Based on true events, as much as ghosts can be true. Scabby ankles and a thick and loud August. Fifteen years old in ’84. Headlights gobbled up the night space. The Volkswagen Rabbit slowed down. Debra and I lowered our thumbs, wiped grime on our whitewashed, high-waisted jeans and climbed in. Boy 1 was Thomas, a mustached smoker. Boy 2 was Greg, sharp-faced, earing in just one lobe, real John Waite-ish. We split a dime bag.
“Que passsssaaahhh,” said Thomas, like he was Cheech or Chong. Out the window, hot stalks of corn danced under the light of a sturgeon moon.
“Anybody wanna shotgun kiss?” said Debra. She stuck her head up in the middle of the boys’ seats, but instead of locking lips and exhaling, she noogied Thomas, the driver.
Car swerved. I loved silly Debra. Wish we’d stayed in touch after all these years. Greg opened the glove box but retrieved nothing. Then he shut it and reclined his seat against my knee. I was busy rubbing my right big toe into my left ankle nonstop.
Two days ago, my kids came home from college to visit their long-lost mother. We played barefoot cornhole in my backyard next to the neon creek. Bugs feasted on my ankles. The next day I woke and itched and itched until they bled, and today, I have embarked on this camping trip with no hydrocortisone. You think Professor Garrett would have included hydrocortisone in the wilderness survival syllabus, but no, Professor Garrett did not.
I’ve enrolled in a wilderness survival course to fulfill an elective credit. Beats a public speaking class. I’m an empty nester and a divorcee, too young for birding and golf, and I have no one to bird and golf with, so, what the hell?
The muddy trail cuts through brush so green and thick there can’t even be space for each single strand. Heavy rocks are secretly wobbly in the river we’re about to cross. I have an extra pair of socks in my backpack, but still, I’d prefer to stay dry, to not slip.
Professor Garrett leads with ease, waiting on the opposite bank, ready to help each of his students up and on their way. First, my younger peer, camo-clad Steve trainwrecks across the river. By some miracle he makes it, refusing help from Professor Garrett. Back on solid ground, he shrugs off embarrassment, pulls out a Slim Jim, and watches his two other classmates. Like a ninja I step, ready for the stone’s tremble, the rapid’s wet slap. My arms are the wings of a helicopter.
“Yeah, girl!” shouts my encouraging female classmate from behind. “You got this, lady!”
I have that unsteady feeling, and I’d love to itch my Achilles tendon right about now. But I’m almost there. I’m tripping my way to the opposite bank, I’m a car with three wheels and a burning engine, I’m no better than Slim Jim Steve, I’ll bowl Professor Garrett over but I’m surprised to find that my teacher’s wiry frame is sturdy and strong. Professor Garrett’s got me, he’s pulling me by my elbow up onto the path, no more spitting water, no more tottering ground, but a hand lingers on my butt for one Mississippi, two Mississippi. Nobody sees because Steve’s captivated by his Slim Jim and my Yeah Girl! classmate’s crossing.
Thomas, Greg, Debra, and I decided it’d be fun to cruise the lonely roads of Irving Mental Asylum. No gates around the 400-acre grounds. Trust me, I’d know, because I was a fifteen-year-old girl whose mom sporadically frequented the place. Dad would call the police and Mom would fight the uniformed men tooth and nail, which is to say, arm and leg. They’d drag her out by the extremities like a piece of screaming furniture. They wouldn’t listen to her, only to Dad. “What about my babies?!” she’d shriek. Slam. I’d race back into my bedroom, to the window, and watch the neighborhood spectacle. I was one of her eight babies never allowed inside Irving. Dad gave Mom my wildflowers that I picked.
Dear Diarrhea ’83
Mom went in again. Debra and I snuck into a James Taylor concert and he signed my jean jacket. I absolutely positively one- hundred-and-twenty-one-percent HATE school.
Four pot-smoking hooligans, we were, driving around the place like it was Dracula’s castle. All was spooky and fun. I certainly had my reservations, but I wasn’t going to be a buzzkill. Then, lights and sirens materialized from behind.
“The ganja!” Greg said, but Thomas was already slowing down for the cruiser.
Yeah Girl! struggles to keep up. Her soaked shoes squawk on the path (because she fell in the creek), and she’s huffing like an elderly smoker trying to play pickup basketball.
“We should stop,” I say to the four of us. We unzip our waters from our backpacks and lean on the trunks of trees. Slim Jim Steve flicks a cicada shell off a big tall oak.
“What do you think?” Professor Garrett asks Yeah Girl!
“I mean how’s it going?”
“Not good,” says Yeah Girl!
“Let’s do a pulse check,” says Professor Garrett.
Specks of sun fairy their way down from the canopy. I look at Slim Jim Steve, but he doesn’t seem up to small talk. The poison in the bumps on my ankle tries to seduce me into sneaking my fingers underneath my sock. I sit and listen to the forest’s rustle. I can hear Yeah Girl!’s thumping heart.
“When it comes to your health and safety,” says Professor Garrett, “You can’t be too cautious.”
“How many more miles we got left?”
“Most of them.”
And so for the first time, the prospect of Yeah Girl! leaving our posse, i.e., and then there were three, bares its fangs. Me, Slim Jim Steve, and Professor Garrett, who may or may not like to touch butts.
Memory softens and crackles like a graphic on a cheap tee. That night at Irving Asylum: how’d the four of us—Thomas, Greg, Debra, and I—how’d we dodge arrest? How’d we go from “license and registration” to the boys and the cop engaged in hold-my- crotch-so-I-don’t-pee laughter? Debra and I sat on the curb, high as kites, looking at unmarked, shadowy graves that swooped down into forest while Thomas and Greg smoothed it over with this officer who they just had to have known from somewhere. Friend of an older brother?
Drags were taken. Ankles (my ankles) were scratched. The sturgeon moon peeked out from treadmill clouds but then fell back behind the blanket. Lo and behold, the officer was driving away, leaving us to our own silly devices.
I could’ve sworn the weather looked promising this weekend. Clear skies, nighttime lows in the upper sixties. So why all this wind? Why that guttural thunder boom? Why has the pink canvas of setting sun clouded over? Damn you, meteorologist Dick Goddard, damn you!
To make matters worse, we’re running late, thanks to Yeah Girl!, who’s bowed out, probably home by now watching The Office on her couch with a DiGiorno Pizza on her lap.
“Y’all bring rain gear?” Asks Professor Garrett.
“Wasn’t supposed to rain,” I say.
“Oh boy,” says Slim Jim Steve with a chuckle.
“Not to worry, Cheryl,” says Professor Garrett. “You’ll just really have to earn that A, is all.”
My teacher looks back and smirks at me. Smiles on the faces of men are not the same as smiles on the faces of women. At some point even my own son probably grinned and behind his stretched face festered intentions impure and devilish. I mean come on. Let’s be real.
My mother told me once that she saw devils when she gave birth to me. What a girl’s supposed to do with this news beats the hell out of me. Pray, I suppose. Say the rosary, maybe. Pick flowers for her mentally incarcerated mother.
Dear Diarrhea ’85
Mom says we can’t eat meat anymore. Also, she’s pried the buttons off the TV.
The wooden structure sagged in the middle, shingles having flown off to head south with birds. Maybe they performed lobotomies here, I thought. A raindrop landed on my nose. Storm was picking up.
“You know,” said Thomas enticingly, “If we get closer, the trees will grant us cover.”
And so fifteen-year-old Debra and I followed the older boys. It strikes me now how willy-nilly and without fear we were. We trudged through slick tall grass and pricker bushes. Branches looked like veins in the arm of a giant monster and yet they swayed so willingly, left and right and all around, making wet crackling noises on top of the cricket’s chirp. The sky was purple and light-polluted.
“Cool!” Thomas shouted from inside. “Come see this!”
Greg followed his buddy through the dark rectangle.
Debra was third in line. The abyss swallowed her next. I lingered and peered to my left. There was an odd-looking article of clothing in the weeds and I wanted to see what it was. I scouted my way over to it, and as I did so, it took shape: an old, heavy-duty straitjacket. A straitjacket was a plausible item to be littered around these parts, but that thought didn’t stop my heart from revving in park. Cue the twinkle of an out-of-tune piano.
When she walked into my field of vision, she looked so normal, wearing a sleeveless, white blouse. She could have been out for a stroll. To be perfectly frank, I still don’t exactly know whether this was real-life Mom or a premature ghost I was making up in my head. I suspect the latter, but I mean, really, who knows? Mom was in close proximity that night, lying in a bed in one of the main buildings that was still up and running, i.e., hanging by a thread. Dad refused to send her to the nice facility down in Athens because it cost too much money.
Her face bore no acknowledgement of my words. She spoke of her own agenda. “Something dark about you.”
“No,” was all I could stammer back.
“You weren’t supposed to be born on Halloween.”
“How could I help it?” I asked, angry. “What could I have done?”
We were getting somewhere. I rarely ever showed her my anger. In life I was always just so happy to see her that there was no time to be angry. But goddammit—Debra. She was screaming now from inside the dilapidated structure and I had to come to the aid of my friend. I left Mom out in the rainy woods and dashed over, waking a cranky, creaking step, passing into complete darkness.
“What’s going on in here?” I said to the stale murk.
Shoes on bare floor, a swishing sound. Heavy breathing. Greg lit a match. That sliver of vision was scarier than no vision at all. I could see red veins in the white of his eyes. A rusty bed frame with no mattress. There was nonsense writing on the walls, symbols, equations, poems, crude diagrams of human anatomy.
“I’m a gentleman,” Thomas was saying.
“Bullshit you’re a gentleman,” said Debra.
“What’d they do?” I asked, thinking about a weapon.
“Tried to make something happen is what they did.”
“Nuh-uh,” Thomas said. “We’re both gentlemen.”
“Listen,” said Greg. “It’s all good, okay? We get it. Let’s just go home. We’ll drop you ladies off.”
The match went out.
And we did go home. We didn’t have to fight off or give into Thomas and Greg. This didn’t turn out to be Twin Peaks. Maybe the strength of Debra’s screams shocked them into realizing what was happening. Maybe it scared the lust out of them.
When we exited the crumbling shack, there was no sign of Mom. She’d wandered off to some other hollow.
So why, then? Why the remembrance of the dime bag and the mental hospital? If I’m alone on this wilderness survival trip with two men—Slim Jim Steve and Professor Garrett—why not just think about my old boss at the telemarketing firm, the time it really happened in the break room when the other ladies beat me out the door that day? Does this right here, now moment have something to do with Mom? Is Mom in these very woods? Could she have wandered over here from Irving Mental Asylum and lingered all these years? Not really all that far—miles or time—when you think about it.
Dear Diarrhea ’86
They said Mom died of a heart attack because she had a bad heart. I said I wanted to see her files. Like how many shock treatments??? How about meds?? It was like Dad didn’t care. Like he was in on it. Dear Diarrhea, can you feel my tear splotches? There’s one and there’s one there.
Rain’s been on and off. A leaf or two smacked me square in the face as we closed in on camp. But that was all a pregame show. There’s a real storm coming. You can feel it. No sign of the Sturgeon Moon behind all these black puffers.
Slim Jim Steve declines Professor Garrett’s offer to warm up his Spaghetti-Os with Franks. No fire tonight, but my teacher has a propane stove, living the good life, browning up two chicken thighs and humming John Denver. He’s graciously offered me his other burner, and there, bubbling hot, is a bowl of vegetarian chili. I haven’t taken a bite of meat since my divorce.
Boom. Whish. A rumble in the bogs.
“What I’d like to know,” he says, getting powder from a premade seasoning packet all over the place, “Is what’s your secret.”
I don’t like the connotation of his word secret. It’s a cousin in the family of how’d you get to be so pretty? And how can you not have a boyfriend? But I humor him, mainly because it’s my chili he’s got on his burner. “What secret we talking about here?”
“Secret of finding the fountain of youth. You were killing it out on the trail. You looked great.”
I resist the urge to stick my finger down my throat. “Sounds to me,” I say, “Like a backhanded compliment.”
“You’re implying that I’m old. That I’ve done a good job with health and fitness and all that, but I’m still old.”
Professor Garrett holds up his plastic tongs and clamps them together at me. What do I have on him, five years? Maybe eight? “Touché,” he says to me, “Touché.”
A bolt of lightning arteries down from the sky, headfirst into the treetops. Can’t get a single one Mississippi in before God rolls a strike in heaven. It’s dark now and the crickets have begun to chatter about something.
“Well my friends,” says Professor Garrett. “I’m inviting you to eat your dinners and maybe play a card game or two in my tent.”
Slim Jim Steve looks at his steel can, empty now of Spaghetti-Os with Franks. “Gonna turn in,” he says. The great Slim Jim Steve, a man of few, monosyllabic words. A stuttering simpleton could play his part in a theater production of this camping trip. I do feel bad poking fun, though, as the guy strikes me as a war veteran, and I don’t have a clue what his road’s been like.
“That leaves you and me, Cheryl,” says Professor Garrett.
I never liked the smell of citronella, even if it does ward off mosquitos. Three flames in the big circular bucket of wax and two of the three die out in a strong gust of wind. Professor Garrett’s lantern falls over, casting strange shadows on the greenery that’s turned black.
Wowwwwwwshhhhh says the coming storm.
“Gonna turn in too,” I say.
“Oh come on now.”
“Tired,” I say.
“Well, suit yourself,” he says, and tears a strip of chicken off with his teeth. “I play a mean game of beat the devil.”
I ask my professor to say that again.
He chews and swallows. “Beat the devil—you know, solitaire?”
“Right,” I say.
Dear Diarrhea ’80
I will call you that because I think it sounds funny and it’s a homophone so sue me! I woke up today and Mom was back. She let me stay home from school, just me, nobody else. We played rummy, go fish, solitaire aka beat the devil. We cut out coupons from the newspaper and added them to her collection which she never uses even when it’s the perfect time. While we cut, she whispered to me that I was her favorite.
In my tent an hour later, I scratch my ankles and hear everything there is to hear. Bigger booms. Louder booms. A train’s whistle. Raindrops splattering on tarp. The wavy dance of trees, carefree even in the face of so much power. I try to read with my pillow folded behind my neck and my headlamp strapped across my forehead, but it’s no use. This sleeping pad might as well be a slab of wood.
“No lock on a tent door,” I say. “It’s open.”
But she never comes. She never ever comes.