Some Deep Mud
by Steve Saulsbury

Mark told James about the trip. Most of it.

How the boys had snuck out of the tents at dark to wander around the campground. The dads were drinking beer and didn’t notice. James imagined he and his friends would have snuck a few beers themselves, but he was older. Getting into a little mischief.

Mark’s group was a bunch of eleven-year-olds. Roaming around at night, not getting into any trouble.

Then Mark slipped. Right into some deep mud. The others avoided the worst of it. A couple got their sneakers caked, but Mark lost a shoe, ruined a sock. 

James could picture the dark gray shitty mud, glistening in the moonlight. 

Their dad had been mad as hell. James figured as much.

An overweight man with an outdated Beatles haircut, he spanked Mark. Right in front of the other boys. What a lousy thing to do. 

Asshole, James thought. 

No doubt the other boys thought so, too.

A lot of good that spanking had done. Over a muddy sock. A couple years later, Mark was suspended for bringing a bottle of gin to school. A couple years after that, he took LSD, got picked up by the cops at Hillcrest playground.

James tried to help, urging Mark to get his shit together. He could get into serious trouble. Smoking PCP, running from old man Albrecht one night. Wrecking the Mustang. 

 

~

James had a good job, driving for Pepsi Cola. 

Their father, more overweight now, still a hitter. Charging at either son for some imagined slight. If he wasn’t balding, he might still have the Beatles mop top. Sulky mouth chewing, savoring some secret bitterness. 

James and Mark had laughed about the muddy sock a few times over the years. James would lunge and make as if to spank Mark. Then they would wrestle and slap box.

Before Mark left.

Today, he was being released from rehab. Almost two months Mark had been in. James vowed to keep him straight. Slap box some sense into him if he had to. Keep Mark away from their father. 

James picked him up in the Pepsi truck. Mark looked lean. He sidled into the truck, jaw knotted.

“Look at you,” James said. “You lost some weight. How ya feel?”

“I feel okay,” Mark replied.

“Well, you look good. For you.”

“Ha. Where’s Dad?”

“Don’t worry about Dad,” said James.

A pall entered the cab. Receipts and cups and mint packages everywhere. Clean and sober for the first time in years, Mark gazed at his brother. He rubbed his mouth with his thumb, the other fingers rigid. Like a blade.

“I guess you learned how to take care of yourself in there.”

“I learned was how to fold my shirts and socks military style.”

His knuckles looked huge, like stones sluiced smooth and hard in a river.

All the mud gone.