The way back felt too far. I knew my father had kept us out too long. We had to walk back past El Capitan. The sun was going down behind the tall square mountain and there was an orange glow bent around one edge. My dad had my brother on his shoulders and I was dragging my feet. After a while, we left the footpath and walked along a larger dirt road. My father had been saying we were almost back to the hotel, but he had been saying that for a long time. A little off the road there were the remains of the wall of an old stone house. Next to the wall was the wasted foundation. Behind this was another foundation with brick remains ringing its sides. The sun was almost gone.
We walked more. I didn’t want to go any farther. Yosemite was hell. Then, ahead we saw some burning. As we got closer we saw that there were large burning piles of leaves just off the road. I walked ahead of my father and brother to look at the piles. They were on a stretch of dirt so that the fire wouldn’t spread, but the flames went really high. There were five piles about 25 feet wide, all taller than I was and the flames leaped taller than my dad. Many of the leaves and branches and sticks had thorns on them and I thought that they might have been poison ivy or poison oak. When I was across from the second burning pile I saw something large and white through the smoke. I walked to the edge of the road and saw that it was a human rib cage. I didn’t see a head, but the ribs were very clear, like a corset. I ran back.
“Dad, there’s a skeleton over there.” My dad put my brother on the ground and told us to wait. He walked to the piles and stood over where the skeleton was. He stood there for a while and then came back to us and put my brother back on his shoulders. “Let’s go. A mountain climber must have fallen off the mountain. The animals got to him. It’s OK, come on, let’s go.” We walked quickly past the piles. “Don’t look,” my dad said, but I did. The pointed ends of the white ribs in the orange light of the fire.
On the way back my father hummed the meditation songs. My brother cried quietly and my father bounced him gently and said it was OK, it was just a hiker that had an accident. He hummed again, and I walked by his side and held his hand. The fire was far behind us, but it still felt close. My footsteps crunched and I didn’t want to be on the ground. It was hard to see and for 10 minutes in the dark he hummed to us.
Then we were back at the hotel. We took our jackets off and my dad said, “We’re stinky boys. We’re all going to take showers. Then we’ll order room service, OK? Who’s first shower?” Nobody spoke. My brother and I sat on the bed. Alex said, “Can we call Mom?”
“No, it’s too late to bother Mom.”
I said, “Dad, call the police.”
My dad picked up the phone.
“Can I have the ranger service, please? Thanks …” He waited a bit and we watched. “Hello, I was out walking with my boys near El Capitan and we came across some burning piles. Next to the piles there was a skeleton, I think it must have been a climber that fell off the mountain … No, the animals got to him … Yeah, they even went through the sheathing on the bones … No, no head. No arms either. But there were feet … Yes, they looked human to me … sure …” Then he waited with the phone to his ear. I was glad we were together because it felt like the world outside was full of murder. Then he was talking again, “I see … Oh, really. Um, hmmm … interesting, OK, thank you very much. Yes, the Ahwanee, room 213, Peterson. Yes, OK, thank you very much.” He hung up the phone. “It sounds like it was a bear.”
“I saw, it was human,” I said. “It was real, I saw.”
“I know, but the rangers said it was a bear. It was getting too friendly with the people because people were feeding it, so they had to shoot it.”
“It was a bear,” Alex said.
“Shut up, you didn’t even look,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Chris, I thought it was a person, too.”
“But why would they shoot the bear if it was being friendly?”
“Because a bear’s idea of friendly is different than ours. Bears just want food, so they’ll kill you if you have it.”
My brother took the first shower and then my dad. He came out with a towel around his waist. He was pale and thin. Before I went in I told my dad I wanted a cheeseburger for dinner. The water was only warm. I lathered the soap in my hands and rubbed it under my pits and around my neck and then down across my chest and ribs and crotch. Then I did my legs and feet and then my crack. When I was lathering my face the water got cold so I danced in place while I washed off the soap. I didn’t wash my hair.
After I dried off I put on my sweatpants and T-shirt in the bathroom and went into the main room. The food was there and we sat on the two beds and ate from the table on wheels. We all had burgers and Cokes. The cheeseburger was thick and the cheese was salty and good. The burger was so thick I could hardly fit the first bites in my mouth, and the tomatoes and onions squeezed out the back. My brother had a regular hamburger. He put tons of ketchup on all his hamburgers; I used mustard only because I was more mature. My dad put mustard on his, but spicy mustard made with white wine. He said all the alcohol was cooked out so it was OK for him to eat it.
After dinner my dad put the table outside the door. While he was out my brother and I started jumping on the beds, then we started jumping over the gap between the beds.
“Hey guys, settle down, settle down, I want to tell you something.” We stopped jumping and I sat on the edge and Alex lay on his stomach. My dad sat on the edge of his bed where he had sat while he was eating. He said, “Do you guys know how babies are made?”
“I think so,” I said.
“The husband and wife get naked in a bath together.”
“Sick,” said Alex.
“Who told you that?” my dad said to me.
“Beatrice.” Beatrice was my best friend, a French girl that lived down the street. We had had chicken pox at the same time, and watched The Dukes of Hazzard together, and the movie Time Bandits. She had itched her chicken pox and got an indent between her eyes, like she’d been hit by a miniature cork.
“Beatrice is wrong,” said my dad. “Yes, the man and the woman get naked but they don’t have to get into the bath. Usually they do it in a bed.”
“Because it’s comfortable there.”
“Why are they naked?” said my brother.
“Because the man needs to put his penis in the woman’s vagina.”
“What?” I said. My brother was squealing and squirming on the bed beside me.
“When two people are in love, that’s what they do. It’s not gross if you love each other …”
“You and Mom?” I said.
“Yes.” My brother was really going crazy with the squeals then, rolling onto the floor. My dad and I started laughing.
“You did that for me and Alex?” I said. My dad nodded.
“That is gross,” I said, and my brother repeated me: “Gross!”
Then I asked, “Do you still do it?”
My dad took a long time to answer.
Then we all got ready for bed. I let my dad and my brother brush their teeth first and then I went in there alone. I tried to brush the way my dad had told me to, but it didn’t feel right so I just brushed in my old way. The bear had ribs like I had ribs. Underneath had been lungs, and a stomach and a heart and they all got burned away.
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