Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
This prayer of lamentation—if you’ll forgive the use of those words—began the day we were camping at Sleeping Bear and Rondo went out trashed and got lost. We freaked, waking up, about 10:00, hungover, blinking off the glare. Amy was in her panties in the orange glow of the tent, leaning over, working into her jeans.
Rondo’s fuckin’ gone, was all she said.
Whaaaa? Ricky said. It was the three of us in there, sleeping like so many logs.
The jerk never came back last night, she said, banging the side of her head a couple of times with the flat of her hand as if she were trying to dislodge something, fix a loose connection. Rondo was her boyfriend, and the panic edging into her voice made me a little jealous because I felt an attraction to her myself, even though he was supposed to be my best friend; we played hockey together at State and pounded each other on the back and drank and stuff like that, putting on a pretense of buddyhood when the truth was the real connection between us was shrouded in mystery, or maybe it was simply physical: we were two pumped-up guys, at the very prime of our physical being—we’d never, ever be as good-looking, as strong, as virile as we were that fall. It was the opposite with Sam—the subject of my lament—who was gawky and physically inept, dirty and repulsive, his long, clotted hair flapping like a beaver tail against his leather jacket.
That fearful morning I was sure we’d find Rondo’s drunk and bloated body washing up on shore, rolling with a soft lollygag motion in the ten-foot surf of Lake Michigan. Those outside the Midwest think I’m fabricating the height of Lake Michigan waves, just as the idea of a large dune of fine sand in the middle of the country seems delusional, as does perhaps the idea of love between men who consider themselves straight, as I do.
I went out of the tent into the brilliance of an early fall day, all razor grass and mounds of white sand and a few tourists already lining the boardwalks that weave their way through the sand; it was illegal to camp in the park, but for some reason the ranger hadn’t nailed us, or maybe hadn’t seen us, even though we’d slept—judging by the sun—deep into the morning. If you did stake a tent in the camping area, you usually had to get up before sunrise to get away with it. There we were, emerging out of the orange fluorescent tent groggy and hungover, calling out Rondo’s name. Amy was far ahead of us, almost out of sight, in her panic. In that blinding heat and light I didn’t think of Sam’s house down on Burdick, or Sam’s body, which for all I knew had been dug up around here. I didn’t think of Sam until we’d been searching for a good hour, going the length of the beach, walking past the carbonized relic of our driftwood fire, a wreath of red and white crushed Bud cans; going back up onto the huge dune, over that into the rippled swells and the nooks and crannies. On the edges, the trees somehow grew and then were tossed over by high winds to reveal huge, wonderful clumps of roots where you could hunker down and smoke a joint and feel this wonderful gradient of heat and cool at once, the dry taste of dust, the wetness of your lips. I didn’t think of Sam until I was left alone at the end of one of the parking lots, seated on the top rail of a fence, face buried in my palms, giving up on it—knowing in my heart of hearts that Rondo was dead and gone and probably floating to Chicago, his body taking the curve past Gary, Indiana, the spewing stacks of US Steel. There was a deep, empty hollow in my heart, thinking of his muscled torso and his witty grin and the way he could suck beer in those large undulating gulps of his throat. I like to think that in that moment I learned my first lesson about the idiocy of machismo; about how light I was, lightweight, lighthearted, and how the heavy-handed ideals of being a guy were ill suited to me.
Perhaps I knew that all along.
Because one night, years ago, after walking home alone from Sam’s house, I went to my room and wept. That’s how I like to imagine myself: an unformed little kid—a wide-eyed towhead facing for the first time the dark, empty hall of Sam’s house down near the mills, that post-Christmas room of his with only one toy. I couldn’t have been the worldly know-it-all who went into the house and smirked; who left only to tell the other kids that shit-pants Sam didn’t have a toy to his name worth playing with, just a single Matt Mason space center, the same one everyone got last year; that his house was depleted, empty, and that when we went downstairs his old man, back from the mill—in his Elvis hairdo—was grunting down a can of beer, elbows resting on the table, face empty; that his first words were What’s up, shit-for-brains? and that Sam, his face a bright crimson shameful blush, took me to the door and handed me my coat and went with me outside. Let’s get out of here, he said. Bastard.
Did I weep?
Or did I go to school the next day and tell Ted Nelson, who was always looking for a reason to taunt Sam? Did I lay out for him a schematic of the house—the bald spots on the center of each step leading upstairs, the long crevice of broken wood packed with dust along the center of his hallway? Did I hand over to Nelson, like Top Secret info, the facts of Sam’s situation: dirt poor? Drafty, broken windows patched with cardboard. A stalactite of limestain hanging from the bathtub spout. Burned-out bulbs. Mattress on floor. A single fucking toy to his name right after Christmas.
On the fence overlooking the parking lot at Sleeping Bear I thought of Sam for the first time in four or five years, conjured up an image of that late afternoon at his house, my only visit, stepping into his kitchen to see his father, bleary-eyed, tired, wearing one of the olive smocks from the paper mill, a little round patch on the right-hand side of his chest with his name in wide, sloppy red stitching, ED; worn out and tired and bored and sad with life, lifting the beer can to his lips before saying what had to be said. The kitchen with its tall, old-fashioned cupboards that went all the way to the high ceiling; the countertops specked with the remains of a floral design; the walls and stove hood coated with grease splatter, embedded with dust; all of it illuminated by a bug peppered globe. It came to me on the fence at Sleeping Bear—worrying myself into a fit over Rondo’s body, his corpse out there in the lake—how we’d left the house, crossed the street, cut between the two buildings of the mill to the railroad tracks, and past them to the huge sludge pit where Allied Paper poured its waste and where all of us (in my crew) liked to play our witless games of chicken and dare-yas; it was all very dangerous, the wide lake of paper waste that crusted over like ice and allowed you a foothold on some days, enough so you could venture out tentatively, then a bit further if you knew it was strong enough to hold.
Gonna go? was about all Sam said, I think, standing there watching the way the failing light fell dead on the hardened corrugation of sludge. Behind him, in front of a line of haggard trees at the far side, winter birds dipped and dove over the edge of the pit. There was the familiar high-pitched horn of a switcher about half a mile away, coming our way with a string of stock; you could hear the shrill yanks of couplings. Industry was seething on all sides, but at the time we didn’t know it, didn’t care to know it, and for that moment we were just two kids silently daring each other to do something fantastically stupid.
The truth was that at the moment Sam wasn’t really asking me to go but was talking to himself, to his bowed legs and his cheap nylon parka with the orange lining and the fringe of fake fur around the lip of the hood. It seemed more like he was saying some kind of prayer for divine protection, tottering there with the cold evening wind ruffling his hair while he toed the edge of the sludge—it was a betraying substance, not paper or ice or anything else; unworldly crap—and before I could say Sure, I’ll go, and step myself, he was taking tiny little tiptoes out, testing the tension of the gook, feeling the give beneath his mud stompers or old PF Flyers or whatever he was wearing that day. He went ahead. He worked his way about five or six yards out. It was the furthest I’d ever seen one of my fellows go on the crusty surface. We swore it dropped off to 50 feet deep right away, dug at an angle. The switcher train was making way behind us, flexing and tinging the tracks, and when he got as far as he was willing to go he turned slowly around and faced me and moved his lips, saying something to me, I’ll never know exactly what; but his lips did move quite a bit, maybe five sentences, reciting for all I knew what might’ve been the Gettysburg Address, which we’d all had to memorize for class that year. Worn out and pathetic, in his cheap thin coat against a hardening wind, Sam, a kid with only a meager toy to his name, stood out on the sludge, speaking:
Fourscore and and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal …
Until the sludge gave way and he sank up to his knees—the train behind me still lugging away but slowing enough to make his cry audible now over the rattle—in a thick ooze of dioxin and pulp, of solvents and irredeemable chemical compounds. Like Christ walking on water and failing, his frail, miserable legs cracked the edge of the pulp as he waded back to me, the stuff gunking and caking on his jeans. One shoe (or boot) was missing when he finally got out.
Trudging back over the tracks, across the road, he scraped the crap from his leg with a stick and made me vow never to disclose what he’d done to anyone.
You won’t willya? he kept saying.
I won’t. I swear to God. A stack of Bibles. My mother’s wedding gown. I won’t tell anybody. It’s between us.
I’d tell everyone I knew. It was a story too good to hold to my vest. I’d transform the world with the image of Sam, poor fucker, going down into the gunk up to his knees. Except in my version of the story, I’d make it his waist, or have him swimming through the stuff.
Amy called my own name, Means, and I turned to see her waving frantically to me across the parking lot.
They found Rondo, she said, running a single finger along the inside of her jeans to release some ill-adjusted tension of her underwear waistband; I tried not to look. I was awaiting the news of Rondo’s life or death while, at the same time, drawing into mind and memory the image of Sam in band class right after I slammed my fist into the bell of his cornet; he had the perplexed and bewildered eyes of someone newly hurt, just before the pain releases itself into a huge gush of agony; his eyes showed, I like to think now, that long wide leap to redemptive grace. Two of his front teeth were lost to the rim of the mouthpiece moving inward; all that force translated along the curve of the bell and through the tubing and concentrating onto the metal edge of the size 7C mouthpiece; I knew when I threw the open palm of my hand into the bell of his horn the physics of what was going to happen. I can’t deny it now the way I did then. I didn’t know at the time where my anger came from, but now I do. The lesson I draw from my own actions is clear: I was guilty of many sins before this kid, who, in band, in seventh grade, had already grown his hair long and was wearing stolen leather jackets. I like to think I broke his teeth over my shame; I had told the world about his house, about his father, and about his falling through the crust of sludge (after walking Christ-like on it for a good five seconds).
He’s fine, she said. He was so drunk he didn’t know where he was going and ended up in the campground sleeping next to the pit toilets.
She put her hand on my thigh as if to gauge my balance on the fence rail.
The great roiling swells of sand driven upward by more sand, compiled against itself; the eternal days and nights of Lake Michigan currents and the constant pounding winds rolling grain upon grain; the fronts staggering listlessly across the lake from Wisconsin like drunken louts, picking up moisture over the great body of water and pounding the coast until from nothing grew something. What did the Ottawa Indians think, wandering this moonscape, praying to their beloved Sleeping Bear as he lay prone on the great expanse of otherness, huddled against the lake? All along this side of the state the beaches were being taken away by the currents; houses tumbled down in slow-mo on the news, tag teams of bright yellow bulldozers attempted to rearrange fate, and we smoked our cigarettes and drank a last beer and sat in a little alcove of razor grass and laughed at our fear, at the idea that we could worry that Rondo, all taut muscle and hockey arms, might be dead.
It was turning out to be a brisk, fall-like day. The front had swung through a giant line of anvilheads. Out of the firmament, the ceaseless drive of wind, Sam came to me once more: that day in his house alone in that room with the soft linty smell of furnace heat (What’cha wanna do? Don’t know); the event with the trumpet. And of course his death—his death most of all—taking the whole high school by surprise. His cocky fuck-yous dead and gone. By that time he was completely one of those fringe beings, absorbed by the vast riptides of misery we pretended didn’t exist; there but not there, a vanquished ghost of a boy barely making class but somehow hanging on, not expelled or in jail. The word around school was that he’d moved out long ago from the house on Burdick and was shacked up with some woman and her baby.
My lamentation began right then, taking a toke on the cig, blowing the smoke into the wind while Rondo and Amy tumbled back behind a clump of grass and Ricky did wind sprints up and down the beach to get the blood flowing back in his shrunken skull.
I’d get up and walk alone down the shore and let them finish whatever they were doing. I’d get in the car and drive home with them laughing in the backseat; we’d turn the trip into the butt of a long, endless joke about our fear, and that joke would go on and on for the rest of our lives. But while all this was going on, I’d be considering those last frail moments of a life, and how maybe if I’d embraced him, coming out of the sludge pit, given him my shirt to wipe the paper pulp from his legs, perhaps things would’ve been different. I’d have changed the world; I’d have changed everything.
Yo, fuckhead, Rondo came down behind me and began drilling my back with the tip of his index finger. He wanted me to turn, to grab his shins and take him down. I was sitting right up near the water. The waves, good six-footers, were licking the tips of my All Stars.
Shut up, dickhead.
You remember that kid, that kid Sam whatever, you know the guy who was, like, buried here in the sandslide?
No, Rondo sighed. It was a final no, a terminal no, the end-of-conversation no. He’d say that no and wave his fingers through the long flax of hair that hung down in his eyes; it was the dead-end no of Columbus’s ship falling off the idea of a horizon.
The force of the mouthpiece against his teeth drilled his two front whatever-they’re-called back a bit, damaging the dentine and the gum and nerves enough to kill them. The enamel turned gray over the course of the next few weeks and then, a month later, they both fell out. It was an accident, I told Mr. Tear, our band teacher. Blame was put on Sam’s shoulders.
You see, it was like this: he disappeared, like Rondo did that morning, except he really left this earth—lifted, unfolded his angelic wings, and flew across the great lake to Wisconsin. He was with some friends (that much I know), four other poor kids from our town, smoking dope, fucking off, doing what they do; he was with them and he went off on his own (or so they said) and then disappeared for a week. We didn’t know this. If one of us had disappeared it would have made the papers, but for guys like Sam, to be gone from the earth for a short while was to go unnoticed. (He hitched to Chicago to see the Dead. His old man took off with him to the UP to go fishing.)
But eventually somehow they figured things out and sent search parties out to the dunes to poke and prod the sand. Men with long poles stabbed here and there, working in teams, marking quadrants with stakes and string. They were probing for the softness of flesh, for the give of a corpse. It took a week. There was a lot of ground to cover.
This is how I imagine it, and I like to think that it is more than just part of my lamentation. That it really happened this way.
It was a guy named Mel, a worker for the State DNR, a guy with long jowls, drooping eyes, and a perpetual smoke between his lips; a guy with sad eyes who lived in one of the trailers the state provided near the Sleeping Bear campgrounds; a man content at being alone with the sand and the constant sweep of wind through the slopes. He was doing a double-check of a quadrant. He had his own suspicions about the body’s location. Years and years of being a ranger had given him a sixth sense about the way the sand shifted; he felt the areas that were waiting to give, the places where slides might occur. He went to his spot and looked skyward before putting the probe into the sand. There were four gulls marking the dark sky of late evening. He took a deep breath and said a wordless prayer and put the probe down into the sand a few feet and felt the soft give and knew right then that it had been his destiny to discover the dead boy’s body; knew that he’d stand to the side while the rest of the men—the forensics folks and the experts—came in to finish the job, their spades making hissy sighs while he had a smoke and watched another clump of gulls come in to feed on the fish, dead from the hot wash of the power plant a hundred miles downstate. He’d finish the smoke, say so long to Mike, his boss, and walk slowly down the trail to the back of the park (he could’ve driven but preferred to walk the thin wobbly trail alone). On the way he’d think of his own son, living with his wife in Paw Paw, and how much he feared for him in the same way that he was sure some father, somewhere, had feared for the soul of his poor boy. He’d stop for a moment, hearing something in the brush, a tern, or a sparrow, or maybe some kids making out, and in that moment he’d say a kind of prayer for the dead soul and bow in his own way before the great forces of nature that had produced this huge swell of sand along the mitten of the state, and that had somehow conspired to find a way to kill a kid who was probably in no way expecting to die in a sandslide. What is fantastic about this moment, I think, is that in it Sam will have received more love than ever before in his life: that great profound love of the father for the son that we all need, a love greater than I, or his own nasty father, or anybody on the earth now living ever provided him.
I have to imagine all this and leave it at that while Rondo, back in the dunes, screams my name through the wind and calls me a fuck and asks me to get up off my ass and get going because we have to get the tent down and get packed up and home so he can be there for the kickoff of the Notre Dame game. He keeps yelling, his voice fuzzed by the wind and the surf, and I just sit there and think about how I’ll have to come back here on my own, drive the four hours back after I drop them off, and find this same spot so I can commune with Sam, find a way to say I’m sorry. And I will, I think, I’ll come back here and sit and go over the whole thing; the moment I stood in the doorway to his room—not the person I am now, and not some heartfelt kid, but someone still dulled by the vast desolation of that room with the Matt Mason space station in the middle of it, the little slab of mattress in the corner, the flexing membrane of cardboard in the window reading the breath of cold winter air pulsing on that part of the city on that particular day.
Back on this spot, I’ll lament those two front teeth, which of course he was never able to have fixed or replaced. He died without them, swallowed whole by the earth one summer afternoon while his friends made moonwalk bounds down the side of the great dune, stretching their arms skyward, feeling relieved of gravity for a few seconds during each bound—stoned on bennies and acid and loneliness, the smoking cigarettes between their lips streaming tracer paths that zigzagged wildly against the blue sky.
—David Means is the author of A Quick Kiss of Redemption. His new book, Assorted Fire Events, will be published by Context Books in the fall.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.