The following is from Elliot Reed's novel, A Key To Treehouse Living. The novel follows William Tyce, a boy growing up without parents near a river in the rural Midwest. William imparts his particular wisdom in a glossary-style list, as he journeys down the river to uncover how his mother died and why his father disappeared. Reed received his MFA from the University of Florida in Gainesville. He lives in Spokane, Washington. A Key To Treehouse Living is his debut novel.
What you have that makes you float. Does what the word sounds like it does with its B and its U bobbing up. Memories have buoyancy. They bob up to the surface like corks. My parents and I lived in a bus until my mom went away and my dad and I moved out of the bus for some reason. That’s when we moved in with my uncle. I say we, but mostly it was me. My dad moved in, and then he moved out. You can put all your clothes and your toothbrush in a bag but not be moving anywhere—you can just be going. Whether it’s moving is up to you. If two grown men get in a fight, it’s not a fight like at school. They will yell and knock things over and it will all happen really quickly. It will come out of nowhere and they’ll say they’re sorry afterward. But if one of the men puts his clothes and his toothbrush in a bag and says he’s going on a trip, you can be sure that what he’s actually doing is moving away, but you’ll only realize it later (see AFTER THE FACT).
I remember my uncle floating in the pond on an inner tube, spinning slowly on the water, playing the bugle for me. His eyebrows and moustache were wet and dripping, and he was squinting, bugling, making his eyebrows dance, hoping I would laugh. I remember being drawn to the water but afraid of it, and being afraid of my uncle. I remember running up the dock to where my dad was lying in the grass and I remember him taking me and hugging me, then getting up and walking away. Until another memory comes bobbing up, that’s the last of him I have—that’s the day he disappeared for good and left me with my uncle. What’s most buoyant about that memory is the feeling of my dad’s shirt. It was warm and soft, but crisp in its wrinkles where my face was pressed to it. What I don’t remember is the color of the shirt, where he was going, why I didn’t go with him, or what he said to me when he left. Judging by the buoyancy of memory, the sensation of his shirt was more important.
BEEF IN BED
While nothing really helps the physical pain of eighteen beestings, an ice pack and a hamburger will make you feel better about the fact that you got stung. Bees don’t sting cows, is what you could tell yourself is the reason, because cows have no business in the woods that would cause them to go stomping on rotten logs beneath sycamore trees. The real reason why beef helps beestings is that it feels good to have your uncle bring you a burger in bed for the first time in all the years you’ve lived with him. Seeing him come in with a plate for you will cancel out the pain.
When something makes sense given the circumstances. If you get stung by a bunch of bees, do this: show your uncle the welts, lie down on your bed, and wait for him to bring you an ice pack and a hamburger. Put the ice on your head and slowly eat the burger. Concentrate on the taste of the food and the cold of the ice on your head, and then share some burger with your Betta Fish. Break the beef up into little bits so he can fit them in his mouth. If he’s a good fighter, he will suck the beef into his mouth, swim in a circle, spit the beef out, and repeat. It is befitting if, for example, you are sitting on your bed, stung-up by bees and eating a burger, watching your Betta Fish eat his, and your uncle comes in to see how you’re feeling, looks at what’s happening in the tank, and says, “Fighting fish is beefing up, I see.” After your uncle leaves you hop off the bed and grab Alberta’s dictionary and look up BEEFING UP and find it buried in the entry titled BEEF and then right there below BEEF you see the word BEFITTING—there’s a moment you could call befitting.
“I remember my uncle floating in the pond on an inner tube, spinning slowly on the water, playing the bugle for me. His eyebrows and moustache were wet and dripping, and he was squinting, bugling, making his eyebrows dance, hoping I would laugh.”
Thunder, The Rolling Rumbler, is a sound associated with shivering leaves, rippling bodies of water, fast-moving gray clouds, starlessness, lightning, and the galloping of horses from open prairies to the shelter of trees. Birds love to wing madly in thunder-filled springtime air, disappearing just an instant before the deluge of rain that most often runs with the Rumbler. The Rumbler loves nothing more than to show up for Easter Sunday. Men, women, children, and horses have all been vaporized by lightning while in the act of eating jelly beans in fields on Easter.
When an object is struck by lightning, a nuclear shock wave, or a sound of tremendous magnitude, that object will become vaporized. There are three types of vaporization: Partial, Total, and Subliminal. Partially vaporized objects become piles of black, reflective ash. Totally vaporized objects become puffs of smoke, and merge with the wind so quickly that no one has ever seen it actually happen. If you’re a baby and your parents set you down for a minute to go hide jelly beans in a field on Easter but then they get totally vaporized by lightning, you’ll have to go live with your uncle.
BOMBED OUT or SUBLIMINAL VAPORIZATION
If an object has been struck by lightning but has been neither partially nor totally vaporized, that is to say the object still appears to be the thing that it is, then the object has been subliminally vaporized. The inner energy of the object converts into a warm, invisible haze that rises into the atmosphere, never to return to its one-time host. A horse, for example, may be subliminally vaporized and still try to approach you when you hold out a carrot, though the way she looks at you will betray the fact that there’s nothing going on in there—you could knock on the door but nobody would be home.
BABY NO LONGER A BABY
At some point, a baby stops being a baby. One idea is that a baby is less a baby with each new word it utters, and that it finally stops being a baby when it realizes it can say what it wants to say without having to start crying. When a baby points at something and makes a sound, it thinks the sound it has made represents that thing. No matter if the baby points at a lawn mower and says RACE CAR or if he actually points to a car when he says it, nearby adults will encourage him by smiling at him and making baby sounds of their own or by tickling his little baby feet. A baby’s desire to make words gets stronger when people encourage him, but so does his desire to speak correctly, to give something the correct name, that is, whatever name gets the most adults smiling and nodding. I once knew a kid who still had a lot of his baby language. He called grass “skin” and rotting wood “slug” and I don’t remember much else but it was a really good language and I sometimes wonder if his language is still alive somewhere, but I don’t hold out much hope.
Everybody wishes they had more baby memories, because back then it was all a vacation and everything was a game and all you needed was air and milk and we’ve forgotten what that felt like. Sadly, baby memories don’t exist. One theory about babies says that the moment a baby realizes it has a memory is the moment it becomes a child. If you can take something you’re experiencing and know that you’re going to remember it later, then you are not a baby anymore. What you remember as your earliest memory is the end of you as a baby. A memory that feels like your earliest can come to you out of the blue (see KERNELS OF THE PAST), and so your childhood can expand or contract. My earliest memory came to me out of the blue one day while I was playing a game with my uncle in the basement of his mansion, where I lived at the time, and when I had it I instantly became older.
Wind is the world’s greatest traveler. Wind moves the fastest of all things, and it makes the greatest journeys, traveling as far as the sun and back. Wind spends a lot of time running ahead of big thunderstorms, bouncing around in the graying sunlight, shivering tree leaves, conscripting anything light and airy as it races across the earth. A breeze is a gust of wind, and days that are breezy are called blustery. Everything is influenced by the weather. It’s more common to meet strangers on blustery days than it is to meet them on calm ones. People get blown in like leaves fallen from faraway trees. On blustery days, light objects being blown across the ground are said to be skittering. Fly balls sail in curves. Ned was chasing a pop fly when a gust of wind curved its path and brought it out to me where I stood past the fence. He asked me for it and I threw it to him, but I took a while to throw it because I liked the feel of the ball in my hand. Then everyone was yelling at Ned to throw it in. They blamed Ned for what was done by the wind. I told Ned his team was better off without him and said I needed help building a treehouse.
“I once knew a kid who still had a lot of his baby language. He called grass “skin” and rotting wood “slug” and I don’t remember much else but it was a really good language and I sometimes wonder if his language is still alive somewhere, but I don’t hold out much hope.”
BRIGHTNESS OF SUNLIGHT
Anytime you’re awake and outside in the daytime, no matter what it is you’re looking at, you’re seeing sunlight bouncing off the thing that you’re seeing. If you look at your hand and see skin, that’s actually sunlight reflecting off of what you have come to know as your skin. When a storm cloud rolls through and it’s daytime, let’s say it’s Easter because storms happen a lot around then, if a thundercloud covers up all the sky you can see, everything turns a little bit gray. Even bright colors get some gray in them. So let’s say, for example, a child discovers a jelly bean beneath a wet log rotting in the pasture behind his uncle’s mansion. He hears thunder. He sees the horses watching him from the cover of a stand of cedars, and he hears someone calling to him to come inside but he doesn’t go because he’s seen this jelly bean, which could be red but is also gray, and he wonders what to name the color. Unless he realizes that everything around him is a reflection of sunlight, which in this moment is gray because a storm has rolled in, he will be vaporized by lightning. It would be stupid to die while wondering about the color of a jelly bean. A final thing about brightness and its use in the nighttime: my uncle once told me that things are the same whether or not there’s light shining on them. He taught me about how if you’re alone in your room and it’s dark out and you start to see things grow and transform in the darkness of your room, just picture the way your room looks when sunlight is shining in through the window. You won’t be scared anymore, and the next thing you know it’ll be morning.
There are many different brass instruments known to man, one of which is the bugle. Before you start bugling, make sure that what you have is actually a bugle. Bugles can be recognized by their brass curves and lack of buttons. It is important that your bugle have a mouthpiece. That’s the cone-shaped silver thing you blow the air into. Next you need to practice blowing correctly. Put your lips together and make a fart-like buzzing noise by pushing air through your tightly closed lips. The buzzing noise should not be made with air you have stored in the pocket of your mouth but rather with air from your lungs. Put your lips to the bugle and buzz into it. The buzzing sound is what creates bugle music. The bugle can be used to create a huge variety of sounds, and there are many different songs you can play once you get to be a good bugler. Even if you can’t play any songs, you can still use the bugle to get the attention of someone in the distance.
Look out across the shiny new mansions at the edge of town, at the nearly identical mansions built on huge lawns that butt up against the old forest, and imagine the kinds of people who live in these buildings. Odds are that one of them is somebody’s uncle. My uncle made his fortune playing the bugle at nursing homes and then wisely investing his earnings in the stock market. “Remember this,” he said one day when a teacher from my school called to talk to him on the phone about me, “remember this when people come up and tell you that something you’re doing will never get you anywhere. Remember about the time when your uncle got a five-dollar bill as a tip at a bugle gig, and how he decided on a whim to take it down to some hobos who hung out by the railroad tracks. He loved money, and he needed it, but for some reason on that one day he just knew he had to take the money down to the guys at the railroad tracks. Remember how one of those hobos turned out to be in real estate.” I’ve never forgotten the story. He slammed the phone on its receiver, got down on one knee, and squeezed my hand tightly while he told it to me. I didn’t know what Real Estate meant, but I knew that it was good. My uncle said he was mostly retired by the time I moved in with him but he still blew the bugle once in a while and he’d never stopped thinking about money. I loved to run full-tilt through the long, carpeted halls of his mansion and down the stairs to the maze-like concrete basement. I’d run barefoot in the hot summer across the cool basement floor to the chest freezer stocked with plastic tubes of sweet, colored ice. My uncle never cared how many I had until one day when I melted some of the ice tubes and used the colored liquid for art, and then he stopped buying them.
If you’re traveling through the countryside and you look off the road, you’ll see a lot of stopped buses. If you look carefully, sometimes you’ll see people living in these buses. People live in buses the same way some kids live in treehouses and some gypsies live in parachutes (see GYPSY PARACHUTE HOUSE). I have a photograph I found on an archaeological expedition that proves I once lived in a stopped bus. The bus in the picture was once a school bus. Then my parents got it, drove it to the top of a hill, and shut off the engine for good. There’s a table outside the folding door of the bus. There are plastic chairs around the table and an umbrella in the middle. Flowerpots hang from the bus’s windows and there are two chaise lounges on the roof for watching the stars. My parents planted a garden right next to the bus and sat at the table in the shade of the umbrella after they worked in the garden. You see it all in the picture. Inside the bus, where you can’t see, where there used to be seats for schoolchildren, there was a bed, a radio, and a bookcase. You can’t see inside the bus in the picture but I remember what it was like because I’ve been in there myself. The baby in the photo is me. I’m on a blanket spread out in the garden and I’m tiny. My mother is there next to me, and my father is taking the picture. I know this because he wrote on the back of it, and because he printed the photo on the enlarger that my uncle kept hidden away in the basement.
If it’s pouring rain out and you’re trapped inside for whole afternoons at a time, you’ll have to come up with some way of entertaining yourself indoors, otherwise you will suffer from boredom. If you’re used to being outside every afternoon—let’s say you’ve gotten into a routine of exploring the woods around your treehouse, hacking paths through thickets and constructing elaborate booby traps for unwanted visitors, and let’s say that you have a particularly elaborate booby trap in the works, a trap that is nearly complete and that must be completed soon because a gang of bullies has discovered the secret location of your tree fort—but it’s pouring rain outside and so travel to the fort, much less construction of the booby trap, is not feasible, you will find yourself staring out the window at the dark clouds behind the tree line, dark and only getting darker, and you’ll make bets on which drops of rain will be the first to make it down to the bottom of the windowpane: that’s boredom. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a Betta Fish. A Betta Fish can be counted on to provide a solid hour or so of entertainment when presented with a photograph of another Betta Fish through the glass of its tank. There are only so many times a Betta Fish can attack the picture through the glass, though. If you give the fish the picture too often, you can hurt it. Boredom is not just dangerous for Betta Fish. Boredom is also dangerous for your relationship with your uncle.
You get a lot of ideas when you’re bored so it’s important to tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea. It’s a bad idea, for instance, to melt ice pops on old photographic equipment. It’s a good idea, on the other hand, to read a book. If you get bored of reading, you can write your own story or draw your own picture. But even that can get boring. I remember one particularly rainy spring when my uncle was always gone and I had whole days to myself. At the time, I was working on the best treehouse I’d ever built. The sycamore it was in was ancient and had perfect structure. The fort was surrounded by booby traps and had two little windows you could shoot rocks out of. Six kids once tried to take us over. They made it through the first line of booby traps and it was just me and Ned up there, but we were ready. Two versus six and we won. Ned sustained a stone to the eye thrown by a long-armed boy named Tony who, it turned out, was the top pitcher in Little League, but Ned didn’t bleed for long and we were able to do far worse to the attackers. See—it’s hard to write about boredom without getting distracted by telling something interesting. It was a high-caliber treehouse I had the year it was so rainy the pond tripled in size and sucked in one of the mansions being built on the other side of the pond, the year my uncle was always away at the tracks and I had so much time by myself that my imagination was too weak to defend me from boredom. My uncle was gone most of the time, and when he was home he was depressed because the bets weren’t going his way. He would just watch the rain in silence and ignore me, and that’s about the only time I ever wished I’d had another uncle or my original parents (see also NEGLECT). I tried, in desperation, to make it to the treehouse, which I knew must have been rotting in the torrential rain, but I ended up almost getting swept away by a stream that was deeper than I thought it was.
From A Key To Treehouse Living. Used with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2018 by Elliot Reed.