Return to Camp Lake—Part 1
The Turn in the Road
It was a road even though no one drove on it. It ran from the opening of camp, at the drop-off, down through the hills to the meeting hall. Then it went up by the girls cabins. Then there was a streetlamp, and the road changed directions and went up the hills in a different way. We called that point with the streetlamp The Turn in the Road.
The Turn in the Road was a proper name at Camp Lake. You could say those words in an invitation, and everyone would come to the same place. There were many turns in that road, actually, but there was only one Turn in the Road.
That was where we said goodnight. That was the best place to meet for just about any subsequent adventure. After the Turn in the Road, where the road changed directions and went up the hills in a different way, the road became a path, then a trail, then it snaked along the side of a ravine and took you to the boys cabins. If boys wanted to meet girls, The Turn in the Road was the place to do it. If girls wanted goodnight kisses, the Turn in the Road was ideal. The girls cabins were right beside The Turn in the Road. After their kisses the girls could practically jump into their sleeping bags. And the boys would have a long walk along which they could brag and exaggerate and variously recall these goodnight kisses.
From The Turn in the Road to the boys cabins was a twenty minute walk, along a narrow path on the side of a steep ravine. The boys, once they left their cabins in the morning, didn’t want to make more than a trip back home in the middle of the day, before the day was done. For the girls, everything (meeting hall, swimming pool, cafeteria) was situated near their cabins. For the boys, it was their cabins..and then everything else. Designers of summer camps tend to be veterans of summer camps themselves; to walk from central camp to the boys cabins, or from the boys cabins to central camp, at night, at Camp Lake, was a dangerous thing. Even on a full moon, you wouldn’t do it without a flashlight. If you happened to be going from the boys’ end to the girls’ end of that path, you would come out at The Turn in the Road; if you were going the other way, you had to first pass through The Turn in the Road. And the streetlamp there, lighting a section of road bordered on one side by a steep hill going up and bordered on the other side by a steep hill going down, didn’t allow any secrets to pass.
Kristen unzipped her suitcase. She was sweaty. Inside were dresses, the foldable ones. And she had brought this pair of overalls. What was she thinking? She couldn’t wear those here. They were incredibly preppy. In her neighborhood at home they were fine, but the people here looked at the way she was raised as something bad. As if it was bad to live on a nice street and go to a school where there wasn’t crime everyday. They weren’t rich. Does having a swimming pool make you rich? Everyone in her neighborhood had a pool. Pools aren’t that expensive. They come with the house. Besides, when it’s warm, you need a swimming pool.
Kristen wanted to get in the pool now. She wanted to take a shower. But the pool was closed and showers weren’t until later. Most people here were only showering once a day. Kristen was showering twice. People had noticed but no one had said anything yet. Maddy gave her an extra look when she went for her evening shower, but Maddy didn’t seem judgemental. You were allowed to take a shower anytime you wanted. This wasn’t prison.
Kristen closed her suitcase. She sat on the bed.
Mai was telling everyone her dreams again.
Maddy was interpreting.
“They say when you dream about a car, that the car represents what you control. If you’re driving the car, you’re in control. If you’re in the back seat, and say your mom is driving, then your mom is in control. You feel out of control. If you drive wild, if you’re in a crash, that tells you how you feel about your life.”
As she talks, Maddy is sifting through an armful of thin bark. Scrolls of it fall onto her bed, the thinnest of them as thick as a sheet of paperboard. Maddy selects the widest and longest of them and carefully lifts the corner of her mattress.
Maddy’s entire cabin is there: Kristen, Liz, Mai, Jennifer, and Erica.
“What is that stuff?”
“Birch bark,” said Maddy.
“Why do you have it.”
“To write letters,” Maddy says. “There’s nothing more romantic than getting a letter written on birch bark.”
“What about my dream?” Mai says.
“What about it.”
“It was really scary.”
“Where there is no terror, there is no chance of encountering the truth,” Maddy says, not even looking at Mai.
Kristen goes for Maddy’s mattress. She starts to lift it.
“What’s das verboten?”
“Means don’t do it. Get away from there.”
Kristen picks up one of the scraps that Maddy let fall.
“How do you write on it?”
“With a pen. Pencil. You just write on it like normal.”
“You put that in an envelope?”
“Yeah. Look. You flatten it under a book. Or under your mattress. You need to peel it very slowly from the tree. It’s best when damp. Right after it rains, you go out. You know those tall white-looking trees—really bright, no branches..tall bright-looking trees—those are the ones. You can sometimes get really big sheets and cut it with scissors. I like the natural edges. But it’s a nice anachronism to have bark cut at a straight edge, don’t you think?”
That’s when I come in. I open the door to Rainbow cabin. Jennifer is bending over. She blushes. The cabin smells like patchouli.
“Sorry. I thought—”
“Everyone out,” Maddy says. “Cafeteria. Eat plenty of milk.”
Patchouli makes me think of dirt, and twigs, and bark. And camping. And a little bit it makes me think of cinnamon, and bourbon. And leaves, it makes me think of decomposing leaves. It makes me think of a girl who played me records, once, in the bedroom of my parents’ house. Mainly it makes me think of dirt, and minerals, and tiny little valuable elements in the soil.
It’s all over Rainbow cabin. I imagine Maddy’s room, her apartment, wherever she lives. She probably doesn’t even smell it anymore. It’s probably in her washing machine and in her tub and when I look at her hair I feel like I can see patchouli there. When patchouli is in the clothes I feel like that means the clothes are a little wet, all the time.
“Stop,” Maddy says.
The girls stop.
“Jennifer. You can’t wear your hair like that. You have to take it down.”
“Because it’s dangerous. It’s very dangerous. Get a hat. They’ll wait.”
Also, patchouli smells like pine, and turpentine. It’s dense, it’s pointy, it’s hard to breathe. It’s like a gray neighborhood after it rains. It’s like a room with no lights on. It’s like a forgotten bag, or an old book, or the basement of a library. It’s almost like a subway, when it rains on the tracks underground, or damp paper, or a crate with forgotten things in it.
And Maddy wears it.
I sit on the single bed across from hers.
Maddy’s half-dressed. We’re the only ones in the cabin. She’s putting on a pair of shorts over her swim suit.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she says.
I look at her suitcase, open, things strewn on the floor, bags with mushrooms in them, bark, sticks. “What’s that?” I point to a bag with sticks in it.
“For making tea,” she says. She pulls up her shorts, zips, and buttons them. “Are you enjoying watching this?”
“The guy’s a fucking asshole.”
“No. Look. He’s making fun of the size of your dick. He’s showing us his dick. I don’t care if that guy has fifteen inches of fucking limp dick. He’s a fucking asshole.”
“That faggot goes too far. I’m sick of listening to that shit. I just wanna go to sleep, you know what I’m saying? We should do something to him.”
“He’s just—he’s probably an only child or something.”
“He is an only child.”
“He said so. He was bragging about how he has his own riding lawnmower.”
“He’s lying. Anyway why would you brag about having your own lawnmower.”
“He was talking about how his dad lets him drive it in the street.”
“He’s just showing off. He’s insecure. He said he was an only child?”
“Yeah. He said that when he was born, his dad bought him the lawnmower, so that some day he could drive it, and when he comes home from school his mom is there—like—waiting to serve him a snack and shit.”
“Smacktard. What the fuck is it? Speak up.”
Tislam is standing in the middle of the room. He says, “Guys. Have you ever seen a brown-eye?”
“Smacktard. What the fuck. What do you think..you think the thing about the lawnmower is true?”
“Have you ever seen a brown-eye?”
“You guys have to stop using words I don’t know.”
“A brown-eye. A fucking asshole. Have you ever seen one? I mean really seen one? Like with cheeks spread and everything. Have you ever seen that?”
“Whoa-hoa..we were having a conversation here. Listen, Tislam, we’re gonna get that asshole. Nothing too bad. We’re just gonna take him down a notch. He needs to learn that he’s not the only goddamn—”
But Tislam was taking off his shorts. He was wearing tighty-whities underneath. And then he was pushing down his tighty-whities.
“Whoah!!” Pierce is covering his face. “What the fuck, man?”
“We already showed our dicks.”
“Yeah? I don’t need to see it again.”
Tislam is totally calm. “Go in Edwards’ bag. Get his camera.”
“He keeps his camera in that bag hung on the—yeah—see it?”
Pierce is looking at Maxwell. “Fuck me you guys are random.”
“No.” Maxwell’s hand is is Edwards’ bag. Maxwell is smiling. “This is good.” Maxwell has Edwards’ camera. It’s disposable. If those fucks are so rich why do they send their son to camp with a disposable camera.
Pierce sits on the bed. “Oh.” He now has no problem with the fact that Tislam is standing naked in the middle of the cabin. “Tislam,” he says. Pierce stands and does this next part Forrest-Gump-style. He’s screaming in Tislam’s face. “Tislam! Did anybody ever tell you you’re a GODDAMN GENIUS!!?”
What they do next is:
- Tislam bends over.
- Pierce moves so he’s not in the frame.
- Tislam spreads his ass cheeks apart—wide—with his hands.
- Maxwell and Pierce stare in horror at Tislam’s brown-eye.
- Maxwell takes the rest of the pictures left on Edwards’ camera.
When Maxwell returned from camp, he would be standing by the washing machine with his mother, relating tales from the week away from home, when his mother—who was putting clothes from Max’s duffel bag into the wash—would come across a pair of girls’ panties. She would hold them up, and she would look to Max, and Max would tell his mother, solemnly, that he had no idea how those got in there. And Max’s mother would believe him, and it would be no big deal.
Max imagined that when Edwards’ parents developed his pictures, that the conversation hadn’t gone as smoothly.
Maddy and I are sitting outside the mess hall. We’re lounged on wooden chairs. The kids are at breakfast. Blake has my kids and Marcy has Maddy’s. Maddy has her camera bag open. I’m staring at the sky.
Maddy says, “Hey. I wanna ask you something.”
I look over and she snaps a picture.
I run my hand through my hair. “I’m sure that was a fabulous pose.”
She adjusts focus and takes another.
I’m seeing one of her eyes to the side of the camera. Her other eye is hidden.
“Do you take pictures in Florida?”
“Yeah. My best pictures I take around the apartment. Like..of the cat, of the washing machine. Didn’t you used to take pictures?”
“I used to do video.”
Maddy snaps another picture. “Do you still do it?”
“What do you do?”
“Work,” I say.
“And FBC,” she says.
“What do you do,” I say, “for work.”
She takes the camera from her face. “I do nothing.” She raises her eyebrows; there’s a clear look in her eyes. “I sing. I mix music. I’m making a record.”
“That sounds nice,” I say.
Maddy says, “It is. Take off your shirt.” And she changes her lens.
Max comes out.
“Matt. Let me see that King Arthur Bible again.”
“King Arthur Bible?”
“The one with the dragon.”
I laugh. “Maddy. Hand me my Bible. He wants to see Daniel.”
Max says, “What’s your favorite gospel?”
I say, “The Gospel of Thomas.”
“That’s not in the Bible.”
“No, it isn’t.”
My shirt is off. Kristen comes out of the mess hall. She sits on the arm of Maddy’s chair. Maddy keeps taking pictures.
“What are you doing?” Kristen says.
Maddy says, “You know what we’re doing.”
And Kristen looks at me. She’s cute. She is. For her age.
“Is Maddy a decent counsellor for you, or..?”
Maddy, still looking through the lens, says, “Better had.”
Kristen smiles. She asks me, “Do we do swimming every day?”
Maxwell is flipping through the pages of my Bible.
“We do some kind of swimming every day. But it’s not always in the lake.”
“Oh,” she says.
Maxwell sits on the arm of my chair. I slide over so we’re both comfortable.
“If you want to swim, why don’t you come with us to the polar bear tomorrow morning? Maxwell, was it dohpe or was it dohpe?”
“Well, given the choices..” Maxwell is shying away from Kristen’s gaze.
“Come with us. Get your counsellor to take you.”
“If anybody in my cabin wants to go,” Maddy says, “then I’ll go. Kristen, it’s totally up to you. If you want to go, I’m here to take you.”
“It’s so early.”
Maddy says, “I know.”
Maxwell says, “That’s the whole point.”
And I back him up. “That is the whole point.”
Kristen gently puts her foot on Maxwell’s leg. “Want to play tetherball?”
Max gets up.
Maddy says, “I’ve got winner.”
Kristen wails, “Oh really?”
And I say, “I’ve got winner of that.”
Maddy gives me a look.
I give her the same look back. I’m gonna kick her ass.
“Is this—are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I put my hand on Maddy’s.
Hers is on top of an ice pack.
The ice pack is on top of my nose.
“I’m soooo sorry. Oh my gosh.”
Maxwell and Kristen are standing at the foot of the table. My feet are sticking off the edge of the table. The mess hall is empty except the four of us.
“Do you want me to get more ice?”
“No..this is..plenty. I’m not even sure I need this—” I sit up.
Blood drips down my face onto my chin and shirt.
“Oh!!!!” Maxwell yells. “Good one!”
I’m lying back down.
Maddy says, “Why don’t you lie down for another minute.”
And Kristen adds, “Nurse Maddy will take care of you.”
Maddy’s leaning over me, wiping the blood off my face with about twelve napkins. Her breasts are in my face. I can smell her. She’s not wearing a bra.
Out of the bottom of my eye I can see Maxwell and Kristen. Young lovers. Kristen’s got her fingers tucked inside the side of Maxwell’s shorts. Those were the days.
“Will you please hold still?”
“I’m totally still. What is it about me that’s moving that you want me to stop?”
“Just—K, will you get me more napkins?”
Kristen reluctantly starts for the kitchen. Maxwell is standing there watching her go.
“Max,” I say, half-sitting-up, “give her a hand. This isn’t Boy Scout camp. This is Camp Lake. We’re here on a spiritual journey. We’re here to help our fellow man—” I’m laughing as I say it and blood is coming out of my nose but Maxwell goes, he follows Kristen into the kitchen.
Maddy’s saying, “Please. I’m serious,” through her snorts and laughs. “You gotta hold still for a second and let this dry.”
I’m still holding tissue on my nose when Blake lectures me.
“You gotta do something about this. She’s totally out of control.”
“Blake. What is out of control?”
“You have to see what she’s doing with her small group,” he says.
“Her small group is her small group,” I say.
Blake shakes his head. “She seems to listen to you. You two seem close.”
“What exactly do you want her to change?”
“That whole thing with the cow, and God. She called God small.”
“Are you sure that’s what she said?”
“She’s out of control.”
“Be precise. You have a theological difference—”
“No. I saw her group yesterday. That’s not theology.”
“You went to her group. Listen to yourself. You’re spying on her group.”
“What she’s doing there isn’t good theology.”
“Well if Maddy’s doing it I can guarantee you it’s good..and that it’s -ology of some sort. The two of you have a difference in thinking—”
“This is beyond a difference in thinking. She’s undermining my leadership with respect to the curriculum that we all helped to develop.”
“And which we’re using. How is your small group going?”
“Are you gonna back me up on this, or..?”
“I’m backing you up, but..what do you want me to do?”
“Talk with her.”
“You talk with her.”
“I am. It isn’t working. This isn’t working.”
“Blake. I know you’re having a problem with her, but all I see here is a difference in your approach—not even that—it’s just a difference in the use of language. That’s not a show-stopper. That’s just..discussion.”
“You don’t think it’s a show-stopper.”
“You don’t think that..that..is a dangerous situation with campers here.”
“No, I do not.”
Blake walks past me. “Then you’re part of the problem.” And he goes inside.
I open the door with my free hand and step inside the meeting hall.
Maddy says, “Do you ever notice how you stop making sense when you start talking about religion?”
Blake says, “I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about spirituality.”
“You’re rational about everything else, and then, when we get to this, you stop making sense.” Maddy speaks to me: “Can you fault someone for trying..but failing..because they don’t have the skills? I think you can.”
Julie Jane, Oscar, Brian, Marcy, Piglet, they’re all watching this argument now.
I ask Blake, “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“What did you say?”
“‘I’m part of the problem?’ What the fuck.”
“Do you mind not cussing—”
“Yes I do mind. What the fuck did you mean by that, Blake?”
“If you want to step outside—”
“I’m not stepping outside with you. And don’t leave. Why don’t you face the consequences of what you just said.”
“Guys,” Julie says, “Matt. Calm down.”
“Yes,” Marcy says, “please.”
“Blake, you hide behind this facade of ‘calmness’..you pretend that as long as you don’t get excited about anything that whatever you do is okay. But you saying ‘I’m part of the problem?!’ just now..what—and I’m being very calm here—but what the fuck is your problem telling me I’m part of the problem. There’s no problem here except that you can’t discuss ideas with adults—”
“Ideas that could damage a camper.”
“No. Bullshit. ‘I worship the devil’ is an idea that might damage a camper. This is name-of-God stuff. No camper is going to be damaged because we call God Yahweh or Jesus or Tree—”
“Do you call God ‘Tree’?”
“I don’t personally but the point is—”
“Uh. Tree is different than Yahweh or Jesus.”
“Is it different enough that you need to make an issue out of it?”
“Clearly,” Blake says.
I say, “Clearly. How ‘bout a camper being damaged because they use a name for God and you tell them it’s wrong? ‘Cause if I see you do that shit—”
“No. What? What are you gonna do?”
“Blake. And I say this with all respect. And I say it with acknowledgement that your dad owns this camp. But I wouldn’t recommend you finding out—”
“Okay. Guys. Please now—”
“What?” Blake says. “We’re fine. Right Matt?”
“When you refer to me you need to call me Matthew.”
“And why is that?”
Marcy pleads, “You guys want to take a break?”
I look right past her.
“Because I fucking said so, Blake, that’s why.”
They were wearing wreathes of flowers. They had woven together ivy and wild blue flowers. There was moss in their hair. As I sat, Arianne put a wreath on my head.
“You look like a divine master.”
“Yes,” Maddy says. “That’s how I see him too.”
We’re passing flower petals. In the circle. It’s like this game we’re playing, this lackadaisical game meant for touch and with no rules or score and hardly any pace. We pass flowers to each other’s palms, in both directions, setting petals gently on the palm of the person next to you, and pressing the petal in a little with your finger. You might have three petals on one hand, or one, and the person next to you picks up the petals and places them on the hand of the person on their other side. You do the same. There is no order, or hurry, or reason. We move petals.
“Yes, you’re a divine master. I see that now.”
“And what are you?”
“What do you think I am?”
“Yes. This is—tell him.”
“I am The Transformation.”
“I’m the Spinning One.”
“We call her that because she spins.”
“You can call me Graceful Grace.”
I laugh. “I like that. Graceful Grace.”
“And you are Divine Master God.”
“I’m not God,” I say.
“You are here. Here you are Divine Master.” Maddy places a petal on my hand. This is how we spent the afternoon.
Nixon picks a white flower. He will give it away. He will find someone in the circle, give the person the flower. And there will be bliss. This is what Maddy decided.
I’m looking at Jennifer’s hair and it reminds me of my hair when I was young. It’s ribbons, the way she has it ironed. A thousand flat ribbons with shiny spray and dark caves and little holes of light here and there.
The necklace falls apart when they put it on Morgan, so they make it into a crown.
And that’s it. This is what Blake wanted me to see. Maddy doing birth-memory exercises where you hold each other as if in the womb, as if you were Mary and Jesus, mother and child, seeing themselves in those roles, boys and girls in each. They have spirit names they only call each other in this group, and in this group they don’t use their worldly names. Maddy says it’s a reminder. A reminder that, here, we’re connecting as spirit, as light. That here we don’t see each other the way the world sees us, or even the way the rest of Camp Lake sees us.
Maddy decided her group would be pure bliss. And this is exactly what happened.
“You are a piece of God. So it is okay for me to call you God.”
“Maybe around Blake you could just use smaller words.”
“I think,” Maddy says, “that God isn’t small. So why do I need to use small words to describe him? Would it be offensive to the cow to call the cow’s leg ‘Cow?’ Would that be blasphemous?”
“Yeah well, I get it, I’ll tell Blake to give you a break.”
“Tell him to stay the fuck out of my group.”
“I already told him.”
“These bitches are unable to have discussions without making it personal. They think I’m taking it personally? I’m the only one who isn’t taking it personally. I’m discussing an issue. He’s getting his feelings hurt during a dispassionate interchange. Who’s taking things personally? We’re just talking.”
“Well you know, he’s more conservative now—”
“He’s a simpleton. Call it by its name.”
Maddy in the lights under.
When I was twelve I went to this rave at the edge of a cornfield.
Maddy spinning. She’s on a dancefloor. She’s making her own world.
I don’t have to be here, at this camp. I can be anywhere. I’m exactly where I want to be. I can be in the middle of the woods, in the middle of Buttfuck, Pennsylvania and still I’m exactly where I want to be. I can be looking straight in your face and you not even be there. I can be carrying on a conversation with you, motherfucker, and you not even be there. We could be making love. We could be driving, with me at the wheel, and I not even be here.
With me it’s lime and gin, with me it’s grime under my fingernails, grime in my hair.
I’ll throw my snakes at you. You’ll be running up the hill.
Snakes upon snakes upon snakes upon snakes, gin and swill. I’ll be there behind you. I’ll carry your train.
Dancing children are silly. I can show them some moves.
Maxwell goes into the meeting hall. It’s packed. How you’re supposed to dress up for a dance at camp, Maxwell doesn’t know. But he’s chosen his nicest shorts: some khaki ones with buttons on the pockets. And he’s wearing a blue-and-white striped polo shirt. The colors look horrible, but the shirt has a collar.
Piglet recognizes him. “Max, nice shirt.”
Max is taller than Piglet, even though Piglet is a counsellor. Max wonders why they call her Piglet. “Is it really okay?”
Piglet fusses with Max’s collar. “Here—yeah. Are you kidding? It’s great.”
“I didn’t know to bring formal things. It wasn’t on the list.”
“You’re fine. Have fun.”
And Max goes further in. David is there. He’s dancing with a girl. Maxwell doesn’t know her name. Katherine is standing on the side, but she’s wearing a dress. She had known to bring formal things. Maxwell wanted to talk with Katherine but he didn’t want to give her—or Kristen—the wrong idea. Katherine wasn’t who he was looking for.
They’ve put a disco ball in here, or maybe it’s been here the whole time and Maxwell hadn’t noticed. But the meeting hall is a fine dance hall if you turn out the lights and play music and stuff a bunch of people in it. The counsellors are here, but out of sight. They’re on the edges. Except—there’s Julie Jane, dancing with Brian.
And there’s Maddy. Maddy is dancing by herself. Her hair is down. Maxwell likes Maddy. Her hair looks like vines.
Toss my hair at you, little boy. Catch it. Catch me. Let me throw myself in your grip, see if you snap. Come up on me little boy. Come up on, this way. See if we can do an ostrich fight, like in the pool. See if your twig legs can hold me.
Maddy’s wearing a one-piece swimsuit with jean shorts over her bottom. Her feet are bare. There is dirt on her toes. Maxwell likes that. There’s something..natural about her.
Stick-thin scarecrow, dusty hair flats, tuck that shirt in Opie. Put you in handcuffs, lead you off the dance floor.
Maddy has her eyes closed, her hands above her head. You have to be cool if you can dance by yourself in a room full of couples. But Maddy is a counsellor, and counsellors are like that. What kind of person becomes a camp counsellor? It’s someone like Maddy, who talks philosophy and takes pictures, or someone like Matthew, who has a backpack full of decks of cards and ropes and army rations, who can live out of his backpack for days. It’s people who start fires in rain, who sleep in the woods alone, who read arcane books and really know the Bible. Maxwell wants to be one. Is he that type?
Clean this place up, by the end it’s just me and the people who are actually capable of going ape-shit once in their motherfucking lives. Fuck you people. Get your backs into it. Stop being so squeamish, I’m not going to hurt you. Hold your arm out. We’re just going to have a little fun, that’s all.
Fun like you’ve never had.
Take you up in me, tie you up, untie you, cut you in half, recalibrate you, make a carbon copy, throw you away. That’s how we play this game.
Kristen isn’t in the meeting hall. There’s Edwards, standing with Pierce, both holding paper cups. There’s Manny; he’s actually dancing, with his greasy ponytail and glasses. Maybe when they’re young, camp counsellors are like Manny and Katherine, and when they grow up they turn into Matthew and Maddy types. What happens in the middle would be some kind of fermentation or distillation or freezing or some process that does—Maxwell doesn’t know what. Kristen’s friends are here..Liz and Mai dancing together. That girl Erica’s dancing with Nixon, which is a strange sight: Nixon, short and portly, with Erica, who could be beautiful but acts like a biker chick (like she’s always about to beat you up). Maxwell isn’t into aggressive girls. Spunk, yes; aggressive, no. Nixon seems perfectly oblivious.
“This is pretty dohpe,” Edwards shouts.
“Yeah,” Maxwell says. “Dohpe.”
“We’re about to get us some of that Elizabeth—”
But Maxwell steps out the back.
There’s Kristen. She and three others, sitting on overturned paint buckets. It’s Marcus and Jamison, and this girl Karen. Each of them has a paint bucket. Maxwell leans against the meeting hall. Jamison has something behind his back. When he sees it’s Maxwell, and when the meeting hall door closes, Jamison brings the cigarette around and hands it to Kristen. Kristen takes a pull and holds it out to Maxwell.
Maxwell, even now, isn’t one for peer pressure. He doesn’t extend his hand. Kristen hands the cigarette to Marcus. Marcus takes it, pushes back his stringy forelocks with both hands, and smokes with the thing between his teeth.
Karen is staring at Maxwell. She has bags under her eyes.
“I’m going for a walk,” Maxwell says.
Kristen gets up. “I’m coming with you.”
“I don’t smoke,” she says.
“That’s okay. I don’t smoke either.”
“I was just smoking with them. It was just..dumb.”
“I don’t care about that,” Maxwell says.
Kristen stops walking. “You wanna go to the lake?”
“I mean. You wanna go to the lake..with me?”
“Yes. Yes. I do.”
Kristen wants to change her clothes. She wants to brush her teeth.
“Can we swing by my cabin first?” she asks.
“I can’t go in there.”
“I don’t think anyone’s over there.”
“We’d have to pass The Turn in the Road.”
“Well. If someone sees us, then you wait for me at The Turn in the Road.”
When they get to The Turn in The Road they both stand under the lamplight for a moment. They both look around. If someone was going to see them they would have seen them by now. Kristen takes Maxwell’s hand and they leave the pool of light.
It’s quiet in the girls area. At Rainbow cabin Maxwell stands at the bottom of the steps while Kristen goes up. She opens the door.
“Come in,” she says.
Maxwell knows he could get kicked out of camp for this but he goes in anyway. He isn’t even supposed to be in the girls’ cabin area.
Inside, Kristen switches on her flashlight and extends the handle. It’s a yellow one that can be a flashlight or a lamp. She sets it on the floor and that lets them see their own feet, and Kristen’s suitcase.
Kristen sets out a travel-size bottle of Scope. Then she fumbles through her things and finds a sweatshirt. She puts the sweatshirt on and puts the Scope in her kanga pocket. She looks at Maxwell and says, “Let’s go,” but Maxwell isn’t looking at Kristen.
The light from Kristen’s flashlight shows Maddy’s suitcase too. Maxwell is looking at Ziploc bags of mushrooms, labeled on the sides in permanent marker. The name is Latin. Maxwell lifts one of the bags and sets it on the floor.
Kristen says, “What are you doing?”
Maxwell says, “What is this stuff?”
Kristen says, “It’s my counsellor’s. She was showing us how to write letters on birch bark. Wanna see?” Kristen grabs the flashlight and shines it at Maddy’s mattress. “She’s flattening it under here. Help me lift it, I’ll show you.”
The children lift Maddy’s mattress and what they see there is not only birch bark. There’s a flat Tupperware container. Inside is cotton, bloody layers of Saran wrap, and syringes.
“Blake. Hey. Blake. Yo. Blake.”
Blake takes off AIWA headphones. “Hmm?”
“Get your gear. We gotta run an errand.”
Blake is shaking his head. “I hope this isn’t what I think it is.”
“I told her not to be messing around with that guy.”
“I’ll tell you on the way.”
Pastor Steve and Pete Harold are watching football in the living room portion of the suite. “Where you guys headed?”
“Just gonna take a walk.”
“We’re doing group activities in half an hour.”
“We’ll be back.”
“There’s not really time. We need everybody to be a part of it.”
“We need you guys. What’s in the bag?”
“What time are we starting?”
“Eight o’clock. Then we’re doing games, we’re gonna watch a movie..”
“Okay, we’ll see you at eight.”
“Can’t you take your walk later? Guys, this isn’t really cool.” That was Peter. I’m not really into giving Peter leeway right now since he’s been fondling one of the youth that he’s supposed to be taking care of. That, if anything, is what’s not cool.
I scratch the side of my face and stare Peter down, best I can. “Who’s winning?”
“Who is that, the Blue Jays?”
“That’s the Dolphins. Blue Jays is baseball.”
“Why do they have a bird on their helmet?”
“That’s not a bird. That’s a dolphin.”
“Hm. Looks like a bird. We’ll be back at eight.”
“Be back before eight.”
I give Peter a look. I’m gonna deal with you later.
Blake and I step outside room 336.
I’m pointing at the door. “That guy is starting to piss me off. That guy. That guy is on thin ice. Have you seen him all over Sarah? He’s all over her!”
Blake puts his hands on my shoulders. “You need to center yourself.”
I exhale. “I’m centered.”
“Now,” I say, “you gotta come help me with this thing.”
Me and Blake are on the concrete ramp headed up to the boardwalk. It’s dusk.
“So where we headed?”
I glare at Blake.
“Nevermind. Forget I asked. Is this for Beth? Don’t answer that. Look,” Blake says, “whatever you need, I’m here.”
“I’m not trying to disrespect you,” I say. “It’s just, basically this is a black box mission—”
“You mean black ops—”
“Whatever. Yeah. Black ops. I mean, this is like Apocalypse Now. This mission does not exist—”
“Nor did it ever exist—”
“Right. Fuck. Blake. This is really fucked up.”
“Whatever you say doesn’t go any farther than this.” Blake marks a space with his hands.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll tell you. Beth lost her phone. And we’re going to find it.”
I won’t say I never think of Beth sexually. Of course I do; I’m a guy. After she told me about the first time she had sex I always have a mental picture of her bedroom when it happened. I wish I had been there. The posters on her walls. The color of the light coming through her curtains. And some guy got to be the first guy to fuck that girl. Of course I think of it like that.
I don’t know what it’s like for women, but for guys, testosterone is like doing a line of cocaine except that the desire to do that second line stays around, as mind-warping as any addict’s craving, until well past thirty. Addiction warps a person’s mind. It’s wise to consider love the same way. There’s no such thing as an addictive personality. There are only people who have used drugs, and people who haven’t. With love it’s the same way.
So is Beth not an object to me, somehow? Does she escape consideration in that light? Just because she died, is she off-limits in that way? I’m not going to lie to you, because what’s the point. It’s not that she’s off-limits in terms of sex, it’s that my thoughts of sex are colored by the fact she died. Neither aspect goes away. They both get mixed together. It’s not that blue is off-limits, or red is off-limits..it’s that, in my palette, there is no such thing as pure blue and no such thing as pure red. There never can be and there never will be. That palette has been altered, and its colors will always be more nuanced than those with simple names.
Probably, even in children, there’s no such thing as simple colors. Everyone’s box is a tad varied. People we consider insane are missing one color altogether.
Blake and I go past the t-shirt shops, we watch the swell of the sun turn to deep blue. Fun Fair, down the way. The Ferris wheel, the rollercoaster, their lights now the brightest in the sky. Townies are out, travelling in packs. Fourteen-year-olds in cut jeans. Deep-tanned bellies, deep-tanned legs.
“Ooo-eeee!” Blake says, turning to get the reverse view.
I’m not looking.
“So where did she leave her phone?”
“This way,” I say, and we turn off the boardwalk.
Sometimes I wake up thinking of Beth’s body.
It’s not something I want to think about. It costs me. To think about her in any way is costly, but to think about her body is even more so. Because I saw her dead body. So to think of her body in any way is to think of her dead body. To think of her in that bathtub. And someone’s body, by itself, is not a wonderful thing. Someone’s body, without them in it, is a horror. If I look at myself in the mirror long enough, or in the wrong way, I can see my body like that. Can start to see the eyes as empty, as machines. Can start to see the arms and legs as hangers of ligament, sticks.
The body, by itself, is not a beautiful thing. By itself, it isn’t anything at all.
So when I think of Beth’s body I have a mixture of feelings. I can think of her as a girl, but not for long. Because it isn’t right. Because she’s my dead friend. But I do remember her as a girl, and as she liked to get undressed in front of me, and as we grew up together from the time we were children, I cannot help but think of her that way too..as a person with a body, as a female, as a girl with long hair and brown eyes and soft skin and one dimple on her left side and as a girl with all the other parts that girls have. She liked to show off. She had a nice body. She wasn’t pretty—she wasn’t ugly, but—primarily she was hot.
She was. But I can never, ever think of her that way without getting upset.
Back alleys. Cookie-cutter condos. Xenon streetlights.
Me and Blake are in a parking lot.
“See that door?”
The door we’re looking at has a huge foam cutout of a middle finger on it. You know those huge hand gloves for football games? Like that, but a middle finger. And it’s five feet tall.
Blake gives me the middle finger and raises one eyebrow.
“Yeah,” I say, “That’s where Beth’s phone is.”
Blake drops his finger. “Tell me that’s not who I think it is.”
Beth told me about the first time she had sex.
It’s late. We’re at church. Everyone else has gone home, or gone to lunch, but our parents are still talking. The janitor has turned out the lights. He’s hiding, waiting for us to leave. Beth’s parents are in the sanctuary. My parents are there with them. Maddy is outside. Suzette is lying on a pew. Beth and I are alone in the MLK Commons. There’s alcoves in there. We’re in one of them.
She tells me that it was with this guy B. Hall she was dating. They don’t date anymore. That’s what people call him. His name is Brian, but people call him B. Hall. His license plate is customized. It says “B HALL.” They dated for three months. He was at her house one day and her parents weren’t home. They had sex in her bedroom. Beth says she wishes she’d waited.
She says it wasn’t all that great. She’s the second girl who’s told me that. Girl’s who’d had sex—at least the two I knew then—didn’t seem to be anxious to do it again. Both Beth and this girl Jenny were like, “There’s no need to rush into it, I wish I had waited,” etc. Maybe that’s just the advice they give me. Sarah and Hannigan..I don’t know if they’d done it or not.
Beth broke up with B. Hall. They didn’t date anymore. They didn’t see each other. Beth wasn’t in a relationship when she told me. That had been a year—since that last summer. She seemed happy. She talked about guys but she didn’t go crazy about them. She let Blake hang on her but she never did anything with him. She keeps a distance.
With me, she keeps it too. The two of us act like brother and sister.
“Tell me that’s not who I think it is.”
“It’s exactly who you think it is.”
“Our Beth,” Blake says, “truly knows how to pick a classy motherfucker.”
“I’m going up there,” I say. “Would you just watch out and see if anybody comes by while I’m up there?”
“Oh no.” Blake is going for the stairs.
I snag him by the sleeve of his jacket. “Hold up. Blake. I’m serious. Just wait here and look out. I need to know if anyone’s watching.”
“Would you just do it?”
Blake straightens his jacket. He motions toward the stairs with a flick of his head.
“Thanks,” I say, and I go.
Three minutes later I’m back downstairs. “Did anyone come by?”
Blake shakes his head. “Did you get it?”
I show him the phone.
“Is that the mission?”
“Is it over?” he asks.
I shake my head, looking at the ground. “I certainly hope so.”
Blake and I approach the Rite Aid.
“I want a cigarette,” I say.
Blake looks at me weird. “You don’t even like to smoke.”
“I just feel like it, I don’t know why. Do you have cash?”
“Yeah,” Blake says. He holds the door open for me.
We’re at the counter. I’m scanning rows and rows of cigarettes.
“Well?” the lady says.
“Parliament Menthol Lights. Is that okay?”
Blake says, “I’m not smoking `em.”
The lady puts the box on the counter.
“And a lighter.”
“That’s okay,” Blake says, “I’ve got one.” He pats his vest pocket.
Outside I’m fumbling with the cellophane.
“Gimme that.” Blake does it for me. His lighter is a Bic with a Confederate flag on it. (Blake is black.)
I drag the cigarette and cough, once. “That’s fucked up,” I say.
“What? The fact that you’re gonna get cancer?”
“No,” I nod at his lighter. “That.”
I’m on my fourth cigarette. “Where’d you get that lighter?”
“Why do you have it?”
“Blake. Promise me you will not go back to Sean’s house.”
He’s flipping the lid of his lighter open and shut. “Did she fuck him?”
“More like he fucked her.”
“I told her not to get involved with that guy.”
“Yeah, well, that goes both ways.”
Blake says, “Why don’t girls listen?”
I say, “‘Cause they’re stupid.” And I realize I’m not completely joking. “They are, they really are.”
“Duh! I’m gonna kill her when we get back—”
“Don’t. Give her some space. She doesn’t need a lecture now.”
“Did she tell you what happened between them?”
“She went over his house. He got a little rough with her—”
“He got rough with her?”
Blake stands up. “Get up.”
“We’re going back. How exactly did he get rough with her?”
“Just..sit down..come on..”
“What did he do. Tell me what he did. Did she tell you?”
“He hit her.”
“Matt. Get your ass up. We’re going back.”
“Well,” I say, “I don’t think we need to do that.”
“Because,” I flick my Parliament. “She hit him back.”
Peter gets me as soon as I’m back inside our room at the Westin. “Matt, I need to talk to you.”
“It needs to be now.”
“Go for it.”
“I need to talk to you privately.”
Pastor Steve is right there. Brian is there. Suzette is on the balcony with Maddy, but I’m pretty sure the two of them can hear us. Is he really going to do this? I’m staring at this motherfucker. This guy who six hours earlier had his hand up the side of Sarah’s shorts, had his hands all over her back, her belly. This guy is supposed to be an adult leader on a youth retreat. What the fuck.
“Can you come outside and talk with me in the hallway?”
Pastor Steve looks at us both. “Do you want me to come outside with you?”
“No. Peter, just say what you have to say.”
“Yeah,” Blake says, “I’m interested to hear this.”
“I’m not stepping outside with you. I’m not gonna have a private conversation with you. You wanna make that into an issue, go ahead. I’ll go there with you, and you know I will. Say what you have to say. What is it?”
“I’ll talk with you later.”
“Talk with me now.”
“Matt,” Pastor Steve says, “calm down. What’s going on, Peter?”
Blake cocks his head sideways at Peter. “Yeah. What’s up?”
“I just wanted to talk with him about them going off when we’re trying to do vespers, but I can talk with about it later.”
“No,” I say, “Talk with me about it now.”
The door to our room opens. Beth and Hannigan and Sarah come in. We’re all quiet, and they sit down, lean on various surfaces.
Beth looks at me, looks at Blake. Then tries to play it cool. “So. We doing vespers?”
Pastor Steve stands up. “It’s not really vespers.” He smiles. “It’s some group activities.”
The door opens and Cheryl comes in with her guitar case. “Hello everybody. We ready to do this?”
Maddy and Suzette come in from the balcony.
Cheryl sits on the couch and takes out her guitar. “I thought first we might start with a song.” Cheryl sings in an Australian accent. She does everything in an Australian accent; she’s Australian.
I’m awake. Lying in bed. All my clothes on.
I’m holding a piece of birch bark from Maddy. It’s almost paper thin. The writing is deep brown, almost red. It’s Maddy’s lettering, ultra-precise. It says, “The truth will set you free.”
My campers are in the cabin. I’m waiting for Blake’s signal.
“Matt.” It’s Blake’s voice. “Matt.”
“There’s a water leak. I need your help.”
“Holy crike. Where is it.”
“Alright,” I say, and I get out of bed. I shine my flashlight around the cabin. Everyone’s here. “I’ll be back here in less than an hour. Everybody be here when I get back.”
Blake and I go toward Screwdriver cabin. He goes inside and I hang back. Then I go up to his cabin and say, “Blake. Blake.”
“There’s a water leak. I need your help.”
“Jimminy monk. Where is it.”
Blake says, “I’m coming back here in thirty minutes and everybody better be asleep.”
Then Blake and I head over to Lamborghini and Deerfoot cabins to collect Blake’s brother and the Junkyard Dog. We’re on the trail, far away from the cabins, before anyone speaks.
“Why did you say thirty minutes?”
“What difference does it make?”
“You’ve gotta say something like an hour or else they’ll realize too soon you’re lying.”
“You said half an hour?” Oscar asks.
Blake says, “What difference does it make?”
And Oscar says, “He’s right dude. If you say too short then they’ll realize you’re lying.”
“So I’ll say two hours next time, who cares.”
“No dude. If you say two hours, they’ll think they can sneak out and get back before you do. You have to say an hour.”
“What did you say?”
Brian says, “Forty minutes.”
“Forty minutes? That sounds so technical! Why would you say forty minutes?”
“What the hell do you say?” he asks me.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I just make it sound natural.”
Lights coming from the mess hall. Table lamps and candles, not the main light. Marcy’s laughter.
“You guys are being way too loud,” I say as I go in. “I can hear you practically at the Turn in the Road.”
“No you can’t.”
“Sit down fool. I made you a cocktail.”
“What is it.”
“It’s bug juice motherfucker. Drink or I’ll sincenerate you.”
“Your ass is already sincenerated.”
Julie Jane puts her arms around Oscar. “Hey Dog.”
“So how’s your camp week going?”
“The best is Nixon.”
“No the best is Kristen and Maxwell—they get couple of this year for me.”
“They don’t neck. They ankle.” Julie Jane’s cracking up.
“What does that even mean?”
Blake says, “We need to watch out for that; if something happens—”
“Nothing’s gonna happen—”
“They’re completely innocent.”
Blake asks me: “You think so?”
I toss it off. “Probably.”
“Blake,” Maddy says, “I’m on it. Kristen—” Maddy makes an equals sign in the air. “Not a problem.”
Maddy nods. Her head bob is exaggerated.
“Are you okay?” I say.
Maddy says, “You don’t even know.”
Maddy gets up on the table. Julie Jane and her dance. Maddy grabs my hand. Now I’m up there with them.
I grab Maddy’s headphones. “Am I ready yet?”
“Take a listen. What do you think?”
“Gimme those back. You’re not ready yet.”
I need someone like this. This is someone who brings out the parts of me that I want to cultivate.
Now Junkyard is up here. Now Marcy. Now Piglet.
Sometime in the evening I notice Maddy isn’t drinking. Julie Jane is pouring Maddy “cocktails” in the same paper cups we’re all drinking from. But Maddy isn’t drinking her drinks. She sets her cup down, we all get confused about who’s drinking from which cup, some cups get empty and eventually someone reaching for their own, empty, cup, reaches over and takes Maddy’s.
“Maddy,” I say. “Take a walk with me.”
“I was just going to invite you to do the same,” she says. She makes hand signals with the people still at the table. “We good? Tomorrow? Scripture scripture; service service; music music; Christ. Oscar, you ready for this? Julie? Don’t fuck me on this music now.” She points at Julie. “Keep your E flats and your G flats correctumundo, kosher, straight, we cool?”
“Yeah,” Julie says.
And Maddy stumbles out of the hall. I’m at her heels.
“What’s up with you?”
“Go to my hideout,” she says.
I can hardly see her in the dark. She goes straight into the woods out back of the mess hall. No trail, no flashlight. I’m stepping over logs and vines.
“I’m glad you called me Matthew. This is more fun than I thought. I think I’m finding God as well.”
“It’s hard to believe, believe me, and I know. But. Yes.”
“How are you finding him?”
Maddy’s tongue is in my mouth. I didn’t see her stop. We’re entwined.
She tastes funny.
“What are you doing?” It’s a whisper.
She whispers back: “Kissing you?”
And I can see her eyes, faint light in them. My hands are on her pants. Then hers find me and she’s leading me by the fingers.
I don’t talk to her anymore on the way there. I don’t ask her where we’re going. I don’t ask her about her “finding God.”
I don’t care anymore.
I can feel the same urge in Maddy as I felt at Bridget Foy’s the other night..it’s the urge to leave, not care, and do whatever I want. When did I first feel this? Maybe once ten years ago in Ocean City. But I didn’t; I didn’t then. And ever since then I’ve kept that feeling in check. I get it at lunch at work sometimes. I feel like not going back.
It’s giving up, that’s what the feeling is.
And it’s great.
I felt it when Beth killed herself. I felt it then. I couldn’t do anything about it, though. Has it taken me all these years to find that urge again?
Maddy has us ducking through bushes, only our pinkies locked. We’re going over hill, descending into valley. She’s taking us a long way.
What I did next is hard to explain. Maybe it’s impossible. Any reason I give for it won’t make sense. It has something to do with feeling like there’s no way out for me in this life. It’s probably related to boredom, but..sometimes when there is no positive step forward—no real progress that can be had from the current position—and when the current position has become unbearable..sometimes at that point it becomes a rational decision just to do something.
Maddy had my arm wrapped up before I really thought about it.
She was kneeling over me.
We’re in her nest—her hideout. It’s a sleeping bag and some books—I can’t see which titles. We’re way up the first hill from camp, and a little bit over the other side. There’s no trail anywhere near here. Even the closest trail, which is further down this hill and away from camp, is nowhere near.
Maddy’s knees are on me. My arm is wrapped in a cord.
I hold the end of the cord.
“Hold it tight.”
I hold it tight.
“Are you sure about this?”
“Why not,” I say.
“I’m asking your consent,” Maddy says. “Is it okay with you if I do this to you?”
Maddy and I are very clear about these things.
Before she does it she touches my dick. She can tell I’m uncomfortable.
“Are you gay?”
“I don’t have sex.”
“Am I making you nervous?”
“I think it’s that you’re—”
Maddy’s breasts are in my face. My head is between them. I can smell her sweat.
“I think it’s that you’re smarter than me.”
“Yeah?” she asks.
“Yeah,” I say, “I think that’s it.”
Then she hits me with the needle.
Big. Heaven. Now. Oh. Glorious. One.
There are surface things and there are intimate things. The intimate things have to do with blood.
What does it mean if you’re alone in the world? What does it mean if no one’s watching?
I like blood. I like it. I make blood. I make it. I manufacture it. I collect it. I wet it. I dry it. I take it with me. I extract it. I mix it. I inject it. That’s what I do with blood.
When you’re not terrified, you need not worry that love is just around the corner.
And what I do is holy.
I feel free to make love, but am not compelled.
I have no need of speech; nothing I say will change anything.
There is nothing I can do that’s wrong. I have no need to worry whether what I do is right. Even if someone judges me for doing this, I will not judge them for judging me; I will put no stock in their perspective.
If this is love, then this is a scary kind of love.
I have never known love that didn’t need to speak. I have never known love that took its time. That didn’t need to come. I have never known love that was innocent. This love touches like the blind. It’s disregarding, it’s still. We’re not pretending.
Is part of what it means to be angelic, part of what it means to be innocent..not coarsely that one does not commit crime, but that, to one, there is no such thing as crime? I think it is, and our fear of that is what distorts our view of holy things, of spirits. A white paper cut-out with wings and a dress comes as close to representing an angel as a Happy Meal Batman. An angel—a messenger of God—when viewed by one of us, would have to be, among everything else it might be..terrifying.
We are with the trees. And we are with each other.
I see what it is like to be with the trees. It isn’t sex, exactly. But we love them. We slide with them, we roll with them, we lick them.
We are with the earth. We are smooth. We are under the sky.
I am not sure if we speak. I know we do sometimes. Other times I do not know. But even when we are not speaking, we are together. It’s like the difference between speaking and not speaking has gone away. When I look in her eyes I am not sure if we’re speaking. It’s not like telepathy. It’s like we have moved beyond the need for telepathy.
And for a while we sing with the grass. We pet the blades, and we let the blades pet us. We are making a song together, all of us, me, Maddy, and the others. They were always here. They were always with us. Only tonight have we decided to sing with them. They are always singing. Sometimes we can hear them.
Our tones are guided for us. They control themselves.
We can listen. We are the hearer and the heard.
We can touch. We can feel minute ridges, in the grass, in our fingers, on our skin.
Everyone we know is with us. No one is lost.
A moment is indelible.
And there is ease, confound it. There is ease in a way I have never known before. It isn’t fear at all. It is comfort, and lightness, and warm. It doesn’t require thought. It feels. It really feels. And instead of thought overriding feeling, it is the other way around. And I can look in your face forever, and touch your hair, and not speak, and not speak about not speaking, and have that be okay.
Before there was movement, now there is sound. The envelope of time has torn open and let us inside it. This was here this whole time. This has always been around me. I just needed a push to recognize it. I needed help to see.
Sometimes help comes to you. Maybe her name is Maddy.
This night, and what we’re doing now, is why I came to Camp Lake.
And what would Maddy and I do if we were the final people on Earth? Might we do something just like this?
The sky gets light. Maddy and I are still looking each other in the eye.
“I gotta do polar bear,” I say.
She says, “Me too.”
“Sleep,” I say, “None of your campers are doing it.”
Maddy frowns at me. “I gotta check anyway.”
Halfway down the hill to camp I pull Maddy close. I brush my thumb across her cheek. “See you.” And I go off my own way.
Maddy keeps on down the hill. From there, she’ll come out between the mess hall and the meeting hall. She’ll walk through empty grass. She’ll cross the volleyball court and be at the girls cabins.
I’ll stay in the woods and go the long way ‘round. I’ll see farmers’ land, the reservoir, the old ropes course, and I’ll go through a dense set of bushes and swampy land before I’m home.
When I say “Polar bear!!” I won’t even check the time. I’ll be right. It’ll be six o’clock. Maxwell will have been sleeping. He will be the only camper to come out. He’ll be in his flip flops and suit.
Maxwell and I will walk the path along the ravine to The Turn in the Road. I will be barefoot. The clay will soothe. It will be cool. It will give a little. It will be the perfect pair of shoes. Maxwell will chatter about scripture, or what we did in group yesterday. Maxwell’s a little academic.
When we get to The Turn in the Road Maddy will be there. Kristen will be with her. Today it will only be the four of us for Polar Bear. Everyone else will be too tired from the dance. It will be the two who always come and the two who never come to Polar Bear. Maddy will be barefoot as well. Kristen will have her towel.
Four of us will take the path to the lake.
When we come to the lake, the lake will be still.
Two ducks will coast silently at the far end.
There will be mist above the water.
At the end of end of the dock there will be a men’s sweatshirt, XXL, crumpled, turned inside-out, one arm of the sweatshirt dipped in the lake. And next to the sweatshirt, set neatly beside it, with the cap still on, there will be one travel-size bottle of mint Scope.
When we do Polar Bear we will jump in from the dock as usual, but we will not shout Polar Bear as we do it. We will just jump in. And Maddy will swim to the middle and then sit on the dock. And I will dive to the bottom and sink my hands into the soft mud. And Kristen and Maxwell will tread water, with thirty feet between them, and pretend they never met.
I will fold the sweatshirt and set it neatly on top of the pole at the end of the dock.
Kristen will ignore the sweatshirt when we leave.
Kristen and Maxwell will walk up the path ahead of me and Maddy.
I will give Maddy the sweatshirt.
Maddy will say, “What’s this?”
“It belongs to one of your campers.”
“How did you get it?”
I stole it.
And Maddy will say, “You perv.”
Goodnight kisses at The Turn in the Road aren’t just for campers. After a dance, when the area’s mingled with the whole camp, all cabins, all counsellors, when everyone is going home, on the last night or the next to the last night of camp, counsellors have been known to catch each other in a kiss or a hidden feel.
When parents bring their children to us, the brave parents come as far into camp as The Turn in the Road. We don’t let parents take their children all the way to their cabins. But some parents break the rules and force themselves past The Turn in The Road because they just can’t make it through the week without being able to visualize (and possibly complain about) their little one’s sleeping arrangements.
The kids whose parents take them all the way to the cabins are the kids who turn out to be most problematic as the week develops. These are the summer camp equivalent of the crazy college kids who in their first semester sleep with 20 people and end up with their heart stopped in the back of an ambulance from alcohol poisoning. These are the kids whose parents are ultra conservative, or ultra clingy. These are the kids who have never been on a youth retreat without their mom because their mom always insisted on going. The ones whose parents give them space adjust to adulthood’s lack of supervision gradually, and at college when their entire dorm is doing shots of Bacardi 151, these kids are sitting at Wendy’s reading Benjamin Barber.
That’s one segment you have to look out for, that you can spot right away: the kids whose parents are breathing down their necks. Those kids will end up terrorizing the other kids: they will either be a bad-apple type or a super-popular type, but either way they’re going to be the one person out of a group of five who is arranging everyone else’s trouble.
The super super shy kids are ones to watch out for too. Of course it’s those kids who you will end up talking with one-on-one because you find them crying before or after the dance. But that’s handle-able. Sometimes the super-shy kids turn out to be the imploding/exploding type, the type that does dangerous pranks and breaks things out of misdirected anger. Those shy ones need to be detected early. Parents of imploder/exploder children are in complete denial. Not just about their kid. About everything. I’ve never seen an exception to that rule.
Of course there are the sassy girls and the braggart boys, and even though they’re annoying to their cohorts, the prom-queen-team-captain ring-leader types don’t come with any special instructions for care. If they’re benevolent, they’re a benefit. If they’re malevolent, within the context of a week of summer camp, they self-destruct by day two without any ill effects on anyone.
After that, it’s the kids you love to get. The smart ones, the caring ones, the ones who love nature, the ones with amazing talents, the ones who get into the religion part of it, who love to pray, who help with the services and will read in front of the other campers. Those are the great ones, and they’re all great in some way. If a kid isn’t having fun at camp, if their light isn’t shining through, that’s on me. It’s our job to see through to the wonderful part of each of them, to facilitate their enjoyment of the week and of themselves, and—perhaps—to help the other parts of them grow.
Maddy was at The Turn in the Road. And Tislam was there. And Maxwell was there. And Blake was there. And Edwards was there. And Pierce, and Piglet, and Liz, and Mai, and Katherine, and Jennifer, and Erica. Karen was there, Marcus, and Jamison. Marcy and Oscar were talking, Piglet by their sides. Brian was gathering his campers: Jake, Darren. Julie Jane was right in front of me, and she was saying something, and I caught her excitement but not her words. The halo of everyone standing in the streetlight of The Turn in the Road is what had my attention.
Nixon ran to Erica, and he touched her on her back. Erica took two steps and clocked Nixon in the back of the head, to which he smiled.
I had never quite come down from my night with Maddy. In fact, I haven’t been to sleep. Today the sound has been turned up, and turned down, and I have noticed the various blues. Blue of the pool, blue of the sky, blue of the cafeteria table. It hasn’t changed my concentration, only how my concentration feels to me. It seems easier, I feel easier, to be myself.
And I don’t want to do it again. They say those things addict you on the first try but it just isn’t true.
Julie Jane is telling me: “..they were separate, no one was talking, and today at the pool Karen and Erica and Marcus and Jamison they formed this almost gang, they were going to anyone who wasn’t playing and they were throwing them in the pool, but it was in a nice way, everyone was playing, and—” Julie exhales, “—everything’s coming together. Don’t you feel?”
I hugged Julie Jane, and I brought our foreheads together, then I put one arm around her and squeezed her shoulder. Sound was bothering me right now. I didn’t want to talk. When I spoke next my words were almost a whisper.
“This world seems perfectly fine,” I think is what I said.
Maybe in addition to the love scripture there should be a beauty one. Beauty is not easy, beauty hurts. Beauty is not sweet; it bites. The beautiful cannot be contained; it doesn’t come in Hallmark packaging. Beauty changes you; it is that which, when you encounter it, cuts you. Beauty is the act of change. Nothing beautiful is stagnant. Something easy cannot also be beautiful. Beauty is breaking, and terror, and pain.
That night I finally did sleep. It was incredible sleep, something like the first time you stretch a muscle that hasn’t been used in a while. Something about it like my first orgasm. Something about it like a sneeze when you’re first getting sick, or an infant’s yawn.
I didn’t dream. And when I woke it was smooth, like on liquid, or a precision fade. I knew what was ahead of me (ropes course) and I was ready for it. My memory was intact. The previous day had been a tad gunky. Now the gunk was gone. It had drained away in the night. Now I was a machine, freshly oiled.
And I was a machine with the memory of an experience with Maddy. Parts of it were remembered high, and parts of the memory were of getting high. If I think of getting high, while high, what am I thinking of? If I desire to go back to someone who was never really there, what does that motivation mean?
Something about it was like a bee sting, too. A bee sting doesn’t actually hurt for that long. Mostly you have the swelling, and your thoughts about it afterward. Mostly it’s everything that happens after some tiny moment of confusion, some instant where your nervous system doesn’t know what to think.
Oblivion is something Maddy knew about. She had arrived at, and invented, a million ways to find it. It was something you could carry with you. It was something you could concoct. Beth had found it early; she had made it art. And in this case, at this art, the younger sister had learned from a master.
What Maddy knew, I would spend a lifetime searching for. Her way of living was too dangerous for me..and my fear of living that way is what prevents me from getting at the font that she’s connected to.
I think living such that you’re connected, without also destroying yourself, is an art. It’s also a contradiction. Maddy doesn’t attempt that balance, and that’s why Maddy is connected. My way is—I think—more reasonable, more balanced.
In some ways balance is a mistake.
“All condescension aside, I think you’re in a bad place and I want to help you. I don’t know if that’s why you brought Maddy up here. I know you’ve never come clean about Ocean City—”
“Neither have you—”
“What do I have to come clean for?”
“You’ve gone ballistic, one-eighty, you’re Crazy Christian now.”
“I wish I knew what you were talking about.”
“I know. I know. I wish you did too. Try taking your head out of the sand. You’ll find a whole world out here.”
“I know you don’t think I understand. And I know we’ve taken different paths.”
“I want to help you.”
“Yeah. Yeah,” I say, “Unfortunately for you, you’re not in a position to do so.”
“I could get into doing some of this kind of music back home.”
“You mean in the Wednesday service?”
“No, I mean..on the Sunday service. I want to see more music like this. I would get more out of a service with music like this. Wouldn’t you?”
“That’s the problem. Why are you going? Don’t you want to actually get something out of going?”
“Well..we have youth group.”
“Leading youth group is fine but I want a church I can go to. You know? I don’t want the real stuff to be on the sidelines. We have some life in our youth group. We have life when we come out here. Why is it only this way once a year? Aren’t we supposed to be inspiring people? I feel inspired out here. I want it to be this way all the time. We could do this.”
“You mean put some of our music in the service.”
“I mean have our own service.”
“Who’s gonna come?”
“You’re looking at it. Us. Would you come?”
“Well..yeah. But if everyone in the youth group comes, and we get a couple of the younger blue-hairs, that’s what..twenty people?”
“So you’ve got four of us in the front, you’ve got..I mean, how many people are really gonna come?”
“Where two or three are gathered..”
“What is that?”
“That’s Matthew 18:20, bitch! ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.”’
“I wish you wouldn’t curse about it.”
“No. Fuck that. Fuck that. I’m gonna curse. And it’s not a new service. It’s a new church.”
“I agree,” Oscar says.
“Where are we gonna meet?”
“We can meet in the parking lot. We can meet at the Rite Aid.”
“We can meet at my house.”
“You can use my house.”
“See? Problem solved. It’s not about the building.”
“So we’re splitting from FBC.”
“I’m not splitting.”
“If you’re starting a new church—”
“I’m still going to the old one. Of course. I’m not giving up FBC. But—”
“I like this idea,” Oscar says. “I think we should do it.”
Blake says “We have to check with my dad first.”
Julie Jane laughs. “We don’t have to check with your dad.”
“If we’re going to use the building.”
“We don’t have to use the building.”
“If we’re going to use the parking lot—”
“Blake. We don’t have to check with your dad. He can come if he wants. This isn’t FBC business. This isn’t Camp Lake. This is us talking about a church where we can do the music like we want it.”
“And where there’s a real mission focus,” Oscar says.
“And a peace focus,” I say.
“Yes,” Marcy says, “I like this, you guys. We better do this and not just talk about it.”
I think we do need to start that new church. I think we need to be serious about it. I think we need to love the sinner and hate the sin. I think we need to keep it simple. I think we need to use the Bible. I think we need to forget about what we think it says and actually read it. We need to read it from where we are now.
Christians have ruined Christianity, at least they have in my life, in the same way that historians have ruined the pyramids. There’s all this stuff we say about them..and then there’s these giant chunks of stone. You don’t need historians to interpret the pyramids for you. What you have to do is stand beside them. The pyramids are their own statement. So are the words of Christ. I don’t need some administrative superstructure to tell me what should be in the Bible and what shouldn’t be. I certainly don’t need them to tell me how to interpret its words.
“Let’s call it The Church of Peace.”
“And let’s make it simple. Like all we do is sing songs and help people.”
“Let’s have a single mission focus. Like let’s do tutoring only, or housing only, or food only.”
“Let’s do food.”
“Let’s just feed homeless people and sing.”
“Or maybe we have a particular neighborhood we work in. Maybe that’s our focus.”
“That could work.”
Blake comes back. “Guys. We’re starting. We need to review tonight’s worship.”
“Okay,” Marcy says, “We can do that in a minute.”
Blake says, “We need to do it now.”
Marcy shoots me a look.
Blake sees us all looking at him. “Okay,” he says, and he leaves the meeting hall.
Maddy says, “He can be a real..” She searches for the word.
“Yeah,” Marcy says, “he can be.”
“I assume that’s why Maddy’s here. And fine if you don’t want to let the rest of us in on it.”
“What is there to let you in on—”
“What happened in Ocean City—”
“What do you want to know? You were there, as I recall.”
“I’ve never been a part of your inner circle with Beth and—”
“Can we please not talk about Beth?”
“And there was never any inner circle.”
“I’m sorry but what is the point?”
“I think you’ll find once you address your demons—”
“Fuck me. You’re ridiculous Blake. It’s like when you were a little kid you discovered that what you really like to do is give advice. And then you proceeded to live your entire life in such a way that you’re the last person anyone would ever listen to advice from.”
“‘What the ancients called a clever fighter,”’ Blake says to himself. “‘is one who not only wins, but excels at winning with ease.”’
“Oh, fuck me.”
“It has come to my attention,” he says, “that you’re not following the curriculum.”
“I’ve heard that—”
“Who did you hear from?”
“I’ve heard from your small group—”
“Hold up. Hold up. Did they come to you, or did you go to them?”
“Before you answer, Blake. Just..consider that if you went to my counselees and asked them about what we’re doing in curriculum..that’s..shit central on your part.”
“As in if you did that you’re a piece of shit. Did you do that?”
“I had a talk—”
“DID YOU INITIATE THE MOTHERFUCKING TALK?”
Blake doesn’t meet my eye. He keeps his head down.
“Those kids are getting a good week at camp. I’m following the curriculum. I’m not following it to the letter and if you are, then your kids are getting cardboard, not a counsellor. Don’t talk to my counselees again. You hear me? About the curriculum. About small group. If someone has a problem they will come to you. You don’t need to go around searching for a problem. Are you looking for a problem?”
I step to Blake.
“I have legitimate concerns about the—”
“Are you looking for a problem? If you look for one, you’re gonna find one. I’m looking for: safe campers. No one gets hurt. We show them some Bible verses. Maybe in the discussion someone grows, spiritually. What are you looking for?”
Blake starts, “When I think about creating what I would consider the ideal environment—”
But I stop him. “The minute you start making sense is the minute I start listening to what you have to say.”
“It’s not just the curriculum.”
“Don’t you ever talk to my campers again.”
“I know you won’t, you fucking pussy. If you talk to them I’m calling your father. Have him put the training wheels back on your bike.”
“I hope you don’t do that.”
“I know you hope that. Because you like being Rambo commander, lone star, you can make up your own shit.”
“I’m worried about you, Matthew. How are you feeling?”
I just laugh.
“Blake. You’re going to psychoanalyze me? I think you’ve grossly misread the situation.”
“What situation is that?”
“The situation between you and me. In which: you have no idea what’s going on but you continue to speak about it anyway.”
“I came to you because I wanted—”
“Look. Are you gonna kick me out because I’m not following the curriculum? If so, keep talking. If not, go away. Just go away, Blake. I’ve had enough of the hate theology.”
“I have spoken with my father.”
“Congratu-fucking-lations. Is he kicking me out of camp? No? Then get the fuck out of my room. I’m serious, Blake. Get the fuck out.”
“I’d prefer if you didn’t speak like that around campers.”
“Are there campers here? I don’t see any campers.”
“There could be. This is—”
“There either are or there aren’t. Right? Look around you. There are no campers here.”
Blake sits down in the Chair of Shimmering Velvet.
“Don’t sit there.”
“Stand up. Get the fuck up.” I’m right on top of him. “That chair is for my group. It’s not for you. Get the fuck up.” I help Blake out of the Chair. I push him into the hallway. I pull my small group door closed.
“I’d prefer if we didn’t talk in the hallway.”
“Fuck you. That’s my group space. It has a certain energy.”
“I’m fucking up your energy?”
“Blake. Tell me what your daddy said. Did he reinstate your allowance?”
“Let’s find a place to sit. This may take a while.”
“I’m not taking a while to talk with you. I’m preparing my curriculum for tomorrow. You’re interrupting me. Just..say what you have to say..here..and then, please, you’re not benefiting the situation here. Just say what you have to say. Go. Make it quick.”
Blake exhales. He’s got this sleepy look in his eyes. “This is going to be your last year at Camp Lake.”
“Is that all?”
“No. Maddy won’t be coming back either.”
“Why are you telling me Maddy’s business?”
“I thought you would like—”
“I don’t need to know other people’s business. This is my last year at Camp Lake. Are you finished?”
“Do you have anything you’d like to say?”
“No, do you have anything else to say? If not, please leave me alone so I can get ready for tomorrow’s small group.”
Blake goes down the hallway.
“And Blake,” I say.
Blake turns around.
“You’re a real bitch. I just thought you should know that.”
Piglet comes out of her room. “What was that?”
It’s just me and Piglet in the hallway.
“That was Blake, saying that this will be my last year at Camp Lake.”
“Is this about curriculum?” Piglet asks.
“He can’t do that,” she says.
“No,” she says, “He can’t do that. You don’t have to follow the curriculum.”
“It’s his dad’s camp. He can do whatever he wants.”
“No he can’t. Did he talk to Pastor Steve?”
“He said he just got off the phone with him.”
“Well,” Piglet says, “That’s unacceptable. I’ve seen you work with your group. I’m not following the curriculum exactly.”
“It’s a selectively-enforceable rule. Classic tactic.”
“Blake is out of line.”
“No,” she says, “He’s gone too far with this. He thinks just cause he sleeps with the Bible under his pillow that everything he says is right.”
“He sleeps with his Bible?” I say. “He used to sleep with nunchucks.”
“He slept with nunchucks?”
“Yeah,” I say, “He carried them everywhere. And The Art of War.”
“What’s The Art of War?”
“It’s this Chinese book. Ancient military strategy.”
“And he used to carry that around?”
“Yeah. Always. He slept with that too.”
“Well now he sleeps with the Bible,” Piglet says.
“Actually,” I say, “it was a sword he slept with. But long before Blake was quoting Jesus, he was quoting Sun Tzu.”
“How is everyone this morning?”
Manny smiles, his eyes slitted closed. David says, “Ready for ropes.” Kristen lays in the grass, her head on Maxwell’s leg.
I’ve put us under a tree.
“We’re going to join up with everyone else in a little bit but I wanted to do our morning meditation before we go over there.”
“They’re not doing it?” Maxwell asks.
I don’t even have to answer. Katherine says, “Their loss. What scripture are we doing?” and she has her Bible out.
We have two between the five of us. I hand mine to David. “Share with Kristen and Max. Katherine, will you let Manny read with you?”
But Katherine comes to sit on my right side and Manny scoots nearer, to sit on my left.
I’m looking at the rest of camp. They’re getting harnesses ready, setting out ropes. Blake is organizing.
“What scripture?” Katherine says.
“How about Luke..10..verse 38.”
“Whoah,” David says. He has my Bible open. He lets the top of the book dip and I see the pages, for once, from about four feet away.
The pages are marked. In pen, pencil, colored marker. The book of Luke is definitely marked. There’s writing in the margins, sideways, upside-down. There’s clear tape at the edge of the pages. There’s writing on top of that. That’s my study Bible. I treat it like I would a machete. I throw it in my bag. I take it to the woods. I carry it into bars. I take it to church. If they would make Bibles with thicker pages, out of plastic, I would carry that. I carry that Bible like some people carry their phone; my shit is beat up, well-loved, and I can’t function without it. Easter Christians keep their Bibles nice. Their shit is more like a purse than a phone. I’m not even sure I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus. I have been a Christian at times. Someday I might be a Christian again. When I act like Christ, that’s when I’m a Christian. When I don’t, I’m not. I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.
“You must really like highlighters,” David says.
“Yeah,” I say, “I love ‘em.”
We read Luke and then we do a discussion. The whole rest of camp is waiting on us, but I’m not going to hurry my way through small group. They can wait.
“Where do you find God? How does God speak to you? What parts of nature or humanity does God use when speaking to you?”
Manny has got this punk look on his face. “Who? Me?”
“Nature,” Max says.
“The sea.” That was David.
“How does God speak to you?”
Kristen says, “Through the Bible.”
“When I read it. It’s His Word.”
I look at Tislam.
Tislam says, “He speaks to me through people. In their actions. It says that in the Bible. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me. That’s how he speaks to me.”
He speaks to me through people. Yeah. That’s how he speaks to me, too. He speaks to me through others’ actions. She speaks to me in beauty, with her touch, with a kind word. She speaks to me as the person who includes me when I’m left out. She speaks to me in nature, yes, I realize, but more than that, to me, God is in the people I know. He is behind their faces. He is inside their voice. In their words, I can hear God speaking, as though the voices of us all were a chorus, and my life is the act of listening to the music of that chorus one voice at a time, but the whole thing, all together, is God.
Do I see God in you? I do. Have I ever seen him any other way? I don’t know. I see God in nature. I do. Some of the most powerful..beauty, I guess..I have seen in nature. And that beauty fits that wider definition of beauty—that which is terrible. Not the nicey-nice. But that which is so beautiful it hurts, it kills, it breathes life into, it takes that life away. Nature, certainly, mountains and oceans, water and wind, whales and waves, a hawk screeching, the organization of ants..certainly that is where some of what I find most powerfully beautiful can be found. But God himself..God..where do I find you? How do you speak to me? I don’t know.
Or maybe I do.
Maybe I do.
And maybe that’s what’s bugging me.
God speaks to me through people. God is people who are nice to me. People who love me. I pray. When I pray I do not pray to people. At night, in my bed, when I talk to God, I’m not talking to a person. Who am I talking to? How does God talk back? I hear a voice in my head, I hear a voice when I talk to God. Do I hear a voice talk back?
I don’t know. I’m not sure about that.
I hear a voice that interprets what God would say back to me, or what he has said. Is that it? I hear a voice that is mine, who talks to God. But what do I hear back? I do hear something, something coming back to me in my mind, but it’s not the voice of God. That’s my understanding.
When I hear God talking back to me it’s not a voice. It’s in the world.
I see God in the world. When God answers me it’s in action. I ask for help when I pray. But how have I determined, all this time, that God has answered me? I think in every case I can think of, it has been that I have seen something done, by another person or people, that I take to be the embodiment of God’s response to me. It’s that I pray for help, and that another person helps me. I have never questioned this. I have never thought, before, that this was not the natural way for God to speak back to me when I ask for things. And I’m not saying that now. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better way for God to speak back to me. And this doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God. It doesn’t mean that. I think, though, it means I am redefining my concept of God; that I am considering, more closely than I have before, what it is that I mean, when I use that word.
“Are we gonna go do ropes?”
“We’re going. Let’s stand up. Let’s pray first.”
Everyone holds hands.
“My prayer, today, is that no one gets hurt on the ropes course. Please keep us safe, let us push our limits.” I squeeze Manny’s hand.
Manny says, “Thank you God that it’s not raining.”
David says, “I’m thinking of my sisters, at home. Please watch over them.”
Maxwell says, “Thank you for bringing me here this week and showing me what you’ve showed me. I want to learn. I am listening.”
Kristen doesn’t say a thing.
Katherine says, “Thank you for the translators of the NRSV. Fabulous text. Love the Psalms in it. Truly badass, God, that your creatures have taken the time to bring us the NRSV. I mean. Wow. And thank you for Matthew saying I don’t have to do the ropes course if I don’t want to. I don’t want to end up pissing myself in front of my new friends.”
Katherine squeezes my hand.
I say, “Amen.”
And we go to the ropes.
“Your harnesses are pre-strung.”
“Matt, we’re late, we gotta—”
“Brian, I’m not using pre-strung harnesses. In fact,” I shout, “I want everyone to take apart your harnesses and set them on the ground in front of you.”
“We already did that.”
“I’m the ropes coordinator. Okay? We’re not in a hurry. Take your O-ring off if you have one, hold all your carabiners in your hand.” I hold a harness above my head. “Put your harness on the ground like this. Don’t step into it yet. We’re gonna talk about ropes for a few minutes. Today is going to be a day when you climb that tower, yes. But first we’re gonna learn about the equipment that’s going to keep you safe while we’re doing all of this.”
Katherine on the ropes is a trip. Maxwell and Kristen stay near each other. We do ground exercises first, and then trust falls, and then we do the first wall.
“Is it gonna hold me?”
“Is it gonna hold me?”
“Katherine. Katherine. Listen to me. Feel this?” I walk back a step, tightening the rope.
“Oh my god,” she says.
“Katherine, stop climbing. Rest your arms. Put your left hand on the rope. Keep your right hand on the wall. Feel how tight that rope is?”
She does what I say.
“Now listen. I want you to put your right hand on the rope and fall off the step.”
“This is gonna show what would happen if you fell. So practice falling. When you’re ready, put your right hand on the rope and step backwards. Look at me.”
She tries to turn her head but the helmet straps are in the way.
“That’s okay. David, go stand next to her. Stand in the middle of the wall.”
David goes over.
Katherine is terrified.
“Now let yourself fall.”
“He’s got you,” David says.
“Just step backwards and hold onto the rope.”
She takes one foot off the step and leans back. She loses her balance but doesn’t go anywhere. I’m walking back with the rope. Katherine is dangling.
“See. You’re fine.”
“I didn’t fall,” she says.
And you’re not going to.
It’s a long way down.
Maxwell and Kristen are coming across the wire.
I’m up top, hanging off the wire, leaning back, nothing below me but the air.
This is the highest part of the course, higher than the telephone pole. It’s back in the woods, strung up on pines. To get to this part of the course you have to have already climbed a long way. Not everyone makes it up here. Below a certain point, if you decide to stop, your ground belayer can lower you down. And past that certain point we don’t let you go back. It clutters the course. Up here there is no belay. Not this year. Up here there is only one way to go.
It’s usually not a problem, though. If you’ve made it to the wire, you trust the course. At this point, you look down, you see the height, and you ignore it.
“How’s it going Maxwell?”
“Fine!” He bounces the wire. Me in the middle, Kristen behind Max, and Piglet on the other side of me, all go flying.
Piglet shouts, “Don’t do that!”
When Piglet leaves the wire, as Maxwell’s coming toward me, he takes his feet off the bottom wire and, his gloved hands gripped over the top wire, does pull-ups. As the wire bounces, Kristen looks down at her feet.
“Kris, who’s after you?”
“Nobody. Maddy’s coming up.”
“I think so.”
Max’s arms tire and he rests his weight on his feet. Max is beaming.
“It’s great up here, isn’t it?”
I unclip one of Max’s carabiners from the wire above and re-clip it on the other side of the ones that tether me to the wire.
Max and I do a little dance so he can go past me. Then I move his other carabiner to the other side of mine.
“What happens if that wire falls?”
I look down and smile.
Max says, “At least we’d die together,” and continues across the space.
“K, how you doin’?”
She’s sweating and her hair is in her face around the helmet. “I have to pee.”
“How long has that been going on?”
“Since we came up that first wall.”
I clip her first carabiner to the other side of mine. “Ten minutes. You’ll be at the bottom.”
“We came up with what we want to do for the talent show.”
“I shudder to think.” I clip Kristen’s second carabiner to the other side. “Tell me later. Check each other’s carabiners. Max. You check Kristen’s. K, check his.”
Kristen gives me the thumbs up and slinks piecemeal along the wire toward the zip line. When she and Max are on the platform I put my weight on my overhead ropes and run along the bottom wire over to them. I watch Max move one carabiner to the zip line, check it, then move the other one. Kristen puts her hand on Maxwell’s carabiner and jiggles it. I can see them both.
“Is that good?” Maxwell asks back.
“Oh, fuck,” I hear him say. “Is this safe?”
“Safe as it’s gonna get,” I say.
And Maxwell jumps.
In a few minutes it’s me and Maddy at the top of the wire.
“Successful day,” Maddy says.
Everyone’s at the bottom. I see people taking their harnesses off, sitting in the grass. Blake is passing out box drinks.
“Yeah, it was a good day.”
“No mishaps,” Maddy says.
And I look at her. And I realize why she’s saying this. She has come across the wire, right to its middle, without her carabiners clipped to the wire. Both guides are tossed over the top wire. Nothing is clipping her in.
“Unclip yours,” she says. “It’s liberating.”
“Have you been like that the whole way up here?”
“No,” she says, “Just for this part. It’s like skinny dipping. It makes you feel..free.”
I’m glad I didn’t bounce the wire while Maddy was crossing. She’s too far away from me to catch her guides if she falls. I want to move toward her but I’m afraid to move at all. Also, I don’t want to ask her to clip her guide in because that would involve her taking one of her hands off the top wire.
I’m looking at Maddy’s face.
And she’s coming toward me.
There’s a breeze blowing across us, and I see Maddy’s bare stomach, below the shirt, and it makes me nervous. I’m thinking of touching Maddy’s stomach. I want to. My thoughts are mixed between thoughts of putting my hand down her pants and needing to catch her when she falls.
Maddy takes a step toward me. She slides one foot, then one hand, then one foot, then the other hand.
I say, “I bet you’re not wearing underwear, either, are you?”
She shakes her head.
She looks like a child to me. Maybe she reminds me of being a child. There’s something so direct about her that it’s scary. It’s like opening a closet that was dark, in the middle of the day. She’s like a blast of air, or light on your face. Or a high note, separate from any song, that rings out on its own force.
I hear a bird. I see the sun. I feel the sweat on the back of my neck.
This is what it’s like when people die. This, like any other moment, is exactly what it’s like in the moment right before someone dies. I’m already leaned back on the top wire. Without moving anything else, I lay my head back and look at the sky.
I’m not going to pray about this. I’m not going to pray “God, please make Maddy not kill herself.” I’m not going to pray that. I don’t believe in that prayer. I think God has more of a grasp on this situation than I do. Me praying for such a simple thing would be trite, a detail, after the fact. If I knew what to pray for, if I really knew how to pray, I would be asking for understanding of why I was placed in this situation, or praying that its outcome would be a part of making me wise.
Or maybe I would be thanking God, really thanking God, for putting me here.
I’m alive right this instant. Maddy is alive right this instant. Maybe instead of complaining to my maker that life isn’t exactly what my little mind knows how to want, I should be trying to learn something. My God is bigger than me. Maybe that means that instead of praying for things to change I should be thanking God for what makes me uncomfortable..thanking God for what I do not understand..
I open my eye. Maddy has one hand on the wire. Her other hand is on her belly.
Nothing on my face is worried.
Maddy looks at me, and I look at her, and our expressions are plain.
She reaches up, from her belly, and that hand clips one carabiner to the wire.
And this was stupid, and I don’t know why I did this. But I stood straight on the wire and faced the next platform, and with one hand on the top wire, I unclipped both my carabiners and let them fall to my sides. And I walked the second half of the wire with no guides.
When we got to the platform I clipped Maddy to the zip line. And I clipped myself as well. And, with Maddy against a birch tree, and me against a pine, and the distance and the trees covering us partly from the campers, I put my hand down Maddy’s pants, and I feel her, and she’s wet, and I put my middle finger inside her. My dick is hard. And probably some of the campers can see us. But it doesn’t matter.
Blake finds me at the bottom. “So. Everything went well. No one got hurt. Good job.”
“I guess you’re gonna miss me next year. Who’s gonna do the ropes then, you?”
“I was too harsh earlier. I didn’t—”
“No. You know? Earlier was earlier. You said I’m not coming back, I’m not. I don’t have to do this every year. I might..use my vacation for an actual vacation next year.” I pat Blake on the shoulder.
“I want you to know, I think you do a good job.”
I laugh. “You already spent all your coin with me, but you just keep spending.”
“I think when we get back to Philly we just get people together and discuss curriculum week, we figure out if curriculum is a guide, or a suggestion, or what.”
“Blake. Honestly. I hope you have fun doing that.”
“You’re not going to come?”
“Am I invited now?”
“Matthew, realistically, some things need to be looked at.”
“I hope you have fun looking at them,” I say.
Blake says, “I want you to be there.”
“You’re off on next week, you’re off on last year, I’m here. What are you doing with your small group this afternoon. That’s what you should be thinking about. There’s no next week. There’s one step, then one step, then one step. Right? Right now I’m not doing curriculum for next year or discussing policy for curriculum for next year or discussing when I’m going to discuss policy for curriculum for next year. I’m putting away a climbing harness, and I’m closing up the rope shack, and—hey, Max! I need some help with these ropes!”
Blake has a buttery look in his eyes. “I just want you to know. That I’m sorry for what I said before. I shouldn’t have said it. And you’re welcome at Camp Lake anytime.”
I put my harness on one of the pegs. “It’s too late,” I say.
Max is here. “What can I do?”
“Pair up the gloves. Gloves go here. Coil this. And that, that’s on the ground? Cut off that end. Dirt gets in there, it weakens the fibers. Tie off the end. Then we’ll melt it.”
“What do I melt it with?”
“Talk to Maddy,” I say, “She’s got a lighter.”
Blake says, “We’ll meet you guys at the mess hall?”
But I don’t respond.
Blake shuffles off.
Max says, “What’s up between you and him?”
I’ll tell you what’s up between me and him. Or between Beth and Sean, for that matter. Some animals don’t play together. It’s like people keeping chimpanzees for pets. We think chimps are cute. And they’re more affectionate than human babies. But the problem with a chimp is it’ll rip your motherfucking face off. It’s confusing, too: in a way, the chimp seems like the sweet one and the person seems like the one with all the knowledge and the power. And that’s true in very limited circumstances. But outside the zoo, it pays to be a chimp.
Someone like Sean, or someone like Blake, will never understand that. Because to them all of life is a zoo. They live in a world that is halls and bars and feeding times. They’re in control when control is in control. But most of the world isn’t ruled by control. It’s ruled by something else. And when you take those, from behind the glass, who need that glass to maintain their status with the other, then you see who is the pet and who is the keeper. God and people are locked in a similar dance, and if you don’t already know this, I hate to be the one to tell you, but God is not the one who hides behind the glass.
“Blake,” I say, “is mad about something that happened about ten years ago. He thinks he got the raw end of a deal.”
“He’s got a complex,” I say. “He feels like he’s not part of the inner circle of our little friend group from when we were kids.”
“All the counsellors.”
“Some of them.”
“You and Maddy.”
“It seems like you’re pretty nice to him.”
“Try to be.”
“But his dad owns the camp.”
“Yeah. Hey—hey! That’s a medium and a small. You can tell by the colors.”
“You know the prayer before dinner?”
I stop folding harnesses.
“Can I say that tonight?”
This is my man.
Kristen comes over with Maddy’s lighter. “Maddy said to bring you this.”
“Tell Maddy to get her ass over here and help me fold ropes ‘cause she was a bad, bad girl on the course today. Gimme that. You’re done. Prayer. Tonight. You. Make it good. And kickass on making it to the top today.”
The two of them walk across the grass. About halfway to the tree they turn around and shout in unison, “Be bold!!”
You know what I said back.
Sunlight. Staring at the blue.
I’m lying by the lake. I put my cap over my eyes.
These days are shockingly blue. Mega-blue.
I’ll take a nap now. I’ll lie here for a while. From the side of my eye I’ll see the great blue sky. Not a cloud. And the shouts of campers playing lake volleyball. Julie Jane is in there with them. She’s got them for now. She’ll take them through the paces, with her and two campers on the one side, and on the other side of the floating net, as many campers as want to be there. Julie Jane will smoke them. She’s a pro. Thwack: the spike of the ball. And screams from the other side. She smoked them.
Tiny hairs on my arm stand upright. The wind blows between them.
Kristen is beside me. Maxwell is with her. “We’re going up the path. Okay?”
“No. Why are you going up the path?” I’m laughing.
“It’s not what you think. We’re making a necklace for Donna. Out of flowers.”
“We need the yellow ones. They’re only in a certain place.”
“Come back quickly.”
They run off.
I’m lying there thinking of baseball fields, summer days, hills that go up from a bike path to reveal a lake, riding bikes with my family, ribbon streamers that sprout from handlebars, flying in the wind. There’s a picnic, somewhere.. And someone’s grilling burgers..
I remember a camp somewhere, some week, some weekend, people are putting canoes in the water, it’s the year of the cicada, the seventeenth year. The lake is so littered with cicadas that the fish won’t eat. They’re already fat off easy food. Some group of teenagers, from another church..they’re putting their canoes in the water. I forgot to put on sunscreen. A couple making out at the edge of the wood, their boat docked sloppily on a mud bank. There was an eddy, in upstate New York.. Beth and I were wading out in the shallows, where the smooth flat rocks were.. And there was a snake..
Thwack. My eye turns to the lake. Julie Jane bobbing out of the water, flexing her biceps, bodybuilder-style. “Bring it on!!”
Kids jump in the lake to help defeat Julie Jane. Christine, the only real contender, is serving for the other side. She serves. Morgan, with Julie Jane, returns the serve.
There’s an ant on the grass by my eye. There’s two. Black ants. The small kind. I put my finger out. Maybe he’ll crawl on me. Imagine being an ant on a human arm, walking between tall hairs, translucent stalks. Like being in a swamp of hair, terra flesh. There must be less detail at that level. Like walking in a Lego world, bright lights, flawless surfaces, you could see the building blocks. High-resolution. Every detail sharp. I think I could get clarity as an ant.
“Communing with nature?” Maddy is above me. She sits, with my head between her legs.
I smile. I’m squinting in the light.
“You should come with me to Florida. You should come and visit. I’ll take you to the beach, this place near Ft. Lauderdale. There’s an orchid farm, and railroad tracks. The beach is long..it’s this thin beach, there’s boulders and a little road, and the train tracks are between you and where you park. When the train comes by, it goes between you and the cars, between you and the road, so for a minute it’s like there’s just the train, and the beach, and the ocean. I’ll take you there.”
“I don’t want to do that, though.” I touch Maddy’s arm.
“I’m not doing any more of that. I’m out. I am. It’s not like I do that all the time.”
“But I do want to come out with you again,” I say. “To your fort.”
“Oh do you.”
“But maybe not all night.”
Maddy puts her hand on my belt.
“But maybe for a little bit.”
“I’ll meet you after vespers,” she says. “And it’s a hideout.”
I think I hear the wind say: My life is in giving others life.
And I know that that is true. That’s where I have found you, in others’ touch. That’s where I have found you, when others help. And that’s what I must be. I must make myself such that others can find you when they look at me. I must make my I an I that can be passed through, by certain types of love.
I think I hear the
I’ say: *you find me in others*. But if I heard theI’ say that, does that mean there are others within myself?
“What do I do to get the Polar Bear shirt?” It’s Nixon.
“You have to do Polar Bear every day.”
“How many days do I have to do it to get the shirt.”
“You have to do it every day. Nixon. I don’t think you’ve had your Wheaties.”
“They have Wheaties here?”
“You can’t get the shirt. You’ve already missed days. It’s not about the shirt. You should come with us tomorrow.”
When I was a kid there were no showers so we bathed in the lake. You had to bring Ivory soap (no other kind) because Ivory floats, and when you’re bathing in a lake, that’s important. The guys bathed and then the girls bathed after them. While the guys were bathing, the girls were carefully ferreted away, back at camp. When the girls were bathing, it was the same. Only guy counselors were at the lake when guys are bathing and only girl counselors were at the lake when the girls were bathing. As far as I know no one ever broke through that and spied on the other sex bathing. Pastor Steve was very strict about that. They counted heads, they had a kindof handoff that they did at bathing time. That made sure everyone was in the right place. Even Blake’s mom wasn’t allowed to come down here during bathing time. When guys were bathing, Blake’s mom stayed far away, even though they have their own cabin that overlooks the lake. You can’t have slip-ups of that nature. Priests and camp counselors already don’t have the best reputation when it comes to this. It was guy counselors standing on the dock making sure nobody drowns while they’re getting clean, and I assume the girl counselors did the same, but, like I said, I never saw them. Even if you were a guy counsellor and you were with a girl counsellor, Camp Lake bathing time would have been one time you did not see that person naked.
I remember bathing in the lake when I was a camper, this one time. The guy counsellors were diving off the edge of the dock. Everyone was naked. This one counsellor’s dick stands straight up. He wasn’t my counsellor but he was one of the counsellors. He’s standing on the dock and we’re all in the water bathing. And his dick is standing up. I’m trying not to look, but I also want to look, because he’s ten years older than me, and I want to see what my dick is going to look like when I’m older. But mainly I’m trying not to look. I absolutely cannot have one of the other campers catch me looking at his dick. Yet I am looking, because I can’t look away.
It never struck me until recently that this counsellor was probably gay, and he was turned on by watching us bathe.
I ask the wind: was that guy gay?
The wind doesn’t blow.
I ask the wind: should I keep going with Maddy?
The wind doesn’t blow.
Should I not worry about all these questions?
The wind blows.
The wind doesn’t tell me what to do. I don’t wait for it before I act. But, sometimes, when I’m doing something, the wind lets me know it’s right. Maddy’s voice in my head. She’s talking about ease. Ease isn’t something you can make happen. It’s something that sometimes happens to you.
I want to learn ease.
You can. Listen for it.
What are you, God, are you this world? Are you a voice inside my head? Are you coming from me?
Now the wind isn’t blowing. It doesn’t like when I lecture it.
Katherine’s on a bench beside the lake. She’s reading her book, hair in her face. When shouts come from the volleyball game, when boys walk by shirtless, when girls go by chattering, Katherine doesn’t look up. She is not with us at the lake. The most vital part of her is off with Gawain and Bors and Lionel. She is beside another lake altogether. This is part of why we ban cell phones, so you engage with the people around you, but I feel a care for Katherine. There’s something less obnoxious about a book than a cell phone. Aesthetics aside, though, their use has similar effects. But I sense that Katherine doesn’t need to be here. If she put her screen down, would she benefit more? Maybe I should make it harder for her to isolate. Maybe she’s too old to be here.
K and M return with their flowers. Kristen is looking at Maxwell. He’s got blue and white board shorts. Kristen is looking at his thin stomach, at his chest. Maxwell doesn’t work out, but everything about him is smooth, and Kristen likes the pale of his skin.
Maxwell is looking at her too.
Kristen is wearing a one-piece. Maxwell is trying not to be seen looking. They’re lining up on the dock. Everyone’s holding life preservers. Maxwell sees Kristen’s butt. He and Pierce are talking about something, trying not to care.
The swoop of Kristen’s one-piece goes right into her crotch. That’s what Maxwell is trying to look at. He has seen it, he has gotten a glance at her crotch. But only for a second. And he keeps going back to it, as if the next look will bring him to some higher understanding, or some different place.
Kristen had a similar interest in Maxwell’s pouch. Certain ways he turned, you could see it. The shorts he wore of course hid everything, and were long—below the knee. But she could see his ass, and in the folds at the front of his trunks, she could catch a glimpse, sometimes, of the shape of his dick.
Underwater was a different story. It turned out Kristen was a freak. She nipped him—why not? Maxwell didn’t get hard, but he got thick. When Kristen came up, they treaded water together, and her hair was slicked back, and she looked like a mouse, and their arms and legs churned frantically. Then Maxwell held his breath and he went underwater.
He opened his eyes—how could he not?—and he avoided Kristen’s kicking legs. But he swam between them, and he braced himself by putting one of his hands on each of her thighs, and he bit her. He didn’t know where to bite, but he felt Kristen’s muscles tighten, so he bit again. Not hard. And he had the stretchy fabric of her suit in his teeth, and he could feel the extra layer of padding they put in the crotch of girls’ swimsuits, and he wondered if, above water, anyone could see what they were doing.
When Kristen went down she used her hands. She pulled down the front of Maxwell’s swimming suit, then she pulled it down all the way. She kept her eyes closed, since they were in the lake, but she found his scrotum with her hand and she worked her way up. His penis was stout, and circumcised. She put her fingers on its tip and rolled the skin down. Then she put her lips around it.
She licked. Her mouth was wet but then again..she was underwater.
Maddy gets out of the lake. And I’m not stealing Polaroids of teenage campers anymore, I’m looking at someone my own age. And this looks better. Jesus Christ. Fantasies flood back at me from high school. I’m thinking of things I used to jerk off to ten years ago, when I maintained a vaster array of scenarios. That shit, back then, was complex. I used to take hours to jerk off. I used to stand on my head—do a headstand on my bed and jerk off upside down. But when Maddy stands on the dock and dries herself, I’m back there, taping magazine photos to my bed, thinking of my female classmates and their older sisters doing things to me that to think of at this age is straight-up perverted. Now I settle for a coworker fantasy and get done with it. It’s entirely functional. Back then it was a luxury, a vacation, a universe of thought. Maddy pressing the towel on her stomach, bringing a hand up and brushing a tendril of wet hair over her ear..opens up a universe again.
I don’t usually swim in the lake. I prefer the pool. I will swim in the lake if I have to, and we do some of the swimming lessons in the lake, which I don’t see the point of. It’s supposed to teach the kids not to be afraid of the deep, of swimming where they can’t see the bottom. I get that. But the lake is dirty..and we have a pool. Some of our swimming exercises involve righting an overturned canoe—you have to do those in the lake. But if you just want to go swimming..I mean, come on, that’s why God made swimming pools.
I hit the water. It’s warmer than I expected..it’s downright warm. I sink. I turn around on my back. I open my eyes. It’s not as murky as I usually think of it. The sun coming through, translucence, glass. I close my eyes. I sit there.
I need to shed some things from my past. I’m travelling too heavy. Now that Maddy’s here.. I don’t want to hurt her. We seem to be liking each other. I think we’re both enslaved, though, by what has gone before. At least I am.
I swim up, but I don’t go to the top. I need a moment. Under here I have a tiny minute of space. Everyone needs space from the week. We’re all stuck here together, everyone misses their families. I need to get my kids some space.
And when I come up from here, I want to make a change. I want my life to be different. I would meditate on it for hours if I could hold my breath that long. I always expect that I can somehow make a change happen right away.
I come to the top. I want a change. That much is mine right in this moment, that I want it. This is the moment when I want a change, when I have asked for it, and now I must go on and wait for it to happen. I breathe. And I am swimming for shore.
When we go back from the lake Kristen and Maxwell were holding hands. They walk apart from their respective groups. There are runs of girls, runs of boys, and then Kristen and Maxwell in the back, lagging farther and farther behind. Maddy and Blake are in the front. Me and Junkyard are in the back.
I look back at the lake. No one on the benches. No one on the dock.
Maxwell takes his hand out of Kristen’s and puts his arm around her shoulder. Kristen adjusts and puts her arm around Maxwell’s waist.
Junkyard says, “Are you seeing this?”
“Yes,” I say, “I am.”
“They are so cuuute. When I have children, I want them to be exactly like this.”
“Yeah, as long as he stays in his cabin and she stays in hers.”
“That is the game, no?”
I grin at Oscar. “How’s Julie Jane?”
Junkyard punches me in the stomach; he grabs my head in his bicep. “Julie Jane is fine, my friend, and you know that. She is very fine.”
Imperceptibly, it came upon me. It was my break. Maddy had my campers on a hike. She was watching them, supposedly. I was taking a nap. I had gone back to the cabin and was lying on my bunk when I saw it. The door was open. I had propped the door open so there wouldn’t be any screening between me and the outdoors. I wanted to look into the forest. I was lying there looking into the green, into the sky behind the trees, letting my thoughts wander. I had my head propped up on a post, with my pillow between the two. I had my shoes off, which is part of why it scared me. I was that little bit more defenseless, with no shoes. The main thing was that it had come up to the cabin so slowly that I didn’t recognize it until it was halfway inside the cabin. I saw it before that..my eye saw it before that..but I didn’t recognize it until it was too late.
It was a snake.
It was a black snake, from the woods. It was six feet long. By the time my brain recognized it as a snake, it was three feet inside the cabin, with the rest of it sliding in. It had come upon me so slowly that even though he was right in the middle of my field of vision, I didn’t see him until he was within striking distance of my bed.
It wasn’t poisonous. His head was the wrong shape. But I didn’t want to be bitten. I couldn’t have him in the cabin. Mostly, the fact that he had snuck up on me scared the shit out of me.
It might have been the week. It might have been the heat. I don’t know what element was present in me that made me react the way I did. I usually like snakes. I’ve kept them as pets.
But I didn’t like this one.
He saw me. He saw me move. I moved on the bed. I sat up.
The snake saw me and he was completely still.
I sat there. The sparks in my spine began to prick. On my neck, on my arms, my skin pricked. Snakes are unnatural. There’s something wrong about them. There’s something about them that shouldn’t be that way. And something in me, something genetic, something in my DNA, in my bones, in my natural history..something in me knows that. Knows it without thought. Some knowledge is below the surface. When I see a girl, I know what to do. I know how to feel about her, I know how to act with her. When I see a snake, I know it, too, know something is very very wrong and must be fixed.
With this snake, I decided that the snake would die.
This snake was halfway up the steps, halfway inside the cabin. His body was lain over the sharp ridges nailed to each step. He was halfway in and halfway out.
I was going to crush him.
My eyes were on him. He did not move. All I could think about was the dark, back part of the cabin. There might be other snakes in there. Even if they’re not poisonous, they might be in people’s beds. One of my campers might go to his bed and underneath the covers, inside his sleeping bag, lying on top of his pillowcase, there might be another snake. Some camper might get bit. I see the lashing out, the striking of the snake, on some pale hand. I’m gonna have to check this whole cabin for snakes. After I deal with this one, I’m going to have to go through every cabin, starting with this one. I’m going to have to take a flashlight and use a stick or something and go through every cabin and check every open suitcase and every mattress to make sure that under it, behind it, inside it, isn’t one of these snakes.
The back of the cabin is dark. There’s a door back there, but its shade is closed. There could be snakes in every one of these cabins.
I’m stealthy moving. I’m moving cobra-style. I move, kneeling, on the mattress. I’m looking around me. Are there any snakes behind me? If I see any snakes I am going to kill them. Like I am going to kill this one. Slice him in half on the metal edge of the steps. Get something heavy. Get in ambush position where he cannot strike me when I come down upon him. I will crush him, slice him, end him.
He isn’t moving.
I’m moving. I’m moving to the door. I’m staying high. I’m watching him without blinking. The dust forms tears in my eye. He sees me but he is not moving. What can I drop on him? What can I get to, from here, that I can drop on this motherfucker and kill him? How sick, how improper, is it, that this creature can come upon me without my knowing. How truly cunning, how wrong, it is, that this creature can move, within my field of vision, without my seeing it! My arms are riddled with goosebumps. My neck is prickly as though I’m some kind of animal flipped into hunt mode. Into defend mode. This snake would have been just fine if he had been strolling through the woods away from my cabin. I would be sitting in my bunk spacing out and this snake would be strolling through the woods unnoticed. Why did he come in here? Is he drawn to the cool of the cabin? To its dark? Is he hot? Is he just exploring? I should never have opened the door, I should never have left it open. Once I take care of this guy I am going to go through every cabin, to the back of every cabin, to see if any more like him are in these children’s beds. Some camper pulls back their sleeping bag and there’s a fucking snake there.
I am above the snake’s body and the snake’s eyes are on me. His body is lain across the cabin steps, wooden slats over cinderblock. There is no one who can see me. There is no one in any cabin. There is no one in the woods. No one can see me crouched on the edge of the cabin wall, pressed into the screen, three feet from the snake, bending down, eyes locked on him. If he moves, I will know it. If he decides to leave, I will let him. If he turns around right now and heads back into the woods, I will watch him go. I will not follow him. I will watch him go back to where he came. But he’s not going to do that.
I am reaching for the cinderblock. It is the cinderblock at the foot of my bunk where I have gently folded birch bark, bark that I intend to use to write Maddy a letter. I have collected it. I have folded it. I have let it dry. I will write Maddy a letter. My eyes are on the snake. He is not moving. His eyes are not moving. He sees me. I take my eyes off him. I am not breathing. I look into the cinderblock. I look inside both of its compartments. I make sure there is not a snake. I make sure it is only birch bark. It is only birch bark. The other hole is empty. There is no way a snake could get in from the bottom. There are no cracks. The snake is not moving. I move the birch bark. I put it on my bed.
When I move it is imperceptible. I move to assassinate. It is plain day and even if a camper came upon the cabin they would not see me, even as I’m perched about the door. My hands go down. I stabilize myself. My hand is on the doorframe. My hand is on the screen. My leg is pressed against the screen. I see him. I see him. He cannot move. He cannot escape me. He cannot move.
I take the block. I take the block. The block is in my hands. The block is on the doorframe. He is not moving. I am above him. His eyes are upon me. I am above him. He sees me with both his eyes. My eye is upon him. I will kill him.
I am upon him.
I crushed it with the cinderblock, but the cinderblock didn’t kill it. It slowed it down, but it didn’t kill it. It was still alive. And it wasn’t trying to strike me, but I was afraid it would. It could see me. It was watching me. It was watching the one that tried to kill it. It knew that. I dropped a cinderblock on its head and I tried to kill it. It could see me. It saw me throughout. I dropped the cinderblock on its head but it didn’t kill it. It didn’t hit it right. It hit his back, it smashed upon him, it slowed him, but he’s still alive. I’m jumping up and down, I’m jumping in the cabin. The snake is trying to go out. He knows it was me that hit him. He is trying to go out. I want to hit him again. The cinderblock is too close. If I grab it. If I grab it it may strike me. It might strike. I’m turning behind me. There might be more in the back of the cabin. Anywhere could be another one. I have to keep watch, I always have to look for them. They could be in my sheets. They might be under the bed. They might be in the ceiling, in the rafters.
I’m hitting him again. He is down the cabin steps and I hit him again. I do it. I lift the cinderblock. He is trying to leave. The back part of him is on the step and I do it. I do it. I raise the block and I hit. I hit. I crush him. He invaded my domain. And I crush him.
I am bleeding him. I am looking at his guts. I did that. I cannot kill him. He will not die. His guts are coming out. I hate him. I hate that he invaded my domain. He came upon me. I was sleeping. I did not seek him out. I never wanted him to die. I didn’t want to be the one who killed him. I have spilled him. His guts are outside now. He will not die. He is crawling back to the forest. He knows he will die. His guts are outside him. I did that. I did that to a simple creature who will now die. He will die. It’s because of me. I am terrible. I crush him. I lift the log above my head. I will crush him. He will not suffer. I will kill him here. I owe him. He did not mean to scare me. I never wanted him to die. Something came upon me, when I saw him. It was fear. It came upon me. His nature made me fear it. And I had a nature, too. This is what happens when I see him. This is what happens when he looks upon me. I am his reflection. His reflection is death.
When he came upon me, he saw himself in me.
He learned of himself, by seeing what he stirred in me.
Maddy comes into the boys area. She comes out from the path. I am terrible. I am terrible.
“What are you doing? Matt?”
The look in my eye is terror. I am searching.
“Matt. What happened?” Maddy is wiping my face.
When she pulls her hand away, it is blood.
She wipes it on her shirt.
She wipes her thumb across my forehead.
She pulls it away.
It is blood.
“Matthew. What happened?”
I am holding a stick. I am holding the branch of a tree.
I was beating the ground when Maddy saw me.
I was beating it. My hands were scraping on the branch. Bark was cutting me. I was going to kill the ground, and kill the snake that walked upon it. It was unnatural. I was going to kill it. I could drive it out. I would beat it back into the dirt.
I would bury it.
That night our night meeting had no bug juice. The meeting hall was quiet when me and the other guys came in.
Marcy stood up. She left one crutch on the carpet and, with the other one, hopped over to us. “Don’t say anything. Okay? I’m running this meeting.” Marcy sat us down, guiding us with her crutch. She made it so me and Blake weren’t directly facing each other. She put me and Maddy next to each other.
“I know what’s been going on,” Marcy says, lowering herself and stacking her crutches behind her, outside the circle. “I heard,” she says to Blake, “about your conversation with Matt and also with Maddy.”
Blake starts to speak. “Just let me—”
“No,” Marcy says. She holds her hand out flat. “This is a meeting of peers. Your power of alignment with your father isn’t relevant. Camp Lake counsellors are chosen by a peer council—this council. We’re here now. Camp is almost over. We’ve got two days left to continue what we’re doing for these kids. Tonight, though, we have to mend a rift among this group.” Marcy looks at Blake. “Your problems..with Matt..are not helping us all—”
Blake starts, “Let me just say—”
But Julie Jane says, “Stop!” There is water in her eyes. “Stop.”
Marcy says, “It’s not just you, Blake, who has a small group here. It’s not just you, Matt, who has a small group here. Or Maddy, or me. You can get your dad to not let Matt, or any of us, not be a counsellor here. Do it after camp is over.”
Blake opens his mouth.
Julie Jane stops him. “I’m serious. You keep those lips shut.” Julie Jane is shaking. “Marcy is running this meeting.”
Blake sees how shaken Julie is. She’s mad, but she’s hurt also. To see that cuts through some of Blake’s autocracy.
Marcy continues. “What I’d like to do is a group meditation. Nothing heavy. Nothing religious. I want to do a guided meditation. I want us to lie on the floor. I want us to be shoulder to shoulder. I’m going to play some music, actually it’s the sound of the rainforest. I’m going to say some affirmations. I want us to remember who we are to each other. We’re not enemies. This disagreement doesn’t deserve our reaction—”
“I’m not coming back to this camp,” Julie Jane says. She’s pointing at Blake. She’s crying. “I will never work with you. I will never play piano in your service again. Not even here—”
Marcy’s instinct is to stand but she can’t get to Julie quickly. Piglet puts her arms on Julie Jane.
“Okay,” Marcy says. And then to Blake: “You may have to find some alternate music for service tomorrow night.”
Blake starts to talk.
“I’m serious,” Marcy says. “You see these?” She grasps a crutch. “I’m about to play sounds of the rainforest and if anybody speaks I’m gonna go Robert Garrow on you.”
Oscar whispers, “Who’s Robert Garrow?”
Piglet whispers back, “He’s a serial killer.”
Marcy gives Piglet and Oscar a stern look. “I’m serious. Pretend we’re a small group, okay, and I’m your leader for the next ten minutes. Now lie down. Julie, do you need a tissue?”
Julie holds up her snot-soaked sleeve.
“Okay. Good. Get your shoulders touching. Now close your eyes.” Marcy is hopping over to the CD player. “Place your palms up.” Marcy un-pauses track three of A Month in the Brazilian Rainforest. When she hops back she sees Julie and Piglet holding hands. “That’s a good idea. Why don’t you hold hands with the person next to you.” Marcy maneuvers herself to be in the circle, too. The sound of monkeys and birds fills the room. Marcy is lying down. She holds Brian’s hand on one side and Oscar’s on the other. Marcy closes her eyes. The splinter doesn’t hurt as much today. She exhales. “You all are all my friends. Let’s try to remember why we’re here.”
At the end of our ropes course is a telephone pole. You climb to the top of that, then you stand on top. Then you jump off.
About four feet away from the top of the pole, and about four feet above it, is a bar. You try to catch that.
If you were standing on the ground doing this, it would be easy. Forty feet above the ground, it’s hard.
You have on a harness while you do this. Someone at the bottom is holding you. But we don’t help. We keep the rope slack. Climbing up the pole, the rope is slack. When you get to the top, the rope is slack. When you maneuver yourself to standing on top of the telephone pole, the rope is slack. When you jump, we pull the rope. If you miss the bar, you still fall. You just don’t fall very far.
This is extremely hard to do the first time you do it. It is hard for everyone. The hardest rocks, the littlest girls, old, young, it doesn’t matter. The first time you make that jump, it’s difficult for everyone.
It looks farther than four feet away. It looks like you can’t catch the bar. Perception plays with you. Standing up on the telephone pole is, physically, the hardest part. That requires some balance. But jumping for the bar is, very literally, a leap of faith. I’ve done that ropes course a million times with a million different groups—all types, campers, adult church members, mountain climbers, drug addicts, the mentally challenged, corporate groups doing team-building—the jump is hard for everyone.
That’s why we do it last. We start with easy stuff: trust-falls on the ground, leading your partner around blindfolded, other exercises with low altitude. It’s the same thing whether you’re low or high. The purpose is to learn to trust your teammates. The purpose of the telephone pole is to learn to trust yourself.
By the time you get to the telephone pole, you’ve fallen at least once. We make sure of that. And when you fall, you see it’s not that bad. You’re in a harness. The harness is tied to a pulley. The pulley is connected to a rope. And there’s someone at the bottom holding the rope. In fact there are three people, all in a row, and the first one is harnessed to the rope such that even if they let go, you won’t fall. The weight of the person at the bottom will stop you. So when you get to the end of the course, you know, in your mind, that you’re not going to get hurt. If you fall, you know you’re not going to fall far. But, it turns out, when you’re standing on top of a telephone pole, what you know doesn’t matter at all.
What you know, when you’re standing atop a telephone pole, doesn’t have a shred of relevance. What you see—a harness, a rope that could lift a pickup truck, a line of three people holding the rope below—those don’t matter either. It’s very lonely at the top of a telephone pole. It gets quiet up there. All that’s left is your thoughts. Those get very loud. And the loudest thought of all is fear.
You don’t have to be standing on top of a telephone pole to listen to your fear. You can be in your office, you can be in your school. You’ll feel it when you open your mouth to speak. You’ll feel it on the first day.
Fear has an interesting relationship with the truth. Fear is always of the truth. And truth is always of the self. Fear is about becoming. When you become, you are afraid. That is the only thing that anyone is ever afraid of: what they might become.
In the case of the telephone pole it’s simple. You might become someone who can make yourself jump off of a telephone pole from forty feet in the air. That is what you find out on the last exercise of our ropes course. You might fall. You might catch the bar. It doesn’t matter (and if you fall we let you go again). But as surely as I’ve seen that every human being who goes to the top of that pole feels terror to the point of immobility, I can tell you something else: everyone jumps.
And that’s the point. Are you a lion, or are you a mouse. What I’ve learned from holding ropes for hundreds of people, while I stand at the bottom of that pole, is this: when put to the test, no one feels like a lion..but when put to the test, no one acts like a mouse. That roar is in every one of us. The shame is that so few have been put to the test.
What would you do if no one was watching? If you were the last person on Earth, on a desert island. If no one was ever going to know what you did, if no one was ever going to be there to judge you or praise you..how would you fill your days?
What if there was no voice inside your head observing the rest of you? What if you didn’t have thoughts about yourself? What would you do for enjoyment then?
What would it mean if you were putting on a play and no one was watching? What would that mean for the actors? Would they be more real? Less? Maybe “all the world’s a stage” means that there isn’t an audience, and everyone is a player.
If I wasn’t performing..if I wasn’t aware that there’s a god, or if there wasn’t one..if no one would ever know what I do..what part would I act then?
What about Matthew 6? “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them..whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet..do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Jesus even says not to pray in churches, but to “go into your room and shut the door” and pray in secret. How would I pray if I truly prayed in secret? How would I live if I lived in secret..and by that I don’t mean secret from others..I mean secret from myself, in the sense of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. What if the parts of my mind were like that..if the one part did not know, or judge, or praise, what the other part was doing.
Can I do that with respect to my small group? Can I not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing? Can I plan with one hand and execute with the other? Can I plan and execute with one hand and reap the results with the other? Could part of me plant the seeds, and another part of me, oblivious, harvest the plants?
Can I sow seeds before bed, forget my life while I sleep, wake, and tend the fields as a new person?
If there was to be a born again, would it not be like that?
Would it not be about oblivion?
If I was born again, wouldn’t I forget everything? If I was born—if I came into the world through birth—wouldn’t I forget everything from the world before? In that same way, wouldn’t a spiritual birth involve a sort of spiritual oblivion?
I share these thoughts with Maddy.
“We’ve come at this,” I say, “from the study of texts. The texts strove to describe something they didn’t understand. Our understanding, based on the texts, is perverted the same way as a teenager’s ideas of sex. I think we have a perverted view of God because we cannot see the whole.”
“So wait. You think the future us went back in time and that’s what Ezekiel saw?”
“Who fucking knows. It’s just a theory.”
“I like it. I can’t justify it with the rest of Ezekiel, except that maybe he went crazy. Or took liberties with his charge. Seeing aliens is one thing but then..’the word of the Lord came upon me’..I don’t know,” Maddy says, “maybe he went crazy.”
“Maybe he just thought he was crazy after what he had seen.”
“Right,” she says, “Or maybe he took liberties because of what he had seen. Like he thought he was connected to God because of what he said, so he just made stuff up after that. Or attributed it to the Lord because he thought he was connected.”
“I think we went back in time to save ourselves in the future. Because,” I say, “in the future we know we’re going to destroy ourselves. So we send someone back to the past to make a sign for ourselves, to make sure we don’t die.”
“Wait. Which us do you mean? To make sure the past us doesn’t die?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “The whole us. It’s all the same us.”
“Like we’re living in a loop?”
“You’re really into this, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I sit up all night reading the apocryphal texts of Enoch.” I say it like I’m sarcastic but I’m not.
“I knew it,” Maddy says. “I knew it. You’re a real nerd. Do you have them with you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Okay. Get them.” She’s waiting.
“You’d be interested in that?”
“Hello. We’re having this conversation, aren’t we?”
“Maddy. What’s something you find holy?”
She brushes the hair off my forehead. “I think,” she says, “it’s the thing that scares you so much you become a child again.”
I fall asleep with Maddy in one arm and the apocryphal texts of Enoch in the other. I love a girl who can talk about things. Most of the time the roles we play are so simple it’s not even worth it. I want a girl who can talk about the apocryphal texts of Enoch from time to time. It’s not even that. I want a girl who can get excited about things. It’s not even about girls. With people, in general, I want the ones who still have a spark in them, who are still thinking. When the ideas that are in the body stop changing, then the body is dead.
When I woke up Maddy was gone, and the apocryphal texts of Enoch were gone. Maddy had put them back in my Honda. She stacked the pages neatly, so their edges were aligned. And Maddy had gone wherever Maddy goes, back to take a shower or into the woods or who knows.
And I think: today I’m going to figure something out. I’ve lived long enough to know that I’m not going to figure it all out today. But today I’m going to figure something out. It’s going to be something significant. I’m really going to focus. I’m going to take quiet time. I’m going to pay attention to what life is telling me.
Sony was Making dinner and Maxwell insisted on helping. He and Kristen were on some kind of a service kick.
“What needs chopping?” “Here’s fresh water.” “Let me get you a knife.”
Piglet passes me on her way out of the kitchen. “What happened to those two?” She makes a “loopy” sign with her finger.
Inside the kitchen, Kristen is chopping vegetables, Sony is stir-frying potatoes, Maxwell is at the blender.
“This looks lovely,” I say, “Can I do anything for you?”
“Nope.” “No thanks.” “We got it.”
O-kay. The last time I saw people that cheerful it was on public television.
“Where’d you put my bag?” Maddy’s washing dishes.
“It’s on the shelf.”
Maddy looks up. The shelf above the dishwashing sinks. There’s her bag. Spray from the nozzle is peppering the green fabric.
“Can you get that down for me? Be careful.”
Kristen stands on an inverted trashcan. She reaches the bag.
“Thanks. Just—put it on the—yeah, thanks K.”
“No problem counse.”
“Is all this stuff cooked properly?” I ask. “Some of this roughage..it’s raw.”
“That’s camp food,” Maxwell says, “‘s’good for you.”
“This mushroom has bark on it. There’s dirt in this. Did you even cook this?”
“I cooked it. I cooked it. Gimme that. That’s good fiber. You’ll need that in the morning.”
At dinner everything tasted fine.
Julie Jane looks at the very rustic-looking mass on her fork. Then she puts it in her mouth.
“Thatta girl!!” Oscar yelps, “Put hair on your chest.”
Julie gives him a sideways look. “Do you want hair on my chest?”
Oscar is chewing but the sound he makes is a garbled, “Maybe.”
“Do you believe in the devil?” That’s K.
Marcy says, “I believe there is evil in the world.”
“But do you believe in the devil?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because,” Kristen says, “I think I’ve seen him.
“Kristen’s sick,” Marcy tells me later, “We need to send her home.”
“What’s sick about her?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“She’s sick enough she has to go home?”
“Yeah. She’s infecting the other kids.”
“Mentally. Yeah. She’s infecting them with an idea about a spirit from the lake. It’s freaking everyone out.”
“It’s a ghost story?”
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“I can’t send her home for telling a ghost story.”
“No? What if she was telling racist jokes or using hate speech and it was getting in the way of other people’s camp experience?”
I look at Marcy.
“Will you at least talk with her? I think she needs to understand the effect her stories are having on other people’s camp experience.”
“I’ll talk with her.”
“I think you need to hear her story,” Marcy says. “This isn’t a ghost story. There’s something very wrong with this girl and she’s scaring the shit out of the other kids.”
The children talked of a face. They mentioned it in whispers. They referred to it in signs. The sign they used was something from a mime: a hand drawn over the face, and then the eyes closed.
They were sad eyes, the eyes closed by this hand. When they made this sign, the children pretended they were dead.
They saw this face in their sleep. The face was painted. It came when their eyes were closed. It couldn’t stand the light.
But at night it was of the utmost power.
It had come uninvited.
It had requested a place be set for it at the table.
It was ready to party. But its guests were not ready for him.
It could come at them from any angle. It was everywhere without movement. It couldn’t make a sound. It would try. The face would open its mouth and scream. It was on the backs of the children’s eyelids. In paint that wouldn’t wash off. As big as the hole it made when it opened its mouth, as violently as it shook itself, as far apart its strides and as birdlike its gait, it couldn’t make a sound.
The children tried to wash off the paint when they showered. Out of sight of the others, they would scrub their eyes with the backs of their fingernails. Each one thought he was the only who had truly seen it.
But they had all seen the same face. It was tracking them.
“What did she tell you?”
“She told me they’ve uncovered a demon called `the that.’,”
“Do you believe her?”
Maddy stared at the carpet. “I believe they found something.”
“But you don’t think it’s a demon.”
“Why? Do you?”
“Did they describe it?”
Maddy meets my eye. “Yes. They said it looked like paint. Like a painted face that screams without making any sound. Does that make any sense to you?”
“Some people think you can’t have God,” I say, “without the devil.”
“Yeah, maybe, maybe not,” Maddy says. “Let’s get Kristen.”
“We don’t call it
him,’,” K says. “We refer to it asthe that.’,”
“Why do you call him—”
“Don’t say `him.’ It gives..power.”
“Why do you call it `the that?’,”
“Well. You said the ancients called God
that.’ This one isn’t thatthat.’ It’s another one.”
“This thing you found. Where is it?”
“In the lake. Well—it was in the lake. It got out.”
“Where is it now?”
Kristen touches the air. Her eyes are spacey. “It’s everywhere.”
“I wish we had the lake again.”
“I wish. Do you think,” Kristen says, “that we’ll see each other after this?”
“Of course we will.”
“Be realistic, though.”
“Of course we will. We’ll write letters. You can come to Philly.”
“I’ll meet you in Philly,” Kristen says, “I’ll ride the train. I’ll tell my mom I have..I’ll tell her I’m..”
“We’ll go to the library.”
“You’re so cute.”
“I’m so lazy today.”
“I’m lazy too.”
Maxwell lifts the bottom of Kristen’s shirt and brushes her belly with his fingers.
She doesn’t stop him. What else will she let him do?
“You wanna go back to my cabin?” Maxwell asks.
Kristen looks up at him. “Why?”
“To get some shade. Why? What did you think?”
“I’ve got a better idea,” she says, “Come with me.”
They go to the edge of the field. From here they can see the swimming pool, but no one there is paying attention to the two children. Kristen and Maxwell step into the woods.
They watch for poison ivy. They watch for poison oak. They watch for snakes, but they don’t see any. Sometimes snakes are in the limbs of trees. Maxwell thinks of nature channel shows where snakes in Africa bite you in the face as you walk through the jungle. Max has seen the snakes here. He’s seen them hiding in the trees. These snakes aren’t likely to bite you in the face, but still..if one was at eye level..
Kristen goes first. Maxwell watches the sweat soak through the back of her shorts. He thinks about what is underneath, and he imagines it sweaty. He can see the outline of Kristen’s underwear through the jersey fabric. Her socks, her shoes, her shorts: all white. If she takes him to her cabin he will kiss her.
“Where are we going?”
“Why?” he says.
“It’s a surprise.”
They can see The Turn in the Road. There’s no one there. Through the trees, they can also see the girls’ cabin area.
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“How long are we at the pool?”
“For a while.”
“This isn’t gonna take long,” Kristen says, and she strolls out of the woods.
Kristen goes straight for Maddy’s mattress. She lifts it. Still the birch bark. Still the plastic wrap.
“What are you doing?”
“Hurry, this is heavy.”
Max goes next to Kristen. The birch bark is perfectly flat now. It doesn’t curl up when you lift the mattress.
Maxwell reaches for the plastic wrap. His hand stops short.
Kristen adjusts the mattress, holding it with her shoulder.
Max puts an arm under the mattress to help. “What if she has AIDS?”
“There’s fresh needles, look.”
“Have you ever done that before?”
Kristen says, “I’ve seen someone give a shot.”
“What if we mess up?”
“We’ll just do a little.” Kristen grabs the plastic. She turns it over. “What’s the cotton for?”
“Maybe to clean up the blood?”
“Are you scared?” Kristen says.
And Maxwell says, “No.”
Kristen says, “Do you wanna do this?”
Maxwell says, “No.”
Kristen says, “Me either.”
She puts the plastic next to the birch bark and she and Maxwell lower Maddy’s mattress back in place.
Max sits on the floor of Rainbow cabin.
K stands by her bed. “I wanna do something, though,” she says.
Maxwell is sweating. He’s not trying to hide the fact that he’s looking at Kristen’s shorts. “What do you wanna do.”
“I don’t know,” she says. She goes to sit by him. “What do you want to do?” Her lips are on his neck.
Maxwell pulls back. “I don’t know. They’ll be back soon. I mean—” He looks at Kristen. Should they have sex now? Everything is so dangerous. If they try Maddy’s needle they might get AIDS. Maybe Kristen has AIDS. Maxwell imagines a conversation with his parents, months later, about the call they just got from Kristen’s parents. A little cum splashes in the wrong spot, and you’ll find yourself in that conversation. But in her eyes she seems open. How long would it take? Max didn’t want to rush. “Have you ever..had sex before?”
Kristen says, “I’ve done everything but.”
They stare at each other. This is one of those moments.
Max looks at the bed. Kristen is on the bottom bunk. That could be kindof cramped. There’s Maddy’s bed. The other one that isn’t a double belongs to Mai. That wouldn’t be right.
Kristen puts her hand on Maxwell’s.
With his other hand, Maxwell grips the bottom of Kristen’s shirt and twists, tightening the fabric around her.
Then people, sounds of them, coming into the girls’ area.
Kristen whispers “Quick!” and scrambles out the back of the cabin. From where he is, Max can see who’s coming (it’s Jennifer and Mai) but they don’t see him yet.
Max’s knee hits the edge of Maddy’s suitcase as he tries to crawl over it. The zipper scrapes his knee. He tries to set the suitcase back the way it was.
Kristen hisses from behind the cabin. “Come on.”
Max sees the bag of “pluteus salicinus” and grabs it. He scrambles out the back of Rainbow cabin.
Kristen and Maxwell are running. Out the back of the cabin. Through the open area before the woods starts. And then, up the hill, and up, and up, and up, through thick woods.
“What do we do?”
“We go back to the field. We’ll say we were walking around the edge. Then we go back to the pool.”
They run some more. When Maxwell looks at the back of Kristen’s shorts, he isn’t thinking of sex anymore. All his attention is focused on running.
Kristen finally slows. She turns to Max. “What is that?”
And Kristen is laughing. She tears the bag from Maxwell’s hand and runs up the hill trying to read its label. “Pluto saline sick-nuss?” She throws the bag high into the air and it lands at Maxwell’s feet.
He stops. He’s panting. He grabs the bag and darts up ahead to catch Kristen.
When he catches her she’s next to a tree. Maxwell pushes her back. Kristen feels the birch bark. It’s half-accidentally, half-on-purpose, and that really was the moment at which they might have fucked. His hands were on her sides and he was somewhere between tickling her and..something else.
But Kristen snaps around and grabs the Ziploc bag from him, and leans against the tree.
She smells the sealed plastic bag. “Mmm..delicious. Are you gonna cook these for me? Build a fire.” Kristen points to the ground. “Build a fire. I’ll make dinner. If you want my womanly charms.. Don’t you know how to build a fire? It should be no problem. I’ll give you one match. You can use birch bark to get it started. Then I’ll make dinner. We’ll play house. I’m just kidding.” Kristen flips the bag into Maxwell’s lap. She slaps the tree. “I wanna get fucked.”
Maxwell examines the bag. “These are probably poisonous.”
“Are you listening?” Kristen says. “They’re not poisonous. Why would she collect poisonous mushrooms?”
“To kill somebody? I don’t know. They probably eat your stomach and kill you. I want you to get fucked.”
Kristen gives him a silly look. “Up here?” She opens the bag and breathes in.
“Shit,” Maxwell says, “There’s probably dust motes in there.”
“What the fuck is a dust mote?” Kristen tosses the bag to Max and squats with her back against the tree.
Max sniffs the bag. He looks up at Kristen. “You never heard of a dust mote?”
“Gimme that.” Kristen grabs the bag. She takes out a mushroom. She licks it. “Want some?” She extends her arm.
Max scoots up some.
“Here.” Kristen drops the mushroom into Maxwell’s hand. “That one’s yours.”
Max turns it in his hand. There are actually two kinds of mushrooms in the bag. One is tall and thin. The other is short and squatty. Max’s is short and squatty. It looks kind of like a baby bella that you might find at the grocery store. A little larger.
Kristen has the other kind in her hand. It’s broken, but it’s half the cap and a long stem. “If I eat this will you eat it with me?”
Maxwell says, “Maybe.”
“Let’s eat just a little bit.”
“What if it’s poison?”
“Here’s what you do. I was reading Maddy’s mushroom book. You eat a tiny tiny piece, the size of a grain of sand. Then you wait half an hour. If nothing bad happens you eat another piece, this time the size of two grains of sand—”
“I get it,” Maxwell says, “Did you happen to read anything in Maddy’s book about..” Maxwell turns the bag so he can read the label. He struggles with the Latin.
“No,” Kristen says, “I didn’t. But obviously she’s tripping on them. I mean obviously that’s what these are for.”
“No, she could be cooking with them..”
“I’m pretty sure this is the tripping kind.”
“Well we can’t stay up here all day.”
“Why,” Kristen says, “how long does it last?”
“I think it lasts a while. Did the book say how long it lasts?”
“I only read the introduction.”
“Also,” Max says, “we’re kindof fucked.”
“In what regard.”
“Because. Look. This is pluteus salicknuss but there’s two kinds of mushrooms in here. Maybe the other one is deadly nightshade or some shit.”
“Deadly nightshade isn’t a mushroom—”
“How do you know, have you ever seen deadly nightshade? No? That’s my point. We eat this we’ll end up going to the hospital and our brains will rot.”
Kristen runs her fingers through Maxwell’s hair. “I don’t want your brain to rot.”
Maxwell looks at Kristen sincerely. “I don’t want yours to rot either.”
“Well, there’s one solution to that,” Kristen says.
“We don’t eat it?”
“Yeah.” Kristen drops her mushroom.
But Maxwell picks it up. “No,” he says. “We feed it to someone else.”
Nixon seemed like a good candidate. He was spastic enough already, so if the mushrooms made him more so, maybe no one would know the difference except him. They would keep a close eye on him for several hours just in case.
“I’ll get Maddy’s mushroom book,” Kristen suggested.
“Okay, and I’ll get these into a decent form. Should I grind them?”
“That’s your part of the plan. I’ll meet you at the mess hall.”
“Okay.” Maxwell watches Kristen run away. He stuffs the bag in the back of his shorts, tucks his shirt over it, and heads up the road.
Sony’s in the kitchen.
“Are you here for an appetizer?”
“Bathroom’s full,” Max says, and goes into the bathroom in the kitchen.
He lifts the lid of the toilet and makes it plink as it hits the back. Then he unzips the bag.
They smell like dirt, and they smell like fungus, which they are. If Maxwell takes a deep enough breath he thinks he might throw up. He takes out a single long-stemmed mushroom and separates the cap from the stalk. He puts that in his left pocket. In the right pocket, he puts one of the short stubby mushrooms.
Then he seals the bag and sets it in the sink.
He removes the lid from the toilet tank, careful not to make a sound.
He drops the bag into the tank.
He replaces the tank lid, puts the toilet seat down (plink).
Then he presses the handle, waits for the flush, and washes his hands with soap and water.
“Can I sit at Maddy’s table?”
Max is at my side.
He has his tray in hand, food, bug juice, and he’s facing Maddy’s table.
“No,” I say.
“I just want to eat this—”
“We eat as a cabin. That’s just the way we do it. You can see her after dinner.”
So Max sits. He eats. He has two plastic cups full of bug juice and soda, and four pints of milk, two chocolate and two regular. Max eats everything but two pints of the milk and then starts to get up.
“What is that?”
“Drink that. Don’t waste it.”
So Max sits and drinks the remaining milk, one chocolate and one regular, and he doesn’t seem upset at all. He keeps looking over at Maddy’s table. Once, I follow his look and distinctly catch Kristen giving Maxwell the thumbs up sign.
“What’s going on with your camper?”
“What’s going on with yours?”
“Something, I don’t know, but they’re scheming something.”
“Is that disallowed?”
“Yes. In the two of their case, yes. Definitely. Totally disallowed. Keep an eye on her.”
“Yes, captain. I’m scheming something too, you know.”
“What does the book say? Did you get it? What does it say about dosing?” Maxwell is looking behind Kristen. “Did you get it?”
“I skimmed it,” she says.
“You were supposed to bring it.”
“If she sees us with it, she’ll know.”
“What did it say about dosing?”
“It didn’t. It’s for chefs and hikers, it’s not a drug book.”
“But it mentioned pluteus salicinus?”
“Yeah. It’s hallucinogenic.”
Maxwell puts his hands in his pockets. “Which one is it, short and fat or long and skinny?”
“Long and skinny.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well. It comes in several varieties. I think. The pictures are in black and white. They’re not really pictures. They’re more like drawings..”
“Does it give, at least, a reasonable dosing?”
“I’m telling you, it’s aimed at a different audience. This is more of a what if we get caught in the wild sort of book. The only amounts it gives are when a species is particularly fatal.”
“How much is fatal?”
“Not very much.”
“Like some of them if you lick it you’ll die.”
“Then we’re okay. Right? We licked both of them. We didn’t die. I’m kidding. We can’t do this. If it’s the wrong one and we give him too much..I mean..that’s not cool.”
“Let me see them.”
Maxwell reveals a corner of each out of the top of each pocket.
“Let me see them. All the way.”
He lays them both on the front of his shorts. “I got a stem and a hat from this one in case it was the stem or the hat that was the part you’re supposed to eat.”
“Was I supposed to look that up? I’m kidding. Don’t be so serious. It’s the stem. Pretty sure. Pretty sure it’s the stem. It’s definitely this one.” Kristen takes the short stubby one and throws it into the grass. She takes the cap of the long skinny one and throws it into the grass.
“I’m gonna go grind this,” Maxwell says. “How much?”
Kristen puts her finger across the mushroom, halfway between each end. “This much,” she says.
There were still people in the mess hall. Nixon was still there. He and Oscar were the only ones left at his table. Kristen and Maxwell walked in separately, Kristen from the front and Maxwell from the kitchen. Maxwell carried two beverages: one was an open milk pint, one was a plastic cup, a Coke. Maxwell sat right down next to Nixon.
“Oscar. Nix. See you’ve chosen the beefcake.”
Nixon’s chewing. He manages, “This is fantastic.”
Kristen comes up behind Oscar and puts her arms around him. Maxwell eyes Nixon’s tray. One milk, unopened. A plastic cup of soda, to the ice.
Kristen tells Oscar that Julie Jane wants to see him.
“I don’t know. She said she needed to see you. She’s outside.”
“I can see her later.”
“She seemed pretty desperate,” Kristen says. She’s got her boobs practically on Oscar’s neck.
“What was her exact message?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.” Kristen eyes Nixon. “In present company.”
Nixon says, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
Oscar says, “Hey!”
Maxwell says, “Nixon, I dare you to pour your milk in there and drink it.”
“Hey!!” Oscar shouts. But he’s pushing his chair back. “She’s out front.”
Kristen nods. “She was.”
Oscar reaches for his tray.
“I’ll get that for you.” Kristen picks up Oscar’s tray.
Oscar puts his hand on Kristen’s shoulder. “Thanks, sweetie,” and walks away.
Kristen takes the tray toward the kitchen and doesn’t look back.
Maxwell reaches for Nixon’s milk. “Can I have this?”
“I’m drinking that!”
“I just want a sip.”
Nixon says, “Back off grandpa—”
“Holy fuck, I’m trying to do something here—”
“You’re fat enough NixDix, mission accomplished.”
“Hey—now—this—is—mine—” Nixon grabs his milk away.
Max has his hand on it.
The carton flies. It hits the floor. Sideways. Sploshes.
Maddy stands up. “Gentlemen. You wanna get a mop? Before someone slips?”
Max leaves his open milk on the table. “I’ll get it. I’ll get it.”
Nixon says, “You should, you fucking slob.”
Maxwell says, “Keep your hands off my stuff. Don’t be spittin’ in my drink.”
Nixon mumbles, “You should feel lucky you still have a drink, fool.”
Maxwell and Kristen pass at the kitchen door.
“Did he drink it?”
“Where are you going?”
“To get a mop. Keep an eye on him.”
But Nixon didn’t drink Maxwell’s milk, or spit in it, or touch it in any way. He sat and ate his beefcakes. He watched Maxwell scrub the floor. Then Maxwell pushed the mop bucket back to the kitchen and Nixon took his tray to be washed. Kristen went back and sat with Maddy while she finished, but when Nixon got up, it was just Maxwell’s opened milk and plastic cup of Coke left on the dinner table.
“We’ll get him tomorrow.”
“Okay. I really wanted to get him tonight.”
Sony leans over the counter. “Who are you going to get?”
Maxwell moves the milk carton from the top of the counter to the rails below.
“It’s nothing bad,” Kristen says.
Sony goes back to the dishwashing sink.
“Let’s not even do it.”
“I agree. Let’s each have a little sip. I mean a tiny little sip.”
“If I take a sip of this you better not chicken out.”
“I’ll force-feed you.”
Kristen takes the milk from the rail. She brings it to her mouth, an inch from her lips. She looks behind Max.
It’s Blake. “Max. Kris. Time for service.” Blake sets his tray on the counter.
“We were just going,” Kristen says.
And Maxwell says, “Yeah.”
Kristen brushes past Maxwell and sets the milk carton on the bus counter. She grabs Maxwell’s hand on the way and drags him out of the kitchen.
“Amphitheatre, ten minutes,” Blake says. He picks a fry off of someone else’s tray. He shakes the milk carton. There’s still milk in it. “Unbelievable,” he says, and he drinks it down.
The empty feeling started in Blake’s belly during the service. It was when he stood up. It felt free. It felt like oxygen in his lungs. He didn’t know he was supposed to be looking for something, so, in a sense, he never noticed it.
It came so slowly—and, like the snake, imperceptibly—from the edges, and because it came into his mind, his mind was doubly unprepared. If you tell someone you’re going to touch their back with a hot match, and then you touch them with a piece of ice, for a second the person thinks they’re being burned. It actually feels like burning. If you don’t know what to expect..if you have no language to use to prescribe experience..then you don’t (in the same way as if you do have a framework of language on which to hang your experience, you don’t) even know that something happened. What if you felt an orgasm for the first time without ever having known any stories of sex or of cumming or of pleasure. What if you were blind, and then suddenly had sight—but you had never heard of sight and had no idea that sight was coming. What if suddenly you knew every word I was about to say—what if there was no more you or me, no more future, no more past—but you had never conceived of telepathy or spacetime?
Blake could hear cars on the road outside of camp, a mile away. He could hear their engines. He could hear their tires scrape against the road. It was like they were right next to him. The sounds that really were right next to him weren’t louder, though. It was like the distance between everything had gone to zero.
When they sang, there was space between the notes. When Blake stood, it felt easy, but unnecessary. The service was going on, but it didn’t have to. When Blake read, he was before each word and he was after each word.
He tried to imagine the service ending, but he couldn’t.
He tried to imagine places other than the amphitheatre, but there weren’t any.
The voices of everyone came together like God and Blake could hear through them. He wondered why he had never heard them like this before, but it was impossible to hold onto the thought.
From our point of view it’s hard to understand how he didn’t know he was tripping. He was aware of all these sensations, he was aware of what he saw. But it was like there was no meta, for him, since no one had told him what to expect. When you know something’s coming, even if you don’t understand it completely, you still know what is happening.
For Blake it was like..you know those imagined memories of yourself as a child, where you know that, say, you must have played in that schoolyard a hundred days, but, really, your memories of it are only a few? Some memories we forget. But some we don’t remember, some days were days without memory. When we were having them, we were there, but we forgot to take anything with us. That’s pure consciousness, without the meta. Meta is pure consciousness, too, unless it has a meta of its own.
Blake was like that.
He was seeing, but he wasn’t thinking about what he was seeing. He was hearing, but he wasn’t thinking about what he was hearing. His experience was altered, but he wasn’t thinking about the fact that it was altered. The one thing you and I cannot do, which is to understand Blake’s experience without our description, is the one thing we must do.
Blake standing at the podium. Blake turning the page of his book. He turns the leaf over. He looks on the back. He turns it back and looks on the front.
I don’t know what he saw. I only know what I saw.
I saw Blake turning the page of his book, then turning it back. He looked amazed at what he saw. Maybe he saw nothing. Maybe the pages were blank. Maybe he forgot the page number. I don’t know.
It’s after the song. It’s time for benediction. Blake leaves his Bible at the podium and goes to the altar. I’m at the other podium and I follow him to the middle.
Because he’s looking at me.
The amphitheatre is full of all our kids and fellow counsellors. Blake is looking deep in my eye, and I don’t know what’s going on here, I didn’t know about Kristen and Maxwell and Maddy’s mushrooms. I think I’m standing in the middle of the two podiums, at the altar, because Blake’s forgotten to tell me about some joint benediction that we’re supposed to be doing. Blake looks perfectly comfortable. I’m thinking I forgot my lines. I look at Maddy in the front row. All the kids are quiet. I feel like a minute passes.
Then Blake’s thumb is on my face, below my eye, and he’s staring at his thumb, which he brushes across the top of my cheek. Then he looks at his thumb.
There is nothing there.
He brushes my other eye. Then he looks at his thumb.
He is wiping away my tears.
But there’s nothing there.
“We can’t see ourselves,” Blake is saying, “Because of culture. We’re locked in a cultural perspective and I can’t see you. I can’t ever change something when I need it. Do you see that?”
“I don’t know. No. I guess not.”
Blake says, “Do you have a second?”
“For me,” Blake says.
For me. How can I say no to that? I always had time for Blake in the old days. The new Blake has generally been someone I haven’t had time for. Or maybe it’s the real Blake that I don’t make time for. Because I don’t think it’s worth it. As children, he had potential. Lately (meaning the last decade) I’ve basically come to the conclusion that Blake is a piece of shit.
I take Blake’s arm off me. “I’ll sit with you for a while. If Maddy’ll watch my campers. Would you ask Maddy—”
“We’ve got them,” Piglet says. “You two go. Go.”
“You need a lifeguard,” I say.
Julie Jane says, “I’ll lifeguard. We’ll see you at the pool.”
Oscar is there. “I’ve got your campers. You two need this. Go.”
Spending time with Blake is not something I relish. If you paid me to do it, I would quit.
“I miss Ocean City,” Blake says. “I miss that whole time.”
“I do too.”
“I want us to get back there.”
I look at Blake. “I don’t think we can. I don’t think I want to.”
“I can see differently now,” Blake says. “I can see what I couldn’t see before.”
“What is that exactly.”
“You’re skeptical of me,” he says. “But I’m not mad at you anymore. I don’t feel anger. We’re past that. And Beth is okay. Beth is fine. I want you to know that. Do you know that? I know we’re not allowed to talk about this. But that’s only our own rules. I’ve been..” He looks around, at the gravel, at the benches in the amphitheatre.
He looks perfectly at ease. He looks like a baby.
“Let’s walk,” I say.
“Okay,” he says, “But only if you lead.”
I’ll walk with him. I’ll do that. I’m not that hardened of a rock that I won’t walk with a human being who will walk with me. I’m not going to change. But I’ll walk.
“I’m not going to talk to my dad about you. If you want to be here next year, then be here.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to.”
“That’s okay. Maybe you’ll find something better to do,” he says.
“What about Maddy?” I ask.
“Maddy has a drug problem,” he says.
“Runs in the family,” I say.
Blake says, “That’s not why she killed herself.”
“It must have been a factor.”
“No,” he says, “She knew she was going to get caught. She shouldn’t have done that.”
“No,” I say, “she shouldn’t have.”
Blake says, “I would have visited her in jail.”
I say, “She might not even have gone to jail.”
Blake holds my arms in his. “We tried to help her. We would have lied to help her. I would have. The same goes for Maddy. I don’t care what she did. I don’t care that Sean is dead. He was a Christian.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know. It’s okay that he died. You don’t fuck with my Beth.” Blake chuckles. “It’s against the rules. And everyone dies. When you break the rules, sometimes death is a consequence. You can tell me anything, Matt. I’m not promising I wouldn’t say anything. But I want you to know that: you can tell me anything. If someone hurt Brian,” he says, “I would go to jail. Is that why Maddy wants to die? You can tell me.”
“I don’t know.”
Blake looks at the ferns. It’s a look of understanding. He says, “I love Maddy as much as you do.”
“I think you’re sick, Blake.”
“I think there’s something wrong with you. I’m not kidding.”
“I mean—I’m serious—are you feeling alright?”
“I feel fine.”
“You seem a little off.”
“Because I’m apologizing to you?”
“Are you apologizing?”
“Yes,” he says, “I don’t care if you like me. I want you to know that I’m over it. I know I’m not up to your standards, but..you’re up to mine.”
“Well, I’m glad for you, Blake, but what exactly do you think is going to be different between us?”
“Nothing. I’m not asking for anything to be different for you. But. Ocean City. For me. It’s behind us. Who cares? I’m glad if you can help Maddy deal with it. She needs you.”
“I’m glad you’re over it.”
“No,” I say.
“Do you miss Beth?” he asks.
I say, “Ten years is a long time.”
“It is a long time,” he says, “I don’t think you need to worry about Beth anymore.”
“Maddy will fix herself. With time. Hers is a different road than yours.”
I turn my back on Blake. I feel guilty about Maddy. I feel guilty about being with her. If I’m honest with myself, in this moment, that’s what I’m feeling. Blake can go to hell, I don’t feel bad about doing drugs with Maddy. Blake doesn’t know exactly what we’re doing. No campers have gotten hurt. I’m never coming back to Camp Lake after this week, and maybe I will find something better to do. But the one thing I feel bad about is Beth, and being with her little sister. But Maddy and I dated first, and Beth didn’t even like me. I guess I wish she had.
I turn around.
Blake is staring at his hands.
“Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with you?”
Blake doesn’t even hear me. He’s talking, not to me.
“The ancients were giants,” he mutters, “They were bigger than anything you can conceive. They were like trees, like mountains—” Blake’s voice is quick. “—they were like rivers and they were like the bottom of the ocean. They’re still here,” he tells me. “They’re still in the oceans, they’re still in the mountains. They haven’t gone away. And the Earth is an ancient. It is one of them. And there are ancients in the stars, spirits that are larger than everything we’ve ever known. The reason you can’t see the ancients moving, the reason you don’t hear the ancients talking..like you hear me talking to you now..is very simple.”
“What is it?”
“Scale. Scale. You know what I mean by scale?”
“Like a dragon.”
“Like a snake.”
“Scale like time,” Blake says, “Scale like when you weigh yourself on a scale. Or on a model. A model car, an airplane, model trains..they are at one-tenth scale..of the regular thing. Scale like size. Different things are different sizes. An ant has scale. A tree has scale. You and I have scale. The ancients..are of a different scale. That is why you don’t hear them talking. They are talking. You can hear their talking..but you don’t know what they say. They talk in eons. If you put an ant up next to your mouth, and you speak to it, even if it was an English-speaking ant, it couldn’t know what you were saying. It would hear your voice. But it wouldn’t know your words. It’s the same with us and the ancients.”
“That sounds very New Age,” I say.
“I’m simply letting the words come out as they do.”
“That sounds like a change of strategy for you.”
“Yeah,” Blake says, “Yeah.” He pats my chest. “I like this one.”
Night. The swimming pool.
There is a spirituality here that wasn’t here before. There is a spirit here. I can’t see it, I can feel it palpably. It has come upon us. It did so without our seeing. I think it did so without our asking. I thought you had to call upon a spirit. I thought you must invite it in. I see now that which does not wait for invitation. I see now that which does not need to be invoked. This spirit is here, it is in every laugh and every splash, and it was here before we got here, and as we didn’t invite it we cannot uninvite it, but we have stumbled upon it.
Piglet dives, her tiny body lit by underwater lights. The pool is full, legs kicking, back-splashes, under the stars. And a full moon. Or maybe it was full last night. Crisp edges of the disc, like it was stuck there from below, with tape. Piglet sits beside me.
“I think this is the best year ever,” she says.
“I think so too. I feel optimistic,” I say.
“Yeah. This. This is good. These people, this place..I’m glad you’re here.”
Piglet puts both arms around me. “I’m glad you’re here too.” Her face is close enough that I can feel the heat of it and the cold of dripping water. Smell of Piglet in chlorine.
I put my hand on her waist.
I could fuck her. I could fuck this girl. How clean would that be, how unencumbered. Piglet who does not know me out of camp. Piglet who came along later, to whom all these people are relatively new. For whom there is no Ocean City, no FBC, no Beth, and hardly any Maddy. Piglet has her own Maddy, her own Beth, somewhere, back in Ohio, or Connecticut, or wherever she said she was from.
“Where are you from?”
“Bowmanstown.” She almost kisses my ear when she says it.
Max splashes me. Then Kristen is behind him. She pushes him down by his shoulders, holds him there, then she’s reeling back from being tickled.
“ALRIGHT!” Julie Jane says. She’s on the diving board. People clear out. She does a cannonball. Pluh-kuuush! Concussion wave. Teardrop. Someone throws a beach ball at her. She smacks it but it decelerates. Julie makes a bodybuilder pose, showing her biceps.
Nixon is on Erica’s shoulders. Maxwell and Kristen meet them for a ostrich fight. Kristen slaps at Nixon’s head. Nixon grabs his own ear. I’m glad he has short hair. Erica is bigger than Max but Kristen’s reach is longer than Nixon’s. Nixon falls. He hits his head on Marcy. Tonight’s Marcy’s first night in the pool.
Marcy and Oscar stand in chest-high water with Mai. Mai has red lips and a plastic cup of bug juice in her hands. She’s looking into the cup like it contains a secret orb, the One Ring to rule them all. Nixon pinches Mai. She drops the cup, spilling red into the pool.
Blake and Brian sit on the side, opposite me and Piglet. Blake looks like he’s giving advice. Brian is listening. I wish I had a big brother. I do. Blake gets to mess up, and Brian has an umbrella. Less attention, yes, but less exposure. At least that’s how I imagine it.
Maddy is behind is. Maddy sits next to Piglet, with Piglet between us. And Maddy is loving. I don’t think she’d mind if I fucked Piglet. Maddy puts her legs on Piglet’s and the three of us are intertwined, all our feet together in the pool. Maddy engages Piglet, and Piglet engages her back.
Somehow we didn’t mess it up. Somehow we got this far without anyone dying. Without anyone breaking their leg. Without anyone drowning or getting bit by a poisonous spider. We made it through the dance. We made it through the ropes course. No one got hurt. I made sure of that.
And I didn’t live legalistically, not as legalistically as I do in normal life. I took a break with Maddy. And that was appropriate. She and I had to reconnect, and I met her where she was. I don’t have to do that again. It doesn’t change me, essentially, it doesn’t change who I am. It’s like having sex. When you’re a teenager, before you did it, you thought it would alter you forever. Like there was some before-sex you and some after-sex you that would be fundamentally different. There were people who had done it and people who had not. Back then that’s how it was. It was like a whites-only water fountain, that’s how segregated it seemed. People who had had sex were magical, or grown-up, or stupid. Whatever they were, it wasn’t going back. It could never be changed. You were either permanently adult or permanently a sinner or permanently something. It’s the same thing with drugs. We think of it as there being these well-defined categories of people, people who are this way and people who are not. Or moments that are particularly this way or that. Like Olympic moments..those must be moments of purity and exceptionality, moments of glory. And some of them are. But some Olympic moments are also jealous moments, or pathetic moments.
Our pool night is the same. There’s David. There’s Darren. Tonight is the night they’re going to regret that they weren’t the ones splashing around with Kristen. And where’s Katherine?
There she is. She has her jeans on. She is reading. And maybe she won’t regret that. But maybe she’ll know that there are two paths—or many, many, really—and that she has chosen one of books and letters, and that she will never be around as many people as she is tonight without feeling as lonely as she does right now. And, with every year, she will realize more and more profoundly how alone she is.
And me. Whatever I do tonight I will regret the other half. I think it’s because we imagine ourselves, and in imagining, we identify with a fantasy. Our self is an idea we have..that can never be. Hence melancholy, hence longing. What I imagine could be, could never be. My equipment was designed to see what is not there, to hope and plan and build for what will never be. Why is that? Why are we built that way? If there is a God, if there is a plan or there is some order that’s bigger than me, why would that thing design us so that we are always wanting, always without, capable of seeing, and compelled to see, potential that will never be.
I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not smart enough to think it through. But I can suppose, that if some one or some thing designed us to be that way, that that someone or something, in its nature, must be that way too. An impossible plan. An unreasonable wish. Somehow I know the unnameable must be like that.
2am. Hallway at the Westin. Blake silently pulls the door shut. We look up and down the hallway. Blake checks his watch. 02:14. He looks nervously at the door to 332.
I whisper: “Beth??”
Blake tugs on my shirt. I look his direction. Beth is in her pajamas, peeking around from where the elevators are. We go around the corner. Beth is laden with blankets, a duffel bag, and she’s got an open Sprite in her hand. She’s sipping that while adjusting the bag’s strap across her shoulder.
“Can I help you with that?”
Beth hands me the Sprite. “You were supposed to bring stuff.”
“I forgot.” I sip the Sprite. “You don’t want us to go back now?”
“This should be fine.”
Blake takes the duffel bag off of Beth’s shoulder.
Beth loosely re-folds the blankets, holding the wad of them against her belly with both hands. “Can I have my drink back?”
In the elevator, Blake says, “Just like old times.”
The door closes.
Beth says, “Just like old times.”
And it’s me, and Beth, and Blake, sneaking out at night. Blake pulling the door to 336 closed so slowly you can’t even hear a click. We used to do this at Camp Lake, sneak out and go fishing. Now we’re creeping down a lighted hallway at the Westin. Back then it was the three of us hiking down the hill in the dark, then we’d be spotlighting in the lake on a borrowed raft. You don’t even need bait when you’re spotlighting. You can shine the light right on the hook.
Blake looks Beth up and down. Blue PJs, images of lighthouses and the steering wheels of ships.
When we snuck out to go spotlighting we always wore black.
The lobby attendant sees us going out. Everyone else is asleep. We’re walking around with hotel comforters. My cigarette is lit before we come out of the elevator. Beth’s PJ top is open. You can see the top of a bikini. She’s wearing flip-flops.
Blake looks inside the duffel bag and pulls out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. “What’s this?”
This is in the middle of the lobby.
“Goddamnit,” Beth says, “Can’t you hold your fucking horses?”
The lobby attendant snickers.
Beth turns to him and says, “It’s like going out with your two-year-old.”
The lobby attendant tilts his head. He knows.
“I need a shot of that. Let’s go. I need a shot of that.”
We have the comforters spread out on the beach, down at the lower end where no one ever goes, the opposite end from the rollercoaster. Beth is sitting on the blanket with her butt on her heels, legs apart. We’re near some rocks, in the shadow of the boardwalk. Blake hands Beth the Johnnie Walker.
Beth knocks it back. “That’s more like it.” She wipes a dribble from her mouth and hands me the bottle. “Love that shit.” She rises up on her knees and puts her thumbs through the leg holes in her bikini bottom, pushes it down, adjusting.
Blake and I are both watching.
Beth says, “Aren’t you gonna hit that? Hey! Matt! Hit that shit and pass it on.”
I sip the Johnnie Walker and hand it to Blake. My eyes don’t leave Beth’s body the whole time. I’m not ashamed of it.
Beth sees me looking at her.
Blake is smiling. He waves his hand in front of my face.
“Just drink your drink,” I say, “I’ve had a long day.”
Beth says, “Let’s make that a rule for tonight. No talking. No talking about anything important. From this moment on. We’re here to have fun. Nothing more.”
“Count me in.”
“Count me in, too. Jesus, is this all you’ve got to drink?! I can’t drink that shit.”
“What do you think this is?” Beth says, and she unzips the duffel bag.
“Where’d you get all this shit?”
“Brought it with me?”
“Yeah. This was in Cheryl’s trunk.”
“Give me something easy. Give me something light. Good god what all do you have in here?”
Beth hands the bottle to me. I can’t open the cap. I hand it to Blake. He opens it with one twist and passes it back to me. I swig it. I make a horrible face and fight back the gag reflex. It tastes horrible but it’s better than Johnny Walker Black.
Beth is happy and numb when she suggests we play truth-or-dare. I should have seen this coming. She’s rubbing her knuckles, the back of her hands, and she’s got this ecstatic look on her face, like a baby who just took a shit.
“Every time you lose, you have to take a drink,” she says.
I say, “Beth, there’s no losers in truth-or-dare.”
“I thought I told you not to attempt serious discussions tonight,” she says. “You go first.” And she hands me a bottle of DeKuyper Hot Damn.
“Alright,” Beth says. “I dare you to take off your shirt.”
“Done,” I say. I take it off. The ocean breeze gives me goosebumps. I set my shirt on the stolen Westin comforter. “Blake?”
“I dare you to take off your..swimsuit,” Blake says.
Beth doesn’t miss a beat. “Top or bottom?”
We’re not that far from the boardwalk. The boardwalk is forty feet away, the ocean a hundred. I’m in my swimtrunks, Blake is in his tighty-whities, his gut hanging over. He works out—he works out his chest, so there’s muscle there. Still, Blake’s a big boy. He’s drunk, halfway off the Westin comforter and Beth is in her bikini bottom only, flask of Johnnie Walker Black in-hand, kneeling on the sand. The air has her skin pimply. I can see her shaved armpits as she brushes her hair off the back of her neck, and she’s tilting her pelvis unconsciously, from being drunk. She’s in that relaxed state, like when you’re in bed under covers, in a dark room, and no one is watching you. She’s moving like that. She drinks the Johnny Walker. Flask-shaped bottle. Everything’s moving in slow motion. Even though my skin’s bare, I’m warm from the inside, everything about me is comfortable. I don’t know if I could get a hard-on, but I get some thickness looking at Beth. Only the random mismatched couple slinks along the boardwalk, coming from home, or going there. Coming from the darkness of a television in a living room in some condo, to get some air. Or going back there. Or the homeless guy, looking up at xenon stars, shaking from whatever drug..he doesn’t even see us, and he’s down some alley..
Half the time you think you see something, you decide you’re crazy. Maybe you don’t do it in your conscious mind. But underneath the surface, you make a decision not to notice, and if you notice, not to give it thought. You walk by some half-naked kids in the sand on the beach, you don’t see it. Your friend steals your shit right under your nose, you make up reasons why it never happened. You left the shit somewhere, or you never owned it. Your mind makes up these stories. And it makes them up before the thinking you even comes into play. That stuff is there before the word go. By the time you’re aware you’ve started to consider whether your sister might have had something to do with your boyfriend leaving you, your mind has already explained away that possibility with a decoy. We can’t afford to think those things..the rhetoric is all there, has all been placed there, prior to the beginning of our conscious thought, in order to create a pleasant experience for the higher faculties: an argument that makes sense, an enemy to defend against, a rational object of desire. But right underneath, just beyond the edge of the terms that make up our normal discourse, neither side of the argument has any relevance..and there is no such thing as an enemy..and we have no need of desire at all.
Sometimes I get a glimpse of those edges, sometimes I can see past the pretenses that wield me—as a weapon. But not often.
I look over and Beth is pouring the Black Label down her. There’s only the last half of a drink, and she’s licking the bottle, licking its tip, and letting the last of the whisky drip down her chest. I could tell you more but this isn’t that kind of book. I will say this: that in the darkness and with the rushing of the waves, with littered bottles all around us—some that we put there and some that we didn’t—Beth didn’t wait for either Blake or me to dare her to take off her bikini bottom.
Some things you get caught for. If they’re bad enough you go to jail for them. But most things, whether they’re wrong or not, regardless of whether they’re against the law, regardless of whether they’re insignificant or of import, regardless of whether you do them secretly or in the open..most things just don’t get noticed. That’s how it works. You think this place is civilization..or maybe you think it’s a zoo. But nobody’s looking, so it’s not a zoo. This is the outback, this is the bush. There’s too much going on, there’s too much space, there are too many tangles, and even though we make a big show of bringing criminals to justice, that’s only what happens in extremely rare, trumped-up cases. Mostly nobody notices anything.
“I want to tell you something. I want to tell you guys. Well, Matt already knows.”
“Beth, you’re drunk. Just..” I’m watching her sink deeper into the sand every time she moves. “Beth, you’re gonna get sand..”
“In here,” she says, and puts her hand on her abdomen, below the belly button. “You know that guy Sean?” she asks Blake.
“How could I forget?”
Beth looks at me. “Did you take him with you?”
“Sorry. I’m fucking Schlitzed. Anyway—Blake you’ll be proud of me on this—” Beth gets very serious. “He got his today.”
“Yeah?” Blake says. “What’d he get?”
“Fuck you, Blake, you know that? You’re a fucker.”
“You shouldn’t throw it around so much.”
“Throw what around. Blake. Throw what around?” Beth tries to get up, but falls.
I say, “I thought we weren’t going to have any serious discussions tonight.”
“Make an exception,” Beth says. “I need to explain something to you, Blake. You may think I’m dumb—”
“I didn’t say that.”
“—but just ’cause you’re a virgin doesn’t make me a slut.”
Blake says nothing. It’s the first time I’ve seen him not deny being a virgin.
Beth continues: “You and your ninja moves. What would you do if you were in a real fight? Outside of a gym. What would you do if somebody was really trying to hurt you? Have you ever gotten beat?”
“My mom,” Blake says.
That quiets Beth. “Sean tried to beat me today.”
“I’m sorry,” Blake says.
“Don’t be. Because he didn’t beat me. I beat him. Where’s your ninja shit now? When I beat you, you never get up.”
Blake’s shaking his head. He says, “Don’t joke about that.”
And I say, “She’s not joking.”
We dress in silence. No one’s on the boardwalk now. There’s nothing sexy about watching your friend stumble on a stolen Westin comforter, unable to dress herself without help. I say stolen Westin comforter because we left that shit right there, we left the bottles and everything. We even left Beth’s duffel bag. She threw the empty nylon and it landed at her feet. Blake and I tossed the bottles in the ocean. We left an unopened DeKuyper balanced on a rock.
Stumbling back into the Westin, lobby lights burning into us, I was glad the lobby attendant wasn’t there. On the third floor, Beth weakly hugged us both and went back to her room to pass out.
I’m schleffing toward 336.
Blake says, “You wanna take a walk?”
“Sure,” I say. Sure.
We go to the pool. The clock says 4:38. The door should be locked but it isn’t. We sit on the edge and dangle our legs in.
I take out my cigarettes. “You want one?”
“Why not?” Blake says. He’s got a desperate look in his face.
We each get partway through a second cigarette without saying anything. I can smell the chlorine. The water is soothing, I would hate to be in the jacuzzi right now. The thought of Beth’s body in the jacuzzi, my memories of her undressing from earlier..it seems stale. I try on the idea of Maddy in her swimsuit, of Sarah (blocking out thoughts of Hannigan) but none of it works. It’s just two guys in a deserted pool area, smoking cigarettes they shouldn’t be smoking, and the hum of the decompressor, some pool machinery.
Times like this I hate fluorescent lighting.
Fluorescents can take a depressing moment and turn it into an existential crisis.
Blake and I are on the same page. We don’t need to discuss anything.
The only thing he says the entire time we’re sitting by the pool is: “I hope that phone is the only thing she left there.”
And the only thing I say the entire time we’re sitting by the pool is: “I hope so too.”
Maddy opens her trunk. The cardboard box is there, the trunk bar. Edwards stands ten feet away. It’s just the three of us in the parking lot. I’m whispering in Maddy’s ear.
“That’s all I’m saying. If you ever leave your pussy unattended..”
“I’m just saying. Don’t ever leave your pussy unattended is all.”
Maddy looks over the top of the trunk. “Get your ass over here loverboy.”
Edwards squirms. “Stop calling me loverboy, it’s not becoming to someone..of your stature.”
Maddy jumps up and down. “Are you afraid of my height??!! He’s afraid of my height!!”
Edwards looks at the ground. “Don’t make fun of me.”
Maddy bites my ear. She seethes: “I want to unzip you and kiss your brain.”
“No,” I pull my ear away, “but do you really think we should be doing this?”
“Lol. I really think we shouldn’t be.” She’s pouring Tangueray 10 into a water bottle.
“You mix a wicked gin and tonic,” I say.
She corrects me. “I drink a wicked gin and tonic. Though tonight it looks like you’ll have to settle for the former.”
“Do we have limes for this?”
I look at Edwards. He’s kicking gravel.
“Edwards,” I say, “Can you go get us some limes from the kitchen?”
“Edwards!” Maddy shouts.
That gets his attention.
“Go get me a lime. Edwards.” She’s pointing at him. “Go get me a lime or I’ll skullfuck you.”
Maddy’s hair is wild. It’s like a sprouted onion, or Medusa, or monkey grass that hasn’t been mowed—and monkey grass should never be mowed. It always feels like it’s been one day since her hair was washed. It’s clean, but it’s got that little bit of grease in it. She never wore it this way when she was in high school. Back then it was poofy and dry.
I like to run my fingers through it. I like the way it feels.
“There’s a spirit here,” I say.
“I believe there is.”
“This is not the ‘that.”’
“Is this the other ‘that?”’
“I don’t think so,” I say. “I don’t know—”
“I think this is the ‘this.”’
“You’re right,” Maddy says, “This is the ‘this.’ It could be no other.”
“Have you seen this before?”
“What are you talking about?” she laughs.
I laugh back. “I don’t know.”
“I have never seen the ‘this’ like this before,” she says. “No. Never.”
Edwards is in Maddy’s front seat. He has a book in his hands. “‘There are not more than five musical notes,”’ he reads, “‘yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.’ This book is wrong. There are eight diatonic tones in an octave. Maddy, your book is wrong.” He drops the book.
Maddy’s leaning into me. “I like you Matt.”
“Yeah. You’ve got QWAN.”
Edwards is next to us. “What’s kwan?”
“Fuck.” Maddy pushes Edwards away by his forehead. “Don’t you people read the dictionary?” She touches Edwards’ nose. “QWAN. Quality. Without. A. Name. See?”
“You think he has that?”
“Of course he does.” She pulls me close. “Kiss me.”
Beauty is frightening. It is the terrifying. Real beauty is never even called by its true name. It’s hardly ever known. It is simple, and gone. I think nature is beautiful. Like a crocodile biting, or a crocodile swimming, underwater, or an old crocodile, dying. It’s hard to see people as natural, from our point of view. But if we could I think we would see that we are beautiful, too. We’re too close to it to know, but breaking up in email is beautiful, and our terrifying art is beautiful, and even our weapons are beautiful. We’re, actually, too beautiful for our own good. And even after we create computers that are smarter than us, or after X-Men happens, we may be seen as the passionate race, the race that makes symphonies and Lamborghinis..things for which there is no good raison d’être..except that we motherfucking love them. What does that make us? The race that loves without reason? The race that loves love? I think so.
I think Maddy knew that about love. Because I think Maddy had seen things more terrifying than I had. I think when Maddy spoke, it was straight from a dream. I think her words were from the unconscious. She was underneath it all. That’s not how normal people like to live. And there’s nothing wrong with normal people. But people like you and me, when it comes to the subconscious, we’re more or less above the surface. Maddy transgressed that membrane whenever she liked.
Some people are fish. Some people are birds. Fish stay on one side of the line and birds stay on the other. But some people are amphibious. To them there is no line.
When you have both fins and wings, when you have both gills and lungs, the world is a bigger place.
To me the world is huge.
Kristen is here. She’s jumping up. “The `this’ came upon us.”
“Do you deny it? The
this’ was here. And now thethis’ is gone.” Kristen growls. “Did you send the
this’ out?” She’s snapping at Maddy. “Did you?? Did you make thethis’ go? Did you hide the `this’?” Kristen’s voice is a grumble.
Maddy closes her trunk. I’m holding the water bottle.
“Something is wrong with these kids,” Maddy says.
“Something,” I say, “is wrong with all of us.”
“Did we eat something?”
“It’s that bark in the water.”
“Maybe it’s wormwood.”
“Yeah,” I say, “we ate something.”
“No,” Maddy says, “It’s not wormwood. Shit. Shit. I’m an idiot.” Maddy looks at Kristen. “How could I not know?”
Maddy’s emptying her bag. Everything falls out, her tools, her iPod, her giant headphones. A sewing case, cotton balls.. She’s looking at me shaking her head. “We ate my mushrooms.”
If there ever was an eternity, it was that: it was that she looked into the mirror and the mirror told her something about herself that she did not already know. What she saw in the mirror was not herself. It was other. It was not the same. It looked like her. It was of the same material. But it was not the same. But when she looked at it, she saw something about herself that could not be seen in any other way. She had to see it from the outside. She had to see it in reverse. It moved when she moved..it breathed when she breathed..it matched her..it was her mimic..it showed herself in shadow..
“We did what?”
“We ate my motherfucking mushrooms.” Then to Kristen: “Did you take them?”
“I didn’t take anything.”
“I thought you could tell,” Maddy says. “I don’t know why I couldn’t tell. It’s just..” She’s shaking her head. “..whatever you’re thinking about gets magnified. We’ve all been meditating for a week! We’re up here thinking about religion and talking about God. Fuck.” Maddy’s staring down her camper. “Somebody stole them. And I suspect we ate them for dinner. Kristen. Is that true?”
“Come on Max.”
“Come on. Guys go with guys. Girls go with girls. Let’s go.”
Max’s hand lingers in Kristen’s. Then the fingers drop. I have Max. Here’s Pierce.
“Here he is,” Pierce says. He and Tislam look faded.
“You been smoking pot?”
“Where would we get that?”
“Look at my eye. You smoke that shit in PeeWee cabin you’ll be sleeping under the stars tonight. PeeWee cabin doesn’t smoke pot. You doing polar bear tomorrow?”
“Yes you are.”
“No we’re not.”
“Yes you are ‘cause everyone in PeeWee cabin does polar bear the last day.”
“Tomorrow’s not the last day.”
“It’s the last day of polar bear.”
“You said it was optional.”
“It’s not optional for stoners.”
Edwards says, “I wasn’t smoking.”
“It’s not optional for stoners’ friends either.”
“They’re not my friends.”
Tislam says, “We weren’t even smoking.”
I say, “Save it.”
Max is looking back at The Turn in the Road. Random campers. Kristen isn’t there.
“Bro,” I say, “you’re pathetic.”
“I’m not pathetic.”
“He’s pussywhipped,” Edwards says.
“Somebody,” Max says, “owes me a pair of boxers.”
“You gentlemen are quite odd.”
“That wasn’t the deal,” Edwards says. “The deal was that you had to..”
“Had to what?” I say.
“It’s just this deal me and Maxwell made.”
“I don’t want to know.”
“Maxwell said that he could—”
“I don’t want to hear—”
“—and then if he couldn’t I would get—”
“—la la la la la—”
“—but if he won then he would have to—”
“—I can’t hear you—”
“—but I said you have to prove it—”
“—Tislam, these are your bunkmates—”
“—and the only way to really prove it—”
“—you’re supposed to keep an eye on them, tell me if they lose their minds—”
“They lost their minds the first day.”
“I can see.”
“So if Maxwell loses, which he has, then he has to give me the pair of boxers.”
“I didn’t lose.”
“What sense does that make,” I say. “You two are gonna switch boxers?”
“I think they like each other,” Tislam says.
“I think they might, too.”
“Sounds like kind of a gay bet.”
“We’re not gay. Well. I’m not,” Edwards says.
“I don’t care if you’re gay. Just wash your boxers before you do any trading.”
“There’s not going to be any trading,” Maxwell says, “because I didn’t lose.”
“But the bet was that then I would have to give you my—”
“I don’t want your boxers,” Maxwell says.
And Edwards squeals, “But they’re Armani originals! They’re worth a hundred bucks.”
“I don’t give a shit.”
“Sounds like the bet is off, Edwards.”
“Only ‘cause he can’t prove that he won.”
“Can we please have some quiet?” I say. “Enjoy the night. We’re in nature. You’re supposed to be soaking this up before you go back home.”
“Yeah,” Tislam says, “mosquitoes and mud and Edwards farting.”
“His name,” Max says, “is Edmunds.”
I’m reading Solomon to my campers. Everyone is showered. Everyone’s flip-flops are ready for polar bear, set below our bunks. By flashlight, I see the words:
There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle,
“What is manifold?”
“It has many parts.”
mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all
“Why does it say in her there is a spirit? Is she a girl?”
and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.
Edwards makes an obscene sign. “Penetrating!”
Tislam says, “This sounds like sex poetry.”
I say, “It’s about wisdom.”
Pierce says, “Is wisdom a girl?”
Maxwell says, “It’s like when guys name their boats or horses after a girl.”
Edwards says, “But what if their horse is a girl?”
And Maxwell says, “Or a gun or something.”
“You don’t name a gun.”
“Some people do.”
“People name guns.”
Edwards looks doubtful.
Maxwell adds, “People name their cars.”
I would be telling them to shut up and listen to Solomon but I’m not reading Solomon anymore. I’m listening, because I hear someone moving outside.
Someone’s coming up the path. It has to be Sony, because all the cabins were in and I didn’t hear anyone leave. I set the Bible down and stand.
There’s a flashlight swinging. There’s two.
“Stay here.” I go outside.
Max comes to the door. “What is it?”
I turn back to him. “Read Solomon.”
Max picks up the Bible. “Guys.”
“What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Max says. “Let’s get these vespers done.”
“Yeah, let’s,” Edwards groans, “if we all have to do polar bear.”
Max continues reading.
Oscar’s cabin has flashlight in it. Blake’s and Brian’s are dark. I go toward the path.
It’s girls’ voices.
Girls aren’t allowed past The Turn in The Road. If this is campers, they better not be Maddy’s. Visions of Maddy in her nest, shooting up, reading Ezekiel.
I listen. They’ve stopped talking.
“Who’s that?” I say.
I go further to them. This better not be campers. I’m not in the mood to take the path all the way back to The Turn in the Road.
The lights shine on me.
“Hey, Matt.” It’s Marcy’s voice.
“What’s going on?”
Marcy’s light is at her feet. There’s no bandage. She doesn’t have her crutches.
“How’s your foot?”
“All better,” she says. She doesn’t seem happy.
“I thought you were supposed to use the crutches for a week.”
“It feels better. The pool helped, actually.” Marcy’s face is somber.
It’s Julie Jane with her. Both their flashlights point at the ground. Julie Jane’s cheeks are hanging low. The shape of her mouth is tense. Julie Jane is in her pajamas. Pink felt balloons from her boots, which are unlaced. Her hair is partway down, blond strings falling from what’s left of a ponytail.
Marcy switches off her light. Julie shines hers on my feet. A spider crawls across my bare foot, pauses on the big toe, and continues on. His eyes glow green in Julie Jane’s flashlight and he has a single white dot in the middle of his back.
Julie Jane says, “That’s poisonous.”
I say, “Only if they bite you.”
Marcy says, “Were you doing vespers?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Reading..Solomon..what’s going on?”
Julie shines her light on PeeWee cabin door. Maxwell, Tislam, Edwards, Pierce, all pressed against the screen.
“Go back to Solomon,” I shout.
“So,” Marcy says, “We need you to come back to camp.”
“Yeah. There’s a problem. We need to have a counsellor meeting.”
“Well. Earlier tonight..”
“Is this about Maddy?”
“Yes.” Julie looks at me. It’s one of those moments that lasts forever.
“Are you looking for Maddy?” I ask. “Or do you know where she is.”
Marcy’s looking at me like I’m crazy. “Maddy’s at camp.”
“Yeah. But one of her campers..while we were at the pool..” Marcy stops.
“Yes,” Julie Jane says. “But one of her campers..while we were at the pool. You know Mai?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Mai says she was raped.”
“So we need to get you and Blake and Brian and Oscar and have a meeting to decide what to do.”
“When did she say this?”
“Just now. She told Maddy.”
“Where is Maddy?”
“She’s with Mai.”
“Who raped her?”
“That’s what she says.”
“What did she say exactly?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did she say.”
“Maddy said that Mai said that..he put his dick in her mouth.”
“She said he forced it there, or..she said he put it there? I’m sorry. I hope you don’t think that’s a dumb male thing of me to say, but, I mean..”
“No, it matters. She said she said forced. But listen. That’s not all they did.”
“Can you get Blake and Oscar. If Brian or one of them wants to stay here with the campers,” Julie Jane says, “maybe that would be appropriate.”
My hand is over my mouth. “Holy fuck. When did this happen?” I take my hand away.
“At the pool.”
“Mai, though? Mai was at the pool,” I say.
“I know,” Marcy says. “After the pool. After we left. When Maddy got back to her cabin Mai wasn’t with them. Mai told Maddy. Who’s cabin is Jamison in?” she asks.
“Well maybe Blake should stay here, then.”
I look back at my cabin. My campers are listening.
I look at Marcy and Julie Jane. Now my mouth is making the same shape as Julie Jane’s.
“I’ll get Oscar and Brian.”
“He’s probably dreaming about raping innocent girls.”
“That’s gonna be the last dream he ever has.”
“I don’t believe that bitch did that.”
“He’s dead now.”
“That’s what he is. He’s a fucking bitch.”
“He’s a dead man now.”
“He’s probably in there dreaming about raping her. He’s probably in there planning who he’s going to do it to next. If he even thinks about touching her—”
“Chill, man. Chill. He’s not going to be thinking much longer.”
“And by the way,” Edwards says, “you can measure the cost of a life.”
“No, but if he did.”
“If he did..”
“You add up the cost of each of the elements, when you die. The chemicals. You figure out the price of carbon..”
“No motherfucker messes with the girls in Rainbow cabin.”
“He’s dead. He’s dead. That’s all I can say.”
“Like car parts. You add it up and that’s how much it’s worth.”
“Are they gonna send him home?”
“They don’t have to send him home. They better not send him home.”
“They’re gonna send him home. They have to send him home.”
“No they’re not.”
“‘Cause,” Maxwell says, “we’re gonna kill the motherfucker.”
Edwards is still talking. “Also, for your information there is one other way to measure how much someone’s life is worth, in dollars. You add up the money he makes, in his whole life, and that’s how much he’s worth. For example, if you take my dad—”
“We don’t want to hear about your dad,” Maxwell says. And he doesn’t.
“That fucker is dead.”
“He’s not gonna wake up tomorrow.”
“Fuck yeah. We’re gonna kill that bitch in his sleep.”
“Edwards. Is this guy dead or is he dead?”
“I think,” Edwards says, “it’s time for this asshole to experience throat-fucking first hand.”
“Well,” Max says, “This is your chance. T. You got the shit?”
“Yeah,” Tislam says. “Let’s go.”
Continue to Camp Lake—Part 3