by Paula Carter
When your young sons come to visit, we decide to go camping—last time we went to the apple orchard and before that the circus. We are new to this state, new to living away from your sons, so we choose a campground by way of the map. The road curves and curves and curves again like a moving whip and it makes Avery sick to his stomach and that is when he declares he wants to go home, home to his mother, he doesn’t want to go camping, camping is stupid. “Avery,” Walker says, short and direct.
It is October and the campground is overrun, unlike anything either of us has ever seen, full of mobile homes and oversized RVs, each site teeming with Halloween decorations: an inflatable ghost, a hoard of foam pumpkins, a remote control head that jeers as we pass. Packs of kids in sweatpants and dirty jackets move through on scooters and foot.
We find a campsite as far from others as we can manage, which isn’t far. The tent turns out to be cheaply made and you scold the boys for playing with the poles because they are now without certain pieces, but really you are scolding yourself for not being able to afford a better tent, for all of the faults that have come clear to you.
After the tent is up I notice the campsite to the left. No one is around, but parked in the space is an old mobile home. It looks abandoned, a tilt in the axel, but there are lace curtains in the windows. Much later, after we cook our hotdogs and buy Twinkies at the camp store, a woman comes out from the mobile home, an old woman whose hair is died blond and curls wildly on her head. She moves slowly to her picnic table and I immediately wonder how long she has been here. I am taken with the idea that this is her home.
It turns out the boys love camping and soon they are heading out on their own to explore. They are not gone more than two minutes when you panic, convinced they will not find their way, convinced they will be snatched, and so you head out after them. This seems to be the way things are now—the boys always a little out of reach, you always in pursuit, me waiting for them to be found and you to return.
You are gone a long time and while you are gone I watch the woman make a fire, slowly and deliberately. Her back is hunched, her arms thin—a live witch. I wonder where her children are, why they have not returned to watch over her. I wonder if like you she is looking for them. Someone far off lights a fire cracker and she and I both turn to look. We catch each other’s eye and suddenly I see her. Her eyes are not milky and grey, what I expect, they are young; her body has aged around her. I get up as if to go to her, but she stares through me to you, returning with the boys.
When the four of us are lined up in our tent, you take my hand and I sense that you are still for the first time in weeks. But I know tomorrow, when the boys return to their mother, you will again be frantic, searching for them in all the places you suspect they might be. I cannot sleep and neither can the woman, who keeps her fire going late into the night, past the last shouts from the other sites. Through the thin tent wall I watch her silent shadow and imagine she is keeping a vigil, calling her sons and daughters. You sigh and turn and then I realize, the woman is not calling to her children, she is calling to you. It is not her children who she has lost, it is you.
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