By Mark Alpert
Back in 1984, when I was a newspaper reporter in Claremont, New Hampshire, I interviewed a crusty old New Englander nicknamed Red (because of his hair, I think, even though it had gone gray long before I met him). Red worked as a youth counselor for the town, offering sensible advice and support to the many troubled kids in the area. When the interview was over, Red looked me in the eye and said, “What about you? What are you doing to help our community?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was 23 years old, and I’d come to Claremont only a few months before, after finishing grad school (a master’s in creative writing, of all things). I was working long hours at the newspaper, but I wasn’t married, and I didn’t have a steady girlfriend. In other words, I had some free time on my hands, and I was learning that many small-town New Englanders feel a strong civic duty to put idle hands to work. The local Lions Club was already recruiting me, and some of the local churches too (even though I’m Jewish). And now Red sensed an opening: “Listen, you would make a great Big Brother, you know that? And I have the perfect kid for you. Eleven years old, smart and funny. He’s getting into some trouble at school, but he’s a good kid at heart. I can introduce you to him tomorrow. How about four o’clock?”
That’s how I met my Little Brother. For the next year or so, we got together on the weekends and many weekday afternoons as well. (My hours at the newspaper were irregular.) We did a lot of the stereotypical Big Brother/Little Brother things. We went to a video arcade and played 1980s-era video games (Donkey Kong, anyone?) until I ran out of quarters. We fished the Sugar River, which unfortunately wasn’t so sugary because of all the effluent spewed from Dorr Woolen Mills and the Coy Paper Mill. And because I was unduly influenced by all the advertisements I’d seen in Marvel comic books when I was a teenager, I bought a Daisy air rifle so we could go hunting.
I’m a New York City native, born in the homely borough of Queens, so what the hell did I know about hunting? Nothing, basically. But it was one of the classic activities I imagined Big Brothers and Little Brothers did in the woods of New Hampshire. I assumed it would offer us an opportunity for brotherly bonding and give me the chance to provide Valuable Life Lessons such as “Be patient and good things will happen” and “Working together toward a goal can be more fun and rewarding than fighting everybody at your school.”
Suffice it to say, those lessons didn’t stick, and most of the blame is on me. I was too young and stupid to be an upstanding role model. Plus, I left New Hampshire after a year-and-a-half to move on to a bigger newspaper in Alabama. That’s a typical career path for journalists, and although I tried to stay in touch with my Little Brother over the following years, I was busy with my own life. I could’ve done more for him, and that’s a big regret. But I don’t regret our crazy forays into the woods. They were fun.
And eventually I wrote about our hunting adventures. In my first novel, The Emperor of Alabama, the character of Philip is based on my Little Brother. I set the hunting scene in Alabama rather than New Hampshire, and the book’s narrator is an actual older brother to the hell-raising Philip, but everything else is pretty close to the truth. You can read it below and let me know what you think. (The earlier chapters of the novel are here, here, here, here, and here.)
The weather was good. After stopping at Wal-Mart to buy the pants and the BB’s for Philip’s rifle, we took the county road out to the Mountain. The hills in Butler County are not too impressive, but the tallest one has a pond near the top and a somewhat interesting trail leading up to it and so we called this one the Mountain. Philip and I went hunting there every month or so.
I parked my Civic at the trailhead and extracted my own weapon from the glove compartment, a black BB pistol that didn’t fire straight but sure looked menacing. Philip took command once we started up the trail. I let him walk ahead with the air rifle while I carried the other gear and my ineffective pistol.
“Quiet!” Philip gave me a fierce look over his shoulder. “You’re gonna scare away the squirrels!”
He stopped walking every hundred feet or so and stood perfectly still, listening to the wind blow through the pines. A mockingbird or a blue jay occasionally soared overhead and Philip would sight it with his air rifle but wouldn’t fire. Birds were too easy. He was getting too old to be shooting at birds. But I knew that if he didn’t see a squirrel pretty soon he’d start shooting at anything. He hated being bored and for that reason he’d never make a good hunter.
I wasn’t a good hunter either. I got distracted too easily. After a few minutes we passed a patch of swampy ground and I bent over to inspect the pink-and-white pitcher plants lolling in the mire. I pulled one up and turned it upside down to see what it had been eating lately. Two brown husks that used to be Japanese beetles fell out of the plant’s mouth. The beetles drown in the sticky fluid at the bottom of the pitcher, and then the same fluid dissolves and digests them. It’s a clever system.
Philip turned around and hissed at me for lagging behind. I dropped the plant and caught up with him.
I didn’t go hunting with Philip because I felt sorry for him, or because I wanted to help my mother by taking the kid off her hands for a few hours. After Philip was born, Ma’s behavior went back to normal, more or less. She took care of the baby while I went to classes at the community college and started working part-time at the Advertiser. A few years later, she bought a used car and found some housecleaning jobs, and I watched Philip for her whenever she was working. After he started school, though, she said she didn’t need my help anymore, and she stopped accepting the weekly “loans” I’d been giving her. Although she still had trouble paying her bills, she got incensed whenever I offered to tide her over. As I walked through the woods, I could already predict what Ma would do when Philip and I came home and she saw the new pants I’d bought for him: She’d swear at me and stuff a twenty-dollar bill into my pocket, even if that was all the money she made from cleaning that day.
No, I didn’t do it to help Ma or to please her. I went hunting with Philip because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed gazing through a break in the trees at the vivid green carpet to the south, broken only by the twisting Catfish River, which looked silver in the distance but was actually as brown as prune juice. I enjoyed hearing the barely audible cackling from the chicken farm on the other side of the Mountain, a place I’d never seen and never wanted to see, because seeing it would spoil the mystery. I enjoyed wondering which timber company owned the Mountain and whether they would ever consider selling any of the land and how much they would charge for it if they did. It would be a nice place to build a house. But most of all, I enjoyed being with my brother. I enjoyed having a purpose, which was to watch Philip hunt and be quiet when he told me to be quiet and make sure he didn’t do anything too stupid.
Presently, the distinctive shriek of an American gray squirrel sounded from a stand of pines up ahead. Philip froze just long enough to locate the noise. Then he fired a shot into the upper branches.
He missed. The squirrel scrambled down the tree trunk.
“You little fucker!” Philip loaded another BB into the barrel of his air rifle and furiously pumped the stock.
The squirrel raced across a bed of pine needles toward another tree trunk. I fired my BB pistol, and the arcing shot actually came close enough to scare him. He made a 90-degree turn and was leaping over a rock when Philip’s second shot caught him in the hind leg.
It was a hell of a shot. The squirrel’s rear end jerked sideways in midair. He crashed into the pine needles and slid half a yard before he regained his footing and dove out of sight beneath a pile of rocks.
We rushed over there, Philip panting and flushed and nearly hysterical with excitement, and me scanning the ground just as carefully, my pistol already reloaded.
Philip pointed at the rock pile. “He’s in there! Start picking up those rocks!”
I picked up the lighter rocks and threw them to the side. Then I dug my fingers into the clay around the heavier rocks and pried them loose. Philip stood there with his rifle, ready to fire if the squirrel made a run for it. I lifted a flat rock that had a long smear of blood on it, and as I was pointing this out to Philip the squirrel erupted from the rock pile and bolted hell-for-leather toward the nearest pine tree.
Philip hit him again as he clambered up the trunk, another good shot. The squirrel stumbled but managed to hang on to the bark and climb to the lowest limb. I expected him to run down the limb and jump into the branches of the neighboring tree, but instead of running he just sat there in the crotch between the trunk and tree limb. With the wounds he had, he was as good as dead anyway.
Philip had a clear shot. The BB plunged into the squirrel like a pin into a pincushion. The animal didn’t even blink. Philip shot him one more time and the squirrel lost his grip on the branch and fell to the ground.
Philip was in a splendid mood for the rest of the day. He decided that he wanted to show off the squirrel to his friends before skinning and eating it, so he put the body in a plastic sandwich bag and we hiked back to the car. On the drive back to my mother’s house, Philip kept turning the bag over, studying the carcass with immense pride. But I avoided looking at the thing. It bothered me that the squirrel hadn’t run at the end. As if he’d sensed the basic unfairness of it all.
Philip’s face was still red with pleasure. “Did you see how he jumped when I got him the first time? He was running like a son-of-a-bitch. And then, BAM!”
“It was a good shot,” I allowed.
“And I ain’t even in practice. Ma hasn’t let me done any target practice for almost a month.”
“Aw, it was stupid. I was down by the old cemetery, aiming at some blue jays, and I shot out someone’s porch light. It was an accident.”
I shook my head. This wasn’t the first time Philip had been careless. “I’ve told you before, you can’t go shooting near houses.”
“It ain’t my fault! That trailer’s at the end of the road, in the middle of the woods. I didn’t even know I was near it.”
“I’m telling the truth! There’s nothing else up there.”
“So how did Ma find out about it?”
Philip frowned. “Just my luck, there was a sheriff’s car parked outside the trailer. One of the deputies saw me and told me to get in the car. Then he drove me home.”
Great, I thought. Philip was already getting in trouble with the law, and he wasn’t even a teenager yet. “So what happened then?”
“Well, Ma wasn’t home but Brad was there. And you know how he is.” Brad was my mother’s current boyfriend, a relatively decent guy who took shit from no one. “He started yelling at the deputy, telling him to get the hell off the property. Then the deputy said he was gonna issue a citation because of the junk cars in our yard. And then Ma finally came home and told the deputy to fuck off.”
“It was pretty funny, actually. Ma said, ‘Listen, you dumb fuck, I know the sheriff, and he’d have a heart attack if he knew you were fucking with me.’ And the deputy was so dumb, he believed her.” Philip turned his attention back to the sandwich bag and pinched the carcass inside. “This squirrel’s got a tough hide. Look at the color of his guts. I bet he just finished eating something.”
I took my eyes off the road for a moment and looked at Philip. I felt a brotherly obligation to try to talk some sense into him. “Ma says you’ve been getting into trouble in school too.”
“I don’t cause no trouble. The other kids started it. I don’t mess with nobody unless they mess with me first.”
“It doesn’t matter who…”
“I’ll tell you what happened. One of the kids in my class started razzing me about Ma and Brad. So I said, ‘Well, at least my mother ain’t a fucking skank, which is more than I can say for yours.’ Then he pushed me, so I said, ‘Now you’ve done it, now you’ve made me mad,’ and before he could do anything else, I dropped him. Then I said to his friends, ‘If any of you want the same thing he got, just step right up, ’cause I’m in a fighting mood.’ And they all ran away like scared little pussies.”
I didn’t believe a word of it. “You know, they’re gonna throw you out of school if you keep fighting like that.”
“No, they ain’t. They’re gonna put me in Special Ed next year.”
“Yeah, the teacher said I have a learning disability. So now I’m gonna have to sit in a classroom full of nimrods.”
“Shit.” I recognized what was going on, because the same thing happened to every kid in Butler County who proved too difficult for the schools to handle. The teachers shunted the problem kids to Special Education, where they learned absolutely nothing and eventually quit out of boredom. It was a necessary evil in a county that couldn’t even afford to heat its schools in the winter, much less pay for teacher aides or school psychologists. But it infuriated me that Philip had been designated as one of the castoffs. “This is bullshit. You don’t have a learning disability.”
“That’s what Ma told ’em. But they said we didn’t have a choice. It was either Special Ed or nothing.”
“Goddamn it! They can’t do this.”
“I don’t care. I’m sick of school anyway. If they try to put me with the nimrods, I’ll just bust out of there. I’ll go to your place and live with you.”
“You can’t live with me, Philip. What would you do in my apartment all day?”
“Lots of things. I could help you write your newspaper stories. I’d give you the ideas and you’d give me part of your salary. You could write a story about my school and how fucked up the teachers are.”
“Look, you need to…”
“I could help you right now. I read the newspapers that Ma gets. It doesn’t look that hard.”
“Listen to me. You’re never gonna get anywhere in life if you quit school.”
“I bet I could write better stories than you. You write about boring stuff.”
I sighed. “Well, I’m sorry, but a lot of things in life are boring. When you have a job, you have to do what they tell you to do. They tell me to write about the governor, so I write about the governor.”
“Brad says the governor used to own that trailer I shot at. He says the governor used to go there to fuck his girlfriend.”
Philip stated this very matter-of-factly, as if this was something that everyone knew. I slowed the car and stared at him. “What?”
“He doesn’t go there anymore. The sheriff owns the trailer now. Brad told me that’s why the deputy was there.”
“How would Brad know something like that?”
“Brad knows a lot of things. He used to be an informer for the state troopers.”
This was strictly impossible. Brad hated cops. “Well, it’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
“You see, I’m helping you already. You owe me part of your salary. Watch out, you’re gonna miss the turnoff.”
I hit the brakes and the Civic skidded a few yards. Then I drove down the dirt road to my mother’s house.
Philip jumped out of the car as soon as we stopped. My mother stood in the doorway next to the junk piles, looking pissed. She wore denim shorts and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, which was her usual outfit when she was cleaning houses. She pointed at the sandwich bag in Philip’s hand. “You ain’t bringing that mess into the house.”
“I’m just gonna put it in the freezer,” Philip said.
“The shit you are! You’re either gonna bury that thing or throw it in the drum.”
“It ain’t gonna hurt nothing in the freezer!”
My mother turned to me. “Jack, how the hell could you let him bring that mess home?”
Wearily, I stepped out of the car. “It’s good to see you too, Ma.”
“Look, it don’t smell at all,” Philip said, waving the sandwich bag in my mother’s face. “Here, smell it. It don’t smell at all.”
“Get that fucking thing outta here!” my mother screamed, whacking the bag out of Philip’s hand. The squirrel carcass flew out of the bag and landed in a mud puddle a few feet away.
“Now look what you did!” Philip shouted.
“Get the shovel and bury that thing, Philip!” My mother got prettier when she was angry. Her face took on color and some of the lines disappeared and her sad yellow eyes seemed to jump out at you, like the eyes of the girls still hanging out at the Jubilee at three in the morning. You would’ve never guessed that she was pushing 50. She looked 35, 40 at the most.
“Fuck it! You can bury it yourself!” Philip walked right past my mother and into the house, slamming the door behind him.
My mother winced as the door slammed. Then her face relaxed to its normal condition, a pale tired look. “I don’t believe this. I got a dead squirrel in the middle of my yard.”
“Don’t worry, Ma,” I said. “One of the dogs will eat it.”
She stared at the rusted metal drum. The trash inside it was still smoldering. “I don’t know what to do with that boy. I really don’t. He gets worse every day.”
She was looking for sympathy. She wanted me to agree that Philip was incorrigible, that no power on earth could control him, that it wasn’t her fault. And I did sympathize with her, in a limited way. She wasn’t really equipped for motherhood. She got overwhelmed too easily. “Philip told me what happened in school. How they want to put him in Special Ed.”
My mother dug into the back pocket of her shorts and pulled out a crumpled pack of Camels. “It’s not like I didn’t warn him. I told that boy a hundred times, stop messing around in school.” She stuck a cigarette between her lips and started searching her other pockets for a matchbook. “But he didn’t listen. He never listens.”
“You gotta do something about this, Ma. Talk to someone on the school board.”
“Don’t you think I tried? I went to the chairman’s house and gave him hell. Told him exactly what I thought about his goddamn school district.” She finally found the matches and lit her cigarette. “Didn’t do a bit of good.”
I raised my hand to my forehead. The hangover ache was returning. “What about that private school I told you about last month? Did you call ’em?”
“Greenville Academy? Yeah, I called ’em. They don’t give financial aid unless your daddy’s a veteran. Fucking cheap bastards.”
“Well, how much is the tuition?”
“Five thousand dollars a year. Can you believe it? The pencils over there must be made of solid gold.” She blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth. “No, we’re just gonna have to make the best of it. Maybe if Philip learns to behave himself, they’ll put him back in the regular classes.”
I shook my head. This was wrong, seriously wrong. I saw nothing but disaster for Philip if we let this happen to him. It was all too easy to imagine him in the county jail a few years from now. We had to do something. “Go ahead and enroll him at Greenville Academy. I’ll figure out how to get the money.”
My mother looked askance. “You? You’re gonna pay for it?”
That was the moment when I made my decision. For the whole day I’d avoided thinking about Fowler’s job offer, but now I knew what I had to do. I wasn’t going to let them toss Philip into the fire. “Don’t worry, I can afford it.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You can barely make your car payments. You gonna rob a bank or something?”
I felt a grim satisfaction. For once I was going to make my mother eat her words. “I got a chance to start a new job. A good job, pays fifty thousand a year. That’ll be more than enough to cover Philip’s tuition.”
My mother took the cigarette out of her mouth and squinted at me. “Who are you gonna be working for?”
“Governor Fowler wants me to be his assistant press secretary. For his reelection campaign.”
She didn’t say anything at first. She just stared at me as if I were crazy. It got so quiet that I could hear the cars on the county road a quarter-mile away.
“You ain’t gonna work for him,” she finally said, calmly and firmly.
“You can work anywhere else you want, but you ain’t gonna work for that man.”
“What is it? You don’t like his politics?”
“No, I don’t like his politics. I don’t like it at all.”
I understood her reaction. In fact, I’d felt the same way myself. But for Philip’s sake, I needed to quash those feelings now. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “You ain’t even registered to vote.”
My mother threw her cigarette to the ground and pointed her finger at me. “You can make fun of me all you want, Jack. I may not have gone to college and I may not be as smart as your friends at the newspaper. But I know about that man. And I know what your daddy thought about him too. If your daddy were alive right now, he’d kick you right in the ass. He’d kick your ass so hard, you wouldn’t be able to sit for a week.”
“I don’t think so, Ma.”
“You don’t think so? Well, I know so. I know what that man did to your daddy.”
“Come on, this is…”
“That man put hatred in your daddy’s heart. And that’s what killed him. It ate him up inside and then it killed him.”
“For Christ’s sake, it was cancer. The governor had nothing to do with it.”
“I was there, Jack! I saw what happened! That man is nothing but a murderer! And if you work for him, you’ll be a murderer too!”
I hadn’t seen my mother get this worked up in a long time. Her face had turned bright pink and her chest was heaving. There was a wildness in her blood that rose to the surface at times like these, a primeval fury that tightened the muscles in her neck and made her veins pulse like live wires. It was something old, something that had been in our family’s blood since God knows when. And there was some of it in me, too. I could feel it seeping through my skin like a poisonous tide. “Are you through yet?”
She took a deep breath but kept her eyes fixed on me. “Yeah, I’m through.”
“You said if daddy were alive right now, he’d kick my ass. But that’s wrong. He wouldn’t have the time, because he’d be too busy kicking the hell out of you.” I pointed at the wreck of a house behind her. “He’d kick your ass for keeping your house the way you keep it and for raising Philip the way you raise him and for living out here like trash and not even caring anymore. You think that’s what daddy would’ve wanted? For Philip to drop out of school and live like trash his whole life?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I’d gone too far. I thought for sure that Ma would spring on me like a panther. But she just stared at me again as if I were crazy. “Get out of here, Jack,” she said quietly. “Just get the hell out of here.”
I headed to my car and opened the door, but before I ducked inside I turned back to my mother. “I’m sending the money to Greenville Academy whether you like it or not. All you have to do is enroll him.”
Then I got in the car and slammed the door and peeled down the dirt driveway.