Mo Lee has published work in Emerson Society Quarterly.
Wednesday at Camp is "Family Day," and if I pass a staffer and feel especially buoyant, I'll unleash an upbeat you-and-me smile and say, "Happy Don't-Foist-Your-Kid-on-Us Day!" Today we don't offer children's programming, and we never say "childcare" here. Childcare smacks of squirming urchins clinging to wash-and-wear slacks—of imitation Oreos, weak Tang in paper cups, and sallow (possibly iron-deficient) faces gaping at screens in mute unintelligence.
But on any given day at Camp (excepting Family Day, of course), you'll find Munchkins finger-painting, Menehunes sharpening sticks, JayVees playing kayak soccer on our glorious, lifeguarded lake, and Teens slouching home from an overnight hike—sour-faced, droll, walkman batteries defunct, but gainfully bonded on the popular topic: How Bad My Parents Suck.
Said parents, meanwhile, are sun-bathing, sailing, and painting watercolor postcards on cedar-shaded decks. Some loll about the lodge with an after-lunch Corona. Some sit on the dock, Powerbook-in-lap, starting a journal or playing video blackjack. This morning two gents in Gilligan hats launch high-altitude tennis balls over the fence and onto the property of Jefferson Dodd, our crotchety, Northerly neighbor. Must be the thin air, eh Jerry? Go jump in the lake, Merv! Heh, heh.
Running this circus are fifty undergraduates spending what we call, and what for many surely is, the best summer they'll have in their lives. Brimming with smarts, health, and good cheer (and let's admit it right here, nylon-shorted promiscuity), they shout, herd, cajole, cavort, and generally tote enough lemonade and charm to ensure that everybody and goddamnit, I mean everybody—is having one hell of a fine time.
L myself, am the assistant director of this sunny slice of heaven a la mode, owned and run for alumni families by a private, prestigious, West Coast university I attended nearly one decade ago. The director, Davis Briggs, is my elder by eight years. He's an ex-middle linebacker who likes to say he "got in and got out" of our old alma mater because he could squash most men flat. Davis brought me on two years ago. I had just passed my orals in a doctoral program and was one week into my dissertation. By this I mean I'd been drunk seven days whacking my skull with enough Jack and Coke to envision a project worth two-hundred pages and two pedestrian years off my life. Then Davis' offer was booming in my ear, and I found myself back at Fallen Leaf Lake.
I'd worked three summers as a counselor—volleyball instructor, Menehunes, Teens—and after being waitlisted by the law school I applied to (at the same august institution that signs my checks today), I stayed for two years and managed Camp's store, where I ordered decent T-shirts, merchandised a bit, made budget, milkshakes, and some capital improvements while keeping myself in girlfriends and getting on with Davis Briggs. During this time, I counted myself happy, so much so that my since-deceased dad took a break from his speech on the fine lives of actuaries to actually smack me, reach for the kim chee, and tell me I'd had enough fun for a while. He surely would have hated Camp—these happy white families living lives of high unseriousness.
So here I am on the sand on a bright Wednesday morning watching our Beach Party start. Beach Party and the campfire this evening are our only two programs today, and while the rest of the staff sleep off last night's scurrilities, six counselors chosen for their singular ability to shamelessly grandstand for two solid hours organize games for our two hundred guests. Rope for the tug-of-war. Water-balloons to toss. Things haven't much changed since I worked this shift (including the creeping, unpopular curbing of so-called "testosterone games"—this in response to the inevitable spectacle of forty-year-old fathers braining six-year-old kids when Prison Ball reaches it face-welting, neck-snapping, I-think-I-ripped-my-rotator-cuff-but-I-nailed-him febrile pitch).
I'm watching Jocelyn now, the volleyball instructor, work her long pony-tail through the back of her cap. She graduated in June, has no pressing life plans, and despite an allusion to traveling in Thailand, I'm hoping she'll stay for Camp's fall conference season to wait tables, wash dishes, and fall in love with yours truly. She's beautiful, this Jocelyn—lanky, dark-haired, spry—and she can smack a volleyball like no girl I've ever known. Our ex-head chef, after watching her play, remarked you could sharpen a knife on her calves. This, in small part, explains his departure, as well as my reluctance to be smitten as I am. It's not illegal, but as Davis told me early, "I'll tell you what, Jack, it's one damn slippery slope." Jocelyn, of course, knows nothing of my heart, and I'm inclined to keep it that way. But we do share some laughs, a few volleyball games, and one summer of Munchkin shenanigans.
No Glenda Good-witch or Ernie-Friendly-Bear, last summer's Munchkin program revolved around "The Boss"—a shadowy guardian who left riddles and clues that five-year olds love and will continue to love so long as there's processed sugar in the offing. Naturally I was The Boss Pavis being busy with budgets, the Board, and what he doesn't call "sucking thin alumni cock"). So at the end of each week, Jocelyn and friends troop their charges to my office where I gum a cigar in my one coat and tie. I commend them all for their loyalty and spunk, but due to restructuring beyond my control, it's high time for them to move forward. I offer them, then, a "golden parachute"—a shower-cap full of butterscotch candies which invariably incites squealing and scrambling as counselors scream, "There's plenty for everyone!" which everyone (Munchkins, counselors, me) knows is a fat, fucking lie.
But before the greed—or more accurately, anxiety—those five-year olds stared at me wide-eyed and rapt. I was The Boss—omnipotent, neat—and any A.D.D. drifter not wide-eyed and rapt was sure to get straightened by a sing-songing counselor, If you want candy, Jimmy, pay attention to The Boss. Jocelyn, I recall, rubbed the little ones' backs as I cooed to their doe-eyed, tow-headed questions, Yes, sweetheart, your Daddy's a boss, but he isn't THE BOSS now is he?
Which is perfectly hilarious. Take, for instance, today. Today my main task is to rush order bowstrings. (Why I learn of such shortages at the last human instance is a question I've learned not to ask.) So I call Bull's-Eye Arrow and talk to a Barry.
"One dozen strings? No problem. What kind?"
"The same kind I ordered last year."
But neither of us, after the requisite rustling, can produce a copy of the invoice.
"Well, what size are your bows?"
"I don't know."
"Measure tip-to-tip along the curve."
"I only have a ruler."
"That'll work. You've got sixties, I'll bet."
I roll the ruler along the arc of the bow. "I measure sixty-two inches."
"Yep, it's a sixty. I'll send down three fifty-fives."
"I need a dozen."
"They come in packs of four."
"And fifty-fives will work on a sixty?"
Silence on the line. "Look. We're talking tension, here. The string needs to be shorter than the bow. If not, the bow won't bend, No bend, no tension. No tension, no power…."
And as the great man writes, "Yak, yakkity, yak."
Which is all well and good unless Jefferson Dodd is found dead on his lawn surrounded by tennis balls, garden hose in hand, and an arrow buried in his back. A Tahoe detective checks over our bows. What kind of monster loads a sixty-inch bow with a fifty-five string, I ask you…
But the fifty-fives are coming (unless Barry boots the order), and my only sworn duty this bright Wednesday mom is to stand in the sun, glad hand the alums, and urge on Beach Party with my presence. Which actually works! Witness the bodies in furious motion, the eye-squinting, tongue-wagging, ear-wiggling grins. Note, too, the sessile father rising for a relay; the behatted mom drawn from her self-help book by the cries of her son in the limbo line. It's enough to make an assistant director proud—to order a rum-runner from an indigenous busboy and exult, "Now this, THIS is a party!" And I am happy—buoyant, even—watching Jocelyn in sports bra and black nylon shorts cry out the rules for the fire brigade race as teams rush to fill buckets with leaky paper cups. "The water must OVERFLOW your bucket! No PLUGGING the hole with fingers or sand!"
I'm leaning against the lifeguard stand chatting with a staffer about his plans to go to business school and our shocking shortage of forks. The lake is as flat as a cookie sheet. The sun is beaming down. God's in heaven milking a cold one and watching the centuries slip into eons. Then across the sand, through the heat, and ringing off the mountain tops in adolescent yodeling, "Jack! Hey, Jack! Are you gonna jump the creek!"
Have you noticed that just when you find the present, the past bites you right in the ass?
Jump-the-creek is a Beach Party favorite. Two ropes are slowly dragged apart, and jumpers are eliminated when they can't clear the gap. In my younger, undergrad, grandstanding days, I was something of ajUMp7thecreek legend. This teenager screaming from his end of the beach was no doubt a JayVee back then, and he's hoping to test his surprising new muscles against his memory of me, the supposed staff champion.
"Jack! Hey, Jack! Are you gonna jump the creek!"
"No thanks!" I yell back. The kid seems nice enough.
"C'mon, Jack!" Heads turn my direction.
"You go ahead!" I yell. "I'm fine here!"
"C'mon, Jack!" This from someone else. And suddenly I'm hearing it from fat, sun-burnt fathers and moms in bikinis and chemotherapy hats.
"Get a move on, there, Jack!"
"Quit stalling, there, Jack!"
"Don't tell me you're getting too old!"
The counselors watch, amused, from their ropes. Refusing these summons is, of course, inconceivable.
"Get in there, boss!" Jocelyn yells, and I trot to the back of the line.
At first, Munchkins toddle across the ropes and families go over hand-in-hand. Then the ropes are moved apart ("We've got a stream!" staffers shout) as Menehunes chum with grim determination and JayVees leap in basketball poses. Then even wider ("We've had some rain! ") as slack-jawed Teens enter the lists and the line moves further down the beach as jumpers seek more speed.
I play enough volleyball to like my chances. The Teen who called me out is trouble—tall, lanky, fast. But his limbs aren't all on the same page yet, and L myself, am light and springy—unentrammeled under bright, blue skies. I'm reminded of Wednesdays years ago when Davis, unmarried and assistant director, watched me shout myself hoarse.
"And now the stream has become a raging river!"
Two younger Teens go down. A staffer misses by an inch. Then a light-boned father sprints and ski ds and stands at the rope, shaking his head. He walks to his towel, picks up his daughter, and plants a fat kiss on her cheek. She squirms and giggles, and the crowd applauds as mom drags him down to her side.
So it's me and the Teen, who is a nice kid—red-haired, freckled, lightly fuzzed above the lip. He's got some acne (not bad for his age), and he slouches when he clears a jump and his buddies hoot and woof. Now he's standing straight as we stare down the beach at the crowd, the sand, and the ropes.
"I don't know if you remember me," he says. "You were my Menehune counselor."
"I'm sorry," I say. "I don't." And though I know it won't help, "What's your name again.
"Steve." He smiles. "It was a while ago, huh?"
A while! I want to scream. Then I look at this kid looking down at his feet, and I realize, suddenly, this: that whatever cheap shots fate may wing his direction, this kid will be just fine. His folks like to think that Camp does him good, that our staffers will make him an upstanding person (preferably the kind with high SATs). But Steve knows he doesn't need any help, despite what he reads about teens in the paper. He just needs some time, a place to reflect, and maybe, just maybe, an ex-counselor's company—not for a speech on The-World-as-His-Oyster, but for someone to stand with on this bright stretch of beach.
"You're a good jumper, Steve." It's the best I can say.
And for the first time he looks me square in the face. "Let's see how far we can go," he says, as he lets slip a downright dopey grin—a kid grin that opens my heart to the sun, the trees, and the mountains above us.
I want to smile and shake my head. "Kids!" I want to exclaim.
Then I'm tearing down the beach with the wind on my chest and the shock from the sand buzzing up through my legs. I want to take off, sail over the rope, the crowd, and the barbecue crew—land in a soft rack of hamburger buns and charge a rum-runner to my cabin. I'll see how far I can go. I owe as much to Steve. Besides, I'm not yet ready to lose. He's young. Let him wait. Till forever.
Faces blur past, mouths open and roaring. I see the rope, fill my lungs, and with legs and arms pumping, I plant and push for the sky. Then a
POP! and a tearing (like eating barbecued chicken). Something explodes inside my knee, and I'm rolling in the dust like someone thrown from a car.
Footsteps. Hushed voices. A hand on my shoulder.
Jesus, that looked bad.
Did you hear it?
Mo's a doctor?
Radiologist. Radiologist. Radiologist. Orthopedist!
I look up at the faces circled above and see the wife of our light-boned, Munchkin-bussing jumper. She's blonde, smooth-skinned, with a serious mouth. See can't be much older than me.
"Does this hurt?" A molar explodes into dust.
"Does this hurt?" Toes curl and snap off.
"Okay, let's get him out of the sun. Someone call an ambulance, just to be safe."
Hang in there, Jack!
Hold on there, Jack!
They prop me under the lifeguard stand, and I look out upon the beach. Mothers press children against their bodies. Dads gaze down at their own reconstructions. The staff, even Jocelyn, look pale, worn-out. Their voices don't ring, but still they shout, "Okay! We have one jumper left!"
Steve gallops down, doesn't clear the rope, and wanders away with his buddies. My orthopedist leaves me for her hubby and towel (she is, after all, on vacation), and people are eyeing me with friendly, pained smiles—the same kind I get at our social hours. You've certainly found yourself a wonderful niche. Are you ever going back to finish your degree?…
Down by the water, a toddler and grandpa loiter at the end of the beach. She's up to her knees in dear lake water, naked as a hard-boiled egg. He's in rolled-up khakis, a madras shirt, and a white straw hat I'm sure was a cute gift but is a hell of a joke to play on an old guy, because you know damn well that he'll wear it. The girl gibbers something about water's liquidity, reaching fat fingers into the lake and presenting dripping fists to her grandpa. He nods, chuckles, and watches the water. Mat, again, is this little girl's name? Neither gives a flying fig for jumpers, knees, or shouting staff. Neither, alone, could find their way home, and both look incorrigibly happy.
A guest happens by to complain about the food. Somebody brings me a lemonade. Then Davis strides down, first-aid bag in hand, smiling and nodding and waving. No worries, here. Go back to your fun. You heard me—go back to your fun…
"Well," Davis says. "You did it, alright."
My knee is as big as a honeydew.
His eyes follow Jocelyn as she crosses the beach. "It had to happen sometime, you know."
He's right, of course, and I recall a story of Assistant Director Briggs squaring off with a staffer. No doubt he could have destroyed the poor boy and impressed whatever woman was at issue. But he dropped his fists and walked away—got promoted, married, and moved into town to begin a family of his own. It was Davis, himself, who told me this story, because no one besides him remembers.
Beach Party, now, has regained its momentum, and Jocelyn gives Davis a life-goes-on smile as she flashes by with a bucket of balloons. Then my ambulance pulls above the beach while six staffers circle in the middle of the sand.
"A-One! A-One! A-One-Two-Three-Four!…WE HOPE YOU HAVE ENJOYED THE NINETEEN-NINETY-SIX BEACH PARTY RAVE AND FANDANGOoooo…!!!" All are smiling, glowing, spent. Like last week and next week, they bask in applause, arms around each other's tan shoulders.
A board is put under me. I am strapped to the board. The paramedics' stretcher won't roll in the sand, and in this brief pause, the staff gather around me—smiling, whiking, nodding to each other, making cracks about cleaning the trash off the beach. Then A-One! A-One! A One-Two-Three-Four!…
Six strong, tan arms bear my body from the beach, triceps straining taut and smooth. This is my staff—sun-glassed, baseball-capped, smelling of sweat and lotion. No jokes, just a silence throbbing with breathing as we pass the guests and climb the hill to where my ambulance waits. And suddenly, now, I know what I want. I want these counselors to build a pyre with the campfire wood stacked here. I want them to dress me in nylon shorts, anoint my body with sunscreen, place an old, battered cap atop my thinning crown, and cross my limp hands on a volleyball. Soak the knotty pine with lighter fluid. Set my board upon the pyre. Touch a match to the newspapers crumpled below as a breeze off the lake fans the flame. Assemble the staff with a keg and guitars, and pour the first cup of foam on the sand. Then let them be drunk. Let the guitar players play—not Kum-Ba-Ya, but songs of their own, songs unfamiliar to me. And as the knotty pine crackles and the flames rise around, let them forget about Jack. Let them wake naked in each other's tan arms, their faces toward sunlight playing on the lake. Yes, and let my ashes drop and mingle with the sand. Lose my bones amongst the driftwood, my teeth amongst the sand. And let my memory and life float skyward like smoke so the angels in heaven can choke on me.
Metal clack-clicks. Paramedics direct. Jocelyn brushes against me. I want to say something honest, now. Tell all these glowing, undergrad kids something extraordinarily true. Take them in my arms, clutch, and
whisper, You know what you have here, don't you? You know, don't you, that nothing like now will ever be again?
Instead I grin and say to Jocelyn, "No more volleyball for this kid, eh?"
And Jocelyn—are those tears or do her eyes always shine?—"Maybe next summer, boss."
I want desperately, now, to say something wise, to pass on some dearly-bought lesson. But I know there are only two things to say: Live like me or Don't live like me—each, in their own way, pathetic. I know nothing of Jocelyn's past or aspirations, except that, here, they hold little sway. Here she is beautiful and in love with the world. Reasons enough to be smitten as I am.
Then I'm up and in, the doors slam shut, and I roll down the road, head-first, strapped down. I imagine the lake, pines whisking by, and Jefferson Dodd watering a lawn that has never lasted the winter. I think of the old man and his naked granddaughter, and suddenly a lesson takes shape—a lesson learned rote, often forgotten, and only now lucid in language I can say.
I don't believe in the wisdom of children, nor in the wisdom of the old. There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment. Camp has taught me this. This and that honesty is flat out overrated, because to be honest is not to know what you want and to drive everyone around you crazy. Better to stick to a set of guidelines—Davis would agree with me here—and save honesty for safer, solitary moments when you spoil no one's day but your own.
My ambulance winds around Fallen Leaf Lake, and I recognize this as my day. I have a sense as on a bus or plane when no fellow-traveler compels you to talk—a sense that though the trip has just started, it will be over far too soon.