Save Our Boys

by Jean Boler
In a duffel in the trunk of my Comet, I’d packed a few pairs of jeans, a jacket, some T-shirts, a cheap tent and a sleeping bag, apples, a jar of peanut butter, and a box of crackers, in case we had to hike over the border through the woods up there. The English teacher, Mr. O’Hara, had hooked me up with a guy who ran sort of an Underground Railroad across the Canadian border for Vietnam War draft dodgers, a group named Save Our Boys, or SOBs as Joyce called them. The guy gave me maps of trails from Minnesota into Ontario, and contact people who went by code names at secret addresses. I’d stuffed the rolled-up paper with their numbers on it in one of those little plastic film canisters and stored it in the glove box.

That night the St. Agnes graduates had the traditional all-night party planned at a state park along the St. Croix River, an hour outside the city. I’d been out of high school for a year, but Joyce had just graduated and wanted to go. According to our plan, we would stay a few hours at the party and then run away together to Canada. That’s what we’d talked about over and over since February, when I’d gotten my lottery number and knew I had to report. We would cross the border and head for Winnipeg. Save Our Boys would get us work papers and line up jobs, even find us an apartment.

When I pulled into the driveway at Joyce’s parents’ house, she came running out, a corduroy purse she’d made herself slung over her shoulder and a sleeping bag hugged tight in her arms. “Traveling pretty light, aren’t you?” I said as soon as she’d thrown her sleeping bag in the backseat and settled in next to me, her purse on the floor between her feet. She wore a pair of baggy jeans and a halter top made from a big paisley scarf she’d bought at the Salvation Army. Her dark eyeliner had smudged a little under her eyes, and two white plastic barrettes held her wavy hair back like a kid’s.

“I don’t need much.” She lifted the hair up off the back of her neck and bunched it into a messy ponytail with a rubber band she took off her wrist. A red flush went from her cheeks down her neck. I pulled away from the curb, sneaking a look sideways at the purse. Maybe it could hold a change of clothes and a windbreaker. When I’d given her a list of things to bring, she’d rolled her eyes and stuffed it in her pocket.

“I hope you at least brought some kind of jacket,” I said. “The mosquitoes are bad up there and it gets cold. We may not be able to take the car across the border.”

Joyce banged her palm on the glove compartment so that it fell open, reached into a corner, and pulled out cigarette papers and a rolled-up plastic bag of dope. “The mosquitoes don’t come out until July,” she said. She held the paper open over the baggy and sprinkled the dried leaves along the crease. “Let’s not talk about Canada right now.” She ran her tongue along the side of the paper, sealing the joint tight.

“Sure,” I said. “Tonight’s your night.” I put my hand on her thigh. The worn jeans felt soft and thin, like flannel. She didn’t look at me, or put her hand over mine. She just sat there, the unlit joint in one hand and the lighter in the other, looking out the window at the row of trees growing dark along the freeway.

My cousin Dan met Joyce last summer when he was on leave between boot camp and shipping out for “Nam,” as he called it. I could see she was kind of taken aback by his fatigue pants and short haircut. And he kept staring at her chest when he sat across from her at the dinner table. It was pretty obvious she didn’t have on a bra, and I guess he wasn’t used to seeing girls like that. The ’60s barely made it to Minneapolis before the early ’70s, and Dan was from South Dakota, where I don’t think the ’60s ever made it at all.

After supper, he came out and stood behind us on the front steps smoking while we sat in the sloping grass looking at the setting sun. Joyce lay back on her elbows and started singing a Bob Dylan song that she’d memorized. When it came to the line “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” she dropped her head back and looked at him upside down, her hair trailing in the grass. He flicked his cigarette butt toward us and went inside.

Later, when I came back from dropping her off and we were lying around in the basement watching late-night TV, he said, “I think that girl’s bad for you Joey, even if she is into free love.”

“She’s not into free love,” I said.

“Sure looks it,” he said and let it go.

By the time we pulled into the parking lot at the top of the river bluffs, I was stoned in a nervous sort of way I didn’t like. My head felt big and tingly at the back, and my tongue seemed like somebody else’s. I opened up my door and put one leg outside of the car. I could smell the party bonfire drifting up from the rocky beach below the bluffs. Shouts and snatches of singing came up with the smoke. I looked over at Joyce and found her staring at me. She hadn’t opened her door or moved.

“You okay?” I asked. Cars drove past the parking lot on the highway behind me, sending her shadow rotating through the Comet’s dark interior.

“Let’s go to the ledge,” she said.

The serious way she said it made the center of my chest hurt. “Don’t you want to spend some time with your friends? Say goodbye to people?”

She shook her head and leaned hard against the door, and jerked the handle in that mad sort of way she had when she was getting worked up. I retrieved her sleeping bag from the back, and followed her on a path that snaked over the top of the bluffs to a small group of cliffs hanging out above the water, just a little ways down from the falls. I spread out the sleeping bag on a ten- by twenty-foot ledge about thirty feet above the river. On hot days last summer, after a few beers, some of us guys would jump into the river from this ledge. Joyce was the only girl I knew who would do it, in her T-shirt and cutoffs, her hair standing straight up as she fell.

An almost balmy breeze came at us up the river valley from the south. The air had a metallic smell from all the iron in the water. Although we couldn’t see it in the dark, the river below us was the color of apple juice, and crusty orange foam stuck along the shore. Pale yellow cliffs punched out of the darkness on the other side. I could hear the graduates whooping and yelling upriver. Altogether it was the kind of night and the kind of place that made me wish I could keep being an American.

We had only just settled down, and I was still trying to find a way to sit so that rocks weren’t gouging into me, when Joyce grabbed my right hand and held it in her lap. The side of her face looked pale and grainy in the weak moonlight. “Joe,” she said, “I’m thinking of not going to Canada.”

It took me a while to put the words together in my mind, maybe because I was high or maybe because it was the last thing I wanted to hear. I wanted to rewind to five minutes earlier and then skip this part altogether. I imagined pulling my hand back, but it just lay in her lap like it wasn’t connected to me anymore. Finally I managed to say, “But you’re the one who had the idea. I would never have thought of going off to Canada or contacting the SOBs if it hadn’t been for you.” I didn’t like the whiny sound of my voice but I kept on. “Why did you even bring it up if you didn’t want to go?”

She hunched over my hand shaking her head, and then looked up at me. I hadn’t seen quite this look on her face before: regret and anger mixed with a little fear. “You’ve been drafted Joe. You’ve got to do something. You of all people know what happens to guys that go over there.” She put her hand up to my face. “I don’t want what happened to Dan to happen to you.”

I couldn’t remember her ever saying his name before. Hearing it now made me grab her by the shoulders. “So come with me,” I said. “That was the plan.”

She twisted and pushed her hands gently against my chest. “I’m sorry. It doesn’t feel right. It feels like I might start hating you. Or you’ll hate me. I just can’t explain it.”

I could feel the bone under the skin on her shoulders. “I can.”

“No.” She snaked her arms up around my neck.

“You don’t love me.”

She leaned on me with all of her weight until I fell backward with her on top of me. Then she started French-kissing me so hard that I could feel the rocks grinding into the back of my skull. I didn’t want her to stop, so I tried to slowly adjust myself to a more comfortable place without losing her tongue in my mouth. Then I stopped moving altogether because she’d lifted up my T-shirt and kissed a line right down the middle of my chest to my belt buckle, which she undid in three quick moves, like she’d been practicing.

The next thing I knew, she was doing something with her mouth and tongue that she’d never done before, and I had no idea she knew how to do. We were Catholic kids, you know. The nuns harangued us about impure thoughts, much less actually doing anything. We’d touched each other, sure, but her hand never felt like this. Nerves all over my body shut down, except the ones on my pelvis, which were tightening into an ache I struggled to hold on to. “Christ,” I said through my teeth, “watch it, she’s going to blow.” I wish I’d said something else, but there it is.

She stood up, undid her belt, and the baggy jeans she wore just fell off with one little twist from her hips. She pushed her underwear down to her ankles and kicked them behind her toward where the cliff careened down into the river. Then she untied her halter top at the neck and back and let it float off her. I’d never seen her fully naked. On that rock jutting out over the river, she looked like a wood nymph or a fairy, delicate and almost bone-white.

The wind blew the new leaves in the trees. Upriver, the graduates yelled the words to “Twist and Shout.” I wanted them to shut up. I wanted everything quiet. She knelt down over me, lowered herself on me and, my God, I have relived that moment many times since—the surprise of it, the wet tightness, and the heat. I lasted about thirty seconds, and then I couldn’t hold back. I grabbed her hips too tight and just held on while I felt myself riding into her. The next thing I knew, she was lying on my chest, whispering my name over and over.

Later, I pulled the sleeping bag around the two of us, but I couldn’t quite cover our feet without jostling Joyce. I didn’t want her to move. I wanted her to keep lying there on my chest. Fluids tickled the tops of my legs down by where I shrank out from inside her. She raised her head and rested her chin on my chest. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I do love you.” The point of her chin felt sharp. “You need to go tonight, like we planned.”

I took her head between my hands and raised it up a little. “I won’t go,” I said. “I just won’t. I’ll stay here and see what happens.” Her face was so close I could barely see it.

“You will go.” Her lips came into focus, pressed together in a thin line.

“I don’t want to.” The river was quiet. The graduates must have been between songs. “Not without you.”

Suddenly, she threw off the sleeping bag and scrambled up. She stood over me, mad again. “Joe, do something by yourself for a change.” Her voice had a raspy undertone. She turned abruptly and walked in the direction of the cliff’s edge. “I’m going in the river.”

“No,” I said, sitting up and trying to think what was wrong. We’d gone off this cliff dozens of times last summer, but not yet this year and never at night. Things could have changed. The water could be lower on the rocks, or a tree could have floated downstream in the thaw and lodged below us. “You can’t see what’s below you. You could fall on something.”

She stood near the edge looking down, her arms crisscrossed over her bare breasts, the moonlight making her seem lit from within. Sound seemed to rush back from all along the riverbank. The graduates had started sing-yelling again, a Rolling Stones song. I could hear water falling and crickets babbling and, far above, a droning plane. She lifted up her arms like a ballerina and said in a stagey, dramatic way, “It’s time to leap, to just throw yourself forward. Don’t you want to?”

“No.” I stood up with the sleeping bag clutched around my hips. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

This is the part I’m not sure about—what she said next. Either she said, “Get going already,” or she said, “I’m almost ready,” and held out her hand. Whatever she said, I know I just stood there. In my mind, the river I knew had changed, and was full of bone-crushing boulders and strange, strong currents.

She lowered her arms and then she turned, took three running steps toward the cliff’s edge, and leaped out into the air. I had never seen her more graceful, traveling through that split second when the body’s velocity goes from forward to down, her legs stretching in the leap, her left one out front and her right one behind, her arms in a Y over her head.

I don’t know why I didn’t just let go of that damn sleeping bag and run off the edge of that cliff after her. I heard the splash. I imagined the water closing over her head. Instead of following her off the cliff, I ran down the dirt path to the river, still holding the sleeping bag around my waist with one hand until it snagged on some bushes half way down and I let it go. When I got to the water’s edge, I didn’t hesitate or call from the shore, I just kept running into the current, still numbingly cold in early June. I could see something traveling fast through a light swath cut in the river by the moon. I swam toward it as fast as I could, but the distance between me and the dark spot on the water could not seem to close.

After about ten minutes of pursuing the silent blur bobbing in the current, I started to doubt my mission. I had jumped into the water certain that I would soon be carrying a grateful Joyce up the rocky shore. Now I was equally certain that she had hauled herself out of the water, with no help from me, minutes before. I put my head down again and kicked and flailed with all my might until I was gasping and shivering on a moist beach twenty yards from the highway.

As soon as I could stand, I started making my way back upriver. Although I wanted to stay down by the shore, the rocks were too sharp on my feet, and my progress was too slow as I wound around boulders and fought through scratchy thickets of new growth. Eventually I took a path up to the highway, where every two minutes the headlights of a car illuminated my bare ass as I jogged along the shoulder. When the first few cars came up behind me, I tried to scrunch down in the grass by the road, but after a while, I just took to holding up my middle finger as the car passed by. I was now convinced that Joyce was back on the ledge waiting for me; standing at the edge, peering downriver, afraid that she had lost me; ready to do anything to please me, if she ever saw me again. I was confident that we would be on our way to Canada within the hour.

I jogged past the Comet in the dirt parking lot. Some kids from Joyce’s class were leaning against the back of a station wagon, drinking beer. They nearly fell over laughing when they saw me. I didn’t ask them if they’d seen Joyce. I knew where she was; I went up the path to the ledge. The moon was there and the snatches of singing from the graduates, but no Joyce. She didn’t rush into my arms or scream my name. I was dumbfounded by her absence and fell on my knees, unable to come up with an explanation that fit my actions. I had run into the water sure she was drowning in the current, and emerged on the shore just as sure she was waiting on this ledge.

I stood up and looked around, trying to ground myself in some clue. Her worn jeans, the paisley halter top, and her dingy underpants were still scattered where she dropped them. I gathered up each piece and buried my face in the bundle that smelled of patchouli and dope. Clasping her clothes to my chest, I stumbled down the same path I had run down ages ago. I passed the sleeping bag hanging on a bush and came out on the shore. I scanned the water as I made my way toward the sound of the graduates’ singing. They were back on the Beatles again—“I wanna hold your hand…”

I didn’t have a plan for what I would say when I got there. Hopefully, there would be a sober person who would know what to do—call the cops, the fire department, her parents. Someone had to get a boat so we could look up and down the shore. She could be passed out. She could be draped across a log pummeled by the current. I had her clothes, the evidence that she was somewhere down the river.

Then I saw her. She had on some guy’s large sweatshirt, covering her to mid thigh, with the sleeves rolled up, a beer in one hand and her arm around a skinny boy with big glasses. She was singing and swaying like I’d never existed. Finally, I had an absolute and true picture of what had happened between us. She had said goodbye, jumped off the ledge, and never once looked back. I walked forward to the bonfire. It was crackling with old railroad ties, dry and thick with creosote. The singing stopped and I could feel the eyes of the 1972 graduates of St. Agnes riveted on the naked boy before the fire. I tossed her clothes in the flames: first the jeans, then the halter top, and last, her underwear. I didn’t look at her or say a word. I just walked away, up the path to the Comet. She didn’t follow me; I didn’t expect her to.

I sat for a while at the parking lot exit, trying to feel which way to turn. In the end, I turned north because it made sense to leave it all behind: the war, my parents, St. Agnes, but most of all, Joyce. And there’s the truth: I dodged the draft because of Joyce. I truly hope she’s happy.
Jean Boler is a baby boomer who gathered material for stories as she grew from a young hippie traveler visiting India, El Salvador, and Israel, to a human rights activist and litigator. She’s been a lawyer for decades, honing the craft of telling stories for juries and judges. One of her cases, about a group of women who sued a mining company for harassment, was the subject of the nonfiction book Class Action and the movie North Country. She hopes someday to turn that experience into a novel.

Jean has been taking classes and writing fiction on and off for twenty years. She has studied with Pam Houston, Ron Carlson, and Matt Briggs, and her first poetry class was with Mary Carr. Jean has attended the Headwaters and Split Rock Writers Conferences, and has taken many classes at the Richard Hugo House. In 2001, she received a certificate in advanced literary fiction from the University of Washington.

© 2014, Jean Boler