TO LEARN IS TO FORGET
lauren culley

Amos is taking notes on everything, writing them down on his brain. He tries to remember what happened yesterday, and the day before, and on his birthday last year. When he puts these things in order, almost everything makes sense. When he puts these things together he knows where he is.

Amos is walking to the lake ten steps behind his brother who has pulled his homemade scarf over his mouth to keep away the chill. It’s colder than usual for October, and everything that once looked alive is now dead, or hidden, or asleep. While Amos’s brother walks, he digs his hands into his pockets to stay warm, his fingers tunneling down like they can't find the bottom. The bottom means the end. Pockets keep things private.

Amos bites his bottom lip. This, he knows, is what people do when they want to think. He taps his temple with his index finger and then scratches his head because they do that, too. Amos knows this, because he studies everyone all the time and remembers everything he can. That is what it means to notice. This is what it means to be aware: Elliot is the youngest. He is wearing his University of Oklahoma sweatshirt, the one with the neck cut open because he says it gives him room to breathe. Elliot gets mad quickly. He doesn’t understand Amos. He needs his space. His mother says give him time. All the time that he needs. 

Amos is the oldest. He is eighteen and older than his brother by five years. His birthday comes once a year, and every year, his body gets bigger. But he’s not as fast as his brother with his thoughts, or with his words, or the things that will turn his brother into a man. Amos was born too quickly. Too fast, the doctor said, and no one could keep up with him. He was so fast he couldn’t breathe when he was born. He was so fast he snuck up on everyone like a surprise. This makes Amos feel proud, being the fastest boy he knows, and being proud means he feels like hundreds of dollars, a good job.

The brothers are following their father. He’s so far ahead of them they can't see when he spits a sharp dart of chewing tobacco into the dirt. When they come up on it a minute later, they mistake it for a stone. From where they are, they can only see the outline of his back—square and tense, pulled forward. Amos knows that because they are family, he and his father share the same blood, but he wonders if they might also share the same bones. He imagines his father’s bones fitting behind his own skin, stretching him out, pulling him thin, making him taller.

“Move it,” Elliot calls back to Amos from farther up the path. Elliot is far ahead, moving his hand in circles, telling him to hurry up. While Amos was thinking of everyone and making sense of things, he stopped walking. He corrects himself, making up for it by running so fast to get to his brother that gravel spins beneath his shoes in hot circles. When he stands next to Elliot, his lungs sting. He smiles.

“Why do you do that?” Elliot says. “Just keep walking. That’s all you have to do.”

Ahead of them, their father moves slowly, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket as if it hurts, hiking up his work pants as if he’s just waking up. To Amos, being slow is like being tired. He thinks that tired means there’s not enough help. He thinks that tired must mean you’re alone.

His father turns his head just enough to see the shadows of the boys pulled out over the grass. He’s heard their voices.  

“What’s going on?” he says to them without looking back.  “You know something I don’t know?”

“We don’t know anything,” Elliot says, and pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head. This, Amos thinks, means be quiet. He remembers it for later.

They are on a walk collecting firewood because trouble came and found them. He knows this because his mother has told him in a voice that means she knows. She talks about trouble like it’s in the room.

His mother says you can't split a penny ten times. She says that there’s nothing anywhere and wishes everywhere. His mother says forget about getting a bike. She says no to new shoes. They walk instead of drive. You get to see everything that way, she says.

Recently, they’ve started to collect firewood and build constant-burning fires instead of turning the gas heater on. At night, the boys sleep on the floor in front of the fireplace, which turns their hair dry and brittle, making it smell like ashes when they wake. His mother has told the boys not to be surprised that all this has happened. She told Amos if he knew what he was looking for, he would see that trouble was everywhere. 

He’s heard his mother blame their father for bringing trouble into the house. There used to be a job, and now there isn’t one. No one else got it, his father told him,  it’s just gone. A machine does it now. They cut back and moved forward. They showed him the door after seventeen years.

Amos has looked at his father, but can't seem to find anything that looks like a mess. Once he watched his father from the top of the stairs after dinner and waited for him to turn into something that was wrong. Amos slicked his hair, still wet from a bath, across his forehead until it was smooth as a fin, and watched his father click through the channels with the sound turned off. His father didn’t watch anything, just flicked through the pictures like he couldn’t see them, pushed the button at the same time over and over until the pattern played like a song in Amos’s head. His father let the ice cubes in his drink turn into sweat around the rim. He rubbed his temples and let himself slink down into the armchair, so far that his neck disappeared and his body looked small. Amos waited for something else to happen, kept his eyes open until they burned so as not to miss a thing, just in case trouble came fast.

His father stopped on a channel where a man and a woman were driving in a car without a top, laughing like they had just seen something crazy they couldn’t forget. The woman pulled herself up with the top of the windshield and swung her hair around so it covered her face. She howled like a dog at the moon. The man pulled her back into the car and asked her if she wanted a cigarette. She leaned over and kissed him hard and said, “I’d rather have that,” and then collapsed against his chest and hung on tight. When the car went faster, and the man started laughing hard enough that the woman shook against his chest, his father turned off the T.V. After the picture was gone, his father stared at the green-black screen for a long time, and then began to tap the keypad of the remote, rhythmically, until the song in Amos’s head returned. From the top of the stairs, Amos was aware that they were both watching the blank face of the screen, waiting for an image to appear. 

Amos remembered that before all of this, his father was in control, and in charge, and the one responsible for making things go in the right direction. Since those were the only things he remembered, and because the outline of his father in front of the dark screen was all he could see, Amos decided that he wouldn’t know trouble if he saw it. He didn’t know what to look for. 

“For the firewood to be good enough to take home, you have to be able to break it over your knee,” his father tells him. He takes a twig from off the ground and snaps it with his hands. His gives both pieces to Amos.

His father has put him in charge of picking up the smaller pieces of wood, the ones that will be put on top of the fire to make it taller.

“They have to be dry, alright? They have to be really clean.” His father makes Amos look him in the eye so he knows he’s paying attention. “Look for the weak wood that hasn’t been weathered,” his father says. Amos stares back at him. “Young wood,” his father says. And then, “Small.”

Elliot stands in the middle of the path with his head back, his mouth open in a slack circle. He’s trying to show his father that he’s bored. He’s telling Amos that this is taking too long.

“It’s cold,” Elliot says.

“It’s November,” his father calls back to him.

Elliot is quiet and then, “My shoes are wet,” he says. “Even my socks are soaking.” He points to his feet. “Do you want me to get blisters?”

His father says to take the socks off. He’s packed an extra pair just in case this very thing happened. He reaches into a small bag slung over his shoulder. Before he pulls them out, he asks Elliot if he wants them or if he wants to keep complaining. Does he want his father to bend down and put them on for him? Does he want him to tie his shoes for him, too?

While Elliot is quiet, and his father repeats the question, Amos drops the twigs from not paying attention. When he bends down to pick them up, he sees the bones of a mouse stacked like white matches in some owl droppings near his shoe. They lean up against each other, making uneven triangles and teepees. He counts them, up to twelve, and then starts again at one. They stand at attention, whole and strong, arsenic white. Some part of Amos feels relaxed when he thinks about the mouse still being there as much as it can. He doesn’t worry about this; it’s something he can see, and that means something he can understand. He feels a good ache in his stomach when he squints, because he can put the mouse back together.

“Forget it,” Elliot mumbles, and they keep walking down the trail, Amos the slowest of all, so as not to miss a thing.

Until this point, they have been able to follow the worn road. This far out of the city the roads are not paved, but there are still lines in the near-white dirt permanently packed down from tractor tires and four-wheelers that are deep enough to follow. Amos’s father can read them like he can a watch. He knows who has been there by the size of the tracks. He remembers which farmers drive which trucks. If he looks at them long enough, he can tell the boys in what order everyone appeared. When it rains, the tracks become imprints, and dry into prints as distinctive as keys.

Today, when his father studies the road, he realizes they are alone. No tracks are new. None are recent enough to have turned the dirt. He looks back behind him, past his sons, and squints.  When Amos turns around, he doesn’t see anything, really: a few distant silos, hawks making open turns, a muted sun. Amos turns around to look at his father and sees that both he and Elliot have moved forward, away the road and into the wood. When he catches up to them, his father tells Amos he’s sure the better wood is just beyond here. The heavier the coverage from the older trees, the better the chances are that the wood will be seasoned, dry, in abundance. “Just over this way,” he tells him. He whispers, “It’s just a little farther.”  

They move through the parts of the woods that have become overgrown, the ones that are covered in ivy and have stopped growing from disease. He directs them past the areas right before the water, when the woods becomes like a swamp, and the sound of their shoes reminds Amos of chewing gum. He and Elliot are silent, having never been here before. They are careful to watch where they’re going. The new ground takes more effort to cross, and they’re out of breath by the time they reach the end, where the soil becomes hard and flattens out before them.

Amos knows where they are. They’re on the wealthier side of the water, where the cabins are shingled and spouting is made from shined copper. There’s no one in these houses, Amos knows. The people who live here only come here during the summer. They come to the water because they have money and time. Too much money, he father has said. Any amount of money where you don’t have to work is too much money. It makes you lazy, he has said. Amos remembers that lazy is different than slow. When his father isn’t around, his mother tells him that these people sit back and watch their lives work for them. She says their money talks. She says this like she’s tired, which is different than sad. They only visit, Amos knows. When they leave, bats move into their chimneys.

“Around here,” his father says. “Anything around here will be good.” Their father looks back at them and then adjusts his ball-cap. He stares at them for a long time as if he’s trying to figure them out. He stares at them like he knows what’s going to happen to them today, and then tomorrow, and then long after he’s gone. Amos looks over at Elliot, who refuses to look up. Their father spreads a large piece of canvas fabric over the front lawn and points to it. “We’ll put it all on here,” he says, motioning to the trees. “Then we’ll each take an end and carry it home.” He waits for a response, but there is none. He reaches into his bag and pulls out the saws, still safely in their cases.

The wood around the newer houses is white and new. These people have gardeners. They have people that mulch around the base of their trees. They have marigolds whose buds are coaxed into bloom with the spray of expensive fertilizer.  The wood comes away from the trees without effort. Amos snaps a dozen branches over his knee. Elliot seems to not mind the work and hits the branches with more force than is needed. When larger pieces break off before him, he puffs out his chest.

“Did you see that?” he asks Amos. “Watch,” he says. 

When their father moves away from the boys to see if there are any other trees they didn’t catch the first time around, he finds a shed, freshly painted, with a weathervane slowly spinning at its top. There isn’t a lock, just brass handles on the doors that give easily when his father gives them a pull. “It’s unlocked,” he says to them.

Amos isn’t sure what he’s supposed to say. His father’s face remains expressionless, its features seemingly bolted into place. “It’s unlocked,” he repeats. When he pulls the door all the way open, the smell of paint and grass clippings comes at them in a heavy breath. The inside is as clean as any house he has ever seen, each tool hanging perfectly from small hooks, the floor swept clean, the workbench sanded soft. For a moment no one steps inside, and Amos is sure that they will close the door and go home. There is nothing in there that they need, just gardening tools, flashlights, a toolbox. He can see things in plastic containers that are boxed up. He recognizes a gas can, birdseed, a small stack of work gloves. His father looks inside like it makes him sad to see everything in there, little and clean. He looks over at Elliot, who is looking at him in return.

His father looks around to see if anyone’s there. He listens for someone coming. He cocks his head; he leans forward. He squints to see; he cups his ear. Amos thinks it looks like his father is listening to music, adjusting his whole body so the sound comes through clear and convincing. Just in case there is music somewhere, Amos closes his eyes and turns his head toward the woods. Holding his breath so that he can't even hear himself, he listens for a tune he recognizes.

“Dump the canvas,” his father says to both of them. “Take all the wood out.”

Amos shakes his head.  That’s not what they’re supposed to do, he thinks. The wood was perfect. It was so dry it splintered itself, it baked in the sun until it almost split open. It would make their mother happy and would last for at least a week. He shakes his head again until his father sees. When he does, Amos stands still.

When their father steps inside and picks up a bag of charcoal, Amos and Elliot watch from the doorway. Bent down in order to pick up two cans of lighter fluid, with his other hand, their father looks up at them. 

“What are you waiting for,” he says.

Amos touches Elliot’s hand and Elliot doesn’t pull away.

“Go on,” their father says. When he stands up, the charcoal bag bends, adjusting to the shape of his body from underneath his arm. “Hurry up,” he says.

Elliot opens his mouth. He closes it.

“You have something to say?” he says. “I’m telling you. Hurry up.” He stands in front of them, his fingers clenching the lighter fluid so hard they make dents in the can all the way around. He doesn’t look away until they each move forward and pick up an item from the open shed.

To Amos, feeling sad for himself is like feeling hungry everywhere, like his eyes are heavy all the time. Amos looks for other things that make him sad, because it’s easier to feel wholly sad than only a little. So Amos thinks of a blank television screen and the trouble that sits with his mother at the kitchen table, and the way that his father has become eager, and scared, and then he feels the same sadness all over.

Inside the shed, Amos and Elliot fall wordlessly into a rhythm, their sibling understanding expressed in the perfect timing of picking things up and taking them away. Their silence means things are hard. At the slightest sound from down the path, real or imagined, both freeze and look in the direction of the noise, anticipating some other father to come charging at them, this one responsible and mad, ready to punish. This one will tell them to stop. There is a moment of disappointment each time none of these things happen, after which, they bend down and gather more.  

They take their time. Amos opens the lid of a canteen and looks inside. He tips it over as if to spill the water that’s not there. Elliot tips a jar full of nails on its side and watches as they struggle to slide past each other. They examine everything, sure of what it is, before they bring it out of the shed and put it in the bag their father has cleared of every cut piece of wood.

Inside the shed, the only light that comes in is filtered through one small window on the side. When the sun moves away from the glass, the shed becomes dark, and Amos feels like they are both hidden. Whatever they do inside the shed can't be seen. Every time he steps outside, holding a rake, a screwdriver, a watering hose, he is reminded of how bright it really is.

By the time everything has been loaded up, their father comes over, his cheeks flushed, his eyes uneasy. “Looks good,” he says, and Amos nods. 

They have no choice but to head toward home. The canvas bends like a sail, filled with the things they have found—there is no room for anything else. When they reach the path, each holding up and end of the fabric, they peer down both ways to make sure they’re alone. They see nothing. Amos tells himself that this is a good sign; this means that they can get away from here and go home. It means, even with the mess, things will go back to how they were. He likes to think about things staying the same, which to Amos, means stay still.  

He gives his brother a smile, but Elliot is staring too intently down the path to notice, as if he can see all to its end.

When they get home, Amos won’t tell his mother what they’ve done. He won’t tell her a thing. He’ll go up to her and wrap his arms around her waist. He will take off his own coat. At dinner, he won’t fidget in his chair. He will keep his voice low inside the house. He’ll be very still while she gets him ready for bed. When he wakes up the next morning, she will tell him what to do. Wake up, she will say. Wash your face. Dry yourself off. Put on your shirt. She will tell him to eat his breakfast. Be careful with his cup. She will check on him several times. Here is your coat, she will tell him. One arm at a time. Here are your gloves. Don’t take them off. Follow your brother. Do you see your brother? Listen to your father. There he is.

 

Lauren Culley is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Virginia where she was awarded a Henry Hoyns Fellowship as well as the Balch Prize for fiction. She currently lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.