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.