The Boy Under Construction

by Robyn Goodwin —

We were loggers, standing on a two-ton pipe at a deserted construction site, doing a little hop dance for all the world to see. Nobody saw but the front-end loader, the Bobcat, and a Port-A-Potty weighed down with bags of mixing cement. No matter. Roy was the best—he could log that pipe all day, shuffling his bare feet nonstop, long after I sat down, gripping my sides, heaving from the effort.

“Get up,” Roy said. “Falls ahead. Keep your head above water.”

“We just went over the falls,” I whined. “I’m sick of the rapids.”

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “Keep moving.”

“I’m tired of fun.”

“You’ll be a lot more tired if you don’t help me navigate these choppy waters.”

So I’d start shuffling again, exhausted, but happy, the blonde tips of my hair flying into my face and mouth.

We were twelve years old, wearing ourselves down in the cool of early summer. I didn’t know then that this was the before—the moment whose smallest details I would strain to remember—the hum of a June bug’s wing, the song Roy blew into a milky Coke bottle, the pinwheels drawn in ink on my arm. Instead, I remember the pressure of a hard knot tied behind my neck from my halter top, my exposed back itchy and peeling. My feet were bare, toenails painted a conch shell pink. I had bad knees and scars, which I painstakingly covered with Bandaids and gauze. Roy was dark-skinned with white blonde hair, heavy-lidded and sleepy-eyed. He memorized the labels of Campbell’s soup cans and kept loose change and butterscotch candy in a pouch around his neck. Our arms were exactly the same length. When we walked together, our hands would sometimes touch. I shivered when his pointer finger scraped my leg, the one nail he wouldn’t cut in case of a mosquito bite. He was my first love, in some ways my only love, the boy under construction who knew how to log. I hold in my mind the memory of Roy and me standing in that coffee colored field, surrounded by half-framed houses, claiming the sun, the trees, the dry cakey mud under our feet, claiming the ride.

What happened next was a beginning—the beginning of a writer. The voice in the midst of confusion and pain that said, “Remember this. Don’t ever forget.” It was the same summer, not quite two weeks later, when my family went to Florida on vacation. It was unbearably hot, and for some reason I no longer remember, the pool was closed. Roy was taking care of our dog while we were away and couldn’t keep enough water in his bowl. He and another boy, John, spent most of their afternoons down at the construction site hauling timber, stealing 2×4’s for bike ramps and jumps on our street. I imagine John and Roy did all the usual things—sat in the tractor seat and pretended to plow the field. Lit a cigarette stub with a discarded matchbook, and flicked the ash in the air. One of them probably joked about an explosion and a leaky fuel line. I imagine they lay in the claw, walked around in the foundation of a newly dug out basement, hammered nails into scrap wood. Then, only after they were bored, they climbed on top of the concrete pipe, and set out to get the thing rolling, a feat Roy and I’d never been able to do. We were content to log in place, tracing the treeline with our open hands, listening to the shuffle of our feet. John was a big kid with strong legs, a soccer player with hair that ran down his back like water. After a few minutes of trying, he was able to make the pipe roll. Roy was surefooted, a natural. John was awkward, not light on his feet. I imagine Roy felt happy, crouched low, anticipating the swell. I feel his weightlessness, the lift in his stomach at making the pipe turn, the surprising accuracies of his landings. There was a point when it was no longer motion, but a sort of stillness, a hovering like a bee over a flower. I feel this too. They rolled onto a slight incline, a rocky slope, pockmarked with rocks and debris, their speed picking up. The late afternoon sun flickered through the trees, casting shadows over their heads. The air smelled sweet, like yesterday. There was a bump in the ground, and John lost his footing. He reached for Roy, grasping at the back of his striped shirt, and fell over backwards. He dislocated his shoulder, and received a 3-inch gash on the side of his head. It took weeks to pick the gravel out of the wound. Roy fell forwards, his shoe flung high into the air. We got the call in Florida two days later. Roy’s mother wanted to know what to do about our dog. Twenty-two years later, and my mom still remarks about Roy’s mother’s presence of mind in such circumstances. Remember this.

I have often wondered about that boy, John, the one who fell back, the less sure-footed one who saved his own life. Shortly after the accident, John dropped out of school, started taking drugs, and skulked around the neighborhood. When I last saw him, he couldn’t look at my face, or maybe I couldn’t look at his. He was, at best, a casual friend of Roy’s, the quiet one who rarely smiled or talked. He was the last person to be with Roy, to hear him laugh his stupid laugh that hurt my ears—the laugh Roy called his only disability besides his face. I wanted to tell John it was the dumbest laugh I ever heard.

Here’s the thing that shames me. After the funeral I did not go to, the flowers, fundraisers, park benches and foundation, I saw Roy’s parents outside watering the grass. The sprinkler was going in the yard, drenching the side of their house. It seemed to be stuck in the same position, watering the same patch of lawn over and over again. We pulled into our driveway, my dad stopping long enough to roll down the window and speak with the Kinney’s. It was the first time we had seen them since we left on vacation. I was in the back seat in a panic. They stood next to our car, wiping tears away, scratching at their ankles where the wet grass pricked their feet. Even though they couldn’t see me through the window, I hid on the floor of the car, covering my face with my hands. I heard my dad calling me, felt his fingers slide over my back, willing me to look up. I stayed tucked in a ball until we pulled into the garage. Everyone said it was an awful thing to lose a child—that this kind of loss was hard enough for adults to bear, let alone a child. But I understood. I understood the Kinney’s couldn’t stay in that house, with the one lost shoe, broken watch face, and two-foot long gum paper chain. Six weeks later, their house was sold and the opportunity was lost to tell them anything. What would I have said? That I loved him? That he was my best friend? Somehow saying these things diminishes what Roy and I had. It reduces us to the scraps of memories of bottleneck flies, sunburns, and slurpee headaches. What it is I’m trying to go back to, beyond what we were to each other, is a feeling—a feeling so subtle it’s only recognizable by its’ absence. It’s my before—the before of downhill bike rides with bright streamers, ferocious winds, and working brakes. And if the brakes fail, it is the soft mound of grass that catches you, and the deep-rooted knowledge you will do it again and again and again. It’s the revolution, the turn, the blessedness of the ride. The before of safety, and what I might call happiness—a pairing I’ve not experienced since that summer. This is who Roy is—every boy who wanders through my fiction with messy hair. Forget messy. He’s every boy who surprises me, makes me think, gives me a stomach feeling. I smell him on warm nights. He’s the pressure on my back, the sore spot on my leg. He’s every boy who wanders through my fiction. Roy. I know this, have always know, he’s the reason I write.

Robyn Goodwin holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University, where she won the highest prize for fiction, The Heritage Award. Her story, “Watershed,” was later selected by her contemporary fiction hero, Sherman Alexie to appear in Scribner’s The Best of the Writing Workshops. She’s been published in Five Points, So To Speak, Outside In, The Texas Review, Rappahannock Review, Compose, and numerous other literary magazines. She’s currently shopping a comedic novel and a memoir called Sweeping Beauty about her commercial cleaning business. She lives with her husband, and two delicious not-so-little-boys, in Manassas, VA.