I’m eating breakfast in the dining hall when the screen door bangs open. Marlon, the Camp High Pines swimming counselor, saunters over in his customary outfit of flip flops, white Red Cross lifeguard trunks and tank top. His arm wraps around my shoulders, bicep squeezing like a python coiling. Vapor from his Head and Shoulders shampoo thickens the air.
“Any bet on how are you going to do on Palm Sunday?”
I had been hearing about this special day from the time I arrived four weeks ago at High Pines. Parent’s Weekend marked the midway point in the summer sleep-away camp schedule. Parents from New Jersey to Massachusetts descended on the camp to give their kids a two-day break before the next four weeks of camp started. Palm Sunday was the day the majority of tips were placed in counselors awaiting palms. I stop cutting a rubbery pancake. “What’s a good take for the weekend?”
“Three hundred to four hundred bucks, depending on how how much you suck up to them.” He leers and adds, “Brian, you’ll never see that kind of money for tying trees together with twine.” Marlon leans over, grabs a sausage from my plate, and gulps it down.
As the campcraft counselor, I’ve spent the previous month teaching knot-tying, fire-building, and lean-to construction to kids who are too nerdy, bored or uncoordinated to play in the fiercely competitive camp sports. I take special satisfaction at the kids who discover the unforgiving precision of a knot and the promise of a crackling-dry pile of kindling.
Marlon repeats the question: “Wanna make a prediction?” He looks directly at me.
Blood rushes to my face, and I turn from the table to face Marlon. “I don’t see how you’ll manage to pull it off since all you do is sit on your ass with a pith helmet on, rubbing Coppertone on your shoulders.”
Marlon’s real name is Dan Bickett, but I had dubbed him “Marlon” after Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront. From the top of his lifeguard stand, Marlon’s voice always booms, “there’s no running on the waterfront,” or “don’t dunk on the waterfront.” The nickname stuck like a turd to a shoe. Even though Marlon bestowed memorable nicknames, he didn’t think it fair for him to have one, particularly when it came from me, a rookie counselor.
Marlon takes a step back and stands for a second or two, like he’s studying his prey before striking. “Look who’s strutting his stuff—the new guy from Joisey.” Marlon pauses for emphasis. “I’ll bet you fifty bucks I double whatever you get.”
The camp’s caste system had counselors who were former kids at camp at the top of the pecking order. Marlon’s one of them—like frat boys at rush season. “Hey Brian, get me a cup of coffee.” “Hey Brian, take my dishes back to the kitchen.” In their eyes, I hadn’t paid my dues yet or shown the proper measure of respect to the camp’s old guard who defended the New Hampshire camp’s fifty-year-old traditions. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna kiss spoiled kids’ asses. I left their dishes where they were.
Marlon heads to the door, and I shout, “You’re on!”
Without looking back, Marlon says, “We’ll settle after taps.”
I push my plate away and head for the door and trudge back to my cabin by the lake’s edge, and flop on my bunk. This summer, the kids in my cabin are known affectionately as “The Swamp Rats.” I enjoy the Rats, despite the challenging age between zits and driver’s license learner permits. At their core, they’re like kids at any camp who fart, burp, give wedgies, shoot pop out of their noses, and want nothing better than to sneak over to the girl’s camp down the road for a panty raid. The main difference is their parents are bank presidents, stock brokers, airline executives, doctors and lawyers. The expensive cars, new tennis racquets, and shiny golf clubs, represent a chasm between these affluent kids and anything I experienced in suburban New Jersey. My summers were spent at a plebian YMCA camp tucked in the woods a few miles off the turnpike.
I grab Time magazine from my trunk under the steel-frame bunk bed and sit on the porch. Engrossed in an article about Gerry Ford running for president, I barely notice the gray Mercedes pull up near my cabin. Out steps Randy Veracci, one of my Rats, and his dad, a big, athletic man with a dark tan and a blazing white tennis outfit.
Randy does the introductions: “Dad, I’d like you to meet Brian, he’s the leader of The Swamp Rats. I’ll be back in a minute; I have to grab my glove in the cabin.”
“Swamp Rats, eh? Sounds like a bunch of rebels. Hi, I’m Mike Veracci.” A giant hand extends with a class ring the size of a golf ball. “Randy’s told me a lot about you and says he’s having one helluva summer and thinks the world of you. Mr. Veracci looks over his shoulder to see if Randy is within earshot and lowers his voice. “Randy didn’t have a great time here last year and wasn’t sure he wanted to come back. We kind of pressured him to give it another shot so we’re really glad it worked out.”
Randy previously filled me in about his dad and the tipping scenario about to play out. This is not uncommon; a lot of kids know how much the tip will be, right down to the delivery, and passed it on. If a kid is a jerk, the tip is held over your head for special treatment or privileges.
“C’mon down to the car, I want to show you something,” says Mike. This is the big moment. Mike pops the trunk filled with baseball gloves, tennis racquets, footballs, and golf clubs. “Take your pick of anything you want. It’s how I say thanks.” Mike beams as if Blackbeard’s treasure chest opened.
“Wow, Mr. Veracci. The truth is I’m pretty well-stocked with athletic gear.” Randy told me his dad first offered the gear but came up with cash as a follow up. The trick was to tactfully “hold out” so you didn’t offend his dad. He’d mention money, up to thirty dollars if he liked you.
“Sure, sure,” Mike says. “A guy in good shape like you would have all his own stuff. I should have suspected that. Let’s make this easy.” Mike reaches for his wallet and three crisp tens are in his left hand. The right hand is for the handshake, like when I got my high school diploma the previous year.
“Mr. Veracci, this is very generous.”
“No problem, you college guys need all the help you can get. Hey, if I were you, I’d use it to let off a little steam in Hanover.” Mike cups his hands to his mouth and shouts to Randy, “What’s going on in there? Are you ready to have brunch with your mom and sister?”
Randy emerges from the cabin with his baseball glove and wearing a nice blue Wilson tennis shirt.
“Let’s go. Your mom is probably wondering what happened to us. Brian, really nice meeting you.” Randy jumps in the passenger seat and gives me the thumbs-up as the car pulls out. I fold the three tens out into my wallet and can’t believe my luck.
About an hour later while I’m sweeping the cabin, Joey, aka “Gonzo” Garuba’s parents wander down the hill in their tennis outfits with racquets under their arms. Mr. Garuba has big sweat stains under his armpits, and his pockets are stuffed with tennis balls. Mrs. Garuba pats her forehead with a Kleenex. I meet them on the steps.
“Pretty hot out there today, huh?” I set the broom down on the porch. “You guys are brave to take on a game of tennis in this heat. Why don’t we stop by the dining hall and track down a drink to cool you off.”
“Thank you, Brian, that’s a good idea,” says Mrs. Garuba.
Ten minutes and three Cokes later, I sense Mr. Garuba moving in for the kill. “So how’s Joey doing this summer anyway? He says he loves every minute of it.”
“I’m glad he’s having a good time here,” I say. I don’t tell them their son won the cabin farting competition.
“I’d like to give you a token of our appreciation. You know, a little help with your college money.” He pulls out his wallet and scans the bills for a minute. “Honey, I don’t have any smaller bills here. Would you run up to the car and grab your purse?”
“Sure.” Mrs. G sets her Coke down on the bench and a few minutes later she is back with the purse and produces twenty dollars. I thank them, and they head up the hill where their car is parked.
The rest of the morning passes uneventfully with the other four parents all wandering by with their own version of uncomfortable small talk, or genuinely friendly chatter and curiosity about their kid’s summer, before eventually tipping me. Willie’s dad, Mr. Berger, owns a large landscaping business, and seems embarrassed when he hands me the tip. The twenty-dollar bill is neatly folded in Mr. Berger’s pocket, deftly transferred to his hand, and wedged between his index and middle fingers. As we shake hands, the bill appears in my palm like an illicit deal going down.
My take for the day is one hundred and thirty-five dollars, and I make a mental note to keep fifty bucks separate to pay Marlon at taps. I regret making the bet since I need the money, but my pride intervened. In the dining hall at lunch the counselors compare notes. Marlon drops his tray off near the kitchen and spots me. He pulls his wallet out and fans the bills in his hand like a peacock spreading his tail. The rumor is Marlon made three hundred and eighty dollars.
The afternoon burns clear and hot, and the deserted camp possesses a peculiar calm in place of the unharnessed energy normally pulsating into every corner of it. The remainder of the day figures to be slow since I’ve already received tips from all the parents of kids in my cabin.
I wander up the hill from the lake toward my campcraft area, and cut into the woods on a well-worn path where a gray clapboard shed sits off to side of a small open spot in the pines and birches. The clearing has an assemblage of pitched lean-to’s, camp furniture, and fire rings.
I spin the combination lock until it clicks open, and step inside where light enters the shed sparingly from a single four-pane window in the back. The musty smell of canvas tarps, mingled with the blend of wood smoke, soil and Coleman fuel always gives me a special comfort. It brings back memories of canoe trips I took with Dad to northern Ontario when I was younger. After dinner we’d sit on logs around the campfire, slathered in Off! mosquito repellent, with the foil on the Jiffy Pop ready to burst. I plan to sort gear for the wilderness trip I’m setting up with several of my prize pupils on the remote western shore of Lake Meguntic. As I pull a list from my pocket, a branch snaps—a person is coming down the trail.
Stepping outside, I’m surprised to see Jon Algernon and his parents approaching.
“Good afternoon,” says the woman. “We stopped at your cabin but you weren’t there. Jon suggested we look here. I’m Jon’s mom, Susan,” she says as we shake hands. Her hand is thin and fragile and she’s wearing a white skirt and pink top, with brown hair tied back. “This is Bill, he’s a friend of mine,” she says, motioning to the man I thought is Jon’s father. Bill remains several feet back smoking a cigarette while leaning against a white pine. He smiles slightly and nods when introduced but does not move forward to shake hands. Bill is slight with an angular face and close cropped hair with a touch of gray hair around his temples.
“We planned to stop by yesterday but got so busy we didn’t make it.” She brushes a stray hair out of her face. “Jon really wanted to come so we made a point of getting an early start today. I hope we haven’t inconvenienced you.”
“No, not at all, Mrs. Algernon.”
“Please call me Susan. Jon wanted to show us what he learned here. That’s why he was so anxious to come.”
Jon is a quiet kid, almost somber, who doesn’t have many friends at camp. His pale, dish-shaped face is often expressionless and reminds me of a barn owl. He isn’t athletic and finds refuge at my little clearing in the woods. Since he doesn’t talk much, I don’t really know him well. Jon is a good listener, always willing to help out in camp, but whatever light is there stays shuttered deep inside him. In this special niche, Jon quietly goes about his work, carefully lashing logs and perfecting his bowline. I like Jon and sense in him a new and powerful confidence. Here in the woods, Jon is good at something, and I respect him because of the pride he takes in his work. Nothing has come easy to Jon like so many of the other wealthy kids at High Pines. He doesn’t appear pampered, but wants to belong, to fit in. Jon doesn’t know it yet, but I’ve selected him to go on the wilderness trip.
I put my hand on Jon’s shoulder and ask, “What did you want to show your mom?”
“He wants to make a campfire.” Susan says. “Isn’t that right?”
Jon nods. “Yeah.”
“Okay, I’ll get the matches out of the shed. You go get the kindling and wood.”
“Don’t forget,” Jon adds, “the pot and the water.”
“Thanks for reminding me.”
I step from the shed with the pot and water and Jon has already deposited two small piles of fine kindling the thickness of pencil lead next to the campfire circle, and gone searching for more wood. Jon periodically squats, picks up a twig and adds it to his two-fisted collection.
Jon’s mom sits on a log; her eyes follow her son from point to point with a look of part amusement and part astonishment. Bill periodically looks at his watch.
Jon comes back to the fire ring and leaves several more bundles of kindling, all arranged in small piles arrayed from fine white pine twigs to small branches.
“My, how meticulous, Jon,” Mrs. Algernon says. “Honey, are all those piles necessary?”
“That’s what I’m thinking too,” Bill says. “How much wood do you need? Let’s get on with show.”
Jon sits on his haunches near the fire ring. He slowly swivels his head toward Bill. A moment passes and Jon says, “You can’t rush building a fire. I get one match. One. After it gets started, I need all the wood to keep it going on its own. I can’t afford to have the fire go out while I’m looking for firewood. You know, it not as simple as lighting a match.”
“Okay, okay, son. I didn’t know this was so scientific.”
An uneasy silence descends, and the only sound is Jon cracking kindling.
“Take your time, hon,” Mrs. Algernon says. She shoots an unkind glance back at Bill who shifts against the tree.
“I’m ready for my match now.”
“Here ya go.” I hand Jon a box of Blue Diamond Strike Anywhere matches.
Jon selects a match from the box, studies it a second and drags it along the well-worn striker pad on the side of the box. The match flares and burns almost up to Jon’s fingertips before he drops it in the teepee of twigs. No smoke rises and Susan looks around anxiously. Jon kneels down and calmly blows on the fire. A flicker of red and a wisp of smoke curl out of the twigs. Jon gently places a few small branches on the developing pile of glowing embers and waits until it burns them before he adds more on the fire.
“Good job, son,” Bill says. “That should do it, huh?”
“No, “Jon responds. This time, Jon does not look at Bill and continues to add more wood on the fire, the pieces increasingly larger as the fire grows. “I have to boil the water.”
The fire crackles and pops, and Jon sets the small blackened pot with water directly on the thicker branches in the fire. Jon, on his haunches, covers the pot and everyone waits for the water to boil.
“So how is your summer going, Brian?” Mrs. Algernon asks.
“Oh, pretty good. It’s been really hot though.” The weather seems to be a safe subject.
“It looks like you have a nice, little spot here in the woods.” Mrs. Algernon makes a sweeping motion with her hand in reference to the surrounding area.
“I like it because it’s off the beaten path. One day this may all be Jon’s.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Mrs. Algernon says.
“What I mean is Jon seems to like it—you know the campcraft stuff. Maybe he’ll wind up being a campcraft counselor someday.”
“Oh, right. He does have a knack for it,” Mrs. Algernon says. “I had no idea it was so complicated.”
“It’s not exactly rocket science, Susan,” says Bill.
“There’s more to it than I thought,” Mrs. Algernon says.
“The water’s boiling!” Puffs of steam push past the pot lid. Jon flicks the lid off with a stick to prove the water boiled.
“I’m impressed. What’s next, honey?” Mrs. Algernon asks.
“I have to put the fire out, Mom.”
“Oh, that’s right. We can’t leave it burning. Okay, you should do that.”
“Why don’t I go ahead and put the fire out and let you get on with your visit with your mom and Bill,” I offer.
“If that’s okay,” Jon says.
“Sure, no problem.”
“Well, that’s very nice of you Brian,” Mrs. Algernon says.
“Much appreciated,” Bill says.
“Jon, I want to know if you’d like to go on the trip across the lake with us.” I realize how much this would mean to him, to be part of the team. “I only take the best.”
Jon beams and looks at his mom. “Sure, that would be great.”
“Brian, it’s a pleasure to meet you and thanks for inviting Jon.” Mrs. Algernon offers her hand and we shake again. “Jon, why don’t you and Bill head to the car and I’ll be there in a bit. I want to catch up with Brian for a minute.”
Bill turns his back to wander back down the trail and I notice his paisley shirt with a gob of pine sap stuck to it where he leaned on the tree. Serves that jerk right.
“That was great,” Mrs. Algernon says.
“I’m glad you can see what Jon learned, Mrs. Algernon.”
“Please call me Susan. To tell the truth—” She pauses for a second and looks back at the car—“it’s an eventful Parents Weekend. You see, Jon is not a—” she searches for the right word—“he’s not a confident boy. You probably noticed that. But today, when Jon made that fire, I saw how proud he was. The fire, and—oh, it’s not just the fire. It’s more than that. It’s knots and other things, too. He’s talked about stuff since yesterday. Things he’s learned. He’s not normally talkative. You probably noticed that, too. In fact, I have to drag things out of him. But not this weekend.”
“You know, I was a shy kid at camp for a few years so I can kind of relate to Jon.” I don’t share how the older kids nicknamed me “Ass-Crack,” and “Numb Nuts,” or the times my underwear was smeared with peanut butter. “As much as I love sports, my heart is here, in the woods. I want to pass that on.” I look Mrs. Algernon in the eyes and see Jon’s deep brown irises. “I hope that doesn’t sound too corny.”
“Not at all. I don’t really know how to thank you. I realize you work with a lot of kids but he’s one kid who learned more than anyone imagined.” She stops as if she’s waiting for the rest of her thoughts to catch up.
Her face scrunches and I realize she’s tearing up. A hand covers her mouth until she regains composure. Until now, I had no conception of the effect of Jon’s isolation on Susan. It was an unceasing chafing, fraying the hope of a mother yearning for her child’s acceptance.
“Listen to me, I’m rambling on like a crackpot. I’m not normally so expansive. Anyway, I’d like to do something for you.”
She swings around a small leather pocket book from behind her. I hadn’t noticed it slung over her shoulder, attached to a thin strap.
“Look, Mrs. Alger—, I mean Susan. You don’t have to. It’s part of my job.”
She snaps her hand up with a surprising quickness, her palm facing my chest as if to deflect a speeding bullet. “It’s too hot to debate and in any case, I insist. Please take this as my way of saying thanks.” She unfolds a fifty-dollar bill and hands it to me.
“This is really generous.”
Susan fishes in her pocketbook and hands me a business card: Susan Algernon, President, CREATIVE TALENT, New York City.
I look at the card, unfamiliar with the business.
“You may not know the company, but you’ve probably heard of a few of my clients: Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino. If you ever need a reference, let me know. And if you ever find yourself in New York City, drop by—you never know who may be in the office and ready to autograph a photo for you.”
I put the card in my wallet. “I had no idea. Thank you very much. I’m glad Jon is enjoying himself.”
“Thank you, Brian. It’s been a good day.” Susan looks back down the trail. “I guess I’d better catch up to my guys.”
I pour part of the bucket of water on the fire which gives a loud hiss, and a gray cloud filled with ash mushrooms into the trees. A bit more stirring, a bit more water, and the blaze reduces to a warm slush. I recall all my shared campfires and the camaraderie, encircling everyone like the rocks in the fire ring. Raucous laughter, followed by deadened silence, and moments of introspection only a fire can release. And the primordial feeling of warm in front, cold on the back, along with the mesmerizing stare into the flames, turning time into an abstraction. A person chucks another piece of wood on the fire and sparks shoot into the night like fireflies dancing. I stare into the tree tops hoping Jon experiences the same connection, and pick up the empty bucket before making my way down the trail.
My kids are back from Parents Weekend and inside the cabin regaling themselves with tales of overeating and golf scores. I sit on the porch in a graying Adirondack chair staring over the lake in the fading purplish light. The fifty-dollar bill rests on the arm of the chair as I wait for the soulful dirge of taps.
A car crunches down the hill on the gravel toward my cabin and parks. I don’t recognize the car or the people in it at first. Susan steps out while the others remain in the car.
I meet her at the cabin steps.
“Can we talk for a minute? Susan says.
Oh, oh. Now what? Susan strikes me as a person not to be quibbled with.
“When I left Jon at his cabin a few parents milled about like usual after drop-offs. I overheard about this bet and realized who was involved.”
Where is this going? Maybe she believes her son is a pawn in the bet.
“I asked Jon about Marlon or Dan or whatever his name is. He said Marlon’s kind of a butthead. A lot of the kids think that.” She looks back at the car as if seeking Jon’s assent. “Jon has had his fair share of bullying. This Marlon sounds like a real—asshole— and I’m really tired of people like that.”
The force in her voice startles me.
Let’s fix things, okay?” My heart stops racing. “I’d like to, but I owe him fifty bucks.”
She holds a hundred-dollar bill. “Will this do it?”
I take a deep breath. The hundred is so crisp it looks newly minted and I’m afraid I’ll get a paper cut if I touch it. I find myself reaching for it. I do quick math in my head: one hundred and thirty-five dollars from my cabin kids, fifty, plus one hundred from Susan. That comes to two hundred and eighty five dollars. Marlon’s three hundred and eighty dollars hasn’t doubled me after all. It seems wrong to take the money; more than anything though, I want to see Marlon’s smug smile fade. “More than do it,” I say.
“Good. This has been a wonderful weekend. Thank you again for everything.”
We part and she hurries back to the car. I stare at the bill, holding it by the corner between my index finger and thumb as if it shouldn’t be soiled by my hand. A chorus of frogs peeps from the lake shore and a gentle breeze carries the scent of pine across the water. After a minute, I fold it and it crackles like an autumn leaf underfoot before I set it in my shirt pocket and head to the dining hall.
Originally from the suburbs of New Jersey, Ken Post retired from the Forest Service after working in Alaska for 40 years studying grizzly bears, building trails, as well as managing a large mine and several wilderness areas. His short fiction has previously appeared in Cirque, Red Fez (Pushcart nomination), PoorYorick, Underwood Press, and forthcoming in Woven Tale Press. His Juneau, Alaska beach home looks across a glacial fiord—a constant inspiration for his writing.