We both agreed we were tired enough for bed, but I was unhappy with the lack of progress I’d made on tomorrows coffee. My cowboy pot had to percolate for quite a while in order for the brew to be strong enough, but if the coffee got too hot, it would be unbearably bitter. I left the entire project, bubbling very gently, on a stone near the fire. I worked the door to the camper open, all canvas and twisted metal; it was a two handed operation. I stripped down to the boxers Jack had gotten me for Christmas, crawled into bed, and fell asleep quickly in the light smoke.
I laughed at the cowboy pot when I woke up. I always woke up before Jack so that I could study a bit and make the coffee. The coffee was my job and it consumed me. I laughed at the pot. The coffee was thick like motor oil and much blacker. The twelve cups of crystal clear stream water was less than half a cup now. The embers overnight must have kept it steaming. I could smell how bitter it was. Very gently, I poured the liquid into a styrofoam cup. This was, after all, extremely luxurious backwoods living. Doing dishes required a long walk to get water, plus dishes in camp seems to be the most miserable fucking job–the water too hot or much too cold–we used styrofoam cups. I let the liquid fall into one and stopped as I saw the real solid portion of the sludge about to push through the spout of my cowboy pot. The cowboy pot was also a Christmas gift. From Santa, to Jimmy, Merry Christmas. Years before the boxers. I mixed in half and half until it was about a one to one mixture. Certainly passable. The thing was warm, plenty warm for the morning. It was the summer, but the mornings were just cold enough to ask for a warm coffee. That’s summer. It wasn’t intentional but I set the cup right by Jack’s bed while I dressed. I added a couple of Splenda packets to cut the bitterness and set it on the counter right by his head.
I tied my boots like my grandfather taught me. That’s a lie. Noone taught me how to tie boots, I don’t think tying boots is really a teachable skill. Maybe someone with more wisdom could extend the life of my laces, but I’ve never noticed a problem. The problem is that I am too romantic, too sentimental. I wish my grandfather had felt the need to teach me to tie boots, but the need doesn’t exist. I tied my own fucking boots. Jack was outside in boxers and boots, his boots were not tied. I reached for the coffee, warm not hot, and it wasn’t there. I froze in the middle of my yawn. Froze like my jaw was permanently wedged open. Outside the absurdly tinted vinyl zippered window stood Jack, boots untied, with a roll of toilet paper in one hand and the warm Styrofoam cup in the other, head all leaned back like a porn star in the shower and the cup against his lips, bottom up, as the last of the coffee went down his throat. My yawn twisted into a mouth-wide-open smile and I screamed for him.
He went and used the toilet paper and came back, still angry, shaking. He laid back in his bed with his boots off and asked why the fuck I didn’t tell him. I laughed now. He probably drank the caffeine equivalent of ten cups of coffee. He laid there sweating hard with shaky hands and his boots off, pissed because I didn’t tell him what was in the warm sludge coffee concoction. I thought that was a little ridiculous given that I was the one who should be angry, he drank all our fucking coffee. I was going to have to make more. Really, he was pissed because he wanted to go fishing. He always wanted to go fishing and now he was mad as hell because he couldn’t go fishing with his dizzy-ass head. I laughed again but I did feel bad. Truth be told, I saw him laugh a little bit too. I grabbed the toilet paper and I knew it was ok.
By day, he fished and I studied. I studied for the exam you have to take to get into school to become a doctor, he fished for trout. While I studied and made ready the fire for the morning, for breakfast, he would sleep or fish. I was intensely jealous of his fishing and sleeping; I always wanted to also be doing one or the other. Instead, I would review book after book and note after note on the picnic table at our smoky campsite. A whole pile of notes and books. I would step out, a bit bundled up even though it was summer because my ankles and shoulders always feel so cold in the morning, and take a dry towel to the dew that polluted my study surface. So long as it hadn’t rained, I would kick in a bit of kindling and quickly restart the fire, layering it with dry wood we kept under a tarp protected by the wings that folded out of our pop-up camper. I would pull the bench close, way too close, so that my ass would hang off the wooden planks and roast like a big cut of pork for a few moments. I would roast my ass until my ankles weren’t cold any more. More than once, a spark would launch itself onto my ample ass and burn a hole in the rear pockets of my pants. I nearly always wore the same pants in the morning.
It was bright, but I could wait for the sun to mount the treeline before I needed to change into shorts, before the powerful heat matched the powerful light. About that point, Jack would come back from fishing. The stream was very close. Across an unkempt prairie the width of a football field, the stream cut into banks and undermined the trees overhanging the water. These are the trees I would wait for the sun to come over. When the water cuts into the bank and undermines the tree, the dirt would be washed from the delicate and dense roots, leaving an Atlantis of sorts for the fish in the water. The roots protect and hide the trout as the trout watch morsels of food float past. One morsel floating past may be too bushy, too slim, the wrong color, too big, too small, moving too much or too little or seeming to contradict the current. If the trout sensed any of these mistakes, we would not be eating trout for lunch.
I hollered. He poked his head out the window and contorted it to look back. He was sitting, wearing sunglasses and a camouflage hat in the drivers seat of his Jeep Cherokee. I was standing behind the truck in knee deep mud, speckled with it from head to boot, my hands and weight on his tail light. His hat said “Ditch Creek Landscape and Design.” He told me not to crack the tail light. With a final push and spray of mud, catastrophic for my morning pants, the Jeep lurched forward, free of the mud. This was not yet a successful venture, mind you. We were on a sort of trail, about twenty-five feet beyond a DNR sign that said “Absolutely No Motoroized Vehicles Beyond This Point.” We passed the sign and were headed down a steep bank to the shallow stream. We had designs to cross the stream and power up the muddy bank on the opposite side. Much to the delight of the DNR, I imagine, we were headed downhill when we became hopelessly mired in the soft bank just before reaching the stream bed. With much effort and a collapsible shovel, courtesy of our mother’s time in the Army, we moved sand and gravel from the stream bed to build each tire a custom road. This, as I said, required much effort. I hollered, he told me not to crack the tail light, and he accelerated, pulling the truck forward with much sand, gravel and effort. The Jeep was now humming and exhausting and rumbling in the stream bed, perpendicular to the current. Each licence plate had two feet of space to the bank. We had the giggles. For the first time we inspected the opposing bank; it was undoubtedly softer and boggier. We giggled a bit as we discussed how to execute a three-point turn in the calf deep water of a swift stream. This maneuver would not please the DNR.
The transmission shook and screamed and with much yelling and rocking and shifting and spitting, first wet boots then socks then pants then asses and shirts and some blood and much giggling. There was much effort. The Jeep sat, smoking, wet, dirty, angry, back on the official road, on the correct side of the DRN sign. They would not be pleased. But we had the giggles.
Recently, not long ago, he was driving in Wyoming. He was headed south to Denver and the roads were slick as hell, ice all over the place, caked on. He was talking to mom, on the phone. I wasn’t there, obviously, I was many miles away: hundreds of them. He came over the top of the hill, on the interstate, and let his foot off the accelerator as he saw the traffic at a dead stop below. The cars were not moving at all, but he was moving fast. I have no doubt his diagaphram crushed upward, crushed his lungs and heart as breathless panic set in.
He was in the boxy jeep, the black jeep with sharp edges a model year older than mine. I got a jeep because he got a jeep, I have always been pulling that kind of bullshit. I think there was probably still mud on the jeep from those years ago. Small collections of dirt pasted to the undersides of pipes and wires and berings and axels and all that shit. He knew what all that shit was. I bet the mud was still there in and around that mechanical tangle, turning the rubber to useless fixtures crumbling like hotel muffins, turning the the metal to a red, flaking, thin crust. After those days living on top of each other in the camper, that mud stuck like it a mouthful of peanut butter. The memory sticks like peanut butter, pleasant slowly becoming unpleasant as it works you over, just stuck and sticky and impossible to remove, impossible to clear out.
He was towing the camper, still. It wasn’t the same, now, of course. The fiberglass shell was cracked to hell and the mechanism that popped it up was broken, like the door. The beds that slid out at each end of the camper when it popped up, back and front, were too rusty to slide like they once did. One bed couldn’t be pulled out really at all anymore: his bed. He had slept on my side in recent years and days, in my bed, the bastard. The camper was latched to the back of his jeep with the ball and the hitch and the chains and the electrical connection you had to wiggle quite a bit if you wanted tail lights, if you wanted brake lights.
He wanted brakes far more than he wanted the fucking brake lights, I bet. That’s an exaggeration you’ll have to forgive, I rolled my eyes when I wrote the fucking words, I already said it was the ice, not the brakes, he had the brakes of course. He had the brakes and the brake lights and the four by four engaged and the transmission humming along ready to go downhill, far less effort than that morning that jeep sat in a stream bed many miles away. He crested that hill and said something into the phone, into the phone to my mom, to his mom. He said something muffled and inaudible, something blue. It annoyed her, I have no doubt, because he was a phone mumbler and the habit was exasperating to a mother. She was annoyed and he hung up the phone and he flashed the brake lights and he turned the wheel and he stayed calm and he checked the four by four, and it was engaged. The camper was twisting around, taking control and letting itself loose on the ice. He would have been suprised to see my end, the end of the camper I slept in, the end he stole, was trying to pass him on the driver side, taking advantage of the ice. I used to sleep right over the brake lights, until he stole my bed. Mom was annoyed he mumbled and hung up, annoyed at the lack of reception in Wyoming, annoyed her oldest boy lived without reception.
My mind wanders now, I gaze around the church and I indulge myself with the memories of the church and the things I remeber about being in it. I remembered the excruciation brought on by every Thursday morning, row after row of blue on blue all tucked in and whipped into paying attention. I sat next to Jack because he was my brother and because we wanted to sit next to each other, there was not an assigned order most weeks. We fidgeted with the Thursday morning boredom like we often did when we were bored, and we were often bored. I recall how the boredom mixed with curiosity as we got older, how the boredom mixed with pride as we watched our younger siblings go through what we went through, how the bordeom ultimately was replaced with a tenuous awe and a timid respect for silence. I startle Dad as I lift the pen from the pocket of his shirt, his sideways glance is annoyed his second-oldest son is reaching for a pen when a pen does not seem to be called for in the atmosphere of tenuous awe and timid respect. I reach for the envelope they give you to put money in. I don’t use the envelope. I do give money but I don’t use the envelope, I linked the church to my bank account because that is what Dad does and I am very much like Dad, in most ways. Jack is not like Dad, but that hasn’t bothered them. I take the envelope and I take the pen I stole from Dad and I ignore his sideways glance and I begin to write. I write about what I’m going to say, I write about fishing, I write about coffee, about camping, about beds and brakes and bunk beds and a burning desire to see him again. The feeling is powerful and overwhelming and I step out of the pew, out of the aisle, out of the church.
I call his phone, Dad pays the phone bill and the kids reimburse him sometimes, the family plan is cheaper. I’m annoyed with his voicemail and annoyed with the lack of reception. I put my phone in my pocket and lift my chin upwards, toward the sky, draining my throat of the annoyance, I shouldn’t be annoyed when I should be grateful. I halt with the vibration against my leg and check my phone.
I know tradgedy only by design, only by the threat of it, only by the imagination of it. I know tradgedy like I know the Eiffel tower or the pyramids at Giza. I know tradgedy like I know the texture of the moon’s surface, I don’t even have a fucking passport, I don’t have time to travel, I have too much debt to travel. Mom and Dad are healthy. His hand is on her back in the pew, Mom and Dad are perhaps too often annoyed, certainly too loving for our own good. The siblings, the younger ones, are up front, all on the right of Mom and Dad. My friends are well, we speak often, we talk on the phone and we plan regular reunions. They will all be at my wedding, there will be noone missing. I have money, I have time, but not enough to travel, not enough for someone’s idea of experience. I go to artisinal coffee shops and I have a big chocolate lab. I check the text in my pocket; “cant talk now brother bear, crazy fender bender. fucked up the brake lights on the camper and one of the windows in the jeep. can you transfer me like 200???” I’m not annoyed, I giggle a little bit, I have the giggles. I think of Emily Dickinson, I think about high school English.
“I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
and what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.”
I have Dad’s pen in my pocket now, I am just like him, I know, Jack is not.