The boy is burning in the front seat of the pickup. The sun feels too close to the earth, and the heat rises like gasoline fumes from the rust-colored hood—the kind of heat that keeps the birds from singing and makes the gun dogs dig ditches in the yard and lay in them. Pop goes on talking with Mrs. Chapman by the bumper. The boy had just come down from Mrs. Chapman’s roof, and his calves burned. He’d been pulling squirrel bones mixed with acorns and dead leaves from the gutters while Pop banged shingles to the roof with his hammer. In front of the pickup, Pop moves his hands while he talks. Pop does everything with his hands, and the boy knows Pop isn’t afraid of anything because of it.
The day they told Pop the paper mill was closing, he came home from work and said, “Close it down. Think I care?” The boy could see the worry in the shape of his mom’s face, in the soft lines below her eyes, in the angle of her thin lips. Pop had said not to worry, “A man who knows how to use his hands can always take care of his family.”
Pop drove the boy and his mom down to watch when the wreckers crawled out to destroy it. The boy’s baby brother was still living in his mom’s stomach then. He sat in his mom’s lap and could feel the baby in there while they drove.
“Big as a cantaloupe?” asked the boy.
“Yeah,” his mother said. “About that big.”
Pop parked the pickup in the lot beside a pile of machinery the mill owners pulled out to sell for scrap metal. Before the wreckers started, Pop hoisted the boy up onto his shoulders. The boy looked down along the orange construction fence at the other men who were standing in line, hands on their hips or folded across their chests. “They’re just scared,” Pop whispered and patted the boy’s legs. Bricks crumbled when the wreckers started swinging, glass shattered, little shards chimed against the earth, and every door and window bellowed with smoke until the building was a pile of rubble. Pop didn’t move a muscle the entire time. Pop wasn’t afraid of anything.
The morning after the wreckers took the mill down, while the sun was still hiding below the hills, the boy and Pop drove back to the parking lot and loaded the pickup with machine parts, copper pipes, brass door nobs, and whatever else they could sell at the scrap yard where the machines lived. On the way through town, the boy asked why they were out so early and whose metal was in the bed. Pop looked at the boy and said, “A man takes care of the things he loves, no matter what that means.” That was before Pop started teaching the boy how to be a man. Now the boy knew how to take care of some things; he knew how to climb a ladder, swing a hammer, carry lumber on his shoulder, and he knew the names of Pop’s tools.
The boy watches Pop’s hand touch Mrs. Chapman’s arm. He knows Pop could bend metal with those hands, move trees or break rocks if he wanted. Now that the mill is gone, Pop’s hands are rough, and the skin on his neck feels like the skin of his boots. Pop says something funny to Mrs. Chapman, and his laugh thunders out of his chest like there’s a storm rolling on inside of him. The words fade out before the boy can hear, but Mrs. Chapman smiles, teeth lined up in a row, white like the little pearls and dinosaur bones the boy finds by the river when Pop takes him fishing. Pop likes Mrs. Chapman’s smile, the boy knows by the way Pop’s brown eyes open wide. Then Mrs. Chapman hands Pop a check.
The pickup moans when Pop pulls himself in. He leans forward with his arms on the steering wheel and watches Mrs. Chapman walk through the grass to her house. Her white dress floats at the bottom like the one the boy’s mom wears, except his mom’s dress is blue like the color of the sky when they leave for work in the morning. She wears her dress on her days off, but Pop and the boy both know that she doesn’t have a green front yard or a house with a garage and two floors to wear it in.
“We’re going home now, Pop?” asks the boy. He wants to move crates to the pine trees so he can reach the branches and climb. He’s going to find bird eggs in the branches, hatch one in the house, and teach it spy on Pop and his mom when they tell him to go outside so they can talk.
“One more stop, Pal.”
The boy feels the pickup rumble beneath him. The trees swallow the Chapman’s house in the rearview as Pop pulls the pickup down the long driveway and onto the road, which bends like a coal colored copy of the muddy river running beside it.
“Doesn’t Mrs. Chapman have a husband?” asks the boy.
Pop laughs and says, “What’s it to you?” He combs the black hair back off of his forehead with his fingers.
“Why doesn’t he do the work?”
“Because that’s our job,” Pop says.
“What’s Mrs. Chapman’s job then?” asks the boy.
“Being beautiful,” Pop says and laughs again.
Then the boy wonders why his mom works at the old folks’ home. She’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Sometimes he misses her during the day, but he never tells Pop. Before the boy started learning about being a man, he used to stay home with her all day. He’d fight battles in the woods, throw rocks at bears, and sail boats down the creek in their back yard. That was before the mill closed, and his mom went to work at the old folks’ home.
When she said she was going to work, Pop said, “God damn it!” The boy was at the table listening to them, sucking air through pieces of macaroni his mom had cooked for dinner. What was wrong with his mom? Didn’t she know if she just waited Pop would have enough work to take care of everything? When Pop yelled, his mom placed her hand on top of the boy’s baby brother, showing under her summer dress. The boy knew things were going bad; he always knew. It was like someone squeezing. It was like sand in his throat. Pop grew quiet after he yelled, like the forest before a cloudburst. The boy took a bite of macaroni but couldn’t swallow it because of the sand. Then Pop said, “Go outside, Pal.”
From the big, rough trunks of the pines in the back of the yard, the boy watched his parents through the kitchen window. Pop’s voice shook the pinecones and bristly limbs and made the birds hush and hide in their nests. The boy watched Pop’s hands fly through the air inside the house, shaking, pulling his hair out to the sides. He knew Pop didn’t want his mom working because that was his job. The boy could hear it in the punch of Pop’s voice and feel it all around him, stuck in the pine pitch and maple sap. The gun dogs started crying when they heard Pop’s voice. All through it, his mom just stood there with her hands over her stomach. She was whispering to his baby brother inside her, “It’s just like a thunderstorm, sweet baby. It’s almost through.”
When the boy went back inside, Pop was at the table, red-faced with deep lines across his forehead.
“Pop’s bringing you to work in the morning,” his mom said.
The boy stomped his foot on the ground. He wanted to stay home and fight battles, climb trees, and catch birds.
“You’ll be a man someday,” Pop said. “You could use to learn a few things.”
The faded yellow lines dart past the pickup like they don’t want to get caught in Pop’s rearview. In the pickup’s bed, the leash clips flap and crack off of the metal bed where the gun dogs sit in the fall when Pop goes fowl hunting. Pop had promised to teach the boy to set decoys, work the jerk string, shoot, and command the gun dogs in the fall when the ducks come through. The boy doesn’t want to shoot the ducks. He wants to catch and train them. Pop had already taught the boy to catch fish and gut them. When the boy asked, Pop said the fish couldn’t feel, but the boy knew birds had feelings. He was afraid of hurting them.
“River’s low,” says Pop.
A dark shadow falls from the railroad trestle and stretches across the river’s surface. The boy scans the river’s rust-colored banks. The rocks scattered across the surface are smooth like his Mom’s belly when his baby brother was living in her.
“Someone fell in?” asks the boy.
Last summer, when the boy was six, the firemen walked through the riverbed with nets and long poles poking around for the little girl. The boy heard his parents talking about her. The boy was supposed to be asleep, but he listened to his parents through the door. Didn’t her parents notice she was gone? They must have been drunk.
“It’s the heat, Pal,” Pop says. “The sun sucks the water right up out of it.”
“What about the fish?”
“They find a deep pool and go all sorts of crazy in the sun.”
The boy wonders if the sun took the little girl away, or if she’s in some deep river pool with the fish and the snappers going all sorts of crazy around her.
The clouds look like spilled milk in the sky over town, and the sun is smeared at its edges like the light bulb in the shed where Pop keeps his tools. The daylight pours over the bricks and sends long, white fingers across the dusty storefronts on the opposite side of the road. Pop eases the pickup around the turn and rumbles up the road toward New Hampshire. The boy knows the road because he rides with Pop and his mom on Sundays to buy cigarettes and food for the dogs tax-free. But instead of going north, Pop turns at the water tower.
The boy knows where they’re going. The Parkers have a lonely, old Victorian house at the end of a dirt road. The boy doesn’t like the house because it’s dark inside and goes on forever. Mirrors reflect everything inside, and the boy gets afraid sometimes that his reflection will do something different than his body. Pop has been working on a job there since the boy started learning to be a man, but Pop doesn’t teach him at the Parkers’ house.
“Last stop,” says Pop. “Shouldn’t be long.”
Pop holds the boy’s hand on the way up the stone walkway. He doesn’t bring his toolbox in anymore. He said he only needs his hands.
The birds dunk in Mrs. Parker’s birdbaths and eat from the long feeders hanging from the trees in her front yard. They don’t like to go inside like they do the boy’s house because the Parkers’ house is like a cave and so big you could get lost and never come out. When Mrs. Parker opens the door, she leans forward and runs her finger across the boy’s cheek. Her hair is down over her shoulders, blond like his Mom’s, but longer.
“The men are here,” she says like someone else is home.
She grabs the boy’s hand and pulls him into the house. The shades are drawn to keep the sun out, and the wood floors moan under foot and echo through the open rooms. The boy feels something invisible floating through the air. He pretends it isn’t there, but he knows Pop feels it too. Mrs. Parker disappears into the kitchen and reappears with a plate and a tall glass of lemonade. She places the plate down on the coffee table in the living room. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich rests in the center, cut diagonally down the middle. Mrs. Parker doesn’t know the boy only likes sandwiches the way his mom makes them, with the middle punched out in two circles with a juice cup.
“You stay right here, Pal,” says Pop.
“Don’t I need to learn, Pop?” asks the boy. He doesn’t want to miss the lesson. Mrs. Parker laughs. Doesn’t she know the boy is learning how to be a man and take care of the things he loves?
“Not today. Stay right here.”
Mrs. Parker leads Pop down the hall, and the boy hears them climb the stairs and pass through the upstairs of the house together. The boy knows things about the house—he’s tiptoed through it while Pop has worked upstairs. He knows that there are pictures on the Parkers’ walls of places the boy has never been. He knows there are other rooms, secret rooms with trapdoors he’s never seen. He knows Pop and Mrs. Parker will look different when they come downstairs. Sometimes he feels like someone else is home when they go upstairs.
The boy drinks the lemonade and looks around the room. Then he flips the cup over and punches the middle of the sandwich from the crust. There aren’t any cartoons on the television, only talk shows and courtroom shows with people arguing about money. The boy hasn’t watched cartoons since Pop broke the television the night his baby brother turned into an angel.
That night Pop said, “You have to stay home, Pal, take care of the house.” His mom was already in the pickup.
The neighbor girl came over and helped the boy make a banner in colored pencils that said, “Welcome Home, Baby Brother.” They hung it between the posts on the front porch over the steps.
The boy woke up that night when the pickup’s headlights skated across the living room wall. He ran outside, jumped off the porch, and sprinted a circle in the damp grass. The neighbor girl came out behind him. They stood in the grass together. “What’s he doing?” she asked.
When Pop finally got out, he stormed past without a word, and slammed the front door behind him. There was silence. Then everything broke. And the entire time, the banner just floated in the breeze above the porch, “Welcome Home, Baby Brother.”
People are arguing on the television, but the boy listens to Mrs. Parker’s house creak and moan. The fridge kicks on and hums in the kitchen. There are footsteps in all of the secret rooms, like everything inside of the house is waking up. Pop said not to move, but the boy needs to know what Pop is doing upstairs. He knows he’ll be a man someday. He doesn’t look to either side as he tiptoes through the kitchen. Someone he doesn’t want to see could be there. On the back porch, he looks at the pines rising up over the backyard. The lowest branches sweep the ground. All he needs is an egg to hatch into a bird.
The pine trees in Mrs. Parker’s backyard are taller than the ones behind the boy’s house, but easier to climb. The tops of them touch the milky sky. The birds are quiet as the boy eases through the needled branches. He whistles on his way up the way Pop taught him, moving quickly from branch to branch. He knows he needs to hurry so Pop doesn’t finish the job before he can find out what it is and how it’s done. He climbs like Pop taught him to climb the ladder, one foot over the other, both feet on before reaching the next rung.
The branches at the bottom of the tree are fat and sticky with pitch, and as he climbs, he whistles and searches the branches for eggs. When he reaches the clouds at the top, the branches are smooth, thin as pencils and bend under his boots. He can see the whole world from the top. He can see places that only the birds and maybe his baby brother know about. The town is trapped in a mess of trees in the valley below him. The river runs through like a gigantic worm. The boy knows his mother is down there somewhere. He blows a kiss into the breeze for her.
Over the trees before town, two birds rock back and forth on the wind currents. The boy yells to them, “Hey birds, I need your help!”
The birds don’t listen as he yells, but he keeps yelling until his chest hurts. Then he hears the window slide open behind him. Pop thunders his name. The boy turns in the tree and sees Pop, shirtless, leaning through a second floor window. Mrs. Parker is standing behind him bare-shouldered, wrapped in a blanket. A gust of wind blows from his father’s voice when he speaks again. The branches shake, no, the whole tree shakes from the power of Pop’s voice. The clouds stream through the boy’s hair and around his body. His hands slip from the branches, and the wind sweeps him from the tree.
The boy flaps his arms like he sees the birds do their wings. For a moment, until the air rushes past his ears, he can’t tell if he’s flying or falling. Time slows. His body turns. He feels the branches brush against his back and face. He sees his Pop in the room with Mrs. Parker. He knows what happens when his parents go into their bedroom and close the door. They send him outside to play or put him into bed and shut the door. But he knows, and he wishes he didn’t have to see Pop with Mrs. Parker in there. As the air rushes past he can hear everything. The birds are singing in the branches, everyone is awake in Mrs. Parker’s house, images move in her mirrors without anyone in front of them, footsteps sound over the floorboards. The boy yells to Pop. He isn’t afraid; he knows Pop can do anything with his hands. He knows Pop is on his way to catch him.
Arms twist when he hits the ground, legs bend, and the boy’s little body grinds into the earth. The pain feels like electricity exploding into the air. It feels like wreckers pounding the inside of his head. The world sounds like it’s underwater, fish and snappers going crazy everywhere. He hears the gun dogs. He hears them howling until he realizes the sounds are trickling from his own mouth. All he can see is the shadow of Pop in the room, holding Mrs. Parker the way he’s supposed to hold the boy’s mom.
Then the boy hears Pop’s boots pound across the yard. He plants the boy’s feet on the earth, and brushes him off. Pop crouches before him, shirtless, wearing only his blue jeans, belt unbuckled, hair disheveled and pushed to the side.
“What were you thinking?” Pop says to him. He wraps his arms around the boy and pulls him into his bare chest. “I told you not to leave the couch, Pal. What were you thinking going up there and scaring me like that?” The boy sees Mrs. Parker over Pop’s shoulder. She’s standing on her back porch in a bathrobe, her eyes wide, a hand covering her mouth.
“I just wanted to learn, Pop,” says the boy. “I need to know how to take care of things.”
Pop moves him back. There’s something in Pop’s eyes the boy has never seen before. It’s a look that lets him know things are going to be different. It makes him wish he were in the woods, fighting battles and catching birds, but he knows he’s going to be a man soon. He knows that men take care of the things in their lives, but he doesn’t know if he can do it. As he looks Pop in the eye and feels Pop’s hands trembling, gripping his arms, he knows there are things about being a man he can’t understand.
He wonders why Pop didn’t catch him—why Pop made him hit the ground.