Speak to Me

First published in the Summer 2023 issue of Queen’s Quarterly.

Hopper bought the camp at auction with money saved from his pension. Fifty-two thousand, five hundred, forty-four dollars and seventy-three cents, back taxes which the absentee owner had refused to pay.

“Going once…twice…sold!” cried the auctioneer.

A bargain, thought Hopper. An all-American, first class bargain. “Yes, sir,” he said, and signed the paperwork. “Yes, sir.”

He had known of the sleepaway camp for quite some time. Nine solid acres that could not be tilled, planted, brought to crop, to harvest, but were, in Hopper’s mind, a plum opportunity to make use of his talents, his hope for future income.

For three days he walked the deserted grounds—he knew them well. Pacing the ball field, Hopper recalled a last-inning, full-count single, the runner on third winning the game. Nearby, the dilapidated dinner hall, a cavernous ruin of upended tables and chairs, once echoed the noisy chatter of hungry campers eager for plates of lackluster food.

A hundred yards down the main trail, sheltered by tall pines, the charred remains of the camp’s nature hut, once home to a motley assortment of stuffed birds, pinned and labeled insects, wooden boxes of unclassified fossils, a ten-gallon aquarium with too many fish. He had loved spending time here. Loved to bask in the natural quiet. Today, sunlight streamed through broken windows. Mildew shadowed the fractured ceiling. Cobwebs hung from the walls. Mice were rampant. A hornets’ nest clung to an empty socket.

Wisps of straw were all that survived of the archery range. To remove an arrow from a round covered bale, carefully pull the arrow out of the tri-colored target, advised the camp counselor’s, but only after the all-clear, when it is safe. When no one is stringing or shooting their arrows.
The arts and craft center lay thoroughly demolished. A withered rainbow of hardened paints, fragments of plaster masks, corroded spools of lanyard, bags of broken one-inch tiles, and popsicle sticks, littered the remains of the visible floor.

The infirmary, what remained of it, was a pitiful sight. He walked carefully into the roofless building. There was the musty smell of decaying wood; parts of the floor had rotted out. Elsewhere, shards of glass crunched underfoot. Electrical wires protruded from ransacked outlets. Splintered beams of the collapsed ceiling were an avalanche stuck in time. The camp nurse wore perfume. What was her name? Hopper recalled the reassuring scent of calamine lotion, the pastel pink liquid, when dry, masked a variety of scratches on his fair white skin. Tubes of soothing ointments, fragrant salves, a tall glass jar of tongue depressors, square vials of iodine, a multitude of bottled pills, Ace bandages, Band-Aids—lay scattered about. There, in a darkened corner. What was that? He stepped carefully to the lengths of moth-eaten canvas, the skeletal arms of crumbling wood. Army cots. How could he forget lying on one such cot, sick to his stomach from something or other? In another rotting room, a sheaf of clotted medical records quietly disintegrated. So many memories. Gone forever.

He left the decrepit building and made his way a hundred yards up the main trail, which opened upon a large semicircle of eight shuttered cabins. Their sloping roofs, whitewashed walls, slapping screen doors, timbered frames, were just as he remembered them. He stopped. Took a breath. So much to mend, he thought. To repair. Restore. Hopper exhaled. Edie. Her name was Edie. She smelled like roses. He continued walking.

Each musty cabin, lit by a single overhead incandescent bulb, held a dozen metal bunk beds, a variety of shelves, a cubicle bathroom with a triangular sink. Wet towels and bathing suits could be hung from the rafters. Etched or scrawled graffiti, the earliest dated 1939, covered the rough wood walls. There was no heat. In case of inclement weather the oblong wood shutters were quickly unhooked from their moorings and shut tight.

Standing in the center of the semicircle, his gaze drifting one cabin to the next, he recalled how each morning a tall thin man, with a black whistle attached to a black lanyard around his neck, led the boys in the Pledge of Allegiance, announced the day’s activities from a detailed schedule indicating time and place of baseball, soccer, archery, et cetera. That was it, he thought. Yes. The key to running a successful camp was consistent and productive order. Breakfast, followed by morning activities. Lunch, followed by afternoon events. Dinner, and free time, lights out, bed. Each hour of the day had its purpose and place in the grand scheme of continuous summer adventure. He would follow that rule. That guiding principle. From the ground up, he would commit himself to it, living an orderly, purposeful life.

Each day, rising at 6 a.m. having spent the night in Cabin Eight, modified to accommodate a propane stove, kitchen sink, table and chair, a propane refrigerator, Hopper washed up, ate breakfast, dressed. At 6:45 a.m., from Cabin Six, cleared of bunks, now a storage shed, he selected the necessary tools and hardware, and went to work. He envisioned less a fancy B&B, more a rustic lodging for weary travelers in need of respite.

Top to bottom, methodically, one cabin to the next, for three months this man, this war veteran, who could fix almost anything, repaired or replaced the cabins’ leaky roofs, damaged walls, peeling paint, cracked or rusted plumbing. The lodge—he had yet to rename it, could not be reached easily. What would draw people to this out-of-the-way oasis? One thing, and one thing only. Peace and quiet. The solitude of uninterrupted land populated only with trees, dandelioned fields, sylvan foliage home to birdsong and butterflies. And the lake. A mile or so down the gently curving main trail, surrounded by untouched forest, the pristine waters of the welcoming lake.

Twice a month, to purchase food and supplies, an ounce of pot from an old friend, Hopper drove to Jamesburg, the town where he’d grown up; with one exception, he’d never left. “Doc Hopper,” the townsfolk called him, who, unlike them, had been to college, seen a bit of the world, even a conflict, as it was called. The loner fella talked to himself, they said. Sort of an oddball, moody too, like to turn on a dime—but a harmless fella; good with his hands. Those who knew Hopper felt a simplicity about him. Groceries, hardware. Building something. Good for that boy. Building.

Week after week he sawed, hammered, scrapped, grouted, ripped away, whatever it took to restore a cabin, to purposefully resurrect it. “Make her fitable” he would say, pausing to wipe his brow. “Fitable.”

The nights he did not sleep well, or when his mood was uncommonly dark, when walks in the woods, or pot, or day long fasts, or plinking targets did not help, he rambled the twenty or so minute walk to a place that never failed to lift his spirits, to restore his natural balance. The unnamed lake once boasted four canoes, a rack with paddles for counselors and campers; a floating life guard station, from which the guards invoked the buddy system, and paired youngsters treading water obediently raised their arms, until all were present and accounted for.

Now, tethered to a weather-beaten pole, only a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat remained. To enter it, in one fluid motion Hopper would crouch, lean forward, grasp the gunwales with each hand, step into the craft without rocking it, duckwalk his way to the center seat, deftly lift and fit the oars to place, and row and row. First to the lakes center, where he would cast anchor, and lazily allow himself to drift. So peaceful here. So tranquil and quiet. Birds and wind and rustling trees. The casual wake of a hungry fish breaking the water’s glassy surface. Hoisting anchor, he would explore, as if for the first time, the lake’s forested perimeter, sun-dappled coves, lichen-covered rocks where soft-shelled turtles basked in the heat of the day.

The orderly routine of work, eat, sleep, the prescribed pills, the costly herb. The ritual of setting up tin can targets, plinking from fifty yards, the single ping of the bullet’s exit-entry—the sight of the tin statuettes falling, one by one. When these fail-safe things failed to mend his affliction, to improve or subdue it, the march to the lake, the art of entering the wooden boat, deftly seating himself in its center, without exception brought relief.

For Hopper, it is the sight and sound and heft of the long oars, how they dip and slip into the calm, deep water, are pulled bracingly to oneself, rhythmically lifted out of the water, thrust once again forward, once more slipped into the lake, the backward heave now propelling the boat forward. What joy the orderly motions bring to him! What joy in the continuous rhythm of wavelets murmuring against the wooden prow! The gift of intimate patterns inscribed on the surface of the stern’s retreat! What joy! In these inestimable moments, the flat-bottomed boat saved him, as nothing else could—why, he did not know.

One afternoon, returning from town, he spied the dog on the porch of Cabin Eight, tenderly licking its right front paw, which appeared to be wounded. He parked his truck, cut the engine, walked to the trembling creature, crouched to it, spoke with a feeling he had not known in quite some time.

“Let me help you, fella. There, there. Let me help you.”

The dog’s thoughtful eyes appeared to trust the tone of Hopper’s voice, the easy manner of his movement. It seemed to appraise him. To take his measure as friend or foe. At his approaching touch the dog’s pink tongue licked his hand.

“There, there,” said Hopper.

Gently, he scratched the dog behind its ears. Gently stroked its head. The animal’s tail repeatedly thumped the wood plank floor. Fella. He would name the dog Fella. Hopper stood up. Took a moment to straighten his back. The groceries could wait.

“Let me wash that off,” he said. “Let’s go inside.” Clean it up. That’s a good dog. Come inside.”

From that day Fella accompanied him everywhere, its steadfast eyes patiently observing while Hopper toiled at his work. Evenings, the dog slept peacefully on a rug which Hopper had placed beside his bunk. Each morning, Fella woke him with a playful nudge or plaintive bark.

“Alright. Alright,” he would reply.

Two, three times a week, feeling the dogs eyes upon him, Hopper would turn from his labors, set the hammer or saw or measuring tape down, raise his eyebrows, tap his knee.

“Fella. Want to…” And the delighted dog would bolt upright, yip and dance and spin round. “…go to the lake?”

One day, off they went, down the main trail, Fella running fifty yards ahead, then back, looking expectantly at Hopper, yipping, scampering forth. The wounded paw had healed nicely.

“Good dog. Run along now. Run along.”

He returned to Cabin Eight, reached inside for his plinking rifle, mounted high above the screen door. Grabbed an extra handful of shells. “Why not?” he said to the empty room. Once past the archery range he pinched his shirt pocket for the well-worn leather pouch, removed the joint he’d rolled the night before. Struck a match. Lit the blunt. Pulled a long, slow drag. Held it as long as he could. Exhaled. Whoosh. He inhaled again.

In the eye of his mind Hopper observed the pure white smoke make its soothing way down his gullet, lazily unfurl its long white tail, gradually infiltrate his inflated lungs. Inhabit first one pulsing red balloon, then the other. His felt his heartbeat quicken. A series of wondrous thoughts propelled themselves forward. Who, he asked—he noticed the trail colorfully undulating, how it pleasantly rose and fell to the beat of his heart—who was it that lost this curious little dog? This healed up, short-haired, tan-colored pooch which he had properly named Fella? And how, how in the first place did the cute critter know where to find him? Know that he, Robert Allen Hopper, a veteran of war, of three failed marriages, who had sworn off women, at least of late—even so, needed whatever you called whatever it was he required to feel his complete self.

In this precious moment Hopper heard himself whisper, “Yes, sir, ” as he watched the trail pleasantly rise and fall. Nearly said it again. Work? Check! Activity? Check! Eat? Check! But he needed more of whatever it was, too. He inhaled greedily. Held it as long as he could, coaxing the drug to its full effect. Whooosh. Groceries? Now there was an activity! He truly enjoyed the thrill of shopping for all things edible. The need to push and squeeze and visually inspect each item displayed in the long rows of plentiful shelves. Cereal. Milk. Rice. Meat. Whatever the particular product, be it animal, vegetable or fruit, liquid or solid, with purpose and care he selected just the right specimen, the exact amount, gradually filling the steel cart. Tasty organic carrots? Check! Mouth-watering big, red, juicy tomatoes? Check! Bright green stalks of crunchy celery? Check! Sweet deep-purple grapes? Check! Purple hearts? Boom!

As if he’d been knocked down by the shock wave of an enormous blast, Hopper righted himself. Vigorously cleared his throat. Took several uneasy breaths. Whatever it was – and he knew full well the haunting thing but would not, could not, name it: not now, not today, some other time, please, go now—vanished.

“Fella!” he called out, and dropped to one knee.

From the shoreline, excited by the promise of play, the lively dog raced to him, circled around its master, fervently licked his face.

“Easy, Fella. Eeeeaaassy.”

Hopper stood, slowly straightened, flicked the roach to the ground. With the toe of his boot he bore down upon the troubling thing, swivelled his foot with immense pleasure, crushed the ornery scrap, pulverized it, leaving behind a small crater, flecked with bits of papery ash.

“Best stay away from this stuff,” he muttered. “Goddamn weed. Never know what you’re getting.”

Fella woofed and disappeared.

From where the trail ended, the sweeping curve of the lake opened to reveal its broad plain of shimmering colors. He could not wait to walk its sylvan perimeter, feel underfoot its pulsing life. Could not wait to breathe in the pungent scent of pine, the aroma of moist earth, the aquatic vapors of the lake and all that lived within it. To row and row the heavy, flat-bottomed boat across the living water. Just he and the dog, the rusted oar locks lyrical at each paired pull. The eager dog crouched at the prow, keen to leap, land with a splash. To paddle and pant, looking to Hopper for love and human guidance.

“Fella!” he called out. And the dog ran to him. “Good dog.”

But where was the boat? Not there, in its usual tethered place. Or fifty yards farther on, where it had once mysteriously broken free and drifted ashore. Had he pulled it ashore due to inclement weather? Not in weeks! Then where, goddamn it? Where was the goddamn flat-bottomed, heavy wooden boat? Hammer-like, his heart pounded inside every cell of his body. His frantic eyes seemed to protrude from their sockets in their search of the lake’s perimeter. His chest violently heaved and fell. Panic. He had panic that was spinning out of control. What to do? What?

A priest once advised him, “Robert, when you feel this way, you have got to slow down. Deep breaths, Robert. That’s it. Deep, long, loving breaths.”

But could he do that now? Slow the crucible heat, the reckless engine of his pounding heart? Squint to optic slits the saucers of his bulging eyes? Confess? Confess, you say? What change would that bring about? And who would listen to me? Who could possibly give a goddamn? Give me a reason, Father. Give me a reason to speak.

The tactic was simple enough. The platoon would barge into a sleepy village. Ransack it. Burn the harvest. Kill the livestock. Torch the huts. Shout the elders, women and children quiet. Bind the men. March them out to the sound of wailing.

Breathe? Exhale? Redeem my sins? If you insist. All right. I will do that. But not right now. Not today. Some other time, if you please. Not in this full-blown state of total emergency. Can’t you see I’m trying to hold on, Father? Not right now, goddamn it!

Hopper inclined his neck. Cupped his hand to one ear. Listened carefully. Opened his eyes. What was that? Over there? No, over there! Movement. He had movement.

“Who…who goes there?”

In the center of the lake, seated in the center of the boat, he swore a boy, a youngster with freckles scattered across the width of his oval face, stood up and waved to him.

“What the hell you doing out there?” cried Hopper. “Who are you?”

The child gripped both oars, with all his strength proceeded to pull the right oar back while pushing forward the left, causing the craft to churn the water as it slowly rotated round and round. He stopped. Waved again. Proceeded to row and rotate, by the minute faster and faster, until he whipped the water to fizzing froth.

When he tired, he set the oars in the boat and gleefully shouted, “Screw you, old man!” And again, “Screw you!”

Hopper gathered himself to speak. His lips parted in the certainty of what he would say and how he would say it to this wayward child. The ideas he had formed for living a life reliant on what is good and productive and honorable. But the voice which spoke was not his own, and in place of words, from somewhere deep inside him, a wild plaintive howl broke free to the surface of Hopper’s tongue, echoed outward across the water, and seized the boy’s attention. Abruptly, the child shouted a litany of invectives, which carried loud and clear across the placid water, lodging themselves like locusts upon their human target.

“You’ll pay for that!”

Hopper shouted. He unslung the rifle from his shoulder, found the boy in his sights. He took a deep breath, let out half, waited for the rifle to level. Then another breath, deeper, sighting in, slowing down.

The sun warmed his face on the walk back to camp. He delved into his shirt pocket, grasped the pouch that held his stash, drew back his arm and flung the costly herb into the woods.

“Goddamn weed,” he said. “Goddamn Vietnam.”

In the distance he heard Fella barking. He loved that dog. What could she possibly want?