Wild Kingdom

THOUGHTS ON DROWNING

These are the days around the time Rick throttles away.  It’s April, the ice covering Great Pond has fallen below the water’s surface, and at any moment we will become strangers and grow into our ordinary lives.  For now, my brother, JT and I smoke homegrown grass in the basement of our house.  Above us our mother does her stocking Stroll across the linoleum while our father is out hustling for Wonder Bread.  Rick has made it clear in my eleven-year-old head how the buds on trees in the backyard threaten to burst atomic at any moment.

“It’s a Three Mile Island out there, Hippie,” he says.

He calls me this because of my long hair, which, when her tranquilizers work, our mother cuts like clockwork.  My given name’s Jackson.  And the difference in our years, seven in total, gets washed away by the fact that I don’t reveal these hours to our parents.

“Amen,” I reply, pounding away on our father’s well-loved bongos.

“That’s right, hombre.  It’s all going to light up for us.”

“I think I see it happening already.”

JT passes me a pipe carved out of a deer’s antler.  Rick is sprawled on his waterbed wrapped in a raccoon blanket he stitched from pelts he trapped last fall.  He looks like a tired Indian, but this is part of his philosophy.  It has something to do with getting back to nature.  Or maybe devouring it.  He is to our tribe as our father is to our nuclear family.

I light the bowl and below my nose the orange whiskers glow.

My pulse is that of a hummingbird.

When we’re done JT gets up and dribbles a tennis ball around an imaginary team of defenders across the floor to the mini fridge for another Old Milwaukee.  His high top All-Stars are worn and faded and at six feet he is tall to me.  With one stride he could be anywhere.

Presently, his feet cut like hockey skates across the cold cement.

Under the black bulb haze he examines the pencil sketches of our raft laid out on the pool table.  Rick and I have spent winter and spring putting the finishing touches on our crude vessel.  It rests in the cattails out back on Great Pond.  This is to be our summer of independence.

Biting on his cigarette JT asks, “You have any thoughts on drowning, Hippie?”

I haven’t yet learned how to play it cool.  I admit I do.  Jim Morrison sings out “Riders on the Storm” and at this hour I can hear my brother’s rambling thoughts, “Don’t be, little man.”  He sits transfixed in front of the television watching yet another rerun of Wild Kingdom.  There on the television is a leopard low in the brush not far from a gazelle drinking from a shallow stream.  A sun twice the size as the one outside our window is all that separates them.  My brother, I realize, is five thousand miles away.

JT laughs.  “As you should.”

Not knowing what to believe, my eyes go wide.

“Dig it.  My cousin Bingo found himself in a mother of a riptide when we were on long boards last summer,” JT says, which, as with most of his stories, starts somewhere between a six-pack and a bowl.  He licks the head off his tall boy.  “Lucky for him, he was scooped up by some tourists in their Carolina Skiff off Prouts Neck.”

Rick, not missing a beat, then asks me what I think is going to happen to the gazelle.  For some strange reason, he likes to give me these questions even though the both of us know how it’s going to play out.

It doesn’t take long.  I go with the gazelle getting it, and good.

“Fair enough,” he says.

Pleased, I smile.

“Keep in mind, though,” letting out a puff of the rich, sweet smoke of his clove cigarette, “there’s someone waiting on that leopard.  He’s not above prey himself.”

At these moments I discover that my brother sees things in terms of the hunter and the hunted.  In his wilderness there is possibility.  Maybe because he is this way or maybe because he is my older brother, I choose to stick close by.  Well-armed, he carries a folding knife to school in his toolbox.  He is the most prepared grease monkey in auto shop.

Sliding out of his covering, Rick declares we are off to our raft.  In turn, JT says he’s leaving for a pick-up game of Horse.  My brother puts on an army jacket his girl Chloe gave him.  She’s crayoned a heart above the nametag with their initials inside.  He has me prop open the window for the two of us to get back in later.  But it’s not as if my brother has to tell me what to do.  Afternoons are spent like this.