“WHAT do I do if I’m in the woods and I run into a cougar?” I asked, starting off with one of his favorites.
“Cougar,” Dad responded, nodding.
My stomach tensed. It was my favorite game, not because I really thought I’d encounter a cougar or a wolverine or any of the other animals I’d ever mentioned but because of the way it engaged my father. When we first moved from suburban Kansas City to our home both high and deep in the Selkirk Mountains of Idaho, my father lectured me all the time about how the woods were full of predators, but the gravity of his instructions had been drained away after five years without incident, so that now we just ran through the list and he repeated his warnings in what had gone from conversation to ritual. He set his fork down on his plate, gathering his thoughts. I leaned forward eagerly, as if I’d never come up with “cougar” before.
My father wasn’t a big man. When he stood with other men he seemed to be on the shorter side of average, and his hands were small, though they worked well enough with wood to keep food on our table. Over the past two years he’d lost a few pounds and it didn’t look good on him; his neck seemed too small for his collar and his reddish brown hair was often unkempt.
“Nobody has seen a cougar in a long time, Charlie.”
“They’re out there, though,” I insisted. There were notices posted at the state campsite that warned hikers of mountain lions, aka cougars, aka pumas, aka panthers.
“They are out there,” my dad agreed. “But a cougar probably isn’t going to be after you,” he said. “Most times you see a cougar, it will be running away.”
“But if it’s not,” I insisted, my eyes pleading with him to stay in the game.
“But if it’s not.” He nodded.
“Well, let’s see, how much do you weigh, now? Twenty pounds? Twenty-two?”
My father was teasing me. I made a fierce muscle, my biceps quivering in alarm as I forced it to make what meager appearance it could muster. I had blond hair like my mother and the same brown eyes as my dad. As I proudly regarded the small lump of sinew I called my biceps, I could see the nearly invisible blond hairs sticking up out of my tan skin.
“Eighty-five,” I announced.
Dad grinned. “You don’t weigh eighty-five pounds, Charlie.” Then the grin died, his eyes drifting toward the head of the table. There was a time when the woman who once sat there weighed a mere eighty-five pounds, when her weight was obsessively monitored and announced and analyzed, all for no ultimate good whatsoever. There was no doubt that this was what he was thinking as he looked at Mom’s empty chair.
“Cougar,” I reminded him.
He turned back to look at me. I still had his attention. “Well, a young cougar, one that isn’t good at hunting, he might think a bite-sized boy like you could make a tasty meal. When they first get kicked out of the den they’re hungry and wandering around, trying to find a territory they can call their own. Especially the males, they need a huge area. They don’t want to run into a person—humans used to shoot them on sight and sort of selected out the bold ones, so the only mountain lions left are descended from the timid ones. But they could be dangerous if they’re hungry enough, or if they feel threatened.”
“So if it’s hungry…,” I prompted.
“Okay, so if it’s hungry, the first thing is, don’t run. If you’re running, a cougar’s just a big cat. Ever see a cat jump on a string? It’s instinctive.”
“So stand still.”
“Right. Stand up big and tall. If you’ve got a stick nearby, hold it up over your head, but don’t throw it or point it. What you want is for that cougar to see you as a meal that’s going to cost him, put up a real fight.”
Dad said this last with less enthusiasm, tiring of the game already.
“Grizzly bear.” Please, Dad. Please keep playing.
“Oh.” Dad waved his hand. “You’re not going to see a grizzly around here, Charlie. Last one seen in this part of Idaho, had to be thirty years or more ago. They’re practically extinct in the lower forty-eight.”
“But still. If I saw one.”
My plaintive insistence carried a lot of despair that my father could have picked up on if he’d been paying attention. I was losing him. No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to hold his attention for more than a few minutes at a time, anymore. I could’ve danced around directly in front of him, waving my hands, crying out, “Dad, look at me! Here I am,” and he’d somehow lose sight of me.
His gaze drifted back to the empty chair at the other end of the table.
“Dad?” Why don’t you love me? How can I get you to love me?
His glance seemed a bit surprised, as if he couldn’t quite remember who I was.
“Grizzly bear? If I did see one.”
He sighed. “Charlie.”
“Grizzly,” I insisted.
He looked within himself, consulting his inner encyclopedia. “Thing about a grizzly is it probably isn’t looking to eat you. If it is, you’ll know because it’ll act like it doesn’t care you’re there. It won’t look at you, it’ll pretend it’s foraging, but every time you see it, it’s gotten closer. That kind of bear you treat just like a cougar; you talk loudly at it, you back away, you get yourself a weapon, and if it attacks, you fight. Go for its eyes. Let it know that as far as unplanned meals go, you’re not worth the bother.”
A wiser child would have quit the game right there, but I kept pressing: “What if I just run across one, by accident? One with cubs?”
“Mother grizzly is just like a black bear. She’s defensive; she just wants to protect her cubs. You back off; you try to get as much distance as you can from those cubs without running. If she attacks you, you curl up, protect your head and neck with your arms, and play dead. Lie there until she’s long gone.”
“What if it’s a male? Dad? What if it’s a male grizzly? What then?” A certain shrill desperation crept into my voice.
Dad didn’t hear me. He was looking at the end of the table, seeing his wife, maybe, or maybe just seeing the hole she’d left in his life when she died. I knew he’d be unresponsive now, a shell of himself, and that he wouldn’t see me, either, not even when I got up from the table to do the dishes. It was as if I didn’t exist.
When this happened, it felt like there were not one but three ghosts living in the house.
He said only two more words to me that night. I was in bed, lights out, lying there as silent as the house had been since dinner. My window was open a crack, cool mountain air flowing deliciously across my body. I heard my father ease out of the chair in the living room, snapping off the light next to where he had been reading. He came down the hall and stopped in the dark rectangle of shadow that was my open door: I felt him standing there, looking at me sprawled in a blanket of moonlight. “Tomato cages,” he said.
And then he was gone.
“I hate you, Dad,” I murmured into my pillow, the sound too quiet for even my own ears. I didn’t hate him, of course. He was my whole world.
Sometimes I allowed myself the horrible contemplation that maybe my father hated me. Maybe he knew what I had done. The thought made my heart pound; it could wake me up at night with the sensation of drowning in cold water.
I didn’t have a name for it, this thing. It was my awful secret, my awful, horrible secret. If my dad knew, if he had even a strong suspicion, it would explain how a father might come to hate his own son. Wouldn’t it? How would he ever forgive me, when I couldn’t even forgive myself? I was a bad person, though the only other human being who knew what I’d done had died a year ago last April.
That night I heard Dad sobbing in his bedroom, a choking noise that filled me with dread and fear. He never cried in front of me, not once, but this was far from the first time I’d heard him down the hall, facing his pain alone.
I was hurting, too. Why didn’t he come out of his bedroom and ask about me, his only child? We never talked about what was the most significant event of our lives. We came back from the funeral as if the only reason we were together was that we had shared a ride, and each went our separate way into our grief as soon as the last well-meaning neighbor departed from our home.
It was as if Dad had an awful secret of his own, but everyone knew what it was. Mom was dead. That was the secret.
It happened to me, too, Dad.
It was August of 1974, and I’d just turned thirteen. I was small for my age, several pounds shy of the eighty-five I’d boasted of at dinner. Our home in northern Idaho bordered state land for miles and miles in every direction and when we’d moved there a few years prior I thought it was paradise. Mom had loved it.
We used to have real family conversations when she was alive, not just animal games but discussions about my future, the war in Vietnam, what they were building at Dad’s shop. Now my dad would let a whole day go by without initiating a dialogue—I knew, because I’d tested it once, but it made me so heartsick that I broke the silence the next morning, babbling ceaselessly just to beat back the loneliness. That night’s final exchange had been typical.
The wire tomato cages were sitting out in the square patch of lumpy earth that used to be Mom’s garden, looking like skeletal soldiers filled with a twisted circulatory system of brown, dead plant stalks from the year before.
One Mother’s Day long ago I’d presented Mom with flags I’d made for the tops of the cages. They were just strips of white cloth the art teacher provided, but I’d laboriously painted “Tomato” on them, seeing them in my mind as pennants snapping in the wind out in the garden, serving notice that the tomato cages were for tomatoes and not corn or potatoes or zucchini. In reality they hung limp from their wire frames, the letters illegible in the folds.
Mom said she loved them. She never pointed out that tomato cages are supposed to be narrow at the bottom and wide at the top—I’d crafted flags for upside-down tomato cages. From that year forward she placed the tomato cages so that they looked like miniature oil wells out in the garden and at the end of each growing season would carefully roll up the flags and then duct-tape the roll so that the flags wouldn’t be affected when the tomato cages were stacked in the pole barn.
Mom had had a good October day two years before, tending to her garden, preparing it for the winter and for a spring planting the doctors correctly predicted she wouldn’t see. I helped her do some raking and told her she didn’t have to tape the flags on the tomato cages. By that time I knew how stupid I’d been and was embarrassed that the neighbors might see our upside-down cages and think I was just a kid.
“We should just throw those out,” I said.
“Nonsense, Charlie. I love my flags,” Mom said. I was growing up, in my eyes, but she sometimes still treated me as a child.
She tenderly taped each flag in a thick roll atop the cages, then straightened, putting a hand to her face. “Whew. Let’s put these away tomorrow; I need to go lie down.”
The way I remembered it, she never really got out of bed after that, not in a way that didn’t make me feel as if she were invisibly tethered to it. By April of the following year, my dad and I were standing numbly in a spring snowstorm, listening to Pastor Klausen talk about what a wonderful woman Laura Hall was, while the wet built up on the casket in a way that made me want to towel it off to save the gloss from being ruined. My dad held my hand and his fingers were like ice.
Most of the people wore black. I resented the ones who gave me pitying glances and I resented the ones who lacked the courage to look at me and I resented the ones who reacted to the wet weather with distressed expressions. I knew it wasn’t fair, but there was nothing fair about any of it.
I didn’t cry until we got back home, where Mom’s presence was still everywhere, palpable, defying the unreal fact of her death. And then, when I cried, it was as much out of guilt for what I had done as anything else.
So that’s why I hated my father for bringing up the tomato cages. Why now? Why did he even care?
Touching them was the last normal thing my mother had ever done. As long as they still stood sentry out there in the garden, it was as if they were waiting for a woman who was coming back any time now.
The next morning, instead of obeying my father’s instructions to yank the tomato cages, I deliberately chose to embrace a glorious disobedience. I’d long before discovered the small tin in my father’s bedroom drawer that contained the key to the gun cabinet. I loved to pull the guns out and sight down on small prey in the backyard and “pow!” they’d be blown to imaginary bits. The .30-06, a huge, heavy rifle, had a small telescope on top, two thin hairs intersecting on pretend wolves and bears across the valley. The slugs rolled around in my hand with a thrilling weight and snicked into place when I loaded each weapon.
Dad told me when we first moved to Idaho that when I was big enough he’d teach me how to handle guns. But he was never going to teach me; he hadn’t even opened the cabinet in two years.
I spread a kitchen towel on the table and lined up my tools. I glanced at the sweep hand on the clock and saw that it was just ten seconds away from 11:50 A.M. I decided to see if I could disassemble a weapon in two minutes, the way recruits did in boot camp movies. The second hand passed over the 12 and I began confidently dismantling my dad’s .30-06 rifle.
I went further this time than ever before, basically taking the gun completely apart. I examined each piece of metal, a few of them very small, as I freed them from the main assembly, placing them on the towel like a surgeon lining up scalpels before an operation.
Just before noon I realized I’d failed to track when my two minutes were up, but it didn’t matter because I’d just heard something that made me freeze, my eyes wide open, disbelieving.
We seldom got much traffic up in these hills beyond town. Anyone turning off the paved road, County Highway 206, was either lost or on his way to one of only six houses clustered up here on Hidden Creek Road. A long climb, full of switchbacks, would take you to our place, and a little farther on you’d crest the hill and then make your way back down to join Highway 206 again, the downward half of the loop just as steep as the upward half.
I knew that climb well. The school bus always went to the opposite end of Hidden Creek Road first, so that our house was the last stop. This was fine for the morning because it meant I had a few more minutes to sleep in, but in the afternoon I was too impatient to make the full loop and would get out with a handful of other students who lived just off Highway 206. Then I’d run home, my breath getting ragged as I chugged up the steep switchbacks on Hidden Creek Road. And I mean run, because my mom was sick and I wanted to see her and make sure she was okay.
I never told her the reason I raced up Hidden Creek Road as if being pursued by outlaws was that I was running home to her, but I’d like to think she knew. She was always glad to see me. Walking in the front door to her welcoming smile was often the high point of the day.
Whenever a vehicle turned off the pavement and headed up our way, we could hear it in the valley. I’d long ago learned which sound meant the mail truck was coming; which clanking, grinding noise meant that the neighbor lady Mrs. Beck was driving her husband’s stick shift; and which throaty roar meant that my father’s Jeep had turned the corner.
It was this last that came to me clearly through the open kitchen window to me now. What was he doing home? Did work let out early?
And what really mattered: I had just a few minutes before my father came into the house and saw me sitting there with his forbidden rifle broken apart on the table. I jumped up and my motion jerked the kitchen towel and the gun parts fell to the floor in a shower of metal.
Copyright © 2011 by W. Bruce Cameron