Much like deciding to work as a summer camp counselor, playing tetherball with nine-year-old boys is exhausting, pointless, and stupid.
After my easy serve, one of the bucktoothed brats miraculously hits the ball back. The ball is actually an old volleyball, hung like a church thief on a dirty rope affixed to the top of a rusty pole. I am not paying attention because I despise these children, so the leather ball smacks me in the side of the face. My sunglasses shatter.
Their braying, sputtering laughter does nothing to improve my mood, and clearly, nine year olds have an inescapable grasp of the obvious.
“The ball hit your face!”
“His face was hit by the tetherball!”
“I hit the ball and then the ball hit his face and then his sunglasses smashed and broke!”
I retrieve my damaged glasses, glaring at them malevolently.
On cue, they become even more annoying by talking in capital letters.
“BRAD, I’m HUNGRY.”
“I WANT something to EAT, BRAD.”
“BRAD. Do YOU have any CANDY?” The last boy stretches out the last syllable of “eee” until my head aches.
I wait until they quit badgering me, answering their incessant questions in short, clipped phrases.
“Too bad. Lunch in an hour. No candy.”
“I want to go HOME…” The last boy stretches out the last syllable of “ohm” until my eyes water in self-pity. Five more goddamn weeks of these kids. 24/7. No days off. They smell like feet.
These children can do nothing normal. Nothing. They cannot properly talk. Walk. Eat. Piss. Shit. Sleep. Or breathe like a regular human being. One kid hyperventilated on purpose, then had to go to the nurse because he felt dizzy. Not to be outdone, his friend decided to quit breathing until he passed out—then immediately choked on a hot dog. They stand in the communal showers, forget to use soap or shampoo, then come out smelling like wet dogs. They only eat beige food. They are constipated, yet have 90-decibel flatulence.
All of their basic physiological functioning is broken, from their scabs that never heal to their visible gingivitis to their greasy hair. We talk about the importance of flossing, and they all start to dance, singing Katy Perry’s song “Swish Swish.”
Under the noon sun in relentless humidity, I wonder if I can get in my car and leave—never to be seen again in this mosquito-bitten shithole. No amount of money is worth getting up a half dozen times a night to pluck flashlights out of tiny fists. Hell, I’d pay the camp my entire salary just to leave at this point.
It’s easy money, Brad, my college roommate lied to me—right through his teeth at the end of the spring term. He’d worked here before. He knew. He knew what it was like. LIAR. It’s only six weeks in the woods. The kids go to bed early, and then we all smoke weed and make a campfire and eat s’mores behind the main cabin. There are at least four female counselors for every guy, so you can have your pick of the ladies. Whaddya say?
Yeah, no. None of that is remotely true, and the reality is worse. I don’t fit in the bunk beds. The mosquitos are the state bird. The food is frozen, prepackaged, scanty, and bland. Worse? The attractive female counselors all have boyfriends, except for Lindsey in the clinic, who can’t be bothered to look at me twice.
Instead of capturing Lindsey’s affections? I have Gwyneth who follows me around like a celebrity stalker. She’s fifteen and still has braces, but Gwyneth nearly succumbs with acute lovesickness every time I have to talk to her.
“Gwyneth?” I take two steps back since she’s not good with personal space.
“HI B-BRAD.” She stutters, flushing a bright red.
“Gwyneth, could you take the boys to archery?”
“OK BRAD.” Gwyneth dissolves into a river of giggles, herds the nine year olds out the door to shoot sharp arrows at things, and leaves me in the canteen with my cold hot dog.
I sit, dejectedly, and shove the oleaginous pork product into my mouth. There isn’t enough mustard in the world to disguise the poor quality meat and accompanying stale bun.
I hear sobbing.
I stand up and see spindly little legs sticking out from behind the soda machine.
The sobbing stops. The legs try to pull back from view, but they get tangled up in the electrical cords.
“Marlon, come out from behind there!” I am angry until I see his face. It looks as if the sins of the world were put upon the shoulders of a 4th grader.
Marlon hangs his head.
“What’s up, Marlon,” I ask.
“Kenny Dorsey is going to kick my ass.”
“Why is Kenny Dorsey going to kick your ass?”
“He said I took his firecrackers.”
“Firecrackers are not allowed at Camp Chipmunk.”
“I know, right?”
“Marlon, did you take Kenny Dorsey’s firecrackers?”
“Yes. But he wasn’t supposed to have them!”
“And neither are you,” I add. “Now let’s go to your dormitory and—” I stop when I notice that Marlon has curled up into the fetal position.
“Marlon, do you still have the firecrackers?”
“Where are they?”
“In the sanitation station.”
“You flushed Kenny Dorsey’s firecrackers down the toilet?”
“I tried to. He said he was going to light up our asses when we were asleep.”
I slap my forehead.
“Marlon. Why didn’t you tell me Kenny Dorsey was saying mean things to you?”
“Because he had fireworks and was going to light up our asses.”
“No one is lighting up anyone’s ass.”
“He’s going to punch me.”
“He will not punch you. I’ll have a talk with him.”
“Then I’ll be a snitch. He’s going to punch me and light up my ass.”
“Marlon, you are going to have to deal with the Kenny Dorseys of the world. There are lots of them.”
“I tried to.”
Marlon looks at me intently.
“Marlon, what’s wrong now?”
“I was in the clinic for my medication, and Lindsey said you were feeling hot. You don’t look hot. You look normal.”
“Lindsey said you were hot. Like your face. It’s red.”
Inescapable grasp of the obvious.
“Listen to me. Don’t listen to anything Kenny Dorsey says, okay?”
“So if Kenny Dorsey makes any more threats, what are you going to do?”
“Hit him—like the tetherball—right in the nuts.”
I shake my head. “Maybe not the best move. Try talking to him. Maybe he could use a friend? If he’s still being mean, you could ignore him. Try that.”
“Like you ignore Lindsey?”
“I don’t ignore her.”
“She said you ignore her.”
“I DON’T IGNORE HER,” I reply in capital letters.
“Are there any more hot dogs left?” Marlon asks.
“You can have mine,” I say, handing it over.
He demolishes it in four bites.
“You done?” I smile.
“Yeah. Can I go swimming now?”
“Sure,” I say, tussling his hair. “I’ll join you in a little bit. But first, I need to drop by the clinic for a quick checkup.”