Camping Under the Stars
Sometimes, when my father was tight but not yet drunk, he talked about the time he was a cowboy in Wyoming and slept on the ground at night. He'd spread his dusty bedroll near a campfire, find a flat stone for a pillow, and sleep there near the horses with the cattle lowing. He said the sissy way people camped these days with tents and cots and down sleeping bags was nothing like a real cowboy's nights under the stars. I was seven. I begged him to take me camping like a cowboy.
Our home in Maitland was not far from Sanlando Springs where the ad on the radio said that, even in August, icy water bubbled up through breaches in the crust of the earth. On those 100-degree, windless, Central Florida days, I imagined this hidden subterranean system was a pulsing heart with veins and arteries beneath the earth’s skin that kept it from bursting into flames. The radio announcer also said that the springs at Sanlando were gin-clear. I wanted to fill my lungs with air, dive down, and reach right into the heart of that current. Sanlando was where I wanted to go camping.
That was fine by him, Daddy said. Then pronounced doom on the whole idea. "Ask your mother."
Momma became the snag in my plan. I knew it would take a long time to convince her, so I started asking in January.
"Quit talking about it, Ginny, you're not sleeping on the ground at Sanlando Springs," my mother said again in February.
"We're not right on the ground, we'll have bedrolls."
Just because she was afraid of everything after dark, it wasn't fair not to let us go. I started offering concessions. "We could take the aluminum lawn chairs." When we got there, we’d leave them leaning against the tree where we’d pretend to tie the horses.
In March, Momma told me she’d called Sanlando and camping was not permitted.
"Are you sure?"
Her eyes narrowed.
In mid-April, I gave up on Sanlando Springs and asked if Daddy and I could camp on lawn chairs down at our lake. That way she could keep an eye on us.
"No. Alligators hunt at night.” Then a crack opened in her crust. "The only place you can camp is in the backyard."
We settled on the second Friday night in May. I stacked our pillows on the upstairs landing and was rolling a sheet and blanket for Daddy and another for me, when I heard his car pull in the driveway. I bounded downstairs to meet him at the back door. “Remember what tonight is?”
He smiled. “Sure, I do.”
“Yippee, yippee.” I danced behind as he crossed the kitchen.
“Ginny.” Momma’s tone silenced me like a smack.
To Momma he said, “Have we got any aspirin. I’ve got one hell of a headache.”
Daddy took a few aspirin, fixed himself a vodka and tonic, and went out on the front porch to read the paper. When Momma’s back was turned, I got string and scissors from the drawer by the stove. She glanced around at me and I grinned, sheepishly. I felt the need to get as much ready as I could before she remembered tonight was the night we were sleeping under the stars.
Daddy got up and went into the kitchen for another drink and more aspirin.
"Does your head still hurt?" Momma asked.
I backed out of the kitchen with the string and scissors behind my back and scooted up the stairs. I tied up the bedrolls like the cowboys used to, then crept down, slipped out the front door and around to the back of the house. I went in the screen door and put the bedrolls on top of the washing machine, then retraced my path back around and upstairs for the pillows. It was nearly dark by the time I got all that done. I got the lawn chairs from the garage and set them up in the clearing between the chicken coop and the orange tree so we could see the stars.
Momma was still in the kitchen. I quietly got wood for our campfire from the pile stacked along the outside wall of the back porch. Earlier, I had nipped the Woman's World section of the paper. I crumpled sheets of it and put them in a sandy spot a couple of feet off the ends of the chairs, then arranged pieces of kindling. On top of the fat lighter, I put three small logs so that we'd only have to strike a match when the time came.
With that all done, I went up the back-porch stairs. My parents were in the kitchen. Daddy sat at the little dinette with his elbows on the table, the heels of his hands pressed into his eye sockets. The bottle of aspirin was next to his drink.
My mother washed dishes, but she kept glancing over her shoulder at him. I ducked down, went back out the screen door, and sat on the top step. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but their voices were dull and bitter—like nearly every night: Momma trying to get him to eat something; Daddy promising to after the next drink.
Bored waiting, I got on my knees and pulled my collection of dead animals in jars of alcohol from under the steps. Three days earlier I’d found a scorpion crawling up the bathroom wall. I didn't have one in my collection, so I clamped a Ball jar over him and dragged it down the wall until the scorpion lost its footing and fell in. My mother says drinking is going to kill my father. He answers there are worse ways to go. I poured alcohol in on the scorpion, screwed the lid down tight and put the jar up under my shirt so I wouldn't have to watch him die.
I lined up my collection on the steps, then held each jar up to look at in the light from the kitchen. The scorpion was the only one I killed myself. The rest, four baby birds, three snakes, one lizard, three different kinds of turtles, and a grasshopper, were dead when I found them. My best one was a baby possum. Daddy found for me. Its mother had been hit by a car. Daddy, while waiting at a stoplight, saw the baby dragging itself up through its mother's fur. All its brothers and sisters had crawled out, too, but they were dead, so he brought "the little tough one" home for me to raise. But it died, too.
I was holding the possum up to the light when Momma came out onto the back porch and threw a dish towel and her apron into the hamper. "What are these doing here?" she asked, referring to the bedrolls I’d put on top of the washer.
"We're camping tonight," I answered from the dark steps.
"Not tonight, Ginny. Your father has a headache."
"I'll be fine," Daddy said from the kitchen.
I heard the chair scrape back, then tip over. Daddy came out onto the porch. I could tell he was drunk because he was squeezing his eyes shut over and over, in long, slow blinks.
"Tonight's the night," he said, squinting into the darkness. "Where is she?" he asked Momma.
"Here." I waved my hand through the light from the kitchen.
"I think you should wait until tomorrow night," Momma said.
As if he hadn't heard her, Daddy said, "Did you get our bedrolls ready?" He steadied himself on the washer, his hand right next to them.
"There," I said.
"Well, put the chairs somewhere in the open so we can build a little campfire."
"Not near the house," Momma said.
"I already did all that. Momma, can't we camp by the lake? If we have a fire no 'gator will get us."
"It won't burn all night."
Daddy came to the screen and looked down at me. "Counting your critters?" He watched me carefully pressed the last jar into its circle of sand under the steps.
"Possum's still the best one."
He smiled, then turned and went back into the kitchen. A moment later I heard him shaking out more aspirin.
"How many is that?" Momma asked.
"I don't know. Six."
"It's a lot more than six," she snapped. "Please, eat your dinner now, Noel, so Ginny's not up all night."
"I'm not hungry yet."
Daddy didn’t like to drink after he ate, so what he meant by not being hungry was he didn’t want to quit drinking. I went in the house to see if it was time for The Shadow.
Daddy saw me look at the clock on the stove. "Won't be long now." He winked at me. "Did you make up our bedrolls?"
"Yes, sir. They're on the washer."
"That's right." He closed his eyes and tapped the side of his head.
"Call me when you're ready." I crossed the kitchen and the hall to the bathroom. Daddy had dropped the box of BC Powders—his favorite hangover remedy—on the floor by the toilet. Three empty wrappers were in the sink. I put the box back in the medicine chest and flushed the wrappers down the toilet. 8 MIN MARK
After The Shadow was over, I got the bedrolls and carried them out to the lawn chairs, then headed for the kitchen to tell Daddy everything was ready.
It was dark except for the stove light. He was alone at the table. He lifted his head slowly when I touched his shoulder. "About ready?" he asked.
"Did you eat?"
"I think so."
There was a pot on the stove with the burner on warm. Momma had given up and gone to bed. I took the bowl she'd left for him and ladled stew into it then carried it to the table. His head jerked up when I put it down in front of him.
"Is your headache gone?"
"Yep," he nodded.
"Okidoky," he said.
"I could use a little shot of that to wash this down." Daddy reached for the vodka bottle.
"It's empty." I held it up for him to see, then screwed the cap on, put it in the trash can under the sink, and went to sit opposite him at the table.
He blinked at me. "How 'bout a beer?"
"I'm too young to drink."
He focused on my face, blinked slowly, then grinned. "Right you are." His head whipped around toward the icebox. "I think I'll have your beer." He gripped the edge of the table and leaned with his hand stretched toward the handle.
I jumped up before he fell out of the chair and opened the door for him. There were no beers inside.
"Let's look in the liquor cabinet," he whispered.
"I'm sleepy, Daddy."
"Oops." He spooned stew toward his mouth. "I'm a hurrying, I'm a hurrying." He took a bite, then put the spoon down and started to get up but couldn't get his leg out from under the table.
"Whatcha want? I'll get it."
"Just see what's up there." He meant the liquor cabinet—above the broom closet.
I got the little step ladder, put it in front of the closet, climbed up and opened the door. Inside the cupboard, Momma had installed another door hinged at the top with a lock at the bottom. She claimed it was to keep Lucinda, who’d never had a drink in her life, from sipping during the day. The lock was snapped closed.
"You want me to go up and ask Momma for the key?" I pulled on the lock with exaggerated force.
Daddy put a finger to his lips. "Shhh. Don't do that."
With nothing left to drink, I knew Daddy would want to go to bed. I put the ladder away, turned the burner off under the stew, and carried the pot to the icebox. His head was down and his eyes closed. The empty aspirin bottle was in his fist. He had dropped the last one then driven it up under the lip of his stew bowl trying to pick it up with his big fingers.
"Daddy." I touched his hand. "Maybe we should camp tomorrow night."
He lifted he head but didn't open his eyes right away. “'Night's the night." He wagged a finger.
I led Daddy down the back steps, got him onto the closest lawn chair, covered him with a blanket, then went back into the kitchen for matches to light the fire.
I met Daddy on the steps. "Where you going?" I asked.
"To get a beer."
"There weren't any, remember?" I guided him back to his lawn chair.
He sat down and held his head.
"I'm going to light the campfire now," I told him. He didn't answer so I struck a match and held it to the corner of the newspaper.
Everything was dry. It caught and burned quickly, making a light so bright that the chicken on the nest nearest our camp began to cluck and the others shook themselves. I pretended they were our horses.
I sat on the end of my chair, watching Daddy and the fire for a while, then got up and shifted the chair around so I could lie down on my side and watch the flames search for cracks in the logs.
Daddy finally put his head down but left his legs hanging off the side of the lounge chair. When he began to snore, I got up and lifted his legs onto the chair one at a time.
As the logs burned down, the chickens quieted, but I still didn't feel sleepy. I continued to stare into the fire watching the glow of the coals rise and fall as if they were alive and breathing. From my chair I could look down between the house and the garage and see a sliver of the lake. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend to see Sanlando's cold underground stream, its vein and arteries branching out, linking with my lake. I fell asleep pretending we were camping on the shore of that clear spring.
When I awoke the fire was dead and it was raining. "Daddy, wake up." I dragged my bedding off the chair and ran with it to the back porch. I heaped it onto the washer, then went back for him.
"Daddy, wake up, it's raining." I shook him. There was no response. I grabbed his hand. It was icy cold though the night was warm. I jerked on his arm. It was as limp and heavy as stone. "Daddy." I hit his chest.
He gasped and took a breath.
The light came on in my parents' room and Momma's face appeared at the window.
"Ginny, was that you?"
"Momma, call a doctor. Daddy's not breathing enough."
"What? What do you mean?"
"Call an ambulance. Hurry." I hit Daddy's chest again, this time with both fists. He breathed a few times then stopped. "Hurry, Momma, hurry," I screamed at the empty window.
The kitchen light came on, then the one on the back porch. The door slammed. Before Momma's running figure blocked the light that fell across my father, I saw how gray his skin was. There were puddles of rain water in the caved-in sockets under his eyes.
Momma dropped to her knees and shook Daddy as hard as she could. "Noel! Noel!" she shouted, then covered her face and began to cry.
"Did you call an ambulance?" I brought my fists down on Daddy's chest again. Before she could answer, I heard the far-off wail of a siren.
Each time I hit his chest he'd breath a couple of times then stop. I got on my knees and pushed up on the side of the chair but couldn't roll him out.
My mother had gotten up and was staring down at us. Rain dripped off the tip of her nose. I jerked on her pajama leg. "Help me.”
She dropped down beside me and together we tipped Daddy out onto the ground.
I pushed the chair away, rolled him on his stomach and twisted his head to the side.
"What will we do if he's dead?" Momma said.
"He's not dead. Don't say that."
"I know. But what would we do?" She took his hand and rolled his fingers closed.
Over and over, I pushed as hard as I could on Daddy's back then lifted his arms liked I’d learned to do in swimming school. Far away the wail of the ambulance ebbed and flowed the way the glow of the coals had, as if it was moving back and forth along the main road searching for the gash our dirt road made through the orange groves.
"Listen to them," I said. "They're lost."
Momma's head jerked up. She scrambled away on her hands and knees until she gained her footing, took all three steps at once and burst into the kitchen. An instant later she crashed out the screen door and ran toward the garage.
"He took a whole bottle of aspirin," I told the ambulance driver. We were on the back porch, except for the two guys out in the rain strapping my father onto the stretcher. "Not all at once, a few every hour or so." They strapped an oxygen mask to my father's face. "And three BC powders, and he drank a bottle of vodka."
"He should be dead," the driver muttered.
"He didn't do it on purpose."
The driver looked up from his pad in surprise. "I'm sorry. I... I didn't mean he deserved to be dead. I meant that was enough to kill the average man."
They slid my father into the ambulance and closed the doors behind him.
A couple of chickens had come down from the coops and were scratching in the sand around our dead campfire guided by the ambulance's headlights. The flashing red light on top made the garage look like it was burning and the branches of our orange tree looked black and tangled.
"Did he eat anything?" the driver asked.
Momma looked at me like I was lying. "I fixed his dinner," she told him.
"He didn't eat it," I said.
"Anything else?" the driver asked, before closing his notebook.
They wouldn't let me visit Daddy the week he was in the hospital so the first time I saw him after that night was the morning Momma brought him home. She let him off in front while she took the car around to the garage. He stood facing the lake for a few minutes, then turned and walked toward the house. He came up the steps slowly as if his legs were heavy. When he reached for the screen door handle, he saw me. His face remained expressionless, but he knelt down and held his arms out. I went into them and hugged him. After a moment or two, he patted my back, undid my arms, got up and went inside.
Two years later, my girl scout troop went to Sanlando Springs for a picnic. It was a still, hot July day and I raced another girl to the foot of a high slide, climbed madly to the top, and launched my sweaty, skinny frame down toward the gin-clear surface. The cold water burned like fire. I came up freezing, swam furiously to shore and plunged out shivering into the warm air.
After lunch, during the hour we had to wait before going back in the water, I sat on a towel on the grassy slope above the spring. From there I could see the black, moss-rimmed hole, an empty-looking rupture, out of which icy water bubbled to form a blister on the surface. My wish to hold my breath, dive down and thrust my hand into the current was gone. The hole looked dark and scary as if it hid a secret I was better off not knowing. When our scout-leader blew her whistle at the end of the hour, I went back in from the beach and stayed in the white-sand shallows where the water felt warmer.
The memory of camping out with my father, like the endless flow of water from the depths of that spring, is now in perspective, but the question remains: What happened to the boy who went camping like a cowboy. What went wrong for the boy who took such joy in camping under the stars. What disappointments broke his heart? I suppose the only thing I really learned is that a hole is what is left when what filled it is gone. And sometimes people like my dad fall through the one in their lives.