The following is from the opening of a new novel, Nature Boy:
In 1958, when I was fifteen years old, I worked for two months on a squalid dairy farm in Jericho, Maine, and received an education in things my mother’d never taught me, although you’d think my mother’s misspent youth, which wasn’t divulged to me until I was middle-aged, would have prepared her to prepare me for this experience, and for the seamy people involved, the farmer and his helper, Lester and Aljo, both brutish pranksters. Combined with certain events at the Boy Scout camp that employed me earlier that summer, events in Jericho led to my impulsive decision one day to simply walk away, to leave Lester and Aljo behind and storm out of the barn and cross the pasture and enter the woods and walk due south, so angry and chagrined that I couldn’t see straight. I was determined to walk all the way home to Cambridge, an impossible undertaking, Cambridge being nearly a hundred and fifty miles away. Not to mention the fact that Cambridge was hardly better than Jericho, for there I possessed only the barest control over the sequence of events that I called my life, whereas in Jericho at least I could walk away. “My life!” Whatever that was, I lived it, I didn’t reflect on or name it, instead it engulfed me, I was immersed in it, it was something I experienced but hardly reflected on. I was aware of my life, yet my life, I think now, was not aware of me. There was a slot for me in the world, I think now, but I didn’t fit it. I was a sketch on butcher paper wrapping scraps of meat and bone, and as I walked through the woods I pictured my face gruesomely angered about the eyes and mouth, and enjoyed it. Lester and Aljo. Lester Sullivan, the former high school football star, the twenty-four year-old alcoholic farmer who’d taken charge of his family’s eighty acres and forty-nine cows; Aljo, born Albert Joseph Parsons, Lester’s paid hand that summer, only a year my senior, but that year gave him the right to lord it over me and carp at everything I did. Needless to say, I was not paid, I was Uncle Dickie’s gift to Lester Sullivan, who provided room and board but was too strapped to pay me. During the school year, I’d worked for my uncle at his clothing store in Harvard Square, which sold he-togs for Harvies, and when one day he caught me slipping a Wembley tie into my pocket (I needed it for a party) he offered not to tell my parents if I helped a friend of his out. The friend was Lester Sullivan. Uncle Dickie owned a hunting cabin close to Lester’s farm, where during hunting season he dressed in vintage L.L. Bean hunting garb, attire that no respectable Maine hunters would be caught dead in: jodhpurs, tweed jacket and pants, a Tyrolean hat with a feather in the band. Picture him with a shotgun across his arms and the usual shit-eating FDR grin on his face, poised to take a bite out of life! Uncle Dickie invited boys from my neighborhood to his cabin on weekends and taught them how to fire a shotgun, how to dress a fallen deer, how to drive a tractor. He’d built the cabin himself. Straight and true, built with logs painted brown, it loomed above its driveway alone in a field. The inside smelled of the damp ashes in the fireplace. On one of those weekends, I remember, two men in double breasted coats, associates of Uncle Dickie, threw betting slips into the fire blazing away in the moss-stone fireplace. Lester’s farm would straighten me out, he said, but at first I demurred because I’d already been hired to work at Camp Pocamasset in New Hampshire that summer, Camp Pokey for short. Then Camp Pokey itself turned out to be sordid, and I fled there first, I ran away from that place, everyone, I told myself, ought to run away at least once in his or her life – I myself did it two times that summer, beginning with Camp Pokey, near Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where I phoned Uncle Dickie, who said he’d drive up from Cambridge and deliver me to Jericho and introduce me to Lester. When Uncle Dickie grabbed my arm with the guilty tie in its hand a second skin ignited and peeled off my body leaving me naked and exposed. The feeling of shame burned me alive, but can a strong grip and single withering look do that? I felt humiliated, but not by him, by myself. I might have been lowlife yet I was a Boy Scout too and I fervently believed in the Boy Scout law, that is, to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly and all that. Fleeing the farm, I ran through the east pasture to the forest that began across the fence. The woods were thick with trees, mostly hemlock, spruce and the darker firs, no good for firewood or lumber, Aljo had informed me, otherwise they would have been cut down by now, which would have made my progress less demanding, yet every now and then one had been cut down, the wood chips fresh and yellow, or been uprooted by winds, and the trunk still lay there, perhaps identified as worthless, on top of other logs, its branches barring the way, with the result that, soon after I fled Lester’s barn and commenced walking through the woods, I found myself climbing over logs propped on each other, the lower ones rotten and covered with moss, those on top still green, all annoying obstructions, and the further I walked the more trees blocked the route, or no, there was no route, just endless trees, dead and fallen, soft and hard, some piled high, an infinity of dead ends. Sunlight crossed through them far more easily than I could. I’d never walked through these woods before, and all I knew now was the furious urge to pass through them toward my home. The feeling I had was that all America lay before me, with the Boston area its portal. Gradually, the forest unfolded amid slashes of sand and every now and then an ash tree or beech with spreading branches opened a clearing where last year’s brown leaves covered the dry, sandy earth. I was thirsty; it was hot; the heat felt like an iron shield just withdrawn from the forge and clamped on my back. At Camp Pokey I’d taught the urban tenderfoot campers, who only knew from pavement, sidewalks and power lines, that a certain tree, the black birch, would slake your thirst if you broke off a branch and peeled the bark and sucked on the wood, which tasted like wintergreen, and now in a clearing I spotted several such trees and availed myself of this remedy. But the clearings were hazardous. There, the deer flies, alerted to my presence, circled my head and necklaced my neck and bit and bit and couldn’t be swatted. Their bite looked and felt as though made by a hole puncher for inserting papers in three ring folders. They were unrestrainingly aggressive, those deer flies, their buzzsaw noise maddening and persistent, and they buzzed in middle C, leave it to Maine flies to buzz in middle C, and the heat and humidity grew worse with the effort to ward them off. I, too, mostly knew pavement and the sclerosis of a city, its hardened passageways. The city presses against you and after a while you want to take refuge in your little bedroom inside your little home on your little street from everyone and everything. At least a forest is porous. When it isn’t blockaded by fallen trees. My shoulders and armpits, my crotch, my legs and feet, all stickily pinched my flesh as I walked, as though I’d been plastered head to toe with sheets of postage stamps and had been mailed to some unknown destination. I ran. Swinging at the deer flies, I ran but couldn’t outrun them. Drops of sweat fell from my forehead and nose, ran down my neck and sides. I began to regret my hasty decision to flee the farm, to flee what Lester had done to me, but the more I regretted it the more stubbornly I clung to it, dodging fallen trees and skirting the underbrush, some of it poison ivy. I was nothing if not stubborn, all my life I’d been stubborn. Abruptly, a boulder as large as a truck loomed before me, and I collapsed against it and felt its cool hardness. There I sat with my back against the rock, which was evidently krypton for the deer flies, who left me alone. Krypton is stupid, there’s no such thing as krypton. The rock wall of the boulder against which my upper body reclined prevented the deer flies from circling my head, that was it, I thought. Their instinct when attacking is to circle your head but now they couldn’t circle it so they’d flown off meekly when just minutes ago they’d been so powerful and vicious. I thought of the farmhouse and Lester and Aljo, with whom I shared a bed; the house was small, a saltbox. In a second floor bedroom with one projecting window recessed through a slanted ceiling, our bed occupied significant floor-space, even though it wasn’t very big. Its wrought-iron swirls on the headboard and similar scroll work on the footboard looked like the gates to country graveyards. It was a poor man’s brass bed without the brass, not exactly a double, and its quilted coverlet smelled of mildew and possessed a mossy texture that felt like uncooked oatmeal. On the ceiling above it was a smear of blood that I stared at for who knows how long, but I didn’t dare ask Aljo what it was, he and I hardly ever spoke. Shaped like a tadpole with, for its tail, a slipstream of gore, the smear spoke of someone’s vigilance, probably Lena’s, Lester’s wife, yes, that was it, she’d swatted a fly. Her vigilance, however, hadn’t impelled her to wipe the blood off the ceiling, maybe because its appearance disgusted her and she didn’t wish to spend more time in that room. Mashed by the swatter, the fly’s guts had become a dry crust of crud. It could have been a sign, I thought, but of what, a sign of what? It wasn’t a sign, it was just a dead fly, everything doesn’t always have to mean something. In that bed I lay at night with my back to Aljo, and he with his back to me, neither of us uttering a word and each religiously determined not to move. Uncle Dickie had said the farm would straighten me out but it was Aljo, a mostly prickly, contumacious sixteen-year-old, who needed straightening, I thought. When I first arrived he was outside the barn and half turned away, and so bent over I thought he was an old man. He’d just crawled from Lester’s pickup. His cracked posture, his morphological type – wiry, angled forward – made me think, old man, but when he swung his face around, thin as an ax, and stared at me I saw that his features were youthful and smooth and he was close to my age. His shoulders were bony, though, like a geezer’s. He watched me, and looked up and down at my clothes (which, to my mind, were flashy and cool) with withering disdain. As I got to know him better, know his voice, a dull buzz inside the tissues of his throat – the voice of an old man! – I gradually realized that he used that voice mostly to complain. When he wasn’t complaining about Lester’s outdated farming practices, or Lester’s rust-bucket pickup truck, or Lester’s wife’s cooking – or the heat, the rain, the mud, the cold, the stupid cows, the filthy chickens with shit on their feathers – he kept mum, his head sunk inside his bony shoulders. As Lester observed on that first day, “Aljo pesters easy.” Lester himself was hardly a model of rational behavior or courteous affability, although he performed tomfoolery about as well as anyone, and was young enough to appreciate the offended self-esteem of boys my and Aljo’s age, and how we leveraged our grudges, being in his early twenties and grudging himself. His wide open grin was what people called winning but I sensed it was also off-putting, it said hands off. In my mind’s eye the strong teeth are what I see, they were boldly displayed and white as raw milk. He could have been a Steerforth, I think now but not then, not having done any serious reading at that time except for Classics Comics. He was barrel-chested, large in bulk but not especially tall, with dirty blond hair, a fleshy chin, that mouthful of teeth, and blue eyes as cold as ice. It was the underbelly chin that revealed him most nakedly, its premature weight, like a hammock filled with rainwater, and when I think of it now I think that what it denoted was negligence and decadence. Still, he was a farmer, not a grandee like my Uncle Dickie. Farmers age faster than the rest of us, I think now, they last longer in some instances but at greater costs in friction to the skin and wear to the joints. Cows must be milked twice every day in winter and summer, in cold and heat, in blizzards, droughts, hurricanes, ice storms, earthquakes, floods, no exceptions, and for how many years can you keep that up without paying a price in stiffness of bone, looseness of flesh? The deer, if that’s what it was, must have died last winter, judging from its shape and size. Alone in a clearing on burnt ground, or not completely alone, nothing’s alone in the woods, it lay beside several charred logs and smoke-darkened rocks and half a hobblebush with new red berries, the other half burned away, in a clearing. It could have been a large dog but, no, its configuration was clearly that of a deer. Still, it was only a shape, for toadstools had grown in the place of its body, which had evidently decomposed completely, feeding the toadstools, large and tall toadstools in the middle, and pin-heads small as hairs along the head and legs. The height of these toadstools exactly corresponded to the deer’s former contours. It had sunk into earth but its shadow was caught and ballooned out on the ground like a tent of loose flesh, that’s what it looked like. It struck me as strangely beautiful. I said it out loud because no one was there to hear it but myself, This is strangely beautiful, I said. And I stared at it, restrained, as though it might tell me something, like the meaning of life. Now that I’m an old man I understand what it said, it said that’s the way to die, that’s how to let go, just sink into the earth and leave your shadow behind. Too bad we age and die. It’s the fifteen-year-olds who live forever, and of course they don’t know what the meaning of life is, the meaning of life is hanging on as long as possible. Walking backwards for a while, still staring at the thing, I at last spun around and resumed marching through the woods, for some reason feeling better. I came to another pasture, this one fenced with wooden posts and a single wire wrapped around white insulators nailed on the posts. I knew what this meant, I’d tried jumping across one when I’d first arrived, jumping in a roll like an Olympic high jumper, like John Thomas, who grew up in my neighborhood, but the electric shock threw me back on my skinny ass. I felt like a moron. I must have been a moron. I walked along the fence, keeping to the pasture’s edge. Was this Lester’s land, or a neighbor’s, or did Lester Sullivan lease it? How far had I walked, and was I trespassing? And who cared? Where the pasture rose to a line of white pines several cows watched me but they weren’t Holsteins, so I concluded this wasn’t Lester’s land. The pasture’s hay had not yet been cut, as ours had – I knew, I’d helped guide the baler across the windrows, I’d thrown seventy pound bales onto Lester’s flatbed truck, I’d helped stack them in the barn. Abruptly, the pasture terminated and the forest began and using a post I jumped across the fence skillfully, avoiding the wire, and continued through the woods, which now appeared to actually lean, just a bit, to the right. I’d already learned that steep hills could be avoided by traversing the base a little way up and cheating down through mini-ravines and rocky gulches. In a clearing I decided to practice my swagger. Why not practice my swagger? Show us your swagger, Patrick. My friends at school had started calling me Tricky. Show us your swagger, Tricky! With your snapjacks with the cleats, with your pegged pants and Hawaiian shirt and duck’s ass – that’ll impress them, Tricky. At home, I admired the hoods I’d seen, for example, walking down the aisle of a streetcar on Mass Ave and applying as they swaggered the pressure of their gaze upon each of the passengers. When I tried the same act, when I lifted my chin to greet a fellow sharpy, I felt like a child misreading the instructions for assembling an adult. Instead of a hood, I thought, I’d be the sort of grownup who eats peas off his knife while his socks are falling down, and therefore I’d better practice my swagger, I thought. For when I returned to the city. I knew how to induce the proper swagger: with each step, you rotate the torso on its axis a few degrees to the right and then a few degrees to the left, and the spread of your shoulders, like a motorized radar dish, follows in concert the movement of your torso, as does the swing of your arms, the crucial manly swing. But avoid the lift in your step, I admonished myself. No pop in your step, no rising of the heels as you walk, Tricky. It is imperative that the true swaggerer not bob. No bobbing, no display of girlish free spirits. Dragging the heel helps; like this. The idea is to be both defiant and sullen. I swaggered through trees, crushed twigs and branches, marched through damp and shabby moss-blanketed trees. Hollow scrolls of trees littered the forest floor, but I pretended I was swaggering down the aisle of a streetcar on its way to Harvard Square, arrogantly sneering at the seated passengers on either side. I raised my arm to twirl the long hair on the back of my neck but came up empty, no hair to twirl, I’d only recently cut it all off. So I probed and palpated the lump on my neck, enjoying the neurotic comfort that gave me, and thought about Camp Pokey, when I had the duck’s ass and Mr. Gruber had only given it a trim, leaving the duck’s ass intact (he called it a duck’s tail) because that’s the way I liked it, and he’d left sufficient locks for me to indulge my neurotic habit of twirling my hair, but now, walking through the woods I couldn’t indulge it. An abundance of hair, I knew denoted madness or genius, or maybe virility, but greasers had recently co-opted this meme, which is what we now call such things − they’d made it their own. I could pretend to twirl my hair and swagger at the same time without losing my way, I was ambidextrous, but what was my way, I had no way, I was walking blindly through the woods and still fuming, still sullen. I listened to my feet crunch the underbrush and graze the dead leaves. Where there was no underbrush the soil was loamy with threads of moss. At the same time, I was proud of my swagger. From the day I first arrived they’d called me Elvis – Lester and Aljo. Where’d you get that haircut, Elvis? At the barbershop, I said, even though it was Mr. Gruber. The hell you say, said Lester, not around here, no barber around here would cut a boy’s hair like that. Of course not, not around here, I disdainfully said. You got a smart mouth, Elvis. Elvis the Pelvis. And you got a big one, Lester. My name’s Patrick, I said. They were imbeciles, I thought. Why were they doing this to me, why didn’t they like me? They must hold secret meetings behind my back and discuss what to do next to humiliate Patrick Burns. Let’s put salt in the sugar dish. Put a frog in his bed. But they couldn’t do that, my bed was also Aljo’s. For the same reason, they couldn’t short-sheet me either, like the staff at Camp Pokey who short-sheeted first year staffers – the first time it happened I frustratingly thrust my feet and knees against the tucked-in sheet not understanding the problem. They could put cowshit in my shoes, Lester and Aljo, I wouldn’t put it past them. I said it out loud, I wouldn’t put it past you! Was I really that contemptible? Why didn’t they like me? Or maybe they do like me and this is their about-face and hyper-perverse way of demonstrating affection. It’s like basic training, I told myself, they had to break down my resistance, my inner resistance, which was all I had left, and they could smell it, the resistance. They must be sadists, I told myself. Still, while going through puberty we all become mindless brutes, so it could have been me who was at fault. Was it something I did? Often, since I’d turned thirteen, I felt as though I harbored a fiend inside me, a fiend with great gates of teeth and long yellow claws seizing my rib cage as though it were a prison and shaking it furiously. Perhaps it was just how they initiated all newcomers but I was getting it worse because, being from the city, I wore flashy clothes, blue suede snapjacks, pegged chinos and such, although now, walking through the woods, I saw how stupid an outfit like that was, completely inappropriate for working on a farm. Imagine me milking cows in those clothes! Yet, that I had done. Imagine me walking through the woods in snapjacks and Hawaiian shirts with the collars turned up in back and dog-eared in front, but that’s what I was doing right now. They wouldn’t, they couldn’t possibly, treat every new hand the way they treated me. Other hands Lester could have hired were undoubtedly locals, like Aljo. It’s because I’m different, I come from the city and I wear sharp clothes, and they probably think I probably think that I’m better than they are. They think I’m full of myself, and about that conclusion they were probably right. They were lowlife, I thought. Then again, so was I – North Cambridge lowlife. All the same, I fervently believed in the Boy Scout Boy law, to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly and all that. I believed in those timeless principles, as Mr. Gruber called them. Nevertheless, I’d learned to like bad fun, I’d stolen cigarettes from my father’s basement workshop, I’d become a little punk and didn’t see the contradiction, or maybe I embraced the contradiction, because just as life rhymes with death and day with night, so does crooked with straight. I must have thought something like that, I think.