Starbuck has been trying on new emotions lately, pretending he’s mad or upset or joyous, then believing his invented states. “You can’t have any juice right now,” Mrs. Churm tells him. “You’ve had juice already. Have some water instead.”
“You mean I can NEVER have juice again, never ever, in a million trillion ducal-blaster years?” he wails, practicing being hyperbolic.
One day at the start of this week, he was especially fragile at dinnertime, even though he’d had a good day at school. He incited riots with his brother then got upset when we said he was in trouble. Wolfie copied everything Starbuck did. “What am I going to have to do to get this pasta in you today?” I asked them tiredly, like a used-car salesman.
Starbuck got himself sent to his room before bedtime. Mrs. Churm went to say goodnight and said she expected better from him the next day. Starbuck looked at me as she lectured, and I shot him a look that was 60% “You’re gonna get it from me when your mother’s done,” and 40% “You’re gonna get wrestled to the bed and kissed on the neck.” His eyebrows went up hopefully.
I made him wait to find out which it would be until Mrs. Churm helped the boys say good night to each other and carried Wolfie out of the room and down the hall. Starbuck tried to force the issue—“What? What are you going to do?” he pleaded, pretending terror—but I only looked sideways from the departing Mrs. Churm to Starbuck sitting on his pillow.
“Okay. Now,” I said. I paused. “It’s time you met...the Tickle Spider!” It's one of our usual games. My right hand ran toward him on its fingers, and he shrieked in delight. He sledge-hammered the spider with the bottom of his fist as it ran up his leg toward his armpits. He pulled it off him and sat on it, giggling, but intent and fierce. I let him struggle with it a minute then said, “Wait, wait. Stop. Stop it.”
“Huh?” he said. He stopped but wasn’t about to get off the spider. Who would?
“Tickle Spider has something he wants to say,” I said.
Starbuck shifted his weight off my hand—cautiously, cautiously—and held the spider down with both hands. He leaned down. “What is it, Tickle Spider?” he asked.
“I want to tell you a secret,” I whispered. “Come closer.” Starbuck did. I said, “I want to tell you…I have…a brother!” With that, my other hand ran at him. Starbuck jerked back, allowing both tickle spiders to come at him at once. He screamed and began to sob.
I cradled him to my chest, said I was sorry, and reassured him. I felt horrible but pressed my lips together to keep from smiling. He made me promise never to bring out the Tickle Spider ever again, and I promised I never would, not in a million ducal-blaster years. I lay next to him as he calmed down, and just before he fell asleep, he asked the Tickle Spider to come and sleep on his chest.
I’d been promising him his first camping trip, and Starbuck’s godparents were visiting their folks in my hometown in Southern Illinois, so we decided, Tuesday, it was a good time for just the two of us to hit the road. Due to intangible fears (lions, tigers and bears not being available), camping in a tent somehow became sleeping in the back of our minivan. But that would mean buying mosquito netting for the windows, and in the end I reserved a “rustic cabin” at Giant City State Park, south of Carbondale. It’s a lovely park I’ve visited since I was a boy, with a lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Thirties from rough-hewn local timber and chiseled fieldstones.
The lodge always had a couple of original rough cabins nearby, and a restaurant with excellent chicken dinners, but it has been tastefully expanded and now has a bar, a swimming pool, and Wi-Fi. Now the cabins come in several sizes, from modest to Aspen Townhouse, and our rustic cabin had been totally rebuilt. Though plain, it had two comfortable full beds, a state-of-the-art shower room, and air-conditioning. We climbed to the observation deck on the water tower near the lodge to look out toward the Mississippi over the hazy rolling hills and saw some early stars as the sun set.
Starbuck wanted ghost stories before bed. I was reluctant to get pulled into his new game of emotional bait-and-switch but told a watered-down version about a daddy and a boy in the woods. In the story, someone knocked on the door of their cabin (I used my foot to knock obviously on our door), and the monster turned out to be, mistakenly, the boy’s godfather, carrying the styrofoam box of leftover pizza they forgot at the restaurant where they’d just eaten dinner with the family.
It was a rotten story, and Starbuck spun his own gory tale, in which I had to play the part of the monster. When he vanquished me by pretending to spear my guts, I died obligingly and stuck my tongue out to the side, just a little. Then I very gently came back to life. “Rarghh,” I said, in the voice you’d say, “Cream and sugar, please.” Starbuck screamed and did the terror jig. He demanded tearfully that I sleep in his bed that night, and assurances that nothing could come in the door or windows.
I lay awake in the dark next to him. It was too early for my sleep. The air-conditioner was inefficient and roared each time it came to life, drowning out the cicadas and frogs, but it was too hot and humid outside to leave everything open. I thought I heard the bass line and barely-audible words of a car stereo under the roar of the unit, but when the air cycled off, there was no music or car, only the Devonian woods.
Coolant gurgled in the pipes as the air-conditioner cleared its throat to start up again. A couple in the next cabin murmured in the night. I remembered there was no one in the next cabin. I thought about how the closet with the hot-water heater and the air unit were between us and the door. If the thing blew up or caught fire, we’d be trapped. Then it started up again, and I heard mutterings under the whistle and roar of its blower. I lifted my head a little from the pillow. We were in the woods, after all, far from the nearest town and any help. In fact, there was almost no one in the enormous park, since it was the middle of the week. I lay there listening to the monster in the closet, all the noises under the racket—the chuckling, the salivations of the beast, then the scrape of a convict’s shoe on concrete somewhere nearby and the rasp of the file he was using to free himself from the ball and chain. It was a long night, and wonderful.