[Originally published in February 2012.]
When I was about 13 I had to endure a week at Reverend Schlep’s Summer Camp for Men and Boys. It’s a right of passage in my family. My grandfather took my father. My father took my older brothers Mark and Karl, Jr., when they reached the right age. Now it was my turn. If you were wondering if the bastard must be an old fart, then yeah, that would be the right answer.
Reverend Schlep was this tall, fat man with knotted white hair on his head and on his chin. He had no mustache. He shouted so much that some of his spit would fly from his lips; the rest lingered around his mouth and crusted in his beard. He looked like a rabid dog. The wrinkles on his face came from scowls, not smiles. Reverend Schlep rarely smiled, though he did have a sick laugh that he used to mock others with.
Reverend Schlep scared the shit out of me. He screamed almost every word that came out of his foul mouth. He kept the words in check when he preached. But anywhere else he swore like a merchant marine. He beat his kids and his wife, so the story goes. So you can see why my dad got the habit. She ended up committing suicide.
Sometimes old man Schlep would haul off and hit people during the sermon, if he felt like it. The Lord told him to, he would say, and no one would question him. But verbal abuse was his main weapon. Women were his main targets. Despite being a total misogynist fuck he had several “saintly ladies,” as he calls them, to take care of his needs. Sometimes, I swear I saw bruises on them, too.
I had hoped that the old fart would have croaked before it was time for me to go to this camp of his. He was big as a house, so I was sure his heart wouldn’t be able to take much more of the abuse his body gave it. But he hung on. Death didn’t want him anymore that I did. He was older and slower, and he used a cane part of the time, but he could still get out into the woods with his flock of fledgling boys and their hopeful fathers. My father wanted to go. He went with the older brothers when it was their turn. But he couldn’t get out of work that weekend, so I went solo. That was a blessing, of sorts. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about him riding my ass during the trip. But he did give me a stern warning about not embarrassing the family name in front of Schlep. Sounds familiar, don’t it?
Well, I didn’t let my old man down and I didn’t catch the wrath of old man Schlep. I hauled ass that entire trip. When we first got there, we had to do this hella long hike. So right, we’re up in the Sierras like 6,000 feet or some shit like that, and we start off on this long hike. Schlep didn’t lead it; one of the fathers did. Most of us had never been so high up before in our lives, so we were struggling. A few of the kids passed out, including this one guy. I’ll get back to him. But anyway, the story is that I pressed on. I was nearly out on my ass, too, but I made it through the hike. And after that, I set up my tent the fastest. I gathered more firewood. I did all the shit. They weren’t gonna call me the sissy.
Alright, so this kid that fainted. His name was Clyde. Why is it that the guys who get it the most in life have to have nerdy names like ‘Clyde’ to make it that much worse?
Clyde was about my height, that is about 5′ 9″ or so, but he wasn’t stocky like me. He had a narrow little rear, twig arms, a long neck, with a dominant Adam’s apple. He had thin blond hair parted on one side and a narrow face with eyes that were kinda too big for it. And he had a long, thin nose. He wore these big old glasses with heavy, dark rims. Basically, he was a geek.
So Clyde was one of the guys that collapsed on that first hike. He just passed out. I think the thin air got to him. One of the other adults had to take him back to camp. I heard that Reverend Schlep gave him a tongue-lashing. Clyde did his chores alright. Schlep always made sure to give him jobs that required some muscle – jobs like carrying the water to camp or moving boulders into a circle for campfires. He did the best he could. He was wiry, and determined to do right so that helped make up for his lack of strength. You could tell that he was out of his league on a lot of it. The one thing that he did do well was cook. The night he was on the cooking team was the night we all ate the best. He took simple stuff like canned refried beans and seasoned them into a meal. After that, I thought hell, we should just let him cook. He certainly seemed happier when he did. But cooking was not one of the emphasized activities. It’s girl’s work. And men only did it when they had to. Since Schlep didn’t bring any of his “saintly ladies” on the trip we had to take turns cooking.
The only other time when Clyde seemed happy was in the evening, before lights out, and everyone could pretty much do their own thing. Some guys gathered in circles and talked about girls. Some went to bed early. The fathers and Reverend Schlep usually talked about something over at the benches to themselves. But Clyde invariably sat alone in his tent with a flashlight reading a book. No one would talk to him, unless they had to. No one would kick it with him. The first couple of nights, I hung with some of the other guys while they talked about girls. It amused me. I already knew the truth about myself. But on the third night, after Clyde really did wonders with the dinner, I got curious about him. It wasn’t romantic; anyway he totally didn’t seem queer to me. But that wasn’t it. I was just interested in him. I guess you could say I admired him, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I knew I was putting on a show at this thing, being all butch and shit. I mean, I am athletic, you know what I’m saying. But I was just putting on a front so that when I got home my dad wouldn’t beat the shit out of me. Clyde wasn’t putting on a show. He did the bare minimum and then went on being Clyde, despite how he got treated for it. I don’t think I could have done that.
So right, on the third night, I went up to his tent and stood over him as he read. He ignored me. He usually didn’t say nothing unless you said something to him first. So finally, I said ‘hi.’ And he said, ‘hi’ without looking up. I asked him how it was going, and he ‘it’s going’ in a flat tone. I nodded. He was lying on his sleeping bag with his body in his tent, and his head and arms sticking out holding the book in his hand. The flashlight lantern was sitting to his left. I ask ‘Mind if I sit down.’ He didn’t say nothing for a moment. Then he said, ‘I can’t stop you.’ So I sat down. He just kept reading. Didn’t say a word. Finally, I leaned over to see what he was reading. Poetry.
“Gertrude Stein,” he said, then he added, “Ever heard of her?”
I shook my head.
He was being a prick, in addition to being a nerd, and if I had been one of the other boys, I probably would have kicked the shit out of him. But I wasn’t down with that, so I just kept sitting next to him.
“You like poetry?” he asked.
“Who do you like?”
I told him Poe, then I mentioned Langston Hughes, and that impressed him. I actually had only started reading some Langston Hughes, so I didn’t know him too well. But just saying the name was enough to break the ice with Clyde.
“Come on. Lie down beside me. Let’s read,” he said.
And I got in the tent with him, and we read. After a while, we took turns reading passages to each other. This went on for the next few nights. During the day, I tried to help Clyde with his chores as well as doing my own. Some of the other guys thought I was crazy, helping the nerd and tiring myself out. But they didn’t give me too much grief over it. I still had their respect, for the most part. I didn’t care. I liked Clyde. He was a decent human being, and he liked to read. In fact, he’s the reason I really got into reading.
One night, he came to my tent kinda excited, for Clyde. He didn’t really get what you could call excited about much. But he asked me if I ever read ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and I told him no. So he sat down next to me and we started to read it. He really loved that book.
It’s a short book and it reads really fast. I don’t think I’ve read a book more depressing, but still it was cool reading it with Clyde because he was so into it.
So, right, the last night. Schlep has this ritual, that none of us knew about. The fathers knew, but they didn’t tell us. It’s an honor thing not to tell any of the initiates about it. He gathered us all around in the campfire, like we did every night, and did one of his misogynist tirades. Then when he finished, one of the fathers gave him this white rectangular box. He held it tight in his wizened fingers. He leaned forward to speak to us with this harsh whisper.
“This dress,” he said, “has been worn by every single sissy that has ever defiled this campground. Every year, I pick a boy from the group who hasn’t earned his manhood, and make him wear this dress. It goes to the boy who hasn’t followed God’s wishes in fulfilling his obligation to himself, or his fellow man. This year, I give the dress to the boy who has repeated failed in nearly everything he does, who has faltered on every hike taken, and who has shown that he possesses no manly skills whatsoever.”
I sat smug. I knew it wasn’t me. I kicked ass on all the hikes. I even lead a couple. And I won the arm-wrestling competition the night before. I knew that dress wasn’t meant for me. Reverend Schlep rose his cane to point out the infidel. As you could probably guess, he pointed at Clyde. He looked perplexed and so did I. ‘Cause I’ll tell you something, Clyde basically became one of Schlep’s ‘saintly ladies.’ A lot of the shit he did, he did for that asshole. So now he reward was to have to wear this dress. And boy was he nasty about it.
“Come on, boy,” Schlep ordered, “take the dress. Put it on.”
The other boys started to chant, slowly.
Siiiiiissy-boooooy. . .Siiiiiiiissy-booooooy. . .Siiiiiissy-booooooooy. . .
Clyde stood up and slowed, awkwardly started to take off his clothes, in front of everyone, exposing his thin, wiry, underdeveloped body. The cat calls started.
Check those legs out! OOOoooooo-eeeeeeee!!
Finally, with a final awkward turn, he slipped the dress over his head. He was barefoot. He looked around anxiously at the pack of wolves that surrounded him. I started to feel weird in my stomach.
“Come on, girly-boy! Walk around! Show us how you look!” Reverend Schlep chided.
The whistles and cat calls came on full force, as Clyde started to walk around inside the circle, prodded and pushed first by Reverend Schlep’s cane, then by the sticks of various boys in the circle. The fathers stood outside the circle, arms crossed, and smiled, probably relieved that it wasn’t their son.
“Here! Put on some shoes, woman!”
Schlep threw some high-heeled pumps at Clyde, and he bent over and slipped them on. He stumbled worse than ever in the fuck-me pumps.
“Look at him! He’s a natural! A natural whore!”
I looked at Clyde, with his goofy glasses and gaunt, pale face, and his wiry fingers sticking out of a laced cuff on his dress of chiffon. Then I looked at the faces of the boys making the cat calls. Their faces started to take on some of the same wrinkles and the same creases that Reverend Schlep’s face had. Young Schleps. I was suddenly surrounded by a group of Reverend Schleps. I wanted to end this scene, to scream at all of them, but my voice failed me, like in those nightmares you have when you want to yell out, but you can’t. I stared into Clyde’s face. I don’t know what the rest of them saw, but I saw a man in pure hell. I had never seen someone so ripped apart. It was painful to see. And I couldn’t do a damn thing, ‘cause if I had then they’d tell my old man that I defended the sissy boy, the one that got the dress. And he would have killed me. What a fucking loser I am.
I didn’t see Clyde that night. We didn’t read together, so we didn’t finish ‘Catcher.’
The next morning I heard all this chatter and shit. At first I thought folks were packing up, but that wasn’t it. I stuck my head out of my tent and I heard them saying Clyde’s name over and over. I could hear it echo all over the place. It was kinda weird hearing so many people calling him, when hardly anyone called his name during the whole damn trip.
I got my clothes on fast and went out. I asked one of the other kids what was up. He told me Clyde had disappeared. His tent was empty and no one knew where he was. I ran to his tent and looked. I saw his books stacked in the corner and his sleeping bag all rolled out and everything nice and neat, just like he usually kept it. I jogged my head around. I saw the fathers walking out among the trees, and many of the boys out with them. Then I saw Schlep on one of the benches, sort of slumped over and leaning on his cane. I sort of walked towards him. I only thought he looked old before. Now he looked like death on a dinner roll. I thought I heard him muttering to himself. Then someone screamed, you know, the blood-curdling kind. Schlep looked up and I turned and ran. I hauled ass to get to where the scream came from. I never ran so fast in my life, up to that point.
And I came to the edge of this incline and saw down where one of the boys had gone. I sort of scooted down and joined him. He was leaning against a tree and I held on to it, too. Below there, on the rocks, was Clyde’s body. I swear I saw red. The boy next to me was freaked. I just couldn’t take my eyes of him. I became transfixed. Nothing else existed. All I could see was Dead Clyde and all I could hear was the sound of the stream he body was lying in and the wind in the trees above.
One of the fathers came from behind. He yelled at us to go back to camp. And I just turned to him real slow and said in a real even tone, “Clyde is dead.” Just like that. I said, “Clyde is dead,” just like if I had said, “Oranges are orange.” No lie. I was gone.
I took the other boy, who was crying like a baby, and brought him to his father. Schlep the Murderer was still slumped over on the bench, sort of aging before our eyes, like that dude from the Twilight Zone episode.
I went back to my tent. I didn’t know what else to do but pack up. When I started to pick shit up, that’s when I found it. Clyde had left ‘Catcher’ for me, and I didn’t even realize it. Inside was a note, two words on a torn piece of paper: Finish It. That’s when I closed my tent and started to cry.
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.