Roger’s Secret Truth
By John Brantingham

          Before he left on this trip, Harrison’s ex-wife said that Stanley wanted to have the talk. “The talk,” she said, so now Stanley is bumping along next to Harrison in his forestry truck peering out at the woods unfolding around them, and Harrison is wondering how to have the talk.

          He had the talk with his own father years ago, but what he remembers primarily was that his father had been so nervous that he’d called sex “rogering.” The two of them had crouched down in the garage, and his father had drawn diagrams in the dust on the floor. They’d been stick figures with enormous genitals that had mostly confused Harrison, and Harrison had called sex “rogering” until about the middle of junior high when he was laughed at for using the term.

          They come around the corner of the dirt road, and slide to a stop at a place that overlooks a valley. “Look over there,” Harrison tells his son. “At the top of that peak.”

          “You mean at that building?”

          “Yeah,” he says. “That’s where we’re headed. It’s a fire watch tower.”
 “People live up there?”

          “Sure. All summer long.”

          Harrison can see the idea of living in the woods all summer long work its way into Stanley’s imagination. He stares at the tower, and then the valley that the tower overlooks and then back to the tower again before Harrison drives away.

          It’s strange how things work their way into kid’s heads and memories. What Harrison remembers about that moment with his father is the word “rogering” and how strange and adult it sounded. It was part of a vocabulary of the mysteries that grown up people had and didn’t want to let go of, and therefore, it embedded itself into Harrison’s memory as nothing else did. Anything might have worked its way into his memory though — the stick figures, the smell of the garage, the way that his father kept touching the old scar on his cheek — and he can still remember them, but for some reason, his boyhood imagination really focused itself on the word.

           Maybe the fire tower is what Stanley will take away from this trip. Maybe something else. Maybe the whole weekend will disappear from his memory, and the only thing he’ll remember about his father was that after a while he moved out, and it won’t matter that Harrison didn’t want to move out, that he wanted to be with his son if not his wife. All that will matter is that he wasn’t there much.

          They drive down into the valley, and although they can see the tower through the trees every once in a while, they’re still an hour and a half away, so Harrison pulls over and the two of them have lunch sitting on the open tailgate of the truck and staring across a broad meadow.

          After sandwiches, Harrison hands Stanley a fruit pie, the kind that comes in a plastic sleeve from convenience stores. It’s not his kind of food, but the boy seems to love it. “You mother tells me that you’ve asked about pregnancy,” he says.

          Stanley squints and him and tilts his head. “What?”

          “Do you want to know where babies come from?”

          “Oh,” he says, “yeah.” But he seems more interested in the pie, which might be a good thing. This might work to Harrison’s advantage. Maybe the boy will focus on the food and not listen to him, and he won’t have a memory of his father’s awkwardness the way that Harrison does.

          “Let me tell you how it works,” Harrison says, and he gives his son all the details, but he does it as though humans are machines. It’s a technical schematic leaving out all of the magic and love and everything that makes men crave love and sex. He’s probably too young for any of that, but Harrison knows that’s not it. He’s being obtuse on purpose, he realizes, because he doesn’t want Stanley interested enough to remember any of this, and sure enough, the boy seems to be tuning him out.

          He’s done explaining just about the moment that Stanley’s done with the pie, and the two of them climb back into the cab and drive off. Good then. The boy’s staring out the window, and he seems to have forgotten the whole thing. Maybe he’s bored Stanley. Maybe he’ll have peace, and Stanley will find out the fine details from his friends, the way just about everyone else does.

          “Dad,” Stanley says. He’s breathless, excited.

          Harrison stops the car even before he knows why. He can hear that he should from Stanley’s tone. Stanley’s staring out into the meadow and bouncing up and down in his seat a little, and it takes a moment, but Harrison is able to see what’s got him riled up.

          Halfway on the edge of the meadow, maybe two hundred yards away, a bear is moving around, crawling over something. “What’s he doing?” Stanley asks, and in his whispered question, Harrison can hear magic.

          “I don’t know,” Harrison says.

          The bear has a bit of a tree trunk. Some time ago, a crew must have come through here, and cut a log into pieces to clear the road, and now, the bear is fiddling with a barrel sized section, rolling it over, crawling over it, and coming down on the other side only to turn it around and push it the other way.

          “It’s weird,” Stanley says.

          “Yeah.”

          The bear’s completely engrossed in whatever it’s doing to the point that it doesn’t seem even to notice Harrison’s truck. It tips the log section on its end, and then knocks it over with a swipe of its paw. “It looks like he’s playing with it,” Stanley says.

          Harrison never would have thought of a bear at play. He’s been around them most of his adult life, and he just never thought of them in that way. He knows intellectually that they’re capable of play, and he’s even seen cubs wrestling, but a grown independent bear playing? No, the idea had just never crossed his mind. “I think you’re right,” he says.

          The two of them watch the bear. Well, Harrison decides, this is going to be the bit that Stanley remembers. He didn’t even seem to listen before, and this is big. How many boys get to see a bear playing by itself alone with their dads? Not many. Not many kids ever get out of the city.

          They watch the bear for a while until it wanders off, bored with its game, and then they take big breaths, and Harrison starts back up towards the fire tower. “That was great,” Harrison says.

          “Yeah.” Stanley pauses a second. “I just don’t get one thing.”

          “What’s that?”

          “I mean, you explained how people do it, but why does anyone want to do it? I mean, why would you ever do that?”

          A bear, a lemon pie, the woods, and a truck, and the boy is still on sex. “Well, that’s hard to explain.”

          Harrison tries to come up with an explanation, but it really and truly is hard to explain. “I’ll tell you what. It doesn’t make sense at all.”

          “What?”

          “It’s like a lot of things. You know that I like coffee, and you don’t. Fish too. It’s just one of those things that doesn’t make any sense, but as you grow up, you learn to like it. People change, and that’s one of the things that changes with you.”

          Stanley’s face tells Harrison that he understands a little, but he still doesn’t quite have it. “It’s like playing. When I was a kid, I really liked to play, but after a while, I didn’t like it any more.”

          “Really.” The shock in Stanley’s voice suggests that the concept is disturbing to him.

          “Sure, but playing doesn’t make sense either. It’s just fun. It’s like that with . . .” he takes a breath and almost says “rogering” “. . . sex.”

          “Oh,” Stanley says. He turns back to the forest.

          So the awkward sex talk is what the boy is going to take away from this. Fine then. That’s all right. Maybe he’ll remember some of the rest of it too. Maybe he’ll remember the lemon pie the way that Harrison can remember the first pear that he ate, given to him at a refrigerated warehouse that his parents’ friend ran. The bear should be there too. Maybe he’ll remember the fire tower. In an hour and a half, the boy’s going to climb to the top of a fire tower at the top of a peak, and Harrison’s going to show him what will look like the whole world spread out before him, miles and miles in every direction. Harrison will tell him how he helps to stop fires, and he’ll explain everything the boy is seeing. Maybe that’s something Stanley will take with him too.

 

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