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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Big A, Little A
The boys had arrived at camp in West Glacier from different towns, but wearing the same stained sneakers, torn jeans, and black T-shirts scrawled with the names of punk bands as old as their fathers. Now they wore collared button-ups. Pressed khaki shorts and white knee socks. Hightop boots with thick laces. In this bizarro teenage summer, outdressing the park rangers had become a means of rebellion.
“Gimme your gum,” Little A said, holding out his hand. The cabin was quiet and the bunk springs groaned as Big A leaned over the railing to spit the wad of spearmint into Little A’s palm.
“Don’t worry,” said Little A, “I ain’t gonna put it in your hair.” Then he plucked a brown pine needle from the nightstand, where the Crass record sat propped beneath the window like a moonlit altar.
Little A pressed the base of the pine needle into the gum. The smell of spearmint made his mouth wet. Big A seemed to understand without a word what was in the works. His thick fingers parted the record sleeve and slid the vinyl loose. The boys sat beside one another on the lower bunk. Little A slid a pencil from his breast pocket and set its eraser on his thigh. He gripped the pencil firmly upright and waited for Big A to lower his gaze to it.
Outside, the lake glinted and its dark water churned patterns that the boys steered the motorboat over every morning. Little A spoke to the tourists through an intercom while they lathered sunscreen over their children. “Mountain pine beetles only care about mountain pine beetles,” he’d say when they pointed at the tips of the trees that had dried out and turned copper. The radio wire’s connection was iffy and Little A wrapped the cord tightly around his little wrist before speaking into the receiver. “That’s why the male pheromone pouches work,” he told them. “We hang them from the healthy trees. Just one sniff keeps the other males away.”
In the afternoons, the boys would navigate the forest armed with a staple gun, a topographical map, and backpacks filled with the white plastic pouches. They’d been a unit like this all summer. Out in the forest, Big A was nimble. He’d crouch before Little A, who climbed his back like a picket fence to reach sturdy branches. Little A noted beetle damage on the white pines and tucked the dead needles into his pockets like they might be clues to the mystery of nature’s selfishness. As they hiked, the boys grunted punk rock tunes, taking turns on rhythm guitar and vocals. But it was never as good as the real thing.
In the cabin that night, Little A whispered, “Ok,” and Big A lowered the record’s hole carefully over the sharpened point of the pencil. Then he slapped his wide palm gently along the record’s edge until it came to speed.
Little A clenched the wad of gum between his front teeth and slowly lowered his head. He’d thought of this moment often, of the sound of the record pulsing in his mouth, and the anticipation was a forest fire. Big A lowered his head too, peering at the needle from the side. Big A gripped Little A’s hair between the fingers of his free hand and directed his head gently into place. As the pine needle found the groove, the boys sat quiet. Intent. Listening for it. Little A closed his eyes and breathed through his mouth, which tasted like Big A’s mouth, like an entire summer in the forest.
Big A turned his head and pressed his ear to Little A’s cheek. The cartilage was warm from excitement and matched the curve of Little A’s face.
“Do you hear it?” Big A whispered.
Little A had listened to the record so many times, it shouldn’t have taken anything at all to trigger it in his head. But the pine needle was brittle and Little A’s mouth couldn’t project it right. Saliva pooled under his tongue and ran over his lower lip. The music came in whining scratches, the scuttling of pine beetles, a memorized national park tour over a shitty motorboat intercom. But Big A pressed harder against Little A’s cheek, his ear almost inside his mouth, and Little A could hear Big A’s pulse thumping hard against his gums. The perfect time of his heart buzzing his little teeth.
“You hear it?” Big A asked again.
“Yeah,” Little A whispered. “Fucking punk rock.”
Andrew Bales lives in Wichita, Kansas, where he works on the staffs of NANO Fiction and American Short Fiction. This fall he will join the creative writing PhD program at the University of Cincinnati.