It Sticks with You
By David Daniel
“Ouch,” the new kid whined. “Owww.”
I looked back. He was red-faced and struggling to keep up. He’d strayed off the woods trail and into briars. Beneath the hem of his plaid Bermudas and above his glaringly white tube socks, small berries of blood bloomed on his chubby legs. I went back and helped unhook him from the thorns.
“I told you, keep right behind me. There’s pricker bushes all through here.”
“Briars ain’t the worst of it!” Butchie Hyde, who’d been farther ahead, had tramped back to us and was pointing at the plants the new kid had wandered into. “That is.”
The new kid looked uncertain. “Wha . . . what is it?”
Butchie remained expressionless, but I knew him and read mischief in his tone. “You definitely don’t wanna know,” he said.
Now the new kid looked worried. “Poison Ivy?”
“You wish. Shit, that’d be easy. Just rinse off in the pond. But that—” again he pointed at the tangles the new kid was standing in, motioning for us to give them some distance— “y’know what that is?”
“Jeez.” Butchie glanced at me. “You know, Ray, right?”
Low bush blueberries, I was pretty sure, but Butchie wasn’t really asking for my answer. “It’s poison ivory,” he said.
Here it comes, I thought.
“Poison ivy is one thing. Poison Ivory—that’s a whole nuther thing. If you don’t treat it—and fast—it never goes away. It sticks with you.”
The new kid’s hair was a damp fringe at the neck of his t-shirt where mosquitoes were circling. Behind his glasses his eyes were large, frightened O’s. Okay, Butchie, I wanted to say, enough . . . but if it got down to a challenge, Butchie was bigger than me, tougher. I said nothing.
“I better get home,” the new kid moaned, glancing around, clearly uncertain of where we were.
“Huh-uh.” Butchie shook his head. “Too late for that.”
The kid looked ready to cry.
“Butchie—” I began, but shut up at his dagger glance.
“There is one thing that might help,” he said.
Desperate, the new kid jumped at it. “What is it?”
Butchie looked to where the trail led, where he’d already been minutes before. He scrubbed at his tanned, crew-cut scalp, as if he were figuring. “Jeez, I don’t know . . .”
“Tell me.” The new kid almost shrieked it.
“It ain’t fun. But what choice’ve we got? Right, Ray?” He fixed a look on me.
I had no idea what he had in mind, but I knew it’d be mean. I glanced away.
“Okay. I seen some up ahead, but we gotta hurry,” Butchie said. “And for godsakes, stay the hell outta the poison ivory.”
My wife looks at me, a nick of empathy and dismay in her forehead. “That poor kid. From the city, new there, terrified of the woods.” She shakes her head. “A perfect victim.” Jen never liked my childhood friend Butchie Hyde.
“Butchie could be rambunctious.”
“And you can be too generous. He didn’t wind up in jail, Ray, for being rambunctious.”
“Well, later, true. That was drugs mostly.” I feel some need to defend Butchie, though not vigorously. I hold onto a vague idea that his treatment of the kid—whose name was Rudolph something, I remember now—toughened the kid up a bit, got him ready for school and the hazing he’d endure as a new kid. Butchie and I quit being friends, eventually. I haven’t seen him in thirty years, but now, for some reason, that long ago incident has come to mind and I’m feeling bad remembering what happened next, telling it to my wife.
The woods was a large state reservation near our neighborhood, and some of the trails through there were bridle paths. Butchie led us along quickly, the new kid right behind him, me last. I had no idea what Butchie was up to, I just hoped it wasn’t too mean. The new kid was pretty pathetic: his plaid shorts worn so high they jammed up in his butt crack, his skin flushed and a big sweat patch in the middle of his t-shirt. Ahead, Butchie stopped. He was pointing at the trail, at fresh evidence of horses—warning us to be careful where we stepped, I thought at first; but no. He was explaining that some chemical in horseshit was a natural antidote to the poison “ivory.”
“Antidote? He actually knew that word?” Jen looks skeptical.
“Probably not. He was making it all up, of course—and . . . well, you can imagine the rest.”
Terrified and seeing no other choice (and with Butchie gloomily predicting It’s your only hope. If you don’t, it’ll never go away) the kid reluctantly picked up a handful and, grimacing in disgust, smeared it all over his chubby legs. Then, as extra precaution, at Butchie’s cruel urging—”in case the leaves of poison ivory touched elsewhere”—the kid rubbed it on his arms and neck, too. But that wasn’t enough.
“Oh, no,” my wife says.
“He ate some?”
I sigh. “Just a nibble—then I told him that was enough. Time to go home.” My wife is shaking her head, unamused, disgusted. “Not one of the shining moments of my youth,” I admit.
After a moment, she sighs. “Well, that’s pretty cruel—but at least no one was permanently injured, I trust. He didn’t get sick or anything.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You never told me that one before.”
“Something made me think of it.”
She puts a hand on mine. “Are you nervous about the job interview?”
“Think it’s symbolic somehow?” I ask.
“Like maybe you’re worried you’re about to step into thorns? Or worse?”
“The ‘worse’ part I’m not crazy about. But, yeah, thorns, maybe. I know age isn’t supposed to enter into it, but I can’t help feeling I’m up against a bunch of young guns. Who’ll work longer hours and take less pay.”
“You’re only fifty.”
“With a great CV and a ton of experience. And a wonderful wife.” Jen smiles. She always calms me.
But it’s true; I am worried. I’ve been job hunting for over a year, have come close a few times, but so far nothing has panned out. Now I have a shot. A small tech company is hiring. I checked them out on the internet and they have a position that seems made for me. We did a couple of Zoom sessions, and in the morning I’m going for a final in-person interview.
“Get a good night’s sleep,” Jen says.
The woman from HR meets me with a smile. “Good morning. I like that tie.” It’s a J. Garcia. Her husband wears them. We bond a moment on this. Then, in a lowered voice, she says, “I’m not supposed to share this, but everyone on the hiring committee liked you. Sitting down with the CEO is mainly a formality. Just between us, he almost always takes our recommendations.”
She walks me along an airy corridor, past bright modern paintings. The place has a good vibe. At the end is a paneled door. R. J. MURPHY. I saw his name on the company website last night when I prepped. As the HR woman reaches for the door, she bends toward me and whispers. “He goes by RJ—he hates his first name. Rudolph.”
My heart tightens. Rudolph Murphy?
“Here’s Ray Conlon, sir,” the HR woman announces and goes out, closing the door behind her.
Rudolph Murphy! A clench of panic grips me.
But the man behind the desk isn’t him. No resemblance in the lean features to the sweaty fat-faced kid Butchie Hyde and I tormented long ago. I let out a breath.
He gestures for me to sit. My CV is on the desk before him. He folds his hand and looks me in the eye. “Mr. Conlon,” he says, “let me ask you . . . have you ever had poison ivory?”