FROM QUEENS TO COPAKE

 

©2001 by Jay Braiman

 

 

Miguel had always thought it would be silent at six-thirty in the morning in the country. All his life he had awakened to the din of subway cars, buses, horns honking and trucks backing up, not to mention innumerable human voices shouting in more languages than most people knew existed. Yet as the morning mist rose from the waters of Rhoda Lake and rolled over the grassy hills and fields of Camp Copake, the fading songs of nocturnal insects, mixed with the rising clamor of bird calls and beating wings filled his ears as the morning sun cast its ethereal glow on the high treetops.

Everyone else in Bunk 11 was still sound asleep, though from the porch rail he could see a few little freshman boys stirring over by Limeyhouse. He wondered how those little ones could rouse themselves so effortlessly while he and his bunkmates often needed to be dragged from their beds to morning lineup. Every so often, though, Miguel would feel the sun on his face, or hear the call of the whippoorwill, or perhaps be jostled from an unusually intense dream, sitting up abruptly in his upper bunk bed, his neck drenched with perspiration, finding himself again in this serene yet strange environment. The other boys slumbering around him came from different worlds and different lives, the trappings of wealth and privilege accompanying them everywhere they went, and revealing themselves with every word, every silence, every action and every glance. Theirs was a world Miguel had never known, as strange and foreign to him as his own crowded streets and high-rise apartments, not to mention his parents’ native Colombia, would be to them. Even now, two weeks into the eight-week experience, he still felt like the alien interloper, and no one, it seemed, cared to help him assuage that feeling.

It wasn’t long before the boys’ head counselor rode down to boys’ side on his bicycle and stopped in front of the tiny HC shack, and the music of N*SYNC crackled over the lone PA speaker. Within minutes, Miguel could hear voices emanating from nearly all the bunks; even girls’ side began to stir with activity on the opposite shore of the sprawling lakeside campus. “Good morning, boys’ side,” called the head counselor’s voice over the loudspeaker, “lower camp lineup in ten minutes. Let’s go, freshmen, sophomores and inters; counselors, get your kids out of bed. Lineup in ten minutes.”

Miguel was given a start as the door of bunk 11A burst open behind him, and two of his bunkmates rushed down the wooden steps and toward the “Hive” basketball courts that lay between the HC shack and the pool. One of them glanced up at him briefly, as if only to see who was there, but neither one said a word to him. He watched idly as they stopped in front of the HC while one went inside for a ball, only to be immediately rebuffed by the head counselor and sent trudging dejectedly back up to the bunk. Again the two boys walked past Miguel, a brief passing glance not even interrupting their conversation, up the steps and through the door.

Quietly, taking care not to let the door slam behind him, Miguel stepped back into the bunk to change his shirt and brush his straight black hair one more time.

“Hey, Miguel,” said the thin, blond boy who sat on the edge of the bunk beneath Miguel’s.

“What’s up, Jordan?” Miguel replied, taking his hairbrush from the windowsill.

“You psyched for the soccer tournament?” Jordan asked.

“Yup,” Miguel nodded, turning and heading for the washroom where he could look in the mirror. Jordan stood up and followed him. Some of the boys still lay in bed; some were dressing, others conversing; one sat on his top bunk reading his script for the upcoming camp production of “Tommy;” another brandished a hockey stick and stood firing a ball toward a target he’d hung over his bed.

Jordan looked away as Miguel gazed at his reflection. “They’ve got five other camps coming,” said Jordan, “we’ll be playing round-robin games all morning.”

Before Miguel could reply, a loud bang startled everyone in the bunk. “Fuck!” a voice shouted in unbridled anger, drawing the attention of all the boys and counselors present. Miguel and Jordan stepped into 11B, on the adjacent side of the building from 11A, and saw one of the boys, a stocky, dark-haired youth, furiously rifling through his own belongings. A counselor went over and tried to calm the hotheaded camper down, but the boy threw up his arms in disgust and burst out the door. The counselor started after him, but stopped himself and shook his head exasperatedly.

Curious, Jordan asked the counselor, “Hey Steve, what’s the matter with Evan?”

“Someone stole his CD’s,” Steve replied, walking away.

Jordan and Miguel looked at each other wordlessly for a moment, then went back to their own side.

 

*

 

“Press up! Press up!” came the call from the sideline, an English-accented voice carrying years of soccer expertise.

Speeding up the right wing, Miguel took a cross-field pass from a teammate and skillfully dribbled the ball around and past one of Camp Timber Lake’s defenders, but a second opponent slide-tackled and forced the ball over the end line.

The referee, another Englishman with a Liverpudlian accent, blew his whistle and called out, “Corner ball!” placing the white mottled sphere at the far corner. The Copake players, nicknamed “Tribe” in their gray and white checkered soccer jerseys with red trim and shorts, positioned themselves in front of the net, while the green-clad Timber Lake defenders braced themselves for one of the sport’s most exciting plays.

Miguel stood set to kick the ball and made eye contact with his friend Jordan, who moved stealthily between two opponents. Behind him, in the distance, Miguel caught sight of a golf cart driven by one of the camp directors with another by his side, and the boys’ head counselor riding on the back. He didn’t think much of it as he lined up his kick, noticing the head counselor approach the coach and appear to ask him something; the coach then gazed out onto the field and pointed right at Miguel. “Sub!” the coach shouted to the official, sending another player out onto the field to take Miguel’s place and summon him to the sideline. Miguel stared at his coach incredulously for a moment, then without a word or even a shrug, trotted across the field toward the Copake sideline.

Staring at his friend as he left the playing field, Jordan queried, “Miguel, what’s up? Why’d he take you out?”

“I have no idea,” Miguel replied evenly.

Jordan watched him go and had to be alerted to the game at hand by the referee’s whistle. Moving into position as a different teammate lined up the corner kick, he found it difficult to concentrate, able to focus on only one thing: I hope, he thought, this is not what I think it is.

 

*

 

The game was over and the Tribe had lost a heartbreaker, 2-1, to Camp Timber Lake. It was the first time in memory that any Copake team had lost a tournament game at home.  So much for the camp sports motto, “Not In Our House,” Jordan thought as he sat silently on the porch of Bunk 11, still wearing his uniform, cleats and shin pads, sweating and squinting as the afternoon sun blazed directly into his face. Who designed these bunks, he wondered, facing the sun in the late afternoon? He didn’t feel like showering, or changing clothes for dinner, or anything else for that matter. His bunkmates walked past him, in and out of the old wooden cabin, up and down the red-painted steps, some stopping for an offhand greeting, others ignoring him the same way they had ignored Miguel that morning.

Somehow Jordan knew what must be happening down at the other end of the campus. Somehow he knew that somewhere, Miguel was being asked about Evan’s missing CD’s, and insisting he knew nothing about it, to the cynical disbelief of those present. How could he not be the prime suspect? Nobody else had a reason to steal. Nobody else lived in the projects of Queens. Nobody else was…

He silently berated himself for entertaining such a coarse thought and drove it from his mind, kicking and screaming all the way. It had to come up sooner or later. Somebody had to say it, or at least think it. But Miguel was his friend, and he was Miguel’s, maybe even the only one he had in camp. None of these other boys ever paid him any mind; they seemed even cold and aloof toward the newcomer, huddling together in their little social cliques and excluding this poor city boy from their well-formed and well-established circle. It’s not right, Jordan thought, he deserves to have fun in camp just like the rest of us.

Slowly, with what appeared to be more effort than usual, Miguel walked up the paved road that ran the length of the campus, across the bunk line to the porch, then climbed heavily up the steps. Jordan looked up into his friend’s face and saw no bitterness, no resentment; his straight black hair seemed plastered against his forehead and he looked a bit more tired and worn-out than usual, but his expression was one of detached resignation, as if he’d always expected to endure what he’d just been put through. Jordan, though, did not expect to see him so calm. He wasn’t sure what he expected him to be – sad? Dejected? Indignant? Defiant?

“What happened?” Jordan asked as Miguel sat next to him on the bench.

Miguel stared directly ahead, his eyes angled only slightly downward. “They asked about Evan’s CD’s.”

A chill coursed through Jordan’s chest. “What’d you tell them?”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know.”

Miguel turned to his friend and looked at him skeptically. “You think it was me?”

No, Jordan wanted desperately to say, but all that came out was, “Was it?”

Miguel exhaled loudly and shook his head. “Coño, y tu tambien?” He had not spoken Spanish in camp until now.

“I’m sorry,” Jordan blurted, quickly coming to his senses. “No, of course not, I know it wasn’t you. But why do they think you did it?”

“Come on, man,” Miguel intoned, the first tinge of resentment creeping into his voice, “you know why.”

Jordan nodded in understanding. He knew, Miguel knew, everyone knew. “That’s not right, man, that’s just not right.”

Miguel nodded silently.

“Still,” Jordan continued, “you’ve got to admit, you know…you’re the only one who…I can see why they’d think it was you. I know a bunch of guys think it was you.”

“How do you know?”

“They were talking about it with Steve before.”

“Who?”

“I can’t tell you, really. They just figured, you know…”

“Why? Because I’m from Queens and I live in the projects and I’m here on scholarship?”

“I’m just saying, that’s what people think. They figure, who else could it be? If you think about it, it makes sense. Not for you to do it, but for everyone to think you did.”

Miguel sighed and shook his head. The last thing he wanted now was to get into a shouting match with his only friend in camp. “It’s wrong. Sense or no sense, it’s still wrong.”

Helpfully, Jordan added, “Whether you did it or not, it’s wrong to just accuse you like that. But since when did anyone in this camp care about right and wrong?”

Miguel wanted his agree, but he held his tongue. There were a great many things he wanted to say about his fellow Copake campers, if they could indeed be called his fellows, but since they probably couldn’t he said nothing. The last thing he ever needed here was to become more alienated from the other boys, but it was happening right before his eyes.

“So what’s going to happen?”

Miguel shrugged, “I don’t know. They want to talk to some more people. But I think they already decided.”

Jordan wasn’t sure what that meant, but he was sure he didn’t like the sound of it. “Did you talk to John?”

“Mr. Smith?” Miguel asked; he still could not bring himself to call his teacher and benefactor by his first name, even though everyone else in camp did so without hesitation. “What could he do?”

“Well, he’s the one who got you to come to camp right? He’s the one who got you the scholarship.”

“So?”

“I don’t know, maybe he could help you.”

Miguel thought it over for a moment. A small part of him regretted entering Mr. Smith’s essay contest; the English teacher’s stories about Camp Copake had seemed so intriguing and were very thorough, detailed, and honest, but they still had not prepared him for the reality he had encountered, and in which he now felt hip-deep and covered. But Jordan was right. “Is he in the theatre right now?” Miguel asked.

“Probably,” Jordan replied. “Either there or in the music room.”

Miguel nodded and stood up without another word. He caught some boys eyeing him suspiciously but paid them no mind as he descended the steps and walked the path toward what he hoped would be a listening ear and thoughtful ally. As he did he heard an announcement over the boys’ side PA speaker: “Jordan Greenberg, please report to the boys’ HC.” It was the head counselor’s voice, and it sounded urgent. “Jordan Greenberg, to the Boys’ HC immediately.” I wonder what that’s about, Miguel thought. I wonder if they’ll ask him about me. I wonder what he’ll say.

He heard the music long before he reached the theatre. The notes and rhythms of Pete Townshend’s “Tommy” were by now familiar to most of the camp; one group had even adopted “Pinball Wizard” as a sports cheer. Miguel walked up the theatre steps and into the long, empty wooden hall to find his teacher, the camp’s theatre director, seated at the piano playing and singing “I Believe My Own Eyes” along with the two young actors who would be playing Mr. and Mrs. Walker in the upcoming show.

 

“It’s a time to be tough, a time to be wise

We must stop chasing false dreams, and recover our lives

I believe my own eyes…”

 

The music stopped. “OK,” the director said, “you guys have got to come in together there. Listen to the melody, count it out in your head…” He played the melody on the keyboard and sang along, counting the beat out loud to give the performers their cue. “ ‘…and recover our lives…’ One, two, three, four, ‘I believe my own eyes….’ OK?” He then played it again, and sang it again, this time with full orchestration. Miguel thought, this guy must love to hear himself sing. “Try one more time,” the director continued, “from ‘It’s a time to be tough…’” They sang it again and earned the director’s praise. “Nice, Jamie, very nice. Dan, that sounded good. Once more from the top…”

Miguel sat silently on the bleachers near the door and listened as Dan and Jamie sang “I Believe My Own Eyes” one more time, with the director playing and occasionally joining in with his voice. The boy was certain his presence had been noticed, but he knew this director well; he would surely finish what he was doing and then give Miguel his full attention. On the stage beyond rose a giant mural resembling the back panel of a pinball machine, with bright red and yellow star bursts, numbers and legends like “BONUS,” “TILT” and “GAME OVER.” The pinball machine itself sat atop the upstage riser; no doubt, Miguel thought, it had taken considerable effort to get it up there, and would take considerable effort to get it down.

“OK, guys, that’s it for today,” the director told his performers. “We’ll come back at free play, seven o’clock.”

Dan and Jamie departed, and the director, still seated at the piano, let out a heavy sigh, briefly covered his face with his hands, then ran them once through his hair until he was grasping the back of his neck. He stood up and turned to Miguel. “What can I do for you, bud?” he asked bluntly, grinning.

“Evan Schwartz had some CD’s stolen…”

“…and they think you did it.” Smith finished the sentence for him. “Did you?”

It’s just like Mr. Smith, Miguel thought, to cut straight to the heart of the matter. His reaction this time was less harsh than he had been to Jordan. “Everybody thinks I did, because…”

“Did you?”

Miguel grew nervous. Half of him wanted to end the conversation right then and there, but the other half knew he had come for a reason. He stared at the floor for a moment, certain that his teacher was not about to let the subject drop.

“Miguel, look at me. Did you do it or not?”

Miguel shook his head, but he didn’t answer. He didn’t think he should have to, not even to Mr. Smith.

Smith shrugged his shoulders. “Well, if you didn’t do it, you have nothing to worry about.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Miguel, they can’t prove you did it if you didn’t. It’s impossible.”

“Oh yeah?” Miguel retorted, “What about Jeffrey MacDonald?”

The teacher grinned, somewhat gratified that his student remembered something he’d learned in class. “Well,” he said, “unless you think the camp is going to manufacture, falsify and suppress evidence, I think you’ll be OK.”

 

*

 

The long walk back to boys’ side from the canteen at night was always a slow, leisurely one, as the boys took their time saying goodnight to the girls while the counselor on O.D. struggled to round them all up; the older the campers, the longer it seemed to take. This night was no different, except for Miguel, who walked alone down the concrete road, past the tennis courts, past the beach-volleyball pit and theatre, past the hulking Copake Palace with its white aluminum sides and giant silhouetted figures of athletes overlooking the vast, well-groomed baseball diamond, and past the roller hockey rink whose heavy wooden sideboards strained against the struts that barely held them up and kept them from falling inward or outward. Clambering up the red-painted wooden steps for what seemed to be the hundredth time today, he could hear the voices of the camp off in the distance, the faint thrum of the DJ’s speakers providing the audible rhythm of the place, as if all those voices marched to a single beat.

He didn’t want to stay here, on the steps, for when his bunkmates returned they would all walk past him and he would have to look each one of them in the face as they walked by and entered. He couldn’t go anywhere else and make himself conspicuous by his absence, which would likely be highly suspicious to boot. The crickets and cicadas, frogs and toads, birds and other animals sang their songs in the surrounding woods, songs of peace and tranquility and not a care in the world. How he wished to be a cicada right now.

Suddenly he noticed voices behind him, approaching the door from inside the bunk. A moment later the door opened and two of the camp directors emerged, engrossed in conversation; one said a curt, offhand hello to Miguel as the two walked down toward the golf cart parked outside the HC shack.

Curious, Miguel stood up and walked inside, where he saw Jordan busily stuffing his clothing into a large black duffel bag. “Jordan?” he asked, catching his friend’s attention. The blond boy glanced at Miguel for a moment, his eyes reddened and his expression solemn and forlorn. “Jordan, what are you doing?”

“Going home,” Jordan replied, looking away and resuming his task.

“Why? What happened?”

Jordan said nothing. He lowered his head and continued packing.

“Jordan, what happened?” No reply. “Why are you leaving?” Still no reply. Miguel forcibly grabbed his friend by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “Tell me! Why are you leaving? Tell me!”

Jordan simply shook his head and turned away, unable to answer. “Let go of me,” he demanded, shaking himself loose and striding briskly toward the cubby room to retrieve more of his belongings.

Miguel felt his eyes begin to tear as he heard the roar of the golf cart engine approaching outside the bunk. Like a cat, he darted to the door and flagged the vehicle down. “Wait! Stop!” he yelled frantically, as the cart braked and the engine stopped.

“What is it, Miguel?” one of the directors asked, a hint of impatience in his voice, as the other pulled a walkie-talkie from his belt and inaudibly muttered something into it.

“Why is Jordan going home?”

“Family emergency,” the director replied confidently. “His dad called this afternoon, said he needed him to come home right away. Don’t worry, everything’s going to be fine. Alright, buddy?” Miguel chafed at the director’s friendly, reassuring yet somewhat sugary tone which had been conspicuously absent that afternoon. Although the man didn’t outwardly appear to be hiding anything, his companion seemed eager to depart the vicinity.

“Tell him we’ll be back for his bags in about twenty minutes,” the other director said. “Thanks, Miguel. We’ll see you later.” At that, he pressed the gas pedal and the golf cart roared to life, speeding away down the concrete path.

Miguel walked slowly back inside. Jordan slung the strap of his giant duffel bag over his shoulder and walked wordlessly past Miguel out onto the porch. Before he could turn to follow him, he noticed something out of place, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was. Then, in an instant of stunned realization, he swung around and stared at the large black CD case resting conspicuously on the royal blue blanket that covered Evan Schwartz’s bed.

“Holy shit!” he exclaimed out loud, rushing out the door to tell Jordan. “Jordan!” he shouted excitedly, “somebody found Evan’s CDs!”

Without looking at Miguel, Jordan nodded solemnly, “I know.”

“Did they find out who it was?”

Jordan looked up at Miguel earnestly, as if desperate to say something but hoping he wouldn’t have to.

He didn’t. Miguel’s grin faded gradually to a look of shock, disbelief, and finally sadness. Jordan looked away. They both could hear the voices of their bunkmates approaching the hill, with the golf cart close behind, racing to overtake them. Miguel felt a chill as a summer breeze blew off the lake and swept the jet-black locks from his forehead. Jordan’s profile silhouetted against the lights from the H.C. shack. Miguel stood perfectly still, staring down at Jordan as if for the first time, and uttered one final plea. “Why?”

Watching the golf cart approach the steps, taking one last look around boys’ side, Jordan rose, pulled the heavy nylon strap over his right shoulder and replied simply, “I don’t know.”

Something in his eyes, in his face, had changed irrevocably. Miguel wondered briefly if he had ever seen him before, or who this slight, fair-haired boy really was. He doubted that Jordan himself knew the answer. As his only friend in camp disappeared into the night, Miguel found himself once again surrounded by strangers, utterly alone, more so now than ever.

 

***