Friday, December 20, 2013

The Tent


Mark Amblin was trembling. That was the point. Jack up the adrenalin. Feel alive. Do something dangerous. He had worked out the reasons to be sitting here at 4 a.m. in a small mountain tent in total darkness, trying to figure out what to do next. To possess this thing without getting caught.

The camping store faced the busiest street in town. As spring warmed to summer, Mark admired the display as he drove to and from his janitorial job. Then the owner decided to improve sales by setting up  tents on the strip of lawn between the store and the street. Mark was struck by one tent in particular. The smallest one, orange and blue, shaped like some kind of jungle creature. Just right for him and his wife.

It didn't matter that they no longer went white water canoeing in the pine forests of northern Wisconsin anymore. That had been part of their mating ritual: daring the rushing cold waters to defeat them.

Although truthfully, it had been Charlotte's ritual. She invited Mark to go with her when they started dating. The time on the water was the best part. The noise, the rush of water, almost freezing cold, the danger. For the rest, it was mostly a matter of sitting on hard ground, swatting huge mosquitoes in the heat, or huddling beneath sleeping bags, spooned with Charlotte.

Now, married and living in a cottage near the outskirts of this town where Mark had dropped out of college after two years, things were different. He was comfortable enough, even on the small amount he made sweeping floors and emptying ashtrays and setting up chairs at his former school. But without the G.I. Bill that had been paying rent while he went to school, he and his wife couldn't afford things like a mountain tent.

Mark wanted it. For Charlotte, he told himself. He couldn't afford to buy it. But he could steal it.


Charlotte Amblin turned in circles in the middle of her kitchen. She was looking for Velvet, her kitten, who had followed Charlotte when she came downstairs and walked through the livingroom. Velvet liked to walk behind her, watching the heels of her shoes. At some point, it would jump up and try to snag the shoe with a claw. Barefoot, or weariing her thin slippers, that was painful. Mark already had had to paint her heel and ankle with iodine, which was even more painful. "Infection," he said. "Can't let that happen."

She couldn't disagree, but Mark's annoyance with the kitten was growing: he seemed unwilling to even try to train Velvet, or get along with her. Last night, coming down the narrow stairs from their bedroom, she heard Velvet screech as she flew through the air from the living room. Mark stood, scowling and rubbing his leg. He glared at her. "I can't wait for her to get out of her kitten stage," he said. "She hurts."

"Mark, don't throw her like that. Don't ever do that." Charlotte found Velvet huddled under the bench behind the kitchen table and gently coo'd her out and into her arms. "All you have to do is love her. She'll love you back."


Careful planning was key, he knew. Think it all out before acting.

It had been Mark's goal when he returned to college to learn the craft of writing fiction. Now, each evening after the day was over and Charlotte had gone to bed, Mark hovered over his typewriter and thought about the story he was trying to write. Mostly this meant staring into space, struggling in vain to quiet the noise in his head and to hear the little voice that might be that of a character, or a narrator. More often than not, he failed at this. As the weather warmed and the nights became nearly as uncomfortable as the days, all he could do was strip down to a tee and shorts and sit in front of the fan.

Instead of stories, the image of the mountain tent grew in his mind. Having it, and what he needed to do to get it. Imagining the theft was another way of creating a story. He had his French ten-speed bicycle, which he liked to ride, silent as a panther moving across the savanna on hot nights with no lights. He felt invisible when he rode at night, the later the better. Invisible and invincible.

The plan, when he had thought it through, was simple. Ride to the camping store after everyone was asleep and there was no longer traffic on the boulevard. Park the bike in total darkness. Get in the tent and when the moment was right, disassemble it from within. Back on the bike and ride it, silent and invisible, down the back streets to his home.


"Lea is coming to visit," Charlotte said one morning that spring.

"When?" said Mark, dipping a measuring cup into a bag of whole wheat flour. Saturday mornings were Mark's day to make pancakes for breakfast. He was proud of his recipe: half whole wheat, half unbleached white; eggs and baking powder and milk. Make it thick and chewey; smear it with peanut butter and slather with syrup. Eggs over easy on the side. A full protein meal.


Mark paused, thinking about their inventory of groceries.

"I'll have to pick some stuff up from the grocery store then," he said.

"Yeah," said Charlotte. "We'll all go. I'm sure Lea will chip in."

"Good. Because we're almost broke until payday."

"She'll chip in," Charlotte said, looking up from her copy of Scientific American, her bathrobe exposing her thin legs. "She always does."


It helped that the camping store was located in the dim stretch between two street lights and well to the north of the main part of the city. The shopping center a quarter mile on up the boulevard, anchored by Walmart, had been closed for several hours. A light industrial park too. All closed. Everyone slept at 4 a.m. in this sleepy Midwest town in northern Illinois in 1972 except a few city police in patrol cars. And people like Mark.

He saw no one on his ride to the store. Now Mark sat quietly in the dark of the tent that would soon be his. He listened, not moving, almost not breathing, for cars or other sounds. Nothing. When finally he did hear a car approaching, he noted the way it illuminated the tent, confident he couldn't be seen in it. He tried to estimate how long it was between passing cars, but no more came after the first.

The danger he felt was danger he had chosen, and that thought thrilled him. He listened. All he heard was a long stretch of silence. He knew he would have to decide: dismantle this tent and in doing, expose himself, or crawl back on his bike and disappear and pretend he had never been here.


Lea arrived around lunchtime Sunday, chirpy and restless from the long drive as she always was. She and Charlotte were best friends. They had graduated together from a private high school in Kansas City's south-town six years ago. They'd never lost touch, though their lives had diverged from each other when Charlotte moved to Illinois to go to college. Lea had gone on to some school near her home, Mark hadn't paid enough attention to their chatter to know where. They hugged; Lea pulled two bags from the rear seat of her aging BMW. "There's more back there," she said. "Some stuff for you."

Charlotte grinned and grabbed one of Lea's bags and her free arm and marched them both to the house.

"Mark," she said, "Would you mind getting the rest of Lea's things from her car? I'm going to get her settled and start lunch."

Lea and Charlotte had grown up together and gone to the same schools, but they could hardly have been more different. Lea was taller; round faced where Charlotte's high cheekbones and narrow chin gave her the appearance of a rough-cut gem; large bones; a thin waist with large breasts that Mark could imagine were soft and smooth like overripe fruit, where Charlotte's figure was straight, almost no difference between her hips, waist and breasts, the body of a small athlete, which Charlotte had been in high school.

The box remaining in Lea's car contained nick-nacks for Charlotte. A small hand-thrown jar with a lid, brown with blue streaks; a plastic icon that Mark recognized as the Indian elephant god Ganesh; salt and pepper shakers in the shape of small birds; copies of The New Yorker magazine. Mark put the box on one of the dining room chairs.

"Hi Mark," said Lea, coming out of the kitchen. "Thanks. These are some of Charlotte's things that her mother gave me to bring up." They were nearly the same height. Mark just looked at her. "So how are you? How's your job? Still writing?"

"Still writing," said Mark. "If you can call it that."

"Well you know. One bird at a time," she said, smiling.It was a reference to a book she had brought him on her previous visit. Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life." A book to encourage him to keep working on stories. She smiled, a warm, lingering look.


There was no way to predict when another car might pass. Mark decided it was time to act. He popped loose the flexible rods that formed the tent's skeleton.

Mark sweated heavily while furiously trying to disassemble the tent and collapse it upon himself in the dark. He dared turn on the small flashlight he carried just long enough to be sure he had all the rods and gathered them into their bag. The tent by now had settled down around his body.

He crawled out as fast as he could, heart racing, and pulled the tent into a tight bundle under one arm. He could see the lights of a car in the distance. He had maybe twenty or thirty seconds to get himself and the tent out of sight. He stood up, a little unsteady after sitting cross legged for so long in the stifling tent. Why did he want the thing anyway? Would he actually use it once he had it?

He pulled up the stakes around the tent's perimeter as fast as he could, refusing to let himself look up at the approaching vehicle. It would only slow him down, only increase his nervousness. Finally, stakes tucked into the folds of the bundled tent, tie-down strings dangling dangerously close to his feet, he skittered to the side of the building and into the darkness where he had parked his bicycle.

He sighed with relief as the car - not a police car, he gratefully noted - drove past without slowing. He watched its lights recede while he searched the bundle for the carrying case he knew was inside it. He stuffed the tent into the case along with the bag of poles, zipped it closed and strapped it to the small carrier on the back of his bicycle.

Mark rode as quietly as possible down the back and side streets the way he had come.The night air was still and warm as the ground continued to give off its day's heat. The moving air as he rode helped cool his face and arms. It was the beauty of a bicycle in summer. He savored the rush of the night air around his grinning face.


Lea, like Charlotte, came from a comfortably middle-class home. She didn't have work that summer; Charlotte encouraged her to stay. It wasn't a problem for her to chip in on expenses. Groceries at least. Her presence seemed to make Charlotte happy, a good thing, as Charlotte had not looked for another job and was lonely at home by herself during the week when Mark worked.

Mark couldn't complain. He came home each day to a meal freshly prepared, and to interesting company. After sharing their day all day, Lea and Charlotte were ready to turn their attention to Mark. Both were smart, well educated, interested in his ideas. Discussions sometimes ran late into the evening, after which Charlotte retired early. Her psychiatrist had her on anti-depressants that caused bloating at the same time it lessened her appetite both for food and for sex. This left Mark and Lea alone, reading quietly in the living room together each evening.

They shared their silence comfortably. Occasionally Lea would ask Mark about something she was reading, always in a low voice. Mark would reply as quietly, even though Charlotte slept soundly with the help of sleeping pills in the bedroom above.

After a month of this, Mark began trying to figure out whether, and how, he could tell Lea how erotic he found her presence.


After, at home, Mark felt strange. Not tired, but somehow disoriented. It was hard to focus on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. Planning and carrying out the theft had given him a sense of purpose. It kept him focused. But after, still sweating as he put his new acquisition away somewhere Charlotte wouldn't find it right away and ask awkward questions, he wondered what he would tell her if she did ask.

He would have to tell her. The truth. She wouldn't judge him, he felt sure. He wouldn't lie to Charlotte about what he had done. That would be stupid and there was no need. They were a pair, a team, in it together no matter what, regardless of his feelings for Lea.

Lea slept in the spare room on the ground floor, in the top bunk of a pair of bunk beds he and Charlotte had found from a bulletin board ad at the supermarket.

Mark pushed open the door to her room.

"Lea?" he said quietly.

"Yes?" He could see her propped up on an elbow, the drape of her night gown revealing her body in the dim glow like the form of a young gazelle.

"Sorry to wake you. I just wanted to ask you something," Mark whispered. He wanted to touch her, but he didn't dare. Not yet.


"I want you. I really want you. To lie with you. Have sex with you. Is that a terrible thing?"

Lea was silent for a moment. Then, "No. I want you too."

"But we can't, right? Because of Charlotte?"

Again, a long silence. Then Lea gently settled herself back down.

"I don't know," she said. "Good night, Mark."

Mark closed her door and settled himself in the living room, breathing heavily.

Two risky things in one night, he reflected.

It wasn't like he was a bad person. With the tent, he had acted more to relieve his boredom than out of anything like greed. He worked a menial job without complaining, without even feeling it was menial. Still, he could barely afford to live, much less have things that made his and Charlotte's lives more bearable. It was the inequality of it all. Corporate greed. All he had done was exercise what little he did have, his cleverness and courage, to tip the balance of things in their favor just a little. Only a little. It was such a small thing, really. Just a tent.

As for the other, he would work that out too. One way or another.

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