Wise Guy Over Here
It was the summer of 1958 and James found himself being driven away from his hometown at top speed. His mother, in her jumbled attempt at single parenting, had decided the best place for him would be at summer camp.
“You could try and be excited,” Mrs. McQuire glanced at her son. He was all limbs and social awkwardness.
“I’m not excited,” James muttered, staring out the window.
“You watch your mouth.”
“Well, I’m not,” James clenched his jaw. “I wanted to write my novel.”
“Staying inside all the time ain’t good for a growing boy,” said Mrs. McQuire.
“You just want to get me away so you can spend more time with your boyfriends.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when his mother smacked him with the back of her hand. “You show me some respect young man,” she snapped.
James turned his focus to his mother. “Okay.”
“What I do with my life is no concern of yours.”
“Okay,” James mumbled.
“I’m trying to do what’s best for me right now.”
James couldn’t help but snort at this. “What about what’s best for me?”
“What’s best for you is a change. Since I split with Ken, life has been—“
“Ken?” James interrupted bitterly. “He used to be my father. When did he turn into Ken?”
Mrs. McQuire glared at her son for a moment. James was quite sure she would smack him again, but nothing came. He knew he was trying her patience, but he was beyond caring. “I know it’s been hard for you…” Mrs. McQuire said slowly. “But what’s done is done and we have a new life now.”
“Right,” James looked out the window again.
“This will be a good experience for you, James. You’ve always got your head in a book. It’s just not normal to be so…”
“So what?” James asked.
“Oh never mind,” Mrs. McQuire parked the car and took out her makeup compact is she could inspect herself in the mirror.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, Mom.”
“It’ll be good for you.”
“I mean, you don’t need to put on lipstick to drop me off at camp,” James gripped his duffle bag vigorously. Mrs. McQuire cast James a sharp glance as two men, one tall and imposing, the other stockier and kindly approached them.
“Mrs. McQuire?” the taller man held out his hand. “I’m General Moore. We spoke over the telephone.”
“Oh please, call me Darlene.” Mrs. McQuire stretched a healed foot out of the car door and shook the man’s hand.
“Jesus Christ, stop embarrassing yourself,” James said under his breath.
“James!” Mrs. McQuire cried. “Please excuse my son. He usually isn’t this difficult.”
“No worries Mrs. McQuire,” the kindly man smiled. “I’m Phil, E Cabin counsellor.”
“Pleasure,” Mrs. McQuire adjusted her sun glasses.
“Don’t you worry Mrs. McQuire, we run a tight ship here at Camp Evergreen,” General Moore puffed out his chest.
James stared in dismay as his mother adjusted General Moore’s tie. He hardly said a word as Phil and General Moore lead them away from their car and to the cabins.
“This here’s E Cabin,” Phil smiled down at James. “Might not be much to look at, but it’ll be your home for the next while. You’ll be rooming with three other boys your age. They’re swell they’ve been coming here for years, but I just met them yesterday and—“
“Thank you, Phil,” General Moore cut off Phil’s introduction.
“My son is a bit, shall we say…different,” Mrs. McQuire said as General Moore opened the door to E Cabin. Two boys were chatting excitedly over a comic book.
“Different is good!” Phil put a comforting hand on James’ shoulder.
“Oh no, I’m afraid you don’t understand. James doesn’t have proper communication skills. He doesn’t have many friends at home and it seems he’s perfectly happy with that. He spends most of his time reading books and writing in his journal.”
“It’s not a journal,” James stared down at his feet.
“Not to worry Darlene,” General Moore puffed his chest out again. “Camp Evergreen will be just what the doctor ordered.”
Mrs. McQuire looked down at her son. “You be a good boy.”
“I’m fourteen mom.”
“Okay,” James sighed. With that, Mrs. McQuire flipped her hair and left the cabin. Phil and General Moore followed close behind. James exhaled deeply before turning to face the boys.
“That was rough,” the boy closest to James spoke first. “I’m Donny by the way. Donny Andrews.”
James hesitated for a moment. “James McQuire,” he extended his hand slowly. “Nifty,” Donny shook his hand firmly. “Tell me something James McQuire, who do you like better. Elvis or Buddy Holly?”
“I like ‘em both just fine.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
James eyed Donny suspiciously while the other boy simply stood and watched. “If I had to pick a favourite, I’d say neither,” James tossed his bag on an empty cot. “But I think Johnny Cash is real tough.”
“The Man in Black, huh?”
“You’re right, he is tough,” Donny leaned against the wall and produced a cigarette. “You smoke?”
James’ eyes widened. “Not really.”
“I’ll take that as a no,” Donny smirked and handed James another cigarette before lighting his own.
“Are we aloud to smoke in here?”
“No—no,” the boy standing next to Donny muttered. “But—but it don’t matter none.”
“That’s right, kid. Ain’t nobody caught us before,” Donny messed up the boy’s hair. “This is Markus, by the way. Don’t worry about his talkin’. He just stutters bad, but he’s a good kid.”
“Hey,” James smiled at the boy. “I like your shirt. It’s real cool.”
Markus beamed at this. He was wearing a faded superman t-shirt. “Got—got it myself.”
James could feel Donny sizing him up. “Listen James,” the boy said evenly. “There are a lotta rules ‘round this place. We don’t follow them all that much. We know how to have a ball.”
“Right,” James replied with a small nod.
The cabin door opened from behind James and another boy came bounding in. He was grinning from ear to ear and started taking a mile a minute. “Oh man, last year, I got caught makin’ out with Lisa Fitzgerald by the dance hall after midnight and Moore gave me a right good hiding,” he laughed at this. “Swear I didn’t feel my ass for a day after that. Totally worth it, though. She still writes to me,” he paused to breath. “Hey y’all. Hey new kid. I’m Vinnie.”
“Hi,” James smiled at the boy. “I’m James.”
“New kid, huh?”
“Where ya from?” Vinnie opened his suitcase and began to organize a collection of records, the majority of which were Hank Williams.
“South Ridge Creek,” said James.
“Oh man, we’re practically neighbours. I’m from Kelton. How come I’ve never seen you around?”
“Well I… don’t get out much…” James hesitated. He wasn’t used to so much
conversation. He was used to keeping to himself.
“Ah, hence your mom bringin’ you here,” Donny lit James’ cigarette for him. “That your ol’ man’s idea?”
James took a small drag from the smoke. He’d seen it done enough times at the cinema. It didn’t seem that difficult. “No,” he coughed slightly, much to the amusement of Vinnie. “My mom and dad aren’t together anymore.”
“Sorry to hear that,” Donny said curtly. “Separated?”
“Ouch,” Vinnie grimaced. “That’s a drag. You’ll never guess what I saw just now though. So, I’m standing there waitin’ for my ol’ man to be done signin’ the paper work an’ this lady comes walkin’ in like the owns the **** place. She’s wearin’ these high heals and got this lipstick on, man, she was about the finest thing I’ve ever—“
“Vinnie,” Donny tried to interject.
“You weren’t there, man! Oh and she had her hands all over Moore. I swear the guy was wound tighter than a fiddle string by the time she kissed his—“
“Vinnie!” Donny shouted.
“What?” Vinnie stared at him in confusion. “You should have seen her.”
“We did,” Donny repeated evenly.
“Five minutes ago.”
“Well why didn’t you—“
“She’s James’ mother, you moron,” Donny’s eyes narrowed.
********** Vinnie noticed James’ horrified expression. “Well, I gotta say, your mom ain’t hard on the eyes.”
“Jesus Christ, Vinnie,” Donny cursed.
“I speak the truth.”
“You— you s—speak too much,” said Markus.
“Eh, guilty as charged. What can I say.”
“Too much, apparently,” said James.
“Wise guy over here,” Donny chuckled. “Sorry ‘bout that. Ol’ Vinnie’s got a big mouth.”
“It’s okay,” said James.
“So, your mom’s on the prowl then huh?” Vinnie asked nonchalantly. Donny glared at him again, but James couldn’t help but chuckle. There was something about Vinnie that made him laugh. Maybe it was his impish grin.
“Yeah,” said James. “I’m pretty used to it though.”
“It’s— it’s s—still rough,” said Markus.
“Sometimes,” said James. “It’s mostly just embarrassing.”
“Shoot, that’s valid,” Vinnie sat down cross-legged on his cot. “First time my mom showed up at school rip roaring drunk, I thought I was gonna die.”
“Life,” Vinnie finished James’ thought with a light-hearted grin.
“Some folks ‘round here got it good,” Donny pointed at the cabin door. “We’re the charity cases. We’re the ones who got sent here ‘cause they have to let in a certain amount of folks from low income families. Other kids, they’re here cause their folks have got the cash to get rid of them so they can go on trips and socialize.”
“Oh,” James looked down.
“Shoot, you didn’t think your mom could actually afford this place, did you?”
“I don’t know, I thought maybe she had something saved and…”
********** Donny sat down on his cot and gestured for James to sit down beside him. “You didn’t have a God **** clue, did you?”
James sat down next to Donny, but stared straight head. “No,” he mumbled.
“**** it!” Donny hissed. “And you’re a good kid.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“It’s just you— walking in here with your diary—“
“It’s my novel.”
“Okay, your novel,” Donny’s eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second. He didn’t like being interrupted. “You walk in here, all kind and sensitive and polite. I thought here’s a kid who might actually be okay. Here’s a kid that’s avoided the **** we’ve gone through and might actually turn out okay.”
“Oh,” James watched as Donny ran a comb through his hair.
“But your mom’s been lying to you and here you are, fresh-face newbie, and you didn’t even know it.”
“I should have seen it coming,” said James.
“Oh please,” Vinnie sat down in front of the cot. “We’re supposed to trust our folks. We’re not supposed to prepare for inevitable abandonment and lies.”
“It’s—it’s the s—same every—everywhere ‘round here. I—I’m s—sorry it’s n—not different f—for you,” said Markus softly. James could only nod weakly. He wasn’t used to attention.
“Look, James,” Donny reached in his blue jeans pocket to retrieve a small switch blade. “We each got one. Made a pact last year to stick together no matter what. To always have each other’s back no matter what. We heard we were getting a new camper this year so I brought an extra just in case.”
“In case…?” James looked at Donny wide-eyed.
“In case this new camper turned out to be one of us. In case they needed it.” Donny took his faded switch blade out and began carving a letter J into James’. “This means you’re one of us now.”
“One of us?”
“Y—yeah,” Markus smiled, holding out his own small weapon.
“If you want to,” Donny held out the switchblade to him.
James stared at the knife for a moment, deep in thought. His mother would slaughter him. Then again, his mother lied to him. “She said she’d saved all year for me to come here,” James thought out loud. “Said she’d been working overtime at the bar so I could go.”
“Jesus,” Donny cursed bitterly.
“I believed her. I wanted so to believe her. I wanted to believe that she wasn’t spending our money on booze and makeup and dates and… ****,” James looked around at the boys. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Vinnie said firmly. “It’s ****** and you deserve better.”
“So how ‘bout it then, James? We won’t lie to you. We’ll have your back if you have ours,” Donny continued to hold the switchblade out to James.
And because James had never understood what it was like to belong or be cared, he nodded.