by Joel Howard
Ben was shocked that his dad had bothered to come. Perhaps the man had been surprised – even elated – that his son had exhibited some spirit in breaking the rules and using the camp phone to call home, compelling him to act on his son’s behalf. Outbound calls were forbidden without the permission of one of the camp counselors, young men who were loath to exhibit any such kindness. Only letters home were allowed, and those were censored. Fortunately, the boy’s collect call was answered by his mom, a perpetually anxious woman incapable of saying ‘no’ to the urgent plea from her only child.
The call sent Ben’s father driving southwesterly into the star-laden night, three hours from Dallas, to the Baptist children’s camp. Ben vividly recalled the ruckus upon his arrival – the sound of his father’s voice as he raged at the camp counselors, the whiskey-honed edge of his words careening untamed among the camp’s stark cabins, slicing deeply into the boys’ sleep with abrupt chaos. Peeking out from a side window, Ben saw his mom’s big, blue Ford station wagon parked haphazardly in the area specifically designated as ‘No Parking’, the driver’s door gaping wide, the interior lights casting a pall across the beige interior.
“I can’t believe it. They really came,” Ben muttered under his breath. He’d persevered six days of camp, during which time he’d learned to remain mum in both word and deed, lest the bullies surrounding him or the counselors ostensibly there to help him ‘grow in Christ’, turn on him. He was for reasons unknown to himself a target for their cruelty, a handy repository for their rage, as he was invariably perceived as being different no matter his attempts at fitting in. Failing to belong, he would blend as best he could into the immediate surroundings, willing himself to be as innocuous as a twig upon a forest floor. This too mostly failed, the attempt at anonymity opening him to even worse ridicule.
If it hadn’t been a Baptist camp, it was doubtful that his father would have come as he did, all that way on a work night. The man, however, had developed a loathing of Baptists, frequently railing about their propensity at inserting themselves in affairs that should remain none of their concern. It had been the boy’s mom who’d decided a camp experience was a grand idea. Her husband had scoffed at the suggestion, calling the church and its members all sorts of names, some of which Ben didn’t comprehend yet knew instinctively to be foul and degrading. At argument’s end though, it was his mom who’d prevailed. When the day came for Ben’s departure, his parents drove him to meet the church bus, the conveyance that they had hoped would deliver their son to a brighter, more masculine future. Their worries that Ben was different than the other boys had deepened as he grew older. If there was a chance of changing him, they felt compelled to try. His mother especially ached at her son’s apparent loneliness, his search for friendship often seeming to her as a beggar foraging for food in a dumpster, too often finding mere crumbs and discomfort. As the bus pulled from the lot, the chassis squawking from age and overuse, Ben’s face was pasted in agony against a side window. His parents watched as his face twisted in horror, their waves answered only with the pained eyes of a boy condemned to live two-weeks on a far, forbidding planet.
That night of Ben’s rescue, the verbal thrashing his father delivered had awoken every boy in the camp, including the five others sharing Ben’s cabin. They quickly jockeyed for space at the side window, which stood open in the oppressive late July heat. From that vantage point one could see and hear the entire argument. Ben let the others jostle for a view, the dull, yellow glow provided by the large mercury vapor yard light infusing the scene with a ghostly pall. Ben returned to his cot, his stomach undulating in fits of fear and angst, the blue of his eyes deepening as tears welled there. Now that his father was there, he was suddenly gripped with the terror of the outcome his father’s mercurial temper may force.
“You sorry little shits! I want you to get my son – now! His mama’s at home in a fit, and I’m this close to tearing this God-damned place to shreds. Just a bunch of hallelujahs and hypocrisy you got here. Not worth a damned thing.” Hearing that his mother hadn’t made the trip saddened Ben, his sense of being denied her soothing heart at his time of great need inflicting a sharp pain. Knowing his father’s theatrics were likely built on liquor left Ben in a new sense of despair. The man’s love of whiskey often led him to trespass against the norms of kindness and decorum, strewing discord and pain indiscriminately. In short order, Ben’s father had morphed from welcome savior to potential monster.
His father’s voice neared Ben’s cabin, his threats riding high on his thundering rage, taking the boy back to the man’s previous tirades. On those occasions, Ben retreated to his bedroom to huddle alone with his emotions, trembling with fear as a thatch hut in a hurricane. His father’s exhortations were accompanied by the faint ‘yes, sir’ and ‘over here, sir’ of one of the counselors, which one Ben couldn’t at first be sure. Then he recognized the distinctive drawl of Steve. a tall and gangly blond with severe acne and the hint of a lisp, a bully whose concave chest heaved violently when he laughed. Upon meeting Ben, Steve had picked the boy up by his belt, while telling the others, “this little guy here ain’t hardly worth the space he takes up, is he?” In agony due to the pressure on his groin, Ben pleaded to be lowered to the ground, his eyes focused on Steve’s rollicking chest, his ears overflowing with the roar of laughter and derision.
Steve’s joy in torturing the smallest boys was not an anomaly. The five counselors had bonded, forming a gang that preyed on the most vulnerable campers. They took delight in the game of trying to one-up each other in their meanness. The solicitous voices Ben heard that evening, the continual use of the word sir directed at his father, were as foreign as French to the boy’s ears.
Earlier that day there had occurred an event that would place Benji – as he was mockingly called by first the counselors and then the majority of his fellow campers, all of whom said his name in a piercing, falsetto voice – in the dreaded spotlight. He’d been forced to be the lead boy on his side in a game of tug-of-war. Across the muddy pit that separated the two ragtag teams, there stood another slight boy at the leading edge of the rope. “Runts up front, that means you Benji boy, real men behind” had been the counselors command. Yet the other small boy hadn’t borne the brunt of ridicule as Benji had. Something about Ben elicited the worst of hyper-macho cruelty from others. As he often did when amongst his peers, Ben felt as if he was traversing a primitive bridge built of rope and prayers, his slight body rollicking as he stood midspan over a great, yawning crevice. Please, he would pray, let me make it across.
The counselors, joined by the boys not on either team, began cajoling and catcalling.
“Pull, Wiggins, pull!”
“Com’n, look alive, you pansies!”
“You lightweights, put some effort into it!”
“Look at Benji! It almost looks like he’s got muscles in his arms!”
“Yeah, muscles the size of your five-year-old sister’s!”
“God made Benji a girl and he just doesn’t know it!”
And so it went, the heat as loud as the taunting in its unyielding intensity. Ben huffed as his feet slid forward, his auburn cowlick bouncing in rhythm with his impending doom. Both hands burned as they too lost ground in the battle, the rope working in unison with the litany of mocking barbs in searing pain deep into the psyche.
In short order Ben found himself at the edge of the mud pit, a quagmire created by the running of a hose into a shallow area that had countless times before served the same purpose in the same exhibition of strength and stamina, of weakness and passivity. As he teetered tip-toed on the precipice of the pit’s edge, Ben sensed the vaguest push on his right shoulder, a slight offense that nevertheless proved enough to send him careening headlong into the pit, his face hitting the sea of muck with a decided echo. Slowly extricating himself from the mess, he found himself covered in mud, long rivulets of it dripping from his pale, sun-freckled skin to form inky pools at his feet. Around him, the laughter was so riotous that some boys were doubled over on the ground, howling as wolves at the moon.
The descent into hell then seemed complete, but now that his father was at the camp, Ben felt a familiar unease, an impending path that past experience gave promise of a further descent into darkness. Without the comfort of his mother, he was left to rely solely on his father, and that realization was frightening. The man was not one to easily rein in his fury, nor did he feel any compunction to keep his vitriol focused on his original point of anger. Once unleashed, his rage could flail about like a garden hose under high pressure, its direction unknown and impossible to chart. It hadn’t until that moment dawned upon Ben that the trip home would put him alone with his father in the station wagon – for three hours. The man’s anger would no doubt echo within the confines of the car, filling Ben’s very soul with yet more despair. The image of what lay ahead sent painful quivers careening through his body, the effects of which revealed themselves in fits of shaking.
As was his habit in such situations, Ben wanted desperately to shorten the ugly scene outside before it denigrated into something worse. He scurried through the front door of the cabin, pausing but for a moment on the small wooden porch. With the aid of a deep breath, he quickly took the two steps down to the barren soil and made his way toward the car. He walked briskly, holding his head down, seeking anonymity, or even a ray of darkness that would shield him from the moment’s agony. His father, a short, stout man of outsized presence, his piercing green eyes and jet black hair imbuing him with a menacing edge, grabbed Ben’s left arm. Twirling his son like a five pound weight, he pushed him in the driver’s door and across the sea of summer-warm vinyl.
Still snorting, Ben’s dad slammed the door, threw the transmission into low gear, causing the nose of the Ford to heave skyward and send dust and gravel trailing behind. The pinging of pebbles on the undercarriage sang a metallic tune, one that fell to Ben’s ears much like the biting words of the bullies he was leaving behind.
They made it to the two-lane paved road and headed east toward the main highway. The sounds now were those of the engine quickly accelerating and the tires increased, incessant humming. His father hiccupped and pulled a bottle from the seat between them, seemingly surprised to see his son their beside him, as if the boy was for that moment nothing more than a mirage.
“Oh yeah,” he finally muttered. The familiar smell of whiskey was unmistakable as he took a long gulp. “Aah, that’s the ticket.” With a belched sigh that unleashed a thousand small grievances into the confines of the car, the man’s demeanor abruptly changed, as if turning a page, and he was given over to a smile and a chuckle. On the tail end of another, deeper belch, he spoke, this time in a softer voice:
“Never shoulda gone to that damned camp, son. No, it was like I said from the get go, a lousy idea that promised nothin’ but trouble. And see, here it is, me havin’ to drive through the night just to rescue you from those son’s-a-bitchin’ faggots.”
“But mom said I should go.”
“Huh, and how’d that turn out?,” he said with a robust guffaw. “Well? See, you gotta learn. A woman, even your mom – hell, especially your mom – is full of gooey feelings. They get nothin’ but gooey decisions from them feelings. See? Hey, I asked ya, do you see what I’m sayin’?” The far edges of anger crept back into his voice.
Ben nodded his head slightly, but not enough to placate the now suddenly belligerent man next to him. He felt his dad’s hand on his left thigh, the fingers suddenly squeezing the man’s discontent into his son’s pained flesh.
“Yeah, you gotta learn about women, son. Learn to let most of what they got to say go in one ear and out the other. Do the bare minimum to keep ‘em off your back and then go on about your business. Otherwise they’ll harp on about whatever ‘til your ears bust open.”
The man moved his right arm. placing it around Ben’s shoulder. The pain in the boy’s leg lingered absent his father’s squeezing. His arm and hand dwarfing his son’s body, the man pulled him close up against him, forcing Ben to pick up the bottle of whiskey and hold it to his lap.
“Got half a mind to turn around and go back there and kick some of their snotty asses.” Ben trembled, focusing his gaze on the radio, the illuminated dial capturing his gaze and a dull sense of uselessness. The red needle raged in the boy’s twitching vision, dancing a tango of laughter and mockery. He soon felt a familiar, toxic mix of fear and sorrow, as past experiences with his drunken father caused his defenses, weak though they were, to ignite in preparation for the man’s next move.
As he was pulled even tighter against his father’s heavy form, in Ben’s mind there began a fevered volley of ‘what-ifs’, a painful series of self-recriminations that left him saddened at his decision to have called home. Perhaps, he thought, it would have been better to be bullied by the strangers at camp – no matter how many of them – than to be confined with his father as he now was. He knew the likely outcome of his current situation, and it caused a loud sob to escape as he shook. At least, he thought, the camp counselors and other boys there would likely never again be a part of his life. Never again would they have the opportunity of forcing him to be the front guy in their game of tug-of-war, afterward stripping him to his mud-caked underwear and drenching him with laughter and the sharp-nettled spray from the water hose.
Their tenuous connection to Ben’s life would remain a fleeting moment in which they reveled in inflicting their own evil, whether verbal or physical. He shuddered at the recent memories of camp. The older boys and the counselors had a fixed look in their eyes and that eerie way of stalking him as they circled around him and called him names – faggot, fairy, queer. They were wolves to his foundling.
Now, sitting up against his father, the smell of whiskey pervasive in the boy’s nose, the crooning of Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ filled Ben’s ears. He continued staring at the radio dial as her words careened maddeningly in his head, notes and syllables of sadness tumbling in cruel harmony with his feelings. So lost was he in a milieu of terror and sadness that he couldn’t be certain if the violent shaking he was experiencing was real, or just his emotions pounding feverishly as they throbbed wildly beneath his skin.
As he felt his father’s right hand move to the far side of his neck, he resisted as the man began to exert pressure, trying to pull his son’s face to his own. The man’s strength would soon have his lips pressed hard against his son’s. Ben jerked violently, pulling back with all his might as his arms and legs were sent flailing.
Such rebuttal to his father’s advances elicited a litany of curse words, so angry was he at his son that he soon let go of the steering wheel, lunging his body toward Ben. The man’s green eyes deepened with anger, flooding his son’s will to resist. The frenzy of four arms – two small and scared, two irate and intent on oppression – filled the front seat of the car. Ben kicked at his father, causing the man’s leg to at once press the accelerator down while the knee simultaneously pushed against the bottom of the steering wheel, sending the station wagon into a sideways skid.
Having careened along the highway’s edge, finally the wagon was centered back on the pavement. Ben’s father accelerated to over 80 miles per hour, cursing and then grabbing the bottle for another long gulp of whiskey. He recapped the bottle and tucked it under his right hip before turning toward his son.
“Go on then, you ungrateful little shit! Get in back if you don’t have any appreciation for what I did for you, driving all this way to haul your ungrateful ass back home.” He swatted at Ben, hitting his ass as the boy fell head-first with a startled ‘oomph’ into the back seat. There he curled himself into a ball, wearing the day’s pain as a thick blanket, willing himself to stay awake and alert until they reached home. His eyes travelled beyond the window and into the crisp promise of the star-infused night sky.
Ben held the scantest memory of being carried to his bedroom and tucked in by his father, then came some kind words followed by a threat whiskey-whispered into his ear, the too hot breath scorching his skin.
“Our little secret, ya hear me? Always our little secret, or all hell breaks loose. This is just between us, or else.”
He felt certain that he’d heard his mother’s fretful voice afterward, the strained words being summarily throttled into submission by his father’s gruff impatience. Yes, he was in his own bed and he had heard his parents arguing after he and his father had made it home.
“Stop your worrying. He’s safe and sound in his bed. Now let me get some sleep,” his father had admonished his mother. Unlike the recent debate about his going to camp, an argument his mother won, his father had prevailed in last night’s contest, much as he usually did. Her meek acquiescence was nothing but normal to those who knew the couple.
Ben peeked at the alarm clock resting on the nightstand – 5:22. Darkness yet held a grip on the morning just as weariness held the boy. He turned to his side and quickly fell into a fitful sleep, his mind flooded with the memory of the hummed refrain of the station wagon as he and his father travelled home on the sparse country roads.
Ben was roused from what had evolved into a mostly restful stage of sleep by a hand shaking his shoulder. He rolled over to find his father perched on the side of his bed. The boy jerked backwards, yanking the covers up to his chin. His father smiled.
“Hey, sport. I’m taking a day away from the office. Your mom already called school and told them you’d be out today, too. We had us a rough night, didn’t we?”
Ben fell mute. His pulse raced. Had he dreamt the camp experience? His father seemed unperturbed from the drinking and driving that Ben thought had occurred just hours ago. The scent of mint mouthwash on his father’s words was so strong as to drown the boy’s groggy senses, making him question his memories in another volley of self-doubt.
“I asked you a question, son. We had a tough go of it last night, didn’t we? Especially me, having to stay awake hauling you back here. You’re lucky I’m such a considerate father. Lots of guys I know would just tell their boys to buck up and stop whining like a silly girl.”
Then the events, Ben realized, had happened. In response to his father, he found the will to nod his head just slightly, but it was enough to placate the man sitting on his bed. He felt exposed even though the bed linens covered him. And he felt dirty, not like the muck from the tug-of-war fiasco, but rather a darkness that stained his soul.
“You get yourself up and out to the breakfast table. Your mom’s made a big breakfast for us. Then she’s gotta get going. She’s promised to help your aunt down at her shop. Looks like it’ll be just you and me today, sport. My old man used to do this same thing, take a day where it was just me and him having some quality time. Now it’s up to me to pass along that tradition. We’re gonna have ourselves a good time, aren’t we?”
Ben glanced up to see his father’s face – a broad smile greeted him, The man’s eyes were open wide, green pools waiting, insisting upon an answer.
“Sure,” was all he could muster. It seemed for that moment to appease his father. The man stood, gathering himself into an imposing figure, and strode purposefully from the room, the faint murmur of mint-bathed memories lingering in his wake.