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Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them, where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson
“What you fellows don’t understand,” Trey Slocum growled, a cigarette clenched between his teeth, “is that you got to stare death in the face to be a real man.” The rest of us soon-to-be seventh-graders weren’t quite so sure; outside, the wind howled fiercely, rattling the tree house and moaning with the promise of tragedy. I knelt on the rough wooden floorboards and risked being called a yellow-liver sissy by peeking out the small, open window.
“What’s wrong, Jordy, you got to see if the bad ol’ storm’s comin’?” Trey jeered, kicking my sneakers with his muddy cowboy boots. He was awful proud of those boots, always claiming they were hand-tooled leather from his uncle over in Giddings. I had a half a mind to tear one off his foot, throw it into the storm, and let him fetch it.
“My daddy says hurricanes are real bad news. They ain’t no ladies,” Little Ed Dickensheets said, trying to keep a note of panic out of his voice. He’d been whining since birth.
“Shut up, Dick-in-Mouth,” Clevey Shivers teased, and then, of course, Little Ed was all over Clevey, pummeling him with fists. Clevey outweighed Little Ed by about twenty pounds, so he just rolled on the tree-house floor as Little Ed tried to inflict damage, laughing in counterpoint to the lament of the wind. Little Ed exhausted himself soon enough and gave up, rolling off Clevey, honor served by his effort. Clevey yawned, his normally red face a little more florid.
I believed Little Ed’s daddy, Big Ed, was a wise man. Clouds blackened the sky above the Colorado River and the wind shrieked through the tree branches like a vengeful banshee. They called the storm Althea on the TV news, and she was bearing down on Central Texas like a mother who, sick and tired of calling you home for supper, brandished a hickory switch in her hand.
“She was a hurricane only when she hit the coast,” Trey said knowingly. “She done spent herself hitting Corpus Christi. They start dyin’ over land. She’s just a tropical storm now.” Trey always spoke in this way, as if the secrets of the universe had been revealed to him and to no one else. We didn’t much challenge him on it because he was too cool for words.
“My mama’s gonna whip me good for staying out in this,” Junebug Moncrief fretted, scratching his brown bur of hair. I wouldn’t be worried about his mama if I were him; I always thought his daddy was a sight meaner. My own daddy wasn’t going to be too pleased about my afternoon, either.
Trey pushed his black cowboy hat back and surveyed us sitting around him, scowling, his night-dark eyes ranging across each of us: me, Junebug, tanned Little Ed, red-haired Clevey, and blond and bespectacled Davis Foradory, who sat placidly playing solitaire, smoking a menthol cigarette, and ignoring the rest of us.
“Y’all are just a bunch of little chickenshits.” Trey snorted. “Y’all were all gung-ho to sit out this hurricane in the tree house and swear to be blood brothers in the very face of death itself, and now y’all just want to run home and cry against your mamas’ aprons.”
The tree creaked loudly as the wind surged, and Little Ed’s brown eyes widened, as though that crying-in-the-apron suggestion wasn’t a bad one at all. I patted him on the shoulder; Little Ed Dickensheets truly was the littlest of us, still eleven and scrawny for his age. We picked on him but didn’t let anyone else. Plus, with that surname of his, he needed our protection.
Davis Foradory pushed up his glasses and cut his playing cards in the slow, measured manner in which he did all things. “They’re going to be looking for us, you numbnuts. We probably got another ten minutes left till one of y’all’s mamas calls my mamaw and she comes out here to see if this is where we’re at.”
The tree house sat near the Colorado River, in the middle of the live oaks and loblolly pines that gave way to Foradory pastureland. Davis lived on the farm with his grandmother Foradory, who was a right sweet old lady, and his grandfather (who everyone knew had lost his mind and never went looking for it).
The tree house groaned, the way I’d imagined a woman in heat did. I could feel the floor swaying against my butt, the nose-wrinkling smell of wet wood pervading the room.
“You could find a turd in a bowl of ice cream, Four Door.” Trey shook his head at Davis’s pessimism and finished off his cigarette. “Hey, Jordy, give me another of those, will you?” I tossed him the pack after I took one for myself. Junebug, sitting next to me by the open window, looked surprised but didn’t comment. Trey smiled and tossed me the matches.
“Look at young master Jordan, trying to become a man.” Trey laughed as I lit up and took a tentative puff. I’d only smoked a couple of times before; I wasn’t yet a hard-core smoker like Trey or Davis. I figured Daddy’d whip me good for venturing into this storm; I might as well indulge in the few vices available to me as a twelve-year-old. I coughed and Trey laughed again. Junebug, who did not approve of cigarettes, looked away from me. I saw Trey’s eyes watching me and Junebug, as though some contest for my lungs was being waged.
It had seemed a good idea, riding out the storm together; I’d gotten worked up with excitement sitting around the house that still summer day, watching the grayish-white curls of Althea’s strange clouds inch across the sky, knowing that they were from some fierce faraway tempest that might touch or spare us. No telling. Although Mirabeau was a few hours inland, Daddy and Mama stayed by the TV and radio nearly all day. There was talk of evacuations of Corpus Christi and Galveston; talk of the hurricane in 1900 that had leveled Galveston and killed six thousand people; talk of earlier, deadly Texas ladies: Carla, Beulah, and Celia; and talk of flooding in the inland towns on the Texas rivers. Mirabeau sat in a gentle bend of the Colorado, and we’d all been watching the skies, waiting for the torrents that must come if Althea hit the coast at an unkind angle.
Trey had stopped by while I sat on my front porch, idly tossing a softball in the air. With little preamble he proposed camping through the storm in the old Foradory tree house we used for smoking, cussing, and bragging.
“Are you crazy? Sit out a hurricane in a tree house?”
“Shoot, she’ll be all broke up by the time she gets here, if she ever shows up. Not much more than a rainstorm, I reckon. Get Junebug and Clevey and Davis. It’ll be cool. We can brag about it in school.” Boasting was Trey’s butter on the bread of life.
“If it ain’t gonna be so bad, then we won’t have too much to brag about,” I pointed out. Although the suggestion did have an edgy appeal, I wasn’t about to jump into another one of Trey’s harebrained schemes. I’d gotten my britches warmed good for the last one: fashioning a swing rope on the bridge into town that spanned the Colorado.
Trey deliberated, pushing back his cowboy hat. He dressed just like a grown man did; his daddy tended horses out at Hart Quadlander’s place and Trey felt it necessary to dress exactly like his father: Western shirt, faded jeans, and boots that were cared for like a rich woman’s skin. “If the storm ain’t shit, then we just hang out. But”—and the devil glinted in his dark Cherokee eyes—“if it is, then we can say we stared down death.”
I let the softball rest in my hand. Trey would do any crazy stunt that popped into his brain; if reason was ink, he couldn’t dot an i. But he knew that I was the barometer of what would impress our peers; if I thought the notion was worthwhile, he’d pursue it with relentless vigor.
But this idea sounded a little insane, like perching on the tracks of the approaching train and taking your own sweet time to get out of harm’s way. “I don’t know, Trey.”
“Look, Jordy,” he said, in a caressing voice he’d later use on women with much success, “it’ll be the last great adventure of the summer. We’ll all be trapped in school soon enough, and man, that’ll be real death. Let’s do it. We haven’t had a storm like this come in ages. Next time one this big comes, we’ll be long in the tooth.”