The night before Sam left for his third summer at Camp Sacquenuckot, the Spencers held another back yard barbeque. They invited Anna and her parents and all nine Lowrys. Kevin had filled out over the winter and was excited about playing junior high football in the fall. Sam was too small to play, unless he ran back punts, which Faith wouldn’t let him do because she was too afraid he’d get hurt.
Sam didn’t mind. Football was Kevin’s thing, not his. He’d rather go riding, but he hadn’t been on a horse since last summer. He missed Bomber, his favorite stallion, almost as much as Skunkface Bob. “Did you have a favorite horse, Dad?”
Dan Spencer wheeled around, beer in hand and red in the face from laughing at one of Uncle Adam’s stories. Since the fight at work, Dan had been changing before Sam’s eyes. These days, he popped a beer the second he got home from work. Sometimes, Sam thought he already smelled of beer. At the dinner table, Dan and Faith argued about something called a sales quota, which apparently Sam’s dad wasn’t hitting. Sam gathered that missing your quota didn’t make the big shots at the company very happy. Once, Faith called Dan a “former big shot” and he stormed out of the house. Sam hadn’t seen him again until the next night. Dan swore all the time now too, words even Sam didn’t know, words that made Faith blush. Dan never made the sign of the cross anymore and hardly ever went to church. “You say something, Sam?”
“Who was your favorite horse at Suck a Nuck?”
Dan drew back his arm as if to strike Sam, who instinctively covered his face with his hands. “It’s Camp Sacquenuckot,” he snarled.
Sam dropped his guard, determined to hide his terror from his dad. “What’s the big deal? All the kids call it that, unless they say Camp Suck my Dick.”
Dan lost what little restraint remained to him. His open hand slapped Sam’s cheek hard enough to echo across the yard, which became instantly quiet. Sam felt everyone’s eyes turn upon him. Mrs. Parker pulled Anna close and told her not to look, while Mr. Parker moved to block Anna’s view. The Lowry boys, who were crouched at an imaginary line of scrimmage, called timeout. Faith was in the kitchen with Aunt Jeannie and hadn’t heard, but Uncle Adam had. Of all the people in the Spencer back yard, only he looked at Dan with anything resembling understanding.
“Goddamnit, boy, I told you never to say that. That’s even worse than Suck a Nuck.” The person speaking sounded like the boogeyman, not Sam’s dad.
Sam couldn’t believe it. That his dad was willing to strike him hurt Sam far more than the actual blow. With all eyes still upon him, he ran into the house, upstairs, and into his bedroom, where Peanut slept on his bed. Like Tiger and Dander before him, Peanut was the happy recipient of Sam’s eternal affection. Sam threw his arms around the calico and sobbed into its belly. Peanut purred, reassuring Sam that all was not lost.
Dan’s knock sounded on Sam’s door. “Sam? Can I come in? I want to apologize.”
“I … I guess so,” he sniffled. The slap still stung.
Dan Spencer opened the door and walked over to the bed. Peanut, who had figured out early on that Dan didn’t like him, took off like a rocket.
“I’m so, so sorry Sam. I should never have hit you. I know it’s unforgiveable, but can you ever forgive me?” He went to wrap his arms around Sam, but lost his balance and toppled over onto the bed. The scent of beer made Sam want to gag.
“Sure, Dad.” Sam knew from listening to Faith talk on the phone to Aunt Jeannie that it wasn’t Dan’s fault. The blame fell to the big shots at the company. They had it in for Dan. When he’d heard the whole story, Sam hadn’t blamed his dad. He would have hit the guy too. It wasn’t fair. The other guy had gotten off with a warning, but they’d demoted his Dan. “I know you didn’t mean it.”
Dan pushed himself up from the bed and steadied himself on the bedpost. “C’mon, let’s go downstairs. I’ll make you the best burger you’ve ever had, one with the works. Lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, bacon and my special ingredient, a slice of fried bologna. You’ll love it.”
“Sounds great, Dad. Almost as good as Sacquenuckot shepherd’s pie.”
Sam made sure to use the camp’s real name this time. He didn’t want to upset his dad again, but even mentioning camp wiped the smile from Dan’s face. “Let’s just enjoy the night, Sam. “
“Okay. And Dad?
“Thanks for sending me to camp. I know it’s not easy.” Money was tight since his dad hit that guy. Mom said this new job didn’t pay nearly as well and the bonus wasn’t nearly as steep. Sam’s parents had always talked about him attending St. Mary’s, a good Catholic school, but in the fall he would start junior high in the Fairwood public school system. St. Mary’s charged an arm and leg, money his dad didn’t have. Sam felt guilty about going away to camp with his folks struggling so, but Faith insisted. Camp builds character, she’d said. Dan had long since given up arguing the point.
The burger was as good as Dan promised, but the altercation had a left a bad taste in Sam’s mouth. He wanted to go back to his room and cry into his pillow. No one else could enjoy the evening either, not with sound of Dan’s strike still echoing in the yard. The Parkers said good night as soon as the sun set and the Lowry’s weren’t far behind. By the time everyone cleared out, Dan was slumped over in his chair next to half a case of empty beer bottles.
Sam was lying in bed staring at the ceiling when he heard Faith call out from the hallway the next morning. Peanut had curled up in a ball of fur nestled between Sam’s head and shoulder. “Get up, Sam. We have to leave now to make your plane.”
Sam threw on the clothes he’d laid out the night before and grabbed his backpack. Faith had a banana, a glass of orange juice, and a blueberry muffin waiting for him. After gulping down breakfast, he piled into the Camry’s back seat. They’d gotten the Camry for Christmas. It wasn’t nearly as nice as the Beamer, but, as Dan explained, it did have lower payments.
“He’s sleeping. I’ll drive you to the airport.” Faith looked very unhappy. The only time he’d ever seen her like this was when Granny died. Her make-up was smudged and her eyes were swollen. It suddenly occurred to Sam that his mom had been crying.