FICTION December 16, 2011

Wild Kingdom

by Stace Budzko

Excerpt from a novel manuscript


Before my brother Rick left home that spring he tried to tell me something but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.  This was on account of the fact he liked the noise of a Harley Roadster but could only afford a secondhand Honda Scrambler.  So he removed the muffler.  And what he was doing then was quitting high school to escape the musty basement room we shared in Maine for the endless coast of Florida via Route 1.  He was going with his best friend Jimmy Taylor.  JT for short.  Rick was Crawdad.  It was 1979 and everything was brown and orange and when I think about this now I think I’ve figured out what Rick was telling me as he warmed up his motorcycle.  What my brother said was, “Leave.”

Those of us who knew Rick – that is, we who were allowed into his inner circle, understood his desire for wide-open spaces.  Often he revealed how he felt snared, waiting for the trigger like the coons, minks and muskrats he caught each trapping season in the swampland around Great Pond.  This was fair enough explanation to see what stood between my brother and our parents.

Freedom.  Route 77 was a straight shot out of town.

Once you leave, he’d say, don’t come back, unless with good reason.

Matter-of-factly he would speak of his journeying ways.  And his first taste of the road came early.  At seven, he was a seasoned hitchhiker taking rides from strangers to get to school on time.  At ten, he had made his way up into Canada only to be retrieved by our father when the border patrol thought he was being kidnapped by a Quebecois trucker who went by the handle Cookie.  Then annually, as a teenager, he would ride his dirt bike the hundred miles to Laconia Motorcycle Week to be close to, as he called it, the action.

His wanderlust was legend.

With my brother there was a running desperation that provoked like-mindedness within our circle.  It was infectious.  Though there were times, I suspect, we faked it with an exaggerated nod; in spirit we were always right there with him.

But when it came time to actually join him, when he came up with the plan to hop a freight train for the West Coast, specifically Big Sur, none of us showed up that bright morning in the summer of ‘78.  It seemed his conviction went just so far.  And without followers he lacked purpose.  It was as if growing up instilled in him the belief that the validation of experience depended upon the company of others.  Unwavering, Rick returned home to work on our next adventure.  He never spoke of this day again.

In many ways he was born on the go.  It is our mother’s claim that his first words were, “Bye-bye, baby.”  If you were to believe this it would seem he came out of the chute with his thumb in the air.

It was only a matter of time until he would make good on his words.

What our parents couldn’t guess, and eventually what would become an uncertainty I shared with them, was when Rick would return.  But, being that he was my brother and ever faithful to his word, I estimated his trip to Florida (given several detours and maybe an odd construction job or two along the way) would fall somewhere in the vicinity of six or seven weeks.  Two months, tops.

Then he would come back.  And the new world would be ours.

My expectation lay in the reeds just beyond our backyard – a raft the two of us built earlier that year with the promise that we were to set sail when he pulled into the yard.

In spite of the fact that I can tell you Rick did return later that summer, I’m most certain he was not the same brother.  He was different somehow, unfamiliar.  The best explanation any of us can come up with is the fire went out inside.

To this day Rick’s eyes remain glossed over, his voice – a flat line, and that unique something that wound his clock, all but stopped.

He has forgotten my name.

But if you asked me then how far we would get on that raft, I would have said far.  And if you had said that that would never happen, I would have told you, wait and see.