American Youth is a controlled, essential, and powerful tale of a teenager in southern New England who is confronted by a terrible moral dilemma following a fatal firearms accident in his home. This tragedy earns him the unwelcome admiration of a sinister group of boys at his school and a girl associated with them. Set in a town riven by social and ideological tensions – an old rural culture in conflict with newcomers – this is a classic portrait of a young man struggling with the idea of identity and responsibility in an America ill at ease with itself.
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Phil LaMarche was a writing fellow in the Syracuse University graduate creative writing program. He was awarded the Ivan Klíma Fellowship in fiction in Prague and a Summer Literary Seminars fellowship in St. Petersburg, Russia. His story "In the Tradition of My Family," published in the spring 2005 edition of Ninth Letter and the 2005 Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories anthology, has been made into a film by orLater Productions. He lives in central New York state.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The two boys walked the high ridge at the center of the wood road, avoiding the muddy ruts along the sides. Loggers had powered their hulking machines along the makeshift pathways—the huge skidder tires clawing deep cuts into the soft earth. The men had taken the timber of any value and only the undesirable trees remained: the young, the mangled and twisted, the rotten and sick. The boys made their way through the difficult clutter of leftover branches that now thatched the forest floor. The sun broke the sparse canopy and beat on their sweating necks.
Terry caught a toe on the cut end of an exposed root and stumbled into several lurching steps. His backpack rattled. The other boy sidestepped the splintered butt of wood and quickly tiptoed around a small birch stump. Terry stood a head taller than the boy and he was half again as broad, but he wore his body like an oversize suit. The boy was still small and nimble, but he wasn’t happy about it. He looked at Terry’s body and he wanted one of his own. Terry’s neck and arms were thick like a man’s. The backpack looked like a child’s toy, dangling between his broad shoulders.
Terry tripped again. “Cocksucker,” he said. He hopped the rut at the side of the path and took a seat on a broad stump. The cut wood was still pale and creamy. White sawdust clung to the dead leaves on the ground like early snow. Terry bent over his knees and clutched the laces of his work boot. He wore them untied and loose, as was the fashion in their school for boots and high-tops. Now he straightened his leg and leaned back, pulling the boot tight. He bow-tied the laces and set to his other foot.
The boy eyed Terry’s hands and forearms as he pulled. They were covered in coarse red hair that matched the color of his closely shorn scalp. The boy’s arms were undefined. What hair he had on his body was blond and thin.
Terry grunted when he stood. He hopped back on the trail. The boy was six months his senior, but Terry’s size earned him the lead through the maze of skid roads. When Terry wondered which way to proceed, the boy pointed knowingly from behind. He’d grown up hunting the Darling land with his father and uncle. But several years back, Mr. Darling had died and his children had sold the property to a developer. Within weeks, no trespassing signs surrounded the four hundred acres. Within months, the land had been subdivided and the town’s zoning board confronted with plans for a handful of upscale housing developments.
In effect, the boys were trespassing, but there was no one around to catch them. When the economy had gone bad and stayed bad, the development stopped. The groaning cement trucks quit their runs in and out of the new neighborhoods. The swarms of subcontractors disappeared and the developer’s Mercedes no longer made its rounds about town. It was rumored that the money from the recent logging contract was all he had left to fend off foreclosure.
The boys walked out into the clearing of Woodbury Heights, the last of the developer’s projects. He’d pushed the road into the woods, paved it, and even managed to cut several of the prospective house lots before the recession settled in. Piles of soil and unearthed boulders now cluttered the landscape. Leafless trees lay prone, their roots reaching elliptically into the air. The deep black of the new pavement stood out from the mess of the rest of the scene.
The boys made their way to the culvert at the end of the road. The August sun hung heavily on the two and came back at them from the hot blacktop.
“You sure?” the boy said.
Terry nodded. He slid his arms out of the backpack and pulled out three glass bottles.
“How you know?”
“My brother,” Terry told him. “Two parts gas, one part oil.” He took out three socks and tied knots in them. He soaked the socks with the mixture in the bottles and stuffed a knot through each open bottleneck. Then he went to the side of the road and wiped his hands on the tall grass.
When he returned, he took up one of the bottles, held a lighter to the sock, and heaved the cocktail. It crashed and set a good portion of pavement afire.
“See,” Terry said. “Told you.”
The boy smiled. “No shit,” he said.
They watched the fire slowly subside.
Terry lit and tossed a second. Again the pavement burned.
“Let me,” the boy said.
Terry handed him the last of the three bottles and the boy held it, his arm cocked and ready. Terry thumbed the lighter and touched it to the sock. The boy waited for the flame to catch, crow-hopped a quick three steps, and overhanded the bottle. It reminded him of some second-rate firework, the trajectory neither high nor fast. When it crashed down, the flames spilled across the tarmac and waved in the air. The boy stared at the fire, a dumb smile on his soft face.
A jab in the ribs brought him around quickly. Terry pointed a thumb down the road. His head was cocked, an ear in the direction of his hand. His eyes looked at the sky. The boy heard it too, an engine in low gear, climbing the hill. Terry turned and sprinted. The boy chased after him but couldn’t keep up. With the sound of the engine growing closer, Terry didn’t try to make it to the trail they’d come on. Instead he bolted over the shoulder of the road, through the underbrush, and into the woods. The boy followed.
With the broad hardwoods gone, the hiding wasn’t good. Terry sprawled behind a fir sapling and the boy crouched behind a good-size stump. He panted, catching his breath. When he saw the police cruiser, his chest froze and he could hardly get more than a quick gasp. He looked back at Terry.
“Think it’s burning?” the boy said.
Terry shrugged. “Come on,” he said, once the cruiser had passed. He jumped to his feet and waved for the boy to follow.
“I don’t think we should move.”
“No way,” Terry said, as he turned and lumbered into the woods. The boy looked back at the road. He heard Terry crashing through the brush and dead leaves behind him. He turned and ran after his friend. He didn’t want to be alone.
Though Terry was a more powerful sprinter, his size worked against him over a longer distance and the boy overtook him.
“Where you going?” said the boy.
Terry pointed in the direction he was running.
The boy shook his head and motioned off to his right.
Terry nodded and followed.
When the two could run no farther, they stopped and rested, their torsos bent, hands heavy on their knees.
“Duncan?” the boy said.
“I hope it was Duncan.”
“Don’t tell me not to tell. Christ,” Terry said.
The boy looked down and then away.
“Besides,” Terry told him, “I’m the one reeks of gas.” He reached down and wiped his hands on the leaves of a small tree.
They walked until they reached Sandy Creek, the first development to go up on the Darling property. Prior to the building and landscaping, it had been a sandpit where teenagers rallied dirt bikes and hopped- up pickups. Where teenagers and twenty-somethings gathered around bonfires and drank beer until the police chased them out. Terry and the boy had hunted bullfrogs at the water holes there. When they couldn’t catch them, they threw stones.
Now it was Sandy Creek, but in the heat of summer, the creek was more of a bog, and it plagued the new neighborhood with mosquitoes. The local carpenters and handymen had turned a good profit screening in the expansive porches of the new homes. On the road, the boy couldn’t help noticing how different the subdivision was from the rest of the town. The uniform homes rose like tiered gunships from the ground, sitting nearly on top of one another—their grand picture windows looked out on other grand picture windows. The lawns were flat and cropped like crew cuts. The trees were planted. The gardens didn’t bear produce.
At the end of the Sandy Creek road, the two boys stopped. Terry lived in one direction and the boy in the other.
“Want to come over?” Terry said.
The boy shook his head, unwilling to chance another encounter with Terry’s two older brothers. They had a routine called the Daily Beating, and although the name implied a schedule, they simply pounced on Terry when the feeling struck them. During the boy’s last visit, they included him in a new game they called Help Him—He’s Drowning. One brother grabbed the boy by the back of the neck and dunked his head up and down in their above-ground pool. The other stood on the patio, pointing and shouting, “Help him—he’s drowning! For the love of God, someone help!”
After hacking out the chlorinated water, hunkered on his hands and knees, the boy walked all the way home in his dripping swimsuit.
“No thanks,” he told Terry.
Terry paused for a moment but the boy didn’t extend an invitation.
“See you,” Terry said.
“Yeah,” said the boy.
When Terry was out of sight, the boy went back into Sandy Creek. He walked to the elaborate entryway of one of the large homes. It was hardly dusk, but the chandelier over the door was already lit. He’d ditched Terry because he knew his chances of getting invited inside were greater without him. Terry had fought Kevin Dennison earlier in the summer and fattened his lip. The boy pushed the doorbell and heard the elegant chime inside. He heard footsteps approaching and the door opened.
“Theodore,” Mrs. Dennison said. She smiled and her eyes squinted. “How are you?”
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