My father, a lithe, blue-eyed mathematician, liked to tell how he once held his concentration for 17 hours straight on a single math problem.

Thirteen and adrift, I had none of his unflinching intellectual mettle. My days at Western Jr. High were daydreams—girls, pinball and Slurpees, the new subway tunnel they were dynamiting under Friendship Heights.

My father decided that we needed a weekend alone, together. Camping supplies began appearing in the garage: tarps and a tent, binoculars and bug spray.

On the way out of town, we stopped at Louis & Thomas Saltz on Wisconsin Avenue, an upscale clothier that is gone now but once sold a few accessories to go with their expensive suits. A glass display carousel, lit from inside, contained a collection of red-clad Swiss Army Knives. When my father told me to pick one, I knew this was a special occasion. Round and round, I eased that towered carousel, sometimes pausing, inching in, the glass warm beside my cheeks.

I settled on the Bellwether, a knife so fat with untold gadgets—a little saw, a little scissors, a little magnifying glass—it would surely see one through any crisis. 

The stars over Deep Creek Lake were almost unbearably vivid that night. We ate warmed-up hotdogs and canned beans and watched the fire, a little trance-like.


We had not said a lot to each other yet. I began asking questions about gyroscopes and moon phases because I knew it pleased my father to talk about such things.

One log on top of the fire appeared to be untouched by flames. Both its sides and top were clean, unblemished. But underneath, hidden from our eyes, its red-coaled belly had been burning all along. When my father reached under that log to turn it, those secret, honeycombed embers burned him.

Up fast, straightening, he snatched down the burned hand with the other. There’d been a single, choked-off yelp and that was all.              


My father gamely tried to see our trip through. He applied a cold pack and promised his hand was all right. In our tent we slithered into sleeping bags. But I could not close my eyes, for I could hear his distress, mute and fretful, in the dark beside me.

It was after midnight when we started for home. Deep in my jeans pocket, I could feel the Bellwether, heavy as stone, against my leg. I’d not had a chance to use any of its magnificent tools or to show that I could. Still, I was glad to have it. It was mine, and it would be something to show my brothers, later, in the morning.

The years to come would bring more trouble—hooking school, wandering the city, and cultivating a recklessness that frightened my family. But the worst of it was still a years away.


On this night the dark farmland unreeled, and we listened to the road—our tires clicking over highway spacers, keeping time, and marking the silence between us.