it was assumed, were out there in the bog, travelers, passing through this remote country, never located nor seen again.


The Devil's Elbow, on Stockbridge Road, had a creepy desolation about it. Tom, although more daring than I, showed little interest in exploring the area, beyond our first and last hike past the oddly still twist, not far from our habitual fishing hole at the bridge.

As we stood casting for sunfish and blue gill in the stream that day, lost in our own thoughts, we heard the familiar soft crunch of distant gravel and turned to look down the road, past the Elbow, for the approaching vehicle. The crunch of tire on gravel grew louder but the usual cloud of dust, the visible herald of what our ears told us we would soon see, was oddly absent. Then suddenly rounding the feral curve came an old red pickup, of some throwback vintage that neither of us had seen before. We heard the music, coming from the truck's radio. It stuck in my mind for some reason - an old big band rendition of Little Brown Jug. As the truck passed, we glimpsed a young family, mom and dad in the cab, two boys and a dog in the back.

It strikes me now, as I write this, as it could hardly have occurred to me then, how comprehensively one can discern a complete emotional dynamic in a passing glimpse. The man was laughing behind the wheel, while the woman stared straight ahead, unamused. There was something a little mocking about that laugh, heedless. The woman’s stony silence looked deeply etched. Neither the elder boy nor the dog seemed to notice us in the least. Only the young boy looked at us as the truck sped by. I remember every detail about him. The baseball cap, red, with a yellow ear of corn, half-shucked, on a logo advertising Picknell’s General Store. The tattered white shirt, with its bone-colored buttons, short-sleeved, frayed at the collar. His cornflower-blue eyes. His gaze was fixed on Tom as the truck careened past the bridge, nearly driving off the road. A gaze of the utmost compassion, little brows knitted, a soul crying out from some deeply timeless place for an explanation… an answer…

We watched the truck disappear among the far trees, its passage still weirdly unmarked by the cloud of dust to which we are said, when all is said and done, to return.

“That was weird,” said Tom. “Yeah, man…” I said. And that was all that was said. And that, it turned out, would be our last weekend together at the cottage, or anywhere else. School intervened. Other voices, other rooms. By the next year the friendship that seemed beyond a second thought, like the hill on which the cottage stood, had vanished in a cloud of noise, new friends, rivalries and dust. Tom fell in with some old friends from the city. Sagacious, street-wise friends. Friends who had no use for stream-fed idylls or the vile affections that were rumored to be turning him queer. He faltered academically the next year. He was in and out of trouble. In high school he was suspended for smoking in the parking lot and mouthing off to the civics teacher who caught him. The cocky brilliance that made him a leader in grade school, was informing his delinquency now. Or so we’d heard. After his suspension, he never returned. For my part, new friends, new pursuits, closed in around his memory, until it was clammed away with my broken heart. I learned from Barry, over breakfast at Denny’s years later on one of my rare visits to Michigan, that Tom had been killed in a car crash, years ago, coked to the eyebrows, on Middlebelt Road on Halloween. Hearing that, I stood up and bawled. While a discretely unobtrusive speaker somewhere played Bobby McFerrin singing Don’t Worry Be Happy, I cried my heart out.