Curt knelt in the gravel before the dying fire, eyelids heavy, head nodding, his heart resisting the sleep that was embracing him. David sat in a chair behind him, his dad in a chair across the fire ring. The workday was nearly done. Their conversation had diminished to occasional, aimless mutterings. It was time to let the fire burn down. Then the three men would crawl into bed for the night.
“Come here, Curt,” David said.
The boy rose and turned to his dad. David reached into the cooler beside him and fished out a can of beer.
“Give this to Grandpa.”
Joe accepted the beer the boy brought to him. Curt then returned to his place on the other side of the fire ring, by his dad. He loved their campfires, but a long day of work and play, and no nap because he was too stimulated to slow down, made him unsteady before the flames.
David left his chair and squatted behind his son, wrapping an arm around his waist. The fingers of his other hand grazing the red curls on his boy’s head. He could smell the spicy tang of unwashed boy.
“Here,” he said, handing Curt a small stick.
Curt considered briefly, then tossed the stick onto the coals.
“You probably don’t remember, Davey,” Joe said from his chair across the fire. “But when we were building the cabin, you used to collect all of the scrap lumber and beg us to have a fire at the end of the day so we could burn it.” Joe worked a toothpick in his mouth, chasing the last bits of burger from his teeth. “I guess you were a little bit younger than Curt is now, dragging two by fours nearly as big as you to the fire ring.” He laughed mildly, his words weighted with no more than the warmth of memory. Funny, the things you remember, he thought. “I guess boys love fires. I always did.”
This day’s fire had been similar. Curt was delighted when this grandfather had thrown some old wicker baskets and a ratty straw hat along with a pair of leather work gloves that were shot onto the flames, and he watched closely as the fire had taken them.
David liked to hear stories about his childhood — especially ones he didn’t remember himself — because in them he hoped to see parallels with his own boy’s life. And that could persuade him, despite all of his uncertainty, that maybe he was raising his son right.
“Remember, Curt,” David said, giving him another stick to throw on the fire. “If the smoke blows in your face, just close your eyes softly. Not really hard. It won’t sting as much.”
Joe smiled, having given that bit of advice to David at this very fire ring maybe twenty years before. How many of his son’s important memories were forged here? Joe wondered. How many hundreds of perfect nights had the two of them sat together under the stars before a fire’s warmth? Too many to count. Most of them forgotten yet still remembered in some deeper way. No wonder Davey wouldn’t let go. I should write down these visits, he thought, so I don’t forget them. Joe drew the toothpick from his mouth and tossed it onto the coals. It was time for a cigar, for a long muse, offering occasional words to his son and grandson. Listening to the hum of the forest. Maybe even a whip-poor-will if they were lucky, though not likely so late in the year. Sitting comfortably in their chairs with nothing more important in the world for the moment than just that. But he’d forgotten to bring a cigar again.
“Are you cold, Curt?” David asked. Curt had only his tee shirt and jeans on. “Where’s your shirt?”
“I don’t know,” said Curt drowsily.
David turned and scanned the area before the cabin, hoping to see his boy’s flannel shirt on the ground. But the dark had gathered beyond the fire, and he couldn’t see much at all. The shirt would turn up. He held his son more tightly.
“Are you warm, Curt?”
“Do you want to sit?”
David eased back and let Curt slump cross-legged to the gravel. His head drooped, his shoulders slumped. He wouldn’t last much longer in his race with sleep.
They had come out to the cabin that weekend to begin the periodic ritual of oiling the exterior. Every few years, Joe would seal the outside of the cabin. As little Davey grew up, he had begun to help with this work. And now little Curt was along.
Not that a five-year-old would be much help, but that wasn’t important. What was important, David believed, was that he accompanied his dad and his grandfather as they did their work and felt he was part of it.
Yet also in need of some restorative care was the love between David and his father. Normally seamless, effortless, and apparently built to stand for all time, a sudden flare up by David to his father’s unreasonable suggestions about how he might lead his life, how everyone had to make sacrifices, had left a wound in both men. David’s words had been rushed, ill chosen. They were direct and almost harsh — surprising even him — and never quite approached what needed to be said for the thoughts were inchoate and the feelings too deep.
And so their boys-only weekend at the cabin, long planned anyway, but with a late-added objective that seemed to be having its needed effect.
Joe had given Curt a brush and a small can of the oil then set him to work on the porch railing. This was low enough for the boy to reach while the adults worked at the eaves and porch ceiling. He wrapped Curt in one of his own, old flannel shirts to cover as much of him as he could, expecting the inevitable slop and splatter of a boy and a brush. The little boy was lost inside his grandfather’s shirt with its rolled sleeves and the tails nearly touching the ground.
Curt soon grew bored with the repetitive work. Later, when David looked down from his ladder, he saw the brush abandoned and the boy studying some insect that crawled on the ground. He had shed the flannel shirt.
David kept half an eye on his son as he continued to work. Curt wandered the open area in front of the cabin, fascinated by whatever it was he saw on the ground, crawling himself in pursuit. He’d need a tick check before bed, but that was another ritual when they spent the day at the cabin.
When his dad, who had kept himself on the other side of the cabin, had come to claim the ladder, David wandered over to where Curt was sitting. He was staring at the lake by then.
“I’m bored. Can we go fishing, Dad?”
David sat beside his son and looked toward the lake. “Kind of late in the day to catch a fish, Curt. A little late in the season.”
Curt didn’t respond.
“Once I saw a fox on the other side of the lake. Right over there.” David pointed.
But Curt was looking into the trees.
“What kind of bird is that, Dad?”
David looked where Curt pointed.
“I don’t know. Grandpa calls them little gray birds.”
There was still some day left, still some work to get done, but the boy couldn’t be left to wander. Curt had been coming to the cabin since he was a baby, yet even that familiarity wasn’t enough to leave a five-year-old alone. It was too late for a nap, too early to light the evening’s cooking fire.
Curt was a clever child. Even at five, David could see that about him. An early talker. Walking at nine months. Reading on his own already. He got all of that from his mother. The work of applying a brush to the parched wood wouldn’t occupy most five-year-olds for long, David supposed, but for Curt the simple, repetitive work lost its appeal even more quickly.
“Grandpa took my ladder,” David said. “I can’t reach high enough to get the ceiling on the porch. Can you help me?”
Curt looked at his dad and then at the cabin porch beyond. He narrowed his green eyes. David feared the boy was doing a quick calculation and would realize that his dad was fudging the facts. David could reach the porch ceiling with a stretch but only if he knew his son wasn’t getting into trouble.
“If you sat on my shoulders, I’ll bet you could reach it. Do you think?”
David watched as Curt then did this math. They’d both be a mess before it was over, and it would likely be over before the work was done, but it would keep Curt occupied and supervised. And they’d be together. Father and son. The rest could sort itself out later.
“C’mon, Curt. Let’s get a little more work done. You and me. And then we’ll go down to the lake and throw in a couple of lines.”
Curt rose quickly at this prospect, and once the boy had mounted the porch steps, David scooped up Curt’s discarded flannel shirt, shook it out, and put it back on him.
“See that part up there,” David said, pointing to a corner of the porch ceiling. “That’s where I can’t reach. But you can if you sit on my shoulders. Should we get to it?”
“Sure,” Curt said, though with only tempered enthusiasm. He was more ready to go fishing.
David hoisted his son onto his shoulders then handed him the brush. He held the can of oil as Curt dipped too deeply into it. They were going to be a mess before they were done. David suspected he would soon be as freckled as his son. The image pleased him.
It was evident quickly that Curt’s mind was not on the work.
“What’s that for?” the boy asked, pointing with his dripping brush to a hook screwed into the eaves beyond the railing.
“Grandpa used to hang a hummingbird feeder there, Curt. But it attracted ants, so he took it down many years ago. Before you were born.”
“Mom likes hummingbirds.”
And so it went. Curt curious about every knothole in the wood, every spider hurrying out of the way, all but the work before them.
But they were working together, and if it were only for a short while and not much work actually getting done, David felt that some other, more important work was being accomplished. He had memories; he knew that he had worked alongside his own father at the cabin. Together they had laid the stone steps down to the lake. Cut up fallen limbs with handsaws until his dad thought Davey was big enough to respect the chainsaw. Spread gravel around the fire ring. Mundane chores. Simple and direct in their purpose. Enduring. And David had secretly swelled with pride that his dad could rely on him. He supposed, now, that his contributions were not as big as he imagined them to be at the time, just as Curt’s were not, but that wasn’t important, to father or son. Then or now.
Later, as promised, after he knew he had wrung as much cooperation as he could from Curt, David grabbed two poles and the tackle box and they headed down to the lake. Curt’s mood quickly changed, and he skipped along ahead of his dad, dancing down the stone steps and urging him to hurry.
Since Curt hadn’t mastered casting yet, David rigged his line with a bobber and a simple lure, one that had been in his dad’s tackle box for as long as David could remember, then swung it into the deep water beyond the dock. Maybe Curt would catch a little sunfish. For himself he tried a more ambitious set up — a pig and jig that would be needed to catch a bass, though he doubted any were biting that late in the day.
Curt’s line coiled lazily in the water, and David could see the boy wasn’t so much interested in fishing as in watching his dad fish. He opened the bale and grabbed the line with his finger then cast his rig into the tea-colored water. It struck sixty feet away, and Curt gave a cheer.
“Great cast, Dad!”
The strike came on David’s third cast. It hit with surprise. Curt knew what was happening instantly and turned to watch his father fight the fish.
“You got a strike, Dad. Set the hook! Reel him in!”
David played the fish. He could tell from the action that it wasn’t going to be a keeper, but it was darting about in the murky water, zigzagging the line along the surface. Putting on a good show for Curt. David pulled back on the pole then cranked the reel to draw in the line, aware that Curt was watching him, excited, and maybe even proud.
“Don’t let him jump the hook, Dad!”
David drew in more line and soon the fish was splashing at the surface before them. He leaned his pole against the rail and grabbed the line, lifting the struggling fish out of the water and before Curt’s wide green eyes.
“You got it, Dad! You’re the best fisherman ever.”
It wasn’t a keeper. Better to get it off the hook and back in the water quickly, but Curt wanted to see it. David grabbed the fish by its lip to hold it still so Curt could study it.
“What kind of fish is it, Dad?”
“Largemouth bass. Small one though.”
Curt extended a tentative hand but didn’t touch the fish. “Largemouth bass,” he said reflectively, as though filing the information away somewhere in his head.
“We have to let it go, Curt. It’s too small to eat.” He knew Curt wouldn’t eat it even if it were a keeper. Burgers and hotdogs were all he would eat when they were at the cabin. David and his dad had sometimes made dinners out of the fish they caught at the lake, his dad patiently showing him how to gut and clean a bass then how to cook it in a greasy frying pan over the coals. It tasted better because he had caught it, and he and his dad had cooked it themselves. But so far, Curt hadn’t shared that interest. There was still time.
“See that stripe down its side. That’s how you can tell it’s a largemouth.”
Curt studied the fish, its gills opening and closing slowly.
“I need to throw it back, Curt. Okay?”
The boy nodded. David worked the hook out of the fish’s mouth and then knelt on the edge of the dock, leaning over the side to slip the fish back in the water. After a second, it disappeared in the murk.
“He’ll be okay, Curt. He’ll grow big, and maybe you can catch him next spring.”
“That was great, Dad. You caught it!” And then more softly, “Thanks, Dad.”
Curt’s pole lay on the dock. They could stay and fish longer, but David was surprised that he’d caught anything and doubted there would be any more strikes that late in the day. Up at the cabin he could see his father folding the ladder. The stated work of their day was done. It was time to start the evening fire and cook their burgers.
“Let’s go tell Grandpa about the fish we caught.”
Curt ran across the dock and hurried up the old stone steps to the cabin, eager to tell his grandfather about their little adventure. David reeled in the rest of his line and checked the lure. Then he took Curt’s pole from the dock and did the same. About time to put up the fishing gear for the season, he knew, but he was glad he and Curt could have this last little excitement. Moments like these — keepers — were what the cabin was forever for.
When David got to the top of the stone steps, Curt was at the fire ring with his grandfather. Joe was building the evening’s fire. He never rested when he was at the cabin, David thought. Not until all of the chores were done anyway. But even as he sat quietly before the fires at the end of their days there, his dad seemed to relax with a kind of seriousness.
Curt was telling his grandfather about the fish, re-enacting the fight far more elaborately than David remembered, even though he had been focused in that moment. He wondered how Curt would further embellish the story when they got home and he told Kathy about it.
And now the fire was dying. Joe had finished the beer Curt had brought him and gazed toward the two people opposite him. Never mind their harsh words earlier. His boy had grown to be a fine young man and had given him a beautiful grandson. Smart as a whip. And here the three of them were, he thought, sitting around the fire in the twilight. A day of work and play behind them. The sleep of the just ahead. Life sometimes gave him fleeting little rewards like this, and Joe felt it was important to recognize them when he could. To grasp them.
Curt was losing his fight against sleep. His head bobbed, and he resisted less each time. Even he knew he couldn’t stay awake much longer, so he pushed himself up from the gravel and stepped over to his dad. David looked into his boy’s sleepy eyes and was then surprised when Curt crawled onto his lap with the last bit of energy left in him. David cradled his son, wrapping the tails of his own shirt around his little boy to keep him warm. The wind sighed in the trees overhead, giving a benediction.
After a moment, David said, “I love this place, Dad.” Saying, finally, the right words.
“Amen to that.” Joe looked at his son and grandson, painted orange by the embers. Curt’s head lolled on his father’s arm, his slack little body wrapped in his father’s shirttails, his innocent mouth slung open in his sudden sleep. How could life be any better? Joe wondered.
“You’re the best dad a person could ever have.”
They didn’t say much for a long while. The stars wheeled above. The love songs of the tree frogs rasped in the forest around them. The coals before them slowly winked out. Their hearts were full.
“Time for bed, I guess,” Joe finally said. “I can take Curt in if you want to sit out here for a while.”
“No, I’ll come in with you.”
David rubbed his hand on Curt’s shoulder, giving him a gentle shake. “C’mon, little man. Let’s go potty before we go to bed.”
Curt blinked up at his dad for a moment before realizing where he was. David lifted his boy from his lap and set him on his unsteady legs, holding him until Curt was awake enough to stand on his own. Then David rose and laid a hand on his boy’s shoulder, leading him slowly across the road.
He pulled Curt’s jeans and underpants down to his ankles where he hoped they’d be mostly out of the way then encouraged the boy to pee. His little round bottom glowed in the moonlight.
Curt stood silently there on the side of the road, not quite asleep but certainly not awake. After a moment, David unzipped his own jeans and brought forth a stream that clattered in the leaf litter. “Like this, Curt.”
But the sleepy boy couldn’t oblige, and after a minute more of waiting, David tugged up Curt’s pants then carried him back to the cabin on his shoulder. The little man was asleep before they got there.
Joe was inside, turning down the quilt and sheets on the bed. David laid Curt on the end of the bed and removed his shoes and socks and pants. He searched his boy’s body for ticks, pulling down his underpants to be thorough.
Curt mumbled what sounded like “loudmouth bass” and David smiled.
“I can’t guarantee he won’t wet the bed tonight, Dad.”
“Won’t be the first time for this old bed.”
David smiled wryly at this. He supposed it was another story of his childhood he didn’t know, and he supposed further that if his own boy did the same, it could be taken as another sign he was being raised right.
Joe laid a towel across the middle of the bed, and then David laid Curt on the towel. The two men undressed quietly and then crawled into the bed, bracketing the sleeping boy.
“Good night, Davey,” Joe whispered as he pulled the sheet and quilt over the three of them.
“Good night, Dad.”
David could smell his father’s breath. A strong, familiar smell. A good one. David found that he was more tired than he realized. He drifted, wondering how many nights he had slept in that bed beside his father. Safe beside his father. He wanted it to be that way for Curt too. Forever. Through the night their arms wrapped around each other many times.
First published in Wolf Willow Journal, April 16, 2014.
Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his Ozark cabin whenever he gets the chance. His stories have appeared in Aethlon, Magnolia Review (nominated for a Pushcart Prize), Halfway Down the Stairs, MOON Magazine, and several anthologies. He rarely strays far from his laptop.