Return to Camp Lake—Part 2
“Blake, you in there?”
“Yeah. What’s up.”
“You got all your campers in there?”
Blake switches on his light. “Yeah.”
“Okay, keep it that way. We’re going down the meeting hall will you keep an eye on PeeWee and Deerfoot.”
Sound of Blake’s feet on the boards. He’s at the screen. “Where are you going?”
“Hold on. Let me get my shoes.”
“You’re not coming.”
I can see Marcus back there. I shine my light in. Jamison is on the bunk above Marcus.
Blake pushes the screen door open. He steps down. I put my hand on his chest.
I whisper. “Make sure nobody leaves. You and Brian. Nobody. We’ll be back in an hour.”
“What’s up.” Blake says.
I don’t answer him. I hate that expression.
“What’s up,” Blake is saying.
I hiss back. “Don’t worry about it just..keep everyone here.”
“Matthew. Matt,” he says. “I need to know what’s going on.”
“No you don’t,” I say.
And me and Oscar head to the path.
It’s Marcy, me, Oscar, Julie Jane.
“What happened to Brian?”
“Left him there.”
“Did you tell Blake?”
“No. Jamison was there. I just told them to watch everybody.”
“What about your cabins?”
“My cabin is asleep,” Oscar says.
“No, they are.”
“What about PeeWee cabin?” Marcy asks.
“They’re fine,” I say. “PeeWee cabin takes care of itself.”
They were dressed in tiger gear, commando gear, they had black from head to foot. Only Maxwell wore red Converse. The others had known to bring black shoes. Black Nikes with the black swooshes in black relief. Black Asics. Black Skechers. The heads of their flashlights were wrapped in black socks. Only a tiny hole poked in each sock let light out.
They weren’t taking anyone from any other cabin. It went against the rules of engagement. It was completely untactical. It involved too many people. It would get them caught. The other boys wouldn’t stop them but they couldn’t have anyone extra knowing about their operation.
Plausible deniability. Maxwell had heard that on TV.
Maxwell, Tislam, Pierce, and Edwards fell out of PeeWee Cabin in single file. Edwards did a somersault and landed on one knee. He had seen that in militia training videos online. The Taliban didn’t have anything on American militia. And the American militia didn’t have anything on Edwards. Edwards was prepared. He had brought mountain climbing gear. He had brought smoke bombs. He had brought sulfur and charcoal and other ingredients for making bombs. Edwards scraped the black powder out of Estes model rockets and mixed it with ammonia, and finely-mixed baking powder, and paraffin wax. Once boiling wax reaches a certain temperature, you can set it on fire. Edwards knew exactly how to do this, by wrapping layers of wax and tin foil inside 35mm film canisters, and adding his custom ignition fuses, made mostly from the same components as firecrackers.
Maxwell made a fist and gave Tislam the go signal, one quick jerk of his forearm. He tried to make a hand signal to tell Edwards and Pierce to get into position, but they weren’t listening.
Maxwell hissed. “Get—your—asses—back—in—there.”
Pierce and Edwards went back inside the cabin.
Maxwell knelt on the roof. Tislam went to Screwdriver cabin. Edwards and Pierce stood on the beds by the door.
They had seen Blake leave, seen him head along the path holding his flashlight.
Then Tislam went to Blake’s cabin and rattled the door. “Yeah. Jamison. Matthew wants to see you. You gotta come to..uh..PeeWee cabin right away.”
Both Jamison and Marcus come to the door.
Tislam shines his light directly in Jamison’s face.
The screen door bangs shut on Screwdriver cabin. Tislam and Jamison head away from Lamborghini and past Deerfoot cabin, back to the first cabin you come to on the path from central camp..PeeWee cabin.
Tislam tries to walk side-by-side but Jamison keeps getting behind him.
“I think you’re the only black person at camp,” Jamison says. “Besides Blake and Brian.”
“That’s very observant,” Tislam says.
“Are there a lot of black people where you come from?” Jamison says.
Tislam doesn’t answer.
“I bet you go to a school with all black people. There’s prob’ly..like..two white people at your school.”
Tislam doesn’t like having Jamison behind him. He slows down, but Jamison slows too.
“I bet white people don’t even want to work at your school. Is your principal black?”
Tislam turns off his flashlight. “We’re here,” he says.
“Matthew, what do you want? I heard you want to talk to me.”
Tislam and Jamison stand in darkness in front of PeeWee cabin.
“Go on in. He’s waiting for you.”
“Gimme your light.”
Tislam shines his light on the bottom of the door of PeeWee cabin. “Go on in.”
“He’s not in there.”
“Yes he is.”
“If he’s not in there I’m’onna beat your ass.” Jamison steps up to the door of PeeWee cabin. He pulls the handle. It’s locked. Jamison turns around. Tislam’s flashlight is on him. Jamison starts to say “I’m gonna—”
But a board comes down, a four-foot piece of firewood, and clocks Jamison in the front of the head.
We cross The Turn in the Road. It’s 11:15 p.m. by my watch. I’m in flip-flops. Julie Jane is in pink pajamas and boots. Marcy has a red flannel shirt on. Oscar is fully dressed, wearing a baseball cap. Lights in the girls area are on. Flashlights in every cabin.
“Who’s in there?”
“Meeting hall. Don’t worry. Do you want me to do a head count?”
“No,” I say. “Let’s make this quick though.”
Jamison’s head goes back against the screen. Maxwell jumps off the roof. Jamison is conscious. The PeeWee cabin door opens. Pierce and Edwards come out. Maxwell is on top of Jamison. Pierce hits Jamison in the side of the head. Edwards holds Jamison’s feet. Maxwell has the nylon strap. He wraps it around Jamison’s head and Tislam holds Jamison’s head in the dirt while Maxwell pulls the strap tight. He takes one end of it and circles it backward around Jamison’s face. The strap cuts Jamison’s lips. Tislam has the log now. Jamison’s feet come loose. He kicks Pierce in the chest. Pierce falls backward. Tislam brings the log down on Jamison’s head. It hardly makes a sound and it bounces off.
“Whoah. Whoah. That’s good,” Maxwell says. “Tie his arms.”
When we go in Sony and Piglet are standing in odd poses, completely still.
“Is that tai chi?”
They break their poses.
Sony says, “Where is Blake?”
“He’s watching campers. Him and Brian.”
“Everyone accounted for?”
“When we left,” I say.
Sony says, “What happened?”
Marcy says, “Mai told Maddy..you know Mai, that little Vietnamese girl..?”
“I know her.”
“Maddy says Mai was left behind when we were at the pool..and Jamison..was there too.”
“Did they have sex?”
“We’re pretty sure,” Marcy says.
“And she didn’t want to?”
“Maddy gets back to the pool, Mai is crying. They were in the pool shed!!”
“You saw it?”
“Maddy did. She told me. We need to take Jamison home.”
“I will take him home if need be. But,” Sony says, “if he raped her, then we need to call the police.”
“Get him in the woods.”
“Where are we taking him?”
“Up the path.”
“Where? Back to camp?”
“No. Up this way. Shut up!” Max says. “We’re going over this hill. Jamison.” Max shakes his head. “We’re gonna teach you a lesson.”
Max pokes Jamison with the log. Pierce holds one of his arms. Edwards holds the flashlight with a sock over it. They can hardly see where they’re going. Tislam is in front.
“To the top of the hill,” Maxwell says.
“I can’t see shit.”
“You can use your light,” Maxwell says. “No one’s up here.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Max says.
And Tislam turns on his light. Max sees the five of them, Jamison easily the tallest. They’re in the middle of the woods. No one is going to find them up here.
“A little further up that way.” Max points. “We wanna make sure no one can hear us.”
“She said what?”
“I don’t believe it.” That’s the Indelible Julie Jane.
I say, “You don’t believe it?”
“No,” she says, “I don’t.”
“Well we have to take it seriously whether we believe it or not. Why don’t you believe it?”
“Because. He doesn’t seem like the type.”
“Okay,” Piglet says, “it doesn’t matter.”
“I’m not asking you to believe me. I’m just telling my intuition.”
“Which I respect. I respect. But that’s not the issue.”
Marcy says, “Why do you think she would lie?”
“Look, it doesn’t matter if she’s lying. We need to get a doctor and have her checked out.”
Julie Jane has her phone out. “We need to call the police.”
“I thought you said you didn’t believe her.”
“I don’t. But we need to call them anyway.”
“Shouldn’t we call her parents?”
“Matthew, you’re second after Blake. It’s your job to handle this.”
“I know. I know. Just. Put the phone down. Give me a second.”
“Dammit, dammit, dammit.” Julie slams her fist. “This was preventable.”
“You can’t keep your eye on everybody all the time,” Sony says.
Julie is crying.
Sony hugs her. “You’re doing a good job.”
“This is not a good job.”
Sony gets his phone out. He looks at me. “Maybe we should get Jamison down here.”
“I’ll go get him.”
“Was anyone else there? Did anyone else see it?”
“I don’t think so,” Marcy says.
And Julie says, “Want me to get Mai?”
“Let’s talk to Jamison first.”
“I’ll be right back,” I say, and I go to the door, but when I open it, there’s Pastor Blake Ramsey.
“Dude,” I say, “what the fuck.”
Blake strolls into the meeting hall. “If you’re having a meeting without me,” he says, “I’d at least like to know what it’s about.”
I’m at the cabin. Lights are out. It’s way too quiet, and I know when I open the door what I’m going to find.
Shine my light around.
Shoes are gone. Boots are gone. Backpacks are missing.
Pillowcases are missing.
They sit him down at the top of the hill. This is where Kristen and Maxwell came when they stole Maddy’s mushrooms. Tislam shines his light on all sides of them. The hill descends, trees come together, and it’s just dark.
They have Jamison kneeling. There is bark on his face, and dirt, but he isn’t bleeding. His hands are tied with shoelaces and fishing line. The nylon strap gagging him. His hair is slick.
He looks like a rapist to Max.
“You know we’re gonna kill you, right?” Max stands right in front of Jamison. “You know that.” Max says, “Tie him to the tree.”
“Tie him to that fat birch right there and Pierce, you watch him, you and Edwards watch him. Tislam. Come here.”
Edwards has the rope. He and Pierce walk Jamison to the birch, and, with Jamison’s back against the tree, they start lashing 8,000 lb. tensile strength climbing rope around Jamison and the tree.
“You’re gonna be here a while, Jamison, you fucking faggot. Do you have to pee? If you have to pee just go in your pants.” Edwards is shining his flashlight in Jamison’s face.
Pierce is on Jamison’s other side. They’ve got Jamison lashed so hard to the tree he can hardly breathe. “Put a blindfold on him.”
Edwards takes off his bag. “Let me see what I’ve got. Oh. Here we go.” Edwards stands up. He’s got a pillowcase. He hands his light to Pierce. “Hold this. Let’s lock this fucker down.”
Pierce takes the light.
Edwards puts the pillowcase over Jamison’s head. He ties the bottom in a knot. “Max, what do we got in store for this guy? You want me to take his pants off?” Edwards kicks Jamison—literally kicks his ass. “You want me to fuck this guy’s asshole with a stick?” Edwards breaks a stick over his knee. He pokes Jamison through the pillowcase with one half of it. “When I stick this stick up your ass,” he says, “you better not shit on it.” He presses the stick harder. “If you shit on it, I’ll stick that shit in your mouth. What are we gonna do, Maxwell? Tell me the plan. I’m ready to fucking fuck this bitch.”
“Just hold on a second.” Maxwell is talking with Tislam.
Edwards leans into Jamison. “Be glad it’s not me who’s deciding your fate—”
“Yeah, be glad,” Pierce says.
“If it was me,” Edwards says, “I’d cut your head off and skullfuck you with nine inches of—”
Pierce is laughing. “You don’t want this guy to skullfuck you.”
“Max what’s the plan I’m about to decapitate this bitch.”
“Don’t decapitate anybody,” Max says. Max and Tislam come over. “Is he tied real tight?” Max says.
“Feel this rope! There’s no way this fucker can get out of this thing.”
“Do you have more rope?” Max asks.
Edwards pats his bag.
“How much more do you have?”
Edwards pulls out a knife.
“Jesus, what is that?”
“It’s so I can decapitate this motherfucker.”
“Gimme that,” Tislam says.
Max touches its edge. It’s comically serrated, with insane curly spikes cut into the backside of the blade. “Don’t decapitate anyone.”
“Why not.” Edwards kicks Jamison. “I want this bitch to feel what it’s like getting skullfucked—”
Maxwell laughs. He likes the idea of Jamison getting skullfucked. “If you skullfuck him after you decapitate him,” Max says, “then he won’t be able to enjoy it.” Max laughs again. His laugh is uncontrollable. It embarrasses him. You’re not supposed to laugh when you have someone tied to a tree. “Here’s what I want,” Max says. “I want you three to stay here with him until I get back, and I want you to do absolutely nothing to him. Make sure he’s breathing.” Max goes to Jamison. “Can you breathe under there you—”
Jamison makes a noise. It’s an inarticulate moan.
Maxwell whispers in Jamison’s ear. “You raped Mai? You fucked up when you did that. You fucked up. You can do anything you want but when you rape a girl..that we go to camp with..Mai is my friend..Kristen is my friend..if you cross that line..” Max presses his face into the pillowcase. “That’s a line that, when you cross it, will cost you to come back. That’s where you are now, you—”
Tislam is pulling Maxwell back.
“That’s a line you do not cross,” Maxwell says. Maxwell looks down at his arm. There is blood on it, scratches from the struggle after jumping off the roof. He wipes the blood off. “Stay here ‘till I get back. No exceptions.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to get the people,” Maxwell says, “who are going to pass down judgement on this motherfucker.”
Edwards howls to the sky. “Oooooo-oooo!”
“Shush. Be in silence. I swear to fucking God. If he’s not here when I get back. If any of you are not here, I’m gonna fucking kill somebody. Tislam. You’re in charge. No offense to you guys but Tislam has to be the last word.”
Maxwell bends down to tighten his shoelaces.
“Who are you gonna get?”
“Who do you think,” Maxwell says. “Rainbow cabin.”
The Art of War had said it best:
Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest.
Max’s run was a demon run. He kept the flashlight on. He ran. He did not care if he broke his leg. When he came to a fallen trunk, he lept. He soared. He landed on the other side. It was downhill. If he cut his face, on this run, it would be an honor.
Flashlights were on in all of the girls cabins. Max crept into their area. He went straight to its center, where the flagpole was. He put his back against the flagpole. He could see into every cabin, just by turning his head.
A figure came to the door of Rainbow cabin. It was Maddy. She looked at him. Maxwell didn’t move. Maddy opened the door. She had Mai with her. Maddy and Mai came out of Rainbow cabin. They went down the steps.
Maddy has her arm around Mai. She has her flashlight on. They go for the entrance to the girls area. Maddy doesn’t see him.
He’s right here. Maddy is sixty feet away. Maybe a hundred. She doesn’t see him.
Maddy and Mai exit the girls area.
Maxwell walks right up to Rainbow cabin.
He opens the door.
Liz, Jennifer, Erica, Kristen: all looking at him like what the fuck.
Kristen comes over to Maxwell. “You won’t believe what happened.”
“So how are we gonna get up there?”
“We walk. That’s where I just came from.”
“You have him up there?”
“I don’t know about this.”
“No,” Erica says, “You’re going. You’re fucking going.”
“All we have to do,” I peer out their door, “is get past the counsellors.”
“It’s not a problem,” Erica says, “They’re all gone.”
“Then let’s go before Maddy comes back.”
“What should we bring?” Kristen says.
Maxwell says, “Batteries.”
Kristen is next to Maxwell. She’s shooting her eyes toward Maddy’s bed. “What should we bring.”
Maxwell looks at Maddy’s mattress. “You guys we gotta go now.”
Jennifer pops up her hood. The sweatshirt is all black. Liz is out the door. Jennifer is out the door. Erica is out the door. Maxwell is out the door and Kristen reaches under Maddy’s mattress and grabs the bloody Saran wrap. She shoves it in her kanga pocket. She’s out the door.
“Flashlights off,” Maxwell says.
Katherine leans out of Buttercup cabin. “What are you guys doing?”
“This way,” Maxwell says.
Liz says, “I can’t see.”
Katherine steps farther out of the cabin but she doesn’t have a light. She squints behind her glasses to try to see exactly who it is that’s slinking through the darkness toward the edge of the wood.
“Maddy, Maddy, bring Mai. We gotta go on a little expedition.” I shine my light inside Rainbow cabin, then step back down into the courtyard.
Katherine comes out of Buttercup. She’s wearing a nightgown.
Katherine says, “Meeting hall.”
“What the fuck,” I say. “Is everyone in your cabin?”
Katherine nods. “Rainbow cabin left,” she says.
“Where did they go?”
Katherine lifts her arm. She points at the woods.
“Katherine,” I say, “Will you please keep an eye on everyone?”
“Sure,” she says.
“Actually, fuck that.” I approach Buttercup cabin. “Get your shoes on.”
I open the door to the meeting hall. I hold it open. In goes April cabin, Star cabin, Buttercup cabin, fourteen girls in all. I count each one. Karen. Arianne. Morgan. McKenzie. Most are dressed. Some are in pajamas. All carry Bibles and flashlights. All are wearing socks and shoes. Katherine brings up the rear. Then I go in.
Marcy, Julie Jane, Piglet, Maddy, Oscar, Blake, Brian, Sony, Mai: all staring at the procession.
The door closes behind me.
Maddy stands up. “Where’s my cabin?”
“They’re in the woods.” I say it cheerfully. “Blake. You wanna go get your cabin? Get everyone. Get Brian.”
Blake is glaring at me. He doesn’t like to be spoken to this way in front of campers. That’s why I’m doing it.
“Don’t worry about PeeWee cabin,” I say. “Or Jamison.”
“Oh fuck. I got a thorn in my leg. Guys. Thorns.”
Maxwell switches on his light.
Liz has some minor scratches.
“Use your light. But hurry. We gotta go.”
“How far up here is it?”
“Remember where we went that day?”
“It’s not that far, Erica.”
“You sure they can’t see our lights?”
“No,” Maxwell says, “There’s no way.”
“Nothing’s going to jump out at us, is it?”
“Not unless Pierce and Edwards can’t tie a knot.”
“Oh, don’t fuck around like that.”
“Nothing’s going to jump out at us.”
“Now all I can think of is Jamison running loose in these woods.”
“Don’t worry. Pierce, Edwards, Tislam. They have him tied to a tree.”
“They tied him to a tree?”
“Yeah. He’s not running free. Trust me. I hit that fucker in the face with a log.”
“How much farther is it?”
“It’s right up here.”
“Are you sure you know how to get back to them?”
“Guys. I can’t breathe.”
“Take a break. You okay?”
“I just can’t breathe.”
“Okay. It’s no hurry. Let’s slow down.”
“I need to stop for a minute.”
“How much further is it?”
“Liz, it’s right up here. Can you make it?”
“How far..away..did you have to..bring him?”
“Just where no one can hear us.”
“We’re not gonna do anything bad to him, are we?”
“No,” Maxwell says, “We’re just gonna scare him.”
“How are we going to scare him?”
“If you don’t feel good about this,” Kristen says, “I’ll go back with you. Or Jennifer can.”
“I’m not going back.”
“I’m not going back either. I’m just out of shape. I’m sorry I can’t climb a hill like you guys—”
“Don’t worry about it—”
“But I just want to know,” Liz pants, “What are we going to do to scare him?”
“We’re just going to freak him out,” Kristen says, but she’s thinking of the syringes. She can’t let anyone but Max know about them. But they could use them, they could. Kristen’s aunt is a nurse. Kristen knows how to give a shot. Of course Kristen doesn’t want to kill him. She hopes Max brought the mushrooms. They could give Jamison a whole bunch and turn him psychotic. Then they can deny everything. And even the other kids will later testify that nothing happened, because she and Max can do it in secret. They will feed him the mushrooms. If they give him the shot, they might give him too much. Kristen doesn’t want to make him feel good. She also doesn’t want to kill him. Maybe they will just stick him with the needles, and not inject anything. If Maddy has AIDS Jamison will get AIDS. But Maddy probably doesn’t have AIDS. They can stick a needle in his eye, like in the song. Kristen can’t get it out of her head. Maybe that is exactly what they will do: cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.
Maybe that’s what they will do.
This time it’s me in front of Maddy in the woods.
“We shoulda been over there.”
“We should have been in those cabins—”
“Yeah. I know. Would you please shut up. Just shut up. Let’s deal with..where we are now, okay?” Maddy keeps walking. She’s straying to the right.
I’m shaking my head. “Maddy,” I say.
She says, “You’ve got an attitude today.”
I stop walking and shine my light in every direction. “Fuck.”
“Where did she see them go?”
“The hill. I guess. This hill or..maybe the next one. I think it’s gotta be that way. They could be..over in those fields, you know..”
“Which way are the fields, you mean the pig farmer—”
“What pig farmer?”
“There’s a pig farmer over that way,” Maddy says.
“No there isn’t.”
“Whatever. What fields were you thinking of?”
“Just some corn fields, the corn fields up that way.”
“Okay,” she says, “Let’s go that way.”
“This is bad,” I say. “And what the fuck are you talking about about a pig farmer?”
“He’s been there since we were kids,” Maddy says. “There’s a pig farm. Right over there.”
I’ve never even heard of a pig farm. “Do they grow pigs on a farm?”
“They have to have someplace to eat—”
“Yeah, but a farm?”
“If they raise pigs there,” Maddy says, “I call it a farm.”
“Okay but when I think of farm I think of something with fields, and crops—”
“There are fields—”
“But they don’t grow pigs in them—”
“They have pigs, they have fields,” she says. “I call that a farm.”
“Fuck,” I say. I shine my light in her face. “Why did you leave your cabin?”
She says, “Why did you leave yours?”
“Yeah,” I say, “but if it was only a bunch of boys running around in the woods we wouldn’t have to worry about someone else getting raped.”
“I think they’re going to kill him,” Maddy says.
I lower my light. “I think so too. Let’s go up this hill and maybe over one more hill and then check the..corn fields.” I laugh. “Then let’s go check the fucking..holy shit..is there really a pig farm over there?”
“Giant pigs,” Maddy says.
“Fucking..sows,” she says.
“The reason I left my cabin,” Maddy says.
“Something Mai told me.”
“What did she tell you.”
“She told me her dream.”
When they came upon Tislam and Edwards and Pierce, the boys were quiet.
Max shines his flashlight on Jamison.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing. What took you so long?”
Erica shines her light on the pillowcase. “Is that him?!”
Maxwell says, “Seriously guys, is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Edwards says.
“Did he piss himself?”
Erica looks like she just got her birthday present. “You have seriously got to be fucking kidding me.”
Five flashlights are on Jamison. Black pants. Neon green climbing rope. Black rope around his head. The pillowcase.
“What do you have to say, Jamison?” That’s Erica.
Tislam takes the pillowcase off of Jamison’s head.
Nylon strap, his mouth pried open.
Jamison takes in the sight. Pierce to his right. Edwards and Tislam to his left. Before him, Maxwell, Kristen, Erica, Jennifer, Liz. Liz dressed in black, just her white face peeking from beneath her hood. Maxwell sweating, sticks in his hair, holding one of the lights.
Maxwell says, “Jesus, that log really fucked up your face. Sorry about that, Jamison, I’ll get you some ice in a minute. Don’t go anywhere.” Maxwell runs his hand through his hair.
Kristen steps forward. “You decided to mess with Mai?” She reaches for the nylon strap. “Can I take this off him?”
“I’d prefer you didn’t.”
Max picks a stick out of his hair. He tosses it in Jamison’s face. Jamison blinks, and when he opens his eyes, he’s looking at Maxwell.
“You guys are really fucked up,” Erica says. She’s smiling at Maxwell, then Tislam. “Really. I have a new respect for you. This..” Erica gestures at Jamison. She puts her arm around Liz’s neck. “What is this?”
Liz pushes back her hood. Wisps of auburn hair.
Erica is giving Liz a nuggie.
“It’s a work of art,” Liz says.
“Motherfucking right,” Erica says.
Kristen has her hands on Maxwell’s waist. “I’d do anything for you right now. I’d suck your cock.”
“I’d suck his cock,” Jennifer says. “Aren’t you glad you made it up the hill?”
“Yeah. Oh yeah.” Liz is no longer panting.
Kristen flicks Jamison in the nose. “You fucked up James.”
“It’s Jamison,” you can hear him say through the strap.
But Kristen says, “I think I’ll call you James.”
“When you fuck one girl from Rainbow cabin,” Erica shrieks, “you fuck every girl from Rainbow cabin.”
“Also,” Maxwell says, “when you fuck with Rainbow cabin, you fuck with PeeWee cabin. And that’s not good.”
“No,” Erica says, “That’s not good at all.”
“So what are we gonna do?” Kristen says. “You brought us up here. Are we gonna kick his ass?”
“No,” Maxwell says.
Erica shakes her head and smiles. She looks Jamison in the eyes. You can feel the poison in her veins. Edwards talks about skullfucking. Erica looks like she would do it to you. “I wish Mai could see this. Why didn’t we bring Mai?”
“We’ll bring her up later,” Maxwell says. “For now, I’d like to discuss some things in private.” Max steps to Jamison.
“No,” Max says. And he puts the pillowcase back over Jamison’s head.
She dreamt of a carnival box. It had paint on the sides.
There was a handle. It was specially made for Mai’s hand. Five fingers fit inside it. When she turned, the lid opened, and out came a snake. It was a green garden snake, the color of a blade of grass, and its tongue was pink. The tiny tongue came out to lick her. It licked the back of her hand and tickled. She called her snake Mr. Shy. He liked to hide. She would close the lid on him and he curled up in the dark.
Mr. Shy was napping. Mai didn’t want to wake him. She carried the box with her to school. She set it beside her in the lunchroom. She saved a piece of her sandwich. When she was done, she would feed him the crust. She thought of Mr. Shy’s tongue, and wondered whether snakes ate bread. Strange things could happen when you fed one animal to another animal. For instance, did cats eat poultry?
Mai’s dream went along like this. This is what she told Maddy.
She dreamt her cat ate the snake. Mai was in Rainbow cabin and the wind was howling. The cat was scared. Mai tried to comfort her cat by imitating the wind. She waved her arms and made the wind sound with her mouth. But the cat only became more scared. Mai made whistling sounds with her mouth. Her hair flowed, suspended in water. Mai breathed into the kitten’s mouth so she could stay alive.
Kittens could not breathe underwater. Where was Mr. Shy? Mai told Maddy she was no good at taking care of pets. The kitten licked its paw. Mai’s hair was bathing the kitten, reaching out like octopus arms, to get the kitten clean. The kitten loved Mai’s hair, and rubbed against it. They forgot to invite Mr. Shy to the party. Mai swam to the surface. But she could no longer breather underwater.
The kitty’s lungs began to shrivel. Mr. Shy swam into Mai’s mouth.
And Mai swallowed him.
It was Kristen and Maxwell’s job to find the snake. They took Edwards’ pillowcase. Each had a flashlight. They went slowly, so the snakes wouldn’t hear them.
Maxwell would shine his light above them, then turn it off. That’s where they expected to find them, in the trees. Max had seen them hiding there.
That’s where they sunned. That’s where they stayed to be out of danger. They could intertwine there, pairs of them, and mate.
Maxwell turned his light on. Empty branches, shades of gray. He turned it off.
He and Kristen held hands sometimes. Kristen’s hand was cold. Max shined his light on her. She looked smaller than usual. There was a shroud around her eyes.
Maxwell turned off his light.
They had decided they would loose the spirit of the devil on the rapist.
They had decided they would cleanse him.
They had decided to help.
They decided he would eat the snake. It would be a competition. Jamison would hold the snake. And they would make him bite it. They would see who got bit the most.
“That’s fitting, don’t you think? Whoever lets his snake loose, gets a snake loosed on him.” Maxwell had been laughing. He had the pillowcase in his hand. In Maxwell’s mind, this was an ancient tradition, invented in the middle east, in north Africa. Some ancient people in what is now Morocco, doing this as a sign of manhood. Or maybe entertainment to be had with prisoners. At night, at campfire, after they had had their feast and before they went to their tents to be alone with their favorite women, they would bind a prisoner’s hands to the belly of a snake. Then they would remove the blindfold from the man and the bag from the snake’s head. And they would see which one could bite the other first.
Maxwell had bound Jamison’s hands. He had made them nice and tight. They wouldn’t do the snake thing right when they got back. First they would pull down his pants and the girls would ridicule him. As a general rule, you don’t ever want to leave justice in the hands of the victim. It’s the equivalent of going to the grocery store hungry.
They went in silence. There was nothing to say. There would be no making out. There would be no discussion. They had forgotten where they came from, forgotten who they were. Their job was to hunt the snake. That was it.
They forgot about camp. They forgot about their parents. They forgot about their brothers and sisters. They had never known home. There was no Philadelphia, and no daylight. There was only this hill, and somewhere on it, a snake.
Max wanted a big one. For what they had in mind, a big one would be best. He imagined a meaty fat viper from Peru. Hopefully they could find something satisfactory here. He held Kristen’s hand, stopped, and turned on the light.
Kristen was screaming.
Maxwell was saying, “Oh / Oh,” repulsed.
Neither one was afraid. They were heightened.
Both had their lights on it and it was squirming. They had found it in a tree.
It wasn’t trying to bite them. It was trying to run away.
But Max had it in his hands, squeezing the neck, and Kristen was helping him turn the pillowcase inside-out.
They had become untouchable. They had gone beyond. If they could catch this snake, they could do anything. They could live in the woods. They could stay up here for weeks. Max and Kristen would have sex for the first time in these woods, in the trees, like the snakes. Teaching Jamison was just a first step. Everything had to change. All the laws and all the customs. Everything was wrong. They weren’t going to fix it. They were going to make a couple of adjustments.
“We can probably even get Maddy and Matthew to come up here.”
“Yeah. We can.” Kristen’s voice was a hiss.
She stopped Maxwell in the woods and when she stuck her tongue down him it was like a tentacle, or a vine.
Max’s fingers on Kristen’s neck were dark. Black nails. If he wanted to bite her, he could bite her chin, her lips.
He could bite them off.
And she would love it.
“When did you have this dream?”
“You’ve been back to sleep?”
Mai’s eyes thwarted each other. Mai was one of those girls who can move each eye independently. One eye was crossed. The other was straight.
“You went to sleep just now?”
“Are you hurting?”
Mai looked away. She looked at her mattress.
Maddy whispered, “Do you want to talk to me outside? If he hurt you..we need to get you to a doctor.”
Mai looked at the ceiling. She wouldn’t look at Maddy.
“Did you really have that dream just now?”
“I’m not a dream interpreter.”
“You don’t have to be,” Maddy says.
I shout into the darkness. “Maxwell! Jamison!”
Maddy is next to me.
“Tislam? You out there?”
Nothing. The sound of Maddy breathing.
“So she made up the dream.”
“She wasn’t even sleeping.”
“So what else did she make up.”
“He didn’t rape her?”
“I don’t even think Jamison was at the pool.”
“Marcy said you saw him and Mai in the pool shed.”
“Mai was in the pool shed.”
“She was crying.”
“Why was she crying then?”
“Maybe she freaked herself out.”
“Did she say Jamison raped her?”
“Yes, she said that.”
“She said they had sex.”
“Yes, that’s what she told me.”
“But you think something else happened.”
“I just think,” Maddy says, “that if she lied to me about her dream, she might be making things up about Jamison too.”
“So did you ask her point blank if it was rape?”
“I’m not even sure they had sex,” Maddy says.
I look up into the darkness.
“Maybe we should go back,” Maddy says.
“Maybe they went back to their cabins.”
“This is awesome,” I say. “I bet you’re glad you drove up from Florida for this shit. I love Camp Lake. Tomorrow we’re going to have a dead Jamison and..who knows what the fuck Rainbow cabin and PeeWee cabin are doing right now.”
“Maybe Jamison’s somewhere else. Maybe he’s not with them.”
“Maybe. I have no idea where else to look.”
“I don’t either,” Maddy says.
I say, “I think we should call the police.”
“I can’t wait to tell the parents this when they come on Saturday. We killed your kids and by the way, here’s my address in jail. Do you have any more of that stuff?”
“Are you serious?”
“Maybe. Yeah, I’m serious. Why the fuck not. Fuck fuck fuck.”
“We’ll find them,” Maddy says. “You wanna go back to the cabins? See if they’re there?”
“Yeah,” I say.
There was singing. Coming through the woods and there was singing. It was Erica, it was even Edwards, it was Liz, Pierce, Jennifer. Tislam is standing. Jamison is uncovered. Tislam is leading them. They’re chanting.
It’s not words. It’s low, low sounds. Like whining. A deep wailing.
Jamison’s eyes are on them, and they dart to Kristen and Maxwell. Then his eyes go to the pillowcase.
Max and Kristen sit in the circle. Max puts the pillowcase before them. They do not need to ask what the group is doing. Erica takes Kristen’s hand.
Max and Kristen chanted, too.
Jamison’s eyes were locked on the group. He couldn’t move his hands. There was no way he was getting out of this. What was in the pillowcase?
If it was what they said, he’s in trouble.
Something was wrong with these kids.
Erica’s doing the ritual. It’s the ritual of sticks. Pierce is beside her. Erica breaks them, stacks them. She puts them in her mouth. She eats them. Tislam is praying. Edwards is singing too. They have never met each other, but they have met each other now. Jennifer holds the light; Liz goes to the prisoner. She takes off her sweatshirt and places the hood over Jamison’s face. Maxwell is writing in the dirt with strange writing, writing none of them have ever seen before.
And Kristen’s chanting low.
The viper is moving. The captive does not want to die. He doesn’t think about it logically. He doesn’t think there’s no way that could be an African pit viper. He just thinks of the pillowcase, and he thinks of it moving. And when they shook the bag, he saw the thing inside it strike. He thinks of himself receiving that strike. He thinks of people dying, bitten by the snake. He’ll be alone. Then this crazy thing will rise up and bite him in the face, then he’ll lie here dying in Pennsylvania.
That was how Jamison was going to die. But once someone found them these fuckers were going to jail. Who knows, they might decide to help him once they saw that he was really dying. It didn’t look like they would. But they might.
I come upon them singing.
They’re singing in the woods. The final verse. A hymn.
Running out, seeping through the trees.
Seep into the roots.
Someone’s turned our hourglass over, and it’s almost empty now. Almost empty.
Night eclipse. And children singing.
Her voice rises like blue smoke into the trees. She is a fire. She is burning herself. The song is ash.
And spark. Embers.
Rise into the trees.
Her song curdles, aches, reaches for flight, sinks, dives deeper, gets eaten by a whale.
And rises again.
Something is moving inside the pillowcase.
“You know what this is, Jamison? This is an African pit viper. This fucker is mad. We’re gonna let it out. When we let it out it’s gonna kill you.”
Maddy lifts her mattress. I shine my light.
“Did you move your shit?”
She lowers the mattress.
“Did you move it somewhere? Maybe you forgot? Is it in the woods?”
Maddy is speechless.
“Maybe it’s in your car.”
“It’s not in my car.”
Maddy walks out of Rainbow cabin. She lets the screen door slam behind her. I’m sitting on someone’s bed, my light shining through the screen. I hear Maddy curse. She’s looking at the stars.
Maybe it’s more addictive than I thought. All I can think about is wanting to get high.
Something was terribly wrong.
The children had stopped speaking.
Everything they said was in the eyes.
When they looked at each other, the eyes spoke. Complete messages. Plans. Understanding.
Kristen imagined the face. It was with them now.
Kristen fed Max a leaf. He ate it.
Pierce put sticks on Edward’s lap. Then they all did sticks, and they put dirt in their hands. And they let it run through like the hourglass. Erica spat on Jennifer, and Jennifer spat on Liz. They rubbed the spit together with the dirt. They made handprints on the pillowcase.
Then they took their clothes off.
And they danced.
They danced on Jamison. They danced in pairs. They danced off alone.
Then Kristen danced in the middle of them all, and they formed a circle.
And they knew in the eye-language what they would do next. Jamison would be there, but they weren’t there to teach Jamison a lesson anymore.
They weren’t there for Jamison at all.
Jamison was there for them.
In a circle they gathered. And they only spoke the eye-language. In the eye-language they decided there would be no more speech. In the eye-language they said that only the eye-language was allowed. If they ever had to speak again, they could leave the eye-language behind them. That other world was not welcome here.
Even Jamison spoke the eye-language. It was the only language he could speak.
They made a circle.
They looked at Jamison. The eye-language said: should we cover up his face?
Then the eye-language said: no, we want him to see it.
We want him to see it. He will..must to..watch. We will eat here. We will wipe our hair. Our eyelashes will be thorns and there will be tears, secreted from the pores. If anyone speaks they will be forced to leave. They will leave forever. If they leave they will never be spoken to again. Not in this forest. Not in any. The eye-language is absolute. It has been here all along. It was there when you were born and it will be here after you die. The word-language is low-resolution. The word-language is for babies. It is farce. It will solve nothing. The word-language is a cat’s cradle. The eye-language sees. It sees. The eye-language sees, and seeing is without time. Seeing is before time, during time, and after time. Seeing is still. It is complete. It is not sequential. When the eye-language talks, there is no discussion. There is no back-and-forth. The eye-language is still, a moment, all at once. It knows the future now. It remembers the past forever. The eye-language is incapable of argument, disagreement, confusion.
In the eye-language killing is the same as kissing. In the eye-language there are no fools, or fiends, or fear. It is all the same.
The eye-language wants you to lie down. The eye-language wants you to touch her hair. The eye-language wants your eyelashes on the ground. The eye-language wants dirt. It wants more dirt. The eye-language says to pray without words. The eye-language says to scream. Now join. Now come apart. Now go. Now come back. We will protect you. We will keep secrets. We will never tell.
We have done this before.
You are not the first.
You are not the last.
This space is impenetrable. Nothing can come upon you.
No power can overshadow you.
We brought you here not to be afraid. Do you feel fear? Can you be destroyed? We brought you here not to be terrified, but to be terrible.
And now you feel it.
Simplicity, terror. Simple. And nothing is like it. Now you see the eye. And every eye sees every eye. Every neck breathes into every neck. Every tentacle that feeds, is fed by another until there are no tentacles, only feeding; until there are no necks, only breathing; and until there are no eyes, only sight.
That is when you will see.
And you will make him see.
Open up now, let him see it.
Open up now, let him see.
Are there watchers, watching the watchers? There are only watchers. Put his hood upon him. Sink him into dark and sing. Sing so that he won’t forget where he is and not be there when you take his hood off. He needs to be reminded. Remind him of the sting. Make him always hold it. Tie it to his hands. Keep it in the bag.
Pluck his eyelash. Let it bleed.
And you shall call him Snake Biter.
That shall be his name.
He is the one who bites the snake and that shall be his name. But show him love. Show him how to love the right way. Show him Kristen cumming. Show that with love. Show it hard. Show him something he will never have. Show it extreme. Show simplicity. Show uninflected love. Show without word or color or sound. Now show him how to love without touch. No touching. Show love with no touching. Show what it means to be shameless. Show love, and kiss the one who holds the snake. Show him in your eyes what his name is. Show him his name in your eyes. And everyone do it. Kiss him on the cheek. Then show him his name. Then the next person go. Then we make our circle. We brush with hands. We cry with hair. We make our fingers knots. We braid our legs. We poke vision with eyes and pry clenched jaws with teeth dyed, we ink, plunge, terrify.
When my hand is on your neck your neck is still. We bite, we rearrange.
And you can untie the snake now. Untie the knot. Let him see it coming. Let him try to dodge. Let the snake only want peace yet lock him to war.
And let me put this in you. This is honey. Honey to your veins.
And lie with me in leaves. Bathe with me..in branches..
Watch the viper strike him. Know that it is right.
Watch him bleed. Watch his face swell.
Then give him honey, too.
Let him not care.
Let him vomit in the woods. Watch him with the eye-language and let him sit beside you. He is holy too and he has crossed back over the line. He has returned. He has crossed twice, and now sits with us, and all is reset.
Give me more of the honey. Give me honey here. I have no need of clothes. Honey, oh; and give it to everyone. Keep us honey; keep us sweet.
But always call him Snake Biter. Make him remember his name.
Give Snake Biter more honey. Ease his pain.
Stop talking outside the eye-language. What are you doing?
What is that face?
That is not the face of honey.
When did you come back? Did I come back too? What is my name?
What is that face you’re giving me? Is there danger? Can I remember fear?
Use the eye-language.
Use the eye-language.
“Talk to me! Say something!”
The eye-language has passed. Now sound is here.
“We have to help him!”
“We have to get him to a hospital!”
Ziploc bag. Jammed syringe. It won’t go anymore.
Maxwell standing. Drops a flashlight.
K is sitting on a log looking at her arms.
Maxwell looks there. Is there eye-language left in her?
Yes. There is. She is still in the eye-place.
Max’s hand on Jamison’s neck. Jamison doesn’t move.
“He’s perfectly fine.”
Vision of the snake gliding over leaves. Max looks around them. The snake is gone. He steps on the pillowcase. Flat.
Jamison’s face is bitten. Swelling. But Jamison is fine. Thankfully. He’s still in the eye-place.
Jennifer and Liz are gone. Erica walks in circles. Pierce, Edwards: gone as well. Tislam has come out of it. He’s sitting on the ground. He looks up. Someone’s coming. Max hears it too. Two flashlights, coming through the woods. It’s almost dawn.
There was nobody in Rainbow cabin so Liz and Jennifer went into camp. They cross The Turn in the Road. The lamp is swarmed with moths.
Liz says, “Maybe it’s the end of the world.” Her mind is filled with visions of apocalypse. It’s possible they’re the last people on Earth.
Jennifer says, “Let’s check the rooms.”
They hit the mess hall first. Sony is in there when Liz opens the door. They had expected it to be locked. Sony is seated alone in the middle of the lunchroom. His flashlight is in lamp mode. He reads a tiny book.
Sony’s eyes follow Jennifer and Liz. They walk by him. They go to the kitchen.
Jennifer gets a milk and a box of cereal. Liz opens the fridge. She gets a yogurt.
The girls sit with Sony.
Jennifer peels back her cereal box and pours in the milk. She lifts one corner to her mouth and sips the edge of the box. Liz opens her yogurt.
Sony goes to the kitchen and gets spoons for the girls. He holds one out to each of them.
“Thanks,” Liz says. She digs into her yogurt.
Jennifer says, “Is everyone looking for us?”
Liz pokes at her yogurt. “You know,” she says, “you never know when a ten-minute walk is going to turn into a two-week survival hike.”
“That is true,” Sony says.
“So is everyone mad at us? Are we getting kicked out?”
“Everyone,” Sony says, “just wants to know that you’re safe.”
“What if what we did is really bad? When you find out are you going to quarantine us?”
“Are you gonna tell our parents?”
“Of course they’re gonna tell our parents.”
Sony looks over the girls. They’re breathing. They seem cogent.
“Don’t you even want to know what we did?”
Sony says, “No.”
What we found when we came upon them was this:
- Clothes strewn on the ground. There was a shirt maybe thirty feet from where they were sitting.
- Jamison’s feet were tied together with climbing rope. His lips were cut. His face was so puffy we could hardly see his eyes.
- Maddy’s heroin kit, contents exposed.
Cotton balls. Four syringes. Saran wrap. I checked Maxwell and Tislam’s arms. Maddy checked the girls. Jamison it was hard to tell what was going on. I told him we were going to the hospital. He told me he was fine. Maxwell helped me walk Jamison down the mountain. Maddy took the others back to their cabins. I left Maxwell at the meeting hall and drove Jamison to Philadelphia. There was no small group that morning. Not in my room. Piglet took my group and they did Bible readings together. Maxwell didn’t go. He waited at the meeting hall until I got back. They said he sat there the whole morning.
Jamison was fine. I did a little interview with him on the way to the hospital. When I asked him what had happened he told me that he tried to bite a snake. I asked him why. He wouldn’t say. It didn’t take much to connect the dots. I count two trips to the hospital in one week as total failure. Marcy wasn’t a problem. This one..is probably what ended Camp Lake.
Maddy and Kristen cleaned up the hill. They left tangles of climbing rope outside the supply closet. When I get to PeeWee cabin, none of the beds have sleeping bags on them, including mine. Pierce and Edwards were in town washing. They took the road. They sat in Tow’s, this little store down there, and washed all the clothes.
Tislam found Max. He brought lunch out and the two of them sat with trays on the porch of the meeting hall. When they were done, Tislam brought the trays back to the mess hall.
Maddy did have small group. She borrowed her cabin campers and added them to her group for that morning. There was much upset about this but Maddy wasn’t up for discussion, so she just did what she wanted and told Blake to fuck himself. It was something I had wanted to tell him for a long time.
Now there’s Max, and there’s me, and I take Jamison’s arm and we lift him off the hill. I don’t look back, I can’t, I can never go back there. Never will that be quiet, Christian Camp Lake. I can’t look at that place and think of the ravine or the slope of the hills or the way the trees silhouette the sky.
That’s just not how I think of it.
Sony peeks into the main hall. Kids are everywhere, boys and girls together. One half of the ceiling lights are on. They’re using Bibles as pillows.
Julie Jane comes out.
Sony says, “I have Jennifer and Elizabeth.”
“They’re in the mess hall.”
“Are they okay?”
Julie hugs him. Her fingers grip his back and her eyes are wet.
“The children taking care of the children,” Sony says, and he squeezes Julie tighter.
I’m going up to the pool and I see Beth come out of 332. She closes the door gingerly. I go to her. She puts her finger over her lips to say “shhh.”
I whisper. “What’s going on?”
We go down the hall together.
“She’s gonna take a little nap, is all.”
“Is she okay?”
“She’s just tired. You going upstairs?”
“You wanna come with me on a little field trip instead?”
“Where to?” I’m barefoot, shirtless, with a towel around my shoulders.
Beth says, “Down the boardwalk.”
“Yeah. Let me get a shirt. Are you going to get a drink?” I ask.
Beth says, “You don’t need a shirt.”
“You’re not getting a drink?” I ask.
“Why,” she says, “do you want one?”
I shake my head.
“We’re gonna pay Sean a visit,” she says.
“Yes,” she says. “That Sean.”
“Did you hook up with him last year?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Did you hook up with him this year?”
Beth looks at me. “Not yet,” she says.
We’re standing in front of the door with the giant middle finger on it.
“I can wait outside if you want.”
“This’ll only take a minute.”
Beth rings the bell.
Sean opens the door. There’s a roach clip in his other hand. He looks at me, then burps pot.
Beth says, “Can you wait downstairs?”
I’m standing in the parking lot. I find a wall to lean against. It’s somebody’s condo; hopefully they’re not home. Maybe they’ll invite me inside (“You look hot. Come on in. Want a beer?”).
Thanks, no, I don’t drink beer. I could go for a long island, though.
Sipping those with Beth when we used to stay in Sea Isle, was heaven. When we used to take your mom’s Nissan? That’s where we’d go, down to the OC boardwalk. We drove all that way. The first time we went there she didn’t tell me where we were going, either. She was like, “I’ve got this place I want to take you.” It was Sean’s bar. The seafood restaurant, you know, Zen, where he manages the bar? Beth and I would sit at the bar in our swimsuits and sandals and Sean would serve her a long island and me a pineapple juice. But I’d sip sips of Beth’s long island when she passed it to me. Then we’d drive home, back to the house in Sea Isle City, and we’d have a teenage buzz while we hung out with our parents. Sean said he owned a piece of that restaurant but to me it always looks like he’s just the bar manager.
I guess it’s not wrong for me to fantasize about what Beth’s doing upstairs. I prefer not to think of Sean’s part of it, but thinking of Beth getting naked gives me a hard-on. Not good for parking lots. But if it gets a little hard and hangs down thick, nobody’s gonna see that. It’s like a desert island out here: cars, asphalt, sun, and me. When I get some time alone I’m gonna masturbate to Beth. That image of her pushing down her swimsuit and peeing in front of me at the Westin will never leave me. She was just young enough that she didn’t have much hair on her pussy. And whatever hair she did have she shaved. I love seeing a pussy like that even though it kindof reminds me of a baby. There’s something innocent about it in a way I don’t like to think about. It’s perverted, I know, but how can you help what goes on inside your mind? Beth is getting freaky upstairs with that asshole. She’s probably sucking his cock. That fucking asshole probably has a bigger cock than me. Actually, I know he does; you can see it through his shorts.
I hate how when I’m thinking about Beth and Sean fucking, I have to imagine Sean’s part of it, too. If I’m thinking about Beth getting his cock hard with her mouth, I have to imagine his cock, too. It’s fucked up. I don’t want to imagine his cock. It’s so offensive, too, that Beth uses me like this. She wants company on the way to her hook-up? You’d think she could just walk herself. Or get Sarah to come with her. Sarah’s probably off having sex with Hannigan. The two of them are disgusting. We’re all pretty sure they had sex on that one retreat where we went to Camp Lake. They snuck off behind the volleyball court where there were some trees. We were all having dinner while they did it. They don’t even come to dinner and later when Pastor Steve asks if they’re hungry they’re like, “Oh, we already ate.” Wink wink. Nod nod. It’s right there in everyone’s face and in their love haze, they have no idea how obvious they are.
You have to treat people who are in love like you have to treat people who are on drugs. It’s the same thing.
Beth comes down after about six minutes. “Hey, Matt, you ready to go?”
I’m not going to answer that. I never even wanted to come here. “Can we get a drink now?”
“You want one?”
Yeah, I think you owe me one after this shit. “That didn’t take long,” I say.
She’s all the way down the stairs. Her clothes are exactly as they were before she went inside. Her shirt’s not wrinkled. A little strand of her hair is out of place but she brushes this back in place. “You really want a drink?” she asks.
I’m staring at her face.
She sees this.
I’m staring at her face because right under her eye there’s a streak of blood.
“What?” she says.
“There’s blood on your face.”
Beth gets out her mirror. She licks her thumb and wipes off the blood. She wipes her thumb on the top of her jeans. She puts her mirror away.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “It’s not mine.”
Beth takes us up the boardwalk. We get to Zen. The seafood restaurant. Sean’s restaurant.
Beth says, “Wait here.”
She goes in and I’m standing out front. There are no doors, it’s open to the boardwalk. Sean’s boss, the guy who actually owns the restaurant, is tending bar. Beth asks him something. The guy shrugs. Beth says something else. The guy shakes his head. Beth comes back outside.
“Yeah,” she says, “Let’s get that drink.”
We get MD 20/20s at this grocery store and sit on the rocks while the sun sets.
Beth says, “I hate this place.”
“It’s okay,” I say.
“We should stop coming here. It sucks coming here.”
“We should really go to the Ocean City in Maryland.”
“Have you been?”
“Of course,” she says, “have you?”
“It’s crowded. We should go fishing.”
“Let’s catch crabs tomorrow.”
“Aren’t we doing fucking prayer vespers all day?”
“Let’s just go,” I say. “Let’s cut out, leave early. Like 4am. Stay out all day. We’ll just come back in time to sleep and go home. Fuck ‘em. What are they gonna do?”
“Okay,” Beth says, “Who?”
“You, me, Maddy, Blake—”
“You, me, Blake.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” I say, and I sip my strawberry-kiwi mad dog.
Everyone has rules to follow. Sometimes we make special rules for our friends. You might think that when you make exceptions for your friends that you’re doing them a favor, but you’re not. Something happens when you make exceptions for your friends. At first it’s nice, because you can do things with your friends that no one else can get away with. But it doesn’t work that way. The rules are there for a reason. Once you break them, it never goes back. There is no honor among thieves.
It’s weird, because you think you’re giving your friend a break by letting them get away with shit. But you’re not. And what’s worse, it ends the relationship, because if I let you get away with some transgression against someone else, then sooner or later, one of us is going to end up perpetrating that same transgression against the other. Special rules don’t work, because they’re based on the false premise that “we” somehow exist in a microcosm, a microcosm that is independent of its container. But we don’t. It’s all the same world. It’s all the same people. There is no other.
Marcy finds me as soon as I get back from the hospital.
“Jamison, are you okay?”
“Jamison, wait in the meeting hall. Wait in the front room, okay? I’ll be in there in a minute.”
“We’re not sending him home,” Marcy says. “Unless he wants to go home.”
“Why is that,” I say.
“Ask Maddy,” Marcy says. She doesn’t look happy. “What happened to that kid?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where did you find him?”
“On the hill.”
“What happened to his face?”
“He got bit by a snake.”
“I can see that. How did his face get where a snake could bite it?”
“Marcy, I don’t know.”
“What were they doing up there?”
“I don’t exactly know.”
“Is it safe,” she asks, “to have Jamison at camp?”
“You mean for him?”
“I think,” she says, “you need to get your little campers to tell you what they were doing in the woods last night. Unless you already know and you’re just not telling me. I told Blake we should close camp.”
“What did he say?”
“We’re not closing camp. He thinks it’s just a minor snakebite or something.”
Marcy says, “What the hell did you find up there?”
I shake my head. “Marce. I honestly don’t know. I think we should question every one of them and figure it out, though, ‘cause when their parents get here.. I mean—” I laugh. “I don’t know, Marce, the guy was tied at the feet—”
“They tied him?”
“Well what does he say? You asked him.”
“Yeah. I bribed him with Burger King on the way back.”
“And what does he say?”
“He says that nothing happened. He fell. He got bit by a snake.”
“That’s funny,” Marcy says.
“Why is that funny?”
“Because,” she says, “I talked to every one of those kids while you were gone. Kristen. Liz. All of Rainbow cabin. And I talked to them without Maddy. They say the same thing as Jamison. All smiles. Everything’s fine.”
“They don’t seem beat up. Minus Jamison.”
“No, they don’t.”
I squint at Maxwell, silent, on the porch of the meeting hall. I say, “Do you think they’re lying?”
Marcy looks deep into me. She says, “They don’t seem to be.”
Lakeside. Gear in a sweatshirt. Folded. Maddy goes ‘round to the far side. No time to salvage it. Get more rigs later. Maybe somehow in Philly. Might have to wait ‘till home.
Unfolding the sweatshirt. Dumping shit out. Looking behind her. No one.
First light. Dawn. And this is what she’s doing. This and then back to camp. What is the point of camp anyway? Not sure if she can make it another day. Weirdly glad for the chaos.
Chaos is easier. Makes things easier. More like home. Less pretense.
Cotton balls floating on the surface of the water. Rigs, the hollow part of them keeping them afloat. Maddy scrapes them back to her before they float away. Get the sweatshirt.
Sacrifice the shirt. Put everything in. Tie the arms. Goodbye sweatshirt.
Maddy finds a rock. Brings it back to the side of the lake. Need a bigger rock. Back at the forest’s edge, digging through leaves. Put that rock in the sweatshirt, tie, and toss it in.
Sometimes I dream of the snake.
I dream that he’s in my hair.
The snakes in my dreams are soapy, like they came out of the dishwater. Or like they were just born, they just broke through the egg, and that film is still on them. They never bite me. That kindof bothers me. They crawl in my hair and I want to get them out. They cling to me. They’re like sticky worms. I fling my hand but one will still stick to me. It will be on the back of my hand. I’ll try to comb them out, but they’re like having taffy between my teeth, too hard and sticky to get out. That’s how they are in my hair.
I try to clean them. There’s always one left. And if I miss one, then it gives them power to come back. If I miss one then there will be another. I’ll see him somewhere. He’ll be in the bathtub after I get out. Then there might be one between my toes. They’re like worms, they’re really very cute. But they’re annoying. And I have to get them out of me, they inhibit me, they bog me down. I can’t sleep not knowing where they are. But if I try to contain them, they get out. No matter what I put them in. They have this slug-like ability to flatten themselves. They can even get through something with a sealed lid. They make themselves totally flat—just that part of them is flat—and they can get through anything. They can even get through a jar with a screw top.
They’re under the toilet lid. They’re in the sheets. They’re everywhere.
“I want to go home.”
“What did you do? Maddy. Look at me. You better start talking.”
I won’t even look at her. I can’t. I sit on the bed next to her. That’s the best I can do. “I want to go home.”
“Well we ain’t going home today Maddy, we’re going home tomorrow.”
“If Matthew and Brian ride home with Pastor Steve..we can take Cheryl’s car—”
“You listen to me,” she says, “I’m your big sister.” She takes my face in her hands. “You tell me what happened.”
I put her phone down on the bed.
I can’t make eye contact with her.
“Oh no. You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t go over his place.”
Beth is clicking around on her phone.
“Did you hook up?” She throws her phone on the bed. “Look at me. Did you hook up with him?” She grabs my wrist. “Maddy. You better start talking or I’m gonna call Mom and Dad. We can handle this between us or you can handle it with them. I’m serious—”
“Okay,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“What did you do?”
I shake my head.
“Did you have sex with him? I’m not gonna be mad at you I just need to know.”
“I didn’t want to.”
“Maddy, we’re having a moment here. You mind looking me in the eye?”
I look at her and I’m almost in tears, but I feel like laughing.
“You need to tell me what the fuck happened right now.”
“I went to his condo.”
“You stole my phone and you called that asshole, then you went to his condo—”
“I didn’t steal your phone.”
“I didn’t. He called you but your phone was on the bed so I picked it up.”
Beth shakes her head. “Why did you do that. Why Maddy. Did you have sex with him? That’s kindof an important question and I’m asking you so we can make sure you don’t get pregnant so..listen..we can have the long sister-bonding version of this talk later if you want to but right now I need to know..did you have sex with him?”
I nod. And then I close my eyes. I never meant to have sex with him.
I hug my sister. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t even know we were going to do it. I had no idea.”
“I’m sure you didn’t.”
“He just called and told me to meet him at the boardwalk. I’m on the boardwalk and his lazy ass won’t even come out to meet me. He talks me all the way to his condo.”
“He’s a good talker, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, he said my voice sounded nice and that I had interesting thoughts. I told him I was bored and he listened.”
“I bet he did.”
“It’s nice to have someone listen to you sometimes.”
“I know. Maddy. Here. Come’ere.”
“He was just so soothing and he let me talk. And then when I saw him he was nodding and looking right into my..right into my soul it felt like! It’s was like..he listened, you know?”
“Am I stupid?”
“No. You’re not stupid. Well. If you’re stupid, I’m stupid too.”
Running in the woods at night.
I like to run naked. Well, not quite naked, but in my underwear. I tie rags around my feet instead of shoes. I like to feel the ground. I run in the starlight. I run in the moon. Light is a hindrance. Light is a bore. With light, you have to work your eyes harder. With light, your imagination works less. I like to run in the dark. I run on hills. I run through forests. I run between the trees. I stoop to the water. I cry at the edge of a lake. I cry in the stream. Leaves are on my face. I put them there. Fuzzy leaves, ragged leaves. I put them there. I scoop them up between my fingers. I collect them with the dirt. I run with leaves, and when I run I leave them behind, falling behind me, windstreaks, falling like dead scales, forgotten hair, falling behind me. And I leap. I don’t know where I’ll land. When I fall I might vanish. When I fall it might be the last time. When I fall I might die, and in the air I do not know, and I leap anyway. I go over, I go out, I go, I go, I go. There has never been another leap like this one, there is no plan for me to follow, I am a leaper, and that is all I know. When I lie among the bugs. When I lie. When I lie among the bugs, and worms, and grubs come upon me, it is not dirty. There is nothing dirty here. For everything washes with a single dip and, with time, everything washes away, decomposes in my hair, settles there. Layers tumble. Time sedates me. Layers fall to dust and fall to atoms and mores and quarks and tiny pieces of time. Then everything is clean.
Everything is clean in such small pieces. Dirt cannot get dirty. Dust cannot get dusty. Water cannot get wet.
And I’m spinning. Spinning in starlight. And I’m clean.
That night at dinner Maddy’s washing dishes. Kristen beside her. Maddy sets the dish out. Kristen dries it. Kristen puts it away.
Maddy has gloves on. She and Kristen are talking. I can’t hear what they’re saying but it’s the kind of gentle patter that goes on between a mother and son who live together, a father and daughter, the type of talk you have when you’re doing yardwork next to a relative, or cooking, or launching a boat. Simple talk, talk that doesn’t matter. Kind talk, even informative talk. Like when you’re watching TV and the TV’s just the background, and you’re telling your wife about your day. That’s how Kristen and Maddy were talking.
I imagine Kristen and Maxwell shooting heroin, if they did in fact shoot it—could they figure out the needles? I’m never going to ask, in case they didn’t, and they’re never going to tell me, in the case that they did. Remind me never to be a schoolteacher. Some people are made for that. I think you might have to have a simplicity that I just don’t have. And Maddy obviously.
Kristen is drying a strainer. Maddy goes for a plate. She gets it soapy. She puts it under the sprayer. She adjusts the plate in her hand. The plate slips. Maddy grips it, but it falls anyway. It hits the bottom of the sink, whatever’s down there. I hear a tink..this delicate little shattering sound. It sounds like the brittlest, thinnest glass, a glass femur, some protective dome. The delicacy of the shattering makes it worse. It’s like if it had been some dramatic smash, I would have known it wasn’t that bad. But somehow this exquisite, instant fracture thrills my imagination. It makes me think of finger bones, and spinal fluid, and nerves. I could break like that: all the biological parts—the tissues—frozen, tapped with a hammer, cracked into a thousand pieces. If you got me cold enough, where I wouldn’t bend anymore, then any movement would break me.
Maddy holds up what was in the bottom of the sink. It’s just a teapot. The top rim shattered. She shows it to me, drops it in the trash can, and goes on washing the dishes.
The Course at Night
When Kristen came to breakfast she was wearing a poncho. She had on her normal clothes: shorts, a t-shirt. Then a yellow poncho. During some of breakfast she wore the hood. It wasn’t raining.
She didn’t eat. She got a tray of food and then when she sat down she parceled out each of her food items to a cabin mate. Then she came to my table and sat herself on Maxwell’s lap.
“Good morning, Kristen.”
Kristen lowers her sunglasses. “Good morning.” Kristen puts out her hand to Tislam. Tislam gives her a slow-motion side-five.
“K has become inaccessibly weird,” I observe to Maddy outside.
“She’s had a rough week,” Maddy says.
“How’s that?” I ask.
Maddy says, “Girl stuff.”
On the porch of the mess hall, Maxwell sits on Kristen’s lap. Kristen pushes him off. He says something to her and she says something back. Then Maxwell walks off and Kristen pushes up her sunglasses. She sits by herself on the porch.
In small group Kristen doesn’t come into the main room. She stays in the Chair of Shimmering Velvet. I don’t say anything to her. Manny goes over to her. Maxwell ignores them. Manny draws something on Kristen’s hand. Kristen concedes.
When she sits in the circle I nod toward her hand. She opens it like Spider-Man. The design that Manny drew is a cross.
“The power of Christ compels you,” she says.
“What happened with Jamison,” Manny asks. “Why did his parents pick him up?”
“They did?” Max and Kristen and I look at each other.
“Yeah. You didn’t see?”
Manny says, “I heard he got raped.”
David raises his eyebrows.
“What?” Manny says. “Guys can get raped.”
“Don’t worry about Jamison,” I say. “He got bit by a snake.”
David’s eyes pop.
“No way,” Manny says.
“Yes way,” I say. “He had an accident wherein he got kidnapped by some of his fellow campers, tied to a tree, then he was drugged and forced to put a snake in his mouth.”
Maxwell and Kristen are mortified.
“Luckily,” I say, “the snake was non-poisonous.”
Manny giggles. “That’s fucked up.”
“Yes,” I say. “It is.”
I have us read Revelation.
“So do you think John was on drugs?” Kristen asks.
“When he wrote Revelation,” I say.
“I think..that..when you’re on drugs, you think everyone else is, too.”
“But everyone is on drugs,” Kristen says.
“In some grand sense, I guess—”
“No,” Kristen says. “I don’t mean in a grand sense. I mean in a your-brain-is-chemistry sense.”
“Yeah but at least people’s natural chemistry is shared between people—”
“It isn’t, though. What you find scary, I find funny. Your thoughts are colored. You can’t see that you’re blue, because everything looks blue to you. To you there is no blue. But I’m really purple, even though I look red to you.”
“Don’t you mean..you’re really red, even though you look purple to me?”
“Maybe he was on drugs,” I consent.
“He wasn’t on drugs,” Katherine says, “I don’t think. I think there is a God, and sometimes he looks like an alien and sometimes he looks like an apparition and sometimes he looks like an astronaut and sometimes he looks like an angel. I do think one thing is for sure. That we don’t understand him. I don’t think you understand him any more than the Christians do, with your John-was-on-drugs theory. That’s just..that’s just..”
“It’s a paradigm.”
“Right. That’s just how it seems to you—”
“It’s a way to dial it down to your own language—”
“Right. The truth is that in some reality there’s no such thing as drug addicts, even when describing drug addicts. We’re so limited,” Katherine says, “We can’t understand anything.”
“You guys wouldn’t get along at my church,” Manny says.
“I don’t get along at my church,” I say.
Katherine says, “Me either.”
“What do you do?”
“What do I do?”
“How do you get along?” I ask her. “What makes it so you don’t get along? How do you survive? Reading?”
Katherine laughs. “Basically.”
“Is that enough?”
“It’s all I can get. My brother understands some of this stuff. But. In church. It’s like they’re..it’s like their religion..is..the book.”
“Jesus didn’t have the Bible.”
“He had the Old Testament.”
“I don’t count that,” Katherine says. “He didn’t have the Christian Bible.”
“There was no such thing as Christians,” I add.
“So are we really walking in his example?” Katherine asks.
“How can we be?”
“If we look at what he looked at. If we look at what he did. Actually. No. I don’t even think it’s possible,” Katherine says. She looks to me for my opinion.
I don’t give her one.
She continues. “I find forgiveness to be true. I find love to be true.” She looks down. “But I hate the News Christians. Christians who are on the news. And Government Christians. And War Christians.” Her teeth are clenched. She says, “I hate them.”
Everyone’s looking at her.
I say, “Hate is a strong word.”
“No,” she says, gripping the red plastic cover of her Bible, “I hate them.”
“I think K’s theory is right,” Maxwell says. “John was on drugs when he wrote the book of Revelation. There’s no question.”
“Why do you think that,” I say.
“Because it’s crazy. And why do you pray?” he says. He’s looking right at me.
“Don’t you think it’s kind of schizophrenic?” he says.
“Hey that’s a good point,” Manny says.
Kristen’s eyes I cannot see. Katherine looks angry. David is drawing.
“Guys. Kristen take your glasses off. Just for a minute.”
She has circles under her eyes.
“Let’s get out of here. Let’s go on a field trip.”
“Won’t you get in trouble?”
“Yeah, probably,” I say, “but I’m already in trouble. Do you want to do that?”
“Where are we going?”
“I don’t know.”
“Outside of camp?” Maxwell says. His eyes brighten when he says it.
Maddy sees us piling into my Honda. “Be back for parachute games.”
“One o’clock, right?” I say.
We pull onto the road. Manny, Katherine, David in the back seat. Kristen on Maxwell’s lap next to me.
Kristen presses the down button on the window. “I don’t want to do parachute games.”
“Well,” I say, “you’re in luck.”
The road is empty. I see David talking to Katherine in the rear-view. I don’t ask people to put on their seatbelts, which is something I always do. I think, as rational as it is to wear your seatbelt, that knowingly not-wearing it one time in a thousand, is rational as well.
“You guys want McDonalds?”
“I’m a vegetarian,” Katherine says.
“You can get the fries.”
“They’re cooked in animal fat.”
“I’m not sure that’s true,” I say.
We get there and Katherine eats the fries, too. We all do.
“Can I eat in your car?” Maxwell asks.
“Just don’t throw your trash out the window,” I say.
And we drive. We drive in Pennsylvania. We drive through snaking forest roads with sun cutting across the trees. Long shadows cross the road. We drive with the windows open. We pull up next to a police car at a stoplight. Kristen makes eyes with him, wearing her poncho. He doesn’t stop us. He pulls ahead and I make a right. We get on the highway.
Cars, trucks. Today is Friday. It’s 10 a.m. A whole world is going on out here. A man in a Lexus swerves around us. He’s talking on his phone.
“That guy looks like a dick,” Katherine says.
I park in front of the Philadelphia art museum.
“Are we going to the art museum?”
“I wasn’t planning to,” I say. “Do you want to?”
“No. Where are we going?”
“Nowhere. Let’s just walk.”
Flags are out on the mall. We walk from the art museum to almost city hall. It’s a bright bright day. I look up.
“We’re missing lunch,” David says.
“Are you hungry?”
“What do you want?”
“How about a hamburger.”
We’re at Logan Square. A circular fountain in the middle of a circular street. Greek gods and goddesses lounge in the fountain, with brass turtles, and water shoots out of them.
I give Max my money. “The pin number’s 2850, right down the middle.”
Max and David come back from a street vendor. “He doesn’t have hamburgers.”
Kristen sits on the edge of the fountain. She has sandals on. She puts her feet in the water.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“He doesn’t have hamburgers?”
“He’s out. Can we go down the street?”
“Yeah. Just come back here. Bring plenty of food. I’m starving.”
“How much can we spend?”
“Just be reasonable.”
Kristen is on her hands and knees, in the water, barking. A five-year-old comes over and pets her head. Kristen pulls back the hood of the poncho and looks up at the little boy.
She barks again. The boy starts crying.
Max and David return with bags of food. Katherine and I are sitting in the grass under a tree. Kristen is lying down. With her shades, I can’t tell if her eyes are open or closed.
Max starts doling out the hamburgers.
“Did you get my chili cheese fries?”
“Yeah, but—it was kindof expensive.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
David brings out a sandwich he hands to Katherine. She peeks under the bun and smiles. It’s a shitload of thinly-sliced vegetables, shredded lettuce, pale-looking slices of dill pickle.
I lift one of the bags. It’s still heavy. “What else is in there?”
“Extra burgers,” Max says through a bitefull.
“Good man,” I say.
“After this,” Max says, “can we see a movie?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Can we see it at the Omniverse?”
“Sure,” I say. I love the Omniverse.
It cost me close to $200 to get us six tickets to the Omniverse. Kristen held my hand she found the movie so scary, which of course is inappropriate but she didn’t do it in a sexual way. She kept her glasses on the whole time. Once I saw a tear coming down her face and I lifted the glasses and she wasn’t crying. But one of her eyes was watering. Or maybe she was crying. Is it crying if it’s only one eye, and only one tear?
We’re in the gift shop of the Franklin Institute. “I have this really weird feeling that we’re all going to die.”
David and Manny are playing with a gyroscope. Katherine is browsing puzzles.
“Where’s Max?” I say.
Kristen says, “I mean, we are going to die.” She puts her finger on my chest.
“I don’t think you should worry about it today,” I tell her.
She laughs. She says, “I’m not worried.”
“Guys, let’s go.”
“Just a minute.”
“K, are you eating Maddy’s mushrooms?”
“Are you having fun?”
“I was. It’s not fun anymore.”
“Do you have them with you?”
She taps her purse.
“I want you to throw them away. Go to the bathroom. Flush them down the toilet.”
“Okay,” she says. And she goes to the sales desk—walks behind the sales desk at the Franklin Institute gift shop—opens her purse, and takes out the bag of mushrooms. She drops them in with a bunch of receipt paper. She comes back to me and says, “I did it.”
The sales clerk is looking at me.
“Go get the Ziploc,” I say.
Kristen squats beside the clerk. She unzips the plastic bag, dumps out the mushrooms, and brings the bag to me.
“Okay, good.” I put my arm around Kristen.
She adjusts her sunglasses.
“Kate. Emmanuel.” They look up. “Time to go,” I say.
I insist on seatbelts this time. We keep the windows rolled up. I even put on the child-lock. Then I drive real fast.
Not dangerous. But the Parkway, tubes and ramps, a concrete channel, deserves speed. We enter the highway, go down an exit, and are off as soon as we got on. Twenty minutes later we’re at King of Prussia. An hour after that we’re at Camp Lake.
When everyone gets out of the car Blake knows not to say anything.
“What do we do now?” Katherine says.
“Work on your skit for tonight.”
“Can we use the meeting room?”
“Are you coming?”
“No. I’ll see you at dinner. Tonight we sit with small groups so come to my table.”
And off they go. Kristen still wearing her poncho, now with the hood down. Maxwell and Kristen walking separate, on opposite sides of the phalanx. Katherine’s the glue now, and David, and Manny. When you watch a movie the second time it’s the supporting characters that grab you.
I try to find Sony.
I need advice and Sony’s the ideal person to give it to me.
I look in the kitchen. I walk to the lake. The lake is empty. I sit.
When I get back from camp I’m gonna get drunk. I’m gonna watch movies for like three days. Then I’m gonna quit my job.
I can’t do that anymore. Maybe I’ll feel differently after I take a break, once I get back to my regular hangout, with the next direct deposit. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll visit my dad. I hate his wife but maybe I’ll visit him anyway. Or maybe I don’t hate his wife. Maybe I just hate that she hates me. I’m not a very forgiving person. Maybe I’ll do Outward Bound as a participant, out there in Colorado, and not be a counsellor anymore. I can get my fill of the outdoors hanging from a rope somewhere in the southwest, with no responsibility except my own spiritual journey.
I think I’m done with spiritual journeys.
I think there’s something beyond spirituality, actually. I don’t know what it is. I don’t think it’s money or success or, you know, fucking Playboy models. I know this guy who brags about how he’s fucking a former Playboy model. Of course, he’s 26 and she’s 53. She has kids and maybe there’s something more to it than sex for him. Maybe it’s love. But I doubt it.
This is the time when Sony’s supposed to come by. He’s supposed to walk out of the woods and meet me at the end of the dock and tell me some amazing metaphor about being a farmer..the wind and the sea..something.
I need a Sony in my life. Someone to give me advice. Because I don’t know the way. I need to learn from people who are older than me. But sometimes people who have had more experience have less of a rudder than I do. And sometimes people who at one time knew the way..they become lost again..how is that possible?
When I’m at lakes I wonder if Jesus really walked on water. Someone knew that. At some point in human history, someone either saw him walk on water or no one ever saw him walk on water. How can I go back and find that out? Is there some way you can add up all the texts and do a logic puzzle like from school to find out who is lying?
Why am I coming here? Every year, why do I do this? I’m looking for something that isn’t there. I’m talking to something that doesn’t talk back. There may be a God, there may be some sense in which it makes sense to use that word. But it’s not the God I met when I was a child. It’s not the God my parents and teachers introduced me to.
And do they know that God? I think not. I think when you’re young you believe that adults know what they’re talking about. In fact, they do not.
They’re talking without reason. We’re talking just because we have mouths.
And that is reason enough to sing—because you have a voice.
Is God the listener, or the one who sings?
And Sony’s not coming.
“I wanna talk.”
I kick out the chair across from me. “Talk.”
Max sits. He says simply, “I’m sorry for what we did.”
“You need to tell that to Jamison.”
“I already did.”
I nod. I drink my bug juice.
“What now? What do I do next?”
“You do nothing.”
“Don’t I have to do penance or something?”
“You’re doing it. Did Jamison forgive you?”
“He doesn’t think we did anything wrong.”
“There you go.”
“But we did. We did!”
“Will telling me about it make it better?”
“I don’t know!”
“You’re welcome to if you like. No pressure.”
So Maxwell tells me. He doesn’t technically say what other people did. He only says what he did. The way he tells the story, it’s like judgement can only be applied to him. Like if he went to war and somehow his battle buddy wasn’t complicit in killing, but he was. Or like, in Maxwell’s world, the guy who pulled the trigger is a murderer, but the guy who mounted the gun is not.
I listen. When he’s done I ask him if he feels better.
“No,” he says. “I feel like..like I really let you down.”
“Oh god. Max. It’s the other way around.”
“Did he say goodbye?”
Marcy and Julie Jane look at each other.
“Where did he go?” I ask.
Marcy says, “It’s his day off.”
“So he’s alright,” I say.
Marcy gets up.
“Did you see him leave?”
Julie shrugs. “You wanna skip church when we get back and go to Dorney Park?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Maddy can come too if she wants.”
“I guess she’s going back to Florida.”
“She should stay. I mean just ‘till Sunday. She can stay with me. You can come over. We can have a sleepover.”
I wish we could invite Beth. Then it would be a party. I’m always doing imaginary things with Beth, like forgetting to invite her to church events that I know she’d like. Whenever we all sit down, I think we need to get another chair.
I’m sick. It’s been ten years.
“Do you want to?”
“Want to what?”
“Come over. The two of us and Maddy.”
“Unless you think that’s awkward.”
“No, it’s not awkward.”
“Are you okay?” Julie scoots closer to me.
I look into her eyes. I’m tired.
She looks away. “You and I should have got together when we were kids,” she says.
I let that sit for a moment.
“I liked you,” I say.
“I thought so.” Julie exhales. “I’m getting divorced. I realize that’s awkward timing to tell you that after what we were just talking about and I don’t mean it as a segue. Not that I don’t still like you. I do. But that’s not the point.”
“I get it. Why are you getting divorced.”
“Because he doesn’t like me. He doesn’t. I know that sounds simplistic but really that’s all it is. He never did. I can’t do that. It’s bullshit. You should know what you like before you get into a relationship. That’s advice for you.”
“Good grief, Julie. But. I’m happy for you?”
“Thanks. Me too. So call me sometime if you want to get coffee. There’s only one way to address a situation like this. Where it’s just not working. I’ve come to this conclusion. Finally. You stop. And you never look back.”
My group is gathered in our meeting room before I get there. They’re sitting quietly when I come in.
I sit with them a moment. They have cultivated an energy in the air and I want to flow with that energy, not against it.
We sit in a circle. Katherine doesn’t have her book with her. David sits across the circle from Katherine. They seem to be doing some sort of energetic exchange. One looks at the other, then the other looks at the one. Then the one looks away. Maxwell and Kristen are not sitting next to each other. Manny is between them. And Manny looks calm; he has his eyes closed.
I sit with them for a while and am aware of the space, of my skin and the air that touches it, of my breathing. I look at each of them. I watch them look at me. Something has happened here. Something that allows us to do this together. I forget, for a moment, who we are, why I’m here. I forget for a moment that anything needs to happen. And, truly, nothing needs to. The wind has been coming through our windows and I haven’t given it a single thought—it’s been on my arms and face and I have been breathing it in and breathing it out without, for a moment, thinking that it was so.
I say, “Come with me.”
No one asks where we are going. We are in the zone now. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to figure out. We don’t need to strive.
I take them down the path that leads to the lake.
When we get there, I sit on the edge of the pier, in the shallows. I take my shoes off and dip my feet in. “Take your shoes off,” I say.
I get in the lake up to my waist. I’m in shorts. I let them get wet.
“Sit on the edge.”
Everyone has their shoes off.
“Now. We’re going to wash each other’s feet. Like Jesus did. We’re doing this as a reminder of what Jesus calls us to be, in this world. So, I want you to—half of you get in the water. Roll up your jeans if you don’t want to get wet Katherine—if you don’t want to get wet you can stand there. Pick someone. Wash their feet. Then switch and wash the person’s feet who washed you. And, when you’re washing the person’s feet, I want you to say something—say it quietly—say something you appreciate about them.”
But they didn’t do that. No. That’s not what they did.
At first that’s how it started. Maxwell got in the water and Kristen got in the water and those two were conscientious not to wash each other’s feet, and Maxwell washed David’s feet and Kristen washed Katherine’s. And I saw them saying quiet things to each other as they did this. And I found Manny and I washed his feet. And I told him that I appreciated his intellect, but more than that I appreciated his caring, because I could see that having been an outcast at school had given him the gift of sensitivity to others. And then everyone switched places, and the servant’s feet were washed by the master.
And it started to rain.
Then my group decided—and they decided this on their own, and they decided it without speaking—they decided that each person in our group would wash each other person’s feet. And that each person in our group would shower each other person in our group with wonderful phrases. So as it rained, everyone was in the water, and, one by one, we lifted one of us out of the water and set that person on the dock, and one by one, we washed that person’s feet and whispered quietly..phrases of power, petals, notes from songs, bee stings, soil, thick roots, bones, bones’ marrow, and the morning dew.
Then I heard thunder and I ordered everyone out of the lake.
On the bank, rain fell and there was nothing to cover us.
Maxwell started stamping in a puddle. He and Kristen were doing it for fun. Their crush had taken a Platonic freedom and they would play with each other as people, with nothing hidden, nothing partial—with no perversion. They splashed each other with muddy water, then they splashed each other with mud. We might have left the lake then but David made a running jump and turned the mud puddle into a Slip ‘n Slide. Then Katherine took off her jeans and joined them. And we were all in our underwear, clumps of sludge in our hair, expanding this puddle with our jumps, and slides, and throws; our pulls, our wrestles. I maintained a distance, since I was their leader. But I played too. I just didn’t wrestle as Kristen and Maxwell wrestled. And I didn’t throw as David and Manny threw. The two of them fought, in a way, laughing. They threw each other into the mud face down and they breathed mud and all the while they were laughing. Katherine was so stained, every part of her, from mud play, that going back to camp we huddled around her in a circle and hid her on her way back to her cabin.
That was our last group exercise. We didn’t go back to our meeting room. The next time we saw each other as a group was later that night, at the evening service, where we all sat in a row, and shared hymnals, and gave each other space, and looked each other in the eye, and generally continued to treat each other like civilized human beings.
So here’s Maxwell. And I know what he’s going to say, because I’ve been reading this kid’s mind all week. I’m sitting in front of the cabin, on the top step. Maxwell comes up alone.
“Can I talk to you?”
I stand. “Let’s walk.”
I take us along the path, but away from camp, past the cabins.
“Where does this go?”
“I have no idea.”
Maxwell laughs. “Have you ever been out this way?”
“Yeah. Kinda. It goes up a long way. I don’t know how far it goes. There’s a reservoir up here. There’s a pine forest back that way.”
We walk a little more and Maxwell says, “Do you believe in heaven?”
I take a few steps and decide not to answer him. “Do you?”
“I have this problem with heaven,” Maxwell says. “It scares me. The thought of there always being a tomorrow..the idea that there would always be another day, after today, and that every day would always have another day. People talk about heaven and forever like it’s a good thing, but the forever part scares me.”
This is a deep guy I’m talking to.
“That’s complex,” I say.
“There’s something else,” he says. “I want to follow Jesus.”
We stop walking.
“I do. I want to follow Jesus. I believe in what he says. I don’t like the Old Testament but I love the New Testament. Well, I like Genesis and Psalms and a couple other books from the Old Testament, but—”
“The Old Testament is hard. There’s a lot of hate there.”
“But once Jesus comes in—”
“It’s a whole different story.”
“Yeah.” There’s this beam in Maxwell’s eyes. “I love the Jesus stuff.”
“I do too,” I say. And I do. The Jesus stuff is great.
“I want to get baptized,” Maxwell says. “Can I do it here?”
“Do you go to church back home in..New Jersey right?”
“Yeah. No we don’t, I mean..they’re..against that stuff.”
“Your parents are against it?”
“Why did they send you to a Christian summer camp?”
“They’re against it for them. They’re for it for me.”
“That’s typical. No offense to your parents.”
“What else are you interested in, besides becoming a Christian?”
“Yeah. Actually I’m really good at it.”
“Huh. Good for you. I was never any good at sports. Do you go to church?”
“A couple times.”
“Baptism is a serious thing. I mean..I know you’re taking it seriously.”
“I know. I can see it in your face. What I’m thinking is you might want to tell your parents. I mean..it’s important to you, maybe it would be an appropriate thing to share with them.”
“I don’t need their permission.”
“I’m not saying you do.”
“My parents are against me. Do you know what that’s like?”
“How do you get to baseball games?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Do you drive? Do you ride your bike?”
“My dad takes me. I mean with ideas they’re against me.”
“Look,” I say, “I don’t have kids. I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent. Do you have kids?”
Max laughs. “Not yet.”
“So you and I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent of a teenage boy, that’s all I’m saying, I’m not saying your parents aren’t against you, ideologically. I accept that from your point of view they may be. They very well may be. My parents aren’t on the same page as me on every issue. Your parents don’t go to church. Do they believe in god?”
“No. They’re atheists. Well, my dad says he’s a pantheist but—”
“Okay. Who cares? No offense, but who cares. Your dad is a pantheist. My mom is a minister—”
“Your mom is?”
“I’ve never heard of a woman pastor.”
“In New Jersey? You must live in a small town.”
“We don’t even live in a town.”
“I’m just saying. What if I didn’t believe in god. And my mom was a minister. We’re still mother and son, right?”
“Wait. Do you not believe in God?”
“What if I didn’t? What if you have kids and your kid, after you become a Christian, is an atheist?”
“What if he’s a pantheist..”
“What if he’s a she?”
“Yeah,” Maxwell says, “what if.”
“So you’ve decided to be a Christian,” I say.
Maxwell breathes out and he says, “Yeah.”
I put my hand on the back of his shoulder. “It’s an impressive thing you’re doing.”
“What? Being a Christian?”
“No,” I say. “Doing what you think is true.”
Piglet plops down in the Chair of Shimmering Velvet.
“I need to ask you something.”
I look up from my binder.
“Or..I need to tell you something, and I think you know what it is.”
I put my binder on the floor and look Piglet in the eye.
“Maybe..,” She squirms in the chair. “This is hard. Do you know what I’m about to say?”
“You don’t actually know what I’m about to say because I could say anything I want, but..I mean..I think you know what I’m going to say. And..I guess I don’t need you to say anything back. But I need to do this. Even though..I’m pretty sure I know how you feel.” Her voice warbles. She takes a pinky fingernail to one of her eyes. She inhales. She meets my eye. “I like you.” She purses her bottom lip. She wipes the other eye.
We sit there for a while.
She says, “I guess I do want you to say something.”
I kneel before her, before the Chair of Shimmering Velvet. I hold Piglet’s hands. I smile at her, through her tears, and I hope that doesn’t hurt her feelings. Then I let my smile fall. “I love you, as a person. And I like you, as a friend.”
Then Piglet smiles. “I knew that. I knew that. But I had to ask. For me.”
“I get that,” I say. “Thank you for being open with me.”
She snorts. “And even now, you’re the nicest person.”
“So are you,” I say. “How could I say otherwise, while you’re sitting in the Chair of Shimmering Velvet?”
Piglet laughs. “Maybe I thought if I sat here you’d have to say yes.”
I grin. “Dangerous chair. It’s like mistletoe.”
Piglet says, “I wish.”
I let her hands go and I sit back.
“Do you mind,” she says, “if I sit here for a while? Does it make you uncomfortable?”
“It doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all,” I say. If Piglet writes me after camp, I’m going to keep writing her. She will have to be the one to decide that I have sent the last letter.
Maxwell and Kristen are doing me and Piglet’s jello trick. Half the camp crowds around them.
Jello shoots out of Kristen’s mouth, a good six-foot arc.
He breaks the circle. We’re away from the others.
“What we talked about earlier..are you still thinking the same way?”
“Thinking, feeling, yes,” Maxwell says.
That’s good enough for me.
“Arright, cool,” I say, “If you tell her to rest her tongue flat on the bottom of her mouth you’ll get a smoother spray.”
I find Blake at the pool. He’s scooping leaves off the surface.
“I don’t know,” Blake says. “Do you know?”
“Haven’t seen him since yesterday.”
“I thought yesterday was his day off.”
“Maybe he quit,” I say.
Blake says, “That’s what I’m worried about.”
“He didn’t quit,” I say. “He’ll be back. Has he called?”
“Maybe I’ll quit,” Blake says.
“Are you serious?”
“Maybe I am.” Blake rests the net at the pool’s edge. “I’m thinking about joining the army,” Blake says.
“Really?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says. “Don’t tell anybody.”
“Blake. Do whatever you want.”
“I don’t think I’m suited for ministry,” he says. “My dad will hate me if do that though.”
“Matt. Brian is gay. If I’m not around..don’t let anyone give him a hard time.”
“I won’t. You’re scaring me, man. You’re not suicidal?”
“I won’t do that.”
“I knew Brian was gay, by the way. No one cares.”
“Some people,” Blake says, “do care.”
“On Sunday me and Julie are going to Dorney Park. You should come.”
“I have church,” he says.
“Right,” I say. “But if you’re joining the army I thought maybe you’d have Sunday off. Maxwell..you know Maxwell. He wants to get baptized.”
Blake puts his hand on my knee. “Good job.”
“It wasn’t me.”
Blake smiles. Then his smile becomes an open grin. “That is a mysterious work,” he says.
“He’s serious about it,” I say. “We’ve talked. We spent a long time talking about it. He’s clear. He understands what he’s doing. He’s smart—I mean..he’s sincere.”
“Have him send pictures,” Blake says.
“I’ll take pictures..or..Maddy can.”
“Where does he go to church?”
“Where is he getting baptized?” Blake says.
Then he sees my smirk.
“Matt,” he says, “I don’t even think you believe in God.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he says.
“Fuck you. Don’t pity me.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Fuck you.”
“You can’t, though—you can’t bring him to God if you yourself don’t believe.”
“I agree it’s odd.”
“It’s beyond odd,” Blake says, “It’s unethical. You can’t baptize him.”
“I’m not going to,” I say. “You are.”
Blake and I look at each other. Now you see.
“Did you call his parents?”
“I’m not gonna call his parents.”
“Don’t you think they’ll want to see?” Blake asks. “Can they come down?”
“They don’t want to see. They’re not Christians. I told you they don’t go to church.”
“So they have no idea he wants to do this,” Blake says.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what they know.”
“So he goes to camp..he comes back baptized..does he have a community?”
“I don’t think so.”
“But he believes.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Very much so.”
“And he came to this realization in your small group.”
“Without the curriculum,” I add.
“Don’t even get me started about the curriculum,” Blake says.
“I used it. Some of it.”
“Did you take your group mud wrestling?”
“Mud wrestling? No. We were foot-washing.”
“So this kid’s parents..he’s gonna go home baptized and they’re gonna call me up..call my dad..”
“You want me to call them?”
“Get their permission?”
“No,” Blake says. “I don’t give a shit if he has their permission. I just wanted to know. This is his decision. You don’t need your parents’ permission, my permission, your permission, anyone’s permission to make a decision, in your own heart, that you love God. Tell him to wear his swimsuit to service tonight.”
Max sat next to me at service. Blake led. We sang everything acapella. The piano sat, cover over they keys, Julie sitting with her small group. She held the songbook with Karen but Julie herself did not sing. Blake seemed to think she might give in; he kept looking her way but Julie never gave him the opportunity. She never looked at him, not once, so he could never catch her eye. Julie Jane is like that. I believe what she said, about never going back..I believe she will do that with her marriage. She’s the kind that, when she turns a corner, that’s it. I doubt I will see Julie Jane’s fingers on the upright at Camp Lake—or maybe on the baby grand at FBC—ever again. When Julie Jane closes you down, she closes you down forever. Why do you think we call her the Indelible Julie Jane? I write in highlighters, but when it comes to writing, Julie Jane is more of a Sharpie sort of girl.
“We have a special night tonight.” Blake has his purple stole on. “One of your campers has decided to give his life to Jesus.” Blake motions to Max.
Max goes forward.
“This life is yours. You created it. And now Maxwell Bowman has decided to pledge his life to you. To honor what you honored. To value what you value. To live his life in a way that pleases you, Lord. His life is precious, and we thank you for it.”
Maddy looks at me. I smile.
“Did you wear your swimsuit?” Blake asks.
“Then let’s go to the pool.”
Maddy walks beside me. The whole camp is going down the path.
“Why is he doing it in the pool?” Maddy asks.
I shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Did you know about this?”
“Yeah,” I say.
Maddy grabs my arm. “Good job.”
“Why is he doing it in the pool?” I say.
“Shouldn’t it be like a river—”
“It should be the lake.”
“The pool is kindof retarded,” I say.
“I mean John the Baptist didn’t have a pool,” Maddy says.
“He was probably allergic to chlorine.”
“I bet John the Baptist didn’t have a robe like that either.”
“John the Baptist probably did this shit naked.”
“I’m serious,” Maddy says, “His whole life Maxwell’s going to look back and he’s gonna be like `I got baptized in a pool?!’ You should do something.”
“Like stop it?”
“Yeah, no, I like it, it’s kindof poetic.”
“I love it too,” she says, “You know I’m just kidding.”
Blake and Maxwell up to their waists in the shallow end of the pool. Blake in his dark robe. Maxwell in a purple and sky-blue t-shirt that says “POLAR BEAR” across the chest.
Kristen sits on the edge of the pool with her feet dangling in.
And that dinky icon of the polar bear. Next year I gotta find some new clip art.
Cloth soaked to Max’s skin, his skinny arms folded across his chest, and Blake is reading something from the Gospel According to Matthew, something official-sounding, like he’s getting married, something you’ve heard a thousand times before. And Max is going under the water, and everything is turning upside-down, and chlorine is getting in the corners of his mouth and seeping under his eyes. There’s the flash of a picture being taken. Erica, from Rainbow cabin, with her phone out. Max on the LCD. She centers him and there’s another flash as Blake pulls him out of the water. Max is grabbing Blake’s arm and the polar bear t-shirt is clinging to his body. Then Max is going out of the pool but Mai is getting in. That tiny girl wades out to Blake and Blake has a private conversation with her and Maddy’s looking at me like
did you know about *this*?’ and I’m looking at her likeno.’ I’m thinking we might have a full-on run, but Kristen only splashes her feet and no one else climbs into the water and Blake is holding his arm around Mai’s face and pinching her nose and in his dark robes lowering the little Vietnamese girl into the water. Then Blake is benedicting us and Jennifer is pulling Mai up the side of the pool and Mai is leaning back on Jennifer, soaking wet, wiping the hair out of her face, and there’s a clap of lightning. Gray skies, and Blake looks up and makes his way to the edge of the pool, walking up in long strides, up the corner stairs, past Mai, past Jennifer, past Maxwell and me and Maddy and everyone else, and Blake takes his Bible from Brian and leads us, soaking, up the path.
Kristen is at Maddy’s side. “Does God have QWAN?”
“Yes,” Maddy says, “Definitely.”
This time the wind blew, there was no voice behind it. I saw it move the flag, I felt it dry my skin. It was in the trees. It was on the surface of the water. But there was no one in it, this time.
When it moved, there was movement, but it didn’t mean a thing.
And then Julie’s voice, lucent, soprano, towering, immaculate, ringing true over everyone.
Maxwell is shivering and Kristen takes the polar bear shirt off him and puts it on herself, over her other shirt, and she fits Maxwell with her extra-large sweatshirt and she zips him up to the neck and she sits behind him on the steps of the meeting hall with her feet wrapped around him and her skin now soaking and pale arms folded across Maxwell’s chest.
David sits beside them.
I go up to them. “Polar bear!” I say.
Maxwell says “Polar bear!!”
“Be bold!!” I say.
“Be strong!!” they all say.
I put my arm out. Maxwell takes it. Then David and I lock arms. Katherine is behind me. She puts her arms around my waist and I put my arm around her. Katherine pulls Manny around by his hand and the six of us are together.
“Are you doing a skit for the talent show,” I ask, in a monotone droid robot voice.
“Yes we are,” Kristen says in the same voice.
“We are doing something you will like very very much,” Manny robots.
“What are you doing,” I say.
“It is a surprise,” Katherine machine-guns my side with finger-pokes.
“What is its nature,” I say.
“It’s nature is classified to beings at your level,” Manny says.
“How can I get my level upgraded,” I say.
“You cannot,” Manny says. “Access upgrades are restricted for your kind.”
I break from robot-voice. “My kind?! What kind is that?”
“The exclusionary kind,” Katherine robots.
“How did I become the exclusionary kind?” I ask.
Katherine says: “By being excluded.”
I pick her up by her waist and turn her upside down and set her down. Then Manny tickles her and she squeals. I hold Katherine’s arms up and Manny tickles her a second more. Then I let her go and she’s chasing him back, and David is running his hand over his chin like an old man, and Kristen is leaning her head against Maxwell’s neck, cooing like a drunk, and Maxwell is staring past me, focused on some nonexistent point of interest far, far beyond this place.
And Maddy is behind me, and her breath is on my neck, and she’s pulling me into the darkness. And we’re on a tree. And she’s moving fast. I feel her hand circle my forearm and I stop her.
“I don’t want that, I don’t want that,” I’m saying.
And she’s saying, “I don’t have it, it’s gone, I threw it away.”
“Are you sure?” I’m saying, and she’s parting my lips with a finger.
Then we’re kissing, and I can see The Turn in the Road, and it’s thirty minutes to the talent show.
And she’s saying, “Do we have time?”
And I’m saying “Yes.” I can’t see my campers but I know where I left them and after Maxwell’s baptism they seemed fine. They are at the meeting hall and Marcy and Julie were there, Julie smoking. Someday Julie’s going to walk into her workplace and kill a bunch of people but for now I’m with Maddy on the tree. And I love seeing Maddy on the tree. And she gets nasty on the tree, showing me her backside and I’m putting it in and she’s gripping the tree with both hands, hugging it face down and it’s: Maddy, and me, and the tree. It’s stolen, it’s a tiny moment, it’s wrong in that someone could catch us. But no one’s at The Turn in the Road and I need it. And so does she.
There’s nothing like a solid fuck after a baptism.
Maddy’s pulling up her jeans, doing a little dance. There’s cum on the tree, and it’s dripping out of her, and when she walks she’ll hide it by the way she stands. Maddy’s eyes wild, hair down, something in them like the devil.
I don’t imagine angels getting down for a quick fuck on the back of a fallen tree.
But I can imagine the devil doing that. And we’re not the devil for doing it, but there’s something of the devil within us. Something that cheats a pussy-moment out of some campers, letting them go unwatched while we slip away into the woods. Something of the devil who doesn’t care. And I hate that. I hate that about myself. The me that will cheat you out of something you deserve so that I can have something that I am just going to take. That me that knows you’re hungry but I don’t share my food. Or that me that sticks my dick in Maddy while she’s face-down on a tree and takes. I take. Sometimes I take. Some taking gives. But some taking just takes, and in some sort of devil-way, that taking’s good. Some things go untaken. Untaken is wasted. Wasted is evil, so is use. Maddy face-down on a tree is..all of these at once.
Something about it isn’t about us, like we’re the tools but not the plan. Like we’re the execution but not the outcome. It just needs to be done. Even in the middle of it I hate it, for a moment; for a stretch something about it doesn’t require me. It could be any two people and it happens to be me.
It doesn’t need me. And I am the one being used.
“So amigo.” Marcy taps me with her foot.
“You all better?”
“Yeah,” she says. “We made it.”
“Yeah,” I say. “No one died.”
Marcy gives me a stern look.
“A little closer than I would have liked,” I admit.
“That’s good about Maxwell,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say, “I guess.”
“Don’t get negative on me,” Marcy says.
“When am I not?” I say.
“Somebody needs to go sit in the Chair of..what was it?”
“I dismantled it.”
“Too bad,” she says.
Campers are congregating in the main hall. Julie Jane is setting up a mic. My small group is sitting together, in the front row.
“You know how you and Beth used to sneak off and do coke back in the old days?”
I look at Marcy. I don’t want to think about Beth, or coke, or the old days.
“You wanna do some right now?” she says.
I look over at Maddy, approaching the meeting hall, squirming as she walks, legs close together to hide any stains that might still be wet.
“I think Maddy’s out of that shit,” I say.
Marcy smiles, a smile I do not want to see. “That’s okay,” she says, “I’ve got some. You think you’re the only ones who’ve been fucking around all week?”
My heart sinks. Marcy’s going to the mess hall. I don’t know why, but I follow.
“I don’t wanna do any of that right now,” I say.
Marcy’s tapping out powder on a metal cutting board. “Then why’d you come back here?” she says.
“Oh, fuck, I just—”
“Take a bump,” she says.
“You go first.”
“God, we’re fucked up.”
“Why do you have to judge everything?” she says. “You’re here. Take a bump or stop making me feel bad about it.”
“Fine. Let me get a straw.”
“Use this,” she says.
Julie walks in. “We ready?”
Marcy presents the cutting board like it’s The Price is Right.
Julie walks right up to it, fingers Marcy’s rolled-up Lincoln, and takes a bump. Julie, wide-eyed, says, “Did you have one?”
“He’s getting a straw,” Marcy says.
“Use this.” Julie hands me the Lincoln.
Julie says, “What’s up?”
“He’s getting moralistic on us. Now that his camper got baptized.”
“It’s not that..”
“I love how the most fucked-up person here is the one who has like..considerations..when it comes to coke.” Marcy presses one nostril closed and does a bump without the Lincoln. “Does it remind you of Beth?”
“Can we please not talk about Beth.”
“You have,” Marcy sniffs, “selective memory.” Marcy cuts off a line for Julie Jane.
Julie Jane takes the Lincoln from me. Julie Jane goes for the line and Marcy is talking.
“Beth, to you, is like..some kind of perfection. Right. She’s like..crystallized at sixteen.”
Julie takes the line. She pops her blond hair back, slides down against the kitchen wall.
Marcy cuts off another line. “This one’s for you.”
Julie Jane leans her head back. “Give him a break.”
“You want this?”
Marcy does the line. “See?” she says, “Not a problem.” She taps out another line and does it. “You see how not-a-problem that is?”
I nod at Julie Jane and head for the back doors.
“Send Brian back if you see him.”
I say, “What about Oscar?”
Julie Jane says, “Don’t tell Blake or Oscar.”
“What about Pig?”
I hear Marcy tapping out another line, razorblade on the metal counter, and I look back, and Julie Jane’s long blond hair fanning out behind her and she steps up to the table.
Marcy looks back at me. “Just send Brian.”
Edging my way into the meeting hall, Oscar comes up to me.
“Have you seen Julie Jane?”
“No,” I say.
Piglet is running with a clipboard. She stands at Arianne and McKenzie, who are dressed in mime. Piglet points at the clipboard with the back of a pen. McKenzie nods. Arianne touches the back of her ponytail, then turns around, and McKenzie fixes it. Piglet goes to Mai, who has a gymnast suit on. I wonder what her talent is.
Maxwell, Kristen, David, Katherine, Manny: all in a row. Maxwell turns around. Katherine turns too. Excited smiles. Maxwell is nodding. I give the thumbs up.
Blake and Brian are moving the piano off the stage. They roll it into the hallway. Blake comes back and he’s talking with Piglet. Brian comes to the back of the room and I flag him.
“Julie Jane and Marcy want to see you in the kitchen. They’re back there now.”
Brian’s face opens up.
“The back doors, the kitchen doors,” I say.
Maddy’s reading, corner chair. I sit next to her, half on her chair, half on the chair next to it.
“Where is everybody?” she says.
“Playing,” I say, “reindeer games.”
“Are you playing with them?”
“No.” I turn over the cover of the stapled booklet Maddy’s reading. Microeconomics (9th Edition).
“Don’t shoot,” she says. “I downloaded it.”
“I’m not going to shoot you,” I say. I put my hand inside Maddy’s thigh, feel the denim’s pattern under my fingers, and I close my eyes. I exhale. I feel Maddy return to reading. If there’s one thing I hate more than anything else about Camp Lake or any other camp I’ve ever been a counsellor at or any camp or youth retreat or conference I ever went to as a child, it’s the goddamn last-night-of-the-week show-me-the-same-motherfucking-skits-as-last-year let’s-sing-Kum-Bah-Yah play the flute violin and viola, juggle your fucking socks, make a puppet out of your sweatshirt, spray whipped-cream all over your boyfriend’s face and lick it up talent show.
For the talent show my group decided to expand upon my Bubble Tape trick. If you’ve seen at least one talent show, you’ve seen the deal where you have one kid in the front and one kid in the back, and the one in the back puts her arms through the sleeves of the sweatshirt being worn by the one in the front. Then the kid in the back proceeds to feed the kid in the front pudding, and comb the front kid’s hair, brush their teeth, etc. My group decided to do that with Bubble Tape. It was the disgustingest skit ever. It wasn’t funny. Katherine actually threw up on stage because Kristen fed her so much bubble tape. I’m their group leader and I didn’t think it was funny. But they stuck together. When they left the stage people were reeling at Katherine’s vomit, but everyone in my group held their heads high and escorted her off the stage. When I went out back they were all laughing. Katherine still had the vomitous sweatshirt on, and they were all chewing Bubble Tape. I think if anyone had said anything about Katherine vomiting the whole crew would have beat that person up.
It’s true, as the week went on, my group became increasingly eccentric. It’s possible some of my tendencies influenced them.
“Did you like our skit?” Katherine asks this. She still has digestive chunks in her teeth.
“Did I like your skit. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s the best skit I’ve ever seen.”
Kristen leans against me. “Did you really think it was funny?”
“I didn’t say it was funny.”
“Oh! You’re a sell-out. Don’t sell us out like that.”
“You know what I like about you all.”
“You stick together.”
“Of course we do.”
“So what’s our next activity?”
“Awww..no. What do you have in store for us?”
“I got nothing in store for you.”
“Should we tell him?”
“Yes. Whatever it is, you should tell me.”
“But. What if it’s against the rules?”
“Then don’t tell me and don’t do it.”
“But. What if it’s only slightly against the rules.”
“There’s no such thing.”
“Awww. We wanted to have some fun with you tonight. What about our late-night Bible study?”
“You’re the only people I’ve ever met who get excited about late-night Bible study.”
“Are we going to have it?”
“I wasn’t planning to.”
Cause I’m tired.Cause. Do you really want to do it?”
“We have to. It’s our last night!!”
“Okay. Do you have a Bible verse picked out?”
Kristen says, “David?”
David says, “I’m looking. Five minutes.”
And Kristen tells me, “Five minutes.”
I’m flexing my neck muscles. “Ehhh..”
Kristen leans in and says, “We have to. We have a surprise for you.”
“Maxwell. Get over here. Do you know about this surprise?”
“How `against the rules’ is it?”
Maxwell calipers his thumb and index finger to about an inch.
“Is it safe?”
Maxwell nods vigorously.
The expression on Kristen’s face renders this last response dubious, however.
“Katherine,” I say. “Brush your teeth. I’ll meet you all here at exactly 10:15.”
“Put this blindfold on.”
Maxwell hands me a bandanna.
Katherine is waiting, Kristen, Manny, David.
“Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise.”
Kristen holds one hand. Maxwell holds the other. Katherine walks behind me. She reads the Bible.
They walk me over the road. We’re going downhill, past the girls area.
Katherine reads the Psalms. She reads Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
“Careful, there’s a dip.” Max guides me by my arm.
We come out into the opening where the lake is. I can’t hear the lake, exactly, but I can hear the openness. They’re taking us around the lake. I can see splotches, flashlight, through the bottom of the bandanna. Finally I close my eyes. I take each step with confidence. My feet press into the grass. The night is cooling. Manny and David have a heavy bag between them. I am glad my hands are not tied.
“Is it this one?”
“It’s to the right,” Maxwell says.
We’re headed to the course.
“We learned something about faith this week,” Katherine says. “We all did.”
They have me at the bottom of the first wall. This wall has pegs in it. You climb to the top. You walk across a bar. Then there’s a platform.
I hear climbing.
“We’re gonna have vespers up there.”
“On the platform. You don’t have to climb with the blindfold.”
“Here. Grab this.” David and Manny are struggling with the bag.
“Do you want me to take the blindfold off?” Kristen asks.
“We’re just going to the first platform,” I say.
Maxwell starts climbing.
“Come on up,” Manny says. “This is plenty big.”
“Blindfold on or off?” Kristen says.
“On,” I say, and she starts climbing.
Katherine goes in front of me. I feel her heat come from behind me and feel the air move as she starts up the pegs. “Can you hold this?” she says.
Kristen answers. “Got it. Take my hand.”
I reach in front of me. Wooden peg, steel bolt. I put my foot on the bottom peg.
When I get to the platform I feel hands on my face. I still myself on the pegs. They’re taking off the blindfold. Katherine in front of me. She holds the bandanna.
“Come up top.”
I lift myself to the platform. Maxwell has the Bible now. He switches the flashlight from lamp mode to flashlight mode and the light narrows to a focus on the text. They’ve been using my highlighters.
“What’s in the bag?” I say.
“The glory of the lord,” Manny says, and they all giggle.
“Seriously, what’s in the bag?”
“Don’t use that word.”
“Well,” Manny says, “We kindof don’t want to tell you. Because it’s kindof illegal.”
“Did you get it from Maddy?”
“Then I’m not worried.”
“Well,” Manny says, “You probably should be.”
“Why don’t you tell me what it is that way I won’t have to be worried.”
“We kindof wanted to wait until the end of vespers so that if you’re mad at us it won’t ruin vespers.”
“Is it alive?” I say.
“No,” Manny says. “Well, not in a literal sense.”
“Does it have a brain and central nervous system?”
“Are you planning to eat it?”
“Are you planning on me eating it?”
“No. But we are planning on setting it on fire.”
The wind blows. I feel it on my skin. It feels wonderful.
Katherine has us sing “Shine Jesus Shine.” When we get to the part about Jesus setting our hearts on fire, I think of the black bag. Then we do a backrub circle. I rub Katherine’s back. Manny rubs mine. This is the kind of thing you can get sued for. Some counsellor, out in the woods with five minors. “Did you touch her?” “Yes.” “Where did you touch her?” It’s hard to explain, but before 2010 people used to touch each other and not file civil suits. I have to trust my group not to sue me. That’s faith. If they sue me, I won’t write them letters. If they don’t sue me, I will write them letters. The night is beautiful. I have the bandanna around my neck.
“Can I suggest a game?” I say.
Katherine says, “Yes.”
“Give me your flashlight.”
I switch it into lamp mode and set it in the middle of the circle.
“Hold hands. Now look at each other. Don’t say anything. You can look at anyone. You can stop looking at any time. But always look at someone. Look in their eyes. That’s the only rule. No talking. Always look into someone’s eyes.”
We did that. We looked into each other’s eyes. We didn’t look away. When we stopped looking at someone, we looked at someone else.
There was a beginning period of quick looking. There was a middle period of laughter. Then there was a long period of long looking. There was no talking. In the middle period, when we laughed, we laughed for a second, covered our faces, then looked at someone else and laughed. There’s always a middle period of laughter.
Then there’s always a long period of silence. Where people become comfortable not to smile. When you know you are allowed to smile, because no one ever stopped you. But you don’t need to smile. You know where that will lead. What you don’t know, is where deepness will lead. When you press, and hold, and dissipate..what will happen then? When you do not exert. When you need not turn away. Embarrassment is flirting. We’re not interested in that here. Flirting isn’t serious. It’s isn’t seriousness, exactly, that I want to attain. But there is a seriousness to it. Real fun isn’t possible when you’re kidding around.
When I look in Katherine’s eyes, right next to me, when I see the eyes of someone whose back I was just touching..my fingers press into the body of another body, almost like mine..my fingers touch tendons, touch muscle, touch skin, touch cloth you’re wearing. When I press into you, when I move your bones, when you react to my pressure, there is no longer two bodies. When I look into you and do not look away, something happens.
Maybe it’s our limbic brains.
Maybe it’s the spirit.
There is a feedback there, a still feedback. I don’t call it telepathy. But there is a language there. It’s pre-word, or post-word; you can feel it but not hear it, directly. If it has a grammar its grammar is very simple, having maybe three rules.
When I look at Katherine something holds us there, even simply that we know we’re playing a game. Then an interchange happens. I feel a transfer from me to her. She receives. Then I am still. And in time I receive from her. Then there are washes, like ocean waves, an exchange. There is something in the eye that knows about the body, even if it never looks at the body. When I look at Katherine our eyes know about the body. Katherine is right next to me. Our bodies are twisted so that we can look.
The eyes know this. They say it, in a way, with their look.
When I look at David I see someone who I don’t know well, who I will never see again. I can see in his eyes how he sits, how he breathes. He sees my edge. He sees that I am teetering. He doesn’t know what lies on either side of that edge, but he knows the edge is there. I can almost tell what kind of jobs David will have after school. I can see him at home, eating breakfast. I can see the room.
When I look at Manny, I see deep sadness. I think he will commit suicide. I don’t feel sad about this now, because I tell myself I am wrong. You can see things like that before they happen. They’re always right around us. One function of our language is convincing us to forget what we know is true. To lie, to ignore, to reframe horror. Beauty, too. When you look at someone, look only, strip away all speech, all that remains is beauty and horror.
Wrapped around each other, twisting, intertwining.
One is the red and one is the blue.
They’re stuck together. They need each other to breathe. One, without the other, creates concussion, sucks in breathable gas, overrules.
When I look at Kristen we are past all those games, games that pretty girls play and games that boys and men play with them. Our eyes, our eyes themselves, don’t have that violence. In these eyes we see ourselves as slaves, eyes trapped in something larger that’s out of control. Eyes peering from within a shell, like a crab. In this moment, without armor, crossing from one shell to another. And then a greater sea, after that, of motherhood and boyhood, of daughters and fathers, of taking care.
A fullness, there.
We are each other’s angels.
And a long time, a long still stare, that means nothing.
Maxwell. Servant. Seeker. Maxwell. Pure. I see that. Maxwell. Deep. No pain. That’s his problem. The world is full of pain and Maxwell has none. I know he will look, he will try to find it, he will bring it on himself. What if all the clothes in all the stores in all the world were made to fit someone else’s body? What then? The answer to that question is Maxwell.
And if he sees me, he sees that in me.
What are we doing here?
We are not like the rest. What is our job?
To love them.
Kristen has goosebumps on her arms. “It’s here, too,” she says. “But this is the good one.”
“What is here?” I ask.
Maxwell and Kristen say at the same time: “The eye-language.”
What was in the bag was a firework. Manny had brought it from home. It was a big one. It was the kind you’ll see in firework stores in Indiana and Kentucky. They’re only open certain times of year. By law, they can’t sell certain items to state residents. But if you’re driving through, you can get them.
“Where’d you get that?”
“My brother,” is all Manny said.
“When we’re done, take that shell.”
“Which part? ‘Cause this part flies—”
“The base part. When we go back. Put it in your bag. Take these. My car is the black Honda. It’s the fat key. You put that thing in my trunk. Do not throw it away in the dumpster. After we launch this you never mention it, ever.”
“No even to your cabin mates.”
“Not to your brother and sister when you get home.”
Manny makes a zipping motion over his mouth.
“And that’s the last thing we do out here tonight. We sit here as long as we want. Do whatever you want. But we light that fuse, we’re going back to the cabins. How far up does that thing go?”
“It goes up far.”
“Will they see it back at camp?”
“If they’re looking. Not through the trees. Actually I’m not sure.”
“Have you ever lit one like this before?”
“No. Not exactly like this, no.”
“Arright. If anyone says anything, we saw it too. You have no idea who shot it off. We saw it while we were doing vespers. If anyone gives you a hard time, come get me.”
“Is this illegal?” Maxwell says.
“I have no idea,” I say. “But it’s definitely against camp rules.”
Kristen leaning back against Maxwell. Katherine resting her legs on top of David’s. Manny whistling. I start whistling with him. Katherine hums.
“Come on guys, let’s go home.”
“Yeah, I’m tired. Who’s doing polar bear tomorrow?”
“Let’s get some sleep.”
“You mean after we set this off.” Manny taps the bag.
“Let’s do it at the lake,” I say.
Katherine comes down last, shining the light for the rest of us. When she climbs down I’m standing at the bottom.
“Can you catch me?” she says.
She jumps. She’s only a few feet above me. But I catch her. I put her down.
“Do you mind if I steal that purple joke of yours?” Manny says. “Or do you have the copyright on it?”
“I stole it from someone else,” I say.
“Oh. Good,” he says. “Because I’m envisioning the perfect audience for it.”
“So you’ve never shot one off like this before?”
“No. Not quite. Not of this magnitude.”
“What about your brother? Has he shot one off of this magnitude?”
“I’m gonna have to plead ignorance on that front. Wait,” Manny says. “Do you have a lighter? I forgot my lighter.”
Kristen busts one out. It’s Maddy’s.
“Thanks. Whoah. This one’s nice. What do you use this for, welding?”
“Manny,” I say, “how long does that fuse take?”
“I would think it would take..about eight seconds.”
“Okay. Let me light it.” I take the lighter from Manny. “Let’s watch from back there. Head back. Off the pier. You too Mann.”
“Are you sure, I could hold the fuse up for you like this.”
“I got it. Meet me back there.”
“Manny!” Kristen shouts. “Come on!”
Manny leaves me at the end of the pier. It’s a sliver moon, a quarter full, but bright. I look behind me: Manny, K, other K, David, Max. I’d write letters forever for this crew.
Look at them, standing there. Manny’s greasy hair; he’s bending down. “Manny! Look!” Kristen pulling him up by his shirt. She’s lost the poncho but I’ll never forget her barking at that kid in Logan Square. Katherine. For once without Le Morte Darthur, this time toting that Bible and leading our last vespers. David, plain; if any of us could be a pastor it’d be him. And Maxwell. Most like me. He’s the one I’ll write the most. He stands apart from Kristen, for once, and I know he’s gonna be smart about that.
I take a picture in my mind.
I light the fuse.
I picked the lake because I thought there would be less chance of us starting a forest fire if we shot it off from there. I hadn’t thought about the reflection on the water. Manny had underestimated. The fuse had at least twelve seconds on it. And I had underestimated. That wasn’t a firework you can buy in any store in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Alaska, or Arizona. It blew big. It rocked the pier when it left and it rocked the sky when it arrived. When it went off it rocked Camp Lake. Every camper in every cabin heard it. Every counsellor: the same. But if you weren’t looking at the sky above the lake at that particular moment, you wouldn’t have seen it. And everyone at camp was already in their beds.
It was green. It streaked out, opened over us like an umbrella, fed our eyes, blanketed the lake..and that was it. The boom you would certainly have heard from the road, maybe from town.
“Holy shit.” I cover my mouth and sit on the grass. Everyone’s beside me, laughing. I’m sure we’re going to get in trouble for this. Or I am. I roll back into the grass and the stars are coming down on me. What’s the point of living if you never see a thing like this? I scream: “Wwoo!” Oh my shit. You can’t do this in the city. You try that shit in Rittenhouse Square, you get arrested. I’m trapped in a cage in the city, driving between lines, walking when the icon tells me to, washing and drying my hands by motion sensor.
“So wha’d you think of that?” Manny says.
Maxwell is kissing Kristen. I look at David and Katherine. M + K only kiss for a second but it reminds the rest of us that we aren’t with someone.
“Dude,” I say to Manny. “That was amazing. What does your brother do for a living?”
“He plays Final Fantasy.”
“No. He’s online help for Final Fantasy. If you’re in the game and you need someone to tell you how to complete a quest or if your avatar gets stuck in a part of the map like behind a mountain or somewhere you’re not supposed to go or if someone uses profanity when they’re not supposed to, he’s there, and he’ll help you, you press F1 or actually I’m not sure what the key combination is in the latest version but..”
Manny keeps talking but I’m not listening. He talks while David and I test the firework’s launch cylinder for heat and load it into Manny’s bag. Then we put the straps on Manny’s shoulders and he tells us all about the online help in Final Fantasy and how his brother came to be a spirit guide or guardian angel or whatever they call online help in that game. “Anyone can become one, all you need is an innate love of helping people.”
We head up the path toward the pool and the girls cabin area and The Turn in the Road. Kristen and Maxwell linger behind us. They follow at their own speed. They think they’ll get together after camp. They think they’ll call each other, they think they’ll make trips to see each other. If they had been walking this path a decade ago they might have fantasized about marriage. But they won’t call, they won’t write, they won’t get married. This will be their last night together. Tomorrow will be parents and bags and everyone getting together with the cars they came in. They will want another kiss tomorrow but there won’t be one. The one they’re having now, which was supposed to be the last just for tonight will really be the last one ever. And that last blink of the firework and this last vespers..these will be our lofted moments, screaming, soaring, sinking, gone.
When I wake Max is standing over me. He’s wearing his polar bear t-shirt.
“Polar bear?” he says.
I say, “There’s no polar bear today.”
“Polar bear!!” he shouts.
“You can go if you want to.” I turn over. “Go without me.”
“But it would never be the same without you.” That’s Kristen’s voice.
I take my pillow off my face. “Kristen. What the fuck. There’s no girls past The Turn in the Road.”
“Except on the last day. Maddy said—”
“Blake even said so. They said since camp is over that we could do whatever we want.”
“Right. Like you haven’t been doing that all along.”
I sit up. Edwards’ bunk is clean. His viola, his suitcase, packed. Pierce is sleeping. Tislam is sleeping.
“So,” Max says. “Do you wanna do polar bear?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t. Camp is over. There’s no more polar bear. You got your t-shirt. What else do you want?”
“You’re grumpy in the morning.”
“You should see me in my real life. I will have breakfast with you though.” First I have to get dressed. “Kristen. Do you mind?”
The cafeteria is free seating. There are only a few people in here. I’m munching on Rice Chex. Max and Kristen are eating with me. Kristen’s flipping through The Art of War.
“‘When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.’ We shoulda learned that sooner.”
“Yeah,” Max says, “Mark that page.”
“So. Are you two gonna get married when you go home?”
“No,” they both say.
I point my spoon at them. “How do you know?”
“I’m serious. How do you know? You might be forced to marry, by circumstance. For tax purposes. It might be convenient. Or necessary. Financially. And yet when I ask you if you’re gonna get married you so confidently announce that the answer is no..when..really..basically..you don’t know.”
“I don’t even pay taxes.”
“But you might have to start.”
Tislam sits next to me. He’s still asleep.
“Is Pierce still sleeping?”
“This is the best part of camp,” I say. “No one’s in your way. You can sit wherever you want. No one’s shoving curriculum down your throat. Sorry about that, by the way.”
“We forgive you.”
“She’s doing yoga.”
“I bet she is.”
“She is. She’s by the lake. Oh. I forgot. She told me to tell you not to leave without her.” Kristen gives me a look.
I point at myself with my spoon. “Do I look like,” I chew my Rice Chex, “I would leave..without her? Did she say that?”
Maxwell says, “Do you and Maddy live together?”
“Maddy lives in Florida,” I say.
“I think you should move to Florida,” Kristen says.
“What do you think?” I ask Tislam. “Should I move to Florida?”
Tislam is staring into space. “What?”
“Just say yes.”
“What am I saying yes to?”
“Whether Matt and Maddy should shack up together.”
“Do you love her?” Tislam says.
“What!? You crack me up, Tislam. You should be a radio announcer or something.”
“Why should I be a radio announcer?”
“Because you have the voice for it, I don’t know.”
But Kristen’s nodding. “You should,” she says. “You should.”
“Matt, Matt, this is my mom.”
“Hi, I’m Matthew Temple.”
“Sharon. Bowman. Max said we had to meet you.”
“I’m glad I had a chance to meet Max. He’s very..sincere.”
Mrs. Bowman says to her son, “Do you want a picture?”
Max stands next to me.
I put my arm around him.
Mrs. Bowman takes the picture.
Max and Kristen are holding hands. They’re sitting on the porch railing of the meeting hall. Kristen’s parents are ready to leave. Kristen makes a tunnel with her hands and says something in Max’s ear. Max’s fingers let go of Kristen’s shorts and Kristen walks away. She smiles at him getting into the Ford. She closes the door. Power window goes down. Kristen’s face, turning, their car headed up the road.
Max’s mom comes from somewhere, takes Max, and they’re going to their car.
“See you Max.”
He gives me a hug.
I hug him, hold his head, let him go. No reason for pleasantries here.
I love you Max. I hope you have a great life.
Katherine comes up the road slugging her suitcase.
“Kate, give me that.” I take it. “Jesus, what the hell do you have in here?”
“Books,” she says.
Katherine is telling me her email address and I’m typing it in my phone.
“Write me,” she says.
I look in her face. “Katherine. I will.”
“You better.” She bounces around. “Oooh. Oooh. Take my Twitter.”
When Katherine’s parents get here it’s a blue-and-beige conversion van. She has three brothers. Her dad is fat, her mom is fat, they’re all short, the brothers run as soon as they get the doors open. Katherine’s dad puts his hands on his hips—or the fat around his hips. Katherine’s mom looks around and doesn’t see her daughter.
“They’re artistically challenged,” she says.
“Do you have a book for the way back?”
Katherine holds up Morte Darthur.
“Haven’t you read that by now?”
“I’ve read it six times.”
“Come with me,” I say.
We go the other way, away from her parents, to the meeting hall, and beside it, to the gravel parking lot. I open the back of my Honda.
“You are completely insane,” she says. “You know that, right?”
“I’m completely aware of the situation,” I say. “Pick one.”
“As a trade?”
“I don’t want your copy of Morte Darthur, I have my own copy of Morte Darthur.”
Katherine’s fishing through my books. “In here?”
“At home. These are just my travel books.”
“Do you read while you’re driving?”
“I saw this guy playing the trumpet while he was driving, once. This is near Bethlehem. The guy actually had sheet music up on the steering wheel.”
“I can have any one of these?”
“Boring. Boring. Are you a mathematician or something?”
“I got that on Market street. You know the little bookshops along there?”
“Oh my god this is beautiful. I took a year of Latin.”
“That’s supposed to be the best translation. I don’t read Latin but I have read several translations and from an English speaker’s point of view, I enjoyed that one the best.”
“I can take this.”
“Yes you can.”
I shut my trunk. “You’re welcome.”
“Do you know I write poetry?” Katherine asks.
“I had no idea.”
“It’s very contemporary,” she says. “It doesn’t rhyme. I only write at the typewriter so I haven’t done any here because it’s very musical in a kind of chattering..kindof like bubbles.” Katherine’s face is bright. “I have to go now.”
“Katherine. It’s been a joy meeting you.”
“I’m going to write you.”
“Perfect. I’ll write back.”
“I’m going to include some of my poetry.”
“I look forward to that very much.”
“It doesn’t rhyme,” she says.
I laugh. “That’s not a problem.”
And that’s it for Camp Lake, pretty much.
The leaving morning is a blur. There’s not even a worship service. We just do breakfast and cabin cleanouts and then church vans start showing up, and parents in cars.
Normally you can’t find anybody, and people are gathering around trying to get all the right group pictures. You get a picture with the girl you like, and with your cabin mates, and maybe with your small group.
Then there’s nothing.
Typically we’ll say a prayer, all the counsellors, in a circle in the meeting hall after everyone gets picked up.
Then it’s like taping up the last box when you move—you just take it and go, and all that’s left is dust and sunlight and a magnet you left on the refrigerator with the number of a local hoagie place.
I hate the last day of camp, because it reminds me of the ways in which everything I hate is actually something I also love.
Manny, David, Tislam, Edwards. Everyone goes home.
“You wanna play some one-on-one?” Oscar leaps up the steps to the meeting hall.
“Not really,” I say.
“Call me,” he says. “I’ll come into Philly.”
Julie sits on my lap. She and Oscar’s hands mingle.
“Are you gonna marry me this year?” Julie asks. She’s talking to me.
“Yes,” I say.
Julie lights a cigarette. I can feel her butt shifting on my leg.
Maddy and Marcy get out of Marcy’s car. They sit side-by-side on the railing.
“Where’s Pig?” I say
Julie says, “She left. Didn’t you see her?”
“No,” I say. “Did Blake and Brian leave too?”
“They’re doing paperwork,” Marcy says.
“Well fuck,” I say. “Do you guys want to get lunch or something?” I take Julie’s cigarette.
“I can’t,” Julie says. “Meeting my sister.”
“She’s in Carmina Burana.”
“What about you guys?”
“I gotta go.” Oscar stands up.
He extends his hand. “It’s been fun bro.”
I stand up and Julie and I both hug him.
Julie says, “I’ll see you soon okay?”
“Okay baby,” Oscar whispers.
Then it’s just me and Marcy and Julie and Maddy and Julie sits back in my lap and I’m smoking her cigarette and Maddy and I are looking at each other and finally Marcy gets up and Julie gives me one more cigarette before she leaves and we kiss and Julie Jane and Marcy walk each other to their cars.
“Can you drive?”
Marcy puts all her weight on that one foot. “All better.” Then she flinches. “Ow.”
Maddy at the opposite end of the porch and we’re staring at each other. Eventually Blake comes out, and Brian, and Blake carries a file box with him. The screen door slams behind him.
“Bry. You out?”
“Until next time,” Brian says.
Blake puts the box down and we hug. “See you Sunday?”
“No. But I’ll see you next week.”
“Good. We can start planning the curriculum for next year,” he says. He smiles but I don’t smile back. “I’m kidding,” he says. “I’m kidding, I’m joking.”
“Wait up,” I say, “I gotta go to the bathroom.”
“It’s unlocked,” Blake says.
I pull open the screen door. “See you.”
Blake and Brian wave.
The lights are off inside the meeting hall. The floor has been swept.
The bathroom light is on. I push the door open.
“Matthew! Hey..” Sony stands at the sink. At his feet is a bucket and rags. His hands are black, coated with grease which sticks to the side of the sink. It’s the kind of grease that sticks to soap, gets on everything you touch.
“So what’s next for you?” Sony says.
“What’s next for you, after this?”
I kick open the toilet lid. “Back to work.”
Sony continues washing his hands.
“What about you?” I say.
Sony looks at me over the divider. “I guess it’s work for me too.”
“Don’t you have kids?”
“Grandkids,” he says, “And almost more of those. Take care of yourself, and you’ll have grandkids too. Once you have your own, then they do all the work. You just sit back. It’s like Mary Kay. Did you and Blake make up?”
“I think Blake and I are always going to be at odds.”
Now I’m waiting for the sink. Sony is still using it, black gunk running down the porcelain. He focuses on one hand, ignoring the other, ignoring that grease is caking the soap. He gets that one hand clean.
“Something happened to Blake when he was younger,” Sony says. “That’s why he responds to you the way he does.”
Black water pooling in the bottom of the sink.
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” Sony says. “But I know it has made him afraid.”
“Of shining a light.” Sony has one hand clean. Now he washes the other. Black water drains from his hands and when both hands are clean he turns the soap, rinsing it. “Some people are afraid of the light.”
“How do they get that way? Why are they afraid of it?”
“I don’t know,” Sony says. He is splashing water around the basin, getting the whole sink clean. “How do some people come to shine the light? I don’t know. To shine it, doesn’t mean you love it; to love it, doesn’t mean you’re not afraid of it. I don’t know how my flashlight works..” Sony wrings his hands in the air. “But I know that when I turn it on, roaches go away.”
The only cars left beside the meeting hall are Maddy’s and Sony’s and mine. I sit on my side of the porch and Maddy sits opposite me. We’re both smoking.
I don’t have anything to say. Maddy and I perhaps have that in common. Traumatic experiences. If you have too many of them, your mind never goes back. People who’ve never had anything horrible happen to them don’t really understand life. And for membership in this club, all you have to do is cling to one terrible, terrible truth. It doesn’t have to be tragic, actually. It’s just easier with tragedy, because tragedy forces you to accept the truth that life is short..and hence..that life is valuable. To truly accept that, really, for most people the quickest way is to have someone die.
My cigarette, the last one Julie gave me, is down to the filter. I stamp it on the porch and cross. Maddy has one waiting for me. It feels good..sun on my back..deep drags on her Parliament. I wish the week could start over and we could do it again. I never pay enough attention to things while they’re happening. And that’s a sin.
We take our time. We watch the sun move across the porch. This wood, the rest of the year, will have no one sitting on it. Days will pass and with no one here birds will fly, land on this railing, sit, move on. A snake will trek across here, just because this porch is in his way. With us packed away, back in our cities, Camp Lake and all the wood and shingles and screens it is made of will be very very quiet. If I could sit still all day, and think about the same thing, and look in the same spot, I would see the sun going by overhead. Maybe I could even see the lake fill, and the leaves fall. And birds wouldn’t look like individual birds, to me, but a migration.
Maddy’s looking at me. “You wanna go?” she says.
The two of us walk through the gravel lot. And there’s Maddy’s—whatever it is—and there’s my Honda. I just got new tires. I should go camping more often. I don’t have to wait until Camp Lake. Should just grab a tent and call Oscar and fish.
Maddy’s veering toward her car and I’m veering toward mine. I’m glad I called her. I’m going to try to be elegant about this goodbye, make it a smooth transition, don’t say anything awkward. When she goes and I go I’m just going to let it be done. I’ll think about her. When I get home I’ll jerk off about Maddy a couple times and by Monday I’ll be back to the usual, back at Glaxo.
And I guess by then Maddy’ll be driving down I-95, heading back to Miami Beach.
My key in the lock. I linger.
“You wanna come with me?” she asks.
“Can we just go for a drive?”
Maddy’s car. Pinprick ruby, pinprick ruby red. Slopeface car. Racecar seats. In Maddy’s car she only listens to remixes, no radio edits.
“You know what this world needs?” Maddy asks.
“What?” I say.
“More Fatboy Slim.”
The ashtray a garden of decomposing Parliaments and pennies. She keeps the top down, even when it rains. She drives like that in the rain.
There’s a length of gunmetal piping sticking out from under the passenger seat.
“What’s that for?”
It looks like something you beat people with. It looks like something that when someone flips you off you pull up behind them at the next stoplight, get out of your car, and start beating the shit out of them. That’s what it looks like.
Maddy peels across the gravel. I take off my hat, put it in my lap. Maddy folds her left leg up under her, so she’s half sitting cross-legged. She adjusts her mirrors, then accelerates further.
She says, “I don’t want to talk for a while.”
And she drives.
I could get used to a girl who does this. I could get used to a girl who says, “I don’t want to talk for a while,” and drives. I could get used to that. Because this is what she does. She drives us out of the camp area, she drives us past a different lake. She drives us away from the teenagers diving from a floating dock in the middle of that lake. She drives us away from that. She drives us away from the town, she drives us away from the bait shop and the tire shop and the Wendy’s. She doesn’t stop at the Wendy’s. She doesn’t even stop for fries. She goes up a hill like she’s launching the car, like we’re a rocket and she’s launching us, like we’ll take off at the top of the hill. That’s how she drives. She doesn’t drive like Beth, in the Walmart parking lot, where you know today is the day we’re going to crash. She doesn’t drive like that. Maddy’s not going to get into an accident today. She’s going to get into one someday, though.
And when she does, the accident that Maddy gets into is going to kill you.
I hope I’m there when it happens. I hope I’m in the car with her.
That’s how Maddy drives. Like you want to get into an accident with her. Like you want her to crash the both of you.
Maddy drives like a seamstress—like a needle pulling thread.
“You wanna know my car’s name?” she says.
“I call her Silver Watchdog. She’ll never age. You can call her Silver. That’s her short name. You wanna know her full name?”
“Her full name is: Miss Mr. Shankar Watchdog, Silver Watchdog, Silver Maiden Whore Swaminathan.”
I run my hand along the dash.
“You wanna know how she got that name?”
“How did she get that name?”
“I named her.”
That’s how she got it. Maddy named her. Of course.
How else would Maddy’s car have gotten a name except that Maddy named her? Maddy’s making an existential point. She’s channeling her zen master. Hopefully she doesn’t get the itch to leave me in the woods, drop me on the side of the road so I can think things over.
“I didn’t name her that all at once. I give her new names, and add to her name, on long trips. It’s something to do. I talk to washing machines, too. I tell them to wash my clothes. It will help you with your sanity, if you talk to washing machines. Notice I did not say talk with. It will not help your sanity if you expect them to talk back. Wanna take this road?”
And she swings us onto that road. There’s a cow in our lane, from a broken fence. His buddies are still in the grass. Maddy speeds up and goes ‘round him in the left lane.
“What’s this music?”
“Daft Punk. Technologic. Remix.”
“It’s old. I gotta get new stuff. Fuck. Can you give me a hand with this?”
Maddy’s lighting a cigarette. I take the wheel.
Maybe this is like driving with Beth. I feel like I’m going to die. Maddy’s car is insane. If we were in Africa it would be a gazelle, and we would be airborne. People have the strangest definitions for words. If I was going to define glory, it would be the moment before you’re going to die, the moment right before, when you’re flying.
Anything short of that doesn’t justify use of the word.
She pops the gazelle into fifth and if there’s a deer over this next hill we’re dead. Maddy’s car grips the road. It’s a supersonic spider. If this road was banked like the Indy 500 we could take it. I imagine Maddy hitting the breaks, and the seatbelts gripping us, total stop, everything about it tight. We’d leave rubber behind us but we’d both survive.
Beth is like a perfect totem between us—circle of protection.
Maddy pops it into fourth and merges onto a ramp and I can’t believe we’re at the highway. She pops it down a gear and wraiths her way past an 18-wheeler. We’re around the other side. The car is evil, a shade. My bags are back in my car at the meeting hall. Maddy and I don’t say another word until we get to Philly and we’re on the Ben Franklin. The way Maddy drives it makes me look like a Hot Wheels captain.
Do you invite death? Or are you terrified of it?
Or maybe that’s a false dichotomy.
“You wanna go to Ocean City?”
“Sure,” I say. I don’t think. I just answer. Sure I want to go to Ocean City. Sure I want to remind myself of the last decade, and everything I’ve done wrong in it. Sure I want to go to where it all started, a place that used to be fun and sand and family vacations, that’s now..something too terrible to name. Drive me down the coast. Drive me to Sea Isle City, where we trapped crabs and got sand in our cracks and first discovered medical waste, washing on the shore.
Maddy slows down enough that we can light another cigarette, and in her glove compartment I see that she and Marcy have made a trade. Right there, a fat Ziploc, the freezer-sized ones from the Camp Lake kitchen, folded over, one corner full of coke. It’s a part of my life I hold at bay. It’s a part of my life I wanted to leave behind. It’s a part of my life I would utterly and completely hate except what’s the alternative? We make choices in the real world. That something isn’t the best outcome imaginable doesn’t necessarily make it anything less than the best real choice, in this place. I can beat myself up for not perfectly abstaining from cocaine or whatever else, but why? I do not live among perfect people. I do not even live among good people. My church, my family, my neighbors, my boss: we are evil people, ignorant people, fools. At best we’re misinformed. No hands are clean. What makes me so special that I deserve to be the forward-looking part, the face, the seeming good? Or is it just as well that I am the backside, the tattoo, the whore, the tragedy..the dead one.
All our pithy sayings belie the real vein. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword. If you play with matches, you get burned. That’s all good and well for mushmilk. Do you really want to die, though, any other way than by the sword? Is never getting burned really a trophy I want to teach my kids?
It’s all in worship to a myth of purity—and purity is the most dangerous concept in our vocabulary.
You go to the mountain. You’ll find nirvana there.
I don’t live on a mountain.
Maddy has the shit out on the bedspread of the Days Inn in Ocean City. They ran my credit card. They photocopied both our IDs. Maddy has her hair down.
It’s a giant ZipLoc.
She’s tapping the coke around in the bag. I’m looking at the dresser, seeing if there’s a way to get the mirror off. Maddy’s anxious. She goes to the bathroom. She unbuttons. She sits on the toilet, door open.
“This shit makes me have to shit,” she says. “Just by thinking about it.”
When she’s done, she doesn’t flush. “Do you need this?” she asks.
“This place sucks,” I say. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
“You already paid!”
“I know. I don’t care.” I’m looking at the tiny bathroom. “I’m kinda thinking—”
“I have an idea,” she says.
“Well,” she says. “It’s kinda weird. Or. You might think it’s really weird.”
“No, it’s okay. I think I’m thinking the same thing.”
“I think so too,” she says.
“What are you thinking?”
“Let’s go to the Westin?”
“Yeah,” I say.
She grabs the ZipLoc.
Driving through those little back alleys (and Maddy actually slows down) makes me want to be rich. Get another place, come out here on the weekends. Here, or someplace like it. Something about sun on a white house by the sea. It reminds me of the old family vacations, but also something else. Something of money, and salt water, and restaurants, and dusk.
The Coke machine at the entrance to the Westin, by the parking lot, is in the same place. At least, this new machine is in the same place as that old one was. This one has more choices, different choices. And this one has more lights, a bigger plastic bulb on its face, bigger buttons.
Maddy leaves the top down and we go up the steps to the lobby. The lobby’s changed. The desk is on the other side. We wait behind an elderly couple checking in. Maddy has an unlit cigarette in her mouth.
“I’m going to assume smoking.”
Maddy smiles. She takes the cigarette out of her mouth. “Actually. Can we have room 332?”
The guy looks at the screen.
I stare at the side of Maddy’s head.
“Sure..and..yes..that’s a smoking room. 332?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Maddy meets my eye. “Is that okay for you?”
- I open the balcony door. I step outside and behind me I hear Maddy do a line. She turns on the TV. It’s wrestling.
There’s no breeze. The ocean’s still. I wish there was. I wish it was Monday, or the last Monday. I wish there was somplace more to go. If it was last Monday I would at least be able to go where I went last week. That could be the possible. Now it’s just old people in hotel rooms, t-shirt shops, Coke machines, clerks at reception desks, credit cards, receipts, signatures, fresh towels that have that slimy too-clean fabric softener feel to them, and if you could zoom out it would be me among a thousand balconies, all pretty much the same, maybe a chair here moved or that one has a bicycle on it.
“Do you mind this?”
Maddy motions with the remote control.
I close the balcony door behind me.
“I just want to have something on,” she says.
I’m sitting beside her. “It’s fine.” She has giant lines laid out for us. Marcy must have just got paid.
“This shit is really good,” Maddy says. “It’s clean. I guess you’ve had it.”
“Not this week,” I say.
“Oh,” Maddy says, “I thought she would have offered..”
Maddy looks at me.
“I was just trying to focus on camp.”
“Is this alright?” she asks.
“It’s alright,” I say.
“Do you want a line,” she says. Maddy takes off her shirt. Purple bra, crisscrossing.
I kneel on the floor between the couch and the coffee table and take a nice, long, motherfucking line.
That hits the spot.
I pull myself up on the couch and Maddy’s helping pull me up and her arms and hands and breasts are touching me, touching my chest and face, and she’s pulling off my shirt and I can feel the coke and we’re kissing and I can taste it in the back of my throat, sour, burning, and Maddy tastes like it and her tongue is rubbing around my gums. I am light. I fly. Maddy’s jeans are pressing on me. I feel my stomach churn. An ad for depression is on the TV. My hand is at the top of Maddy’s waist, pulling on the button. The balcony curtains are open. All we can see is the sea. Maddy pressing herself against me. I can have anything I want. And my dick is very, very hard.
Maddy sits up. She cuts off a line, straightens it, hands me the rolled-up bill. This time it’s a Ben Franklin. Her fingers press into my shoulders and I can feel the acid thinning. She stops rubbing just for me to lean forward over the table. I wipe my lip, blink. And lie back.
Maddy’s lap. Between Maddy’s thighs. And Maddy’s fingers in my ears, my hair, my everything tingling and Maddy’s fingers tweak my nipples at the same time. Her hands down the front of my shorts, her thumb massaging me.
Then she stands. She strips her jeans. She kneels on the carpet, cuts the thinnest and longest line I have ever seen anyone cut in just one movement. She does it. She sets the razor down. She stands, dizzily, and walks away.
“Maddy. You alright?”
“I’m wonderful. Just going to take a bath.”
The commercials are for birth control, and class-action law suits, and lots of commercials for mood disorders. Watching two guys beat the shit out of each other isn’t my style. I mute the sound. And it’s the sound of Maddy filling the bathtub. From the other room, tiny water trinkle. She turns on the hair dryer, turns it off. The last tinkle of bath water and it’s like I’m in the bathroom with her..sound of her foot breaking the surface of the bath. Then her whole body sinking in. Then a slosh. Then quiet.
“You okay?” she says.
“Yeah. Fine. Just couldn’t deal with MMA.”
“Change the channel.”
Maddy’s cigarettes are on the table. And a pack of menthol I bought on the way. I tap out a menthol, light it. Breathe in. I love that cool feeling.
I slice off a bump, snort it. I reach for the cigarettes, grab another menthol. I pinch out the end of the tobacco, lift a tiny pile of cocaine on the corner of the razor blade, dump it in the empty space in the cigarette. I light the end, flash it, and the paper singes. Then I change the channel. A Bergman movie. The Price is Right with Drew Carey. I always think of the other guy. What was his name? The next channel is a gardening infomercial. I go back to the Bergman film. I unmute it. Hollow voices, microphones like the range had been clipped off. Could no one in 1950 make a microphone?
“Wha’d you find?” Maddy yells from the bathroom.
“A Bergman film.”
“What’s it called?”
“The Virgin Spring,” I say.
Maddy says. “I’ll be in there in a minute.”
I rake off a moderate line, sniff it, lie back, and light the cigarette. My mind is full of ceiling specks and razor blades, glass tabletops, marble countertops, drinking. Or Maxwell..where is he right now? Home? Watching TV? Or Katherine? What book is she reading. Freak. I feel good about that small group. I wish my job involved more of that sort of thing. Is there any job in the world that requires you to both be physical and spiritual? Maybe a priest, in the old days. Certain types of warriors. How sad. How weak. We don’t require of ourselves both a strength of will, and a strength of caring. Head and heart. It’s an option, sure, but what does that mean that we don’t require it? I take a full drag on the cigarette and my head swirls.
Relax, relax. Let it pass. No one died. We can at least say that, that no one died. I will go with Julie Jane to the rollercoaster tomorrow. We’ll drink wine by the glass at that stupid steak place and stay late and buy sweatshirts at the gift shop when it gets cold at night. I want to ride that one rollercoaster over and over again. I take the last drag off that cigarette that has cocaine in it, then I sit up and set it on the top of the Parliament box, next to the other cigarette that is burning there.
We’ve got to get some alcohol. I see the razor blades. It’s a different kind of package than the one Beth had but still.
I mute the TV. I set the remote down on the glass coffeetable. I’m not going to freak out. This is the type of moment when you get freaked out and then it turns out to be nothing.
I’m going down the hall. Beige carpet. The latch on the door to the suite is closed. I should have probably opened that, in case Maddy has a gun or she pulls me into the tub and tries to electrocute me and we both get killed or something. I know I’m just being stupid.
My shoes are off. I’m half-expecting at any moment for the carpet to get damp, that I’ll step in a puddle and push the door open and there will be water spilling over the tub, covering the tile, seeping into the carpet.
The door is open a crack. I walk past, not looking, and stand in the bedroom. There’s that bed. Closet’s in the same place. I hate those fucking bedspreads.
So I go back to the bathroom. I push open the door. And Maddy’s fine. She’s looking at the backs of her fingernails, that same wet body, naked, pale, like a baby. Maddy’s hair is drenched, spread out just like Beth’s was. Maddy turns her neck, very slowly. Her mouth makes an O. She says, “What?”
“I guess you think that’s weird,” she says.
“What?” I say. I’m cutting us more lines.
“What I just did. Take a bath there. It’s a different tub. The whole bath’s redone.”
I slide over a line for Maddy and she kneels in her towel, carefully twisting her hair behind her back.
“I don’t think it’s weird,” I say. “You do what you have to do.”
“I wish we had some rigs,” she says, picking up her phone.
“Who do you know up here?” I say.
“No one.” She throws her phone down. “Guess we’ll just have to do this the old-fashioned way.” She does her line and sits, letting the towel fall. “Like the settlers did,” she says. Then she starts scraping off another line.
Hours later, Maddy and I are in the grocery store. Maddy’s wearing my shorts, flip-flops, and I’m wearing a robe from the hotel Westin. We’re at the bread counter.
“Do you have a wine cooler?” Maddy asks.
The guy doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Maddy makes a circle with her hands. “A wine cooler. It’s this thing. You put your wine in,” she makes a spinning motion, “the wine..spins around,” she makes another motion, like lava settling, or a plane landing, “then the wine is cool.”
The guy tells us it’s at the end of the aisle near the wine.
Maddy keeps talking to the guy.
“You’ve got a certain QWAN,” she says. “Do you know what QWAN is? That’s Q-W-A-N.”
“Why don’t you tell me,” he says.
“I couldn’t say.” Maddy smiles. “That’s the central feature of QWAN as we’ve been discussing. What is QWAN.” Now she’s talking to herself. “What’s it made of?”
“Maddy. Come on.”
“I’m serious. What is QWAN and why can’t we name it.”
“I’m serious. Come on.”
“Why can’t we name it?”
“Um..” I struggle, looking at the bread guy.
“Because it’s like..”
The guy behind the bread counter says, “It’s the sum of a million facets.”
“You’re right,” Maddy says, and she grabs a baguette, “exactly. Except it’s not a sum.”
I grab her by the sleeve of my t-shirt and she sluffs along next to me.
“It’s the sum of a million facets. That guy knew what QWAN was.”
We get cigarettes, straws, a pinwheel, chilled Jägermeister (using the wine cooler, which Maddy operates), and also a 2-liter bottle of Absolut and some canned pineapples.
Maddy is cracking up looking at the can when we get back to room 332.
“This is supposed to be pineapple juice,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say, “Look at the front. Pineapples.”
“Pineapple juice,” she repeats, drawing her finger underneath the photo of a pineapple.
“You know what I just thought of?”
“We don’t have a can opener.”
“You’re ignoring the more obvious issue,” Maddy says. “Even if we had a can opener..”
I take the can from her. “Yeah,” I say. “But there is pineapple juice in here. Right next to the pineapple.” I drop the can on the counter. “I can’t drink that straight,” I say.
“Neither can I,” she says.
“Let’s go downstairs and get a Coke or something.”
“Okay,” she says.
But first we do a shot of Jägermeister.
I’m standing before this updated Coke machine, Maddy with me, and we’re both staring at the buttons.
Maddy’s making me go first.
And I don’t want to go along with this little charade of hers, but actually there’s only one drink here that I drink.
And it has nothing to do with Beth.
And this isn’t even the same machine.
To everyone else, we’re just a couple downstairs because we’re thirsty, standing in a parking lot in the sun in southern New Jersey. I look at Maddy, half-expecting to see her crying, or pensive, or remembering Beth, and she may be, somewhere in her she may be.
But that’s not what I see on her face. On her face, in this sun, her hair drying and her eyes squinting up in the direction of me and the Coke machine, is a smile, a bright smile, white teeth, a pink tongue, just health and skin and radiation.
That’s what is there.
I can make this out as Beth’s eulogy all I want, but it’s not.
There’s no Beth here. There’s just concrete, and bare feet, and brown hair, and bodies. Bodies who are breathing. Bodies who are aware. Maddy is holding my hand. I’m not the kind of guy who holds hands in public. But with one hand, I put a dollar into the machine and press the button, and with one hand I bend down and get the can from the dispenser, and with one hand, I hold it while I press the button for the elevator.
“I found a piece of her hair in a bag about a year ago. It was a piece of her hair I found on my shirt, after Ocean City. I guess I’m not 100% sure it was hers, I mean, it could have been mine but it looked like the end was dyed so it had to be hers, right? Unless I was seeing the end wrong. I put it in a plastic bag and then last year I found it. I opened the bag. I smelled the air inside it. There may have been a little bit of Beth about it. The hair smelled like her. It still did. I put it in my mouth and swallowed it with some milk. Is that sick? I just missed her. I don’t miss her now. Thank you for coming here with me.”
I’m sitting completely still.
“Go ahead.” Maddy stands up. “Drink your drink. I’ll do a line with you in a minute. It’s not disrespectful. If Beth was here you know she’d be doing it. So by that way of seeing things, at least, we’re okay.”
Maddy flicks her cigarette over the balcony. It’s that time of night where everything’s pastel. Pastel doesn’t fit Maddy very well. It makes me imagine her old.
I get up with my cup in hand.
“Bring a drink out,” she says.
I duck inside the room. The air conditioning’s on. I bring the bottle.
Maddy points at 332 with a new cigarette.
“For weeks after..that..I was desperate. I was like lying on the floor of the bathroom. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t watch a movie. Couldn’t even sit still long enough to watch a movie. Or..it was like..I couldn’t allow myself to watch a movie, because it was a waste of time. And how could I do that when so much more important things were happening. Like enjoying normal life was a disgrace. And then, after that, somewhere around years eight or nine..I pretty much don’t enjoy anything anymore..I mean, like, as a matter of policy. And now at year ten, that policy’s become standard. I don’t even question it.” She’s chewing on her unlit Parliament, just like Beth used to. She flicks the lighter a couple times but not at the cigarette. She seems content just to have something in her mouth. “You seem pretty functional.”
“She wasn’t my sister.”
“But you’ve had other deaths.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Don’t do that. They all count.”
“Life doesn’t seem real,” I say. “And death doesn’t seem real either. I believe in it. And I don’t..believe there’s a heaven. But even the life part, that dies, doesn’t seem like it’s quite..living. You know? I mean, the part that goes away, I feel like we’ve misconstrued that such that we don’t even know what it even means to be alive..and then we mourn when we die..but..what are we mourning? When those stupid cops were talking to me I wanted to get down the hall. I wanted to get in here.”
“Why? Why did you think she was doing it?”
“She thought she was going to jail for Sean.”
“Beth had cut herself before. You should have seen—”
“I don’t remember Beth cutting herself—”
“How would you!? She was always—”
“I saw her..naked..I didn’t see any cutting.”
“You don’t remember. You don’t. She cut herself. That was probably the fiftieth time she cut herself in a bathtub. That was what she liked to do. She did. Matthew. Trust me. Me and Dad used to drive her to the ER so mom wouldn’t see. We’d get back, Dad would say he took us for ice cream. Beth would be wrapped up. Dad would go in the front door. Me and Beth would go in through the garage. They’d be downstairs fighting. Me and Beth would listen to Kid A and she’d show me her scars. That’s how I’ll always remember Radiohead. Beth taking off her bandages. It’s weird. There’s something sexual about it for me.”
“I know that’s weird because it’s my sister.”
“I think I get it.”
“Do you have that?”
“When did you see her naked?”
“When you and I found her.”
“Before that too.” I shake my head.
“Do you remember now?”
“No. I never saw any cuts.”
“You will,” Maddy says. She draws a line across her thigh with two fingers. “She used to cut herself here. Do you remember?” Maddy draws a line across the inside of her elbow. “Do you remember?”
I’m blinking. I don’t remember. Beth’s skin was clean. It wasn’t cut.
“I remember her cut..in the bathtub,” I say.
Maddy is very still. “She was cut before that,” she says.
“When you went to his house what did you do?”
“We checked up on him.”
Maddy frowns. “What did my sister tell you to do? When you got there.”
“She told us to get her phone. She thought she left it.”
“And? Did she?”
Blake is downstairs. I’m standing at the door to Sean’s condo; the giant middle-finger hand is staring me in the face. I don’t look behind me, even though I want to. I want to see if anyone’s watching me—some old man taking out his trash, some yuppie getting into his Porsche ends up being the reason Beth goes to jail, ‘cause this guy sees me going into the condo in which Sean is later discovered dead, then somehow they track it back to me, and that leads them to Beth. Blake’s supposed to be looking out for this angle of things, so I just turn the handle and go in.
I have to push the thumb of the foam hand back outside the condo to get the door closed. What kind of a jerk lives with the inconvenience of doing that every time he has to close the front door, baffles me.
The lights are on. There’s a quart of milk on the counter. The refrigerator door is open.
I go into the living room. What I see there makes my hair stand on end.
Sean is lying on the carpet. His head is in his bookshelf, neck against the corner of a cinderblock, plywood shelves across his chest.
That’s not the bad part, though.
I look at his face, and he’s looking at me. He’s not dead.
His eyes are following me, but that’s it.
There’s blood coming out of one of his eyes. There’s blood coming out of his ear on that side. The rest of him looks fine, except that it’s not moving.
I look to the door. His blinds are closed. I look to his bedroom. The light is off. If this is what passes for a condo, I think you’re getting ripped off.
I kneel by Sean. Instinctively, I touch his hand. It’s warm.
There’s Beth’s phone, on the couch, at eye level.
“Sean, what’s going on buddy?” I poke the palm of his hand. His hand doesn’t move. “Can you feel this?”
His eyes just move to the farthest corner of their sockets. I look behind me. No one there.
There’s Beth’s phone on the couch. All I have to do is take that phone and walk out. Jesus. My fingerprints are on the door handle. I’m a fucking idiot.
“What the fuck am I gonna do with you?” I say it out loud. I stand up.
Beth’s phone is right there.
“You’re a real fucktard Sean, you know that? Are you in pain?”
Sean looks from side to side.
Then what I said, I’ll never forgive myself for this, really, because the fact that I would say something like this is a real negative indicator of my personality.
I ask him if he has to work today.
He moves his eyes side to side again.
I don’t know what I would have done if he’d said yes. Probably the same thing.
I’m standing over him. “You know you shouldn’t be fucking around with my friends, right?”
I have the strong urge to kick him, run my foot down through his face, but I don’t. If that cinderblock is placed right, that might kill him.
I take Beth’s phone off the couch.
“I’m gonna call 911 for you. Okay. I want you to know that. Not with this.” I put Beth’s phone in my pocket. “I’m gonna get you help. After I leave here. Fuck. Fuck you for ever messing around with her. But I’ll tell you something else. She’s not gonna get in trouble for this. This is your fault. Your fault. I hope I’m making that exceedingly clear to you, you stupid townie fuck. Are you able to get this?” I’m snapping my fingers in his face. “Are you getting this? Is everything in there working well enough? You understand me?” I want to slap him but I don’t.
I can see in his eyes he understands. His eyes are moving fine. He looks at me, looks away. He looks extremely stressed.
“Did Beth leave you like this?”
Sean looks confused.
“Did Beth know you were alive?”
He looks like he’s about to cry. He moves his eyes side to side.
“Yeah, well. I’m gonna call an ambulance. From like a pay phone. That’s the depth you’ve sunk to, you fuckhead. You get that? The one person who’s gonna help you is gonna do it from a payphone, you dumb piece of shit. I might wait a while before I do it, too. Let you sit here for a while and think about that shit. This is what happens to you when you fuck around. Don’t fuck around. And let me tell you something else. Are you listening to me? If you talk about this, if you say anything about me or Beth or anyone I know..if you come to us..if you tell anyone that Beth was here, I will come to the hospital and unplug your breathing tube. If you say anything about this, if you mention Beth, I will come back to Ocean City and we’ll sneak into your house and you’ll fucking die. Do you understand what I’m saying? Show me.”
For the first time, he moved his eyes up and down.
I stand up, look around. Beth, you better not have left any other shit here. I see the milk out on the counter as I’m going for the door. It’s amazing how innate our thinking is; I have to consciously talk myself out of putting the milk away. I put my hand underneath my shirt and put my shielded hand on the doorknob. I’m thinking I’ll find a payphone on the boardwalk.
But I don’t turn the knob. I don’t open the door. I take my hand from beneath my shirt and I turn back to Sean.
He’s watching me, which is the worst part.
Even though the rest of him isn’t moving, he’s watching me as I approach him. He’s watching me as I wrap my fingers around the ends of one of the bookshelf cinderblocks. He’s watching as I lift it above his head. He’s watching as I bring it down upon him with all the fury that I have ever had.
“I knew that,” Maddy says.
“How do you feel about it?”
“Happy,” she says.
I chuckle. “That’s a strange thing to be happy about,” I say.
She says, “Is it stranger to do it or to laugh about it? Anyway it doesn’t count,” she says.
“It counts,” I say.
“I didn’t mean that. I mean it’s not your fault.”
“It’s exactly my fault.”
“But what? The guy has the choice of being paralyzed all his life or that? By the way, I really did know this all along.”
Maddy shakes her head. “You and Beth are just the same. You think you’re keeping secrets. You’re not.”
“I wish Beth was here so the three of us could get high together.”
“And you know what else? I wish Blake was here too. If Beth was. The two of them had sort of a—”
“They did. They fit. Not as equals. They were counterparts.”
“Let that be a lesson to you,” Maddy says.
“Don’t lose your counterpart.”
It’s dark outside. It’s completely still. Maddy goes inside, turns out the lights, and puts a razorfull of cocaine on the back of her phone. She hands it to me and sits down next to me.
“Cover your nose,” she says.
“Aren’t you going to cut it?”
“Cover your nose.”
She holds the phone up. “Now sniff.”
I do, and my throat is burning.
“I’m gonna get you higher than a kite,” she says.
Beth’s phone is on the bed. I can’t find you guys anywhere. You guys leave the pool. I’m right behind you. Then the hallway is empty. You guys aren’t in the rooms. Everyone’s at the pool. I’m in 336. Nobody’s there. The TV’s still on. The balcony door is open. Sunny outside, cool and shady in. I can see the beach. These are perfect rooms. Check 334. It’s locked. 332. No one. Lie on the bed. Get up. Close the door. Lie on the bed. Breeze through the curtains. Thick carpet-looking curtains. Dark in the room. Beth’s ringtone. NIN. Closer. Pick it up.
“Who is this?”
“Who is this?”
“Are you lookin’ for my sister?”
“I’m lookin’ for you. What are you up to?”
“Do you even know my name?”
“No,” he says, “but it must be something pretty.”
I’m at the house with the middle finger on it. We’re still on the phone.
The door opens. Smells like weed. Sean’s chest is there. It’s smooth. He works out. I go inside.
I ask him if he’s smoking. He asks me if I want some.
I’m wearing my swimsuit. It’s a one-piece. I’m aware of my legs. I sit on his couch.
He sits right on top of me and I push him off.
He’s right next to me.
He puts one of his legs over both of mine.
I let him keep it there.
He hands me the bowl.
He smokes. He hands it to me. I smoke.
Then we start kissing.
I wanted to kiss him. Of course I wanted to kiss him. From when Beth was first with him she was always saying he was “delicious” to kiss so I’m always wondering how delicious he actually is. I wanted to kiss him from before I went over there.
Mainly I was bored.
It’s the salt of the ocean, the salt in the air, it’s the sun in the afternoon, you know how that is. It’s melancholy. It’s the same reason you watch TV or get water ice or, now, drink a beer or crave pizza. There’s no better reason ‘cept that space in your stomach? You know how that is? It’s not being hungry. It’s not butterflies. It’s a vague dis-ease, a benevolent malaise.
I’ve been feeling that since I was a kid.
I felt it at camp when I was much younger, I always feel it in the summer, I always feel it at pools. Not usually when I’m in the pool, but right when I’m about to get out, sometimes..and always when I’m sitting on the side. Is it pools themselves? Is it associations I have to the chlorine? It makes me feel a little out of control. It makes me feel like taking a nap where I don’t ever go to sleep, just lie on the bed and smell the chlorine. Lie on a beach chair and feel the sun on my back. Put a book in front of my face and pretend to read. But don’t read. Lie there and think. Take in little pictures of what people are doing. Think but don’t really think. Do you ever do that?
That’s how I feel before I make out, or how I used to when I was younger. Maybe still a little now. Maybe it’s just the feeling of having swallowed a little bit of salt water, a little bit of chlorine. It’s weird. It’s some psychological feeling I get. Like being a baby. Do you get that?
I had that feeling when I was with Sean.
I know that’s sick but you have to understand, I wanted to be there. You can say I didn’t want to, but, look, I’ve had ten years to think about this and here’s the way I’ve come around to thinking about it. Did you want to steal those cans of Sprite? You might have had fun, you might be glad you did it, you might be proud of it, you know what I’m saying? Did you really want to go to Ocean City that summer? Or did you just go because that’s what happened? That’s just where we were going. Did you even really choose to go? No. You went because your parents paid for it. You went because Pastor Steve knows the owner of the Westin. I wanted to go to Sean’s place as much as you wanted to steal those Sprites. I’m not saying I wanted to in some grand sense. But I didn’t want to be at the pool. I was sick of you and Beth sneaking off without me. I’m not saying that to blame you. I’m not saying that. But it’s not like, instead of being at Sean’s house, there was someplace else I would have rather been. That was the best place I could think to be, at the time.
I took my clothes off.
I didn’t know what was going to happen. We took it one step at a time. Did he get what he wanted? Yes. And just shut up for a minute; I know you have a whole argument about how, psychologically, what he did is criminal, etc. etc. And that’s right, that’s right, twenty-four-year-olds shouldn’t have sex with fourteen-year-olds, generally, because with that level of age difference it can never be balanced.
But it wasn’t rape.
When a boyfriend and girlfriend have sex and one of them doesn’t want to—I mean isn’t in the mood—is that rape? No. Maybe in some technical sense, but no. That’s not rape.
I didn’t tell him no.
I didn’t tell him no because I wasn’t so not-okay with it that I didn’t want it. I would have said no if I didn’t want to, okay? I appreciate what you—and Beth—did.
And I’m sorry.
You can never know how sorry I am to Beth.
And that’s not your problem—that’s something I have to deal with—but when two people do something that’s not ideal for one of them—or maybe it’s not ideal for both of them—that’s not rape—that’s compromise.
It was actually great. I never felt two things fit together so perfectly.
He fit right in me. He fit right inside. It took us some adjusting to get positioned right. Then it was fine. And I liked his muscles. His combed hair. Very preppy in a way. I lied back, and I let him do it. And I closed my eyes.
*I couldn’t look at him while he did it. Not the whole time. It was too much going on. I wanted to feel. I didn’t want to see. And he was strong in me. He pushed me. And I discovered that I liked to be pushed. Sometimes I opened my eyes. And I saw his hair falling in front of his eyes. He put his hands underneath my neck and cupped my head and fucked me. And once he put his hands on my ass and pulled me up. He had this look on his face like, *“Ooo-wee, ain’t she a beauty.”**
At least that’s what it looked like to me.
Boys always like cars. Or even better, they like a girl standing next to a car. I wonder which they like most. I’m attracted to shapes, too, but shapes are only part of a more total thing, a thing like a mood, but not a mood like an emotion. When I say mood I mean a thing like intuition, but not in the frou-frou sense that word usually has. It’s kindof like standing back from a mural, and taking in the entire view at once.
That’s what I mean when I say a mood.
Being attracted to shapes is like standing two feet from the painting and saying, “I like this.” But I’m attracted to shapes, too.
And I like being fucked. It must be something natural.
It puts me in a trance. There’s something about me, when I’m getting fucked, that puts me—almost half-asleep I want to say. It must be like a pig feeding its young..’cause you know that has to hurt..and yet it doesn’t. Nature puts you into a trance, and you like it.
That’s not always how it is. That’s how it was back then.
It was definitely like that for parts of that time with Sean. Like being a baby rocked to sleep. You don’t even want to sleep. When your mother rocks you, though, you fall asleep. It’s like being on the first hill of a rollercoaster after they strap you in: there’s nothing you can do so you might as well enjoy it.
And you do.
Every turn and every fall isn’t where you expected it—it’s definitely not where you would put it—but you enjoy it anyway. You enjoy being scared. You enjoy thinking you’re about to piss yourself. You know you’re not going to die—but it’s fun to pretend that you might.
So all in all, I liked it. It was kindof like getting beat up, but with your pussy.
He sweated all over me. My hair was wet when we were done. He took a shower. He invited me to take it with him but I didn’t go. I was lying on the bed, feeling myself, hoping he wouldn’t come back. I wiped the sticky into my skin. As I was lying there, I had that feeling in my stomach, the feeling I get before I go on a long trip, or when I’m nervous about something I can’t do anything to change.
Really my only worry was that I might get pregnant.
Beth was pissed. She wants to kill the guy.
“Well, she came pretty close.”
And that stupid bitch left her phone?
“Yeah. That’s the only reason I went over there. She told me to get it. She had me take Blake for backup.”
“You shouldn’t feel bad. She wanted to kill him. She tried.”
“Yeah, well. I took care of that problem.” I look over the railing.
Maddy says, “I’m sorry if this makes you not want to fuck me.”
“I still want to fuck you.”
“I have a very kinky way of looking at sex with you that will probably,” I say, “never go away. Not while we’re young anyway.”
“Because of Beth. It’s okay—”
“It’s not just because of Beth. Part of it’s because we met so early. Part of it is because of Beth. Part of it is just the way you are.”
“I think we should get really high and do sick shit.”
“Sick sexual shit?”
“Yeah,” Maddy says. “It doesn’t have to be that sick.”
“That sounds like a good idea to me,” I say.
At some point Maddy and I are lying on the balcony, having done rails upon rails upon rails upon rails, drinking Absolut and Sprite, hotboxing coke off the tips of her Parliaments.
“Come to Miami Beach.”
“I knew you were going to say that.”
“Then you’ve had time to think about it.”
“Like..come to Miami Beach?”
“Aren’t there mosquitoes?”
Maddy nods. “Pass that.”
“Yeah. Fuck you about mosquitoes. There’s mosquitoes here.”
“I heard everyone in Florida has nets over their pool and shit.”
“Is that why they have nets over their pools? I thought it was..I thought..”
“I’m pretty sure it’s because of the mosquitoes. What the fuck am I going to do in Miami Beach?”
“Work. Go to the beach. Feed me potato chips. Have mind-blowing sex.”
“And what are you gonna do?”
“Work. Go to the beach. Eat potato chips. Have mind-blowing sex.”
“What do you exactly do for work, you’ve never actually—”
“Don’t you worry your little head about what I do for—”
“That is quite worrysome to me, you know, I don’t want to get arrested—”
“You’re not. I keep everything..very..compartmentalized.”
“Do you think we would get along? For more than..you know..a weekend?”
“It’s been two weeks!”
“Yeah but I haven’t seen you in..your natural environment.”
“You got a taste. You saw me. You know what you’re in for. I think you’d be a perfect addition.”
“To your party.”
Maddy presents herself. “To this.”
“Give me your hand.”
Maddy has one hand on the balcony railing.
“Give me your hand.”
“Give it to me.” She takes my hand. She puts her left foot on the bottom of the railing. Her grip tightens. I’m holding her weight. She puts her right foot on the top of the railing. She shifts her weight. I’m holding less of her weight now. She puts her left foot on the concrete side of the balcony, on its flat top, and she lets go of my hand.
“Come up here.”
“I don’t want to.”
She gives me a look and almost loses her balance. My hand catches hers for an instant and then she lets go.
“The view is much better from up here.”
I look down. “Yeah, the view of a parking lot.” Chain link fence. A Saab.
Maddy’s looking straight ahead. “This is the way to do it,” she says. “What’s the difference, if you’re ten feet off the ground or two stories.”
My palms are sweating, more than before. I say, “I don’t want you to die.”
She says, “I don’t care if I do.”
“You might be about to,” I say.
She looks down at me and says, “You’re right,” and even that little glance downward makes her almost lose her balance.
She corrects. I’m not there to catch her hand this time. I try, but her hand is too far out. It spirals in the black space, lit by our hotel room lights from behind, and I can see the black ocean, and the Ferris wheel down the way. You could see our room from the boardwalk. Someone down there is watching this.
“Maddy. Please. One of these days you’re going to fall.”
“Do you want to?”
She corrects her balance. She’s looking down. Her left foot is solid but the right one, on that skinny rail, doesn’t do much to help. She brings her right hand to her face, scratches her nostril. This movement throws her, and she’s correcting with the left arm.
I want to grab her, but if I touch her she might fall.
“Please. Would you please..”
She’s catching her balance.
“Will you get my sweatshirt?”
She seems to have righted herself.
Both arms are out.
“Get me my sweatshirt?”
“Why don’t you come down and we can go to dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You can watch me eat,” I say, and Maddy almost trips. She almost does it to herself and only barely catches herself—she leans forward, then back. Then the foot on the concrete edge stops her. “Maddy. This isn’t cool. Seriously. Come down.”
“I’m not scared. Why are you?”
“If you fall, I won’t be able to have dinner with you.”
“What are you having?”
“I’ll decide when we get to the restaurant.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
“Do you want help?”
“I don’t need help.”
“I can put my hands around your waist,” I say.
She says, “Just meet me at the restaurant.”
“See you soon.”
“You’ll meet me at the restaurant.” I wait for a response.
“I’ll meet you wherever.”
“That sounds good.”
“Bye,” she says.
“Why don’t you meet me in the room.”
“I better meet you at the restaurant.”
“Maddy, you know what..”
She teeters a little and looks down.
“..fuck you. I hate to say that to you right at this moment, but do whatever you want. I hope you don’t die. I’m going to Zen’s for dinner. I’m having crab. I’m drinking gin. If they still have Plymouth I’m drinking Plymouth. If they don’t have Plymouth I’m drinking something else! I’m not waiting for your ass to order either! Fuck! I WISH YOU WOULD JUMP!!!”
I kick the chair and I half hope that will make her lose her balance.
Maddy stands there with her back to me.
She’s going to do it.
I take my wallet off the coffeetable and go to the door. I’m having crab tonight. I open the door to 332 and I step out. When I pull the door to, I don’t look back and I close it very gently.
I’m not going back in there. I’m going to order shitloads of food at Zen and get so drunk I can’t remember my name. I’ll sit inside so I can’t look up and see the Westin. If Maddy joins me, fine. If not, I’ll find out after dinner that she’s dead.
My heart jumps and I’m frozen. Maddy falling all the way down.
Here’s a maid coming down the hall. This short guy. Pushing a cart. All the towels are clean. The cart is stocked with fresh sheets. He must have loaded it with supplies for tomorrow’s cleaning. Taking it to some storage closet somewhere. He sees me, and I look at him, like I’m asking for help or something. This is the guy who’s going to ID me. Once they find out Maddy jumped from this room. Or fell. Or whatever happened. This is the guy. I step backward, right against the door to 332, and let him pass. He gets a good look at me. The room is in Maddy’s name. But they’ll find me. And they’ll wonder if it was a suicide or if I pushed her. And this guy..I’ll see this guy again..in a courtroom someday, and he’ll remember this moment for the rest of his life.
I expect him to say, “Have you lost your key?” He doesn’t say that, though. I don’t look like someone who lost their key. He’s peering into me, trying to figure out what I do look like.
I can’t do this anymore. I can’t.
I can’t save Maddy, and Maddy can’t save me. I’ve said what I had to say. If I get canned because Maddy lets herself go over the railing, because we both have coke in our systems..well..that’s my life.
Fuck it. At least I came clean.
And all I can think about is the air, how still it was out there. If she lets herself fall, it won’t have been an accident. I should be there, reaching for her, clenching her, pulling her back. But then what? I can’t be with someone who enjoys making me think she’s going to die.
And somehow, in the catch of my throat, I know she’s not there.
So simple, horror. An empty blue railing, silent night.
Like losing your phone, except you never find it again. I’ll open the door. See an empty railing. No one, sitting in the chairs. The television on. No one watching. Hope she’s in the back. Check the closet. Bathroom: no one. Bedroom: no one. And that will be it. Nothing there to convince me that Maddy wasn’t just a dream. I came here with someone. I left alone. When I open this door, if Maddy’s not there..
The maid is at the far end of the hallway. He turns a corner.
When I look back the door is opening. 332.
Maddy is there. She sees me. My shoes are on. I would have left. I would have run. Hidden on the boardwalk. Found someplace to eat dinner. Then found a rental car. Called someone, never looked back. Left Maddy in the Westin. Forgotten all about that girl.
But then I would have missed what happened next.
Maddy, shorter than me. Maddy, eyes upturned. Maddy, small.
I stare at her. I think it’s anger. Then there’s something else in my spine. It feels like tumbling down, like a waterfall. I think that’s sadness. Or maybe..maybe it’s tiredness. Maybe it’s needing to sit down. Maybe it’s needing for this never to happen again. I think it’s being tired.
If I go back in that room I can’t have that ever happen again.
I sit. I sit on the Westin carpet. In the hallway. I look up.
Now Maddy is taller than me.
My eye is on her and she looks at my eye.
I think she understands.
She opens the door all the way. She stays on her side of the line. I stay on mine. The balcony door is open. The maid is gone.
Maddy goes to the balcony door. She slides it shut. She locks it.
She extends her arm. She opens her hand. She waits for me.
Then I take that hand, and I let it lead me. I let it pull me inside the room. I feel it on my shoulder. Maddy leaves the television mute. She doesn’t talk. She looks straight ahead. I almost sit down with my head first, and my head goes directly to Maddy’s lap. I put my head there. I can’t sit up anymore. For now it’s going to have to be lying down. And I cannot close my eyes. That would take too much energy. I’ll have to keep them open. I’ll just do that. I watch people on the TV go by. I watch it cut. One picture goes to another. Maddy’s hand on my ear, fingers, hair. And I can see her leg, plain, beautiful leg.
Maddy touches my head, and then my heart.
Then I look into her eyes.
And when I look into your eyes, it’s like there’s two of you.
And when you rock me, which is exactly what I need you to do, it’s like I’m looking at my mother. You bring me in and you bring me out. And someday the one who is taken care of will be the one who’s taking care. The mother one, the child one, the friend one. Circling around, each one part of God.
Each minute part of God. Each second part of God. Each step, each footprint, each toenail. Each sip of a drink part of God, each syllable in a name, each strand of hair, each cow. Each tear.
Nothing by itself, no ideal pear, no basket, no sentence is complete within itself. No person. No lifetime. No country. No science.
Not even a death is complete within itself. Not even going away is complete. Not even loss means something in a vacuum. It needs a sister and a friend. It needs a month to pass. It needs terror to follow terror, and it needs happiness to follow terror, and it needs terror to create terror again.
That, spinning whole, almost adds to the glimpse, comes unraveled, knits, burns, steals, breathes, and breathes again. Without it is nothing. Purple fabric, red and blue. The in, and the out. And clear my eyes, but not so I’m tortured..so I can live. And so can you live, and so can you.
And it will be terrible flawed.
And I will be a shadow
of a shadow
of a shadow
..coming back again.
Sometimes you happen upon a real journey. You always imagine, at the beginning, that these are excursions of the moment, excursions that will end. You start one thinking this is something you will do for a while. But a real journey is one-way. It’s a trip you leave for, from which you never return.