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By Christopher Bram
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Christopher Bram
All rights reserved.
Moths thumped the screens of the dining hall. More moths batted around the bare light bulb overhead, shedding scales and bits of wing on the page of Atlas Shrugged I tried to read. The fat book had plumped up like a sponge in two weeks of damp Virginia heat. The long table where I was sitting shook each time the card players at the other end threw down their cards and grabbed their spoons. These guys turned even a friendly game of "Pig" into a riot.
"You blocked me, asswipe."
"Chuck you, farley."
"Queerbait, cut the cards."
Damn parent, I thought, and brushed a dying moth off Ayn Rand.
Not that I hated my father. I was in awe of the man, even now. But Jake was halfway around the world and I could at least be angry with him for his carelessness. This was the summer job he had found for me in the States. After four years abroad in an American school in Switzerland, after four years of living with civilized Swiss relatives, I'd been sent home to work in a Boy Scout camp.
"And it's close to your mother's little farm," Dad had announced, sounding so pleased with himself for what he'd done. "So you can see the Three Graces on weekends. You're supposed to be a registered scout, but Major Hawkins can fake something for you there."
"Oh Jo-el," Aunt Bertie sang in her singsong English. "You will wear the uniform and be outdoors all day long. Just like a real boy."
I didn't want to be a real boy. I was seventeen years old and wanted to work in a brokerage firm, or somewhere similarly adult, as a warm-up for Harvard or wherever I went before I made my mark in the corporate world. My father could've arranged anything for me; he had a government job so important that Swiss cousins were always asking him, "But what exactly do you do, Jacob?" Before he left Zurich to return to Zaire, having arranged everything with two overseas calls, he'd convinced me that this would be better, more interesting.
"Pig-fuck, pig-fuck, pig-fuck," the card players chanted, pounding the table with their fists. These were my peers, the counselors my age or younger.
What had my father been thinking of? I sometimes wondered if Jake were testing me, challenging my ability to adapt. If so, I wasn't doing very well. There was the work, but I enjoyed that. They had me in the commissary, doing inventory, signing invoices, doling out the food the campers took back to their campsites to cook themselves. I enjoyed being with goods. My problem was people.
The staff toilets and showers were right off the dining hall, the door was wide open and I could hear Wyler Reese in there, singing the words and doing the guitar noises to "Jumpin' Jack Flash." Reese was a bony kid with thick, pouty lips that he claimed made him look like Mick Jagger. He was probably singing into one of the mirrors over the sinks after his shower. I needed to take a shower but didn't want to go in there until Reese was finished. Reese mocked and abused anyone who was smaller than he was. I was short for my age. Insult was the universal language here, but Reese's insults were different, personal and creepy.
Corey Cobbett strolled out of the office, carrying his Time magazine, good liberal that he was. I was a Goldwater Republican. I had nothing but contempt for the liberals and radicals who couldn't understand why we were in Vietnam, but I could've made an exception for Cobbett. He was nineteen, more mature than the others, quieter. He was tall and hairy but there was a shyness in his adult face and black-framed glasses that made him seem approachable.
"Hiya, Cobbett," I said as he sauntered past the table.
"Hi, uh, Shirtsy." He barely remembered who I was. Scherzenlieb was too much to bother with, so they had reduced me to Shirtsy. It could've been worse. They'd tried Shitsy and, briefly, Heidi.
Cobbett walked toward the washroom and frowned when he recognized Reese's singing. He turned around and sat at the bench at the other table, facing me. He gave the noisy card players a quick, bored look, then read his magazine.
The only counselors I wanted to be friends with were the ones who were older than me. But they thought I was just another twerp; they had no idea who I really was.
I thought about hiking out to the highway to try my mother, sister and grandmother again. The nearest outside line was two miles away at the entrance to the camp, a lone telephone booth beneath a lone street light beside a dark country road in the woods. It was too late for me to call them tonight. This was another of my father's ideas that had come to nothing. Surely they knew I was here, but I'd already called them twice and nobody was home. This new farm of theirs was on the other side of the James River, two hours away when the ferry was running. I began to suspect I'd finish my summer and return to Switzerland without ever seeing them. We hadn't seen each other in four years; I wondered what I could say to them, anyway.
Reese came out of the washroom in white underwear and flip-flops, tossing his bangs and strutting to the music he still mumbled to himself. He spotted me, narrowed his eyes maliciously and slapped his flip-flops in my direction. "What'cha reading?"
I said nothing; I didn't want to encourage him.
"You still reading that? Shit, my dog can read faster than you." He stood on the other side of the table, propped a foot on the bench there and leaned on the raised knee, threatening me with a long stay. His undershirt was tucked into his underpants and his head was too big for his body; for all his swagger, Reese looked like a kid up past his bedtime.
I noticed Cobbett at the other table look up from his magazine to watch us.
"Please, I'm trying to concentrate."
"Hey, you can't fool me. You're not really reading that book. You just want people to think you're hot snot. I don't even think you're from Switzerland. You just made that up so people wouldn't know what you really are."
He was determined to get a rise out of me; I refused to give it to him.
"Shit," he finally said, took his foot off the bench and strutted down to the Pig players. He glanced at me one last time across his knobby shoulder and sneered, as if he knew something I didn't, before he told Bryant to give him a spoon and deal him in.
When I looked back at Cobbett, he was bent over his magazine again.
A car rumbled into the dirt parking lot out front. We heard laughs and shouts as people tumbled out and car doors slammed. Heads turned toward the screen door, knowing what was coming.
The screen door flew open and the moths scattered. In charged Bob Kearney, alias Kahuna, the waterfront director. "Honor bright! Be square!" He waved the scout sign in front of him. He wore a sharky grin tonight, and civvies. Kearney was smoothly muscled and tan—in swim trunks he looked like solid milk chocolate with a blond crewcut.
Yo-yo and Flash stumbled in behind their leader. Nights when there was nothing scheduled for the campers after dinner, Kearney took his waterfront staff into Claremont for beers. I was never sure how drunk they really were after these trips. I wanted to believe most of it was play-acting, Kearney's in particular. Because I wanted Kearney to be better than this. At the end of the summer, he was going into Officers Candidate School. He planned a career in the army. I wanted to be able to admire him for that, but he made it awfully difficult.
"Play the game!" he howled. "While you people all sat on your thumbs tonight and played the game, I've been laying the groundwork for a summer of nooky."
"Girls?" Reese cried. "Where, Kahuna? I'm so horny, man, I could fuck a frog."
"How many? How old? How did you meet them?" the other card players pleaded. Their fever was all playacting, these fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds pretending two weeks without women could make them crazy. I never pretended.
"Shut up, dumbasses. There's only one and she's all mine."
The card players groaned.
"She got any sisters? I'll do anything if you'll introduce me to her sister, Kahuna." Reese positively fawned over Kearney.
Yo-yo announced, "He's promised her the stars but he'll give her the moon," and he and Flash went cryptically hysterical.
Kearney solemnly laid his hand on his heart. "She's a waitress for the summer at the Claremont Bar and Grill."
"Hey, Kahuna," said Flash. "You gonna give her a tip?"
"Tip, hell. I'll give her the whole thing."
I hated seeing Kearney play the ass. He was an adult; he was twenty-two. He could debate circles around Cobbett when they argued about Vietnam. Yet here he was, acting out the fantasies of this adolescent audience. I assumed Kearney was the experienced stud he said he was. I just thought adults would keep such experiences to themselves.
Cobbett suddenly stood, rolling up his magazine. He moved toward the screen door with his head lowered.
"Uh oh," said Kearney. "I think we've offended old Corny's ears."
Cobbett looked up and saw Kearney and the others watching him. "Huh?" He produced a bashful smile. "No. Not offended, Bob. I have to get some things from my tent, that's all."
"Kahuna not fooled!" Kearney went into his pidgin English, an old joke between him and Cobbett. "Kahuna know Corn-on-Cobbett disapprove!"
Cobbett hesitated at the door. "Yes, well what can I say?" he went in his sluggish Southern voice. Until, embarrassed to say it, he said, "I think you're misrepresenting yourself. And setting a bad example for the others."
Kearney stared at Cobbett, then turned and shared his shark grin with the rest of us. He burst out laughing. "You old preacher, you. Don't give me that. You don't shit roses either, Cobbett."
Cobbett didn't take offense, only shook his head and said, "I don't like being the prig, but you asked, so I told you. Good night." He went out the door.
"Jealous!" Kearney shouted after him. "You're just wishing it was your wick that was getting dipped, Cobbett!"
Kearney and Cobbett confused me. This was 1970 and a person's politics should mean everything to me. But the man whose manner I liked was politically wrong and the man with the right politics was a barbarian. Not that it really mattered, since neither of them knew I existed. I hoped Kearney would see what I was reading—he had to approve—but Kearney stayed at the other end of the room, waxing joyfully on the pleasures of sex without love. Without Cobbett there to shock, he quickly grew bored with us, told Flash and Yo-yo good night and lurched off towards the woods and his tent.
Reese and the others began to moan about how much they needed a woman and exactly what they would do with one. My tentmate, Alvin Bryant, fifteen years old, stretched out on a bench on his stomach and said that was his favorite position.
"Dumbass," said Reese. "This is the best way." He stretched out on the other bench on his back, hands supporting an imaginary shape above him. "That way you make them do all the work."
Such talk had been bad enough from Kearney. From peers who were as virgin as me, it was grotesque. I snapped my book shut. I groaned and got up.
"What's the matter, Shirtsy? We turning you on?" Reese sneered. Prone on the bench, he leered at me across the lump in his underpants. He opened and crossed his knees at me.
"Shirtsy doesn't know what we're talking about," said Flash, the rowing instructor. He was squat and overweight, his crewcut head shaped like a bullet.
"He knows. Don't you, Shirtsy." Reese made his voice very small and insinuating.
I had no idea what he was insinuating, but I couldn't walk away from that voice without saying something.
"All I know is—You're nothing but a pack of pathologically insecure retards!"
My outburst stunned them. It stunned me. I'd never spoken out to them and they blankly stared at me, for an instant. I used that instant to make my exit. I was at the front door before Reese forced up a loud, derisive laugh.
I marched furiously into the darkness, away from the lights of the staff building, across the parking lot to the threadbare grass of the parade ground. I began to feel stupid. I'd finally given them a piece of my mind, and the piece had been hopelessly inarticulate. Retards? When I crossed the chalky dirt road that divided the parade ground, I remembered that I hadn't intended to leave, that I had wanted to take a shower. It was as warm and muggy outside as it had been indoors. I wasn't going to let them shame me out of a shower. I could hardly slink back through the dining hall after my little outburst, but the staff building had a back door, a separate entrance for the latrine and washroom. I circled around to the rear of the building, the clatter of cicadas in the weeds there louder than the voices inside. I quietly opened the baggy screen door and slipped back in.
The door into the dining hall was still wide open, but a row of lockers blocked the view. Not that I was hiding from anyone. They'd hear me when I turned on the water. I heard them groaning about how late it was and how tired they'd be in the morning and how much they hated working here. They'd already forgotten my flubbed tirade, which was fine by me. The front screen door began squealing open and shut: They were leaving. I sat on the upended wooden milk crate to take off my shoes and knee socks.
The washroom was its usual mess. There were wet towels everywhere and a smell of soap and mildew. At one end were two exposed toilets, which I hated using; at the other end, a cement-floored gang shower with only two shower heads. I saw myself in the water-spotted mirror over the middle sink. I looked ridiculous in a Boy Scout uniform: sunburned knees, pink little hands, a blandly childish face. No wonder nobody took me seriously.
I had turned away from the mirror to unbutton my shirt when I heard voices on the other side of the lockers. I wasn't alone after all. I recognized Reese's nasal whine—all American voices sounded nasal to me, but Reese's more than the others—and the muddy, garbled voice of Flash, who talked as though he had a golf ball in his mouth.
"Makes me want to puke, man. Having to work all summer with a homo. I don't want to be alone with him, afraid he'll go grabbing for my meat."
I relaxed. Reese wasn't talking about me. I listened anyway, curious to know who he was slandering this time. I knew there were no homosexuals at Camp Wolf.
"You should've been here last year," Flash said eagerly. "Then it was the waterfront director. The guy before Kahuna. Everyone kind of suspected something, and I know he was doing things with one of the trainees. But one night he and a camper were missing. The whole staff went out looking for them. We had walkie-talkies and the motorboat and Fisher going up and down the trails in his jeep—"
The front screen door squealed again.
Flash paused, then continued. "We called it the Great Queer Hunt. You were there, Cobbett. Remember?"
Cobbett must've returned, because I heard a reluctant, "Yeah. It happened."
"We found 'em on the beach," said Flash. "Doing it."
"Gross." said Reese.
"They fired the waterfront director that night. And sent the kid to a psychiatrist."
"Well, I'll bet you money," Reese said, "that we'll be having our own queer hunt before this summer's over. Did you see the way he was looking at my squirrel-shot tonight? I was testing him, and you could tell. He was watering at the mouth, man. Even if he is Swiss, I hear they're all homos over there."
I jumped to my feet, to keep from falling off the crate.
Wicked cackling from Flash. "Let's go tell Bryant. I want to see the look on his face when he hears his tentmate's hot for weinies."
A homosexual? Me? I was too surprised to move. I stood there with my shirt undone, staring back at myself in the mirror. I'd never imagined anyone calling me queer.
"You think Bryant doesn't know? Shit. The two of them are making out with each other every night in their tent, I bet."
With Bryant? Bryant was a timid, acne-faced imitator of Reese. The idea of kissing Bryant was disgusting. Then why was I still standing here? I should go out there and call Reese a liar. But, ridiculous as the accusation was, it left me feeling helpless. I was terrified of letting them know I'd even heard it.
"What is this bullshit!"
That was Cory Cobbett's voice.
"Not bullshit," sniffed Reese. "It's true."
Excerpted from Surprising Myself by Christopher Bram. Copyright © 1987 Christopher Bram. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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