We relocated from Levittown to Stony Brook because of me. I’m eleven.
In Levittown I hung out with the wrong crowd: they were older and prone to mischief. I was comfortable with them. Their parents were like mine: different from everyone else’s. Their fathers didn’t march in the Veterans Day parade, and their mothers weren’t home to greet them from school. Mischief came with the territory: it’s what held us together, what we did. It was my escape from the torment of loneliness.
I should have been grateful for the effort and sacrifices I knew my parents were making. I concluded that they were convinced that providing the right surroundings would set me straight; that I would blossom within the Monet setting that our new home offered. They were wrong. Monet’s subjects were pleasant, soft, all things beautiful and good. Dali’s were 36 x 36 anarchy. My soul belonged on a Dali canvas – distorted, provocative, and rebellious.
* * *
Stony Brook parents are college educated, upper middle class, with stay-at-home moms. My parents are not a fit. My mother works, and my father dropped out of school in sixth grade – abandoned, a polio victim. We don’t belong, at least I don’t. I feel alone and out of place. I am not a good match for tranquility. Dave is. He is eleven, looks fifteen and acts forty.
Dave lives at the bottom of the hill, under a halo that follows him everywhere. He volunteers for chores, doesn’t sneak cigarettes, doesn’t steal baseball cards from the corner store, doesn’t skip school, runs away from fights, and doesn’t even know how to use his middle finger. Perhaps I can change him – scrub away the virtuous shine and add scuffmarks, one episode at a time.
I’ve never hunted before, but this might be a good way to inflict his first blemish. Hunting is not permitted in Stony Brook, and the risk of getting caught is high – perfect. So this morning, I transfer title of my older brother’s bow and arrow to myself and step out into my illusory jungle, fearless, poised for the hunt.
I am conscious of my surroundings, listening, smelling, and watching – an Indian scout tracking prey. I am in character, my imagination alerting me to the dangers ahead. The manicured gardens and large colonial homes dissolve from my consciousness as thick brush and wicked cries from unknown creatures lurking high in the trees take their place.
Directly across the street resides the young lioness, hungry and seductive, a future notch on my arrow perhaps. Liz is my age and already promiscuous. Not the kind of mischief I am ready for. The very thought scares the daylights out of me. My pace quickens.
Fifty yards further, on the right, lives the middle-aged snake. He often slithers into the bedroom down the street after the lights go down.
The road curves to the left, and directly ahead is the complex and colorful tangled web of the garden spider, whose remarkable young artistic talent will be short-lived: suicide. Michael is dark like his paintings. He is a year younger than me. He never speaks. His brush is his voice. No one listens.
The sun’s heat stings the right side of my face as I head further down the hill. I chuckle as I pass the hyena brothers, Bobby and Donny, circling, yelping, deep in the woods. They are going nowhere. They lack personality, motivation and imagination.
The Petronios live in the clearing ahead. Like a congress of crows, they announce my arrival. No one notices. Mrs. Petronio is the town gossip.
Across the street, the dragonfly, Rodney, dances as he hums fellatio on the boy from the next road. His mom knows the snake up the street.
I jog the last fifty yards to Dave’s. He is cutting the lawn. He seems pleased to see me. It is not difficult to convince him to accompany me on the adventure: my talent is packaging hyperbole into gospel, beguiling. I am Congressional material.
We retrace my steps up the hill, past my house, across Christian Avenue, and cut through the backyards of several occupied homes without being seen. The caper is on. I tell Dave to stay put while I scout the area for a good position from which to observe our prey. I circle the home ahead to confirm that no one is there. Both cars are gone, but to be safe I ring the doorbell. If anyone answers, I’ll say I’m looking for my lost dog. No answer. We have found our game reserve. I return to where Dave waits. The hunt is on.
The snap of a branch above my head draws my attention. A female squirrel is stretched between tree limbs, her nipples red from feeding her babies. She leaps from oak to oak like a gymnast, dismounting sixty feet from our camouflaged position. Her movement becomes sporadic and unpredictable as she flutters about dislodging, then consuming, last fall’s inventory of acorns – a mother restoring her strength. Once the supply is depleted, she sprints toward the next well-hidden buffet. Her guard is down. Food is her focus. I smile at Dave. He nods. His excitement matches mine. Not what I expected. Where’s the halo?
I pull and release. The squirrel is down but not dead. A flash of sorrow stings within me. I am aware that Dave is watching. I remain stern and in control, a trained assassin. Something inside me shouts fraud. No time to think. My instincts keep me in pace with my image. I dash toward the downed squirrel, determined to complete my mission. She’s a survivor. She tries to hide in the shadow of her tail. When discovered, she assumes an attack position, ignoring her pain and epileptic-like spasms. The arrow cut through her lower half.
Without warning, I find myself in a labyrinth of interconnecting feelings that I can’t escape. I approach the squirrel without revealing my doubts, that I may not be the confident proud hunter my persona conveys. Her shiver is volcanic, but her lava is spotty. She is disabled and frightened, but the wound is not fatal. I resist the impulse to apologize. Her legs accelerate hoping to grip the air. She is desperate. A chilly breeze whisks across the light hairs on my arm. I shiver. My brainwaves ricochet violently and randomly, creating a web of panic. Her fur’s oily vibrancy fades with each gurgling breath. She is now a filthy shade of grey, her pelt stiffening into needles. I brush a tear aside, whispering, “Damn bug” for Dave to hear.
I release another arrow from one foot away, hoping to end her pain, but it fails to penetrate her skin. Her muffled trill penetrates deep into my soul. Another arrow tumbles bloodless to the ground as her dark pleading eyes meet mine. I’m losing control. I can’t let that happen.
With trembling hands, I pull open the blade of my Boy Scout knife. My grip is weak, feeble: I hold the knife like a fireplace poker with my hand positioned as far back from the blade as possible. I am frightened, tense, losing my guise. I cannot find the courage to proceed past my light stabs and jabs, searching for the last glowing ash that is too stubborn to extinguish on its own. I cannot do this. I turn to run when a violent shudder lunges her forward, enveloping the creases of her neck around the sharp edge of the knife. I close my eyes and slice, hoping to end her journey before she changes mine – too late. Tears drip onto the Dali canvas, bold lines of chaos bleeding together, taking on a new and softer shape, looking more like a blood-stained meadow. The squirrel is dead.
I rub the blood from my hands on the dull blades of grass, hoping for a fresh start. I clean the knife on my jeans, snapping it shut, hoping to hide memories. Dave suggests that we bring the dead squirrel back to his house so that his father can help us skin it. I file away my shame and agree.
On our walk back, Dave expounds on our kill as if he had released the arrow. Like a soldier, he conducts a post-operations analysis, suggesting what we might want to do differently the next time. No emotion, no regret, no sympathy for the mother’s babies left behind to survive on their own. For Dave it is a trophy, period. For me it is a reminder of the pain aloneness inflicts. I am ashamed. The day ends quite different from what I expected – Dave didn’t change, I did.