Alice Kaltman’s debut collection of short stories, Staggerwing, is forthcoming this October from Tortoise Books.
On the sweltering camp bus, girls leaned against each other, holding hands, whispering, an epidemic of Siamese twins. It was August 17, 1969, Ellie’s eleventh birthday and she’d woken to the news that she would be going on a cruddy hike led by Harold, the Nature counselor. All the girls from the Daisy, Rose, and Tulip Bunks were there, but the only seat left was next to Debby, aka Bug Eye, who was another Daisy, and the only camper more outside things than Ellie herself. Debby smelled like tropical BO because she rarely showered, gooping herself all over with Coconut Skin Trip instead. Debby was funny, sometimes, but mostly she was a klutz who made babyish jokes. Plus, she had that one eye, the Bug Eye, which seemed to wander off on its own accord.
Ellie felt like the real Nowhere Man at Camp Lakawalla. The other girls in Ellie’s bunk were Full Session, and had been there since the beginning of July. Ellie was an August Session Only. By the time she’d arrived, friendships were firmly knotted, and she was a loose, unnecessary thread. She’d been hoping her birthday would tie her in. She’d seen other kids with summer birthdays sauntering down the dirt paths from Arts and Crafts with paper birthday crowns covered in pompoms, ribbons, and Mylar streamers, an entourage of bunkmates nipping at their heels. At lunch, there was always a cake with frosting and candles, and everyone screaming the Happy Birthday song. They got to do their favorite Lakawalla Activity any time during the day, even if their bunk wasn’t scheduled to do so. Ellie was going to pick Waterfront. But what did Ellie get instead? A walk in the buggy woods, a soggy sandwich and a shallow stream. Big whoop, she thought. Happy Birthday to me.
Harold stood from his seat behind the bus driver and turned to face the busload of girls. “Blossoms.” He nodded his head a little up and forward like he was grooving to an inner beat. “We’re going deep in the woods, where Nature rules.” Harold said Nature like a horse braying. Nayychure.
Harold was ancient. Not quite as old as Ellie’s parents, but close. He was a real deal hippy, not like the suburban teenage hippies back in Great Neck. Those younger guys wore caftans and huaraches and had straggly long hair and beards like Harold. They made peace signs with their fingers in greeting and played flutes and guitars. But they still lived in nice houses with lawns. Their VWs were serviced by the same mechanics as their parents’ BMWs. Ellie’s seventeen-year-old sister Hannah went steady with one of them. His name was Arthur, but he wanted to be called Arlo, like Arlo Guthrie. Everyone called him Arlo, except his parents. Hannah thought Arlo was “far out.” Ellie thought far out was a dopey place for a boyfriend to be.
“I want everyone to respect the forest. No littering. No plucking pretty blossoms, Blossoms,” Harold paused for laughs at his flower joke. None of the campers laughed. So Harold switched gears, pressing his palms together in front of his chest and solemnly adding, “We’ll leave everything as it is. In perfect harmony.” He bowed his head, and Ellie could see pink scalp through thinning hair. When Harold sat down, almost every Blossom stuck their thumbs in their ears and wiggled their fingers at his oblivious back. Not Ellie. She just turned to look out the window at the boring scenery. Trees, trees, and more trees.
“Surry down to a stone soul picnic...” A voice sang from the back of the bus, the sacred Tulips Only Section, where the oldest Blossoms, ages 14-15, sat away from the younger girls. The singer was Joy Kramer, a girl from Great Neck whom Ellie knew because Joy was sort of, but not really, friends with Ellie’s sister Iris. Even though she was only fifteen, Joy was built like a big galumphy woman. She had a real bosom, a shelf made out of breasts. Some of the other Tulips had bosoms, too, but Joy’s was definitely the most va-va-va-voom.
“There will be lots of time and wine...” Joy continued on her own for one more line, belting in a deep voice that sounded like it belonged to a forty-year-old. Other than her big chest, Joy didn’t have much going for her in the looks department. Her eyes were tiny slits, like piggy eyes. Her black hair always looked greasy, and clumped around her pimply face like wet seaweed. She had this weird button nose that stuck up so you could see her nostrils, which Ellie thought was gross and made her wonder what Joy did when she had boogers she couldn’t hide.
Other Tulips joined in, “Red yellow honey, sassafras and Moonshine...” Ellie found the Tulips annoying. They were always crying, singing, or hugging, all superior and hoity-toity. They wrote in paisley-covered journals with quill pens. Some wore mascara. They used antiperspirant.
“...And from the sky come the Lord and the lightening...” Joy on her own again. Joy did theater back in Great Neck. She got lead parts. In Great Neck, theater kids were sort of losers, not popular at all. In fact, Joy was almost a Debby back home. But at Camp Lakawalla Joy was cool. Go figure.
Joy and the Tulips moved off Laura Nyro and on to the Beatles, singing “Dear Prudence,” sticking their own names in, pretending that they were the ones being asked out to play on a lovely day. Ellie closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Eventually her mouth opened and a trickle of drool rivuleted towards her chin, but she didn’t have the energy to wipe it away. When the bus came to an abrupt stop, Ellie’s head nearly snapped off.
Harold stood from his seat up front and announced: “Blossoms, we’ve arrived in Heaven. We’ve got three hours to explore the ridge, eat some grub, and hike our way back down. So let’s get truckin.’”
Daisies, Roses, and Tulips spilled out of the bus. With them spilled whines and complaints, because standing out in the sun felt like being covered in hot, wet towels.
“This is retarded,” grunted Beth Edelson, a girl from Ellie’s bunk who called everyone and everything ‘retarded.’
Other girls fanned themselves dramatically, and grumbled like a bunch of losers at the OTB.
Harold ignored all of them. “This way, Blossoms!” He led the way up a trail, stomping in his flimsy huaraches, his hairy calves and calloused heels defying Myrna, the Camp Director, who had given the explicit order for high socks and sturdy shoes.
The woods were moist and cool. No one was in danger of fainting from heat stroke. The girls walked single file down the narrow trail under a canopy of ancient giant trees. No buddy-buddy walking or someone would end up traipsing through poison oak. There were grumbles about snakes or spiders. But mostly they couldn’t talk to each other, which sucked because what was the point of anything when you’re a girl between the ages of 12-15 and you can’t talk?
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be...” Joy started, but no one joined in. The trail was super steep, and it was hard for anyone but her to sing and hike at the same time. She finally shut up, which was a good thing because it really was too show-offy for Joy to be the only one singing when no one else could, even if she did have the best voice.
For a while the only sounds Ellie heard were boots crunching, birds tweeting, and leaves rustling. No one could talk, no one could be left out, so Ellie was almost enjoying herself, but only almost. She still would’ve rather been back at camp, throwing herself into the lake like a wild Banshee, gorging on lasagna for lunch, ending with a birthday cake pig-out.
Suddenly, the girls ahead of Ellie stopped walking. Ellie accidentally rammed into the back of Claudia Belsen, a Rose, and not the most understanding of thirteen-year-olds.
“Watch it, Spaz,” Claudia snarled.
“Sorry,” Ellie muttered.
Up ahead Ellie could see Harold with his pointer finger pressed to his lips, just under his Fu Manchu mustache.
Once everyone was still, Harold said: “Do you hear that music?”
“I hear it,” cried Debby.
Did Debby really, Ellie wondered? Or was she just doing what she always did: sucking up and trying too hard?
Within seconds, everyone put in their two cents; I hear it. I don’t hear it. You’re kidding me, you can’t hear that? It’s so loud! What are you talking about? Are you deaf? That’s just a bunch of birds. No it’s a band, cross my heart and hope to die!
Harold pointed towards a different path, one marked with a blue tree disc. “Should we take a detour and investigate?”
Girls shouted “Yeah! Yeah!” Choosing music over Nayychure.
“Harold,” a voice called from the back of the line. “We really should do what’s planned.” It was Ellie’s counselor, Lois: a Vassar freshman, and a real stickler for rules. Even when it was raining, Lois made the Daisies do Farm Activity, insisting they slosh through mud mixed with animal poop to pull on goat teats or feed the chickens.
“Come on Lois,” Harold smiled, his teeth like a row of yellow corn, “It’ll be a gas.”
Lois’ brow furrowed the way Ellie’s mother’s brow furrowed when she botched a recipe from her new Julia Child’s cookbook. Finally Lois relented. “You’re the grown-up,” she shrugged. “You’re in charge.”
Harold was definitely the grown up. He had thinning hair and crinkles around his eyes. His chest hairs were grey. His skin reminded Ellie of the leather seats of her father’s Lincoln Mark V: tan, worn out, and covered with mysterious stains.
So the Blossoms soldiered on. At least the blue path wasn’t as steep as the original one. Everyone could yammer and sing. Trudy Berkowitz of the Tulips started a round of “The Ants Go Marching One by One, Hurrah” that even Ellie joined in on. It surprised Ellie that a Tulip would chose such a babyish song. But Tulips were nothing if not unpredictable.
Eventually the sounds became louder and clearer. Horns bleated. A drum thumped. An electric guitar trilled. There was no beat, but it was music. Everyone stopped singing. Like lemmings they followed Harold as he led them towards the cacophony.
Then the path ended abruptly, spilling girls onto a steep grassy hill. At the foot of the hill was a dirt road, and a big old house with a wraparound porch. Beer cans were strewn across a narrow yard in front. There was a band on the porch, hippy men like Harold, ten musicians all together, a blur of denim, ripped tee shirts, long hair, feathered hats, bandanas, and beards. Cigarettes hung from lips, hairy man-toes tapped. They all looked drowsy. Most wore dark sunglasses.
The men didn’t notice the Blossoms up on the hill, girls spilled out and spread like wildflowers, shielding their eyes against the sudden blazing sun. Maybe because the girls were silent. Their jaws dropped in wonder, gangly arms at their sides. Frozen and a little scared.
Finally, a guy who looked like Dracula glanced up from his guitar and noticed them. A creepy smile spread on his face. Ellie half expected to see fangs, but all he had were yellow teeth, like Harold’s. Dracula stopped strumming and made a peace sign at them. His guitar swung off his narrow shoulder from a macramé strap.
“Oh my God,” gasped Debby, her hand to her mouth as if she’d seen something sudden and obscene. “It’s, like, a real band.”
“Duh,” Beth Edelson rolled her eyes, “What a retard.”
By now, other musicians had noticed the girls and stopped playing. A few waved half-heartedly. But for the most part it seemed they couldn’t care less about this sudden audience. The men moved around the porch as if walking through mud, slow and deliberate, a little wobbly. They muttered to each other in low voices, laughed and shrugged, then started playing their weird music again.
“Let’s give a listen.” Harold made hand gestures to indicate the girls should sit down. The Tulips were thrilled. The Daisies not so. The Roses wanted to impress the Tulips, so they pretended to be cool with it. When everyone was settled, Harold sat Indian-style himself and swayed back and forth as if he were in a trance.
The music was a big snooze. Terrible, as far as Ellie was concerned. She couldn’t find a beat there at all. Dracula went on string picking tangents, the drums suddenly rat-a-tat-tated. The song went on and on. And on. Time slogged on in slow motion. Ellie was bored stiff. She was starving. She was broiling hot, roasting like a chicken there in the sun. The dry grass poked her bare skin. She had to sit with her knees hunched to her chest and her arms wrapped around her shins, which was really uncomfortable and hard to do, especially on a hill angled like a ski slope.
Ellie looked around at the other Blossoms. Some were already eating their sandwiches. That seemed like a good idea, so Ellie pulled out her own soggy PB and J and started munching. A bunch of other girls lied down to sunbathe, or maybe to sleep. A few played hand games: “The Spades Go Two Lips,” or “Patty Cake.” Crafty types made dandelion chains and draped them on their foreheads, or long ones to hang around their necks. Whenever Ellie tried to make a dandelion-chain necklace, hers always broke, because she went overboard, got carried away with too many weeds.
But really, most of the girls looked as bored as Ellie. The only ones who seemed happy to be there were the Tulips. Joy in particular. She’d made her way down the hill and was dancing all by herself. Joy lifted her arms over her head and waved her arms all airy-fairy. She swayed her body like she was doing the hula. Ellie could see Joy’s pale stomach and a bit of white underpants sticking out above her dungaree shorts.
Ellie wasn’t the only one watching Joy. Dracula seemed interested also. He smiled his creepy yellow-toothed smile at Joy, and Joy wiggled her hips a little more. Gross me out, thought Ellie. She tried focusing elsewhere, but she couldn’t. She polished off her sandwich and studied them; her eyes glued to the man watching the girl and the girl watching the man.
The result was a queasy tummy. Ellie looked around the hill for Lois, who usually carried Tums, along with Band Aids and Bactine. Ellie couldn’t find her counselor anywhere. All she could do was hug her knees even tighter against her stomach in the hopes that would somehow soothe her nausea.
Meanwhile, Harold had joined Joy down by the side of the road. He danced like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, all discombobulated and dopey. At one point Harold crossed the road and took a super long puff of the saxophonist’s cigarette. A marijuana joint, thought Ellie. She’d seen one before. Arlo and Hannah had been smoking a joint one night when Ellie’s parents were out and Hannah was babysitting her. Ellie was supposed to be asleep, but she’d heard them laughing in the backyard so she went outside to see what was so funny. She’d hid behind the garage and watched the teenagers puff and puff, and get stupider and stupider. When they started French kissing she went back to bed and tried to forget the whole scene.
Finally the music stopped. Hallelujah, thought Ellie. The Blossoms could go back to the woods now, where it was cool and hushed, where there wasn’t a hippy band, and Tulips weren’t trying to act older than they really were. Ellie stood up, sweaty and sunburned, her joints stiff. Other Blossoms stood as well, stretching creaky arms upwards, brushing dirt and grass from their rompers and shorts.
But Harold was still busy, taking tokes and chugging beer, all buddy-buddy with the band.
“Let’s get truckin’, Harold,” screamed Debby.
All the Blossoms mumbled in agreement, but no one gave Debby credit for speaking up.
Harold looked up at the girls as if he’d just remembered they were there. As he tried to focus on them with bloodshot, droopy eyes, Dracula started playing the guitar.
“If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true...” Dracula’s voice was beastly, not anything like Paul McCartney’s.
“...and help me understand...”
More like he’d stuffed his mouth with Red Hots and was trying to spit them out.
“...cause I’ve been in love before and I found that love was more...”
“...than just holding hands.” This came from Joy, sung in her deep molasses voice as she crossed the road and climbed onto the porch. She picked up a tambourine and slapped at it as if she’d been born with it in her hand.
Together Joy and Dracula sang, “If I trust in you...” The girl’s voice sweetened the man’s, like syrup over spiced sausage.
The men on the porch looked as if something had smacked them out of their stupors. Their eyes widened, their spines straightened. The Blossoms were speechless and still. Everyone saw what Ellie had already seen: Joy and Dracula together were perfect and creepy at the same time.
Finally, the love song ended. Girls shifted on the hill uncomfortably, and men shuffled in place and looked at their feet. It was time for Joy to cross back over and join her campmates, but she stayed put. She giggled as Dracula leaned towards her, put his hand to her cheek.
Ellie looked over at Debby, hoping she’d say or do something. Something Debby-dopey, something loud. But Debby just stood there like everyone else, mouth opened like a grouper fish. It was up to Ellie to break the spell that settled over everyone, men and girls alike.
“Arrrgggh,” Ellie yelled, like a pirate. She noisily crumpled the tinfoil around her leftover sandwich crusts and shoved it all in her daypack.
“Anyone wanna take a swim?” A new voice pierced the thick air. “Swimming hole is around back.” It was the fattest hippy, a guy who’d been playing the trombone. Dark sweat stains spread in a blobby pattern across the tight tee shirt that girdled his belly.
Swimming had been Ellie’s original mission. There was nothing more that she’d wanted to do on this dismal day. It had been her birthday quest. A swimming hole sounded much better than a shallow stream. Not quite Waterfront, but still. Without much thinking she cried out “I do!”
“Groovy,” Fatso nodded. “Come and join the party.” The band staggered off the porch and disappeared behind the house. Dracula took Joy’s hand, and together they followed.
Harold looked up at Ellie and smiled in sloppy approval. Then he crossed the road and disappeared as well. All that remained were girls, Blossoms, huddled around Ellie like she was some kind of leader. They gaped at her in amazement. Ellie was more shocked by her outburst than any of them, but she wasn’t going to let on.
“Grab your pack, Debby,” said Ellie as she picked up her own.
“Huh?” said Debby.
Ellie gestured towards the woods. “We can change back in there. They won’t be able to see us.”
Boldly she trudged back into the woods. Debby followed. The rest stayed put, caught in the betwixt and betweenness that had defined the entire day. Losers, thought Ellie. Scaredy cats.
Ellie and Debby changed in a hurry; as if they didn’t rush they might lose their nerve. They ripped off grass-stained clothes and squeezed sweaty body parts into bathing suits. Ellie’s ruffled two-piece top left welts on her skinny shoulders. Debby’s tank suit wedged up her butt crack.
When they emerged, the other girls watched them proceed down the hill, two barefoot emissaries from Planet Girl. Dry grass and rocks poked and pinched Ellie’s feet, but she kept her stride as steady as she could. She looked both ways before crossing the dusty road, like she’d been taught to do at a very early age. Then she realized how dumb it was, as there hadn’t been a car in sight all day.
“Do you think I can pee in the water without anyone knowing?” Debby asked as they walked past the porch.
“Gross, Debby,” Ellie barked, though she herself had peed in just about every body of water she’d ever been in.
As they rounded the house, the setting sun hit Ellie’s eyes with blinding fierceness. She heard splashing and saw the glistening surface of water. One high-pitched girlish laugh punctuated a mess of manly chuckles and slurry words.
Ellie’s eyes adjusted. The swimming hole was a disappointing, murky pond. Most of the band sat in shallow water, sloshing water up their arms like kids in puddles after a rainstorm. Joy and Dracula were off by themselves.
Debby gasped. “Look! Joy’s wearing her bra.” Debby broke into uncontrollable hiccup-y giggles, as if someone was tickling the soles of her feet.
Ellie had to squint to see it. Joy’s bra was the kind with wires and hooks and all that other stuff that real bosoms required. The kind Ellie’s mother wore. It was wet and see-through. Joy’s big nipples visible behind decorative lace. Her panties were the same kind Ellie wore. High-waisted Carter’s briefs. Wetness made them see-through. Between Joy’s chubby thighs, a dark shock.
Dracula had been crouching in the water. Now he rose. Sludgy pond water dripped from his body. His naked body. His penis dangled between hairy man-legs, long, thick, and fleshy.
Ellie had never seen a grown-up penis before. This penis wasn’t like the little knobs boy babies had. It had nothing in common with the smooth pencil-thin penises that poked out of boys’ bathing suits at Waterfront every now and then. This penis was ugly. Stupid looking. Pink, but not nice pink. Dusty, chewed up bubble gum pink. Undercooked pork pink.
This was a mess of strangeness. Ellie’s queasy stomach returned. Seeing a grown man’s penis wasn’t on her birthday wish list. She hadn’t ever really wondered about grown men’s penises, but now one had been forced upon her psyche. ‘This is what I have to look forward to?’ she thought.
“Ew, yuck.” Debby said, as if reading Ellie’s mind. But Debby wasn’t looking at Dracula. She was gaping at a trio of band members who had also risen from the depths. The men were in their own world, staggering in the water, bumbling and unstable. Naked. Each one had his own hairy penis. One hung lopsidedly. Another was short and thick like a bottle stopper. The third was even longer than Dracula’s. They were all pretty gross. Dangly, wobbly, wrinkled, snaky things. Alien creatures glommed on to the men’s bodies, swingy happily between their host’s hips.
The men barely noticed the emissaries from Planet Girl, which was a good thing. Still, all this nakedness made Ellie sick to her stomach. PB and J, and Hi-C churned in her guts. Her mouth filled with saliva. Ellie willed herself to look down at the grass beneath her feet. A tiny frog stood by her right big toe. The sides of its torso pulsed, as if it were trying desperately to hold itself together, hoping this gigantic creature hovering above would leave it alone, that soon it would be free to hop away and resume life as it was.
Ellie stared at the frog as Joy and Dracula splashed out of the pond and walked past her towards the big house. It wasn’t until a creaky door open and shut with a loud crack that the frog hopped away, making a frenzied, zig-zaggy mad dash. But Ellie remained still. Head down. Her own sides heaving. Pulsing.
“Dan-ger Will Ro-bin-son,” Debby said robotically. “Joy Kra-mer in big tro-uble, affirmative?”
Ellie didn’t move.
Debby poked Ellie’s arm. “Earth to Ellie, you still wanna go swimming?”
“What? Are you retarded?” Ellie snapped. “You’re such a moron.” Ellie ran away from the stupid pond. All these ugly, hairy penises thrust upon her on her birthday. Joy and Dracula. Everything was unfair.
Ellie rounded the house and trudged up the hill through the tall scratchy grass. Daisies, Roses, and Tulips huddled together shivering and rubbing their legs to stay warm in the dying daylight. As Ellie approached, they yelled out questions, pleaded for juicy tidbits, but Ellie ignored them. She sat off by herself in her dry bathing suit, stunned and unable to touch her own skin. Let Debby tell them if she wants, she thought. Who cares anyway?
The sun was setting behind the hill. Blossoms hunkered low, cloaked in darkness. No one knew what to do. They sat like miserable stones, an ancient ruin in the mysterious dusk.
Just as a bunch of Blossoms broke into sobs, the camp bus came careening down the dirt road, screeching to a halt in front of the house. As dust swirled behind it in a dismal haze, the door flapped open, and out came Camp Director Myrna, followed by sturdier counselor Lois. Ellie would eventually learn that her ever-responsible counselor had hitchhiked back to camp and told Myrna about Harold’s “inappropriate detour.” But that would be the next day. Right then all Ellie knew was that this had been the lamest, weirdest, grossest, stupidest, most important birthday she’d ever had.
Myrna looked up at her campers and sheepishly called “Who Ha Ha...Who Ha Ha...”
No one returned the Camp Lakawalla call. Myrna looked like she expected and deserved a million pies to be thrown at her frowny face.
Then the front door of the house opened. The remaining sunlight shone down on the porch like a spotlight. As if on cue, out walked Joy, fully clothed but markedly changed. Something askew. Her face looked like the porcelain harlequin mask Ellie’s grandmother had hanging in her guest powder room. Same rigid grimace, ghostly but glistening pallor, explicitly rosy cheeks.
The next morning, Joy’s parents would arrive at Camp Lakawalla and quietly, without a fuss, take their daughter home. Harold would already be gone, gone, gone. It drove Ellie bananas that everyone talked at breakfast about the Nature Hike in hushed, excited tones, as if it had been a racy hot-headed adventure for everyone. Ellie knew for a fact most of the girls had been bored to tears, sunburned, and starved. None of them had even gotten off their butts to wander behind the house for a swim. None of them had seen what Ellie had seen. Penises that would mark the day. Penises and Joy, with her teenage bosom and wild side. None of them.