Melvin is in his room, reading The Hobbit, when he hears a truck crumbling up the gravel driveway and sees it’s Dwayne and Jarvis, his dead brother’s friends, coming to recruit him for a day of lawn mowing. His brother Art died last summer cliff jumping into the Schuylkill River, and now Melvin’s mother and father fiddle around the small room, picking through Art’s belongings.
His father takes a pocket knife from the dresser and fidgets with it while staring out the window. His mother folds an old shirt, adds it to the shirt pile, removes it, folds it again, adds it to the pile. Melvin’s decided he’ll keep Art’s old Phillies hat, since Art had practically given it to him already. Before he snuck out to meet his death—how Melvin thinks of it—Art had flopped the hat onto Melvin’s head and said, “You can be me for a while, until I say when.”
Outside, the truck’s horn blasts twice, and Melvin jumps from the bed and hurries to put on his sneakers, glad for a reason not to be around his parents’ ritual sorting and unsorting. They began days ago, and they never agree on what items stay or go, and so the piles occupy the middle of the floor, each one shrinking and changing shape and quality, but never disappearing. Melvin refuses to look at the piles, and to him they are shapeless, hungry entities, like amoebas he learned about in biology.
“There those boys are,” says his father. “Make sure they pay you.”
“They paid last time,” says Melvin.
“Well they’re older, bigger, and meaner,” his father says. “You haven’t been around them much.”
The last part isn’t exactly true. It’s true that Melvin has only worked with them a few times, but he knows the brothers as Art’s best friends, has seen them smoking just outside of school boundaries for years now, and he knows that they were there the night Art died. Before then, they never really gave Melvin their attention, though he secretly craved it, and though they’d never said so, he figured recruiting him was their way of showing condolences. And besides, his few friends are away on vacations or at camps.
Melvin, being scrawny in comparison to Dwayne and Jarvis, is made to sit in the middle of the bench seat. As soon as they are down the lane and on the road, they turn left—not in the direction of the boys’ house where the gassy-smelling lawn mowers and weed whackers and hedge trimmers are kept.
“Are we taking the scenic route?” says Melvin.
“We’re taking the scenic route,” Dwayne says. The scenic route, in Melvin’s experience, is what older kids call illicit beer runs or errands involving tobacco or firearms or pornography.
On Melvin’s left, stubbly-faced older Dwayne jams in a tape while steering with one arm resting over the wheel. He shifts into fourth, banging Melvin’s knee with the stick, and there is nothing to be done about it because there is no room, and Melvin scoots right, but Jarvis nudges him back towards Dwayne saying, “Get off me, Jerktard.” Dwayne, keeping one arm on the wheel, uses the other to scratch his ribcage through his sleeveless Megadeth t-shirt, remove a tin of dip from under his baseball cap, pinch a wad, and stuff it between his lower lip and gum.
From the right, the younger Jarvis says to Melvin, “I’ll bet you still have wet dreams, right?”
This is Jarvis’ favorite joke at Melvin’s expense, an open ridicule of his private life, and the fact that he is younger and less developed.
Dwayne spits into an empty soda can, the sides dented from use, the top covered with brown tobacco scum.
“I’ll bet so,” Jarvis says. “Haven’t whacked, jerked, rubbed. Not once. Do you even like girls?”
Jarvis, two years older than Melvin, claims his member is like a rampaging sea lion and needs frequent release.
“Real men do it once a day,” Dwayne says to sound intelligent, tongue-shifting his tobacco wad to his right cheek and stepping on the gas to barrel down a straightaway. Hot wind blows old receipts and candy wrappers about the cab. Jarvis grins yellow teeth at Melvin. His left eye is cocked outward from a BB gun injury, and Melvin can’t always tell where he is looking.
“Admit it,” Jarvis says, and here Melvin is not sure what he’s supposed to admit to, so he says nothing and hopes his silence will kill the joke.
Melvin watches banks overgrown with walls of sumac and poison ivy fly past them on both sides. The road bends sharply, and the truck does not slow enough, and Melvin is thrown again against Jarvis, and the tires screech. Ahead, shocked vultures explode off an animal smear, leaving behind a few zigzagging black feathers. Hills with corn, cows, silos, and here and there a puttering tractor, disappear in the rearview as they reach the base of Hawk Mountain. The truck’s insides smell sour and intimate, like jockstrap.
“Eventually you’ll do it,” Dwayne says, shifting into second for a hill, again jamming Melvin’s knee. “You have to, if you don’t want to get sick. Christians will never admit it, but doctors recommend boys do it at least once a day.” This is another joke, that Melvin’s parents are avid church goers, and Dwayne and Jarvis’, while members of the same congregation, are not.
“Don’t worry,” says Jarvis. “We won’t tell God if you need to step into the bushes.”
Only a few hairs sprout around Melvin’s privates. He’s kept count for weeks. Jarvis’, as Melvin saw the other day behind a tool shed, is like a small elephant trunk growing out of a wig. Jarvis had unexpectedly whipped it out during a break from mowing and pissed on the shed wall. Melvin assumed he should be impressed, so he said, “Whoa.” Then Jarvis zipped up his pants, and that is when he started calling Melvin “Jerktard.”
They pass a stone farmhouse with a white, wrap-around front porch. Melvin can smell the sweet lilac bushes blocking the house from the road. Angela Millenowsky is outside, mid-stride, gardening in the cutoffs she wore to the Fourth of July picnic—short enough to show she has a birthmark on her inner left thigh. After the picnic, while his parents packed up the minivan, Angela asked Melvin to swing with her. They’d jogged side by side to the swing set, and he pretended not to watch her legs pumping as she swung, the muscles contracting and stretching beneath smooth skin. Melvin tended the image of her birthmark that whole night—shaped like Australia, or a partially chewed piece of toast—and he rubbed one out into his underwear. Hot, slimy, tingling. Stars in his periphery. Guilt. Then his fluids dried and cemented him to his tighty whiteys. He hid the underwear under his mattress and later burned them while his parents were out food shopping. Jerking it, Art once told him, was fine but never as good as the real deal. The shower was convenient and practical. Did he want mess? Did he want Mom or Dad walking in? The toilet worked in a pinch but killed some of the ceremony. Plus, Art said, multiple toilet trips raised parental eyebrows.
After the house, they turn right onto Hawk Mountain Road.
“Nice legs!” Jarvis hollers out the window.
“Shut up,” Melvin says.
“Take. Me. To-the-ri-ver!” Dwayne sings with the cassette player.
“We’re going to the river?” says Melvin.
“It’s the song, genius,” says Dwayne. “But yes we are. But not really.”
“I didn’t bring a bathing suit or towel.”
“In a sense,” Jarvis says, “we are going to the river.”
“In a sense, we’re not,” says Dwayne.
“Then why’d you say we’re mowing lawns?”
“Elementary, my dear Wilson,” says Jarvis.
“It’s Winston, dummy,” Dwayne says. “Winston is the Sherlock Holmes sidekick. And because mowing lawns is shitty prison labor.”
“Would you rather work?” Jarvis says. “There’s a little place called The Rock.”
“Where Art died,” says Melvin, and the hot wind fills his mouth and nostrils, and neither brother says anything.
The truck bounces along the winding road, and Melvin steadies himself with the dashboard. He’s watched from the riverbank as kids plummeted off The Rock like suicides, and he once swam out to its base and hunted crawfish, but he’s never even climbed to the top and, besides, after Art, his father didn’t exactly make him promise but did tell him it was off limits and that he didn’t ever want to hear about it.
“You have to jump, Jerktard,” Jarvis says. The command takes a minute to sink in. Jarvis stuffs a pinch of dip in his lip so it juts ape-like. He offers Melvin the mint-scented tobacco.
“I don’t like the taste,” Melvins says.
“Come on,” says Jarvis.
“My dad will kill me.” Which isn’t exactly true. His father, an angry man, did once scream at Art because of dip and then ceremoniously walk him to the property line, where the creek ran, and watched Art dump it, the tobacco blowing away like ashes, and gave him a fast whack on the back of the head, which made Art stumble and catch himself on one hand and knee in the un-mown grass.
“Melvin’s afraid to jump, Dwayne.”
Jarvis and Dwayne share a humorless laugh and spit black juice into their cans.
Melvin touches his cap. His head is much smaller than Art’s was, so he’s adjusted the band, giving the hat a mushroomed shape.
They drive down the back of the mountain, past a place called Pine Swamp Trailer Park, where an obese redheaded boy in camo pants and orange hunting vest chases after them and falls forward, as though pushed by unseen hands. The air is damp and smells of moss and pine needles, and Melvin hears a whippoorwill, and the tree tops make pieces of the blue sky.
The night Art snuck out to party at The Rock, he and Melvin both lay in their bunks, pretending to sleep until their parents’ snores rumbled from down the hall. Art wanted Melvin to come with him. His brother never invited him to do any big kid stuff. But that night, Art was suddenly insistent that Melvin come. “You’re thirteen now. That’s when it happens,” he said. “You start to grow up. You quit the G.I Joes and wizard books and all the daydreaming. You climb out of your shell.” The truth was, while Melvin adored his older brother, he was terrified of big kids, as in his experience they tended to either push him around or make him the subject of their crude jokes. And he was suspicious of Art’s sudden interest, since he’d grown used to his indifference.
“I don’t feel like it,” Melvin said. “I don’t like alcohol. I’m fine right here.”
“You’re going to have to get out a little,” Art said. “You’re my brother, but you should know that other people talk about you.”
“So what?” Art said, looming over Melvin then and snatching his book away. “These monsters,” he said, holding he book just out of Melvin’s reach, “aren’t going to prepare you for the real monsters. You think my friends are bad. You just wait and see.”
Then Art eased open the window and, before slipping out, placed a hand on his little brother’s shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze. It was the first time he’d done anything like that. Melvin wondered about that and about Art’s words. He touched the skin of his stomach to see if it was shell-like. It seemed normal, but now he had nothing to compare it to.
The brothers are quiet again, a lull Melvin is glad for, even saying a silent prayer: Our Father, who art in Heaven, please don’t let them force me into self-touching, melt Jarvis’ brain, turn Dwayne into salt or give him boils, let him cower as I have, let him know terror, let Jarvis hit his head—not enough to kill him as with Art, but enough to make him forget about the jerking, amen.
They cross some train tracks and pull off the main road into a pothole-cratered dirt lot, the trailhead marked by a dumpster-sized boulder with a painted red arrow. Melvin’s balls clench. He wishes they’d blown a tire. He wishes one of them would sprain his ankle, have a sudden seizure. He scans the sky for rain clouds. Maybe there will be a lightning storm.
Cicadas rattle and gnat swarms materialize periodically in pockets of shade. Horseflies bite the boys’ exposed flesh. Jarvis slaps one, leaving a bloody smudge on the back of his neck.
“Here’s where me and Art smoked weed,” Dwayne says like a tour guide, pointing to a sycamore log worn smooth from years of people sitting. “He coughed so hard he almost puked. Here’s the tree we hid in afterwards, making bird noises at hikers.”
“Art was hilarious,” Jarvis laughs and spits his tobacco wad into a blackberry bush.
Melvin lets his mind wander to Angela, whom he’d thrown a wet sponge at in chemistry class. When she’d turned around after the sponge struck her shoulder, her smile seemed to say she knew he’d been planning the move all morning, that she knew he’d rehearsed it in his bedroom, using a bean bag instead of a sponge, worried that the weight of the sponge would make him miss. Jarvis and Dwayne are talking quietly ahead of him.
“Doesn’t it hurt when you land?”
“You have to go spread-eagle once you hit the water,” Dwayne says.
“What about all the glass?” Jarvis asks.
“Hands and feet out.” Dwayne demonstrates with a jumping jack.
“Aren’t there snapping turtles? I’m not cut out for snappers.”
“Not cut out for snappers?” Dwayne mocks. Melvin is glad that Jarvis is afraid. He revises his earlier prayer: Our Father, who art in Heaven, let fear cloud their judgment, let them hit the water hard and feel the shock and hurt so that they will caution me against it and then, God—be it with fire, earthquake, or tank battalion—come down and level all high spots above water, dash to bits all boulders, diving boards, rope swings trees or, God, if that’s too much, give me a special ring that allows me to always be somewhere else the minute kids start jumping.
The Rock looms above the river on the other side, as tall as a four-story house.
Dwayne says to keep their shoes on as they cross. They drop their shirts on a scrap of beach. Water striders skate in all directions. Downriver, a fat man and woman are grilling burgers, their pink flesh squeezing out around their bathing suits. Beyond them, two naked, tattooed men sunbathe. Dwayne shakes his head in disgust at the men, and Jarvis imitates him. They pass the grillers, whose arms and necks are so sunburned it’s as if they dipped themselves in paint. The woman drinks from a can of beer and smiles, her teeth gleaming. The man grips his spatula and regards the boys from behind wrap-around sunglasses.
“Swim or jump? Jump or swim?” he says, chuckling.
“Why can’t they do both?” says the woman. “You can come here and do both.”
“Those two queers over there have done neither,” the man says. “We were here, then they came in.”
“Leave off, Jerry.” says the woman. “You boys look like supermodels.”
“In training,” says Dwayne, flexing a bicep.
“Succulence!” the woman says. “Look at these hard little sluts, Jerry.”
Melvin back-steps. The tattooed men are either out of earshot or uninterested in the conversation.
The man flips a burger, grease sizzling and spitting. “Christ, April.”
“This one might not make it,” the woman says, looking at Melvin. “Either I’ll eat him or those bikers will. Gnaw on his sweet little bones.” She clacks her teeth. “Won’t I, sugar shorts?”
“You’ve got her all lathered up,” the man says. He’s positioned himself between the boys and the woman. “What did I say? Jump or swim?”
“Jump,” says the woman. “I want to see them drop.”
“We need a show,” says the man.
“You paying?” says Dwayne. “Five bucks a jump.”
“Ten!” says Jarvis.
“Fuck off,” says the man. “You’re stomping on our picnic.”
“I don’t have any money,” says Melvin. Dwayne and Jarvis turn to him with blank expressions.
The man looks at Melvin again, lifting his sunglasses. His eyes are big and wet and blue. Melvin notices that his face is pocked with ancient acne scars. “I guess we better all ignore each other, then. Verstehen sie? You boys better jump or jack off.”
“Both!” says April.
They wade into the Schuykill’s tepid flow. The Rock is covered in graffiti: curse words, an American flag, a black peace sign in the middle of a rainbow circle, “Anthrax” in jagged red lettering. They slog through the silt-covered river bottom until the water is up to their necks, and they swim. Melvin, afraid it might happen at the top where he will be visible, releases a hot piss underwater. Blackbirds watch from the treetops. A bullfrog honks. They climb a slippery, leaf-strewn path.
They stand dripping at the top. Dwayne and Jarvis discuss the two tattooed men. Dwayne describes what he imagines they do to each other, in private, in a garage or basement, probably, bent over the seats of Harleys. He opens his mouth wide and pumps his fist in front of it, eyes crossed.
“Disgusting,” Jarvis says. Melvin’s not sure how they are certain that the two men are gay. Didn’t guys skinny-dip? Though he’s never skinny-dipped with anyone, the way older kids have described it to him with an air of triumph has made him think of swimming naked as a special rite. An honorable thing to do. Daring. Alike in awesomeness to jumping off The Rock. Should he laugh? He knows he is supposed to, but he also thinks it would hurt the two men.
Melvin fakes a laugh.
“He looks scared,” Dwayne says, pointing at Melvin.
“He should be,” Jarvis says.
“Climbing here the other day, this chick climbed with me,” Dwayne says. “Skirt on. No panties.” He simulates climbing posture, looking up, Melvin assumes, the girl’s skirt.
“Furry kerbongers right there.”
Jarvis nods his approval. Melvin can’t visualize a kerbonger, much less a furry one. He wonders if all women have kerbongers.
Dwayne walks to the edge of the Rock and sits with his legs hanging off. Jarvis joins him. Melvin sits on his haunches off to the side of them, a good five feet from the edge. He feels a slight vertigo, and sweats despite the shade. A little stomach acid and breakfast bubbles its way to the back of his throat.
“This is where Art fell,” Dwayne says after a few minutes. “It was night. We were daring each other to jump.”
The fat couple on the beach are shouting at each other. The man kicks over the grill and smoke billows up. The woman wades into the shallows and rolls onto her back, half submerged, her belly and the tops of her thighs making pink islands. The tattooed biker men shade their eyes with their hands and watch the boys on the cliff.
Melvin, for the first time, sees how the two brothers are not copies but echoes of one another. They both have giant Adam’s apples, thick lips, and sunken eyes he’s never sure to be looking inward or outward. Each of them has survived near-fatal accidents. Worm-like scars mark Jarvis’s left leg from a head-on bicycle collision, while Dwayne wears his on his back from when a friend drunkenly ran him over with a golf cart. Their oral histories are full of avoidable injuries, skirmishes with death. Jarvis slit his own cheek with a fishing knife while throwing it at the back wall of a church, and the middle finger of his right hand is pancaked from when Dwayne smashed it with a sledge hammer. Dwayne once urinated on an electric fence and had his nose broken by a falling ladder that Jarvis kicked over. In leaf-sifted light, they sit like statues, foreheads broad, angular, Dwayne’s crooked nose now like it was chiseled out of stone. Melvin wonders how they are alive. How they can sit on this ledge without sliding off. They look as if they should be bolted down or cemented to a building like gargoyles. What if he pushed them? Would they pull an Art and break to pieces on the lower ledge? Melvin imagines they would float down safely on unearned wings, lucky angels.
“Wait,” Dwayne says, standing. “We have to do something first.”
Behind the edge of the cliff is a path that leads into the woods. Walk a few hundred feet and there is a mailbox screwed to a birch tree. In it is a visitors’ log.
“People write stupid things,” Dwayne says.
Melvin flips through the notebook. The brothers watch over his shoulder for a few minutes and get bored. They wander off, and Melvin hears the sound of branches snapping, the hollow knock of wood striking wood, theatrical shouts of “Parry!” and “Thrust!” The log goes back four years. He flips to the year Art died. There are attempts at graffiti-style tags. A note says, “I’ve found Helen AND God! —Steven.” There are a few earnest entries by hikers meditating on ruffed grouse sightings and trees. There is an unsigned note that says, “Shit fuck, dick fuck.” Another says: “Jerktards U-knight!” Further on, Melvin finds entries from Art’s friends and one from Art. “Don’t know much, but I’ll tell you one thing,” it says. “Candy is dandy. But liquor is quicker. But, seriously, folks. I take my time at things, because right now it seems like time is the only thing I have that is free to take. My little brother, my mom and dad. Have they looked at me lately? Has God? I’m not pissed about it, I just think someone should know, a person lives all the way down inside himself a lot of the time, and aren’t we all just trying to climb up for a few minutes each day? Dinner time chit-chat? All those guys over there, do they have a second self that lives on the outside, so that the other inside one can relax? I worry about my brother. There, I said it. He’s a nerd and he needs to grow up. But is that even my job to worry? Do Mom and Dad know it’s their job? Alright, folks, the guys are chanting at me. Over and out. —Art.”
“We all jumped multiple times that night,” Dwayne says, suddenly behind Melvin. He has a scrape above his right eye that wasn’t there before. Jarvis is sucking at a wound on his own forearm. “Art dared all of us, then he went. We kept jumping.” An emotion settles on Dwayne’s face.
“Hey,” says Jarvis, “why don’t you take that book? As like a souvenir?”
“It’ll get wet,” Dwayne says. The emotion now gone, he brushes his nose with his wrist and looks away.
Melvin decides to put the notebook back in the mailbox, but not before scribbling his own note next to Art’s. He doesn’t know what to write, so he writes: “This is Melvin, Art’s younger brother. He died over there, but I’ll bet he’s living outside of himself now, outside his shell, folks. If anyone reads this, don’t you dare steal this book. If you do, I will find out who you are. —Melvin.”
The three boys stand at the back of The Rock.
“Spread-eagle,” Dwayne says, doing his half-jumping jack and, with a cry, sprints and jumps. A full four seconds later, his splash comes. Melvin hears cheering and applauding from the audience on the beach. Jarvis crouches, runs, jumps, and is gone. Melvin walks carefully to the edge. Dwayne and Jarvis are calling up to him, treading water off to the side of the landing zone, which still ripples from their impacts. The couple is shouting, but Melvin can’t make out the words. The bikers are standing now, all dangly and hairy parts and waving. Spread-eagle, he thinks. The air smells of honeysuckle and river scum, and The Rock is the edge of the world. When he starts to run, he thinks of naked skin, of skulls and crossbones and an American flag wrapping two fat bodies together, limbs twisting together, Angela’s birthmark, two men in a garage, Dwayne and Jarvis comparing dicks behind a tool shed, the two piles of clothes and his parents, and Art falling and falling and falling—and he’s airborne. The images are whipped away with a rush of wind and the hard sting of his body on the water, and he sinks down further than he thought he would.
Down here on the bottom, enough light penetrates that, when the air bubbles clear, he sees the silty floor, the cylinders and necks of a sunken glass bottles, and a shape floating above on the surface of the water that looks like a disembodied head, but which he realizes in a sudden panic is Art’s hat. The hat is sinking, and Melvin swims toward it, reaching and missing, kicking up silt, so that everything melds into one inky, terrible darkness before he abandons it for good.