At the far northern perimeter of his neighborhood, the Dirt Mountains loomed majestic over the silent cul de sac. For months, those red-clay peaks had drawn Carl like a magnet. All throughout the summer, a small forest of milkweed and Joe Pye weed, oak and elm seedlings flourished on the windward side. The stalled construction project—more than a bit of an eyesore—aggravated neighbors but held endless possibilities for Carl. Now that school was back in session he’d taken to waiting until his dad had left for his shift. His mom would be at the sink finishing up the last of the dishes, and Jeff up in the bedroom he and Carl shared, doing every last bit of his homework. Most of the neighborhood boys would be at home doing the same.
Had he pondered the question in his twelve-year-old mind, Carl may not have made a clear distinction between the lure of the Dirt Mountains—that maze of trails, endlessly traversed—and the thick spool of copper tubing. The value of this gleaming treasure grew exponentially as September’s sunlight waned and the metal took on an almost magical patina.
It would be dark soon. Carl shifted his wiry frame on Jeff’s hand-me-down bike. His hands, damp and coated with moon-dust-colored sand, squeezed the rubber handlebar grips. The empty backpack felt hot against his shoulder blades. He inched the bike closer and closer to the chain-link fence, to the gate, to the padlock whose U-shaped jaws hung—unexplainably—open. Carl tasted the orangey dirt in the back of his throat. He heard his mother’s voice, the harsher, scarier tone that cut through his sleep many nights. In answer, his father’s voice deeper, no less threatening for its measured cadence, its edge of bitterness. Of danger.
He eyed the long stacks of lumber, pallets of red brick, cinderblock left over from the sixteen foundations that squatted along a dredged creek bed, long gone dry. According to Carl’s mother, this new neighborhood was to be much nicer than theirs, with houses they’d never be able to afford. What their family could and couldn’t afford was a frequent topic of conversation. His father balked at the fee for the community pool; instead Carl and Jeff swam in the nearby lake when it wasn’t choked with algae. Their family could afford Jeff’s uniforms for football and baseball, but the science camp Carl’s teacher recommended was out of the question.
According to Carl’s father, the money for the new sub-division had run out. The construction workers disappeared then too, giving free reign to the cavalry of boys astride their banana-seated Huffys. But for now the other boys were gone, as well. Carl felt his aloneness in the pit of his stomach. A sour, jumpy feeling somewhere between taste and smell that churned amidst the mac-and-cheese and Sloppy-Joe dinner he’d gulped down earlier. This feeling was not unlike the one he got when he stuffed a failed test into the bottom of his book bag. Had he already decided?
He’d learned during that first post-Labor Day week at school about the periodic table. About precious metals, like gold and silver and copper. While the Indian summer breeze still carried the fragrance of roses and honeysuckle through the room’s open windows, Mr. Seton’s science class dozed. But the colorful chart and its symbols mesmerized Carl. Mr. Seton explained positive and negative charges. He said that copper was a valuable commodity because it conducted both heat and electricity so efficiently.
Outside the chain-link fence Carl dropped his bike in the dirt. The back wheel clicked lightly as it spun. Adrenaline carried him inside the gate. He swallowed the block of fear lodged at the back of his throat. It tasted of red-clay dust, thick on his tongue and inside his nostrils. Carl already saw the fat yellow envelope stuffed with money. He’d slip it inside his mother’s beat-up brown pocketbook. He’d never tell her it was him. He’d be just like Robin Hood, a secret hero, and his parents’ nighttime arguments would stop.
Carl’s sneakered feet crunched in the gravel. He slipped the bulky padlock from its hasp and, when he peeled the straps from his shoulders, he felt the release of a burden much heavier than the sodden pack. It’s unlikely he could have shed completely the dead-weight memories that haunted him: his mother’s voice, so often now choked with tears, his father’s stony silences, or his quick temper with Carl. The bubble of assurance that surrounded Jeff, and kept Carl—the little brother—always, always a step behind. Carl thought of all of this or none of this. His eyes locked onto the copper coil that would fit with more than a little ingenuity into the backpack he’d emptied of books and papers and wadded up gum wrappers. His fingers explored the thin tubing, quietly calculating the small fortune he’d collect.
But then the single bleat of a siren sliced through the twilight. Carl’s heart flip-flopped inside his chest like the catfish he caught but always tossed back into the lake. A carnival swirl of red light swept across the Dirt Mountains, Carl still hunched inside the chain-link cage. Gravel skittered as the police car rolled to a stop. Frozen, a wave of shame—more potent than fear—washed over Carl as the beam from the policeman’s flashlight found him. Even at this, especially at this, he’d failed her. Just as bad, he’d proved his father right again. Hot tears cut runnels through the coppered dust on his cheeks. Words tumbled out of Carl’s mouth before the officer spoke, a long-winded apology that would never erase his stupidity.
“Stand up, son,” the officer said. And after he’d spent several long moments eye-balling Carl: “You’re Jeff Ingram’s brother, right? Richard and Patty’s kid?”
Carl nodded. The man towered above him, no taller than his father, but significantly more muscular. Carl swatted away his tears with the back of his hand.
“See that sign over there? No Trespassing. You know what that means, right?”
Again, Carl nodded. He remembered an identical sign at the edge of the woods, a little beyond the lake. The taste of rotting leaves. The older boys’ jeering laughter. “Pussy,” they’d called out as Jeff dragged him to his feet.
“You have no business here,” the officer said.
“But the lock was open—”
“This place is private property. Off limits. Got it?”
Carl stared down at the unyielding light the flashlight cast, the circle of coppery earth it captured. Almost gently, the officer placed his free hand on Carl’s shoulder and guided him outside the gate. Carl stood motionless while the policeman replaced the padlock in its hasp and turned the dial. And just as carefully, he wedged Carl’s bike into the trunk of the squad car. The ride home from the Dirt Mountains lasted only moments.
In“Dirt Mountains, circa 1975” Carl Ingram is a boy yearning to ease the pain of a family at odds. As Carl lurches into manhood, this quest remains at the heart of his wanderings. “Dirt Mountains…” is a chapter of the novel-in-progress: Nermina’s Chance, where Carl meets a young Bosnian refugee in 1992, still grieving the loss of her family. Read more at dinagreenberg.com.
Dina earned an MFA in fiction from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she served as managing editor for the literary journal Chautauqua. She teaches creative writing at the Cameron Art Museum.
© 2019, Dina Greenberg