With all the men gone, we boys became men. Suddenly, the week of my sixteenth birthday, in that thick, humid mess of a summer, I became an adult male. Chris and I drove to the Black Lantern and ordered vodka shots and then beer after beer. Around us in the bar, everyone was drinking illegally. Spiros shrugged as he made thirteen-year-old Billy Markovich a vodka martini. “Nobody else is here to drink,” he said. “I need to make a living, don’t I? If you have money, you drink.”
Billy nearly gagged on his olive, but he knocked the drink back and motioned for another one.
Boys of thirteen and fourteen howled wildly, glasses raised, bottoms up. The television was switched from ESPN to MTV. We made lewd comments about the women in the music videos.
We took summer jobs to help our mothers pay bills. You could find us gutting abandoned houses, cutting lawns, cleaning pools, pumping gas, flipping burgers. After work we’d come back to the Black Lantern. Vodka, our fathers’ drink of choice, coursed through our veins and through our minds and hearts and finally down to our pubescent cocks, which were alive and on fire. Every sixteen- and seventeen-year-old male in Maple Rock was a commodity that summer, and we lost our virginity like it was spare change. I had sex with Mrs. Gagliardi, a large-breasted woman in her early thirties, who came to the Black Lantern one Saturday evening, drunk, and led me up Warren Avenue to her house. In the morning, she had me get dressed immediately and leave. She didn’t want to see me in the daylight, and because I was young, and unskilled in these areas of the heart and flesh, I was hurt by her coldness.
Chris, always more precocious and confident than me, was having sex with half of the women who worked at the Kroger store where he was a stockboy. His redheaded manager, Sue Parsons, he said, was the best. He said there were rainbows in his eyes when he came. He said he didn’t care if the fathers ever returned from the moon.
Older women didn’t seem to have the same consistent interest in me, but many nights I did go over to see Sonya Stecko, who was my age, and we made out in her basement for hours. Since her father had disappeared long ago, I pulled off her sweatshirt and she undid the zipper of my jeans, knowing that there was nobody who’d come tearing down the stairs, wanting to kill me for what I was doing with his daughter.
Walking home from Sonya’s one night, I saw Chris sprawled out on the front lawn of Tanya Jaworski’s house. He had a puffy eye and blood all over the front of his shirt. He said he thought his nose was broken.
I said, “Is Tanya’s father back?”
He said, “No. Her mother did this.”
And, believe me, if we became men, our mothers did too. They took jobs. Those who already had jobs took second jobs. Some of the mothers even came to the Black Lantern and drank with us, they arm-wrestled and hollered and broke bottles for emphasis when making speeches. They were working ten, twelve, sixteen hours a day. Once the police even brought my mother home. She said it was all a big mistake, and I stood there in the living room, appalled by her behavior. When the cops left, telling me to get my mother some aspirin and put her to bed, my mother yelled “fucking fascists” and the cops simply nodded and said good night. The cops were thinking, I imagine, what I was thinking. These strong women were doing the best they could. So what if they acted a little out of character, if sometimes they let their responsibilities slide? Their husbands were on the moon. Who could deny them some happiness?
My mother worked two jobs. Days, she taught music at St. Joseph’s grade school, and three nights a week she cleaned offices in Plymouth, one of the suburbs to the north where men could still be found on Saturday afternoons, mowing lawns, washing cars, fixing bikes. Meanwhile, our house was in chaos. Kolya and I tried to keep up with things like laundry and dishes, but we failed. My mother would come home tired, her face blank and void of worry thanks to a few beers. On her bed, there would still be a pile of clean laundry that I had not had time to put away. She’d crawl in under the fabric-softener-scented towels and sheets and underwear and sleep the sleep of the hardworking, under heaps of clean linen. The next morning, she’d try to get some housework done, but she could do little more in the mornings than drink a half-pot of coffee, shower, get dressed, and drive off to work.
That doesn’t mean that we gave up hope that our fathers would return: Chris had the idea that he knew where some, if not all, of our fathers had gone. There was an old hunting cabin on forty acres near Cadillac where his father, and many of our fathers, went a few times a year.
Kyle Hartley was pretty much sober, and he owned an old work van, so there was room for almost a dozen of us to cram into the back of that Dodge. My mother was working that night, so little Kolya was with me, smiling like God’s grace itself. I let him have a can of beer. We all sat in the back of the van on paint cans and crates and toolboxes and headed north. Hitting the interstate, we yelled and sang and roared, whiskey fires in our bellies. We made Kolya dance. We boasted of the women whom we planned to sleep with, the jobs we were going to get in places like Texas and Alaska, the houses and cars we were going to buy someday.
Somewhere near Muskegon, people started to fall asleep and it got quiet. Kyle kept driving, Chris in the front seat egging him on, whispering, telling him how he knew this would be the place—the only place—that all these men would go.
“What will we do when we find them?” Kyle said.
“Kick the shit out of them,” Chris said. “And then drag their asses back home so they can take care of everybody the way they’re supposed to, the cocksuckers.”
I stayed awake, sitting on an overturned five-gallon bucket, picturing a sandy lot on a small lake, a lot covered with a rainbow medley of small tents, where our fathers slept under the stars, the sounds of nature lulling them into dreamless sleep. And now, this is stupid: I started to tell Kolya about it. Oh yeah, Kolya, they fish for their supper there, they wear deer skins and make fires for heat. Oh yeah, they have a nice time, and at sunset, they sing all the Ukrainian songs, the ones Grandpa used to sing to us. Man, Kolya’s eyes were about to fall out of his head. He kept standing on his tiptoes to see out the window. It was too dark to see, though, so I kept up the stories about this place we were going to be at by morning.
Kolya laughed so hard he about wet himself. I let him pee in a coffee can, which I emptied of its contents—nuts, bolts, screws. He thought peeing in the can was hilarious and I saw a joy in his face I hadn’t seen for a long, long time. Of course, he was eight, and he’d had a whole can of beer. But I didn’t see that then, didn’t realize my little brother was drunk. I just saw myself as the best big brother in the world. Which I wasn’t. I maybe was the worst—at least at that time, I think I was.
It was almost dawn when we arrived at the cabin. Chris hadn’t remembered the directions perfectly and we drove down a number of wrong roads, curvy tree-lined gravel roads with small animals darting across them.
The driveway to the cabin was rough and narrow. Those of us in the back of the van half stood, looking out the windshield. The sun was close enough to the horizon now that even coming down the driveway we had enough light to see there was nobody there.
Somebody suggested that we might as well get out and swim in the lake for a while, but nobody else wanted to do that. It was late August and had already turned cold up north. We were already all going to be late for work anyway. We turned around and went back home. Kolya was asleep for the whole thing, curled up on my down hunting vest like a cat. I didn’t wake him until we got home, and then I told him it was all a dream.
Chris and I did not go back to school that fall. We did this partly because we wanted to work, and partly because we could begin drinking in the mornings at the Black Lantern. I was beginning to shave and had the first markings of serious stubble. Chris didn’t shave much yet, but his curly hair had grown long and frazzled and he chain-smoked Winstons like a movie star.
We ate bacon and eggs every morning and scarfed down fast food for dinner. We put on weight. Our faces grew fat and square. We kept ball peen hammers and thick chains under the seats of our cars in case there was trouble. Once I watched Chris take a hammer to a man’s face.
In November, Chris and I and some friends went back up north, to hunt deer. We went back to Camp Kiev, the abandoned hunting cabin where we had hoped to find our fathers a few months before. We figured, if we’d gone through all that trouble to find Camp Kiev in the first place, we could at least take it over and make it a hideaway of our own. We loaded the car with coolers and guns and blaze-orange hats and coats. We were all smoking and drinking coffee. Our mothers watched us get into our cars and trucks and drive away. We knew what they were worrying about, and the week we were gone, we knew they would stand staring at the moon, wondering if we’d disappear too.
I had always been a good shot, though my father was one of the few men in Maple Rock who did not hunt. I learned how to hunt from Uncle John, who’d been manic in his pursuit of venison for the winter. I had shot bucks before, though I was in no mood to do it that season. Chris, however, was on fire with determination. The first two days, he sat in the woods for ten hours or more. He’d come back to camp after dark, dehydrated and empty.
On the third day, we were walking back to camp around noon when a buck, obviously frightened by another man’s shot, came tearing across the path and then, seeing us, froze. Chris lifted his gun. The buck was easily an eight-point, maybe ten. I didn’t want Chris to kill it. I almost yelled to scare the buck away, and I should have. I realized that the last thing I wanted to do that season was kill a deer. But maybe I should have taken the shot myself.
Chris lifted his gun, fired three shots, and the buck staggered and fell.
I do not know how to explain what he did next, but it hangs in my memory as something sad and hopeless and sick. Seeing the buck fall, Chris let out a howl as shrill and as eerie as the call of a wounded coyote. He ran down the path to the deer. He spit on the deer and kicked at its back legs. Then he dropped to his knees, yelled and screamed and began to punch at the deer with his fists. Blood covered his knuckles. “You’re mine, you bitch,” he yelled. He yelled and yelled it, over and over. Like his father, Chris has large hands, and as he punched the deer, you could hear tendons and bones snapping, and the dull thud of flesh pounding flesh, which echoed off the trees and must have carried for miles.
I watched his war celebration from down the path. I lifted my gun, took the safety off, and aimed it at Chris’s head. I yelled, “Hey!” but he ignored me. I yelled three more times and he ignored me. Finally, I shot the gun straight into the air. Chris fell on the ground.
“What the fuck?” he said.
“Get up and leave that buck alone. Quit fucking around. I mean it. Now, or I’ll blow your goddamn head off.”
Chris has his father’s temper and I knew that what I was doing might lead to one of us getting killed. We were angry and young and full of adrenaline and booze and there were firearms in our hands. Chris stood up and brushed himself off and dropped his hands to his sides.
“Okay,” he said. “Help me drag this fucker back to camp.”
I could see his heart was swelling with the anger and violence of his father, and I could tell that he did not know where it was coming from or what he should have done with it. I feared he would go mad. Who would do such a thing to a dead deer?
This anger was what was becoming of us. Don’t think for a moment that because we were good, strong boys we could handle all of this: we couldn’t. We almost killed ourselves with rage. We would grow up trampling over things, tearing things down, and people would look at us and wonder why we had such violence in our hearts.
Chris and I dragged the buck through the woods. Behind us, the carcass crunched through leaves and snapped sticks. Chris was fighting tears, his hands shaking.
“I feel sick,” he said, his voice breaking. “My heart’s going a mile a minute.”
When we came home from deer hunting, the buck tied to our roof, we smelled of sweat and the woods and blood, and our mothers cupped our faces in their cool hands and kissed us and cried out of joy. For a moment we were all boys again.
Did we miss them? We did.
I know the women missed their husbands, but we, the boys, we missed our fathers.
At night, we looked off to the distance for a set of headlights that might signal that one of the disappeared was home. I sometimes imagined several buses would pull into the parking lot of the Kmart and our fathers would stream out of the bus doors with ball caps and pennants, like they’d been away at a baseball game somewhere. Sometimes I imagined aliens would land in spacecrafts and release the men, like the hostage situations you’d see on the news. Our fathers would come down the ramp with their hands on their heads, tears on their unshaven and greasy faces.
Inexplicably, I felt a war was coming on, and for many nights I had dreams that I died in battle. I dreamed of mountains that crumbled and rivers that flooded. My dreams were apocalyptic and savage. I began to fear that I was a prophet and that I would soon be called upon to speak. I waited on God’s voice.
By Christmas it was clear that we were not going to see our fathers anytime soon. We ate turkeys and learned how to carve them alone. I ruined our turkey; the bird ended up in ugly chunks, like a carcass ripped apart by dogs. My mother had become a vegetarian and Kolya was spending Christmas with his friend’s family, a richer, larger, father-still-there family that had moved from Maple Rock to Northville that year. They had taken Kolya to Disney World for the holiday, so I was the only one there to eat that turkey. I ate turkey for a week, and still there was some I had to throw away.
One night, a January blizzard dumping snow on Detroit, I fought a Serbian guy in the parking lot of the Black Lantern, a guy who said he was nailing Sonya Stecko. He broke a glass bottle across my back, cracking a rib and knocking the wind out of my lungs. Things went black and then things got clear and started spinning in a lovely fog. Finally, when he hit me with another bottle, this time across the back of my head, I passed out. The bottle didn’t break.
Chris woke me up in the empty lot. He said, “Thank God you have a soft head.”
He helped me off the ground and I dusted myself off and cleaned my face back inside the bar’s rest room. When I came out, Spiros had poured me a tall glass of beer. I drank the beer and checked my jaw. I felt fine. I was going to be okay. Please understand—I missed my father, but I was having one of those moments when I didn’t want him to come back home. I would survive many things without him and I was capable of doing things on my own.
For the most part, we pictured our fathers sad and alone. We could see them riding in flea-ridden freight cars on bumpy tracks. We could see them struggling to make campfires on a beach as the wind whipped off the ocean and sand stung their faces. We saw them in anonymous cities, dwarfed by skyscrapers, trying to get together enough spare change for a hot dog or a bowl of soup. We saw them climbing desert mountains, muscles tearing and burning with fatigue, tongues swollen with thirst.
True, as much as these desolate images appealed to us, we also pictured our fathers happy. We imagined our fathers on the moon, with castles and pools and huge wooden tables of food and beer. We imagined them lounging nude in hot tubs and saunas with women half their age, women whom we’d never seen before, women who maybe were already on the moon when our fathers arrived. We imagined the climate of the moon to be temperate and we imagined our fathers sang songs praising the lives they had there. We sensed that there was music on the moon. Sometimes, we imagined, a man, one of our fathers, would glance down at the earth and feel a vague memory and the sting of loss, but we knew such an action would be rare. As we grew older and the men stayed away, such images of happiness became stronger and seemed more realistic. We saw our fathers in a paradise. We could not escape these images and certainly we could not escape the truth—men had disappeared and their sad lives became happy ones.
Sometimes, when we drank too much and such thoughts angered us in the parking lot of the Black Lantern, we threw stones and bottles at the moon, and we imagined that we were tearing the hearts from our chests, sending them hurling through heaven where our fathers could see them and know this: we, their sons, were below them, bleeding.
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