Authors: Jane McCafferty
I used to be a woman who thought of the eggs when she made the eggsâI liked that scrambled yellow color, and the bacon when she made the baconâthe smell and sizzle. When I was brushing my teeth at night, my mind was on that, how good it felt to give your teeth a clean slate, how good it was to
teeth. When I was talking to a person, my mind was on the person's words.
Not anymore. I'm just not the same. I can hardly recognize myself some days.
It's not as pleasant when your mind drifts. It's really not the right way to live. I'm against it. But I can't seem to make it stop.
Raelene wanted to know that. Wanted to know a lot more than that. A long time ago, this was. Over fifteen years since she came to camp. That's a long time ago, I suppose. It doesn't feel that way. But I was a different woman then. God knows.
I learned to appreciate Raelene. When she was seventeen she came up with her big eyes and pink Chinese slippers and her accent from Philadelphia. She wanted to save me. You know the sort. The child who couldn't save her own parents. She's just ripe to save a stranger she thinks needs fixing. Just ripe to wrap herself around a shipwreck like me. Oh yes, Raelene rescued me, at least for a while.
She took me away on a Greyhound bus. She was an odd piece of work. She said, come on, Gladys, let's just go! And something in me knew I'd scram then, or never scram again. I was forty-eight. Not exactly your traveling gypsy age.
When Raelene first came up to camp I was what you might call dying on the vine. I was living with my sister, Ivy. Ivy's a good woman. Sometimes too good. But she got on my nerves back then. She was always watching me, and she knew too much about me. She'd been there when it all came tumbling down. Looking at her face was somehow looking in the mirror of my past. It was all right there.
I didn't even know this then. I didn't think much about the past, but it was always there just the same. Like bad background music. I couldn't get away from the glorious past even for a second. Not as long as Ivy was there. My whole life story was caught in her eyes because she'd watched it unfold, and the problem was, neither Ivy or me said a word about it. Words get stuck in your eyes if you don't let them out of your mouth.
Ivy always meant well. I know that. Didn't I always? And I'm not blaming her. Even if I wanted to, I'm too old to blame anyone now.
Ivy was there when I was a girl, drunk on hope, falling hard for my husband, James. She was at our wedding, of course. She knew James well, knew my son Wendell well, knew A., my daughter well. And her heart broke each time there was big trouble for me. When Ivy's heart broke her eyes broke right along with it. Painful eyes, at least when she looked my way. Sometimes I couldn't face her. I'd look elsewhere. She pitied me. She thought I was the big shattered, pitiful mystery woman. Maybe I was. A mystery to myself too.
When Raelene first showed up at our house, I said to myself, no thank you. I was unprepared, and I'm not fond of surprises. I was rude, I know that. Partly because she'd stopped writing to me and never told me why. After years she just stopped. I didn't particularly need another child disappearing like that. And she sure didn't look much like the little girl I met once before in Washington, D.C. (That's a long story.) Her long brown hair was curly wild. And I thought she needed a good bath, and she had the blue tattooed angel on her arm. I had a problem with that. Don't ask me why. Tattoos always disgusted me. After a while, I told Raelene that.
“I don't like 'em much either,” she said. “This guy I was goin' with convinced me to get it. But I figure a tattoo on your body's not too important compared to the things that end up tattooed on your soul.”
This was Raelene. A real life philosopher from Philadelphia. I got a charge out of it. I liked that girl's way of talking. And there she was, working in the late spring at the camp where I cooked. Campers weren't there yet as I recall. She was being trained, fixing up the lean-tos. She'd come up from Philly, where she'd been her whole life.
I'd been cooking at the camp over ten years by that time. Ivy had been up there cooking forever. She followed some man up there when she was too young to know better. Can't even remember the man's name right now. Arnie? He was a handsome plumber from Lake Placid. Had money because the rich summer people hired him for every little leak. He invited Ivy for a vacation. She was only twenty-some years old. Well, she vacationed all right. The highlight of that vacation was Mr. Lake Placid disappearing on her. She had no money, and she was in a strange, cold place. And too proud to call our father. So she ended up getting a job as a cook down at Camp Timber. Didn't expect it would be her whole life. Who would? Didn't expect I'd come join her, either. But she called me a few years after being up there. “Why don't you and James come settle?” she said. “Then Wendell would be near his Aunt Ivy.” That was late 1960. In early '61, she called and said, “I'm lonely, please come.” So we all went up to see her. I didn't think we'd end up calling it home.
Now little Raelene Francis didn't fit in, believe me. She and her tattoo and her wild hair. She wore eyeliner like a cat woman, not exactly your camp girl look. She chewed big wads of gum too often. She had that accent from Philadelphia. If she wanted to tell you “have yourself a very Merry Christmas,” she'd say “Have ya self a vurry murry Christmas.” It was an awful way to have to talk, but you can't help where you're born. Her big dark serious eyes just sat back in their sockets staring at you like they had serious answers if only you could ask the right questions. And her eyebrows were always raised up like she was ready for trouble. Ivy thought she always looked like she was about to cry. But that was Ivy. Raelene never cried. Not Raelene. Not back then. She was beyond tears. So was I. Beyond Tears is like a place, a meeting ground, and it's where we met. Right out there by the old campfire, a nice place that could've had a sign:
WELCOME TO BEYOND TEARS
See, Raelene was on late-late shift one night. All the counselors had to take a turn at it, every other week. This was maybe three weeks after she'd shown up, and some of the early session campers had started trickling in. I suppose I had a case of guilt. I wasn't sleeping. Here was this child who had written to me for years. I'd written to her too. The least I could do was be her friend.
Now, that was going to be hard. I hadn't been anyone's friend in a long time. Not my own friend, either. I read books and mostly kept to myself. I worked. I slept. I said hello to folks. Sometimes I even enjoyed them. Part of me did, anyhow. But I'd been frozen, I see now, all my insides just frozen up. It's easy to freeze. I understand why I froze. Now I understand.
So Raelene was out there by the fire that night, the late-late counselor, sitting on a rock, poking embers with a stick. Chewing gum. I can't imagine what she thought when she looked up. I had turned off my Sonny Boy Williamson and stepped outside. I had walked in the dark, down the hill from our house, through the valley past the school, and up the other hill to the camp. This was not a hop skip and a jump.
I'd never been over late at night before. Now there I was on the other side of the flames. Big old Gladys in blue pants and jacket. Just standing there in the night, firelit. I tried smiling. I imagine she saw the fire reflected in the lenses of my glasses.
“Gladys?” Raelene said.
I went and hoisted myself onto a rock across from her. The flames were hot and dancing on my skin. Above us were the usual stars.
“Thought I'd come on out and keep you company,” I told her.
“Even though it's two in the morning,” I added, “And I'm crazy not to be in bed.”
“It's crazy just living, as the old song goes,” Raelene said. Her voice was sweet and high. She was smiling.
“What old song's that?” I said. I sat and poked some embers around.
Raelene shrugged. “I don't know. I can't believe I'm even here. You must think I'm really pathetic, and I can't say I blame you.”
A small wind bent the flames. I peered over at Raelene's firelit face, which looked young, dangerously young. Needy. I rowed back inside myself all the way for a clear moment. I could row myself back inside like I was a cave. A cave with ice on the walls, nice and dark. I could see the world and anyone in it standing at the cave's mouth, framed and manageable. I had to do this right away with Raelene. Because I see now she scared me. The little girl believed she knew me. Thought she knew old Gladys.
Oh, she knew some things. But she didn't know me. Not then. You can't really know a person just from letters. I had told her some things I hadn't told any others. True enough. She was my secret pen pal. I had told her how broken I was inside a while after Wendell was killed, for instance. Broken up. A smashed heart. Hatred in my veins for the whole country was the only thing whole inside me, and I expressed that page after page. To a child I expressed it! This I'd call desperate. I wrote that letter at night out on a picnic table off the interstate. I sat in the dark and wrote my hatred out. I almost ripped the letter up. I remember it seemed to demand too much tenderness from me to fold a letter and put it in the envelope. I remember I had to force myself to go through those motions that seemed beyond me. Because I was pure hatred and rage. Shaking with it.
Now Raelene hated the whole country too. She was no dummy. But she had a child's hatred for the men in power. A baby's notion that if only the right men got in power, there wouldn't be war. She didn't understand a damn thing, but she did have her anger. She couldn't stand any of it. She was just a baby watching the whole thing on television.
Ivy never knew it, but once I went to meet Raelene in Washington, D.C., for a protest the hippies were throwing. It was 1970. I went, Raelene went. It was her idea to go there on a bus with a church group, and meet me at the monument. She was just a lost child with crooked teeth and red bell-bottoms. Pretty little thing with those big eyes. Flashing the peace sign at strangers when I first saw her there at the foot of the monument. “Is that you?” I said, but I knew. Her face had Raelene written all over it. We were both lost souls in that mob. All those festive hippies, Raelene and me eating hot dogs. The sky blue. It got dark slowly that day. I remember a nun in her blue habit came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You have a fine relationship with your girl. It's obvious.” I remember her white nun face in the dark like I remember some of my dreams. It was late and Raelene and I sat on cool grass behind the White House. I knew I'd remember her sleepy face on that night, and I do. She was so young I felt I should carry her back to the bus. But I didn't. I was relieved when the day ended.
Raelene loved Wendell in a way, though she never knew him either. His name was on her little bracelet. And she had his picture. She was lonely, a lonely kid from Philly with no mother. A boy named Hambone West lived across the street from her, and he was a kind of friend. She also had some school friends, but they didn't cure the loneliness. They didn't cure the mother who ran off with a man to the West, leaving Raelene with a pile of presents. They didn't cure the father who liked his needles. So she latched onto Wendell, the idea of him. I believe she talked to his picture. And certainly loved him and prayed for him and that cured her loneliness for a while. She had a Catholic imagination back then. It was one thing the drug addict father and the runaway mother handed down. They'd been the sort to have a party on the saints' feast days. Raelene went to some grammar school called Immaculate Conception, if you can believe that.
So I had told her an important bit of the past, but just a bit. So out there at the fire she looked at me like she knew me. Only it was someone else she knew. Have to admit I enjoyed that. I think now I enjoyed being someone else in her eyes. It was like a vacation, a vacation from my self, from who I knew I was, from who Ivy knew I was. To Raelene I was a big strong woman who'd seen hard times but who was somehow just great. Lonely but wonderful! A real interesting woman. I just needed some encouragement. I just needed a friend.
People can free you up. They see you a certain way and you suddenly buy that vision. You eat it up directly. You get to be someone else for a while. Moments come along where you can stand yourself a little.
So out there at the fire Raelene is looking at me with a load of admiration that first night.
Now, I'm complicated. So to be truthful I'll have to say this. That admiration in her eyes was not real welcome by one part of me. While one part liked it, another part wanted to slap her face.
Why? Why the meanness? Well, you tell me. When someone admires you and you don't admire yourself, don't you feel like slapping them? Like you have the responsibility to wake them up?
I couldn't stand it when someone turned their naive eyes on me. Of course I liked it too. Like I said, I'm complicated. Bear with me. I've beared with me for all these years. Jesus Christ I'd like a medal.
I told Raelene I didn't think it was pathetic that she'd come up to camp. (This was a lie, I thought it was one of the most pathetic things I'd ever heard of.) I told her, “I'm glad to meet you again, I really am. But I warn you, I'm nothing special. Not like you thought I was when you were small. I'm better in letters. I really am.”
“Your letters were like the best thing in my life for years, Gladys,” Raelene said.
“Is that right? I'm sorry to hear that.”
She laughed. She was an easy laugh. Surprising.
“Gladys, whenever you wrote me, you had this way of saying everything. I'd read those letters like fifty times. I kept them under my pillow and I read them by flashlight when I couldn't sleep. It was like I could feel you out there, same as I used to feel my guardian angel when I was six. I bet I could recite lines from those letters all these years later.”