They say our early memories are really memories of what we think we remember—stories we tell ourselves—and as we grow older, we re-remember, and often get it wrong along the way. I’m willing to believe that, but I still trust some of my memories, the most vivid, like this one: there was a newspaper, and a headline, bigger than the everyday ones. It was morning and I was alone at the kitchen table, sleepy, my feet resting on the dog—he was a cow dog, speckled black and white, name of Cash—on the floor underneath. I had a spoon in my hand and was waving it around; drops of milk splashed on the paper.
The headline said, “Johnson Doubles Draft to 35,000.” It was summer and I was nine. I knew who Johnson was. He was the president. He was tall and talked funny, and his nose took up half his face. The reason he got to be president was on account of the last one getting shot in Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald, who got shot by Jack Ruby, who did not get shot by anyone. JFK was the president when I first started school. John-John and Caroline were his kids and his wife looked like a movie star. When they buried him, she wore a black veil over her face so no one could see if she cried. John-John held her hand.
President Johnson, in the paper, said Vietnam was a different kind of war. I knew I could ask Mick about that: about how many kinds of war there were, or how there could even be different kinds, but he was outside. My parents were out there too—Mom probably in the garden already, digging up potatoes before the sun got so high and hot it would turn them green, and Dad fixing fences or tractoring or scaring up dopey runaway calves. The usual. Our life.
I collected the bowl of apples and the peeler Mom had left on the counter for me and went out to the front porch. I balanced the bowl on the railing and slid my feet between two spindles to stand on the bottom rail, so I could lean over and get a better look at my brother. Mick was crouched in the driveway next to a black Triumph motorcycle, his high school graduation present to himself. He was hoping to catch a girl with it, I knew, or to go away on it, or both. I was not in favor of either, but he was over the moon. The bike was magnificent.
His toolbox lay open in the dust, and a greasy rag dangled like a cockeyed tail from the back pocket of his coveralls. Most of his blond hair was tucked up under a train engineer’s cap, but a few wayward strands crept down his neck and caught the poplar-filtered morning light like filaments of some shiny spun metal. No one else in the family had hair like that. Not even close. I thought about sneaking up behind him with a pair of scissors and snipping off a piece, but it seemed like a lot of work and probably not worth the repercussions. Instead, I looked around for something small to throw at him, as it was my habit to be annoying. I did know better than to hit him with an entire apple.
Without looking at me, he said, “Don’t even think about it,” and gave one of the screws on the engine an infinitesimal turn.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything,” I said. I was still searching, but there was nothing. I’m sure I sighed. I was a great sigher in those days. I picked up the bowl and sat down with my back to the wall, scissored my legs open, and set the bowl between them. The peeler was still on the porch railing.
“What’s wrong? Can’t find a weapon?”
“I left the peeler. It’s on the rail.”
“Get it for me?”
“My pleasure, Cupcake.”
I didn’t move. I sniffed the air and it smelled like cow farts. I said so.
Mick said, “What smells like cow farts?”
“Probably not,” he said. “Probably just Montana.”