I'm on a small road now, where dry, bleached-looking blossoms and skinny trees line the shoulders. The macadam shimmers in the heat, and I pass under an interstate to see a worn billboard nestling in the undergrowth, the faded image of a cartoon bird on its surface. Suddenly I recall a day not at all like this one, when I did not want to be here butdrove out with my parents. The leaves were greener than they are today, the sun was not baking down, and the folks had requested a single afternoon, just the three of us, no one else. It must have been early summer, maybe a week before I reported to boot camp, and I was grumpy in agreeing because I'd been spending every moment with Sylvia. But even in those days I was generally compliant.
We drove to a state park that was famous for its buzzards. My father always wanted to see the buzzards, and we'd come out other years but never during the migration period when the birds are easy to spot, so we'd never seen them. We didn't see them that day, either, but it didn't matter. My mom had packed a lunch, and as we spread an old rose picnic blanket on the bank of the reservoir my father said, "Helen, honey, give him a deviled egg to make him stop sulking." I did love her deviled eggs. After lunch, my mom and I walked to a boathouse where there were rowboats for rent. We rented one for a few hours and I rowed her across the water.
I remember I had on a loud-patterned, clingy knit shirt with a long, pointed collar, and my hair was to my shoulders then, like every other high school boy. When I began to perspire, the shirt grew uncomfortable, and I took it off. Immediately, I felt self-conscious. My mother had seen my body before, of course, but always in the context of some activity like swimming. Now she sat just a few feet away, with nothing to look at but my pale, imperfectly developed chest, its small containment of hair at the center and a few zits in awkward spots. How juvenile I must have looked to her then, how unsuited to soldiering! But she only murmured, "Howie, you've gotten so strong!" and gazed off toward the shoreline until my father came into view. She had a knack for that, for being intimate and complimentary without causing me embarrassment, and she could remark on my physicality in a way my father, for all his years in haberdashery, never could. I remember the same quality years later, when there were only two of us, and she'd tell me I looked handsome in my pinstriped suit.
I took my father out rowing next, and he asked if I was frightened. I said I wasn't. My dad said it was all right to be scared; he'd been scared himself when he went off to the service, even though he remained stationed in England and managed to escape D-day. He looked down at the oarlocks and said there were times he wished he'd gotten himself out of the whole damn experience, and I knew he was giving me permission to find a way out myself—go to Canada or Sweden or declare myself bonkers—but was too shy to say it. Maybe in later years my dad looked back on that conversation and regretted speaking so elliptically. Maybe he wished he'd urged me to flee. But I knew what he was getting at and didn't need clarification. As I turned the boat toward shore, he took the Masonic ring from his finger and said he'd like me to have it, and I've worn it since.
It must have been one of those long, long days of June, because we stayed for hours. My father waded around at the reservoir's edge, and about thirty yards down he discovered a spring that ran out of the hillside. When I strolled over to see what he was doing, I found him building a dam across the stream, and I pitched in, helping him wedge a slab of bluestone into an outgrowth of roots. By the time my mother wandered over, my jeans were wet right up to the waist, and Dad had pondweed on his cheek. Behind the dam a pool was forming, and Mom kicked off her sneakers and knelt in the water to shovel clay and silt at the dam's leaky interstices. Slowly the pines at the distant shore merged into silhouettes, and the sunlight flashing on the water turned gold. Perhaps a buzzard even flew overhead.
We didn't speak much as we worked. My father was generally disinclined toward idle chat, and we had other means of communicating. We stayed well into dusk, pointing and lifting and working as a troika, and saying no more about the war or my impending departure. And as I sit now in the hot cab of the truck, gazing across the wildflowers at the faded sign, I want to return to the rowboat and the buzzards and the dam, but I don't want to return alone. So I back the truck up, turning away one more time, and head back to the city.