“I’m getting sleepy,” Henry told me. “Go fetch the stuff out of the trunk.”
He was like that, ordering me around. Normally, I wouldn’t let him do so without a well-placed barb about his ancestry. Exhausted, I was out of ammunition for a witty comeback. We had decided to camp at a favorite spot of mine, up close to my most beloved mountain range in southeastern Arizona. It was spontaneous, a spot decision. A quick phone call from wherever the hell he was, informing me we were going camping somewhere. Anywhere. In 10 minutes. Be ready. Seventeen-year-olds are like that. We didn’t usually think. Just acted.
“What am I, your dog? You get the fucking tent,” I growled.
“I drove all the way,” he countered. “Set it up and let me know when it’s ready, Fido.”
We went at it for 10 minutes, each laying out his case. He implied his contribution was the brains, mine was the brawn. Between us, we may have fetched 250 pounds on the same scale; neither brawny in the least. Also, he argued, since it was my tent, I should know how to set it up.
“It’s dark,” I said. “You could at least hold the flashlight.”
“Fuck off,” he said. Softly, dreamily, as if he could sleep right behind the wheel of his flashy ’77 Mustang coupe.
The tension mounted. We were supposed to be having fun, and I was tired of the debate. I wanted a sammich and a beer out of the ice chest. So I opened the door.
“Make it snappy,” Henry mumbled.
I shut the door as he put in his beer order.
I stretched and gazed up at an amazing sight. Billions of stars twinkled in the late summer sky. I was home again. This was the land of my pre-teen exploration, the home of my young soul. A coyote called in the distance, answered by a rowdy group nearby. A cool breeze ruffled my hair, and the tension seemed to melt away as I felt the rugged land around me. I planned a hike up my favorite hill the next morning. The view up there is amazing, and I smiled in spite of my weariness, anticipating and nostalgic.
Walking around to the driver’s side, I rapped on the window. Henry jolted awake, rolling down the window.
“Got it?” he asked.
I snorted, shaking my head. “Keys,” I demanded. “Flashlight,” I added as an afterthought.
He shook his head and handed them to me. “You always were a pokey bastard.” This time, the he insulted me with that amusingly endearing tone he charmed everyone with. I chuckled, shaking my head as I walked to the rear of the car. I repeated my earlier insult. Flicking on the light, I opened the trunk.
It was empty.
No ice chest. No travel bags. No munchies. No tent, sleeping bags, no lantern, no nada. So I closed the trunk, a bit more feistily than necessary.
“Uhhh,” I mumbled. “Shit!”
Stunned. I walked back to his open window. Squatted down. Sighed dramatically.
“Nada,” I managed.
“Hmpf?” he said, half asleep already.
“Nada, I said.” I said.
“Nada what?” He sat up, waiting for an explanation. I felt like a car-hop waitress telling the customer we were out of hamburgers. Here, we were out of everything.
“Nada nada. Nada damn thing in the trunk.”
Henry looked at me. Incredulous. He turned away and laid back on the headrest. He chuckled.
“Funny. Nice try, bucko.”
The fact it was 2:00 a.m. and we were 150 miles from home suddenly amused me. I sat in the gravel next to the car. Hands on chin.
“No joke,” I said. I began to laugh. Slowly at first. This seemed to jolt Henry out of his sleepiness.
“Wait a minute,” he said. He gave a short, investigative laugh of his own. He thought I was kidding, as I was fond of doing. “What did you say?”
I tried to speak; all that came out was a zerbert sound followed by a loud guffaw. This gave way to more, uncontrollable laughter. The kind that makes tears run down the cheeks, robbing me of speech. All I could muster were squeaks and grunts. Henry opened the car door and sprang out. I handed him the keys, pointed to the trunk, and rolled over to my side, weak with hilarity.
Stopping long enough to watch his face as he opened the trunk, I saw his expression change from annoyance, to disbelief, to shock. I snorted, as another spurt of laughter overcame me. Henry closed the trunk, shaking his head. Then he exploded in laughter, leaning on the car for support as we both realized our combined predicament.
“Your, your face!” I roared. “P-p-priceless!” I was weak by then, by the effects of almost five minutes of continuous laughter. This was classic.
After a spell, we calmed down enough to look at each other. That resulted in another eruption.
Finally, Henry walked back to the car, his feet resting on the ground. He buried his face in his hands a moment and sighed.
“I thought you…” Uh-oh, here it comes, I groaned inwardly, the great whodunit debate.
“You said you were getting the gear in the trunk while I grabbed some tunes out of the house!” I rose to my defense with great fervor.
“But you had to walk right past the shit before you got in the car!” Henry loved to blame me when one of our adventures went south. This one had become Antarctica.
“No, no… it was on your side hombre,” I said. We were debating, but like all our arguments, it became fun. We laughed as each thrust met a parry. “I couldn’t see it when I got in the car, thought you’d stowed it.”
We looked at each other. Silence. Our faces both betrayed a collective guilt, so we pointed at each other and fell to laughing again.
“Dumbass,” he said.
“Dorkface,” I retorted.
After a few moments, we fell silent. Reality set in. Groaning, I jumped up and walked a few steps away from the car. Collecting myself, I once again beheld the sky’s delights. Shrugging, I gestured palms-up to the beloved souls in heaven who assuredly were quite amused with us. I could almost hear Mom’s laughter when she found our gear still in the driveway, hours after our departure. (From then on, every time I went camping, Mom asked if I’d remembered the tent.)
Looking back at Henry, I caught his mischievous smirk.
“Guess we have two choices,” he said. “Drive back home, or sleep here. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going anywhere.”
Given our situation, I couldn’t argue. I walked over to the passenger side, but Henry was one step ahead of me. His door closed. As I opened mine, he swung his legs over the passenger seat.
“Un-uh,” he said. “I call front seat. My car.”
“No way, really?” I reached in to move his legs, but for a skinny rascal he was strong. Even though he’d only recently recovered from a compound femur fracture, his legs remained firmly in place. I stood there a moment, leaning on the car’s roof.
“Where am I supposed to sleep?” I asked. A bit testily. The recent humor seemed distant. Now, I was simply worn out from laughter and lack of shut-eye.
“You’re the one who forgot the gear, brainless,” Henry said quietly. “You figure it out.”
After more debate, we agreed to share the car. A two-door Mustang coupe, however, wasn’t designed for two six-footers to sleep in. An interesting arrangement developed after much maneuvering, kicking and leg-wrestling. Finally, I angled my legs between the front seats with my feet dangling over the front passenger seat. Henry’s rested over mine. It was tight, but we quickly fell asleep after a few not-so-endearing good-nights were offered.
Six hours later, sore from being frozen in such awkward positions, the summer sun crested the hill and pierced my eyelids. I kicked Henry’s bony legs off mine as I felt a thousand needles in each of my cramped calves.
“Fetch me a rabbit and some firewood, Einstein,” I grumbled. “Make me some breakfast.”
Henry farted as he awoke. “Your feet stink.”
“Maybe you should cork your ass,” I replied, struggling to reach the passenger window. Henry deftly blocked my hand, and the battle was on. Again.
It was a long ride home. Neither of us said much. I offered to drive. Henry didn’t reply. Heart’s Barracuda jamming from the stereo, I settled back into the seat. Hopefully, I snored the entire trip.
Four decades later, we’ve remained close. Although we live a few thousand miles apart, we still see each other every few years. Today when I texted him I was publishing this story, I promised to protect his anonymity. His reply: “I don’t need anonymity, YOU forgot the tent!” So, it continues. We argue, we laugh. Someday, we vow to go camping again. But this time, we’ll both pack.