The Smell of Victory
The woods donʼt smell funky until Iʼm in the church parking lot. The full stench of birds, beasts, and rotting logs, the supreme majesty of Gaia, clings to my cloths and hair. The miles backpacked over the last three days turn from accomplishment to disgust. In the forest I parade around, a conqueror proud of my kindʼs achievement over the wild. Tramping through the woods on a well-blazed trail, everything is crammed into a backpack, untouchable in my tent, with an entourage of fellow scouts around me. Bears migrate south, birds fly north, and snakes bite themselves in fear of us. But the instant my hiking boots touch the macadam, all I want is a shower.
On Sunday, after the trek, the whole Boy Scout High Adventure Crew has to shake out our tents next to the churchyard. Nine scouts and two leaders, covered in three days and 20 miles of filth, unpack in the parking lot, set up the tents to make sure everything came back okay, and return borrowed or troop gear. This all takes place in the dark next to the graveyard. Our resting places are erected a few yards from the church foundersʼ final remains, while cadavers and scouts competing for dirtiest human form.
“How did you do that card trick in the car?” John, my tent mate, asks me. He is two years younger than me. A little scout, he needs my help with merit badges and on camping trips.
“Iʼm not telling,” I say.
“Tell me or I wonʼt help,” he protests.
“Iʼll keep my magicianʼs honor,” I say. I begin to work on the edge of the parking lot, near the bushes.
John rolls his eyes and helps out.
“Here ya go, big guy,” Dan says. He tosses my tent at me. “Thanks for the loan.”
Dan Shack doesnʼt shower; his hair hangs in white trash dreadlocks—thick greasy strands caked with marijuana smoke. His father volunteered to lead our backpacking training trips this summer to secure his son a spot on the High Adventure Crew.
Mr. Shack doesnʼt shower either. Most of his life is spent walking his postal route through low-income neighborhoods. Dan is annoying. Mr. Shack is creepy. He wanders through meetings mumbling obscenities and discussing female anatomy.
I toss it back to him. “Set it up, like the rest of us,” I say.
“Itʼs fine,” he says.
“Just do it,” I say.
He tosses it back and says, “Do it yourself.”
I let the tent land at my feet.
“Listen, asshole,” I say. “The only reason you had my tent in the first place is because your dad is a fucking jackoff.”
Mr. Shack rambles over toward the commotion.
“Whatever, itʼs not my tent,” Dan says. “If you want to, check it. If not, itʼs up to you.”
“Whatʼs going on?” Mr. Shack asks.
“Sir,” I say. “Dan wonʼt check my tent after he used it all weekend.”
“Youʼre as dumb as a cow teat,” Mr. Shack says to me. “Now check your own gear.”
Dan walks away.
Resigned, I release the pull cord and dump the contents of the tent sack onto the ground. John continues to work on our tent.
I search the pieces at my feet. It reeks of the forest and pot. One piece is missing. “Hey, Dan,” I shout across the parking lot. “Whereʼs my rain fly?”
“Itʼs in there,” he replies.
“No it isnʼt,” I say.
Dan comes back, looks at the pieces on the ground and says, “Well, it was in there when I packed it.” He walks away.
“Well, it isnʼt here now,” I say. And shake the tent out.
A small bag falls out as I shake the tent. The glass pipe clinks, muffled by the surrounding pot.
Dan turns on his heel. His face goes white. Still near enough to see.
I smile at him and kick the bag ten feet into the cemetery. We both stare at the dark spaces between the tombstones, remembering the ghost stories of fire-and-brimstone reverends who steal the Playboy from your backpack while you sleep.
“Dan! Watcha doinʼ over there?” Mr. Shack asks.
“Iʼm helping Steve with his tent,” he lies. Then he turns to me. “Youʼre so dead motherfucker.”
One of the other scouts says, “Heʼll kick your ass.”
“Shut up,” Dan yells.
Someone else says, “Dude, heʼs like a 70th level black belt.”
“Shut the fuck up, everyone,” he says. Then in a voice just above a whisper he said, “Go get my shit.”
“Give me back my rain fly,” I say.
“I donʼt have your stupid rain fly,” Dan says.
“Then I guess two things vanished into thin air,” I say.
“If you donʼt go pick it up, Iʼll tell my dad I found it in your tent,” Dan says.
“And you waited all weekend to tell him?” I ask.
“It wonʼt matter,” he says.
“Then I wonʼt lay a finger on it. And weʼll let my dad, the Chief of Police, finger print it. Asshole,” I conclude.
Dan moves toward the tombstones. Mr. Shack yells, “Where you going?”
He starts in our direction. I busy myself shaking out the tent.
“Whatʼs going on?” Mr. Shack asks.
“We were discussing where my rain fly is,” I say.
“What do you mean?” Mr. Shack asks.
“Well, I remember giving it to Dan. And I know I saw him use it this weekend. But now itʼs missing,” I say. “Isnʼt that right, Dan?”
“I was going to check the graveyard,” Dan says.
“Graveyard? Why would it be in the graveyard?” Mr. Shack asks. “Were you in there already?”
“No dad. I wasnʼt–,” Dan says.
“—Well it canʼt be somewhere you wasnʼt. Now, can it?” Mr. Shack says.
“I guess not,” Dan says.
“You got to respect the dead. I donʼt want you tipping over no tombstones or using no Ouija Boards,” Mr. Shack says. “You get me?”
“Yes sir,” I say.
“I know. I know,” Dan says.
“Did you check your pack?” Mr. Shack asks his son.
“Yes,” Dan says.
“Did you make sure to pack it when we left camp?” Mr. Shack asks.
“Yes,” Dan says.
“Was it out of your pack at all on the trail?” Mr. Shack asks.
“Not until I took my water out at the car,” Dan says.
“Maybe itʼs in the car,” Mr. Shack says. “Dan, go check, while he finishes.”
Dan shuffles his feet toward his fatherʼs Jeep.
Mr. Shack turns to me and asks, “Why donʼt you help him out?”
“Help with what?” I ask.
“Youʼre a good boy. Your mamma and pa raised you right,” Mr. Shack says. He pauses for a moment. “He keeps fucking up. Makes no sense. Canʼt follow what I tell him.”
Standing straight up, square up with Mr. Shack, I say, “Okay.”
“Just try to talk with him a bit. Friend him up,” Mr. Shack says.
I nod and say, “Okay.”
Dan returns. “It isnʼt in the car,” he says. “I donʼt know what to tell you, chief.”
“Itʼs alright,” I say.
When everyoneʼs backs are turned, I retrieve the rain fly from the bushes and shove it into my backpack.
Stephen Mazzeo lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is an Eagle Scout.