Authors: Jane McCafferty
As she talked, she looked straight into the fire without squinting. When she stopped talking, she looked at me.
“Your letters meant a lot to me too,” I told her. And saying that, I was surprised to realize how true it was. I hadn't thought about it in a long time. “And those horses you always drew. It was real nice. I always did love horses.”
“You still have them?”
“Oh, probably. I imagine they might be stuck in a box in the basement.”
She said sometime it would be fun to see them, and I said yes, it would, and then I hoisted myself up off the rock and said good night. I started walking away. I could feel her puzzled eyes on me. I was headed with my flashlight into the dark field. I was headed right toward the hill so I could get back to the house. I really was. But I stopped. Or something stopped me. I turned and walked right back to the fire. “Changed my mind,” I told her. “I'll stay a bit longer.” Don't ask why. It wasn't like me to head back to a place I'd decided to leave.
I stayed for a while, and then walked with her to wake up all the bed wetters at 3:30
. I remember this like it was last week. She would go into the cabin and nudge the kid awake saying, “You have to go to the outhouse now, honey.” Most of the little bed wetters woke up quick. A few cried. We'd walk them down to the purple outhouse. I was interested, seeing the kids this way. They were mostly asleep. They were baby sleepwalkers in pajamas. All moonlit. Like orphans. Angels. Not the loudmouths they were in the daytime. I had pity on them, seeing them half asleep and walking barefoot on cold grass in the dark. They were so young. And it hurt me having pity like that. It warmed me up. Was this the beginning of my unfreezing? Maybe. I do remember it hurt terribly! Like hot liquid pushing through a hole in my frozen heart. I grit my teeth. Crossed my arms. We just kept waking up the little kids. Or Raelene did, and I watched. Tried not to watch, but watched all the same. It was more like a dream. The goddamn camp was packed with kids who peed their beds. A bunch of nervous bladders. Some were only seven years old, like Becky Kalmus, I'll never forget her. Slept in a cowboy suit. Guns in her holster. Seven years old, a bed wetter, a cowboy in her dreams. She slept this way every night according to Raelene. Made her feel safe. She was a little bird. Most kids just walked barefoot on the grass to get to the outhouse. Old Becky had to put her cowboy boots on. White boots with fringe and too small for her. She wasn't a sleepwalker. She was wide awake, or at least looked that way. And she sang to herself quietly the whole way to the outhouse: “Hello operator, give me number nine, the boys are in the bathroom, pulling down their flies are in the kitchen, eating bread and jam, my mom doesn't give a darn and I don't give a damn .Â .Â . ” Raelene said that's what the kid sang every night as she walked to the outhouse under the stars. Anyhow, I watched her closely. Couldn't help it. And something about her face was getting to me.
“I think I'll go now,” I told Raelene, after we walked Cowboy Kalmus back to her cabin.
I felt angry. I remember I walked back to our house full of anger. Why in hell had I just walked around with the late-late counselor waking up the bed wetters? Goddamnit, I had to work in the morning.
But before I fell asleep, I kept seeing that little girl, that little seven-year-old Becky. Her face under her cowboy hat. The eyes looking up at me. Brown eyes, not big or small, just brown regular eyes. It came to me that night that she'd reminded me of A. My daughter.
I'd stay away from her for good, I thought. I fell asleep mad. Raelene dragged me out of my cave. Mad at her for even showing up. I wished she'd go back to where she came from.
Of course, once you're out of the cave, you're out. You're rearranged. Bigger. So if you try going back in the cave, the fit's no longer quite right. The next day I woke up and knew it. Because I'd had a nice night. I really had. Old Raelene knew how to show a person a good time. Just walk them around in the dark and wake up some bed wetters.
So I believe I had this sense of expectation. Nothing familiar about it. The anger from the night before was mostly gone. Ivy said to me at breakfast, “What's up?” I said, “Nothing.” She said, “You're different.” I said, “For Christ sakes, Ivy, stop watching me!” Poor Ivy. I hurt her a lot. Why didn't I just say, “Well, Ivy, I stayed up late with Raelene. She's a nice girl. She likes me. She depends on me. She might just turn out to be a real friend of mine.”
I didn't say that because poor Ivy was just too hungry to hear it. Now that's another mean streak in me. If someone was too hungry to hear something about me, they got nothing. Jesus said feed the hungry, so I'll go to hell, but I couldn't control it. Not with Ivy. Ivy thought I needed her kind of love, but I needed privacy. Don't we all? And I see now I needed Ivy to get her own concerns. She didn't have a life outside me back then. Or maybe she did and I couldn't see it. I'm smart enough now to know I don't finally know too much.
So that morning I'm in the kitchen. I've got a new sense about things. It was unclear what it was, but I could feel it. I stood washing my hands at the big sink. I noticed the sky. Purple. The sun coming up orange. The mountains in the distance. A lot of young green leaves on the edge of the woods windblown upward. Everything hushed.
I stood with the water rushing over my hands noticing sky. How long had it been since I'd seen the sky? Ten years? When I was young I'd noticed it every day. Now, here it was again. The sky. Mountains. Pressing in on me. It was like seeing it all for the first time.
And then Raelene, who was the music counselor, was out on the porch. The wandering minstrel with fifty kids following her. She was not in her element. Not naturally playful. That you could tell by looking at her. She liked kids, but she was a worrier. She cared too much. It was a little bit pathetic. She tried too hard to listen to every single kid. Then she just gave up. She stood there with her hands over her ears, smiling. They all asked questions at once. Finally they'd get quiet. I watched at the window. She unplugged her ears, and sat down to do her job. Her job was to get the kids singing before breakfast. Five-thirty in the morning, and Raelene hadn't slept on account of late-late shift. She looked like a bewildered raccoon. She was a pretty little thing sometimes, but that morning she looked terrible. But then she started singing.
The chorus of the song was:
Let us go to the banks of the ocean.
That's all I remember of the chorus. The song was “The Dutchman,” about an old couple. The old man's falling apart. Thinks he's still in Rotterdam. The old woman walks him around. She sings old songs while she makes the bed in their little house by the canal. They sit in a dark kitchen. You can see them. They sit there with a candle burning, eighty years old. They don't speak. They've said it all.
Well, it was a nice enough song. I would've especially loved it when I was a girl. But it was the voice that impressed me. It was Raelene's voice. A real beautiful voice. You couldn't think otherwise.
Now I was born a music lover. You either are or you're not. You know it early in life if you're a music lover. Because songs will make you cry. They teach you something deeper than words when you're small. They teach you about time. Even the early lullabies do this.
All aboard for blanket bay, won't be back till the break of day
. And they teach you that someday you're going to die, you're not always going to be a small girl spinning in a nightgown on a dirt patch in the backyard looking at the cows with your mother singing quiet in the window above you. The song's going to end.
So there I was at the sink listening to Raelene. All the kids were singing along, but I listened to Raelene. I felt a tightness in my throat and thought her voice was
. Those were the exact words I used inside my head. They alarmed me. It was not like me to think like that, ever. That's how good she sounded when she sang. I stopped listening after the second verse. To save myself from feeling it.
It wasn't easy getting to know Raelene because they keep the counselors busy. And I was busy too. But Raelene would come by for coffee on the days when she wasn't a minstrel. Before anyone else had to be out of their tents and cabins, Raelene would wake up and head down to the kitchen. Ivy and I would be in there, sometimes a radio on so we could hear the international bad news. We'd have to start cooking soon, but not yet.
“Hi,” Raelene would say in the doorway, her long curls flattened down with water. She always woke and took the GI's bath. And what a fashion plate! I don't know where she found those clothes. I guess it was the style in Philadelphia. She wore tight shorts like they all wore, but Raelene went in for the halter tops. They'd have to be a godforsaken color, like electric blue. Bright green with silver glitters. And then she had a dress. White with apples and oranges all over it. It zipped all the way down in the back. Like the dressmaker didn't know a zipper stops halfway. And then she would go ahead and wear those damn pink Chinese slippers under the dress. They were the only damn shoes she brought with her.
We'd sit together at the table by the door and have coffee. We talked a little, but not much. The kitchen was big, clean, and quiet. The convection oven, the regular oven, the three-bin sink, the six-burner gas stove, the flat grill, the walk-in, the tile floor, all of it was clean because we left it that way the day before. Ivy and I took pride in our work. The kitchen almost had the feel of a peaceful garden on those mornings. Sparkled. Raelene was soothed there.
Sometimes Ivy would come over to the table and join us. I never appreciated that. I would turn to stone when Ivy joined us. Raelene told me about Hambone on one of these mornings. “He lives out west in Oregon now and told me to come on out if I want. I wish you could meet him. He's been my friend since I was six. He's like the one guy I can trust.”
“I'd like that. I'd like to meet old
.” Somehow I pictured an old black man with a blues guitar singing Ivory Joe Hunter's “I Almost Lost My Mind.” Of course Hambone didn't eventually live up to that.
Then, another morning, Raelene came to visit with tears in her eyes. Her voice shaking with sadness.
She sat at the table. I poured her coffee. I said, “Easy now, easy.” I was not prepared. I didn't know her that well yet.
Not well enough for the tears I could feel were coming. I didn't want anyone's tears falling around me. Maybe because I kept my own dammed up inside and expected others to have the common courtesy to do the same.
She shook her head, bit her lip, wouldn't speak.
“Ivy, heat the girl a sticky bun, will ya?”
Ivy did, and brought it over. “Is she okay?” Ivy asked me. Raelene was looking down at the table, biting her lip. She was wearing another godforsaken halter top that day. She looked about as much like a camp counselor as I did.
I let her get her bearings. I went and got the pot of coffee and put it between us on the table. Then I gave her the newspaper's crossword puzzle.
“This will help,” I said. “Do this puzzle.”
And then I went over and started cooking breakfast. That's just how I was. My shoulder just wasn't ready for anyone's tears. But as I was cooking breakfast, I had Raelene in the corner of my eye. It was like I was holding her there. I half wanted to tell her to get out of the kitchen. The other half of me was confusion and feeling for her. Empathy. Not pity. Lord she knew how to make inroads.
Maybe I was glad because finally, after all those years, here was a counselor who liked me, and not Ivy. That sounds childish, I know. But you don't know how it was. You don't know how the other counselors regarded me all those years. Fat, mean, and dumb. They size you up in a flash. You can read the faces too easy. You're the cook, you're a bit overweight, so you must be dumb. And their asses are headed to Harvard in the fall, so what the hell do they care?
Now Ivy, she was different as far as they were concerned.
(But not as different as she thought.) She was happy-go-lucky. Blue eyed with golden hair. That won her some points. The jolly fat woman. Santa's wife. They all said, “Hi, Ivy!” with big smiles on their faces. And there were a few groups of girls through the years who invited her canoeing or to a little cookout. She was “a good sport.” She played along with who they thought she was.
I never got invited anywhere. (This didn't astound me.) And I never thought it bothered me, but maybe it did. One child, ten years ago, a boy named Neal, he liked me. Made me lacy valentines in July, and gave me a goldfish in a Baggie. But when I walked up to his table to thank him one night he put his hands over his face and shouted, “I'm ascending into heaven!” He wouldn't take his hands away from his face, and he wouldn't stop saying “I'm ascending into heaven.” In other words, he was out of his mind.
So really Raelene was my first real friend at camp.
I let her sit there and stare at the crossword puzzle. The sun rose in the window. She was all lit up now in sunlight. It seemed to bother her. She put her hand over her eyes. Then she got up and left, not saying a word.
“She's upset, Gladys. You don't just give someone a crossword puzzle,” Ivy said.
“Always helped me,” I said.
But I knew damn well she was right. And I thought about Raelene that day. And that night I left my house and walked down the hill and up the other hill. Got to her cabin at ten o'clock. She was one of the few counselors who had their own cabin. She'd started out with a college girl in a golf shirt from Boston, but Golf Shirt wanted to live with someone else. Surprise surprise.
I walked down the path in the woods. There was hardly any moonlight. I saw her cabin didn't have any lights on. She was probably sound asleep. I wouldn't wake her.