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Heitman, the homosexual, the insane, is my tentmate. Again. Porter, the fat kid who cries a lot, cried again this morning, saying he didn't want to tent with Heitman ever again. Last night Heitman put ticks on Porter's eyelashes while he slept. This morning our scoutmaster, Casper, had to pluck them off with tweezers, since the hot-match trick was too dangerous that close to his eyeball. The ticks came away with tiny chunks of Porter's eyelid clasped in their jaws, like grains of sand. Casper said this was good; if the head stayed in, Porter could lose the eye. He told Heitman one more time and he was out. As soon as he left the tent, Heitman dropped his pants and pretended to masturbate violently in Casper's direction.

Two nights ago Heitman leapt off his cot in the middle of the night and onto my back, bucking frantically. "Bergie," he cried, "Oh, Bergie, Bergie, Bergie, you hunk of man." I tried to curl up and beat him off with my fists, but he knew where to put his knees.

"You bastard," I cried, "get off me," but Heitman was laughing and slapping the back of my head.

"We're buddies, aren't we?" Heitman said. "Say we're hunch buddies, Bergman. Hunch buddies forever." He stopped suddenly, before I could say anything, and got off me. I turned over and saw that the moon was out and shining through the fabric of the roof. Heitman was half dressed. He stood bent over, peering out the front flap of the tent. His shoelaces were untied and his shirt was off. He had his Scout neckerchief tucked in the back pocket of his jeans. He turned around, his black hair in his eyes, and said, loud over the crickets, "Let's go out, Bergman. Let's go explore."


"Heitman," I tell him, "you can't catch fish with your hands. It's impossible." He ignores me and wades out farther into the stream in his underwear, the moonlight reflecting around where his knees disappear into the current. He rises up and sinks down, stepping on hidden shelves and rock formations, not seeming to worry about his balance. He stops on a high spot and squats down, his hands in front of him.

"They're sleeping," he says. "You sneak up on them while they're sleeping." I can see his rounded back and the row of tiny knobs that runs up to his neck. The rippling water of the stream makes his back look strange. It looks striped like a trout, or maybe like he's been whipped.

I settle back and look up at the sky, listening to the screaming of the frogs and crickets. My eyes are just starting to close when something cold and spiny hits me on the throat, falls to the ground, and lies there flipping in the dirt.

Heitman sloshes back to the bank and climbs out. He squats next to the fish. It has stopped moving, its upturned eye brilliantly white against the dark ground. It arches its tail and lets it fall. Its gills open and close and its mouth flexes, the moon reflecting off the edges of its scales. Heitman picks it up and walks over to the water.

"Don't hold it tight," I tell him. "Just let it go easy. If you hold it tight then its scales will rot away." It's something my grandfather told me. He never touched the fish he threw back; he cut his best hooks apart with wire trimmers rather than tear up their mouths. He tried to save the small ones but still when he let them go some just arced over slow and slid away.

Heitman turns and bends sideways at the waist and launches the fish straight up into the sky. It disappears and for a second there is no sound, just the crickets and the rustling water, then the fish hits the ground next to me like a dropped stone. Its body doesn't move but its mouth opens and closes, slower than before. Its eye is now dark and may be gone, I can't tell. I pick it up and walk over to the edge of the stream. The fish is bone-rigid in my hand, frozen in an arc. I bend down and wash the dirt off. But the eye is still black, and I throw it up gently over the water. Seconds later it hits with a small splash, shattering the reflection of the moon, and disappears.

Heitman is furious. "That's fine," he says, shaking water from his arms. "That's just great. Now what do I have to show?" He grabs his pants and starts up the path. He doesn't say a word to me all the way back to camp.

The next day around the steam tables everyone talks about Friday night, the Order of the Arrow ceremony, and if they'll be Tapped Out. The generator is on and Old Willy is watching television under the bus tarp. Old Willy is Casper's father, and he invented the steam tables and the water heater and fixed up the old school bus that takes us around. We know that no other scout troop has an electrical generator, no other troop gets to wear jeans and not wear shirts and smoke cigarettes just about whenever they please. We are lucky. Casper has always preferred a more natural, Indian-style philosophy. According to Casper the old army scouts were just half-ass Indians at best, and he considers most of the standard Boy Scout stuff silly. Summer camp is the only organized camp he lets his troop attend, because of the Order of the Arrow ceremony, where each troop selects a few of its boys to be transformed into men, the way the Indians used to.

"Merit badges are for pussies," Casper says. "Uniforms are for mailmen. I should make you all get tattoos instead." Casper has tattoos, up and down both arms. He wears boots with metal toes. He is a Korean veteran, the seniors say. He has a medal for valor against the enemy, and a scar on his shoulder from a Chinese bayonet. He's tough, but fair, he likes to say. Every kid gets a fair shake.

Casper's right-hand men are the senior troop leaders. They're in high school and they don't eat with the rest of us, the small ones. The only one of us they can tolerate is Heitman, who they get a charge out of. They've learned that Heitman will do almost anything anyone dares him to do; he eats small animals raw, sets his hair on fire, that kind of thing. He eats at their fire but they won't let him sleep with them in their canopy tent. Heitman has been known to howl at night; an unearthly cry, like rutting hyenas at a fire drill, Casper says. The only time Heitman can be sure not to howl is in my tent, so he mostly sleeps with me. He tells everyone I'm his official hunch buddy, and whatever they think, everybody pretty much leaves me alone. When I walk by they whisper to each other. I know what I am called. I am Heitman's girlfriend.

The seniors spend most of their time sitting around their own fire, smoking cigarettes and telling stories about women they've molested. Chadwell is the biggest. He has removable front teeth and long black hair parted in the middle. In camp he wears feathers in it, two of them that dangle just next to his ear. Sometimes he soots the area under his eyes. Garcia is only slightly smaller, but with bigger shoulders. He sits next to Chadwell and breaks the wood that goes into the fire with his bare hands, sometimes using the arch of his shoulders for leverage. He once hit me in the back of the head for leaving grease in one of the big pots I was cleaning. The next day he came up to me and told me a sex joke which I didn't really get, and I've been friends with him ever since. I give him the cigarettes I steal from my mother but don't smoke.

* * *


Heitman has gotten ahold of some Mace from somewhere. His father is a mailman, he says, but I know he's Iying. Heitman lives on the street behind mine and everybody on the block knows that his father stays home all day, looking after his chinchillas. Mr. Heitman has a patent on a chinchilla-killing machine that hooks up to a car battery. He calls it the Chilla-Killa. You clamp one end on the chinchilla's nose and stick the other in its anus, then throw the switch. They stiffen right up, Mr. Heitman told me once when I'd come around, right up like a big furry click. It's not the volts, he said, it's the amps. He shook a dead chinchilla in my face and laughed when I screamed.

We sit on a stone wall by the front gate to the camp, and Heitman hides the Mace behind the wall from a line of scouts who are marching in to use the lake. They're from the rich kids' troop. We're out of uniform so their scoutmaster doesn't even acknowledge us. He knows what troop we're from, and he hates Casper. Earlier in the week he tried to get us kicked out of the camp, on account of our conduct at Taps, but nobody did anything. They were too afraid of us. Every night the other troop stands at attention while the flag is lowered, while we put our hands in our pockets and whistle over the pathetic hooting of their fat-faced bugler. Their scoutmaster closes his eyes in fury, and when the sound dies he marches his kids quickly down the hill to his own camp.

The troop passes the stone wall and Heitman Maces the last kid in line as he marches by, eyes forward. It's quick and the kid doesn't seem to know what it is, he just wipes his neck and marches on. They tromp out of sight around the corner of the pool, the kid shaking his head, and Heitman stashes the Mace under a loose stone that has fallen from the wall. "Crap doesn't work," he says. "Wouldn't you know?" We walk the long way back to camp and Heitman traps a black rat snake next to the path. Back in the tent we put it in a box and collect tree toads. The snake swallows four toads before Heitman throws it into the hot-water tank. It boils and turns gray and hard as a spring, its eyes completely white.

The seniors are grimly practicing being Indians for the ceremony when the scoutmaster from the other troop marches in, red-faced. He walks up to Casper, his forefinger shaking, and wants to see all of the troop. One of his boys got sent to the hospital after being shot in the face with something. It might have been acid, he says. He'll know the boys who did it when he sees them. He knows they're here.

I come out of the tent in full uniform, more or less, trying to disguise myself. Heitman is nowhere to be found. Casper lines us up and the scoutmaster starts at one end, looking each of us up and down for a long time, then moving on to the next. His face is still red, and his mouth set, but after a few kids it's clear he's not cut out for this sort of thing. He's starting to lose his nerve; he's too soft. Even fat Porter senses it and seems to sneer at him. Casper follows next to him and tries to keep him moving along the line. He's on our side.

There is a noise behind me and Heitman moves in next to me, naked except for his gray underpants. He stands rigid, almost not breathing, perfectly at attention. His bony chest is thrust out and the hollows above his collarbone are so deep they're shadowed. The scoutmaster gets even with me, takes one look, and taps Casper on the shoulder. "That's one of them," he says, pointing at me. I look at Casper and his face is stone.

"Which was he," he says. "The one with the can or the other one?"

"The other one," says the scoutmaster, already moving on. He stops and squints at Heitman. He looks at Heitman's face but not at the rest of him. Heitman's face is cold, reptilian. His eyes don't blink and don't focus. The scoutmaster draws away for a second, then leans forward, close to Heitman's face. "Have you got a problem, young man, standing here in your underpants?" Heitman smiles softly, then looks the scoutmaster in the eye. Up close, the scoutmaster's face is soft and freckled, and his eyelashes are just wisps of white above his eyes. He has a sparse moustache that sticks out slightly, trying to hide a harelip. The moustache quivers, like a rabbit, and it is a second before I realize that it is something the scoutmaster can't control. He stands there, staring at Heitman, and everyone knows after a couple of seconds he doesn't have the courage to call him out.

Sure enough, he moves on and finishes the line. Under the bus tarp the seniors have quit being Indians and sit around a table, playing cards loud and smoking cigarettes. When they notice the scoutmaster looking at them, they lower their cards and stare at him. The scoutmaster looks for a moment as if he might go over, but thinks the better of it and turns around. He sees Casper walk up to me and slap me hard across the face.

"Who was it?" Casper says. "Talk to me and I won't kick the living shit out of you."

"Hey," says the scoutmaster, "there's no need for that." I hold my face and start to cry. The scoutmaster shoves in front of Casper and bends down at the waist, his hand on my shoulder. "No one's going to hurt you," he says. He's breathing hard and his hand shakes on my shoulder. "I have a boy in the hospital," he says. "You understand?" I shake my head and my throat snags when I breathe in.

The scoutmaster turns to Casper. "I mean, he's going to be all right and everything. It's just the idea." Casper looks at him without saying anything. The scoutmaster shakes his head, his face is terrible to look at. "I mean," he says, "I mean the boy is hurt." He looks at all of us but nobody says a word, and after a moment he just walks off the way he came. Casper watches him go and when the scoutmaster is out of sight he sighs. He puts his hand on my shoulder but I can tell he doesn't like touching me.

"Show me the can, you stupid shit," he says, his voice almost gentle. I look up at him with gratitude, but he's not looking at me. He stands with his hand on my neck but looks at Heitman, who is still at attention, his underwear sagging in front.

"Heitman," he says, "one more time and that's it."

Casper walks me back along the path to the stone wall, and I point out the can, under its rock. He picks it up, hefts it, and puts it in his pocket. After a moment he sits down on the wall and I sit next to him. He picks up his legs and crosses them under him, his elbows on his thighs, his metal-toed boot tips tucked behind his knees.

"Heitman's crazy, you know," he says. He stares down the road where the other troop came from. "I used to never think kids could be crazy but that kid's crazy."

He looks at me like I should explain and I know I have to say something. I think of Heitman at the river in the moonlight and say the first thing I think of.

"He's got scars," I whisper.

Casper is quiet for a second. "Where?"

I tell him and he sighs softly. His shoulders sag and he closes his eyes, just for a moment.

"You know," he says, "I was thinking of tapping him out tomorrow night. I thought it might be just the thing for him."

"Maybe," I say.

His voice drops low and his face gets dreamy. "The Indians used to make their boys go out into the wilderness for months, just living off the land. When they came back they were men. That's what the Order of the Arrow ceremony is based on."

"Alone?" I say.

He looks at me sharply. "They look for their spirit guide," he says. "An animal, like an eagle or a mountain lion, to lead them. Then they become one."

I want to correct him. He doesn't know Heitman the way I do. I know what Heitman would do to any animal that tried to lead him anywhere, or become one with him. Instead I say nothing, and Casper shakes his head and looks away from me. A second later he gets up and walks back up the path to camp. I follow him, not too far behind.

When we get back to the camp Heitman is sitting the seniors, smoking, looking pleased with himself. Casper walks up and takes his cigarette away and throws it into cooking fire. He walks behind him and looks at his back. I know what he's looking for, and I can't remember for the life of me why I told him that. Casper shoots me a dark look and goes inside his tent and pulls the flaps shut. Chadwell hands Heitman another cigarette and Heitman lights it directly from the fire, his face nearly in the flames, impressing the hell out of the seniors. When I go to get some wood I pass close to them, and hear them invite Heitman to spend the night in their tent. He smokes his cigarette and smiles at them all, one at a time.

Sometime that night he parts the flaps to my tent. His underwear is gone. I have been awake, expecting him, lying on my back and gripping the sides of my cot. I've been expecting him because I did not hear him howl.

"Come on out, Bergman," he says. "Let's go explore."

I say nothing. I lie stiff, not moving, watching him under my eyelids. He crouches in the doorway, one knee up and the other down.

"Berrr-gie," he whispers, "Bergie, Bergie, Bergie..." I hold my chest tight, trying not to breathe. After a moment the tent flaps fall closed and Heitman is gone. His footsteps blend into the crickets and the bullfrogs and the sound of Old Willy's television. I lie awake and listen for him but he doesn't come back.

When I wake up Friday morning Heitman is still gone. Disappeared. He is still missing at breakfast. By lunch Casper is cussing and Old Willy is passing out trail maps to the seniors. Chadwell tosses his in the breakfast fire and laughs, but stops when Casper sticks another one in his chest. "Find him," he says, "or don't come back." He snatches the feathers from Chadwell's hair. "And get that shit out of here."

The seniors take me with them, almost running down the trail. A quarter mile from camp they stop as if on a signal and sit on some rocks, begin smoking cigarettes. Garcia offers me one of my own but I say no. After about ten minutes they set off again, slower, and tromp as much around the path as on it. Nobody makes any effort to call out Heitman's name, or look away from the path. Chadwell walks along breaking off branches and Garcia strips leaves from everything he touches. What did you dare him to do this time, I wonder. Did you send him off into the wilderness alone, looking for himself as a man? Their backs don't answer me, and we walk on and on.

Two hours later we're back, running the last few hundred yards into the camp. It is abandoned except for Old Willy, who is asleep under the TV tarp. When Casper returns with a ranger he is rigid with anger; throughout dinner he is dead silent. Some whisper that the seniors took Heitman out into the woods during the night and abandoned him; others think he just ran away. By nightfall it becomes possible to believe the boy is dead. We wait in our tents for the call to the Indian ceremony; I leave the flap open for Heitman but he doesn't come.

The woods are black beyond the light thrown by the line of torches. There is no moon and the wind makes the trees brush up against each other in waves. Our line marches down the side of a ravine. The path is pebbly and some of the boys slip, reaching out to the man in front, sometimes bringing them both down. On the ground they are kicked by the Indians until they get up. If they try to brush their clothes they are struck on the shoulders with wooden lances. Porter starts to cry and two Indians whisk him out of line. Nobody turns to see what happens to him.

At the end of the path, at the bottom of the ravine, is a bonfire and in front of it stands a lone Indian, his arms folded. It is obviously Casper, in leather pants and striped makeup. In the light of the fire his tattoos seem to dance up one arm and down the other. His eyes are closed. We line up in front of him and the bonfire. The other troop is lined up on the far side of the fire, standing quietly. Unlike us they are in full uniform--their scoutmaster is also in uniform, and stands to the right of them. They blink and their eyes shift; one of them raises a hand to wipe his nose. I expect an Indian to rush up and knock the boy to the ground, but nothing happens. Suddenly my head is grabbed from behind and jerked side to side. "Eyes front," someone hisses in my ear. I smell cigarettes; I know it's Garcia, and I stand as still as I can.

Casper opens his eyes. He picks up a feathered pole and walks the line of the other troop. He stops and shakes the pole in front of a boy, and one of the other Indians steps up and taps the boy on the chest with his flattened hand, once, then twice. The boy steps forward and the Indian leads him up to the fire, hands him an arrow. The boy's face is cold and he stands with his arms folded, facing his old friends across the clearing, the arrow held diagonally across his chest.

Casper has two more boys tapped from the other troop, then starts with us, at the far side from me. My heart begins throbbing and my body starts to itch, but I can hear the crunch of footsteps behind me, and I can smell Garcia as he passes. I feel my pulse in my fingertips and in my shrunken stomach and I want to race back to camp where Old Willy is running the generator and watching television. I listen to the progress of Garcia from one end and Casper from the other, one in back and the other in front.

Casper shakes his pole and one of our own is tapped out, one of the older boys. The Indian hits him hard in the chest, much harder than the other troop, but he is ready, one foot slightly back, and the sound of flesh on flesh is so loud it echoes off the trees around us. The troop across the clearing sways in line at the sound, their eyes widening. Our boy walks forward and stands in front of us, his back to the fire. He stares over our heads.

Casper taps out one more, then two. He moves down the line and then stops dead in front of me. My heart clenches in my chest and my breath starts to catch in my throat. I am sure he sees me crying. He looks me in the eye and his face is too dark to see clearly, but I can see his eyes. They look crazy; the moisture in them reflects the beating of the bonfire. He stands there, staring at me, his chest rising and falling. He seems to stand there forever. Please, I say to myself, please. I want you to. Then he smiles, but in a bad way, the way Heitman smiles at fat Porter. I close my hot eyes when his feet crunch away from me.

He reaches the end of the line without again shaking the pole. The Indian behind him takes his place next to the three boys, and Casper walks to the bonfire and turns to face the rest of us--the small ones, the ones left over. He raises his arms high up from his sides, eyes squeezed nearly shut, and his chest starts to swell, getting ready to shout at the treetops. Because he is like this, he doesn't see Heitman walk slowly into the light of the clearing. When he opens his eyes and sees him, whatever he was thinking of shouting comes out instead as a kind of twisted yelp. His arms fall to his sides like shot birds.

Heitman is naked, smeared with mud in streaks across his sides. There is blood on his legs and what looks like shit in his hair. He carries something in his arms; a big mess of blood and bone and feathers sticking out this way and that. He is naked, but he walks with his skinny shoulders back, up on the balls of his feet. The way he moves makes the Indians look like schoolkids lost in the woods in their pajamas. They stare at him--next to them one of the chosen boys drops his arrow in the dirt. Casper, like a deflating balloon, sits down right where he was standing.

Heitman has caught a wild turkey, and killed it. Heitman has caught a wild turkey with his bare hands. He doesn't say anything, he just stands and faces us, the turkey in his arms. He looks exhausted; he looks done in. We glance at each other and we start to move and shuffle in our places, and just then fat Porter goes and does it. He starts in and after a second everybody joins him. We stand there, the small ones, all in a line in front of Heitman and the bonfire and the Indians, and we howl. We howl and we howl, and Heitman smiles down the line at us all, one at a time. When he gets to me his eyes rest only for a second, then drift on past to the next boy. My heart clenches again, but it is too late; now we are all Heitman's girlfriend.



(This story originally appeared in Ploughshares.)
 
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    Excerpted from Kick in the Head by Steven Rinehart. Copyright © 2000 by Steven Rinehart. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.