He was in every appearance an average eleven-year old with freckled skin, tetracycline-stained teeth, and a stunted brushy plume on the crown of his head. It wasn't until the end of the school year when every sixth-grader from Gus Grissom was bussed off to camp that we learned something else about him. The rumors had been flying even before Mr. Albertson sat us down in the cabin.
"Tonight most of you boys'll be taking a shower."
We nodded. We gathered around a citronella candle in the dark. His voice was hushed, grave, as if he were trying to scare us.
"These showers are what we call communal. Have any of you showered with other boys before?"
My upper arms itched. I'd never heard of such a thing. I couldn't help but think the idea was a little outlandish, even obscene.
"I want you to know that Douglas Freeman doesn't have a penis."
Eric Woodworth fisted the air. "Yes!"
"Quiet!" Mr. Albertson cried. The entire campground stilled, crickets and tree frogs falling mute. "Once more and I call your parents."
Woodworth trembled, pretending to quash the triumph from his eyes. I was mortified. All this time I'd thought that his nickname -- Dickless -- had been nothing more than a harmless, on-going prank. Hadn't we all called him that?
"I want you to put yourselves in his shoes," Mr. Albertson said. His eyes shone with great intensity and warmth. "I want you to imagine what he lives with every day of his life. Do you understand?"
We nodded, humbled and ashamed.
"He's all boy. That's all I want to say."
We nodded again.
"Good. Very good." Then Mr. Albertson started a story. "There was a boy, there was a girl, and there was a ghost..."
But I couldn't follow his words. If I'd only known that Douglass's condition resulted from a birth defect or cancer, I'd have felt better. I imagined my own penis, a thing I'd learned to like, crumbling off in my hand as I cleaned myself with a wash cloth. The truth was I'd been touching myself a lot, probably more than I was supposed to. I pulled my legs closer to my chest. Around me boys were laughing, utterly immersed in the tale. Mr. Albertson crouched and tiptoed about the cabin, illustrating his drama with little props: a pin light, a tennis ball, a handkerchief resembling a lady ghost. What was wrong with me? Was I the only one who felt like this?
Mr. Albertson left for the showers, dop kit in hand, white towel slung over his shoulder. "Keep an eye on the ship," he said, his eyes meeting mine.
"Five bucks," Woodworth mumbled. "Five fucking bucks."
Steve Strandberg gazed out at the empty, starlit paths. "I wouldn't go to the showers now," he said in a lonely voice.
I said, "Why?"
"That's when Dickless's there," said Steve. "He won't go till everyone's finished. Sometimes it's midnight, sometimes it's three in the morning. The school board had to approve it."
I pictured Dickless standing outside in the middle of the night, his chest peppered with goose pimples, scrubbing himself with a soap-on-a-rope (a gift from his mother?) while he looked repeatedly, anxiously over his shoulder. It pissed me off to think that only a few weeks ago these boys had played kickball with Douglass, calling him by his correct name, treating him like the quiet, unremarkable boy he was.
But who was I to talk? I'd already made my decision not to shower until I got home.
The week was relentless. Our days were crammed tight with activities--math classes, crafts seminars, athletics--as if our teachers were fearful of leaving us unoccupied. I missed the girls, their precise, intricate outfits, their kindness, their expansive senses of humor. Without girls, the boys grew wilder, more aggressive, as if shot up with hormones. Gregg Novak, for one, a skinny thing with twig-like arms, lifted me up, spinning me around and around in full sight of seven boys--my legs flailing all the while--if only to show them he could do it.
This wouldn't have happened back home.
The week creaked onward. I ticked off each day on my calendar, striking it out with a wax pencil, pretending I was doing time at Sing Sing. Soon enough it became clear to my cabin mates--Eric Woodworth in particular--that I hadn't taken a shower since my arrival. By this time, they'd all showered together, and had gotten used to it, barely mentioning Dickless's name as if he were already old news.
"You haven't taken a shower," said Woodworth one night.
"Yes, I did," I answered. "Two nights ago. You weren't paying attention."
He knew I was lying. I stared at his slight chubbiness, knowing that at twenty he'd be ugly and unlovable. I didn't know why this comforted me. He glanced over at the top bunk. "Hey, Strandberg, has Sarshik taken a shower yet?"
Steve stared down at his dirty pink feet, utterly silent.
"Your hair's greasy," Woodworth said to me. "What's the matter? You don't have a dick either?"
"Shut up," I cried.
I might have downed a glassful of paint. Was I a coward? I couldn't bear to be talked to like this. It was the moment I'd been afraid of. All at once I leapt up and rummaged through my backpack for my shower supplies.
I hurried to the outdoor shower stalls, leaves rasping beneath my feet. You had to do these things, win the races, catch the fly balls hit to your corner even if it killed you. If you didn't do it, you got them mad, and they made you an outsider--someone who was pounced on, spit out like week-old food--and there was nothing worse than that.
But none of these thoughts steadied my pulse.
When I arrived at the stalls I heard a shower running full force, a drain sucking water. I stopped at once. Was it Dickless?
My steps were timid. To my relief Mr. Albertson stood underneath the showerhead, hair flattened to his scalp. I couldn't take my eyes off him.
"Hi, Evan," he said affably. "Beautiful night."
My throat was too tight to respond. I nodded, then crept inside the changing room. I stared down at the pocked floor, breathing, yanking off my shirt and pants, dropping them in little balls upon the exposed wooden slats. I was going to do this. Once and for all, I was going to get this over with.
Mr. Albertson smiled at my reentrance. I stepped toward the showerhead beside him, and turned on the faucet, testing the temperature. I'd never felt more naked in my entire life, my arms like insect feelers, my chest like the cheapest concave trinket--something to be bought at Woolworth's. Mr. Albertson rubbed the shampoo from his hair. He dug his fists into his tightly closed eyes. I couldn't stop staring at his hard furry butt, his balls, his dick--alarmingly big, its head the color of a plum. I'd never seen anything like it before. And you call this a dick, I thought, speaking to my own parts in disappointment.
"Who won the softball game?" he asked.
I swallowed. Had he known I was looking at him?
"Greens," I said finally. "Greet hit a fly ball over the fence."
He nodded. He turned off the faucet, reached for a towel on the hook. "Don't use up all that hot water," he kidded. He stepped past me, mere inches away. His dick swung gently as he walked. I shuddered. If his towel had been bigger, he might have snapped it against my butt.
I stood under the showerhead for another five minutes. The water felt hot, consoling upon my shoulders. Why had I waited so long? I shampooed my hair over and over, waiting for someone to step around the corner. But when no one did, I turned off the faucet, and stepped into my clothes, letting my hair drip so all my cabin mates would know that I was just like them.
Two nights later, we all sat around the campfire, singing "The Circle Game"--- an old Joni Mitchell song which Miss Mastrangelo strummed on a busted guitar while everyone squinted at their song sheets. We were due to leave Saturday morning, and I was already feeling nostalgic. It wasn't that I didn't want to go home. I still hated it here, there was no doubt about that. It was that looking into the flame-lit faces of my classmates around the campfire, I thought, Time is already sweeping us forward. Our bodies are changing. We smell like our parents. Soon enough we're going to separate and move away, and some of us will die sooner than we think, and as a group we'll never be together again. Was this a pop song? I was shocked by my corniness. But maybe it was only because we'd all fallen into our respective routines, learning new skills, growing more relaxed with one another. And unfortunately, there was that other thing: Mr. Albertson had announced earlier that evening that Douglass Freeman was leaving camp two days early. He'd had a hard adjustment, and had come down with a sore throat. And there was the sticky issue of contagion. "It would be best for everyone," Mr. Albertson assured us, "if he left us." He was right, for the announcement of his departure made an immediate difference. Everyone relaxed, became themselves, as if the world were returned to its proper order.
It was dusk. I was walking down a path through the woods. I wasn't supposed to walk alone, not without another camper, but it felt good to be lost in my thoughts, listening to the cheers and yelps of my classmates in the distance. I stepped upon a riverbank. I looked at the sawgrass weaving in the water, the impossibly vivid sky, thinking about how nice it would be to come back home again, to sleep in my own bed, to take a hot bath while my mother sat on the closed toilet seat listening, pretending she was interested in my stories. I wouldn't even let my parents' fighting bother me.
I stepped closer to the fallen log beside the shore.
And all it once it moved toward me.
My whole body clenched. I didn't yell. I'd seen alligators in our very neighborhood, where on winter mornings they'd crawl up out of the canals, sunning themselves in the backyards, looking for handouts of marshmallows. They seemed almost benign, bovine in that context -- dumb, leaden beasts too stupid to fend for themselves -- and yet they were known to have swallowed a neighbor's Boston Terrier in one gulp, a veritable raisin. But this was the wild. It came to me that alligators had the capacity to run up to 60 miles-an-hour in short distances. The peach fuzz bristled on my neck. I started running, feet pounding the sand, all the way back to the dining hall.
On the way I ran into Dickless standing in the path. I'd actually seen his face only three times all week.
My chest heaved. "Alligator--" I said, winded.
Dickless smiled in utter calm. "Oh really?"
I swung my head back and forth. "Big. 13 feet or more. Tell the teachers. Dangerous."
"Fuck the teachers," he replied.
I stared at him, blinking. I caught my breath. He'd never talked like this before. These simple words unsettled and mocked me, more than I could say.
"I'd like to see it," he stated.
I slapped at a mosquito on my wrist. "You sure?"
He followed me down the path. By the time we got to shore, the alligator was gone, leaving no wake in the river, no imprints on the sand.
"Liar," he smiled.
"I'm telling you. I saw it right here."But for some reason I found myself smiling along with him. Had I been imagining things?
We sat upon the shoreline, watching the pelicans gliding inches above the brackish river. An air boat whined faintly in the distance, diminishing. The sky darkened a notch. Above a hammock of palms a lone planet sparkled. The first star.
"I thought you were leaving," I said.
"Tomorrow," he said, leaning forward. "My dad's coming. Sometime after breakfast."
"Your throat still hurts?"
He laughed through his nostrils. "My throat feels fine. It's never been better. I just needed to get out of here."
I laughed. I was about to tell him when I, too, wrangled my way out of a school obligation, mimicking a sprained ankle after a basketball game, when I noticed the stricken, unsettled look on his face.
"Do you hate it here?" he whispered.
I glanced at his muddy shoes. I thought of all the things that had been said about him, things I knew he'd heard, how his time back at school would never be the same. The inside of my lip tasted like a penny. I couldn't say anything but yes to him.
"I thought so. You don't seem like you belong with them."
He rested his sneaker atop mine. For a few seconds I tried to ignore it, but the gesture was intentional, a game of sorts. He wanted me to play. I didn't like such games, thought them childish and beneath me, but then I slipped my shoe out from under his and dug my heel into his toes so that he winced, tears springing to his eyes.
I looked in his face. He was laughing now. I had an uncomfortable feeling, an odd buzz of shame, excitement, sadness. Then something else took hold of me, something comfortable and friendly that told me I could be what I was with him. Why wasn't I afraid anymore?
"Hold still," he murmured.
It happened too smoothly for me to stop. I pulled in a breath. He fumbled for my fly, and -- to my discomfort--reached into my pants, pulled out my dick, holding it, watching it harden in his grasp. It would be years before it would even reach its adult size. Still, he looked at it like he'd never seen anything like it before. I thought of Mr. Albertson standing under the showerhead, confident, at peace with his body. "Amazing," Douglass whispered, moving his small brown head.
I leaned backward on my elbows.I watched as he began stroking me, dutiful and tender, the leaves turning silver, vermilion above us, making me forget that anyone else could even travel up the path, though, thankfully, they didn't dare.
©1997-1999 Blithe House Quarterly / All Rights Reserved