An Episode of Childhood
April 16, 2010
posted and written by Caroline Picard
What follows is an excerpt from WOOF., a novel that takes place primarily in and around hipsters in Philadelphia. The main character, Tobias (Toby), has just dropped out of college and moved in with his oldest brother Fletcher. Their mother, father and youngest brother (Freddy) died in a car accident about six months prior to the novel’s opening. The novel is interupted, periodically, with “Episodes from Childhood.” This particular episode is a flashback about Tobias’ family–his mother (Judith), Father (Mitch), oldest brother (Fletcher) and middle brother (Michael/Mike).
—Toby remembered when they went to the Lake once and they were supposed to jump off the cliff (before Freddy was born) and the cliff was very high and Fletcher and Michael were very big comparitively and (before Freddy was born) Toby was the youngest and they chided him always the big boys chided him and he was very brave and wanted to jump off the cliff like the other boys and Judith said, “Are you sure you really want to, Toby?” And Toby nodded because he was excited and Mitch said, “Of course he does, he’s a big boy, a little man already, he was born for this sort of thing,” and clapped Toby and the back and Toby was very proud and Michael didn’t care one way or another about anything—a nonchalant boy, their mother used to always say—and Fletcher was stretching and Fletcher took a long time stretching and rubbing santan lotion on his arms and legs and Michael was bored and Toby was bored eveyrone was waiting until Mitch said, “Come on Fletch, whatare you waiting for, you wuss?” Their dad was kidding and everyone chuckled but Fletcher looked mad and pink in the sun, “Mom will you put some of this on my back?” and Mitch got mad then and turned away a lumbering bear Toby always thought about his dad like a lumbering bear, “Forget it, we’ll go on. You catch up if you wantta go. Come on, Mike. Lets get outta here and let these sorries take their time if they need, we’ll get on and put on a good show.” Mitch turned away from the adjacent island of towels, corners covered in sand, he turned away and put his arm around Mike and they ambled down towards the end of the beach and Toby was indecisive (before Freddy was born), torn between opposing sides of his family he paused, watching Fletcher sullenly drawing in the sand, their mother rubbed white cream on his back, her hands banal and quick and comforting and Toby looked again to the retreating backs of his father and brother, he looked over to the cliff and saw someone leaping, suspended for the split second of fall and, without knowing he’d made a decision, Toby turned about face and dashed after Mitch and Michael playing at filling their footprints, enjoying the game of his failure as he bounded, irregular puppy strides.
It never occured to him not to be the youngest (before Freddy was born born born born) and he raced ahead of his father and he raced ahead of his brother, he felt the sweat breach the skin of his forehead and he lapped around his brother and he made laps around his father, his feet stinging with the nettles and sticks and leaves and rocks of the path. When they got to the top of the cliff, the path ended at the cliff, a vision of the whole small lake, Toby leapt up and down and up and down he clapped his hands he waved at Judith, she looked so small on their towels with the paper bag next to her full of their sandwiches and potato chips and trail mix, Toby covered her with his thumb he could cover her whole body with his own little thumb, and he smiled at his father who didn’t smile back and he smiled at Michael who absently ruffled his head and he hugged his father who looked down, squinting at him, and smiled and put his hand on the Toby’s head and knelt down, “Now when you jump, you just step out, away from the ledge. That’s it. Just take a step and push out so you get away from the rocks. And you want to make sure to keep your feet together.”
“Why?” Toby asked.
“Teeheehee…” Michael started giggling.
“HawHawHaw…” Mitch laughed the veins on his neck thick with new blood, stood up from his skin. HawHawHawTeeHeeTeeHee. “Well. Because,” HawHawHaw, “Just because. Trust me. Keep your feet together.”
“Wait, Why?” The panic of not knowing made Tobias uneasy, insistent.
“Because, Dumbass,” Michael swatted Toby’s chest.
Michael pointed to his penis. “Because!”
“Because it’ll hurt if you don’t.”
“Mike you go first and wait for Toby in the water.”
Toby watched Michael step off the ledge and disappear. Down.
“Now, Toby. You. Just step off as far as you can.”
Toby felt fear lump up in his throat. He saw his mother wave on the beach. He smiled. Felt sick. He took a step toward the ledge. He looked down, Michael waved. Michael was very small. The water looked cold, “Is it cold?” Michael shook his head. Toby could see the cliff descend all the way down to the water he could see it stretch under the water he imagined himself hitting the rocks under the water he looked back at his father, “I don’t want to,” he said. Mitch smiled. “Sok. Just take a deep breath, its’ok—” and then the sickening sound of gravel chasing after him Toby half-turned, the wind—he gasped—something thrust him forward, arms fast around him, the wind knocked out of him, he gasped, arms fast and tightly wound the ground disappeared from under him, someone was laughing, Fletcher held him fast and they plummeted together Fletcher was laughing down down down Mitch looked very angry his face got smaller and smaller as they withdrew from his arms his strong hairy arms Fletcher’s arms were wiry and mean, crashed into the water, Toby yelped a searing pain between his legs he buckled, the pain enough to make him curl in a ball in the water, the reflex powerful enough that he loosed himself from Fletcher’s grasp and hung for a moment, eyes tight shut absorbed/absorbing the pain of the universe under the water he was not heavy enough to stay there he felt himself rising he spluttered wincing a point of upset and misery surfaced at last spewing water shocked with the sky and the shock of cold from the air of the sky tears streaming down his face he wailed Fletcher was smiling smiling smiling and laughing he swam to Toby and rose up and put his hands on Toby’s head and pushed down laughing laughing laughing Toby splutted again, haed still searing with pain he felt water inside of his lungs he flailed with some miserable, unavoidable will to live, flailing with the fear of disappearing all over again forever and ever and ever Toby heard a crash, he saw bubbles, he saw his father’s body crash into the water, he saw his father’s hair stand up staright under the water, surrounded by bubbles of air, Toby surfaced screaming, coughing, sobbing, treading water, the sobs punctuating with him catching his breath he saw his father swim towards Fletcher, his motion swift, stern, unfeeling when their father was mad thier father was unfeeling, and Mitch raised his hand and smacked Fletcher on the face, he’d never done that before never never and Toby wailed again and Michael said “You’re such a dick,” and thwacked his hand on the back of Fletcher’s head and Mitch said enough, a low growl and Mitch swam to Toby and took Toby in his arms and Toby put his thumb in his mouth and felt the bubbles on his father’s body cushion him as they swam, the boys in silence, Judith stood on the beach with her sunglasses on they couldn’t see her eyes she had her hands on her hips her hands on her hips she was getting bigger as they drew nearer and nearer her lips pursed worried with quiet each of them Micth, Michael, Fletcher and Toby felt sure they had disappointed her, terribly. When they got there she shook her head ever so slightly.