She Must Have Known

I never wanted summer camp to end. I loved the strict routine, the grits in the morning, daily chapel, learning how to build fires and shoot a 22. But the summer I was eight, what I loved most about camp was my counselor, Pam.

The Carpenters played on her eight-track while I braided her hair and listened to stories about college, her boyfriend and life at home in Mississippi. I can’t remember if I told her about how things were for me back in Nashville, but I’m sure I didn’t tell her everything. It would be years before I could put my home life into words that made sense. My mother’s drinking and abusive behavior was mixed up with memories of shoplifting comics and paddlings at school. All of it reflected badly on me and I wanted, more than anything, for Pam to like me.

And somehow, for reasons that I could not understand, she did.

When my father came to pick me up on the last day of camp, he entered my cabin, with it’s dusty wooden floorboards and rows of metal bunk beds, to find me standing on my trunk, holding hard to Pam and sobbing. He peeled my arms from around her neck and led me to the station wagon, thanking Pam and clearing his throat. I rolled the car window down and held her hand while Daddy lit his cigarette and started the engine.

“Will you write me?” I hiccupped.

And she did, every other day.

Every other day I would run through the sharp brown grass and out to the mailbox at the end of our driveway, to find a letter with my name on it. They were always small letters on matching stationary, with big loopy writing and i’s dotted with stars or daisies. She wrote about her classes, memories of camp and asked me questions about my life. I sent her back drawings of my parakeet, Clyde, and jokes on bubblegum wrappers.

She couldn’t have known how much I needed her, and yet she must have known.

Those letters from Pam were exactly the kind of thing that my mother would usually take to, like a dog with a bone. Because any tender spot was fair game to her, I was smart enough to keep them private, saved in an old muddy stationary box in my closet, where I read them over and over, until my flashlight dimmed.

And every other day, a new one came.

When we moved from a small town outside Nashville back to the city, the letters came to our new apartment. They came when my mother went into rehab and they came when she came home, sober and angry. They came when the girls in my class made fun of my bad haircuts and dirty clothes and when my father married someone who scared me.

When the invitation to Pam’s wedding came, it was in a big envelope the color of vanilla soft serve. I opened it slowly, finding a smaller envelope inside that, and then an even smaller one, with a stamp on it, inside that. The invitation itself, covered with tissue paper and embossed with ink you could almost read with your fingertips, was the loveliest thing I had ever owned. Because it was too big to fit into my secret letter box, I slept with it next to my cheek.

Several weeks later, on a humid June morning, I rode my bike, speeding down the street where the neighborhood dogs ran in a pack and bit my heels, to the pay phone outside Scooter’s Market.

“Is Pam there?” I asked, breathless from the dogs, the heat and the sadness lodged in my throat like kindling.

“Who’s calling?” said an older woman on the line. Her mother? She sounded like a peach crumble.

“Maggie… from camp.” I held tightly to the metal phone cord, waiting, digging dimes and nickels from the pockets of my cut-offs.

“One moment please.”

It was Pam’s wedding day. Now I can imagine her, getting dressed (something borrowed, something blue…), her mother buzzing around like a bumblebee in a field of Queen Ann’s Lace, when she ducks out of a cloud of Aquanet to talk to me, a nine year old girl on a pay phone far away.

The conversation was short and mostly one-sided, since I choked on everything I wanted to say. Would she stop going to camp now? Did she know I was moving in with my Grammie for a while? Did she have the address??

Eventually, only pennies were left, and Pam needed to get to the church. I hung up, wiped my face with my t-shirt and picked up my bike from where it lay in the gravel.

“Are you alright?” The door to the market jingled and an older woman with a Tab and a pack of cigarettes came out, her face so sad it was like looking in a mirror. “You need me to call someone for you, hon?”

“No,” I said and looked away. I stood on the blazing pavement, trying to stuff the pennies back in my pockets, finally hurling them to the ground, where they bounced and scattered.

“Well, now you gotta make a wish” she said, bending to pick them up.

The tears came again as I threw myself onto my bike and took off, away from Pam and the man she loved more and the letters with stars and daisies that I knew, no matter how many wishes I made, would stop coming.

I looked back over my shoulder at the woman, who’s orange hair shone like a flare in the sunlight. “Go to hell!” I yelled, and peddled, with all my might, for the pack of dogs.

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Little Luck

(This is part of a longer piece of fiction I’ve been working on. I may never actually finish it because I love being this girl. By the way, I realize that I’m writing about camp again. Fair warning: I may write a lot more about camp before I’m done here. Or, I may not. Such is the joy of being the boss of my own self.) 

I love camp. Camp Merri-Mac for girls is the main place I want to be, if you ever ask me. I do not like the fact that I have to take swimming and horseback riding though, and one day I plan to put my foot down about that.

The reason I hate swimming at camp is because of these things: dirty lake water, being cold, rocks and sticks on the bottom, swimmers ear, water moccasins which happen to kill people, wet bathing suits that the camp nurse says can give you an infection, and being embarrassed.

I have no idea how every single person in the world has learned to swim except me, but that is how it is. Every year at camp there is a swim meet where all the campers swim in races and the whole day is spent on the thing I hate. Usually I pretend to faint on the day of the swim meet and that is enough to keep people from asking me to race. In this way I am definitely NOT a Camp Merri-Mac girl and show very bad Merri-Mac spirit, but it is either faint or die in a lake and I pick faint. I believe that Jesus understands, but I don’t really understands why Jesus hasn’t taught me how to swim. That’s one strike against Jesus, just so you know.

Horseback riding is another of my worries. It’s something everyone has tried to get me to do and I hate it as much as I hate anything on this earth. At Merri-Mac, everyone has to wear a helmet for horseback riding class, and even the smell of that thing gets me upset. If it’s true that horses can smell fear, then those horses at camp must know I’m coming from a mile away.

Everyone I know loves horses but me. Daddy even got me and Katy a horse, which still seems real unfair since the only thing I really want and dream of having, if anyone cared to ask, is my own record player, but there goes everyone with horses, like I said. Our horse’s name is Little Luck and I feed her carrots sometimes but almost never ride her unless I have to. We keep her out at a place on highway seventy. We call it The Nealy’s because the family that lives there is named that, and the main things I have to say about the Nealy’s is that they have a retarded son who thinks Little Luck is his and they have a tree in their yard that’s always covered in caterpillars.

One time we’re out visiting Little Luck, the retarded boy comes running out real mad because I’m feeding her a carrot. He says she’s his horse and carrots make her sick (which I know for a fact is a lie) and is pitching a real fit so much that his mother, Mrs. Nealy, who I almost have never seen, comes out, squinting from the sun. She always seems nice but wrung out like a dishrag, and that day she yells so loud that Little Luck looks up in the middle of her carrot. Scares the life out of me, too. She yells to her boy to get back inside and comes over to me, all nervous and strange. I think she’s crying, but she keeps looking up to the sky so I can’t exactly seeDaddy’s in his car, smoking with the windows up, and Katy is cleaning out Little Luck’s stall, so me and Mrs. Nealy just have to stand there.

“Sorry about Tommy. He don’t mean it.”

“That’s ok,” I say, wiping horse slobber on my jeans.

“You get scared when he come at you that way?” Her hands are as dirty as mine, except I’m nine and she’s a grown up, which was the reason it seems funny. They look like the hands of the man who works on Mama’s car, all cut up and half black.

“No,” I say, even though it is not the truth. In this situation the truth would come out wrong, I’m sure of that. The truth is this: that boy makes me want to run away when we pull up and I see him look out of the kitchen curtains the way he does, and always with his overalls on backwards. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but it makes his head look real big and his hands floppy and he looks at me like he’d like nothing better than to run me over with the old broken down tractor that sits in their driveway.

“Now I know that’s a fib,” Mrs. Nealy says, taking a big sniff and pulling up some dandelions. She still hasn’t looked at me for one second. I feel bad that her son makes me scared and I wonder if she can smell it the way the horses do.

Little Luck walks away, flicking her tail, to look for Katy.That horse doesn’t like me any more than I like her, except that at least I bring her carrots. I like her nose, I guess. Her nose is as soft as anything ever invented. If I could live in a world made of only one thing, it would be her nose.

I watch as Lisa puts the saddle on Little Luck, just like nothing. I really don’t think there’s anything I’m that good at, unless you count imitations. I can imitate almost anyone and that is the bald faced truth. These are my favorites: Julia Childs, Rod Serling, Helen Reddy, and our neighbor Kaiser Kallenburger, which is funny because he isn’t famous to anyone but me and is German. Also the flute on HR Puff-n-Stuff, even though I don’t watch that show anymore.

“He wasn’t born like that,” Mrs. Nealy says. “He was born just fine. Big, ten pounds, but fine.” Her fingers are digging into the dirt for the roots. Now I know why she’s a mess the way she is. “Doctors did wrong by him, that’s what happened. Pulled him out the wrong way, is what I think. Used some kind of thing what to get big babies out. Hell all…”

I’m feeling like I would like to get out of this conversation. It’s the feeling I get when grown-ups are are drunk and talking to you like you’re someone else their own age. Like I know I’m not supposed to hear any of this, only I can’t think how I know it.

I see her boy looking out from the yellow curtains the way he does. Even from far away, I can see his face is red from crying. Something about him is the saddest thing I think I’ve ever seen. I get a hold of a dandelion root and pull, like Mrs. Nealy does. Just then she straightens up and lets loose a whistle loud enough to make me deaf in both ears. She does it with her pointer and pinky, like I’ve always tried to, and I hear her big dog Shelly come running toward us.

“Next time, Sugar,” is all she says while Shelly and her go walking back up to the house.

The Nealy’s house is funny, how it sort of sticks out of the ground, with half the roof practically touching the hill in the back and tiny little windows like on a trailer. Can’t be much light in there for The Nealy’s, I think. I pick myself a few more dandelions and take them over to the caterpillar tree. Next time I need to ask her about what they are all doing here. It doesn’t seem fair. Ten thousand caterpillars and not a butterfly to be seen.

One more strike against Jesus.